Small Axe may well be the greatest rock band you’ve never heard nor heard of, unless you lived in or near New York’s Capital Region around the turn of the century. A couple of posts ago, I mentioned rediscovering some of their early CDs while going through boxes in preparation for our move. Through the power of online shopping, I have since been able to score the one Small Axe disc I was missing, their awesome digital debut, A Shot to the Body. While I was poking around, I also found two interviews with the band that I conducted for Metroland in 2000 and 2002 that I had not added to this online archive for some reason. So I’m rectifying that oversight now by re-publishing them below. Soon after the second interview earned a Metroland cover feature, founding bassist Jimbo Burton left the band to launch his solo project, Blackloud. After one album (Public Thief) with bassist-cellist-luthier Orien MacDonald standing in for Burton, drummer Thom Hall’s wife Kelly Murphy (also of Empire State Troopers, The Wasted, and others) joined on bass and vocals, and as best I can ascertain, the band still occasionally plays out when their geographically dispersed members are able to make it work. Founding singer-guitarist D.J. Miller and the prodigal Jimbo Burton also apparently played an acoustic set together in Albany a few years back, and I wish I’d been there for that reunion. They were great together, always. The group’s website hasn’t been updated since 2007, but you can still listen to samples of their songs there, and most of their records seem to be available online if you’re willing to poke around a bit. It’ll be worth your time to do, I promise. They were truly a fantastic band.
First Interview: 2000
Forget the Batcave: the reality of Small Axe’s mysterious Black Cloud Studio is far more evocative than any pop culture metaphor.
To find the forward-looking retro-acid trio’s command center, you leave the Northway at a certain rural exit, pass the obligatory Stewart’s Shop and Mobil Station that hug the highway ramps and head west into the woods. You then look for twin willow trees swaying in the breeze above a packed dirt driveway filled to capacity with vehicles, beyond which stands a nondescript farm house. Enter the house through the porch, pass the tailless black and white cat on its perch, stop in the kitchen to warm your hands over the oven’s gas burners and head into a crowded mud room with an industrial yellow bucket partially obscuring the way into a bathroom beyond.
Pass through the bathroom and open the half-sized door on the left, which reveals a nearly vertical stairway into a root cellar. Watch your head as you descend into the darkness, carefully negotiating your way around the weight bench and turning back under the stairs, again ducking to avoid getting conked by the exposed ductwork and pipes that run along the narrow passageway. And then, just about the time that visions of the sex torture dungeon in Pulp Fiction begin to permeate your consciousness, you’re there — in an incredible, technically sophisticated studio-cum-rehearsal space the likes of which any number of commercial recording mavens hereabouts regularly dream. In vain.
Which makes sense, if you’ve heard either of Small Axe’s CDs — A Shot to the Body (1998) and A Blow to the Head, recently released under Small Axe associate Adam Lawrence’s Hoex Records imprint — both of which deftly exhibit the band’s keen collective sense of sonic space and detailed appreciation for the wonders of studio technology. And while the band’s three pathologically laconic and publicly uncommunicative members (singer-guitarist D.J. Miller, bassist Jim Burton and Thom Hall, who replaced Burton’s brother Dave on drums a couple of years ago) have been wowing live audiences with their hyper-amped and experimental deconstructions of traditional rock and blues forms since 1989, first in Buffalo, then in Portland, Ore., then here for the past seven years, you get the sense that they truly make their psychic homes deep in their Black Cloud Studio bunker.
“This really is a great work space for us,” offers the soft-spoken Miller, as he and the more garrulous Burton lead me into their nerve center with its unfinished pressboard walls, black PVC ceiling and band memorabilia tacked to most exposed flat surfaces. “Jim and Thom live here, so they’ve been working on it for a long time to get it the way we want it to be . . .”
“And we can just play here anytime, all we want, without bothering anybody,” seconds Burton, finishing Miller’s sentence, piped in on the same longtime-bandmate telepathic trunk line, happy to let Miller pick up the story again later at his own leisure and pleasure. “Y’know, there’s some other houses around us and everything, but they’re just far enough away so that nobody ever complains about the noise . . .”
“Although we’ve had some pretty loud, pretty amazing Fourth of July parties out back that probably could’ve bothered some people, since we had these other underground bands we knew from Buffalo and we set up a big stage out there and played. And there was some irresponsible use of fireworks too . . .”
“Yeh, we had this big bonfire set up, all doused in gasoline, and I was gonna light it at the end of a song by shooting it with Roman candles attached to my bass . . .”
“But there were all these people between the stage and the bonfire, so Jim shot this guy from one of the Buffalo bands in the chest, and he got pretty pissed off . . .”
“Although, y’know, he’s like this big underground music dude, and he’s gonna get pissed about something like that at a party? I mean, what’s that all about?”
“Well, you did shoot him with a Roman candle, man . . .”
And so on through the story, which concludes when some evil nerd chemists from Buffalo create a deep-fat turkey frying pit in the backyard, starting a massive grease fire in the process that burns for three days straight. But everyone really enjoys the fried turkeys, so it’s worth it, right?
Thom Hall enters the dungeon, err, studio, passing through the room wordlessly and immediately taking a seat behind his massive drum kit as Burton and Miller strap on their hard-worn axes. Small Axe then play an impromptu studio gig, offering four “new old songs” (as Miller dubs them), keeping true to their typical concert approach by never uttering a word between tunes. Set complete, we discuss the Butthole Surfers (for whom the group offer both affinity and respect) while Miller putters in the control room, patching this to that, connecting that to the other, finally filling the room with the sounds of a new, unreleased Axe tune called “Insect.” It’s brilliantly crafted, yet ookier and spookier than usual, which is really saying something given the band’s already deeply cryptic creative persuasions.
“This has got some Prophet V synth on it, and some old church organ that Thom got somewhere,” notes Miller. I look around for the drummer, but he’s vanished again. “Thom’s got the coolest day-job in the world: he repairs Hammond Organs for a living.”
“He works for this old Christian dude who leaves the best messages on our answering machine,” adds Burton. “It’s like ‘We’ve got a B-3 Emergency, Thom!’ and Thom’s got to hop in the van and go to New York City or wherever to operate on the organ . . .”
“Plus he’s good with other tech stuff too. Like he fixed the DAT machine in there, which would have cost us huge money if we’ve had to pay for it . . .”
“He knows what he’s doing. He was a signalman in the Army,” concludes Burton.
Turns out Burton was in the Army too, serving as an infantryman in Berlin before the Wall fell, after which he and his brother Dave headed to Buffalo to found Small Axe with their childhood friend Miller, who’d gone west to get his degree in the City of Brotherly Bills. Burton drives a truck now, when he’s not playing out or recording with Small Axe, while Miller works for a government acquisitions outfit as a computer operator and bid analyst.
“Insect” behind us now, we all walk upstairs together to warm our hands on the stove and smoke some more. The tailless cat joins us in the kitchen. “He had an accident,” Burton notes, drifting out of the room after the cat, both never to return. Adam Lawrence and Dave Burton (now the band’s webmaster) hover over a laptop computer in the next room over, intent, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. Miller watches me thoughtfully as I jot notes in my pocket pad.
“I hope you can come see us play at King’s Tavern sometime,” he offers. “We do our best shows there, it seems. I like the people there.”
He lights a cigarette. The house falls silent. The interview is over. It’s time to return to society, to normalcy, to safety — but yet with a little shred of Black Cloud inside me that’s gonna color the way I see the world for a longtime yet to come. Hopefully.
Second Interview (2002)
Most rock musicians talk way too much for their own good.
As a music journalist, I’ve interviewed sneaker-gazers who have just barely made it out of the garage, but as soon as I shove a microphone into their faces, they turn into Bono. They’ve got theories, they’ve got manifestos, they’ve got explanations, and when all’s said and everything’s done, they’ve got hopes that I’ll validate their positions in print — because once it’s been written, it’s real, somehow, it seems.
But it ain’t, and the self-important yammer boxes have long since ceased doing it for me. It’s the silent types, I’ve learned, who are almost invariably causing the most heat and friction in the places where it really matters. They’re the ones who let their art talk for them in ways that words can never capture. They’re the ones you want to talk to, even if they don’t talk back. And if you judge forward-looking retro rockers Small Axe by that silence-equals-allure metric, then the Saratoga County-bred trio is definitely the most fascinating band in town.
But don’t expect them to tell you all about it.
“We probably should do try to do better about self promotion, get out of our own shells a little bit, but I dunno . . . we’re just not any good at stuff like that,” admits laconic singer-guitarist D.J. Miller during a recent visit to the band’s Ballston Lake headquarters, where he, bassist Jimbo Burton, drummer Thom Hall and I sit out the summer heat on a dark front porch, sippin’, smokin’, sweatin’.
That porch is a necessary summer adjunct to the simple, weather-beaten frame farmhouse that serves as the group’s home base. There’s usually a friendly dog or cat there to greet you when you arrive, and the whole compound exudes the true old blue-collar essence of Saratoga County in ways that most money-horsey summer people and Velveetavillians rarely encounter, and never grasp.
Hall lives there full-time, and Burton lived there until very recently, when he moved to West Sand Lake with his girlfriend, following the lead of Miller, who lives with his wife up in Moreau. But the house has a sanctum that draws the full band back several times each week: downstairs lies Black Cloud Studio, where the group’s four albums (one of which has yet to be released) were created, and where the band rehearses its live shows to an almost unbearable intensity.
When the band’s in the house, they’re rarely there on their own, and we always had other company the nights that I’ve visited there. In addition to the friendly cats and dogs, and the expected girlfriends and roommates and wives, Jimbo’s brother, Dave Burton, was there, as was Adam Lawrence, owner/operator of Hoex Records, on which Small Axe’s last two records, Speaker Eater and A Blow to the Head, were released. It always feels like a family operation there in the Small Axe house, which makes sense as you grow to understand how its principles have been not only making music, but living their lives together, for many, many years.
Childhood friends D.J. Miller and Jimbo Burton graduated from Saratoga High School together in 1985, with Dave Burton following them out of secondary education’s clutches a year later. Miller headed west on his own after high school, ultimately graduating from the University of Buffalo in 1990 with a degree in history. But for the purposes of this story, something more important happened while he studied history there in Buffalo: while in college, Miller found his instrument.
“I didn’t start playing guitar until I was out in Buffalo,” the now-deft SG wizard recalls. “I kinda came to music late. I mean, I didn’t discover Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced? until I was in college, and that made me totally look at music differently than I ever had before. Bob Marley’s Catch A Fire, too, and the older stuff he did with Lee Perry. Some of my heaviest experiences ever came from listening to that music.”
While Miller was discovering his muse, Jimbo Burton was putting in time in the service of his country. “I was in the Army from ’87 to ’89, ended up Germany when the wall came down,” he explains. “When I got out, I went to HVCC for a while, then I got accepted to the Buffalo Art School, but instead of doing that, we all decided to move out to Buffalo and start a band instead.”
That exodus westward included both of the brothers Burton and Adam Lawrence, who was originally envisioned as the as-yet-untitled group’s vocalist. He didn’t end up singing — but he did name the band (after an allegorical Bob Marley number, wherein the small axe takes down the big tree) and has since worked for over a decade to take Small Axe’s music beyond the Buffalo basements that birthed it.
“Our early stuff in Buffalo was a lot more minimalist,” says Miller. “We had a second guitarist for a while. I’d never been in a band before, and I’d only been singing for a very short time. So the stuff was experimental . . . but it was pretty simple, too. I hate listening to my voice on the old stuff, though, but I’d like to take some of those old ideas and record them the way we can now.”
“Problem is, though, that we’ve got so many ideas to work with and there’s just not enough time for all of the songs,” Burton adds. “D.J.’s got this incredible stuff that records acoustic and brings to the studio. We’ve got so much material that we just can’t do it all justice.”
Small Axe’s first concert appearance in Buffalo was on the undercard for the then-equally-unknown moe. (“Al Schnier really liked us,” Miller notes.) Three years and not a lot of progress after that first gig, though, Small Axe decided they needed a change of scenery — and lit out for Portland, Oregon, with friend and percussionist (and later volunteer publicist) Chris O’Connor in tow. “We just wanted to go and do music full time in a new place,” notes Jim Burton. “But it wasn’t as big a music scene as we though it was, not as exciting as it could have been. There was one club where we could play, but it closed and we sorta realized that if we committed to being there, it was going to be a pretty major commitment. So we came back home to Saratoga instead.”
Throughout those early years, the band honed its skills and built its repertoire through a nearly obsessive dedication to home recordings, many of which are preserved on an early, eponymous cassette-only release, which has come to carry a legendary cache among the band’s devotees. “Four track recordings really made this band in the early years,” Miller explains. “We could play and do overdubs, experiment, figure out how to do things right, then take them out on stage. That’s how I learned to play leads. That’s how we learned to write songs.”
Small Axe made their formal recording debut in 1994 when “Holy Ways” appeared on a regional multi-band EP issued by Shithouse Rat Records, who also then released Small Axe’s full-length CD debut, A Shot to the Body. Two years later, as Small Axe began preparing to record their second album, Dave Burton decided that his days behind the drum kit were done.
“I followed that dream until it wasn’t a dream anymore,” he explains. “I knew there was more to myself than what I was offering, so with the help of my sister Debbie, I built a strong enough customer base to support my own construction business. Later on, I started building the first web page for Small Axe (www.smallaxemusic.com), and that extended into graphic design, video production and advertising, so I was happy to still have Small Axe as a point of reference for my creativity. And pooling all of those assets together, I eventually formed my new business, called Sleight of Hand Productions.”
While Dave Burton laid the foundations for his creative and construction empires, Jim Burton and Miller wrote songs for a year, then recruited Thom Hall to fill Small Axe’s drum stool. The Central New York native had played in a Buffalo band called Squid, and had been in New Orleans for several years before answering the Axe’s call. Since relocating to the Capital Region, Hall’s kept himself in drumsticks by working as a Hammond Organ repairman, and serving on the staff of Cancer Conspiracy publishing house Elsmere Press — as does his wife Kelly Murphy, the other full-time resident at the Small Axe house and bassist for Hall’s other band, Kate Mosstika.
Hall made his recording debut with Small Axe on 1998’s A Blow to the Head (which also featured a few classic four-track numbers with Dave Burton on drums, as did 2000’s Speaker Eater), after which the group returned to the concert stage with a vengeance — although not necessarily for the same product-supporting reasons that most bands offer.
“Our live sound is really different from our records,” says Miller. “Maybe someday we’d like to get a good live recording done, but we’d have to have someone else do it for us, since we do all of our studio stuff ourselves, and we’re pretty particular about how our stuff sounds.”
“We’ve already got another ten songs or so that are ready to be played live right now since we recorded the last album — which hasn’t even been released yet,” Jim Burton adds. “So the records just represent a point in time.”
“That’s why we don’t really think about our live shows supporting our records, since they just represent the best stuff we’re doing at that stage in our development,” Miller concludes. “And I think the band is better live than it’s ever been right now. We win people over in hard places. And we’ve been doing that for a while now.”
Which is due, of course, to the band’s prowess, and also to the yeoman efforts of Dave Burton and Adam Lawrence, who work hard to fill the public relations gaps that the band members are loath to attack themselves. But there’s also a national network of devoted Small Axe fans that functions as an unofficial street team in ways that most record label-sanctioned community marketing groups would envy. How many artists, for instance, can lay claim to an army of Silly Pink Bunnies working on their behalf?
“Silly Pink Bunnies is a tag on a renegade group of skateboarders all over the country: San Francisco, Denver, the East Coast,” explains Bunny kingpin and Small Axe uberfan Grier Mirling. “We first got involved with Small Axe at one of their Fourth of July parties at the house: there were fireworks and people jumping fires, keg throwing contests, Jimbo had Roman candles strapped to his bass, shooting them over the crowd, bands from Buffalo and North Carolina and Small Axe playing outside, thirty people sleeping on the lawn in the morning. It was such an intense community scene, so the Bunnies really got on the wagon with that.
“Small Axe’s live shows offer such an amazing experience: the ebb and flow and building of what they create is epic, and it provides a good parallel to skating from a standpoint of cutting loose. So now I’m the guy who calls up everyone to come to every one of their shows; at first it was hard work, now I just make one call into the network and everyone’s there,” Mirling continues. “I know that self promotion is not who Small Axe are . . . but it’s who I am, so that’s what I do. And as much as I know they’d like to be big, their focus is just on the music. How many bands do you know who have been around as long as they have who practice all the time? They love to play. They love the music. They’ve done nothing less than captivate any crowd that I’ve seen them play for. I saw them play at this family fun day up in Hague in the Adirondacks, for instance, and there were grandparents and children all over the place, and when it was over, every kid in the place was begging his mom or his dad to buy him a guitar.”
That child-like enthusiasm is infectious, which is why Dave Burton, Lawrence and Mirling aren’t the only devoted enthusiasts willing to work hard on Small Axe’s behalf. There’s poet Eric Smiarowski, too, who pens and performs works about the band, among other topics. There’s NoiseLab sound guru Dave Reynolds, who’s considering a move from New Orleans to Saratoga to facilitate his work with the band. Valentine’s manager and head Coal Palace King Howard Glassman, too, has long been a dedicated supporter — and when an influential A&R type from a major label called this summer to figure out what was what up here music-wise, Glassman pointed him in Small Axe’s direction. The label rep (whose identity Small Axe is loathe to divulge while negotiations continue) liked what he saw and heard, and is working with the band to plan a showcase show in New York City this fall.
So is this the moment? Is this the big break? Are the band’s members finally rushing toward their date with destiny? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got to get wound up tight about this, anymore than they ever get wound up tight about anything else.
“I think we all just need to be patient right now,” says Dave Burton (who is serving as primary band spokesperson during the corporate courting session). “It’s like it was with those trapped miners in Pennsylvania a little while ago, when the rescue crew slowed down drilling just 20 feet above the cavern. That confused a lot of people: ‘Why are they slowing down? They have to get them out as soon as possible!’ But there were too many variables involved, and if they rushed at the last minute all of their efforts could have been fatal. Small Axe has been playing their timeless music for a long time now. And I think their patience is a discipline that will be rewarded in the end.”
As the negotiations continue, the band themselves remain . . . well, themselves. “I dunno, maybe we ought to get a manager or something,” Miller muses. “Know anyone who might be interested?”