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Bloodshot Briefing: Zen Bloodshot

By Matt Harness

Most people in Chicago don't know Joe Swank.

The 41-year-old from Marion, Illinois, a town known best for its federal prison, is a music industry insider. He works for Bloodshot Records as one of the label's publicity experts, most notably by encouraging radio stations around the country to play Robbie Fulks, among others.

Now, Swank has another mission. That is to promote himself and his band the Zen Pirates, who recently released Hank Williams Died for My Sins. Swank, who calls his brand of music "aggressive hillbilly," is unsigned but unworried. His work at Bloodshot is his main focus these days.

Beachwood Music talked to Swank about seemingly everything under the music tent, including his history with the Drive-By Truckers.

Beachwood Music: What do you do for Bloodshot?

Joe Swank: I coordinate all things with radio like on-air appearances, ticket giveaways. I also do data and tracking reports about what's spinning on which radio stations.

I do stuff like trying to help the Bottle Rockets decide which direction to take their tour. But this radio guy's not getting back to me. For two weeks. It's possible the tour hinges on them playing the songs.

I just contacted The Bob and Tom Show about the Bottle Rockets. That could have a huge impact, too. It's a syndicated morning show, mostly talking.

The hard thing for us is trying to reach a massive amount of ears. Our specialty is going into niche markets. You really have to fight and fuck your way through to have people pay attention.

Beachwood Music: You're a southern Illinois boy and lived for years in North Carolina. How and when did you land at Bloodshot?

Joe Swank: I joined the business to figure it out for my band. My first record was way back in the 1990s. I moved to North Carolina because there are a ton of labels there, and I accidentally got hired by one, Yep Roc Records. It's Rubik's-style coolness.

I mean, the worst thing that's happened to me lately with Bloodshot was a live lunch for this radio station with an artist in Louisville that fell through. I got a call from him 30 minutes before he was supposed to be on and he just woke up. And he was four or five hours away.

I was with Yep Roc from 2001 until Bloodshot hired me last year.

Beachwood Music: I went to college in Athens, Georgia, and Drive-By Truckers is one of my favorite bands. I read somewhere you played some shows with them in the late 1990s. Please tell me about that.

Joe Swank: They are one of my favorites, too. I can't remember the year we played with them, but it the Atlantis Music Festival. It was us and them and Lonesome Bob. That was the first night I met them. It was the time when the only thing they had out was Gangstabilly.

Patterson Hood is a great guy, so is Mike Cooley. This was back before Jason Isbell joined the band.

Two of the best shows I've ever seen were with them playing in North Carolina. They played this one place, Sadlack's Heroes in Raleigh. Every band got paid $50, and there's no admission cost. People were just walking in off the street. It was packed to the walls. Toward the end, they were singing "Bulldozers and Dirt," and at one of the points in the song where it's silent, the intercom came on, "Ham and Cheese ready for Johnson." Everybody was dying.

Beachwood Music: You grew up around the same time and super close to where Uncle Tupelo kicked off what became most understood as the alternative country movement.

Joe Swank: Yeah, I had no idea. I mean the first R.E.M. song I heard was "Shiny Happy People." Nothing got through to us. Marion is a bunch of right-wing FOX-TV watchers. Carbondale was the island of hope. They had a bunch of hippies.

Beachwood Music: You originally put the Zen Pirates together earlier this decade to no avail. But you re-created the band and put out the album two weeks ago.

Joe Swank: It was one of those things where my job got in the way of my hobby. I spend too much time working. All these guys in the band now - Scott Gilmore, Alex Little, Stephen Gardner - I met in Raleigh. They still live there. For me, it was more of an obsession of finishing a disc.

Beachwood Music: You coming to Chicago soon?

Joe Swank: We are opening for Slobberbone in Carbondale in March. It will be a good entry gig. There's a place by me, Lizard's Liquid Lounge, that has bands. Maybe we can do that sometime. I'd like to open for the Waco Brothers. But it's the whole booking band game.

Beachwood Music: The most obvious question is you are unsigned and work for a label. Can't you get Rob Miller and Nan Warshaw drunk and tell them they are signing a petition to feed hungry babies.

Joe Swank: I know what they are looking for, and I am not capable of that. They are looking for a road horse, and someone who's going to be working on another record. Justin Townes Earle is a dream. He's always out, and he's already thinking about a new record.

Record companies are like loan sharks. Nice loan sharks. You achieve what you are capable of and what they are looking for, it's a win-win.

You have to do it as a lifestyle. I can only do three or four shows before I need a week off. I have bad ankles.

There is a band up here that I might do some stuff with. The Purple Hank. I know Dave Schultz. He writes some messed up stuff. There's a potential show Jan. 8 at Lizard's.

Beachwood Music: End of the night. You have a pocket full of quarters. Who's spinning on the jukebox?

Joe Swank: "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" by Tom Waits, "Opportunity to Cry" by Willie Nelson, "What's Made Milwaukee Famous" by Jerry Lee Lewis, "Walking on Hell's Roof" by Waco Brothers, "My Favorite Lies" by George Jones.


Matt Harness brings you Bloodshot Briefing every week. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on December 11, 2009

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BOOKS - Foxconned.


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