Moving-company owner turned road warrior Johnny Dowd is the sort of magnetic performer who could mesmerize a music fan of almost any stripe in a matter of minutes. Equal parts world-weary storyteller, country-noir preacher, and ornery, old-school punk, he's also a disarmingly erotic performer, at least for the sort of gal who embraces gallows humor. His band of younger musicians are also freakishly gifted, particularly drummer Brian Wilson, a highly experimental percussionist whose exceptional talents recently landed him a temp gig touring with Neko Case. Dowd (with Wilson back in tow) comes to town in support of his sixth release, Cruel Words (Bongo Beat).
You spent a fair amount of time touring Europe last year. Any particularly striking experiences—either with audiences or just through traveling in general?
Berlin was really neat because we played at a huge, enormous, old theater. The [resident] director was a fan, so he had us come play there—the theater next to us was doing a production of Faust, so we hung out with all the actors afterwards, so it was a very different scene [than we're used to].
You remain fond of shady character sketches on Cruel Words...
Yeah, I am still mining that same vein; just trying to mix things up musically...
I'm wondering in particular about the song "Praise God." It seems to take issue with both war and conservative religion.
Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. I've always been interested in politics and involved to some degree. [Bush's] politics are just particularly intrusive in everybody's lives right now. As someone who was alive in the '60s, I can see so many—regardless of what they say—things are extremely similar. It's an unneeded war started by people who didn't know what they were doing. I think those guys feel like [the U.S.] lost the argument in Vietnam and now they're going to win the argument here. Sometimes I just think it's guys that couldn't get a date with a hippie in the '60s and now their resentment is showing. There's some psychosexual thing going on with [Dick] Cheney and those guys; nobody's really looked into it that closely, but I think that could be the basis [laughter].
You have a long history of working with Sally Timms and Jon Langford of the Mekons. What do you learn when you work with them?
Don't mess with Sally; that's what I learned with Sally. She's the boss. Really, what I can do and what she can do are so opposite... she's just a fantastic guitar player and a fantastic singer. I just step back and admire her, really.
Brian Wilson's drumming is such a huge presence in your live show and on record. How involved is he in the songwriting and recording process?
The whole band is involved—we pretty much toured behind these songs for a year before we were in the studio. I might have a basic idea, but after playing it for so long, everyone knew how they wanted something to sound. The whole recording process was really simple—not a lot of studio trickery or anything.
How did the idea to tack Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" riff onto the end of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" come about?
We just started playing it live and I thought it was great. For a while we went from "Iron Man" into "The Sound of Music." I like twisted medleys.
For a man of 60, you exude as much (if not more) sex appeal than a punk half your age. What's your secret? Do you and Iggy Pop drink from the same fountain?
Ah... that's nice of you to say. Hmm. I think it's just immaturity. I'm a very immature person. I'm barely 40, mentally.
Do you like growing older?
There's nothing I want to do physically that I can't [do] anymore [he laughs darkly], so it hasn't bothered me so much. Sixty does seem like a scary age though—60 is old—you can't get around that. But there's only one alternative.
And that is?