Since The Woodbox Gang went on a break with singer-songwriter Hugh DeNeal’s imprisonment for mail fraud, guitarist Alex Kirt has been spending his time with a regular solo blues gig at Tres Hombres and a new family-man lifestyle. However, his new band, The Giant City Slickers, will release an album at the end of the month, and he’s been working with DeNeal, now under house arrest, on new material. Kirt spoke to the Daily Egyptian about his new, less nomadic life and the future of Woodbox.
DE: What other projects have you been involved with since The Woodbox Gang went on hiatus?
AK: I had the Django Billies. We played a mixture of gypsy jazz, honkytonk, western swing, blues, and every once in a while, we’d play some Tom Waits songs. We were a three-piece. Then our bass player joined the Whistle Pigs and he’s touring with them a lot right now, so we’re not really doing the Django Billies anymore. But I’ve got a new band. We don’t have a name yet, but it’s like a north Mississippi Delta blues type blues band.
DE: You guys played any shows yet?
AK: Yeah, we’ve actually played four shows and we’ve never rehearsed. I guess everyone in that band is familiar enough with that music, that we can just say, ‘Hey, let’s play this song’ and everybody says, ‘OK.’
DE: Did you have to learn a lot of material to do your weekly gig at Tres Hombres?
AK: I didn’t have to learn a lot. I already had a pretty large repertoire before I started doing that show. I guess I just had to figure out how to play the songs by myself rather than with a band. But most of that Delta blues stuff I never played with a band anyway. That’s what I play when I’m at home.
AK: For the most part, I prefer to play with a band because I like the musical interaction and the camaraderie with my friends and stuff. It’s fun to play with other guys. The good things about playing by yourself would be, you can improvise, especially on those free-form blues songs. I usually run one song into another, and sometimes I’ll play for an hour or more without really stopping between songs or anything. It’s kind of fun. I guess when you play by yourself you can do that, and you don’t have to make sure everybody else knows what you’re doing. You just kind of go with it.
DE: Do you do a lot of other gigs around town now?
AK: Yeah, I play all over the place and around southern Illinois. Every now and then I go to St. Louis. Here lately over the past couple of years, St. Louis is about as far away as I’ve gone to play a show. But usually I play Tres Hombres, PK’s, Hangar 9.
DE: You prefer not touring so much anyore, right?
AK: In this day and age … it’s really hard to benefit from touring, I guess. In my own personal experience I found you don’t really profit from it very much. Because the pay scale for small, do-it-yourself, independent bands hasn’t really changed since the ‘70s, but everything else has gone up with inflation, so it’s really hard to make a living that way, and you end up spending most of the money you earn getting from one place to the next, and when you get home, you don’t have much left. When I was younger it was fine, but now I’ve gotten a little older and I’m married and I have a family and I have to take care of them, so it’s a lot better for me. I find I make a lot more money and have a lot more time to spend with my family if I don’t travel more than just a couple hours from home.
DE: Do you think there’s much of a future in touring?
AK: Well, I think for independent bands, touring is just becoming so difficult to do, that I guess the profits are so low, it seems like regional touring will be the thing that most people will do, where they stay within a certain region. People who tour nationally, it will be more people who have more financial backing, I would say.
DE: So now that Hugh DeNeal’s moved into house arrest, what’s the status of Woodbox Gang?
AK: Hugh and I have been getting together about once a week and working on new songs. He wrote a lot of songs while he was away, and together we’ve been kind of going over those. He’s been showing me what he’s written and it’s really good stuff. I’m not exactly sure when that will come together, but I’m confident that we’ll play again, someday.
DE: What was it like not playing with Woodbox Gang for a while?
AK: It was pretty weird. I guess, let’s see, pretty much most of the aspects of my life completely changed after we stopped playing. I wasn’t touring anymore, and just by coincidence I started a family right about the same time Hugh went away. So my life completely changed, pretty much. I was playing in different bands, playing different music. I wasn’t touring. I was raising a family and I started going to college. I still live in the same house. That’s about the only thing that didn’t change.
DE: Now that your life’s changed so much, how do you think that’s going to affect Woodbox Gang?
AK: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know that it will affect Woodbox Gang really. I think that we’ll just be more selective about the shows that we play and when we play. We’re not going to jump in the van and drive from New York City to California year-round. We may go play some music festivals and things like that. I don’t think it’s really going to have any effect on the music we play or the songs we write. Because actually, the most productive years of our music career together with the Woodbox Gang was when all of us had full-time jobs. I don’t know why really. We wrote a lot songs and recorded a lot of albums and played a lot of shows, we just didn’t tour nationally. We kept everything kind of regional. But we had a great time doing it. And I kind of think it will be like the good old days again, before we dedicated ourselves to living in a van for however many years.
DE: What’s the new material like?
AK: It’s pretty much more of the same. We kind of work together arranging songs that Hugh wrote in the beginning, and we kind of came up with a style based on Hugh’s songwriting and the stuff he’s writing right now, it’s no departure from what it was before. I think the people who liked us before will like the new stuff because it’s still the same, same sound.
DE: How long was it before Hugh got back that you guys started working on new songs?
AK: It was a few weeks. He had to get situated and adjusted, and he had to spend a little bit of time in a halfway house. He was really restricted on what he was allowed to do until he got to move into his apartment. But now I can go down there and write songs with him whenever. He was writing songs the whole time he was away, and he would send lyrics to me and I actually wrote music to some of them and put them on the soundtrack to the documentary they made about him (“Confidence Man”). There are a couple songs on there that he actually wrote when he was in prison, and I just made up music for them. I was just trying to imagine what music he would write for them, I guess. Then once he got back, he showed me music he made for those lyrics, and some of it was quite different than what I had imagined, but I really like it. Others, it was amazing how similar the music I had made up was to what he had in mind in the first place.
DE: Even though he’s under house arrest, he can still go to the studio?
AK: Yeah, I think he’s allowed to go to the recording studio.
DE: Have you guys rehearsed any yet?
AK: No, not all of us together. So far it’s just been Hugh and I.
DE: But right now, you guys don’t have any concrete plans on what you’re going to do?
AK: No, I think we’re all just planning on taking it as it comes and just getting together and playing and seeing what becomes of it.