Q & A with Coy Campbell of Nightingale News

“Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.”
Hunter S. Thompson

Around the first of the year, Nightingale News signed a deal through Savannah label Bomb Shelter Records. Now, with the blood still fresh on their hands, the band has made strong strides out of the gate and is in production on a new album, with an undisclosed release date. The group has managed to find time away from recording to play two concerts in the near future. You can catch them this Saturday, April 23rd at The Jinx, where they’ll be playing with Roadkill Ghost Choir.

Nightingale News’ sound is a whirlwind mix of bluegrass/southwestern rock, the kind that will knock you on your ass if you come within earshot without the proper precautions, and I have no doubt they will leave someone in the audience in need of serious medical attention. Their presence is heavy, and they pull that weight through the sludge with a driving rhythm and thunderous lyrics that set fire to hearts and burn down souls. I should know. I’ve been one of the victims they’ve floored during a show.

Earlier this week I had a chance to catch up with Coy Campbell, lead singer and frontman for the band, at his home here in Savannah. It was god awful late in the evening; the sun had already put most children to bed. Coy was in between band rehearsals and looked worn thin when he answered the door. But, after greeting me with big smile and warmly inviting me into his home, he immediately went to his piano to quietly tinker with something while I placed myself and set up the bombardment of questions.

The house was quiet when I finished my prepping, so I watched him panning over sheets of music for a while. I’ve seen this before, I thought. He’s possessed, a man holding himself up against the coals of a fire still warm with things that haunt one’s mind. I was captivated, cause if that kind of passion won’t carry over onto the people surrounding it then those in witness have no soul. How can you not admire someone that will put so much of themselves into a concept that it physically drains them? You can’t. I didn’t. And, I wasn’t about to become one of those soulless bastards that observes something like that and blows it off as ordinary.

Coy has a strong presence about him. You can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice when he gets rolling on that which strikes his gusto. He’s a southern gentleman at heart with strong ties to Texas and South Georgia, a military brat that never set roots down for long but has always felt the call that every true southerner can hear from any far reaching corner of this dark and depraved world.

Nightingale News band

Nightingale News

hl: When did you realize you wanted to play music?

CC: Pretty early on, but it was like watching someone speaking Chinese.

hl: What was the first instrument you picked up to play?

CC: Bass.

hl: And what drew you to that?

CC: It only had four strings. That seemed like the quickest way of getting into some kind of band.

hl: Do you remember the first riff you learned how to play?

CC: Oh yeah, I can hum it.
That’s it. That’s the whole jam for like 3 and half or 4 minutes.

hl: What was your first experience with a band?

CC: The first bass playing experience I had, I borrowed a Peavey Scorpion Bass Amp and a Gibson Bass from a friend of mine. Griffin played some Telecaster, and Justin was playing the drums and we needed a bass. So, yeah. That was the first band of weirdos trying to play instruments that I ever had.

hl: Were you guys any good?

CC: Oh, we were horrible. Haha! I’m leaving so much out of this, including the name of that monstrously tectonic ensemble. I think our hearts were in the right place. And the idea of being rock stars was kind of cool.

hl: What music did you listen to at that time?

CC: When I was little there was always some kick ass country music playing. There were always selections of Alabama, Oak Ridge Boys, Willy Nelson, Merle Haggard, and my grandfather was a gospel tenor, so we had a lot of gospel going on at my grandfather’s house. When I went to New Mexico during the summer of my junior and senior year in high school, I came back to Statesboro and I had been waylaid with Neil Young. I had gotten “Rust Never Sleeps” and “DejaVu” Crosby Stills Nash and Young from a two dollar ben. Then I found Harvest and a friend bought it for me so I could listen to heart of gold as much as I wanted to and that throw Gun’s and Roses and Metallica and all the gangster rap out the window.

hl: Do you still listen to that other stuff?

CC: Of course, I still listen to all those things, and it’s all incredible music. They were setting the parameters of music for ourselves, and they are invaluable. Those were the first road maps of rocking out. You carry all of it, and you don’t know how much music you already know how to play, and when you start doing it it becomes just a freak show of human ability.

Coy Campbell guitar

Coy Campbell

hl: Is there any album or song that stands out for you as a turning point, something that made you look into music as a profession?

CC: I would have to say that the most influential moments for me musically were around the time of middle school when I first heard Paul Simon’s masterpiece, Graceland. I would love to go in to the beautiful details of why this is such an important album beyond my own tastes- but we don’t have the time nor the space. It was album born of complete loss, which I can relate to as an adult, but as a child it was Lady Smith Black Mambazo’s acapella vocal parts that made my stomach flutter. Bassist Bikithi Komalou was only 17 years old when he wrote the astonishingly melodic bass lines, marking the first time I’d ever heard the bass guitar as a separate voice unto itself. And I love the songwriting.

The chorus to the album’s namesake single, “Graceland”, is one of the most bare and heartbreaking lines ever put to song. “losing love is like a window in your heart, everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow” gives me the chills every time I hear it. I love honesty, but hate having to face a broken heart. The pain and transcendence conveyed in that song was my first taste of adult emotions, and I suppose I’ve given the rest of my life to giving that feeling to someone else, via song. It was an album whose very existence was breach of a cultural boycott of South Africa under Aparthied – and it was viewed by some as crossing certain lines, but to me, it’s all there: my own cultural struggle with home as a southerner, the raw beauty of African voices and sense of song, melodic bass voicings, sentiments of love and loss, political implications, poetics on the line level- just perfect. It is and always will be a touchstone for me.

hl: How do you write your music?

CC: At the age of thirteen I started keeping a journal. So, these became like login books. And for about seven years, that’s what I did, I kind of logged in about what was going on in my life. Then in college I started freewriting a lot and those books became my sketchbooks and then my poetry books and then they became my song books. Some songs are through written. Some are scattered across pages. I sometimes have stanzas circled and arrows moving through three pages down across days of work, not necessarily related in any order.

A really good example of that would be the song “Mob Surgeon” that’s coming out on the new album.  The verses were an entire poem and then the chorus was three different moments of inspiration that were drawn together. So, there’s a lot of stitchery going on. For me, it’s about capturing those flash moments that are those little pieces that you’re working together. I’ll try to capture as much as I can in a moment when I’m at a bar or I’m out seeing a thing and try to nail the most pure way of saying what I’m seeing, so when I go back to write “write” it, I’ve left the purest way I can get back to that moment. Then you play through that and try tweezing out a song or narrative.

hl: It sounds like a very multi-step process to get to a finished product.

CC: You don’t know what you’re getting and sometimes you surprise the shit out of yourself. Sometimes you walk out and throw nine punches and the song is done. And sometimes you wrestle for months, if not years, to come up with something. This past album is littered with that. The opening song was like this. The verses and chorus were completely separate writing experiences that were almost unconsidered until we recorded them and put them together and we had this thing. So, there are things that are literally out of your control until the moment the tape is rolling.

hl: Do you write towards things you see around you, or do you write more to the abstract thought?

CC: I intend to write towards things I see, but I’m terrified of standing to close to my subject. So, I feel that I lean toward an impressionism that doesn’t shove your face in the flower too much. I trust the intelligence of the listener and want to give them something to chew on.  So, I try to write in that way and let people come on in. That’s why everything I’ve written and put to song was written as a poem, and that is the only way I’ve been able to survive my own authenticity battle.

hl: Your vernacular is pretty deep. Do you read a lot?

CC: Reading habits have gotten weird. I want more amazing fiction, but I find my fiction habits have been hijacked by screen barrage. My own phone has become my television and cock-blocks everything on the page. And I’m the jerk who lets it. I’m the guy who opens the door and leaves it open and always answers with a ‘Hi, come on in. Sure!’ I’m all for getting back to text and my way of doing it is through short fiction, Oxford American.

hl: What do you do when you’re not doing music?

CC: I’m preoccupied by going and seeing things. I’m on constant research. Daytrips…  Being positioned so close to my homeland I like to take these forays up through the highways. I recently went to Blue Springs, which was just sad and spooky and algal.

hl: What’s your favorite place on earth, or if you could be anywhere right now where would that be?

CC: I couldn’t tell you. That’s the thing. No, there are some incredible places. There’s a place called the tooth of time, which is a really amazing spot. I’m really fond of the watersheds in north Georgia around Alberton. There’s some amazing application granite that comes out across the surface. Those are the headwaters to Savannah and a bunch of these rivers. There are some shoals up there that are on old Cherokee land that’s a great place to spend the night under the stars.

hl: What’s the weirdest or funniest thing that’s happened to you while on stage or on tour?

CC: Oh man, that’s one of those questions were you’ll never remember the one you actually wanted to tell. I haven’t had too wild of time. I’ve gotten to see people that are really interesting and wound up in some pretty bizarre places with folks I never thought I’d ever be talking to or hanging out with.  I think that would be in the other side of my life as a younger dude hustling around out in New Mexico, hitchhiking, and sightseeing out in the desert and up in the mountains. I ended up in a bizarre situation where I walked into somebody’s murder plot, and I had to get out of there. That was a situation where, as a human being, I had to be like “vaporize thyself”.  I literally ducked behind a rock, like in Goonies and just low crawled out down the river. I’ve never had to deal with anything scarier or weirder than that, and I wish I could say. That’s a terrible answer, but it’s honest.

hl: What’s the most trouble you ever got into?

CC: That’s too long a story.

hl: Do you have a creed or motto that echoes through your head from time to time?

CC: I guess ‘Do no harm’. That’s the bass line.

hl: Where did your musical style come from?

CC: When I was a little boy my Texas roots were big. I was a 70s kid who came in through Texas people. And before my dad retired in Georgia, we were Texas people. So my southwestern swing and Baskerville… Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Hee-Haw, peddle Steele… Outlaw country was bumping in the pickup trucks I grow up in. It wasn’t until later in my life that I got hip to playing bluegrass and a little more of the application styles and even into blues. My first stuff was like seventies honkytonk and Jonnie Cash, the big bopper, all fifties rock-and-roll and R&B.

hl: Your record Label Bomb Shelter Records is planning on releasing an extension of Bell Rope, or are you creating a new album?

CC: I’m not at liberty to say. I wish I could, but we are still working on it and deciding those things right now.

hl: Okay. Last one. What do you like best about Savannah- do you enjoy the musical sense?

CC: It’s a port town with an arts school, and Savannah encourages individuality. It’s where interesting things take place. You can’t really mess up going down to the Bayou on a Monday or Tuesday night and seeing Eric Culberson Band  play in that corner in the back of that bar that’s been that building since the founding of this colony, and watch that big ass river roll by and not know what the fuck’s up. That’s what I love about Savannah.  Savannah is old, and it’s real. It’s original Georgia, and I think that’s what everybody here gets.  This is where the fairy tale began. And to be down here is just to be in a different level of history. There’s so much evidence in the stone in the street. And to be the living inheritors of this incredible landscape… It makes all of us damn near characters of our own collective dream.

Coy Campbell portrait

Coy Campbell

Catch Nightingale News live:
Playing this Saturday, April 23rd with Roadkill Ghost Choir at the Jinx. Doors open at 9:00. Also playing in Charleston SC with Robert Justin Osborne from SUSTO on Thursday May 26th at the Royal American.

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