On Wednesday, August 1st, Tim Nielsen, bassist and co-founder of Drivin N Cryin, took a phone call from QRO. In the conversation, Nielsen talked about how the band got together way back when, members changing, re-releasing (and even renaming) old albums, Darius Rucker turning “Straight to Hell” into a hit on today’s country radio, opening for The Who, meeting The Ramones, how they’ve lasted this long, and much more…
QRO: I’d like to talk about the history of Drivin N Cryin. How did you gather the players for the first incarnation of the band?
Tim Nielson: Paul [Lenz] and I were in The Nightporters. Paul got fired by the two guitar players, and right around that time, I met Kevn [Kinney]. And I was intrigued by his sound and what he had going on. Him and Paul and I got together and started jamming, and quickly decided to be a band.
QRO: How did you find out about Kevn?
TN: He was sitting in with Die Kruezen at the Metroplex. They’re a Milwaukee band, kind of glam/punk/metal. He was sitting in because they were friends, and they did a couple of [The] Prosecutors songs, which was Kevn’s old band. And I was like, “Wow, this guy’s got a cool sound.” I happened to be there, and introduced myself to him. He knew who I was because of my band The Nightporters. He played me his demo tape, and we decided to start a band, and brought Paul in.
QRO: What role did Frank French play in the band? Was he a founding member?
TN: He was part of that crew too, because he had a little recording studio in his house and so he made Kevn’s demo tape. He played guitar with us on our first handful of shows. But, at one point, if he couldn’t make it to one of our shows, he would just send random friends to take his place, so then we just said, “You know what? I think we’re just gonna be a three-piece.”
QRO: So, would you ever consider doing work with him again? Or a show, even?
TN: Yeah. We’d love to have Frank jam with us. We get along with Frank. He’s an old friend.
[Kevn] and Paul and I got together and started jamming, and quickly decided to be a band.
QRO: In the beginning, who made the posters?
TN: Paul made the posters; Paul used to do the Otis guy, the guy with the teeth, the weird dude. Kevn used to design all the t-shirts for the benefit shows at The Cotton Club and stuff. Paul did some designs; this other guy named Stony did some designs, back in those days. James Flournoy Holmes did the cover for Scarred but Smarter, the same guy that designed Eat a Peach for The Allman Brothers.
QRO: Oh, nice! So I saw that you just renamed one of your re-releases. Why did you rename it?
TN: It was a self-titled album, for one thing, so when you tried to describe it to people, people didn’t know what you were talking about. Then they would look at the cover, and they thought it was Scarred but Smarter, because it looked a lot like Scarred but Smarter, the same kind of color scheme. So, we thought to re-introduce a record that had a short-lived life back in the ‘90s. It just kind of came out, did a little bit and then it kind of disappeared.
We decided to give it a new look and a new name, and the new name is the first line on the first song on the record [Too Late to Turn Back Now]. The whole concept was kind of thrown together by me, Kosmo Vinyl, Kevn Kinney, and George Fontaine from New West Records, along with Todd Ploharski of Low Yo Yo Stuff in Athens, Georgia, the record store. So we all kind of contributed to agreeing on a plan and it was released on Friday.
QRO: So, are y’all releasing all of your old albums?
TN: Yeah, at some point. We released Mystery Road last year with an extra record, with the Peter Buck demos. [Peter Buck, formerly of R.E.M., is good friends with Drivin n Cryin, sometimes playing with them or Kinney] The next thing that’s going to be released by us is a brand new record that’s almost finished. That’s gonna be out in the spring.
QRO: Awesome. Yay! So do you own your own rights to your music or albums?
TN: Everything that we recorded under Island or Geffen, they own the publishing [rights]. So, we still have to pay mechanical licensing. So, we don’t own them. But the key is to get the same label to put it out without taking any money out of [our] pocket. That’s what we did with Mystery Road, and then, this record we did in ‘97, we owned it completely. So, we just basically let New West print them up, and then we’ll deal with those guys.
We needed to have a guy that’s more permanent, so that’s why we have Laur Jaomets in the band now.
QRO: As members changed, was there a correlation between a change in the sound [of the band] and the members changing?
TN: Not necessarily a change in sounds between Paul Lenz and Jeff Sullivan. Jeff was more of an accomplished, dynamic drummer who could different types of songs. Paul was kind of, like, a really good punk rock drummer. He was really good at that beat that he did. So Jeff kind of broadened our horizons. And then [after] Whisper Tames the Lion had already been recorded, we brought in Buren Fowler to be an extra guitar player. And he brought more of a Southern rock flair to Mystery Road and Fly Me Courageous, I think, with his leads. And then we went back to a three-piece. With Joey Huffman, we had a keyboard vibe on Wrapped in Sky. On the self-titled, we went back to a three-piece.
And then, we didn’t do anything for years, except for live records. Then we had Sadler Vader with us for four EPs [from 2012 and 2013: Songs From The Laundromat, Songs For The Turntable, Songs From the Psychedelic Time Clock, and Songs About Cars, Space and The Ramones]. He’s just a very accomplished musician. He’s great. And now, this new record that we’re doing, it’s got Laur Joamets on guitar. So he’s doing a lot of slide and just really great parts. He’s written some fantastic, melodic guitar parts for the new songs. And we’re really excited about these tunes.
QRO: I’m sure y’all miss Van Buren [Fowler] a lot. [He died in 2014 at age 54. He was present for the film release party for the documentary Scarred But Smarter in 2012, but had physical issues for two years afterwards, until his death]
We do miss Van Buren [Fowler] a lot. He was just such a good friend and such a good guy. We loved him.
TN: We do miss Van Buren a lot. He was just such a good friend and such a good guy. We loved him.
QRO: His head spinning is one of the reasons I loved watching y’all back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Not to mention, he was a great player. You’ve had quite a few guitarists. What causes those changes?
TN: A lot of these young guys, they have a change to get promoted. We’re like a minor league baseball team, for young guitar players. So we either have the young guns, or we get like, Warner Hodges, to sit in with us every now and then. And we love Warner, and we love Dan Baird, and Warner and Dan do their thing [Dan Baird & Homemade Sin], and that was Warner’s number one priority. We needed to have a guy that’s more permanent, so that’s why we have Laur Jaomets in the band now.
QRO: Mac [Carter] had nice solos too.
TN: We love Mac. Mac was a great guitar player for us, for many years. I always liked his solo music too.
QRO: How did you get hooked up with Little Joe [Laur Joamets]?
TN: I just met him one night when he was sitting in with Darrin Bradbury’s band, and they opened for us. And I complemented him on his guitar playing. And when he spoke to me, he had an accent. And then, he said, “Yeah, I’m from Estonia.” I was like, “Oh. You know the guy from Sturgill Simpson?” And he goes, “I’m the guy.” So, we hit it off and became friends. And then, as fate would have it, he wound up sitting in with us. And then, parting ways with Sturgill Simpson’s people, and we pulled him in.
QRO: Wow, that’s amazing. Would you ever consider having keyboards in the band again?
TN: I don’t know if we want to take keyboards on the road. The guitar players, that we usually use, are able to get some pretty fantastic tones that kind of sound like keyboards. There’s lots of keyboards on the new record we’re recording. We have organ parts.
QRO: Who’s playing on that?
TN: Aaron [Lee Tasjan] is playing some of the parts and there’s another guy [Jimmy Matt Rowland]. He just laid down some stuff yesterday. He was in the studio yesterday.
Getting inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame [in 2011] was a pretty awesome moment.
QRO: Can you talk about some moments that stand out over time?
TN: Recently, getting inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame [in 2011] was a pretty awesome moment. And then, very recently, when Darius Rucker did “Straight to Hell” on the CMT Awards . That was pretty crazy, to see those guys do that show. I saw that that on TV. That was a fantastic moment. Over the years, playing the [Atlanta] Fox Theatre, playing in London, playing in New York, back in the day. Touring with R.E.M., touring with Neil Young, touring with The Who… Those are all memorable moments, milestones.
QRO: “Straight to Hell” is a now a hit on country radio.
TN: It’s exciting to be recognized by contemporary country music singers, and Darius Rucker’s a great guy.
QRO: You talked about how that came together, but were unsure about it at first.
TN: He sent Kevn a text, and we were like, “Yeah, right. We’ll see if it actually ends up on the record.” And as time went by, we kept hearing rumors from our friends within the Darius [Rucker] camp that it was actually happening. And then it actually happened, and we were like, “Great. So, this is another cool little anecdote in our story.” It helps.
QRO: How do you feel about the new version?
TN: I think it’s fun. I think it’s slick, and it sounds like those guys are having a fun time.
QRO: What’s the group name they call themselves?
TN: The Troublemakers, ‘cause they’re being naughty on country music radio, singing “Straight to Hell” and “Son of a Bitch.” Not quite The Highwaymen, but pretty cool, pretty ballsy, to do that. [The Troublemakers include Georgia musicians Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Charles Kelley. Kelley wanted to cover the song and introduced the idea to Rucker]
If we walked in a show, and we were out in the crowd, John [Ramone] would look right at me and fire a guitar pick right at me, and would hit me right in the chest.
QRO: I’ve seen pictures of you meeting The Ramones. That had to be pretty amazing.
TN: The Ramones are definitely our heroes.
QRO: What was the best part of that?
TN: They were just always so nice to us. I remember hanging out with Joey in New York, and then we would play with them, in Atlanta, Winston-Salem, and Memphis. John always remembered me. If we walked in a show, and we were out in the crowd, John would look right at me and fire a guitar pick right at me, and would hit me right in the chest. And I was like, “Ok. Thank you.” He was the best. They were just super nice. Joey was super nice and Johnny Ramone’s Kevn’s hero. We love The Ramones.
QRO: When you played with The Who in ‘97 on the Quadrophenia tour, did you get to hang out with those guys?
TN: Not really. I got to spend a little bit of time with John Entwhistle. Kevn and Jeff waited an hour and a half after a show to meet Pete [Townshend] one night, and said it was amazing. But I didn’t get to meet him.
QRO: How did that [opening slot] get hooked up? Did they decide they liked your music?
TN: Somehow, that self-titled record got to The Who’s people, and they liked it. Pete liked it.
QRO: Well, that was pretty nice to tour with someone like that.
TN: Yeah, that was pretty special.
We kind of learned, the reason why we’re able to get along and all is, we try to keep the tone, while we’re traveling and stuff, kind of light.
QRO: I think of you and Kevn kind of like Yin and Yang. How do you guys get along and work things out?
TN: I’m handling all the business, and I feel I’m good at it. I understand what our needs are and how to make it work. Kevn’s taking care of himself, and showing up, and singing, and playing guitar great. He was in Nashville yesterday working on the new record with some guest rock star singers, coming in, helping out. I’m not going to name names yet.
QRO: Any good or bad times during your relationship? You’ve been together for 33 years in the band.
TN: We kind of learned, the reason why we’re able to get along and all is, we try to keep the tone, while we’re traveling and stuff, kind of light. And we don’t want to get into business discussions all the time. And we just try to stay out of each other’s way. You can’t micro-manage each other. You just have to, kind of, let everybody create and let everybody do what they do.
And just like, onstage, you have to be respectful of the song. Respect the song and respect the music. And have a good time. But, just don’t step on the singer’s words. The singer’s words and the singer’s stories are what the people are there to hear, to experience, so you have to respect that. I’m just always trying to keep the story moving forward and keeping our existence relevant.
QRO: Bill DeYoung described Kevn as, “Sunny, self-deprecating, and honest.” How would you describe yourself in adjectives?
TN: Progressive, tenacious, attention to detail, leadership. I really like the creative process. I like to create things; I like to build things. I like to create projects and see them come into fruition. I don’t know if there’s a word that describes that.
I like to create projects and see them come into fruition. I don’t know if there’s a word that describes that.
QRO: I love that you guys play wherever you want, whenever you want, with lots of small clubs. What are some of your favorite venues?
TN: The Tabernacle, The Fox [Theatre, Atlanta], The Windjammer, Charleston Music Hall in Charleston.
QRO: Do you think you’ll do any more dates with the Scarred But Smarter band?
TN: Probably, some day.
QRO: How were you recruited for the Alzheimer’s Fest [benefit] on [September] 15th?
TN: They called our agent, and asked if we were available, and if we could do it, and we said yeah.
QRO: Is there any information that you want to add, that I haven’t asked?
TN: We’re making a record with Aaron Lee Tasjan, and it’s gonna be really, really great when it comes out.
QRO: When is it gonna be released?
TN: Next spring.