Since 2002, the Bloomington, Illinois band Backyard Tire Fire  has been putting out gritty rock and roll, a sound that draws comparisons to Tom Petty, Neil Young, and early Tom Waits, but with a little of the boisterousness of the Rolling Stones. It seems with every album, the buzz-level has increased, rippling out further and further from their deep Midwestern roots to reach the corners of the country, whether its playing festivals, getting higher-profile gigs opening for other bands, or embarking on successful tours of their own, and putting in a workman-like 150-plus shows a year.
Ed Anderson has been the songwriter and driving force behind this trio, which includes his brother Matt on bass guitar and other founding member, drummer Tim Kramp. For the last two years, guitarist Scott Tipping has also been a pretty permanent fixture with them on the road, and they are currently winding up a year-long tour behind their fifth studio album, this past February's release, Good To Be.
I spoke with Ed ahead of BYT's December 4 show at Zanzabar in Louisville, and asked what the experience of this album and tour have been like, now that he has some perspective on the year. “Well, we've sold more of them, than we ever have before. Right out of the gate, radio seemed really open to it – WFPK is one of 60 radio stations that put us into the rotation, so that's been our biggest success at radio as well.”
Anderson admitted to being initially nervous about the album, since they ended up releasing it on their own. He felt that it was the best work that they had ever done, so not being with a label was a little nervewracking. Going the independent route has worked out for them, however, and it didn't hurt having Los Lobos musician Steve Berlin on board to produce Good To Be. The connection came about after they were asked to open a show for Los Lobos.
“Getting the gig was huge, and what it turned into was Steve calling us a few days later and saying, are you guys making a record – I'd love to produce it.” Anderson said he and the rest of the band were already big Lobos fans so the offer was both exciting and very timely. BYT had been, in fact, shopping around for someone new to produce their next record, feeling that they needed to step out of the comfort zone they had established for their previous efforts – working with Tony SanFillippo at his Oxide Lounge studio in Bloomington. Anderson said that Berlin's presence made a huge difference in shaping the sound of the album, starting with the selection of songs.
“I sent him at least a couple of dozen demos of songs that I had, some of which I really wanted to record – and thought that for sure it would be a no-brainer and he would select them...and he didn't select them! He chose songs that he thought thematically went together and really shaped a very positive record.” Even after signing on to produce it and receiving the first demos, Berlin encouraged Anderson to continue writing, and some of those newest songs like “Good to Be” and “Brady” ended up on the record. Not only did he influence what made the cut and what didn't, he also changed individual songs in major ways. Anderson pointed to the example of “Estelle” – in its final form, a very uplifting and empowering story about a single mom who has managed to put it all together. Anderson's first version was as different as could be. “Originally that song was scathing and sarcastic; it was called 'Indie Hipster Tastemaker Wannabe.'...It was a really funny song and a favorite...because we'd been playing it out.” Berlin really liked the melody and the music, but he thought it would fit in better with the rest of the material by having a different story written for it, so Anderson obliged, and ended up very happy with the result.
When asked how his songwriting, in general, has evolved over the years, Anderson replied that he thought he had learned finally to write some songs that weren't completely rooted in his own personal life and firsthand experience. “'Brady' is a completely fictitious tale that I created out of nothing....That wasn't something that I was very good at early on...and I feel like I've been able to step outside of my little bubble.”
Anderson didn't start out to be a musician; in fact, he didn't put together his first band until he was in grad school at Illinois State University. He had even accepted a teaching assistantship and really thought that teaching communications on the college level would be his career path. However, after releasing a couple of albums and then getting signed to a label, music became a legitimate alternative to that vocation.
Fate has seemed to take a hand a couple times in Anderson's history. He says that the first tunes his father had taught him on guitar were Richie Valens songs, “La Bamba” and “Oh Donna” because that was what his father had played growing up. Of course, it was covering those songs for the La Bamba movie soundtrack that pushed Berlin's band Los Lobos into the mainstream for the first time. We also had a laugh when Anderson told me that his master's thesis was about “male friendships.”
“Yeah, right now, in this band, it's insanity. I should probably go back and read my thesis and see what I can take from it.”
In addition to Tipping and Kramp, of course, Ed's brother Matt is the bassist, and while he loves having his brother on the road with him, he admits that their personality styles aren't very similar. “I'm a little more of a go-getter, gung-ho, intense, type-A personality, whereas he's really laid back.”
Fortunately for the brothers, the tour leads them back to the Bloomington area for a couple of shows just before and after Thanksgiving so they'll be able to reconnect with family and friends for awhile before the last round of shows to end the year. And what's up in 2011 for Backyard Tire Fire?
“I think the idea is – at this point – to take a deep breath, let me write a bunch more tunes, play some select shows in the Midwest....I kinda like the idea of a slowdown.” A slowdown, maybe, but a short one, because Anderson says they are always ready to jump on the next opportunity, and they'll be eager to come back with a vengeance, make a new record, and see what lies around the next bend. For right now, Backyard Tire Fire seems to be following an upward trajectory on the strength of solid work and a sterling reputation among other musicians.
Here's a great-sounding live performance of the song “Shoulda Shut It”:
Backyard Tire Fire will perform with Louisville band County Line at Zanzabar  on South Preston Street, Saturday, December 4 at 9:00 p.m. Tickets are $12, available at Ticketfly , ear-X-tacy, and at the venue. You can also enter to win two tickets by sending an email to info@productionsimple (Winner will be drawn and contacted on 11/30 by 4pm.).
(Photo credit: Brad Hodge)