A conversation with Hunt Sales
Hunt Sales may be best known for the work he did as the drummer with Tin Machine, David Bowie’s short lived hard rock project, but he’s been playing music professionally since he was 11 years old. “I started on drums when I was six or seven,” Sales says. “I went to a recording session and saw Earl Palmer (Little Richard, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair) playing drums. In that instant, I knew what I wanted to do.”
With his older brother Tony on bass, Hunt became half of an internationally famous rhythm section. He was in the house band at Roulette Records and cut several singles with Tony and the Tigers, including the top 20 hit, “We Gotta Get You a Woman.” While still teenagers, the Sales brothers, sons of comic Soupy Sales, became the rhythm section for Todd Rundgren’s Runt album and band. They backed up Iggy Pop on his Bowie-produced commercial breakthrough, Lust for Life, and joined Bowie for three albums with Tin Machine in 1988. “I did not work for David Bowie, I worked with him,” Sales says. “It’s a different dynamic.”
Sales had always written songs and, during the years with Tin Machine, he collaborated on lyrics and melodies with Bowie. Tin Machine II featured several co-writes with Bowie, including two Sales sang lead on – “Sorry” and “Stateside,” his own composition.
After leaving Bowie, Sales kept writing songs, playing sessions and producing other artists. He was behind the boards for Jack Grisham’s first post T.S.O.L. album, Tender Fury, and Rozz Williams’ post Christian Death debut, Daucus Karota, but he never made an album of his own music – until now. On January 25, Fat Possum’s Big Legal Mess subsidiary will release Get Your Shit Together, Sales’ first solo LP, credited to The Hunt Sales Memorial. The album shows off the diversity of Sales’ interests with “Here I Go Again,” a metallic hard rock tune; the country music/reggae hybrid “Angel of Darkness;” a ‘50s rocker with a Chuck Berry beat, “Shimekra’s Got The Hook Up” and “One Day,” an introspective ballad. Sales filled The Globe in on his creative process from his home in Austin, Texas.
Why did you call the album Get Your Shit Together? It’s kinda snarky, no?
It’s not a metaphor. It’s pretty direct–a message to everybody, and myself, to get your shit together. It’s a crass way of saying it maybe, but nevertheless, there are a lot of people I’ve said it to, including myself. You run into someone and they say, ‘I’ll see you next Wednesday.’ It comes around and they don’t call. It doesn’t happen. It’s flakey, you know? So I mean it all around, to myself and everyone else. There’s this attitude today that you can’t do anything, ‘cause everything is just fucked up and that’s the way it is. I hate that. So get your shit together.
The musical styles on the album are quite diverse, reggae to metal, blues and ‘50s rock. Sounds like a history of the last 60 years of popular music.
The only thread running through the album is my taste. I like reggae and music from New Orleans, hence the horns on some tracks, but the horns sound like a Harley Davidson in the background, not jumping around all over the place, more of an accent than a statement. The album happened by accident. I was doing a gig in Memphis, playing some of my own stuff and met Bruce Watson, from Fat Possum. He asked if I’d like to make a record, so I came back to Austin, put the songs together and did a little rehearsing. Then I went back to Memphis to do the record. It was done petty fast.
The only belaboring thing was sitting down to write a bunch of new songs. The record was cut old school. Cut a track live, do a vocal and on to the next tune. We did six songs in one day, the next day we did some rough mixes, then I left town. I went back and did the same thing again a few months later. I used my regular Austin band, Tjarko Jeen on guitar, Alexander Lynch on bass, me on drums and a couple of piano players – Billy Young from KC and the Sunshine Band and Pat Fusco. I played guitar on a few tracks and we brought in Jim Spake and Art Edmaistion to play sax and added Mark Stewart on bass for ‘Ties That Bind.’
What significance does the Hunt Sales Memorial have? Why not call the group the Hunt Sales Band?
It’s a name I’ve been using for a while. A friend of mine, drummer Buddy Miles, was living in Austin and nobody came to see him. He was just living there alone. When he died, there was a memorial and so many people came around, a lot of them to be seen and hang out together, rather than for Buddy. It was so fucked up, so I said, ‘Let’s do my memorial now!’ At our first gig, people freaked out. They thought I was dead. I heard people saying, ‘Oh, how did he die?’ I thought it was funny. I really fucked with their heads.
Do you have any thoughts about about making your debut album at 64?
I’m no different from the other people on Fat Possum – T-Model Ford, R. L. Burnside and other fuckers that have been around for years. They had something to say, so Bruce (Watson) said, ‘Let’s record them.’ Fat Possum was not put off by my age, but I don’t think the label has any young chick singers with big tits, you know? They have artists with something to say. I wasn’t looking for a record deal. I was just doing a gig, playing my own music in Memphis, and Bruce asked me if I wanted to do a record. It was a case of preparation and opportunity meeting up. The business isn’t looking for people like me, but the right guy heard me, and was hip to what I’d done, and saw some value in me. It’s nice when things go that way.
It is a business, you know, but Fat Possum has more interest in the music than the bottom line. They’re not afraid to sign older musicians. Would R. L. ever be singed by CBS? I don’t think so. The business is youth oriented, but over the years, you see these older people getting Grammys. Folks like Santana and Bonnie Raitt. In the jazz and blues world, even back in the day, people who were older had audiences. I don’t know if you’ve been to rock and roll shows lately, but it used to be dangerous and cutting edge. Then it became safe and kids now learn to rap. That music has the beat, and the groove and the danger element. I think I’ve got something to say and the stuff is rocking, even though I’m older. I don’t know what it means, but I’m still doing what I’ve always been doing – writing songs and playing music.
You sing lead on the songs, but the vocals often get submerged in the mix. Is there any reason behind that approach?
It’s a band, not me with backing tracks and the vocals up loud. I think the more commercial stuff, with the vocals really loud, sounds like karaoke. I’m just one of the players on the record, along with guitar, bass and horns. The feeling of the song is more important than any one element. I’m not saying there’s no feeling in music today, but a lot of it is anger – nothing that reaches my soul. I try to say something with very few words. Sometimes I can say things a weird way, kinda sideways, rather than direct, but that’s how I relate to people. I don’t know what you’d call it. I never studied writing or music in school. In fact, I didn’t go to school. I dropped out to play music before I was a teen, but I listened to a lot of James Brown, who said a lot with very little.