fire wreckage documents Aaron Skiles’ efforts to deal with the pandemic. The lockdown ended Bourbon Therapy, the longtime Bay Area country rock band he fronted with his wife, Rebecca. Unable to tour or perform live, he used his free time to reshape his approach to performing and songwriting. He decided to make an album documenting what was happening around him.
“The album has a dark title and the artwork is ominous,” Skiles said. “I thought sometimes you could pull things out of the wreckage after a fire, and they were salvageable. I wanted to talk about the pandemic and what it was doing to my friends, my band, the community and the world. Bourbon therapy was over. We had just celebrated our fifth year as a band, with a sold-out anniversary show at The Back Room, Berkeley. We had singles ready to be released and gigs scheduled to promote them, and then “Boom!” We couldn’t play live anymore, so I turned to songwriting.
“After the lockdown started, I felt depressed. What makes me feel good is listening to music and writing songs. I’ve been married for 22 years, and while recognizing how lucky I was to have this relationship in my life, I started thinking about the things that scare me. When I hear stories of divorces, breakups and losses, I turn to music to process the feelings. The genius of music is that almost any feeling is acceptable in a song, as long as it has an emotional impact. So I wrote about what was happening around me.
As the album took shape, Skiles contacted Matt Patton of Drive By Truckers. Patton is also a producer and owns Dial Back Sound, a recording studio in Water Valley, MS. Skiles met him after a Drive By Truckers show. “I’m not shy and he’s friendly and down to earth, so I introduced myself. I told him about Bourbon Therapy and sent him some tracks. He called me a few weeks later and told me to contact him, if I ever needed help making a record. It was six years ago. I contacted him and we started working on Debris.
In December 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Skiles descended on Mississippi. Patton herded the musicians into the studio, keeping everyone socially distant and masked except when they were singing. Jay Gonzalez of Dive By Truckers played piano; Conor Oberst and Mystic Valley Band member Taylor Hollingsworth contributed lead guitar; and AJ Haynes of the Seratones added multi-track harmonies. “She came in and added three or four harmonies on some songs. She’s a real professional. I was there for a week and I had no idea how the people of Mississippi would react to my outlook on life. I was born and raised in Oakland. My parents graduated from UC Berkeley and joined the Peace Corps. I don’t know how the others are there, but in the studio I could have talked to a bunch of people from the Bay Area. We had the same visions of life, politics and music. They were my people.
The music on fire wreckage is rock and roll pure and simple, with only a trace of the country inflections of Bourbon Therapy. “On My Own” is a grating, distorted mid-tempo rocker that sounds like a confession of a life ill-spent. Skiles delivers a rumbling ode to self-destruction, with a vocal break full of defiant whoops. “A Triumph of Three Chords” rides on a smooth groove generated by Jay Gonzalez’s piano, Taylor Hollingsworth’s bluesy lead guitar and AJ Haynes’ soaring harmonies. The words celebrate the healing power of music and recall Willie Nelson’s definition of the perfect song: “three chords and the truth.” The emotional centerpiece of the album is “Before You Go”, a ballad about a friend who committed suicide. Gonzalez plays solemn, funereal bass chords on the piano to set the tone. Skiles sings of his friend’s passing with barely controlled emotion, wondering if he could have done anything to prevent his friend’s death.
“When I was recording the vocals, I started crying halfway through. I was laying on the floor sobbing. Matt came in and said, ‘Take your time. He told me he there was nothing i could have done at the time to change my friend’s mind we were young and didn’t talk about our feelings he suggested we sing it like an older person and wiser, giving advice to a young man. It was about me. I was able to put some emotion into the song which is really raw. You’ll hear a little moan, from the moment just before I was on crying point, on the track. We decided to leave it. When I listened to the playback, it rang true.
fire wreckage is available on the Aaron Skiles/Bourbon Therapy website: bourbontherapy.com.