“We came down the chute different” – Black Stone Cherry’s John Fred Young on his love of Ireland, songwriting and growing up in a rock n’ roll family
Black Stone Cherry may not be a household name in Ireland – or even their native America – but the Kentucky quartet have deservedly earned a reputation as a fearsome live act.
It’s been four years since the self-described Southern rock band last played in Dublin – to a packed out Whelan’s – and they return four years wiser with a new album, last year’s Magic Mountain, in tow.
Following a brief tilt at crossing over to the mainstream, Magic Mountain sees the band simplify their approach and return to the formula that took them from an old shack on drummer John Fred Young’s farm to festival stages the world over.
Young speaks to Something for the Weekend on the eve of their three-date stop in Ireland, before spending the summer touring the UK and mainland Europe.
“Working with Joe was unreal,” says Young, referring to producer Joe Baressi (Melvins, Kyuss), with whom they recorded their fourth studio record.
“Joe Baressi is one of the sweetest guys and one of the most intelligent people when it comes to, sonically, getting sounds in the studio.
“We went out to Pasadena, California in 2013, in the Fall, and it was just magical. Joe has this Hot Rod shop, that used to be an auto shop for working on motors, and he just gutted it and put in a studio in this old brick building.
“Joe wanted us to just have a record that we could be proud of. As for his producer’s hat, Joe didn’t step in and tell us where to put stuff or how to do this and that – it’s more like he became part of the band, like a fifth member.
“We cut to tape for the first time in our career, which I thought was just awesome.”
The band’s previous record – 2010’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – saw the group take on a more commercial bent.
At the behest of their label, they drafted in commercial rock producer Howard Benson and worked with songwriters-for-hire in an attempt to fit the mould of rock radio. It wasn’t a comfortable fit.
Young says: “Howard is a great producer as well with a totally different bag of tricks to Joe – a pop guy.
“It was incredible making that record because we learned stuff that we never thought we would have taken away from our experience with a producer like that.
“It’s always the way when you’re a band working with a record label that you get somebody who wants to mould you into something that’s ‘hot’ at the moment.
“In America, the way people hear about rock bands is through rock radio, and we’re just not an active rock radio band – we’re a live, classic rock, lifestyle band. We’ve got to write songs that won’t get us on the radio but will appeal to our fans and will also work in our live show.”
“We worked with 30 or 40 different writers in 2010, and it was a great experience getting to meet all those people, a lot of Nashville guys. It made us better songwriters, for sure, and we’re so proud that that happened.”
The band have been back on the road since the start of May, having taken a six-month break from touring as John Fred became a father for the first time.
Young’s father, Richard, and his uncle Fred (also a drummer) are members of the Grammy Award-winning southern rock band the Kentucky Headhunters, and they helped the teenagers cut their teeth on the live circuit.
Young says: “We actually started on Chris’s birthday, June the 4th, 2001. We started rehearsing in my dad and uncle’s old shack that my great-grandmother gave to them. Every day after school we’d just pound it. Our band’s been together almost 15 years, which is longer than some people’s marriages!
“If I wasn’t in this band, I’d be a fan of this band. I know that sounds a little vain, but I don’t mean it like that, but we’re a band that are doing something that not a lot of bands are.
“We’re bringing classic rock influences we grew up on, rehearsing in our house on the farm, surrounded by ’60s and ’70s posters on the wall to keep the heat in, because there wasn’t any insulation in the ’30s and ’40s when this old shack was built.
“We were 15 and 16, looking at Cream and Mountain and Led Zeppelin and the Who, and old blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.
“We got an ancient pedigree at a young age, and that’s what separated us from a lot of bands that just grew up on what other kids our age were listening to, like Korn and Limp Bizkit and Nine Inch Nails.
“We’re so lucky to have had parents who turned us on to those artists, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we came down the chute different.”
Like so many in the American South, Young comes from Irish lineage and his excitement at returning to Ireland for a couple of shows is clearly audible, even down a phone line.
“I remember the first time we came to Ireland in 2008, maybe, when we were playing some smaller clubs, and I always fight to come to Ireland.
“It’s not even that we have to fight sometimes, but when booking agents and tours are going together, they want to hit all of the UK and sometimes Ireland, because you have to take the ferry out there, kind of gets left off.
“I’ve got a love for Ireland – my family are descendents like many other people here. We’re really psyched we’ve got three shows in Ireland, so it’s going to be incredible.”
Black Stone Cherry play the Pav in Cork on June 15 and the Academy in Dublin on June 16.