10 Commandments and 8 Questions: A Conversation with Slim Cessna

By: Will Baumgartner

Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is a Denver institution. The band has survived 24 years (you read that right; they formed in 1992) without even a “hiatus,” let alone a “breakup” despite members living in different states for large chunks of those years. For this alone they deserve not only credit, but a certain awe, for as anyone who has tried to run a group knows, it’s hard enough to keep things going when you all live in the same town, let alone all over the country. Add on the fact that the band creates amazing music together, performs like they’ve just brought an insanely fun party from their house into the club, and has brought their party to Europe with great success, and you have the makings of a great story about perseverance and love in the modern music business. Actually, let’s call that a novel: Where most bands’ careers can be read more like short stories, SCAC’s is more of an epic tale.

The band’s music has been called everything from “experimental rock” to “alt-country,” but after experiencing them live, on record, and in their sublimely strange videos, facile categorizations need to go out the window: This is just an amazing band. No discussion of the group would be complete without some mention of Slim’s “sidekick” Munly, a wickedly talented songwriter and bandleader (Munly and the Lupercalians) in his own right. Munly, who joined SCAC in 1999, has been the group’s main songwriter for years and wrote all the songs on 'The Commandments According to SCAC,' the band’s sixth studio album, and their first on their own label, SCACUnincorporated. The rest of the band, with Lord Dwight Pentacost on custom-designed double-neck guitar, multi-instrumentalist Rebecca Vera on keys, pedal steel, cello and more,  bassist Ian O’Dougherty, and drummer Andrew Warner are all consummate musicians and performers.

'The Commandments' came out in September of this year, and is an outrageously good album, with videos for each of its 10 songs on YouTube, which provide their own otherworldly visual experience as a foil to SCAC’s music. There are plenty of live videos online as well, and checking out a few of those is a great way to get prepped for what will no doubt be two of the best concerts of the year, when Slim Cessna’s Auto Club take over 3 Kings Tavern in Denver for two New Year’s shows on December 30th and 31st.

Slim Cessna's Auto Club.

Slim Cessna's Auto Club.

In an attempt to prepare myself for the excitement and madness that is a SCAC show, and to better understand the workings of the group and the mind of its frontman, I sat down with Slim and asked him a handful of questions. I was impressed by his humor and graciousness; he couldn’t say enough about Munly and all the members, including Vera and Lord Dwight (with whom he also has an “experimental folk” quartet he clearly loves called Denver Broncos UK or DBUK). In fact, he seemed much more eager to talk about his beloved bandmates than himself.

In a section of our conversation that occurred before the “official interview” that follows, I asked Slim about the somewhat unusual situation of the frontman not being the main songwriter. With characteristic humility, Slim said, “We play to our strengths, and Munly’s has always been songwriting. I’m mostly good at putting on a show and acting like an idiot.” The band’s New Year’s shows at 3 Kings will no doubt prove once again how outrageously good he is at putting on a show, and his answers to my questions prove clearly that there’s a very intelligent man behind that act. Read on:

The main thing that has always struck me about Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is how the dark subject matter of most of your songs is juxtaposed against the delirious fun of how they’re performed. Is this deliberate?

No. I don't think the songs need to be considered dark. I think of them as life-affirming good stories. The narrator in each story is always seeking redemption through whatever source they are able to understand. Yes, we do have delirious fun. 

The hellfire-and-brimstone aspects of your Baptist upbringing get a humorous treatment in your music. Were your parents very seriously religious, or was the church just one part of their whole cultural picture?

I wasn't raised in a fire and brimstone Baptist church. It was much more conservative than that. We sang hymns and it wasn't anything like our shows. Much has been made of our performance that compares us to a tent revival. I think that's based on reputation and what has been thought and then repeated over the years. I suppose that's understandable given our sometimes over the top live performances. We also don't shy away from using biblical content. 

Check out Slim Cessna’s Auto Club’s video for “Commandment 3”:

How did the Auto Club originally get together? Were you already friends with some of the members?

Always only friends.

It’s always a plus for me when the members of a band seem to be real friends who enjoy and love each other onstage and off, rather than just being sort of “business partners” and SCAC definitely comes across as group who are actual friends. How do you feel this helps your music and performances?

This is my family. This is important. We all have each other's backs. 

SCAC.

SCAC.

During the years when you were all living in different parts of the country, did it ever feel like too much work to keep the band going? How did you manage working up new material and rehearsing it?

It was more work than was good for us. We did our best to maintain and continue. Somehow we managed.

SCAC’s music has been categorized a few different ways, including “alt country,” “gothabilly,” and even “Southern gothic,” but in conversation you call it simply “American folk music.” Do you find these attempts to pigeonhole what you do limiting or superfluous?

Gothabilly keeps showing up on Wikipedia. I've personally logged on to erase it, but it always comes back. Who does that? It's my least favorite word. It reminds me of muscle-bro-cartoon-looking-characters with perfectly dyed pompadours and face-makeup. I thank God every day we are nothing like that. 

How did starting your own record label and recording your album DIY affect the whole process of making 'The Commandments According to SCAC'?

Recording and releasing on our own has been wonderful. We had to learn to rely on each other in new ways. We discovered new gifts even after decades of friendship. 

Listen to The Commandments According to SCAC on Spotify:

After getting some well-deserved rest in January, y’all hit the road again in February for a tour of the Western US, and then head right back to Europe. Seems like there’s no rest for the wickedly talented. Would you be happy going on this way indefinitely?

Yes. What else do we have anyway? We have nothing to fall back on. I suppose I'll do this 'til I die.

Make sure to hit up one of SCAC’s New Year shows this weekend. Details here and I’ll see you there!

-Will

All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.