Native Sons, Native Sound

Interview by Josh Matthews and Kaydee Mulvehill

Photo by Brent Thompson

Dirty Lungs grew up in Birmingham and has helped to cultivate the defining sounds at the center of the evolution of the live, local music scene. We talk to the band about their upcoming album, Look Expensive and Smile, and how it captures their dynamic, live energy that local fans have appreciated for nearly two decades. 

We’re here with Ronnie Lee Gibson, Carson Mitchell, and Ra-Jaan Parmley of the Dirty Lungs. And you guys have a new album on the horizon.

Carson: We have a new album coming out in a couple of months. We’re still trying to work out the distribution. There’s already a single out on Spotify and iTunes, Dumps like a Truck. You can check it out.

What’s the name of the album going to be?

Carson: Look Expensive and Smile. It’s a title track. I saw this Vice article about this 24-hour strip club in New York City that doesn’t close. The law there is that if you don’t serve alcohol, you can be completely nude, and you don’t have to have times. You’re just like a private club. This writer and photographer went and hung out for 20 hours in this club to experience what it was like. In the dressing room, painted on the wall was, “Look expensive. Smile.” It’s the last thing they see when they’re walking out to go dance. That is literally the most degrading thing I could imagine.

Where’d you record that album?

Carson: Communicating Vessels.

Who produced and mixed? 

Carson: Lynn Bridges. He’s done a lot of good work with the Dexateens, Devendra Banhart, and he’s worked with Jason Isbell way back in the day. He’s worked with all kinds of people.

What’s influenced the new album, and how is it different from the last?

Carson: It’s way more high fidelity, in the sense that the last record we kind of laid down what we could as quickly as we could and then added some stuff and edited. This was a three or four-year process….A lot more time was put into it. Analog, mixed-analog, chrome tape. It took a lot more time. We used to have a studio back in the day, so we’re not averse to recording in that sense of taking our time and trying out different sounds and instruments. But it was nice that Jeffrey Caine of Communicating Vessels let us have the time to do that and figure out what we wanted to hear on the record.

You’re one of my favorite bands to watch live. How do you compare the live experience to what you’re doing in the studio?

Ra-Jaan: One thing we were trying to do was make the studio record feel like it is and get a lot of the sounds that we do live, because the first record that we did with Communicating Vessels, we definitely didn’t have that feel. 

Carson: I’ll say the new one sounds more produced per se, in a traditional sense; it captures more real essence. We did most of it live, the basic tracks, and then we over-dubbed some stuff and orchestrated some stuff and edited it. But for the most part, the new record is us ‘live.’ It’s actually a more accurate representation than anything that’s come before it.

Ronnie: Seeing Dirty Lungs live is definitely an experience, at least in my last little bit of playing with them. The album is the album, and it is a picture of those songs and what they are, but when we play them live, it’s kind of like a free-for-all. There are segments in songs that sometimes we’re going to hang out on, and jam, and have a good time. It’s pretty loose. It’s pretty giving because it gives you a minute to experiment and find new sounds. It’s actually recently led to us trying to do a medley of a couple of songs.

Carson: Yeah, and to add to Ronnie’s point, we’ve always had the MO of, as songs develop live, we’ll record them, and we’ll play the same song for years, and sometimes we go back and listen. I’m always laughing because I’m like, ‘Man, we don’t even do that part the same anymore, at all!’ Over time, it just changed, and we started doing it slightly different, and we liked it better, and that evolves. Some songs, there’s completely different feels and sections now that were never on the record, because over the years we keep adding on. You get bored playing the same thing…We always keep evolving everything.

How would you describe your sound, and then the Birmingham sound, as far as the way people approach your music here?

Carson: As far as describing our sound, I feel like that’s almost impossible. It’s like when you’re inside of something, how do you describe what the outside of it looks like? We definitely know what we’re going for, what we hear…But as far as Birmingham and the guts it takes to play here, it’s because Birmingham has such a rich history of music. My father and his dad, we all grew up in music in the South, and you grow up with such a rich history of it that, in other places, it seems like they’re trying to emulate…I think it’s always been our goal to be natural. Whatever feels right to us, we’ll play. And if it’s not something that someone around here likes or someone else likes, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it feels good to us. If you’re not making art for yourself, then you’re not really doing anything. 

Do you believe there’s an advantage to playing music in Birmingham, as opposed to other places like Nashville or LA?

Ra-Jaan: Definitely. Playing music in this town, the advantage is everybody plays with each other. It’s so incestuous.

Ronnie: It’s very tight-knit. 

Ra-Jaan: Everybody ends up playing with each other at some point in time, in some form or fashion.

Carson: And we’re all evolving together, which is a beautiful thing. When any kind of art movement is bigger than one person or one idea, that’s when things really happen. And I think that’s the direction Birmingham has been headed in for a while, and it’s getting better and better.

Ra-Jaan: Everybody wants to build each other up in this town. What I’ve seen in the past, like in Nashville and Atlanta, everybody is competing against each other. It shouldn’t be about that in Birmingham. In Birmingham and the surrounding places, everybody wants to build each other up for the benefit of everybody.

What’s the biggest challenge of being a musician in Birmingham?

Ra-Jaan: The biggest challenge is not playing in Birmingham- playing outside of Birmingham so that you can come back into Birmingham. There are people who aren’t in the scene, but hear about you or see you when you’re playing out, and then finally you come back in, and that’s when they realize you’re actually doing something.

Carson: With us, specifically, we’ve been around so long in this town, since 2005, we don’t really expect much hoopla when we do something…But when you do get the support at home, it always feels good. No matter what we do, I would always want to come back to Birmingham because this is where we made ourselves. This is my hometown, personally… It’s actually beautiful to me to see younger people start bands, like Burning Peppermints, to name-drop. Jacob was one of our biggest fans when he was 15 or 16, and now they’re doing all these creative things…He was like, “Man, I would have left Birmingham except for you guys. I knew that if y’ all could be here, then I could do what I wanted here.” That’s the biggest compliment. Birmingham is so cool, and we need good artists to stay here.

Ronnie: For how many seriously quality bands you can find in the Southeast alone, versus when you break out the Northeast, Northwest, or Midwest, it becomes real slim. When I’m on tour, I’m like, this band is great, and they’re some of the nicest people ever, but the equivalent of this band back home would be smoking these dudes’ asses all day.  The quality of the musicianship that you get from Southeastern bands – it’s the real deal.

Carson: Exactly. When you’re from the South, I really do feel like this is where rock and roll are from. 

Ronnie: Even in the ‘90s, and up to the late 2000s, there were a lot of surf bands that were playing and doing a lot of good shit when this whole surfer vibe happened. The biggest surf bands that were widely known across the country at that point in time, almost every single one of them, was from Alabama. This whole surf revival all came about over mostly Southeastern bands…But I’ve been all over it, and I’ve seen it, and I just don’t think, at least right now, I just haven’t seen the same musicianship that I’ve seen quite frequently here. 

Carson: Because in the South, gospel, blues, rock- all stem from here, we all have a higher standard down here.

But not just ‘down here,’ specifically in Birmingham right now…

Ronnie: Oh yeah, it’s fired up!