Inspired by Boulder’s past, Otis Taylor digs into his own

By Dave Kirby – May 6, 2010

Brant Turney drove his shovel into the soil on a property in west Boulder a couple of years ago, working a landscaping project for the property owner, when the business end of the blade hit something that wasn’t supposed to be there. Or, wasn’t supposed to be found.

What came out of the ground was a cache of about 80 hewn prehistoric stone tools, subsequently dated to about 14,000 years ago — evidence of the elusive and mysterious Clovis People, migratory prehistoric humans whose existence is a still-disputed milestone of the habitation of pre-Columbian North America.

Otis Taylor lives across the street from the property owner, and got to see some of them. “Yeah, he’s a friend of mine. I looked at about 20 tools — these were skinning tools, they had DNA of camels and saber-tooth tigers. Pretty interesting,” Taylor says.

And as it turns out, by one of those weird confluences that has characterized his career, Taylor had an album project in the works, brushing off a little soil from some of his own relics.

“It all sort of happened at the same time. I just said ‘I should name this Clovis People,’ because I had been doing some older songs, like from Blue Eyed Monster, which will never be re-released. And a few new songs, and some from records people can still get,” Taylor says.

Titled Clovis People Vol. 3, (the listener gets to think about where Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are) Taylor’s 10th CD hits the racks and cyber-shacks in a week or two. Of
the 12 songs on the CD, nine of them are essentially re-records of
tunes that appeared on earlier CDs, a couple even extending back to Blue Eyed Monster, his first CD (now out of print) from 1995.

Interesting project, we thought, especially coming from a guy who, by his own admission, has dozens of songs in various states of completion drifting
through his head. New material isn’t a problem for Taylor.

“I just wanted to do them a different way. Some are from ’95. ‘Coffee Woman,’ ‘Harry Turn the Music Up’ go back to ’95, on Blue Eyed Monster. If
you try to get it, the last one sold for $50 on eBay. So, yeah, it’s
hard to get. Maybe if you get with Andy at Albums On The Hill, he can
find you one,” he says.

“Rain So Hard,” a raw and tribal blues testament from White African (2001),
reincarnates here as more prayerful, more lamenting than the original,
softened by Ron Miles’ gentle background riffing, a tale now as much
about regret as the original was about guilt and pain. “It’s Done
Happened Again,” another tale of heartbreak, echoes here somewhat
tenser, more brittle and menacing than the hushed mystery that first
appeared on 2004’s Double V. And “Hands On Your Stomach,” which first appeared crazed and dangerous in 2002 on Respect The Dead, hanging
onto the signature riff for dear life, is now an inthe-pocket rock
tune, the riff now carrying Taylor’s reverb-distanced voice with
confidence, the ghost visitation now more allegory and less viscera.

And throughout, Taylor’s trademark “drone blues” feels somewhat less raw
and confrontational. His treatments here are more considered, generally
more arranged, and poised as if they were real songs and not just the
spit of transitory snarl.

“[The record company] thinks it’s one of my best records, they’re very
excited about it. The guy who did the cover — he’s shot all of my album
covers — he said I’ll never be able to do a record that good again.
Kind of funny,” he says. “I don’t know, people say it’s more
user-friendly. More accessible for people, y’know? Just had to do
something different, and if it works for everybody, it’s good. It’s not
like [2009’s] Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs. It doesn’t sound
like that at all. I’ve started a new album already, but I’m having sort
of a conceptual block … not a writer’s block, but a conceptual block.
How I want to put it together.”

The CD also has some bits from Taylor’s un-released past as well, such as
“Little Willie,” a sketchy and affecting tale of a school shooting.
Taylor says this one had challenged him for years.

“I had written it for [daughter and frequent guest singer] Cassie. I have
a version of Cassie singing that song when she was about 15 or 16. I
just did it a different way. I could never get it right the way I
wanted it,” Taylor says. “Every time I wanted to do it, it just never
worked out right. But it’s a completely different version than the way
Cassie did it, y’know? She did it sort of like a pop song, a little
girl singing it, like a really heavy pop song.

“It literally took me 10 years to record that song. But the problem was
when I wrote that song, it was about eight months before Columbine. And
when Columbine happened, I didn’t want that song to come out. It just
seemed too … wrong. Like I wrote a song about Katrina, but you didn’t
know it was about Katrina. It was for Definition of a Circle, it
was called ‘They Wore Blue;’ I made it like seven minutes long so no
one would think it was commercial. I’m very touchy about that stuff.”

And there’s “Lee and Arnez,” a remembrance of some neighbors of his parents and their boxer.

“Yeah, people seem to like ‘Lee and Arnez.’ I’m surprised, y’know? It’s kind
of different. It’s sort of a sad story. My parents had these friends I
really liked. When my mother passed away, she had a picture of them,
but I didn’t get it. I don’t know what happened to it. The dog was the
first dog I knew. I was three years old or something. I really liked
the dog. Y’know how your parents have friends that you like better than
your parents sometimes? I loved those people.

“One time, I went to see them in the ’80s, and they gave me a picture of my
parents kissing. And I lost it. I was really bummed out about that too.
It was taken on the south side of Chicago,” he says.

So it’s all about memory, and past, and trying to recreate the past the
way we wish it could be, and letting go of the things that we can’t get
back. It’s a good thing to have a past, even if sometimes it’s just
beyond the end of the shovel.

“I don’t have a choice. If I could be young again … You know how old people always want to be young again,” he says.

And about the Clovis People, Boulder’s first transients — we couldn’t help
thinking about what someone told us years ago, that the thing they
didn’t like about Boulder was that it had a past, but it had no memory.

“Well,” says Taylor, not even catching a breath, “it has one now.”