When the Wide World Narrows: A Conversation with Spain's Josh Haden

“I decided I was only going to write in stories,” says Josh Haden, talking about Carolina, the sixth album from Spain, the band he founded in the early 1990s and guided through a series of records in the middle and latter part of that decade. The record marries Haden’s passion for songs informed by both the personal and historical and, sometimes, even the places where the two intersect. 

“One Last Look” details the 1968 Farmington Mining Disaster in which 78 West Virginia coal miners were killed; “Tennessee” seamlessly traverses time, place, generations and the like seamlessly in just under five minutes; “Apologies” recalls the night Haden attended a party that was said to be a wake for LSD guru Timothy Leary. But it’s no eulogy for the wayward psychologist. It is a love song, albeit one that doesn’t reveal its subject matter or intentions in any obvious way. 

“The Battle of Saratoga” relates the history of Kingston, New York, a town once burned by British troops. It’s a different place today, one where a musician can grab a good cup of coffee and chocolate while waiting out a snowstorm. There are also, Haden says, elements of his father, Charlie Haden, in the lyrics. Some of the lyrical parts were inspired by stories the elder musician shared with his son about living in New York City and taking out of town gigs in order to pay the bills. 

“For You” stands out as the most blues-speckled of all the material on Carolina. It has quickly become the closing number for Spain live shows. “I feel like I’m in the band Cream when we play it,” Haden says. 

In all, Haden wrote nearly 100 songs before going into the studio. The ten that made the finished album were tracked mostly at producer Kenny Lyon’s apartment in the Los Angeles building The Gaylord. It, like characters in the songs that comprise Carolina, stands at several intersections of history. It sits across the street from The Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated and around the corner from the club where Haden’s father saw one his key collaborators, Ornette Coleman, perform for the first time. 

Haden says that one of his early musical memories is hearing his father and Coleman working up free jazz material in the family apartment. It was a mind and soul-shaping experience and one that the Spain founder continues with his own son, who is now seven. 

“He prefers more simple pop music but I also play avant-garde music in the house,” Haden says. “Some of it would be difficult even for adults to listen to. But I want to expose him to those kinds of sounds and that way of thinking creatively. That really set a standard for me.” Although Van Halen and Led Zeppelin have earned his respect the sounds that both bands offered was too polished, too mainstream for Haden’s liking. As he began expressing an interest in playing music of his own, first on guitar and then bass, he wanted something that held the same excitement and sense of adventure as what he’d heard his father play. “That’s why I gravitated toward punk rock.” 

He quickly embraced Black Flag’s Greg Ginn’s guitar solos had the spirit and spit of free jazz and, besides, punk spoke to the teenaged Haden’s rawest emotions. 

“I was a very angry kid,” he says. “I identified with the anger and frustration as well as the recognition of a possibly hopeless situation as being more real than what the hard rock stuff at the time was putting out. Punk was freedom in music and an honest way of looking at life.” 

He attended his first punk show not long after turning 14, a Minutemen/Fear bill at the legendary Whisky in Los Angeles. “I went slam dancing, fell down and someone picked me up,” he recalls. “I’d never felt that before. I think that camaraderie is what attracted a lot of kids to the punk movement.”

Discovering Rodney Bingenheimer’s Rodney on the ROQ radio show via the L.A.‘s KROQ was another turning point. Haden and his friends heard local bands and recognized there were others, closer to them in age than Ginn or Henry Rollins, who felt the same frustrations and sought an expressive outlet. Soon, Haden had formed Treacherous Jaywalkers, a band that took its cues from the Minutemen and politically-minded British bands such as Crass, Subhumans, and Discharge. “It was sort of a jazzy version of political punk,” Haden recalls. 

Treacherous Jaywalkers faced some steep challenges. Only one of Haden’s crew looked like a punk and so was immediately elected as the band’s singer. The newly-minted front man had a Mohawk and leather jacket but he also had a deeper passion for crapulence than music. When he did show up at practices the nameless punk was so inebriated he couldn’t perform. Haden took up the mic at a friend’s suggestion and has remained a vocalist and bassist ever since. 

Punk wouldn’t retain its luster for long. 

“That was right around the time that punk was starting to get co-opted,” Haden recalls. “The crowds were getting bigger and the lunatic fringe who were there to get into fights and not to listen to music were starting to show up.”  He adds, “By the time I was 18, I was over punk rock. I grew my hair out and felt that what was once a great means of artistic expression had become something filled with people who didn’t care about music at all. You could even tell by watching the bands.” 

With no enthusiasm for the metal bands that grew like weeds on the Sunset Strip during the late 1980s, Haden spent a long time thinking about his next musical project. While working in the music library at the venerable KCRW, he encountered the sophomore release by Cowboy Junkies, The Trinity Session. Recorded at a Toronto, Ontario church, the record was informed by a sometimes eerie and frequently seductive late-night vibe. It shed light on a new path of possibility. 

“It was what I wanted to do as a songwriter: To get away from the loud punk music, go the opposite direction,” Haden recalls. “I thought that if they could put out a record and have it get played on KCRW it was good for me because it was like the music I wanted to play.” 

He was also inspired by John Lee Hooker’s sole LP for the jazz label Impulse!, 1966’s It Serves You Right to Suffer. Paired with producer Bob Thiele, Hooker was backed by a band of jazz players including bassist Milt Hinton, drummer David “Panama” Francis, and guitarist Barry Galbraith. It is a decidedly singular work in Hooker’s discography as it finds the legendary guitarist and singer freed from expected blues mannerisms as the Hinton/Francis rhythm section moves the music to remarkable heights. 

“The songs on that record, with a couple of exceptions, were these slow-burning blues ballads that I wanted to emulate,” Haden recalls. 

Soon after, the early entries in the Spain songbook started to emerge, including several that formed the core of the group’s 1995 debut album, The Blue Moods of Spain, namely “I Lied”, the 14-minute “World of Blue”, and “Spiritual”. 

The latter has become Haden’s best-known tune to date, one that’s been covered a number of times, including by his father on Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories), a 1997 collaborative release with Pat Metheny and, later, on the Rambling Boy LP. Johnny Cash released his version on American II: Unchained. “Spiritual”, Haden recalls, came to life sometime in 1989 or 1990 at a time when he was finding his voice. 

“I wanted to write a song about somebody who has burned all their bridges, they’re all alone and no one will help them anymore,” he says. “The final choice they have is appealing to God for recognition and, hopefully, a way out of their situation.” Many have read the song as a declaration of faith on the part of the author. Haden says that he does not identify as a Christian although he does believe in God: “I wanted to write a song that had a universal message.” 

Haden’s also aware that more people have heard the song than know that he’s the composer. His sister, Petra, was recently part of a recording session for a jazz project where the players were cutting a new version of “Spiritual”. The players only knew the Beyond the Missouri Sky rendition. “Petra said, ‘You do know that my brother, Josh, wrote that song?’ They didn’t know that and then Petra started singing the words and one of the guys said, ‘Oh, it has words?’” 

Spain released a series of albums between 1995 and 2001, eventually disbanding. Haden, driven by a passion for writing, worked toward earning an MFA. His life as a fiction writer was derailed by the release of a 2006 album titled Devoted. By the following year he had reactivated Spain and set about releasing some of the outfit’s best work and enjoying success in Europe. 

Spain’s initial demise coincided with a shifting paradigm in the music industry that Haden first noted as he watched his royalty statements begin to shrink. “I did not see that coming,” he says. He’s reluctant to talk much about the bad experiences he had, suggesting that fans mostly want to hear the music and find escape in the songs he’s written. He readily admits that the industry is populated by people who see musicians and songs as commodities but adds, “I do think there is a small percentage of people on the business side who do care about music and want to help musicians and those are the ones I would recommend musicians finding and working with.” 

He points to Glitterhouse, the label that oversees the release of his music in Europe as a positive example, though he admits he’s happy to oversee his work in the U.S.  “I have more control over it and I can see the money coming in directly,” he says. “I enjoy being able to make my own decisions and make mistakes on my own and learn from them. I enjoy talking to fans directly and packaging the CDs, writing on the envelopes and sending them out myself. When I’m connected with a label, there’s a benefit in that I have their machinery in order to promote the record but then I can also get buried along with other artists who aren’t making money for that label.” 

His hands-on approach recently led him back to one of the places he described in Carolina‘s final track, “Station 2”. It is a song about a time and place that have vanished for the song’s narrator and, Haden says, when he returned to the beach referenced in the lyrics so that he could snap a photo for the record’s second edition, he was surprised by how radically the landscape had changed. 

“When I was 16, a punk rocker discovering the world for the first time, that was a stretch of beach where I grew up,” he says. “I spent many days and nights there. But it was a part of my life that, when I got a little older I wanted to leave it behind. I wanted to strike out on my own and be independent. At the time I didn’t really appreciate how great it was. Somewhere I lost something, maybe a sense of innocence. I had that sense of wanting to back to 1984, ‘85, ‘86 and just experience an hour or two my life back then.” 

That longing and loss comes across vividly in the song and, maybe, a little too vividly in real life. “Station 2 isn’t where it was,” Haden says. “What was once an open space is now fairly narrow.”

Jedd Beaudoin