Hellhounds come in all shapes and sizes, and the ones on Grant Sabin's trail are probably different from the ones on yours.
So, for that matter, are the ones who hounded seminal bluesman Robert Johnson as he famously sold his soul at the crossroads and lost his life to a jealous husband.
Still, the allure of the blues has been transcending cultural and economic barriers ever since Johnson channeled his personal demons in late 1930s recordings like "Crossroad Blues," "Terraplane Blues" and, of course, "Hellhound on My Trail."
Maybe it's not so surprising, then, that someone like Sabin, while still in his early teens, would find more solace in the murky imagery of the blues than in the more rigidly defined biblical perspective taught in his classes at Colorado Springs Christian School.
"The idea of angels and demons dates back way further than the Bible," says the 21-year-old musician. "I think it's just an innately human idea, this duality of things."
There's no scarcity of metaphorical angels and demons populating Sabin's forthcoming Anthromusicology album, his first for the Haunted Windchimes' Blank Tape Records. You'll find them in the slow Chicago-style blues of "Devil of Mercy" as well as the feverish yowl of the Captain Beefheart-worthy "Market of Sorrow."
The latter envisions a Satan-owned flea market where, as Sabin explains it, "nobody really knows why they're there, and nobody is really happy. And they're all buying stuff that they would never want, but they have to have it."
In other words, we have met the devil, and he is us.
"A lot of those songs were inspired by my experiences at CSCS, just watching people with their furious inner struggle to deny their demons and shun them from the rest of their psyche," Sabin says. "But a lot of the time, it's the dark parts of your brain that, once you focus on them, are actually really therapeutic."
Big as the Black Keys
Anthromusicology — for which Blank Tape will be presenting a CD release show at Stargazers on Dec. 14 — was recorded at Marc Benning's Hideaway Studios, which, true to its name, is located in the shadow of Pikes Peak, some 45 minutes west of Colorado Springs. Benning, whose production credits range from Drag the River to My Morning Jacket, had taken a four-year break from the music industry and was just getting back into it when he hooked up with Sabin.
The producer/musician's last client prior to going on hiatus was, in fact, My Morning Jacket, who came up to Hideaway to do writing and pre-production for its Top 10 Evil Urges album.
"After My Morning Jacket left the studio," says Benning, "I'd reached the point where I had played and toured so much that I wasn't enjoying music."
The hiatus came to an end this past May when Benning met the Haunted Windchimes' Mike Clark — who's recording his new Sugar Sounds project at Hideaway — and Conor Bourgal, who went on to serve as Benning's co-producer on Anthromusicology.
Having been away from the music scene, Benning says he wasn't around for Sabin's formative years as a musician. "Which might be a good thing," he adds, "because I didn't have the image of a young blues guitar player guy in the back of my mind. I just kind of saw Grant as someone who had this big presence to put out there, that could be every bit as huge as the Black Keys."
For his part, Sabin lights up just thinking about Hideaway: "I wish my dreams were that good. There's two ponds, this beautiful house, a rec room, a movie theater, a beautiful studio, and just wonderful equipment. I wish I could work something out to live there after I die, and just haunt the place."
The backing musicians on Anthromusicology include key members of the Flumps, We Are Not a Glum Lot, and Briffaut, all of whom are part of the recently formed Kings of Space collective. Sabin is the most experienced of the bunch, having gigged professionally for the better part of a decade. His music is also the most obviously blues-inspired, dating back to his first gig at a now-defunct venue run by Big Jim Adam, winner of the Acoustic Blues Competition at this year's Telluride festival.
"It was at Jimbo's Bike and Coffee, and I played with Jim and his band," says Sabin, who was 13 years old at the time. "It had always just seemed to me like it was inevitable that I'd do this when I got older, like getting a driver's license. It wasn't like, 'Oh, wouldn't it be cool if that could happen.' It was like, 'This is something that is going to happen.'"
Sabin's parents probably sensed that even earlier. Grant was all of 2 years old when they videotaped him singing "Old McDonald" in a voice more suited to Howlin' Wolf songs than nursery rhymes. "That's the only voice that'll come out of me," says Sabin. "I've had a really smoky, husky voice since I was a really young kid. Even if I wrote a reggae song, it would probably come out sounding like a blues song."
Or maybe not. Sabin says his voice did smooth out a little as an adolescent, although it regained some of its gravelly texture once he started smoking. He's also been venturing into higher registers and a more controlled vocal style, thanks to collaborations with Briffaut's Daniel James Eaton, whom Sabin says has significantly influenced his recent songwriting.
As for his attraction to the guitar, that too has early origins. Sabin's father, who spends his days advising lawyers at the El Paso County Guardian ad Litem office, is also a devoted music enthusiast.
"My dad always had an acoustic guitar around the house, and I was intrigued by the sound of it," recalls Sabin. "I used to go up to his guitar when I was a little kid and put all my favorite toys in the sound hole. And then he'd pick it up and there'd be all this stuff rattling around in it."
While Sabin has yet to fully embrace the John Cage approach to prepared instruments, he and his dad continue to experiment with guitars. A few weeks ago, they finished building a nine-string guitar out of scrap metal and wood from lumberyards. With its steel body and wooden resonator — as opposed to the aluminum ones used on conventional dobros — it's undeniably unique. And if you've never heard of a nine-string guitar, you're definitely not alone.
"As far as I know there aren't any, other than that one," says Sabin "Although Leadbelly used to take the top six strings off his 12-string guitar, and he'd replace them with three really thick strings. Sometimes he'd even use piano wire to get a really deep sound, and then he'd tune it down to C."
The hand-made guitar is already influencing Sabin's musical approach, as unfamiliar instruments often will. "So I've been writing on it a bunch, and I think most of the stuff on the next album will be on the nine-string."
While he started out playing trumpet in his school band — and still plays the instrument today in Clark's Sugar Sounds and as an occasional onstage guest with the Flumps — Sabin's focus largely shifted to guitar once he began taking lessons as a teenager with local folk musician Paul Whitens.
"He taught me all of the basics of the guitar, and then one day he fired me," he says with a laugh. "He was like, 'You can't come in here anymore, Grant. We can't keep doing these lessons, because every time you come in here, we just end up jamming. You should go talk to John-Alex Mason and actually learn something."
Over the next three months, Sabin took just three lessons from Mason. "And they were probably the most important lessons that I ever had in terms of developing my style," he says of his encounters with the acclaimed bluesman, whose passing last year at age 35 dealt a devastating blow to the local music community.
Mason took a minimalist approach to both teaching and playing, says Sabin, with the lessons focusing on the fingerpicking style pioneered by Delta blues artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell. At the same time, Mason refused to instruct him on how to imitate his teacher.
"The blues is such a personal thing," figures Sabin. "And if it becomes something that isn't personal to you, then it's not the blues. I think that's kind of what's happened to the blues industry. And I'm sure John was aware of that when he was teaching me."
While musicians naturally tend to view their latest work as their best, Sabin is justified in feeling that way about Anthromusicology. "I consider it my first album," he says, even though it's his third. "I put out a CD called Listen and Learn when I was 16, and then I put out Cold Day in Hell a year or two later."
After that came a couple of EPs Sabin would just as soon forget. "I put out this total flop thing called The Smoke EP that was done with a friend of mine in California. We just tried to get rid of that as soon as we could, and didn't reprint it."
Last year's Homesick EP was also a bit of a miss, although it does contain a ragged recording of "Hard Hearted," which remains a highlight of Sabin's live repertoire.
"I literally didn't know that was gonna be a record at all," says Sabin, who went into a studio to check the facilities out with some musicians he was working with at the time. "We ended up playing some songs and then stuff was added to it — some stuff while I was there and with my knowledge, other stuff while I wasn't there and without my knowledge."
So while live performances made it clear that Sabin has been steadily evolving as an artist, his recording trajectory shows a much more sudden leap. Sabin's Blank Tape debut is like the audio equivalent of the moment when The Wizard of Oz goes from black-and-white to color. Benning, who also plays bass on the album, gives Sabin's work a wide-screen sound that doesn't lose the more primal qualities that first brought the songs to life.
The album also benefits from arrangements Sabin worked out with frequent onstage collaborator and Flumps drummer Alex Koshak. "The magic really happened between Alex and Grant," notes Benning. "I mean, we used a lot of old microphones and created a good recording atmosphere, but those guys worked their butts off. They did a phenomenally great job preparing. They showed up and looked at each other and just nailed the songs. Every song was done in two takes, which is like, in my recording experience, impossible."
Another important player was 17-year-old Sam Erickson. As frontman for We Are Not a Glum Lot, his work has tended to lean more toward Mogwai's post-rock explorations, mixed with Weezer's indie-pop inclinations. So when the guitarist joined Sabin onstage at Florence's Americana Music and Arts Festival, and delivered a remarkably soulful extended guitar solo, it was something of a revelation.
"Yeah, I was shocked the first time I played with Sam in my own project," agrees Sabin. "You know, I'd seen We Are Not a Glum Lot countless times and I definitely respect him as a guitar player. But I never expected to see what came out of him when he played more blues-based music. It's just totally natural for him."
At that same music festival, Sabin performed a blistering rendition of Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail," a throwback to the days when his sets were still packed with covers of old blues songs. These days, he barely does any covers live, although he does tend to segue into a version of the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There" during performance of his own "Even to You."
"It's because the chord progression is very similar and the guitar is also kind of similar," says Sabin of the album's most uncharacteristic song, which strays far afield from gutbucket blues into smoother soul terrain. "So for anyone who's listening to us and thinking, 'That's kind of like "I'll Take You There," we'll play it for them, just to acknowledge that we know that they know."
Up on the roof
Performing almost entirely original music — which is something all the bands in the Kings of Space collective do — isn't necessarily a lucrative endeavor, especially in a modestly sized city.
"I feel like there's an actual crisis shortage of venues in Colorado Springs," says Sabin, who took part in organizing Let It Be-style rooftop concerts — complete with elaborate painted backdrops by Kings of Space visual artist Cole T. Bennett — while living in a Tejon Street house next door to Shuga's Restaurant.
"Me, Alex and Dan used to live in that house, but we all moved out of there a couple months ago, and just found really cheap situations to go to. I'm living with my folks, actually, because we're getting ready to do a lot of touring next year."
It was Sabin and his cohorts' DIY attitude that gave birth to the whole Kings of Space idea. With all the musicians attending each other's shows, joining each other onstage, and hanging out together, it only made sense to formalize a group identity.
"There were all these collaborations happening, and we just needed a name. A meme, I guess. It's funny when people — not that it happens often or anything — but when people ask how they can get in on the Kings of Space thing. And it's like, I don't know, if you happen to start hanging out with us all the time, and you happen to start being a part of these things just naturally, then you will be in the Kings of Space. It's not like we're gonna initiate you or give you a special hat or make you learn a secret handshake."
And while there'll be no casting call for a new King, Sabin does feel that he and his cohorts will continue to evolve.
"Just as when you pick up a new instrument, whenever you play with new people — or new feelings, or with a new intention behind it — it's crazy how many things can change. So if we added one more guy that was putting out all these crazy ideas, the music could do a complete 180 really quickly."
As for his own evolution, the future looks wide-open right now. After years of creationist Christian schooling at what Sabin describes as a "brainwashing facility," he's begun taking courses in biology and anthropology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "Learning about our evolutionary trajectory gave me a whole new outlook on humans and why we do everything we do."
In fact, those studies inspired "Letter to an Old Mirror," which in many ways is Anthromusicology's most personal song. It was written in the immediate aftermath of a dream Sabin had on his 21st birthday.
"I'd been thinking a lot about how the cells in our bodies are regenerated every seven years, so that you're a completely new person made up of completely different particles. So I thought about the fact that I was now entering my fourth body, and how I'd been born and died three times already."
Sabin's subconscious took care of the rest, crafting a scenario as strangely symbolic as the best old blues songs.
"In this dream I had, I was walking down train tracks and eventually went into this railroad car, where I saw in the mirror all the different versions of myself that had existed in the past. And I'm very young, so most of them are kids. I mean, the last one was 14, the one before that was 7, and the one before that was an infant. So just seeing all these different versions of myself made me realize how much we all change."
And, perhaps, how much we remain the same. "I would say that even those early blues guys — who probably were religious and who maybe believed that in a way, it was possible to sell your soul to the devil — they were poets who had a basic understanding that these were really descriptions of things we all actually face in life."
So while Sabin may have developed a strong distaste for dogma, he's still fascinated by the mysteries that religious doctrines seek to explain: "It's like the way a song sometimes just chooses you, where you're channeling something that enters you and possesses you in a way that's raw. It's like a question mark, and it doesn't tell you what it should sound like or anything. And it's up to you to fit the pieces together."