Brian Capps: Healin’ and Rockin’ (and Walking Through Walls)

Brian Capps, the affable singer/songwriter/guitarist best known as a founding member of Springfield’s Domino Kings, does not have a license to practice medicine. Tell him about that weird pain you’ve been having, and he could only hazard a guess as to the cause. Nevertheless, there’s a good chance Capps can cure what ails you. His unique brand of vibrant, infectious Americana goes down so smoothly and consists of such pure ingredients, it could almost qualify as alternative medicine. At the very least, the music has proven anti-depressant abilities; this phenomenon was noted at several memorable St. Louis gigs in 2004. When Capps and his band the True Liars are onstage, you can rest assured that no matter how rotten your day, you’re sure to feel better after the show.

The soothing balm of Capps’ music, which draws equally from traditional country and early rock & roll, emanates primarily from two factors. One is an intrinsic duality in his original compositions arising from his emotional directness and willingness to document episodes of extreme angst while setting the themes in bracingly uptempo arrangements. The results are far more than just catchy honky-tonk or rockabilly songs. Check out “Two Nights Without Sleep,” “Dark Side of Love” and “Don’t Wait Up” from the Domino Kings’ debut album Lonesome Highway. And on Life & 20, there’s the memorable “Borrow a Lie” and the kickass barroom rocker “Alice,” a bitter rant on a spirit-destroying femme fatale of whom the narrator warns, “You couldn’t keep up with her if you had wings/Alice grows tired of everything…” These songs rock madly and sincerely, and Capps sings the ever-lovin’ heck outa them. Yet his lyrics mostly deal with heartbreak, loss and the sort of recurring agitation that anyone who’s been jilted or disappointed by love could relate to. It’s music you can swing your partner to on the dance floor or tap your foot to while you down another brew, but the songs have emotional resonance because you can tell the singer knows EXACTLY what you’ve been through. You feel at times, in fact, that he’s singing the song just for you. Reached by phone at his home in Lebanon, Capps admitted he sees the duality in his songwriting.

“Yeah, I was aware of that by the second record I made with the Domino Kings,” he said. “I think I tried to purposely write more of a positive type of song. And I had a hard time doing it! I don’t know why…it’s not like I’m ready to hang myself or anything. Hank Williams was real good with that for his time, he always had the upbeat music, and then the real dark stuff. I didn’t have that in mind necessarily, but I liked a lot of that music. I’m also a real big fan of Dave Edmunds. I just really liked his neat melodies, kinda the twist he put on rockabilly. And that’s basically where some of that came from.”

The other comforting or energizing aspect of Capps’ music is his obvious enthusiasm for the songs—the warmth with which they’re performed. It doesn’t hurt that Capps is a charismatic chap with a fresh, appealing vocal style and a dash of down-home modesty; he seems at times to be some unlikely blend of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and James Dean, with a dash of early Johnny Cash. He’s equally at home playing rhythm guitar or upright bass (the latter instrument made him a compelling figure onstage with the Domino Kings). And his set lists include an amazing array of covers by the likes of Cash, Rick Nelson, Merle Haggard, The Beatles and many others. The secret weapon in Capps’ arsenal, though, which gives him the power to deliver full-tilt, prime-choice American rock & roll, is that band. The True Liars are hardly your everyday sidemen. The roll call is guitarist D. Clinton (Donnie) Thompson, bassist Lou Whitney and drummer Ron Gremp. If you don’t know those names, you obviously haven’t heard The Morells or The Skeletons, legendary Springfield bands for whom Thompson and Whitney are the nucleus (Gremp is drummer for The Morells). They’re consummate professionals, each with a glint in their eye to match the sparks liable to fly off their instruments (especially when veteran axeman Thompson turns on the roadhouse sizzle). They’ve made some of the greatest rock ever to emerge from the Show Me state, and when the seasoned veterans team up with the handsome young singer, it’s an irresistible combination.

“It’s easy to take it for granted, and I absolutely don’t wanna do that,” said Capps. “I mean, this is a really nice position to be in. Lou thought it was a pretty neat concept for a roots act, or whatever you wanna call it, having the older guys back the younger guy. The influence of these guys is all over the place. And Donnie’s like the ultimate defender of the song. He’ll play for the song instead of playing for a chance to show off a guitar solo.”

The formation of this particular combo isn’t as unlikely as it would seem. Whitney, owner of one of Springfield’s busiest recording studios, had produced all three Domino Kings albums, so he was definitely in Capps’ circle. Capps, Steve Newman and Les Gallier formed the Kings in the late ’90s, not long after Capps emerged from an 8-month stint with a group of Lebanon pals called the Cadillac Crusaders, who’d been regulars in Osage Beach.

“I needed a guitar player to play a class reunion in Lebanon,” said Capps. “This friend said, you oughta get ahold of this guy. So I called up Steve, and he came down. And I had the other guys in my band backing us; I’ve still got that on tape somewhere. After we did that first deal together, Steve called me about six months later.”

They played for awhile in what Capps described as a “Texas blues” outfit, with a friend of Capps on drums, and Newman doing most of the singing. In 1997, in a different configuration that included drummer Gallier, the Domino Kings were launched, with Capps now playing the upright bass he’d purchased from a friend and singing his own originals. They became a touring staple regionally. Capps fondly recalled when the band played Twangfest in St. Louis a few years ago.

“That was one of the best shows we ever did. I don’t know, it was just one of those shows you get every so often where…you just have that adrenalin rush. And that’s the thing that keeps you doin’ it for the next six months.”

  Capps and Newman divided songwriting chores evenly on the first two DK recordings, which were well-received. Newman’s guitar prowess and Capps’ distinctive vocals were focal points for fans of classic roots rock. But despite the promise of a bigger breakthrough, a falling out with Newman led to Capps’ hasty departure from the band. Capps sought counsel from Whitney, who urged him to try to talk things out with Newman. But Capps wasn’t sure he wanted to resume duties with the Kings, nor was he sure Newman would be open to the idea.

“Lou said, ‘look, don’t worry about it.’ He told me, ‘when the time comes, and you feel like playin’ again, if you need a band, we’ll do something.’ Sure enough, we got together. But at the same time, he told me ‘don’t be in a hurry with anything. Just think about what you wanna do.’ So I started working on this record (Walk Through Walls, Capps’ debut solo album). And we began playing out about six or eight months later.”

Capps eventually reconciled with Newman, and has done some acoustic performances with him over the past year, as well as an occasional DK show. But he’d clearly entered into a new phase of his career, one which was both exciting and daunting.

“It’s been a long transition; in fact, I went about a year without playing. I kinda had withdrawal because we were always playing so much. And I didn’t know if I could do a full show, because I was always used to splitting it with Steve. It’s really only recently that I’ve started to become more secure that what we’ve got is something with a lot of substance. It has to do with the guys I’m playin’ with.”

  After some discussion about what to call themselves, Whitney dubbed the band “The True Liars” after a lyric from a new Capps tune. The name now set, the band proceeded to get the joints jumpin’ in Springfield, Tulsa, St. Louis and other midwest towns. The eclectic cover tune selection is part of the fun. Capps in particular delivers one of the finest versions of Cash’s “I Walk the Line” ever played ’round these parts. The man in black is clearly a big inspiration.

“Johnny Cash is at the top of the list for me,” said Capps. “He was one of the first people I heard. And it didn’t matter what the age or period was, he was always there. He’s one of those guys who was hard to pin down. A lot of it had to do with the fact that he kept his music simple, for the most part. He had his own identity, and his own style. I thought it was neat that he could pull that off.”

Other classic covers include the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and “I’ll Cry Instead,” stellar versions  Capps manages to make his own. Gigs may include a smattering of Skeletons and Morells tunes (i.e., “Red’s” by the former, a searing “Hot Rod Baby” and “Hair of the Dog” by the latter), but this is Capps’ show, and he has enough style, personality and musical chops to build a bigger audience. Capps feels a sense of urgency about the music that partially accounts for his emotional conviction onstage.

“I don’t know if it’s just me or what, but it seems like we’re kinda at the end of country music as we knew it,” said Capps. “Even the 50s and 60s rock & roll era…that generation is not gonna be around a whole lot longer. It’s weird, but… we’re at the end of a chapter. It’s a really important time, more now than ever, to be making music, whether it gets heard by the masses or not. To be making music with substance, you know?”

A fresh challenge arose with the recording of Walk Through Walls, which has experienced numerous delays. One was caused by upheaval at the Springfield-based Slewfoot Records (also home to the Domino Kings, the Morells and Kristie Stremel, among others), whose artists were supposedly shifted to a new company called Harvest Media. But things didn’t go as planned.

“My gut feeling is that we were at the bottom of the priority list,” said Capps. “This outfit was into all kinds of things like selling sports videos. I don’t think Americana music was a big concern. I wish I would’ve known six months ago instead of waiting…we would have gone ahead and released the record. I don’t know what their intentions were in the first place.”

During the actual recording process, Capps experienced the ups and downs one would expect from making a solo debut.

“It was easier (than the Domino Kings) in a lot of ways because it was just me. Donnie, he’s a genius at figuring out what somebody is asking for by humming. Like, I could say I want ’DA da da, DA da da,’ and he DOES it, he knows exactly what you mean. But at the same time, it was hard, cause everything kinda falls on you. I wanted to make sure all the songs are right, so I worried to death…you don’t have anybody else there telling you if something’s a bad choice or not.”

  Capps shared an early version of the album with us, and it’s a delightful showcase of his talents. He channels Johnny Cash brilliantly on “Devil to Pay,” and offers poignant lyrical introspection on the mid-tempo originals “The Bottom” and “When We Learn.” But two of the highlights are undoubtedly the stylish uptempo rockers “I Wouldn’t Say That’s Living” and “Next Time,” the latter a concisely written and flawlessly arranged raveup that is one of Capps’ finest moments. In just a few verses, he captures the essence of resolute self-talk following a wrenching heartbreak. It’s a bona fide classic, with a searing Thompson guitar solo.

“I thought, I’m gonna get everything out on this song, everything I’ve ever wanted to say and express, I’m gonna do it right here in three verses. And then move on!  Course, it didn’t work that way. (laughs) But  that’s what I was thinkin’ on that one. There’s some real images in there, actual things I was thinking about that happened. It was all coming from a real place.”

  Capps has a predilection for quiet reflection, and for talking himself back into feeling hopeful after episodes of despair. His ability to write in a revealing manner while allowing listeners plenty of space to insert themselves is a characteristic of many great songwriters he admires, although few that are around today can also deliver danceable roots music as bracingly as Capps and his peerless colleagues. Talent’s no question here; the only X factor is the degree to which audiences will embrace the sound, and how far Capps can go given the uncertainties of the music business. It’s not something he’s terribly worried about.

“This is working class music,” he said. “I mean, you can kinda hear the sweat on it, all the road miles and stuff. And I’m content with that. I wanna be able to justify doing it, and making a dollar off of it is a great reward. But it’s one of those deals, y’know, I’ll keep doing it whether I make any money or not.”

  Capps has the luxury of not NEEDING to earn a living from music, as his family owns a used car lot in Lebanon, a business his dad started in 1959. It gives him flexibility, allows him to play music because he truly loves it. He said he’ll never move to a bigger music town like Nashville (“I’d probably end up working at a Get ’N’ Go,” he laughs when asked about that option). So his talent will likely be Missouri’s to claim for years to come. Little by little, word’s getting out that Capps delivers the goods. He’s genuinely grateful when told how reassuring his music can be.

“I’ll tell you, being able to get some of the feedback, to know that what you’re doing is getting through, that’s everything that you ask for in music, right there,” he said. “That’s what you’re trying to do.

There’s an old cliché that “nice guys finish last,” but you get the sense that Capps, a genuinely nice guy  with more talent than he seems to realize, is already way ahead of the game. He’s got a crack band, steady gigs throughout the region, and a new album that should get the attention of a wider audience. That’ll mean more folks with an ache in their heart over something will be ready for Capps’ unique remedy: one part empathy, two parts good-time Americana, with a dash of comic flair from his legendary cohorts. Capps is modest to the last about what the future may hold.

“I’m lucky in a lot of ways cause I can only do one thing,” he said. “I can’t change and decide I’m gonna be a blues singer tomorrow, or whatever. The cool thing about the guys I play with is that there’s no gimmick with them. They just do what they do. We’ve got some new songs we’re working up, and we’ll probably start playing them out… Like I said before, a lot of times it feels like this music isn’t really appreciated anymore. But at the same time, maybe it can be more appreciated, cause it’s needed now more than ever.”

Brian Capps and the True Liars perform at Venice Café on Friday, Nov. 5. Their album, Walk Through Walls, should be out in December…if all goes well.

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