By Richard Skanse
(LSM Oct/Nov 2010/vol. 3 – issue 6)
Jesse Dayton was on his way to a show at Gruene Hall when the call came that changed everything. The voice on the other end of the line identified itself as one Rob Zombie, a name that Dayton was just familiar enough with to be rightly bumfuzzled. Why in the blazes would the frontman of the Beavis and Butt-Head-approved heavy metal horror outfit White Zombie be ringing up an East Texas rockabilly country cat like him?
Zombie’s explanation didn’t exactly clarify matters.
“He said, ‘Hey man, I’m making this movie called The Devil’s Rejects, and I want to make this fake record called Banjo & Sullivan and sell it to my audience, because it’ll be cool and will give the characters some back story,’” Dayton recounts with amusement. He pauses for effect and bugs his eyes out, looking every bit as mystified as he probably did during the actual call half a decade ago. “I didn’t really understand what he was doing or talking about, but I was like, ‘OK … Are you sure this is Rob Zombie?’ I thought maybe somebody was jacking with me.”
But less than a week later, Dayton found himself in Los Angeles and meeting face to face with the shaggy bearded “More Human than Human” rocker and maverick filmmaker. Next thing Dayton knew, Zombie had checked him into the swanky Chateau Marmont Hotel so he could write a greatest hits album for the fictional 1970’s country band that meets its horrifyingly grizzly end in The Devil’s Rejects, the sequel to Zombie’s 2003 directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses. Dayton co-wrote all of the songs with Houston actor Lew Temple (Adam Banjo in the film), who’d introduced Zombie to Dayton’s music via a copy of his fourth solo album, Country Soul Brother.
“Me and Lew wrote 15 songs in less than three days,” Dayton says. “And we’d go into Zombie’s office after we were finished and play them for him, and if he fell out of his seat laughing, we’d go, ‘OK, that one’s going to be on there.”
None of the songs (bearing such titles as “I Don’t Give a Truck” and “I’m at Home Getting Hammered (While She’s Out Getting Nailed)”) were actually used in the movie, but nine of them (and a cover of “Freebird”) were released on the tie-in album Banjo & Sullivan: The Ultimate Collection 1972-1978. Dayton sings lead and plays guitar on all of the tracks, which fit the supposed time period like prime Jerry Reed and hold up just fine without any visual backdrop. Which is a good thing, really, because unless you get off on really gruesome torture porn, watching The Devil’s Rejects is about as enjoyable as being flayed alive by a sadistic clown.
Not that you’ll ever catch Dayton complaining. A few years later, when Zombie called to ask if he wanted to do it all over again for another slasher flick (2009’s Halloween II), Dayton was more than game. This time, the mask he’d be wearing would be that of psychobilly Captain Clegg, leader of the Night Creatures and purveyor of such knowingly campy fare as “Zombie A Go Go,” “Dr. Demon & the Robot Girl,” “Redneck Vixen from Outerspace” and “Two Headed Teenage Transplant.” Once again, the songs ended up on a tie-in record, but not only did Dayton actually get screen time this time (as Clegg, playing a party), he also got to take his new alter-ego on the road as the opening act for Zombie on a nationwide tour.
“It was 40 shows, and it was amazing — I think the smallest crowd we played for on the whole tour was at the Austin Music Hall,” Dayton marvels. That was the show where he got to bring out local legend Roky Erickson for a reverent run through — what else? — Roky’s own “I Walked with a Zombie.” (The Erickson performance is included in The Adventures of Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures, Dayton’s independently produced documentary of the tour.)
“I just brought a little film crew with us from Austin, and they came out on tour with us for 10 shows, filming everything,” he says. “The hook was, ‘How does a country boy from Beaumont end up on the biggest heavy metal tour of the season?’ We thought it’d be funny, because there’s so much irony there to exploit for comic purposes, it’s ridiculous.”
What’s most ironic, though, is how much sense it actually all makes when you step back and really take in the full scope of Dayton’s career and music to date. He may be a country boy from Beaumont, but he’s a country boy who was always hip to the Clash and the Misfits and who was touring with punk rock bands like the Supersuckers and Social Distortion back in the ’90s (before Social D frontman Mike Ness launched his own country punk solo career). His wife, actress Emily Kaye (maybe better known to some Dayton/Clegg fans as Mistress Clegg, the Night Creatures’ bombshell go-go dancer), is a head-banging former major label A&R rep who signed the hard rock band Monster Magnet. And back in the early days of his career, when Dayton’s main gig was fronting the Houston rockabilly band the Road Kings, he partied with controversial H-Town gangsta rapppers the Geto Boyz. (“They had just got their deal with Rap-a-Lot Records,” Dayton says, “so they would come out to see us play and hit on all the hot white rockabilly chicks.”)
In fact, Dayton has been mixing and blending in with so many different “not-what-you’d-expect-from-a-country-boy” scenes and thwarting convention for so long now, about the only thing he could do that would seem really surprising would be to play it straight — you know, hold down a residency at an old-school honky-tonk somewhere and play nothing but the kind of two-steppers and country shuffles his parents or even grandparents might have danced to.
But of course, he does that, too — every Thursday night at the Broken Spoke in Austin. It’s a gig he’s held now for going on three years, and one he probably wouldn’t give up even in the midst of a full-on zombie apocalypse.
“I tell people that you have a better chance of beating out Brad Pitt for a leading role in L.A. than you do getting a Thursday night at the Broken Spoke, because it’s the best gig in town,” he says. “It’s just packed every single week.
“It’s a gig I never take lightly,” he adds. “We’ve literally played brand new songs every week since we got it.”
And the cream of that bumper crop of new tunes, all cut from the classic country cloth, will be heard on Dayton’s new album, One for the Dancehalls. Although he’s still unabashedly proud of 2007’s Holdin’ Our Own and Other Country Gold Duets, his acclaimed duo project with Austin singer-songwriter Brennen Leigh, Dayton readily calls One for the Dancehalls the “most hardcore country” record he’s ever done.
“But even on that, I’ve got a Nick Lowe song on there that I made into a country song,” he says with a mischievous grin. “I think it’s important that you never be too predictable.”
* * *
Dayton’s never-too-predictable music road began not in his native Texas, but in Boulder, Colo. “I was 15 and on vacation with my folks,” he says. “I was supposed to stay home that summer, because my older brother was going to be having these legendary house parties while my parents were gone. I had pretty cool parents. But I was just too young, so they ended up making me go with them on vacation.
No doubt as bored and stir crazy as any teenager would be in such a situation, Dayton managed to have the good fortune to meet a seasoned black guitar player, Granville Cleveland, who had played in Edgar Winter’s White Trash Band. “And of course, Edgar’s from Beaumont, and I’m from Beaumont, so when he found out, he freaked out,” Dayton says of Cleveland. “He showed me three songs on guitar. I call them the three ‘Heys.’ I learned ‘Hey Joe,’ by Jimi Hendrix, ‘Hey Good Looking’ by Hank Williams, and ‘Hey, Hey, My, My’ by Neil Young. Those were the first three songs I ever learned.”
From there, he proved a very quick study. “I took pretty naturally to it,” Dayton says. “I mean, I’m a real shitty third baseman — there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t have any natural ability with where I wish I did. But for some reason, I could just play guitar. And then when I really started getting good was when I started studying jazz. That’s when I started actually understanding music and how it works.”
It wasn’t long before he was fronting the Road Kings, the same red-hot rockabilly trio that years later had a brief stint on Disney’s Hollywood Records (“We were making records for the Rat, as we called it,” Dayton laughs) and that still reunites for the occasional European festival gig today. But Dayton was playing in another short-lived band, the Alamo Jets, when he signed his first record deal in the early ’90s.
“The Alamo Jets came to a close after a bitter fight on the stage at the Continental Club in Austin. They were all older guys and they were all trying to tell me how to do things, but the record labels coming around were like, ‘We’re not going to sign the band, we’re going to sign you.’ And you know, half of all this stuff you do is just having the nuts to not care what people think, and just do it. Everyone is so brutally insecure, because they want to be accepted, but at some point you just have to say, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do this, good or bad.’ So I left that band after eight months and signed a record deal with Justice, and that’s when things started happening for me.”
Dayton’s rookie season as a recording artist was pretty phenomenal — if not necessarily in terms of huge record sales, certainly from a credibility standpoint. His 1995 Justice Records debut, Raisin’ Cain, came action-packed with terrific original songs (including “Kissing Abilene Goodbye” and “Carmelita (Show Me How to Dance),” ultra-confidant fret work by Dayton and an impressive lineup of studio guests, including A-list drummer Kenny Aronoff, B3 player Flloyd Domino, fiddle player Johnny Gimble and Texas Tornados Flaco Jimenéz and Doug Sahm on accordion and bajo sexto, respectively. It sounds as fresh and vital today as it did 15 years ago.
“I still like the record, and I do think it holds up, but I think I sing like a little kid on it, because my voice is so high,” Dayton admits. “I mean, I was so young — 24? — that you could put shit in one hand and bean dip in the other, and I didn’t know the difference. But what I had going for me was I had good songs, and I was surrounded by all those great players.”
Dayton’s burgeoning reputation as an ace lead guitarist and crowd pleasing live act led to some pretty impressive career highlights, including studio and stage gigs with country legends (and at the time, Justice label mates) Waylon Jennings and Ray Price. He also got to play President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration party in Washington, D.C. “I played a set and then Lucinda Williams played a set, and then we played together,” he says. “And me and Bill and Lu had Jack and Cokes together backstage, because we were stuck there together while the Secret Service did a bomb sweep. It was an amazing night.”
His Justice days yielded only one solo release, though, as bigger labels came scouting and Dayton felt compelled to keep an open mind to every opportunity that came his way. He was still with the label when he recorded what was meant to be his second album, Nashvegas, but it was shelved and not released until 2001 — after Texas Tall Tales, Dayton’s 2000 debut on his own label.
“Me being able to put out Nashvegas on my own is really a testament to Randall Jamail, who owned Justice,” Dayton says. “When I was leaving Justice, everyone thought me and Randall were arch enemies, but the whole time we were calling each other going, ‘Hey, you want to have dinner next week?’ Randall really opened a lot of doors for me — he introduced me to Waylon and Ray Price and all those guys, and we’re still talking about doing stuff together. But what had happened at the time was I had gone to California and gotten a different booking agent, and all these different labels wanted to sign me that I felt could do more for me. I needed to keep going up the ladder, you know?”
But, not unlike a momentarily star-blinded protagonist in, say, a movie for “the Rat,” Dayton ultimately came to the conclusion that he’d had his priorities out of whack. “After I saw what that — going up the ladder — was about out there, I was like, ‘Wow — fame is really not that big of a deal to me.’ I realized, I really just want to be able to generate enough revenue to keep doing bigger projects. And that’s always been my goal in life. I mean, I’ve always gotten enough attention. I was the baby of the family, and I always went out with like, actresses and supermodels, before I got married to an actress. So I really never needed that kind of fame to justify what I was doing. I just wanted to say, ‘Wow, can I do this? And if I make enough money on this project, then I can go back and produce this project.’ It was always a means to an end.”
In that light, Dayton’s moonlighting gig as Rob Zombie’s go-to roots music hipster for hire makes almost perfect sense. Apart from just being a gas getting to put on a musical costume (literally) and playing for completely different crowds (as Captain Clegg), or having the freedom to write and record such admittedly crass but undeniably hilarious songs as “Dick Soup” (as Banjo & Sullivan), walking with the Zombie has afforded Dayton the liberty to pursue his myriad other creative endeavors while much of the music industry scrambles about in panic mode.
“Rob Zombie changed my life, you know?” he says. “He’d be like, ‘Don’t worry about the record labels or the studio, I’ll take care of all that. You just write.’ And then he’d cut me a check and say, ‘Go do whatever you want.’ But at the same time, for that stuff I’ve done for him, I own half of the masters and almost all of the publishing. And I mean, no one gets to own the publishing on original songs for films. Usually a Harvey Weinstein or someone like that will come in and buy you out for as little as they possibly can. But Rob is very protective of who he works with, and it’s just such a unique deal, to have somebody just guard you from the business.”
Touring with Zombie has its perks, too. “We sold more merchandise on that tour than I ever have in my life,” Dayton says. “It was amazing.”
Still, as readily as he gives credit to Zombie for his financial windfall of late, Dayton’s always been pretty savvy when it comes to landing his music in film and TV projects. To date, he’s had 41 songs in different movies and TV shows, going all the way back to Beverly Hills 90210 (the original, thank you very much). “While all my buddies were in Nashville, trying to get the big, multi-million dollar cover song by George Strait or whatever, I was in L.A. and New York, taking meetings with music supervisors. And so even though I didn’t make a gazillion dollars on all that licensing, I got steady money from it. And I still get something quarterly from BMI. That’s really where the bulk of how I make my living comes from.”
And those licensing checks aren’t just coming from Beverly Hills re-runs in Brazil, either. “I just got a song in True Blood, and it’s going to be on the next True Blood soundtrack, too,” he beams. That’s True Blood as in one of the hottest shows on cable TV at the moment — the one with all the sex-hungry vampires. Clearly, even as he turns his focus back to good ol’ fashioned Texas dancehalls, Dayton’s still has a taste for the macabre.
And you haven’t seen (or heard) anything yet.
* * *
“I do feel like things have escalated,” Dayton says of his increasingly busy schedule over the past few years. “To the point where, I’m starting to have to say no to things for the first time ever. Because as a struggling musician, you take everything that comes along. But once the Captain Clegg record and all that other stuff started doing well, I went, ‘You know what? I’m going to chill. I’m going to go surfing with the fam.”
The “fam” would be his wife, Emily (a native of Maui that he met at a wedding in Seattle), and their 14-year-old son, and the surfing would probably be done off the Texas Coast because Dayton figured out long ago that California’s just not his bag. But even though he looks forward to finding a beach house on the Third Coast in the near future, it’s hard to imagine when he’ll have time to go house hunting. Because however many things he may have said ‘no’ to of late, he seems to have said ‘yes’ to even more.
As soon as he has One For the Dancehalls finished and out (he’s shooting for sometime in October, but before Thanksgiving at least would seem like a pretty sure thing), he’ll hop back into working on another new record, which he describes as a modern singer-songwriter type project mixing swampy, Tony Joe White-ish grooves with edgy samples and drum loops and maybe even a guest rap from his old buddy Scarface (of the Geto Boys). He’s also producing a soul record (No Past, No Future, No Problem) for seasoned British vocalist Michael DesBarres, who looked Dayton up after hearing another record he’d produced, for thinking-man’s honky-tonker Mike Stinson (this year’s acclaimed The Jukebox in Your Heart). Dayton says that he enjoys record producing so much (he’s now got a dozen under his belt) that he’s in the midst of building a home studio — called, literally, Casa Studios. “It’s just a place for me to be creative and not burn out on the road all the time,” Dayton says. “I actually just got my permits from the City of Austin today. It’s taken forever, like childbirth.”
Meanwhile, he’s also been dabbling of late in film production — and more acting. Dayton, who in addition to Captain Clegg in Zombie’s Halloween II also played the jealous boyfriend in his buddy Hayes Carll’s video for “She Left Me for Jesus,” will next appear onscreen in the independent film The Sinner, which he’s also producing with “a couple of other guys, music attorney lawyers.” “We put all our money together, and then the screenwriter and director, Charlie Wiedman, wrote a little role for me in it,” Dayton says. ““It’s a real cheesy role — I play a Cajun crime boss, just the worst person ever — and it’s great!” The Sinner is being filmed in Austin, and also features another local artist, Savannah Welch (who graced the last cover of LoneStarMusic with her father and brother).
And then, after The Sinner, Dayton plans to return to Zombieland — but not the same one he’s ventured through before.
“I’m working on this feature film called Zombex, which we’re shooting in New Orleans,” he says. “The premise is, it’s a zombie film, but the back story is that it’s really about big pharmaceuticals and the healthcare industry, stuff like that. Basically, there’s this big company called Zomex in New Orleans that is is giving this new, barely approved FDA drug to these post-traumatic Katrina victims, and it’s turning them into zombies. It’s my script — I wrote it when I was on the Rob Zombie tour. I wanted it to have kind of a pseudo-political thing behind it, because the problem with most horror movies is, you know, they’re just now really becoming smart enough for everybody (i.e., not just genre buffs) to watch them. A lot of them have always been kind of typical slasher stuff.”
Just for the record, though, should the man who put him on the horror map come calling again in need of Dayton’s services — even for another slasher flick — he’s always ready to put on the proverbial mask again.
“I’m not going to assume that I’m going to be involved in whatever he (Zombie) does next, but everybody tells me he’s got a high propensity for working with the same people,” Dayton says. “He’s talking about me maybe doing this slasher trucker album — where I do all trucker stuff, but where the trucker is like a serial killer. I figure I could play the hell out of a trucker. I’ve known a few of them!”