Music / Timothy Alice in wonderland
Putting a spin on tradition
From left: Timothy Alice, Matt DiStasio, and Alexander “Bub” Crumlisch
Photos by Angelo Marinelli
Twenty-six-year-old Timothy Patrick Henderson—Timothy Alice to you—may be near the beginning of his career as a musician and songwriter, but he already feels like an old soul. Lord knows he knows his way around old soul, blues, and country music, namechecking the likes of Otis Redding, James Brown, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Bill Withers over the course of an hour-and-a-half-long conversation. His endlessly entertaining Instagram account (@timothy.alice.music) is a treasure trove of references from well before his lifetime—Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye, Robert Johnson, Hoagie Carmichael, Tom T. Hall, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Tim Buckley—and/or outside his chosen medium—filmmaker Robert Bresson, poet Maya Angelou, historian Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till, playwright Samuel Beckett. (You’ll also find his short-lived but hilarious series of love songs inspired by entries in the “Missed Connections” section of Craigslist there. ) But he’s no revivalist, let alone a purist: When I caught him and his Dead Star bandmates Matt DiStasio and Bob Puvel opening for country singer Elise Davis at the 9th Ward this past winter, I thought immediately of alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo, but over the course of their captivating set it was clear they put a respectful yet adventurous spin on a huge range of influences from the last eight or nine decades (from honky tonk to Britpop), creating a sound both ancient and utterly of the present.
Catch Timothy Alice live at these venues: June 27 at Tudor Lounge, July 5 at Goodbar - Downstairs, August 6 at Mohawk for the Elliott Smith 50th Birthday Tribute Show, August 23 at Nietzsche’s
Q: What’s your origin story?
A; I grew up on the same block as Record Theater on Windermere, right on the line between North Buffalo, Amherst, and Kenmore. I never knew exactly where I was from. I went to Deep Springs College in California [a liberal arts college located on a cattle ranch, with fewer than thirty students at any given time and thus the smallest institution of higher education in the U.S.], worked on a few ranches, then came back to Buffalo and worked in a factory for a while. … I was a bartender, and now I work in the library at Canisius.
Q: How did music enter the picture?
A: I’ve been interested in music ever since I was a kid listening to my dad’s records. He has incredible, but also very unique, taste. He belonged to one of those record clubs, so there was a lot of stuff that was all over the place: Elton John, Jackson Browne, Molly Hatchet, Marshall Tucker, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, the Grateful Dead… . A lot of older country stuff… His record collection was a massive influence on me.
I didn’t really start playing until I was twelve or thirteen when I got a guitar and took lessons for about a year, then took off on my own after that. I started writing songs as soon as I knew more than one chord, when I was thirteen or fourteen. They were mostly terrible punk songs, based on whatever I was listening to at the time. It didn’t really become a serious thing until I was twenty or twenty-one, then something clicked and it became my primary mode of expression.
I grew up with a lot of country music, and when I was around twenty I circled back around to that kind of music—Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris—and started writing in that vein. [It started when] a friend loaned me a Gram Parsons anthology. I was hooked the minute I put it on, so after that eureka moment I started learning about who his influences were and who influenced him and got some context. Even though we lived so close to Record Theatre, CDs were expensive, so I relied on the library and the radio, especially the Edge out of Canada. Between the internet and the library, you can really give yourself a world class music education.
Q: How and why did you come up with “Timothy Alice” as your stage name?
A: There were already several Tim Hendersons who were recording artists. I didn’t want to deal with confusion—or possibly cease and desist orders. [laughing] Alice is my grandmother’s first name, and I was very close with her. I didn’t want an arbitrary stage name; I wanted to pick a family name, and that’s the one that was most meaningful to me.
Q: What’s your definition of success as a musician?
A: I love doing this, but to me being successful would be if I died tomorrow and people could say that I filled up more cups than I drank out of, wasn’t full of shit, and paid my bills on time. I’ve got a great band together now, with guys I’ve been friends with for a really long time, and we have a great time, so I’d like to take this as far as we can go with it. Down the line I’d say publishing would be more of an ambition—writing songs for other people—but that’s probably just as much of a crapshoot as performing is. If I have a family down the line I don’t want to be on the road all the time.
Q: Your experience is unusual in that you grew up more familiar with the artists the Beatles and Stones covered in their early years than with those two huge bands.
A: I knew a couple of Beatles albums—the White Album and Beatles for Sale—but I didn’t hear Revolver until I was in my twenties. You look at their first few records, and they absolutely butchered “Act Naturally” by Buck Owens. The Stones butchered stuff, too; they wanted to sound like black blues musicians [and they were nothing of the sort]. And the Clash were at their absolute worst when they were trying to sound Jamaican. But you can see these younger guys experimenting with these styles that they’re kind of out of their depth in, like anybody would be, but then they learned something from it and that evolved into writing something like “Yesterday” or “Gimme Shelter.”
Q: There’s a lot of talk of “cultural appropriation” these days. What’s your take on the situation?
A: I would never want to shit on Elvis or the Beatles for appropriating [African] American sounds; a lot of it was just bringing country and blues music to audiences that wouldn’t have been receptive to it otherwise. Elvis was like the gateway drug for a lot of that stuff. There are certainly cases of undue credit; if I was Howlin’ Wolf or Chuck Berry I would definitely be rolling over in my grave about the success that the Beatles and Elvis got relative to them, but I try to take an optimistic outlook about it
You could absolutely make a compelling case that Elvis was a cultural appropriator, but you could also look at it on another tack: That he was marrying two cultures that, especially in Memphis during that time period, were extremely divided.
Q: Your songs don’t fit into easy categories, but you probably get labelled as “Americana” or “alt-country,” right?
A: I never really think of my stuff as alt-country; I just think of it as rock. I draw as much from soul music—Stax Records is probably my favorite—as [vintage country music]. I don’t know what “Americana” is supposed to be. When I was growing up, it meant some fifties-themed diner where there’d be Marilyn Monroe crap up on the walls. I think there is a big strain of James Dean fetishism [in nostalgia for “Americana”]; it’s very attached to these hypermasculine idols, which I think is dangerous. I think that kind of climate allows for people to look the other way on things [like racism and sexism], especially in country music. We have completely unfairly elevated [white male voices], whereas most of the best songwriters in popular country right now are women like Maren Morris and Miranda Lambert. I just don’t care that much about Jason Aldean [laughter].
Q: What have you been reading lately?
A: Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till. You can’t understand the country without [coming to terms with race]. A person’s character, no matter what else they do, comes down exclusively to: How did they treat somebody that they could get away with not treating well?
One of the songs on my next album is called “Fortunate Son.” We didn’t do anything to be put in this position of being “fortunate.” It’s not something owed to us, it’s not anything won by our own achievement. We can’t even imagine what it’s like grappling with the hardships that so many other people who weren’t born white men in America have to deal with constantly.
Q: Do your bandmates share your interest in music of earlier eras?
A: The one thing we have most in common is that we all have extremely eclectic tastes. Bob drums in a metal band. Matt has played in a number of punk bands; he’s also done his own indie folk project called Yellow House that was really good. They’re both constantly telling me about bands I’ve never heard of. We’re constantly finding these points of overlap, but everybody brings their own big library to the table.
Q: Is there an artist or recording you wish more people knew about?
A: Lee Moses. He was born in Georgia the same year as Otis Redding, but he died in ’97. He was very versatile; he could play guitar like Jimi Hendrix—very funky—but he didn’t strut it quite as much as Hendrix did. There was an explosiveness to his style; he sounded like … if you held a gun to Otis’s head. There’s one song in particular called “She’s a Bad Girl” that’s my favorite of all time. There’s almost no production on it; the band sounds like a garage band, but his voice feels like hands coming out of the speaker and just grabbing you by the scruff of the neck.
Q: I get the sense you’re an avid reader, and your lyrics are really well crafted; I hesitate to call them “literary,” but they’re certainly a key part of your songs.
A: Lyrics do matter to me. But another of my favorite songs is “Please Please Please” by James Brown, and that song is pretty much him saying “please” over and over again with a few other words smattered in there judiciously. It is a song, it’s not poetry, it’s not literature. I love songs where you can listen again and hear something else, but ultimately if it’s not making a strong impression on you the first go-round, to me it’s a failure. I’m not going to pepper it with five-syllable words. I like songs that have a narrative quality to them, like Townes Van Zandt’s. I think that’s why Jackson Browne made such a big impression on me, because he was someone who married poetic sensibilities with pop hit-making sensibilities. He was never out to showcase his knowledge or impress anybody, but you can still tell he’s a deep thinker.
Q: We’ve been focusing on your interest in older music, but I don’t want to give anyone the impression you are stuck in the past.
A; It’s not like I have some sort of fetishism for old-timey stuff; I really don’t. This record that we’re doing this summer, I want it to sound very much of a piece with the time that I’m in. (God love bluegrass, it’s wonderful, but there’s not gonna be mandolins on this thing.) There just seems to be an emphasis in a lot of older music, like Bill Withers, on that kind of intensity. I don’t know if it was what was going on in the country at the time, or just that the standards were different. Being able to see the musicians mattered a lot less, so there were a lot more doors open for people that maybe weren’t as easy on the eyes but were some of the bigger talents.
I’m not one of those people who will say that music a generation ago was better. There was also an enormous amount of crap in the 70s, and there’s an enormous amount of crap now, too—but there’s some really great music coming out of this era that we’re all collectively living through, too.
Q: Can you give some examples?
A: I’ve been listening to this [Swedish] pop artist named Léon. Then there’s Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Durand Jones and the Indications, Frank Ocean, Leon Bridges … It’s not like they’re trying to make throwback music so much as they know the context that they’re coming out of.
To hear Timothy Alice and the Dead Stars’ music and learn about upcoming shows, visit linktr.ee/timothy.alice.music.