Lee Bains was born in Birmingham and raised by rock n’ roll.
His latest project, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, signed to legendary Seattle indie label Sub Pop and released their second full-length, Dereconstructed, in 2014. That album is a 10-song ode to the Magic City in which Bains does not shy away from taking to task the city’s checkered history, exemplified by figures like Bull Connor.
The Glory Fires return to their hometown on Saturday, April 2, to headline Happenin Fest at Good People Brewing Company.
Weld: What have guys been up to since Dereconstructed? It seems like you’ve had a pretty successful two years.
Lee Bains: We toured super heavy in 2014 [and] played a good bit in 2015 as well. We keep our heads and keep playing shows. We’ve played Detroit four times [and] New York seven or eight times since the record came out. We just try to keep playing and working on our thing. We’ve been playing a bunch of new songs the last few months and have been cutting a record. We’re partway through that whole process. We’re always busy, which is awesome.
Weld: Derececonstructed had themes about Birmingham and its past. Have the events of the last two years affected these new songs?
Bains: Definitely. This batch of songs is grounded in Birmingham as well. Particularly in ‘90s and ‘00s Birmingham. I really try to write from a place and admittedly limited, personal vantage. For me, that entails talking about Birmingham’s cultural, historical, social and racial context and the historical narratives that are still playing out in our city. That’s the way in my understanding that events unfold. Whether you’re talking about someone’s personal or civic and municipal policies, they tend to play out in arcs, narratives and stories. The better we know the stories and the more we poke at them and interrogate them, the better we’re able to uncover what’s happening now. These songs are still concerned with viewing Birmingham and the people that I’ve come to know in it through those lenses.
Weld: How did playing in the Birmingham music scene prepare you for what you’re doing now as far as touring and recording?
Bains: The first record I did was in high school. We were 17 or 18, recording in Matt Whitson’s basement. We definitely made a lot of questionable decisions. Every time I record, I feel like I learn something new, whether that’s the physics or methodology of the recording or something more esoteric. I made some really cool records in 13ghosts’ old studio in Southside. That was in my 20s.
When I was in high school, the DIY Birmingham scene had three venues around. There was the Boiler Room in Birmingham, Barnstormers in Montevallo and 1213 in Anniston. You could do a whole “tour” without leaving the 60-mile radius of Birmingham. What I loved about those shows was that they were always sonically diverse. No two bands would sound the same when I first started going to shows.
I’ve been able to see people play music for a decade now, and I’ve seen them chase their vision, whatever that is. The more mature and capable we get as musicians, I see those visions take shape. Like David Swatzell in Wray — I’ve seen him play since we were juniors or seniors in high school. I can see how his development has brought him to where he is now. Scotty Lee of \\GT// has a similar story. It’s cool to see these people bringing these disparate sounds of the different bands they were in together at this stage of our lives. It brings of accountability to your work. In Birmingham, people are going to push you to evolve in a healthy way.
From playing with the Dexateens, I learned a ton about the mechanics of playing in a band. I learned how to book shows, navigate a tour, those sorts of things. I definitely wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for all the different lessons I’ve learned and support I’ve felt. Even seeing the same guy or girl at a show for a decade is stabilizing.
Weld: You’ve been in Atlanta for a few years now. How is that music scene different from Birmingham?
Bains: Where we live is like the difference between living in Southside and in Hoover. The music scene is so massive that it’s hard to compare. The independent scene in Atlanta is more balkanized and more genre/peer groups. It has to be because of all the people coming and going. There are some great musicians and I’ve seen plenty of good shows. I’m hearing new Atlanta bands all the time. In Birmingham, there are bands popping up too, but you usually know some of the connecting members. In Atlanta, seeing these new bands can be surprising. And of course, there’s the main hip-hop element. As an indie rock band, it feels like the ship coming to the island at the end of Lord of the Flies.
Weld: Can you talk about your experience on Sub Pop so far?
Bains: They’re a well-managed indie label. They’re very hands-off when it comes to how we do stuff. They’ve never tried to pressure us into doing anything. They’re extremely respectful of the bands and artists they work with. They are about as far away from us continentally as they could possibly be. I don’t get to see them that often. A lot of their bands are on the west coast. But it’s been great working with them. They really love music and get excited about the records they’re putting out.
Weld: Have you seen people’s perceptions of the South change in the last few years?
Bains: I don’t wind up talking to a lot of people outside the South about the South. I think what’s been cool about this record and talking about these issues is that a lot of people I’ve spoken have used the songs as a way to meditate on their own place and their own heritage and legacy. That’s been very galvanizing.
I think the South is one of these places that can be fetishized and homogenized. I’ve been very grateful that a lot of the people I’ve spoken with have recognized that. It also deals with the idea of reconciling your complicated, nuanced self, community and belief system to a place. Usually, when I do speak with someone about the south outside the south, it’s usually someone who’s from here originally. I’ve heard some pretty awesome stories from people at shows. One girl I talked to was from East Tennessee and going to school in Chicago. She was the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She related to the songs and understood the reckoning with that peculiar Southernness that is not presented to us in the marketplace.