It didn't take months of careful deliberation about creative direction for singer-songwriter Tim Easton to realize what he wanted to do with his next album. Almost as soon as he had finished his previous one, 2006's contemplative and largely acoustic Ammunition, Easton knew the follow-up would involve a healthy dose of electricity and volume.
"I wanted to make a rock 'n' roll record," says Easton. "I hadn't done it in awhile, and I missed making that good midwestern, train-coming-off-the-rails sound — the sound that I grew to love from the bars around Ohio State University. So I hired a rhythm section — from Columbus actually — and went down to Tennessee, back to where I made my first records, which were louder records — and it happened very quickly."
Easton's Ohio roots form the very heart of Porcupine. The Akron native attended OSU in the mid-'90s, formed his first band, toured Europe and honed his craft while busking. He returned to Columbus and joined the Haynes Boys, whose garage-tinged Americana attracted a good deal of attention before Easton recorded his debut solo album, Special 20, in 1998. Two years later, members of Wilco backed him on his sophomore album, The Truth About Us, which merely reinforced the Jeff Tweedy comparisons. Easton's relocation to California inspired 2003's more reflective Break Your Mother's Heart, and his subsequent move to Joshua Tree inspired Ammunition.
"I have more time to commit to music now, because where I live is very remote," says Easton. "There's not a whole lot else to do other than write. And I started painting even."
With the decision to plug in and do some rafter-dusting on Porcupine, Easton returned to Columbus and enlisted former Haynes Boys bassist Matt Surgeson and ex-New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown to help him push the needle. Although Easton had a handful of songs written, one track set the tone for the album.
"Some of the gentler ones were written before, but 'Burgundy Red' was one of the first," he says. "When I wrote the song, I was like, 'I wanna start the record with that song.'"
Easton's painting appears on Porcupine to a certain extent. A limited pressing of 500 vinyl copies of the album feature Easton's individually painted covers "I did them in the carport next to my house in Joshua Tree, and sometimes the jackets would blow off into the desert, so some of the copies will have bits of the Mojave Desert in them." (You can see some of the artwork and order the vinyl edition at timeaston.com or yarddog.com.)
"Like a lot of people, I quit drawing around 12 or 13, and people stopped encouraging me," says Easton. "When you're 4, you get your first show on the fridge and then we stop doing that. In our education system, the arts have been given the elbow. I started up again because I'm an aficionado of the arts. I basically started like a 12-year-old drawing again. There's nothing highbrow about this. Some people call it folk art, some people call it outsider art, but it's just a therapeutic thing I do. It makes me feel good and makes me meditate. If you're staring out over the land and playing guitar, it's the same brain chemistry at work."
And how did the porcupine become the album's thematic icon?
"The album wasn't titled when we recorded that song in one take, and it was the only take that was ever done," says Easton. "It was the producer's idea. He said, 'Porcupine, that would be a good album title.' Echo and the Bunnymen had an album called Porcupine but quite different from this one. But that's OK; the Replacements had an album called Let It Be, so I can have an album called Porcupine. It's a jagged animal that might look cute and fuzzy from a distance, but when you get close, it'll stick you."
When Easton brings his road band (bassist Alex Livingstone, drummer Mark Stepro and guitarist Aaron Tasjan) to town this week, he'll play some freshly written material that may wind up on his next album ("There's more chords ... It's sounding like now for me. I can't describe it any other way. It'll have some rock and some roll"), which he hopes to begin after this tour ends. Easton's appearance is part of the Second Annual Autism Benefit, which also features Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Donna the Buffalo, the Jack Fords, the Jim Miller Band and Hillbilly Idol. While he hasn't been personally touched by autism, he believes in the concept of giving back to the community.
"The guy who runs it is a friend and a fan, and he asked if I was interested in helping the cause, and I said, 'Of course,'" says Easton. "It's just part of the job description and duty of entertainers to bring attention and help raise money for specific causes. Because our life is basically easy."