Interview: Lincoln Durham Talks Cigar Box Blues, Mental Illness, and Upcoming Album


Noticing Lincoln Durham unpack his gear, it may be natural to assume five or six other musicians would later man the stage to help play so many instruments. There are nine or ten, maybe more depending on how you count. But surprise hits when no one else exits the Durham tour van (except Alissa Durham, later identified as Lincoln’s tour manager).

After he finishes arranging the instruments to form a central station fit for only one, the power of deduction prevails, albeit late to the party. Lincoln commands all the instruments and often does so simultaneously.

 “I fear being stagnant. From one album to the next, there’s a progression. [Along the way], there are a bunch of heavy, dark parts. I hope people continue to follow me down that path.”
– Lincoln Durham

Oh, that worn, hard shell suitcase is a funny stage prop, you might think to yourself just before Lincoln gives a subtle thumbs-up to the sound board in the back of the saloon. This is how he kicked off his headline show at Bottom Of The Hill this past Summer. Lincoln Durham has shown off his art to San Francisco twice in the last three years, both times at Bottom of the Hill. After he performed in support of Little Hurricane in 2014, Bottom of the Hill had no problems having Lincoln return to headline a show himself.

With the subtle signal to cut the in-between tunes, he scooped the vintage yellow case from my curious gaze with his left hand, a drumstick ready in his right. At that point we realized, watching him hammer the suitcase to keep tempo for his acapella introduction, the antique is a member of the one-man-army’s arsenal.

Another piece of his on-stage instrument gallery, sure to steal some attention, is a chordophone crafted from a slender plank, cigar box, pick-up and tuning knobs. He has two of these unique cigar box guitars, a one-string and a three-string, each responsible for a driving sound pushed through dark distortion to stand out on his song “Annie [Departee]” amongst others.

After seeing Lincoln slide on his cigar box guitars, while simultaneously stomping on a tambourine and hammering a floor tom behind his back, we thought it would be fascinating to map Lincoln’s brain activity while underway in his multitasking element. But we don’t have the resources for that so instead we tracked down Mr. Durham for a piece of his mind.

SFCritic: You caught my ear opening for Little Hurricane at Bottom of the Hill, last June. I’ve never seen or heard of Cigar Box Blues before that. How did you get into playing Cigar Box?
Lincoln Durham: I go to this music store in Austin. This one time they had one of these Cigar Box Guitars and I had this song that I’d been working on, at the time, that was in need of this driving sound.

I’ve never listened to anything that incorporated the cigar box, honestly, and I have a feeling I wouldn’t like it. (chuckles)

So, I just played what I was doing.

SFC: What was the name of that store?
Lincoln: South Austin Music.
I have made one before but I want to find out who made that 1-string because I love the way it plays. It was crafted really well.

And you know, everyone is searching blindly and frantically for what makes ‘em different. No, I’m not the only one doing this. There’s a ton o’ one-man-bands. But I’m always looking to push myself out of my comfort zone. So [in terms of an hour set time], I was looking to break up the 60 minutes.

SFC: What was that first song that you tried the Cigar Box with?
Lincoln: “Annie Departee.”
I tried it for the first time at a live show – I didn’t have a place to practice at the time.
Anything further than playing guitar, I would have to make up as I went. Gigs were practices.

“Annie Departee”

SFC: You mentioned trying to break up the 60 minutes. It’s reported in a couple places that you started in music at a super young age playing fiddle in contests. Do you still incorporate the fiddle in your shows?
Lincoln: There’s still one song I do – I used to bring it out 100% of my shows up until recently.

SFC: You started with the fiddle at a very young age, who pushed you in that direction?
Lincoln: My grandpa and my dad. They both wanted me to learn fiddle. Because of that, it never really took for me.

If you want your kid to be musical, then let them take it.
I did these little competitions and I hated it.
If you force it like that, it’s just gonna feel like a task.

SFC: Had you ever tried working within a band? Or had you always been aware that you “don’t play well with others?”
Lincoln: [I] Used to play in a band and wrote some songs in that configuration. I never had it in my mind to do the one man band thing. It was out of necessity, you know to make a living, to do it myself. It grew from that. How could I make the biggest sound possible until I found a band?

SFC: You’ve been working on a new record. How is it coming along?
Lincoln: Its done! It’s in the mixing process. George [Reiff] does the mixing. He has an amazing attention to detail. So the creation is finished, but there’s still all the finalizing to get done; Album art, mixing & mastering, I always do vinyl, so it’s still got a little ways.

SFC: What is it like working with George? Does he have creative input or does he just let you do your thing, then handles the aftermath?
Lincoln: George – we work really well together. Most musicians would agree, the writer presents a song to the band, and the band inevitably make portions their own.
But when you’re a one man band, I’ll bring the finished song in… it’s hard to say…
He doesn’t help me write the song.

When I have this finished song, as a one man band, I never have anyone to bounce it off.
Most of his input is, let’s do a verse-verse-chorus, as opposed to the verse-chorus-verse.
George’s magic is in the aftermath. He’s got a great touch in making an intentionally sparse record.

SFC: Have you been playing the new material on this past tour?
Lincoln: Four or five [songs], I’ve been playing on this past tour. It’s about a 10 song album

SFC: Does the record have a name? How does it compare to the previous two?
Lincoln: Not named yet. The record is definitely heavier than the others. Each record I’ve come closer to finding who I actually am.

SFC: In most cases, personal experience inevitably comes out in an artist’s work. What would you say went into this upcoming record?
Lincoln: All of my songs are autobiographical. I’ve never written a song that wasn’t about what I was feeling at the time. Mine are very much personal experiences.
This [upcoming record] is a lot of mental instabilities. They are hidden in the lyrics sometimes.
A lot of people can only write about love or when they’re happy… A lot of my songs come out when I’m REALLY pissed. (chuckles)

SFC: What on your mind gets you in that place and fuels that writing process? What get’s you pissed? And in which song off the new record do you think that’s most prevalent?
Lincoln: Intolerance and ignorance. The general public. I’m one of many – nothing separates me or makes me better – but I’ve never had a high opinion of humankind. It’s the aggressive intolerance that we have around us. [You hear that in] “Noose.” But this one is kind of also more mental illness. Also, “Rage, Fire, and Brimstone.”

SFC: Given that rage and, seemingly, an angst with our population is what drives your writing, would you say there is any message or something you want fans/listeners to take away?
Lincoln: No. This stuff for me is therapy. I’m not very good with debating with people. Whatever it is, politics or whatever, [writing and playing] is not meant to soothe or help. It’s my own therapy. And with the mental stuff and the opinions I have on the world, it’s just therapy.

SFC: The mental illness, or unrest, that you mention… has that been something that has always been in your life or has it just come up in recent years?
Lincoln: It’s been around since I was a kid. I write to cope with that kind of stuff. It’s what works for me and it helps.

Mr. Durham plans to return to San Francisco before 2016 with his forthcoming album, yet to be named.

Photos by Kristina Bakrevski