Chewelah, Washington isn't exactly a musical mecca. There's no pipeline from the surround farmland to the world's biggest stages, but Allen Stone has scrapped to make his unlikely musical dreams a reality. Since moving to Seattle, the soul music sensation has risen up the ranks thanks to his boisterous voice, singer-songwriter skills, and dynamic live performances. The next step on the journey comes May 26, when he releases his major label debut, Radius. But before focusing on the future, Stone's retracing his past with this week's Evolution of an Artist concert series. Over the course of five nights (April 13–18), he'll hit some of his favorite local venues: from the intimacy of the Triple Door and Nectar Lounge to the grand stage at the Paramount Theatre.
In anticipation of Radius, we chatted with Stone about his pop cultural influences for our Points of Reference series. Here are the men that spark the soul of the soul man.
Ralph Steadman did the illustrations for a lot of Hunter S. Thompson’s work. I love just how different and off-putting a lot of his art is; it’s pretty dark but satirical at the same time. I love things that can exist and can communicate different expressions at one time. I think I’m a little bit of that. I have a very comical view about the world around me—I don’t take myself or the things around me very seriously—but I’m also deeply ingrained with a sense of activism. I connect with a lot of Hunter S. Thompson’s work in that regard, but also Ralph Steadman as well. I guess Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas really struck a chord simply because a part of me thought that Hunter S. Thompson was probably just a total asshole, but he did a great job in stirring up what he meant to stir up. I think that we live in a culture and day and age where have to be an asshole in order to make an impact. You really need to stir the pot in order to for the spices come out.
I’ve wondered that about my own life. I don’t think I’m a big enough asshole. (Laughs) I have these discussions with my friends a lot where I’m like, “You know, all my favorite musicians were the biggest dicks ever.” They beat their wives, cheated on their wives, beat their kids… they were just terrible people and I want to be just like them. (Laughs) I mean in no way, shape, form (in that sense), I just want to be revered in the same regard. It’s funny how that connection seems to happen. It’s like the James Browns of the world: incredible band leader, incredible musician, but like the biggest dick who ever walked the planet. The world is a strange place.
I’m trying to find a way to tap into the things that matter; trying to figure out a way to unsettle the settled, but also doing it in a very charming way. You see comedians like George Carlin and Louis C.K. who are able to touch on incredible social points.
One of my really good buddies is a kid from Spokane his named Logan Heftel. Right when I graduated high school, when I was like 18, we started playing shows together in this burrito shop in Spokane. And we were both like, “Yeah! We are going to move out and go places. We’re going to do this shit, man! It’s going to be awesome!” So he decided to move out to L.A. and I moved to Seattle kind of at the same time when we were about 19. Right away, he kind of got pulled into this network of really cool people and, funnily enough, befriended George Carlin’s only daughter. I met up with him on over my birthday in March, and he’s been working for her organizing all of these lost tapes, all these recordings of George’s shows that have never been put out into the world. And he was just telling me about George Carlin’s life, and where he started, and what got him into comedy, and what kind of twisted his outlook on the world around him.
George was one of those guys to me, kind of like Louis C.K., where he was so brilliant, but yet there was a lightness to his darkness, if that makes sense. His comedy was gray. One of my favorite George Carlin bits was about environmentalism. He would say ‘The planet is fine, the people are fucked.” It was one of my favorites, because it was extremely dark, and it so true, and it was so poignant. We live in little glass cases of unnecessary things and the sustainability of this little China set that we’ve cultivated is impossible. But George found a way of addressing it, but yet still making light of it; making it funny, and making it approachable, and making it digestible. I think that is the trick. Or at least the trick to doing it without dying prematurely. (Laughs) Like people that really stir up shit—the Martin Luther King Jr.s and the Malcolm Xs and the John F. Kennedys and the Kurt Cobains—die prematurely. In order to still maintain a long life but also have some impact on the world around you, it seems you need more of that gray approach. You give people the darkness, but there’s a sense of light involved in it.
I saw this Ken Burns PBS documentary series on World War II (The War) recently, and it just touched me in a way… I think we get trapped nowadays in this ever-constant gravitational pull of our own lives and we forget the past, especially in Western culture. I was just sitting at lunch today with my background singers, and we just got so deep into how we live better than kings; like just the average American. If you were born in America, you have more opportunity and privilege than the vast majority of the people that came before you and also the world around you in general.
Despite anything with his personal life or who he was as an individual, Walt Disney did so much with a dream. As extremely detrimental as being famous, and selling a lot of records, and traveling all over the world, and playing festivals, and playing shows can be to the world around me, in terms of waste or whatever, I still have a desire to take this little thing that started out in my bedroom in Chewelah, Washington, and cultivate it and grow it as big as I possibly can. It happens a lot with companies—obviously with Apple and Microsoft—where somebody will take an idea or a dream and manifest it into this gigantic system of working parts. But for me, Walt Disney’s dream was really to make kids happy; to entertain children and to shed light and positivity on to the world. That's at least how I want to dream my specific Walt Disney. (Laughs) And I think that I've drawn a lot of inspiration from that. He went out and not only obtained his goal, but took it to the extreme outer limits. I don't know how many people are employed by Disney and Pixar, but I would imagine it's in the tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands.
And for me, I've created this family of people that work with me, that travel with me. I'm on the road 200 days a year, and I tour with this group of people that I love dearly. And I want to see this thing that I'm doing impact on huge scale, simply because I want to see those people that have been with me, helped me, inspired me, loved me, hated me—these people that I share very close quarters with and very close experiences with—succeed greatly through this thing that's kind of morphed and evolved into something that I never intended it being. When I picked up a guitar and started singing it was just like, “Oh cool! I'm an attention whore and I want more attention, so let me do this. It's a really great way to keep all the attention on me.” And then it just evolved into this thing where now I've got a crew of close to 20 or 25 people working with me and working on the road. It’s evolved from this like, “Cool! Let me have the attention,” to like, “Okay, how do I take this attention that’s now on me and make sure that all these people who make this whole thing work are taken care of?” That’s really been the goal on this new record: I want a world class timeless record so that I can do this Grateful Dead, Phish, Dave Matthews thing where we just go out on the road and we pound the pavement and people patronize my business because we bring them something that they desire and come out to support every year.
Stevie Wonder is really the manifestation of everything that I want to be, like all the right parts of the ingredients of a human being. I opened for him in a 2,000 year-old coliseum in France this last year and got to walk in his dressing room and meet him, and it was the greatest experiences that I'll ever get the chance to have. It was amazing.
I went and saw him in Seattle when he was here a couple months back, and when he got to the mic at the top of the show, he could hardly talk. He was so hoarse and raspy. And I was like “Oh man. Alright. Okay. This is going to be the one time when I'll see Stevie Wonder and I won't think it's the most brilliant thing I've ever seen.” And he sang for four fucking hours and was the most brilliant performer. And hilarious, he just totally made fun of the whole fucking DJ/EDM/push a button craze thing with this DJ Tick Tick Boom skit that like nobody got. And he played all the hits he sounded unbelievable. And he doesn't fucking have to do that. He doesn't need the money. He doesn't live this crazy lavish bonkers life. He just loves music, he loves playing, and he knows that it helps people and he knows that he brings joy to people. And that to me is this selfless journey that I'm attempting to try and manipulate in my own life. (Laughs) It's very hard because I'm a dick.
Allen Stone: Evolution of an Artist
Apr 13–18, Various venues, $21–$95