Interview with Sadler Vaden

Sadler Vaden took time out of his extremely busy schedule to speak with us about his new solo album, Anybody Out There?

Although Sadler Vaden is probably known by many as the guitarist with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, he is a man with many strings to his bow. He is a writer and a producer and has been playing music professionally since the age of 18. He is about to release his second solo album on March 6 and was kind enough to take some time to chat with us about the upcoming release, songwriting, his influences and Oasis.

LH:  I’ve read in the past, when you were asked about when you realized you wanted to play guitar, you mentioned that Farm Aid came to South Carolina with Hootie and the Blowfish, and you saw Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and all those guys. And then Neil Young was the guy who did it for you, and from that point, you were obsessed, which is a theme I see with all guitarists we’ve interviewed. They just become absolutely obsessed with playing the guitar.
Sadler: Yeah, mm-hmm.

LH:  So, when did songwriting come into it for you? Right from the beginning, were you trying to write your own stuff, or did that come later?
Sadler: Yeah, I was. Well, I would say when I was 15, I was starting to write songs, because I knew at that point that I wanted to do music. I knew that I could just imitate everyone else and just play covers. I mean, you can do that and make a good living, but… I don’t know. I just always had that creative spirit, and so yeah, I guess it started around 15. I figured out that maybe I should try to write my own stuff. And those songs were shit, as probably most songs are early on… I always hear these interviews with these old rock stars, and they’re like, “Oh, yeah. The first song I wrote was ‘going to the pub, going to have a beer. Going to…'” And I’m like, my songs weren’t anywhere near as good as that! But yeah, about 15 years old when I was starting writing.

LH:  I think it’s good for songwriters to hear that. I saw a really great interview with Joe Walsh when he was talking about The James Gang when they started up, and he was like, “Man, we used to play these shows, and we were absolutely dreadful. Nobody really came and saw us.” And he said, “You just keep doing it until you get better.” And I think it’s that sort of attitude that “Well, we’re never going to stop. We’re just going to keep getting better” that gets people through.
Sadler: Yeah. I mean, if you get into this business with some kind of expiration date, I don’t think it’s good, you know? You kind of have to have the lust for it naturally. You know, you can’t force that. But I just love playing music.

LH:  Clearly, you have it. These days to be able to make your living solely as a musician or in the music industry, that’s pretty rare. With you though, I sometimes wonder how you have the time for it. You do a bit of everything, right? You play with the 400 Unit, you’re writing your own music, you’re producing for other bands, like the High Divers. Is that through necessity or are you one of those guys who just has to be doing something?
Sadler: I’m probably just a product of my growing up with something always sort of falling apart around me. My parents always having financial woes and job changes all the time, and so I think that’s probably something embedded in me to where even when something great is happening, I’m worried or whatever. I don’t know. I think it’s good to be prepared. You don’t want to spend every day of your life, walking around worrying. But I think it’s good to be diverse, especially in this day and age, and look, I don’t write songs for Jason (Isbell). I’m not a part of that, and no one in the band is except for his wife, but… I like to write songs, so I didn’t want my position in that band to stop me from continuing to create my own songs and to co-write with others. And then I found myself producing in the last couple of years. I dig that. It’s not something I want to do all the time, but it’s good to do it in between being on the road and keeping things fresh.

LH:  In terms of being a songwriter, you’ve played with Drivin N Cryin, and then Jason Isbell. That must be a great experience, watching the different ways of doing it, because they’re fairly different kinds of bands those, in terms of the types of writers/artists they are, so you’ve seen a lot of different ways to go about it.
Sadler: Yeah. Honestly, I don’t think… There’s no rules to it, and I think I’ve learned a lot from being around Kevn Kinney and Jason, and I’m sure that I might be viewed sometimes as… Oh, well, the guitar player has got to have an album, too. The guitar player… whatever. But I’ve actually been playing guitar and writing longer than I’ve been just a sideman, so it’s not something that’s new. It’s new to a lot of people, but it’s not new to me.

LH:  No, I was going to say, you had your self-titled album, and then you were releasing music before that, and when you started out, you were in a band which you fronted yourself, right?
Sadler: Yes.

LH:  On the new album, I believe you’ve mentioned that it’s a bit of an autobiographical one. You certainly don’t shy away from writing about what’s going on around you, and it’s quite narrative this album. Is that just how it came out or did you go into it with a concept of how you wanted to write it?
Sadler: I didn’t do that on purpose, but I did notice that once I… I sort of picked songs that I thought would go together well, not even just lyrically, but melodically, and rhythmically, and just overall vibe, tempo, and all that kind of stuff. But then when I was putting all that together, I did notice. I was like, hey, there is some thematic element here. So it wasn’t on purpose. And it’s not every song. It’s not all over the album.

LH:  There are a couple of the songs that I really liked, and I thought it was interesting that they are side by side -“Modern Times” and “Peace and Harmony.” In “Modern Times” you talk about technology and people being disconnected in the modern age, and then in “Peace and Harmony,” it’s about us living in a world which at the moment, in the UK and the US, is really polarized, right?
Sadler: It’s just very divisive… on both sides, you know?

LH:  I think those two are grouped well together because I think technology is part of why that’s happening, right?
Sadler: Absolutely, yeah.

LH:  We’ve created these ways that you can just spew out all this horrible stuff and be totally faceless while you do it. Did you put those two together deliberately or was that just a happy accident?
Sadler: No. I mean, I didn’t put them together deliberately in terms of the lyric, but I put them together because they flowed. That was more of just a sequencing thing of what should come next. So I didn’t do it deliberately but come to think of it, now you mention it, yeah, it’s kind of cool that they do that.

LH:  I’ve been thinking about this recently, how, due to technology, people can say whatever they want. And if you believe what you see on the news, you would think this is a country at war and that everyone is at each other’s throats. I think people just need to get around other people again. Music events are a great place to do that.
Sadler: Yes, but even with that, it still also becomes just another gathering where everybody’s on their phone too in some way. I think music is always the great mediator. It just sort of can bring everybody together and be around each other. Another song on the record is “Be Here Right Now” that deals with that too, and “Modern Times” and “Good Man” are sort of a narrative. I just wanted an anthem to exist that put that message out into the world. I believe that I am a good man, but the narrator’s like, “Even if I think that I’m a good man, I want to be a good man.”

LH:  Yeah, I really like “Good Man” and I like that there were bits in there where you take responsibility. I like when songwriters write honestly, and there’s a line in there where you say, “There are times when I used to stand aside and turn my eye to what was going on.” I think it’s important to write like that as well. If you’re going to write about something from the heart, take a bit of responsibility for when, maybe, you weren’t perfect, and you definitely do that in that song.
Sadler: Well, and that is truth. I have done that. No matter what level, on a small level, sure, I’ve done that, but I mean, you have to be accountable, and you have to take responsibility. I’ve seen something that probably wasn’t right, and you just kind of go, oh, that’s just the way our society works. Well, not anymore. If that’s what everybody does, then we’ll never grow.

LH:  Yeah, I agree. I’ve found myself, as I get older, that’s much more how I think as well. But I do think that, for me, that kind of honesty in lyrics is what pulls you into a song as well.
Sadler: Awareness, yeah. Good.

LH:  If the narrator’s not full of shit, it really helps!
Sadler: Yeah! Right, right!

LH:  I did like “Next to You,” the one that you pre-released. It sounds your life’s changed a lot since the last album, and you tend to be on the road a lot more, and I believe you said it was a message to your wife when you’re away from her, and that’s just the reality of your life at the moment.
Sadler: Yeah. I don’t know. I just thought it was a good, old, up-the-middle, base hit, rock ‘n roll song. To me, personally, it does what I want out of a rock ‘n roll song. It’s not too deep, but it’s not also a bunch of fluff. It’s just anthemic, and it’s a person that is having to be away. Literally it’s saying, “I’ll go through whatever. As long as I’m next to you, I’ll be… If not all the time, as long as I’m coming back to be next to you.”

LH:  The other one I really like because I love the riff it opens with, is “Golden Child.” That is such a good song lyrically. Did you have someone in mind when you were writing that song? I don’t want to make you name anyone you don’t want to, of course.
Sadler: That’s not to be disclosed! I don’t know. So I was sitting around, messing around the guitar, and I was warming up, I was sort of doing a little exercise where I was taking the shape of a C chord, and I was just moving it up the neck in different inversions, and that’s what the riff is. It’s really dumb.

LH:  Yeah, but it’s cool. It’s a great opening riff.
Sadler: All the dumb riffs are the best ones, you know? I don’t know why, just the first thing I blurted out was the first line while I was writing it, and so I began to sort of chase it down. I don’t know how I got to the destination I got to, but I thought that it would be cool to write almost about the perils of being a golden child, not like, oh, it’s great, I’m the golden child. It’s sort of like, hey, I’m older now or whatever, and how do I get these people to take me seriously because I’ve had so much privilege? So that’s kind of what that song was about.

LH:  I love the sound you’ve got on the bass. Was it through a synth pedal or something like that?
Sadler: What we did is we took a whirly, and we just put it through a fuzz box. I wanted a “Spirit in the Sky” thing without doing exactly that. So, I think we got a good result. It sounds cool.

LH:  Yeah, I think it really did because that bass part really stood out to me. It was driving me nuts when I was listening to your album because I thought the intro of “Golden Child” really reminded me of something. There’s a song by Butch Walker and the Black Widows called “Bodegas and Blood.” Honestly, for about three hours last night, I was singing it in my head, trying to remember what song it was it reminded me of.
Sadler: Oh, yeah?! I’m good friends with Butch. And I’ll have to go back and listen. If it’s close, it wasn’t something on purpose, but yeah, I love that record.

LH:  Yeah. I don’t think the riff is close. I think it’s just the feel of it. The intros are similar in feel.
Back on your last album, I think you mentioned you’ve done a lot of it live to tape. Did you take a similar approach this time in the studio?
Sadler: Actually, it was less of that approach this time. I do demos for my records, and they’re pretty realized, so I do them at my house, and I like to dress them up, and take them in the car, and ride around, and listen to them and stuff. So this one was kind of a hybrid. I did a lot of live band tracking, but some of the stuff, the demo had a good guitar part, or keyboard part, or vocal, or whatever, and so I would take the files into the studio, and then sometimes the bass player and drummer would just literally play… We would strip the demo of the drums and bass, and they would fill in the gap, so it was kind of a hybrid.

LH:  Do you have your go-to guys for your solo albums? I know Derry deBorja and Audley Freed played on the last one. Is it the same crew?
Sadler: So, I did all the guitars on this one, and then we had Fred Eltringham, who is Sheryl Crow’s drummer. He played for K.D. Lang and The Wallflowers. Then I called in Jimbo Hart, who is with the 400 Unit, he played the bass, and then we had Derry do some keyboard overdubs, and I played a few keyboard parts, too.

LH:  We have seen Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on numerous occasions, and it feels like you’re on your way to becoming an institution. In the past, I have likened you guys to the Heartbreakers. Particularly, I’ve mentioned how much you remind me of Mike Campbell, who is one of my favorite guitarists, in respect of how you play for the song. I’ve seen you face off with Jason when you guys play live and you can both play your asses off. But also when you’re playing within the confines of a song, you very much play to be a part of that song, to bring the song up, not to be like “here is a spectacular guitar solo” kind of thing.
Sadler: Yeah, I mean, I just don’t guitar playing like that, I guess. That’s just not my taste. That’s not my flavor, you know? And I’m such a huge fan of Mike Campbell too, but I’m also a fan of the things he’s a fan of. So it’s easy for me to be a fan of Mike Campbell, but I appreciate you noticing that. I mean, that makes me feel good. You know, I don’t go out there and play that for people to notice, but it’s nice when you hear that someone’s taking note of what you’re doing. But yeah, I met Little Steven Van Zandt from E Street Band when I was really young. So I wrote an essay and I entered a contest at my high school, and kids from different schools got chosen based on the essay they submitted. So I submitted what rock ‘n roll meant to me or something that, and I got chosen to go to Charlotte, North Carolina and meet Little Steven, and he was having what they call a guitar symposium. He gets up and meets kids, and talks rock music and opportunity and all that stuff. Anyway, so I got a moment with him, and I was like, “Can you give any advice? I’m an aspiring musician. What advice can you give me?” I think I said, “I’m an aspiring guitarist,” something specific. And he did his head like Sil off The Sopranos, and he said, “Serve the song.” That’s what he said. I was 14 or 15 years old, and those words stuck with me. My dad kept repeating that, too. You got to serve the song, you know? And it also comes from being a Beatles fan, and that’s my role. That’s my job, is to be there and serve Jason and his thing, what he’s bringing to the world. I’m glad to be a part of that equation.

LH:  Absolutely. But I think even on your new album as well, it’s the same approach. You don’t differ your approach in terms of I feel like it showcases your songwriting more than anything else. I mean, it’s a rock ‘n roll album, absolutely, but I think in the way that you write, there are elements of folk in terms of you talking about what’s going on around you, and how you feel about that. I think there’s that element of it as well.
Sadler: Yeah. I don’t know. I like to take my rock ‘n roll, seriously. There are lots of examples of “rock ‘n roll bands” out there, but they don’t look they’re walking down the street now. They look they’re walking down a street in some other decade. I just like for it to be real and to be genuine. And I don’t know. I’m just a huge fan of… I love glam rock just as much as the other person that loves glam rock, but I like to feel connected to the words, and I think that’s something that, say, an artist David Bowie… You did connect to the words because he was coming from this place that… Who knows where that place is, but thank god everyone else didn’t find it. He was so believable and all that. So I think that’s probably where I come from because I love Neil Young just as much as I love T-Rex.

LH:  Yeah, you have a pretty diverse set of influences as well because I’ve seen you mention Oasis before.
Sadler: I love Oasis.

LH:  I’m 41 now, so I was growing up in the UK right when Brit Pop was happening with bands like Blur, Oasis, and the likes. I often wondered how far across the pond that got because you were growing up in South Carolina, so was Oasis easy to come by there?
Sadler: Well, they were easy to come by the entire world in 1995. I remember the concert listings in the newspaper, and my family, the four of us, we were at a rare outing for dinner, at a seafood restaurant, and my dad had the paper, and my sister and I were looking at the concert listings, and I was probably 10 years old. Charlotte Colosseum, Charlotte, North Carolina, dah, dah, dah, dah, Oasis. This is like, What’s the Story? Or maybe Be Here Now was about to come out or whatever. And my dad denied taking us to Oasis, and this is a man who loved Frank Zappa and The Who, but he was like, “no, you’re not going to the Oasis concert.” He was like, “where were you while we were getting high? Boom, you’re not going.” And I was like, “ah…!” But it wasn’t hard for me to be an Oasis fan because I remember seeing Liam Gallagher when I was so young, spit into the camera on the MTV Video Music Awards, and then gave it the English bird, two fingers. So I didn’t know. I knew “Champagne Supernova” and “Wonderwall” but I wasn’t as heavy into them when I was that age, but later, when I got to… I don’t know, I was maybe a freshman in high school or something, it started to come back around heavily, and I was listening to jam bands and stuff, too. Yeah, I do have a wide taste.

LH:  I love their first album, and then I loved Masterplan which had their B-sides. I also wanted to mention, on your last album, you did such a great job of covering John Moreland. He’s one of my absolute favorites.
Sadler: Ah, thank you.

LH:  I love that song and I love what you did with it, making it a straight rock ‘n roll song. When I first listened to that album, I thought it was a great take on a great song.
Sadler: Cool. Thank you very much. Someone else brought that up the other day, too, which is cool, years later, you know?

LH:  It’s really suited that treatment. I love his first album as well, which is more of a rock ‘n roll album, when he’s with the full band. So it was nice to hear that treatment, and I’ve just, literally been sent his new album to review so I’m really excited about listening to that.
Sadler: Good, good. Yeah. Very cool.

LH:  So last question would be, obviously, you’ve got a lot of commitments with the 400 Unit, but do you have any plans to take your stuff on the road?
Sadler: Yes. I’m going to be doing a few dates mostly around the southeast, but who knows? Maybe later this year or next year, I get up to Chicago and start hitting some Midwestern spots. But yeah, there are some plans. Obviously, because I’m in the 400 Unit, I can’t commit to a lot of touring, but I am going to start to get out there a little more and try to make some stops.

I’ll tell you what, back to Oasis. I liked the last couple of records they did a lot. I thought sonically, they got better. I thought lyrically, they took it to some places. Now you don’t have the huge, “Don’t Look Back in Anger” moments, but we got those.

LH:  It got a bit muddy in the middle, I think. They lost me a little bit then.
Sadler: Standing on the Shoulder era.

LH:  Yeah. I was always annoyed that I never got to see them live. Even though I was in the UK, I missed out on it. I did get to see Blur when they headlined at the Leeds Festival one year. But Graham Coxon had left the band at the time, so they had the guy from the Verve playing guitar for them. They were great that night, but I never saw Oasis.
Sadler: I got to see Oasis in 2005.

LH:  Was it a good experience?
Sadler: Yeah. I thought it was… Yeah, they were really loud, and they just have a f**king presence that is… I don’t know, man. They just got the thing.

LH:  They have. It was always going to blow apart with the two of them, to be honest. That was never going to last, but… I thought they’d have built bridges by now. It’s maybe not going to happen this time, but we’ll see.
Sadler: I don’t think so. I don’t know. I mean, I’ve got reports from Steve Gorman, who is the Black Crowes drummer, and we all know the Black Crowes did a lot of Oasis touring and stuff. I don’t know, man. I’m glad I got to see them. If they never get back together, and the memories I have of them are what I have, then that’s what we’ve got, you know? They did do the thing, and they’re some of the best rock stars that have ever lived. Forget even the music. Who’s a better rock star than these guys? They were born to play those roles. That’s obvious. But I don’t know. I feel like rock ‘n roll is pretty boring currently, and I think pop music’s really exciting. I’ll be 34. I mean, I’ve been in the game a while now, so I think… I don’t know, man. That’s why I miss Oasis, I think, so much because they filled a void.

LH: I do agree with you on that one. Well, thanks for taking the time to speak with us and good luck with the new album.
Sadler: No problem! Thanks so much for checking the record out and wanting to cover it.

Anybody Out There? is released on March 6. You can pre-order your copy here now.

Interview By: Phil Walton
Photo By: Kirstine Walton

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About Phil Walton 48 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.