BAAK GWAII // TEN YEARS OF HONEST ROCK WITH JHON SNOWDEN

This is an attempt at a mullet,” said Jhon Snowden, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of Tuscaloosa band, Baak Gwai. “I think I’ll go for a Kentucky waterfall soon. They hate it, my band members. I guess I’m embracing all the things I f—hate about this place.”
Snowden has been playing with Adam Pate (bass) and Chris Zeiler (drums) for ten years now, always returning to Alabama. Wherever they roam, they celebrate indie rock with equal injections of punk, prog rock and emo.
I visit Snowden in his Tuscaloosa home on a day he spent spring-cleaning. A “Dragon Ball Z” toy from Burger King hangs from a kettle over the stove, and a shelf in the living room displays a Transformers lunch box and matching TV tray. He talks for a few minutes about the 1986 Transformers movie starring Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron, Orson Welles as Unicron and Judd Nelson as Hot Rod.
He gets just as enthusiastic talking about his favorite bands. A chance encounter with Archers of Loaf’s lead singer and guitarist Eric Bachmann is still a story he tells like a true fan boy. He vividly remembers Bachmann coming out of his tour bus, and himself starstruck and stammering.
“Standing next to him I came up to his shoulder,” Snowden said. “I had a CD and a sticker and I was like ‘here, you can use this as a coaster, you can use this as a Frisbee. Please don’t use it as a Frisbee. You got me through high school.’ He was like ‘Don’t say that.’”
Snowden has looked up to Eric Bachmann as a vocalist, but tried to imitate higher-pitched voices of Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate and Doug Marsh of Built to Spill. That explains the the Midwestern emo vibe that will throw off any listener who makes assumptions about Alabama bands.
“But then I fell in love with deep-voiced people like Tom Waits, Eric Bachmann,” Snowden said. “Elvis Costello was a happy medium.”
He puts a lot of thought into how his voice comes across on-stage, and has spent a decade tweaking his instrument.
“I heard all these myths about how Tom Waits got his voice,” Snowden said. “One of them was drinking a bottle of whiskey before every show or screaming into a pillow until he basically had trush. I didn’t try that hard but I just tried to manipulate my voice. Sometimes when I quit smoking for a while I can hit those high notes, but it’s definitely changed the octave that I sing in.”
He smokes L&M lights, and takes out a paper to roll a “butt-arette” from the ashes before I offer him one of mine. He shows me how to light a match one-handed, a trick he learned to impress girls at Egan’s Bar.
In 2006, Baak Gwai made their self-titled album, loaded with memorable, tangled riffs like on “Toothbrush,” a long-time crowd favorite. Two years later they made “Find a Stranger in the Alps,” which Snowden called their “third second album” because of two failed attempts that occurred between the two successes. The follow-up featured more straightforward tunes like “Propeller” and “Potato.”
Snowden asks me to name Mike Russo, the producer of their last album as a “great f—in’ dude,” and recalls him playing a few seconds of 40 demo tracks saying “No. . . no. . . maybe. . . no.”
Their “second third album” was recorded in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and is called “Floors”.
“It’s about going on tour and sleeping on floors,” Snowden said.

Planet Weekly: How did you decide on the name Baak Gwai?
Jhon Snowden: We kicked around names for a couple months while we practiced and no one liked anything else but that. ‘Baak gwai’ essentially is a derogatory term for a white person. When they heard that they were like “sold!”
PW: Did someone call you that?
JS: I used to work at this restaurant in Auburn, Ala. It actually wasn’t a restaurant, it was a place in the food court at the mall. There were only three people that worked there, Edwin and his parents. People would come around with toothpick samples and this woman would say s— to them in a really mean demeanor. I was like ‘what did your mom just say to them?’ and he said ‘Go to hell, black trash.’ I was like ‘Damn, your mom is racist!’
She said the same s— to every nationality, so he taught me how to call every nationality trash. I’m not racist by any means, which is why I use it as a self-loathing term.
PW: Out of the 10 years you’ve been playing, is there a highlight that you always look back to as your peak?
JS: I don’t think we’ve ended peaking, but the first one was Fishbone [a ska-rock band that rose to fame in the 1980s and 90s].
The drummer came out and told us, ‘Hey y’all was the first band? Look man I like y’all’s music.’ Cause the second band, the one they carried with them for the tour, just sucked. He told us ‘you wanna quit. You don’t wanna live like this. Go get an education.’ They were driving around in this Winnebago and he pointed to it and said ‘You think I wanna live in that thing? Door falling off all the time? Wood cabinets?’
While he’s telling me this, there’s a line of women outside the door with a door guy letting them in one by one.
PW: How did you arrive at the sound you play now?
JS: What kind of sound do you think we have?
PW: I don’t know.
JS: Basically I didn’t want to stick with one style. I liked jazzy stuff that is acoustic and goes along with clarinet and saxophone. And I like Archers of Loaf which is my interpretation of real indie rock . . . Just DIY in a basement. Elvis Costello. Tom Waits.
But then I like metal. Rush, Dream Theater, Sepulchura, Mastodon, early Metallica. Shove all that in a pan and deep fry it.
PW: When you want to kill each other, what do you do?
JS: That does happen. We talk it out, man, because we all lived together at one point. We would go on tour, then we could come back home and not talk to each other for like a week and a half. Everybody would just stay in their rooms and we would see each other walking by to go the restroom. Once we get back in the van it’s just like [snaps fingers] clicking again.
You definitely need a break. When you’re cramped up in a van with somebody for like months at a time . . . you know their smell. You stink, and I’m sick of hearing you talk. . . I got my own problems. It’s a lot of b—ing and moaning sometimes, but it’s not always like that. Sometime it’s great attitudes, strive forward, everything is awesome.
PW: How can you tell you’re playing for a Tuscaloosa crowd?
JS: They know the words. That and that they get super f—ing into it.

 

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