Kim and Scott Collins, the husband and wife team known as The Smoking Flowers, pay homage to some of their favorite musical partnerships in the video for their new single, “Young & Brave.” The play Johnny Cash and June Carter, The Ramones (each of them is two Ramones apiece), and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It’s a melting pot of punk, rock, and Americana, just like the Smoking Flowers themselves. The new album, Let’s Die Together (June 22), shows off their folky side (“Woodland Avenue,” “Heart B4 the Head”), Led Zeppelin-like riff rock (“Rip It Off”), sweeping and chiming rock (“Outlive Me”), blues (“Sunset, MO”), and every combination in between. And they have a quote from Waylon Jennings hanging in their bathroom.
They are well-traveled musicians, and have the chemistry that goes with it. They’ve been a couple since 1998, and released their first album, Sweet As Port, in 2008. They’re both multi-instrumentalists – it would take five or six people to cover everything they can do between the two of them on record. They even answered my questions for this e-mail interview together. Here’s a peek behind the “Young & Brave” video, at the new album, and a quick history lesson on the band.
The artists you were paying homage to – The Ramones, Johnny and June, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Iggy Pop – do each of them have a specific meaning to you as musicians? Are they all influences?
They are definitely all influences. They are probably not our most direct influences (that would likely be Neil Young for Scott and Led Zeppelin for Kim), but one common thread with all those artists is that, for better or worse, they were/are always not only true originals, but they were/are always young in spirit and brave in action. Most of them were not necessarily the most naturally “gifted” of artists when it came to virtuosic playing, pitch, etc., but they were gifted when it came to guts. Their whole lifestyle was their art. That is an ethos the two of us have realized we live by as well. Being musicians in this era, and trying to make a “living” at it, is really a lifestyle choice. As Waylon Jennings said, “You’ve got to care. You’d sure better not be doing it because it’s a way to make a living, ‘cause that ain’t always going to be easy. You got to believe it, believe in the music. You got to mean it, that’s all.” We have that quote framed and hanging on our bathroom wall.
There are a lot of different sounds on Let’s Die Together – “Woodland Avenue” is more rootsy, “Rip It Off” includes a nod to Led Zeppelin, “Sunset, Mo” is blues and punk, “Street Fight” is a sweet rock ballad. Where do all of these sounds come from? How do they all fit into who you are as a band?
You know, we don’t really make a conscious effort to create a bunch of different sounds. We write our songs, and then we work them up together with very minimal pre-conceived production ideas. We just play them until it feels right. Once a fan told us “you know, no matter what you guys do, it just sounds like you.” We hope that that is the way it all fits in. No matter how varied the “sounds” are, it ultimately just sounds like us… the way we sing and play together. The way we write. Whether the Beatles or Zeppelin did a “blues” tune or a “pop” tune or a “psychedelic” turn it still really just sounded like the Beatles or Zeppelin. One could wager that is the benchmark we all strive for.
You draw some obvious comparisons just being a male/female duo – Shovels & Rope, the White Stripes, Civil Wars. Do you embrace those comparisons? Or try to deflect them a bit?
Hmmm. Next question…just kidding 🙂 Did we just deflect that question?… haha.
The Smoking Flowers first record came out in 2008, and we played together in a different band for nearly ten years prior to that. Suffice to say we have been an underground and under the radar band pretty much our entire career thus far. It seems every time we put something new out, there is a new duo to compare us to. At first it was the classics like Gram and Emmy Lou, John Doe and Exene, Johnny and June of course. Then, after some other modern duos broke through to main stream success, it gravitated toward being compared to artists who either were our contemporaries or actually were conceived long after The Smoking Flowers began.
Being in East Nashville for twenty years now doing this, we are comfortable with our body of work thus far and where it is headed. We also accept that being ahead of the curve sometimes has its pitfalls. We recently read an interview with Tom Robbins where he was talking about an interviewer asking him if he was aware that T.C. Boyle had written a story, published some months earlier than his, with an identical bazaar storyline about a guy taking a girl on their first date to a lecture about the global disappearance of frogs (this is Tom Robbins after all). He wasn’t, and says “if that isn’t synchronicity, it’s something equally as weird.” That’s kind of how we feel. With the exception of The White Stripes, we barely know even one song from any of those contemporary artists we sometimes are compared to, and we were doing what we do long before their existence.
I got a bit of a Wendy O. Williams vibe from the Iggy tribute, as well – was that intentional?
The Wendy O. Williams vibe was not an intentional homage, but damn it should have been. Good call on that one! When we decided to include Iggy in the homage, initially the idea was for Kim to be completely topless exactly like Iggy (“if a man can do it, why can’t a woman,” was the idea). Then we were informed it would likely be banned on social media. Thus the decision for Kim to cover her “risqué areas” with electrical tape. Which, now that you mention it, was exactly what Wendy sometimes did to avoid being arrested. She must have been in our subconscious without even realizing it. It’s not so puck rock to make an artistic decision based on social media, but now those X’s shine a light on double-standards in censorship.
There’s a message at the end of the video – “Here’s the young and brave that are uniquely their own.” Is that directed toward anyone specific? Is there an event or trend that inspired the message?
That is just our way of saying thank you. It is not easy to consistently be young in spirit and brave in action. It is self-evident that this is not limited to The Ramones, Johnny and June, Elvis, Lennon and Yoko, and Iggy. It is not limited to musicians or artists. It is not limited to famous people. For certain institutions, individualism is bad for business. Though it is absolutely necessary for freedom and any possibility of being sun kissed by the transcendent. It is also to ourselves. For Kim going through breast cancer as we were writing this song and healing it holistically, going against the grain of pharmaceuticals and corporate medicine. For her also being willing to bare her mastectomy breast to the world without fear – those X’s on her breast stand for more than just censorship. And for us still doing this together 20 years strong and remaining creative and taking every life challenge on, whether it is healing cancer or independently producing music, in our own unique way.
You each play different instruments – how do you divide that up live?
When we play live, Kim plays drums, as well as accordion, mandolin and acoustic guitar during the portion of our show where we break it down and play a few songs acoustic. Scott plays electric and acoustic guitar, and occasionally harmonica. One thing we try to remain conscious of is that, no matter what creative production choices we make in the studio (on the new record we had quite a few guest musicians playing with us so we could keep the performances as live as possible), we can pull off that same song as a two piece live without anyone missing the full production. We think we have achieved that with our live shows now and it feels good.
June 2 – Nashville, TN – The Basement
June 14 – Milwaukee, WI – Riverwest Public House
June 15 – Hayward, WI- The Park Theater
June 16 – Minneapolis, MN – tba
June 23 – Nashville, TN – The 5 Spot
August 1 – Iowa City, IA – The Mill
August 2 – Clear Lake, IA – The Surf Ballroom