Wreckage from the Fire documents Aaron Skiles’ efforts to deal with the pandemic. The lockdown put an end to Bourbon Therapy, the long running Bay Area country rock band he fronted with his wife, Rebecca. Unable to tour or play live, he used his downtime to reshape his approach to performing and songwriting. He decided to make an album documenting what was going on around him.
“The album has a dark title and the artwork is foreboding,” Skiles said. “I was thinking sometimes you can pull things out of the wreckage after a fire, and they’re salvageable. I wanted to address the pandemic and what it was doing to my friends, my band, the community and world. Bourbon Therapy had come to an end. We’d just celebrated our fifth year as a band, with a sold-out anniversary show at The Back Room, in Berkeley. We had singles set to release, and gigs lined up, to promote them, then, ‘Boom!’ We couldn’t play live anymore, so I turned to songwriting.
“After the lockdown started, I was feeling down. What makes me feel good is listening to music and writing songs. I’ve been married 22 years and, while I recognized how lucky I was to have that relationship in my life, I started thinking about the things that scare me. When I hear stories of divorces, breakups and loss, I turn to music to process the feelings. The genius of music is that almost any feeling is acceptable in a song, so long as it has an emotional impact. So I wrote about what was going on around me.”
As the album took shape, Skiles contacted Matt Patton, from the Drive By Truckers. Patton is also a producer and owns Dial Back Sound, a recording studio in Water Valley, MS. Skiles met him after a Drive By Truckers show. “I’m not shy and he’s friendly and down to earth, so I introduced myself. I told him about Bourbon Therapy and sent him a few tunes. He called me up a few weeks later and told me to look him up, if I ever needed help making a record. That was six years back. I contacted him and we started working on Wreckage.
In December of 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, Skiles went down to Mississippi. Patton assembled the musicians in the studio, keeping everyone socially distanced and masked, except when they were singing. Jay Gonzalez of the Dive By Truckers played piano; Taylor Hollingsworth, a member of Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, contributed lead guitar; and A. J. Haynes, from the Seratones, added multi-tracked harmonies. “She came in and added three or four harmonies on some songs. She’s a true professional. I was down there for a week and wasn’t sure how folks from Mississippi would react to my take on life. I was born and raised in Oakland. My parents graduated from UC Berkeley and went into the Peace Corps. I don’t know what other folks down there are like, but in the studio, I could have been talking to a bunch of Bay Area people. We had the same views on life, politics and music. They were my people.”
The music on Wreckage from the Fire is straight-ahead rock and roll, with only a trace of the country inflections of Bourbon Therapy. “On My Own” is a grinding, distorted mid-tempo rocker that sounds like a confession of a life misspent. Skiles delivers a snarling ode to self-destruction, with a vocal break full of defiant whoops. “A Triumph of Three Chords” rides a mellow groove generated by the piano of Jay Gonzalez, Taylor Hollingsworth’s bluesy lead guitar and A. J. Haynes’ soaring harmonies. The words celebrate the healing power of music and bring to mind Willie Nelson’s definition of the perfect song—“three chords and the truth.” The album’s emotional centerpiece is “Before You Go,” a ballad about a friend who committed suicide. Gonzalez plays solem, funereal bass chords on the piano to set the tone. Skiles sings of his friend’s passing with barely controlled emotion, wondering if there was anything he could have done to prevent his friend’s demise.
“When I recorded the vocals, I started crying about halfway through. I was lying on the floor, sobbing. Matt came in and said, ‘Take your time.’ He told me there was nothing I could have done at the time to have changed my friend’s mind. We were young and didn’t talk about our feelings. He suggested singing it in the manner of an older, wiser person, giving advice to a young man. That connected with me. I was able to put some emotion into the song that’s really raw. You’ll hear a bit of a whimper, from the moment just before I was about to cry, on the track. We decided to leave it in. When I listened to the playback, it sounded real.”
Wreckage from the Fire is available on the Aaron Skiles/Bourbon Therapy website: bourbontherapy.com.