If you cut The Cadillac Three, they’d bleed alcohol. The Nashville trio have carved out a whiskey-soaked niche for themselves as purveyors of countrified rock’n’roll with a metallic bite that sits halfway between Merle Haggard and Metallica – the perfect soundtrack, in fact, for a great night on the Jack Daniel’s.
Handily, the three of them – singer/guitarist Jaren Johnston, lap-steel player Kelby Ray and drummer Neil Mason – are confirmed boozers. Which explains why we’re sitting in neon-drenched North London bar Slim Jim’s, about to get stuck into some hopefully edifying beverages and flowing conversation.
They’re hardly newcomers. Before The Cadillac Three, the trio were members of alternative southern rockers American Bang, who put out a record on Warners before disbanding. Since putting together their current incarnation a couple of years ago they’ve released a shit-kicking debut album, 2013’s Tennessee Mojo, played high-profile country music event the CMA Music Festival and the altogether louder Sonisphere (the latter on the apparent recommendation of Metallica), and recently picked up a Classic Rock award for Best New Band.
But we’ll get to that shortly. Right now, there’s one burning question: what’s everyone drinking?
We kick off with some easy-on-the-constitution pints. Ray (curly haired and bespectacled) opts for Amstel and Mason for Heineken, while Johnston (the most gregarious of the trio) settles on Kronenburg. “It’s actually the first beer I had when we first came over here,” he remembers. The band played the UK four times in total last year. Indeed, The Cadillac Three are no strangers to globe-trotting these days, but musically “it’s all about the south”. They met in high school, and grew up in the southerner-than-thou midst of honky-tonk joints and Grand Ole Opry nights, “doing all the drugs” together.
The last time I spoke to Johnston he was just about to get married. This, combined with the band’s graduation from van to tour bus, suggests that they’re growing up.
“As soon as you get to the point where you can’t fucking stand the sight of a sixteen-passenger van, you know you’ve grown up,” he says. “When I was a kid – or shit, even when I was twenty-seven – the idea of getting into a van for three hundred and sixty-five days of the year seemed exciting. Now, I feel we’ve grown past the van.”
“We toured with The Pretenders a few years ago,” chips in Mason, “and drove to Buffalo on ice for thirty-five hours.”
“We pretty much fell on the stage,” says Ray.
“To be fair we fucking destroyed the place,” Johnston adds.
“Cos we were so happy to be alive…” Mason interjects. “I mean, you got me driving, which is scary to begin with, for eight hours at a time on thick sheets of ice, through mountains…”
“We got stuck in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, touring with ZZ Top once,” Johnston recalls. “So we ate mushroom chocolates and sat in a hotel room for three days.”
What’s been your weirdest drug experience?
“You don’t wanna open that door,” Johnston shakes his head. “I watched a mailbox bend over and eat grass.”
“This was years ago,” he hastily adds. “Kelby, you remember that?”
“Oh yeah,” Ray nods, “I definitely remember.”
Mason: “I think I saw the same mailbox…”
We begin perusing Slim Jim’s Stateside brews, Mason picks Samuel Adams Boston lager. Possibly anticipating the gig they have to play at the nearby Garage later on, Johnston opts for Monster energy drink with vodka. “I usually have a little Red Bull before I go on stage, and mix it with Grey Goose,” he says. “I like a vodka drink, the occasional martini…”
Raised in a family of Southern Baptists – with a father who drummed in 80s country group Bandana – Johnston straddled staunch religion and rock’n’roll during his formative years. As did his bandmates, in a Southern community where the good Lord and country music were gospel. Such ingrained culture is difficult to bypass, though the band’s church-frequenting days are behind them.
“I have a tattoo saying ‘music is my religion’,” Ray says, taking a sip of his Anchor Steam. “This is San Francisco’s beer. I missed a flight there once. I got held up at security because of something in my backpack.”
Johnston jibes: “Was it a knife, or a dildo?”
Ray (deadpan): “It was both, Jaren. A dildo knife.”
“The really sad thing was it was actually a bit of pencil lead,” Ray admits. “I had a bit of rubber putty, and they said it tested positive for some explosive device, which it wasn’t at all… And the two times I got away without problems were the times I did have weed on me!”
“Maybe we should have done media training again…” Jaren drawls, swirling his glass. “Saying that, you can’t print anything worse than what I said at the Classic Rock Awards: ‘I bet you guys were wondering who The Cadillac Three was, well now you know motherfuckers!’ My dad’ll probably show it to his church group.”
That heavily religious side of Southern culture seems slightly at odds with the whole ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ lifestyle, doesn’t it?
“I think that’s where the rebellion comes from,” Mason muses. “If you’re surrounded by one thing it’ll influence you to do the opposite. We love country music but when we were thirteen the last thing we were thinking about was writing country songs; it was all about Nirvana and Metallica.”
So what is it about religion that sticks with Southern musicians, then?
“It’s the passion,” Johnston reasons. “I guess there’s not much more of an intense, giving-you-chicken-skin feeling when you’re a kid than singing in church with all your friends, lifting your hands… It makes you want to create that feeling for other people. Even if it’s not religious.”
Everyone’s definitely a little squiffy. But it’s time for the hard stuff. Apart from Ray, who’s giving Camden Hells lager a try. Johnston opts for Ketel One on ice, with a can of Monster energy drink. For the stage,” he reasons, slurring ever so slightly. “Very helpful…”
“And I have moved to my favourite drink of all time, from Lynchburg, Tennessee.” Mason thrusts his glass of Gentleman Jack forward. “JD’s our nightly drink on the bus. And on stage, and before stage, and before bed, and… yeah, all the time.”
“When you’re singing about Jack Daniel’s you’re representing your home,” Johnston explains. “A lot of people over here bring us Jack Daniel’s. We’ve got a fucking case of it under our bus! But they still bring it to us. Which is fine. It’ll get drunk…”
“Typically we’ll come offstage, breathe for about thirty seconds and then do a shot, what we call a ‘speed round’,” Ray says.
“There’s usually a bunch of people hanging around the bus after the show,” Johnston adds. “The nights tend to be long.”
It must be great to be at a point where you can make a full living out of this…
“I think we got this band where it needed to be by ourselves,” Johnston says. “When we started it was just three of us and the van. And we all have publishing deals [Johnston has written for country star Keith Urban, among others], which helps.”
How much are you actually making these days?
“We’re making a lot more money than when we started,” Mason says, “but we’re investing it in the band, in improving the show.”
“We’ve got a studio in the back of the bus,” Ray adds, “where we’ve written most of the next album.”
“What is helpful, though, is when you start making a bit of money, people start giving you shit for free,” Johnston laughs. “For years we’d have died for a free case of Miller Lite. Now people give us fifteen cases of beer, Jack Daniel’s and free Gibson guitars - when I could go out and buy one now. They should give shit to beginners. I can’t complain, but it’s ass-backwards. And people give us boots all the time. And hats. We get a lot of hats.”
“We have literally two hundred hats on our bus,” Mason nods.
There’s more alcohol-themed talk, centred around private jets (“It’d have Jack Daniel’s, pizza and probably a bunch of fuckin’ hats”) and how “booze, music and tacos” could be solutions for world peace. But the trio are slowly sinking into a grinning heap of hair and empty glasses, unconcerned about the show they have to play later tonight.
“We’ve done most of the things you can do… together,” Mason says as our one-bar pub crawl draws to an end.
Johnston (spluttering on the last of his vodka): “How’s that gonna translate in print?! But no, I think the reason we are still together is because we really are so close. Nobody put us together. There’s nothing fake about us.”