St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest continuously occupied city in the USA. A sixteenth century-founded beach town with old brick roads, coquina stone walls and Spanish colonial architecture, it’s long been claimed to be haunted. Paranormal enthusiasts visit for its ghost tours.
Some say the first ever Thanksgiving took place here, 50-odd years before the pilgrims broke bread with the Wampanoags in Plymouth, Massachusetts, when Spanish colonists feasted on shellfish, alligator, tortoise and wild turkey with members of Florida’s Timucua tribe.
It was here that Chris Tapp – singer/guitarist with The Cold Stares, and a man with a gift for conveying ghosts of the past through music – found inspiration for one of his band’s standout singles to date, the smoke-wreathed desert blues cocktail In The Night Time.
“When you’re walking on the streets you’re basically walking on a graveyard,” Tapp says in a deep, southern purr, talking via Zoom from his Indiana home, “because there’s so many people buried under the streets. And I had that mentality in my head, so I wrote In The Night Time in a minute or two.”
Tapp lives for this stuff. All his life he has gravitated towards stories – his own and those of others. Stories from his oldest relatives in rural Kentucky. Stories about the great bluesmen of the South. Stories by the likes of William Faulkner and Edgar Allan Poe, the influence and atmosphere of which envelopes his latest album with The Cold Stares, Heavy Shoes.
It’s the kind of Southern gothic tone that speaks of road trips, desert journeys and darkened lives, transporting us to faraway places and telling us about ourselves. Because like so many of the best stories, they’re all based on truth.
The Cold Stares – started by Tapp and drummer Brian Mullins in 2011 – were due to have a great 2020. Big US festival contracts were signed. Heavy Shoes was almost ready to go. After having more than their fair share of setbacks involving illness, label disappointments, divorce and more, their time seemed to have come. Then, in a sadly now very familiar twist, COVID came knocking and fucked everything up. Stuck at home in Indiana, Tapp stared at the wall and considered their options.
“I’ve talked to Joe [Bonamassa] and some other friends of mine that tour a lot,” he says, “and they were staring at the walls as well, like: ‘What do you do now?’ I was like, well, we just finished an album, so shall we work on another record, or should I do something separately? I really didn’t feel like doing much of anything. I was kind of depressed, and that lasted for longer than I wanted to admit, probably for two months.”
Eventually, while based in their respective home studios Tapp and Mullins made and released the Black Sunset EP. Tapp wrote about 28 additional songs with the view to taking the best and making an album that they wouldn’t necessarily release, “but we would play live for the fans as an incentive, then if they wanted to bootleg it that would be great too.”
For Tapp, who, in 2012 was diagnosed with stage-three cancer and given six months to live, the pandemic created a fear of not being able to accomplish all he’d set out to do. The prospect of being killed by the virus, however, was less frightening than it would’ve been for many.
“I have no fear of death at all,” he says, without pretension, “so I never worried that I would get COVID and die. I worry about other people, and people that I love, but I didn’t worry about myself, and I still don’t. I thought for a couple of years that I was going to die, so I made things right in my head and prepared for that. I think it’s helped long-term.”
Like many cancer survivors, he was left with a renewed reverence for life. He came out of “a really bad marriage”. As record label discussions started up again, he and Mullins sped a Porsche round the Hollywood Hills. They ate in restaurants they wouldn’t have contemplated before. They went surfing. At the back end of his chemotherapy Tapp bought a motorcycle and rode it every day. They released more music. He remarried happily.
All of which frames the events of 2020 in a jarring, unjust light, with its lack of payoff that The Cold Stares – and so many others – were surely owed. But it lends the heavy, primal blues-rock grooves of Heavy Shoes an extra layer of urgency, dotted with hat tips to the likes of Led Zeppelin and Free.
Tales of addiction, toxic relationships, national disenchantment (Election Blues) and more bubble through its dark, fiery waters. “[I thought] I want it to rock. I don’t want any kind of filler, and I’m not gonna censor myself from going to dark places… We didn’t really know how bad COVID would be, and I’m kind of detached from it now, cos it was like a movie.”
If COVID was like a movie, then you should hear Tapp’s back story – a real-life Kentucky gothic drama, which birthed his bluesman sensibilities and intense relationship with storytelling.
It all started out normally enough. Initially Tapp was raised in Madisonville, Kentucky. His father ran an automotive store. He was an angry kid who didn’t identify with his peers. He didn’t get on with his mother. They went to church on Sundays.
Then, aged 10, he found out he was adopted. His birth mother had been a sixteen-year-old cheerleader whose father was in politics. She gave him up for adoption. His biological father remained a mystery. “In one way it was kind of relieving. But it was two-fold: I was really close with my father and, especially, with his father, my grandmother and her sisters.”
That anxiousness to not betray his adoptive family had a pervasive impact. For much of his formative years he felt alone, and it was only after his grandfather died that he found his birth mother (“I have a relationship with her now and that’s great”).
“I would be around other people and they would know their brothers and their sisters and their cousins, but I was like, okay, I’m the only person that I know with my blood… I wanted to have kids young, because I wanted a family so I could go: ‘This is a part of me.’ Which was kind of weird and alienating at the time.”
Later the family moved to a small, rural town 15 miles outside Madisonville. His great-aunt had a farm and an old plantation-style house close by in Dixon (“it’s a weird little town, very True Detective”) where Tapp would visit and eventually live, in an old farmhouse behind the property, when he graduated high school until his first marriage when he was 25.
He was a natural old soul. While his classmates were discovering current bands, Tapp was listening to his elderly relations tell stories. In the Second World War his great aunt worked in the post office, reading letters from soldiers that “couldn’t or wouldn’t” get delivered. Later she ran a funeral home, where “a guy came in and got silly, ended up getting killed”.
Meanwhile, his grandfather told him about his great-grandfather, who had run moonshine during Depression-era prohibition. Aged 13, when the family wouldn’t discuss the period further, Tapp did his own research and learned that the local sheriff and deputy at the time had visited his great-grandfather’s house and raped his great-aunt. The next time they came round, his great grandfather hid under the porch until they arrived, before coming out and shooting them both dead. He spent six days in jail.
“Justice was different then,” Tapp half-laughs. “I think maybe the sheriff and deputy had done similar things to other people in the town. I never wrote a song specifically about that, but it probably gets into all the songs.”
Church was a constant. As a teenager Tapp watched his adoptive mother throw away his Kiss records, and heard his beloved Black Sabbath referred to as “the devil”. He developed a disdain for the “hypocrisy of religion”.
Immersing himself in the forefathers of rock’n’roll was a turning point. Religious, revered and extremely flawed legends like Son House and Robert Johnson threw more fuel on his love of the blues and its ability to tell stories – to tell the truth.
“Son House was singing songs about someone getting killed because that’s what he knew,” he reasons. “That’s what I knew, because I went to church but my great-grandfather killed two people. I believe in God, but I also knew that people don’t always live in the way they live on Sunday morning. I loved it that Johnny Cash could sing about killing a man, and then also sing Amazing Grace. That’s real to me. What’s not real is TV preachers asking for all your money.”
In his early twenties Tapp was offered a deal with a Christian rock band. He turned it down. “I felt that’s not the way Jesus would reach people. Jesus wouldn’t go to the church and preach, he would go to the bar and give the guy that was drunk a ride home. I’d rather be a Christian in a rock band than be in a Christian rock band.”
Instead his faith has fed into various Cold Stares songs, sometimes explicitly although more often it’s a subtle presence. Either way, he doesn’t want to enforce his own beliefs on anyone else. “It’s very real to me, and if it’s not real to somebody else then that’s totally fine.”
Along with ‘real’, ‘authentic’ is a word that gets liberally thrown around in contemporary blues circles, often as a vague, slightly pompous indicator of substance. The Cold Stares wear the term more convincingly than most, but they do it by shunning marketable markers of ‘realness’ in favour of sounds they really love. Still, as a young-ish white guy reinterpreting the blues, Tapp is mindful of the potential pitfalls that he could encounter because of that.
“If I was dressing like Son House and playing Son House songs, that would be disingenuous. I’m not a black guy whose family has a history of sharecropping and slavery, I’ll never know what that feels like. But I would get in a fist fight with somebody over being able to be influenced by Son House. I’ve spent my entire life listening to Son House. It’s part of who I am.”
The Cold Stares are really all about atmosphere, and ultimately it’s the atmosphere of music, and of stories – from Son House to Edgar Allan Poe, Led Zeppelin and beyond – that leaves a feeling behind. That’s real.
“Like Forty Dead Men,” he says of Heavy Shoes’ jet-packed second track, “when I sing that I feel like I’m on the battlefield, and I want it to feel like that. If you create an atmosphere, the song has life."