Avi Vinocur is practicing. The back of his new car, a 2011 Ford E-150—a behemoth on the slender streets of San Francisco—is hanging open; a stack of black hard-shell cases Tetris-ed into the back.
He’s leaving on tour with his band, Goodnight, Texas, in a few days, and he needs to teach himself how to most efficiently pack this new tour van. As of right now, the E-150 is his only vehicle. It seems slightly absurd for Goodnight, Texas’ lone San Franciscan to own a van, but as one of the members of an astoundingly authentic Americana outfit, it makes total sense.
Vinocur lives in the Sunset, just off the N-Judah line. On this particular Tuesday evening, he’s biding his time until his bandmate Patrick Dyer Wolf lands at SFO, where he will pick him up in a few hours. For now, though, he’s talking about the new record, Uncle John Farquhar.
“Yeah, I think we both have this affinity for the South and Appalachia…because it’s so opposite of what we both know,” says Vinocur, now sitting on the couch in his living room. Dyer Wolf is originally from New Jersey, and Vinocur was born in Connecticut and raised in Los Angeles. Despite their geographical limitations, Goodnight, Texas—named after the exact midpoint between Vincour and Dyer Wolf’s hometowns—is Americana. Not folk-rock, not blues-rock, not Southern rock, not flag-wavin’, drawl-talkin’, boot-in-your-ass country. It’s a modern reassembly of the sounds that American music—all kinds of it—sprang from.
The songs themselves are like artifacts—everything has a story; significance. The band emerged in 2012 with the single “Jesse Got Trapped in a Coal Mine,” inspired by stories Dyer Wolf had heard of his steel-country ancestors, and Uncle John Farquhar is named after an ancient relative of Dyer Wolf’s. “I am sort of the one that writes…most of the songs about weird stories and shit, but this album is conceptually about members of his family,” says Vinocur of Dyer Wolf. “The song “Uncle John Farquhar” is a song on the album (that) I wrote, but it’s about his great-great-great grandfather. We didn’t set out to do that; that song didn’t get that title (until) we realized, ‘Wow, he had this relative that was a pastor in steel country in Pennsylvania, that’s what this song is about.’”
It’s this shared love of old things that informs Goodnight, Texas’ oeuvre. Even in Vinocur’s previous band, blues-rock revivalists The Stone Foxes, an interest in American history and musical heritage came in handy. “I mean, I’ve always kind of been interested in old blues, (but it was) more from a perspective of an outsider at that point. Now I feel like I’m trying to…picture what it’s like to be someone from down there.” Even while waiting around for Dyer Wolf to text, he’s spinning some very, very old tunes—starting with a collection of Chicago blues from the ‘20s, on vinyl of course. “I’ve been really into Chicago blues lately,” he says. Next comes Charley Patton, who he comments is “even more mysterious than Robert Johnson.” Vinocur wears a dastardly Dillinger mustache, and looks pretty comfortable in it. His enthusiasm for records, antiques, and Charley Patton makes this mustache feel very significant.
“Dearest Sarah, I’m compelled to write with aching, fearful hands…”
Vinocur has picked up the nearest guitar—there’s a lot of them in his apartment—and is playing the opening line from “Dearest Sarah,” Uncle John Farquhar’s standout track. What afternoon light there was when he sat down is now all but gone. The words linger in dim, ghostly air.
“Dearest Sarah” has been a long time in the making. “I wrote that song like eight years ago, a little before I moved to San Francisco,” he says. “I had watched the Ken Burns Civil War series at different intervals throughout my life, but I watched it again when I was 19 or 20, and yeah…that letter came on, and it’s so powerful.” He’s referring to the now-famous letter written from Union officer Sullivan Ballou to his wife just a week before his death, the text for which is featured prominently in the Ken Burns documentary. “It’s…the most American, patriotic, beautiful reminder of why we live here. It’s just so gorgeous.
“And I was just kind of like, ‘How do you put this into a song?’” He picks a few notes on the guitar. “I wrote it in 4/4 on a guitar, and then…I went on tour for the summer in 2006 and played it at our New York show. It was the first time I had ever played it for anyone. Afterwards, I was packing up and the bartender came over to me…and she was crying. She was like, ‘That was the most powerful thing I’ve ever heard.’
“It’s got a lot of words. I had trouble remembering all the words to it, so I didn’t play it again (for a while) and then I played it in Kansas City…and there was a girl at that show that came up to me and was like, ‘Is that on your album? You need to record that.’ And for the next, like, six years she bugged me on Facebook (about it).
“But I wasn’t totally happy with it. And then I took this trip to New Zealand a few years ago and I was at a really low point in my happiness, and the song, like, came (back) to me. All I had was a mandolin, so I started playing it, but I started playing it in 6/8 instead of 4/4. I wrote it like…” He plays the opening notes in a strange rhythm. “But the song wasn’t right to me for some reason. Like, the words came out kinda slowly. ‘Dearest Sarah, I’m compelled to write with aching, fearful hands…’” he sings. “And in New Zealand I did it on the mandolin (in 6/8)…” He plays it again, this time in 6/8. He lets it hang there for a second.
“Just…yeah. 6/8. It was it.
“And I remembered all the words. After eight years. I don’t really know why or how. But I wrote it and played it—I did a little video of myself; it’s on YouTube actually—playing it so I’d remember it. And when I was done—I was on a rooftop in Auckland, New Zealand—and there was an apartment building across the way and in two windows there were three people, and they just all started clapping.
“That, to me, is probably my favorite song I’ve ever written. I think…it sort of foreshadowed me how to do this band, to write music that’s about old America. So that was…that’s where that came from. It’s kind of a long story.”
He looks at his phone again. Dyer Wolf’s plane is due to land soon. He puts the guitar away, turns off the stereo and heads back down to the garage.
“We do this a lot,” he says as he straps himself into the front seat and starts up the E-150, which rumbles to life at his command. With all current members staggered across the country, airports and long drives are a big part of the GNTX experience.
The sun is well sunk below the skyline, and Vinocur and his lumbering van glide gracefully down 101, past the last outposts of city life and into the green trees and industry of the upper Peninsula. He pilots the car with so much ease, it’s clear he’s made this trip many, many times. The soothing voice of an NPR personality breathes out the van’s speakers at a low volume. “When we’re on the road, I like to pretend we’re in an episode of This American Life a little bit,” he says as he pulls into the pick-up lane at San Francisco International Airport. It’s completely dark outside now.
The E-150 commands some serious authority in the every-van-for-himself atmosphere of the pick-up lanes. Vinocur is bobbing and weaving around lesser cars; the van so imposing that the dirty roofs of other vehicles clearly visible from the passenger windows.
“Theeeere he is,” Vinocur says as he rolls up to door 4. There’s Patrick, with his luggage at his feet. He clambers into the van. It’s the first time he’s seen it.
Now with half the band in the van, Vinocur heads back up 101 North. They are picking up drummer Alex Nash. He lives in Atascadero, but tonight is at his parents’ house in South San Francisco, watching the Major League All-Star game.
On the way, the two talk about the new record. “It was one of the things we found that we overlapped on,” Dyer Wolf says of American lore and history, and Goodnight, Texas’ antiquated sound. “When we played as just a duo, it was just that we had two guitars. We both like folklore and history, and I guess geography is a part of that too. (We also like) Learning about places; obscure places. When we found the phrase Goodnight, Texas it had the right sound.” Dyer Wolf is lanky and fair-featured, and only slightly less boisterous than Vinocur.
Speaking of learning about places, Dyer Wolf has seen a lot of them. He grew up in New Jersey, lived in San Francisco for a bit, left for Chapel Hill, and now dwells in New York City. But what does he miss most about Goodnight, Texas’ however unlikely, but true hometown of San Francisco? “The curry udon at Hotei,” he spits, without missing a beat. Vinocur guffaws, and Dyer Wolf chuckles a bit. “No, no. I…I appreciate the vantage points,” he says of the city. “I grew up near New York, and I guess I like the, in comparison, understatedness of San Francisco.
“But yeah, the real answer is the curry.”
It takes Vinocur a while to find the house. He has to do it all from memory, and all the street names in the neighborhood have a “-wood” suffix, which makes it even trickier. Eventually, he finds it—he’s positive. He parks across the street. Shortly thereafter, he gets a text from Nash: “Hey, I’ll be outside in a second. Sorry.” Vinocur narrates sardonically.
Moments later, Nash emerges and sleepily loads himself into the back seat of the van, which feels like it’s miles away from the rest of the passengers.
“Hey, did you get the cymbals?” Vinocur inquires. Nash grunts a response. “Go back and get the cymbals.” Nash obediently goes back in for the cymbals. He comes back and tosses them into the back; his mom standing in the doorway of the house; watching. She waves slightly. The boys wave back.
Off they go, back towards the city. Nash needs to drop off a friend’s phone at a place near Taraval.
There’s a lot of banter in the van, which is usually how it goes down. “We don’t spent a lot of idle time together,” says Vinocur. “(When we get together), it’s like we’re reuniting. It’s like a movie.” (He begins casting—so far it includes Justin Long and Matthew McConaughey.) “I don’t think people think that we don’t hang out. We really do live across the country from each other.
“But it works if you really trust the other person,” he says. “There’s some connection between America in the 1860s and making unconventional things work.”
They are still on 101, just outside the city border. Three-quarters of Goodnight, Texas are present and accounted for—a rare thing outside of shows. They’ll depart on tour soon, and need to practice in the morning. This zipping back and forth across the border is practice for the next few months they’ll spend together in Vinocur’s E-150, where they’ll probably enact various forms of ignoring each other. “We have about three to four different van modes,” offers Nash, his head a distant vision in the very back bench seat. “One: YouTube. Two: Sporcle, for baseball trivia.” All present members of GNTX, it’s important to note, are huge baseball fans. “One is the giggles,” Nash continues listing. “Then—and this usually comes after shows—real talk.”
Real talk is rare, though. On the road, personal space is at a premium, and most of the time the only way to create that is through silliness—YouTube videos and inside jokes, for instance—or complete silence. The banter and laughter ebb and flow between marked periods of quiet as the van crawls up 19th Avenue.
Vinocur pulls up at the destination, another typical 20th-century Sunset apartment building. Nash hops out and disappears inside for a few minutes. “Oh, is this the place with the plov?” asks Dyer Wolf. He had been resting resting his travel-weary head on the pillow next to him, but he sits up a little straighter. The friend Nash is visiting has a mother who makes a mean plov, an Uzbeki dish that has become legend among the local contingent of Goodnight, Texas. They gush about Misha’s mother’s cooking for a few minutes while the E-150 idles outside the door.
Nash returns in a few minutes and hops back into the van. Talk of plov dissolves slowly into a content, contemplative silence. The fog is settling on the tops of the apartments and starting to surround the van. Off they go again, into the cold, wet dark of a San Francisco night, before exploring the rest of the country.
Goodnight, Texas is releasing ‘Uncle John Farquhar’ Tuesday, August 5. You can pre-order it from iTunes today.