Left on Red

high-heels shoes and neon light text saying "left on red"
If the Beatles, Beach Boys, The Temptations and the Ramones collaborated together and released Sweetheart of the Rodeo instead of the Byrds, they might have set the precedent for Birmingham’s Left on Red’s musical blueprint.

Led by dual songwriters banjoist/vocalist Carter Hutchison and pianist/vocalist Britt Cowen and supported by bassist Alex Reed and drummer Craig Pohlmann, the group produces beachy, fuzzed-out psychedelic folk that’s also indebted to the more experimental sides of alt-country. Created after a reunion of fellow Auburn University students Hutchison and Cowen, the group has started making its mark on the Birmingham scene through both its live shows and online recordings.

We spoke with Carter Hutchison about the beginnings of Left on Red, their layered and diverse approach to songwriting, mixing the sweet and the cynical and not compartmentalizing creative endeavors.

 Chris K. Davidson for Magic City Bands: A banjo is always a unique instrument to have as a lead instrument instead of a guitar. How did you get started playing?

Carter Hutchison: I started playing it in college when I was at Auburn. I was playing guitar at that point. I was listening to a lot of music that had banjo in it. I couldn’t find a player around town, so I decided to learn it myself. I started playing with a buddy, Britt Cowen, who’s the piano player in Left on Red now. We started playing together in college. We kept in touch somewhat, and then he reached out a couple years ago to say he was back in Birmingham. I was too, so we got together to start playing again. I met Alex Reed through the place I was working at the time, so he joined us not long afterwards.

It’s been mostly the three of us for a while. We’ve had some drummers. We used to call it our “Defense Against the Dark Arts position” because it constantly changed, and we could never hold onto one. We found our current drummer, Craig Polhmann, online, and he’s been great. That’s the current lineup now.

MCB: And you’ve started to play shows around as well. 

CH: Yeah, we’ve played at the Nick a good bit. Our first show was at the Opelika Public Library, which was very interesting. We’ve also played at a bar in Leeds called Van’s. This show at Pell City this coming Friday at Sweet Home Saloon & Grill is definitely going to be our longest set.

MCB: I remember the last time you and I jammed, it was really cool to see you take those rock/pop hits and incorporate the banjo into them. Is that the approach you’ll take with some of the set you’ll do at Sweet Home?

CH: One hundred percent. We just use those songs as a template, but we definitely try to make them our own. When Britt and I started sitting down and talking about the “sound” of our band to be, we decided to treat the banjo like a rhythm guitar and a trumpet as a lead guitar. Still looking for that trumpet player, but that’s migrated over to the piano. The piano has become our lead instrument for the moment until we find a brass sound. We’re still experimenting with that. We’ve got a guy who’s moving here from Nashville that’s another friend of mine. He’ll be joining the band next month, so the sound is growing.

MCB: What’s the meaning behind the name, Left on Red?

CH: We just liked the double meaning. One interpretation is it’s something illegal, and the other is a modern day social faux pas.

left on red band members

MCB: I’ve listened to the songs you sent me. One of them, “Just to Be with You,” really struck me. The songs are very Beatles-esque. Double vocals, organ sounds from Britt. It’s a very layered recording style. 

CH: To be honest with you, I enjoy playing live, but if it was up to me, all we would do is record. That’s the part that’s really interesting to me. I’ll get a base sound with the group. I’ll take it back, and I’ll add my own stuff on top until it sounds right. Obviously, the Beatles are a huge influence on my songwriting, but the sound in general. Really Paul McCartney. I’m a massive Paul McCartney fan.

He said something in an interview one time, and I think he was quoting an old composer like Beethoven. They said that they used the notes “that go together well,” and I really liked the phrasing of that. I even put that line into one of our songs.

What I like about Paul McCartney is that he writes songs that feel like you’ve heard them before, even though you’ve never heard it. I would hope “Just to Be with You” falls into that same category.

I’m also a big ’50s and ’60s doo-wop fan. I went through a colossal Beach Boys/Brian Wilson phase. I’m also a huge Decemberists fan. A lot of melancholy aspects of their songs. Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers as well. Both of those bands are good at story songs. A lot of the first things that Britt and I were writing together were story songs.

This is the first situation I’ve ever been in where I can song write with the other band members in the same room. That’s been very rare for me. There’s no ego aspect. You can toss a line or tweak a line, and nobody gets their feelings hurt. Some of my favorite lines are lines that Britt has come up with. That’s been really fun.

We joke around that there’s a McCartney-Lennon type relationship there. What summarizes the McCartney-Lennon relationship to me is “Getting Better” where Paul’s doing his bright, happy stuff where he sings “got to admit it’s getting better,” and John echoes “it can’t get no worse.” That summarizes to me the positive aspect of Paul and the cynical nature of John. We’re far less talented, but I think that Britt and I have close to the same type of deal.

I wrote a suite of songs called “Please,” “Thank You” and “I Love You.” That was based around conversations with my six-year-old. Those are the best words. There are bad words, not-so-nice words and the best words are “please,” “thank you” and “I love you.” Those songs came out like if Mister Rogers wrote some doo-wop songs. It was very innocent sounding, especially “Please” because the lines were:

“What do you say when there’s something that you want

What do you say when there’s something that you need

What do you say when your cup needs filling up”

It’s literally teaching someone to say “please,” but Britt is able to add a somewhat more cynical aspect to it. It’s a good balance that works well.

MCB: You used to do podcasting. Do you think that has affected your songwriting in any way? With songs, you’re telling songs in three minutes. With podcasts, you have the main content, but you’re piecing it together in a way that makes sense for the audience. Do you think that’s influenced you any or have you learned anything from that experience?

CH: What I learned most from the podcast stuff wasn’t the actual act of recording because that was just getting in and out of the studio weekly, and I had a studio out of the bottom of my house at the time. I actually use Audacity still to record our songs, which I know a lot of people frown down on that program because it’s free and it doesn’t have that many features. But we didn’t need that many features, and I know the program. I’m able to get the sound out of it that I want.

I’m also close to the end of writing a book. One of my favorite artists, Laura Marling, was doing the same thing. She went from songwriting to writing a novella. She realized that she had to stop compartmentalizing writing. It’s not songwriting, then novel writing or even podcasting; it’s all writing, period. That gave me the confidence to branch out and write actual prose.

For songwriting, most ideas come from turns of phrase that I’ve heard. “As The Crow Flies” is the name of one of our songs, and that’s a great southern expression to me. My kid will say things to me. “Today is tomorrow” is something I’ve written down that he’s said. He was looking out for something that was coming the next day, and asked if today was tomorrow, and I said “yes, today is tomorrow.” That phrase already sounds like a Beatles song to me.

So podcasting, maybe not so much. Like I said earlier, I just like writing songs that feel like you’ve heard them before. Call it “pop” or whatever broad net you want to put it in. It’s harder to do than most people realize.

MCB: Aside from the show in Pell City this Friday, do you have anything coming up?

CH: We’re working on an album, tentatively called Words and Chords. We have a lot of original songs, maybe close to 30 if not over that. For shows like the one at Sweet Home, we try to do a ratio of 2:1, covers to originals. At the Nick, it’s all originals, but that’s a different type of venue as far as what those folks want to hear.

I’m still trying to figure out what genre to call us. There’s folk in it, garage rock and then some punkiness in there as well, which comes from the delivery of some of our lyrics. A lot of it comes from our bass player, Alex. People may not recognize it at first, but Alex does a lot of heavy lifting between two trebly instruments to work as a bridge between the piano and banjo and the percussion. Not having a lead instrument definitely makes things interesting at times, but sometimes it’s Alex and then it’s Britt the rest of the time adding some kind of organ-y sound on top. Literally in the same song,  someone could be screaming and someone else could be doing some kind of “bop-bop” harmonies.

“Just to Be with You” is very doo-wop, and there’s an Ursula Kayla Guinn reference. I love reading and writing, and sci-fi is my go-to. I’m a big Ursula Kayla Guinn fan. The Farthest Shore is one of her books, and that’s a line in “Just to Be with You,” and so is The Other Wind, which is another Guinn book and another line in that song.

There’s little references to tons of stuff. We have a song called “Thrill Hill,” which is about Vestavia. Being a teenager, driving around and smoking weed in someone’s car. We want to release something called Over the Mountain EP, that is basically three songs about things from around here. Everyone except for Craig is from around the Over the Mountain area. Britt and Alex went to Spain Park, and I went to Vestavia.

I’m really enjoying this group. It just really feels like a family.

Left on Red plays Sweet Home Saloon & Grill in Pell City on Friday, July 14th from 8 p.m. to midnight. For more information, like them on Facebook.

Images courtesy of Left on Red. Chris K. Davidson is a writer and musician. He sings in the band Waterwells.