Judging from the photos, Luke Dick doesn’t dress like an ad man. After all, it’s been about a decade since he moved down to Nashville from New York City, shifting from writing commercial spec music to becoming a hit maker behind songs for Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley and Eric Church as well as Kacey Musgraves’ CMA- and Grammy-winning album Golden Hour. Outside of co-writing wildly successful country songs, Dick also spends time fronting the rock band Republican Hair, bringing a Dylan-like drawl to vivacious pop tunes the way that only a kid from the Midwest could.
Dick is now onto something else, too. After having made a foray into making a short documentary with co-director and collaborator Casey Pinkston in 2013, the ex-philosophy professor is preparing for the release of the pair’s first feature documentary, Red Dog. The film is a reflection on the people and places that Dick grew up around as a young kid in Oklahoma—namely The Red Dog, his mother’s place of employment and “the rowdiest and most popular strip club in Oklahoma City.”
PRØHBTD spoke with Dick as he readied himself for the film’s release and Republican Hair’s upcoming tour.
How are you feeling about the premiere of Red Dog?
I'm really excited. We’ve shown it privately a couple of times, just to friends and family, and it’s gone better than I expected. There's a lot of emotion. It was a new experience for me. It's not like a rock show where you can see faces and what is happening, so you are left guessing. You're left to the responses that you get after [people see] the film.
A lot of people reached out days and weeks after seeing it with a lot of heartfelt responses. People don't have to respond in that way, so just on a creative level, I feel like I made something not only worth making for me, but worth making for other people, too. That's always the faith that you have when you make anything: that it's going to mean something to somebody besides you. And I really feel like we made something worth making.
Is that what drove you to make the documentary, to tell a story that resonated with others?
No, it started [with] just being interested in my mom and her life, and her lifestyle, and her as a parent. It's things that you just don't know because you didn’t ask as a kid. As you get older and you have kids yourself, you realize that your parents were as clueless as you are at some point. Exploring that territory, a wild and edgy environment like a strip club, is something that interested me.
The first [audio] interview [with my mother] was really interesting. By the time I started filming her, it was clear to me that she was a great storyteller. I remember the characters from the film: They were in my life, so to get a rounded estimation of the environment and her parenting and her own psyche at the time was really interesting to me and then meaningful as I was putting the film together. Also, I haven't seen every movie in the world, but I've yet to see the lives of strippers 40 years down the road and the life and times and the bumps and bruises and where it ended up, you know? So that was an interesting angle for me to meet up with other people from the past, too, which sort of came out of the woodwork and wanted to be a part of the film.
Who surprised you the most?
Well, I know my mom, and I know her spirit, so to speak. The stories surprised me, but it's my mother, so it's not like it's out of left field or something. I ran a Kickstarter campaign a couple of years ago, and it was somewhat of a regional viral thing because the club is still open and it's a strange rite of passage in the middle of Oklahoma. Everybody knows what it is. It's notorious.
A bouncer named Tiny came out of the woodwork. I got a message from a guy I had driven a forklift with when I was getting my master’s degree, something like, “Hey, my cousin says he knows your mom. He's a real character. You should reach out to him.” I got a lot of emails like that after I ran the Kickstarter, and there was a lot of bullshit to sift through—but Tiny was not bullshit.
I got a picture of him, and I texted it to my mom and said, “You know some guy named Tiny?” I get a text back, “Oh, fuck yes. He gave me my first tattoo. He’s great.” It was like a little light going off. I called him the next day, and he said something about, “Yeah, I've been back in Oklahoma seven years. Thank god the statute of limitations ran out and I could move back.”
What was it like to make work that’s more personal or inward-facing after coming from a commercial background?
When I was in New York, I started gravitating towards film. My film partner Casey Pinkston and I co-directed and co-produced Red Dog since we were both raised in Oklahoma. Randomly we met in New York and made a short film called Bread for Boppa, which was about a baker I knew from Oklahoma. She moved to New York because she loved the food and started becoming a master baker. Her grandmother died, so her grandfather was in a nursing home and she would send bread to him every week. So we made this little short film about just that. We “followed” the bread, and I went to Oklahoma and met him and interviewed him.
I've made a lot of stuff that I am proud of, but that project was really gratifying. I had it in my head that I needed to talk to my mom a little bit more about her experience at the Red Dog. It first started with audio interviews, and I edited those with music and stuff, and I got some interest from This American Life. Then we started filming, and I felt I needed to push pause on This American Life and do this film. As Casey and I interviewed my mother more, it became clear that we really had something interesting, that something could be done with it. I'd never worked in movies, so I didn't know what that something could be, but I just felt the need to chase it down.
When I started embarking on this in New York, which was 10 years ago, I didn't know what the goal was. I didn't know how to sell anything. I didn't know how to get the things I needed out there. It was just really fun to do and gratifying.
What inspired the recent Republican Hair single, “Fuck a Bomb”?
I can't remember if I was reading the news… it was something about nuclear warfare, and I think it was just a flippant thing. I said to myself, “You know—fuck a bomb” and then “drop a single” was added to the back half of that phrase. I love protest music, but when I say protest music, the only thing that comes into my head is The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or something like that. It's like this must be the only protest music people talk about.
There’s nothing else?
That’s it. Nobody else ever did anything. So much of it is a grandstand happening. It seems obvious to me when I hear people sing about some sort of protest—and I don't mean to belittle anybody else's art—everybody needs to say what they need to say, and the public will either buy it or they won’t.
With “Fuck a Bomb,” I just remember listening to Slaughterhouse Five as read by Kurt Vonnegut, and in the first part of the book, he's talking about the process of writing it, which, to me, is a hilarious way to get into a book. I don't know the stylistic milieu [of literature at the time], but that device, or style, seemed novel to me. He's talking about being at a party with somebody, and he says, “I've just been trying to write this book about the bombing of Dresden forever.” And somebody says to him, “This isn't an anti-war book, is it? Because stopping the war's like stopping glaciers.”
That's really a bleak outlook, but putting it out there does something. He says, “I suppose so, as long as human beings are around, it's hard to stop these things.” He also says, “I don't want my kids working for war machines,” something to the effect of, “I told them they weren’t to work on chemicals that were meant to drop on people, to burn their skin off” or whatever. And I would say as much as the song is not as fleshed out as that statement is, I don't want to work for a chemical factory that's making mustard gas to drop on people to choke them out. I would like to think that there's another way, but, you know, fuck, war might be like a glacier, like Vonnegut says. I don't know, but there's the song.
What about “Chaotic Good”? Did you have a similar sort of inspiration?
Honestly, I saw a shirt that said “Chaotic Good” at an Of Montreal concert. I didn't know what it meant, but I loved the phrase. It’s such a paradox, and I've been “obsessed,” which may be a strong word, but I've been interested and intrigued by cult culture and gurus and such.
I watched Wild Wild Country about the cult in Oregon that ended up giving people salmonella in the early eighties, and I’m just fascinated with the kinds of influence that people wield. This isn't a song about that, but it smells like this love affair that is cultish in a way but still rock n’ roll. I just thought it was a phrase worth exploring, and “chaotic good” was this two-sided person of interest who is cultish and archetypal and academic at the same time—which was a fun, quirky road to go down in terms of the song.
Is this newfound interest in gurus related to your philosophical background in any way?
Maybe it is. There are extraordinary characters that show up who are able to wield power because people think they have answers. You can't throw a blanket statement on anything, but you get in there and see these characters who are supposedly fighting for or creating a utopia for some sort of grand vision that they have. By the end, it doesn't feel to me like these people have that much more of a grip on their own psyches or their own emotions or their own human foibles than my grandfather did, who was a truck driver from Oklahoma. That is a very simplistic way to look at it, but there’s still an attraction to power that seems antithetical to the whole idea of utopia, and I find that really interesting.
I don't begrudge anybody trying to find some greater meaning in this chaotic world. I feel like that's sort of, I hate to say, programmed, but there's a real lust for meaning in the world. So people get attracted to this sort of universal meaning, “This is the path,” or whatever. You start with this germ of wanting to get to the truth of the self or whatever... self-knowledge being considered as the greatest knowledge. At least that’s what’s presented to us through The Dialogues of Plato as being the goal of Socrates, but were there any foibles there where he's using his power to do this or that? I don't know. We didn't have social media 2,000 years ago to really get into the nitty gritty of someone’s psyche to see what they were doing, so we're left only with the grandiose treatises and dialogues or whatever. I think that it's a subject worth thinking about.
How are you feeling about the upcoming tour?
I'm excited. I love playing for people and going to new towns. A couple of years ago, something clicked in me: I had this very silly realization during a little round where I was playing songs on an acoustic guitar and people [were] responding, and it became this interaction. I had made a lot of records and never released them and had a great joy of making things for myself, but then I had a realization that music is a communal event, and any idiot should know that. From the beginning of time, people have been beating drums to bring down the rain and plucking strings to make sure they can get a gazelle in the hunt.
I think we make music to get lost and get found now, and to just commune about being human beings. I had that realization during a set: I need to be doing this more. I want to have a situation where I can lose it and have a have a crowd that loses it, too, you know, and create an interaction. That's where I've been the past couple of years with this band.
How did your background in commercial work shape or affect your craft?
For somebody to give you a goal, as ridiculous as it might sound, whether it be Sweet'n Low or Hilton, for them to say, “We're trying to do this.” I realize they're just trying to sell rooms, but you don't have to just try to sell rooms when you’re doing the work. It's like, can we get in touch with humanity somehow.
It really became a place for me to let go of my creative direction when I actually don't think I had any creative direction at the time. It helped me find one, as weird as that is, and it pays the bills. Not having to go to work at Starbucks, you know—and you can look down your nose at [commercial work] all day long, but somehow, to me, it does beat being a different kind of drum when you're not flexing your creative muscles.
Has working with Republican Hair changed your focus for good?
It has given me a real passion for playing music for people, whether it's 20, 200 or 2,000 people—it doesn't matter how many are there. This interaction is unlike anything in regular life, and you're given a license to let go of something. I don't know what that something is, but to just let go of the everyday and to let the beat move you and music move you and lyrics move you. It sounds so silly, and I should have known this all along, but I guess I didn’t. It's maybe more about me, but Republican Hair is something different.
I still love writing songs with other people and serving other people with a craft as a songwriter, where you can have a sort of Venn diagram where your creative intellect overlaps with someone else's. Maybe you become a character for them and you're writing as their character or with their character in mind, or [you’re] helping them sort out something emotionally. It's extremely gratifying.
Look at careers, just off the top of my head, like Shel Silverstein’s. He's mixing it up in songwriting and poetry in his artwork. To me, that’s the creative dream: being able to apply yourself anywhere you want and to have it go out to the world and mean something to people. First of all, it means something to yourself, and then it goes out into the world and means something for other people, too. There's no greater gratification than to feel like you're not alone.