The Seventy-Sevens were "pretty much inactive and out to pasture" for several years when drummer Bruce Spencer suddenly called guitarist and lead singer Mike Roe to say the group should record an album of early blues and gospel music. At the time, Spencer was backing up Jackie Greene, a rising star in the Americana scene, and had fallen in love with genre. The call sent Roe on a quest to find classic songs, bringing the band into the studio to hammer out Holy Ghost Building in a relatively short time. The album has earned positive critical reviews, proving that this classic Christian rock band is not done just yet. We interviewed Roe while the band's founding member was on his way from Sacramento to take in the tastes and aromas of the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California.

How did you collect and decide which songs you were going to include?

Mike Roe I dug into my own collection and borrowed albums from some friends. They were records from the 1920's onward, blues and gospel stuff. In those days the line wasn't that clearly drawn between the two. I learned a lot by doing some research on some of these people. Eventually we grabbed some hillbilly stuff and some songs from the folk scene. I tried to get together as many songs as I could that said something to me or spoke to me in some way, and then put them on cassette. When it came time to record, I brought the cassette to the studio, hit play and said, "What about this one?" As soon as we heard a tune we liked, we stopped the tape, walked over to our instruments, and told the engineer to roll tape. Usually within 20 or 30 minutes, maybe an hour, we were done. There was no rehearsal, no arranging. Everything was just completely spontaneous and off the cuff, which is the way we as a band like to work.

Why do you prefer to work that way?

Roe For one, we're all jazz hounds and extremely fond of improvisational music. We seem to do best when thrown into a creative atmosphere and we just go. We're very easily bored and distracted, and seem to do quite well under more of the jazz kind of framework. I think that comes from all the years of playing together in that kind of way.

Fortunately for us, this experiment came out really cool. We used everything we recorded. We didn't throw anything away. If a song wasn't happening, we just moved on. So we spent two or three days doing that and walked out of there with 11 or 12 tunes.

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I kept thinking this sounds like something that came out of the heyday of Sun Records—Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison. Were you going for something like that?

Roe I don't think that, but we worked that way. "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again" wasn't even supposed to be on there. That was just a sound check. We needed a song to run down and I just started playing it, and we wound up keeping it. It wound up being one of the coolest things on there.

I read that when Elvis went in to Sun Records, the ones that wound up being magical were the ones they'd play during coffee breaks while they were just goofing off. The producer, Sam Phillips, would say, "What are you guys doing? Let's get more of that." I think the sound of having fun was what defined the early days of rock and roll. It was taking sounds that were already familiar and not worrying about having to deliver them in a formal way.

You've played and recorded this kind of music before, so what about it moves you?

Roe I think that out of all the things we tried, this is the one that sounds the most primal. It's the thing I understand the best. There are other influences in there. When I was in high school there was the blues explosion. A lot of these songs I had never heard. I found them during my research period. It was a great learning experience, and it was a reliving of the past at the same time, so there was fresh, new feelings in it. It wasn't just rehashing something I knew so we couldn't put feeling into it. I was being challenged all the time.

Speaking of influences, does it seem bizarre to you that the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith have each covered a thoroughly Christian song such as "You Got to Move," which you recorded for Holy Ghost Building?

Roe It doesn't sound bizarre to me. I know those guys all grew up with that music or they discovered it in their teens. If you're growing up where it's gray and boring, especially in England, imagine how it would sound to hear Mississippi Fred McDowell sing "You Got to Move." That's like something from Mars! If you're a teenager from England in the 1950's or 1960's, that's completely exotic. There's such a raw emotion in there. That song in particular sounds like a field holler. You can imagine a bunch of people picking cotton and singing it as a work song. That song has to touch everyone at some level I think.

Although the band put its own stamp on the songs, you stayed pretty true to the originals so how did you wind up doing "He's a Mighty Good Leader" as a waltz?

Roe That was Bruce [Spencer]'s idea. I was content to just take the easy way out and do it the way Skip James did it, which was almost like a black hillbilly thing, but Bruce would have none of that. He said, "Why don't we try it like a slow waltz thing." I found that it was a magical place for it, and it's not anything someone else would have done. I found out later that Beck recorded that song, and he did it a lot closer to Skip James original version—only worse. He didn't even bother to tune his guitar for it.

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You said this album was a learning experience for you. Are you trying to be an educator for others?

Roe Not deliberately, but I hope that does happen. I think it's unfortunate that we have such a wealth of culture that is in our backyard but people don't know about it. I understand, though. I know some of it has to do with the sonic degradation over time. People don't have a lot of patience with something that sounds like it was recorded in a tin can over a static telephone line. But if some modern group records the thing and brings the song to life in a new way, people might want to go back and discover where it came from, or at least appreciate it for what it is.

Why did you decide to place one of your original songs on the album and then record it in a way that was completely different from the traditional pieces?

Roe Well, we didn't record it differently from the other pieces. That song happened right in the middle of the sessions. Sonically, it has the same atmosphere, but because we weren't playing the blues, it comes off different. I've always thought we should not put it on the album because it doesn't fit. There's been criticism here and there because it didn't fit, even if people liked the song. But we record so rarely and put stuff out so rarely, that we wanted to let people know we still write original songs. In retrospect, I personally regret putting it on there.

The Seventy-Sevens in 2008: drummer Bruce Spencer (left), guitarist/singer Mike Roe, and bassist Mark Harmon.

The Seventy-Sevens in 2008: drummer Bruce Spencer (left), guitarist/singer Mike Roe, and bassist Mark Harmon.

The Seventy-Sevens toured briefly before you played at the Cornerstone Festival Why did you play there but then not set any other dates?

Roe We played Cornerstone because they keep asking us to. It's the only festival that's ever cared about us. In fact, part of what stopped the Seventy-Sevens from touring was we tried to do all of the festivals in 2001 and it was a total waste of time. You spend all of your time sitting around waiting to get on stage and no one really cares. They're just throwing you up there. If you're lucky, there are some fans who really want to see you. But Cornerstone is different. The fans show up and they want to be there and see you. It's also an excuse to book a tour. You can't afford to just play Cornerstone. In the old days, they would pay us enough to fly us out, put us up, and fly us back, and we'd all make some money. Nowadays, you make some money but you've got to do some shows around it to make it work.

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This year, we were able to barely get the Seventy-Sevens a week of shows. But you can't stay away for nine years and expect everyone to fall down when you say you're ready to do something. Typically we do Lost Dogs before and after, but this year no one wanted Lost Dogs—we got one gig. It's kind of a drag. I think a lot of it has to do with gas prices and everything is expensive. People are kind of pulling back. But economic trends go up and down. Eventually people will get hungry again and it will pull up.

How do you decide whether to record a song as part of the Seventy-Sevens, The Lost Dogs, or solo?

Roe I tend to write toward the project now, rather than pulling from something that was lying around. In the old days, The Lost Dogs got the leftovers—whatever stuff I didn't finish or my other band didn't want. I'm more motivated to work on the songs and finish them, and really, really brush them up well when I know there's a budget and a project waiting.

I'm not a self-motivated writer, unfortunately. I tend to be more mercenary. If I'm going to put that kind of concerted effort in to something, I don't want it to just sit there and have nobody hear it. I tend to be very meticulous with my writing, so if I'm going to take a piece out of myself, I want it to be for something people actually get to enjoy.

Speaking of The Lost Dogs, I understand you are getting ready to travel Route 66, interviewing people to prepare for your next album. What is the motivation behind that journey?

Roe We want to hear the stories of the people who have maintained these roadside attractions over the years and hear about their families. If it is a family business, we want to know how it got started. We think these are just interesting stories in these people's lives. I think that will provide some great inspiration for songwriting.

Were you thinking of the song "Scenic Routes" when you came up with the idea?

Roe No, but it's interesting how that concept has been floating along with us, particularly with Terry [Taylor] and myself. Being the age we are, we tend to get nostalgic for the things we remember from our childhoods that our parents showed us on family vacations—a lot of the tacky things you see along the road. That stuff starts to resurface in your old age, I think. (laughter) You want to go back and look at it from a different point of view than when you were a kid.

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When you're older, you look at all of this as part of your culture. You have to make sense of your culture somehow, and I kind of like focusing on some of that stuff. I find that stuff really interesting, and I think it has something to do with figuring out who you are as an American. It's easy to go to other countries and look at their cultures and define that for yourself.

But it's hard to define who you are in America. Certainly there's always baseball, and Mickey Mouse, and Elvis Presley—the standard stuff—but I like digging underneath the surface a little bit. It's just fun and its touching, but a trifle sad because the road and the attractions are kind of a shadow of what they were in their glory day. So is our country in a lot of ways. I suppose it's a nostalgic looking back but also trying to make sense of it.

Click here to read our review of Holy Ghost Building, which you can find online at the Seventy-Sevens' site