By Ian Bremner

Dougie Poole has found himself as an enigmatic character in most music circles, particularly country music. If you asked him, he wouldn’t know why. He’s an extremely down to earth, thoughtful, to-the-point type of guy who lets his songs do the talking. Where some artists work to create a “brand” or mystique, Poole simply lays it all out there and seems perfectly happy with it.

Since 2016, Poole has been releasing fantastic “country” music from the Brooklyn indie scene. Country is in quotations, because it’s not always that straightforward. He lives on the peripherals of what most folks would consider country’s classic form. 2017’s Wideass Highway leans into psychedelia with synths and drum machines. 2020’s Freelancer’s Blues spoke of vaping on the job, the moment when drugs start to wear off, an aborted move to Los Angeles and selective buddhism. He himself a freelance coder, the record struck a chord for folks suddenly without work due to the pandemic.

Like a lot of artists, Poole had to adjust. His freelance gig turned into a two year remote job. He moved home to Maine and took up birding. He wrote a new record, The Rainbow Wheel Of Death. Life moves slower these days for Poole, something he seems fine with. As he gears up to hit the road on a massive spring tour covering nearly the whole country, I caught up with Poole over zoom from his current resident in Maine. In the background, birds soundtracked our conversation over our respective laptops. Something about it felt right.

Ian Bremner: You’ve always been fairly genre-less and lived straddling this world of “country” and more “indie-rock” with drum machines, synths, but this record feels decidedly more traditional country music. Especially songs like Beth David Cemetery and Must Be in Here Somewhere. What was your motive for leaning more fully into country sounds?

Dougie Poole: The driving force behind that was just wanting to do it as much with other people as possible. I think a lot of synths and drum machines you hear on the older records come about from me needing to do things by myself at various stages. My older records, I would program every drum pattern and write every bass part, everything down to the note. This one I didn’t really have the energy for that. I just wrote the songs and brought in some friends who are great players and just let them do their thing.

IB: I know you started making this at your place in Brooklyn at the time, then took it to a studio to finish off in Maryland with your band. It has a real live-band feel. Was this different from how you normally operate?

DP: Yeah, I usually write everything by myself at a computer. A rough timeline is – the pandemic started right around when my last record came out and it seemed pretty clear, pretty quickly, I was not going to be able to tour that. I took a part time job and was there for 2 years remotely. I was spending a lot of my time at my computer, like everybody, so the process I had used before wasn’t going to happen. After working all day on a computer, the last thing you want to do is sit down to write at a computer. I wrote a lot of it on a guitar which was new for me. Instead of doing drum beat first, or sound first, I just wrote the shells of the songs and then put them in the hands of other musicians.

IB: You just mentioned taking a job as coder during the pandemic. As someone in the music world who has also worked in corporate spaces, do your coworkers know about your musical life?

DP: Thats an interesting question. I usually try to keep it pretty close to the chest. At this point I’m pretty much exclusively a freelancer, so at the start of a new job, I usually let people know I have another career where I need to be unavailable for long periods of time. The people I work with now are great. They’re scientists. The last job was more of a corporate setting. I felt a little bit less ready to share it with people – keeping a bit of a membrane up. Also, a lot of my music and views about work are not particularly boss-friendly. I don’t go out of my way to share it.

IB: Rainbow Wheel of Death, the title of the record is a universally known image. Do you remember specifically a time when that happened that forced you to connect it to a broader metaphor for the record, or is it just a fun album title?

DP: I like using simple language. Using every day words and sometimes a phrase like “The Rainbow Wheel of Death” falls in your lap. It’s a pretty simple set of words that refers to something incredibly specific and complicated. The collection of words is greater than the sum of its parts. I think something about the phrase has some spiritual overtones to it. Another thing that appealed to me is that it’s something everybody knows. Everybody knows that it means at its most simple level. You can kind of take it and run with it. 

IB: I really value that in your writing. You just kind of cut to it. There’s no real myth building that you’re forcing. Listening to the record a lot, I’ve been trying to find some deeper meaning to it all, but I started to think it was just maybe it was just a fun phrase.

DP: It definitely stood out and kind of wrapped up everything together. I wouldn’t call it a concept album or anything. For such a small and everyday thing, it has an epic feel to it.

IB: You’re sort of speaking right to it, but your lyrics have that feeling, like a lot of my favorites, where you’re never quite sure if you’re being serious. There’s a bit of a twinkle in the eye so to speak. Is that intentional or is it a matter of writing through the lens of how you see things?

People ask me about that sometimes. I don’t set out to make things funny or anything like that. Some of that comes from guardedness. There is a balance. I like a little bit of dancing around the really heavy stuff. It’s like the sugar on the outside of the Advil. I know that personally for me, I get turned off when something feels like it’s taking itself too seriously, I kind of shut down. I know not everyone feels like that. There are things that I feel are taking itself too seriously that other people don’t. I am actually kind of working on that. The more comfortable I get writing and singing songs, the less I feel I need to put that layer of sugar around things. To some extent, it happens naturally. I keep it conversational. But I don’t know, I like making my friends laugh. I like when they make me laugh.

IB: A song like Nickels & Dimes manages to be melancholy about not making enough money, but also being grateful to have money, it’s sad, and funny like a classic country tune. Country can be pretty straightforward often times, but your style has a different sensibility to it. Can you speak to how you build a song once you have an initial idea?

DP: It changes a little bit every time. That song in particular, the first verse came from just a stupid joke that I had. It’s just a play on words. Need some time, so you get a watch. Need some change, so you get some coins. Just a dumb joke. As far as the actual song, I’ve read a bunch of books on songwriting. About how to structure. I think my process is really reliant on fairly traditional ideas of structure that go back to I don’t know, Tin Pan Alley? Whenever popular music started. Sometimes it can be formulaic, and when you’re following that formula sometimes something nice pops up. Something different.

IB: I understand you to be a Grateful Dead fan, which then lead you to Merle Haggard. I assume it was Mama Tried? My personal Dead fandom is fairly new, just the last few years, so I am always interested in people’s journeys with that band.

DP: We had a greatest hits CD when I was a kid. There’s a certain aspect to it I liked. The idea of running away to join the circus was sort of appealing if you’re someone who feels a bit out of place where you are. 

IB: I gathered by your twitter you are a bit of a bird watcher. Certainly owls at least. What draws you to them? Any songs about owls you like?

DP: I like birds, yeah. I started during the pandemic. One of my very good friends has been a birder since he was a kid. He is a painter. I don’t know how he got into it, but he got my other friend into it, who then got me into it. I lived right near Prospect Park. There’s something about the park that is an oasis in a big city so a lot of migratory birds stop in there. It was just a really nice thing to do. There is so much to know about birds. You could spend a lifetime picking up little bits of knowledge and factoids and seeing them. It’s a nice long journey to go on. As far as music relating to birds, I’ve sort of always had my ear out for it. There’s a Sandy Denny song, of Fairport Convention, called Who Knows Where The Time Goes, where she talks about birds. “Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving, how do they know it’s time for them to go?” That’s nice. 

IB: You being in Maine now, are there any birds there that aren’t necessarily in New York?

DP: Technically, I don’t know. There’s one bird I’ve seen here that I never saw in New York. There are these black ducks that are the most common around. In my yard over the summer there was a broad-winged hawk. It’s pretty rare for me to recognize a hawk that isn’t a red-tailed hawk. If you go up into Maine you can find all kinds of puffins and crazy shit. 

IB: Has Maine brought nice balance for the longterm or are you aching to get back to the city?

DP: I really like being able to get out into nature. The winters are harsh up here but I am still on the fence what I want to do for the long term, but there’s a lot of things I really like. The slower pace of life is really nice for me. I think I’d be a lot more restless if I didn’t have these periods of solitude punctuated by shows and touring. 

IB: So you like the touring aspect of the gig?

DP: Yeah! It’s hard for sure. The money for me at this juncture is always a point of uncertainty. There’s not a whole lot more rewarding to me than really getting tight with a group of musicians. It’s probably my favorite thing about playing music. Getting really good over time. There’s a special quality you can get with a band that plays together every day for 6 weeks that you can’t get with rehearsing. That’s incredibly rewarding. I like going to different towns, eating different food, meeting musicians from different places, meeting other people, the kindness that strangers show us when we’re on the road. We’re getting to the point where we can stay in a few more hotels on the road, but for the last 10 years of my life it’s basically taking a couch or floor whenever you can. You meet a lot of really kind, generous people that way. It’s really rewarding, but it’s really hard. It’s great.

IB: One final, potentially really dumb question. As a basketball fan, what player would you say is the Dougie Poole of the NBA?

DP: Oh god. Let’s see.. I’m a big fan of Herb Jones on the Pelicans. He’s kind of glue guy. He’s shockingly low key. He drives an old Camry and shows up to games in the team sweats. Stuff like that. He’s frugal. Which I think is cool. Let’s go with Herb Jones.

Actually, I used to work at this warehouse in Queens. Everyone there was big Knicks fans. This must have been 2016 or 2017. It was when Doug McDermott was an awkward 3-point specialist on the Knicks and all the guys would call me Doug McDermott. I thought that was pretty funny. 

The Rainbow Wheel Of Death is out now on Wharf Cat Records. Listen/Buy ->