FOR MOST MUSICIANS, LIFE ON the road mostly consists of monotonous motorway journeys, with only a Ginsters pasty and a lukewarm lager to look forward to at the end of it. James Apollo has had a considerably more eventful time of it, in more than a decade of adventures all around the United States and Europe.
One night in New Orleans, with no beds of their own, he and his floating coalition of wandering minstrels were chased by the police from their first choice of al fresco accommodation – a cemetery – and ended up sleeping in a hotel laundry bin. On another occasion, they spent the night under the stars sleeping round a sign, which no-one had bothered to read, warning "danger, keep off grass – rattlesnakes".
Apollo has been on the road almost perpetually since he left home his home in Libertyville, Arkansas, at the age of 16, making the occasional stop-off in cities such as San Francisco, where he lived on a boat and scraped together the money to make his first album. These days, he and his current band are ostensibly based in New York – "that's where our suitcases stay open the longest" – but he still adheres to what he terms "the code of the hobo". So, is that like the way of the samurai? "It's probably a little less honourable," he says. "But there's less disembowelment and more sharing of the bottle. If you've got a bottle and a song, you're gonna be a friend of mine."
Apollo applied this very philosophy to the making of current album, Hide Your Heart in a Hive. It took three attempts to produce its scuffed yet slinky Americana feel, dubbed "the Mississippi session, the Brooklyn session and the whisky session". Apollo describes the latter as "a junkyard orchestra of drunken fools playing their hearts out and banging their heads off – consequently those sessions became entirely useless. I have a lot of hungover friends who, to this day, are like, 'dammit, where am I on this record?' "
Apollo's musical beginnings were similarly primitive. "Like a lot of kids, you find a box and some pans and you start making noise and then you put on concerts for your friends and then you start charging too much at the door and after a while nobody comes anymore and you've got to start making songs for yourself. I would just transcribe the songs on the radio and add in a couple of 'oh yeahs' and 'hey babes' and then it would become my song. I always knew I was going to do this, so the question wasn't when but how – and the 'how?' is a continual question."
Apollo once asked Steve Earle the "how?" question. Earle, with sagacious economy, told him "just play". Apollo did. "If you wanna go to South America for three months, you better go right now, cos it's never gonna get any easier," he says. "At least this is what I tell people and hope that I can convince myself."
This live-for-the-moment philosophy was compounded after Apollo broke both his legs in a motorbike accident a few years ago. Even though it took months of rehabilitation, steel pins in his legs and the ongoing reliance on a cane before he was able to walk again, he maintains it's the best thing to have happened to him in the last decade.
"All you want to do is the simple things you could have done before, which means grand aspirations take second fiddle," he says. "It's more than just seeing how fragile life is – you see what you want and you see what you have and maybe the things you want are the things that you have. The reason I make music has entirely changed because of that. Now, I write songs, I go out and play shows, and I'm a much happier person, I'm a lot easier to get along with. You can make the most beautiful song in the world and then go out and play to 15 people. And that would bum me out before the accident. Now if I'm playing for 15 people, I'm happy they showed up."
Apollo remembers his last trip to Scotland with particular affection. Following their gig in Glasgow, the band were rudely awoken through the night when a brawl broke out in the corridor of their hostel. These veterans of rattlesnakes and roughing it were highly amused by the wild west punch-up, but used a bunkbed to barricade the door of their room, just in case. Sounds like an average night in Glasgow, really. "That's what everybody says! Oh man, who knows what's going to happen this time."
• James Apollo plays The Ark, Edinburgh, 12 November and Tchai Ovna, Glasgow, 14 November. Hide Your Heart in a Hive is released by NoAlternative Records on 10 November.