It quickly becomes abundantly clear that there are few things David Draiman isn’t comfortable talking about. The man’s been around the block more than a few times, with a decade-plus behind him working with Disturbed, and his new album with super-group Device has breathed fresh air into his creative process. So he’s excited to sit down prior to the band’s show tonight at Ft. Lauderdale’s Culture Room to talk about the new album. Just don’t ask repeatedly what’s happening with Disturbed and all’s fine.
“Is Disturbed getting back together? When is Disturbed getting back together? Why did Disturbed break up?” he laughs. “We didn’t break up. We will be getting back together. Stop asking me about it! It’s a hiatus – look up definition of hiatus!”
With that out of the way, there’s plenty of time to talk about what went from being a one-off project for a potential soundtrack contribution to becoming a project which would consume his creative energies and push them in new directions. In the process, however, he also discusses what it’s like to hear early Disturbed albums more than a decade later, why he no longer feels trapped by his own voice, and that he really really wishes there was an app out there to smack “motherfuckers who say stupid things.”
It’s definitely a wild wide — you’ll want to read along below!
[Read the "Hear! Hear!" review of Device's album,
which came out officially on April 9th!]
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You’ve referenced Maynard James Keenan’s work with A Perfect Circle when asked about why you hope fans will accept Device as willingly as they have your work with Disturbed. Are fans today as willing to embrace artists experimenting with more than one project?
I hope so! [Laughs] I think that all of us are definitely stretching our wings out. It seems where there’s room to create art there’s then a reason to do it. This is, as I’ve said in previous interviews, not something I set out to do or planned. It’s a very fortunate accident. Geno [Lenardo] and I meant to write a song for a soundtrack together, not for the material to lead to writing more songs, or for those songs to lead to the creation of a band. The grouping of material was so strong, even after the first two week period when we already had seven songs in the bag, we were so cohesive and powerful it became a very compelling idea with powerful momentum behind it. When you are creating, the music tells you what to do. The music will always dictate where it needs to be. This grouping of material spoke very loud and clear.
Though the industrial sound of the new album does draw comparisons to Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, I’ve always noticed your interest in reviving something of a New Order 80s industrial pop sound. This album updates that in a more modern context, particularly on the cover of “Close My Eyes Forever.” What drew you to cover that song in particular? What was it like finally working with Lzzy Hale after she’s been such a longtime supporter of Disturbed?
And we have been longtime supporters of her, and I will continue to be a longtime supporter of her until the day I die. She’s an amazing woman. In my opinion she is the top of the mountain as far as female rock singers are concerned. I don’t think anybody holds a candle to her – she is the best of the best.
That’s a song I’ve loved for years, since it first came out. Who could forget the video? Who could forget the hook? It was such a memorable moment, one of the great rock duets of all time, so timeless. And Lzzy and I have been talking about doing this since she first started supporting Disturbed way back in the day. Initially we thought about doing it with Disturbed, but I’m very glad we ended up doing it with Device because in Disturbed it couldn’t have gone in the direction it did, with that ambient nature, the more synth-heavy, string-heavy sample-laden vibe to it. And I think it needed that. I think doing a heavier version wasn’t necessarily the answer.
You told Tony LaBrie of Flint, Mich.’s Banana 101.5 that after twelve years of cycling between record and tour with Disturbed, you all started to feel like “part of the machine.” That plus the album cover’s twisted take on technology absorbing our humanity, do you ever start to feel totally out of place in the modern world of social media?
I don’t know, man. I think that people are as heavily invested in the social media and that they follow the details as rapidly as they do because they are continually interested, and there is that continual desire for more, to be a part of the life, to a certain extent, of the artist that you love.
Does there come a point where a fan’s need to know everything about a band makes it impossible for an artist to ever try anything new or interesting?
You know, the minute you are focused on any expectations other than your own as an artist, that’s the minute that you fail. It should never be about trying to fit within a certain demographic or style. You have to stay true to yourself. You have to make music or make art that fulfills you, that speaks from your heart. That’s really the beginning and the end of it. The fans, you hope, will always value your music whatever direction you take. Maybe there are some fans of Disturbed who won’t dig where Device went with some of these new songs, with some of the more synth-heavy or electronic-fueled factors. And that’s okay! Device is going to appeal to some people who Disturbed wouldn’t, and the reverse as well. That’s why you do something like this, hopefully, is to be able to go in some of those different directions. I’m obviously also haunted by the identity, which is a blessing and a curse, of my voice. When I sing, it sounds like me no matter what the direction.
Right. You’ve said “as a vocalist you become a prisoner to the style you develop.” I found that interesting, because fans who listen closer to the vocals over time will hear how you’ve developed that style, adding more melodic tones to the staccato rhythms of the delivery. Do you still feel trapped by what you’ve done with Disturbed vocally? Or could any of that be solved by a few Meatloaf-esque “Bat Out Of Hell” moments?
Maybe. [Laughs] Maybe, man. It really is wonderful to do more of the “classical” delivery. To not always have to go to my safety spot, to the spot that I know I can own pretty well which is that rapid-fire staccato style delivery.
That and the microphone-assisted growl.
Yeah! That just comes out if there’s a primal element in the music, if there’s something that brings it out. That’s another thing which isn’t necessarily planned. Some of these rhythms are as tribal and primal as anything on a Disturbed record, sometimes I push the envelope even more. So it definitely can sometimes bring the animal out of you. But it’s really satisfying to let one of those things rip. Satisfying to be able to go back to your home base or even more satisfying to be able to expand it.
I love the things that I did on “Run For Cover.” I love being able to write a song like “Through It All” for my wife on the record, working with Glenn Hughes, where had I not gone in that direction, having a voice like his and mine on the same track wouldn’t have made sense. Or even a track like “Haze” – no one has ever heard me sing the way I do on the verses of that song anywhere on any record at any point in time. So it was really nice to be able to go into those directions and to still be myself, to be unashamed of being myself. At the same level I allowed what I’ve become to grow, and that’s been very refreshing.
What did become stifling and has become stifling was what the expectations were for a Disturbed record. “Okay, we fit within certain parameters, we have to stay within those parameters relatively, you have to know who your fan-base is, to know who you’re playing for, performing for.” We always did, and we kept that identity strong. That’s part of why we’ve been able to maintain the level of success that we have. But it also can be trapping when you are forced to do that much of a direction all the time.
I can hear that, listening to the albums in order like I did prepping for this conversation. You can hear how far you guys have come from doing a song like “Dropping Plates” to what you would do with “Never Again.” I can’t imagine many would have expected to hear “Never Again” based on what they heard on the first album.
I would agree with you. And to be honest, even though that first record captured us at a point in time where we were very raw, primal, and a lot of people really connected and loved that, there are parts of that record where I listen back and I cringe a little. “Oh my God, what was I thinking? Did I really think that was a good idea?” It really seemed to work back then. Lyrically, definitely there are things I wish I could have done better. But I was just starting out, feeling things out. I certainly didn’t have the knowledge base or even the fundamental skills that I do now. So it’s nice to come from that and to grow, to continue to learn and I’m continuing to build on what I’ve done with each passing day.
Well, it progressed quickly – I’ve always been interested in the way you’ve discussed your religious heritage through your music over the years, and I still think “Never Again” and “Prayer” don’t get nearly the critical respect they deserve.
What message would you hope fans would take from a song like “Opinion,” where you sing “Are you blind? Are you cold? How can you say you don’t have an opinion?”
That is a call-out to all those people who say “ignorance is bliss.” And they’d rather not know what’s going on in the world, they’d rather live in their own little bubble. Whatever happens outside their door doesn’t really affect them. “I don’t have an opinion.” Well you have to. If you don’t have an opinion then you don’t have a voice, and nothing ever changes. Then we can never affect change. There’s so much change that is necessary in this world, it takes people who have their eyes open and if you keep your eyes closed too long something ends up coming by and smacking you in the face. It’s definitely a wake-up call.
Are we all so afraid to offend anyone we won’t actually say what we really think anymore? Or has the world of social media made it too easy to empower ourselves anonymously without ever really saying anything worth standing behind?
Definitely. Oh, no shit. But as you’ve probably borne witness to, I’m never afraid to say what I think. I definitely think that the Internet has made people exceptionally mighty, unnecessarily and unjustifiably so. There are no repercussions. There’s no responsibility – you can say anything you want, pretend to be anybody you want, and somehow that’s okay. I don’t think that it is. I think that there should be consequences for actions. I am a believer in freedom of speech to a point. I don’t believe in hate speech. I don’t believe people are entitled to do that. I don’t believe people are entitled to bully. I don’t think that’s a right, that we’re protected to do that. I think other people should be protected from it.
That’s a flaw in the way that our laws are structured. I think that we give too much license to be predators, to do damage for the sake of quote-unquote “freedom of speech.” And that’s not freedom anymore. People should be free from being bullied, from being persecuted, from being tormented. That’s a freedom as well, and people often will go ahead and waive that freedom of speech flag and think that it entitles them to say just about anything.
You know what? It doesn’t. There should be repercussions. I often say I would pay a million dollars for an app that enabled me to just smack people through the computer. I mean it, I would pay a million dollars. There would be so many dumb motherfuckers getting smacked, it would be a smacking spree. And all of a sudden everybody would have a little bit of consequence. “What the hell is wrong with you? You are not just some computer jockey, some wannabe maniac sitting behind a keyboard trying to one-up the next guy in insulting some poor individual.”
And I can take care of myself. I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about the countless others out there who fall prey to these online predators and end up taking their own lives or end up living in isolation. They’re unable to deal with their own image of themselves. It’s disgusting what some of this technology has empowered people to do.
Well, maybe after this runs somebody will come up with Digital Bitchslap or something and you’ll get credit for it.
Dude, I’m in! If you know some developer guys, let’s go ahead and do it. We’ll build in some kind of shock technology into the computer. I’m in, let’s co-found the company!
After more than a decade working in the world of music, is there any subject you wish simply wouldn’t be brought up anymore?
“Is disturbed getting back together? When is Disturbed getting back together? Why did Disturbed break up?” [Laughs]. We didn’t break up. We will be getting back together. Stop asking me about it! It’s a hiatus – look up definition of hiatus, I don’t have any other way to explain it. And I’ve explained it in a hundred interviews and everybody still ends up asking me the same damned question.
Look, this way we’re all going to grow in our appreciation of each other as a group. Everybody steps away from it for awhile, the band and the fans. It’s not something that’s predictable anymore, you know you’re not going to get a new Disturbed record every other year. When a Disturbed reunification does occur — and it will occur because we don’t go ahead and dedicate sixteen years of our lives and all our blood, sweat, tears and souls to walk away forever — when the time comes we’ll come back to it with renewed vigor and inspiration, make a killer record and take this thing to new heights! But everybody needs to be conscious from here on out that when Disturbed does get back together, does make a new record, that’s a special occasion. It isn’t something that’s going to happen cyclically every other year anymore. We all need to cherish it, not just from the fan’s perspective but even from the band’s perspective as we become re-inspired by it rather than feeling like we have to do it. It’s going to make a tremendous difference.
In the reverse, what do you wish someone would talk to you about in an interview, yet they never do?
I’ve never been shy about talking about anything, brother. So I really don’t know that too much hasn’t been covered. I’ve gone in pretty much every direction I could possibly imagine. All I can do is reassure people and consider it a tremendous compliment that people love Disturbed to the point where they become so worrisome, so fearful. I think that’s a great thing. People should care, and I’ve definitely been shown that they do. I’m flattered for that.
In the meantime, you’re out on tour with Device now, not Disturbed. What would you tell those fans who wait for the inevitable reunion? What would you want them to get from seeing a Device show?
The same sort of release, man. That’s what music is about, even though it’s electronically saturated, this is still hard rock, so it’s still all about catharsis, having that moment of empowerment and release. Feeling like you can transcend the obstacles of life, that still draws water from the same well and I think this well is even more diverse. It can give people a lot of different flavors they’ve never had the opportunity to experience with Disturbed. You should just enjoy the ride. Please, come on board, because you’re welcome!
As great as P.O.S.’s We Don’t Even Live Here is, the album’s been overshadowed by the rapper’s inability to properly tour to promote it, so it’s great to hear he’s getting the chance to go out and do a few dates this spring, including Sasquatch Fest in Washington state this May. With his otherwise well-documented health issues keeping him off the road for the last few months, I suspected he might have something to say to fans about the album and his collaborative spirit, which has seen him working with everyone from Doomtree to Building Better Bombs and Marijuana Deathsquads. Sure enough, there was enough great discussion fodder in a few minutes to fuel hours of conversation, had there been the opportunity.
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I’ve been really impressed with the collaborative spirit of Minneapolis hip-hop over the last decade. What would you hope the mainstream contributors to the genre would take from that?
I don’t know, I guess I really think that you’re starting to see that more anyway without someone having to get out there and say anything. I think having a band behind you is pretty fun, but it’s more about finding people who are good at something and working with them. Really thinking about everything as more of a project.
I’d noticed with the new album that, on tracks like “Fuck Your Stuff,” it seemed you were talking about getting people to get up off their asses to do something constructive rather than just bragging, hyping and buying stuff.
Yeah, it’s not just about musicians, but more everybody.
Have your fans taken that message and run with it?
I don’t know! I think some of them have, but I don’t know if all of them go beyond the music. The problem with talking about some of the stuff I talk about on this record is that we still live in the world that we live in, you know? It’s still all about the money you have and what you can afford and brag about. Whether I rap about trying to find a better way or a different way, that’s still where people’s lives are. They have to work and get money, whether they care about money or not.
Do you feel you have a responsibility since you have that “voice” through hip-hop, to push that Occupy message as far as it’ll go?
Sort of. I don’t know if it’s an Occupy message, but more of a general “if we live in a capitalist society, that’s where we live” mentality. There may not be anything you can do about it, but that doesn’t mean we all just have to take being wage-slaves and being treated like that’s what we want to do. I don’t know anyone who wants to be a wage-slave.
You got your start in the realm of punk music. Comparing that genre to hip-hop, do you think there’s really much of a difference between hip-hop’s lyricism and punk’s more furious roots?
No. I really don’t. I think that when I was first getting into Wu Tang Clan I was definitely very aware as a fan of music of how really punk-rock it was. I think at the very roots you can go all the way down and they both have their fun, they both have their carefree side, but at the most fundamental level they’re about doing something constructive with your life, looking at things from a different angle.
Listening to your music, you’ve covered all the different angles, with four solo albums, your work with Doomtree, and then you’ve been part of Building Better Bombs and Marijuana Deathsquads. How do you keep challenging yourself to maintain that level of work?
Well, I think the point is to make things that are challenging. I don’t know that it’s a matter of “how do I keep challenging,” it’s a matter of making songs that are interesting to me. If it feels that it’s not interesting for me then I can’t roll with it, you know? I never really think about it in terms of “how am I gonna outdo myself?” It’s a matter of making more music.
Do you feel that you have to have multiple things going on to keep yourself inspired?
Yeah. Definitely, if I was only rapping I’d be bored out of my mind.
Looking at Minneapolis in particular, in the 90s it was a flourishing punk and alternative scene, and now it’s been hip-hop since Rhymesayers really took force.
Right, but in all that time there’s still been that rock influence. Everything that’s happened, there’s not a lot of ska bands, since ska kind of just “went away,” but as far as different styles of music you can always find it. This is a very unique and interesting music city.
What makes a city build a good scene?
I think it’s because there are no major labels, just small labels big enough to handle the music local bands collaborate on. I think there’s a tradition here. I definitely wasn’t born when the music scene started here, but by the time I was old enough to listen to music, there were already bands like Husker Du and the Replacements, all these awesome bands that had worked the scene here. So I think if you’re a musician, if you’re just starting out it feels impossible to break through, but you only have to make a little bit of headway to realize just how wide open it is.
Artists often get pigeonholed into the same conversation over and over again. What do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
Honestly? On my last record I was more annoyed. The questions this time around have been really good because people are starting to pay attention to the subject-matter of the songs. And I think culturally people are a little more awake than they may have ever been, if you take the Internet into consideration not just for music but for information. You can have an opinion and a set of ideals that maybe you didn’t have a few years back even. Things can happen so fast, it’s just a matter of taking the time to actually read things past the headline.
Is there something you wish no one would ever ask you again?
There are always the standard questions about “what are your favorite bands,” and stuff like that. I never mind sharing, but it’s always like “you could probably just read another interview.”
I’m always more interested in what artists are currently inspired by. Are there groups or solo writers coming up who you think we should be more aware of?
Yeah … I think that there’s a rapper named Haleek Maul who people are kind of sleeping on right now. But there’s always so many rappers, there are a million people. I’m really super-inspired by podcasts and current events. Musically I’m still into my favorites and I’m always listening to new stuff.
Do you think artists have a mandate to keep pushing people to think more deeply about the world?
No. I don’t at all. I think there’s always a place for stupid love songs, a place for completely mindless songs. I think there’s room for everybody. There’s a common thought in underground rap that mainstream rap is stupid. Underground punk bands think mainstream bands are stupid, since people who grew up loving Green Day hate Green Day now. I think there’s room for everybody to do pretty much whatever they want, there’s enough people out there to be successful. If you believe in the music that you’re putting out, you should stand behind it. When I was younger I was really mad at the direction hip-hop culture drives people, and there’s always going to be anger and ignorance, whether it’s rap or anything. But that’s me. Part of my personality is that I want to talk about things that affect my life, the world around me. It doesn’t mean everybody needs to do that.
If you’re going to write silly love songs, at least be willing to stand up for that.
Exactly, but there are people who – think about the Queers or bands like that – part of their charm is that they make silly stupid songs. Some are good, some are bad, but they all have that bent to them. For someone like me, I love Minor Threat because they talked about things which mattered to them, but I also liked the Vandals, where every song just seemed to make fun of something. There’s room for everything.
No such thing as a guilty pleasure then?
Not for me, at least not since I was 25. At that point I decided fuck it. If I like it, I like it.
I know you’re scheduled to play at Sasquatch Fest this spring. What should we expect to hear from you guys in the coming year? Are you working on any new material or are you just excited to get out there and promote the current album now?
I’m getting excited to promote the current album, but with all the health stuff sidelining the tour, I’d be bored if I wasn’t making something. It’s still been tough, I haven’t gotten my transplant yet and I’m booking shows on faith that I’ll be able to get out there. My docket’s still pretty open at this point.
If you had one album through which you could introduce the world to hip-hop or rap, which would be your “most essential” pick?
Oh man, there’s a lot of albums I personally like. I guess just because you’re asking me today and I’m thinking about it today, I’d say My Ghetto Report Card by E-40. It’s a really good record, because he’s one of those guys who is a true innovator and he’s not always dumb. There’s enough party, enough bullshit and enough smart stuff, and the beats all knock. And nobody sounds like E-40.
Relentless touring, an emphasis on quality songwriting, and recording live prove to be the key to The Way We Move, Langhorne Slim’s most accessible and dynamic album to date.
This interview is reprinted with permission from PopMatters, where it was published on August 21, 2012.
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Langhorne Slim’s version of folk music developed from a deep respect for the lyricism of Bob Dylan and the punk-rock leanings of the ‘90s-era alternative bands to which Slim listened. His music has pushed traditional folk fare toward rollicking, rock-tinged arrangements which demand listener interaction. Developing that sound took years of extensive live touring, but until now fans haven’t had the opportunity to hear his recorded music in the same light. In the years following the release of Be Set Free, his fourth full-length studio album, Slim set out to play as many shows as he could, showcasing his band’s performance chops. When it came time to record the band’s latest, The Way We Move, the band—for the very first time—chose to record the music live in the studio setting. The result is the band’s most immediate record, an album for people who don’t think folk needs to be a dirty word.
An interview with Langhorne Slim kicks into high gear quickly. With little time wasted on small talk, he sat down with PopMatters to discuss his need for both a live and studio outlet, his lack of genre-jumping restraint, and the need for bands to have the right support coming up.
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When you were on Kemado Records, you put out two albums in two years. And it’s been three years since the last one, Be Set Free. How did you use that time between records?
Basically, we’ve just been touring nonstop. We’ve been on tour eight or nine months out of each of those years, and then when we have time off, I write my tunes. And when we’re on the road I write my tunes. I don’t think it’s quite been three years, but it’s been maybe two and a half years since the last record. But we’ve filled that time with touring nonstop.
You write music for restless, active listeners on your new album. How did you achieve the live sound in a studio setting?
We recorded everything live, for the first time, which I believe is among the smartest things our band has ever done. I think our main strength is as a live, dirty raw kind of band. So before [on previous albums] we would do all the instrumentation—the guitars, bass and drums, keyboards and whatever—and then I would sing on top of that and we would add various other instruments. This time we cut all the basic tracks live, which, for us, is the way to do it.
For someone who tours a lot live, do you feel you need to have that studio outlet as well to get new ideas out?
Yeah, I think it’s a totally different creative release and I need both of them. For me it’s always come more naturally to perform live and have that as my outlet. That I was kind of born with, whereas the studio stuff has been a learning process. But on this record we’ve had a blast—I’m having way more fun with it than I’ve ever had before. Both are crucial. Some bands don’t tour as much or maybe members of those bands don’t quite need that movement or action as much, but for me, I feel like a shark. If I stop doing that, I fear I will die. So I need to always be on the road, heading into the next town, playing live music.
Still, there’s a lot of magic and beauty and awesomeness in the writing process and the recording process, and in the recording process you get a lot tighter in a different way with the people you play with. For us, we really grew to know each other as brothers and musicians on the road, and then when we locked ourselves in this home studio in New York for three and a half weeks, it really solidified our bond. So both are super important.
Counting Crows’ lead singer Adam Duritz said recently that sometimes he feels he’s said everything there is to say about his own music, so he’d rather talk about the bands he tours with. Is there anyone you’ve been listening to recently, or you’ve toured with them, and they’ve just set your ears on fire?
The last band we were on tour with, Ha Ha Tonka, who we’ve known for several years and we toured with them a couple years ago, they’re amazing dudes and a great, great band. But we’ve been extremely fortunate that we’ve really never gone out with a shitty band. We’ve only had one shitty experience, which I won’t get into at the moment, but it was a brief shitty experience. The others have been absolutely amazing, from Lucero taking our band out for the first time—they were they first band to take us out on a national tour – to just countless bands. Like I said, we were just on tour with Ha Ha Tonka, and we’re going to go out later this summer with Jessica Lea Mayfield. I’m not just blowing smoke, it’s the real truth – we’ve been really fortunate that the bands we’ve gone out with, either supporting them or them supporting us, we’ve been fans of them both musically and off-stage. That’s the way to do it.
I’ve heard stories of bands who don’t even talk to each other on the road. But from that first experience with Lucero, they really showed us the ropes and were really cool to us when we were just a baby band.
That’s how it was when I was recently in Louisville to watch Counting Crows’ Outlaw Road Show, and I spoke with one of the opening acts, Filligar, from Chicago. And they were talking about how great it is that Adam comes out and introduces them all himself, and then he sits out there on the stage and watches everybody’s show. And he’s doing that every single night. I can’t think of a better way to encourage up-and-coming bands.
Yeah, hopefully in that case, you care who you’re out with, and if you’re in a position to help them, you take that opportunity to spread the word. I mean, there’s a lot of great music out there and we all need a little help getting our music out there no matter how big or small, known or unknown someone is.
I wanted to ask you about the letter David Lowery of Cracker wrote—I don’t know if you’ve seen it—about the NPR intern who said she’d never owned any. Do you spend much time worrying about how your fans obtain and consume your music?
Yeah, I did read it. But no, I don’t. I don’t spend much time at all worrying about it. After reading that, he makes a strikingly great point. I’ve always been in a bit of my own bubble. What I’m concerned with mainly is writing great music or making great art, then getting it out there to as many people as possible. That’s where I put my concentration. But it’s impossible not to see the points he’s making in that article.
Do you think there’s a middle ground between valuing everything like an iTunes model and calling people who illegally download music thieves?
Yeah, for me, music downloading is a way of getting music out there. So I thought that in this day and age, there might be a middle ground, though I think he’s right in a lot of ways. For me, the way I viewed it is this: I’m not going to sell a shit-ton of records. The chances are not good. Adele does it, some other folks do it. But most people don’t do it. People come up to me a lot at shows and say “I heard you on Pandora,” and other ways like that. For someone like me, it broadens my audience, and I feel the more people who know my music and connect with it, the money will follow. For me that’s the way it is. I’d rather a ton of people hear my stuff. Hopefully they get it and connect with it, rather than worry about the dollars and the cents in an immediate way.
I’ve wondered sometimes if I’m a musical hoarder. I have all this music I’ve collected over the years on a big hard drive and I only listen to a percent of it at any given time. Do you think focusing so much on valuing music and owning it keeps us from appreciating the artistic expression?
See, I’m out of touch with this because I still have my cassettes and my 25 CDs in a hippy punk rock tie-died bag in my van. So I’m listening to the Oblivions and the Misfits on CD and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on cassette, and I don’t have a hard drive or an iPod or anything like that. That’s not really my world so much, so you would know better than I.
I read somewhere that you described your life as a musician as “living in a bubble.” And that interested me because I remember reading Slash talking about being in Guns ‘n’ Roses and not knowing what to physically do with himself if he wasn’t kept busy writing or performing music. When you’re not writing or touring, how do you get used to not living that musical life?
Well, I do live it all the time. What he’s talking about is different than what I’m talking about. I think if you work as a paralegal in a law office you’re living in a bubble, or if you’re in tenth grade, no matter what you’re doing, you’re living in your own personal bubble. I don’t know if there’s really any way to get out of that. But this is the life that I live and it is all of me. Thankfully I’ve got friends that I spend time with and I travel a lot. So I’ve got other shit that I do, but music is my life-force. I breathe it.
You’ve said before that you’re your harshest critic. Do you think being hard on yourself as a songwriter makes the music you produce better, or do you find yourself getting in your own way?
Both. I don’t really write with my band, I write the songs and bring them to the band and they make them a lot better. But when I’m actually sitting, writing a song, I’m not saying “this sucks.” I’m trying to make music that I love and music that will last. Hopefully it’ll move people and that’s my dream, my goal. Music has saved my life; it just means everything to me. I want my shit to have that kind of connection with other people. So you have to be a little hard on yourself. It can’t be that every chord you strum is magic. But it’s not like I’m just sitting there beating myself up all the time. It has happened once or twice. I have whipped myself occasionally. [Laughs.]
People always seem to ask musicians to describe their music as though it’s always necessary to pin it down to one style. Do you think artists would create stronger music if they weren’t held down by genre expectations?
I don’t think a lot of artists are really held down by those expectations. I think those are things that are created by journalists, and to create sections in a record store. Maybe there’s a place for it, and that’s fine, but I don’t know any artists that I think are constricted or restricted by those things, because I think people are trying to express through their music the way they really feel and what they’re moved by. So, no, I think the people who are really focused on making music are doing it without that weight. It’s about the music, not the genre.
Casey Abrams didn’t win American Idol during the show’s tenth-season run, but he revived the idea that the show could be more than simply a staging-ground for cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers pop drivel.
This article is reprinted from PopMatters, where it ran on August 9, 2012.
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Casey Abrams didn’t win American Idol during the show’s tenth-season run, but he revived the idea that the show could be more than simply a staging-ground for cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers pop drivel. From the moment he showed up on America’s televisions, grinningly playing his melodica, eventually breaking out the upright bass to blow the judges away with his performance of “Georgia on My Mind” in Hollywood, we knew this guy was keeping things real.
But this was no fluke. Abrams was classically trained as a student of jazz bass while a student at Idyllwild Arts Academy, and his reputation is that of a pop performer who prefers to improvise, shifting our attitudes of what makes music “pop” in the first place. The real surprise during that season of American Idol was how willing Abrams was to step out of the way of Idol convention, emerging from the experience as the same person he was during those early auditions.
Abrams’ self-titled studio debut has been out since June, and he’s already plotting out how he can continue to subvert pop conventions when he finally gets to take these songs out on the road. He took the time to sit down with PopMatters to discuss the new album and the others floating around in hs head, his experience being mentored on American Idol, and why it’s critical to stay true to your vision as an artist.
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I know you play a whole bunch of instruments. But I’m interested – how many do you actually play now?
I feel comfortable playing guitar, bass, piano, drums, sitar, maybe some bongos and the melodica and cello. I feel comfortable playing these, but there are other instruments I dabble with.
How did you end up discovering you could play so many different instruments? Did you start out with anything specific?
Yeah, I remember I was listening to Pokemon, and there’s a character, Jigglypuff, and Jigglypuff had a song. [Casey attempts to sing the “Jigglypuff song.”] And I remember I was like “I love that song!” So I tried it on piano, and my parents said they could tell I had an ear for music. So from there I went to clarinet and then to the bass.
You went to art school, didn’t you?
Yes, for for years.
Did you develop your style there, your jazz influences?
Most definitely. Before then I remember in sixth grade I got an electric bass. And I was listening to AC/DC and Blink 182, Tenacious D. Even Eminem – I was playing basslines to all that stuff. But then as soon as I got to Idyllwild Arts, I remember I met Marshall Hawkins, this great jazz teacher, who introduced me to the upright bass and jazz. So from there the next four years of my life were spent learning how to play some jazz bass, listening to jazz music, even learrning some jazz piano too.
As far as your influences go, who inspires you as a musician currently?
Esperanza Spaulding does, and Alvishai Cohen, who is this crazy bass player – the whole instrument, not just the strings – percussion stuff. And also, Jack Black. He’s where I’d love to be in five years or something. He’s acting, he’s singing, he’s in comedy – he’s just one of the artists who’s everywhere.
I was interested, while watching you on American Idol – what inspired you to actually audition? Your style’s not exactly what they’d ever showcased before.
Exactly. But I wanted to see if my style could fit into the pop genre. It was really my mom’s idea. Me and my dad were kind of against the whole Idol thing, and my mom showed me some videos, and I knew I could do that. She says, “alright, then try it!” She really encouraged me to do it.
Were you surprised when you started pushing through the whole process and everyone was really enjoying the music?
I was shaking as I made it past the very first round. There were like ten thousand of us. I almost had a heart attack, but I decided I was going to try this, we’d see what happens. And then it’s just: “My God! This is my ticket to the next step!” And then from there I got a lot less nervous. I felt like I could stand out from those ten thousand people.
I was also interested in the mentor process. I know on TV they only show you a few minutes of every week’s mentoring time. But we know you have to spend a lot more time with guys like Jimmy Iovine than they show. But that night you decided to do “Nature Boy”, Jimmy Iovine came on the screen and was saying he thought you should have taken the advice and done Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”. The next night he came out and apologized, saying you obviously made the right choice. Was it really so dramatic that night?
Yes. I honestly got emotional that night, because I really wanted to do that song. And no offense to Phil Collins, but that’s one of those songs everyone could have done. With “Nature Boy”, I had already worked out an arrangement with the bass, and then my mom calls me and says “Why don’t do do that?” I knew she was right. So I recorded the Phil Collins song and was just “I don’t feel it!” So at the last second I tried it [“Nature Boy”] and Jimmy was not too happy. And you know what? I don’t hate Jimmy at all. I think the advice he’s been giving this season has been really accurate. I think he really looks out for people. It’s just he’s got that power that he always thinks he’s right.
I found it interesting, because a lot of people would be afraid in that situation. “He’s telling me that I should do this thing, and he’s my mentor!” But the whole idea of a mentor is to push you in the right direction, even if it means eventually you have to tell the mentor that maybe you’ve got a different idea. And I don’t know that there were a lot of people who would have stood up and said “I’d really rather do this song.”
Right, but I have to pay attention to my gut. And my gut knew the song. No one on Idol had heard the song done like that. And I tried hard. I listened to him, and I said we’d record the Phil Collins and see how it goes. And in the end I could say “I tried it but I don’t like it! I’m sorry, but I’m the artist and I think I should do what I want to do.” And he says, “Alright …”
But if you’d fallen, it would have been on you.
I’ve been listening to the new album. And I was impressed, you’ve got a sense of style which shows through the whole album, even as you’re jumping around from genre to genre.
Right, I’d say we stuck to the same color pallette even as we played with different styles.
I was wondering about the songwriting process on that. Did you write the songs, or was it a group-writing process?
It was a group-writing process. Sometimes I’d walk into a room with one or two writers and they’d have ideas for me, but sometimes I’d come in with ideas to bounce off them. I think music is collaboration and compromise. And I think without another person – there can be that singer-songwriter vibe, but without the collaborative process, I don’t think music would be much fun.
I really enjoyed “Ghosts”. I’d heard the acoustic version online, but hearing the fully fleshed-out recording, I couldn’t imagine that not being a single. But the one which really stood out was “Blame It on Me” – I kept hearing Michael Jackson.
[Laughs.] Really? I’d like to call the genre of the album “organic focal.” The focal point is the melodies and the harmonies, but we’re using organic instruments. There’s acoustic guitar, upright piano, the double bass …
Does using those organic instruments have more heft than, say, using a pre-produced beat?
Most definitely. There are electric basses, but the upright bass adds a different element. It adds depth, changing frequencies you wouldn’t hear on an electric bass.
Have you listened to anyone recently whose music has you really wanting to work with them?
I think working with Mumford and Sons would be interesting. That would be really fun. I also really like this band Tinariwen, a buddy turned me on to them – they’re traditional mixed with modern African instruments. These dudes are hairy and they’re usually playing in a desert or somewhere like that. [Laughs.]
I’d heard rumors that you have two albums planned – this one’s going to be your pop album and then eventually you’ll be doing something more “straight jazz”. Is this actually true?
I don’t know at this point. I’m actually sitting with several albums brewing in my head. I’ve discussed it with everyone what I’d like to do. I do think it would be cool to do a jazz album in the future, something like this album I’m putting out, but change up the time-signatures, add some saxophone and I could really sing, and we’d do some jazz covers.
It’s great that you brought Haley Reinhart in to sing with you on “Hit the Road Jack”. You both have so much vocal chemistry and, on American Idol, were pushing your boundaries constantly. Neither of you won, but at least you were out there taking risks.
You know what? That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Music is exploration. Everything should be exploration. I’ve tried it, and it’s fun to see what comes from taking chances – what better place to try that out than on American Idol? The audience will go along for the ride. I really don’t care if people like everything I do, or everything I did on the show. I’m just experimenting, and I want to be able to have fun making music. Wait … to a certain extent I do care. I hope at least some people liked it.
We could tell you cared. The night they used the Judges’ Save, I thought you were going to have a heart attack. Everyone talks about “Reality TV” being staged, but that wasw the least-staged moment you’ll ever see.
Oh God, dude … that moment on Idol changed my life. I think that was a life-saving moment. I really didn’t know what to do. I was running around the stage; I didn’t know who to hug or what was supposed to happen. It was crazy. But it basically worked out perfectly. I knew as soon as I tried out for the show that I wouldn’t win it. I’m sure there was the possibility in my mind, but I knew it wasn’t going to get that far. But I couldn’t be happier where I am right now. Now that I’ve had that exposure, I can go on the road and try things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to try if no one knew who I was.
Chicago’s Filligar is a road-tested, high octane
blend of Southern roots rock and modern alternative
which is at once invigorating to hear and yet vastly underexposed. Fans will testify the band’s roadshow,
both solo and with others, is unparalleled.
So why haven’t you heard of them?
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If Beware of Darkness deserves credit for reviving music inspired by Led Zeppelin into the modern consciousness, music junkies should be flocking to Chicago’s own Filligar for equal doses of Allman Brothers grit and Levon Helm-inspired lyricism. This band’s got the whole package, and after six albums they’ve morphed from what was primarily an in-studio exercise to being among the best rock acts I’ve seen live, period.
Granted, I only was lucky enough to catch them opening for Counting Crows — which meant they only got to play six songs as part of a four-band traveling roadshow. But the energy they put out there, coupled with their incredibly tight arrangements and ridiculously catchy songs, and I have to wonder: Why aren’t they household names?
The band’s sixth album, The Nerve, has been out since 2010 and was a nominee for the Independent Music Awards’ Rock Album of the Year in 2011. Even a cursory listen reveals the band’s incredible gift for melody and blues-rock revivalism. Johnny Mathias handles vocal duties with the assured grit of the Black Keys, meshing perfectly with keyboardist Casey Gibson’s Gregg Allman-esque skill on the Hammond B3 and a rollicking rhythm section few of their peers can challenge. This is music which sounds on first listen as though we’ve been singing these songs for years. The Nerve brings their live sound into the studio, making it an assuredly confident album which, even two years after its release, has the potential to be their breakthrough.
I sat down with Casey Gibson and Teddy Mathias after their Outlaw Road Show set, opening for Counting Crows at Louisville’s Iroquois Amphitheater this past Monday night. You can view the result below. Then check out their video for “Robbery (Shocking Love)” and tell me these guys aren’t your new favorite band. I dare you!
Rench, producer of the up-and-coming band Gangstagrass, wants to redefine how we look at American music, starting with an innovative blend of hip-hop and bluegrass on his collective’s sophomore album Rappalachia, due out June 5th on his own label Rench Audio. It’s a daring blend of innovative modern swagger and classic Americana cool which dares listeners not to come along for the ride.
“I’m doing it because I like it, and whether it’s going to be become mainstream and what effect it might have on music in general, I don’t know,” he says. “But that’s certainly something I’ll be glad to find out. I know that, aside from the people who say “I like country and I hate hip-hop” or “I like hip-hop but I hate country,” those appear to be the extreme cases. There are a lot of people out there who have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on the playlists on their iPod.”
Rench sat down to talk to “Hear! Hear!” about the process behind his music, what continues to inspire him, and why sometimes it’s better just to listen to something because it sounds good, meaning be damned.
Elmore Leonard has said that Gangstagrass created a whole new genre of music from polar opposites. But I wondered, do you think the two genres – rap and bluegrass – are really such opposites in the first place?
Only in certain ways. The thing is, they’re perceived to be polar opposites and right now there’s a cultural divide, but definitely under the surface there’s plenty of common ground where hip-hop, bluegrass and country music are all coming from a very American tradition. Each genre is built upon aspects of communities coming together to tell their stories, about the hardships and the heartache, the pain of surviving hard times. That, and there’s always been the American tradition of combining various types of music.
Country music and bluegrass grew out of the combination of the folk music which had come up in Appalachia from European immigrants, and the gospel music which was coming from the south with the slaves. The banjo was an African instrument brought here through the slave trade, and combined with the fiddle from the European traditions, bluegrass was born. And hip-hip started literally through the cutting together of different records to make something new.
So there’s definitely enough common ground for you to look at both genres as coming from similar places. But I think in this country there’s defniitely a conception that there’s a separateness: there’s black music and white music. But that’s something which has been perpetrated by the industry more than anything else. For decades they’ve had separate charts, markets and radio stations.
It’s interesting that you should say that. I live in southern Indiana and over the last fifteen years stations which used to be pop and rock have shifted to more of an urban hip-hop format, going up against the regional country stations. So there’s a sense that the two genres are being set up as diametrically opposed: the country fans hate the rappers, and the rap fans hate the country people. What do you think it is about the two genres which inspires such a love-hate relationship?
They’re seen by people as the most central musical elements in this urban versus rural divide people perceive, the whole “red state / blue state” thing. But I think we’re going to get over that. I think that’s something which has to be reaching its peak. Eventually we have to appreciate the overlap, how much purple there is out there.
Do you think bringing the two genres together bridges that gap and makes them more mainstream than they otherwise would be?
That’s yet to be seen. I’m not sure. I’m doing it because I like it, and whether it’s going to be become mainstream and what effect it might have on music in general, I don’t know. But that’s certainly something I’ll be glad to find out. I know that, aside from the people who say “I like country and I hate hip-hop” or “I like hip-hop but I hate country,” those appear to be the extreme cases. There are a lot of people out there who have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on the playlists on their iPod.
You’re just bringing those two worlds together.
Yeah, and I’m doing some integrating of different styles the same way American music has always been made, by people taking genres which already exist and then combining them in new ways. That’s been “progress” through American musical history, as people pulled together the disparate streams of the culture which came before.
As I listened to other interviews you’ve done, I learned you were raised in California but your father was from Oklahoma. That got me thinking about Bakersfield country. That hybrid was nomads bringing country music with them as they traveled west during the Depression, eventually merging it with Rockabilly. So is Gangstagrass doing that same thing in the 21st century, taking what we already have and making it new?
I’d be happy to say yes to that, to take that on! I’m definitely, myself, a big fan of the Bakersfield sound. I love those guys like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard. They were part of this outlaw movement which definitely bucked the trend at the time of country music getting really soft: “country-politan” as they called it. Like I said, I don’t know where this is going to go, but if this brings in a new direction, I’d be happy because I personally feel what’s happening with hip-hop and country in the mainstream – what’s at the top of the charts – is not that exciting in terms of the potential of those two genres. There is a lot of exciting stuff happening with hip-hop and country music, but you’re not going to hear it on the radio.
Both country fans and rap fans have for years wanted their music to be mainstream. But now they’ve both gotten their wish, it seems perhaps many wish they hadn’t because mainstream success stymies what you can do creatively.
I think there are people doing really creative things. Outkast has done incredibly creative things with hip-hop, so that’s one example and there are plenty of things I listen to in terms of people doing interesting things with hip-hop, like the producer Dan the Automator, who I think has really great sounds going on. But the stuff they’re doing isn’t what hits the charts. The mainstream of hip-hop in general is pretty bland. The same goes for country. The Nashville country music industry has been putting out pop music with drawl, which is all that distinguishes it from pop music. Now and then you’ll get some fiddles mixed up in there, but I’d definitely like to see more out there with people getting back to the real country sounds in a way which isn’t backwards looking. Pedal steel and banjo are where it’s at, but we can use those to go forward in an exciting way as opposed to what happens now: “Let’s just make it sound like a rock record with drums, electric guitar and a singer with a southern accent.”
How do you go about writing music for Gangstagrass? Does the music come first, or is it more of a fluid collaboration between musicians and lyricist?
A lot of it is a managed chaos which I do as a ringleader, and I bring in these different people at different times and I orchestrate the way it all fits together. I’ll have the bluegrass guys come over and do some playing, and sometimes it’s just a matter of having them get together and do a bluegrass jam and see where I can take that by adding beats. Other times I come up with the beats first and see what they decide to play on top of that. I try to mix it up so that each song doesn’t sound like exactly the same thing. On Rappalachia, which we’re putting out in June, you’re going to hear a lot of different ways of mixing things together. Because of that, the songs come out with a different feeling depending on which we started with on that particular track, the beat or the bluegrass music and the rapping.
Speaking of Rappalachia, hearing the album in sequence, I liked how you kept some of the songs as pure instrumentals. But songs like “Honey Babe” stand out, with Brandy Hart singing as Dolio the Sleuth lays down his rhymes over the bluegrass picking. Everything blends so perfectly it’s as though you recorded it live on the spot. I know that’s not how it works, but the illusion is there.
I take that as a compliment, because that’s certainly one of the skills that I try to bring as the producer. One of the goals is to really make it flow together to where everything sounds fluid. Even when they are recorded separately, I definitely take pains to get that feeling right. If it’s not flowing together and feeling like a jam,
then to me it’s not working at all.
On your previous album, Lightning on the Strings, T.O.N.E.z was the main MC, but there’s more variety on Rappalachia because there’s a rotating group of rappers and singers. How did you decide to expand that Gangstagrass collective?
Gangstagrass was initially conceptualized as something where I could be working with different rappers on different tracks. My initial experimentation with that idea was on something called Volume One, which is not available anymore, but we had lots of different rappers on that. But when we did the theme song for Justified, and I knew Justified was about to start airing, that I thought: “Let’s do an album with a bunch of tracks with T.O.N.E.z so we can have more material with this same sound, the same lineup, as the Justified theme song for people who are going to come looking for that. Now that we have that out there, the idea on Rappalachia was to get back to the idea of opening things up to work again with the other rappers I enjoy collaborating with.
Has the association with Justified and the success of “Long, Hard Times To Come” made it easier for you to mainstream the bluegrass-hip-hop fusion?
It has definitely given us more opportunities to get out there where we otherwise wouldn’t have. Being nominated for an Emmy is nice to be able to mention when you’re approaching people. It definitely helps get phone calls returned when you can say you have this theme song on a hit show and it’s nominated for an Emmy. People tend to listen a little bit more. And it’s certainly great to have the exposure every week when Justified is on. Millions of people get thirty seconds of Gangstagrass in their ear, and we see the weekly wave of people on Wednesdays, new Facebook fans who tuned in to Justified and thought: “What the hell was that I just heard?”
Do you ever still come up against audiences who aren’t prepared for what you’re doing?
Online, yes. In terms of live shows or anything like that, no. The people who come to our shows are generally the ones excited about what we’re doing. There are purists, and in that respect it’s more on the bluegrass side of things.
I could have guessed. I’ve seen what they’ve done to guys like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek / Punch Brothers. They’ve run him up the flagpole and here he is the most innovative guy who just loves what he’s doing.
Yeah, there are the people for whom bluegrass is only in this particular formulation, and you can’t mess with it. For people who do something a little bit differently with it, they’ll say “that’s just not bluegrass.” But putting rap on it, that’s more of a crime against nature! It’s just really unacceptable. And there are people out there in the bluegrass community for whom if there’s swearing on a song it’s just not music anymore. But I would say that’s a thin slice of the community. That’s a particular set of traditionalists, but a lot of the bluegrass fans out there are really open to the ideas we bring to the table. We hear from people who say it’s great to have people expanding the genre, doing new things with it. You still have the authentic bluegrass there.
Have you heard any other bands building on your sound?
Not specifically bands which are doing it to imitate Gangstagrass. But in a way I hope there are bands doing that. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for more than a decade as I’ve been doing this stuff, and there have been plenty of people trying it. But it’s very rare that someone does it well. Usually it’s pretty disappointing when I hear of something: “So and so’s doing country and hip-hop!” And I’ll look it up and they just have a boring 808 hip-hop beat with a loop of dueling banjos.
What would you say to people who think Gangstagrass is just a novelty, or that you’re somehow violating the history of either bluegrass or hip-hop?
Those who say we’re violating the history, they just want a certain thing and aren’t interested in us doing new things with it. But that’s not something for me to worry about. Violating the way a genre works is the way American music has always been made. When people move into new ideas there are always going to be people who don’t like it. That’s not going to concern me.
How did the collaboration with Kool Keith come about on “Western”?
We just approached him. He’s someone I was really into, in terms of how creative he is with his lyrical approach. I mentioned it to people we were working with on reaching out to get guest musicians, and he responded positively as I’d thought maybe he would. If there’s anyone who’s going to be into weird stuff it’s Kool Keith.
As a producer, how do you know when you’ve hit on something worth keeping?
You just have to go on the feeling that it gives you. It’s a matter of going with your gut. When I’m in the studio I’m either really excited about something or, if I’m not, I’m saying: “OK what’s wrong here that I’m not freaking out over this yet?” The tracks I put out are the tracks that, while I’m working on them, I’m thinking: “Hell yes! Let me just listen to that again!” Sometimes I’ll end up not getting much work done for a while because I have to hear that particular track one more time. Then there are other tracks I might work on and think: “it’s okay … but it’s not hitting hard enough, something’s missing.” I’ll either take a step back and find something else to do with it, or I move on and leave that one off to the side.
What would you say makes for meaningful music?
Right now “meaning” in the music is not something I’m totally focused on. For me it’s about the feeling more than the meaning. It’s about the experience invovled in creating something that grabs you and makes you feel like dancing or stomping around. I’m very much focused more on that visceral reaction to the process. You’re experiencing and living the music more than you are thining about it. It’s the turn it on, turn it up and rock out approach, which goes back to that gut feeling I was talking about. It has to feel good. Think about food for a second. I’m looking for something with a whole lot of sugar on it. I’m not concerned about whether it’s good for you, I just want to know: “Does it taste good when you put it in your mouth?”
Where would you like to take the music of Gangstagrass in the future?
Well, I’d like to keep making it, first and foremost. I think there’s still plenty of potential to keep exploring new ways to do it, and plenty more music yet to be written. And there are plenty more people to attract to it, people who are going to love it. One of the stumbling blocks promotion-wise for us is that there are plenty of people where if you just say this is bluegrass and hip-hop put together, it’s going to turn them off as much as it’s going to turn them on. They hear it described and think: “That’s not what I’m looking for!” But when they just hear it, Gangstagrass as it is, they say: “Whoa! This is actually pretty cool!” It’s hard for us to go out there and promote with words what we’re doing, which is why Justified is the perfect promotion for us. It just comes on and people hear it. There are still plenty of people out there who simply don’t know that this is something they’d be into until they get to hear it. So we’re just going to keep on trying to get that exposure out there. We’re getting to the point where we can do some more touring and do more promotion of the music we’re putting out, to hopefully reach out to a wider audience.
Mumiy Troll has had one of the most interesting career trajectories of any rock and roll band you’re liable to hear. Formed in the early 1980s in Vladivostok, Russia, the band was deemed socially dangerous by the Soviet government, yet managed to become the most dominant pop-culture phenomenon the nation has seen. Globally recognized as the example of Russian pop music, the band now has set its sites on that holy grail: the American audience. Their latest effort, Vladivostok, picks up where 2009′s all-Russian Comrade Ambassador left off, bringing the band’s classic rockapops sound to bear through English rearrangements of some of their most popular songs.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with lead singer Ilya Lagutenko about the band’s wide-ranging career and how they intend to conquer the American rock audience without losing their original flavor in the translation.
Many of the songs on Vladivostok have been released before in Russian versions on albums including Comrade Ambassador. Were there any songs on the new album which were written first in English?
There is a track called “Lightning” which was initially written in English, so we don’t have a Russian version of that song. But the challenge for us was how to make a compilation of tracks which would really reflect the current state of the band. I really had a hard time putting together a certain number of tracks in English for the person who doesn’t have the experience of enjoying the songs already in Russian.
We’d thought about how that music would appeal to the listener who wasn’t ready to hear the songs in a foreign language. What has been particularly challenging about this album was that we replayed these songs together, rewriting with changes in tempo and arrangement, because you can’t just translate the meaning of the lyrics. You have to write a whole new story or it doesn’t work, especially with rock and roll.
As for the language variations, though, I’ve dealt with this for the last ten years. In our case, I’m really well prepared for fan criticism: “I remember when you played this song in a demo in 1997, and I really loved that sound.” When we tour different places I’ll try to play at least some songs in the native language even if they aren’t necessarily our songs, just to feel a different kind of connection with an audience.
I read that you used to hear your music was too Western for Russian audiences. Are you hearing the opposite now, that you’re too Russian for American audiences?
To be honest, I’ve never heard that we sound too Russian for American audiences, because I guess American audiences really don’t know that much about Russian music. There’s really not that much you can learn about Russian pop music in general, let’s be fair about that. You have to understand the way of life in Russia.
Sergei Zhuk, a professor of Russian History at Ball State University, wrote a book, Rock and Roll in the Rocket City, which suggests Rock and Roll helped bring down the Soviet Union. It wasn’t so much that Western music was finding ways to reach Soviet youth, but that the apparatchiks would bring the music home and their kids would spread it through the black market for personal profit.
That’s an interesting idea, because I still remember the first TV reviews of the state of rock music in my hometown, and one phrase became so popular because a famous Russian reporter said: “No one could ever make money off this rock music in Vladivostok.” And we still laugh about that today, because I guess there are ways to make anything self-sufficient.
What was it like being dubbed “socially dangerous” despite your music rarely delving into political subjects?
It was really a good compliment in those times, because being noticed is very important for a teenager who starts playing music. To be noticed in a rebellious way is probably even better! We knew criticism was coming not from really knowing us. It was from people who didn’t know what we were really about. They just heard our name and it sounded so strange, like Black Sabbath or the Sex Pistols.
A few years later we had an interesting situation when we got a request to play a club in Denmark. We said: “Sure, why not? But how do you know of us? We’re not well known over there.” And they said: “Oh, because we’re the best venue in the country for death metal!” They didn’t even know what we were playing, they just liked the name Mumiy Troll and thought it suited their goals.
Now it’s easier, you just Google Mumiy Troll and you’ll know what we sound like. I remember one day I was going through customs in the United States and the guy was looking at his computer. And I was curious, what are they looking at on those computers – an FBI or CIA database? And he asked: “What do you do? You’re a musician?” And he turns the screen to me and asks: “Is that you?” He’d Googled my name, and the band page popped up with YouTube information!
Do you think having all the music available online has helped Mumiy Troll attract a more global audience?
I guess in general it is a way to do that. But at the same time, right now you have zillions of bands online so you need a good guide to be introduced to listeners. Any new band, like us, in the United States has the same challenge – how do you direct fans to your music?
How have fans reacted to the new album?
To be honest, I don’t really know yet. The album hasn’t been available to anyone yet and we can only judge from a few comments online or the audiences coming to our gigs. The people coming to see us live in the United States enjoy the shows, but that could be because of the music or because they’re enjoying mixing with the Russian girls in the audience. Where else can you get this chance?
What would you want audiences to take from the new songs?
I like them to follow us further, so for me it can be hard to understand what people find to be meaningful in my songs. Most of the time I’m not sure when I’m writing that what I write or perform is going to be interesting to a general audience. Then the real people give you their life story, how they connect to the music.
I heard this story that Russian police, when they killed a sniper in Chechnya, a 16 year old girl shooting at them, she’d been listening to Mumiy Troll on her Walkman. That kind of story can make you really think about your audience. I also remember playing a morning radio show in San Francisco. We did a couple of acoustic songs live, and this couple in their seventies came to me: “We’re pleased to meet you, because this was the first time ever in our lives we’ve been able to meet a real Russian.” All this time spent in the Cold War mentality, they’d remembered hiding in bunkers under “red alert,” and now they liked our songs. We were just normal people! I don’t want to sound too political, but it’s musical diplomacy.
One entry point to your music I’ve noticed is the sense of humor. When you watch a Mumiy Troll video, we can tell you enjoy every bit of the process. How do you keep things fresh after so many years as a musician?
The first rule, it never hurts, is that we’ve decided its too boring to practice songs. If you play it too much, you lose the whole enjoyment factor. That’s why I don’t enjoy many live shows these days. What keeps our band together is that I don’t want to let my bandmates sit on their laurels, or their lives become too easy in Russia. That gets us nowhere. We have to feel the excitement as if it’s our first show every time. I remember when we first played in Mexico, it was cool that by the second or third song people were jumping around, enjoying the music when they’d never heard anything like us before.
You once were quoted as saying: “You can’t speak one language to the entire world, you have to learn from each other.” What advice would you have for American bands hoping to open their music up to a global audience?
Someone once asked our guitarist: “Is there any advice you’d give American guitarists they could only get from a Russian?” And he responded: “Yes, they could learn how to drink Vodka.” But I guess to conquer the United States, for bands around the world, is one of those “top five ambitions” everyone has, because Rock and Roll was invented in America, not Siberia.
But at the same time there are no rules. It is a body which grows and we don’t know where it will go tomorrow. We take what touches us as individuals and make it our own. I’ve never liked those guitarists who play really fast; I want to hear the notes, even if it’s just one chord. Yet in a band you’ll have four people with different views on how to make music, and there’s this unexplainable process of delivering your own music to an audience. We make it work the best we can and hope someone out there listens.
As the leader of Indianapolis’s Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, Richard Edwards is a songwriter who knows what he wants. The result has been one of the more varied and interesting discographies to be found among modern indies.
PopMatters ran my first-ever interview for the site today! I interviewed Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s front-man Richard Edwards back in March about the release of their new album Rot Gut, Domestic, and wound up having a meandering half-hour conversation with the Indianapolis-based songwriter. Check out the full interview for his take on big-picture concepts in rock music, and why sometimes a band needs to stop seeking perfection and simply bang out new records.
A decade and a half after making early waves in
New York’s mid-90s alt-rock scene, the Pontoons return
with a new single and what may be the longest-gestating
debut album of the era. Was it worth the wait?
Short answer: Definitely.
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4/2/2012 Update: The video at the bottom of this page is the brand-new official video for “Antidote,” directed by Tim Ticehurst, rather than merely the audio for the song.
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In Billboard’s November 1994 issue, Larry Flick wrote that a certain indie-pop band from New York City had “one of the best debuts of the year” with their first single “Juncos and Robins.”
The Pontoons, by that point, had built their reputation through three years of steady touring around New York City. So to the industry reps who continuously trolled such clubs trying to find the next Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins, there was every indication the band was set to carve out a niche in the burgeoning alt-rock scene.
“At the time we were playing out in NYC and the Northeast more [often] than we found ourselves in the studio,” says drummer Christian Harper. “This was mostly due to our efforts to build a local following, but also because we were young and didn’t have the finances to bankroll an entire album.”
Choosing instead to focus on improving their live shows, while building strong word of mouth via college radio for “Juncos and Robins” and “Landslide,” they eventually fell through the cracks. Without ever recording a full-length album, the Pontoons broke up in 1996.
“In retrospect we probably should have focused more on recording,” Harper says. “But we were drawn by the thrill of playing gigs and loved having that direct interaction [with fans].”
With timing being everything – their brief “heyday” preceded the mp3 revolution by half a decade – the Pontoons seemed destined to remain a footnote in the overcrowded historical landscape which is the 90s alternative movement, their blend of REM-inspired jangle-pop to remain virtually out of print. And that’s how it might have remained, were it not for a chance reunion a few years ago.
“We’d rallied around the idea of working together and producing the full-length album we never made,” Harper says. “Tom and I were able to reconnect with our original recording engineer Sal Mormando, and when we shared our plan he was excited about the idea of working with us again. Everybody loves a comeback story, right? Regardless, we’re having a great time and have realized how much we missed making music together.”
Mormando has produced albums for Patti Smith, Billy Squire and Dayna Kurtz among many others, and is currently mixing the upcoming Pontoons full-length, keeping their original sound at the forefront. The latest single, “Antidote” (which you can view a video for below) showcases the duo’s jangle-pop guitar arpeggios, tight rhythms and Tom Hunt’s distinct vocals for three minutes which barely whet the appetite before the obligatory repeat listens. It is a sound as eerily reminiscent of REM as it is more obscure early-90s alt fare like Trip Shakespeare, an early forebear of what became Semisonic.
But that’s what fans who heard the band 15 years ago came to expect, and the new single blends seamlessly with the music of their past while suggesting at the same time that the future looks incredibly bright.
Timing may indeed be everything. With this much talent coming together to produce the album which almost never was, the stars seem to be ready to align in the Pontoons’ favor. With any luck “Antidote” will prove to be exactly that, a refreshing counterbalance to the decidedly lacking state of pop music thus far in 2012. Their current plan is to self-release the album later this summer along with another single, and if the music remains as strong as our appetizer, expect to hear the praise spread rapidly.
Dare Dukes – which stands as both the name of the band and the lead singer who fronts said band – plays music which challenges listeners from just about every angle. These are songs with detailed, often bordering on convoluted, lyrics which are anchored to earth by deft arrangements which require repeated listens to fully sink in. But that’s really the crux of what he’s going for in the first place. Dukes, who hails from Savannah, Ga., says he strives to find the beautiful moments in the everyday, pulling from the margins the eccentric characters and bizarre events which form the heart of his adventurous blend of folk and pop. Put that music on stage and it’s a veritable powderkeg of creativity which, even when playing as the opening act for a Louisville native the crowd’s itching to see, is fully capable of getting a small crowd of early birds to sit up and take notice.
I got the opportunity to talk to Dukes face to face when he finished playing his band’s January 28th set at Headliners Music Hall in Louisville,. He spoke of meaningful music, his quest to write a great pop song, and why “it’s really fucking hard to write songs with really good hooks.”
What would you say is “meaningful” music for you?
Wow, that’s a hard question. I definitely prefer arrangments that, whether it’s hardcore or light folk, are “thoughful” arrangments. I enjoy arrangements that are surprising, so people who use weird instrumentation, stuff like that, is really enjoyable to me.
We saw a lot of that tonight, with all the instruments your band was working in. Is it harder to put all that onto a CD and then work it into your live show?
Yes, it’s very hard. There’s a ton of horns on the record (Thugs and China Dolls) and of course we don’t have any with us now. I wish we could, but that would mean two more people to bring with you. But the accordion can make up for a lot of that stuff.
The new album, Thugs and China Dolls – where’d that title come from?
I don’t know … sometimes music really pops out for me without me thinking about much, and the lyrics are harder to come by. But often when I have a melody and a chord progression that I like, I tend to mumble-sing to it while I’m working out the melody, and lyrics will just pop up. I’m pretty sure “thugs and china dolls” came out that way. So I built the song around that. People ask me what that song is about, and all I can tell you is that it’s a song about innocence: “watch out for these bad things in the world.” Thugs and china dolls are descriptions of people who are going to take advantage of you in one way or another.
I know I’ve compared you to John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats, but who are your other influences?
I like the Mountain Goats, but I wouldn’t call them an influence. There are a lot of musicians I realized I had an affinity with after I’d already found my sound. I’d say Laura Veirs is one of them. You may not hear Laura Veirs when you listen to my music, but particularly the way she and her producer, Tucker Martine, arrange her songs – that’s a huge influence because they are very thoughtful arrangers. But I totally love the Mountain Goats. He’s an influence in that he makes it okay to be as wordy as I want to be.
I got so sick of having to “score” music after a while; I was wondering if you think it is possible to quantify what is “good” music. Is there actually such a thing as good or bad art?
That’s another extraordinarily difficult question. My wife is a cultural anthropologist, and that’s been one of her subjects recently, the art market and how art is valued. There’s fancy-schmancy high falutin’ New York art, versus art that is considered crap by the people who decide these things. Not “found art,” because that’s got its own niche. But I would say, to a certain extent, I think the listener has to have a lot to do with saying whether music is good or bad. However, I do believe that there are people who work hard at their craft and make little miracles happen. By that, I mean they open up connections to things which move them past the daily world. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding pretentious, but I mean it.
And then you see sites like Pitchfork with the 0.0 review, which implies there’s no artistic or social merit to a piece of music.
The media does work really hard to push buttons. I’d say ninety percent of what the mainstream media does is decide who’s on the top of the hill this week. That’s what Pitchfork is doing – they’re not really serious reviewers. They’re just tagging. They’re saying who won the Superbowl of Music this week. And then there’s always amazing stuff which flies under the radar. You can’t get around it though, because I’m influenced by stuff like that all the time. But what can I say?
For people who haven’t heard your music, how would you describe your music? What should listeners expect from you the first time around?
They should expect songs about subjects which are kind of out of the box for pop music. Weird characters, weird moments – I like writing about weird people, not in a derrogatory way, but weird in the sense that people are surprising. People who resist the forces that want to homogenize or disenfranchize those of us who are strange. Because they’re strange, they represent that miracle I was talking about, those meaningful art moments. And even though the subject of my songs may be atypical when it comes to pop music, I really do love pop music. I’ve done art forms which are strange and I’m into that too, but I find it phenomenally challenging to write a good pop song. I love the challenge of trying to write a good pop song. I want to write songs with really good hooks because I love songs with really good hooks. But it’s really fucking hard to write songs with really good hooks!
Josh White isn’t interested in fads or trends. He doesn’t worry about radio trends. In fact, his latest album, Achor, which incidentally may be his finest yet (with or without his band Telecast, which made brit-rock palatable to a contemporary Christian audience) wouldn’t have seen the light of day outside his Portland, Oregon church community had it not been for his record company expressing interest in a wider release. Merging folk musical expression with spiritual lyrics which feature far deeper explorations into theology than you’ll find in most contemporary Christian releases, White has struck on something unique to him and his church that is definitely worth a listen for believers and non-believers alike.
I sat down to speak with White back in October, a few weeks before the album’s official release, to talk about his unique take on worship music, the role music should play in the context of church worship, and how he’s managed to build his church, Door of Hope, into a thriving religious hub in a town formerly believed to be “un-Churched.”
FREE DOWNLOAD: Josh White – “He Who Feeds The Ravens” (MP3)*
FREE DOWNLOAD: Josh White – “To Burn In You” (MP3)
* fixed incorrect download link for “He Who Feeds The Ravens.” Sorry for the inconvenience!
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I was interested in that you took the name of your album, Achor, and your church’s name, Door of Hope, from a verse in Hosea which proclaims that God’s restoration will transform a valley of troubles into a door of hope. How do you go about exploring that theme more deeply in your music?
I’ve always held really tightly to the idea of Achor as Calvary, as a picture of the Cross, and that place is central in most of my songwriting as well as all of my preaching. I love the imagery that it paints, as the place where hope is made possible. I think all the songs on Achor are very much about making sure we have our center right. They’re all very centralized upon Christ.
I’d noticed the music on Achor is rooted in the worship and Gospel idiom, but it doesn’t seem like what most listeners are going to expect. I wondered, as a worship leader and a songwriter, can you explain your creative process and what you’re trying to achieve through these songs?
As much as I hate to admit it, I have never been much of a “Christian music” listener. I was saved pretty late, at 28 years old, and I’d been very involved in the Seattle-Portland music scene during the nineties, and I’ve always been a major folk lover. In my idea of a perfect world, worship music would be when Bob Dylan rewrites old hymns. So I’ve always wanted to marry solid theology with the music I love and understand.
When I recorded albums with Telecast, we went into it as a specific challenge. I love British rock, so I went with that and it worked for worship music in that stadium rock vein. But secretly what I listened to was folk music: Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, all the songwriters from the late-sixties, early-seventies folk movement. So when I started my own church, at that point I finally had the opportunity to explore the kind of worship music I really wanted to be making.
There are a lot of misconceptions that worship music has to follow a certain formula or people won’t sing it. And I decided when we started Door of Hope that I would basically push the envelope as far as possible musically, while always keeping the lyrics very focused on the theology, on Christ. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I was right. People will sing anything if they hear it enough and it moves them. And it helps that the music is very reflective of the neighborhood that we’ve built in here in Portland, where there’s a really strong underground folk element coming up in the community. So the musicians who are coming into the church lend their talents well to the kind of worship music I’m producing.
I was raised in the Mormon church, where the only songs you performed in church were hymns. The idea of praise and worship music, which you might hear in a contemporary Christian church, was seen as something akin to bringing God down to your level rather than raising you up to his. And I always found that rather stifling. What role do you feel music should play in worship?
I think one thing you’ll find about most mainstream praise and worship music is that it’s often very self-focused. It can very frequently be about what Christ can do for you rather than the other way around. It’s very much an element of simplicity, and while I like simplicity, there can be a real over-simplification of things onto purely the music over some of the message. Whereas with hymns there’s often more of an emphasis on theology, with praise and worship music there can be more of an emphasis on self-expression. But as far as music’s role, I really couldn’t care less what genre it is as long as the music brings a listener closer to an understanding of Christ. I think the format of the song is less important than the meaning behind it.
I knew you’d worked with Telecast before, but the songwriting process had to be different working on a folk worship album compared to a contemporary-themed worship release. Did you go into a studio to record the songs for the album or were you recording this in a church setting?
We did it in a studio, but the process was incredibly different. Sebastian [Rogers, the album’s producer] wouldn’t let me do any of my takes with headphones, and everything was recorded totally live. So I performed and recorded my guitar and vocals at the same time. Basically it was like, “Josh, I want you to come in here and play these songs for me like you’re playing in my living room.” So I did that, and then he starts bringing in a bunch of musicians – many of the players on the record are from the church, but he started bringing in these session guys. What they did was they built their performances around my performances, so it built from the ground up, far differently than any other album I’ve worked on.
Usually you’d make a scratch track, ghen a click track and you’d lay the drums first, then the bass, very meticulous. This was done in a “who’s available today?” mode; they’d come in and would have never heard the songs before. They’d listen to it maybe three times and then we’d tell them to go for it and we’d record. So all the flute parts on “To Burn In You,” that guy wrote those parts in fifteen minutes. That lent itself well to a very spontaneous quality for the music, which I thought was really cool, and it took a certain kind of player to do it. I couldn’t do that.
Sometimes that can be the best way. On some albums someone like T-Bone Burnett will layer on dozens of musicians for a bluegrass album, and then he’ll take someone like Brandi Carlile and he’ll say “you tend to overdo it, so we’re going to sit down in the studio and just play it through. And if I like the first take, you’re stuck with it!”
And that’s exactly what Sebastian was going for, since I’m used to overdoing it. I’m a bit of a perfectionist in that sense. I’d be like “I don’t like that, I could do it better,” and he’d say “No! That’s more honest!” I think on “Holy Ghost Revival” there was a part where I just fell apart and I felt like I just couldn’t use that take – I wasn’t even keeping good rhythm. And he says “no, I’ll just make the whole band fall apart with you.”
The album itself was a slow-grower. I heard it, then put it aside and rediscovered it suddenly, finding myself listening to it constantly on repeat. It reminded me a great deal of folk-pop artists like Sufjan Stevens – I don’t know if you’ve heard Seven Swans.
Yeah, I love that record. And that is definitely an influence on this album. If I could go in a certain direction with the music of my church, that’s the direction I’d like to go. He’s brilliant in his arrangements.
Well, you’ve got the complicated arrangements, but they all sound so simple. When you listen you can hear how everything just fits into its own place. I could tell immediately this wasn’t your normal worship album. You weren’t going after radio play.
The funny thing is I had one record left on my contract with Tooth and Nail for Telecast, so I did this album with the intention of just making it for the church, and I’d intended to just release it for free to our church body. And I finish it, and since I’m still under contract I have to send things to Tooth and Nail. I tell them: “hey guys, I’m not going to do another Telecast album. It’s been awesome working with you guys but now that I’m pastoring a church, this is where I’m at musically.” I thought they’d just laugh at me. “We can’t do anything with this!” And then Brandon Ebel, President and fuonder of the label, got back with me and said “I really love this record and I think you should put it out.” So the whole process has been a real shock.
So you intended it to be used for your church?
That was it. We have several amazing young songwriters here within the church writing worship already, and the church is exploding in size. It’s been a really exciting time seeing what the Lord is doing in this city, especially in an area which is supposed to be so “un-Churched” … I really do pray that a new worship movement can come out of Door of Hope, and I think that it will. And if this record can be a catalyst for that, that’s great because my goal is to leave something with the young songwriters who are coming up.
It takes a little time to soak in, but you can pick out what has influenced you. It’s an album that rewards you the more deeply you listen. And if you’re wanting people to contemplate more serious things, maybe it shouldn’t hit you so bluntly the first time you listen.
It’s supposed to be very introspective. A few of the songs are more fun than others, “Holy Ghost Revival” and “Let Me See Your Hands,” but for the most part it’s meant to be an intimate album.
It’s interesting to see that you could set something up in an area where no one was seen as being overtly religious, and have it be so successful.
Portland is just such an intriguing city. There’s so much culture for how small it is, and it’s filled with musicians and artists in general, and there’s pride in the liberal nature of the people who live here. There’s always people riding around naked on bicycles here, it’s a weird place. And what’s interesting for me is that my fascination is with revivalism. I’m intrigued by historical revivals, and I think the last real authentic revival in this country was the Jesus movement of the 1970s. So I came into this district with that in mind – I wanted to go into an area where they’d say “you shouldn’t preach the Bible,” and just totally preach the word. I could keep church really simple, just have Christ and his worship, coupled with solid Bible teachings, really nothing else, and see what happens. And yeah, it’s been pretty crazy to watch.
You can’t gauge success off of numbers, but there is something to it when you’re a brand new church and you go from zero to six hundred in a year. It’s been a really intense experience watching the people coming, many of them people who had never gone to church. But here they are bringing their lives to Christ and actively enjoying studying scripture. I guess you could say there’s a great deal of spirituality here in Portland, which has got to be a big reason people have been so open to it.
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Visit Door of Hope to learn more
about Josh White’s churchor to find additional music.
If you haven’t already heard the Lonely Forest’s new EP, you’re really missing out. Hell, the band’s entire back catalog is worth checking out if you’re into challenging indie music from a band willing to take their sound in whatever direction the music leads them. I got the chance to sit down with Tony Ruland, the band’s guitarist, right before the band’s recent show at the Bishop in Bloomington, Ind., touching on their EP, their upcoming full-length album, and their fascination with putting on a great live show for fans of all ages.
I was interested to see you guys are playing with Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s tonight. Have you gotten the chance to hear their new album Buzzard yet?
Actually, this is the last night of a month-long tour with them. I think it’s actually the 25th show in the last 30 days with them, and yeah, I like Buzzard a lot. What’s good about spending that much time on the road with the same bands is you get to know people. You figure out what they like and don’t like and become friends. But it’s weird, because you spend a couple months becoming friends with someone and then you part ways and don’t see them for another year or two.
You’ve mentioned the strong “all ages” scene in Eastern Washington, and I knew you guys won the Experience Music Project’s “Sound Off” competition there. I remember finding it really hard to experience good live music as a teenager, and I wondered if you’ve been seeing more support for giving younger music fans and bands access to that world?
When I was a kid growing up in that area there were next to no all ages shows. They were few and far between. And it always devastated me, because I was an obsessive music listener, so it sucked that all my favorite bands like Mudhoney and all these old-school Seattle bands were always playing 21-and-up. So I would stand outside these venues to hear the band through the doors, and just hope to catch some glimpse of it. So that’s something we’ve been careful to be mindful of, playing all-ages shows whenever it’s possible.
Are there more venues like that out there?
There are a lot more in Washington, yeah.
It seems like a lot of college towns ignore that whole aspect, since most college students are under 21, but all you have are over-21 clubs.
Yeah, I think most people are more concerned about making money off alcohol sales, they don’t really care about who comes to the shows. I’m glad that, at least in the northwest, there’s a whole lot more support for the all-ages scene. It’s something that will always be important to us. There have been plenty of times where we’ve taken less [payment up front] for a show because it was going to be all ages. Even that, keeping ticket prices down, is an issue. Some of the bigger venues want to charge $20 for a show, and I feel kids shouldn’t have to pay that much.
Have you tried doing any online-streaming concerts? I’ve noticed that’s been getting easier to do.
No, actually we haven’t. But that’s not a bad idea. That’s pretty cool that you can do that, but it’s something I’ll definitely look into.
When I first heard your band, I did a search on You-Tube and found the videos from your acoustic show at the Woods. I really liked what you did with the rearrangements of songs like “We Sing In Time,” and the other songs from your earlier albums. Do you enjoy rearranging your songs in that kind of acoustic setting?
We try to be accommodating. For that show we really didn’t know what would be going on. It depends on the setup. Sometimes it’s just an acoustic guitar, other times there’ll be a floor tom, maybe an electric bass, but we always find a way to make it work somehow.
So are you supportive of your fans videotaping you and putting the music up on the web?
Actually I think it’s really fun to see what ends up on the Internet. Sometimes you’re like “ooh … I wish they hadn’t caught that moment,” but other times it’s more “that was cool!” I always joke with the guys and tell them it’s like we’re a football team, and it ends up being like watching the play-by-play after the game in the locker-room. “See, look, you’re leaving a gap right here …”
Do you ever feel you get more out of a live performance than you can in a studio setting?
Honestly, live is my favorite part of it. I like recording and all that, but the energy of a live show is hard to top, really.
The closest I can ever get to that is karaoke. We music fans have to live vicariously through you bands.
I’m terrified of karaoke! That always seems like the scariest thing ever.
You just need to record instrumentals of your own songs, so you can sing them karaoke-style.
Well, one time we got totally tipsy at one of the only bars in the little town we lived in, and there was an open mic night and they always have a bunch of acoustics. So we got, I don’t know, a little “intoxicated,” and played some of our own songs.
Did the crowd buy into it?
Well, everyone in town knows who we are, but they all thought it was hilarious. And hey, we got free beer out of the situation.
Getting back to your EP a little bit … “Live There” really stood out for me. What impressed me is that the instrumentation is so complex, but yet musically it’s easy to digest. The hooks don’t beat you over the head, but they’re there. How do you strike a balance between the creative and commercial aspects of your music?
I don’t think it’s something we really think about. It might sound stupid, but we just play what comes naturally, trying to roll with the punches. That song started out completely different. It didn’t really gel until we had Braden play drums for about twenty minutes until he found the right percussion groove, and then we added instruments until we suddenly had the right feel.
Do you do it differently live in order to build up that layered sound?
We do it a little differently, but we had to learn how to play it to sound like the way it was recorded. That was one of the only songs that was really undecided as to how we’d stage it live versus the way it was done in the studio, so it was fun to flesh that out.
At least you don’t have to take an IPod on stage with you to accomplish that.
Yeah, we like to keep it where we’re actually up there playing the guitars and the drums. Watching bands play with an IPod or a computer just isn’t fun. I’ve seen some bands I really love, and when they’re playing live it’s just a guy at a rack of computer keyboards, hitting a button that says “play.”
I wonder about groups like Owl City … you know the guy recorded all the music alone in his parents’ basement. But how would you ever do that live? You’d have to hire an entire band and start from scratch.
That, or you’d have to play the whole thing on stage by computer. I don’t know, I’m willing to bet that’s the way he has to do it.
I know your band got signed by Chris Walla, and I’m sure that’s all you ever hear about. Do you ever feel pressure to conform to a more “pop” aspect of indie music, or do you have the range to control your sound?
No, Chris really encourages us to just do what we want. Chris loves everything. He honestly has the widest-ranging musical tastes of anyone I’ve ever met. He would literally be showcasing metal bands for us, while we were in the middle of recording. So he encourages us to be as heavy as we want, or as pop-oriented as we want to be. It just happens to be that we like some things that are heavier and loud, while also enjoying three-minute pop songs. There’s something about a pop song that’s catchy, a verse a chorus and a verse. In my mind, Nirvana’s the greatest band of all time, and they also just happen to be the loudest pop band of all time.
That was the thing that freaked Kurt Cobain out the most, realizing that he was actually “becoming” pop.
Yeah, totally … but there shouldn’t be anything wrong with making “pop” music or enjoying it. If you like it, you like it, even if it’s not cool. Hell, what’s “cool” anyway?
Your EP plays out rather quickly, so that makes the wait for Arrows in January a bit tense for fans. I was wondering what we can or should expect from the new album?
I think it’s by far the most diverse record we’ve made. I still love the last record, but I think this new album is going to show a lot more of our influences. On some songs you’ll maybe say we’ve been listening to a lot of R.E.M., but the idea is that as a whole it’s going to be a lot more eclectic. We at least try not to be too obvious with the influences, but we’re putting what comes naturally onto the records, so sometimes you hear what’s coming through our listening filters.
At least you’re not denying that you listen to music. I always hate when bands say they don’t listen to anyone else’s music while they’re recording.
Yeah, I think that’s such a crock of shit when bands say stuff like that, because you know they’re lying. They’re totally lying. The whole point of rock and roll is that you can hear what you like and steal little snippets of it. There’s nothing “original” about pop-rock. It’s all about respecting the music that came before, while finding ways to take from it and build on it.
Reckless Kelly formed more than a decade ago in Bend, Oregon, and since 1997 the band has been rocking Austin, Texas with its blend of country and rock. Led by brothers Willy and Cody Braun, the band has crafted five albums of original songs, two solid live albums, and, in 2010, a studio album paying tribute to their musical hero, relatively unknown Idaho-based country songwriter Pinto Bennett.
They’ve been around the block more than a few times, and they’ve proved consistently that well-written songs coupled with addictive, melodic alternative-country instrumentation and incessant touring is what really builds a band’s reputation. They’ve got big names on their side, from Joe Ely (who joined in on the Pinto Bennett tribute, Somewhere In Time), and they’ll spend most of the month of November touring with Robert Earl Keen and the Randy Rogers Band.
I spoke with lead singer Willy Braun as the band prepared for their October 7th show at Baton Rouge’s Varsity Theater, and he had a lot to say about the trials of songwriting and the ongoing struggle to keep the band’s music, above all, original.
It’s a battle they seem to be winning.
Can you give us some insight into your songwriting process? What makes a song successful in your mind?
I still haven’t written any hits, so I may be the wrong guy to ask. But I just like to write songs that have something to say, while being a little less predictable than the normal tune, I guess. I try to write things that are a little less common, to think outside the box. It gets harder every year coming up with new ideas and different approaches, but I want to write something you don’t hear all the time.
What would you say is your role as a songwriter?
I think it’s all about getting the song written in as few words as possible. You’re telling a story and you have to figure out what to say, and I like to get it done with a couple verses and a chorus and get out of there … but sometimes it takes longer. Just trying to get the most out of a tune, I think, is the tough part of the job description. A lot of times you’ll have a great idea but you’ll end up with a mediocre song, but then sometimes you start with a mediocre idea and end up with a great song. It all depends on how much work you put into it, and the shape that a song takes. It’s strange, because you never know … I’ve worked on songs for years I thought were pretty awesome, and when I finally finish them up they’re just okay. Or they’re terrible. I think just getting the most out of the tune is probably the biggest challenge.
Do you feel working from the fringes of both the country and the rock world makes your music, in the end, better for the trouble?
It’s a lot easier on us, because we don’t have to pander to any one format or the other. Not having a lot of success on radio makes it easier too, because nobody’s expecting us to come out with another hit. They’re more likely to expect us to push the envelope and keep things a little more outside the box, so that makes it easier on us to be able to do what we want to do.
You didn’t write any of the songs on Somewhere In Time, but you did stamp Reckless Kelly all over the arrangements. Was it difficult to rearrange these songs you knew so well and make them accessible to your fans?
Well, it wasn’t really that hard for us because we’d been listening to those songs for so long, and we’d been talking about doing something like this for a long time. So we had a lot of ideas that we’d been working on or just thinking about, and we had Pinto come in while we were recording. So he and a couple of the guys from his band were there working on it with us. We kept them there to make sure they’d tell us if we got too far out of line. I think that might have helped.
Steve Earle honored Townes Van Zandt a decade after his death with Townes. Did you feel it was important to honor Pinto Bennett while he was still around to appreciate it?
Yeah, that was something we’d talked about a little bit. He’s getting up there a bit in age, and we definitely wanted to do it while he was around. I think it was cool for him to be able to check that out and experience it.
Is there a lot of other Idaho-based country music you think people should be hearing but they’re not?
Well, there’s a pretty good music scene up there, and there’s a couple good writers and singers working in the area, but Pinto, he’s the one who we’ve always really looked up to, so that’ll probably be the last one [we make a tribute for.]
You got to work with Joe Ely on this record. Are there any other artists you’d really enjoy the chance to work with?
I still want to do a duet with Emmylou Harris.
Is there a new album of Reckless Kelly originals in the works?
Yeah, I’m actually writing right now and we’re hopefully going to be getting into the studio sometime next year. We’re not sure exactly when, but we like to record in the winter or the spring, and try to get the record out by summer. You can have the record ready in time for summer touring, and that’s always a good thing to have. So that’s the loose plan as it stands right now.
You guys have said you came to Austin expecting to stay a couple years and you’ve yet to leave. Is Austin a more nurturing place for songwriters than the insular world of Nashville?
It’s true that Austin and Nashville are totally separate. Nashville’s more of the industry-driven town, and there are a lot of talented songwriters and musicians working out there. But I feel Austin’s more geared toward live music. People down in Austin seem to be playing the music they’re interested in; not just playing the music they think will make them a bunch of money. There’s nothing wrong with playing songs that make money, but that’s the big thing that sets Austin apart, there’s not so much “industry” here. It’s more about the music.
That hasn’t started changing with the growth of the South by Southwest festival?
Well, they come in for the parties and then leave in the end. They don’t get any business done in Austin; they’re too busy drinking margaritas.
When Sugar Hill put out their “Best of the Sugar Hills Years” collection, your album and James McMurtry’s stuck out as the most sonically adventurous. Yet both of you are now on new labels. Have you been able to better push the sonic envelope now that you’re on Yep Roc?
We have a little more control with Yep Roc, but Sugar Hill was pretty great – we got to make the records we wanted to with them, though we did have an A&R guy when we were with Sugar Hill. So we had to jump through a few more hoops, push a little harder to do the stuff we wanted.
Was this the same A&R guy you sang about on “Break My Heart Tonight”?
Yeah, that’s him. But ultimately we ended up making the records we wanted to with Sugar Hill, but we may have had to fight a little harder. When we went into Yep Roc we were aware of that, and we made it clear up front that we wanted to make our records, we didn’t want to have to send in the songs for approval. If anything, we wanted to deliver a record to them, and since we talked that way going in, they seemed fine with it. So that’s been cool, we’ve been able to produce our own records, and they’ve gone to the trouble of helping deliver a good product.
They didn’t think you were crazy to bring a Pinto Bennett album to them after starting to crack the charts with Bulletproof?
They thought we were crazy for a little while, but once we played them the tunes – we sent them a little “best of” thing to get them hooked on the Pinto stuff – and once they heard the songs they were totally on board.
The Dixie Chicks almost ruined their careers when they spoke out against Bush in Texas. But your song “American Blood” seems to have found a way to reach listeners without offending them, even though the message within is just as scathing. How important was it for you to get that message out to your listeners?
Well, I wrote that song while we were working on the Bulletproof album, and when I wrote that tune and played it for the guys, we knew this was going to turn some heads. People were going to be talking about it. We just wanted to put it on the album because it was such a strong song, and we all had pretty strong opinions about the war at that point – and we still do. We definitely thought about it, and we knew what we were getting into, but I think the difference between us and the Dixie Chicks is that they had this enormous national and worldwide following. So we didn’t have as much to risk as they did.
But I think it’s all about how you handle questions about it and the way you deal with negative feedback. We had a little bit of negative feedback on the tune from people who didn’t quite understand it, or who outright didn’t agree with it, and that’s fine. But we take those individual situations and try to explain to those who disagree that we’re not trying to slap anybody in the face here. It’s worth it, because most people who heard it came back and said they really liked it. In fact, several soldiers who have been over there, or who still are over there, tell us they really think it’s great that we’re saying what we did. That means a lot, and at the end of the day most of the people who heard it understood where we were coming from.
What impressed me about it was that I heard the song several times before it fully clicked, but it’s so rhetorically well constructed. You’ve got Johnny, the American soldier archetype, and then you’ve got George W. Bush, and you keep going back and forth between the two to see where both ended up after all that time. I don’t know a lot of songwriters who could get that across and still have the song sound catchy.
Yeah, it was a tough subject to tackle. Like you said, it’s sensitive and everybody’s got a different opinion on it. It took me quite a while to write that song, actually. I was writing it for several years and went through several different versions of it. And when I finally wrote the one that actually came out, it came together pretty quick. So I think I finally stumbled upon the formula I was looking for. I had to abandon all the other ideas I’d had for so long and just went with it.
Andrew Ripp may be better known for the songs he’s written for others than for the one album he released under his own name in 2008. He co-wrote half of Ryan Cabrera’s 2005 album You Stand Watching, including “You Shine On,” which actually made Billboard’s Hot 100.
But on his own, Ripp has made enough of an impact for fans of the Palatine, Illinois, songwriter to realize he’s got the pop music chops to craft meaningful lyrics around mind-bending hooks that demand repeating. His live shows are eclectic enough, whether he’s solo or with his full backing band, to siphon audiences away from the headliners they’ve come to see. Fans of Stephen Kellogg, Fiction Family and even Robert Randolph have been won over by his distinctive pop-rock performances.
Now, with his sophomore album She Remains The Same set for release on September 21st, Ripp gets the chance to expand his audience while experimenting with deeper explorations of the blues idiom, merging the sounds of New Orleans with contemporary Christian-tinged lyrics which dare to be introspective without becoming overtly preachy.
Ripp took the time to sit down and speak with me this week about the new album, his songwriting process, and his take on the value of pop music.
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You’ve said the new album’s about “truth, faith and finding a way to find hope in what’s painful.” Do you think you were successful in that?
I really hope so. That’s what we were going for. I call it “speaking life,” and what I mean by that is speaking truth as much as I can. My relationship with God is very important to me and I’ve matured in that relationship over the last couple years. And that’s been the timeframe during which I wrote much of this new record. That’s been a main focus for me. Through my story and my life experience, that’s where my songwriting inspiration comes from.
It must have been interesting working with Dave Barnes, if that was the mindset you were coming from. I know he’s worked with Ed Cash, and Ed Cash has worked with Caedmon’s Call and Bebo Norman. I’ve spent time talking to Bebo in the past, and these all seem like guys who know what they’re trying to say and why they feel compelled to share it without feeling like they’re beating you over the head with their Christianity.
Yeah, you have to be careful about how you present it . . . but I think if you’re being honest, it doesn’t matter because it’s one thing to just talk about things you’ve gone through and it’s another to get preachy. I think that’s where those guys do really well. They just talk about their own experiences, rather than telling someone what they should personally be doing. You know?
Well, I really enjoyed the preview of “Savior,” off your new album. It reminded me a lot of Marc Broussard. But I loved the line: “I found my Jesus on a city street / He gave me freedom through a trash-can beat / Some kind of symphony . . . Don’t worry ‘bout me, ‘cause I know where I’m going.” I just found it really refreshing to hear a Christian message coming across without sounding forced.
I’m glad you picked up on that. A lot of people have asked me what that tune is about, and it’s just about seeing that you can find God in people who don’t even know who God is, or who don’t even claim that there is one. From my viewpoint, we’re all created by Him, and I think depending on the way we look at people, we can find God in anyone, even in the guy who’s standing on the street corner, playing the drums. That chorus is just making the statement: “I know where I’m going when I’m gone.”
I know you’re from Chicago, and your last album was called Fifty Miles From Chicago, but the new material on She Remains The Same sounds more like Fifty Miles From New Orleans. Have you been focusing more on the blues sound within your music?
It’s more of a Southern deal, which makes sense, as I’m living in Nashville now. So that had a lot to do with it, and a lot of the players on the record who make up my backing band are from the South. Dave [Barnes] is from the South. And I just love country music, but my voice has more of a “soulful thing,” so when you put all that together that’s the sound we wound up with.
A lot of the last album sounded like what we were hearing on the radio, the Jason Mraz sound, or Ryan Cabrera. This album sounds more down home, like you’re finally singing what’s comfortable to you.
That’s definitely what’s going on. If there is a single on this record, it’s this song called “Star,” which is geared toward that kind of “modern radio” sound. But it wasn’t about that with me, spreading my music around, because I’m not in that position. I’m not with a label, I’m totally on my own. So even if I do have a smash, break-out single potentially on this album, what am I going to do with it? What I’m trying to do right now is build a solid following of people who like good music.
I’d talked to Hanson a couple weeks ago and they’re going through the same thing. They’re completely independent, they know they’re not going to have a hit, they just want to make music that says what they want to say.
Yeah, and they’re in a great position because they’ve got like a million fans who still actually buy their records! Which is amazing that they’ve been able to do that. Have you been to their shows?
Man, they’re so awesome. I say that, and I’ve done a writing thing with them, in this writing group called “Fool’s Banquet,” which they put on once a year. And they definitely know how to write a song. And even if they never have another hit, it’s okay.
I don’t know if you read Bob Lefsetz’s stuff, he’s a blogger in LA who’s really savvy and smart about where the music industry is headed these days. But Lefsetz is talking about how the “new radio” is just pumping great video out, constantly putting out great new material. It’s not even about radio anymore. How many people actually listen to radio anymore anyway? It’s a weird thing, but it’s exciting, for people like me, because you don’t actually have to have that big single anymore. It’s more about writing great music and just continuing to get it out there. The internet makes it accessible to the entire world from your bedroom, and great stuff spreads . . . it takes time, but it spreads.
Tell us a little about your songwriting process. What makes a song meaningful to you, and how do you go about getting that feeling out on paper?
It comes in all sorts of ways. For me, a lot of great ideas come while I’m driving. There’s really no secret to it though, you just have to recognize when you have a great idea and make sure you document it so you don’t forget it. Sometimes a title for a song comes first, but other times it’s just some really cool chords or a groove that you think of. You’ll be messing around with chords on the guitar and there’s really no right or wrong way to do it.
For me, in order for me to connect with a song, it just really has to be “truth,” coming from something I’ve experienced. It’s hard for me to write just a fun song about something that hasn’t happened, just telling a fictional story about something. I’ve tried to do that, it just doesn’t work for me. But the more I dig into what I’ve gone through and what those emotions bring out, the better the song.
What would you say makes a strong pop album?
Pop music, to me, is just “popular” music; it doesn’t have to be cheesy. All pop music isn’t cheese. I consider my music to be pop-rock, but a lot of people think of pop and it’s just Katy Perry all day long and that’s just not the case. Although I don’t know if you’ve heard her record, but it’s awesome.
You can have the guilty-pleasure pop, but if you malign the entire scope of pop music because you don’t like one kind, you’re going to miss a lot.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely . . . and I’m not afraid of it! I used to be afraid to call my music pop, but whatever. I love a good strong pop song. I love a Katy Perry song. I don’t necessarily see my career going in that same direction, but that’s okay. I’m glad somebody’s doing that.
What do you hope your fans will take from the new album?
I hope my voice comes through. On the first record, I don’t think my voice came through a hundred percent, so I hope my voice shines on this one. There’s a lot you can take from hearing the raw passion from somebody’s voice, and that’s something I felt like I needed to take to the next level on this record.
I was impressed seeing you open for Stephen Kellogg, it was just you and a guitar, and yet you drew the crowd in! And I know, Stephen Kellogg’s fans are about as rabid as anybody. You knew they were there to see him. Is it hard to be there playing as an opening act when you know the audience is there waiting for the “main event”?
Honestly, I don’t really know much other than being the opener at this point in my career. I could headline in maybe five different markets. But my main thing the last two years has been to really focus on the act of touring. I was living in LA for a long time, and LA was all writing. There was no touring scene out there.
But the second I finished working on that first record, I knew I needed to move away. So me and the band moved back to Chicago, where I was from, to start touring. Out in California everything’s so far-flung; you can play LA, and maybe San Diego, but where are you going to go from there? You’ve got so much driving. But the midwest is laid out to where every two hours you’ve got another city, which is great for building an audience.
And it’s a different music scene. In LA, my kind of music really didn’t make sense, nobody really understood it. Everybody in LA is trying to reinvent the wheel, and that’s not how I was made.
And it’s been a long time since the Bakersfield Country sound was big out there.
Exactly. So we moved back to Chicago and started touring, and that was really my first time on stage, actively working to build my fan-base. I had no fans. The only people who knew my music were the people who knew me. So we needed to get out of that world and start the journey.
So I’m excited. This is our second record, and finally we do have legitimate fans out there . . . the base isn’t huge, but it exists now and it’s cool to have something now to build on. That first record it was a matter of just putting it online, we didn’t have an official “street date,” it just became available.
What do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
I don’t know. At some point in every music career you end up with a few situations where you have fans who you’ve let get a little too close, to where it starts getting weird. They are fans, but they also want to be friends. So sometimes, and I’m not there yet since I haven’t been doing this long enough, but I can imagine guys like Hanson who must have some freaky fans. I just wish people would ask questions because they care about your music, and not just because of the guy you are on stage.
You’re not into the whole “cult of celebrity” then?
Right, I don’t want people showing up because they think I’m cool. I want them to show up because they believe in what I’m doing and because the music moved them.
The Gay Blades have built an international following over the past three years because they have developed an ear-catching blend of “trash pop” (their words, not mine!) which manages to blend the energy and depth of David Bowie with the rock edge of everything from the White Stripes to Bruce Springsteen, Wilco to Weezer, all without actually having to wear their influences on their sleeves. Add to that the raw energy which frontman James Dean Wells (a.k.a. Clark Westfield) and his partner in crime Quinn English (a.k.a. Puppy Mills) bring to their raw live performances, and you’ve got a recipe for kick-ass rock music that has enough pop in it to keep you coming back for more at audio-gunpoint.
The band’s sophomore album, Savages, drops on October 5th. I recently had the chance to sit down and talk to James Wells about the band’s evolution as they worked on the second album, the pressure of added expectations, and where the Gay Blades fit into today’s fractured musical landscape.
Legal Download: The Gay Blades – “Try To Understand (MP3)
First off, what makes music meaningful to you?
I find myself listening to music that puts things in perspective and says the things the musician really feels, yet it comes out sounding inherently so simple. When you listen to music you love – and music strikes on so many different levels – you can say “I’ve felt that! I’ve felt those exact emotions!” But you’ve never thought to say it out loud. It’s a pretty amazing thing. A good lyricist can wrap up the human experience very efficiently, and if they do it poorly it’s a recipe for disaster.
You’ve said before that you don’t think the live experience should duplicate what we can already hear on the album itself. Do you feel your fans are receptive to that idea? Do you still have people get pissed off at you that you don’t recreate your singles note for note?
To be honest, there were people who would come to one of our live shows and then they’d hear our record and say that it seemed to be missing something. That record in particular came from a different place and a different process. This new record has a sense of the same thing, but we produced this record with a lot of energy and a lot more oomph, or chutzpah if you will. So I think with the new record Savages kids will see the live show, feel the energy of the rock and roll coming off the stage, and then when they go home and listen to the record it’ll still have that energy but it’ll be a different listening experience. It would be boring for me as a musician to play it exactly the same way every night, with the same tempos and phrasings. Every night is different because every night feels different. But then when they go home and listen to the record, the record still sounds fucking amazing. It’s a different listening experience, but hopefully it will recall that live energy and sentiment. Of all my achievements it is my proudest. I’m really excited about the new record.
With influences as varied as Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Pavement, no one’s ever going to run out of descriptors for your music. How do you go about crafting songs that fit those influences together and still maintain your distinct sound?
Well, ultimately I don’t ever try to reconstruct what they have constructed It’s the way those guys go about doing it, making music, that inspires me. And those artists are in one place for me, the individualists, more about the moment and the emotion. There are other guys, like David Bowie and Paul McCartney, who inspire me for the process they used to craft the music. What stands out about all those artists is that they’re honest. David Bowie’s a great chameleon, but he believes in what he’s doing no matter what he chooses to record. I try to emulate that, in that I’m writing tunes that express what’s going on in my brain. It’s a very intuitive process; it’s not about us trying to reconstruct our influences.
Certainly we don’t wear our influences on our sleeve. That may be why we don’t fit into many “scenes,” since some of our music sounds like punk-rock, while some is quirky indie-rock, maybe even some more mainstream stuff.
It kind of reminds me of what Ween tries to do, where it seems every album is a different experiment. You can listen to their whole catalog and you won’t hear the same thing twice.
I think with Ween what they do is say “this is going to be this kind of record.” For me it’s more that “this is the song I’m writing.” I don’t know what the next song is I’m going to write, I never sit down and say I’m going to write a rock song. But I love Ween because they’re able to do that, they can say “we’re going to make a record that sounds like The White Album,” and then they do it. Or “we’re going to make a Spanish rock and roll record.” For me it’s not a really heady process. It’s “this is what I made. Oops! I don’t know how it happened, but it did, so let’s figure it out.” So that’s why I think a lot of the songs are very different from one track to the next, as opposed to Ween, who make such highly focused records. I lack focus, that’s what I’m trying to say.
I can understand that. As a listener I lack focus too. I listen to a little bit of everything and people think I’m nuts.
That’s what I’m saying! I don’t love just one kind of music, so why should I create only one kind of music? It’s the extension that comes from being a music fan, I think.
You once said “O Shot” wasn’t really a complete song, but that you’re glad people like it. But on Savages you wanted to write a bunch of good songs you really care about. Do you feel the finished album lived up to that expectation?
It actually far surpassed it. I was nervous going in, because that last record, Ghosts, was made without any real thought. I had gotten a job working at a major label and Puppy Mills and I were playing around and we said “hey, let’s go make a record!” And there was no attention paid to what would happen. We had no pressure, we spent the money we would have spent at bars on making a record, no big deal.
That’s how records used to be made, but it seems now a lot of bands think you have to spend six months in a studio with a big name producer to make a record.
Well, I don’t necessarily one hundred percent agree with that, since a lot of great records right now are coming out of people’s bedrooms, especially thanks to this brave new world of digital recording. We chose to do it that way because we’re idiots and just don’t know how to record ourselves. My tastes aren’t the kind that would allow me to make a bedroom pop album. Maybe one day I’ll have that kind of security. But when we made that record it was “hey, we’re making a record for fun! Let’s just do it!” And all the songs came out the way they came out, and it took a long time and was expensive. Then we got picked up and were signed, and we toured the world, and suddenly we’re having to “build our career.” It was kind of unexpected.
Because of that added pressure, I was really nervous that the songs on Savages weren’t going to translate or they’d sound forced. But ultimately I had a lot of experiences from the last year I could draw on lyrically, and we worked with Dean Baltulonis, who’d just wrapped the new Hold Steady record, and it was an amazing experience. The record is way beyond my expectations. It was pretty great.
I’ve been thinking about how “confined” the idea of pop music has become, when really there’s so much more music out there that “could be” pop if radio would play it. Then there are bands like yours out there trying a little bit of everything and making it work in your own distinct way. Are you confident fans will still find the music?
I’m confident “Gay Blades” fans will find it, but you never know what people are going to find on an organic level. We’re on a small label, so we work hard and tour nearly incessantly. At least we did on the last record. We’re just now starting to get geared up into “touring season” for the new record, we’re rehearsing for the first time in two years. But really it’s one of those crapshoots, and since we don’t fit into any particular scene, there’s no big spotlight highlighting trashy pop records like ours. So to me, you put your fucking head down and you work hard, you care about what you’re doing, and you care about the people who care about what you’re doing. Beyond that you cross your fingers. You try and make a little money here and there and hope everything works out. You go down swinging if you go down.
Do you ever feel like you’d have to dumb musical tastes down to have a “hit”?
Yeah, but to be honest, is middle-America ever going to love the Gay Blades? Probably not. Ultimately I’m 28 years old, I’ve been in bands since I was 17 years old, and I don’t need to dumb my music down. I write it how I write it, I try to make it the best I can and then I move on.
What inspires you to continue writing music? Do you write songs while you’re touring? Do you say “now I’ve got to sit down and write new songs?”
Well luckily for the Gay Blades, we spend so much time on the road and our whole life has been music, so when I sit down on the couch with my guitar it’s a very natural thing. Writers write, bloggers blog, it is what it is. You are what you do and you do what you are. It’s a very instinctive process.
I have to ask . . . is it still fun fucking around with people who don’t bother to listen to the music or ask relevant questions?
Well, every interview’s the same. You could ask every artist the same set of questions for the most part. So we do try and have a little fun with the process. We have pretty elaborate stories about how our band started, and whatever! It’s fun! The bottom line is we lack focus, so anything that can potentially spice up a monotonous experience is a good thing. I mean, how many times have you heard: “Oh man! We grew up together, my little brother was on drums, and . . .” As an interviewer, how many times do you want to hear that same story?
What’s your favorite “dumb question” you get all the time?
Well, nothing ever really drives me nuts, because I’m always psyched that anyone wants to take time out of their day to hang out and talk to me about my stupid band. But I will say “where does our band name come from?” has to be up there. Let’s just get it out there. Truth be told, we stole the band name from another band because they weren’t using it anymore. We were friends with them, and we were like: “Hey, you’ve got this band name and you’ve never really used it or done anything. Do you mind if we have the band name?” And they said yeah, of course, whatever. But it’s a pretty good band name, I think.
I think so. It gets people pissed off if they want to be pissed off, and it’s memorable if they want to remember the name.
Right, ultimately they’ll always remember the band name. And I don’t think a natural indie-rock audience is going to be homophobic in any way, shape or form, or so close-minded they can’t handle hearing the name Gay Blades. You’ve got bands like the Queers, the Pissed Jeans, it’s just a fucking name. Indie-rock fans get the irony that’s involved in choosing a band name.
Well, punk rock already had G.G. Allin, so if they can handle him I think they can handle the Gay Blades.
Exactly! I’m not shitting on anybody anymore! It’s been a while.
As a musician, do you think you developed more of your sound from hearing music you liked or music you hated?
Mostly the way we developed our music was to just play and keep playing. It’s a matter of finding what feels comfortable, what’s ingrained in your DNA. That’s why with the greats, some of which we’ve touched on in this interview, it’s hard to tell exactly where they came from.
I’ve just been thinking about it, because some bloggers only write about what they like, while other sites like Pitchfork seem to love to find the coolest way to hate on a band. Is it possible to be influenced by music you actually wound up not liking?
It’s hard for me, because I think for most people it’s cyclical. You grow up listening to one kind of music and then five months later you’re like “I can’t believe I liked that!” And then five years later you’re like “I was actually right about it the first time.” So I always tell my friends who get a lot of tattoos: “Imagine your tastes, what they were like five years ago. Don’t get a tattoo until you’re sure that taste is cemented in your person.”
Luckily, with music, you don’t have to literally tattoo it to your body. So sometimes when I play records from bands I’ve been in, I couldn’t be more embarrassed. But I can guarantee you when I’m forty years old and my kids are running around and I’m hanging around drinking beers on the lawn with my friends and we’re playing that old music, we’re going to be stoked! So it is what it is. Enjoying music is a growing experience.
You’ve been both a musician and a record-industry insider, and the popular opinion today seems to be that indie’s the way to go, that there’s nothing a record label can really offer a serious musician. What’s your perspective on that?
Putting out music, releasing a product that is so closely tied with art and taste is a magical crapshoot. There are very few safe bets in the world. Even a major label, you can say “we are going to break this artist,” and fucking nine times out of ten it just does not happen. At an indie level you are like “we’re going to just put this record out, let them tour, and then we have to move on to different bands.” Then all of a sudden the band fucking blows up because of one little thing. There’s no real formula to create something genuine.
So yeah, the label system can be helpful if you lack guidance as an artist, if you lack the experience. There are people at those major labels who have dedicated their lives to marketing and developing artists. We can hate on major labels as much as we like, but I’ve known some really amazing people who work at major labels and they’re not all scumbags.
So going into the new decade, do you see the music industry being as dead as people have been saying it is?
Yeah, absolutely! It is a harrowing place to find yourself professionally.
How would you adapt to that?
That’s the idea. We have to adapt or we die, right? I think all businesses that base their business model on marketing and recording music will fail unless they find new revenue streams. And it’s not just about nickel-and-diming Google and YouTube. There has to be something else to come down the pike. And it’s going to take someone far more innovative and inventive than I am to come up with that answer.
You’ve got to work on the music and let somebody else figure that out.
Well, I would be remiss to say I don’t worry about it or think about it, because I certainly do. The last thing I want to go back to doing is working on shitty bands who I don’t give a fuck about, because that’s what I used to do. That’s what kept me from being self-actualized as a songwriter. And I hate to jump around the question, but there is no single answer. Is the record industry in a state? Yes. That’s easy, everyone knows that. What do we have to do? I don’t know . . . sell our souls? There’s no selling out for indie-rock anymore, which is good. No one talks about that when Animal Collective’s in a Volvo commercial. It is what it is.
I heard the new Weepies song recently at the end of a credit card commercial for Chase.
And you know what? I’m glad! I’m so damned glad that that’s the case, because we need to eat. If there’s some 55 year old man sitting in a one room studio who’s cranking out all the credit card commercials, what about us? We need to be in credit card commercials too! I don’t care, use the music! It’s a medium to listeners, and if you get to go on stage and hit up Columbus, Ohio or Salt Lake City or these great places all around the country, if you can get there and you had to sell some of your tunes to Chase Bank, its okay! Who cares? Do your thing.
What do you wish someone would ask you, but they never do?
Ultimately I just want to have a decent conversation with someone who gives a crap about music. However that ends up coming across is great. Maybe ask me how I’m doing today. No one really asks that, they usually just say “alright, let’s get started!”
I was talking to this kid recently and was doing an interview, and he’s like “it’s so great you take time to talk to your fans and stuff, do you feel obligated to do it?” and I’m kind of a nerd because I just really like talking to people. I work from home so it’s kind of quiet all day when I’m not on the road. And even when you’re on the road, you’re just running around hyperactive, waiting for something to happen. And I’m extroverted to a potentially psychopathic level, so for me it’s great just to talk to people about music. And if once in a while we get to focus on the old Gay Blades, it’s a good day.
Like I said, I used to work for a major label and I’d have to talk about bands that I felt were definitely evil, or stupid, or ill-conceived, and that was how my entire day was spent. So I moved to an indie label and got to work with smaller bands and I got a little time to work on my band, and my life has been pretty amazing. It’s all good.
Chris Merritt almost seems a man born in the wrong era. The 27-year-old Virginia native has spent the last decade writing, producing and recording some of the most innovative indie-pop you’re ever likely to stumble upon, complete with full stereophonic vocal and instrumental arrangements. He’s capable of drawing comparisons to artists as disparate as Rufus Wainwright, Ben Folds, Coldplay, Snow Patrol or just about anyone else you could think of who dabbles in at least some form of piano-based pop.
He’s also willing to admit that he’s a man with strong opinions, and his willingness to share may be a big reason why he’s still struggling to find an audience and the ability to “sell out.” Still, the audience he has found is a dedicated one, and, even with his third solo album, Virginia Is For Hoverers, being not even a year old, he’s already on his way to further develop that album’s winning sound for a new record due (“if it doesn’t kill me,” he jokes on his website) sometime within the next week.
Chris sat down with me to talk about songwriting as a craft, why musical taste is really more objective than subjective, and how he came to be known in Utah as “the Mormon Ben Folds” despite being an atheist.
Jonathan Sanders: What would you say is “meaningful” in music to you?
Chris Merritt: I would say meaningful music is anything that’s genuine. And while a lot of people talk about good music being subjective, I don’t really think that’s the case. I think that what’s objectively “good” music, is just really hard to define. But you can define it. It’s hard to define things in nature like life, but there is such a thing as “good” music. The key is being genuine. As soon as you start to become superficial, the music becomes less meaningful.
Jonathan: So you as a songwriter, can you describe your process, how you construct a song?
Chris: Here’s what usually happens. I sit down at the piano, I start playing and it really sucks . . . everything I play sucks . . . and that goes on for about an hour. Then maybe after a while I’ll hit on the right chord progression. But it has to do something for me, it’s tuning into that objective “goodness” that I fucking love. It comes down to finding a clever melody or a clever chord progression that really hits my gut deep. It’s almost like a real pain, a good and bad feeling at the same time. So I have go off that, because that’s what all good songs do, they hit that feeling, whatever it is.
So once I find a melody that I like, even if it’s just a few seconds, and that’s the fun part. Sometimes it has a lyric with it and other times I just have the melody. It’s great when it all falls together and I can write a whole song in ten minutes. But the rest of the time I have to keep that melody around for a few days, then come back to it to develop it into a full song. Then it becomes more of a tedious left-brain thing.
Jonathan: You’ve been very active in the world of music-based social networking. Do you think social networking sites create all-around music fans, or does it tend to fuel the “celebrity seeking” culture?
Chris: It’s such a weird thing, all that stuff. The cool part is I’ll get fans at shows who’ll say “I heard your music on The Sixty One [www.thesixtyone.com], for example. That can be cool in a way, but at the same time it’s very hard to track how many people are actually listening to you on those sites, versus how many people will end up actually buying some music, or coming to a show. Most of those people you never even hear from. Five percent, maybe, are the really vocal people who comment online, and they’re the ones you hear from. The other side of it is that people can more easily get out there via such sites, a lot more mediocre musicians . . . not even musicians, people who got some recording program on their computer and thought it would be cool to make a recording. There’s such a huge mound of music that, as an artist — and this may be an ego thing — you almost feel like a bit of a whore. You’re just one of the millions of little artists on here.
Other times I wind up feeling wistful for “the good old days” before all this internet marketing. It’s almost like there’s been a cheapening of music. I’m anxious to see where it ends up being in ten years.
Jonathan: Your song “Try To See The Good” lashes out lyrically at a critic who lambasts an artist’s solo work while gushing over their work with a well-known band. Do you feel critics still play a role in how music gets heard?
Chris: That song was specifically about Frank Black’s band The Pixies, and specifically the Pitchfork review of Frank’s solo albums, which get negative reviews even when the Pixies get mentioned in those reviews so favorably. They get so negative about his albums, which are quite possibly my favorite albums of all time. So I was thinking how a guy like Frank Black really doesn’t get the credit he deserves. It upsets me to see people at these sites who are obsessed with a band like the Pixies, and then as soon as someone goes off to do his solo thing . . . for whatever reason . . . even as he’s maturing as a songwriter, and he gets hammered by these 22-year-old snobby music critics.
Jonathan: Yeah, I’d missed the Pitchfork train when it first got started, and when I started hearing references to it, the site had already become the juggernaut it is today. But it’s crazy how they’ll promote a band like Vampire Weekend, out of nowhere, until they’re huge without even releasing a CD. And by the time the CD does come out, they’ve moved onto the next big thing.
Chris: That might be another issue with the spread of technology’s influence in music promotion. It’s like Tom Petty was talking about recently, back in the seventies it wasn’t all about “criticism” when you wrote about popular music. It was like, “lets listen to this and love it,” everyone was so psyched about music. And now it’s become very critical.
Jonathan: It was so new back then, too, the whole idea of rock-music journalism having come out of that generation.
Chris: But the weird thing is, you had so much great stuff back then. I mean, you have great stuff now, but sometimes I listen to the Beatles’ music, or the Beach Boys, and I think “is anyone really making music like this now?” I just don’t know.
So I have my views on criticism, but I’ve become kind of biased by having seen what critics have done to guys like Rivers Cuomo. He released Pinkerton and it was slammed by all these people so he retreated into obscurity for years, only to come out writing poppier and poppier songs. I hear an album like Pinkerton, which I think can be called objectively better, you can point to certain melodic things he was doing there, lyrical things he was doing, that make it objectively cooler. It is a better record. But I remember the first Pitchfork review I read was for Ben Folds Five’s third album, Reinhold Messner, which was a great record, and they said something like it was “the muppets trying to do Radiohead,” some kid who thinks he’s clever. But those negative reviews were part of the reason the band broke up!
I’d just like to see more positive reviews. I want to see more people out there finding good music, and writing about how good it is so the rest of us can find it. The negative stuff, you honestly don’t need someone to be able to tell you what sucks.
Jonathan: Let’s get back to your music for a moment. I’ve been listening to it in great volumes lately, and I noticed a lot of your songs deal overtly with the topics of science-fiction and fantasy. What inspires you when you’re writing about those subjects?
Chris: I’m just a huge nerd, I guess. I just love those things, it’s part of something new I like to do with music lyrically. I’m interested in taking lyrics to a new place. I want to write about these totally obscure, but important, things like great physicists, or great moments in history, or where the future of technology is headed. These are the things I’m constantly thinking about, while everyone else around me doesn’t think about it. I like to get people looking at all this crazy physics stuff that’s going on, look at this society we’re living in! Evolution is accelerating all around us! What does it mean to be conscious? Have you ever thought about that?
The other thing I like to do is hide those lyrics with music that sounds like your traditional pop love song.
Jonathan: There’s a lot of AM Radio in your music, particularly on songs like “Arizona.”
Chris: I like doing that. I want my music to be “good,” and a lot of people seem to think I focus in on music that’s weird because I like creating weird music. I like to write a song that kicks you in the ass a little bit, a good melody and a good rock song, so I’m not trying to do anything so weird you can’t enjoy it. But I like to use things like odd time signatures and make the melody more awesome, at least it is to me.
With lyrics, I often write them after the melody. But sometimes I’ll have a little bit in there of lyrics which came with the melody. Like, for this song called “She Wolf,” I had that lyric with the melody: “I would do anything just to see you / I would do anything just to find you.” So then it’s like, okay. I can take that, and now I can make it as obscure as possible. The chorus makes sense, the melody’s fun, but with the rest of the lyrics, I can go anywhere I want to. That’s what’s so much fun for me, because I hate writing lyrics.
That song, for example, the chorus makes it sound like a typical love song, but I wrote it about Queen Isabella, who was known as the she-wolf, known for these murderous rages she’d go on. Her husband got caught with a gay lover, and it’s just crazy how when you’re reading the story you know that all went on among royalty, all these murders and wars fought over a couple’s marital problems. So I’ll decide to write my lyrics about that, and wrap it up like a poppy love song.
Jonathan: As for all your influences, at first the biggest thing you hear is the Ben Folds sound, but if you listen a little closer you hear other sounds sneaking out, like Rufus Wainwright or The Fray, Snow Patrol, even a little Cake thrown in.
Chris: Oh cool! That’s great to hear you say Cake, because Cake is one of my favorite bands ever, but they’re the kind of band where I always feel I don’t show their influence enough. They have such a different lineup, such a different sound, but I think Fashion Nugget has got to be among my top three records of all time.
Jonathan: But I was wondering, because you’ve never hidden that you like all these bands, how do you go about creating a “Chris Merritt Sound” out of all these rival influences?
Chris: I haven’t really ever thought about it consciously until recently. We’re working on this new record, Virginia Is For Hoverers, Part II, and I think it’s the first record where I’ve actually set out to develop a sound. We’re doing it on a tight budget, just a bunch of friends making a record.
Jonathan: Does it help that you went to college to learn how to do this kind of thing?
Chris: (Laughs). We were talking about that the other day, me and the guy producing the new record – he used to play in Paperface, and we went to school together. But the funny thing is, technology is changing everything so fast, and with recording you can get better sound now, with more tools available, for practically nothing. If you can afford a computer, spend $400 on a recording program, and since just about anybody can use these programs with a minimum of training, you can learn just about as much as anyone with a college degree in music engineering with just a few days on YouTube.
The thing that I really do miss about school was that I just wrote all the time. I had classes in the music building, and I’d sneak into practice rooms to just write. At one point I was writing three songs a day, spending sometimes nine hours in a room playing and writing. So during that time I think maybe I was able to write out a lot of the crap that was in me. I wrote something like 450 complete songs, and that’s helped me now in paring down and finding what really works in my music.
Jonathan: It’s funny when you talk about having written that many songs, because I’ve had musicians when you call out a song request at a concert from a few albums ago, they honestly don’t remember it unless they’ve rehearsed it recently. I always wonder how you can keep track of anything but the most recent few albums of songs.
Chris: A lot of it comes down to practicing, and I always could use more practice time. I do get a lot of requests of older songs I just have no idea how to play anymore. It’s always really embarrassing because I know if I spent just half an hour at night working on some random old songs, I’d be able to handle more of those requests. It’s still flattering that people want to hear them, even when I can’t actually play them.
Jonathan: There’s been a big discussion on your site recently about how to characterize your music, and people were suggesting things like “Idio,” for idiosyncratic music. And I started wondering if there’s a limit to how far we can fracture genres before people forget what music “is” in the first place.
Chris: I think the idea of a genre is arbitrary anyway. The human mind loves to categorize, and that makes sense biologically, but it can also lead to stereotyping. With music it can be really detrimental, because you get people who will associate themselves with a specific kind of music, and they miss out on the rest because of arbitrary borders. I get that same gut-love feeling when I hear Beethoven as I get when I hear something on a pop record. I think there are only two categories of music: good music and superficial music. Then again, I can be too opinionated, I think maybe it comes with the territory of being a musician, I have to know I’m right.
Jonathan: You’ve self-produced all your music to this point. Have you ever thought about pitching your songs to a label in today’s climate?
Chris: Part of me moving to New York has been that I want to find new people who are doing interesting things, to become part of a scene from the beginning. I think artists would have to be stupid to want to be jerked around by these big labels anymore. We have the internet! We have the ball in our court. You’ve got to be a little masochistic if you go with a label at this point.
I’ve talked to some label people about my music, and I have a friend who’s always getting upset with me that I won’t just sell out, but I can’t do it . . . it physically makes me ill talking to these guys. I shouldn’t name names, but I’ve talked to a few people associated with bigger labels. I can never hold my tongue with these guys, because they’ll all tell you what you’re going to need to do to impress the label. We played this song of mine called “Mimic,” and we just killed it, it’s one of my favorite songs I’ve written. Then we played a song called “Cruise Elroy,” and this guy hated both songs. He kept claiming they were changing key signatures. And after I argued with him for a while, I figured out he really meant he hated the fact that the songs used shifting time signatures. And I had to wonder, does it bother someone like that to work in the music world and not know anything about music? But he told me to never play that kind of music for anyone in the music industry again. They will immediately switch off when they hear the time signatures changing.
Jonathan: Is there one question you wish no one would ask you again?
Chris: Yeah, I have one. I guess it would be hearing about how much I sound like Ben Folds. A lot of people ask me: “So what do you think of people calling you a second Ben Folds?” And I think that’s got to be my least favorite question.
Jonathan: That’s got to be a little better than “So, what kind of music do you play?
Chris: That’s another! I never know how to answer that, no matter how many times people insist on asking it. I need to come up with something interesting to use.
Jonathan: Is there anything you wish people would ask you about but they never do?
Chris: I like when people want to talk about where music is going. Or physics. I wish someone would start randomly asking me physics questions.
Jonathan: I’m interested in where “Arizona” came from. I’d swear there’s the line in there about how you’re “living with my cousin / gonna be a Mormon.” Is that what you’re saying?
Chris: Yeah, I wrote that song while I was moving from L.A. to Salt Lake City, which is a really long story. This guy was managing me, and he’s this Mormon guy, so I put that in there as a tongue-in-cheek thing.
Jonathan: If you’re going to be in Utah, you might as well fit in, right?
Chris: Yeah, it was my way of saying “gonna be a Mormon” in the way that I’m just moving to Utah. I’d never become a Mormon for real, because I’m an atheist. But that’s another weird subject, because while I like to talk about atheism, a lot of people don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to offend anyone, and oddly, a lot of my fans now are Mormon. And it’s funny, that whole Mormon thing being tongue-in-cheek and all, but when I play that song in Utah I get this huge reaction. There was a paper out there covering my music once that actually referred to me as “Utah’s own Mormon Ben Folds,” which is on multiple accounts so awful for me.
Jonathan: You could always throw them off by playing “Bitches Ain’t Shit.”
Chris: But people actually request that song at my shows! Seriously though . . . I don’t think I’m ever going to escape the Ben Folds comparison, since he’s the one who inspired me musically to listen to more rock and pop rather than just jazz. But there have been fifty other artists who have influenced me as much or more, guys like Frank Black, or Radiohead even and Weezer. It’s just funny that because of the piano thing there are certain chords and ways I play that I’ll never escape that.
We keep getting more and more away from that sound, especially on what we’re working on for our next album, which I think finally shows me overtly trying to get away from certain sounds. I think this next record is going to be the first record that totally fulfills my vision as an artist. We’re putting everything we have into not compromising. I think it’s going to be really good.
Jonathan: Well, it might make you feel better to know how I accidentally stumbled on your music. I was searching for an instrumental version of “Rain King,” by Counting Crows, so I could do a vocal audition at a theme park, and I found your “Rain King” by mistake and got hooked.
Chris: That’s a great sentence right there! (Laughs.) But that actually illustrates a point I’ve tried to make before, that it’s so hard right now because you have to almost go person to person to get your music heard. And though the response to my music has been wonderful, and people really seem to enjoy the songs, I feel sometimes like I’m just going door to door: “Hi, my name is Chris. Will you listen to my album?” There are so many avenues for musicians to get their music out, but you still have to find listeners and get them to hear your music. And it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.
Listen to Chris’s music at Chris Merritt Music.
Central Ohio’s Griffin House found his calling as a songwriter at a later age than perhaps most of our modern day troubadours, but once he got into his groove it was a permanent attraction. He’s produced three full-length studio albums in the last six years along with a series of EPs marketed online directly to his fans, and on his most recent, The Learner, House seems to be settling into his own distinct niche in the world of indie songwriters, though he’s not afraid to let his influences in, including the likes of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams.
House sat down to speak with Stereo Subversion about his continued efforts to impart meaning in his music, touching on his own development as a songwriter and where he feels the music world may be heading in the next decade.
SSv: What makes music “meaningful” in your mind?
Griffin House: I’ve gone through a lot of stages when writing songs, but I think what I’ve always been trying to shoot for is that I’ve always wanted to be able to put a song on and it has that magic that just gives you goosebumps. There’s just something you can’t put your finger on about it. I think there are a lot of people writing music for a lot of different reasons, and goosebumps aren’t always in the equation for them. But for me I really want people to be moved by the music. And that doesn’t mean you can’t have funny songs, but it should inspire a meaningful reaction in the listener, knowing that the person who wrote the song really cares about what he’s doing.
SSv: That makes me think about your new single, “She Likes Girls.” I wondered if you’d thought about the different songs which have come before on the subject of gay relationships that poked fun on that subject. Were you trying to do something different with that song?
Griffin: I think that song’s been a love or hate song with a lot of my friends, and it’s kind of not the single anymore. In the beginning the people who were helping us at radio, we all agreed that was probably the one song that had the best shot of being instantly remembered, but I think what happened with it is you hear it and you either laugh at it or not, or you remember it but it loses its luster.
SSv: And then everybody ties it in with Katy Perry?
Griffin: Yeah, everyone ties it in with her and I think for me that song is that I was trying to write a rock and roll song, first of all, but I was also trying to write a song that was simply well written. And I think that song, as a songwriter’s song, it took all my skills I’ve been learning over the last decade to write it. Somebody will look at songs of mine like “The Guy Who Says Goodbye To You Is Out Of His Mind,” and they’ll say that song’s lyrically good, and at the same time they’ll say I’m just being stupid with “She Likes Girls.”
It took just as much skill to write the latter song as it did the former. The song’s deeper than a lot of people want to give it credit for, they just say “he just wants to talk about lesbians,” when really I had a friend I actually liked who I thought liked girls, and I was trying to make light of the situation. People just got the wrong idea.
SSv: What song have you decided to promote ahead of it?
Griffin: I really just want to put the record out there as a whole and just see. In the past, everybody in my audience has just decided what songs they liked. When I wrote “The Guy Who Says Goodbye To You Is Out Of His Mind,” no producer I ever played it for wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole. No one would ever have thought that was a radio track. But that song wound up being, by ten times, my most popular song while touring for at least two years.
SSv: Many of your songs build in a slow burn, like “Amsterdam,” which opens with that great two minute intro, not introducing the full band, drums and guttural yells until near the end of the song. Do you feel that kind of songcraft ever gets lost in the constant search for radio hooks?
Griffin: I’m really interested in taking non-viable songs and making them commercial somehow, rather than just plugging a song into the formula. When I was younger I didn’t even have to think about keeping peoples’ attention with my songs, since the people I was listening to were the ones writing the concise songs that got to the chorus really quickly.
Now I think I’m through worrying about that kind of style. I’ve already written a new album I’m working on now that I think I’ll just go and record raw, not having it polished at all. I just want to move people.
SSv: You sing on “If You Want To” of wanting to be “Tom Petty enough” to write a great song. Have you ever reached that level in your mind? Or is it still a struggle to live up to that ideal?
Griffin: I think I just want to be me. I was listening to some records the other day and some of the songs had been my ideals for what I used to think of as “the bar,” and it had been four or five years since I’d listened to them and over the course of those years I realized I’ve grown enough in my own songwriting that I started thinking I actually have a few songs which measure up to that ideal. I never really knew it, it’s just happened over time.
SSv: Flying Upside Down was called your masterpiece by a number of critics. Did you have trouble writing a series of songs that could live up to that level of praise?
Griffin: I don’t know, I never really thought it got good reviews. I don’t really read reviews, but I know some of my closest friends tell me they don’t really like that record, but I think it’s more a personal thing. I had gone out to California and recorded that album with a new producer and some members of the Heartbreakers, and there are some songs on that album I wish I could change as a recording, because they’re still better live. We’re still learning how to do that.
SSv: It all depends on how you are in the studio. Some people want the studio feeling to be completely different from the live experience, since you can change the live versions, but the studio recording has to be permanent. It’s all a matter of getting that changing feeling in the permanent setting.
Griffin: Yeah, I’ve got this new song called “Head For The Hills” that I wrote about the oil spill and the flood in Nashville. I just recorded it, because I wrote it only a couple weeks ago. After we recorded it, we went down to the Gulf and shot a video for it right away. We put it out right away and it wound up on Larry King’s blog. That’s one where I felt like I had to rush it out the door because of the timeliness of the topic. Now it’s getting a huge reaction live, and I worry that the recording might not achieve the level of magic you get from it live.
SSv: You once said in a 2005 interview with Way Cool Music that you don’t always write well on the road because you can’t find time to be alone. Is writing still a process of self-isolation? What do you have to do to put yourself in the frame of mind to write?
Griffin: It’s changing for me. I think part of the reason I couldn’t write on the road was because I was spending most of my time either drinking or playing shows. Now I’m writing all the time, and I’m finding it a lot easier to write. I just joined this songwriting group with Bob Schneider and some other writers – right now Sarah and Sean from Nickel Creek are in it – and we all get together and write, sending in a song every week based on a prompt we’re given.
SSv: You mean songwriting homework?
Griffin: Yeah, we have to turn one in every week, it keeps us going. I’ve written my entire new record from that process. I’ve been amazed just how much having a prompt, an assignment, can help keep you focused.
SSv: Do you ever think about posting that music online and getting direct input from your fans?
Griffin: For me there’s a part of that I resist. I feel that’s like a painter sitting in his room and letting the entire town watch his process and asking, “is it good yet? Is it good yet? Do you like it? Do you like it?” I don’t want that. I want to be able to sit in my room and finish something that I think is really great and then put it out, rather than saying “please validate what I’m doing.” I want to make sure it’s good first and then if people don’t get it . . .
SSv: So you’re the gatekeeper.
Griffin: For sure! There’s just something so great about the unveiling of a work that you know someone’s been toiling on. But if you’re there to see the whole thing go down, it’s just not so spectacular anymore.
SSv: “River City Lights” really brought me back to Ryan Adams’ “Desire,” and I had to wonder about the number of times that subject has come up in your lyrics. Have you found what you really desire in your music yet, or is it an ongoing struggle?
Griffin: I feel like I’m getting closer. This record, The Learner, has left me more pleased, satisfied, with a lot if it than I’ve ever been with a record. Perfection is unattainable, from my perspective, and that song in particular was one we weren’t even going to record, we just ran out of songs to include. My friend said “what about that one?” and I didn’t want to sing it because it had a girl’s name in it from my past, and I didn’t want to sing about her and make my wife mad. But the guys talked me into it, we recorded it, and Alison Krauss ended up singing on it. Now it’s the song most people are talking about the most. So that’s interesting.
SSv: You frequently are compared with artists like Ryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen, but some critics have suggested you have yet to create a sound that is truly “Griffin House.” Do you ever feel your influences taking too big a role in your sound? How do you fight that as an artist, or can you?
Griffin: I think my influences, especially on my first record, were definitely worn on my sleeve. Even when Bill Flannigan did a nice piece on Lost and Found and gave it a lot of praise on CBS Sunday Morning, he brought that up and said it didn’t bother him. I think he said I was “a young man with young man’s influences.” But that’s been something I’ve been conscious of, and I think every record I have made as I’ve gone forward has gotten me closer to having my own sound. And when I hear myself sing on The Learner I do not feel like I’m sounding as though I’m imitating any other singer. I just sing naturally and don’t think about anybody else.
But there are so many recordings where, when I was younger, I thought Tom Petty was sounding like Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen you can tell he got all his traditions from Woody Guthrie. That’s what we’re doing as artists, as songwriters. We’re carrying on the torch of these traditions, so of course I’m going to have that in my music. To suggest that you’re not a unique artist because you’re using your influences just completely denies what that music is in the first place. That’s what rock and roll is – a bundle of influences coming together.
SSv: What’s exciting to you about the music world as we know it in 2010? Where would you like to see music taken in the new decade?
Griffin: I’d like to see what’s already happening naturally – it’s become easier for people to make music and get it out there, which I think is a really good thing. But the music “business” itself is starting to weed out people who maybe were doing music for the wrong reasons. Maybe wrong’s not right, but perhaps “less noble” reasons. I think you really have to want to do it.
You know how back in the day the guys who played baseball in the ’30s and ’40s were just playing because they loved it, and in the winter they had other jobs? I hope maybe music is heading in that direction. You can’t just make a demo tape, walk into Atlantic Records and have some guy slide a check across the table for $2 million.
That doesn’t happen anymore just because they think you’re cool or the next hot thing. You have to go grind it out on the road or at least be doing something that gets a response from a lot of people for a reason. I think that’s a good thing. And it’s exciting for me because I still really like making music that’s meaningful in the ways we talked about earlier.
SSv: What do you wish someone would ask you about but they never do?
Griffin: I’m really interested when people’s put a little thought into the questions. This conversation that we’re having seems really authentic, we’re talking about things that matter. But I hate it when people just ask the normal things, like how would I classify the music I play? I hate those questions.
SSv: I know that got Vampire Weekend into trouble, their lead singer made the joke about being “Upper North Side Soweto,” and that’s been following him around for years because he got bored and tried to make a joke.
Griffin: Yeah, exactly. I used to really not even want to say the words “singer-songwriter,” or especially to say “Americana,” so anything that goes near that I just can’t take. And I think that’s where “She Likes Girls” comes in for me. I just don’t want to be branded as “the folkie guy,” or any of that. I listen to the Clash in my spare time, and Cyndi Lauper, I love ’80s one-hit wonder music. And if people don’t like that, I don’t care. I think that’s maybe the one thing I love talking about, because I was born in 1980. I was born right at the cusp where 1985 seemed like the coolest time.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.
Hanson has been to the top of the pop world and back again. Their hit debut, Middle of Nowhere, went 4x Platinum and spawned one of the most ubiquitous smash hits of the nineties in “MMMbop,” and immediately the pressure from the major labels was on to repeat the hit, whatever the cost.
That their label folded in with Island-Def Jam shortly thereafter, leaving the band at the mercy of A&R people who had nothing to do with the success of Middle of Nowhere, left the band with few label supporters. When This Time Around tanked — barely going Gold in 2000, the label blamed the songs rather than admitting that, perhaps, a hip-hop label had no idea how to market pop songwriters who had the dual curse of being young and music-literate.
The result was the brutally honest documentary “Strong Enough To Break,” which illustrates how hard they had to fight for the right to even record and release a third album without label executives controlling what they wrote, when they wrote it and how it would be recorded. Since 2004 they’ve released all their music on an independent label they own and manage, called 3CG records. Their latest album, Shout It Out, may be the band’s strongest pop contribution yet. At the very least, they’re making the music they want to make and continuing to strive to make meaningful music.
Stereo Subversion’s Jonathan Sanders sat down with Isaac Hanson to discuss the band’s latest album, the cultural reasons behind music piracy, and how in the end, and the major labels’ inability to understand that, above all, musicians are here to record albums and make music.
SSv: Since leaving Island-Def Jam, you’ve done three albums now on your own terms. Has the process remained as liberating as it was when you finally completed Underneath?
Isaac: It’s become a lot easier in a lot of ways for us because the process for us is about making records. The problem with the Island process, with all the corporate mergers that have gone on with these companies, is that it isn’t about music or even about fiscal responsibility on the part of a label or band.
You spend so much money and so much time second guessing yourself, it’s the kind of thing where you could almost literally make three to five records for the amount of money and time spent on one major-label record. And if you made those records and released them, even if you did a mediocre job, you’d still have a better chance of finding success than if you did it the way these labels have always done.
SSv: I don’t know if you ever read Jacob Slichter’s book, So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star – he was the drummer for Semisonic — but he wrote about the difficulty they had following up the Grammy-nominated success of “Closing Time” with any future singles, because the label group-think process made it impossible to release anything the label feared wouldn’t have monster success.
Isaac: That became a particularly bad problem, and I think the mergers that happened had a lot to do with that. The late-nineties is going to be a really interesting subject for a lot of books, a lot of conversations about the music industry, because it’s also when piracy became a problem.
I am one who believes that piracy was the result of pride on the part of the industry, and ignorance too. They ignored their fans, they said their fans were stupid, that they didn’t matter. So what their fans did was they went and got the music the way they culturally wanted to find it. It just so happens that this meant getting it for free.
It also happened that the reason they did so was because of quality control. I can’t tell you how many times when I was a young kid, when we were first starting to make our own records, I remember so often being very distrustful of the so-called “value” of an album. And I don’t know whether that’s more of a modern phenomenon, but I know that’s where I came from.
I know it was consistent throughout my generation of music listeners, this skepticism over the value of an album. “This album, most likely, is going to have three songs that I really really like. If it has more than that I’ll be shocked,” I’d think. And at that time we were being forced to spend $15 per album, so adjust that for inflation. And a huge number of people in the business never really learned that lesson, they never understood what their audience really wanted. They never did the job they were supposed to do, which was to provide the opportunity for bands which were potentially talented to make records.
The people who have always survived in the world of music have been the people who had great songs, whether they wrote them themselves or had them written by someone else. So at the end of the day it’s about the songs, it’s about the record. So for us it was always about getting to that place in the first place. The Walk was the first record we did from scratch post-Island, all that mess. That was an incredibly liberating thing, a really good experience. We also did that album with Danny Kortchmar, who we did “Penny and Me,” the single from Underneath, with. And that was a real natural experience.
The story with this album, Shout It Out, was that for the first time we ended up producing and writing the entire thing ourselves, which was the first time we went in from top to bottom and did that. It was almost an accident, because we’d talked to several people about working with them on the album, but it didn’t come together with the timing we wanted; we had a particular plan for what we wanted to get done and when we wanted to do it.
So we were like, “well, this is neat, because we’re going in!” We spent about a month rehearsing and finalizing, spent a couple months making sure we had the songs we wanted, then said “alright, this is what we want,” and the three of us in a big room just made it happen.
SSv: What made you think about adding a horn section to most of the album? Did that sound help influence the shape of the songs, or did you already have songs written that simply demanded horns?
Isaac: That’s interesting, because it took six months before that happened. We recorded the record, finished it, mixed it, and it felt like it just wasn’t done. We went out on the road and at that point we’d finished the record and it just seemed something was missing. We didn’t know what it was. The horn section had been part of an idea floating around for a long time, but it seemed like a pipe dream, something we’d never pull off. In fact there was even a horn section in the room next door while we were recording the El Paso sessions for Shout It Out, and we almost had them come in but we didn’t get the time.
So January 2010 rolls around and two songs come into play. One’s a ballad called “Me Myself and I,” which ends the record and has been around since 2002. We finished up the lyrics on that and there was a brand new idea called “Give A Little,” and that song, when we started working with it, we looked at each other and said, “this song really needs horns, doesn’t it?” There was something about the song which felt like horns would take it over the top.
From there one thing led to another and instead of just that one song, half the album had horns featured on it, because we just felt if you’re going to do horns you might as well do it big. You might as well go for it and make it part of the sound that defines the record.
SSv: “Use Me Up” and “Me Myself and I” are both such stunning ballads. But they’re both a lot darker than many of the other songs on Shout It Out. What led you in that direction lyrically?
Isaac: Well, they are darker, and I suppose it’s just one of those things were those particular ballads felt like the right ones to have on the album. We’ve got a decent number of darker ballads like that [on past records], but those were the most sparse stylistically. “Me Myself and I” is reminiscent of a song on This Time Around called “A Song To Sing.”
SSv: Right. A lot of your fans have commented on the similarities between the two and how sometimes the intros get interchanged live.
Isaac: [Laughs] Yeah, they do . . . there is a tendency for similarities to come up between some of the piano-based songs. But I don’t know what really prompted the darkness of them except to say that sometimes certain emotions just come out. Maybe it’s a culmination of the fact that most of the rest of the album is so upbeat. So the mellow ones really stand out, they make up for those other elements from the rest of the album.
SSv: They both seem to deal with such an oppressive sense of longing.
Isaac: I think that’s been a consistent lyrical theme in a lot of our music. This Time Around was a lot more in that vein than even the new record. “Me Myself and I” has that sense that you’re trying to work your way through something really intense, the idea of losing something you really care about, and I think that’s something a lot of people are dealing with these days. There’s a lot of reality to that in everyday life. And I don’t know, I think maybe all of the songs wound up being about just making it through. I know it might feel rough right now, but it’s alright to make it through.
SSv: I really thought the line from the end of the song stood out, when Taylor sings: “I don’t care who’s wrong or right, I’ll give you the last words tonight.” There was a sense that if it couldn’t be fixed, maybe just sleeping on things would make it work.
Isaac: Yeah, we were trying to leave an attempt at clarity in there at the end, because we have a tendency to try and have some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. And I think even with that lyric, it’s a combination of optimism and just plain giving-up. “I know I’m not going to be able to fix this right now, and maybe it’s not going to be okay.”
But I think it really culminates with the line “all that’s left is me, myself and I.” Meaning, at the end of the day I can only live my life and do the best with my life that I can. I can’t make someone else do something even though I feel like they should, or we could. Ultimately all I’m left with is myself and doing the best job I can to finish on the right side, whatever that is.
The other side of a similar coin, I guess, would be “Use Me Up,” which is us saying “make me feel something, because right now I just feel totally numb.” I think “Use Me Up” is the darkest ballad we’ve ever recorded.
SSv: You guys are veterans of the “double standard” in pop music when it come to age. With Middle of Nowhere your age showed and critics dubbed you a boy band, but ten years later with Shout It Out the ’70s and ’80s influences had some people saying you should “act more your age.” How do you even begin to strike back against that kind of empty criticism?
Isaac: You really can’t, because it’s ridiculous. We used to always say that we’re not going to be young forever, and everybody gets this in some way. If you’re not too young, you’re too old; if you’re not too black, you’re too white, or whatever. “Oh, that rapper’s not ghetto enough, he’s got no cred! That band’s not rock enough, they’re just lightweights.” I think that just comes from people being frustrated and not putting the music first.
I’m not saying our record is anything remarkable, but I think it’s the best record that we could make, the one that we wanted to make. Whether everybody says it’s great or not is something I have no control over. But when it comes to making music, everyone’s got their own set of hurdles, and I just think that double standard is hilarious, that when you’re in your mid-20s you’re not allowed to make an upbeat record.
I think it’s also people listening to our music on a very skin-deep level, and I think that happens a lot. We cross our fingers and hope that the powers that be, journalists and radio stations, will listen to the music with a little more of an open mind. “Yeah, this is an upbeat song, but lyrically it’s more complex!” or something to that effect.
SSv: I thought it was funny when you did that show in New York with Drake, and there was that riot because they wound up with 20,000 music fans instead of the 10,000 they’d expected. And all the online articles framed it as “Riot At Hanson Concert,” not even mentioning Drake in the headlines. If that doesn’t get people to give the album a listen, nothing will.
Isaac: We take it where we can get it. We have a lot of fans in New York, but obviously there were a lot of people there for Drake. We were really looking forward to that show, too, because it was going to be a lot of fun. For me, I like playing for crowds that aren’t sure what to expect. For me that’s what music is about. And we’ve done this for a lot of years and have been lucky to have fans for a long time, but I like it when we can convince new listeners.
SSv: What was it like preparing all your old material for those shows you did playing each album back to back in their entirety? Did that experience help cement the “musical legacy” of those albums?
Isaac: Well, we’ll see. It was a lot of fun, we recorded it all and there will be a DVD eventually. What was surprising, and I found this to be the case, is that when you play Middle of Nowhere, This Time Around, Underneath, The Walk and Shout It Out back to back, there are far more similarities than there are differences. The records can easily interchange songs and you’re not going to think they don’t fit into the mix.
We play about sixty-percent of that repertoire throughout a given tour, but learning the other forty percent and getting to where we were playing every song in order, with no repeats, that was the challenge. There’s a lot of detail because once you get into the idea of playing it all consecutively and then recording it, the pressure’s on! You can’t just throw it in there, like “let’s do an acoustic version of that!” There’s a lot more pressure to focus rather than just playing it for the sake of keeping things interesting. You’re going in there with a specific purpose of recreating the feeling of those records as best you can.
Of course doing it live things are always going to be different, particularly in the case of Middle of Nowhere, since we don’t have our teenage vocal ranges anymore. The keys can’t stay the same. But playing these songs we never seem to play live, that was really fun. We were fresher on them, the experience, the emotions were fun to experience again. Our set lists change every night, sure, but never that much – there are always the songs people expect to hear at a Hanson concert, and rightfully so. Playing everything consecutively without any repeats was definitely a trip.
SSv: What do you wish someone would ask you about but they never do?
Isaac: I always like talking about lyrics. I always like talking about those kind of details, and unfortunately most people don’t like to hear about that so much. But I always like talking about the details, it’s what interests me about the makeup of the band. I like to talk about the influences, old records, not even just our records. But I really get off on the influences, like Billy Joel, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, all that stuff. To me, that’s the essence of everything. It’s a combination of groove and lyric.
SSv: You must have been really gratified when All Music Guide called Shout It Out the perfect fusion between Steve Winwood’s Roll With It and Billy Joel’s The Bridge, then.
Isaac: [Laughs] Yes, that was absolutely great. I think for the first time people got an understanding of where we’re coming from musically. Or at least it was more clear than before. I heard someone call it “soulful pop” and I got a smile on my face because that’s what we felt like we are. Soulful pop, with a bit of rock. I’ve never been much of a “rock” guitar player; the closest I can get to rock is blues. It’s fun to crank up the distortion and go for it, to play an AC/DC cover, but when it comes to making records it’s all about keeping some soul in the songs and staying true to ourselves.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.
*Photo by Jiro Schneider
Katie Herzig has perhaps gotten more mileage out of television music placement than any other independent musician. The Grammy-nominated Colorado-native songwriter got her start as a member of the folk-grass collective Newcomer’s Home in the late ’90s, but she’s garnered more recent attention via her solo material. Over the space of three albums, Herzig has managed to blend folk and pop music in a way few other artists are able to imitate, drawing comparisons to the likes of Devon Sproule and Neko Case.
Herzig has also championed online distribution, penning original material released through socially-aware music site Brite Revolution for the past six months. She’s also had her music featured everywhere from ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy to Fox’s crime-procedural Bones. Her most recent album, a live album recorded with her touring band, is available until November 1st through Noisetrade as a “name-your-own-price” issue.
Herzig recently sat down to talk to Stereo Subversion about being a die-hard independent, the differences between writing as a solo artist and as a songwriting partner, and the craziness involved in placing a song on television only weeks after writing and recording it.
SSv: How did it feel to be named “an artist to avoid at your own peril” by Paste?
Katie: I thought it was quite nice of them to say that. It was clever, and I definitely appreciated that they said it.
SSv: Billboard wrote of your music: “Herzig’s gifts as a songwriter have stood out due to the fully produced nature of her songs, recorded with care and a bigness that transcends the potentially damning status of just being another girl in Nashville with a guitar.”
Katie: That threw me a bit – I wasn’t quite sure for a minute if they were saying good things or bad things with that, because I’ve had good experiences with the Nashville music scene.
SSv: What do you feel your role is as a songwriter and a producer? Do you feel remaining independent has freed you up to be more original as an artist?
Katie: Production is just as important as songwriting in my opinion. As an independent musician I don’t have to worry about other peoples’ expectations of what my music should sound like, so I can focus on what pleases me as a musician. It’s the only world I’ve known as a musician. I’ve always been able to produce music that works on my terms.
SSv: You’ve written songs for other artists, including “Heaven’s My Home,” which got The Duhks nominated for a Grammy. Does the songwriting process tend to work differently when you’re working on something for another musician?
Katie: Really, there’s more of a difference when I’m writing songs with other people, as a co-writer, because in those cases it can become less personal and more collaboratively focused. On my own I go with my guts and write based on what’s happening with me. It’s interesting though that you mention songs I write for others, because many of those songs weren’t songs written specifically “for” another person. I wrote the songs for myself and eventually they became songs which others found meaningful enough to them to record. I usually focus on writing a song which I would feel proud to record.
SSv: What makes music meaningful to you?
Katie: It’s the music, the songs, which gravitate into my life. The music becomes part of my experience and becomes connected with the way I’ve lived my life. I’m always thrilled to hear how my music has affected fans on an individual level. Creating a meaningful experience between myself and my listeners is what music’s all about.
SSv: How did you get involved with Brite Revolution?
Katie: A couple of my friends are involved in the site, and they asked me if I’d like to get involved. They’re trying to get as many musicians involved as they can, because the idea is to generate constant new content for their subscribers, from independent artists who actually have the freedom to continually create new content. I’ve done it now for about six months, but starting in October I’m likely done with it, because with my touring schedule it’s been difficult to find the time to keep up with the new material. It’s definitely cool what they’re doing, and I’m glad people have been able to enjoy the music.
Noisetrade has been big for me, though. Starting in October, for the first month it’s available, they’ll have my new live-in-studio acoustic album with Claire [Indie] and Jordan [Brooke Hamlin] and I attempting to capture our touring sound from the last couple years together. After that it will be up on Itunes and the like, but I think you get as much value from people forwarding your music to their friends, even if they don’t pay anything. You’re reaching a wider audience.
SSv: Are music fans getting more involved with charitable causes because of sites like Brite Revolution?
Katie: I’ve asked people to join up with Mocha Club before, and that’s been really awesome that people have actually wanted to get involved in things like that. More artists are realizing they can focus on these wider ideas to help others, even while still getting our own music across to an audience. My fans have really gotten involved in things like that.
SSv: British musician David Ford has actually made his MySpace page his only official web presence, saying that life is too short to maintain the many websites musicians are supposed to have as proactive marketers. How important do you think social networking is for musicians today? Do sites like Twitter, Facebook and others actually help, or are they time wasters?
Katie: I’ve found that Twitter can work wonders. It’s become popular quickly, and it feeds into Facebook, which really helps a lot to create a wide online network of fans. Myspace is still a place for people to find the basics, whether to hear the songs or find out about tour dates, but unfortunately everyone prefers their own personal network. So it can eat up a lot of time staying up on all of them. Twitter is the most direct, since there’s no lag between what you say and when people see it. It’s been cool on tour, getting people involved in the moment. Fans are really into it, but it does get a bit exhausting.
SSv: You’ve spoken of musical community as being important in artist development. Does online social networking affect how artists network with other artists in the real world?
Katie: I think it does affect it, especially in artist communities if you follow a specific group of musicians. It can be a good way to stay up on what is happening in that group, but you’re following what you want to follow. I see online social networking as a great resource beyond the usual email list. People who want to follow you online on these networks want to know what you’re doing as a musician all the time, and it’s a solid way to get your music out to this dedicated group quickly. It’s something independents are able to easily take advantage of, but which major label artists aren’t always able to do as well from a personal standpoint.
SSv: What about programs like Grey’s Anatomy? Your music’s been used on many shows over the years. How important is it to market your music to television? Do you ever worry your song will become permanently associated with a scene that ultimately changes the way the music is perceived?
Katie: I have noticed that people discover new music based on how it’s positioned on these shows. But there’s definitely a connection made when a song is used, and usually if they want to use your song you at least get some input in how it’s going to be used. But I know what you’re saying, because I have had a song of mine played over a car crash, so you do have to be aware of how the song’s going to be used.
Chances are, though, if someone’s going to find your music via a TV show and they hunt down more information about you, it probably means they liked it. That’s always a good thing. And when it comes to getting your music out around the world to the right audience, there’s no better way right now for indies to be discovered. There’s always going to be a fine line between being heard for the music and being heard in a commercial setting, and I usually move back and forth between the two.
SSv: Speaking of Grey’s Anatomy, your song with Matthew Perryman Jones made it onto last year’s final episode, supposedly weeks after you finished writing it. Even in the digital age that seems pretty quick, there’s got to be a story there.
Katie: Actually, Grey’s Anatomy had been asking me for material for their final two episodes that hadn’t been available elsewhere. Matthew and I had been trying to finish that song, “Where The Road Meets The Sun,” for a film soundtrack, but the song really fit what they were looking for at Grey’s Anatomy. So we pitched it to them and they loved it.
That’s what’s great about today’s music world – you can write something one day, record it the next and have it on TV in a matter of weeks. Still, it did catch me off guard just how quickly everything came together on this one.
SSv: You’ve released several songs since your last album, Apple Tree. Are you currently dabbling with new material, or do you already know what you want to do with a future album?
Katie: I will be recording a new album next year, but I’m not really deeply into new material for it yet, so I’m not sure what the new album’s going to be. I’m still too involved in touring the material from Apple Tree to think much about that kind of thing yet.
SSv: How would you describe the state of today’s music world? Has online availability made it easier or more difficult to find meaningful music?
Katie: I feel there’s more to sift through, but that’s always a good thing. People find good music when they know what they’re looking for and where to dig for it. The key is there are more choices among “blue collar musicians,” a group there’d been no room for in the past. Now I think these musicians are going to become the majority, and it should stay that way for a long time.
SSv: Which do you prefer, writing music, recording music or performing music in a live setting?
Katie: I have always found a perfect balance among the three. I absolutely love recording, and writing always does it for me when I’m in that place. Still, touring and performing live has always felt harder for me and more rewarding. I had to overcome stage fright when I first played with Newcomers Home, but it now feels just so natural to me. And it’s great to be able to connect with fans for real feedback when playing in those rooms. That’s really where you get to finally hear what’s resulted from all the hard work writing and recording.
SSv: You’ve been alternating lately between solo headlining shows and supporting performances with the likes of Brandi Carlile and Over The Rhine. Does it ever get confusing to keep track of what kind of show you’re doing each night?
Katie: It definitely keeps you on your toes. The thing is, it’s a fun challenge when you’re opening for someone else and you have a shorter time to make an impression. You have to play the best material in a short amount of time and then let the headliner take over. Yet when you’re the headliner, you have so much leeway, since the fans there already are familiar with pretty much everything you could throw at them. That can be even more of a challenge.
SSv: Can you see yourself touring as relentlessly as you do now 10 years from now?
Katie: No, I would hope to be able to get the relentless touring done now and then shift to a more manageable schedule down the road. Most established artists eventually get to where there’s a time of the year when they write ad record, a time of the year for relaxing, and you have the fall tour, the spring tour. I love being at home in my own bed too much to be on the road all the time. It’s been a phase I’m in right now, being out on the road taking advantage of these opportunities that come around only so often.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.