Thursday, December 5, 2013

Interview with Ethan Luck + Cold Music [EP]

Growing up in Long Beach and Orange County, Ethan Luck experienced the quintessential California Christmas: “In Southern California, you could get a surfboard for Christmas and go surfing that afternoon. I got a skateboard one year (A Christian Hosoi deck) and went outside to ride shorts and a t-shirt!” But since moving to Nashville, not only has Luck’s winter weather changed by 30-40 degrees, his musical landscape has shifted as well.

Luck originally came up through the punk rock ranks with a variety of notable bands, but in the last few years he has added a little solo twang to his repertoire. His newest release, Cold Music, combines festive holiday music, amazing alt-country instrumentation, and a strong dose of DIY ethics. Luck played and recorded everything himself, making this ever-growing album a personal affair and it definitely comes through in his performances.

Traces of Luck’s punk rock roots shine through beautifully on his rockabilly romp through “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and his tumbleweed take on “We Three Kings” showcases his instrumental talents and his refreshingly laid-back voice. I can’t wait to see what songs Luck will continue to add year after year, but I’m putting Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” or the Stevie Wonder/Jackson 5 classic “Someday at Christmas” on my wish list to Santa.

I recently spoke with Luck about his plans for Cold Music, his experience recording the album himself, and his personal connection with Christmas music.

NoiseTrade: You've participated in Christmas releases with a couple of your previous bands, but this is your first solo holiday offering. What sparked the idea for your Cold Music EP and what are your continuing plans for it?
Ethan Luck: I was on a couple of the Happy Christmas comps that Tooth & Nail Records put out, as well as, recording a few songs for the Relient K Christmas record (Let it Snow Baby… Let In Reindeer). Christmas songs are always fun to record. I wanted to start this (what will become a) compilation because I've always liked Christmas time - the weather, lights, fire pits, etc. - and a lot of the music that comes along with it. Speaking of fire pits, the cover art is actually the fire pit in my backyard.

I wanted to start recording my favorite Christmas songs the way I wanted to hear them and sort of make them my own. Maybe there's someone out there that likes Christmas songs, but not the way their grandparents do. Hopefully they'll grow up and realize how good Bing Crosby is though. Anyhow, I didn't have a ton of time at home to record a bunch of songs before December, so I picked my 2 favorites to start with. My future plans for this release are to keep adding to it each year. Hopefully, in a few years time, it will be up to at least 15 songs. Who knows, I may try to squeeze another one in before the 25th!


NT: You recorded "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "We Three Kings" for this initial installment. What specific draw do those two songs have for you?
Luck: I'm 35 years old now and I've heard Christmas music as long as I can remember. Those 2 have become favorites of mine and they never got old to me. My old...old...old band, The Dingees, did a dub version of "We Three Kings" back in 1998. I love how light the content is and how dark the song sounds. I really attached to it back then. I did my best, with the help of a lot of spring reverb, to keep that dark sound to the music.

I've always preferred the old Christmas stuff, for the most part. They're like old hymns. The old stuff is great and most modern stuff is so bland and formulaic to me. "Go Tell It On The Mountain" has also become a favorite. I love Dustin Kensrue's version, but I didn't want to do the same thing. I kept it somewhat traditional sounding, made up my own melodies a bit and turned a verse into a pre chorus. Confession: I watched a bunch of videos of Dolly Parton singing it before I made my arrangement.

NT: What are some of the major differences in the recording process between the full-band releases you've been a part of and your DIY solo output?
Luck: Well, DIY is the best way to describe it. All the solo stuff I've recorded so far has been about 99% DIY. I've had friends record background vocals and upright bass on a few tracks. I record all the rest of it myself. In the future, I want to incorporate more of my friends on songs. One of the exciting things for me is to be back on guitar. Some people may know me as a drummer from my 5 years in Relient K. Guitar is actually my first instrument. I started when I was 10 years old and picked up drums sometime around Jr. High.

The recording process can go a number of ways. Once I have a song done, I usually start with drums. It's weird to record drums by yourself. I just have to know the song well enough to track it to nothing. Other times, I'll record the acoustics and vocals first and just keep layering from there. It's weird to not have someone next to me to bounce ideas off of, however, I've been doing home recordings for so long that I'm used to it now. If I get to a point where I don't know if something sounds good, I'll show it to a friend or two for criticism. No matter what, all the songs have been recorded, in my garage, between the hours of 7am and Noon or 8pm to 2 am (Sorry, neighbors!). For some reason, I feel most inspired and driven at those hours. A lot of the songs I've done so far have been written (or at least halfway) on the road, in hotel rooms. Some I've written with the help of close friends in Nashville.

NT: What's some of your earliest memories of the mixture of music and the holidays? Any creepy children's choirs or Christmas plays in your past?
Luck: As a kid, my parents always played Christmas music starting the night of Thanksgiving. In my opinion, there's no reason to start it earlier. It's the kind of music that reminds you that it's THAT time of year. They always played great stuff by Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, just to name a few. Fortunately, they were never playing the latest rendition of "Santa Baby."

To my memory, I never participated in choirs or plays around Christmas time as a kid. I guess while the Christmas music was playing, I was just playing with my Transformers, hoping I was going to get Castle Grayskull that year. As a side note, I knew where "Santa" hid the presents, in our garage in Long Beach, and saw that I was getting Castle Grayskull one year. I was still so excited on Christmas Day; mostly, because He-Man could finally go home. Thanks Santa.

NT: Finally, as horribly clich├ęd as the question is, what are some Christmas songs that you look forward to hearing every year and which ones make you grinch out?
Luck: Let's start with the ones that make me grinch out. As I mentioned before, "Santa Baby." It's terrible and usually sung by a pop star dressed in a "sexy Santa” outfit. Also, "Funky, Funky Christmas" by New Kids On The Block. Come on, mid 30's girls...Yeah, they were a catchy boy band when you were young, but there's nothing "funky" about NKOTB. Unless your name is James Brown, there's nothing "funky" about you. I'm sure I could think of others, but again, I mostly like the old stuff.

As far as, Christmas songs I look forward to... the old classics, as I've over-mentioned. As far as modern-ish Christmas songs go, I guess it depends on who does it. "Last Christmas" is a really cool song. Do I like the original version by Wham? Not really, but Jimmy Eat World's version is great! I really do love old songs done by current bands, in a unique way. When U2 did "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” I thought that was a perfect version of that song. Who knew that such a great version would come out when it was released in 1963? I also like when a band does a good original for Christmas. The main one that comes to mind is "Oi To The World" by The Vandals, of which No Doubt does a really great cover.

You can download Cold Music, as well as Luck’s Wounds & Fears EP, here on NoiseTrade:

You can also keep up with all his musical activities at the following places:

Photo credit: Jered Scott

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Interview with Dan Haseltine + Jars of Clay Partner with Philippine Red Cross


“There’s a point when the looking and the observing isn’t enough.” 

This thought from Jars of Clay frontman Dan Haseltine perfectly encapsulates the band's ethos, as well as their proactive response to last week's devastating typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. As of the last official count, almost 2,500 have been confirmed dead and over 22,000 people are still unaccounted for. In response to the immense destruction and the sustained great work that lay ahead, the band is offering their song "Fall Asleep" with 100% of tips going straight to the relief efforts of the Philippine Red Cross

While artists afixing themselves to a cause is certainly not a new thing, it’s still a bit of a refreshing anomaly to see artists actually aligning themselves with the people and places behind a cause. Jars of Clay is no stranger to this approach as they have been maintaining a long-term, long-distance relationship with Africa through Blood:Water Mission for the last 10 years. 

Over the last few months, an interesting relationship has been forming with the band and the Philippines as well. Before a recent show in Manila, video director Luis Daniel Tabuena contacted the band and asked if they wanted to make a music video for "Fall Asleep" with his crew. The gorgeously stunning video was shot entirely in the Philippines and it was given to the band as a gift. The video premiered in September and less than a month later the Philippines was pummeled with 195 mph winds and 20 foot high walls of water. 

But the story doesn't end there. 

I recently spoke with Dan as he shared about the partnership Jars has formed with The Philippines, what the relationship between art and activism looks like, and how “The songs are ours when we write them and they cease to be ours when they enter into somebody else’s story.” 

NoiseTrade: What inspired the writing of “Fall Asleep” in the first place? 
Dan Haseltine: I was actually inspired by the illustrator Carson Ellis. I was flipping through some of her work as we were talking about Inland and what we wanted for the record. I was drawn to these images of trees that were equal parts whimsical and melancholy and I thought it was a great setting for a tragic love story. So the song was first launched from just looking at a piece of scenery and wondering what might happen there. It turned into this guy running away with a girl and her being disillusioned by the whole idea of running away and growing old together. “I wonder what other people are doing right now and what life is like in a different place.” It’s also the first time we’ve ever put a piano ballad on a Jars’ record and it was nice to do something different on this record after so long.


NT: The music video for “Fall Asleep” was shot in the Philippines with an entirely Filipino crew. How did that situation come about? 
Dan: We were scheduled to play a concert in Manila and a couple of months before we were supposed to go we got an email that said, “Hey, my name is Luis and I do production here in the Philippines. Would you be interested in staying an extra day to shoot a music video?” Our initial reaction to that was obviously a bit skeptical. Those situations don’t usually turn out so great (laughs). We started talking and he said, “I want to create, as a gift for you guys, a nice, museum quality video.” When we got there, he had this incredible crew and a great idea for the concept. We shot it all on RED cameras. We were completely floored. It turned out to be a stunning video. Probably the best we’ve ever had as a band. It was really just such a gift. We didn’t have to spend a dime on the video; they did it all. After the storm, that’s what gave us the idea to now use this same song and this video to, in essence, try to return the favor as best we can. 

NT: As a band, you guys have never shied away from fully immersing yourselves in humanitarian efforts: founding Blood:Water Mission, partnering with the One Campaign. What fuels your drive to get involved and stay engaged? 
Dan: For me, it’s really two-fold. A friend of mine gave me the definition of an artist as someone who looks at the world and describes it. We, as a band, have really taken that seriously. You have to look at the world, keep your eyes open, and see what’s going on around you. That’s where the great stories are and were the great songs come from. We’ve found a few of those stories that have really captured our hearts where we knew we could do more. That’s really our connection to Africa with Blood:Water. It’s a story that we felt we could give more of ourselves to than just simply writing a song about it. As artists, I think we have to stay connected to good stories. If we’re not connected to the places where people are overcoming great odds or fighting against strong adversity, I think we tend to lose our perspective. The path of an artist can go a couple of different ways. One of those ways is to use your wealth to pad yourself from the suffering of the world. We try to control our environment and keep those things away. However, those things that we’re keeping away are the people and the places were all the good stories are. 

NT: Do you feel that the relationship between art and activism is inherently integrated or do you think it has to be learned through practice? 
Dan: It really is an immersive thing. It takes being involved in it and it takes practice. Humanitarian efforts and getting involved in causes is really about people and relationships. You can write about something, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily know it. You just know about it. If you really want to write from an honest place, you’ve got to immerse yourself in it and become committed to it. Artists are infamous for jumping from cause to cause. “What’s the hip thing to care about right now?” They’re very nomadic in that regard. The reality is, the stories that we stay invested in, those are the ones that yield the most natural and true relationship between art and social justice. 

NT: What specifically can your fans do to partner with you and join in the relief efforts for the Philippines? 
Dan: We’ve tried to make it really easy. We’re trying to raise $50,000 for the Philippines. We’re offering “Fall Asleep” for free via NoiseTrade and if you download the song, we’re just asking you to offer a tip and all proceeds are going to relief efforts in the Philippines. It’s just a part of the continuing story of them offering us a gift and us collectively trying to give a gift back. We don’t all have to feel overwhelmed that we’re the only ones doing something, but together we can do really great things. We’ve learned that over the years with Blood:Water. $1 can give an African clean water for an entire year and over the last 10 years we’ve been able to serve over 900,000 people from small donations. That’s what matters: everybody feeling like they can do a little bit, because a little bit can help a lot. 

Here are some additional photos from the set of "Fall Asleep" with the band, the director and the crew:

Friday, November 1, 2013

NoiseTrade EastSide Manor Sessions: Dr. Dog

We recorded Dr. Dog for our most recent NoiseTrade EastSide Manor Sessions and the groovy gents did not disappoint. After downloading the 5-track audio portion of their session HERE, be sure to check out the companion videos below featuring three live multi-camera performances, my interview with Scott and Toby, and a cool sneak peek at their pre-session warm-ups.

With a unique mix of vintage Philly soul, modern folk foundations, and experimental flourishes, Dr. Dog have truly created a sound all their own. For their amazing NoiseTrade EastSide Manor Session, they roll through a few tracks from their fantastic new record, B-Room, as well as "That Old Black Hole" from last year's Be the Void. From the danceable thump of "Broken Heart" to the beautiful ache of "Too Weak to Ramble," you'll find this session is just what the doctor ordered. Be sure to check them out on tour in the coming months.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

AmericanaFest 2013 Day #3 & #4: Amanda Shires, Joy Kills Sorrow, and More

(This article was originally published on CMT Edge.)

This year’s Americana Music Festival certainly ended on a high (and lonesome) note in Nashville with two diverse, yet equally illustrative, showcases on Friday and Saturday (Sept. 20-21).
While the Station Inn served up a healthy helping of traditional bluegrass and folk tunes, the Basement highlighted artists dabbling in some of the more nontraditional branches of the musical melting pot called Americana.
On the closing night of the festival, Amanda Shires captivated the wall-to-wall Basement crowd with her unassumingly angelic voice and her gently strummed tenor guitar. Backed by a stand-up bass and drums, Shires’ wistful and contemplative songs tenderly floated through the room without clang or clamor. The deceptive effortlessness with which she played and sang belies the layered intricacies of her melodies and the emotional depth in her lyrics. In other words, she made it look easy.
For her too-short set, Shires mostly stuck with songs from her recently releasedDown Fell the Doves album. The soaring chorus of “The Drop and Lift,” the cha-cha slink of “Wasted and Rollin’” and the groovy sashay of “Bulletproof” proved to be crowd favorites.
A highlight from the Down Fell the Doves portion of her set was the imaginative “A Song for Leonard Cohen,” while my overall favorite moment of the night came when she pulled out “When You Need a Train It Never Comes” from 2011’s Carrying Lightning. She also invited Rod Picott to join her on guitar for the whistle-led “Swimmer” and “Shake the Walls,” adding her fiery fiddle skills to the latter.
The Basement’s Saturday night showcase also featured an eclectic group of artists surrounding Shires. With a banshee wail in his gut and a box of harmonicas at his feet, Parker Millsap wowed with his Springsteen-inspired “Disappear” and a heartbreaking ballad titled “Villain.” Millsap toured with Old Crow Medicine Show this summer, and his new album is tentatively scheduled for an early 2014 release.
Psychedelic garage-folk duo Hymn for Her ignited the crowd with their unique cigar-box electric guitar, kick drum, hi-hat and acoustic guitar combination. After opening with a frenzied new song (“The Road Song”) and a couple of songs from this year’s Lucy and Wayne’s Smokin’ Flames, they proclaimed, “All right. Enough death metal” and played a laid-back ukulele number called “November.” They finished their set with an ominous cover of Bob Dylan’s 1964 murder ballad “Ballad of Hollis Brown” that escalated into a howling, distorted bullet-mic masterpiece.
Tim Easton took his Sun Studio-flavored, ‘50s rock sound, added a fiddle and whipped up a top-notch band for his performance. Songs like “Troubled Times,” “Tired and Hungry” and “Little Doggie (1962)” chugged along with an incredible vintage rock romp, and his closing acoustic guitar/fiddle number “On My Way” showed an impressive versatility to his catalog.
Garage-rock blues quartet the Del-Lords ended Saturday night with a bang, causing the post-midnight crowd to erupt into dancing and singing. Starting in the early 1980s and releasing their most recent album Elvis Club earlier this year, the Del-Lords have quite a catalog to pull from. Songs like “I’m Gonna Be Around” and “Cheyenne” seemed to be immediate party starters for the late night crowd.
By contrast, Friday night’s festivities at Nashville’s famed Station Inn played a bit more to the traditional side of Americana. With no drums and barely an electric guitar in sight, one of the bluegrass community’s most renowned listening rooms proved to be the perfect stage to host the evening’s mandolin, banjo and fiddle-fueled acts.
Indie-folk quintet Joy Kills Sorrow represented the ever-growing youth movement in bluegrass with their frenetic musicality and whimsical songs like “Get Along.” Having seen them twice throughout the festival, I can safely say that this band has that extra something special that warrants the buzz that surrounds them.
The Claire Lynch Band delivered heartfelt tunes like “White Train” and their Civil War ballad “Dear Sister.” However, it was their closing medley of instrumentals that may have contained some of the most olden elements of Americana with its promised “Appalachian clogging, hambone and claw hammer banjo.”
Pennsylvania trio the Stray Birds continued the multi-instrumentalist, multi-vocal tour de force and paid homage to those who came before them with covers ofJimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 7” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta,” as well their own touching tribute to the Stanley Brothers, “My Brother’s Hill.”
Sister quartet SHEL brought a vibrant energy to the room with their ethereal vocals and Celtic-infused instrumentation. “Lost at Sea” and “Freckles” drew loud appreciation from the crowd, but it was their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” that elicited the greatest response.
With such an array of divergent styles presented in these two showcases, as well as throughout the rest of the festival, it’s really beautiful and inspiring to see how many seats are available at the Americana table.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

AmericanaFest 2013 Day #2: Billy Bragg, Rosanne Cash, Richard Thompson and More

(This article was originally published onCMT Edge.)
There’s a bit of a terminology struggle when it comes to pinpointing exactly what makes Americana music what it is. Anyone seeking eclectic examples of this discussion had to look no further than the beautiful musical mosaic of Thursday night’s (Sept. 19) Americana Festival showcase at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville.
There was a palpable anticipatory energy for the evening’s first artist, the illustriousRosanne Cash. Her next album, The River & the Thread, will be released early next year, and she surprised the enthusiastic crowd by performing the album in its entirety. While many of the songs were being played live for the very first time, Cash and her band (led by husband/collaborator/guitarist John Leventhal) sounded as if they had been touring behind these songs for years.
She described the album as being full of songs about the South, and each one sounded like it had been pulled straight from the fertile soil of the Mississippi Delta. The twangy Telecaster guitar of “A Feather’s Not a Bird” and “Money Road” and the commanding drums of “Modern Blue” and “World of Strange Design” combined to create a rootsy tapestry over her set, while the cinematic lullaby of “Night School” revealed there will be some unique moments sprinkled into the album, as well.
As a special guest, Cash invited Cory Chisel up to sing “50,000 Watts” and “When the Master Calls the Roll,” a beautifully fingerpicked Civil War ballad. After performing songs from the new album, she closed with a spirited run through “Seven Year Ache,” her No. 1 country hit from 1981.
Next up was legendary British folk-punk activist and human quote machine Billy Bragg. He introduced his opening number by remarking, “Let’s see if we can put some Woody Guthrie into the place” and launched into “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” from his first Mermaid Avenue collaboration album with Wilco. He also played through a variety of songs from this year’s Tooth & Nail, such as “Handyman Blues,” “Chasing Rainbows,” “Swallow My Pride,” “Goodbye, Goodbye” and “No One Knows Nothing No More,” dedicating it to “major label record companies.”
As Bragg dismissed his band for one song, he invited Cash back to the stage, and they sang a gorgeous cover of her father Johnny Cash’s 1958 hit, “I Still Miss Someone.” This moment combined so many things that I truly love about music, and it’s amazing how the Americana Festival showcases can create such one-of-a-kind moments like this.
Ever the salty English gentleman, Bragg sipped from a cup of tea throughout the night, and his non-musical moments were as memorable as his songs. He tongue-in-cheekily stated that “the Brits invented Americana” via Lonnie Donegan and skiffle and defined Americana as “country music for people who like the Smiths.” His hilarious between-song banter name-checked MorrisseyJohnny MarrKenny Rogers, Fidel Castro and Karl Marx. He even playfully retorted to an audience member’s request that they would also need to shout out “the key, the chords and the lyrics, as well.”
Richard Thompson followed with a blistering display of guitar mastery and lyrical finesse. With just his guitar and his voice, Thompson led the crowd through an emotional set of melancholy tunes and dynamic musicianship. Many of the songs came from his most recent Electric album, with a few gems from his back catalog thrown in for good measure. As he did on Electric, Thompson invited Siobhan Kennedy to add her angelic background vocals on a few of his “sad, miserable ones.”
Thompson’s jaw-dropping guitar skills were most bewitchingly brandished on songs like “Valerie” and “Persuasion,” but it was a fan favorite — “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” — that really whipped the crowd into an appreciative frenzy. Thompson has a combination of talents like few others.
To close the night, the Wood Brothers and Steep Canyon Rangers turned in impressive sets. The Wood Brothers played songs from their album The Muse, coming out Oct. 1, and their funky, jazzy, multi-genre mixture is certainly worth checking out.
Meanwhile, Steep Canyon Rangers’ new album Tell The Ones I Love debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s bluegrass albums chart this week. These Dapper Dans had everyone dancing along to their dramatic bluegrass prowess, and their closing number can be described as nothing short of a fiddle apocalypse.

Friday, September 20, 2013

AmericanaFest 2013 Day #1: The Lone Bellow, Ed Helms,

(This article was originally published on CMT Edge.)
As the Americana Music Festival rolled into Nashville for another year, its opening night of showcases did not disappoint. A stellar roster of artists played in venues all around town Wednesday night (Sept. 18) as music lovers flocked to see the talented acts and surprises that Mercy Lounge, Cannery Ballroom and the High Watt had to offer.
Leading the evening, “Brooklyn country music” darlings the Lone Bellow kicked things off in style to an eager, packed-out Mercy Lounge. The trio is known for powerhouse vocals, and they were certainly in fine form throughout their performance. It was awesome to hear so many conversations halt and see so many heads turn as soon as the band started singing.
Backed by a standup bass and drums, the Lone Bellow effortlessly swapped off instruments and impressively belted out their signature, emotionally rich songs for a solid set. The pulsing thump of “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” and the one-mic intimacy of “Two Sides of Lonely” seemed to garner the biggest audience response.
While frontman Zach Williams handles the majority of the lead vocal duties, he had no problem stepping aside to let bandmates Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist take the spotlight on “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” and “Watch Over Us,” respectively. Being able to deliver the vocal intensity of punk singers while maintaining Eagles-esque harmonies makes the Lone Bellow a must-see in concert.
Nashville’s own Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors brought their folk-rock flavor to the High Watt, and the hometown audience received them with open arms. Of course, playing their geographical love letter “Tennessee” as their first song probably didn’t hurt those chances. Musically, they blend folksy acoustic strumming with swampy electric lines to form a Southern Springsteen sound that is propelled by the power of the rhythm section and just the right amount of tasty harmonica.
Their strengths showed the strongest on the bar-band slink of “Nothing but Trouble” and the slow-burn build of the explosive “A Place to Lay My Head.” While the crowd seemed sporadically familiar with the songs off of their most recent release Good Light, it was “Fire and Dynamite” from 2011’s Chasing Someday that immediately turned into an all-out sing-along.
Closing the night with a non-stop musical party like none other was the Midnight Windup put on by the Bluegrass Situation. This fun-filled, all-night jam session was hosted by actor-musician Ed Helms and featured a revolving cast of phenomenal guests including Larry CampbellJerry Douglasthe Infamous StringdustersJim LauderdaleAoife O’Donovan and more. Also sprinkled throughout the star-studded performances were solo sets from the Milk Carton KidsJoy Kills SorrowSteep Canyon RangersDella Mae and Black Prairie.
The fast-paced, loose-knit atmosphere was driven by the incredible amount of talent on the stage and by the unspoken language of musicians that is conveyed through mere head nods, eye contact and the act of stepping forward to solo and stepping back to let someone else take a turn. It was really something special to witness.
Some of the more memorable performances were Brian Wright and Aoife O’Donovan dueting on a tender cover of John Prine’s “Clay Pigeons,” Della Mae’s “Polk County” (featuring six consecutive fiddle solos by three spirited players) and Ed Helms joining Black Prairie for “How Mountain Girls Can Love” during an unforgettable night of music that went on well into the wee hours of the morning.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Interview with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket


In the heyday of 90’s alternative music, Toad the Wet Sprocket was always a bit of an enchanting outlier for me. Foregoing the detuned guitars, sludgy riffs, and head-scratching lyrics of the majority of their musical counterparts, Toad the Wet Sprocket relied heavily on poetic imagery, chiming guitars and Glen Phillips’ crystal clear croon. The first time I saw their video for “All I Want” on MTV, I immediately asked my dad to take me to Blockbuster Music to pick up their CD, Fear. I still remember popping the CD in when I got home, hearing the opening track (“Walk on the Ocean”) and wondering why that song wasn’t on the radio yet. I got Fear just a month or two before I graduated from sixth grade and I used those last few weeks to feverishly memorize the lyrics and attempt to make everyone think I was wise beyond my years and ready for high school.

Fast forward a few years, a few grades and a few more albums and right before the summer between my junior and senior year, Toad released Coil. The album seemed a little heavier – both musically and emotionally - than their previous work and I was along for the ride. It seemed that each time around, they matched my ever-changing world with changes of their own. However, almost exactly a year after the release of Coil (I remember the specifics of both timeframes because of them being around the beginning of summer), I heard on the radio that Toad had officially broken up. To me, it was a humorously ironic (and slightly poignant) thought to realize that one of the bands that had faithfully ushered me through my middle school and high school years went splitsville just a month after I had graduated.

Needless to say, I was one of the many fans who was just a tad excited when it was first announced a couple of years ago that the guys were recording new music. It’s been 16 years since the release of Coil and their new album New Constellation has turned out to be a beautiful addition to their catalog. To help mark this new chapter in their career, Toad has released Something Old, Something New here on NoiseTrade. This exclusive EP features two songs from the new album, “New Constellation” and “California Wasted,” as well as three re-recorded classics: “All I Want,” “Fall Down,” and “Crazy Life.”

To coincide with the release of New Constellation and the Something Old, Something New EP, I talked with Glen Phillips about where the band is now, what inspired them to get back in the studio, and what it meant to them to hit their Kickstarter marketing goal the same day they put it up.


NoiseTrade: While there have been sporadic Toad the Wet Sprocket appearances here and there since the official breakup in 1998, your fans have been fervently waiting for the full-on “we’re putting the band back together” moment. What were some of the main sparks that finally ignited this year’s return to the studio for New Constellation?
Glen Phillips: There were a few milestones. A big one was when I wrecked my left arm falling through a glass table. The ulnar nerve was severed, so I was unable to play a lot of my old parts. It was humbling for me, and the rest of the band had to come together to cover for me. I think it was a great opportunity for all of us to be a little more grateful and show up for each other. We also did a greatest hits re-record album, and that broke the ice in the studio. At some point it just got to where nobody was interested in having the same old fights, and everyone was interested in making things work. Also, as much as we like the old songs, it was frustrating to be locked into a catalog that was fifteen years old. We were dying to play new material. So, it's been good. Nobody's taking it for granted this time around.

NT: As a songwriter, you’ve continually put out new music as a solo artist and with Mutual Admiration Society/Works Progress Administration and Plover. What was it that made this new batch of songs feel specifically like Toad songs?
Glen: Some of my songs were written specifically for the band - two electric guitars, three part harmony and countermelodies, drum grooves. I'm usually writing songs that I'll be able to play solo acoustic easily, so it was great to throw that out the window and write for Toad. The Todd and Dean songs are the other big part of the band. Todd has such a particular tone and melodic sensibility, and just having him play guitar makes things sound like Toad.

NT: The last Toad studio album Coil was released back in the summer of 1997. Were there any changes in the studio atmosphere between then and now or did it feel like things picked right back up where they left off?
Glen: We were able to take a lot more time in the studio for this record. Everything was still on tape when we did Coil, so there wasn't quite as much freedom to experiment. Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. As far as the personalities, we have our ups and downs like anybody, but when we get in the studio we're all pretty serious about getting down to work.

NT: Playing out as really nice exception to the rule, Toad still maintains the same four members that recorded the band’s 1986 debut Bread & Circus. Apart from genuine friendship and mutual respect, to what do you attribute this cohesion and longevity?
Glen: I don't know, really. We definitely needed to get some experience outside of the band to appreciate how lucky we were. We're about as different as four people can be, but I think over time we've learned how to appreciate the differences instead of fighting over them.

NT: Your initial Kickstarter goal of $50,000 was hit within the same day it posted (ending up at over $260,000 pledged overall). What does that kind of fan response mean to the band? 
Glen: It means the world to us. We were floored that so many people were willing to have faith that we could make a record that would be worthy of their support. It was great to see that, for them, after all this time, our music still meant something.

NT: Between Toad and your solo work, you’ve had years of major label experience. What has been the most refreshing and the most hectic parts of doing things independently on Toad’s own Abe’s Records? 
Glen: The most hectic thing has been getting everything manufactured. None of us has done anything like this before. We have a great new team, but this is our first time both working together and doing a Kickstarter campaign, so we're having to learn quite a lot and at great speed. Once all the packages get out the door we'll all need to go off in the woods and play paintball. Or go to a spa. Or both.

NT: Finally, you recorded the closing lyrics of your 1991 hit “Walk on the Ocean” - “Don’t even have pictures, just memories to hold, grows sweeter each season as we slowly grow old” - at just 20 years old. When you sing the line now, has it transformed into having any different significance or do the initial seeds of that song still resonate the same for you? 
Glen: I still just want to know what the chorus of that song means. If you find out, please tell me. It's an odd line - it's pretty nostalgic. I want my best days and best work to be in front of me, regardless if the greater world takes notice. My job is to try to be a good friend, try to make good art, and not waste too much time looking backwards.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Webbtrospective #7: Ctrl - Derek Webb

(To celebrate the release of Derek Webb's new album, I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You on September 3, I'm doing an album-by-album recollection I'm calling the Webbtrospective. Back In February, I sat down with Derek to discuss each one of his albums through his own reflections. Instead of interview questions, I simply gave him some prompts and just let him go. Every word of this article is his own. I'll be posting a new album each day until the release of his new album, so stay tuned.)

Ctrl (2012)

Word Association: ...unlike all the rest.

Thoughts: Ctrl is like a soundtrack to a fictional narrative. I thought it sounded like a completely fascinating way to make an album. I gave myself the parameters of a story that I had to tell through that narrative. I wanted to pull you through that story with songs based on a character that was not me. It’s about a complicated subject matter and it’s told in a complex way. So it’s not a very accessible album. It’s an abstract, dense, cumbersome piece of work (laughs). 

Inspirations/Influences: I wrote a story about culture’s tenuous relationship with technology; a metaphor for that idea. The way that everybody is staring into little screens and no one looks at each other or their children or anything anymore. This has become our worldview. Make no mistake, this is the thing by which we are looking at the world. We demonstrate all the symptoms of addiction with our technology. We can’t put it down and we’re not really counting the costs of the way we’re using technology right now.

This is kind of a moment where I think there’s still time for us to put guardrails around the technology and have places in our lives where technology isn’t allowed. That just seemed really important to me as a confessed technology addict.

Josh and I had been touring Stockholm Syndrome and we had both gotten fascinated with this idea of the singularity. We were staying up all night watching videos and reading Ray Kurzweil. These ideas and technological prophecies of what could happen on the other side of this moment that arguable really will happen when computer processors get to a certain level of speed and power that they will be capable of things that we’ve really never imagined. People will say that’s mumbo jumbo, but the iPhone would’ve sounded like something out of Star Trek before it came out. Everything sounds crazy until it doesn’t sound crazy because it’s become part of your everyday life. And it happens overnight.

Production Notes: Ctrl is easily my most ambitious album. It took me two years to conceptualize it and record it. It involved an ancillary album that tells part of the story as a second thing. It was a huge undertaking and completely indulgent. It was exactly what I wanted to make and it came out exactly the way I had hoped it would. Although, it’s easily my least commercial release (laughs).

It’s almost a testament to the subject matter itself that it requires such a commitment to engage with it. There’s just a little, tiny door on the front of that thing and very few people are going to squeeze through it. It’s not a record that will allow you to enjoy it or understand it unless you go all the way with it and give yourself completely to it. There’s so little attention currency available and there’s such a high premium on it.   

I learned more making Ctrl than with anything else I’ve ever done. I pushed through boundaries that had existed for me for 20 years as a creative person. The amount of songs I had to write, the limited time in which I had to write and record them all, the way they all had to interact with each other; it was such a hard thing to make. Which is part of why I wanted to make it. It was the most challenging and the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done creatively.

Every record I will make going forward will benefit from my having made Ctrl.

I worked with Josh again and early on I started writing the short story, constructing it as a narrative. I knew it was going to be three acts and wanted to keep simplifying the story where I could tell it without every individual song having the burden of communicating complex plot points. I needed the songs to be about moments of emotion. It was a real jigsaw puzzle. And then there’s Sola-Mi (laughs). It took everything I knew and everything I had learned up until that point to do all that. 

So Josh and I got to talking and decided we wanted to make a piece of art about it. We wanted to make an electronic rock opera about the singularity. Then we decided we wanted to make two records. One is about the first machine waking up and the other is about people and how they’re interacting with it and using it to get what they’ve always wanted, which ultimately destroys them. We dreamt it all up and went and made it. 

Mixtape: “I Feel Everything” is a good thesis. It says so much about why that record is important. It’s the character’s last clear moment before death after he’s gotten everything he thought he wanted.

As an additional bonus, here's a NoiseTrade exclusive - the complete, all acoustic version of Ctrl:

A variety of cool pre-order packages for I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You (including immediate digital download) are available HERE.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Webbtrospective #6: Feedback - Derek Webb

(To celebrate the release of Derek Webb's new album, I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You on September 3, I'm doing an album-by-album recollection I'm calling the Webbtrospective. Back In February, I sat down with Derek to discuss each one of his albums through his own reflections. Instead of interview questions, I simply gave him some prompts and just let him go. Every word of this article is his own. I'll be posting a new album each day until the release of his new album, so stay tuned.)

Feedback (2010)

Word Association: Hyper-abstract.

Thoughts: Feedback is more of a boutique record. I saw it as more of a stop-gap. Meaning, I wasn’t ready to make a new record yet, but I had this idea of something I wanted to do and wanted to try. I never saw it as a “major” release. It was almost like The House Show was or something like that.

Inspirations/Influences: Feedback is a super abstract piece of work. It’s instrumental, classically composed, electronic and it’s based on The Lord’s Prayer. I’m really glad I did it. I learned a tremendous amount doing it. 

Feedback was the first record that was kind of the product of a new creative process that I had come up with for myself. Everything before that was imagining the thing I wanted to make, imagining it almost finished and then trying to plot my way there. I would start with the end product and the record was the journey of me trying to get to the thing I had imagined back on day one. But you never quite get there. So the album winds up being the results of all the compromises you made on your way to trying to get somewhere. Somewhere a little after Stockholm Syndrome, I decided that I was going to stop coming up with the final product first. I decided to not even think about the final product and have no consideration for what I’m making while I’m making it. I decided to just make choices about what I could control… who I want to hang out with, what I want to learn, how I want to spend my time in these five or six months of my life spent making this record.

By the time we were done, I wasn’t sure if the thing we had made was anything anyone would want to listen to. I don’t know if it’s marketable or commercial on any level. I don’t know if it’ll be interesting to anybody other than the few of us who made it. Sandra helped me compose some of the songs and Josh mixed it, but maybe it was just for me. I was okay with that. If I was that engaged with it and enjoyed making it so much, then the thing I wind up making is kind of secondary. Because the product is the thing I’m going to spend the least amount of time with. I spent all of my time making it and the process was amazing. 

Production Notes: I knew I wanted to work with Josh again, making this my second record with him. I knew I wanted to collaborate with my wife because we always have a good time doing that. I knew I wanted to learn about instrumental music and how to be intentional about content in complete abstraction. I knew I wanted to make something that was purely electronic and work out my programming chops.

I knew I wanted to study The Lord’s Prayer. It’s a fundamental part of my spirituality that I didn’t know a lot about. There was a point at which Jesus gave us a model for how to pray. Prayer is mystical and it’s a part of the way I look at the world and it’s a part of my practice as a Christian person. So it seems important when Jesus says "here is the structure by which you can know how to talk to God." It’s a huge thing and I wanted to study that. So I spent six months before I ever recorded a note just studying The Lord’s Prayer. Then I started to study instrumental music and I started working on some new instruments.

By then, I was fully in my new studio space. I had pages and pages of notes on every single line of The Lord’s Prayer and I decided to write a song for every line. I wanted to represent the content of each line with only melodic and rhythmic elements. In the first two weeks of the recording process, I remember just coming out to the studio and staring at the speakers thinking today is “Thy will be done” and I’ve got three pages of notes on just this line and how do I make that come out of the speakers with no words. I just can’t tell you what a brain trip that whole thing was. It was some of the hardest creative work I have ever done in my life.

I commissioned my buddy Jeremy Cowart to take some abstract photos and my buddy Scott Erickson to do some paintings. I had them listen to the music, meditate on the particular lines and make a piece of art for me for each line. We included the pictures and the artwork in the packaging and I envisioned listeners spreading them all out in front of them while they listened. I feel like everything is so rigid and structured in a lot of churches. There are not a lot of abstract moments in our big, corporate, collective worship services where someone says “I’m going to give you a little bit of intention in terms of what to meditate on and then I’m just going to let the Spirit do whatever He’s going to do.” So for me it was like, all you’ve got to think about for the next four minutes is “Hallowed be Thy name.” Here’s an image, here’s an abstraction, but none of this is going to tell you what it means or what you’re supposed to think about it. We infused the music with a lot of symbolism, even down to the BPMs of those tracks and the rhythm of the melodies. You can actually sing the line to the primary melody of every one of those songs. There’s numerology in the intervals between the notes. I was looking for anything non-lyrical I could use to get it across. But you don’t need to know any of that while you’re just thinking about that one line and clearing your head. When do we ever get to do that in the church? We need those mystical, abstract moments where the Spirit can do what He wants do. I think we need more instrumental, unstructured music to provide those moments and that’s what I was trying to make. It was just a big, super abstract art project for me.

Mixtape: I think “Your Kingdom Come” is a good stand-alone. It gives you the feel of the album and the energy of it. 

A variety of cool pre-order packages for I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You (including immediate digital download) are available HERE.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Webbtrospective #5: Stockholm Syndrome - Derek Webb

(To celebrate the release of Derek Webb's new album, I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You on September 3, I'm doing an album-by-album recollection I'm calling the Webbtrospective. Back In February, I sat down with Derek to discuss each one of his albums through his own reflections. Instead of interview questions, I simply gave him some prompts and just let him go. Every word of this article is his own. I'll be posting a new album each day until the release of his new album, so stay tuned.)

Stockholm Syndrome (2009)

Word Association: Wow, gosh…I don’t even know what to say about that one… Urban?

Thoughts: That was the moment where I was needing the music I was making to catch up with the music I was listening to. That was always a concern of mine. I remember being in bands in junior high and high school and playing songs thinking “I wouldn’t like this music, I wouldn’t listen to this music.” It’s fun to play, but I wouldn’t enjoy this. Caedmon’s was the first band that I was in where I thought “Okay, now I’m making music that I would also listen to.” By The Ringing Bell, I wasn’t listening to any conventional pop music or singer-songwriter music. Like, no acoustic music. I was really bored to tears with acoustic guitars and earnest boys and girls singing over them. I’d had enough of it. Mostly I was listening to hip-hop and electronic music. I didn’t know how to get there though. I knew how to produce and engineer, but I didn’t know how to program or do any of that stuff yet. That was where I knew I needed some change.

As far as the whole online scavenger hunt, none of that was anticipated and not of that was planned. I was just making the record and planning on turning it in and putting it out, just like I did any other of my records. I infamously don’t play any of my records for my label before it’s completed and they put them out as I turn them in. That’s been our deal. They don’t have a say in the artwork or the mixing or the sequence or the songs or the writing or the lyrics or the production, anything. This time around, we were having a marketing meeting and I had just come back from Texas with Josh and I was really jazzed about some of the stuff we were working on. I just couldn’t help myself. I asked if they wanted to hear some stuff I had with me… rough, mid-process, me singing the same verse twice kind of stuff. I was just so excited about the sound of it. One of the songs I played for them was “What Matters More.” It was finished enough to already have a lyric in it that had some language that was going to be tricky for the particular label I was with. Once I saw their reaction, I walked out thinking it was a mistake. I literally got a call from the record label president the next day asking for my manager and I to come back for another meeting. I should say that he’s a guy I've known for a lot of years and have a lot of respect for. He’s supported me through so much, through language and content. To his credit, he said, “As your friend, I understand what you’re saying and I like the song, but as the head of this record label… absolutely no way is that going to go on the album.” For his business reality, it would’ve been like feeding nails through the sink disposal trying to get that album through his distribution channels with that song on it. So it was a real impasse. I had never hit the ceiling before. With all the politics on Mockingbird and the language on my first record, I didn’t think that there even was a ceiling. But I found it and I hit it. It was a wake-up call for me.

In the car on the way back, my manager and I hatched the plan for what ended up being that scavenger hunt. We felt like the song was important and it needed to be on the record. We needed to do something that we felt that the label would forgive us for (laughs). But we needed to do it right then. Our plan was to leak the song. It would’ve been illegal for me to do it just entirely. We had to do it in such a way that bought us some time so that by the time the label figured out what we had done, we would’ve been able to prove to them that it was going to work to their advantage. We chopped it up into a hundred mini-slices, which is not enough to even detect what it was, and we put it onto little USB thumb drives and we chose 20 cities to send five jump drives to. We made a little secret website, leaked hints to where the USB drives were, and allowed people who found the jump drives to upload their snippets and try to assemble the song. That took months but it got an unbelievable amount of attention. On some days we got over 100,000 visits to that secret site. Also during all that, I made an announcement saying we were having trouble and that I personally was going to go offline. I couldn’t be seen as the one doing it. By the time the label figured out what we were doing, we were able to have a meeting with them and say “yeah, yeah, yeah, but check this out, look at the traffic we’re getting.” We were basically doing their marketing job for them. The pre-sales for that album ended up being more than what most of my albums sell in their lifetime. I took a crappy situation the label handed me and made lemonade out of it. I threw them under the bus during the process, but all of the money flows back to them anyway, so they were going to forgive me for it (laughs). We agreed to keep the song off of the retail release, but they gave me the exclusive right to distribute the record with the song on it directly from my website, which they had nothing to do with. I had the exclusive and the vast majority of the sales were directly from my website. It was a coup for me. It was a real conflict though. It wasn’t manufactured like some thought.        

The other random thing that happened was there was a guy from Columbia Records who was sharing office space with my label. He heard what was happening, loved the record, and knew that Columbia’s distribution channel would have no problem with the language. So they offered to put some dollars in and distribute it on vinyl with “What Matters More” included. It was two different labels under the same umbrella company, which was Sony at the time. So, “Mommy, Daddy, stop fighting.” The silver lining through all of it was that if “What Matters More” hadn’t been on that record, there would’ve been a half dozen other songs on that record that wouldn’t have come out. Because the label was so focused on that song, I was able to sneak a handful of others through the back door. I mean, “Freddie, Please”… there’s no way that song would’ve made it without the big siren of “What Matters More” getting all the attention.   

Inspirations/Influences: This one was a whole different animal. It completely changed the way I was writing songs and it was something I really responded to. Like, writing more to beats and rhythmic elements. The thing I was really reacting to… was that so much singer-songwriter music is not about the rhythm or the feel. It neglects the beat and the bass and the rhythm section and it doesn’t take you anywhere. I was really responding to tracks that you would put on and it would immediately transport you somewhere and open your imagination up and you hadn’t even heard a lyric or a melody yet. It was just the bass and the drums and the beats and you felt something. I wasn’t feeling anything, in that regard, when I was listening to the singer-songwriter music. So I kinda wanted out. I didn’t want to be associated with singer-songwriter music because I felt that they neglected the things that I was starting to really care about. I wanted to prioritize the beats, the bass, the rhythm section and the thing that made you feel something in a different way than the melodies and the lyrics made you feel. If you could make somebody feel something with all of it, well then you’ve really got something. That was my feeling at the time.

It was a great exercise and really fun not to have the burden of sitting down with an acoustic guitar and trying to come up with an original chord progression. That makes you approach songs in a certain way and it makes you presume a lot of things on the thing you’re doing. Where as, when I’m writing to a beat or synth pattern, it unlocks a whole new side of writing for me. It helps me not feel like the melody and the lyric have to bear the full weight of delivering the emotional value of the song. Suddenly, you can depend on other things and actually say less, have shorter melodies, be more abstract, and do things differently. You’re spreading out the responsibility in terms of what’s being communicated.       

Production Notes: My buddy Josh Moore, who I played in Caedmon’s with for a lot of years, was a really good friend but we hadn’t worked together since I had left the band. He was in Houston and had grown into a very accomplished hip-hop producer. He really has a great thing going. Every time I would hang out with him, he would show me these tracks he was building for major hip-hop artists. I was amazed by what he was doing. I told him, “Man, I want to make a record that I don’t know how to make, but I think you do.” I asked him to help me, shepherd me, and co-produce with me. So that record just started with him basically building me instrumental tracks, sending them to me and then I would write to them. Which was new for me. I didn’t write any of those songs on acoustic guitar. I was just writing to beats and nearly completed tracks. That was the first time I’d ever done that.  

For example, when he sent me the track for “Black Eye,” it was just that weird mellotron sample and that beat. He sent me just a quick verse snippet as an mp3 right before I got on a plane and I wrote the melody and the lyrics. Then I had an idea for the chorus that kind of changed keys a little bit and I recorded it and sent it back to him and he built that chorus under the melody section I had sent him. We were just continually sending tracks back and forth and constructing songs. That’s how that record happened. There are only a few that I did at my house. I would go to Houston a lot and he would come here a lot. We were both working out of our own studios. At the time, I was just building my current studio here. So most of what I made of Stockholm Syndrome was done in the upstairs of my house. The last few bits of it were done here after we finished building it.  

Josh was teaching me tricks, telling me what software to get and teaching me how to use it. I was learning how to program and how to use soft synths. So I was experimenting and constructing on my own as well. Like, “The State” into “The Proverbial Gun”... I recorded all of that myself. “American Flag Umbrella” and “Heaven” was all my doing. “The Spirit vs. The Kick Drum” was all my doing, except for live drums, which we added later. Maybe half the record I was programming my way through and then Josh would come in and add stuff. We did spend one solid week at his studio in Texas, where we brought together all of our bits, finished everything, and I sang it all. The only other musician who played on that record was MacKenzie Smith (from Midlake) who played some live drums. I’ve known him for a long time because I was best friends with his older brother growing up and we played in bands together. We finished that week and then Josh mixed it.  

Mixtape: Maybe “What Matters More”… it’s pretty representative of both the sound and the content. 

A variety of cool pre-order packages for I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You (including immediate digital download) are available HERE.