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 it...in 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 clichéd 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: http://noisetrade.com/ethanluck
You can also keep up with all his musical activities at the following places:
Photo credit: Jered Scott