Saturday, May 28, 2016

"Will you disrupt this pattern from starting again?" How The Hotelier learn to take life's punches on 'Goodness'


There's a moment in the middle of "Opening Mail for My Grandmother," the standout track from the Hotelier's brand new album Goodness, where the band momentarily drops out, leaving Christian Holden alone for just a brief instant. "I'm coming for you," Holden sings. Already, the song is an eye of the storm amidst an emotive swirl of a record—the album's truest "ballad," and perhaps its only one. It's also the moment on the record that most breaks me in half, not necessarily because I can understand or perfectly interpret all of the words Holden is throwing at us. After all, Holden has always written in dense poetry, and Goodness finds them at their most artsy and impressionistic.

Rather, the song hits me because it captures the acceptance of knowing that someone you love is going to die. It may not be tomorrow, or next week, or even this year, but "Opening Mail for My Grandmother" is about coming to terms with the brevity of life. That might sound depressing, and the song itself is heartbreaking—at least to someone like me, who lost a grandparent recently. However, "Opening Mail" is ultimately a great song because it manages to fit uplift into the frame. The final lines of the song are the most beautiful, with Holden singing "They're keeping your space there, they're dying for you/We'll sing your good graces when they come for you/But until that day's here, I'm coming for you" in a striking lower register. The message is clear: cherish the moments with the people you love while you still can, because eventually, they run out.

That message is also more or less the theme of Goodness—or at least, it's the version of the theme that resonates with me most strongly. The basic idea I've taken from this album over the past week—and one that has been reinforced by album reviews or interviews with the band—is that goodness in life can be fleeting. Again, that statement might sound depressing, the perfect fodder for an album from the new torchbearers of the "emo" mantle. But think about it: how many things in life, good or bad, last forever? Friendships can fade; love stories can reach premature conclusions; the people we love can pass away into an afterlife we know nothing about. If you're lucky, you get to hold onto the goodness in your life for long, uninterrupted periods. If you're unlucky, you never get enough goodness.

On their last record, the Hotelier seemed like people lodged firmly in the latter category. 2014's Home, Like NoPlace Is There, was a masterful snapshot of a life where everything seems to be going wrong. Depression, abuse, suicide, death, and heartbreak hung over that record like taunting specters, standing perpetual guard. The record is only 36 minutes and nine songs long, but to press the play or drop the needle is to accept that you are about to visit an intense emotional place. For me, that place is somewhere I can only visit every so often. As much as I love Home—and as proud as I was to write about it when AbsolutePunk ranked it as the best album of 2014—it's a record I have a hard time calling a favorite because of how harrowing it is.

I could never truly relate to Home, at least not in the way a lot of other listeners did. From the first time I heard it, I knew it was the kind of album that could come along and save you if you found it at the right time; the kind of album that could pull you through a rough patch in your life and make you feel like everything would somehow be okay again. Needless to say, that unnamable quality helped Home earn classic status in our scene, joining albums from the likes of Brand New and Jimmy Eat World. For me, though, it was more of a memory trip—a look back at the moments from my own life where I'd needed music to get me through. It wasn't something that was going to earn soundtrack status for me in 2014, the year where I married the love of my life and made a big reach to make the goodness in my own life as permanent as possible.

Goodness is at once both more and less accessible. On one hand, the album is at least partially a "love album." It serves up less of an emotional side hook than its predecessor, providing a journey that—while still melancholy—still feels ultimately uplifting. On the other hand, the songs on Goodness are less immediate than the ones from Home. There's still plenty to sing along to here, from the near-anthemic "Goodness, Pt. 2" to "You in This Light," which echoes with a vibe of early Jimmy Eat World. Even "Opening Mail," with its elegantly circuitous melody, makes you want to hum in harmony. There's nothing as "catchy" here as "The Scope of All This Rebuilding," though, or as immediately lyrically striking as "An Introduction to the Album."

The great thing about Goodness, though, is that it continues to unfold and envelope you as you continue to listen. With an impeccable sequencing that yields a near-hypnotic quality to the flow of the record, Goodness offers a journey that, while not nearly as intense as the one provided by Home, still feels remarkably complete. Once again, I can't claim to have parsed the meaning of Holden's lyrics completely. I don't think I will have after 100 listens, either, so I certainly haven't managed it after 10. Still, there are hugely resonant moments throughout this record, images of characters finding goodness and then letting it go, of reaching for love and then surrendering. "My eyes greet hers and hers do mine/And then this room becomes her shrine," Holden sings on "Piano Player. "Was kind of banking on a future that'd be involving you, but I couldn't ask this of you," Holden intones on "Two Deliverances." "I can't sit in your sun," Holden concludes on "Sun." The album is a constant push and pull, of finding the goodness in your life and then watching it fade away. The uplift comes from the fact that, usually, it seems to circle back.

Whatever love story Holden is telling here, it's pretty clear that it doesn't make it to the conclusion of "End of Reel." When Holden sings about the girl who is "singing her swan song again" and how "it got stuck in my head as the sound of you," there's a definite feeling that this girl is someone the narrator is never going to see again—not in this life, at least. The track, despite striking poetry about "dayglow blades scorched by hovering halos" and the "resonant calm" that echoes off the walls, is ultimately a breakup song. But the song's key line and rallying cry isn't "Washing away until I don't even cringe at the thought of you"; rather, it's "I don't know what I want, what I want's where I've been." Holden might have gotten their heart broken here, and the ultimate "swan song" probably wasn't even an amicable one. By the end of the album though, Holden knows one thing: they want the goodness back.

Falling in love might end in a broken heart; friendships might start out strong, only to wither in later years; forging connections with other people might one day lead you to their gravesides, reflecting on mortality and pain. But the message of Goodness is that it's worth it to experience that pain and regret if you get to experience the goodness along the way. An album ago, Holden was "calling in sick" to a friend's funeral, unable to accept the loss. Here, they're getting up, brushing themselves off, and saying "hit me again." It's tough not to smile at the thought of such resilience.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

How Music Mended Broken Hearts: A Farewell to AbsolutePunk


Eight years ago this past February, I stumbled upon AbsolutePunk.net while scouring the internet for Butch Walker b-sides. By this point, I'd probably visited the website a few times for various pieces of news—my favorite artists list did include Jimmy Eat World and Jack's Mannequin, after all—but on that day in February 2008, I finally took the plunge and set up an account. Excuse the cliché, but little did I know that I'd just made a decision that would change my life in countless incredible ways.

AbsolutePunk.net (or AP.net, as we call it around the forums) has meant different things to me at different times over the course of the last eight years. At first, it was little more than a source for b-sides and rare bonus tracks. The b-sides thread in the General forum was my main haunt—if not my only one. Then, it was my place to ruffle feathers and blow off steam online. I can't much fault the many trolls I have argued with and banned from the site over the years, because I used to be one of them.

But then, slowly, AbsolutePunk started to become my "home" online. It became the first site I hit every day when I came home from school, and the site I hung around in the evenings. Whether I was looking for new music, trying to find out about leaks, or chatting about longtime favorite bands and albums, AP.net became the ultimate outlet for my music obsession. I'd been a ravenous music fan since 2004, but most of my friends in real life didn't share the passion. That's not to say my best buds listened to bad music, but it was rare for me to have long, in-depth conversations about records or artists with friends, or to trade mixtapes or recommendations with people at school. Aside from my brother, there weren't many people in my life who followed music with the furor I did. That situation meant it was incredibly fulfilling and personal when I'd discover a new album that blew my mind, but it was also a solitary place to be.

AbsolutePunk gave me a way to talk to a whole slew of people who adored music as much as I did. These people were passionate about the same artists I was; they connected to music in the same visceral way that I did; and perhaps most importantly, they knew about artists and bands that I'd never even heard of. To say that hanging out on the forums at AP.net introduced me to a lot of new music would be an understatement. To give just a few examples, people on this site turned me on to (in rough chronological order) The Gaslight Anthem, Valencia, Copeland, Bon Iver, The New Frontiers, Lydia, The Damnwells, The Dangerous Summer, Cary Brothers, Chad Perrone, Charlie Simpson, Jason Isbell, The 1975, Kacey Musgraves, The Hotelier, Noah Gundersen, and Chris Stapleton. For anyone who knows me, has heard one of my playlists, or has read any of my writing over the past several years, just seeing the artists on that list should be enough to convey what this site meant to me. Perhaps more impressively, that list barely scratches the surface of the music I discovered on AbsolutePunk.

Eventually, AbsolutePunk evolved into something else for me. I posted on this site every day throughout college (even the day after I bombed out of my college major), always reading the reviews or chatting about Springsteen or JEW with other users. It was my place to write about music before I was really a writer at all. And then once I did start blogging, the forums were always one of the first places I would go to share my work. I did that for a year, from the summer of 2011 to the summer of 2012, slowly becoming more confident in myself and the words I wrote. It was always a treat to be bolstered along by compliments and thoughtful conversation from the people on this site.

Then, one day in July 2012, I posted a review of The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten on my blog. As was customary by then, I quickly went over to the forums and dropped a link to the review in the official album thread. I didn't expect anything to come of it: the site already had a Handwritten review by then (shout out to Thomas Nassiff's 10.0 endorsement) and I was mostly aiming to continue the emphatic discussion about the record that I'd already been having with other users on the site.

But when I logged on to AP.net later that afternoon—at work, no less; always the slacker—I had a private message in my inbox titled with three simple words: "Contributing to AP." The message, sent by one-time staff member Matthew Tsai, was short and sweet: "Hey! I passed on your Gaslight review to some of the staff and a lot of us really dig how you write. Jason was wondering if you'd be interested in coming on staff and writing for us. Let me know!" I didn't need to think for more than a split second before typing out that, yes, I would be interested.

I could say "and then the rest was history" at this point, but I don't think that line would do justice to what writing for AbsolutePunk.net did for me, both personally and professionally. As fate would have it, I'd just switched my college major to professional writing (from classical voice) and reviewing records on AbsolutePunk was the perfect complement to that academic pursuit. Working for the site gave me an edge over my fellow students—not just in terms of resume, but also in that I had a chance to take all of the writing habits I was learning in the classroom and employ them in a practical environment. I progressed so quickly as a writer during my two semesters of senior year, and while a part of that has to be owed to my great professors, perhaps a bigger part was owed to this website.

Indeed, AbsolutePunk was the perfect place to develop my voice as a writer. Instead of being pinned down by assignments, I had the freedom to decide what I wanted to write about. Instead of dealing with deadlines, I could work projects on my own time and hone my reviews until they were precisely where I wanted them to be. Instead of being held to some bullshit standard of objectivity, I could be as blatantly personal and subjective as I wanted in my writing. Other publications around the internet might have had "better" writing or more "prestige" than we did at AbsolutePunk, but I fully believe that our staff consisted of the most honest and passionate music writers on the internet. And artists noticed.

Writing for AbsolutePunk taught me how to stay motivated and govern the quality, approach, and scope of my writing on my own terms—skills that have served me well in my current role as work-from-home freelance writer. More than that, though, writing for AP.net taught me to love music more deeply and not to be afraid of sharing those emotional connections with other people. Over the course of three and a half years as a staff member, I wrote 200 reviews (on the dot) and contributed dozens of other articles and features. The best of those—and the ones that tended to get the biggest response from readers—were the ones where I took the site's mantra of "Music Mends Broken Hearts" to…well, to heart. I spilled my exhilaration and fear about graduating college in pieces about Jimmy Eat World's Damage and Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle; I reflected on past heartache every time I wrote about City and Colour; I went full fanboy and reviewed every single Butch Walker album in the span of a week; I talked about the life-changing power of music and mourned the loss of my grandfather in a retrospective piece about Jimmy Eat World's Futures; I talked about falling in love with my wife in my 10-year retrospective for Jack's Mannequin's Everything in Transit; I wrote myself to tears talking about how Born to Run had acted like a "hidden map of life" during my coming-of-age years; and I waxed poetic about learning life's big lessons not in the classroom, but at Bruce Springsteen's live shows. These pieces were incredibly special to me, and it was nothing short of life affirming to see that they were special to other people as well.

Reviews weren't the only thing that made being an AbsolutePunk staff member amazing, either. Everything from getting albums months early to shooting the shit with other staff in Slack to chatting with my favorite artists made this job a joy. How many people get to spend hours picking their heroes' brains about music? The remarkably in-depth conversations I had with Chris Carrabba, Chad Perrone, Brian Fallon, Noah Gundersen, Jason Isbell, Matt Nathanson, and Donovan Woods taught me more about songwriting and the musical art than two and a half years in music school combined. Suffice to say that those conversations played a big role in getting me to a place where I was ready to write and record my own album. More on that later.

And how poetic is it that, almost exactly seven years after I found AbsolutePunk while digging around for Butch Walker b-sides, Butch Walker himself called me up for an hour-long telephone conversation? That interview, about Butch's masterful 2015 release Afraid of Ghosts, is the kind of career highlight that I'm not sure I'll ever top. How can you beat a candid conversation with a guy you've worshipped since before puberty? How can you top an interview that comes together not because of a publicist, but because your hero reads your tweet, recognizes your name, and replies back "Dude, I'll do an interview with you!" Even getting your review retweeted by Taylor Swift can't quite rival that.
That's the thing about AbsolutePunk. We never necessarily did things by the book or the way that other publications did. In a lot of ways, we were amateurs. But when it comes to loving music, there's no such thing as being a professional. This place, from the forums to the staff all the way up to Jason Tate himself, was always a bastion of musical adoration the likes of which you couldn't find anywhere else on the internet. Now, the sun is setting on that bastion. Countless broken hearts have been mended by music and by the supportive community that AbsolutePunk offered, and now, it's time for the next adventure. Mission accomplished. Mischief managed.

As Jason said in his lengthy farewell post to AbsolutePunk, this ending is not a goodbye; rather, it's the end of one chapter and the start of another—the start of one that, hopefully, will be even better. When Jason first showed me Chorus.fm in January and told me about his plans to "sunset" AP.net in favor of the new site, part of me was hit with the realization that something I had loved was ending. But another part—perhaps a bigger part—was excited about the future. I have never seen Jason as excited or as passionate as he has been in the run-up to Chorus. Since AbsolutePunk built its brand on passion, it's only logical that the next site would start there too.

Still, there are things I'll miss about AP.net. I'll miss calling myself a Senior Editor of a major music publication. I'll miss organizing massive site features, like our staff-combined year-end lists. I'll miss going back and sorting through all of the content I wrote over there (though I've reposted almost everything here on this blog). But hey, at least I got a poetic ending. Last month, I posted my 200th and final album review on the website, of Brian Fallon's new solo album, Painkillers. Since I got hired to the site for writing about Fallon's main project, The Gaslight Anthem, closing out with another review of his work was a nice coming-full-circle moment for me. Now, I'm ready for what's next: the next review; the next interview; the next EOTY list where I write way too many words about the albums I loved; the next discovery on the forums; hopefully not the next kid telling us that it's AbsolutePUNK not AbsoluteSomeGenreOtherThankPunk.

But before we get to that, I would be remiss if I didn't cast one last look back on the entity that shaped my writing more than any other, or give one last thank you to all of the people who made it worth it. To everyone who ever read and enjoyed my reviews, challenged my way of thinking about music, recommended artists, or worked alongside me—thank you. You know who you are. Thanks especially to Jason Tate for the myriad of amazing opportunities this site has given me. You'll probably be hearing a lot of thank-you's to Jason over the next few days, and it's not hard to see why: AbsolutePunk.net was the place where many of us grew up and found our voices. Here's hoping there's some kid out there who will be able to let Chorus.fm do what AbsolutePunk.net did for me.

Some (Almost) Final Statistics:


Why is there no "Minutes wasted arguing with fellow users" section?
I wish I had a total review word count here, because I'm sure it's just ridiculous.
My Final Post: 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Interview: Donovan Woods (February 10th, 2016)

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to speak with Canadian folk singer/songwriter Donovan Woods. We talked about Woods' fantastic new album, Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled, which is officially out today. We also spoke, in detail, about songwriting, co-writing, the idea of capturing a dichotomy of ideas in a single song, American country music, and Donovan's experiences writing songs for Tim McGraw and Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley.
 
 
You've got a new album coming out in, what is it, two weeks now?

Yeah, I guess two weeks! The 26th, so what's that? Yeah, two weeks.

Anything planned for the day of the release?

I'm going to be on a tour, so I'll be playing in Winnipeg on that night. So it'll just be a show day and then back on the bus, but after this tour is over there'll be a big release party, probably in Toronto, in March I think.

Are you on a solo tour or are you touring with someone right now?

I'm opening for a fellow named Matt Anderson who's a blues artist from Canada. Haven't started yet, starting on Monday going all the way from BC to Halifax in Canada.

In the past few years your songs have appeared on albums by Tim McGraw and then the new one by Charles Kelley. Who else have you written for or written with?

I wrote a song that's on Billy Curington's record, he's a country guy. A bunch of Canadian artists. I written with a lot of Canadian country artists. People that aren't quite famous south of the (Canadian) border, but people that do well on the radio up here. And now I'm starting to write with all types of Nashville artists as well, but nothing...you don't want to talk too much about it, because you never know if the song is going to make the record and you're sort of just waiting in the wings. But all types of people, big and small, which is very lucky.

So how does the experience of writing for other people--and especially since you've been writing with more Nashville artists recently--how did that influence the music that you were making for this new record?

Well this is my first record that's ever had co-writes on it. All three of my other records I wrote entirely by myself. I wrote these songs--five of these songs I wrote by myself and five of them I wrote with other people. So I've never had that before. I never recorded a song under my own name that I recorded with someone else. So that's a new experience. I don't know that two years ago I would have ever said I would have done that, but eventually you find the right people to write with, and then before you know it, you're leaving the room with a song that you might love and you might put on a record. Once you're writing with good people, you end up with good songs. Not surprising! So once that sort of changed, yeah, it was easy to see myself putting a co-written song on a record. And maybe that makes the songs a little bit more...impersonal? I don't know that it does. I'm not sure that it does. I'm not sure what it changes. I think that the best part about co-writing is you get a point of view that you don't have on your own. I don't know, are you a musician?

Yes.

So you know how it is. You sort of play the same thing on the guitar, you sort of do what you do. You have your tricks, and it's really hard to break out of that. You're kind of trained, in a lot of ways. It's hard to break out of your patterns. And lyrically, I'm sure that you know it's kind of the same way: it's hard to break out of the phrasing that you use, and it's nice having another person there to get you outside of that. Then you can make something that's actually new and exciting. Hopefully!

Yeah, definitely! Yeah, when I go to write songs it's always usually like, I start with the same chords and I find myself writing similar melodies so, I can definitely picture--I've never written with another person, at least not yet--but I can imagine.

Yeah, before I done a bit of it, I thought...I couldn't imagine it. It seemed so, like such a crazy idea to me. It's fun now to be a lot more comfortable with it and, yeah, I don't have that problem anymore where I sit down and I play something that's the same when I write with somebody else. The other function of it is that it just gives you an appointment to go do it. But I'm old, I have a whole bunch of responsibilities, so I really need to structure my time in writing. Because if I don't...I have all types of cool stuff in my house! (Laughs) Like, I would go watch TV, you know? I would almost rather do anything, because writing songs is...it's pretty hard! So having a writing appointment is pretty convenient once you're an old dude. I'm not that old, but you know, once you have a whole bunch of responsibilities.

When you sit down to write a song, do you say to yourself "I'm going to look to have this cut by someone else" or do you say "This one's for me," or do you just write the song and see where it goes?

You just write. I mean, the funny part is that any time I've ever sat down thinking "I want to try to write a song for X artist," it never works. It's just...I don't know, you are usually not rewarded by the songwriting gods for doing that, and deservedly so. It just seems to me that sitting down with a good idea and sitting down with someone to try to get that idea to the best place, try to tell a story in the best way you can, try to represent an idea in the best way to can, or like map out a feeling, or...trying to do that accurately is always more rewarding to yourself, at the end of the day, and always more rewarding in that people want to cut it. And the ones that I've had cut we didn't think anybody was going to cut. When we were writing that "Portland, Maine" song that Tim McGraw cut, we didn't think anybody was going to record that. It was too sad! We were like "No one's ever going to like this." We turned it into the publishers, they were like "No one's ever going to cut this." And it made sense, because it was too sad, it was too...sort of a tiny little story, a tiny little narrative. You know, it's not what's on country radio, it's not what country artists are doing right now.

But the ones that you write and feel passionate about tend to be the ones that other people feel passionate about too, so I try to not prescribe anything and just sit down and try to write a good idea. To write a song that I can be proud of and don't have to be ashamed of. Because I've certainly written a lot, and there are songs on the radio in Canada that I'm ashamed of. (Laughs) And the feeling of someone like Charles cutting a song like "Leaving Nashville" and the response that that gets from people is infinitely more rewarding than making some money off a song that you want to blow your brains out when you hear it.

Last year we got two one-off singles from you: we got "Portland, Maine," your version of it, and we got "That Hotel." And neither of those are on this album.

Yeah, well "Portland, Maine" will be like a bonus track: you'll get it when you get the record I guess.

Yeah, I saw that on the iTunes version.

But it's not a real...not really on the record.

Yeah, not on the vinyl.

Oh yeah, that's right.

Was there a specific reason that you decided to leave those two off?

Well, I felt that "That Hotel" was a bit more...I mean, this record is...it wasn't really about me, and I think the ones on this record are...to me, they're about me. And it felt like those two were a little bit not about me. Although, "That Hotel" is...I mean, at the moment, it's becoming more and more about me, but... (Laughs) I also just thought that the mood of it didn't really suit this record. And I like it as a standalone song. I like that it was released as just one sad as hell song. (Laughs) So I didn't want to mess with that. I just thought I would leave it alone and let people enjoy it for what it is.

So speaking of "Leaving Nashville," that song is sort of fascinating to me, because it provides this very sobering view of Nashville—and sort of by extension, a sobering view of the American Dream. What inspired you to write that song? And was it coming from a cynical place or was it more like, this is just how life in this city and trying to be a professional songwriter is?

Yeah, I think that one of the things I'm always trying to do with records and songs is get that dichotomy of experience accurately, just in terms of how bad things can feel good and good things can feel bad. Something can be awful and feel fine at the same time. Both of those thoughts can be present and true simultaneously. So I think that loathing a place and loving a place is an idea that was interesting to me, and that's sort of what I was trying to represent.

I think that, like a lot of places, it was an idea that I'd had for a really long time, and I had pitched it at a couple other writers, and they didn't want to write it with me because they didn't quite understand it. So I took it to Abe [Stoklasa], and Abe understood it immediately. We wrote it in about 30 or 40 minutes. So it resonated with him.

I think the idea, to me, I didn't want it to be cynical. I didn't want to be, like, shitting on Nashville. I think that there's something about that place, and a lot of places in America, that there isn't in Canada. Like, we don't have towns like that in Canada, where it's ruthless and it's like a hustle to get to the top, but that can reward you in such a fantastic way. It can be simultaneously depressing, the bottom of the barrel of these people trying to make money on songs. But at the same time, there's just this fantastic hope, this crackling energy of possibility. And New York is like that. Los Angeles is like that. These towns that can be loathed and loved at the exact same time.

I think that certainly is what Nashville represents to me. There's just so many people there doing exactly what I want to do. Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to go there and write songs, and the first thing I Googled when I got the internet was Warner Capitol, because I heard that that was a company that paid songwriters just to write songs. So I think there's something about it that I love, and I was just to represent that dichotomy of feeling about that place. Sorry, that's a very long answer!

No, that's great! That's sort of what I got from it, is the dichotomy, so it's cool to hear you explain that.

Yeah, it just felt like it was a good way to represent the feelings of it, you know? Just to list a bunch of really sort of on-the-line can-be-awful things, and then saying it's doesn't matter: you're still never leaving. Ironic for me, because I don't even live there and I leave all the time. (Laughs) It's kind of ironic when all you do is leave!

Yeah, and speaking of irony, that song is also the closer on that Charles Kelley record. Is it ironic to you that this song, where it's like "if it ain't a single it don't me nothing," this was one of the ones that you wrote that another artist ended up picking up and recording?

Yeah, I think it's funny. I don't think it'll be a single! (Laughs) I still don't think it'll be a single. But we also tried to make the song--like, it says "pour out your heart in 3:20"--we also tried to make the song exactly three minutes and 20 seconds. I don't think Charles' version is that exact length. But you know, I think that's part of the appeal of it. I mean, to hear Charles sing "your friends are friends with country stars," to have a country star singing that is...you know, there's something really interesting about it. And it's got layers to it that you can think about. I think that's why it's resonating with people. That's why we liked it when we wrote it. We just thought "Wow, there's a lot of shit in here. There's a lot of stuff going on in this song." I don't think there's much...I don't want to, you know...I love Nashville, but there's not a lot of stuff like that coming out of Nashville. Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton. And Jason Isbell, you could say, is part of Nashville, but in a way he's not. But, there just aren't very many songs that you can live inside. But that's not...not all songs have to be like that, you know? Like, there's value in Luke Bryan. He's really great. Those guys are amazing at what they do. But I love a song that you can get lost in.

Yes. Absolutely. I agree. So, when these artists like Tim and Charles cut your songs, do you meet with them or speak with them? Or do you just get a call from your publisher and it's like "Hey, someone wants this song"? I've always been curious about how that works.

Sometimes it's either one. I mean, the one with Tim, neither of us know--Abe Stoklasa and I wrote that "Portland, Maine" song too--neither of us know Tim. So, yeah, that one was just our publisher calling and saying "He likes it." And I never spoke him at all about it, until briefly later. But it was just that: he said he was gonna cut it, and then we waited around to hear it. And I didn't even hear it until the record came out. And I bought the record the day it came out, went looking for it.

So sometimes it's like that. And other times it's like...Abe knows Charles and has written for him before. Abe wrote a song on Lady Antebellum's last record. The best song on the record. So Abe knew Charles and had a relationship with Charles, and we sent him the work tape of the song. And we never demoed the song, he just cut it off the work tape. So then we were in communication with him about whether he was going to use it and whether he liked it, so we knew he was thinking of putting it on the record. Eventually I heard the studio version, but I heard that a long while ago, before it came out. And I've since written with Charles on a bunch of other songs.

So yeah, it's either/or, and sometimes it's both, you know? A lot of times, cuts in Nashville come from personal relationships with artists, though. The Tim McGraw one, with him completely not knowing us, is pretty rares. It's also pretty rare for him to pick a song from two writers who had never had a cut before. But it happens in all different ways and that's what's so fun about it.

Yeah, that's great. So there's a song in the middle of this record that, when you said "a song you can live inside," it made me think of this. Because this song kind of reminded me of Jason Isbell, actually. But it's "They Don't Make Anything in That Town." And it's really desolate and heartbreaking and pretty much made me stop what I was doing and pay attention because it's that kind of song. What inspired that for you? Is that autobiographical.

Yeah. Thanks, I'm glad that you like that song! Those are stories from my hometown. I don't have that negative feeling of my hometown. I go there pretty frequently. But I feel like it could be pretty hard for some people. But that's sort of just a pastiche of things that I heard about happening in the town, but things that didn't happen to me. But just sort of trying to add up to something that's indicative of a bigger story. That's all I'm trying to do. Pretty depressing, though, that song. Pretty depressing. (Laughs)

Yeah, it's a tough one. (Laughs) I was actually sort of surprised that that one didn't end the record, but then I remembered that "Leaving Nashville" was on here.

Yeah, that was the big argument. I kind of wanted "They Don't Make Anything in That Town" to end the record, but I kind of let my producers...I like to let my producers have a big fan track order, because they've listened to it more than anybody. I just feel like they need a say. I don't know, I feel like every song I've ever written is probably a "last song on the record," to be honest with you, so it never surprises me whichever one gets picked.

Just a lot of sad. Yeah, you gotta end the record sad.

Yeah, I don't know what... (Laughs) Why is that true? I wonder why that's try that it's always sad at the end of the record.

I think it comes from wanting to end on a ballad, and then a lot of ballads are sad.

Yeah, I guess. So many times though, when somebody cuts one of my songs and I see the tracklisting, it's like number 11 or number 10. And then you know, you know they're never singling it. (Laughs)

I mean, with Charles at least, that song was...it wasn't a pre-release thing, but he did the one mic, one take video, so...

Yeah, he did the video for it and all that. Yeah, that song, people will know enough about that song to sort of reach out to hear it, and all the reviews are about it. But you know, you get to wanting to hear yourself...like, I wanna hear my songs on American country radio. I've heard myself in Canada. I've just dreamed of having a song [on American radio]. I think I will eventually, but I don't know if it's that song. That song is pretty sad for the radio.

Yeah, I think if there would be one on hear that I would call a "radio song" for country, it would probably be "The First Time," because that one has a theme that a lot of people can relate to, I think.

Well maybe! Who knows? That one's pretty depressing too, though. (Laughs)

Yeah, but it's depressing in a different way, I guess.

Would you say that working with Nashville artists pushed you toward a more American country sound for this record? Because it sort of feels more Americana to me than your past ones.


Yeah, I always wanted to have those instruments. If I could have afforded them on the last record, I probably would of had them. But having pedal steel and having all different types of players is primarily a function of having a bigger budget for this record. But yeah, I think certainly in the last four years that I've been writing in Nashville, I've come to appreciate country music more than I did. And I always did appreciate it. I grew up in a town where everyone likes country music, so, I was never...I always liked it. But, I think that's probably fair to say.

When you write a song and someone else records it for their record, is there a feeling of awkwardness when you decide to put it on your record too?

Yeah, I don't know. That "Leaving Nashville" song, I just loved it. I think if I didn't know Charles, I would have...I think kind of the courtesy that you're giving another artist is to let them release it first. And that's sort of part of the deal. I wouldn't have released it before him, that's for sure. But to say that is also silly, because my reach is so incredibly small in comparison to him. So if I release it, nobody's going to hear it and if he releases it, everybody's going to hear it. Part of it is just the attention. I wanted to make sure that he was able to release it first and that he got most of the attention for it. But that's a song I love and I definitely want to have it on my record. Charles knows that I'm an artist and he has my records. So there was no weird discussion about it. I said "I'd like to record it too, for my record" and he said "Of course." It's kind of a pretty normal thing in Nashville, so there doesn't have to be too much awkwardness about it.

I think Chris Stapleton said something about it, because he...that "Whiskey and You" song on Traveller, that was a Tim McGraw recording too, back in 2008 or something. And he's like "It's a great song, anyone can record it and it's gonna be new anyway because it's a different interpretation."

That's part of it. That's written in the DNA of Nashville is that a song is a song and you can't keep anybody from cutting it. We've sort of fallen off that in the music industry in that, now we seem to think that everybody should write their own songs. But we used to know that not everybody is capable or even really wants to. But there's really something to be said for amazing song interpreters. But the idea now is that, if you're singing it, you should have written it, which is kind of a new idea, and we're a little bit silly to hold it so dear, you know?

Yeah, definitely. Sort of among the elitists that view country music as "the mainstream stuff" and "everyone else," it's like, "well these guys aren't writing their songs, so is there artistic integrity to that?" But it is kind of a pointless argument, I realize, because most people aren't even going to know.

Most people don't know, and nobody's...it's not a lie, it's not a fraud or anything. I mean, Frank Sinatra didn't write his songs, and everybody likes him. Elvis didn't write all those songs. Even the Beatles sang other peoples' songs early on. But, you know, ever since the Beatles and ever since Bob Dylan, there's sort of a "real artists write and perform their own songs" [belief], and I don't if that's necessarily true. I think we can do ourselves a bit of a disservice. Nobody gives pop people a hard time for doing it. But I think sort of the authenticity of country people is that they wrote these songs and went out and did it. But I don't know. Hearing Charles sing "Leaving Nashville," that's his song. That's his song, you know? There's no argument from about that. He sings it as well as anybody could sing that song. And even Tim singing "Portland, Maine," was like, "Of course he wanted to sing that song." There's a real ability in identifying those songs that you're going to sound good on, and following through with that, and that shouldn't be discounted. It's just bullshit: that's real talent.

And Charles, his version of "Leaving Nashville," he just does some different stuff with the vocals and phrasing, to the point where they're definitely different songs.

Well certainly from mine, they are definitely different songs. Mine is, I think, the saddest version.

Yep, yours is sadder.

But his is...yeah, his is almost defiant. But they're both great. When I heard his, I was over the moon because he really went for it. His felt important, and that's my favorite thing.

I read an interview that said you had the title for this record and you've had it for a bit, and I was wondering what the title means to you and why you decided to choose it.

I always have the title way before the rest of the record. I have the title for the next one all set up too, I think. But I don't know: it was two songs, "Hard Settle" and "Ain't Troubled" were two songs I was working on by myself but never really finished. They just weren't good enough to make it on the record. But to me, it pretty accurately described the first half and the second half. I tried to group the songs in such a way that the first half is "Hard Settle" and the second half is "Ain't Troubled." I just like the way those words sound. I like the dichotomy, that one sounds like a struggle and the other songs like everything's fine. I think, to me, that's the interesting part of life: that people will cope. And I think, to me, it's about coping and feeling like you're not bothered by the hustle, not bothered by the struggle.

Interview: Brian Fallon (February 4th, 2016)

Last week, I had the chance to sit down and chat on the phone with the great Brian Fallon. The interview runs a range of topics, including the inspiration behind Fallon's folk-heavy new solo album Painkillers (due March 11th), working with Butch Walker, the uncertain future of The Gaslight Anthem, favorite Springsteen songs, and the intriguing possibility of an Elsie: Part II.
 
 
You've done a bunch of solo shows already, where you've been playing all of the songs on this record, plus some Horrible Crowes stuff and a cover or two, but no Gaslight material. How did you feel fans were responding to the songs?

So far, it's been good. You know, it's a lot to ask of people to go out and just play new songs that they don't know, and expect them to be quiet and have an attention span of any kind. But they've been doing really well, and they've been just kind of absorbing the music, which is cool because I've always kind of thought of myself and my friends as music listeners. We kind of absorb everything and pay attention to what's going on, and I'm finding out the audience is doing that as well. They're kind of shifting with me, which is really more than you could ever ask of anybody.

You've always had a folk-leaning song or two on the Gaslight albums, and there's plenty of Americana influence, but you guys have never gone full folk or alt-country. What drove you in that singer/songwriter direction for this album?

Well I think that's where I started playing music, in general, when I was really young and before I'd decided anything on my own about what musical taste I had. So, it kind of seemed natural, if you're going to try something new, to start from the beginning. And go back to "what did I get into music for in the beginning?" And it was also a little bit of a re-focusing as well. You know, why did I start doing this in the beginning? And what made me happy about it? And what did I get enjoyment from?

A few of these songs turned up, in different forms, as part of the Molly and the Zombies project a few years ago, but you made it clear at the time that you weren't planning on doing an album for Molly. What's the story behind that side project and how did you know that...I mean, were you saving those songs for the solo record, or did you just not think you were ever going to end up using them for an album project?

I knew that, at the time, I wasn't going to do anything with it. And I was just sitting there, thinking of the songs as I was going, because we got a show offer from the Bouncing Souls to do the Home for the Holidays thing, and they wanted me to do it by myself. But I didn't really have songs, and I didn't want to just go and do acoustic Gaslight songs, because I didn't think that would be that cool for that kind of crowd. So I decided, "I'm just going to kind of make up a band."

And then I called a couple of my friends to play in it, and it sort of...quickly, I had the idea that when I used to go to shows—and like house shows and VFW Hall shows—and I would see bands. You know, you would see a new band and you couldn't...maybe they had a demo tape and that was it. And you had to wait for a record and there wasn't any record, and it was just, if you liked the songs, you went and saw them again.

So I kind of had this idea that, what if we just made a band and played some songs and I don't know if there's ever going to be a record or any kind of recorded versions. And if people want to see it again, they just come check it out.

That was the initial idea behind Molly and the Zombies. And then it kind of fizzled because I was just so busy with Gaslight, and then I decided...like, I didn't really want to do another band. It's just...it's a lot of bands, you know?! I can't do them all at once, so I sort of said...once I knew that Gaslight was going to take a break and I was going to do some sort of record—because right away, well I gotta do something. I'm not just going to sit here and do nothing for a while.

So I decided that I would take all the bands that I had, the side projects, and kind of wrap them into one. And then I thought awhile about recording those Molly and the Zombies songs. I was like, "Maybe I shouldn't? Maybe I should just make new songs and have it only be new songs?" But then I was like, "Well these songs are good though, I don't want to throw them out." And the people who know Molly and the Zombies is...I mean, there might be 200 people who know who that is. (Laughs) You know, I don't think that the rest of the world is going to be too disappointed. You know what I mean? Like, it's gonna be a new song! The reach of Molly and the Zombies is not that far. (Laughs)

Right, yeah, the version of those songs I have on my computer I think is like the Red Bull Sessions or something, so...

Yeah, they're just live. We just went in there and played them. And the thing is that the songs sound a little bit different now. They're not so...country-ish.

Yeah, they're definitely not the same.

No. And they kind of feel different, and I felt good about that. You know, I explained that to [producer] Butch [Walker] when I was going to go record them. I was like, "You gotta make 'em sound different, or else there's no point in recording them."

Right. Yeah, one of them...is it "Long Drives" that has different verses completely?

Yes, it's a totally different song. That one, I just kind of...I was like "I don't know if I'm just going to...if I'm going to put this one on there"—I struggled with whether to put it on there or not—and I said "Alright, well this one I'm going to draw the line at." If I'm going to put this on there, I can't record it the way that it was, because I didn't feel that it went along with the rest of the songs. And there's people who would probably disagree with that, but...you know, I was kind of the only one there to ask! I figured it would be better if I was going to put three of them on there that I would change the whole thing and rewrite it right now, as a fresh song.

Yeah, because I was listening to it, and I think "Long Drives" was the one I liked the most from the Molly and the Zombies thing, but I hadn't listened to it in awhile...

Yeah, it's one of my favorites too.

So then I put it on, and when the verse came on I was like, "...is this even the same song?" And then it got to the chorus, which was familiar. But yeah, that was pretty cool to hear.

It's like a little adjustment period. But then I think, once it settles in...I would say to people that like the old version, I would say I like the old version too. I like them both. But just give it a second, because once it sinks in with you I think it's kind of cool.

So, speaking of Butch, full disclosure: I'm a huge fan of his music, been a huge fan for like a decade, and I interviewed him last year when he released Afraid of Ghosts, so I was excited when I heard you were recording with him. I was wondering how you ended up working with him and what that was like compared to some of the people who have produced the Gaslight albums, like Brendan O'Brien and Mike Crossey and Ted Hutt.

Well, Butch came about mostly through friend recommendations. That's how his name got thrown in the pot. Because I was sort of looking around for a producer, and I said "You know, I probably should work with somebody that I haven't worked with before, because I don't want to repeat anything that I've done." I didn't want it to be...I didn't want it to get the Gaslight treatment. I didn't want the record to have that, which people will automatically do. I find that, if you've done a band for a long time, people will...before you've even played a note...you could have a disco record and they would put the slapback vocal on it, because that's what Gaslight does. And you'd just be like, "No, come on!" Don't just rehash the same thing. Then we might as well call up the guys and get them in here.

Right, for sure.

And if you're going to do something different...you know, I figured we would try something different. And when I talked to Butch, it was real easy. He started coming up with ideas right away. He was like "Okay, you've always done a little bit of reverb or echo on the vocals, so we're going to do nothing on the vocals." You know, we're gonna leave them...just bare. And then, he was just like "We're just going to go in and record it, pretty much on the floor, and see how we do with it." And it was pretty immediate. So running into him and having him be such a fan of...of music in general, that was really easy to work with.

A lot of guys that we've worked with...like, Brendan is super good at the rock thing. He's really great at big rock sounds and stuff like that. And Ted is kind of...he's just another world. Ted's really...he does everything from the heart. Ted's really artistic and he's got a whole way about him. I love working with Ted, actually. And Mike is like a sound guy. Mike loves sounds. And this, it was totally like...get in there and don't worry about anything and just sort of sit down, and do it, and leave the mistakes in. That's foreign to me: usually the mistakes are gone.

Right, yeah! That's really cool. And Butch plays some guitar on this record too, right?

Yeah, it was like me and Butch just playing guitar! Pretty much the whole record is just me and Butch playing guitar. (Laughs)

That's really cool. So, I personally really enjoyed Gaslight's last record, Get Hurt. And I think I spoke to Benny for that one the morning it came out, and he was super excited about it. And then it got super mixed reviews and some pretty harsh pans from like Pitchfork and Slant and those guys. Did that in any way lead to the band's decision to go on a hiatus instead of keeping up with the every-two-year release strategy?

I wouldn't say that those reviews gave any...you know, they didn't come into the band. I don't think you can make your band decisions based on what one or two people think. And I would definitely say that...that kind of thing, you can't let that play into what your band's decisions are. But I'm not going to sit here and say, personally, that that didn't bother me. I mean, for sure it did. And I think the guys took it a lot better than I did. Like Benny for instance, he's got a great head on his shoulders where he...he kind of was like "Yeah, but that's just what a few people think." Like, we were doing something a little oddball-y. Of course people are going to do that. And he's like "Some people are gonna love it, some people are gonna hate it," but he's like "I was ready for that."

And, you know...I agreed with him on that aspect. But I also felt that it got a little personal. It got a little bit more...not necessarily about the band or the record, but about what [the critics] thought I was doing. You know, like what my intentions were on some of them. And I was like...these are people I've never met. That's a low blow to be throwing on somebody you've never met. I wouldn't say that kind of stuff about someone I hadn't spoken to, or done an interview with, or whatever. I think you can make an assessment based on a record, but you can't make an assessment on a person's intentions, you know? That seems a little far-fetched, and to be honest, a little self-righteous.

But you guys toured a lot in support of that record, right? Like, I don't know if it was the most touring you ever did, but it seemed like you were on the road for awhile and there were multiple tours. And at the shows I went to, at least, it seemed like the fan reception for those songs was pretty good still.

Yeah, it was a divided thing. I don't want to say it was like, all of the critics didn't like it, because some people said it was awesome. And that seemed to be the dividing line: it was either people thought it was awesome, or people just didn't like it at all. So there wasn't really a middle ground which...I guess that's good? But the kids at the shows seemed to like it, and that was, I thought, encouraging.
Because truthfully, I'm not writing songs for reviewers or magazines. I'm writing songs for myself and for the audience that we play for. That's who I feel matters in the big picture. That's always been the start of it: you're trying to communicate with your audience directly. And so those are the people that you're shooting for. And so they seemed to embrace it, which is cool. But yeah, there was definitely a divide. I think we got some of the harshest criticism but then some of the praise was pretty good too. It was mixed, and we hadn't done that in awhile. People kind of tend to like the records that we had put out prior to that. We were lucky in that sense, that people seemed to really gravitate toward the other records.

So what is the...is there a next thing for Gaslight right now, or are you sort of just playing it by ear? I know Sink or Swim turns 10 next year, so I was wondering if you guys were going to get into the 10-year tour thing?

Oh no. We're not usually the kind of band to sit around and dwell on those sort of things. I think it's cool if people do that. Mile-markers and stuff like that. But I don't know if that would be something that we would do, because it would just be doing it "Just because." Like, unless there was a reason to do it. You know, unless we all got super pumped on it and were like, "Alright, we're gonna go out and do this."

But as of right now, there's not really plans to do anything, because there hasn't been...there's just not the "What's next?" feeling, you know? What do you do now? To me, if you ask me, I can't imagine a record that we could write that would be better than 59 Sound or Senor and the Queen, actually. Those two records to me—I like all the records—but those two records to me are great. I love them. And I don't know what I can do that's better than that. And I think that, until I found something that I think is on par to that, I don't think I would try to touch it, because I don't want to do anything that's gonna damage the band as we go on. And I feel that everyone else kind of agrees with me on that. And they sort of said, "Well, if we don't have another idea that we all feel strongly about, then maybe we should just do nothing and that's the best bet." You know, rather than just ruin something. Especially half-hearted. That just seems like a big slap in the face to everybody, including the band and myself.

Yeah, especially because you sort of had the routine going where you did a record, and then you went and toured for awhile, and had maybe a few months off, and then you did another record. And it was two years, pretty much down the line. So...

Yeah. I don't think you can do that over and over.

At some point you earn yourself a break.

I do think that. Because, if you just do it just for the sake of...like, why are you doing it? Are you doing it to pay your bills? And then I don't think that's that cool, you know? I don't think it's something you should do. Bill Armstrong from Side One Dummy said the coolest thing to me one time, like, years ago. And this was when there was no money coming in at all, so it was a funny thing to say. But he said "Never put your commerce before your art." And I just always remembered that. I was like...art before commerce, that's the thing. And you have to make the music first from a love of doing the music, rather than "Oh, well, I've got my bills to pay so I better put out a record so people can buy it." That sounds disgusting to me right now, actually saying that out loud. (Laughs)

And, look, I'm not trying to say...we're not a punk band, as far as being...because I don't want to be disrespectful to bands that are punk bands, you know? And that's why I say that. But we do have an ethic that we came up with that's like: look, you don't do this on somebody else's back. You do it for the love, and that's why you do it. And like Tim Barry says, "You play for the lovers, that's what you do." And you know, unless you're 100% sure and backing it, then I don't think you should do anything.

So that's why it's more like, Gaslight decided "Okay, let's just shut up for now, because we don't have anything on the plate that we're pumped about." I'm not sitting on American Idiot in my back pocket or something. I'm not going to release record like that. I think that's an awesome record, American Idiot. Green Day had this big long career, and then they did that, which was pretty...that's surprising. Late in a band's career, to have such a great record come out of them? And so inspired? And I'm not sitting on that right now. (Laughs) I'm kind of sitting on nothing. I don't have any ideas. So that's why, I think...the only idea I would have is to sort of be like, "Alright, I guess that Gaslight sounds like 59 Sound, so let's kind of rehash that." But, to me, that sounds awful. I don't think anybody would want to hear that.

Wow, yeah, I think that's a good way of looking at it. Getting back to the solo record a bit, what inspired your songwriting this time around? I did notice there were a few songs coming from a female perspective, which I thought was interesting.

The whole thing came from the old songwriting tradition that I grew up on, like folk music and singer/songwriter music and that kind of stuff. Because I don't really...like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, I guess they're rock bands, but they're more singer/songwriters. That's what they are. And those guys and all the folk music and even like Wilco and that kind of stuff...I was going back to where I started writing songs from for this one. So it sort of felt really fresh to me—fresh and familiar at the same time—that I could go and delve into these things I hadn't fully gotten to explore previously in my career.

Someone from the site wanted me to ask this: do you have a favorite Bruce Springsteen song?

Oh yeah, I've got a ton of them, actually. A lot of my favorites are really on the Tracks box set. Like that first CD of the Tracks box set. There's this one tune that I always go back to called "Zero and Blind Terry." And I just...I love that song. I feel like it encapsulates everything that Bruce was doing that was different and new, all in one song. It's six or seven minutes long, but it's...it's so rad. And when you listen to that song, you can totally hear how songs like "Jungleland" and "Born to Run" and Thunder Road" and these epics that would come in later. But this song is like the rawest version of a beginning of that, and to me, that's so exciting. It's like hearing the first Against Me! record: it's so rad and raw.

Yeah, it's nuts some of the stuff he didn't put on records.

I know right? (Laughs) There's some good songs!

Are you catching this River tour, by any chance?

I'm not, because I've been traveling around so much. I keep going on tour and I keep missing the shows. But I did just get the box set, that River box set?

Yeah, my brother got that for Christmas. It looked pretty great.

Yeah, I haven't watched [the DVDs] yet, but it's pretty cool. I just bought it.

Yeah, I'm heading down...my brother and I are going to see him in Kentucky I think in two weeks now? Which...I mean, I haven't seen him in like four years, so I'm pretty excited about that.

That's awesome. Last time I saw him was in Nashville. We were recording Get Hurt and he played down at the area there, the Bridgestone Arena. And we all took off early in the session. We were like "Let's go!" And we all went to see Bruce Springsteen. It was cool.

That's great!

(Laughs) We just like, bailed out of our own record to go see Bruce. Like "Forget this, let's go."

Did he know you guys were there? Did he like, call you up to the stage or anything?

Yeah! No, he didn't call me up to the stage, but he knew we were there. We let him know that we were coming and then he was being cool to us and it...he's really cool. I mean, he's real cool to us too, which is nice.

So Jason Tate, I think you've talked to him before, he runs AbsolutePunk. And his favorite record of yours is Elsie, the Horrible Crowes record. So I was wondering, on his behalf, do you ever see there being another Horrible Crowes record? Or is it sort of at this point like, if you're going to write something that's not Gaslight it's probably just going to be solo?

Well, I mean, if I was going to do another Horrible Crowes record, it would probably be under my own name, just for the reason that I gave before, so that it's all wrapped up into one. But I definitely have a desire to do a "part two" of that, and that was my first idea when Gaslight was like "Okay, we're gonna take a break." My first idea was like, "Maybe I can do another Horrible Crowes record. But I couldn't think of anything in that genre that would be better than Elsie, so I was like...I don't know if I want to start diving into that one. Because that's special to me. That record is...I love that record! And I still listen to it, even. So for me, I would have to get into it, and really see if I could find something that was as good as that. I would probably just do it under my name, but it's definitely on the plate to do something like that again.

And Ian Perkins is still touring with you for this anyway, right?

Yeah, he's always there. So yeah, it wouldn't change anything. Like, Ian would still have a part of it, and he would still...everything would stay the same. It would just be the name on the record that would be different, but everything else would still be the same record. I mean, I'd probably call Ted for that too, and say "Well, you gotta do this next one, because we did the first one." I would probably get exactly the same people and not change a thing.

Right, yeah, totally. But I'm pretty pleased that you went the country route more for this one, because I think it really suits...like, the instrumentation is really nice. On songs like "Honey Magnolia," like, I really like that guitar solo in there.

Yeah, me too! That's the thing: you sort of have to just obey what you feel is coming out of you at the time. You can't really control it. So, I felt like [the Americana-influenced sound] was the thing, and I had a lot of things that I'd always wanted to do—like what you were saying, writing in the perspective of a girl. And that's part of the folk tradition: taking on characters and trying to empathize and see from their point of view. And that was really calling and gnawing at me, and I really...I just knew that this was the time and I had to sit down and do this record.

Interview: Matt Nathanson (October 14th, 2015)


Last week, I got to speak on the phone with the ever-amusing and ultra-talented Matt Nathanson. In our interview, Nathanson described the disjointed but ultimately satisfying nature of his brand new album, Show Me Your Fangs. We also discussed the unpredictable audience-request format of Nathanson's current tour, how some of the best records have "great topography" instead of being thematically or musically cohesive, and how elements of hip-hop and R&B have slowly crept into Nathanson's singer/songwriter-oriented music.
 



 

Matt Nathanson: Craig!

Craig Manning: Matt, how you doing?

MN: I'm great dude, how are you?

CM: I'm pretty good! Been a long day, but this is a highlight. Glad to be on the phone with you.

MN: Yeah, man, I think it's probably the highlight for me too, of a very long day as well. We lost our bus yesterday morning in New Orleans and then flew to Austin and then picked up another bus at the end of our set. We played like a spartan set with just acoustic, just Aaron and I and that was it. It was super fun. And then we did the radio this morning in Austin and then made it to Dallas. So yeah, I know the long day is never fun.

CM: Yeah, I saw your tweet yesterday and actually got in touch with [your press person], because I figured if you were flying to Texas you wouldn't be able to do an interview. (Note: This interview was originally supposed to take place on October 13th.)

MN: Yeah, I'm sorry about that, it was just super fucked up. It was one of those things where everything kind of worked out, though. Like, a new bus arrived just as we were getting to the airport in Austin, or just as we were checking in, and then they drove to meet us, and it was like a nine-hour drive. It's crazy.

CM: Wow. Well, other than that, how's the tour going?

MN: It's pretty fun! I think it was a neat idea, the wheel thing is a neat idea. Like, the wheel of all the old songs. The only thing I didn't...I guess I underestimated how much I like control. And so, getting onstage and sort of ceding control to the wheel like five or six times in the arc of the setlist, and giving it to fate of this spin...I've been sort of mixed on it. I sort of say to Aaron...I'll be like "That was fun, the wheel was merciful." (Laughs) And then sometimes it's like "Dude, fuck, I did not want to play that song," you know what I mean? Because you can get two or three slow songs in a row, some of which I wrote when I was...you know, a fucking kid.

And like, last night, we didn't have the wheel because of the bus breakdown, but I kind of did it anyway. Like, I asked what the crowd wanted to hear. And someone yelled "All Been Said Before," which is from Ernst, like...you know, way back. And I played it, and it was fun to play it. Like, I invest in playing it. But there's a certain...I get embarrassed, because you live your live thinking that you get...like, okay: creating music and thinking that the stuff you're making now...in order to feel like you're not a fucking sham of a human, you have to feel like you're progressing with every record. It has to feel like "Oh, well that's better than the last record," whether or not people think so or not. For me, it's gonna feel like "Yeah, this is a movement forward."

So to go back and revisit songs that are so obviously written at a time that maybe I can't access, or that reflect the way I played guitar or the way I wrote lyrics or any of that kind of stuff…it gets a little like showing your old haircuts. You know what I mean? Like, holding up a fucking billboard-sized picture of me with a mullet, or me with a fohawk (laughs). You kind of look, and you're like, "What the fuck was I doing?" And so, it's rad [to play those old songs] because people's response to it makes you feel good. But during the experience of playing it, some songs trigger this real sense of insecurity. Like, "What am I doing? What the fuck am I doing? Why did I do that?" And these people are all going to think, everybody but these six people that want to hear the song, they're going to think "I can't believe I paid money to watch this fucking kid play music." You know what I mean? So that happens. But other than, you know, being gripped by fucking complete fear of my past, it's really been a fun tour! (Laughs)

CM: Yeah, I was wondering about the wheel, like, if there we any songs that got voted for where you were just like "Oh, hell no."

MN: Yeah, it was funny because there was...I did as best a job as I good kind of weeding out [the stuff I didn't want to play], but there were some songs that hit really high numbers on the list when we compiled them that I couldn't say...like, I looked at Aaron and was like "Dude, I can't believe that song got X amount of votes." Like, I can't even think of the ones, but we ended up just...I kind of sucked it up, and I was like "I got this, we can make this work." And I put them on the list, but like..."Miracles," which is...I mean, that song is like nine minutes long, or it might as well be. And people want to hear it, you know, so we put it on the board and I just pray that it passes by. (Laughs)

CM: Do you have like...a binder of lyrics or anything, to help you navigate these songs that you haven't played in like 10 years?

MN: Yeah, I've got this huge binder full of shit. And after playing...every song's been landed on now at least once, if not multiple times. And so some of them have come back. They usually come back after one or two times of playing them in front of people. Like, no matter how much I rehearse them in my basement in front of no one, I don't feel them sticking. But as soon as you play them in front of people, it's like, "Oh yeah, I've got that one." But yeah, I've got a binder full of all my songs.

CM: Well yeah, it's not fair, because like Springsteen, he's got his teleprompter...

MN: Yeah, that guy's got a teleprompter for fucking "Born to Run." I feel like, maybe when I'm that age, my brain will forget as well. But yeah, Springsteen pulls up shit...so many songs. Just like the Elvis Costello thing. Because we got the idea for the wheel from Elvis Costello, and that guy sort of has...he has so many fucking songs. I mean, it's nuts. That guy just shit records throughout his life. (Laughs) So yeah, I'm amazed that...I used to think it sucked that people had a teleprompter up there. Like, Springsteen can't remember the fucking lyrics to "Nebraska"? And then I started pulling this together for this tour, and I was like "Oh my god." Because if that guy fucks up in front of 25,000 people, he kind of looks like an idiot. If I fuck up in front of...you know, most of these are small shows, so if I fuck up in front of 500 people, we can laugh it off.

CM: Well, the first time I saw Springsteen, he forgot he was in Michigan, so I think you're doing okay.

MN: ...Wow. When did you...when? Wow.

CM: I saw him in 2009, it was on the Working on a Dream tour, and he played Born to Run front-to-back, but for the first like...I don't know, five or six songs, he was like "Hello Ohio!"

MN: No! No! Oh no! (Laughs) Did he at least apologize when he realized?

CM: Oh yeah, he apologized profusely. But, he was like "At least now that I'm getting to this age I can just claim the onset of early Alzheimer's."
MN: (Laughs) Wow, that's incredible. Yeah, no, that guy's got fatter fish to fry. I guess he's just like...he's saving lives with his rock and roll, man. He doesn't need to know where he is. He's just making it happen (Laughs)

CM: For sure. So, moving to the new record...just because I need to ask this, it feels like there are some pretty heavy songs on here, so...are you doing okay, man?

MN: Oh yeah! Thanks! The good news is that, if I write a really heavy song, I'm usually far enough past it...this isn't actually true...but on this record anyway, I feel like I got past my problems enough to be able to write about them. When I'm in them...like, that record Some Mad Hope, when I made that record, I was like deep into...not awesomeness. But I was sort of...I was on the way out of it I guess? Maybe? And this one's the same way. I felt like I could address things un-self-consciously now, because my life is kind of going pretty great. My personal life is going pretty great. And my relationship with my wife is in such a good spot that I'm not...I don't feel like I'm doing a disservice by talking about things that don't work in our relationship in songs, because we're sort of like...we're finally in this great place. So all of that stuff feels like it's very in the past.

CM: Okay, that's good! But, I mean, there's also a lot of the more optimistic pop songs, like "Giants" and "Headphones" and "Summertime," and you've got that stuff in there next to "Washington State Fight Song" and "Disappear." Did you intentionally create that sort of balance, or did it sort of just happen as you were writing the record.

MN: It kind of just happens. For me, bands like R.E.M. and U2 are examples of bands that classically made albums in a way that kind of had this great topography. Like, for example, an album like R.E.M. - Green had songs like "You Are the Everything" and "Hairshirt," which are these two sort of heart-wrenching songs, and then a song like "Stand," which is sort of goofy. For me, it's like...okay, Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker is an incredible record, right?

CM: Right.

MN: Like, as a whole, it feels like you put it on, and it just takes you to this place. I've always been the kind of person that doesn't make records that way. I've always fallen into the kind of R.E.M./U2 model, where it's like, the record has to take you on this journey that has highs and lows. And, it's funny, I think it comes down to being self-conscious as well. It's sort of like, at shows...my shows are like, here's the quiet sad song, here's another one, and then, okay, here we're gonna go up. Like, I don't want you to stay down there too long, because if you don't want to be there, I don't want to seem gratuitous. Or, here's the happy song, I don't want to beat you over the head with happy songs because that also feels gratuitous. I want that dynamic to be there. So the record...all my records have sort of consciously tried to have that, whether I've succeeded or not. But, I feel as I get to make records more, I feel like the more dynamics they have in terms of the energy, the better they work for me.

CM: The new record feels like it's been in the works for a while. You put out "Headphones"...it had to be last summer, right?

MN: Yeah...that was...it was two summers ago, wasn't it? Maybe? Summer of 2014 or something. Is that possible? Yikes. I thought the record was going to be done sooner. We were going on tour with Gavin DeGraw and we were like "Let's put the single out in advance of the record!" And then the record was kind of just...not finished.

CM: Yeah, I think I remember reading that it was supposed to come out a year ago, originally. But that song was always meant to be on the album? I just didn't know if it was supposed to be sort of a one-off thing, or if it was always going to be on there.

MN: It's a funny thing. It was always going to be on the album, but I always thought I could remix it after the fact, because I wanted it to fit the record more. And I hate when people do that. I hate when people put the songs out and then when they put the record out it's a different version. But I was determined to do it anyway, because "Headphones" is really poppy. Like, it's got a sheen to it. And the rest of the record was shaping up to not have that sheen.

So I was like, "Great, we'll just remix it and it'll all work!" But the way it works on iTunes is that, if you remix a song, it's a brand new song. So, they wouldn't allow us to do, if you bought "Headphones," you can complete your album. So it was going to end up that all the people who bought "Headphones" as an individual song were going to have to buy the song all over again for me just remixing it. And I was super fucking bummed. I was like, "Well, I don't want to do that at all, I don't think people should pay for the song twice, and I don't think I feel that passionately about remixing it." But it ends up, like, when I was sequencing the record ["Headphones"] wouldn't fit in the way that I wanted it to fit. So when all was said and done, I put it at the end of the record, because it sounded so much different than the rest of the record. But then it ended up being a rad kind of positive way to close out the album.

CM: Yeah, it's like a victory lap or something.

MN: Yeah! Yeah, I try to always end with something that is uplifting. And this record has so few uplifting songs (Laughs) that by the time I got to the end, I was like "Oh my god, we can put 'Headphones' at the end.' And that was totally why it's there, because like, sonically, it worked best for me at the end and then also it was a positive thing. But I think if I could have remixed it and done it that way—and then there were also a couple of songs that didn't make it to the record that were almost done, that just...I couldn't finish—then the structure of the record, the sequencing would have been a little different. But yeah, Apple kind of held all the cards on that one.

CM: Gotcha. So, where did the title of the album come from? And the art. I think the art's really cool.

MN: Dude, I'm psyched you think the art's cool. There's so many fucking people that...that when I posted the art on Facebook, they were like, "Ku Klux Klan!" And I was like...what? That would be the most subversive...I mean, I'm a Jewish man. That would be incredible if I put the Ku Klux Klan on the cover of my own album. But I came upon the art, there's this woman named Angela Dean, and she's this artist, what she does is she paints over found photographs. And I discovered her work a couple years ago on Tumblr, and it was just so...that particular picture...I mean, all the pictures are great, but that particular picture that she let us use for the cover is just so heartbreaking to me. Like, it kind of stopped me and made me super sad, and also super kind of blown away, because it's just a very moving image of these, like...it's a family disconnected from each other, but connected to each other, you know, in this beautiful, serene setting. And so I was so moved by it that I threw it in a pile in my "This is an awesome image file" on my computer.

And then when I was looking for a record cover, I came up with the title Show Me Your Fangs because Sleater Kinney put out a reunion record, and when I read about it—it was like, in January or whatever—I read about their reunion record, and I said "Wouldn't it be awesome if they called this record Show Me Your Fangs?" I don't know why it just happened, but I was like, "I wish they had an album called Show Me Your Fangs. I wish they had a song on this record called 'Show Me Your Fangs.'" And then I started going...I've done that before where I sort of imagine, bands that I love, I imagine song or album titles, and then I just kind of make them up for myself. And Show Me Your Fangs was one of those ones where I was like...because, you know, I thought No Cities to Love was kind of a neat title for their record, but I thought Show Me Your Fangs would have been way fucking cooler. So I was just like, "Well then I'm just gonna use it." And then I paired it with the image independent of that, like I was flipping through this folder I have, and I was like "Oh my god, this fucking picture would be incredible," and I was like "Show Me Your Fangs. Fuck. Let's do this."

And then Angela Dean said yes and I felt like...that's always this weird moment, of putting the album title with the album cover. I feel like, on the last record, we lucked out with that guy Mr. Toledano who did the picture of the guy's exploding head. And I found that on Tumblr, and I was like "Well, there's no fucking way this guy is going to let us use his art." And I felt the same way about Angela Dean. There's no fucking way this woman who's this talented is going to think I am even remotely cool enough that she's going to fucking want to let us use her photo. And she ended up being super cool and so did Toledano, and both of them let us use their stuff. So that's been pretty neat.

CM: Awesome. So, who produced this record? I couldn't find that info anywhere. I think I read that you worked with a number of different people, but I just wasn't sure who.

MN: Yeah, it was kind of like a hodgepodge of folks. The album was all mixed by this kid Jake Sinclair, and I think he kind of brought the uniform-ness to it. But it was all a bunch of disparate people. Some of them were people I had written with, who I'd written songs with. Some of them...this record, I had a really hard time finding one person...I don't think I knew what I wanted, and so it was going the opposite direction from strengths. As opposed to, like, moving forward and being like, "I want the record to sound like this," I was sort of stumbling around trying to find it. And in the process, we were amassing all of these songs. And it was funny, when the record was finished, I got really kind of down on feeling like...I'm a very perfectionist type of person, a completist. So for me, a record that's made by a bunch of people always sort of represented to me, like, "Well this record can't be good, because just look at all these fucking people that worked on it." You know what I mean?

And then I started to realize, well, this was the record I had, and...because to me, the ideal like "pipe dream" record-making process is me and one other person, fucking hammering out this thing with this passionate concept in mind, and you're kind of sticking to the concept. But because I didn't have a concept for this record, it was just like...the concept just ended up emerging throughout the process. And sometimes, I think that's sort of the strength of the record, and sometimes I think it does the record a disservice. Like, not to go into specific songs, but there are certain songs that I wanted to find a way to make them work differently, and I just couldn't. And I felt like if we had had a producer and a vision before, then we could have followed it. But instead, we kind of found the vision as went. And it ended up working just as cool, and in retrospect, it works and it holds together as a unit. But it didn't start that way. You know, it started as kind of a disparate bunch of songs.

CM: It sounds to me that there are a lot of R&B and hip hop and modern pop influences on this, along with sort of what you've always done. I was wondering what you were listening to when you were writing and recording the album, and if you meant to include those influences or if they just happened as you were trying to find the concept.

MN: It's funny: being brought up as a kid, I listened to metal and I listened to folk. And then, as I'm getting older and exploring things on like Spotify and playlists and things...there's like no barriers now to music anymore, as you know. It's this incredible thing where it's like the world is an iPod that switches from Slayer to Taylor Swift to Kanye to...you know. And so for me, my listening habits have changed over the course of time. And records that I may have never given the time of day, because I sort of had an elitist idea of how things should have worked or..."Well, you know, there's not real musicians playing on this" or all these kind of constructs that I had put in place listening to music, and the biases that I had had before, they really like...they sort of don't exist anymore.


And now it's like, well like, what moves me? What blows my mind? And a record like...I mean, in my opinion, the Lorde record, the Kanye records, the first Kendrick Lamar record: these are like incredible records made by people in their bedrooms. You know what I mean? Or, you know, their very expensive bedrooms, but you know what I mean. Like, there's no...I used to think "It has to be this, it has to be that." It has to be people playing together...and the togetherness of that thing. And now I just think, whatever it takes to get something to move you, that's what it's about.

And so, hip hop has become part of the way that I listen to music in a way that it never was before. And it's starting to infuse itself into playlists I make for myself, or records I buy. And so...I love the acoustic aspect of things, because I think I'm storytelling. And I kind of think that Kanye West...well, acoustic is the wrong word. The spartan idea, where it's like, you have a rhythm, and then you have maybe one instrument, and then you have the story being told. And I was super motivated by that on this record. I really didn't want to have a band of people in a room, banging out shit. Because I've done that so much, and it just wasn't exciting to me to be like "Let's do this again." So it was like, "Okay, how do we make this work as best we can where it's like the stories are coming out and there's this rhythm underneath?"

And that was kind of how it happened. Again, it it was intentional, but still not intentional. It wasn't like I went in and set parameters for myself, which I think would have been a better way to go. To accept limitations. Instead, it was kind of like, "I have no idea what I want, we've just gotta find it."

CM: I think my favorite song on the record is "Bill Murray," which is just a completely fresh and quirky take on a love song, without being too quirky. How did that idea come to you? Did you actually have a dream like the one you describe in the song?

MN: So, the funny thing about "Bill Murray," I had this song, and when I wrote it, it was just piano and myself. And I wrote that "Let me be your man" part. The original lyric was "I want to be your man" or something...I forget what the fuck it was. But it was so...I'm so not into the idea of, like, "I want to be your man." I've never thought that way: "Let me be your man." That's just not how I approach my relationship. Like, I was sort of turned off by it.

So I sent an email to my friend John Darnielle, who's in this band The Mountain Goats. And I've known John for like 25 years. We went to college together, and I sort of always bounce lyrics off him. So I sent him this thing and I said, "Is this sexist of me to say, like, 'let me be your man'? Like, where does this land?" And he sent this incredible email...he's very articulate. And so he articulated to me this idea of saying "It's not that. It's not that it's sexist, it's that it's earnest..." I forget exactly what he said; I could read it to you. But it sort of put me at ease about the lyric, and then from there, "Well, I've got this lyric and it sings really well, and I love it, but I'm self-conscious about it. How do I make this work?"

I don't know how I married them, but I'd always wanted a song called "Bill Murray." I thought that Bill Murray was the best. So I said, "Maybe this can be my Bill Murray song." And then I was like, "How the fuck can this be my Bill Murray song? Is this something maybe he would say?" And then I was like "No, man, imagine if I was getting love advice..." I watched Lost in Translation for like the 200th time, and I was like "Imagine if that guy was my friend." Like, of all the people on earth, that guy just seems like the kind of famous person you want to hang with. Whereas most famous people are fucking idiots. And you want to hang with that guy because he seems like he understands passion and un-self-conscious living and all this kind of stuff. And I just kind of created this idea of Bill Murray and I, and of him giving me guidance in my relationship. And it made it all work, for me.

CM: That's awesome.

MN: So, that's a very roundabout answer to your question, but yeah, it was super. I'm super proud of that song. And I'm proud of them all, but "Giants" and "Bill Murray" to me feel, when I play them, they feel like they've always been here. Which is a really neat feeling.

CM: Alright! We're out of time, but thanks so much!

MN: Hey, you're the man. Thanks so much, Craig, for being so...fucking awesome. (Laughs) Your reviews are so fucking dead-on that I almost feel like you know all of these things I'm telling you before I tell you them. Like, you know that some records feel disjointed or that some feel...just, you're super insightful. It's really flattering to have you listen to the music the way you do. Number one because I listen to music that way so I can relate, and then another part of it I'm just so flattered that anyone listens to my music that way. It's incredibly humbling. So, thanks, man.

The Bonus Questions


Our phone interview got cut off after a half hour, because Matt had another interview right after. I still had a few questions left, though, so Matt offered to answer those queries over email. Here are the final three questions from the interview:

CM: When you play live shows, you will often fit snippets of other artists' songs into the middle of your songs. I remember one time when I saw you, you incorporated "Exit" by U2 into "Detroit Waves." How do you decide which songs you want to do snippets/covers of, and by extension, how do you decide where to put them?

MN: I don’t usually decide before hand what snippets I’m gonna do. I usually just wing it and try to jam a song I dig into one of my songs. Sometimes it fails EPICALLY. Yikes-city. But when it works, I usually keep doing it for the rest of the tour.

CM:Because I love the hell out of this record, I've gotta ask: any chance of us ever getting a vinyl pressing of Some Mad Hope? I guess the 10-year anniversary isn't too far off now.

MN:Oh man, first off that fucking rules that you dig it. I love that record too. It was a heavy time in my life, and it really is a snapshot of where I was at. That isn’t usually the case with records of mine, but it is with Some Mad Hope, for sure. As for the vinyl pressing...I wish. I hope. Who knows? My label got bought by another label recently, and that record is probably not high on their priority list to re-release on vinyl. But who knows, anything is possible!

CM:And since I know you're as big a music fan as I am: what are your top five albums of 2015?

MN: It’s tough to only pick five. I’ll just list the ones off the top of my head that are ruling me:

Sleater Kinney - No Cities to Love
Kendrick Lamar- To Pimp a Butterfly
Awolnation - Run.
The Mountain Goats - Beat the Champ
Faith No More - Sol Invictus
Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free
Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect