Monday, March 28, 2016

Interview: Benny Horowitz of The Gaslight Anthem (August 5th, 2014)

Last Tuesday, on the morning The Gaslight Anthem's Get Hurt started streaming on iTunes, I got the chance to speak with drummer Benny Horowitz on the phone. Over the course of 25 minutes, Horowitz talked about the new record, Gaslight's attempt to move in a new stylistic direction, the band's recent influences and producers, and the difficulty of properly capturing the full effect of drums with modern recording technology. Horowitz also opened up about how surreal it is to share a concert bill with the likes of Jimmy Eat World and Against Me!, and explained why fans shouldn't be expecting another The '59 Sound anytime soon.

Craig Manning: Hey Benny, this is Craig from AbsolutePunk.

Benny Horowitz: How you doing? Sorry about that, I was literally holding my phone in my hand, I don’t know why I didn’t get it.

CM: Oh, that’s no problem at all, how are you doing?

BH: Oh, I’m not bad! Went to the diner; had some breakfast. How you doing?

CM: I’m doing great!

BH: Where you calling from, Minnesota?

CM: I’m in Illinois, my number’s Michigan, I just haven’t gotten a new phone since I moved.

BH: Ahh, what’s Minnesota? MN?

CM: Yes, I think that’s right.

BH: I got a call from an MI: Michigan.

CM: Yep, it’s a Michigan number. So, the album’s streaming today! How do you feel about the early reactions?

BH: Uhh, it feels pretty good! I mean, it’s kind of what I expected I guess. I think like, you know, there’s a lot of positive, there’s some that are not sure what to do with it yet, and then there’s some people that don’t seem to like it. So, it’s like, if it was universally one of the things I just mentioned, that would be a surprise, but the fact that it’s getting what it’s getting, it makes sense to me. But I think it’s been mostly good!

CM: Okay, great. So, Brian said in a bunch of pre-release interviews that this record was sort of meant as a career game changer for you guys. I was wondering: do you share that view? And if so, which songs do you think are really new territory for the band?

BH: Well, I mean, think when he said “career game-changer,” it’s more just like, setting off on a different course, you know? I don’t think anyone wanted to do something that was so out of step with what we’re good at that, A) maybe we won’t be good at doing another kind of music…you know, you have to ease into stuff. You can’t just overnight be like, “Aww, we’re going to be a soul band,” or something, and then expect to be good at playing soul music. I think it’s kind of presumptuous of a band to do that. So, there’s definitely an effort to move things in a different direction, but also to keep a foot in what we’re good at and make sure things didn’t get too out of step.

I think some of the songs that are a little bit more of a push would be like, “Stay Vicious,” and “Get Hurt,” “Underneath the Ground”…you know, some songs like that, I think are songs where we were testing our limits and pushing our luck a little bit, and then I think there’s a bunch of the songs that you would probably, unsurprisingly, hear on another Gaslight album. So, I don’t know if anything was overstated [by Brian] in the beginning, but it’s definitely an intentional move in a different direction, though, for sure. Where it counts, you know what I mean?

CM: Yeah. So, what records were you guys listening to while this album took form? I know in the past you’ve really been…Springsteen and Petty, those guys have been big influences. Who were the big influences this time around?

BH: Well as usual, I think through the course of the band, you’re going to hear a super wide array of influences of what anybody is listening to at any one time. But I know we were paying attention to a lot of bands who made some shifts in their careers, and I guess bands that successfully did it, you know? But then there was also a lot of listening to some listening to some good classic rock. There was a lot of Hendrix talk going on, and a lot of Floyd talk, and things people…that’s always theme for us, it’s like a universal type of music we all love. But I don’t know, it’s kind of a tough question to answer, because if you ask every specific person, I think they would have been drawing sort of a separate set of influences. We weren’t all just sitting around a discussion table with a record saying, “Yeah, that’s what we need to do.”

CM: Gotcha. You’ve been working with some different producers on your last couple albums after doing The 59 Sound and American Slang with the same person, first with Brendan O’Brien on Handwritten, and now with Mike Crossey on Get Hurt. Can you tell me a little bit about the differences between working with those two guys and sort of how they helped you go in the direction you wanted to with these two records?

BH: Well I mean, Brendan was one of those guys we were just excited to get in a room with, you know? We knew his track record, we knew the kind of records he’d made, and we wanted to make a record like that. So it was the perfect fit when we were doing it. When he’s in the studio, he has a super clear vision on kind of how he wants things to sound and things like that, and he’s got really great ideas with notes and melodies and…I mean, the guy’s a real musician, so he definitely had a lot to offer with stuff like that too.

And, you know, it’s a little bit…the one thing that we needed, though, was to be a little more hands on with everything that we were doing. And that was one of the reasons that we felt the need to switch to somebody like Mike. Because when we were thinking about how we wanted this record to sound, it maybe didn’t exactly sound like a Brendan O’Brien record. So we thought it would be smart and kind of fun and interesting, almost, to go with somebody new while we’re trying to do these different things.

So we got to Mike, and you know, he’s our age and he’s like, a really chill dude. A really creative guy. And he’s open to just anything, and when you’re in the studio…I found it to be a really interactive environment where everyone was really vocal and everyone had their hands on everything again. And I think that definitely shows. I think this record is a lot livelier than the last record.

CM: I’d agree with that.

BH: And I think a part of it is just the feeling we had when we were [in the studio] and when we were writing. [The music] was coming from a bit of a different place, and Mike was really good at [capturing it]. Not to mention Mike, his engineer, and this guy Jon….Gilmore, who was doing the edits and stuff…it was just a really easy group of guys to be around and a cool, cool scenario.

CM: So, I think it was in a Rolling Stone interview, Brian mentioned that you recorded most of the drum parts by yourself in a silo. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that experience, and sort of about how about…how that was a different approach to your contributions to the record, and whether or not you liked doing that, or if you prefer being in the same room with the other guys and sort of playing off each other.

BH: It’s an interesting thing that’s happened to me recording is that, you know, I used to not record or play to a click ever when I was younger. I mean, up until just a few years ago, I never was in a situation where I had to play to a click. So like, through the last couple records, I’ve kind of needed to learn how to do it and be comfortable with it, and to know how to give something some feeling while you’re playing on a metronome.

‘Cause I came from this whole school of just push and pull, you know? If you’d asked me five years ago if I cared about timing, I would have said, "like, Sort of" But I care a lot more about making the music feel energetic and good…and about moving it, you know, like I always feel like that’s the drummer’s job. It's like, to keep the music moving forward. Then, you get to something that’s a little more paced…on a metronome, and if you don’t feel comfortable playing to a metronome, then you’re going to play like, really, really…you know, like an anal retentive person, or something. You play like you have OCD because you’re just focusing on the click.

So most of the songs we’d record on the last couple of albums, the easiest way I would find it, is…we do get in a room and we play together. And a lot of the songs [on Get Hurt] were…well, some of the takes were us playing together for the drums. But there were also these other takes, where we'd play four, five, six times with everybody, and then everyone just leaves and I play to the click by myself. And I find in a way that, when I know exactly what I want to do and I’m playing on the click, I find it easier to play in and out of it, if that makes sense? Like, I’ve learned that there’s a way to make music move forward and back, even when you’re on a click. You can sort of, on some parts, go more toward the front of it and push it, and then some parts you can go more toward the back of it and lay it back a little. But I have a hard time hearing that when everyone else is playting. So for some songs, I do find it easier to [play to a click] now.

And then the silo thing, is like…I mean, I wish I had it in my house because it sounds so cool (Laughs). I could sit in that thing playing drums all day, 'cause it just sounds…like, like Physical Graffiti or some shit like that. Basically this studio has this 6x6 room with an adjustable ceiling that goes up to…fuck, maybe 20 or 30 feet? And basically it’s a natural reverb chamber, so you put a mic in there, and based on how high or low you put the ceiling, that's like, how long your reverb becomes. So, typically they’ll just have [the band] in the next room, put a mic in [the silo room], set it how high they want it for the reverb, and then that’s how they get the noise. In this case, we thought it would be a fun or cool idea to actually put me in this room. You can't fit much in there because it’s so small, and the floor is actually slanted too, so that was tricky. But I got this really old, big kick drum in there, and a snare and high-hats, and yeah, I did a bunch of takes in there. And…yeah, it sounds fucking cool, man. I could sit in there and play all day. It sounds so epic.

CM: Well, I sort of felt like this record was more…I felt the drums more, I guess when I listened, especially on tracks like "Stay Vicious," where you actually open the record, or something like “Dark Places,” where you’re really pushing the intensity on there. Was there a conscious effort to sort of emphasize your contributions more, or was that just basically the style of the music dictating what was happening?

BH: I think it was both. There’s definitely some songs that just…I mean, you don’t have a choice but to play good, active, lively drums, ‘cause that’s just the nature of the song. And there are a bunch of songs on Handwritten where the nature of the song was…to leave a lot of fucking space and let it open up.

So there was a bit of a change in approach as far as that goes, but also, I think technology has bit us in the ass a couple times with drums, where people in the past have maybe taken a few too many liberties with cutting things up and making them perfect, when they really don’t necessarily have to be, and really shouldn’t be, because the feel of the part is so much more important.

There’s this thing on ProTools called Beat Detective that I think is the fucking devil for drums. It just takes any personality a drummer could possibly have and it just sucks it right out of them to try and make some version of perfection. But, you know, like, what we do isn’t perfection, or to me, shouldn’t be perfection. It’s about vibes. It’s about feeling. I think that was something that we suffered from in the past and learned from in this case, so there was a conscious effort, actually, this time, to make sure that didn’t happen again. I was like a hawk over the dude editing, making sure things weren’t getting done [the Beat Detective] way.

CM: Okay, cool. So my next question is about, this fall, you guys are heading out a pretty big tour, and you’ll be sharing the bill with the likes of Against Me! and Jimmy Eat World. Is that, like, surreal to paly with bands like that?

BH: (Laughs) Yeah, dude, I can’t even…it’s not only surreal to play with bands like that. It’s like, to play over bands like that [on the bill], it almost makes me feel guilty, you know? I feel like shit playing over Jimmy Eat World, like…(Laughs) I do, it’s weird. It’s fucking weird to me. And playing over Against Me! is fucking weird to me too, that’s never happened before. You know, especially a band that was clearly like, our senior and like, somebody we really looked up to, especially at the beginning. So it’s a…yeah, it’s totally surreal and it’s totally weird.

I mean, I've been a Jimmy Eat World fan for…shit, I mean, it’s a scary number to say. At least 15 years, you know, and I’d say even longer. I had some 7-inch, like a three-way 7-inch with Jimmy Eat World and Sense Field and Mineral when I was…fuck, like 15 or 16. And I remember thinking, like, the funniest thing about the band was that their acronym was JEW.

But yeah, I’ve been a huge fan of both of those bands, and they each have records that are like…you know how you have those records in your life that are like…you think about and it brings you to some specific place in time, and they’re just that memorable?

CM: Oh hell yeah.

BH: Like, Bleed American for Jimmy Eat World and Reinventing Axl Rose for Against Me! are two of those records for me. Those are two very, very important records for me. So, yeah, it’s just crazy that we get to do this now.

CM: So do you have a favorite song on Get Hurt, and/or one that you’re really looking forward to playing live this fall?

BH: Well, I think it’s gonna piss off a lot of fans, cause from early reviews, I don’t think it’s the one they like, but I love “Underneath the Ground.” I think it’s so much fun to play, and I love playing it live. It’s just really nice and “in the cut.” Me and Alex have this nice little rhythm going on, so that’s my favorite. We’ve just been rehearsing recently, the last couple of weeks, and I’ve been having a really great time playing that song.

CM: Yeah, that one’s a completely different mood from pretty much everything else you’ve done, so I can imagine it’s a bit of a standout.

BH: Yeah, I like it a lot, man. And I’m a big hip-hop fan, and there’s very, very few times where I find any kind of window in Gaslight Anthem, you know (Laughs), you know, where I can bring my love of something like that into it. And there’s a couple of times in that song where, when I’m listening back, I think “ahh, I might have gotten that from [hip hop].” You know, there’s a little room in there, so it’s definitely fun for me.

CM: Well, that’s a good segue into the next question, actually, because there’s been some talk from people who got the advance or who are listening for the first time today, about how that song and a few others on here sort of recall Brian’s side-project, the Horrible Crowes. Was that intentional, do you think, or was it more like the attempt to write in a darker, more melancholy style led sort of led to echoes of Elsie?

BH: Yeah, I mean, among the other guys in the band, I don’t think anybody made any attempt to make it sound like that. You know, I’ve been reading that this morning and I didn’t really know what to do with it. I was like, “Oh, okay…” because none of us really had anything to do with [Elsie]. But, I mean, maybe there’s just a theme, and when Brian gets dark and moody, like he did on that record and like he does a couple times on this record, it could sound similar. But, yeah, I honestly don’t really know what to do with that. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think that record’s good.

CM: Oh yeah, that record’s great.

BH: And if something reminded people of a good record or something they liked, I don’t really care. But I don’t think there was some direction to go that way.

CM: There was no attempt to blend the two bands into one, or something.

BH: No, it never came up. It definitely never came up, so, if that’s happening, I guess it’s naturally happening.

CM: So I think fans would generally point to The 59 Sound as The Gaslight Anthem’s best album, and Brian commented a few years ago that he wasn’t interested in chasing that album anymore, or trying to make something like that again. What are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, I couldn’t agree more with brian in that regard. I think that, if you take a bunch of guys six or seven years later, who are six or seven years older and six or seven years different, in a totally different time in your life and a totally different place, and then you try to recreate something that you sort of struck a little gold on, then I think you’re going to tread water and you’re not going to pull it off.

I think it would be a mistake to try to chase something like that, because I hear that record and I love that record when I listen to it, but do I want to try and do that again right now? I don’t think so. I think that would be dishonest. And I think the record you got is the honest portrayal of where we are right now. And if people don’t want to follow us there and they’re just in love with [The 59 Sound], dude, I get it. I really do. I’m the same kind of music fan from an outside perspective. I fall in love with albums and if someone does something I’m not so sure of, I might lose interest for awhile. And it is what it is, you know, but you can’t go into the studio and you can’t write songs based on all of that. You gotta do what you want to do. You gotta do something you think is challenging and fun and creative. And you gotta do something that’s comfortable with everybody you’re doing it with, and then just hope that people are gonna see it for what it is, and that they’re gonna enjoy it for how they’re gonna enjoy it. But I think putting that kind of expectation on something, I just don’t think it’s wise and I don’t think we’d get anywhere doing it.

CM: Yeah, I’d agree. So one last thing I wanted to ask and then I’ll let you go. You guys sort of have two lead singles on this, I feel like. You released “Rollin' and Tumblin'” first and then you dropped the title track, and I believe they both have videos now. Are they supposed to sort of just be two lead singles? Or did you mean for them to overlap like that? Or were you trying to represent the different sides of the album? Like, I’m very interested in how that sort of came about.

BH: Well, I think if you asked everyone in the band, we would have been pretty comfortable leading everything off with "Get Hurt." And I think part of the logic of doing it the way it was done was like, just a straight business thing from the label. Because I think U.K. singles burn out way way faster than American ones do, because they have like, one radio station. (Laughs) So, the idea is that, ["Rollin' and Tumblin'"] will start there and “Get Hurt” will start here, and by the time the time “Get Hurt” is going in the U.K., it will still be going here. From my understanding, I think that’s the bulk of the reason that happened. I wish it was a sexier answer, but to be honest, I think that’s why.

CM: Yeah, I was just interested because "Rollin' and Tumblin'," to me, is more representative of the old Gaslight, and "Get Hurt" is very much the core of this album and what it sounds like and represents.

BH: Yeah, for sure.

CM: So I was interested that they were both out there and both sort of “leading the way” for this new album.

BH: Yeah, I mean, maybe the business side just got cold feet and got too scared of going first with something that was more left-field. But yeah, these days man, I don’t…I don’t really care, you know? (Laughs)

CM: You're not worried about the singles!

BH: Well, it's like, I care about which ones go out, but I trust the fact that these people that are hired to do these jobs at all these places know better than I do. They went to school to study the demographics of our minds, and all those crazy mind control things that you gotta do to sell things to people. (Laughs) So who knows what they’re up to, man. I maybe don’t even want to know!

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