Ahead of the release of their stunning new live album Peaceful Ghosts, we chatted with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Read on as Caws opens up about how the two unique shows captured on Peaceful Ghosts came to be, what the process of playing a rock show backed by an orchestra is like, and what some of his own favorite rock-meets-symphony moments are as a fan.
NoiseTrade: Your brand new live album Peaceful Ghosts captures the band over two nights backed by the Babelsberg Film Orchestra and the FM4 Radio Symphony Orchestra. What sparked this surprising-yet-mesmerizing partnership?
Matthew Caws: It came as a total surprise to us! Apparently the Vienna radio station FM4 and the Vienna Radio Symphony, who share a building, have a joint venture every year where they ask one rock or pop act to put on a concert with the orchestra in a beautiful theater downstairs, which the station simulcasts.
This year they asked us. That was the good news. The bad (or not great) news was that the question came in right as I was in the home stretch of finishing our latest record, You Know Who You Are. But as luck would have it, the band who had done it the year before was Calexico. Our friend and sometimes extra touring member Martin Wenk is in Calexico and has a wonderful understanding of arrangements, along with an intimate knowledge of our songs. We asked him if he would produce the project and we’re very glad that he agreed.
NT: How did the collaboration process work between the band and the orchestra for the two shows?
Caws: Martin hired the same composer who had written the Calexico arrangements, Max Knoth, from Hamburg. Martin made up a list of songs that he felt would work well with an orchestra, showed it to us, and after just a couple of substitutions he gave the final list to Max.
During the couple of months that Max was composing, Martin visited him a few times to get a feel for what was coming. He must have been happy with what he was hearing because as far as I know he didn’t have to steer the project. Max has a wonderful style, very filmic, which seems to manage to both support the songs and challenge them. What I mean by that is the additional melody and movement felt neither totally safe (i.e. just following the chords that are already there) nor destructive. Rather than obscuring or transforming the songs, these arrangements seem to expand them and give them more and brighter life.
We heard synthesized versions of the arrangements, which was very useful because it gave us an opportunity to get used to them before the performance. The day before the concert, we spent a couple of hours playing alone as the conductor watched us to see, understand, and interact with how different our live style is from the records. We had to make some adjustments. Generally speaking, we play our fast songs faster than we do on record and, conversely, our slow songs slower. We were also learning to follow the conductor’s hands, which was an interesting learning experience. My impression was that classical time is more about a speed limit (we were to stay just a little behind what he was expressing) and so much can be read from the conductor’s face.
After those two hours, the orchestra arrived and we spent three hours going over most of the material. There was a lot of discussion of beginnings and endings. We were so excited to meet them and they seemed to really enjoy the experience. In terms of working together, we were both really working with the conductor, letting him figure out how to fuse our two groups (of drastically different size!) and styles.
NT: From a songwriting perspective, how rewarding is it to hear your songs expounded upon in this manner? Were there ever any moments of creative tension with the orchestral direction?
Caws: Goodness, it’s very rewarding. Even just hearing the synthesized versions was a thrill because again, as I said, Max really did so much more than just increase the instrumentation. He managed to, for lack of a better way of putting it, add more heart. Standing onstage with the orchestra doubled that thrill. it was so rich and so loud. I’ve used the word “filmic” already to describe the arrangements, but that’s really it. We felt like we were standing on a big imagined plain, with a James Bond feeling on one end, and a Walt Disney feeling on the other, with new expression all around us.
The only creative tension was getting used to the arrangements, which was not always easy at first. If it had all been easy, the rewards might not have been as great. The example that sticks out are the bluesy and bending swells near the beginning of “Animal.” I disliked them right away, but that only lasted about three listens. I stuck with them and ended up loving them. By the time of the performance, I couldn’t have imagined the arrangement without them.
NT: Having released the explosive Live at the Neptune Theatre 3xLP release last year, how do you feel that this album stands out differently as a sonic snapshot of the band’s live abilities?
Caws: It’s really a whole different picture, mostly because it doesn’t represent our live abilities. Well, you know what I mean. It represents our ability to play with 50 additional musicians! So I guess that’s exactly it, your question really contains the whole reason we’re happy it’s coming out. It’s so different. It’s only “explosive” in very small moments – for example, at the end of “The Fox” and some flourishes in “Believe You’re Mine.” In general though, it has more contained energy, still a lot of momentum and power, but more barge than speedboat. Of course, it’s much prettier than we manage to be on our own.
NT: Finally, do you have any favorite rock-meets-symphony songs or albums that you really enjoy from a fan’s perspective that our readers should check out?
Caws: One of my favorite strings-meets-rock moments is “Cybele’s Reverie” by Stereolab. The strings on that song are likely a mellotron, a wonderful instrument that plays tapes of real instruments being played, which results in reality plus a lovely decay. I’ve just been listening to the new Okervill River album, Away, which has some very lovely subtle instrumentation, often sounding like a small orchestra. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds really stands out as one the most wonderfully orchestrated records of all time. Ah, but that wasn’t your question! You said symphony. I’m sure there’s a lot out there, but I haven’t listened to much rock music with an orchestra this size. I was lucky enough to be a guest vocalist on a couple of songs in one of the “Big Star’s Third” concerts. This one was at Bumbershoot and Big Star was accompanied by the Seattle Rock Orchestra. That was really tremendous. If you have the chance to see one of those shows, definitely take it.
As for these songs, now that the arrangements have been written out, we’re hoping to do it again!
Don’t miss our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One where we go deep with Americana singer-songwriter-leatherworker Jonny Fritz. Fritz recorded his new album Sweet Creep with a little help from members of My Morning Jacket and Dawes and it’s a laid-back stunner ready to soundtrack your autumn. Read on as Fritz opens up about the unique recording process for Sweet Creep, what inspired his move from Nashville to L.A., what got him into leatherwork, and much more.
NoiseTrade: Your new album Sweet Creep sounds like a melodically sun-kissed, classic country throwback. How did you capture such warm tones and sonically pure performances this time around?
Jonny Fritz: I blame it all on Jim James. He was the one who wanted to record outside and not use real drums. I was just going along with it, thinking “this guy is crazy and if it doesn’t work then I’ll just try again.” But I’ll be damned if he didn’t have good instincts there! By recording outside and keeping it light, I was able to really relax, which is something I always struggle with in the studio.
NT: What inspired you to record Sweet Creep outdoors with such a stripped back, first-take approach?
Fritz: We really didn’t have much of a choice. Dawes was about to get into the studio for pre-production on We’re All Gonna Die and Jim was heading into the studio to work on his new solo record. We all had a lot going on and not much time to work on it. We also didn’t have a studio. Jim was living in this big old shipping container up on top of a hill in Montecito Heights and there wasn’t room for a drum set. It all came together on “Are You Thirsty” though. Once we stood that one up to look at it, we realized we’d stumbled onto the sound we wanted to go with for the whole record.
NT: You struggled for a few years with a fractured hip and finally had to get surgery to repair it. How did the injury and the recovery affect your songwriting?
Fritz: It was awful. I was pretty depressed and felt so defeated for such a long time. Exercising has always been a large part of my creative process. For me, there’s nothing better than pounding out six miles in the middle of the night in a strange new city. I used to stay on tour forever and run to deal with all the things I was depriving myself of. It drained me of my anxieties and filled me with inspiration. After that shift, I really fell out of love with touring and writing. I’m glad to be back.
NT: Last year you relocated from Nashville to Los Angeles because you claimed “Nashville got a little too L.A. for me.” What led to those feelings and how has LA been treating you?
Fritz: I love Nashville but I’m a people watcher before anything else. I hope this doesn’t sound bitter, because I swear that I’m not bitter, but the new influx of “AirBNB people” has really diminished the wingnut population in Nashville. It was a delicate species and although there are still some true weirdos and wingnuts in town, the barber shops, bros, and suspender guys have put a glaze of mustache wax culture on everything. Eavesdropping became unnecessary. Every conversation is about property value, real estate and traffic – too boring for me to take anymore, or at least for a while. I think I just needed a break.
I love L.A. with all my heart. There are a lot of superficial things about it but the wingnut population out there is alive and well and showing no signs of stopping.
NT: Alongside your music career, you’ve also become quite the craftsman leatherworker. How did that hobby start and what’s your favorite part of the process?
Fritz: Thanks! I got started with leather because I really wanted a Waylon Jennings style guitar (a telecaster wrapped in tooled leather). I saved up a lot of money to buy one but when it came time to design it, the guy who I had commissioned to make it didn’t like my ideas. I was frustrated and just said “screw it, I’ll make my own!” So I spent all my money on leather tools and a Mexican Tele off Craigslist. About 3 or 4 YouTube videos later and I had started a business. The first thing I made was a leather covered telecaster. It’s ugly as hell, but I love it.
What I love most about leatherwork is that it only looks better with age, unlike pretty much everything else these days. It also takes a long time to get things right, so you can’t rush it. It’s a very humbling craft and people never want to pay what you put into it. So you know that when you make something, it’s because you really want to and not just for the money. It’s a lot like music in that regard.
NT: Finally, your first two albums were released under the name Jonny Corndawg, while your last album was released under your birth name, Jonny Fritz. From your perspective as a fan, what are some of your favorite albums released under other artists’ sonic pseudonyms?
Fritz: Well, I will say that writing as a character is much easier than writing from your own point of view. I wanted to prove that to myself and it has definitely been a challenge writing from my own name. But it is more rewarding and people take me more seriously now. Coming from both sides, I really see the appeal and sometimes wish I could write from that POV again. As far as my favorite writers with pseudonyms: Mark Twain, Jerry Jeff Walker, Nina Simone and Neil Hamburger.
In addition to streaming their brand new album Shadowbox, check out more of Beats Antique’s story with our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One featuring all three members: Zoe Jakes, Tommy Cappel, and David Satori. Dig in to discover the concept behind the term “shadowbox,” where their truly unique musical mixture comes from, and what it was like to record part of the album in Israel and Russia.
NoiseTrade: Shadowbox is not just the name of your new album, but also the name of your new tour and your store in Berkeley. What significance does the word hold for you as a band?
Zoe Jakes: One of the choices we have made as a visually dynamic performance art group and band, is that we wanted to create a look using organic elements. So instead of an LED screen, we have giant geometric lanterns that glow and pulse with our music, and a shadow screen that we use with cutouts and our own bodies. Just like a shadowbox, the show concept is about creating worlds within worlds, but using a more “analog” approach.
NT: While a lot of bands try to claim they are an amalgamation of genres, you guys come by it honestly. How does the songwriting usually play out for your eclectic sound?
Tommy Cappel: Each of us has our own life experience we bring to Beats Antique. It’s always fun experimenting with how a song idea unfolds. A lot of times we let it grow organically to see what comes to the song. I think the important part of it is that it’s not forced. Our songwriting process usually begins with a sketch beat or a performance idea, and then we decide what elements are involved, including instrumentation, production style, vibe etc. Once we have our heads wrapped around something solid, we talk about collaborative opportunities (Alam Khan, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Lafa Taylor, Tatyana Kalmykova). We draw from a local and international community of musicians that we’ve developed over the years.
NT: While the majority of Shadowbox was recorded Oakland, you guys also recorded some in Israel and Russia while on tour. What drove that decision and what was the experience like?
Cappel: While we were in Moscow, we were introduced to Tatyana Kalmykova, a Russian traditional folk artist. The idea was to create a sonic bridge between Russia and America. The song “Three Sisters” is the result of that collaboration.
In Tel Aviv we were able to link up with a few musicians of different traditions and backgrounds and got some ideas down for the track “Le Refuge,” which asks the world for peace in French and Arabic.
While in New Orleans, we had the opportunity to go to The Preservation Hall and record there for three days and came up with the song “Let It All Go.”
Taking time to connect with local musicians in other cultures is one of the highlights of touring. We take all these recordings back to our studio in Oakland and add all the bells and whistles!
NT: Your upcoming tour promises “shadows, light, Indonesian shadow puppetry, custom-created lanterns, dance, storytelling, crowd participation, and more.” How does all of that come together to make a Beats Antique show and how has it grown from your earliest days as a band?
Jakes: All three of us – myself, Tommy (Cappel) and David (Satori) – have a history with performance art, and we all feel that what we create for the stage is visually as engaging as our music. So we borrow from our earlier experiences: shadow screens, crazy props, interacting with the audience, telling stories…it all starts with us sitting down and talking about what interests us and how we can do something unusual and fun
NT: Your new album Shadowbox is your 10th album and it comes during your 10th year as band. In what ways is your new album different from your debut and in what ways is it similar?
David Satori: We definitely feel like Shadowbox touches on our older styles while pushing our boundaries with new collaborations. Over the past 10 years we have experimented with so many styles and fusions and we still feel like we have barely scratched the surface. We like to bend genres and mash-up cultures. We feel like we have developed a signature sound but we are always looking to push out side our comfort zones.
NT: Finally, both your music and your live show are incredibly cinematic and theatrical. Where did those audio-visual influences originate for you individually and are there any other bands/performers that do the same for you from a fan’s perspective?
Satori: We wanted to work with shadows on this tour so we explored a couple different avenues with this theme. Shadowbox became the most open ended interpretation of this idea and gave us the freedom to explore. We found these amazing sculpture artists in Oakland called Hybycozo. They make these beautiful geometric future space lanterns that look like they are from another planet. We thought these artists were perfect for the Shadowbox tour so we asked if they wanted to collaborate on our stage design and they said yes.
Over the years, we have been influenced by many bands. We love what the Flaming Lips have done. Primus is a big influence. We have been blown away by Florence and the Machine’s set design. In the electronic scene, we have been influenced by our friends Bassnectar and Amon Tobin. We love it when any artist pushes the envelope.
When writer Will Hodge (@will_hodge) isn’t shadowboxing, baby (I wanna be ready for what you do), you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack
With his brand new album I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always having just released on Bloodshot Records last week, we talked with Americana slide guitar virtuoso Luke Winslow-King for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. We talked to the bluesman about the thematic inspirations behind his new album, the role of geography in his musical landscape, and what slide guitarist he recommends listeners check out.
NoiseTrade: Tell us about the themes on your new album I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always. Where did the inspiration for the title track come from?
Luke Winslow-King: The inspiration came from true life events and overcoming my own personal struggles and challenges. It’s about trying to find faith and confidence in dark times. Stylistically, it was inspired by great blues artists like RL Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Junior Kimbrough.
NT: Another of your new songs “Heartsick Blues” has a few nice lyrical references to classic country legends Hank Williams and Ray Price. Were those intentional winks or did they just appear naturally as you were writing the song?
Winslow-King: This song is actually all a true story. I wasn’t just trying to be clever or give a nod. It was actually true. When I went through my break up, she started singing “Please Release Me” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” You know things have gone wrong when your partner starts listening to a completely different kind of music overnight.
NT: “Esther Please” is the third new track you’re offering on your NoiseTrade sampler. Were you channeling any other artists to help nail the slinky shuffle or is that one all you?
Winslow-King: We were definitely inspired by John Lee Hooker’s song “Baby Lee.” I always thought of this song as a kind of a crawl or slow grind. It’s been one of my favorites to listen to for years.
Mike Lynch plays Clavinet keyboard on the song. The plunkyness adds a whole new element, almost like a banjo. Drummer Benji Bohannon brings a very unique rumba style to the song as well. The band has a special cadence and harmonic rhythm that can only be captured live. They wait for me to deliver the next line before proceeding to the chord changes. Some verses are 12 bars, others 14 or 15.
NT: Your new album has been described as a “sonic travelogue” as you play with a fantastic variety of genres: Chicago blues, Heartland rock, Memphis R&B, Midwest country, New Orleans jive, and more. To what do you ascribe your geographical sonic stew?
Winslow-King: Travel. The band is constantly on the road and soaking up different influences. New Orleans is a hotbed of many of these genres, and I’ve done my best to soak them up over the years here. I feel like the band’s sound has actually solidified over the last couple albums. We were able to condense our sound stylistically on this effort while still feeling free to explore.
NT: You’ve added a couple other catalog gems on the sampler as well, including the bluesy rave-up “Swing that Thing” from your 2014 album Everlasting Arms. How do you feel your new album is different from your previous four releases?
Winslow-King: There’s a little bit more of a drive on this album. The recording process was done mostly live and utilizes electric bass and drums on most tracks. Our albums are starting to reflect our live show a little bit more. We’re looking for that audience response and participation live and trying to transfer that feeling onto wax.
NT: Finally, while your own slide guitar skills tastefully hum and howl in a league all their own, who are some other slide guitar players that you think folks should check out?
Winslow-King: My slide guitar maestro is named Roberto Luti. He is featured on the album as well. Roberto and I are both students of great slide guitarists like Ry Cooder, John Mooney, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson, and RL Burnside.
When writer Will Hodge (@will_hodge) isn’t finding that dark was the night and cold the ground, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack
A few years back, singer-songwriter Drew Holcomb added a new hyphenate to his resume: festival-founder. With his third annual Moon River Festival just around the corner (October 7-9), read our exclusive NoiseTrade One-on-One with Holcomb to find out what drives a successful musician to start up his own festival, what his favorite festival moments have been, and what dream band he’d love to share a song with one day on the Moon River stage.
NoiseTrade: So let’s start at the beginning with Moon River Festival… What drives a successful singer-songwriter to take on the daunting task of launching a brand new multi-day music festival?
Drew Holcomb: Mainly it was insanity and a love of stress. In all seriousness, I did it for a lot of reasons. We’ve played a ton of festivals over the years and I think they are such a great way to bring people together.
My vision was to bring my hometown and my favorite bands and artists together, and hopefully it would feel like a family reunion for our fans. Originally it was only for a one-day thing, but it grew so quickly that we decided to move it to a multi-day event.
NT: Heading into your third year with the festival, what parts have become easier and what parts still make you pull your hair out?
Holcomb: The biggest stress is always the weather. You are under the threat of weather all the time with anything outside. I have learned to stop checking the weather until a day or two beforehand.
I don’t know if any of it has gotten easier, but now we understand the moving pieces better. We can plan accordingly and build a bigger and more thorough team.
NT: Looking back over the first two years, what were some of the standout times where you were able to just stop for second and enjoy an artist or a moment as a fan?
Holcomb: I do all the MC’ing, so getting to introduce my friends who are artists is always great. My favorite moment was the first year. 30 minutes after we opened the gates, the grounds were already covered in chairs and blankets. Ellie and I always do a short set to get the festival going, in hopes that people come out early to hear the early acts. For me, there was nothing worse over the years than getting the noon slot at a great festival and no one was there yet. So we did that the very first year and it was packed for the early artists. That was very satisfying.
NT: How did anchoring the festival in Memphis and partnering with multiple Memphis-based non-profits, charities, and vendors become such an integral component of Moon River’s DNA?
Holcomb: It was always a big part of my philosophy to give back to my hometown. I have been given so much by Memphis and there are so many great charities doing great work – both inside of Memphis and for people around the world – that we wanted to include them in the vision.
NT: Finally, if you could book any artist for Moon River – all limitations and logistics aside – who would you want to see on stage and what song would you hope they’d invite you out to join in on?
Holcomb: Well, I will pick someone at least within the realm of possibility: Wilco, my favorite band. I hope they would bring me out for “California Stars”. That would be a dream come true.
With the streaming premiere of her adventerous new album Tightrope Walker, we talked to alt-pop singer-songwriter Rachel Yamagata for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Yamagata opens up about the larger inspirations behind Tightrope Walker, what it was like to record at home with a large cast of musician friends, and how connecting with her fans during the album creation process has impacted her during her last couple of releases.
Stream ‘Tightrope Walker’ in its entirety here: ‘Tightrope Walker’ by Rachael Yamagata
NoiseTrade: Where did the overall Tightrope Walker theme come from? Did you have it before the songs or did it emerge during the writing process?
Rachael Yamagata: I had a daydream, or vision of sorts, you might say. I still don’t understand it myself, but I was sitting on my front porch and literally saw in my mind’s eye a healing taking place – strangers gathering together and facing their past hurts of a relationship ending, someone passing away, a failed dream, and so forth. There were colors and images and guides and that sort of thing and that’s the day I began writing. I wrote this record very differently and did mostly stream of consciousness prose and free writing in the mornings and then I’d review what I’d done later and pick out certain phrases or themes. The tightrope walker idea came from one of those pages. I loved it as a metaphor to apply to my own life, but also as something I could study and grab onto as to how to persevere through what tries to break us in life.
NT: You’ve been quoted as saying “If you’re thinking about quitting -anything – this is your record.” What exactly do you mean by that?
Yamagata: The underlying message that came though the lyrics on this record is essentially to keep going and it explores many facets of passion and self-integrity. It’s very different lyrically than what I’ve done previously – less about what he did or she did and more about a new perspective on acknowledging hardship and transforming it into something richer and valuable. I believe we are connected and go through so many of the same heartaches and have big moments of questioning our abilities or choices. These songs became my way of saying ‘I get it, I see it, you’re not the only one going through it and you’re going to make it’.
NT: You’ve got an incredible cast of guest players – Owen Biddle (The Roots), Matt Chamberlain, Ben Perowsky (Rufus Wainwright), and others – on Tightrope Walker. What drove that decision and what do they bring to the table?
Yamagata: I was extremely fortunate to get the folks that I did on this record and they came together very organically. I’ve known Owen for years and he’s come on a few tours with me. Matt and Ben have been on my bucket list to work with for a long time. Ben actually lives in the area and we met through friends and my co-producer John Alagia had ties to Matt. We also had Zach Djanikian (Amos Lee) who’s a friend, my longtime mentor and many things, Kevin Salem, Michael Chaves (John Mayer, Adam Cohen), Oli Kraus (Sia) and a slew of other incredible musicians that I’ve either known or got introduced to very serendipitously. Many of them are multi-instrumentalists and producers in their own right and no one has an ego. It was always about serving the song and we all inspired each other. Pete Hanlon played a big role beyond just engineering the record and we’ve coined him “MVPete” because he always had the idea that no one else had thought of that fixed the missing piece of the puzzle.
I tend to believe that when you are on the right track of something, the things you need just show up – you just have to grab them and be aware. There was tremendous freedom and play while we were doing this record and everybody brought incredible heart and inspiration to it. I work so much on instinct and try to approach any limitation on gear or what not as a creative opportunity and it often leads to something really cool. Zach happens to play the saxophone, so I had to have it! He doesn’t usually play keys, but I love his inversions, so I threw him on that. Owen played guitar, as well as bass on a few. We had Ben in the woods playing a “kit” of ladders and metal chairs. Kevin picked up a harmonica lying around and did a brilliant one note solo on “Black Sheep”. I took a letter and had my French friends translate it into French and read as a backdrop to “Rainsong”. The record was truly created by all of us because we enjoyed ourselves.
NT: How did the ability to record at your home studio and produce much of the record by yourself compare to past recording experiences for you?
Yamagata: I think because I gave myself over to instinct and we were in a place that had no restrictions to it – time or a money clock – we could experiment as much as we wanted to. That led to a lot of the new arrangements and instrument choices. Something that might seem crazy if it were preplanned made total sense in the moment. I’ve also grown more confident in my ability to direct the big picture and to know when something isn’t right. I may not always know how to articulate getting to that place I’m thinking of, but I’m good at getting the right people in the room and working with textures and tones to serve the lyric. Being at home makes it easier for the backyard BBQ and music making becomes summer camp.
NT: This is the second album you’ve worked with PledgeMusic on and you also released an incredible sampler mixtape here on NoiseTrade back in 2012. As someone who has experienced both the major label and independent sides of the business, how does the ability to connect directly with your fans affect your outlook on the album creation process?
Yamagata: I love the connection that comes from sharing the process with fans. It’s this incredible window into our world and it’s fun for us on the other side. People get a chance to really know our personalities and see our struggles and our wins take on a different significance when people see how far we’ve really come. The enthusiasm of my fans, their patience and support – it’s my tonic. It’s a delicate balance to strike because I’m a private person in my life, but I write very intimately in my public work. There can be a sense of magic or mystery that gets lost if too much of the wall comes down, but it also creates an opportunity to really gain champions of support. Word of mouth has always been my best PR and as long as I stay true to myself in what I’m creating, I trust that my music will continue to get out there.
NT: You’re kicking off your brand new tour in Nashville on 9/19. What are you looking most forward to about getting back out on the road and playing live?
Yamagata: We’re actually just on our last day of rehearsals as I’m writing this and I really love this band. Every time we go out it seems to be a new take on the songs and this tour of course will be the round where we get to play all of the new songs in their full glory. I’m excited that people will now have the record and be able to sing along and the spontaneity of our shows is what really keeps me excited. It’s very dynamic and often people are surprised that we can crush their hearts with a ballad, but also take on this epic sound with other songs. We become a night in your living room with one song and a stadium anthem band on another. You never get the same experience twice and I think that’s why I have people who come up to me saying it’s their 14th time they’ve seen me and so forth. We do it because it’s hilarious and moving and fun and the exchange of energy with the live audience is infectious.
NT: Finally, your duet with Rhett Miller on the stunning “Fireflies” from his The Believer album is genuinely one of my all-time favorite duets. If you could record a new duet with any singer, who would it be and which song would you want to do?
Yamagata: Oy! So many come to mind. If Paul Simon and I could just hit that epic bridge note change together from “Still Crazy After All These Years”: ‘Four in the morning/ Crapped out/ Yawning/ Longing my life away/ I’ll never worry/ Why should I?/ It’s all gonna fade’… I mean I’d pass out and we’d need a string section of course, but hey, a gal can dream.
Our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One with Matt Pond features one of our most enthralling chats to date! Alongside the release of his new album of demos Free the Fawns!, Pond discusses his demo-to-full band songwriting process, his eclectic flair for layered instrumentation, and his approach to taking his songs to the live stage.
NoiseTrade: Your new album Free the Fawns! is a collection of unreleased demos spanning the last eight years. What made you want to pull back the curtain and share these intimate rough drafts with your fans?
Matt Pond: As much as I love finishing a song, there’s nothing like the intensity of when it first comes together. When the random shapes and sounds click into gear and make something that sounds like music. For example, on “Blue Fawn,” which later turned into “First Light,” I was up at my mom’s old farmhouse in New Hampshire, playing the floor tom upstairs so hard I cracked the plaster. (Sorry, Mom!) But I was no longer responsible for my own actions. I was an ephemeral fanatic. You can hear the size and shape of the room in the vocal. Breathless, no stops to sip beer or take notes. You can catch the clumsy energy of my flailing arms, where I jumped between tracks and instruments without an ounce of doubt. When doubt rides silently in the back seat, I am the world’s most euphoric getaway driver.
NT: Comparing the demos to their fuller realized versions, which ones stick out to you as the most transformed from their early versions?
Pond: “First Fawn” became “Brooklyn Fawn.” Chris Hansen and I gathered my ramblings from up in New Hampshire, carried them down to a cabin in Bearsville, NY, and slowly built The Dark Leaves. Collaboration creates unforeseen solutions — Chris really brought everything to the finished version of “Brooklyn Fawn.” He arranged around my droning guitar until the parts shimmered and shone. The intro, into his lead line, the shaker, it started to make sense once it left my hands.
A demo is a sketch within which is the faith that the song has more to give, that by being unfinished, it’s full of promise. That is, unless everything goes terribly wrong, the treatment is unsound and the song has to slide back to square one — when I’m wrong about a song, I will always offer a complete confession.
“The Full Stop” is genuinely exciting because we only spent one afternoon messing around with the possibilities. That song is just bare bones — it has a fate all its own.
NT: Your sound has always been pretty eclectic and marked by a fearlessness to color outside the lines with instrumentation and melodies. Describe the band’s process of getting from voice-and-instrument demo to kitchen-sink sonic kaleidoscope.
Pond: We start with a handful of believable strums in the living room and build. We work with what we have. We try not to adhere to many doctrines or edicts. There is an arc. But the arc has to be flexible. We also have a huge basket of tambourines and a steadfast love for strings. Chris and I tend to gravitate toward layers. At the same time, we have no problem throwing junk away. I can be stubborn as a mule when I believe a part doesn’t work. That might be both my best and worst equine attribute.
What matters most these days are the drums. The precision of a grid and a drum machine are nothing next the spirit of an unleashed drummer. This is where I go looking for depth and energy when I sing — straight into the eye of the kick drum. Please beware: that same drummer spirit unleashed on tour can be terrifying. Think the Muppets and the all-too-famous archetype, Animal.
NT: You’ve got a nice handful of East Coast shows scheduled for December. What’s your favorite part of letting your songs loose in the wild and what parts prove more difficult in the live setting?
Pond: There is a perfect point of being practiced, where the artifice just slips off and away. Where it’s not a performance, it’s not routine. Pardon my sunshine, but it’s nearly transcendental. Which is crazy, because I was once a cynical thoroughbred, the king of Pessimist Mountain. And so, even though it betrays my dire roots to say the words out loud: music probably saved my life. When I’m having an amazing night on stage, it’s otherworldly. I forget everything. It’s a story that someone else has to tell me. It’s a blinding sense of belonging, the ultimate stun.
A new song in the midst of older tunes can be tough. But then you have someone like Shawn Alpay in your corner. He takes a shaky song like “Starting” and starts chugging away at a low, driving pulse, a part that hasn’t been recorded, a part that prompts uncontrollable hips, and lips into a smile — I mean, playing with Shawn is like getting paid to eat ice cream.
NT: Finally, two of my favorite covers of yours are “Champagne Supernova” from Oasis and “Green Shirt” from Elvis Costello. Do you find any difficulties channeling other artists or are covers freeing for you?
Pond: Whoa. “Green Shirt” is from way back in the day! That one was all Eve Miller. She performed the keyboard runs on the cello in one take while we sat in the control room with our jaws on the floor.
Covers are a great way of gaining perspective, of loosening up and illuminating how much music means. The only difficulty is staying true while simultaneously putting a backspin on it. In a sense, they’re a subtle way of saying, “I love you.” I believe every major moment in my life has a song attached at the hip. A connection to the stereo that holds on and won’t let go. So far, it’s never been a song of my own. Still, that doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop trying.
With the release of Redemption & Ruin – a dark and beautiful covers album featuring their take on Muddy Waters, Tom Waits, Hank Williams, and more – we chatted withThe Devil Makes Three for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Read on to discover the inspiration behind the album’s dual-theme concept, their unbelievable guest list (Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Mickey Raphael), and which covers came easy and which ones didn’t.
NoiseTrade: I really dig the concept of your new album Redemption & Ruin, giving fans a peek at the band’s DNA through 12 hand-picked cover songs. What first sparked this split-themed idea for you guys?
Pete Bernhard: When we’re asked about the origins of our band’s sound, we usually end up listing over twenty artist – none of which have much in common with each other. With this album, we want to point the finger at some (but not all) of our musical heroes. We’d like to thank them all in person but sadly most of them are long dead. In a way, this album could be thought of as our attempt to communicate with those beyond the grave. Not to bring them back to life, but just to get the chance to shake their hands and tell them how much their music has meant to us. Also, Tom Waits, if you happen to read this, we would like to meet you in person at some point. Set a time and a place and we will be there.
NT: Once you officially decided on the album’s concept, what was the first song you guys decided just had to be on there?
Bernhard: “Drunken Hearted Man” was one of the first. Robert Johnson was the second blues musician I had ever heard – Lightning Hopkins was the first- when my older brother bought me his complete recordings for my birthday when I was about 12 years old. Robert Johnson was poisoned some say by a jealous husband and died somewhere near Greenwood, Mississippi in 1938 at only twenty six years old. I’m still listening to his music today and still trying to figure him out. It seem appropriate to start at the beginning with “Drunken Hearted Man” where it all started for me, musically.
NT: What cover proved to be the hardest to nail down exactly the way you wanted it? Which one came out the easiest?
Bernhard: “Come On Up To The House” by Tom Waits was a hard one for us to get our brains around. No matter which way we tried to approach the song, it seemed to change shape. If we tried to fry it like a rainbow trout, it magically became steak tartare with a raw egg on top. Finally, we gave up on doing it the way Tom Waits had originally written it and sped the whole thing up to an almost unmanageable speed. That seemed to make it more agreeable. Speed can be helpful.
“I Am The Man” by Ralph Stanley came together real quickly. It was almost like we’d already been playing it for years. That one is by far my favorite to play at live shows. “I’m Gonna Get High” by Tampa Red also clicked for us. On that note, I’ll take this moment to cast a vote for full legalization of marijuana. Not just for smoking but for medical and industrial purposes as well. Hemp is an exceptionally useful plant and a renewable resource as well. These United States, the birthplace of all of this wonderful music on this album, has more people incarcerated than any other nation on the planet. Many of these people have been jailed for non-voilent drug related crimes. Why jail all these people who want nothing more than a long nap and an abundance of snacks? This is a great mystery to us.
NT: Were there any songs that you guys considered or even recorded that didn’t make the final album?
Bernhard: There were at least ten songs that we considered for the record that didn’t make the cut for various reasons. We tried to do a Warren Zevon song while we were in the studio and it went real wrong, I’m still not sure quite why. You can’t tell what’s going to work until you try it. We threw a lot of mud at the wall and eventually you find out what sticks. It can be dangerous to take that experimental dive into murky waters, but when it’s hot outside you have to take your chances.
NT: How does the studio experience differ when you’re making an entire album of covers? What parts are easier and what parts are more difficult?
Bernhard: For this album, we left the arrangements pretty wide open. Which we usually don’t do. We wanted to leave space for our guests to help decide what direction the track went. Recording covers, we were more willing to write and come up with ideas in the studio and see where the song went. We also have never had so many guest musicians on any of our previous albums. We always have people sit in but this time was more of a party than a simple gathering. It’s our hope that people will listen to this record and go back and listen to all the artist who we covered. We want to send people back to do their own digging in the bone yards. There’s so much good music back there and it’s where we got our start.
It’s easier in the studio when your recording other peoples songs, but it can be harder in the pre-production phase of the album. Choosing the songs is what’s most important with this kind of project. When we record an album of originals, we don’t really get to choose the songs. We just have what we have and sort it all out. This record required a lot more listening and experimenting before we went into the studio. It proved harder than we thought it would be.
NT: Redemption & Ruin features an unbelievable cast of special guests – Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Duane Eddy, Mickey Raphael, and more. How’d you go about compiling such a musical all-star team?
Bernhard: It’s a great cast of players on this album. Some of the players we knew and so we invited them personally. We were lucky enough to open up for the Willie Nelson/Alison Krauss tour, as well as for Emmylou and Rodney Crowell a few years ago. We had help from our manager and David Ferguson at The Butcher Shoppe as well. It helps that we recorded in Nashville this time around, since that’s where most of our guests call home.
NT: While you guys play around with a variety of genres, it all really comes together when the three of you are playing together on stage. How has that musical relationship evolved over the past decade and a half of playing together?
Bernhard: We have grown a ton in our time as a band. We learned how it all works through a ten-year, no expenses paid, boot camp of trial and error. There are many ways to skin a cat and our approach has been to stalk the little mongrel down very slowly year by year. When we finally caught up, we accidentally set the little fuzzball ablaze. After he ran around for awhile and burned himself out, we all finally found our balance. In short, we’ve never been fond of doing things the easy way.
NT: Finally, what are some of your favorite covers by other bands/artists that you like to listen to as a fan?
Bernhard: I would say one of my favorite covers right now is “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, originally written by Anthony Newley.
Hot on the heels of last Friday’s release of Real, Lydia Loveless’ highly anticipated brand new album on Bloodshot Records, we spoke with the fiery alt-country singer-songwriter for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Loveless opened up about the songs on her new album, her lyrical evolution between releases, her approach to cover songs, and her thoughts on the IBM Selectric typewriter.
NoiseTrade: What can you tell us about the two songs from your new album Real (“Same to You” and “Longer”) appearing here on your NoiseTrade sampler?
Lydia Loveless: I think “Same to You” has more of a classic Lydia Loveless alt-country style, I suppose, with the classic feedback and crunch. Whereas “Longer” has a more subtle, layered approach that honors our love of pop music and harmony.
NT: For Real, you chose to work with producer Joe Viers again. What have you learned from him while working together on your last few releases and what went into choosing him again for your new album?
Loveless: I honestly learned work ethic from him. I used to really think of being in the studio as a chore where my opinion was unwelcome. Now, it’s my favorite place to be. He helps me really listen to the song and what it needs. He’s taught me to be confident and take risks. I really just felt like he belonged on this record to show how much we’ve grown together.
NT: You’ve contrasted the lyrics on your previous releases as being blunt and raw against the lyrics on your new album being honest and true. What do you see as the differences between those two lyrical approaches?
Loveless: I think I’ve just calmed down a lot and I was coming from a more heartfelt place. I’m a little more vulnerable on this record. Less desperate and demanding, I think.
NT: I love that you’ve included “Boy Crazy” from your EP of the same name on this sampler. How do you feel this beautifully fuzzy, in-and-out release fits within your catalog?
Loveless: It’s one of my favorites we do. I think that EP really marked our departure from genre confines. That particular song went through many changes stylistically, from blues to Jesus and Mary Chain before we settled on a poppy feedback version. Pop and feedback are two of my favorite things.
NT: Over the years you’ve recorded some incredible covers of songs by Prince, Kirsty MacColl, Elvis Costello, Echo and the Bunnymen, and others. What determines whether or not you’ll cover a song and how do you go about making them your own?
Loveless: It’s either really being able to relate to a song or really being able to make it my own. Sometimes, I just get stuck and want to channel someone’s energy for a bit.
NT: Finally, I’m a huge fan of the “odd facts found on Wikipedia pages” game and your page certainly qualifies. Can you expound upon the entry “Loveless is an avowed fan of the IBM Selectric typewriter”?
Loveless: Well, I own one, ha. I like them because they’re old and loud and clunky.
Letters to Cleo got the band back together and they’ve got new music on the horizon! In anticipation of their upcoming album, we talked to the band for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Lead singer Kay Hanley, guitarist Michael Eisenstein, and guitarist Greg McKenna detail the band’s reunion, their new songs, and the secret behind their Midas touch when it comes to cover songs.
NoiseTrade: First off, to what do we owe the honor of new Letter to Cleo music? What got the band back together?
Michael Eisenstein: Stacy was coming off of several years of heavy touring and we ran into each other at a Johnny Pilonsky show in LA last fall. He asked if we should get together and write with Kay. So we agreed to get together after the beginning of the year and give it a crack. Greg sent us some MP3s of guitar ideas he had and the first one became “Can’t Say.” We wrote that and “Hitch a Ride” that first day.
NoiseTrade: Once everyone got back into the studio, how was the vibe playing together again? Did it take a moment to kick back in or was it like riding a bike for you guys?
Kay Hanley: When someone mentioned that it had been 17 years since the band’s last recording session, I was really taken aback. Even though we were trading tapes back and forth with Greg in Boston, the process of writing and recording this batch of songs was so focused and easy. It seemed like we’d never stopped. I guess we all just speak the same language.
Greg McKenna: I remember listening to the iPhone takes of the initial writing session recorded on the west coast and just missing the camaraderie we had as a band. So the next writing session, we agreed that I should be there. It was a little spooky how easily we slipped back into writing as a group. But a nice kind of spooky!
Eisenstein: It was even easier than back in the day because we have all been doing so much other music for the last 15 years that the confidence level is so much higher. We didn’t feel like we needed to overthink anything or worry too much about any musical decisions. We would record a basic track pretty much right after the song was written with Stacy on drums, Kay singing, and me on electric guitar. It was a few runthroughs to get the arrangement down and then get a take. We would then send that to Greg and he did his overdubs in Boston. Then a month or so later, Greg came to LA and we got together and wrote the rest.
NT: What new songs are you most excited about unleashing on Letters to Cleo fans and playing live for them?
Hanley: There’s a song called “Back to Nebraska” which is probably the most personal and literal song I’ve ever written. I’m excited to play it because it’s the kind of warm, mid-tempo driver that Michael and Stacy are really great at. I’m nervous to play it because I will cry. “Four Leaf Clover” is going to be a blast, too. 100% Letters to Cleo, no striving for maturity.
Eisenstein: All five! If there’s one thing I’ve learned about our fans, it’s that just about every song is someone’s favorite. So I’m really excited to release them and play them all at every show and see what people respond to. But I think “Hitch a Ride” will be a live favorite when we start gigging.
NT: During your initial run in the ‘90s, the band played some pretty big tours with bands like Sponge and Our Lady Peace. What do you think will be some of the biggest differences between touring life then and when you guys hit the road in the fall?
McKenna: I think everyone has gotten so much better at performing. When we started, we were raw, enthusiastic and didn’t really know what we were doing. Everyone has gotten so much better as musicians and performers. That and earlier bed times.
Hanley: More airplanes, less Cracker Barrels.
Eisenstein: Well, even those tours were all clubs and some smaller theaters, so it won’t be too different. The biggest difference is that we won’t go out for a solid year and cover the county 2-3 times on a bus, as well as Canada and Europe. We will do short regional runs with long weekends here and there and fly and stay in nicer hotels.
NT: Finally, the band has always had a knack for releasing some incredible covers like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” The Cars’ “Dangerous Type,” Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me,” and Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind.” What do you think is the key to crafting a good cover song and do you guys have any new ones you’re working on?
Eisenstein: Thanks! I think the key to a great cover song is to have Kay Hanley sing it. In all seriousness, she’s the main reason those covers are great. She is able to take something like “I Want You To Want Me” which we didn’t change at all (other than the key) and make it her own despite the fact that the original is sung by one of the great rock voices of all time. I had an idea for a new cover the other day. I won’t say which song, but it’s a solo song by a former Beatle.
Hanley: What a nice thing Michael said! As I think back to the when and why of our cover song choices, I’m struck by the total lack of self-consciousness we had back then. I think we approached those songs with enough reverence to stay true to the source, enough balls to try and do it better, and enough humility to know when to quit.
McKenna: Along with Kay’s vocals, are the songs themselves. We were careful to choose great songs that we could do justice to. The real credit goes to the original songwriters that wrote such amazing songs!