The last time we spoke, One Town Away had been out for about a year or so. Now you're a few months into your third album, Sirens. Approaching rock stardom yet? Celebrity girlfriends? Pyrotechnics? A fleet of tour-busses with your face on the side? A trail of thrashed hotel rooms and passed-out strippers?
No, I guess is the easy answer. I don't think that stuff really exists anymore in Rock and Roll-- And I think thats probably a good thing in the long run.
Sirens was funded through a Kickstarter-campaign, and as far as I remember, you reached your goal pretty fast. How would you define the experience of asking people for their support?
Everyone knows that the music industry has changed pretty definitively over the last 20 years, so each band really has to figure out how they're going to make it work individually. For us, we knew that we had a small but die-hard fan base that wanted to see us make a new record-- they trusted us to make a great record and were willing to help us fund it. We ended up getting more money from our fans then most labels are giving bands these days. Pretty wild. I don't know if its going to become the new paradigm, but it was definitely right for us at this point in our careers.
You also run the risk of failure when you start a fundraising campaign, don't you? Not that I ever thought it would be the case, but did you ever fear that you'd end up with a total pledged amount of 400 bucks?
Being a professional musician definitely teaches you that you can't count on anything. Of course it was a possibility. But like with each song, each show, each career move, you just give it everything, be fair and honest, and then have a lot of faith. Not much of a business plan but its all I got.
Sirens is produced by David Lowery. Why did you chose to work with him? I've seen how amazing he is on stage, but what about in a studio setting?
I've been a huge fan of Cracker and Camper since I was a teenager. Cracker was actually one the first rock shows I ever went to. So there was just that level of musical trust there that made me want to work with him. He was also making rock records during a golden age-- from like 88 to 94-- where records just sounded amazing. I just don't think records sound as good these days. Not only the the music but also just the recording process itself. We sort of consciously wanted to make a record that recalled that era, and I knew he would be on the same page. Finally, David was connected to a great studio right here in Virginia, and the chance to make a record close to home was a great experience.
I remember you telling me the last time we spoke, that what attracted you about Jim Scott, who produced One Town Away, was that he, like David Lowery, also makes records like they did in the good old days, using tape and not really giving a fuck about ProTools and that sort of stuff. Why is it you think that records don't sound as good anymore as they used to do? I don't necessarily disagree, I just think it's an interesting view.
I think theres a lot of different reasons-- but the most simple explanation I think has to do with a big divide happening within rock and roll in general right now. There is a growing divide between radio rock right now, ya know, butt rock, Nickelback sort of stuff-- and what is popularly conceived of as indie-rock. I feel like both sides of the genre are becoming increasingly schticky, gimmicky, and of the moment--like I don't see a lot of young rock bands out there really pushing themselves, trying there best to be timelessly great, writing songs that are gonna be remembered in 20 years--Or making records that are going to be played in 20 years.
I think this also manifests itself sonically in the way records are being made. Radio rock is so over-compressed right now-- it screams out of the speakers to compete on FM radio, but not in a way that stands up over time. A lot of the more indie-bands talk about analog this or that, but I personally don't think most of those records sound that good either. They just aren't that fun to listen to. But there was a golden era of rock and roll records between like 87-94 where records just sounded so good. Natural and timeless, but still really high fidelity. if you critically listen to REM's "Document" or Pearl Jam's "Ten" and compare them to modern records I think you'll hear what i'm talking about. This was the era that David Lowery was making records with Camper and Cracker, and I knew he'd be on that same page. We did our best to capture a sound that recalled that era of rock records.
Other than his great production skills, what else do you pick up from guys like David Lowery and Johnny Hickman? Does it make you a better musician knowing that Uncle Tupelo and the Counting Crows used to OPEN for the two guys standing there in the studio with you?
David's currently teaching at UGA's music industry program, and with good reason. He's seen the whole gambit. From being in one of the first indie-bands to take off with college radio, to hit records with the major labels, and now back to figuring out how to make a carreer work making records independently. But through it all he's never compromised musically, which is something we all really respect. You can learn a lot from a guy like that.
Moving on the actual songs on the record. Is there anything tying all these great songs together?
There was no pre-conceived theme in making the record, but looking back on it, there is sort of a thematic unity tying the whole thing together. Its a coming of age record for us in a lot of ways, musically, but also personally. When you start out in a band, you just do it because you love it so instinctively and don't really have a choice in the matter, but now that we've passed our mid-twenties, its made us reflect a lot on the meaning of what were doing. Why its worth persistenting in an age where that is increasingly difficult. Theres a lot of that on this record.
I would definitely call your first album, Far Cry From Freedom, an alt.country record. Perhaps even One Town Away. But Sirens? I don't have a box, I can put it into. What's the musical master plan behind Sirens?
The bands I always loved and respected, were the artists that never had any musical master-plan or pre-conceived aesthetic or concept. They just went from the gut and tried their best to be great. Bands like REM or the E-street band. Not to compare ourselves to those artists, but it definitely gives you something to shoot for. I love country music, I grew up with it, and it will always have a huge role in how I listen to music. But you also don't want to be boxed into a band that has to have a "thing" and do that "thing" over and over again for commercial reasons. We want to go from the heart, and do our best to be making something great and timeless, whether it comes out as country or rock or what have you. Critics have more use for genres then fans. Fans just want you to make something they like.
Where does the bit in the beginning of Santa Ana Winds come from?
William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech.
You know how people always say that you spend your entire life making your first album, but only a couple of months making the second one, right. But what about Sirens? I remember you telling me that you put everything into this one. What do you think went into Sirens that didn't get into Far Cry or One Town Away?
Of course, I know that feeling is partially because "Sirens" is our latest record. You always feel that way to a certain extent about the last song you wrote, or the last record you made-- you didn't match your dreams of perfection last time, but this time, you're gonna get there.
But at the same time-- there was something different about the making of this record. There was just a real letting go with this one, about self-consciousness, posturing, what critics would think, what radio would think, about "what kind of record" we were going to make and all that studio talk-- and just wanted to let the earnestness of it all really bleed through. Its hard thing to pull off without being self-indulgent, but I feel like we did. Theres not one moment, that feels dishonest, or one moment that I think im going to regret in 10 years. We'll see I guess.
I had one friend tell me that this record to him felt like a "coming-of-age rock record for southern gentlemen in the modern world"-- obviously, thats not an epithet that screams "sales" for the record labels, or "cool" for the blogs-- but i'm still proud of that. I think it fits.
Here's another one that might not make too much sense. The first time I ever heard of Sons Of Bill, was when I heard you play Joey's Arm on WNRN. There's always been a lot of radio imagery in your songs, like some sort of metaphor of an America long gone. I don't remember if we discussed this the last time we spoke, but can you explain this somewhat romantic role that (AM) radio plays is in your songs?
I guess its because I was lucky enough to fall in love with music while the hey-day of FM radio was still going on. I had my favorite stations, and favorite DJ's and would prop my boom-box outside of my windowsill to pick up Richmond stations and what not. I made mix-tapes from radio, and all of the other rock-nostalgia people have from the 90s. It was just such a unique and exciting time in rock and roll thats hard to recapture. Maybe its just because i'm older now. Now most radio is unlistenable and people can "Spotify" anything they want, but it all just doesn't feel as important as it did to me then. I wanted to make a record that made me feel 14 again. Feel that excited about music again. The sort of record that makes you want to go up to your bed room and listen to the whole thing top to bottom, reading along in the liner notes. I guess thats maybe why radio comes up so often in the lyrics.
Sons of Bill's "Sirens"is out now on Thirty Tigers/Blue Rose.