Photo by Le Studio
“Parade On” is fantastic and by far the most “pop” record you’ve recorded – what inspired its creation? Have you been pleased with its positive reception?
Thanks so much. As is per usual, I’d had a couple songs laying around waiting to be completed writing-wise, and a few already done. I found that I mostly included really recent things I’d just come up with. Most, if not all the songs on the record aren’t more than a year old from the time of recording.
Yes, I’ve been surprised at the positive reception, but I also know that if it weren’t positive, I’d be disappointed too, as a lot of lauding goes on for lesser & unimaginative things that are released.
This is the first record where I didn’t drum on anything, and I used 2 amazing drummers- George Duron from Austin has a subtle greatness & tasteful fills that really made the songs he’s on sound more special. Those tracks were done at Louie Lino’s Resonate studio in Austin. Travis Harrison played drums & engineered the songs I did at his studio (Serious Business) in NYC, and is a powerful focused drummer.
I didn’t set out for it to be more pop per se, but maybe that’s the way I’ve been writing lately.
You started a Beatles cover band, Bambi Kino, that covers the Hamburg-era tunes and it looks like you are having a blast! What about that particular era do you find so intriguing?
We went to Hamburg in Oct 2010 to play the Indra on the day of their first ever gig there 50 years prior. We played for 4 nights in a row, and learned a ton of material, so we really got inside of their experience & learned why they got so good. We drew from the Star Club LP & BBC sessions, sure, but also, any song we read was on their set lists at that time, whether it was captured on tape or not, was fair game for our sets. For example, there’s a handwritten note that surfaced scrawled by Stu Sutcliffe with a list of songs to learn, and a lot aren’t on recordings. So we put a couple of those in too. Basically its eye opening how much work they did and how many shows they really played from ‘60-’63 to get as tight as they were at one point. After With The Beatles was released & they started having featured shows lasting 20-30 minutes, they were never as tight as those early years after the Hamburg & Cavern residencies.
You are primarily known for your role as the consummate sideman and collaborator, the guy who fills in the cracks and is able to add “that indescribable wow” to a song. What was the impetus for you to move from a collaborator and backing player to the leader and songwriter of your own band? Was it challenging to shift gears?
Well, this year I seem to shift gears every week with all the different projects happening sort of at once! But this is my 3rd full-length solo album, and I also led the band Gem in the mid-90s where I wrote and fronted for at least half the songs (we first recorded the song “I Am A Tree”) so this is more of a return to what I used to do more often. The last LP Call From Restricted came out in 2009 & the first full length, Salamander, came out in 2004. There was an EP a couple years prior to that as well.
And yeah, it is always challenging to shift gears, but I’m happy to be active. One week I’ll be with my band here or at SXSW playing things from Parade On then get home and practice the Buddy Holly stuff, next thing I know I’ll have to brush up on this Carl Perkins or Joe Brown or Fats Domino song we’re doing at a Bambi Kino show in a few days. We’re also writing/recording a new LP in Nada Surf off & on this year. Something I did last year that I loved was producing the new album by Eternal Summers (The Drop Beneath on Kanine). I enjoyed that process and working with that band, who are now friends of mine for life, so that was a bit of a gear-shift too, but I found helping others think about their songs helped me reign my own in a bit. So with all the different projects going, it sounds kind of crazy, but it is always fun.
It’s obvious from both a songwriting and production standpoint that you put a lot of craft into your work. What is your songwriting process like? Do you start with a riff and build from there or do the lyrics come first?
It’s always different per song. There are about 3 ways songs come about with me. A lot of time, yes, it is a chord progression I’ll come up with, and then I think of a B & C part to go with it right away. Lyrics/melody are almost always last. But then there are some that come to you fully formed, & those are the best ones. When you’re disengaged from the fret board or piano & the whole thing is in your head only, you only worry about how to get it played later. So that happens sometimes, and it’s great. Whole choruses come to me sometimes with harmonies intact, bass lines, the beat pattern, etc.., so the process varies.
Lyrics are almost always the last thing, but sometimes they’ll be the first, & then I have to find the chords that go under them. That’s fun too. Nicole Yun from Eternal Summers has an amazing way of singing syllables as placeholders until lyrics can be penned, & you wouldn’t know they aren’t real lyrics. Matthew Caws does much the same thing. Melodies are pretty instant to him.
I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?
That is a really hard question! My favorite ones are the ones I think say everything I want to musically say, & aren’t always the best ones to play live. My favorites on the new LP are “Your Eyes”, ”Overseas” or “Come Out & Show Me”. On the last album it was “Entwined” & “No One Above You”. On the lp Salamander it would be “Going Back To You”, and in Gem, it would be “Good To See You” and “I Am A Tree”. With Robert Pollard it was probably the song “Pop Zeus” and any number of Lifeguards songs. I can’t decide on one alone, though.
What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to? Who inspires you musically?
There are way too many things to even mention, and it is always changing. When I was 5, I was starting to write songs & play drums & guitar & then it was Monkees & Archies, along with AM radio songs of the time. Beatles/McCartney are just in my fiber I guess, when it comes to melodies & basslines. Coming up in the age of new wave-into post-punk like I did, there’s always some pre-Seconds Of Pleasure Rockpile, Pretenders, XTC & Squeeze & the like & the stuff I absorbed a little later, especially Siouxsie & Wire. John McGeoch really had an influence on my guitar playing as did James-Honeyman Scott. Always some Who & Kinks, but also a whole slew of easy listening & sunshine pop artists from the late 60’s & 70s that has stuck with me. TS McPhee’s more trippy output from Groundhogs has always been a big thing, T. Rex & Roxy Music too. Sometimes some Nascimento/Gilberto/Jobim. It’s always open. Tons of great new artists are coming out as well.
I spoke with John Petkovic about the reactivation of Death of Samantha a little while back and he alluded to new activity with the band. Can we expect new music from DoS and/or reissues of the original albums? What was it like to revisit that material live?
No reissues, but possibly some new material. It was fun and natural to play the older songs again. Its wilder than ever, live, too.
What’s on tap for you next?
I’ll be touring with my solo material, Nada Surf, and Death of Samantha too, along with occasional Bambi Kino events. I’m always writing my own stuff, so I’ll be recording and releasing that when I can as well.