Saturday, July 2, 2016

INTERVIEW: Josh Haden (Spain)

The new album, “Carolina”, is fantastic – it finds you exploring many of the same themes you’ve previously dealt with in Spain\ through historical and first-person narrative frameworks.  I’m sure that there is still a lot of “you” in the songs, but it feels like a bold choice.  Was it a conscious decision to craft this series of songs that way or did the material simply lend itself to that?

So happy you like the new album. Thematically Spain has a certain vibe and I can’t mess with that. Spain is not a party band. I don’t write songs about dancing without abandon until dawn (unless it’s ironic or it’s about walking home past a church at 9am). I want the songs to be entertaining and provide the listener with some relief from the real world but in a way a good blues or gospel song does. I want to write songs about hardship and love, discord and betrayal, loss and redemption, but in a way that raises the listener through and above the human experience to a higher spiritual as opposed to material plane. I guess all good songs attain to that. I’m not always successful but with the new record I very much wanted to approach my songs in a more studied way insofar as the lyrics were concerned. I wanted to tell short stories in a way, and that is a departure from previous Spain records. Not entirely but generally speaking. I wanted the songs to have literary beginnings, middles, and endings, I wanted them to have characters, protagonists, and I wanted the action of the songs to occur in specific places and specific times. I also wanted the contents of the songs to reflect real things that happened to me. For example, the song “Apologies” which takes place at what I found out during a party was actually a wake for Timothy Leary. “Apologies” is an apology to a girl I was supposed to have a blind date with but flaked on, only to see her at this party/wake where we would have met anyway.  Most of the songs on the album adhere to these limitations, or in my case opportunities. I never allowed myself to inject personal experiences in my songs to this level. So it was a conscious decision and I think the material did lend itself to it as well.

Kenny Lyon joined you on tour last year and produced the record at his home studio in the famed Gaylord Apartments in Los Angeles (in addition to playing a ton of accent instrumentation).  His production is very organic and dusky and fits the songs on “Carolina” very well.  You also had the legendary Danny Frankel play drums on the record.  What did they bring to the project? 

Well, stepping back a bit. I couldn’t have made Carolina without Kenny. A couple of years ago, directly after recording the previous Spain album, 2014’s Sargent Place, I went through a bad break-up not with a girl but with the musicians I’d been touring and recording with more or less since I decided to put Spain back together in 2007. I love those guys, but just like with a significant other you love but can’t reconcile differences with this relationship couldn’t continue any longer. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was just a clash of personalities and sometimes we have to accept that and move on. So I had a completed album but no band to tour with. I called one of my best and closest friends. He always has good advice and comes through with recommendations for players when I’m at a loss for what to do next. Merlo Podlewski, who was one of the original Spain guitarists and played on the first three Spain records and has been Jack Johnson’s bassist and right hand man for twenty years. I called Merlo and told him what was going on, and he said, “You should give Kenny Lyon a call, I think you’d work well together.” So Kenny and I toured in the U.S. and Europe together for the Sargent Place record and it was very successful. Not just monetarily but most of all musically.
Sometime around then there was this Justice of the Peace who refused to marry same-sex couples. Now there is a lot of wrong in this world and I don't have much power to change things in the middle-east but this was close to home and a subject I feel strongly about. People should be able to love and marry whomever they want, and have that devotion officially recognized if they want. It seemed ludicrous to me, and offensive, so I wrote a song about it to benefit organizations that fought for same-sex marriage. I called this song “I Do” and it can be purchased from the Spain Bandcamp page ( I knew that Kenny was an accomplished and experienced producer in his own right and decided to record the song with him. It wasn’t a conscious kind of try out for the record but it ended up that way. I was happy with the final result of “I Do” and asked Kenny if he wanted to produce the new Spain record. The recording process took about a month and we recorded in Kenny’s apartment studio in Koreatown and in Joshua Tree where we recorded Danny’s drums. We’re at a time in music history where you can make a great sounding album with just a few strategic pieces of gear and a computer. You don’t need tens of thousands of dollars anymore. We used this amazing and affordable Russian microphone called Soyuz for my vocals that sounded so good.

Kenny’s longtime apartment is in a historic building called the Gaylord. When you walk in the lobby you see display cases with photos and memorabilia of all the 1940s movie stars who stayed there. It’s also across the street from the jazz club where my dad first saw Ornette Coleman play in 1957. The club is long gone but the street just has that feeling. It was inspiring to me.

Kenny has a very musical ear and understands what I’m trying to do. Throughout the recording process he kept pushing me to express myself better in the lyrics and to do little tweaks to the songs to make them better. They don’t call him “Chief” for nothing.

I’ve known Danny for years and am always so happy when I’m able to work on a project with him. I don’t remember the first time we met, but it was probably through my sister Petra who is good friends with Danny’s wife Mimi. When I was putting the Sargent Place band together I called Danny and he did the L.A. shows with us. I was so happy the timing allowed Danny to record the new album because someone should get that on tape. Like Kenny, Danny has an incredibly deep musical ear and understands what I’m trying to do. His playing is straight but has that jazz feel that lends to improvisation that’s so important to the songs.

You’ve been at this for more than twenty years and your voice has really become quite an elastic and expressive instrument – you bring soul-singer like cadences to a song like “Apologies” and really let it rip on “For You”.  What have you learned about yourself over time as a performer?

Well singing and performing can be two different things. On stage there’s a level of adrenaline that just isn’t there in the studio. Also I’ve learned over the years there’s a obligation to be entertaining that isn’t so immediate in the studio. Recording in the studio can be a long process, and unless there’s a deadline to be met it can get drawn out. Work on a song, take a break, work some more, talk about stuff, go out to eat, come back and work some more and then go home. It’s not like that on stage. On stage there has to be a sense of urgency, or at least an appearance of urgency. Compare live footage of Spain over the years. 1995-2014 was great technically and had its moments but not very exciting to watch, at least to me pretending to be an audience member. In 2014 out of necessity I whittled the band down to a trio and all of a sudden the playing opened up. I wasn’t expecting that. I was able to play bass more busy and improvise more. I had all these new ideas and Kenny really encouraged me. Now our show is truly entertaining and unpredictable. We rarely play a song the same way on consecutive nights. There’s lots of improvisation and at times it’s almost like a free jazz show, in a good, tasteful and organized way. I get to channel my dad in a sense, and that feels great. A few weeks ago we played a show in Nantes, France that was so amazing. It was the best show of the tour. Just this little club packed with people who didn’t know what to expect from us and loved what we were doing on stage. The poster for the show described our sound as “Indie Pop Slowcore Americana Free Jazz” and I’ve adopted that as our official description. In the 90s Spain heyday I saw all kinds of stuff in the audience while we were playing, I saw people having sex against the barrier in front of the stage, I saw people crying, a couple of fights. After the break and I started the band again I wanted to keep seeing that stuff. People come up to me and said they cried during “Spiritual”. Drunk people want to get on stage and sing or fight. I haven’t seen anyone having sex in front of me yet, but I hope that happens again. I want to inspire an emotional reaction from the listener in the audience that’s more intense than when they’re listening to the record. I want to give the fan a reason to leave their house, get into the car or train and get out to our show. During this last tour people were following us around show to show. People would tell me they drove 500 kilometers to see us. That’s what I love from my fans and I’m working on making the show more and more exciting and attractive to them.

As far as my singing is concerned, you're right, I’m challenging myself on this record. I’m singing for more extended periods at higher registers. I have a wide range and I want to utilize that. It started with Sargent Place but really kicks in on Carolina. Another conscious decision I made with Carolina is not to use any 1990s-written songs on the album. With 2012’s Soul Of Spain and Sargent Place I included songs I wrote in the 1990s for Spain that for whatever reasons didn’t get a proper recording. So you have a lot of the whispery, subtle vocals I was into in the 90s. Not that I’m not into that anymore but at some point as a singer you need to branch out. I learned that touring with Dan the Automator and Handsome Boy Modeling School in the mid 2000’s. The tour manager kept telling me I needed to project my voice more. That wasn’t something I was worried about with Spain. But he was right. I think I need to evolve as a singer, and as a songwriter and bass player, for that matter, and as a guitarist even, and part of that is challenging myself, singing in higher keys and projecting my voice which sounds funny but wasn’t something I used to believe in before. And you don’t want to over sing on stage, it doesn’t sound good. So I try to record as many shows as I can and listen back to them. I learn a lot about my voice that way.

Even though you frequently play jazz-based music and Spain’s work gets somewhat lazily tagged as “slowcore” (a term that, let’s be honest, should probably have been retired with the ending of bands like Codeine or Idaho in the late ‘90s), you’re an avid fan of many different musical genres.  “Carolina” is far more indebted to early country music and “Americana” than anything else, and you grew up amidst the 1980s California hardcore scene.  Are there genres which you haven’t been able to explore in Spain or solo that you would like to delve into?

You are absolutely right. I’m not sure what Slowcore means. I think we got stuck with it because of the slowness of the first album, The Blue Moods Of Spain, but I never intended “slow” to be Spain’s genre and on the subsequent albums the pace can really pick up. Look at the song “Because Your Love” on the 2012 album which was inspired by Deep Purple’s “Perfect Strangers” and kind of sounds like Foo Fighters. People hear that song and still call it “Slowcore” so go figure. Early country and Americana is the predominant mood on the Carolina for a few reasons. First of all to pay tribute to my dad, and to deal with feelings of loss and grief I’m going through after his death. Second of all Spain has always had a strong country influence because of my dad’s side of the family and I wanted to focus on that more with the new album. I like Soul and Sargent Place but I think they might be too much all over the place in terms of musical styles. Carolina is much more focused and I like that. As far as styles go I think I’ve hit them all. I even did a Keith Sweat-style album with Dan the Automator, John Medeski and Kid Koala. I’ve sung crazy empty pvc pipe music with Blue Man Group. So I just like playing music.

I recently spoke with your sister, Petra, in conjunction with the reissues of her early solo work and we touched upon what it was like growing up in a family steeped in music.  What was your experience like?  Was there ever a time when you felt like you wouldn’t follow a path into music?  Additionally, I have to imagine that being surrounded by musicians (particularly of the caliber of your father and sisters) fostered both healthy competition and a web of support.

When I was a little kid and going into Junior High School my peers thought I was crazy. I was always writing songs and singing to myself. I thought that was normal. I thought having a family life constantly revolving around music was a normal way of life. But again most kids thought I was crazy. It wasn’t until high school and meeting kids whose lives also revolved around music I started feeling normal.

There were always musicians moving through our apartment in New York, and later when we moved to Los Angeles. I got to see my dad play live and meet a lot of the jazz greats, and got to be friends with my dad’s bandmates’ kids, a few of whom I’m still close with. I even toured with my dad. I have lots of great memories. One time when I was playing in the street in front of our house in L.A. I saw this ice cream truck in the distance. It didn’t look like a normal ice cream truck, it was kind of beat up and falling apart. I was like, “What’s this?” The truck pulled up in front of me and the door opened. It was Don Cherry! One of my dad’s best friends and pivotal free jazz and world music trumpet player and multi-instrumentalist. “Excuse me, does Charlie Haden live here?” “Yes,” I responded. Cherry turned around and yelled “OK kids, you can get out now!” The back door opened and about fifteen kids piled out, all ready to play and have fun. There was a web of support, but not a lot of need for competition or rivalry. All the Haden kids grew up to be musicians. That’s what it was like growing up with my dad.

I also have to say it wasn’t all roses. It’s also important to say my dad was a horrible drug addict. I saw a lot of the dark side of humanity through my dad as a kid. As a father he did the best he could with the parenting tools he had. It wasn’t all fun all the time. But most of the time it was.

Your song, “Spiritual” (from 1995’s debut “The Blue Moods of Spain”), has almost become a standard of sorts – it’s been covered by everybody from your father, to Johnny Cash and Soulsavers.  That has got to be quite humbling yet satisfying.  

“Almost become” is the key phrase here. Just kidding. “Spiritual” is arguably our most popular song. Half of my publishing income comes from that one song, and I have over 100 published titles. When we play it live there’s always applause and people singing along. To be able to write a song that has gotten an reaction the way “Spiritual” has over the years, and even to this day, is very, very humbling. I wrote it as a song writing exercise when I was in my early twenties and just starting to write songs for what would become Spain. I was coming out of a background steeped in punk rock and I wanted to slow down and simplify things. I wanted to approach songwriting as an artist and not just as an angry teenager, and “Spiritual” was one of the first songs to come out of this self-awareness and songsmith evolution. I wanted to write a slow country-gospel song about a person who had burned all his bridges and was reaching out to the last hope of redemption and that to him was Jesus. People ask me all the time if I’m Christian because of this song. I tell them I believe in God but not in the way organized religion promotes the idea of God. I’m a spiritual artist.

When Spain’s first album The Blue Moods Of Spain was released in 1995 the song that initially got the most recognition and radio airplay was “Untitled #1”. That’s probably our second most popular song. It wasn’t until Johnny Cash covered “Spiritual” that “Spiritual” became the standard and I have Mr. Cash to thank for that. Rick Rubin was Cash’s producer and he LOVED the Blue Moods album. I had a friend who worked at a record store in L.A. who told me Rick came in the store and bought thirty copies of the album to give to his friends. Rick introduced “Spiritual” to Cash which is how Cash recorded it. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers played bass on it. We’re friends to this day. Flea told me that when Cash was in the vocal booth he sang “Spiritual” with his hands clasped in prayer.

My dad and his close friend jazz guitarist Pat Metheny recorded “Spiritual” for their duet album Beyond The Missouri Sky. This is probably the most influential version of the song. It has inspired so many artists and writers. Annie Proulx said she listened to this version of the song over and over while she was writing Brokeback Mountain.

Soulsavers recorded “Spiritual” for their 2007 album It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s The Way You Land. It might be a little sacrilegious but this is my favorite version. I love Mark Lanegan so much, and it is such an honor that he sang one of my songs. When I’m standing next to Lanegan I try to speak but just end up sounding like an idiot. Rich from the Soulsavers told me that when Lanegan was in the vocal booth the sound engineer accidentally turned up the headphones too loud and zapped Lanegan with loud, piercing feedback which as any musician knows can be deadly to your ears. Lanegan was so mad he couldn’t sing the second verse and you can hear that tension in the song. It’s real.

What’s on tap for you next? 

Right now there are two simultaneous fires raging on the outskirts of Los Angeles and the air is filled with smoke. The view out my window is like pea soup. Global warming is turning the Southern California landscape into a tinderbox. When I was a kid it used to rain for three or four days straight where we lived. Now it rarely rains. We have nationalism, fear and Donald Trump. My dad used to say every time a Republican was nominated for president it was time for another Liberation Music Orchestra album. You have Brexit in the U.K. and it’s the same thing. It’s time for another Soulsavers album.

I feel so lucky to be able to record my songs and tour. I feel so lucky to be able to work with such amazing musicians and play my music for my amazing fans. World problems make some people depressed but to me I get inspired to write better songs and to better myself as a person. I don’t know if musicians and songs can bring stability to the world but I’d like to try. Spain just released a new album and toured on it for a month in Europe. It’s harder for me to tour in the States. Right now my plan is to have a Spain residency once a week in L.A. and build the audience here which will help setting up a West Coast tour and hopefully a national tour later on. My European booking agent is soliciting for another European tour in the Fall and the audience just keeps getting bigger there. And starting on the next Spain record, I already have two songs written for that. So that’s what’s on tap.

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