This was the first time since working at WHAR that I had a soundcheck interview with a band, and the first time I had heard "Sid Sowder +1" in a while. What a lovely sound. Of course weigh that few dollar savings against having to show up at 6pm for a show that wont start until 11pm and it doesn't sound nearly so much like a free ride.
I left work at 5pm and hopped on a sunny I-70 toll road into Lawrence. I popped in Night in Gales's death metal opus Towards the Twilight and started thinking about the questions I'd ask Varnaline in an hour. The drive went by real quick, I guess it's just something different from the constant K10 trip out to Lawrence and ya really can't whine about $1.25 toll.
Armed with a black and white print out of a fuzzy picture from a web page I hunted down Anders from Varnaline and introduced myself. We made small talk as we walked down the street to check out a music store and buy a capo for someone in Sparklehorse. You know just "Where ya from?", "How'd you end up there?" type questions. Anders was looking for a roadworthy partial hollow body which he wouldn't find though he was drawn to a 1910s Gibson "parlor guitar." After admitting he couldn't afford to be the guitar collector he would like to be we walked up front to pay for the capo. The happy guy behind the counter spotted a band in town and pumped Anders for information.
"What kinda band are you?"
Anders thought for a second then almost begrudgingly replied "Rock, for lack of a better word."
We walked back to the club and decided we'd do the interview after their soundcheck. This gave me time to organize my questions and enjoy the free pool tables while Sparklehorse continued through a painful soundcheck. After an hour or two each bands' sound guys had okayed everything and Anders invited me to conduct the interview while he ate his "buy out."
The other members of the band (Jed and John and a traveling sound guy/road manager named Jason) had already asked for a place to get a good salad so I pointed them towards the Mass St. Deli assuming that Anders and I would be eating with the rest of the band. What I thought was a given turned out to be wrong because after we all arrived at the same place, he requested a different table from the rest of the band.
The last EP was just you, why was that?
Just recordings I've been doing. These guys were doing other things, Jed was working on a Reservoir record and John was just working and I'm always recording something. I live in this house, record all these songs and talked about doing a full length kind of acoustic record and that didn't really pan out the way, or just didn't seem to make sense. But we all listened to the songs and thought there was something there and it just seemed to fill this gap and represent another thing that we do as a band.
So that came with the Varnaline moniker on it. Did the band as a whole say "Yeah these are definitely Varnaline songs", opposed to these could be solo efforts for you, or was it really your call?
Well the first record was all me as well, Man of Sin, so it kind of fit in that way. I thought for a little while about putting out my own thing but it's all kind of Varnaline stuff. That's the reason. We all talked about it as a band, there are three of us
Have all your music outlets been Varnaline?
Yeah more or less. I played on the second Space Needle record which is kinda more of a collaborative type thing, as far as just making the music. Pretty much most all the songs I've written have been Varnaline songs, which up until now has been the main outlet. In the next year things may change. I'm not really sure what's going to happen. This is the last record for Zero Hour, and this will be our last tour for this record so the next year is going to kind of redefine what I'm doing, what we're doing as a band.
Who else was in involved Space Needle?
Jed was. It was mostly Jed and this other guy Jeff, a friend from Long Island and I just kinda ended up joining and playing on tour and playing on the second album.
When you look at the Space Needle record and even the self titled album there is quite a bit of experimentation with sounds and with the new album the experimentation is there but it's in a totally different way. It manifests itself with more non traditional rock elements, with different instrumentation and things about the arrangements. How does your need to experiment come out. Is it "I'm going to add something because I think this would be a real focal and interest point." or "Is it this is so much a part of the song - it wasn't an afterthought."
It's kinda both ways. Ultimately it's what the songs needs. Also there is a certain element of keeping yourself interested and exploring different avenues opposed too making music. The Ramones are great but they just do their thing. It's always been about the songs but every record has been pretty radically different with Varnaline I think and Space Needle too. There's a certain way to attack it in some sort of way that makes it interesting but you've got to listen to what the song needs and what the song tells you do.
With the new record I tried to make this really kind of lush, almost like orchestral sounding, but not really with an orchestra. Just a deep sound with not too many instruments, I don't know if it really achieved that but it's got a really distinct sound, a wide open type sound.
So is there any direction of progress, any area that you see yourself heading towards as far as sound?
I mean there's always a struggle to get what you hear in your head onto tape. But as far as a pointed thing, it really depends on the group of songs that you put on your records. That's how I approach things. When you're making an album, you're making an album opposed to making singles. Although I think individually crafting songs is really important too. What is pushing the record is the concept of what the whole sound is gonna be like, and what the relationships of the songs to each other are. And at a certain point just striking out into the darkness to see what you get. There is a lot to be said for just kinda going and seeing what happens and sometimes unexpected great things happen.
Where are you hoping things go? Would you be interested if Zero Hour said "let's do another four" and "sign on the dotted line"?
I don't know. That's why I'm seeing what's going to happen. At this point I want to make records and it's about making records and making music and playing and I don't really know what label is going to be involved in doing that but that is what I'm trying to find out.
What role should a label play?
Well it should help you get your music out. It's hard because there are so many grey areas about what they should do and what they shouldn't do and their ideas and what they perceive is the right thing to do. A label is just a group of human beings and they're prone to as many mistakes and fuck ups as anyone else. For me, it's somebody who's going to understand what I'm doing as far as making music goes and then believe in that, get behind it. You can't really ask for more than that as far as I'm concerned. And then just get the records out there, make sure they're at the places were people can hear them and buy them.
Do you operate your own studio and record yourself?
I did the EP myself and the first record I did myself. The other two were done in proper studios but all those songs were recorded in some fashion beforehand.
What role does the studio play when writing your songs. Do you ever think "this is the effect that I'm going to go for," or is it just a live process that the studio can add but never is thought of when you're writing.
Oh definitely, those things happen. You hear different parts as far as what the instruments are going to be doing or kind of ideas on how the arrangement is going to be. Sometimes you have vague ideas but you just tinker around and see what happens.
Do you tinker for the sake of tinkering?
No, I tinker for the sake for finishing the song. Making the record the way you want it to be. The one thing that I really realize is that I want to bridge the gap between doing home recording and so-called professional studio recordings. I wanna bring those closer together. I don't want to record in studios. And I think its great to have the equipment and what have you, but I feel more comfortable doing it by myself in an environment that is less structured and relaxed.
What does a home studio mean? Does it mean any amount of equipment at home or does it mean a 8 track?
I don't think equipment really has that much to do with it depending on where you want to go. I think the way the technology is now people place too much importance to types of equipment. I mean there are certainly pieces of equipment that are great to have, like microphones that would be great to have, but you don't want to get caught up in thinking about that because it's an endless road and you get in to this trap that thinking equipment is the important thing and it really isn't. It's the songs and how you do them.
You did a song on the Fleetwood Mac tribute. Was that a real tribute in that Fleetwood Mac really meant something or was that just let's do a Fleetwood Mac song?
Well the song we did was kinda a really old Fleetwood Mac song, an instrumental. Yeah I'm really into them, it's kinda part of my history, listening to AM/FM radio as a kid you couldn't avoid them. I wouldn't say I was a huge fan at the time but I really appreciated them at the time and I actually listen to the records.
Is there any particular moment that stands out as being instrumental in helping you along? One show or one zine?
I wouldn't say there is one thing in particular, there have been a lot of people who have written a lot of stuff about us and I'm always amazed in the people who are interested in writing really nice things, and really thoughtful things. I think it's a cumulative thing. People just understand it and relate to it and get the intensity and feel passionate about relaying that to other people and that's how I feel about music as far as being a fan. Just being interested and wanting to share "Wow have you heard this record, have you heard this record?" just turning people onto stuff.
So you usually read your press?
No not usually. Occasionally, Dean will give me stuff when I'm at the label to read and honestly a lot of it I just miss.
What about your promo from the label? Do you know what your bio says? Do you know who wrote it?
Oh yeah yeah. A combination of a bunch of people - it got tossed around. I'm not really sure.
Can you read this [I handed him the bio printed off the website] without chuckling to yourself?
Well it's just propaganda. I think you learn after the first few records that a lot of people will just re-write the bio so basically whatever you want to see in the press is what you should write because a lot of people will literally just re-write exactly what's in the bio because they haven't listened to the record or are not going to or don't care or whatever.
You mentioned being a fan of music and an advocate for albums people may not have heard. What's in the van now?
I bought a bunch of things on the road in the last few weeks. I bought that last Massive Attack record which seems pretty cool. We listened to The Smiths' Louder than Bombs on the way up here today. Got the last Cardigans record on the road. Listening to Nick Drake a lot this tour. The White album, Scott Walker. These are all things I've listened to in the past few days.
What about the heavy rotation stuff on the alt radio stations or MTV? Anyone on there you like?
No not really, nothing I can think of.
What do you do when someone throws up a cassette or CD up on stage?
Depends. We actually had one time recently when we were playing that some guy from the band before us, never said hi before we played or whatever, but as we were playing he came up and put these two CDs at my feet, so I left those there. But if people are nice and give a cassette but there's not much you an do. I've never gotten anything that I've been totally blown away by.
Do you read on the road?
You know I've been finding it really difficult to read on the road because there's always so much stuff to do all the time. I mean I do read a lot but honestly I bought a few books on the road that I haven't even opened. I've almost finished this book on Ulysses S. Grant. I've kinda been reading Civil War stuff. I just got a copy of L.A. Confidential I want to read. John Fante book, Ask the Dust, and that's all I can remember now.
What is the ideal guitar you wish you would have found for cheap at the store we went?
I think the Fender Stratocaster is a hard guitar to beat as far as being roadworthy, and being able to take a beating and have the versatility for what I'm doing. I have a 93 and an 88. You know they're new ones, but they're great guitars. Mostly there's a couple of old Martins I'd like to get, you know that old Gibson that we saw today. And probably the next thing that I really want to do is a couple of hollow body or semi-acoustic hollow body guitars because I use them a lot to record like the Harmony that I have. I've used it on all the records and it just has the sound, it's amazing. But with our limited traveling space I usually just take a couple of strats and a couple of acoustics and that's worked out well, but given the chance I'd probably be a ridiculous guitar collector.
Your bio mentions that your band is "stomp rock/paint peel rock". What pedals are you using?
I got a Boss overdrive pedal, a rat distortion pedal which is kind of really loud. I've got a digital delay, a tremolo pedal, and a memory man which is kinda like a delay/vibrator/chorus type thing. Almost sounds like a tape echo thing, but it's not. I think that's it, five pedals.
What about in the studio, how many pedals do you work with?
It really depends. I was recording new stuff and we just kind of hook up shit just to run stuff through to see. It's usually more like one or two, but I have a lot more that I have at home, just kicking around. I'll use one for a certain sound as opposed to chaining up 10 in a row, though I'll do that too. And I just bought one the other day, a distortion pedal, so I'm always looking for something.
Do you favour your new pedals?
No I probably wont use the new one because I don't have a place to stick on the board right now. No not really I kinda avoid that. There's always that temptation but I kinda have to integrate it in and see how it fits and what works with it and go from there.
What do you play during your sound checks?
Mostly we do a few of our songs just so we can make sure everything sounds right, but whatever. We're always kinda goofing around with something. Unfortunately our soundchecks aren't usually that leisurely or long, so we kinda get up there and take care of business and if there is something we have to work on, we're gonna hammer it out and make sure it's right.
What percent of your shows on this tour have been let's-hurry- up-and-get-it-over-with shows?
Not too many, we kinda avoid, actually none. There have been shows were there haven't been that many people there, but at that point you just have to play for yourself and have fun. If you don't it can be depressing.
What are your thoughts on the big buzz about MPEG and other internet audio?
Right after I was at SXSW where I heard a lot of stuff about that, I was kinda thinking on it for a couple of days. I mean I guess I am concerned about it, as far as how it is going to change, it seems like it really is going to be a big change, but I don't know. Some ways I'm reluctant to get too crazy thinking about it, because it's just another business thing to think about which tends to take away from making music, making songs. I feel like in the past few years I've done a lot of this kinda considering, as far as tours blah blah blah. I think it's definitely going to change the way music is spread around in the next couple of decades. I have an attachment for going to a record store and buying records, actually physically purchasing a CD or record. But the kids born today wont have that nostalgia attachment to it. All they'll know is logging on and buying music that way.
The radio station this is being broadcast on is a streaming MPEG station. It's a server located in British Columbia, and about 48 DJs can make connections from their home computers and stream audio to it and it broadcasts it out to the net.
As well as "how does this affect the business of music" I think we also need to see how it affects the art of music. With people like Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and Prince to some extent can say "Now I've got what I've needed all along and I don't have that interference and now I go directly to music for me and if it doesn't sell a single unit, that's great because it wasn't for sell anyway."
I think that is what Bob Mould is going to. I think he's just going to make his own records and sell them on the internet himself. I think he's using that as his form of communication to get his word out, not dealing with record companies anymore. It definitely does away with distribution questions and those things. If someone knows about you, or they don't, they can get online and in a few seconds find out just about everything about you as far as what you have done as an artist and listen to your songs and probably in the future make a compilation and have it right there.
What role does the internet play in your life?
None right now. Jed and John both just got computers. Eventually I will but I just haven't had the money or the time to kinda get involved with it. I'm interested in it, but I just haven't gotten to it yet. I'm interested in the idea of people having access to seemingly unlimited information. I think it's pretty great.
Do you think about the electronic stalker? Would you go public and say "this is my email address" and encourage communication with fans or would you be one of the people that sits back and says "I communicate with my circle of folks but please don't post my email on the internet because I don't want..."
I haven't really thought about it. I figured if someone wants to get in touch they can though the record company or we have a PO Box or whatever. So it really hasn't been an issue and I haven't really thought about it to tell you the truth.
At that point my interview was cut a few minutes short. The food hadn't arrived and the band had to be on stage in a half hour so Anders was getting a little antsy. A few minutes later (and with a little prodding) the band's dinners arrived and Anders quickly ate and left thanking me for the interview and telling the rest of the band that he's see them at the club. That was it.
I walked back to the club with the rest of Varnaline asking about the next tour stop or the weather and how Jason got involved with the band and acted the constant tour guide for Lawrence until we got back into the club and they headed up to the band room and I sat down in a booth up front.
Anders took the stage a little before 10pm and played an acoustic number.
The band joined him and played a few more acoustic numbers before
switching to electric and then back and forth every few songs and
occasionally back to a solo acoustic performance from Anders. The band
was pretty quiet. Not sure if we even heard who they were, or where they
were from actually but they put on a good show however it seemed very
separate from the audience. Most songs were dark and slow though a few
more "rock' numbers found their way into the set and those seemed to
reach the crowd a little more. I stood up front (I may have been the only
one) and a few kids pulled up chairs but the band seemed to be really
separate from the crowd , played on a dark stage almost behind glass.
Sparklehorse came on about 20 minutes after Varnaline left and the crowd came forward. An odd mix of what appeared be to high school kids and folks in the late 30s were in attendance and I saw no one that I generally see at shows. While the instruments and amps were being explored in preset noise, their soundman/tour manager came up to me and told me I couldn't record the show. After explaining my digital camera was not a tape recorder he said gruffly "Well don't flash it too much in his face." and walked off. Whatever.
I stood up front while the band began their set with a slinky back room
rock number. The band were different than I remembered when Capital
were pushing promo copies down my throat in college radio. They were
less rock and totally unfulfilling, but in a good way. Their songs were
never full explored or they never clicked into the commercial alternative
refrain. The less rock numbers were long and expansive and completely
masturbatory and unformed. It was interesting.
However about a half hour into the set I decided to snap the rest of my shots and head home. Standing alone at a show just wasn't that much fun and that band just wasn't my thing. But I knew that before I came.