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1. The new album (Generals) is a big departure from the first one (What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood) sonically and lyrically. What motivated the change? Do feel like the debut was restrained and on this one, you’re letting loose?
Yes. The first one wasn’t restrained emotionally, I feel like it was really emotionally honest. I wanted the songs to feel like they existed forever. So, in some ways, I wanted it to feel like an old friend, that record. So I wasn’t trying to push the envelope musically anywhere. It was meant to be a record that you go to when you’re having a rough time. You put it on when you’re alone and you need someone to comfort you. It’s meant to be comforting. So this new record is about revolution and protest and change – and you can’t make a record like that sounding like an old friend. It can’t necessarily be comforting – but at the same time, it’s a concept record. So it sort of asks the question: ‘What can you do? What can we do? What can I do in a world that’s full of so much discord’? There’s so much frustration politically, socially, how do we deal with that? I think very simply the answer is love – and it might sound trite, it might sound simple or overstated but it can really just be about a kindness between a neighbor or somebody you meet on the street. Start small – even being loving to yourself – that can be revolutionary in its own way. So if we can work that stuff out on a basic level it just all filters up to the top. I told Richard Swift, who produced the record – I had such a fun time making the last record with him – and he’s since become a great friend, he came on tour with The Mynabirds last March when we did some dates with Bright Eyes – I was like let’s just get in there and fuck it up. Let’s really experiment and just try new things so we did.
2. What are you going to do with the upcoming tour? How are you going to incorporate the newer stuff with the older stuff? How will the live show change, if at all?
Well, we went on tour in March, we did a short tour around SXSW partially because I wanted to play around with it and see what works – and it’s fun, it’s a lot more theatrical. We’ve been borrowing stomp boxes from Tilly & The Wall, so we’ve incorporated stomp boxes into the performance and beating on sticks and we have a sampler and a drum machine. There’s parts of it where I’m not playing keyboard, which is fun and freeing which is interesting when you talk about revolution on every scale to sort of free yourself up, to open up to people. It’s more of a danceable show. We had so much fun on the road with the last one, I can’t wait to do the real tour. It’s crazy how people dance and it’s just so fun. It’s like another way of connecting with people. I think the last show, it was really about the lyrics and the stories the songs were telling. This way it’s almost more primal, this interaction with the audience. We’ll play the whole range of songs and I would love to hear from people if there are specific songs they want to hear. As much as I want to have fun every night, it’s kind of dependent on the fun that the audience is having.
3. I’ve heard that Bowie was somewhat of an influence on the new album. Who else were you listening to during the recording process?
I was really thinking about early PJ Harvey records a lot. Even L7 – thinking about a lot of the first music that I was listening to when I started to play music. The last record I talked a lot about Neil Young and Nina Simone. Nina Simone was still a huge influence on this record because she has some serious political protest songs! She was one of the strongest voices for the civil rights movement which I think is really inspiring. Same thing with PJ Harvey, she had a bunch of these songs that were just fun, raw rock songs. Songs like ‘Dress’, ‘Man-Size’, ‘Sheela Na Gig’ – they’re really feminist protest songs but they’re also just really cool and fun. So there’s lot of that. Maybe even a little Operation Ivy! Thinking back to being 16 and driving around with your cassette tape. Bowie for sure, Talking Heads, Grace Jones. ‘Disaster’ is a song that we very specifically reference Bowie. There’s these cascading/descending vocal lines and we were thinking of that. I was also thinking of DC go-go for that song. So it’s really kind of all over the place. You have a song like ‘Disarm’ which is kind of a fun dance song. On that one, I was really influenced by the tradition of great, meaningful pop songs that aim for social change.
4. There’s a gorgeous song towards the end of the album, more of a mellower track, ‘Mightier Than The Sword’ – what’s the meaning behind that one?
I’m really proud of that song. ‘Disaster’ plays before that and it kind of gets loud and gritty. At the end of that song there’s a bell and it’s almost like I imagined just clearing the air. ‘Mightier Than The Sword’ comes in and it’s really personal to me, it’s a very personal song. I wanted the record, as much as it’s sort of this statement of collective consciousness and collective frustration, it has to be personal, it has to be a conversation between me and you. Obama just came recently and said that he supports gay marriage which is wonderful but what’s also been in the headlines are gay teens that are committing suicide, who are finding themselves homeless, who don’t have a support system because they come from small conservative towns and families. A friend of mine committed suicide about a year and a half ago so I was thinking a lot about that and what people go through in their lives – particularly gay teens. I was trying to think what sort of a song could I write – what could you say to someone that’s contemplating suicide? What could you say to someone to convince them that it’ll get better? The only thing I can think that really might matter when you’re in that is that you are loved no matter what. You’re perfect just the way you are. Just keep doing what you’re doing, keep being who you’re being. Sometimes when we’re at our lowest and we feel that we don’t have the strength to carry on, it’s good to remember that there other people there you can just sort of give it over to. In the coda, ‘when you forget the words, I will sing them for you’ – I thought of that line and I just started singing it over and over again and it’s this call and response and it’s just like ‘don’t worry, we’ve got each other’s backs, so if you need me let me know, I’m here for you and I’m probably going to come and call on you’.
5. Can you describe the Saddle Creek crew and discuss the Bright Eyes tour?
It feels like family. I love everybody who works there. They’re all really supportive and I feel really lucky to get to work with a label that really supports their artists’ visions. They don’t try to deter you from having an artistic vision because the fact of the matter is that’s what people respond to. You don’t want to see someone watered down, no one wants that. So it was really amazing to tour with Bright Eyes. Huge venues – Radio City? To think when I was 16 – the second time I came to New York – and saw The Rockettes and then later came and saw Tori Amos – to think of all the people who’ve played that stage and to get to play that stage as well. We played Royal Albert Hall in London – just incredible. A lot of the bands that we toured with too were just so incredible. It was fun to experience that whole next level. Bright Eyes has been around for a long time so it truly is a family. I wouldn’t call it a well-oiled machine because that sounds so impersonal. Everybody who works with them, they’re good people. It was nice to do that for a year – to not have to make decisions. To let someone say ‘here’s your hotel room key, be here at this time’, that was nice.
6. Can you discuss some pop radio guilty pleasures?
I don’t believe in musical guilty pleasures. I just think that’s so wrong – if you like it, you like it, who cares? It’s really funny that you mention it though because in the cab ride over here, that Gotye song came on. You can’t escape it. I really like this song, I’ll admit it. I like the melodies in it and when I hear a song I’m trying to figure out what it is that appeals to so many people. He has succeeded as a songwriter on some level. There’s a reason why it catches on. There used to be shame in musician circles – ‘I don’t want to be just a one hit wonder’ – I’ve recently kind of changed my mind on that. Not that anyone wants to be a one hit wonder but if you think about it as writing a song that sort of gets entered into the musical cannon of our popular culture, it’s really amazing.
7. What’s in store after the North American tour? Are you gonna go to Europe, are you gonna tour the US again? Are you gonna take 5 minutes to breathe?
All of that! Nothing’s planned right now but I think the idea is we’re gonna do the summer touring and then we’ll take a short break. I think we’re gonna do fall touring in the US and then go to Europe in November. I think we’re trying to see what works out best and take opportunities wherever they are.