A Conversation with Michael McDonald
Mike Ragogna: Hey Michael, it's great to talk with you again. Thank you very much for taking the interview.
Michael McDonald: Oh, it's my pleasure, thank you.
MR: I wanted to ask you about the new Dukes Of September DVD/Blu-Ray that's out. You've been performing as this configuration for a while, how would you sum up your experience in general on the road with the Dukes?
MM: Well it was great fun the whole time. I think it started for us with the fact that it was a fantasy, self-indulgent endeavor on our part. We all have our perspective bands that we work with, we play our own music, which in so many people's eyes would be a dream job, and it is, but of course anything you do long enouch, it's not that you don't enjoy it anymore, it just becomes what you do all the time. As much as I love playing with my band, and I truly, truly do, it was a nice departure. Better than that, even, it was a chance to play songs that--I think I speak for all of us on this--some of the songs we do in the show are songs I haven't done since I was fourteen or fifteen years old, so it was great fun to be up there with such a fantastic ensemble musically. And to be taking the stage with Donald [Fagen] and Boz [Scaggs] once again after all these years is always something that means a lot to me. Just the idea that I'm up there singing a song that I used to sing with a girl singer in the band I was part of in 1967, there's just something wonderful about that.
MR: It's very obvious that the three of you have such a love of R&B. Some of the choices you made are wonderful such as "Who's That Lady?" What are some of the songs that were most fun to perform?
MM: Well it's fun for me to play some of this stuff with Donald and Boz aside from the oldies that we all love, I really love doing "Lowdown," because to me it's just one of the classic R&B songs, as classic as any of the other ones that we're doing. And I loved doing "Peg" and I loved doing "Kid Charlegmagne." It's just great fun to be up there with Donald doing those songs. And I loved doing my stuff with a different band doing a totally different take. Every time you get up with a different bass player and a different drummer you're going to get a different result. One of the things I've really learned over the years is so many times I think an artist will get up and they want this band to play their song exactly the way they're used to hearing it played by their band, and I think that's a futile effort, I really do. I think at best you're just frustrating yourself, because these are different people and if you really want to get what they do best you need to let them play it the way they would play it, with what their instincts tell them to do and then you can kind of work with it from there. But you have to first of all start of accepting that these guys are going to play the song, not my band, and I need to appreciate what they bring to this moment and then work from there if I have any suggestions. But when you're playing with world-class players you kind of have to start out trusting their instincts, I find. You're just better off if you do. That's become fun for me over the years. If I get up and play with The Roots, I love what they do with songs. I love how they feel and hear the songs and it's uniquely their interpretation. With those guys I'm almost amazed with how much attention to detail they pay. They'll be playing synth parts that I don't even remember from the first records. I crack up, "I haven't even thought about that in years, since 1975," but the thing is they'll make it work in a new, more contemporary, funkier version of the song. Same thing with the Steely Dan band. Those guys just do it their own way and it's such a great experience to play the original stuff with those guys.
MR: When you hear some of the reinterpretations, are there any parts that make you go, "Damn, I wish that I had done that originally?"
MM: Oh yeah, sure, many times. I think you always take away something that you'll probably introduce to your band, a different way that the same part was approached, you'll get back with your band and go, "Hey, let's make this section a little more tight-feeling," simply because that's the way the other band played it and it grew on you.
MR: What about the back-up band? What are they bringing into the mix and how is the relationship with all you guys?
MM: Oh, it was just great fun. We all hang together. We three principles kind of do our own thing, but if I'm going to go out to dinner it's usually with one of the guys in the band. You get a little stir-crazy up there and you want to get out, so everybody kind of mingles at their own pace. Mostly on the tour Shannon [Forrest] and I--we were doing a record together this whole time, and we've been doing this record over eight years--we would go to dinner and talk about what we were going to do next, so we were kind of a natural pairing on the road, but everybody kind of goes off on their own little jaunts. We travel in small groups.
MR: You brought Shannon Forrest into the mix, did the other guys bring any of their troops?
MM: Yeah, between band and crew we all brought our significant crew guys who kind of collaborated to run the operation technically every night. Don had his personal guy to handle the acoustic piano, Boz had a couple of guys in his crew to handle his guitars and monitoring, so we all had specific guys in specialist positions to handle our stage monitor mix and stuff like that. Boz and I have a guy that we both use a lot so that was an easy collaboration there. We just look for every place we can to use redundancies that will save us money out there. But everybody has their specific needs and the things that make them comfortable, so we kind of take that into consideration, too. The Dukes is a lot larger operation than anybody I go out with.
MR: This particular tracklist on the DVD is for PBS, but I imagine you've got a much larger catalog for this configuration.
MM: Absolutely. We might have even played more songs that night than they used in the edited version of the concert.
MR: Was it just the time limit that confined it to this track list?
MM: Yeah. In some cases, I think it was personal choice by one of the principles. For me, there was one song that I loved doing, "If You Don't Know Me By Now," it's a great tune but that night was not a particularly good performance on my part. I kind of hit some stinkers on that one and we were trying not to redo our vocals on this. In the end there might have been some technical snafus that we absolutely had to redo, but short of that none of us replaced much. I just kind of eliminated what I didn't think was acceptable. There were nights when that song went really well, but that just wasn't one of them, so I just kind of edited those things that I didn't think were particularly all that great and I just kept things where I had a choice, songs that I sang, and hoped that I sang in tune on the rest of everything else. It's a very live performance and the mix was overseen by Donald and Pat, our engineer and they did a good job. We had some technical snafus. I don't think they were prepared for how loud I sing, so typically my voice winds up sounding very small or distorted because it hits the compressor so hard that it kind of washes out, so we had to work around that.
MR: I'm not sure you have anything to worry about. It came off very smooth, it was a beautiful presentation.
MM: Oh good. Those guys kind of saved it in the studio, it was a little problematic when I first heard the tapes, it just sounded like everything on my vocals kind of got real quiet at the end of every line because you could hear the compressors kind of squashing it, which is what they're meant to do, but they would've backed them off a little bit had they known how loud I was going to hit them.
MR: Hey, was it also fun working with director David Horn on this?
MM: Oh yes, absolutely. He did a great job. Those guys are great because they in no way hinder the musical performance, and yet they get the most out of it I think visually. They pretty much have their whole thing set by the second dress rehearsal. It was almost like they didn't know we were there, we were just playing a show, which I think speaks a lot.
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
MM: You know, if I look back on anything about my own career or the careers of my friends who I've seen persevere, I think it's to believe in yourself and what you do. Believe that you have something to bring to the mix of whatever genre you're trying to approach. If you're a blues artist, look for what is unique about yourself and keep your faith in that. At the same time, keep your head open so you don't look at everything as criticism or the kind of input that would make you cynical after a while. That was what was hard coming up. I think by the time I had joined Steely Dan I had pretty much given up on being a solo artist. I came out to California with a record deal from RCA records and I thought I was going to make an album, go home, and hear it on the radio a couple weeks later. I had no idea what it would be like in California. But I found by the time I got the break with Steely Dan...I didn't even realize it was just the best gig I had gotten, and with the band that was my all-time favorite band ever since The Beatles. It was a dream come true on a lot of levels, but I still didn't see myself as a recording artist anymore. I thought, "Well, I've run that gambit." My ambition at that point was to play as many sessions as I could whether it was singing or playing and then fill it in with the live club gigs around LA, and then my dream became, "Oh man, if I could just get a gig with Steely Dan or The Eagles or someone like that and go on the road as a utility guy..." Of course, I never dreamed I would end up writing music for a band like The Doobies, but they were just situations that presented themselves. I think that only comes from keeping the faith. To young artists, I think that's sometimes the hardest thing to do, just keep the faith and understand that nine out of ten things are not going to go your way. But if it does, it can make all the difference in the world in terms of how it effects your over all career and your life. You have to be looking for the door that's open and not paying too much attention to the ones that close.
MR: Beautiful. It must feel amazing to have a career where you not only did you have your own hits, but you had hits with The Doobies, and you're on hits where your voice is prominent with Christopher Cross and Nicolette Larson and others over the years. In my opinion, Michael McDonald has left a nice mark on pop music history.
MM: Well, that's nice of you to say, Michael, I appreciate that. I'm thrilled to have been a part of the seventies music scene in California because to me it will always be one of the best times in California music, like the late sixties. I hated to miss that, because that was my era when I used to sit at home in my bedroom all night long on a school night listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash, Buffalo Springfield, all those bands. But the seventies was equally great and I got to be a part of it and I got to work with some people who, up until that point I had only imagined what it would be like to meet them. So it was a real dream come true for me and in hindsight I wouldn't have it any other way, I wouldn't pick any other decade. The seventies for me was a lot of fun. I think the most rewarding thing, too, is that I still get to be friends with all these guys all these years later, The Doobies, Boz, Walter and all the people from over the years. It was nice to have the experience, but it was particularly nice to share it with those guys.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Charlie Daniels
Mike Ragogna: All right, Charlie, you have a new album, Off The Grid: Doing It Dylan. Why, Charlie? Why now? Why Dylan? What's going on here!
Charlie Daniels: [laughs] Well, let me give you just a little thumbnail sketch here of what happened. There was a TV show called Hell On Wheels that we were asked to do some music for and we had to revert back to influences that were around the eighteen hundreds when the show was set. We did an acoustical thing, and we had never done that before. All along in the history of the Charlie Daniels band we had never done an acoustical thing and we were so taken with the results we decided, "Let's do an album." What better way than doing a Dylan album? I've been a big Dylan fan for so many years and have a history with him, some work I did back in the sixties, it just seemed like an idea whose time had come. Our criteria for doing it was to pick songs that we could kind of put our mark on. I didn't want to copy Dylan's arrangements or the arrangements of other people who had done his work had done, so if we came across a song that we didn't feel we could put our mark on we just moved on to something else, which was no problem because you never run out of material with Dylan.
MR: You kick the album off with "Tangled Up In Blue," which is my favorite Dylan composition, and you tackled it like it was a Charlie Daniels song.
CD: That's the way we did all the songs. We tried to do them all that way. If you listen to the tunes on our album and then any way it's been done before, there have to be some similarities because it's the same song. But basically, it's a whole new treatment of the tunes. That's what I was trying to accomplish when I did it. I just sat in the studio with my guys in the band and said, "Let's try this, let's try that," and just put it together and kept on until we found something we liked.
MR: Yeah, and you have your sense of humor intact, like you can feel it beneath your take on "Quinn The Eskimo."
CD: I don't know what that song means, but it's a nice song to do. In fact, there are quite a few songs on there where I don't know what they mean but I don't think it's that important with the Dylan stuff; it's just Dylan. What else can you say? He's one of a kind.
MR: And "Gotta Serve Somebody" is another one that's got your thumbprint on it now.
CD: You're making me feel good. That's exactly what we were trying to do and I'm glad you perceive it as such.
MR: How do you view your music these days? What is your musical mission statement?
CD: I don't have any particular genre of music that I'm trying to push or to do or anything. I'm seventy-seven years old, I have been doing this for fifty-six years, I have done a lot of different kinds of music in my life, I enjoy some of all of it, and what I'm doing now is just picking projects. This is the first record of new music we've had out since 2007, I think. It's just a matter of finding a project that we can do something unique with. Every year, I used to go and do an album, which was fine, I love doing it and it was part of what we had to do for the record company. It was a pressure-type thing and I operate well under pressure. It wasn't the pressure that bothered me, but now... Well, one thing I'll tell you about me that you never would have guessed... A member of my band and I have been working on a symphony for a long time that I hope to bring to fruition one of these days. It's a long way from finished, but our parameters go that far. If it's something I feel, like a bluegrass album's the best thing we've got to do, I come up with an idea, something unique, something a little different, that's what I'm interested in doing these days.
MR: You've contributed to pop culture, especially with "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." If you look at that recording all these years later, what was the magic behind it?
CD: I wish I knew, Mike. I'd do it again. I've had ample opportunities to answer the same question you're asking me right now, and the honest truth about it is I don't know except that the story is timeless. People tend to like story songs, the story will never go out of style, we're into our third generation now. It's got a novelty effect with the fiddle and the battle between the devil and Johnny; it's a really unique piece of work that just came about. But basically, it was just a matter of need. We were doing an album and didn't have a fiddle tune and decided we needed a fiddle tune, so we went in and wrote one. Some of the best things happen kind of off the cuff sometimes. Insofar as what did happen, I don't know exactly what it was, but I sure am glad it did.
MR: It was great because you also hint at elements of the Crossroads story, only instead of applying it to the blues, it was to the fiddle, which is awesome.
CD: Well, I'm a Christian, so when people say it's some kind of demonic thing--it's not, it's just a fun song. I've played that song a million times and the devil will still never win.
MR: One of my favorite songs on that album was "Mississippi." I love that recording.
CD: I like it too. I like the state of Mississippi, being a Southerner, but I like it on account of the mellower side. It's something that comes out every once in a while, as I said I have a wide taste in music but at the same time I have the ability to ride a wide range of music. Like we were discussing earlier, I don't know what I'm going to do next, there's just no telling. I may do a jazz album, I don't know. I've got the musicians capable of doing it, we play jazz, if we write enough stuff that's worthwhile to make an album we might do it, you never can tell.
MR: Would that follow your symphony?
CD: It would probably proceed it because symphony writing's kind of slow. I don't write music, my other guy does; I can't read and write music.
MR: I'm sure it will be great when it's completed. Hey Charlie, what advice do you have for new artists?
CD: Are you speaking creatively or career-wise?
MR: However you look at that.
CD: Well, creatively, I think everybody's talent, everybody's ability, everybody's approach is different. I'd first of all say be gentle with yourself in the learning process and the creative process. One of the main things that happens with people is we tend to get a little impatient and turn things in before they're done. I had a very good teacher, Bob Johnston, the man who brought me to Nashville and put me on the demo sessions, the guy has meant so much in my whole career; he taught me very early on that there is a rhyme for every word, there is a melody for every lyric idea if you're just willing to look hard enough for it. That's the first thing, develop a work ethic where you don't try to listen to a good song before it's completely finished and be honest with yourself. If it's not good, don't tell yourself it is good, stay with it until it is.
MR: You mentioned Bob Johnston earlier on regarding the demo sessions. So this album, in some respects, sort of takes you full circle since it focuses on Bob Dylan.
CD: I guess you could say that. Gosh, it doesn't seem like that long ago that we were doing the Nashville Skyline album. It doesn't seem like that was 1969. I guess full circle is a good way to put it, but let's hope the circle isn't completed yet. [laughs]
MR: Is the South still going to do it again?
CD: [laughs] It's done, done it, it's already happened!
MR: Any words of wisdom at seventy-seven?
CD: Words of wisdom? Being a Christian I'd say trust in God with all your heart and just go for it, enjoy your life.
MR: Beautiful. You're awesome.
CD: Thank you very much.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins
Mike Ragogna: I feel like your new album, A Dotted Line, is like Nickel Creek 3.0, skipping right by 2.0. What in the world happened here, Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek?
Sara Watkins: [laughs] I think nine years happened. You know what's funny, whenever I think back on that time, I think of the last show that we did which was in November of 2007. For me, I think it's only been seven years because a lot of things happened during the last two years of the band where we diversified a lot and relaxed a lot with knowing that we were going to put it on the shelf for a while and relax into who we were as a band a little bit and enjoy it in a new way. I think that was really good, to put it on the shelf when we did. Each of us have had these really great career adventures in the mean time and in so doing I think we've lived a lot of life. We have dug into a variety of projects in the time that have strengthened us. I can really only speak individually in detail but being invited to be a part of touring as a sideman for The Decemberists for about seven months between two of my solo records was great because I had time to work on songs and I also got to be on stage with this great band that has an amazing reputation with their audience and puts on a show in a way that felt completely different to Nickel Creek. It was so much fun.
Getting to be a part of Prairie Home Companion over the years and seeing how Garrison Keillor relates to his audience, it's a very different show from Nickel Creek. What he does is so special and so unique and so personal and millions of people identify with it and love it and I think those are two examples of things that I've gotten to be a part of but there are so many more where you get to see people, you get to open for people or be on tour with people who do a show in a completely different way and bring these people together and develop this relationship with their audience. There are so many ways to do a show and to be a performer and so many ways to have a relationship with the audience, to see that diversity was really great, and then being able to use that diversity that I saw and was able to be a part of in my own shows to figure out what I want to do and how I want to do shows and the songs that I want to write and bring it to a point where I get to have this relationship with the audience was really great. Those are the kinds of things that happened over the seven years for me that have made me a stronger individual musician. Because of that, I feel like I'm a better teammate in whatever band I'm in. I can only imagine, those being my experiences, that the guys have gone through something similar. I think being stronger individuals has made us a stronger band.
MR: And also I would say beyond musical growth, because of different affiliations and different adventures that you were having on your solo projects I'm imagining that as people you all grew up, so you're bringing more than just the music. You and your brother have gone through whatever you've gone through, Chris has gone through the Goat Rodeo and also his stuff, so that has probably also matured the band.
SW: Yeah, I think those things are very closely related. Who you are as a person and the things that you go through effect the way that you see the world, which then effects your output. Especially when you have the luxury of your job working through that output. I mean, everybody puts things into their world, but it comes through your soloing even, when you're not even saying words who you are as a person and what's going on in your life will come through your solo. Or it should come through in your soloing. And I think when you're singing and writing words it's even easier for that to be understood and interpreted through what you're writing. Also, as a band, our personal relationship has always effected the music. There have been times over the years where we'd get in a fight before a show where one of us would be passive aggressive and be mad at the other person and then somewhere during the show there's this whole apology and forgiveness that takes place on stage and the audience has no idea but we do. It affects how we play and it affects how we relate to each other on stage. We've never really faked relationships with each other, it's always been a very straight thing. I know a lot of bands just don't like each other and they function for a long time like that, but for us we always got along really well. I think respect for each other and appreciation of each other is a big thing that we enjoy sharing in the band and it makes playing music together a lot more fun.
MR: "Destination," "Christmas Eve" and "21st Of May," these are recordings that I never would've imagined Nickel Creek releasing the last time out. Yes, the band always innovated within bluegrass and within "folk-meets-country-meets-bluegrass," but this time out, you're adding even more elements.
SW: Yeah, I think that a lot of that is these individual traits that I feel like we're bringing to the table, and that we couldn't have done it on the last album because that was nine years ago and we were in our mid twenties at that point. There's a big difference between mid-twenties and early thirties. I was, what, twenty-four when we made the last record and I'm thirty two now? That's a big difference in life. I feel really good about it, I really enjoy the age that I am now and I enjoy music from this perspective. I feel very comfortable and really happy at this age. I think it suits the nature of the band as well. Our second record felt a little more adolescent in some ways, and on the third record, we were actually on a little bit more solid ground. I hope that with this record, we were able to make another firm step onto something worth stepping on.
MR: "Christmas Eve" is such an unusual, progressive song with all the key changes in presents. How does your creative process these days differ from the old days?
SW: It felt really balanced this time around. In the past, there were a lot of times when someone would bring a song in and have a pretty clear picture of what it would sound like. We would customize it a little bit, but there was a fairly fully-formed picture of what the song should sound like in the composer's mind. This time around there were a couple of tunes where that happened, but there were more instances where we collaborated really well together and all that had to do with was communicating in a new way like adults and appreciating those things in each other that we had--after living in such tight quarters for so long, spending more time together than apart--forgotten to appreciate, even though they're worth appreciating. I think that the distance had been nice for us to see each other in a new light and regain that excitement and appreciation for each other. I think it's been really healthy for us. "Christmas Eve" was something that Sean wrote; he started it a while back and not finished it. He had the first verse and chorus and didn't quite know what else to say about it and it hadn't been finished, so he got it to the band and we worked on the bridge together and adapted it, maybe changed a chord here or there, but that first initiation was from Sean and then we finished it together. He wrote all the lyrics, but musically, it was a great collaboration on the parts that hadn't been written yet. A lot of the songs were like that. We had a really good time working together on it, it wasn't a struggle at all. The things that were a puzzle to be solved were a little challenging, but it wasn't because of personal issues, it was just trying to find all the pieces to solve the puzzle.
MR: Does it feel like now, more than in the past, there is a contentment and trust within the band, where when somebody brings something in creatively, it very easily becomes a group property that everybody works to make the best song or recording possible?
SW: Well, there are fundamental issues that are totally resolved for us. That is clear. Another understanding that we have always had as a band is that whoever's singing the song needs to be comfortable and feel good about the lyrics that we are singing. What we did on the album is whoever was singing the song wrote the lyrics and then once they were at a pretty final stage, we'd go through them and if there were tiny things that could have been changed, we'd talk to them. But the bulk of the lyrics are written by whoever's singing them. There were lots of discussions beforehand trying to figure out what they should be, how to describe what they're about and the metaphors to use and making sure of continuity and tense, but we have a fundamental agreement on the starting place for things. I think any band that's been together for a number of years develops a certain way of communicating and just this common language of what they expect from a song, where they should go with something or important ways to treat a song, balancing it out, making sure there are surprises, things like that. It's not so comfortable that any one of us could create a Nickel Creek song without the others. I think input has always been important and actual collaboration is important, but there are certain fundamental values to songs that I think we agree on and when we work on a song together it comes out in a way that it just becomes a Nickel Creek song. Sean and I could work together and it wouldn't be a Nickel Creek song. We have a lot of the same values when we work together that we do with the band but there's ust something very special--it's the same thing with Chris and I, we've done some things together but the way Sean plays and the way he sings and what he adds is very specific. It's been really fun getting to experience our individuality in a new way. Having stepped away for a long time we're stronger individuals and yet there's still this great familiarity from all the years we've played together.
MR: Do you have any pet songs on this project?
SW: "Destination" is a pet song for me just because I have such a long history with it, I've been wanting to write it for a long time and I just couldn't figure out the right lyrics and I struggled with the lyrics a lot on this , just to find the right way to say what I wanted to say. So there's a little bit of satisfaction just knowing that I finally did it and made it and played it into existence, and then there are songs like "Christmas Eve" and "Love Of Mine," that one took a particular journey when we were writing it, it was fun discovering where that song would end up. That one I feel very close to. The covers are really fun and interesting as well, it's nice to sing songs from another person's perspective sometimes. "Where Is Love Now" is a song that I've been singing for a while. We even did it at a few Nickel Creek shows back in the day, but we never recorded it. I considered recording it on a solo project but I hadn't really found the right place for it, and I'm glad because it was a really nice contribution to this album. And "Hayloft," which Chris brought in, is so fun. That's going to be great live.
MR: It seems like Sam Phillips is everybody's best kept secret. I don't understand why.
SW: Yeah! She's definitely a songwriters' favorite. She's great, and I don't know why she's not better known. I really love her stuff for songwriting and she did a performance at Largo in LA that was such a great show, it was really well put together, really thoughtfully done and had tones of vibe and a killer band. It was really good. She doesn't perform much, but when she does it's worth seeing.
MR: How are you doing these day on a personal level?
SW: I'm great, I'm doing really well. I moved to Los Angeles in the last few months, my husband and I got a place on the east side and we love it, we're having a great time and feel very much at home here after about ten years of commuting. I'm doing really well. I'm just starting to gather songs for my next solo record and figuring out the shape of that and what sort of direction I want to go in terms of its location and people and all that. It's good. It feels like things are moving in the right direction.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SW: Ah. See a bunch of shows. Go to as many shows as you can and try to invest yourself in a community of players who are lifers and who you can just be with and share life with and play with. It's important to go to shows but it's also important to learn other people's songs. There's a lot of songwriters who only know their own songs. A lot of my favorite songwriters are also great song collectors and they learn songs they love and there's this great appreciation. Music is not like a painting where it just exists and that's it and everyone has to look at that painting to appreciate it. You can learn other peoples' songs and enjoy it within yourself. Some of my favorite songwriters, Jackson Browne being one of them, Gillian Welch, Willie Nelson, Fiona Apple, all of these people who are very active in music and have been their whole lives are huge song collectors and know a boatload of songs. They know what they love about them and they love them so much that they learn them because they just want to be able to sing them all the time. In learning them you find new ways to appreciate them and you kind of figure out, "Oh, that's why I love that second part so much," because it ties in with this other thing that was happening or it sends you in a direction thinking about something that will pay off in the third verse, or the rhyme scheme doesn't make sense at all but for some reason it just feels so good. I think that is a very important thing for young artists.
MR: Twenty-five years...who would've thought it, huh?
SW: I know. It's funny, it just feels normal to me. I grew up in this band. So it feels very, very normal. It'll definitely be a celebration, to be on stage together, but it'll also feel like the most normal thing in the world.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with City Under Siege's John Wittlinger
Mike Ragogna: You're quoted as being proud of being a pop band. What do you think "pop" means these days?
John Wittlinger: Pop music these days can span across a few different sub-genres. These days, you dont have to be Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys to be a pop band. But I guess to me, pop music is any mainstream music that is catchy, has a good hook, an infectious beat, and that a mass audience can relate to. I'd say pop music today is written more for enjoyment first and artistry second. I feel like City Under Siege is trying to do that by writing songs that are fun and easy to listen to with a lot of relate-ability. But at the same time, we are trying to bring some of the artistry back into pop. I feel like you can get sucked into writing to a formula or a certain way just to make people happy and that's fine. We are guilty of that, just like any other pop band but were just trying to write music that is pop but yet retains some artistry. I think if you can find that fine line, you can be successful.
MR: You have a new EP that bears the group's name. Is that because you feel this is more of a creative representation of the group than a song cycle?
JW: I think we chose to self-title the EP because it represents a new begining for us. We have some old records and EPs over the past 4 or 5 years and they hinted at being pop but were more straight rock-indie. But with this record, we have fully-committed to being a pop band gone more mainstream than ever with our sound, so I would say yes and no. This represents us as a band and this song cycle.
MR: Take us on a tour of the EP's tracks.
JW: The EP starts off with a track called "Believe." It was released a little while ago as a single before we even knew we were going to record this EP. We just went down to Atlanta to record one song with Matt Malpass cause we needed a fresh perspective and a fresh voice helping us to produce a track. I went down there not knowing what to expect. Malpass has worked with some of my favorite bands such as Cartel, Relient k, and Train. That is why we picked him. We knew that if we went with him, he would give us that pop sound we were looking for and add some credibility to our name. So when we went and recorded "Believe" as a test song of sorts, it came out great. We made a music video for it and got it on MTV-U for a while. "Believe" is a track just about how in a relationship when you've lost someone, just wishing they could believe in that relationship, believe in a happy ending, and believe in you. I've written so many break up songs over the years. I wanted to put a new spin on it and give it some hope so I hope that comes across in the song. I hope people take away the fact that if they would just give something a chance and just believe in someone, who knows what could happen.
"Shake" is our new single on the EP that we are releasing the music video for now it is just a straight-up, infectious pop song. Its just about partying, having a good time, letting lose and having fun. This song is a little tongue-in-cheek with the whole idea being that we go to a club hoping to take a girl home, she sucks us in, and we fall for it. But at the end of the night, we end up all alone, confused as to what happened. It's something I think we all can relate to--being sucked in by a beautiful girl. She talks to us all night and then leaves with someone else or just plain leaves us alone. This song was one where we just sat down and wanted to write a pop hit and I think we did that. Its super-catchy, a lot of fun, and I hope the music video conveys that to everyone. We just want people to have fun with us, dance, and have a great time.
The next song, "Love Like That," is a little bit of a slower song and it's just about how when your falling in love or already in love it can make you do crazy things it can make you feel crazy and love can make a fool of you. It is more of an acoustic song but still really well-produced by Matt Malpass, with a lot of piano and some great light electric leads in it. "I'm On The Run" is one of my favorite tracks on the EP, it's just so upbeat, energetic and has some of our pop punk, and early adolescent influences in it. The bridge has this Thirty Seconds To Mars feel to it as well. It's just about running from your relationships, running from conflict, and running from your problems and how that isn't always the answer. This song is so much fun to play live and has so much energy. The guitar work on it is amazing and I think everyone is gonna love this song! "Details" is a song that is pretty basic its a pretty stripped-down acoustic based song that just kind of deals with the issue of overlooking people and taking them for granted in a relationship and kind-of the whole idea of not knowing what you had till it was gone. We are not reinventing the wheel with this song or any of them, really, but we are just trying to give a fresh spin on these age-old problems and ideas that I feel like still plague everyone, and I feel like everyone can relate to.
The last two songs on the EP were done at a studio here in Buffalo. After we did the first five songs with Malpass, we came home and wanted to add a couple more tracks to the EP so we went into GCR studio in Buffalo, which is owned and operated by Robby Takac from the Goo Goo Dolls. Our producer here in Buffalo--Jay Zubrucki--set out to make these two tracks a little more raw and less produced, giving them a slightly different feel. The first of the two is called "Nothing Left To Break." It is a more raw track, a little less pop, more rock with that Goo Goo Dolls feel to it. It is a song about coming to the end of your rope and you're just finished with a relationship and looking back. All you can say is there is nothing left to ruin, there is nothing left to break; I'm a broken and run down man and just kind of wishing you could go back and fix everything or maybe even go back and just be friends and never venture any deeper than that kind of dealing with not wanting to let someone in because your afraid they are gonna take advantage of your vulnerability and break you down. The last track on the EP is called "Not Alone." It's a redeeming song about how someone has messed up a relationship and being taken back, the good feeling of redemption and of forgiveness and of being where your supposed to be--in the arms of someone you love, that feeling of being at home in the right place and not being alone anymore but having someone you can rely on.
MR: Which one was the most challenging to write and why?
JW: The most challenging song to write was definitely "Shake." When we sat down to write that song, we have no ideas we had no lyrics. We just knew we wanted to write a pop hit that was radio worthy...and i think we did that! But it didn't come without its headaches and the occasional fight over creative direction and some passive aggressive arguments. [laughs]
MR: You mention that the EP has depth but that it's also a party album. Are the two compatible?
JW: I think they can be. I'd like to think that all the tracks are fun and a good, easy listen. I think they all can be taken for just pure entertainment and fun, but if you want more than that, we offer that too. If you dig deeper and listen to the lyrics, a lot of our songs deal with some pretty relevant and real issues. We deal with breakups, love, lose, redemption; we have the just straight up fun and partying songs as well. But we try to write with a depth that will make this EP something that will last and not just be a forgotten one hit EP.
MR: If you were able to work in the studio in any capacity with another current act, who would that be and what would you like to contribute to the project?
JW: I think I would love to work with Matt Nathanson and I'm not sure I could contribute anything. He is a genius. I'd just want to learn everything I could from him! If anything, I'd love to contribute some lyrics to his work, though I love to write, obviously, and it would be fun to help him write lyrics for a song.
MR: What's the group's secret origin?
JW: Well, myself and Matt Buscarino, lead guitarist, worked together at Tim Hortons, which is a coffee shop popular up here in Buffalo. His dad ownes a couple of them and we met and found out about each other's passion for music and have been playing together ever since. The other members have come and gone and we have found them various ways, but Matt and I are the two founding members and write all the material.
MR: What do you want to achieve with the band, like what is the long range vision?
JW: I want to be able to have songs on the radio to touch millions of peoples lives. There is so much depressing stuff happening out there, and there are so many lonely people; there's so much hurt. I want our band to be someone's escape, even if it's for 30 minutes a night. When they come to see us live or listen to the new EP, I wanna put smiles on peoples' faces. I want people to know who we are and to want to hang with us; I want people to feel like they know us and can relate to us. We're just a bunch of regular guys doing something we love and having a great time doing it, so all that to say this--that my long term goal for the band is to affect peoples lives, to give them joy, hope, and happiness, and if we can do that in any small way shape or form, I'd consider us successful. Making some money along the way wouldn't be a bad ting either. [laughs]
MR: What is your advice to new or evolving artists?
JW: Don't take yourself too seriously, have fun, and don't forget why you are doing what you're doing. If you don't have goals and you don't have a purpose, people will see right through it and won't buy you or your material. Just be real.
MR: Any words of wisdom?
JW: One word. Persistence!