A Conversation with The Posies' Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer
Mike Ragogna: As Peaches & Herb would sing, "Reunited and it feels so good!" How are you guys doing?
Jon Auer: Not too bad!
Mike Ragogna: So what is all this about failure? Failure is not an option!
Ken Stringfellow: Well, we're going in order re-releasing our first albums. In a way, all of our early albums are in a questionable state. They're ripe for reissue, they certainly deserve it, I think. The label that released Failure originally, Popllama, only had US and Canadian distribution. The owner of the label Conrad [Uno] has not been super active in maintaining the label as of late, he's not doing any releases anymore. It's kind of slightly languished a little bit, the vinyl went out of print a long time ago. In 1990, they were still working the math out on CD mastering. I think whatever technological developments has happened since are surely beneficial to this release. The CD was almost an afterthought when it was released two years after the vinyl released.
JA: Rykodisc emerged as a company that was offering to put out these CDs as a side release to the "real" releases and to reissue on CD things that other labels couldn't be bothered to, believe it or not.
MR: Ryko was one of the early reissue labels. I think people forget that.
KS: East Side Digital existed in the exact same niche. They said, "We'll put out your CD because we know most labels can't be bothered with this audiophile product, so we'll put it out for you.
MR: You're putting demos and B-sides and things on there?
JA: Oh yeah. These are all getting the full-on treatment. It's funny, in the case of Failure actually maybe there wasn't as much to find as far as extras and goodies, we were just starting out back then and we weren't doing as many demos and things. Failure itself was really the demo that became a record actually. That said it's still a really cool version, there are eight extra cuts on the CD. Most of them have been out there but in a very, very limited format, only available in Spain at one point. We added one new track to this version of Failure but beyond that once we get into territories of records like the first major label release, Dear 23 and then Frosting On The Beater there is a veritable plethora of extra items and not just some kind of half-assed "This is an alternate mix that has a little less tambourine" type of vibe. I was very surprised, a lot of it came from this archive that I wasn't sure what state it was in or how well-organized it was. Luckily it was all in one place, pretty much. It got transferred into the hands of Brian Kehew, who is an extraordinaire when it comes to these kind of archiving and reissue jobs. He was the guy keeping that preserved for us. There's a little trepidation sending your tapes off to anybody, especially tapes this old, but as soon as I heard it was him I was like, "Oh, no problem," and he was totally great. The good news is there's a lot of really amazing stuff, full-on alternate versions of things Ken and I had even forgotten existed.
KS: We played extensively before Dear 23 came out. There are three or four iterations of different kinds of demos all with their own flavor for that album, starting with four-track stuff and graduating up to various kinds of eight- and 16-track demos. There were of course quite a few steps from the first stumbles to the final product of making Frosting On The Beater, a lot of different iterations through that album. Everyone knows that we released a box set of rarities in the year 2000 which of course is now out of print, so technically those tracks are fair game, however I can tell you that there's actually quite a bit of material that didn't even make it onto that box set that we can still harvest from, believe it or not.
MR: But I hope that you're not leaving it out now because it was on the box set then.
KS: Those tracks are going to be used again for sure, there were only 2,500 copies of the box set and I'd like to think there's at least five or ten thousand fans of Frosting On The Beater out there who are potential customers. It seems only fair.
JA: And these will hopefully be the definitive versions of these. Well, until the next format comes along and makes this format obsolete.
MR: Were there surprises along the way? Did you discover anything from these new mixes? Did anyone go, "The alternate version is so much better!" or "Why did we leave that song off the album?"
KS: I think we were pretty shrewd in our original judgments, but I will say that this bonus track for the Failure reissue... As Jon mentioned, Failure was re-released around 2003 just on an indie label in Spain and they had the rights to it for Europe but they didn't really do much with it, they didn't push it really hard, they weren't very good at reissues really, that wasn't their specialty. It kind of went without much fanfare. Some of those demo tracks are now going to be more widely available on this version. There's a track on there that didn't even make it onto that reissue, which is now long out of print, there's no copies left. I didn't really even recall that demo when Jon sent it around saying, "Hey, there's this!" We're now talking significantly more than half of my life ago. It's starting to be a little bit like that "mists of time." Jon and I both have pretty good memories of shows we've played and places we've been, but now we're going far enough back that we're going into our teenage years as guys in our forties. There are some things that are like, "Whoa." I don't know if it's enough to say, "Oh, if we put this on the album it would have changed everything," but what's more amazing is that you just completely do not remember that these things ever existed. Once I heard some of them I remembered doing them a little bit, but for Posies fans who might be aware of Amazing Disgrace, there's a song called "Throwaway" and there happens to be a whole full-band version that we did for Frosting On The Beater with a different lineup. It doesn't have a final mix, but it's complete with vocals, harmonies, a slightly different arrangement. There's a full-band version of "Coming Right Along" from Frosting On The Beater.
JA: There's a full-band version of "Fall Song," right?
KS: That was the next one I was going to get to. We didn't put that one out until much later, on a record called Success, which was kind of culled from a lot of leftover tracks that we though should've been on records but for whatever reason, whether it was producers or us at the time, we didn't put them on there. A lot of them are excellent songs that just didn't work for those certain eras. Actually I think the full-band version of "Fall Song" is much better overall than the one that's on Success. I can't wait to get these things mastered.
JA: Those were not on the box set.
KS: They were not on the box set, and that's really the tip of this little iceberg.
MR: I love how the albums in that period progress from Failure to Success.
KS: And beyond, of course. We continued to make records. After our band broke up and we didn't exist anymore we continued to exist strangely enough. We pulled a fast one in a way. We were just making it up as we go along. But the first arc of the first five albums, from Failure to Success, has a rather clear circularity to it...going back to the same label that we started on and that kind of thing.
MR: What are your thoughts about that period of time? What does that Posies period mean to you in your personal musical histories?
JA: How much time have you got? That's a lot of time. There is a freshness that occurs, I guess, at the beginning of anything that you can never replicate. It's just par for the course on just about anything life because you're new to it, you're just starting out. What strikes me about it now is what Ken was saying, actually, about things that we can't remember. Now we're getting to revisit those things, people are sending me photographs of what we looked like then, I'm finding articles here and there and all of this stuff is coming out of the proverbial woodwork. I will say that we were super dedicated, that's all that we did and we did it ourselves because we didn't want to wait around and find people to help us do it. That's why we made Failure, because we wanted to make a real record, we wanted to make an album and we decided to do it together for the first time and luckily we did have some fortunate circumstances.
We grew up with an available home studio--now everybody has GarageBand and a laptop and they can put out a record on Bandcamp within an hour of making it, but back then it wasn't a common thing at all. There was definitely some fortune and maybe a little fate in design there, I think. It was quite a creative period. The only other thing I would say is that I am amazed that we took so long to do some of those things. That comes down to relationships and personalities and dealing with a lot of people wanting to be a part of what you're doing. Working with a major label we benefitted so much from DGC and Geffen, but there was also a lot more approval and things to discuss. I think the last record The Posies made, Blood Candy is for me a top three record, it's up there with Frosting On The Beater and Amazing Disgrace as far as what I enjoy. Boy, I think we spent a hundredth of what it would've cost to make those records originally on this record and I think it holds up with those records. I do wonder, "Why were we taking so long?"
KS: I think there's a pretty clear answer about that; we were so young when we started, Failure was very easy to make and then we had a huge amount of resources thrown at us in terms of connections and money. It was pretty hard for us to decide how to navigate that. Of course, now we're quite savvy and we know what it takes to make a great record in many ways. We've made a lot of albums at this point, but making Dear 23, we were pretty much guessing in many ways. We had some guidance from the label but even then they put so much faith in us that they also didn't interfere as much as they maybe should have in a way. "Here's how you make a great record." It would've been nice to have been mentored a little bit more in a way. I wanted to mention something, getting back to the original form of this question, there's a certain period that I think is really crucial and really interesting, it's the period immediately following the release of Failure where our band became very successful in the northwest where it had a really nice following and a really nice momentum. We were not so sure to say that we were definitely going to be signed to a major label but the signs were kind of on the wall that something good was happening, and with Seattle being what it was and getting the attention from labels that it was getting and all the things that were happening there we kind of knew we were in a special spot in a way and it was kind of a matter of time. But there was a wonderful time from somewhere in mid 1988 until we got signed in the fall of 1989 where we were all living in the same house, we had the minimum jobs that you needed to have to survive--and actually by mid-1989 we didn't even have jobs anymore--and we had a lot of free time but not so many opportunities; we weren't collaborating with this person or that person, we pretty much only had the band to deal with and that meant we had an incredible amount of time for songwriting.
The amount of songs that were written when we lived together in that house--Mike Musburger, myself, Rick Roberts and then Mike shortly thereafter moved out and Jon moved into his room and the three of us lived in this house in Seattle for like a year--we had a place to rehearse in the basement and a four-track. The amount of songs being written at that time was really something. It was probably the closest that Jon and I came to being more of a classical songwriting duo. We had more crossover because we lived together and could say, "Hey, I don't know what to do with this, can you finish it?" That pretty much ended when we moved out of that house and we got signed and things were going to be really busy just doing the rest of the things that happened in life and the band and we never had that kind of free time again. That's a great period that made us who we are in a way. That and Failure and the process of being together and playing in bands leading up to Failure but in a way this fervent period of songwriting gave us enough momentum in our own selves as songwriters, the effects of which are still going today.
MR: Your records always sold well and the labels you were on seemed to like having you around, so it doesn't make sense to me that no label ever really went full throttle and kicked one of your records into the top ten.
KS: Well, I can explain the whole thing if you'd like me to. Number one, they don't really have the power to kick something into the top ten. Number two, the bands that became "priority bands" pretty much got the same treatment we did at the beginning, but at a certain point they just sold more records. Then they kicked in with huge amounts of promo. They usually had a breakthrough single that went a little farther. The sales projection for Nirvana are famous. They hoped the album would sell a couple hundred thousand, which is what we were selling.
JA: But our projections were much higher, were they not? They projected we'd sell much better than that.
KS: They did have very high hopes for us, but they only invested so much. Weezer is another great example of that; they put out a single and they probably thought, "Well, maybe it'll sell a few," but the single didn't die, it didn't need their help in a way, so then they go, "Okay, now we know we've got something, we can put all this resource into it." The only bands I saw them put an extraordinary amount of effort into were things that didn't work. Things like--who was that dude, the guitar player from Alice Cooper who looked like Rambo? They pounded the crap out of that. They had Guns N' Roses and they had a great amount of success with that, so they really pushed the hard rock stuff very hard. One thing you have to remember is that until really the mid nineties the alternative radio format barely existed. You had KROQ and 91x, both stations that played the crap out of us, BCN in Boston, but most of the radio network out there was basically a holdover from the hard rock and classic rock days that would be happily playing Winger and Mötley Crüe and we had to go for those stations to get a hit. Nirvana got played on those stations, that was kind of the game changer. It was then that the alternative music world as we know it, from that point on, that lasted the next years happened. But Dear 23 didn't exist and Frosting... was still kind of growing, so what they were stuck with was going for hard rock stations. Even Weezer, who were coming out in 1994, '95...that whole landscape was one year different and more advanced and they had more stations to draw upon. That's something to keep in mind.
They were stuck with pushing us to the radio world as it was known and they had these famous guys, The Shark--he was a classic record promo guy for hard rock and had lots of success, he was their guy and those were the relationships they had with the stations that existed. I have to say that they put a lot of effort into it. Not only that, but when Dear 23 didn't really sell that much--it sold less than a hundred thousand--they still went back for it way harder with Frosting..., spent a lot more money, got a lot more results. They gave it a pretty solid try on Amazing Disgrace and then it was doubtful. Our next record was going to be pretty expensive, but it was doubtful that they would've gone for that next one. Who knows what would've happened? I think the choice of single was good, "Dream All Day" is a great song that lots of people remember. The weird thing is that on radio it worked. Every hard rock station, which was the only rock format that really applied in 1993, played the crap out of "Dream All Day." We were in the top five of airplay along with these other bands of the time. Somehow it was still something too esoteric to really catch public imagination beyond those couple hundred thousand people. A million people didn't get sparked into buying our record because of that song. It's a mystery to me, but that's public taste. Who knows?
JA: It's funny that you mentioned Nirvana and Weezer, too. We had an okay video for that song, but the Nirvana video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the Weezer video for "Buddy Holly," I think we're talking two arguably ultra-iconic vidoes of that era.
KS: I should step in and say that I think "The Sweater Song" was their first single. "Buddy Holly" was after they sold a lot of records and could get an A-list director. But "Smells LIke Teen Spirit" you're right about, that was their first single and the music video is really good.
MR: It seems like in the older days, labels would've understood that it took a certain amount of time to develop an artist.
JA: They did. We're talking about a six-year period where they pushed it pretty hard and for whatever reason, even despite their success in the radio arena and print ads and campaigns and everything we just didn't start selling more records. I really think that we're one of those bands that's just a little bit uncategorizable and that's always going to be hard for people to really figure out why they want to relate to us. That's my belief. Even if they pick up Frosting On The Beater based on "Dream All Day" and then they hear the rest of the record, for instance, or even a record like Amazing Disgrace which is all over the map--in a good way, we think--it certainly makes it harder to sell. How do you categorize it? It's not just the one thing. I didn't pay as much attention to the rock stations as Ken did back in the day that makes sense but at the same time it could also be construed as a misrepresentation of us a little bit. We'd always be that band, as Ken was saying, that would be a little bit different from the rest of that supposed genre.
MR: And creatively, you're satisfied by that.
JA: Absolutely! We made money anyways, so it's all good. We didn't become millionaires--we eventually did, but we got to work with great people and incredible producers. We started out very young so we had a lot of naiveté, which is kind of the charm of Failure. But we outgrew that and became masters of our craft and we did all of that while signed to a major label with a little bit of pressure on our backs, which is probably good. A lot of bands go through all that before they even get signed. But yeah, from a creative point of view we made the records exactly the way we wanted to and Geffen was really cool about that.
MR: You guys have had extensive musical careers beyond The Posies, as well, subbing here or being part of this band there. I'd say The Posies was a great launching pad for you to make all kinds of music throughout the years. Is that right?
JA: Well, yeah, it's led to everything pretty much, in one way or another, definitely.
KS: You could even say that if we'd had an even bigger hit we might be stuck playing that song in casinos every night now. In that sense it gave us an incredible launch pad but it's not an albatross around our necks. The Posies still have a following of people who like the music and still have an interest in what we do, but there's not enough of it to make me cynical about it and say, "Oh my God, again? Jesus Christ." I know people in bands, even bands that are relatively recent--I'm not going to mention any names--but they don't like each other, they're obliged to tour with each other because the band that they have is the band that everyone knows and it's what makes them money. They're very busy with that, but it's not fun for them. What we do is so unorthodox in a way, Jon and I played together this weekend in San Sebastian as a one-off and I was thinking, "What a cool and unusual way to have a band that just plays every now and then?" It's not super big, but it's not small, we can fill a club or play in a festival but it's not an obligation ever.
MR: I think your Dream All Day compilation, top to bottom, is still a gem.
JA: It's a good one!
MR: And one of my favorite memories is of you both playing The Knitting Factory and I do believe there was a certain amount of tequila involved. What an awesome night that was.
JA: That's not a memory for us at this point. [laughs] I think that was the loudest acoustic show ever.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
KS: Wow, this is a question that is frequently asked in interviews and it's a really tough one, because in a way what Jon and I didn't know when we started--we're really small-town geeks, we were just total doofuses in a way, there's a lot about music we didn't know. When we started, we didn't know about Can. I don't think either of us even had a Velvet Underground record. There were lots of things that were missing from our musical education. We had to figure it out. It could be bad advice, because we could also be talking as former members of The Strokes--insert band that's actually sold records here--we're the worst people to ask, but I think that reinventing the wheel as an artist is a great thing. Having to figure it all out, even the stupid stuff--"How do I do a copyright?" There's also of course tales of people f**king up because of this and signing a bad publishing deal and things like that, that's not funny and it didn't happen to us, thank god, but I kind of feel like people have to figure it out.
JA: That's like life, you just do things and you figure it out along the way. I think it is good to know as much as you can and try to figure out as much as you can and to really pay attention. I know there's some things I didn't pay attention to that I've had to learn more about over the course of time.
KS: And don't let your domain expire.
JA: Yeah, stuff like that! [laughs] Just try to be responsible and not take for granted that things are going to happen a certain way. It's funny because that's how we started out. It's so funny because people have described us as this pop band when grunge was starting to happen in Seattle. We were so against the grain of what could have been considered popular, but because we were more of a band with pop leanings some people would accuse us of being sellouts. I always thought that was funny because we were doing something that was so completely opposite of what was going on then and we were doing it ourselves. We recorded it ourselves, we made these cassettes initially ourselves, we sold them to stores ourselves, the whole thing. Where am I going with this? You should try all that stuff. Now it's funny because the industry has come back around to that again. You have to do it yourself, you need to be out there promoting yourself, you need to be posting on social media things like this. It's becoming DIY again. It's got its ups and its downs, its good points and bad points but in a weird way I think that works for us because we already did that. Now all the labels are becoming independent again and it's becoming more like that. It's funny, back then we were doing the same thing, we just didn't have the internet, so we had to do it in a much more old-school fashion.
MR: What's the future for you guys?
KS: We should probably make a record together at some point, especially because of these reissues and since there's a publicist working on our case right now, these articles are going to happen and it would probably be wise to take advantage of that momentum and put out some new material. We might actually do that, maybe. How's that for a definitive answer?
JA: We both produce tons of records, we're always working on mixing someone's records and obviously Ken has a solo career and I have a solo career, it's kind of like we're always on tour at this point, it's just that it's not one big, massive tour, it's kind of pieced out over the course of time. I've got a new project called Dynamo Royale, it's something I'm trying out that's very different from anything I've done before, I figured, "Why the f**k not?" I'd like to try to do something that might not appeal to people who like guitar-based pop. That could be fun to try. But obviously, doing these reissues does generate interest but it also kind of generates interest for us, too in terms of, "What else could we do next?" I don't know if you heard much of Blood Candy, a lot of people didn't even know it came out, I was not pleased to discover. I really do think it's a fantastic record.
KS: The writing and the production both are really top notch. It actually is kind of DIY, we of course worked with a label on it but a lot of the record's mixed and recorded by us. It's very cool sounding, quite Hi-Fi I think.
JA: Yeah, and that was 2010. We seem to have this cycle every five years, unofficially. We both have tons of things going on and I think we both like it that way.
MR: All the best with that. By the way, I think "Suddenly Mary" is one of the most brilliantly written pop songs I've ever heard.
KS: Dear 23 for me has some excellent songs on it. Honestly, I have problems now with the mixing and some of our production choices and the fact that for myself I can hear that I was probably thinking too much at the time, things like, "This is our first major label record so it has to be good." Maybe I should've relaxed a bit more.
JA: It's a slightly unspontaneous album compared to Failure and Frosting... and Amazing Disgrace. That's kind of what comes off to me. Having said that there's still some really great writing on it and I hope that sees its way through.
KS: Coming back to some of those songs, I say, "Well I really wish there wasn't all of that digital reverb on the drums, there's some bad nineties effects on here," but "Any Other Way," "Apology," these are really heartfelt without being maudlin and intelligent without being too clever. You said something earlier about a dark pop thing--yes, it has those pop melodic leanings, but there's definitely something deeper than just those surface trimmings as well.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Dry the River's Peter Liddle
Mike Ragogna: The title to your new album Alarms In The Heart sounds pretty heavy. So? What's so alarming? And what's with all these Ouija shenanigans and faux tarot cards going on with your album cover artwork?
Peter Liddle: Alarms in the Heart is a partial quote from The World According to Garp by John Irving...
"Late-night phone calls--those burglar alarms in the heart--would frighten Garp all his life. Who is it that I love? Garp's heart would cry, at the first ring--who's been blasted by a truck, who's drowned in the beer or lies sideswiped by an elephant in the terrible darkness?"
It's not really a grand, deep theme, like some of the theological or broader human stuff I was trying to respond to on the first record. It's about small, personal crises, and overcoming them. I was struck by the way a late night phone call can lift the veil of easy normalcy. A business misfortune, an unexpected test result, sometimes just a news story - a personal happening can, in an instant, remind us that everything is a little bit more fragile than it seems. As I get older, I find those are the moments I tend to write about: not macroscopic world events, nor the miniature habitual routines of my life, but these little "alarms in the heart," that don't have to be great in magnitude but are just enough to make me double take. Those are kind of the fault lines that teach us something about ourselves I guess.
Regarding the artwork, we knew we wanted to get away from the painterly medium of the first campaign. This record felt more personal and more human--I wanted to find something photographic, grainy, documentary-like.
I found this photograph online somewhere - it's by a really talented guy from Hawaii called Jake Casapao [https://www.flickr.com/photos/wolfskin/]. The record is about the uncertainty of the future, where Shallow Bed was about the past. I felt as though the art reflected that, but didn't put too fine a point on it. For me the heavy, atmospheric feel of the picture is counteracted by the hammy, theatrical presentation. It kind of walks a line between the themes of the record and showing that there's a playful element to the exploration too. We don't take ourselves all that seriously, music for us is meaningful but also enjoyable. What really sealed the deal was the Magician tarot card. The character is depicted as a kind of mad quack doctor. I figured that's sort of what I am--the unofficial tour doctor with my half-finished medical degree. More than anything else the image seemed to sit right with the record. There's room for interpretation--the listener can relate it to the music in whichever way works for them.
MR: What was the creative process like, especially on songs like your single "Gethsemane"?
PL: "Gethsemane" is actually the exception to the rule in some ways. I think of it as the bridge between Shallow Bed and Alarms. I wrote it on New Year's Day 2013. We'd just come off three years of relentless touring and I decided to spend New Year's Eve at my family home in Newbury, Berkshire. I watched Jools Holland with my mum and went to bed at quarter past midnight, then woke up for no reason at 4am and "Gethsemane" kind of arrived fully formed. I think I sat quietly in the garage and wrote it in about an hour. Of all the songs on the record, it's the most in keeping with the earlier output. More than half of Shallow Bed was written when I was 16 or 17, and it feels to me as though Gethsemane is the song I was trying to write then. It sort of lays to rest that period of my songwriting I think.
The rest of the record was a lot more collaborative. Most of the Shallow Bed songs were partly or fully formed before we started the band. I did demos with sampled drums and stuff, and everyone used that as a starting point. This time, I would sing a few bars of melody and chords into my phone, send it to Matt [guitarist] and he'd play around with it, make some adjustments, and we'd meet up a few days later and start turning it into a song. In most cases, we didn't even bother with drums and bass on the demos. We just got into a room with Jon and Scott and wrote stuff together. It was much more creative, much more fruitful and I think Alarms is more coherent as a result.
MR: The Delgados' Emma Pollock guests on "Roman Candle." How did that come together?
PL: We worked with three different producers on the record, one of whom was Emma's husband, Paul Savage [King Creosote, Mogwai, Arab Strap]. While Matt and I were up in Glasgow working on some mixes with him, we went to see Emma play at a festival in Paisley and she was just amazing. We'd been talking about a female vocal on "Roman Candle" for a while, and plucked up the courage to ask Emma if she'd do it. The next day, she came up to the studio and did a couple of takes and it worked straight away--it was one of those rare studio moments where Matt and I looked at each other in disbelief. Paul and Emma brought a whole new dimension to the song and that in turn made us think about the album in a different way.
MR: Catch us up on what's happened with the band since the last album?
PL: There have been a lot of significant changes both behind and in front of the curtain. We have a new label, new crew members etc.. Everybody's circumstances have changed too. We don't live in the same house any more, some of the team have been investing their energies in different things--all the healthy business of sorting our lives out after three years of relentless touring. The biggest change is that our violinist Will left to pursue his own projects. We've been really lucky to find a great session player, Pat, to play keys and violin for the foreseeable future. In general, everyone is rejuvenated, more comfortable and has their best foot forward for the upcoming campaign.
MR: How has the band's mission statement changed since the start?
PL: For as long as any of us can remember, we've wanted to play music for a living, which is probably the case for most musicians, but I don't think any of us dream of arenas. It's not a lack of ambition, it's just that it's miraculous that we can be full-time musicians, at any level. We're keenly aware of that and very appreciative of it. It feels ungrateful to shift our focus to commercial concerns or a lofty ethos. We have a label and a management team who work tirelessly with respect to our development as a business, but I think our mission statement as a band is to continue to love what we do, and to try and do it as well as we can. I think that should be and probably is the case for most bands.
MR: Are you finding that as the band grows, the material's topics and music is evolving in certain ways that you didn't see coming?
I always anticipated that the band would become more holistic and inclusive. The first demos were kind of a solo studio project with session guys, but very quickly it became apparent that the band worked well together, and everyone was personally invested. The idea of a gang mentality appealed to me, to be sharing our various fortunes and misfortunes. Although the first record is relatively subdued, the live shows have always been more raucous and ragged, and it was pretty obvious early on that once we wrote more collaboratively, things would become a bit more "indie rock," for want of a better description. By the time Shallow Bed came out, many of the songs on it were five years old or more. I think I'd already grown a little tired of mining the folksy pastoral imagery that is a rite of passage for young singer songwriters. In my head I was already turning to more personal biographical themes. In fact, there's a song about it on the record, "Hidden Hand." The chorus lyrics talk about how "the garden's overgrown...now it's just a field behind the house where the creepers kinda swallow the light," which refers to the heavy language of some of the earlier material, which was often so cryptic it obscured the message I was trying to convey. I hope the new record is more relatable.
MR: What's the band's favorite track from the project and why?
PL: I'm sure everyone would give a different answer to that question! Personally, I like "Rollerskate" and "Med School." They're both more biographical than songs I've written in the past, and more direct musically. I think they're also the most representative of our collaborative approach on this record. I can hear everyone expressing themselves on the recordings and the end result is the sound of a band in a room, which is something Dry the River hasn't really achieved before.
MR: What was it like working with Charlie Hugall, Paul Savage, Peter Miles and arranger Valgeir Sigurðsson?
PL: All four of those guys are very different from one another. Charlie produced a track I wrote for the film Zaytoun. He's relentlessly enthusiastic, upbeat, and seemed to become part of our group from the word go. We put him through a lot, I think, by dragging him out to the wilderness of Iceland for six weeks of intense darkness with no breaks, and he dealt with it admirably. The bulk of the arrangement and production work came from him. He really helped us to think about the shape of the songs and how we needn't throw everything on every song, all the time. When we got back from Iceland and had time to reflect on the recordings, I felt we'd lost perspective a bit. We'd holed ourselves up in the middle of nowhere, and the record sounded a bit disconnected as a result. It was somehow distant and impersonal in a way I couldn't put my finger on. Matt and I went up to Glasgow to work for a week with Paul Savage. Paul was very calm and reassuring. He was really positive about the record, helped us refine the stuff we found problematic, and also roped in his wife Emma to sing on Roman Candle, which is one of the most successful moments of the record, for me.
Peter Miles is somebody I've worked with on and off since I was fifteen or so. We grew up in the same town, and he recorded all the local punk and hardcore bands. He also produced the very early Dry the River EPs. Very late in the album process, we wrote a clutch of new songs that were much more instinctive and immediate, less considered. We felt they'd change the pace of the record for the better, and Pete seemed the obvious choice. We have a shorthand with him at this point, we just headed down to Devon and set to work and it all came together very quickly. I think it reminded us of the early demos and what Dry the River was to begin with. It kind of refocused us on what we were trying to achieve. We ended up booking a few more weeks down there to go through every small aspect of the record we weren't sure about, and wrap things up once and for all. Pete was instrumental in reminding us to trust in our instincts. He allowed us to be very involved in the production and that made us feel in control.
Valgeir Sigurðsson is responsible for all the beautiful string and brass arrangements on the record. In the past we tended to throw violin and viola on every song without giving much thought to their function. We resolved early on that this record would only have strings in places that cried out for them. We gave Val some rough mixes of the tracks whilst we were working in his studio in Reykjavik, and a few days later he conducted a team of Icelandic session string and brass players through his compositions. It was another head turning moment for Matt and I. The songs really sprang to life. As songwriters, Matt and I can muddle through rudimentary arrangements, but we were suddenly aware of the gulf between that way of working and having an experienced composer like Val on board.
MR: What is your advice to new artists?
PL: We were talking about this in the van the other day, trying to dissect the various factors that allowed us to become a full time band, trying to figure out a formula. Sadly, although hard work and conviction turn the odds in your favor, it ultimately comes down to chance. Anyone who convinces themselves otherwise is misguided, I think. You hear successful musicians saying they always knew they would be successful, that they were born to do it and didn't stop until they achieved their goals. In hindsight, it might look that way, but there are so many factors that have to coalesce to make any kind of career in music. Dry the River were lucky to be using acoustic guitars, violins and harmonies around the time that labels were looking for the next Mumford & Sons, but we'd been doing a similar thing in other bands for years before that without a single label rep at any of our shows. We'd worked weekend jobs to buy gear and pay for practices, played in pubs and slept on sofas for ten years in school holidays and university breaks, and it could just as easily have amounted to an expensive hobby. Even now, we feel truly grateful to be in the position we're in, but we have to be very careful with cash flow...we walk a thin line between solvency and insolvency! It's increasingly rare to find any kind of financial security being in a band.
All that said, I'm not saying don't do it, and I'm not saying don't be ambitious. For us, it's the best profession we can imagine, and none of the effort has been unrewarded. The point is, don't form a band for the purpose of having a career in music - form a band because you and your band mates love playing songs together, and would want to do it regardless of whether you could make a living from it. That's without a doubt the best mindset to be in when you start out.
MR: What course will this river be taking in the future?
"Twenty bridges from Tower to Kew--
Wanted to know what the River knew,
For they were young and the Thames was old,
And this is the tale that the River told..."
A Conversation with Ghost Town's Kevin "Ghost" McCullough
Mike Ragogna: Rumor has it Ghost Town is quite a hard-working band. What's the group's history and recording/touring regimen?
Kevin "Ghost" McCullough: Yes we are! This is more than just a band for us. It's a lifestyle! Since the very beginning in late 2012 we have kept ourselves busy. For the first nine weeks the band existed, we put out a song a week every Tuesday--Ghost Town Tuesdays--what most people don't know is we wrote and recorded a song a week from scratch and then released it for free download. Some songs we would finish then 20 min later release them to our anxious Ghosts...Ghosts are our fans. Along with the weekly song releases our artists Alister Dippner--who we consider a 5th member of the band--would hand paint artwork for each song. These singles and a few more turned into "party in the grave yard." We were on such a creative roll that we decided to also record an acoustic EP soon after. We finally took a break from that madness to hit the road after signing with Fueled By Ramen. We were ready to hit the road! Since the summer of 2013 we have toured until now with very little breaks! Whatever time off we did have was spent in the studio working on The After Party, we have actually written and recorded a lot of that record on the road! After hitting up the U.K for the second time in May and Germany for the first time at Rock am Ring and Rock Im Park, we got back to the States just in time to start warped tour and release, The After Party. We haven't stopped since day one and don't plan on stopping!
MR: What influenced the songwriting and topics of your earlier release Party In The Graveyard and who the heck was invited to this party anyway?
KM: The songwriting is influenced by so many things! From our love for Halloween and Tim Burton films to life lesions, bad break ups and the realization and acceptance of our own flaws! We also draw huge inspiration from our artist Alister Dippner aka Alister the Machinist! All of our Ghosts are very inviting beings so as long as you want to be yourself and have fun then you're invite. That simple!
MR: The album's topics are pretty playful, that's part of the mission of the band, right? And did I understand it correctly, that the band is making music that embraces '"misfits," which, quite frankly, I think includes everyone by this point?
KM: Yeah, we like to keep things fun and create our own dream worlds but we also touch on subjects that are not easy to talk about but usually things that everyone goes through! Yes, haha, everyone is a misfit so our music is for everyone. We encourage all our Ghosts to tap into their creative side we believe it's good for the soul no matter who you are! This is not just for the "misfits" it's a creative movement. Pick up a pen and draw something!
MR: Within the history of many ghost towns is the great story of great success then eventual decline. What keeps Ghost Town the band from becoming one itself?
KM: Every single Ghost that occupies this creative movement has shown that they aren't just in it for the short term and we have dedicated our lives to make sure that this doesn't just last our life time, but many after as well!
MR: What's it been like interacting with fans and the world through social media?
KM: It's been amazing to keep in touch. Social media has helped us amplify our voice! It's been the perfect way to bring all of us Ghosts together...and keep us on the same page! We are so grateful we can ask questions and get overwhelming and immediate responses. Being in constant contact with our Ghosts has helped give us the best perspective when it comes to writing music.
MR: What tracks, in your opinion, party the hardest in this particular graveyard?
KM: Hmm... On The After Party, I would say "You're So Creepy," "That's Unusual," and "Dracula" crack the hardest!
MR: Traditional question...what advice do you have for new artists?
KM: Stay consistent with your fans and give them something different. There is nothing wrong with putting music out once a week instead of once a year. Don't be f**kin' lazy and you might have fun! Haha!
MR: Anything we need to know about Ghost Town that you hadn't planned on revealing until my question just the second?
KM: Check out our comic book Haunted Youth Comics. It's best enjoyed while listening to our music and it will help you understand Ghost Town even more!
MR: Will this party never end?
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008