YELLOWCARD'S 9/11 TRIBUTE
photo by Megan Thompson
Written after the tragedy of 9/11, Yellowcard's song "Believe" -- from their 2003 breakthrough album Ocean Avenue -- was written as a thank you to first responders in the police, fire department, and other heroes. "This song has always been an important one for us. It has meant so much to so many Yellowcard fans," says vocalist/guitarist Ryan Key. "It continues to be one of our favorite parts of every show." Ten years after that platinum album was released, on its decade anniversary, Yellowcard re-released the album in a stripped down version called Ocean Avenue Acoustic released this past summer on Hopeless Records. "Believe" has always been a fan favorite, spurring massive singalongs at concerts and live shows. In this video for Huffington Post, the band talks about the song's origins and what it means to them.
A Conversation with Five For Fighting's John Ondrasik
Mike Ragogna: Hey John, how's "Superman"?
John Ondrasik: [laughs] Mike, I'm doing good!
MR: So you have a new album, Bookmarks. How did John Ondrasik approach this one creatively?
JO: Well, it's always odd to describe your record, right? I promise I won't go to the Musical Journey Guide, but honestly, for me, every album is typically the best ten or eleven songs I write in the two or three-year period between records, when we'll write a hundred songs. This record is certainly more modern, production-wise and melodically, than my last couple of records. My last record, Slice, was certainly a throwback to the seventies, which is kind of where I came from. I was raised on those great singer-songwriters from the seventies, but at the same time, it's still kind of my experience, my observation, and the typical Five For Fighting lyrical sentimentality. I'm just thrilled that there's another record, Mike. With every record, I just want to make another one, and if you had told me twelve years ago I'd be on record number six, I would have said, "You're crazy." I feel very fortunate to still be doing it.
MR: Now, your first album was with the EMI family, but somehow, you made it over to Sonyland.
JO: It's the typical music business story of working fifteen years to try to get a record deal, finally getting a record deal, getting signed by the president of the label at EMI, who was a producer named Davitt Sigerson, who appreciated what I did because he produced Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes.
MR: And I believe he's a novelist and all sorts of things now. Yeah, Little Earthquakes was such a great record.
JO: Yeah, he understood the piano player/singer-songwriter. Lo and behold, he was the president of the label and for me, it was the perfect situation; you spend a year making the record and you put the record out and within weeks, EMI Records closes. There I am, my first experience and I have to get a real job, the dream has ended. Nobody wanted to pick up that record, Message For Albert, but short story, I was in my mid-to-late twenties and I had to make a living. I kind of cut off my hair and put on a suit and started working for a living. My girlfriend became my wife, and she was a music publisher; without my knowledge, she was still sending out my songs. There was a song called "Easy Tonight" that a little label named Aware records liked. They signed me and said, "We don't have much money, but why don't you go make a record and we'll see what we can do with it?" Me and a guy named Gregg Wattenberg, who was an aspiring producer, spent a year making the America Town record for no money in a broken down studio going in at two in the morning. We recorded "Easy Tonight" and another little song called "Superman" that he liked, but I wasn't sure that we should put it on that record. The nice closing to that circle is that obviously, America Town did really well and "Superman" became what it did. Gregg became the head of A&R for Wind-Up Records and, coincidentally, I am on Wind-Up records for this album and for the first time in ten years, Gregg and I were able to make a full Five For Fighting Record together. So it's kind of a blast from the past for me and it kind of rejuvenated me and my musical soul and I'm very excited about recording and songwriting again. So it's been a full circle. But yes, that Message For Albert record is very obscure because it was only out for about two weeks and then the record company of The Beatles went upside down. That was my introduction to the reality of the music business.
MR: Who knew? Like you said, for the label of The Beatles to devolve into what it did was so sad.
JO: It was sad. We could probably spend three hours just lamenting the music business. And that was when they were still making money!
JO: Now it's just very depressing. But that just reinforces how fortunate I feel to be able to make another record on a label who can get it out there and have this kind of reach. Who knows what's going to happen with it, but again, I think six records later, from Message For Albert to Bookmarks and everything in between I've been very fortunate, man. I've lived the dream.
MR: Do you feel like there's been growth from album to album?
JO: I hope so! It's always hard to edit yourself, but I certainly believe that on Message For Albert, listening back, I think there were some good songs and there were some terrible songs, and I think the range of good to bad has shrunk, hopefully, over the years. It's always hard to try to craft songs that you're proud of that can be popular songs. For every album, of course, you want to have a hit to drive the album so you can make another one, and it gets harder and harder to do that. But I always pride myself in trying to write songs that can stand the test of time and are not so trivial that they come and go. I pay as much attention to the thirteenth song as I do to the song that's going to be the single. I try to make records in the true tradition of records instead of just, "Okay, this song will drive the record, let's make twelve bad versions of the single."
MR: Yeah, so true.
JO: So I've always tried to do that but it's hard for me to judge, "Am I getting better?" I sure hope so because that's kind of the reason I still do it. If you're not getting better or at least exploring new avenues, you become the redundant stereotype of yourself, which is hard. It's hard for bands who have success on the radio to continue to have success, because a lot of times, you do go back to the well and try to regurgitate what you did before and usually that doesn't work. So hopefully, there's enough in this record that's new that makes it interesting and exciting for people. But there's enough of the tradition of what I do well where it can have a certain amount of commercial success and meet the fans' expectation of me getting better that they enjoy and are excited about.
MR: I love it. John, you've got a couple of anthems on this album, "What If" and "Stand Up." You're looking long range, at bigger pictures. Would it be fair to say that's the kind of artist you are, always kind of looking at a bigger picture?
JO: I would hope so. I'm a songwriter, right? You're supposed to provide your observation and, hopefully, there's a certain cultural observation that goes beyond the kind of narcissistic self-interest that we songwriters tend to write about. Certainly "What If" speaks to a view I have of the culture right now. I think we are a very divided country, I do believe we live in a world of labels, whether it's based on ideology, religiosity... Go down the list and we have certain stereotypes that we go to. I'd like to believe that we are truly individuals and perhaps if we understood each other's experiences better, we'd find we had more in common than we thought. That certainly speaks to what I see in the culture today. There's a lot of emotion, there's a lot of anger, there's not a lot of people talking and trying to find solutions. Out of that frustration, a song popped up called "What If?" A lot of people will listen to it and think it's a relationship song and apply it to themselves that way, and with all of my songs, that's fine. It's always been that way. But hopefully, with some of my songs like "Chances" and "100 Years" and "Superman," it's a little more macro than the one guy who's suffering or asking a question.
MR: I like the concept of looking at "What if?" and I can't really think of any other song that did tackles what you did in that song except maybe "What If God Was One Of Us?" What about some of the other songs on this album?
JO: Let's take the two extremes. You mentioned "Stand Up," which, again, is a very modern song for me. I think the typical Five For Fighting fans might be surprised because it's pretty poppy, it's pretty modern, but it still has that very simple sentiment of "Stand up because you're falling down." I do think many Americans feel unhappy with the state of the nation or the state of their lives, and it's a simple Emerson's Self-Reliance. "You're the only one who can get up. You have to make that decision." For me, it made sense on this record because when I got dropped from Columbia after ten years, it was kind of like, "All right, either you're going to get up and do it again or you're going to fold up the tent, thank you for the memories, and go do something else." So it did fit my experience, and I do like that it is something new production-wise. The other song that seems like the polar opposite to me is, "I Don't Want Your Love," which is a very classic, could come right out of the seventies simple song that you have to wait three minutes to get to the punchline, to get the meaning of the song. That's really what I've done and that's been my tradition. So those two songs, I think for me, kind of stand out a little bit. They're two of the songs that I like a lot. Then a song that most people probably won't talk about because it's a song that'll never get on the radio is the last song, a song called "The Day I Die." Again, it's live piano/vocal, and like I said, it's a song that'll never be on the radio, but as a singer-songwriter and someone who prides himself on trying to write good songs and not just swinging for the radio, I'm very proud of that one. Again, I think my favorite songwriters don't end up on the radio or sell a ton of records sometimes, but it was important for me to put a song on the record as a statement of, "For you folks who really care about musicianship and songwriting, at least I'll take a swing at it for you."
MR: With Bookmarks, it seems like this is a bigger swing than the last few records. Are you more energized because of this particular mix of people and this particular batch of songs?
JO: I think you're right and I think if you talked to Gregg, he would say that a typical Five For Fighting record has one or two songs to drive the record commercially, one or two songs that aspire to be hits and then a bunch of indulgent Ondrasik songs.
JO: He's like, "Maybe it would be better if we had three or four songs that could maybe drive the record and kind of eliminate some of Ondrasik's manic attempts at relevancy artistically. I think this was a nice hybrid because with Gregg's attitude of "Let's really make the best record we can and it's not about you trying to be Leonard Cohen or whoever you want to be," and me saying, "Every song has to be really good and I have to like it and make it the best we can," I think that's why it took three or four years to do this record. And I agree with you, I think it is a bigger swing and I have no idea how it's going to do commercially. Frankly, for a guy like me at this point in my career and with radio the way it is, it's going to be really hard. At the same time, as my last single "Chances" said, if you don't swing, you're not going to have a chance to do something special. So I agree with you. I think it is a bigger swing and I also think it's a reality of "Hey, at this point, every record could be my last record." At least at this level. If we're going to do it, let's make sure that we put everything into it. I think this is the result of that mindset.
MR: Or next year at the VMAs, you can try to top Miley Cyrus' performance.
JO: You know, it's so funny and unfortunate that it's become this boring trend to shock, right? And usually, it's through some explicit sexual outburst or something, and it's so pedestrian, it's so tired, and usually employed by these entertainers who have little talent or nothing to contribute to the conversation. But in the culture, it's all we talk about, and we're consumed by it. I wish I could just take off my clothes and sell a million records but nobody wants to see me do that.
MR: [laughs] But you could be the first to do it, and everyone after you would be said to have employed "Ondrasiks."
JO: Exactly, exactly. It is sad, and as a music fan, I'm very frustrated with the current state of things. I'm sure you are, too, someone who's an A&R guy trying to find artists who could provide careers and talk about the state of the culture through their music. I don't hear many songs that we're going to be hearing ten years from now, and that's frustrating.
MR: Yeah, I'm like you, I like singer-songwriters and the level of integrity that they try to bring to their music and to culture. I think that we had a good foundation for that in the late sixties and seventies, but then came disco, which was, I guess, a relief from the seriousness. I think it's unfortunate that we're in another phase where "message" doesn't matter.
JO: Well, me too, but again, you're preaching to the choir, but that doesn't mean we're wrong.
MR: But it might just mean we're older cats. On the other hand, I see how it's difficult to contribute anything less than sensationalized products to stay relevant in a Kardashian culture. And given the state of the music business, how does an artist keep their energy up anyway? Like, how do you stay energized?
JO: That's a great question, and maybe one that I should answer to my therapist. It's a real battle and especially when you have a certain amount of success you want to continue to achieve that. When you don't... We're all human, right? It's still a shock to the system and it's depressing and as grateful as I am for the success I have, it's harder and harder. Every artist, I don't care who you are, goes through it. Now sure, it's nice to be Bruce Springsteen and be an icon who can still go play arenas, but I can guarantee you he's still pissed off he can't get on the radio. James Taylor, Elton John, Billy Joel, my favorite artists, everybody goes through it. So they have the luxury of being icons who can go play concerts and do that, but for the rest of us who are kind of in-play in the last decade and are kind of teetering, it's emotionally challenging and it does drain a lot of energy from you. I think there are some things you can do. I think social platforms really help, knowing that you can reach out to people on Twitter and Facebook and that there is an audience for what you do. It may not be as large as it used to be, but these people probably care more and most of these folks will probably hear your song and buy your single. I think you kind of do it for them and also you have to find reasons to do it for yourself. For me, I really enjoy writing songs, I enjoy making records, I enjoy working with people I like, and you have to recognize that and you have to kind of switch your mindset from "Okay, what is success? Is success getting better as a songwriter? Is success enjoying your life? Or is success having a number one single?" If you can't do that, you're going to be pretty depressed because we all hit that wall. I hope I have hit songs, because when you have hit songs, you can do a lot of other stuff and raise your profile and it's fun.
But that's great question and I don't know if I have an answer for you because it is one I look at, and there are days where I go, "Maybe I should hang it up because it's a grind and it's not fun and I've had a great career." But to this point, I've found the energy to do it and the thing that really does it, to be honest with you... Mike, last night I had a radio show down in Palm Springs, I drove down to Palm Springs, a hundred people were there. You play a few songs, you play "What If," and then you take pictures for an hour and these people walk up to you and they have stories of how your songs affected their lives. They have a comment on how they just heard "What If" and what it means to them. You get that personal interaction and that personal feedback, and you're like "Okay. It's good. I see why we do it," and my own insecurities and all that stuff is a little shallow, so maybe I should back up and appreciate what I do and that I can do it and that I don't have a real job.
MR: [laughs] I understand. And you are a bit of an authority on this because how much more important or bigger or touching could a song like "Superman" be? I know that at this point, you're probably like, "I wish people would stop talking about "Superman," but on the other hand, it really impacted a lot of people because of how it was manipulated into being some sort of anthem for 9/11. However, I was affected by it before that. I thought that was a very touching song that stretched the concept of "Superman" nicely. Anyway, you have one of those classic songs under your belt that can be argued helped the country heal. Not everybody gets one of those, "If it all ended tomorrow, you've made a cultural contribution" records. How does that feel?
JO: In the big picture, it certainly feels great, and I really appreciate you mentioning that "Superman" was resonating before 9/11. A lot of people, especially a lot of press like to essentially "blame" "Superman" on 9/11, but the fact is, it was meaningful to people before 9/11; it was meaningful to people around the world without the context of 9/11. But like you said, to be able to have a song that really helped the country is overwhelming and as terrible as the atrocity was, as a songwriter, it's wonderful to be able to contribute in that way. You're right. After "Superman," nothing will ever attain that meaning again, no matter what I do, how many songs I write, how many singles I have or records I sell, and that's fine. I do appreciate that if I never did anything else, that would be something to take pride in. And I do take pride in that, but at the same time, we are like athletes. The game is today and even though we may have won the championship five years ago, we want to win today, and that's just human nature.
MR: And that's a big what-if, so to speak, situation: "What if my new album is better than anything I've ever done?"
JO: Yeah, exactly.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JO: Definitely milk the social platforms. I think as frustrating as it can be within the major labels, music is being consumed more now than ever and it's easier than ever to get your music heard. That was my problem coming up. So really work Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, all the music sites, build your following, build your audience. You may do better without a label financially and career-wise. Get out and play gigs. That's the other thing I say. It's easy to sit in your room and write a song for your friends, but get out and play gigs. You will learn much more about yourself and your music. So social platforms, play gigs, enjoy what you do.
MR: Nice. And your new Bookmarks seems to be a new chapter in how to look at the total story of John Ondrasik.
JO: I appreciate it, and hopefully, with more chapters to come. How about that?
MR: [laughs] Yeah! We have one more thing to cover--Live at the Vineyard.
JO: Oh yeah. Live At The Vineyard's going to be awesome. It's in Nappa, the first couple days of November, we'll be up there singing songs, eating food, and drinking wine. It's a blast.
MR: Sounds like fun, all the best with that and the new album, John. It's really been great speaking with you and I do appreciate your time.
JO: Thank you Mike, take care, buddy.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with The Devil Wears Prada's Mike Hranica
Mike Ragogna: How are you, Mike?
Mike Hranica: I'm doing all right, how are you?
MR: I'm pretty good. First of all, I want to ask you a couple of questions from Dylan Chenfeld, aka Your Underdog.
MR: So it's your first album without former keyboardist James [Baney], you've had Jonathan [Gering] filling in on live keys since he left. If he is contributing to the live music, what separates him from being a full-time member of the band?
MH: It's complicated to some extent. For years now, Jon has been doing DJ stuff and he's had a background in heavy music as well, but for the most part, he comes from a DJ background working on remixes and whatnot. Honestly, joining the band just kind of complicates things further. The way I describe it for people is like if you have a girlfriend and neither of you guys are interested in being married but being in a relationship is cool. That's my analogy for this situation.
MR: Okay, his other question is what was it like working with Matt Goldman for the first time?
MH: It was awesome! Matt has a certain way of going about things that we hadn't really experienced yet with a producer. Basically, just planting these little ideas in my head would help me come up with something that was different, primarily in the vocals for the album. So that had a cool effect on the album, and he's a world-renowned producer who's deserving of such a title.
MR: All right, here's a mutual question. We believe Dead Throne was a concept album, so is 8:18 also one from your perspective?
MH: I wouldn't call Dead Throne a concept album and I wouldn't call 8:18 a concept album either. Really, the similarity there or the parallel is that I'm trying to build songs mostly from the same base or foundation. With that being said, there are just these very encompassing ideas that I built off of for both albums, but I wouldn't really call either of them too conceptual.
MR: So Dead Throne jumped into the #10 position on Billboard and it's apparently "...by far the best album the Ohio outfit have produced," said Kerrang! What do you think the main difference was creatively between the last album and this one?
MH: We had a new, better, more efficient method of coming up with songs and revising songs and basically, just entering the studio as well-prepared as possible. It even worked with Adam [Dutkiewicz], whose fruitful advice and criticism for our songs really taught us something through Dead Throne. I know when I was writing for this album and doing the vocals, a lot of the time in the back of my mind, I would say, "Okay, what would Adam think of this? What would Adam criticize about this?" It's basically, going from Dead Throne and using all of those same tactics and methods coming into 8:18 to help refine and come up with the best song possible. We take those rough demos that we come up with--basically scratch vocals and that rough foundation laid out--and take that and form it into a song that means a lot to us and says what we want the song to say and something that the listener will be pleased with, and the listener is going to want to come back to or even buy in the first place, which is obviously difficult enough with the industry and the over-populated state of metalcore bands. So yeah, there's a lot of factors there and we learned a lot doing Dead Throne and taking that and just getting better at it with the transition coming into 8:18.
MR: Yeah. Now, with you, Chris [Rubey], Jeremy [DePoyster], Andy [Trick], Daniel [Williams], did you notice an evolution as musicians when you attacked this album?
MH: Yeah, absolutely. I've been watching that for eight years now, since I joined the band and since we started. We were children. Chris and I were both sixteen, so obviously, it's been a huge transition and notable change coming from that to now being twenty-four to twenty-six-year-olds living in major cities. Chris just got married, he has a baby; Jerry's married. There's been a massive maturation of the people in this band. I would be a fool not to notice that and I think it does reflect in the music and the musicianship as far as us being adults looking at these songs. While in some things, it might seem a bit more sterile because it's almost more like a science or paperwork, if you will--looking at what makes the song and looking at timing and progression and chord movements and such. But at the same time, I think that is a part of being more of an adult and I think that's our age starting to catch up with us as we made songs for 8:18.
MR: Talking about where you all are at this point in life, are you looking at your albums as being steps toward your future? Do you have a plan based on everything that's come to this point?
MH: My response is going to make it seem as if we are aimless, but no, I feel like it's a distinct mistake to set goals and any kind of measure of success within music or at least within our part of music. A lot of bands just drop off really fast but some bands make it for a really long time and I know that it's not up to me to really guide and see where I am in however many years or see what the next step is with the next record. For me, it's just that I'm going to be as honest as possible, and I'm going to work as much as I can to come up with the best songs and, in turn, come up with a better record than the last one. But at the same time, because it felt like such a great evolutionary step, I feel the same way about 8:18. When we came out of Dead Throne, I was like, "Damn, I don't know what we're going to do for 8:18." I felt like that really hit it. But now I'm at 8:18 and we made thirteen more songs and I'm like, "Damn, I don't know what we're going to do next time around." I feel like I've been totally exhausted or emptied, and drained myself into all this again, but as long as there is more to say and a creative means or something to explore that I can do with The Devil Wears Prada. Next time we have to write a new record, I know I will be there and I will be doing the same thing again. Which is all to say, again, I feel a little bit aimless and without direction as compared to what the question was.
MR: No, I got it. Hey, "Martyrs," your video in Rolling Stone premiered recently. That was handled mainly by Jeremy and Andy, right?
MR: So the band is creative beyond the music, and I'm imagining that this and more could tie-in to where the band is heading. Last year, you were with Slipknot, Slayer, Anthrax and Motörhead. This year, for 8:18, you're headlining a tour with The Ghost Inside and Volumes in Texas. Your potential seems to be pretty boundless at this point.
MH: Over the years, we have grown more and taken control and realized that we have a vision and a direction to everything we do outside of the band whether it's videos, album artwork, tour artwork, tour production as far as lighting and staging. We've realized that we can handle all of those things on our own. We can look over and guide and have total creative direction of all of those things because we know what we want and we know what we want to express and we know what our intentions are for the person that buys the vinyl or buys the CD or watches the music video or comes out to the tour. We've realized that we can handle that stuff, so we do it. We're proud to say that and I think it creates more of a product of our band, which might sound monetary and sort of materialistic, but this is our career, this is what we do. So why not do that? Why not pour everything we have into what a person sees when they come to the show or when they type in http://www.TDWPband.com? We want to exercise all of that intention and direction over all of these areas and aspects.
MR: It seems that's the way everybody needs to be going these days, to be in control and overseeing all aspects or as many aspects as possible of their musical career.
MH: I don't know if I can say it with total certainty that every band needs to do that, I understand the importance of having a good label and management team to put together the right brand that is your band. But at the same time, I think that what I attribute our sense of control to is the fact that it has been eight years and at this point, not to sound entirely arrogant, but people have still wanted to see our band and they do want to buy our new album and they do want to hear the new songs. I think a lot of that comes in from the relationship that we offhandedly build in that fans and listeners of our band know that we're not in some distant utopia or on some pedestal somewhere; we are working and we are all in this together.
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
MH: To care, which I don't know how much people do anymore. For young artists, they need to know what they're trying to do, and if what they're trying to do is make money or look cool on a website or obtain Instagram followers, then I say you're part of the problem.
MR: After the band hung out with the likes of Slipknot and Anthrax, it's like you're in the same circle now.
MH: I hope...maybe with time. We're nothing with regards to Slayer. I love Slayer. I've been listening to them since I was a kid. To be able to be on that tour last year was really awesome and inspiring. I feel like it would be entirely egotistical to be like, "Yeah, we're in that ring of bands now." For me, if there is a guideline or somewhere to be, it's just to be around and to earn that respect that those bands have. I don't think we've earned that respect yet and I don't think we should have earned that respect yet because we're only eight years in. But if this band makes it fifteen years in, then yeah, that's when you're starting to get to that point. I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to be around those bands and to play shows with those bands because that is the distant goal, if there was one.
MR: Nice, and that also kind of hits the question I asked earlier about the future. Mike, once again, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.
MH: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor
Mike Ragogna: You must be in heaven with that Grand Ole Opry celebration in your honor, Ketch.
Ketch Secor: Quite unbelievable, isn't it?
MR: What is usually the parameter for this? How does a crew like Old Crow Medicine Show end up getting inducted like that?
KS: Well, it's certainly a rare case. Gosh, I can't think of a higher achievement for an old time string band than to be made members of the Grand Ole Opry. I guess it happened because we kept slugging it out. The Opry has always been a part of our play list. It's been on our calendar for fourteen years now, we've been playing the Oprey from the parking lot to the portico out front to the lobby and then on up to the stage.
MR: Wow. You mean you've been on that stage before, I asked facetiously?
KS: [laughs] Yeah, we have, in many ways. Some of our very earliest gigs were related to the Grand Ole Opry programming, but this is the highest achievement in the land.
MR: And it seems Marty Stuart is going to be on hand, too.
KS: Yes, Marty was there to surprise us with this news in Cleveland, Ohio of all places. We're all sitting there in the middle of a gig, playing to a good crowd and having a lot of fun and out comes Marty and it's just like, "Oh, great, Marty's here!" It wasn't any real surprise that Marty would just show up, but when they rolled out the WSM microphone and the manner of his speaking turned towards the wistful past, that's when we knew.
MR: [laughs] That's very nice. Now please may we speak about the wistful past for a minute?
KS: Yeah, sure. The Opry was founded in 1925, and it was founded with a number of hillbilly bands. The reason this thing happened was a fluke. An old man named Jimmy Thompson stepped up into the National Life & Accident Insurance building with a fiddle under his arm. He was born before the war, so he's about seventy-five years old. He walks up and George D. Hay--they called the song "Old Judge" later--had him play a couple of tunes and after he was done, he said, "Well, coming up next, we've got some great operatic singing, but truly that was a grand old opry." So it started with a fiddle and as an old time fiddle player, I feel really honored to get a chance to saw a fiddle on the stage of the Opry again with a mind towards all of those great players of eighty years before.
MR: Are there some great players that to this day resonate with you?
KS: One of my favorite performances in the early days of the Grand Ole Opry and a source for a lot of the inspiration that we draw from that era is a singer and bandleader named Uncle Dave Macon. Uncle Dave was a banjo player and song leader. I guess in the folk music sense, you'd call him a songster, because he didn't play just one style of music. He was an entertainer, so he would play whatever he felt people wanted to hear, and he kept in his bag of tricks quite a canon of songs. So Uncle Dave has been a great influence on us. He played the clawhammer banjo, he did tricks and hoots and hollers. Another great early start of the Opry that has had a profound effect on me is the harmonica player Deford Bailey. Deford was the first black performer on the Opry and the last for about forty years. That speaks a lot to the politics of the Grand Ole Opry, that you'd have a black performer in the beginning and then not again for a very long period of time. But in that heyday of the Grand Ole Opry, the stage was open to a wider format of artistry and that became narrower and narrower. So by including Old Crow here in 2013, they've opened up the gates again for old time banjos and fiddles and harmony singing in a way that hasn't been heard on that stage since the last string band died out in the 1980s, that would have been The Crook Brothers.
MR: What was the trend after The Crook Brothers? Were they more focused on country stars?
KS: Well, we're talking about a really long period of music history, so there are trends within the trends. When Deford was fired, it was because they were looking for a more modern sound, they said. They said he wouldn't change, that he wouldn't adapt to a growing audience that wanted more topical and popular songs of the day. He played his twelve songs, that's what he did, and that's all he was going to do. As a solo harmonica player, how adept do you need to be besides knowing your trick? Uncle Dave left the Opry for a long time, but as an old white man, they weren't going to kick him off.
Then comes a really great, sweeping movement of country music on the Grand Ole Opry when you get into the 1950s with Kitty Wells and the Opry being a place where a lot of women performers can come and have an equal stage, with Sarah Cannon and Minnie Pearl being a real torchbearer for women in country music. That wasn't going to happen on the stage in lower Broadway or at the big theaters in town, it happened at the Opry because the Opry wanted to try out a woman performer and loved what she brought. That continued with artists like Loretta Lynn singing on the Opry and continues through today though the times have greatly changed. That's to suggest that eighty years ago, who was the first radio show that featured a black harmonica player who wasn't in blackface, who didn't talk Uncle Remus talk, who played sweetly and was included in every broadcast? Thirty years later, when it was hard as a woman to get a job in entertainment if you weren't a stunning goddess--and Sara Cannon wasn't. She was a country girl from a place called Grinder's Switch, but she found a gig.
The Opry's always had a cutting edge facility for changing ways of artistry. To answer your question, recently, if you look at who's been inducted to the Grand Ole Opry in the past decade, it tends to be more of the groups like Rascall Flats and the polished sound of hot new country where the fiddle is definitely pushed out to a tertiary role and the aim is sales and there's a kind of saccharine sweetness to it all. But in the past couple of years, the last three inductees were Dierks Bentley, who is a bit of a maverick in his way, a shaggy-headed Arizona singer who's done it his own way, then the first black country singer to be inducted in probably forty years, Darius Rucker, and then the Old Crow Medicine Show. So it seems like maybe the Opry is looking to break some new ground again and to welcome in a more diverse cast from the country music family.
MR: Nice. Hey, since we're talking wistful histories, can you give me Old Crow's?
KS: Yeah, we bet on some dark horses and they turned out to win the race, again and again from little sandlots to the great big suites to the Triple Crown of the Grand Ole Opry. We met Doc Watson on a street corner and Doc gave us a gift that lasted a decade. It was just one gig, but I guess he just showed us some love at a time when nobody else did, and to get that from Doc is valuable stuff. He didn't just pass that around. So Doc gave us that big break and we ended up moving to Nashville. I think probably if we hadn't met Doc, we probably wouldn't have moved there. It was meeting Doc Watson that lead to us performing at the Merle Watson festival in the year 2000. We met Doc on the fifth of July in 1999. During our Spring performance at MerleFest, we met a woman named Sally Williams, who was a rising star in the Grand Ole Opry family. She's since become the general manager of the Ryman Auditorium. She was at our surprise announcement in Cleveland, and we've become great friends. But she heard us play in 2000 and said, "I've got this program I'm starting called the Opry Plaza series," and she brought us to Nashville. So we'd come down to Nashville on Friday and Saturday and we'd play in front of the Opry and we'd do our busking set, we'd play for tips. Then when the show was over, around ten o'clock, we'd all get into our Cadillac Limousine and drive down to little Broadway and make four or five hundred dollars on the street corner and then we'd all pile into one motel room at the end of the night. Boy, we were living high. We eventually moved to Nashville and have been there for a decade and then some, and the Opry has always been a part of the way we operated. We've always had an eye on that prize.
MR: What do you think of the state of folk music these days? What are the highs and lows that are happening right now?
KS: Well I'd say the high was last weekend. [laughs] But man, yes, any day of the week, but it seems like the high was always last weekend. It was on the stage in front of thirty-five thousand people in Simcoe, Ontario, of all places. We were opening up for Mumford and Sons and I saw all of these throngs of people dancing and hollering and shouting joyfully to the music of fiddles and banjos and they were doing it without irony.
MR: Do you feel that bluegrass and more traditional folk music is thriving right now? Are they going through a renaissance?
KS: It seems like we have reached some sort of movement in American music that, down the line, we will look back at this time and say there were these players and some common denominator between all of the bands and the sound that they made. You could call it a revival, but that sort of suggests that it was dead before, when it really wasn't. It's been happening all along. I really like to think about what Pete Seeger describes as the link of chain that stretches all the way back to the origins of folk music and each generation forges a new link. Well I think that this is the strongest link that's been forged in forty years.
MR: What are some of the reasons behind that? Because of the awareness of the genre or the quality of the musicianship, or...?
KS: I think the music has always been succinct, but it's like the audience has come around. They weren't there in the 1980s. You look and see what kind of tickets Bill Monroe was selling in 1990, for example. And now you look at what kind of tickets you can sell with a mandolin. We went through a great change when the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? really surprised a lot of people in the power that traditional song had--John Hartford being blasted out of speakers in imported cars; it's just unfathomable. But it happened, and I think, by the same token, it's hard to believe that Mumford & Sons could sell six hundred thousand records in a week, but it happened. On a smaller scale, I think that a lot of people were really surprised that Old Crow Medicine Show would be asked to be a part of the Grand Ole Opry. Shouldn't that have been a big hit maker who's got a number one song and the big tour that's coming to a fairground near you somewhere in the heartland? So all of these things are a surprise, but they're happening and they're all happening for a reason and I'm really proud and happy an honored to be a part of this event that is country music, folk music, folk rock, Americana, whatever it is. The thing that I think is too bad, I'll tell you, Mike, is usually these phrases get coined really early on. When Alan Watt said "Rock 'n' Roll," he said that in probably 1957 or something, maybe even earlier. He said it before it became what it is. I don't think anybody said the words that make up the scene and I don't think anybody ever will. I think we've just got to call it something like "folk revival."
MR: "Folk revival," nice. It seems like there's a jazz revival going on right now, too. Is it possible because of the state of the pop charts and popular music right now where there's virtually no diversity, it seems that folk, jazz, etc., gives people a breather to go discover or rediscover music they never got a chance to?
KS: Well, then you tell that to the people that love dance music and they think that this is the most vitality in the dance music scene that there ever was. It seems like the genres have become so many and so varied and that there's a crop of talent in all of the veins of music forging a very strong link in all of those chains. There's some great talent going on right now that's on all fronts of the American music scene. To say that the good music is rising up to the top, it's all a matter of taste. If I were to look at the chart, which I don't spend a lot of time looking at, or I listened to the radio, which I also don't spend a lot of time fooling with, then it would tell me something different. But when I look at what my peers are doing, boy, it's exciting.
MR: Are you listening outside of your genre to anything in particular?
KS: I feel like I haven't caught up yet. I'm trying to get through the 1970s right now. Give me some time and I'll get caught up to what I like about 2013. But I'm still listening to Stan Rogers.
MR: [laughs] Do you feel like Garrison Keillor has had a contribution to folk and keeping traditional or folk music popular?
KS: Well, on a personal note Garrison has really helped us in the Old Crow. Just like the Opry, Garrison gave us a radio stage where we could learn and grow, where we could rise to the occasion of a live broadcast which is a tough thing to do. The thing about the other genres is that a lot of them have a lot riding on the technology to make them sound great. When your technology is the flex of your arm and shoulder muscles to drag a horsehair bow across four strings and make somebody jump up in their seats, you're really dependent on your own energy and spirit which is frankly just s**t you can't download.
MR: [laughs] So the live element is still alive and kicking?
KS: Yeah, the live element will always be alive and kicking and live radio gives such a great opportunity to test it out. We learned so much from Garrison who really took us under his wing just like the Grand Ole Opry has. We've been playing on two long-running radio shows. We've been playing on them for a decade and they've been going on for decades and decades. They are A Praerie Home Companion and Grand Ole Opry, and to both of them, we are greatly indebted for giving us the playing field to come out game after game and try and do backflips.
MR: Beautiful. What is your advice for new artists?
KS: Oh, gosh, I don't put a lot of credit in what's going on currently. I often times try and steer people to listen to the source material. If you were going to write this article and they said, "Well you've got to talk to Darius Rucker and Marcus Mumford," well, you've got to talk to the source! Darius is the source for a Darius article, Marcus is the source for a Marcus article, but if you're going to write an Old Crow article, you've got to go to the source. If you want to talk about the source of old time music, you don't talk to Old Crow, you've got to go unearth some of this true material. You need to go talk to Reverend Gary Davis. Unfortunately, you can't. But what you can do is listen, and these records that were made up to 1950--including some of the folk revival in the 1960s and even the old time music of the 1970s--there are some records that just shake your soul and leave you rattled. Listen to Reverend Gary Davis or Blind Willy Johnson, if you want to talk to a blues artist. The thing about the roots is that they're available. You can go tap into them right now. You can even use your computer to get online with them. These records will last. We'll still be listening to these records in five hundred years, and we'll still be listening to "Like A Rolling Stone" in five hundred years. I really believe that. It's that powerful. It's the American sound, this thing that happened here, the cross-cultural explosion of Rock 'n' Roll. Black and white coming together. It's really astounding.
MR: You say that with such emotion. What do you think about American music's impact on the world culture?
KS: Oh, I think it's been like a sledgehammer on the Berlin wall.
MR: Nice. What is the future hold for Old Crow, maybe its immediate future and five years from now?
KS: I think with the Opry induction, that really puts the road time up for us. We want to do right by the Grand Ole Opry, we want to prove our worth at being there on that stage, broadcast after broadcast, and I want to get to know all of those people. I know a lot of folks on the Opry because, of course, we do it a lot. But I think that the Opry is going to be a big part of the years to come with the Old Crow Medicine Show and I'm really excited about the challenge of that, and I'm honored t o be getting to share the same stage where Roy Acuff really sawed up a storm. We're in good company there. Country music's going to be around. Just like they'll be listening to "Like A Rolling Stone" in five hundred years, I like to think they'll be listening to Hank Williams just as loudly.
MR: Any other words of wisdom before we leave?
KS: It's an Opry story, and it's a country music story, and we're just getting to the good part.
MR: Sweet. Ketch, I really appreciate it.
KS: My pleasure, thank you for the press at Huffington. I look forward to reading it and sending it to my mother.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Max Frost
Mike Ragogna: Max, "White Lies" is kind of blowing up on the internet. What's the history? How did this all come together, this latest EP, Low High Low?
Max Frost: I sort of had many points really in the past year or two since I've started making music on my own where I put together a little EP or a little LP or something. It's funny, every time I've done thrown something together like that, writing, my process, and shopping it around before I officially released any of it, sort of turned into me creating an opportunity where I had to wait a little bit longer until I had, you know, "Oh, what if I have these people on my team? What if I released it due to this? Is it going to be way better?" And so really, this is probably like the second or the third EP I've had ready to go. But this particular EP really came together over the past two months and the process was really me recording a lot of stuff because right after South By (South West), before I had gotten the attention online with "White Lies" or done the deal with Atlantic or anything, I actually had a hard drive and a computer stolen that had pretty much everything I had ever done. I wasn't really able to have the luxury of just going in and remixing stuff for this EP, I had to pretty much remake everything. Luckily, "White Lies" was the one song that I did have files for. We ended up putting up my initial mix of that anyway, but most of the process was recreating a lot of stuff, which was a much more difficult thing than I had expected. But really, it's been great. I feel like we've been gearing up to this and I feel like it represents what the past has been and also the future a little bit.
MR: You're style is like a singer-songwriter meets electronic meets modern production values. Who are your inspirations and how did you get to this sonic place that you're in right now?
MF: My background is really all in blues, and in old school music and stuff like that, and that's how I ended up developing my singing style--as a little bit more of like a soulful singing style from learning a lot of blues and that just sort of being the backdrop of all my stuff musically. Then I was writing a lot of songs that were singer-songwriter and sort of transitioning into more of a songwriter from a guitar player, so I started doing that for about a year, maybe. I started running into a lot of these hip-hop guys who wanted me to put hooks on their records and stuff like that. I had been into a lot of hip-hop but I had never really looked at myself as an artist that would be able to crossover to that. It was a slow and steady process getting into it, but after a while, it sort of became the bread and butter of what I was doing because it was so much easier to go make a beat myself and go do it all on my own record than to go get a band and go into the studio. So that was economically the one thing that pushed me towards that. In a way, it's weird that you say that I'm a singer-songwriter who's using modern production because that's sort of the way that I look at it. I look at it as like I'm almost a beat-maker guy who also sings, and I really look at my approach to writing on a lot of stuff that I make as like I'm a rapper, even though I don't rap, just the way that I look at phrases and things. Everything is melodic. Everything that I think about is phrasing rhythmically much more like a rapper, even though I don't consider myself a hip-hop artist or have any aspirations to be a rapper or anything like that. It's more that I just go with the formula that they seem to access the music that they make and apply it with my own different influences into that.
MR: It can be argued that the genre of singer-songwriters can embrace the concept of rappers. Rappers just sort of jumped in naturally, if you know what I mean. They're talking from the streets the same way singer-songwriters talk from their cultural and social experiences in the old school of doing things.
MF: Yeah, totally. That's spot on. I've actually really never thought of it that way. They're naturally in a big picture sort of way married in a way like that, you're right.
MR: Hey, you're going on tour starting Sept 26. Gary Clark Jr. is one of the acts you'll be touring with, and he has been getting a lot of attention. Are you excited about it the tour?
MF: Oh man, I'm so excited about it. It's crazy. It's so surreal, man. I used to open for Gary years and years ago when he was still in Austin and I was in another band called Blues Mafia. We were opening for Gary at least once or twice a month there for a good while. He was always an older, more successful figure in the scene. We knew each other and he was always cool to me. When things really started taking off for him, I was always thinking, "Man, if I could just catch up and get my own thing rolling quick enough to be in something affiliated, it would be a total dream come true." So this tour... I can't even describe how surreal it is that it's happening. Because it's been so many years and, at the same time, it's all happened so fast, that's it's going to be an intense thing again when in reality, it's going to be a whole new thing. I really don't know what to expect but I'm very excited.
MR: Do you consider yourself part of the Austin musical community?
MF: Oh, yeah definitely. I mean, I'm a product of it. There's so much diversity here and the quality of the musicianship here is really at a high level. What's weird about the Austin scene is that it's not like a place like Chicago, or a place like that where it's got a very clearly defined musical genre imprint or thing that it does. There's definitely some heavy influence--Willie and Stevie Ray were a big part of this place, sort of big names associated with this city and you can't really pin a certain genre to it and go, "Oh, the city is about that." What you end up with is a lot of players and a lot of musicians, like myself, who have dabbled in all the areas and have started pushing in their own direction.
MR: "White Lies" has taken on a life of its own on the internet. What do you think is the reason?
MF: I don't know, man. For me, I really like that song. I've always been a fairly insecure artist and honestly, I finished that song and when I finished it, I didn't think, "Oh, this is great. This is totally going to XYZ!" I just thought, "Oh, here's another one," and added more and, "Maybe it's too this, maybe it's too that." I have no idea, man. I think the subject matter of the song is dark, but I think that in a lot of ways, people are able to pick up enough of what the song is about to go, "Oh, that's cool." But really, it's just the groove and the feel of it is what I think people like. To them, it's like this really happy, upbeat thing that puts them in a good mood. The things that led to writing this song...I never looked at it like, "This is gonna be this super upbeat summer jam," or something like that. I looked at it as a pretty dark song.
MR: How did you create the songs on this EP? What is your creative process?
MF: Like any songwriter, I wouldn't say that I have any specific formula. I would say that my best stuff or the way I enjoy writing is where I hit a place where my best stuff is coming out, like "White Lies" and the other records were ones that I made where I work on the track, and I got to a point where I was really feeling the track and then only then, started writing the song. Something that always bums me out about sitting there and writing is solo on guitar. I mean I've done that for a long, long time. I've done a lot of songwriting with bands in the room and stuff like that. Every process is different and I love co-writing. I love writing with bands and all that. But I really think that my process... I think every song on this EP is that process of finding a groove and then somewhere in that groove, something inspires me--an emotion--and then I start bleeding in details and then trying to develop a feel of a song. That's the process. I used to start more lyrically, but for me, melodies are way more in abundance than words.
MR: Are the words coming more from personal experience or observation or a combination?
MF: Kind of both. You know, in some way, it's always kind of personal, but I try not to just focus it around the emotions. Anytime I get too specific into the details of my own personal life, it becomes impossible for me to have any kind of perspective on whether or not someone else could really perceive what I'm trying to explain or feel at all, so I try to step back and write it much more narratively and try to focus on much more sort of primal emotional states, which connected a lot with the title of the EP. With my writing I try to really focus on a feeling and try to convey that in words the best I can. I definitely don't consider myself a formulaic great pop writer or anything like that. Most of my songs, I think if you were to put all the words down and try to understand what the song means I think you could get a close understanding but I don't write these perfect understandable pop songs. There's always some ambiguity to it though, and I think that that's needed. I think the best songs kind of leave a bit of a space of an unanswered question that the listener fills with whatever their feeling of it is. The context of the emotion is much more in the specific melody phrase that those words are on in that specific phrase than the whole song. Like if that whole song is about this and by the end of the song, now you get it. Like you get it already before you even understand what the song is about--the first lines--if the words flow well with whatever that phrase is and it hits you in a place, I think that's where 90% of the emotional context comes from. It really doesn't have much to do with logical meaning, it's much more at the center of yourself with much more animal.
MR: It's like without the lyrics being said, the music was already doing the same communicating. The words seem like a formality.
MF: Yeah, totally! Absolutely, I love that, that "the words seem like a formality." I love that. For me, that's the biggest, most frustrating part of co-writing recently. I don't think it matters. I think if you find something that sounds right and you feel something and some meaning's conveyed, that's what's important. I don't think that it needs to be like, "Okay, so set the scene, and what's the theme going to be?" The greatest songs... No one understands the words to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," or like half of Nirvana's songs. No one knows, but they're still on the radio, you know.
MR: Not only do people not know the words, but they identify heavily with those songs.
MF: Yeah. Really, I would almost say that the title of the song, in most cases, is more important than most of the words in the song. The title sets more of a tone than the words. But I love what you said about the words just being a formality. That's spot on. I'm going to remember that.
MR: Thanks Max! "White Lies" is a little bit more literate and relative to what the title of the EP is--Low, High, Low. But "Nice and Slow" is more reflective of the mood of that particular song, that being your other "hit" from this EP. So that kind of proves your point, doesn't it?
MF: Definitely. "White Lies" is a pretty specific emotion. It's the paranoia, it's the fear of the situation, and it's pretty easy for people to understand. "Nice and Slow" is much more a mixture of things. It's a positive thing in a way. It's a sad song for me in a way where you're sort of embracing someone you love for the last time.
MR: Speaking of what you love, you have no regrets about leaving the University of Texas?
MF: [laughs] No, not yet.
MR: You don't miss the frat parties and the ball games and all that?
MF: You know what's funny is I'm playing a frat party this weekend at UT. [note: that was a week ago when this interview was conducted] There's always part of me that's like, "How simple and nice would life be if I settled down, got a nice little degree and a nice little sorority girlfriend." But no, I was going crazy, and started losing my mind in high school and I wanted to make music and do what I wanted to do. Really, by the time to choose colleges came around, I didn't care anymore. I was just going because I thought I had to go. And as soon as I got there, I was so bummed out. I thought, "Man, this isn't the real world, this is just another high school, this and this." I couldn't do it. I did it for a year and I went to Venice for the summer and just kept writing and that's when I wrote "White Lies" and wrote a bunch of stuff. I came back and I was like, "Man, if I don't drop my other serious stuff and just sprint at this, I could end up in my life really having some regrets." So if I end up being a flash in the pan or whatever, at least I can say I gave it a good shot and go back to school rather than wondering what could have happened.
MR: What about going back to University under the right circumstances, as a musician?
MF: Yeah, I would love to do that. I definitely struggled with that. That was my main struggle. I couldn't find what I really wanted to study there. I studied English for a while. I love reading and stuff like that, but I couldn't find something that I wanted to study that intensely for four years. I don't know what I'd study if I went back. But I definitely would be interested in doing that. And there are things that I miss like the irresponsibility of being a college student and just taking care of school stuff and hanging out. But really, what are t