How did you get started in music?
My dad is a music pastor in the evangelical church and has been since before I was born so I was around music all of my life—him getting seasonal musicals ready or preparing for Sunday morning church. He’s a piano player and a cellist; he taught my sister and me piano from the time we were five or so. I also played the clarinet from 4th to 6th grade and started playing drums in 7th grade—that’s when it really became my own thing.
Did you have an “aha” moment at any point when you knew that music was what you really wanted to focus on?
Yeah, I feel like I did. I think it was in 9th grade before I started playing guitar at all. In 7th, 8th, and 9th grades, we lived in three different towns: one in Arizona and two in California. In each town, I took drum lessons from a different guy. Observing each of them, there was a common thread—they were professional musicians and made their living from playing and teaching drums. I saw a template for how it was possible to make a living playing drums being a freelance drummer.
In 9th grade, I thought, “This is what I want to do. I want to play drums. I want to play music.” I thought, it’s either the piecemeal approach where you’re playing with a jazz ensemble, doing weddings, lessons, all that stuff or maybe you get in a band that’s good and do that for as long as it lasts. That was my idea.
In 10th grade, I started writing songs. Once that became more of what defined my musical expression, I realized that was a much easier way to be in charge of my own musical destiny.
Did you have any big musical influences growing up?
I’ve tried to unpack that over the years. Until I was in 8th grade, I was only allowed to listen to music that was Christian music. We were actually going through some of that stuff on Youtube the other day when we were driving in the van and the degree that that music influences my music is hilarious—it’s very, very bad.
But, a lasting influence is my own dad and my mom and how their personalities were expressed by the way that they played music. My dad is a very understated, fairly meek kind of person. I mean, he’s a big guy, but very mellow and not very grandiose for being in a Pentecostal denomination—Assemblies of God—that’s full of a lot of grandiose motherfuckers.
And then, my mom is also real passionate, plain, and powerful. She would sing solos on Sunday mornings and it was such an emotional trip every time she would do it because she was so invested in whatever song she chose. She was always on the verge of breaking down because it all meant so much to her.
That was a big influence on me—seeing my parent’s expression in contrast to the real showy, ornate things that were happening in the rest of that culture. Looking back, it’s pretty obvious that that influenced what my value system is and what my taste is musically.
Did you form Pedro the Lion right out of high school?
Yeah, in 1995, which was a year out of high school—Class of ’94 rules! I had a band before that called Christopher Robin, which was very straight ahead, like me strumming acoustic guitar and drums and bass—not very inventive, very conventional.
Pedro the Lion is also fairly conventional music. But, I got a four-track and started making my own simple arrangements that I thought were more artful. The Beatles were certainly an influence. So that was a tape that I had made on my own in early 1995 that I called Pedro the Lion and then it was suggested to me that I should put together a band to bring the stuff live. So I did and it was good fun.
You went to college out of high school. Were you going to college for music or did you ever consider doing anything other than music?
I didn’t consider doing anything other than music. I went to college and was a religion/philosophy major in the two years (four semesters) that I attended. I thought that being a religion/philosophy major would make me a better songwriter. And in general, I went to college for a solid liberal arts education, which I was trying to get at a Pentecostal liberal arts college, so solid might not be the word I would use now. It certainly had an impact on the way I think about the world. For me, it was a really nice bridge because it started stretching me philosophically. It was a pretty safe place for an evangelical kid to go and start to shed the first, most absurd layers of his cultural belief system—namely the Pentecostal layers. From there, it gave me an appetite for digging as deep as I possibly could at any particular philosophical idea.
But, then I dropped out because the band was picking up and my grades were suffering. Actually, my pops sat me down and said, “You should maybe take a semester off,” and I thought, “Who are you? Why are you telling me this? Where’s my dad?” I took a semester off and just never went back.
Were your friends and family supportive of you pursuing music full-time?
My family was very much. My friends were on board and liked the band, I suppose.
After quitting school, I was a barista for a while in Seattle and then I quit that to do the band full-time. There was a Christmas in 1997 when I was at my aunt’s house for a big extended family get-together and everybody was there. All my cousins, aunts, and uncles were asking me what I was up to. I was giving one guitar lesson and one drum lesson to a couple people I knew so I told my family I was giving music lessons and blah, blah, blah.
My mom overheard me say this and pulled me aside. She said, “Why are you saying that? Why don’t you just tell them what you’re actually doing?”
I was like, “I don’t know. It just seems kind of embarrassing, like it’s not serious or something.”
She said to me, “Well, are you serious about it?”
I said, “Yeah, you know I am,” and she replied, “Then you should say that you’re doing the band full-time.”
There were a lot of little moments like that where my parents were very, very supportive and they always have been.
Who do you think has been the most supportive of you along your creative path?
The biggest opportunity for a lack of support would be from them [my parents] in my early life. In that sense, it feels like I got a lot of support from them, maybe more than from anybody else.
I’ve been married for 12 years now and my wife is also very supportive—it’s funny to say supportive as if she’s in this dutiful role because it’s not that way at all. She’s great. There’s no resentment of me being gone so often and we just participate in life together. So, in that sense, maybe I’ve received even more support from her.
Your latest album, Strange Negotiations, was the album that we listened to throughout the summer while working on building what would become The Great Discontent. Can you talk about the shift from the introspective Curse Your Branches to the more outwardly focused Strange Negotiations?
As with everything, it wasn’t necessarily a decision that I made as I set out to make the record. Each album or new song is a discovery process—what is my subconscious insisting that I write about? In hindsight, it’s a logical progression for me.
I dealt with some of the internal conflicts somewhat exhaustively on Curse Your Branches and exhaustively enough on the record that I was able to move on. A lot of those questions still come up; they’re still on my radar, but they’re not things I have to have an answer to. That was part of what Branches accomplished for me: realizing that what I care about is how I treat my wife and kids; my mom and dad; friends; the people that I’m the boss of in the band. All of the energy that I put into spiritual and cosmic concerns and concerns about the invisible world, I realized were—for my taste and my conclusions—misplaced and I should put all that energy into taking stock of my everyday and try to do better by that.
That’s what I think Strange Negotiations is about. Because of the context in which I was trying to take responsibility for my own life and take stock of all the outstanding social contracts that we all have, it ended up being about politics and economics. I was so informed by the baby boomer generation because that’s where I got all my cues from and where I developed my criteria for what it meant to be an ethical person. Me becoming a grown-up and owning all those things—I was grappling with the inconsistencies and disappointing outcomes of that generation. It stemmed from, okay, I’m not so obsessed with the fine points of theology anymore; I’m over that conundrum, so what now? It’s ethical concerns and personal responsibility. I think that’s where the record grew from.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Yeah, I do. I suppose I don’t think of things in terms of there being a huge separation between the self and the world at large. Growing up Christian, you’re socialized to think of things in an outward way—that there’s a very porous kind of boundary, if any, between yourself and the cosmos or the rest of the world. And a lot of that is giving access of yourself over to the all-seeing eye in that tradition, called Jehovah or Jesus. So because of that, I see myself as part of the bigger whole. Certainly there’s a bit of Eastern thought reflected in Jesus’ teaching. That’s how my ethical system was developed and it still has its roots there, but I don’t think it’s unique to Jesus’ teaching.
As I’ve gotten older, I feel more and more that I’m just an inconsequential part of this great big whole on one level, but on another level, it’s important what each little cog does. Justice can emerge from millions of little actions, or injustice can emerge from millions of little actions. In that sense, I do have a responsibility; it’s not of no consequence, but I don’t feel particularly important in the scheme of things.
“If you want to do this and be serious, you have to find your own rhythm independently of money or praise. If you can find that, then you can do it for a long time, but you can’t need more encouragement than you’re going to get. Needing recognition is natural, but you need to get by on very, very little if you want to not go crazy and be able to have a sustainable workflow.”
Are you satisfied creatively?
No—very much no! There are a lot of limitations that I have that I’m struggling against; some of them are organizational and administrative. But, I think that even if all of those things were sorted out and I did have regular access to engaging in the creative process like one would assume a full-time, professional musician would have, there would still be obstacles there.
I feel a little slow on the draw on the things I’m particularly interested in doing. I feel like they’re slightly out of my skill set, but that generates this very powerful hunger to overcome that and I think I’m turned on by seeing the hunger—that’s what makes other people’s art compelling to me. The ease with which Paul McCartney did everything that he did is fantastic and I’m inspired by it to a certain degree, but I’m much more compelled by John Lennon, who was just darker and hungrier. Things were less easy for him and you can feel that pulling, that tension in his music. So, I’m frustrated creatively, but I think that’s how it works.
Ryan: Is there anything specifically that you’d like to do down the road?
Yes, very much so. The list is long. It’s tough to convey. I would like to hear music in my head a little more easily and have less of a frustrated and tenuous relationship with melody and harmony, but that’s just one of many things. I would like to have a more solid connection with the melodic, rhythmic, harmonic tools and not have to work so hard just to get up to the level of proficiency when working on songs.
And I’d like to be Neil Young/Guy Picciotto/Jeff Tweedy on electric guitar. So, we’ll see.
If you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?
I don’t know. In general, I don’t believe in that.
There was a kid I went to school with in 4th grade. His name was James and he lived in my neighborhood. I went to a private school in sprawling Phoenix, Arizona, so most kids didn’t live anywhere near me. At some point, I had thought of this really grave insult and it wasn’t pointed at anybody. One day, I showed up late to lunch and all of my friends, including James, were already sitting around a table. One of my other buddies had suggested to James and our group of friends that I had said the insult about James, which I most certainly did not do. James looked at me and asked,“Is that true?” Nonchalantly, for the approval of those six other dudes, I said it was true… and that kid just fucking broke. It was done between him and me. We didn’t see each other in my neighborhood again. It was a betrayal that was for no reason. It was so frivolous and nonchalant. I think about that a lot.
I’m sure he’s fine and that that one event didn’t scar him forever. Who knows if he even remembers who I am? My thinking is that I wouldn’t want to take it back because it’s taught me something about the introvert/extrovert dynamic among many, many other things. But, it’s so hard to chose between me learning a helpful lesson and burning this 4th grade kid. I’d rather not burn him. I would take it back.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
I immediately took to Seattle when I moved there 20 years ago. It feels like there’s action there because of the way that the clouds blow through the two mountain ranges. When the sun comes out, it’s just fucking gorgeous. I like the town a lot.
There’s a tradition of smart pop music that comes out of that town that I think continues to show itself. The context in which you’re creative makes a difference. There are some people who have a sense of what they want to do independent of the culture, but I think that’s rare. It’s more common to do something in a cultural context. For instance, when the band plays in Nashville, TN, I feel like we’re doing something particularly raw and badass. The context of Seattle, for me, with The Sonics and Nirvana, you know… There’s always a band like the Crystal Skulls that pops up, or Fleet Foxes—bands who are doing pop music, but rethinking it and turning it on its head. I might write something that, in a less sophisticated context, I would think is really amazing, but in Seattle I think, “That’s good—keep trying.”
Also, bands who get out of Seattle to tour have to work harder because it’s 30 hours to anywhere off the West coast. More than 70% of the music markets are East of I–35 or I–29 at the very least and it takes three days to get there. To make the push to get through Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and Kansas takes a lot of effort, commitment, and conviction.
Ryan: Does the amount of traveling you do affect your ability to write?
Certainly. To make a living doing this has gotten harder and harder as people buy less and less records. I have to spend more and more time on the road and it is an obstacle. I can sit with an acoustic guitar in the green room of a club and try to write music while the guys are at dinner. But, to be around the drums and electric guitar in a creative space where you have time to sprawl and look into something—that time is few and far between.
That said, I have to put out records more frequently because not only are people not buying records, but there are so many more bands touring that you can’t play any given market more than once or maybe twice on an album cycle. Because I make my living from touring and need to be out two or three times a year, I basically need to put out a record every year. The frequency of touring goes way up, which makes it hard to find time to be creative.
At a certain point, I feel like, okay, it’s fucking time to do this and there’s no time to be precious; you go with your gut and make something. There’s maybe something truer about that than the labored process of the way I’ve made records in the past. Strange Negotiations was a result of that—it was a very quick and dirty process and this next album will be similar, not in sound, but in process.
Ryan: I’m curious about your thoughts on subscription based music services like Rdio and Spotify. You probably don’t make a lot from people playing your music on there. Do you think it helps or hinders what you’re trying to do?
I don’t know about Rdio—I’ve never done any looking into it. Spotify, in particular, is just straight-up class warfare. There was this stat about Lady Gaga, who was the biggest selling artist on Spotify, getting $800 in one quarter for having over 8 million plays. People are getting paid from Spotify, but it’s not artists. The amount of money that artists are making on Spotify is ridiculous. The amount of money that Sean Parker and EMI and those types of interests are making of off Spotify is where the real crime is. The question when it happened was, “Who okayed this major transfer of these commodities—hundreds of thousands of songs and records?” No one I knew had anything to do with it—it was all these labels. They got big cash bonuses that are not part of the royalty stream and won’t trickle down to artists.
They’re all shareholders as well so when it IPOs, they’ll make another billion dollars each and the artists will make exactly zero. Spotify, in particular, is very much the story of the 1% and the 99% all over again. It’s particularly rich because it applies to this force culturally [music] that can be cleansing of those heists or injustices so it’s kind of comical.
Anything that causes people to have less of a connection with the artist that they specifically would like to listen to and consume deludes it. The lack of connection that we all have now relative to how things worked 30 years ago as far as community and personal connections is getting more and more diluted. I think that social networking and all that stuff is just another aid in falling out of relationship with one another in any real sense. I think those subscription-based things are just one less commitment that consumers have to make. It’s that much more being removed from committing to a purchase and a decision. In general, I think that that’s an unhealthy way to live—period. The vast amount of choice that we have is meant to be helpful and part of our freedom, but it’s really the most crippling element of modern life.
You touched on relationships just now. Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people and do you have that?
It’s something that I value, but it is very difficult. There is the community of the band; it’s me and the same four other guys who have been touring together all year so there’s a sense of community cultivated there. And a lot of community really does come from proximity. In a year like 2011, when I’m on tour 20 weeks out of the year, it’s really about my wife and kids when I’m at home. Then, when I’m on the road, it’s about that.
So there are 7, 8, maybe 10 people who I’m in really close proximity with at any given point. We’re not all songwriters who can compare notes about creativity, but that’s the kind of luxury that comes from a leisure that I don’t have. But, there is this community of people who all have interests in common and we have to figure out how to balance those interests with the interests we don’t have in common.
“If you’re interested in finding any kind of contentment from doing this, know that the buzz, the accolades, the money, the fans—it goes up and down and is a fickle thing. If you depend on it, you’re going to go nuts and develop bad, bad habits and hurt the people that love you.”
If you could give one piece of advice to another musician or songwriter starting out, what would it be?
Well, you should keep in mind that there’s always somebody who can do more with less than you’re doing.
I brought home a “C” on a report card when I was in 7th grade—it was my first “C” and my dad asked me why I got a “C”. I said, “Well, the teacher was terrible.” He asked me if anybody in the class got an “A” with that bad teacher. I said yes, that someone did get an “A”. He said, “It should’ve been you who got the ‘A’ along with whoever else did.” That was a really good lesson.
If you want to do this and be serious, you have to find your own rhythm independently of money or praise. If you can find that, then you can do it for a long time, but you can’t need more encouragement than you’re going to get. Needing recognition is natural, but you need to get by on very, very little if you want to not go crazy and be able to have a sustainable workflow.
And also, if you’re interested in finding any kind of contentment from doing this, know that the buzz, the accolades, the money, the fans—it goes up and down and is a fickle thing. If you depend on it, you’re going to go nuts and develop bad, bad habits and hurt the people that love you.
It’s you in your bedroom; it’s you in a small space playing for people that is the basic element of what’s going on. So have a serious mind about what is real and what is not important when it comes to being creative. The wilderness is your home in that sense so you should love it—it’s a really, really wonderful place.
Ryan: I know you did a tour of house shows more recently. Was it cool to connect with your fans in that intimate type of setting?
Yeah and I continue to do it. I did 70 house shows1 this year and probably a little less last year. I’ve done about 250 of them since 2009 and they’re great. That was me realizing that I love the wilderness and I wanted to figure out a way to tour in the wilderness—it feels that way. When it goes well, it’s pretty magical for me. When it’s a little weird, it can be awkward. (laughing)
We have a few lighter questions. What does a typical day look like for you when you’re touring?
Well, usually we get up maybe an hour earlier than we’d like. We get in the van and either make breakfast and coffee in the back of the van or end up at Starbucks. Then we drive for three to nine hours and load into the club three hours before doors open. We do our load in and sound check for two hours and then clear the stage an hour before doors for the opener to do their thing. Then we hang out and eat or go on a walk or drink beer for about three hours. We play our set for 80 minutes or so then tear all the stuff down, put it in the van, drink alcohol, go to the hotel and do the whole thing over again the next day. It’s a little bit like Groundhog Day, but I like the rhythm of it a lot. I’ve been doing it 100 days a year or more since 1998 and it’s not getting old for me.
Current album on repeat?
There’s so much music in the van between everybody’s iPods. I listen to Revolver and The White Album by The Beatles often. I also listen to Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) a lot; The Dirty Projectors record, Bitte Orca—the tone of the record is so smug and yet I love it so, so much; The Fugazi record, End Hits. I’m listening to a lot of Tom Petty on the tour—Highway Companion, Wildflowers, She’s the One soundtrack.
Do you have a favorite movie?
Yes. No Country for Old Men is my favorite.
Do you have a favorite book or author?
I don’t. Pretty soon I’m going to start reading a lot more than I do. Salinger’s Nine Stories had a big impact on me in ’97 and I still take a lot of inspiration from the economy with which he conveyed the emotional content of that set of stories. I do like Eggers quite a lot.
You know, The Road—McCarthy is amazing. There’s a bit at the end of The Road (spoiler alert!) where the dad is at his end and the boy tries to cover him up, but the dad doesn’t want to be covered because he wants to see. And there’s this bit about the long chronicle of the earth’s prophetic voices—that they were all right—and there’s this feeling you get.
It’s the same feeling I get at the end of No Country for Old Men when Tommy Lee Jones’ character recounts a dream he had. It’s that deep desire to understand and to make peace with our surroundings even though it’s not possible to sustain with them because we’re going to die. That not knowing and the hopelessness of not having enough information to make these decisions we have to make at any given point—he [McCarthy] captures the despair of that so truthfully and so well.
In the end of The Road, too, there’s a hopefulness simultaneously woven in there. In both cases, there’s no way to explain the feeling any better than the writing does. He gets at those intangible emotions in a way that I’m struggling to explain. That’s what great narrative art does.
Do you have a favorite food? Or, what does a touring band eat?
Well, we’re different. We have a camp stove, crock-pot and fully stocked pantry in the back of our van so we eat all kinds of good stuff. Our bass player, Andy Fitts, is a really gifted, creative food person. He’s bent on us having something different every night for dinner. We had this really great pork shoulder that was in the crockpot with cranberries, orange rind, nutmeg, cloves, and garlic. We had leftovers and he threw in some Israeli couscous so that after the show, we could sit and hang out and eat more. We do make sandwiches most every day because it’s easy. Besides that, if we’re gonna eat out and there’s a Chipotle around, we do that.
Ryan: Before we get to the last question, I have to ask what your all-time favorite guitar is.
I don’t have any guitars now that I’ve had for more than a year. I had one I really liked in ’98-’99 and it got stolen. Since then, I’ve not been a guy who has a guitar and plans to keep it forever. But, as it’s turning out, I really like SGs a lot. I’ve had this weird courtship with them. A lot of my favorite guitar moments are coming from guitarists that play SGs. There’s a raunchiness to their sound that I like—that harmonic kind of distortion and the way they feed back, so electric and alive—it tickles my brain in this dark and light kind of way that I love.
One last question. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
The main thing is with my kids.
I think that pulling back the curtain on everything, all the time, is the path toward justice. Martin Luther King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I haven’t always dared to believe that, but I suppose I have faith that it’s true. There’s some evidence that it’s true, but it’s not conclusive and I think that’s what faith is.
Transparency, genuineness, and pulling back the curtain all of the time, with no regard to the institutions that crumble because of it—personal and otherwise—are deep values and ones that I hope my life will show are true. I hope that the people who are closest to me and see all the baggage bullshit are able to see that those are the things that are lasting. Time, of course, is the revelator with all things.
That’s it for 2011, folks. Hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. We’ll be back on Tuesday, January 3rd, with Noah Stokes.