For our next interview we have one of my personal favorite songwriters, James Diers. James is a well known Twin Cities based songwriter, known for his work as a member and front man for Halloween, Alaska and the Love-cars. I feel honored simply to be aware of both of these great bands. I’m not sure I would had I lived somewhere like Miami. Point being, these bands are awesome and the world should listen. If they are new to you, please check them out; although I’m guessing that the core of the FoodForTheBeloved fans are already quite aware of these bands. Halloween, Alaska is due to release their third album, Champagne Downtown (review), this coming April 7th with an album release show on the following Friday April 10th at First Ave. If you are not going to be out of town visiting relatives then you need to go. Its only $8 advance $10 at the door. Enough blabber…here is the interview
FFTB: Any background on the band names ‘Love-cars’ and ‘Halloween, Alaska”?
[j] The name Love-cars is taken from a Robert Lowell poem called “Skunk Hour”. You can probably find it online without much effort. David was the one who saw the reference to “love-cars” in it and thought that would be a good name for a band. Early on, we were in a classic situation of having a show booked and needing a name and having to just decide on something. David had Love-cars in his back pocket and that was his vote. It obviously stuck, despite some inevitable punctuation problems. Like, it would invariably get printed as The Love Cars or Lovecars or whatever. Not that it’s a huge deal, it’s just a name, but because it was taken (borrowed?) from Lowell, we thought the hyphenation should stay. David also came up with the name for Halloween, Alaska. Before we even starting playing together, actually. There’s not a lot of back story on it, other than I think David just thought it was somehow evocative of some of the moods and textures he wanted the original four of us (me, him, Ev + Friesen) to be looking at. Now it’s the comma that’s a problem.
FFTB: What are your non-musical influences?
[j] They change pretty constantly, so it’s kind of hard to say. If you’re talking about other media, I suppose I could name some films and books have had some influence on how I approach certain stuff, if only because those are forms of communication/storytelling that share some of the same basic elements. But I think that’s typical of a lot of musicians. The more specific stuff is maybe more relevant. My family, of course. Mistakes I’ve made in friendships/relationships, or things I’ve done right. Summer days I spent as a 12-year-old biking around rural Montana. Traveling in general, throughout my life. Regrets. Toasts at wedding receptions. Caffeine. Weather. Envy. Optimism. Financial ruin.
FFTB: Think of the last song your wrote; what were the steps taken to complete that song?
[j] Do you mean just the basic process? The last thing I wrote — a new song for Halloween, Alaska — started with me wanting to write something fairly slow and spare that David could just play a really hard, heavy groove on. I think I’d been listening to a Bad Plus tune with this certain feel to it and realizing that we didn’t really have anything for H,A that allowed him to lean hard in that direction. Just me being selfish and wanting some shares in that shit, I guess. That was the original impetus. I started messing around with some keyboard changes with that type of rhythm in my head and eventually hit on something I liked, something I felt comfortable bringing in without any solid ideas on lyrical content. Then I worked it up some more with Jake and Matt first because David was out of town at the time. We just got together and played through the basic arrangement until they came up with parts they/we liked. Funny thing is, when we all finally got together on it, David took it in a fairly opposite direction drum-wise, which turned out to be a great idea for the song. So then I had to adjust my thinking and sweat a little over the vocal, figure out how to adapt it to this new vibe. I had a rough demo in my car for weeks and would just pick away at it melodically from time to time. Once I had a vocal melody together, I then refined some of the subject matter in my mind that made the most sense and finished the lyrics. That was the process. I’d say my most gratifying work with H,A has happened that way, with somebody seeding something in rehearsal and just working it up together — not “jamming” really, but methodically bringing each other into the song in a spontaneous way. And lyrics last. More and more often, lyrics have come last for me.
FFTB: Is it better to be great at 1 instrument or decent at many?
[j] I don’t think it’s a question of what’s better. I like to think there’s room for both. I’m a guy who’s not great at any one instrument, playing in a band with guys who are all pretty great on theirs. My focus tends to be on the song and what I think I can bring to it, as a singer or lyricist and then hopefully with some sort of instrumental contribution or programming/recording ideas. I’ve had some psychological highs and lows with playing guitar and more recently playing keys. With singing, too, but instruments especially. I’ve never gotten deeply invested in learning a singular instrument, which I sometimes feel badly about. That comes mainly from seeing and knowing people who reach a kind of mastery with their instruments that can be transcendent and really inspiring. Watching Erik Fratzke play anything, for example, invariably gets me a little wound up for not being a more dedicated instrumentalist. (Mind you, that feeling is dwarfed by the enjoyment of watching him play.) But ultimately I tend to think more in terms of songs and what I can do to help make them work case by case. I’ve got plenty of room to grow as a singer and songwriter, which usually feels like enough. Getting better with a given instrument feels like a separate, more personal, more challenging process for me. I guess one good thing about being a bit of a dabbler is that it (ideally) leaves a broader range of possibilities in terms of what I might be able to contribute to a song.
FFTB: As a band with a distinct lyrical style, do you use lyrics to write music, or music with lyrics to follow?
[j] I personally tend to deal with music first. I keep a running log of fragments and ideas for lyrics that don’t really get anywhere useful until there’s a piece of music that suits them. Once I can attach an idea to a piece of music, it’s easier for me to develop it into a more cohesive set of lyrics. There are a few exceptions, but that’s the norm. It’s also worth noting that David contributes lyrics, too. I think he works the same way insofar as the lyrics come later. And there are a lot of songs where he’s brought in partial lyrics and then I’ve taken them and completed or developed them. Friesen has anted up on a couple of things, too. It’s maybe more collaborative than a lot of bands in that way. It’s natural for people to assume that the singer writes all the words, but I don’t. I do think we half-consciously strive for something cohesive in that department, especially since the music doesn’t always run on a narrow track.(Which actually makes me curious to hear how you’d describe our “distinct lyrical style” … ?)
FFTB: Would you consider Lyric’s to be music?
[j] If they’re being sung/performed, yeah. On the page, not necessarily. Nor do I think of song lyrics as poetry — that’s its own discipline. I think mistaking song lyrics for poetry and vice-versa has yielded some unpleasantness in the world. It’s really great when lyrics can resonate beyond the music or separate from it, but I guess I’d stop short of saying they’re always music on their own.
FFTB: What is the primary instrument you use to write with?
[j] Lately it’s keys, since I’ve been playing more keys in the band. I’m “between pianos” so it’s a keyboard controller and whatever patch seems appropriate to the piece at hand.
FFTB: How do you approach playing songs live when the recording have extra tracks?
[j] It’s usually a pretty simple process of elimination. Look at which parts are essential to the song, and which aren’t. If we can’t cover all of them, we may have to rearrange some things or just leave it out of the live show. No weird science to it. We have a few samples here and there, but we don’t sequence anything, so if we’re gonna play something, it’s got to be something that four humans can execute.
FFTB: What creates a better song fiction or non-fiction motivated?
[j] Again, I don’t believe it’s a question of what’s better. I think there are great songs that are completely invented from the abstract, and other great songs that lay bare some really intense first-person experiences. It’s a matter of preference in method. I’ve wrestled with that idea, and ultimately I think as long as there’s some kind of valid motive or idea or emotion driving a tune, there’s not a whole lot of use in trying to place fact over fiction or vice-versa. It’s best to use whatever resonates with you as a songwriter, whether that’s some shitty personal episode or a political atrocity or some totally invented scenario about a deaf turtle who rides a fixed-gear bike. Personally speaking, I tend to deal in a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I will say that the more fact-based stuff seems to get done a lot quicker, whatever that’s worth.
FFTB: Who are your top three favorite songwriters?
[j] Three people whom I admire pretty unabashedly are Mark Eitzel, Tracey Thorn and Joe Henry.
FFTB: Any advice for young aspiring musicians and songwriters?
[j] Just listen to a lot of different music and stay open to being inspired by any of it. Also, take chances that make you uncomfortable.