Time for FFTB’s 8th interview. For this episode we have Jon Reine of the rock-n-roll music group Greycoats. The Greycoats are awesome. They play rock music with a solid artistic twist. Currently, they are on tour through the west coast. Please listen to some tracks, check out the video and enjoy the great interview.
FFTB: Any background on the band name ‘Greycoats’?
We had settled on NORTH for a while thinking it to be a strong, iconic name. Unfortunately, quite a few other people had that same idea. Some of them were recording and touring so we knew a change had to be made before finishing our album. I remember waking up with the name GREYCOATS in my head one morning, presenting it to the guys, and deciding to run with it.
The meaning of GREYCOATS could go in a number of different directions. Russian soldiers of the line used to be called ‘greycoats.’ There’s a Westminster school for girls called The Grey Coat Hospital, or ‘Grey Coats’ – that seemed a bit Morrissey to me. Then there’s the American Civil War – Soldiers of the north were called ‘blue-bellies’ and soldiers of the south, ‘grey coats.’ I liked the play off of our first name – if ‘North’ is taken, we’ll adopt the ‘south.’ Thematically this seemed to work with the album, taking on the name of the enemy… or eschewing black & white in favor of grey.
I’m also a fan of band names that sound like the music they make: Low, Metallica, The Innocence Mission, etc. Perhaps the name offers a clue to our melancholic bent.
FFTB: What are your non-musical influences?
Film. Literature. History. Philosophy. Big Ideas. Transcendence. Obsessive Perfectionism. The Reach. Man Against the Sea.
Our last record had a meta-narrative of polarization and propaganda running throughout the whole thing. I was reading a lot of dystopian literature – Orwell, Bradbury, Zamyatin, etc. Then also: Steinbeck, Solzhenitsyn, and some stuff on World War I.
World War I became for me this symbol of forgotten history. There are only a handful of surviving WWI vets. Property lines were drawn at the end of that war that are still being fought over today. It was a messy war of disillusionment. New technologies were being used to horrible ends. We have the Russian revolution born in it’s wake – The Gulags and the Orwellian states.
I spent some time in Burma, as well as a few Karen refugee camps in Thailand a few years ago. There’s a joke in Burma that Orwell wrote a trilogy based on the modern history of Burma: Burmese Days, Animal Farm & 1984. The Saffron Uprising two summers ago inspired “That Great and Terrible Day.” The repressive state apparatus – the use of brute force to bring the state into subjection.
Then there’s the ideological state apparatus used to get willing compliance from your desired subjects. These are the things in life that we never question and accept as reality – being exploited in times of war and elections. We’re always on the side of justice – and our opponents with the devil. I think Steinbeck is a great antidote – helping us to see the saint and villain inside each of us.
I heard an interview with The Lives of Others director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck recounting his inspiration for the film. It was a quote from Lenin about how the beauty of Beethoven’s Appassionata got in the way of his revolution. It made him want to say sweet and silly things people rather than applying merciless force.
“It showed me how much the ideologue has to be at war with his own humanity to pursue his ideological goals,” said Donnersmarck. “I thought, let’s see if I can find a way of telling a story where a Lenin figure would be forced to listen to the Appassionata just as he was getting ready to smash in someone’s head.”
I love this idea of art unraveling the state. Beauty transforms the Beast.
FFTB: Think of the last song your wrote; what were the steps taken to complete that song?
It sprung from writer’s block on another song i was working on. I started playing something different on my guitar just to get out of the rut. I played that progression over and over, singing words that came to mind over the top until i had a verse. i had an idea for the theme of the song in the back of my head. I then found myself at a pre-chorus that came out a bit too easy, but i think maybe that can be a strength sometimes. I also worked a rough idea out for the chorus that i wasn’t terribly excited about, but just wanted to get something out.
I brought that to the band at next rehearsal and we played through it, messing around with time signature. i moved from a more rhythmic strum to an arpeggiated thing on my electric to give a little more space to the song. it felt good with the guys and they ended up liking the chorus so it stuck.
The second verse came out of a drive home from Milwaukee during a snowstorm, cars on both sides of the ditches. That imagery stuck. I also had the myth of Orpheus in the back of my mind, did some brushing up on the story and verses two and three came together. I think i had a rough idea together within a week. I tweaked words the next week. I feel pretty good about it now. There is one small pre-chorus lyric that i’m still trying to land, but we’ve begun playing it live so i think that’ll come.
I think the only reason that one came so quickly was that i had spent a lot of time with ideas that didn’t. Not every song comes so fast, unfortunately, as I’ve got a dozen ideas I’m still trying to finish off. But I’m glad when they do.
FFTB: Is it better to be great at 1 instrument or decent at many?
As a songwriter, it’s been rather helpful for me to have a working knowledge of several instruments. A song written on guitar is gonna come out much different then one on a piano or synth. Colors and textures change.
FFTB: As a band with a distinct lyrical style, do you use lyrics to write music, or music with lyrics to follow?
I keep a journal with lyrical thoughts and ideas, but really, the music almost always comes first. i start singing something and certain vowel sounds or words seem to work better with the melody and my voice and i follow that. I’ll probably start with whatever that first line is and try to figure out what the song’s supposed to be about from there. Maybe it’ll attach itself to some ideas i’ve already been working through or it’ll lead in an entirely new direction, but that first ‘catch’ is a rather mystical practice.
FFTB: Would you consider Lyric’s to be music?
I knew a guy who had a notebook full of “songs.” I remember thinking, “no – those are just a bunch of crappy poems.” I don’t know if a lot of lyrics stand up apart from the song. They can end up reading a bit ridiculous. Language changes when it’s sung.
I think calling a lyric music is like calling a screenplay a film. A screenplay is never intended to be read alone. That’s what a novel is for. Of course, some songwriters write fabulous lyrics that stand on their own as great poetry/prose. I’m not so sure that I’m one of them. I see myself as more of an impressionist – trying to use an economy of words to draw out a rough sketch for the listener to fill in the blanks. It’s definitely an artform and a discipline that i’m trying to get better at.
FFTB: What is the primary instrument do you use to write music with?
Guitar. Keyboard comes next…. Then, drum machine.
FFTB: How do you approach playing songs live when the recording have extra tracks?
I like the idea that a live show is gonna be a different experience than listening to the album. I think our live shows carry a lot more immediacy and energy as a result of just four guys hammering out these songs together in real time.
we’ve played shows accompanied by the extra cello, clarinet, mandolin, bells, guitars, etc… which can be great, but can also feel too much at times. i think we’ve figured out how to make the most of the space as a four-piece so it doesn’t leave a lot of room for other things to happen.
However, playing with others/tracks can give you ALOT more confidence on stage and the tracks can make you sound really good. We’ve just recently toyed around with the idea of playing to tracks. Maybe we’ll try it out sometime in the near future. Doing what we do now keeps everyone busy – for an entire show. A break now and then might be nice, especially for Titus.
As an audience member, i do rather enjoy watching people make noises in real time, though, as opposed to watching a puppet show – even if it doesn’t sound perfect. At some point, it’s no longer believable as an experience.
FFTB: What guitar pedal(s) can’t you live without?
I’m such a sucker for reverb/delay on both my voice and guitar. It’s a great way for a hack like me to cover his mistakes. It also adds a lot of breadth to your sound. I’m all about filling huge spaces with sound. I read an interview with The Edge once talking about running multiple delays to create a more three dimensional sound – A single delay can be a little flat.
Right now, I’m running a MAXON AD-9 for an analog delay and DD4 Line 6 for a Digital Delay. I’ve used a Jekyl and Hyde for a number of years as a distortion and been happy with that. I like rolling with the reverb from my Vox AC-15. But, really, my one essential is gonna be a delay pedal.
All of my pedals are from other guitarists that i’ve played with who are gearheads. I’ve never been one myself so i have to mooch off of my friends.
FFTB: Who are your top three favorite songwriters?
Ron Sexsmith – This guy is a machine. He makes it seem so effortless. Beautiful Melodies/Lyrics. Tasty Arrangements.
Paul McCartney/John Lennon – I’ve got to cheat a little on this one. True, it’s a pop cliché go-to, but the amount of musical distance covered in such a short amount of time blows my mind. 13 albums in 7 years. Plus, a cache of incredible singles that never made a proper album. A single Beatles song would spark an entire genre. I admire their curiosity.
Dan Scott – Local songwriter. Helped me become a better lyricist. He needs to be playing/writing again and he needs Alan Sparhawk to produce.
FFTB: Any advice for young aspiring musicians and songwriters?
Believe in your dreams, because your dreams believe in you.
I know that sounds ridiculous, but imagine if I sang it.