I read you were living a transient life when you recorded “When We Were Animals.” How did that affect how you creatively approached this album?
In some ways, this was a nightmare record to make. I was on the road or in Atlanta, the producer James Sparber was in NYC, the drummer was in Nashville, the vibes/ marimba player was in Vermont, the guitar player was in Valdosta, GA… and, of course, we wanted to make a record that sounded like it was the band all hanging out in one room together. I had to force myself to have faith in the songs as I had written them, I had to believe that the songs had enough structural integrity, that even if the organ parts weren’t a real Hammond B-3 distorting through a real Leslie recorded to a two inch tape machine that the songs would still sound good, that they would still sound authentic and true to themselves. I had to have faith in the musicians I’d chosen to play on the record that they would understand what I was shooting for and that they would deliver for me. I really had to trust James that he understood what I wanted, that he would do his best to give me what I wanted even when it wasn’t necessarily what he heard in the song, and I had to trust him to make quick decisions that were going to work. When you’re a kid, you’re insecure and that manifests as you being a control freak. The guitar has to sound this way and the bass has to sound this way and my voice needs to be louder and so on. When you get older, well, you both become more comfortable with who you are and you become lazier so it’s like “nah, fuck it, you can play that part if you want.” It’s also easy to become so enamored with the art of recording that it becomes an impediment to actually finishing a record. You learn about the guitars and the amps and the effects and then the mics and the pre-amps and the outboard gear and on and on. That shit’s really fun to read about and think about… but we live in an imperfect world and we had to make a record in imperfect circumstances with a small budget and a tight schedule and the gear we had available. So instead of trying to make a perfect record, we set out to make a good record. The end result is the best record I’ve ever made. A lot of credit is due to the musicians who played on it and the hard work James Sparber did pulling it all together.
It seems there is a lot of focus on past relationships on this record. Does performing these new tunes serve as a bandage over old wounds or feel like you are ripping a bandage off?
It’s never the lady or the tiger, it’s always the lady AND the tiger. It’s a funny thing, writing songs as a means of processing grief or anger or sadness or regret. Because it works, it absolutely works, writing songs has been more therapeutic than anything else in my life, including therapy. And sometimes you really nail an emotional moment and get a great song out of some exquisitely painful moment… and then that song is successful enough that people want to hear it every night and you strum those chords and sing the first line and it throws you right back down the well you were in when you wrote the song. Allison Langerak sang on much of 2007’s “How To Make a Bad Situation Worse,” a record we made while our relationship was falling apart, and a couple of songs on that record are about losing her. “Coward’s Path” is about the grim aftermath of that relationship. More than ten years after we broke up, we’ve repaired our friendship to the point that she felt comfortable coming in to sing on a bunch of songs on “When We Were Animals.” That felt incredibly positive and redemptive… and yeah, still emotionally loaded. It’s weird listening back to the record and hearing that voice I know so well, it’s almost too intense. But that’s how I like it.
Who are you listening to these days?
The predictable lonesome cowboy old man shit: Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Jeff Walker, old Neil Young, Fred Eaglesmith. I’m a huge Mark Lanegan fan, loved the last Nicole Atkins record, can’t stop listening to this band HEELS from Memphis. I’ve discovered some great bands out on the road like Stan Anna, Michael Dean Damron, Creston Line, Dead Volts.
You’ve got these lines in your songs that make the listener smirk and stay in their head. Do you ever notice individuals in the crowd getting hit with sentiments?
Ha. Yeah, I live for that. I love seeing people wince or laugh even just watching their eyes widen. The UK crowds in particular are really rewarding. They’re polite and reserved but open, you know, really listening to what you’re saying. I remember seeing one guy blink, put two fingers to his closed mouth and just shake his head. It made my night. More than once after a show, I’ll have someone come up to me, put a hand on my shoulder, look in my eyes… and then just turn and walk away. That means a lot to me– means I moved something inside of them, something that hurt.
You spend a lot of time on the road. What’s your favorite way to kill time between the road and the stage?
This question is phrased in a way that implies that I enjoy doing things while on the road. Sadly, it’s mostly just taking shelter. My back is a near constant source of pain so I spend a lot of time laying on a lacrosse ball nestled into a huge knot in my back, my eyes watering. Okay, okay, it’s not all pain and drudgery. People will drag me out running sometimes and that’s fun. I love house shows in the summer and swimming pools and homecooking and playing with dogs. And I’ve been known to scour Craig’s List in out of the way places for cool, hard-to-find old guitars.
You laid down tracks with quite a few special guests including: Cait O’Riordan, Adrian Grenier, Bill Whitten and Star Anna. How’d this all come about?
Eh, I’ve just been at it forever. And I’ve been lucky. Adrian Grenier is a bro from way back. When I first met him in ’98, he was a drummer who was fooling around with acting, you know? He recognizes that he’s been fortunate and does everything he can to help shine a light on the work of his friends, and for that we’re totally grateful. I was a fan of Grand Mal before I even moved to NYC. I met Bill Whitten in 2002 when I was booking a club in Brooklyn and he’s become one of my better friends. Star Anna and I met through a friend and quickly became fans of each other’s work. Then we did a couple of kamikaze tours together and now we have matching tattoos and we’ll be best frenemies till we die. Cait O’Riordan was the biggest, best story. I’ve been a fan of the Pogues since I was a drunken teenager. She read some of the writing I’d published about sobriety for Amazon and we got to be friends via Twitter. She’s amazing, as a musician and a person, and I hope this is just the first of many collaborations with her.