Thursday, August 25, 2011

HoneyHoney Interview with Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe

Photos by Laura Means
Several years back I won some tickets to a sold out Lifehouse show in Atlanta. The opening act HoneyHoney, consisting of Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe, won over the crowd in record time with their strong acoustic set. Since that moment I have admired the duo a great deal, and their debut record First Record remains in my album rotation. On October 24th, the duo will release their sophomore effort Billy Jack independently on their newly formed label Fontana Records. I had a chance to sit down with Suzanne and Ben to discuss the making of their latest LP, the business side of making their music, social networking and their deep love of Tenacious D. Check them out on their nationwide tour with Joshua James called "Ten Buck Tour" here:
Pre-order Billy Jack here:
How has the tour been thus far?
Santo: It’s been good you know? There have been a few difficulties with getting ourselves organized, because there is a lot of responsibility in taking care of finances, gear, driving. We are so jacked, as you can see (laughs). The shows have been great, so that is also the bonus and you get to play music for half an hour every night. It’s really a good time.
Jaffe: That’s what it comes to eventually anyway. That really all that matters. I feel better about the shows that we have been playing on this tour than any other tour we have had, so I think it is going amazing! Bam!
I first saw you guys at the Tabernacle in Atlanta several years back…
Santo: Dude that was a long time ago. We got better didn’t we?
I thought you guys were great then, but yes. You somehow got even better. How long have you guys been playing full band?
Santo: We have had a couple of different members. It is always been us (laughs). We have had a couple different drummers and bass players, but I think that these guys are really going to commit. They have serious talent.
Jaffe: Yeah, we have got to lock them down! I think that all of the swipes that we have taken at creating a full band, we get better every time and realize what we need to do differently. Also, how do we turn this into an environment where this person is getting something out of it the same way that we are. There is always that inequity, where “we are the band members, we sign the contracts and you are just the hired band.” We kind of need to erase that.
You’ve got the new the new album, Billy Jack, coming out very soon. How does the writing process normally pan out for you guys? Is it completely a collaborative process between you two?
Santo: You know, it is starting to get that way. There are a couple of songs on the record that I wrote, and a couple that he (Jaffe) wrote. But, for the most part at the end of it, whether its lyrics, a melody or chord changes it’s always something that we end up working on and finishing together if it’s a HoneyHoney song. We also write a lot of songs that aren’t necessarily for us(laughs), but this record was mostly collaborative.
Jaffe: If it is going to be music that HoneyHoney is playing we have this joint standard. No matter who writes it, it doesn’t matter as long as it meets that standard then we will play it together and it kind of becomes our song. If it doesn’t then it kind of goes a separate way.
Where do some of those songs go? To die?
Jaffe: Yeah, a lot of them wither away.
Santo: Some of them are pitched. We have a lot of friends that write as well, and some of them cut deals so we just kind of put them out there and kind of let them do the work (laughs). I’m kidding, that’s not true.
Was making Billy Jack independently more of a challenge versus making your debut full-length album with Universal Republic?
Jaffe: Yeah, it was a completely different challenge. The politics were different. I don’t know if they were better or worse, but just completely different. We were in the driver’s seat, even though we worked with a producer. This was a record that we shaped and guided, opposed to the last record which was mainly a collaboration between us and our producer and at a certain point it got taken out of our hands.
Santo: It’s funny, because with the first record we had a whole label overseeing it. It was nice to have some guidance sometimes, and sometime saying screw you guys (laughs)! At the end of the day we made a record that we are really proud of. Being in the driver’s seat is terrifying!  The new record took a minute to get comfortable in our own skin, because no one is telling us what to do. It’s liberating, but we are responsible.
What kind of advice would you have for an independent artist that is starting off?
Jaffe: I would say embrace the business side. There is such a taboo about that (the business) taking away from artists, and taking away from creativity. I think they draw from the exact same well and the more you get comfortable with that, the more you get to define your own artistry. Especially now, because there are so many tools. People have been saying this for years, that there are many tools for independent artist and it is the truth. It’s not easy at all, it sucks. There is a lot of give and there is a lot of get too.
Santo: I think there is another misconception when it comes to record labels that things change. Sometimes you get a little money, these days you don’t really get that much at all. You still have to work hard, so you are almost independent either way if you ask me. It took us a while for us to realize and embrace how important social media is on the internet. We are now consistently writing blogs, or a newsletter, or tweeting and Facebooking. It’s amazing how quickly it changes and people want to connect with you. To be honest with you, I want to connect with them too! That’s part of why I like to make music. I love people and they are so interesting and it’s such an honor when someone that I have never met before is like “this song means this to me.” You just got to keep trucking.
Jaffe: We’re also starting up a partnership that is really exciting for us too, with a record label. We have our own record label now that is being supported by a record label that we have a huge amount of respect for called Lost Highway Records. It’s called Fontana Records.
So are there any artists that you are working with, or developing for Fontana Records right now?
Jaffe: We gotta focus on us and this record right now (laughs). If we get to the point in a few years where we are comfortable and have a real sustainable business with our touring and recording, I would love to work with other artists. A couple years down the road, but it’s a goal.
Perfect day, driving in your car with the windows down, what are you listening to?
Jaffe: Tenacious D’s next record (laughs).
Santo: Before I answer that question, Ben and I were able to go to Jack Black’s 40th birthday and him and Kyle did a whole set! They sang some of the songs that haven’t been released yet and they are just amazing.
How did you swing that?
Jaffe: Our good friend is an actor comedian, is boys with those guys and brought us along.
Santo: Perfect day, I would say Rage Against the Machine or One Day As a Lion. I can really get into that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wooden Birds Interview with Andrew Kenny(vocals/guitar)

Recently I have been hooked on the sophomore release of Austin, Texas based indie/folk-rock band, The Wooden Birds called Two Matchsticks. Fronted by Andrew Kenny (The American Analog Set), the group has slowly gained a great deal of momentum, touring the nation in support of acts like Broken Social Scene, Other Lives and Dan Mangan. On this record, Kenny is joined by vocal counterpart Leslie Sisson, Matt Pond(Matt Pond PA) and Sean Haskins. Check the group out at 
How has this tour been thus far?
Kenny: This has been the best tour we have ever done. It’s just shocking how well this tour has gone. This is the first tour for a new album, so of course we haven’t been on our own for a while. We have packaged up with Other Lives, Broken Social Scene and Clientele. We have done these support package things, and haven’t done our own tour in a year and a half, or more. The shows have been really good. We have gone coast to coast, and it’s almost done, but we have only played 17 shows. Normally in six weeks, we would do 30 or 35 shows. We have just been playing big markets and places that we have done well at, in the past.
The response has been good?
Kenny: Yeah, I mean we are a small band so the crowds aren’t huge, but everyone who’s there seems to like it. A lot of singing along, lots of people requesting songs off of the new record and the last record. It’s been really cool. And we have a new touring member, playing guitar. His name is Chris Hansen and he just gets it done. It has been awesome. Being a five piece band again, it feels fuller and it is just fun to play.
Who are some people that you have looked up to in the past, in regards to stage presence or live performance?
Kenny: I would say that the best shows that I have been to recently (over the past couple of years) have been Broken Social Scene. I am a big fan and I did a short tour with them. I would say that Kevin Drew took me to “front man school” a little bit, for three or four months when I was doing that tour with them. It was unintentional, but I got watch what a real front man actually does at a show. I’m not a performer like he is. I feel like seeing a bunch of people that are competent musicians, which I feel like I have always been in bands with, but looking at each other and smiling and having a good time. Remembering that we like making music and we like playing together. I look up to them big time, even though at our fastest and loudest we are a mid-tempo, mellow band. They are this epic, “enjoy your lives” thing. We’re not that, but I do look up to them. I also saw Phoenix a while back and I was so pumped up for that show, that they could have just stood there and not done anything and I would have liked it. But, there was a lot of dancing around and I thought it was really cool. When I was younger, all that mattered was if the music was laid out well. Now that I’m older, I just like to see people having a good time also. I don’t want to hear the CD, I want to hear how a live band interprets there own CD to be. I think that’s what the Wooden Birds do. The album is percussion, acoustic instruments and delicately delivered vocals. We still have the same voices, of course, but its electric guitars instead of acoustic and drums instead of percussion. This is a rock show, you know?
The new album, “Two Matchsticks” is fantastic…
Kenny: I’m glad you like it. We had a lot of fun making it. We have only done two things, so I can say it’s the best thing we have done. The bar was set somewhat high with “Magnolia,” but I think on “Two Matchsticks” we figured out what we do well. 
How did the writing pan out for this album?
Kenny: Way different from “Magnolia.” I had help on “Magnolia,” but the band didn’t exist. It was an imaginary band. We kind of thought what we would like the album to sound like. We said “let’s lock in the bass with this percussion, we’ll beat on the guitar a certain way and it will make it kind boxy and small sounding and dense.” We liked the way it sounded, but we never played any of the songs live. Then we put the band together and at that point we had Chris Michaels, Leslie of course and Shaun was involved at that point. Then we started touring for “Magnolia” and then we did what you are supposed to do if you are a band and you make a record. . You are supposed to write songs together, play them out and then record them together. We made “Magnolia” backwards and then we made “Two Matchsticks” like you are supposed to make a record. We wrote songs, took them on the road, saw how they did. We decided what parts need to come up, how we need to arrange things to make the choruses and verses balance out. And then we go back and put the record together. We did a couple of songs, went on tour with The Other Lives, did a couple more songs, and went on tour with Cliental. Came back, did a few more songs, then went on tour with Dan Mangan and Broken Social Scene. By the time that we did all of these tours with other bands, we were taking a couple new songs out every time and then we made the record. It was much more of a collaborative record. A lot more people got to put their two cents in and it makes for a better record.  It’s a more colorful record, and it does what we do. We can play every song on this record (live), opposed to with “Magnolia” where we made a record and then figured “what can we actually do? Well, we can’t play that and we can’t play that” What we need is a couple more people, or we only need a couple more people for this or we only need two people for this or it doesn’t make sense live.” So, “two Matchsticks” is everyone playing at all times, more or less and it sounds more like a “band” to me. Even though its still percussion on the record and guitars, it sounds a lot more like a band.
I know that pick a song off your own album is like picking your favorite child, but what is a song that you were blown away by how it turned out?
Kenny: I really like “Baby Jeans,” because I thought it was a good story, we brought it in and I started working on it and then one day Leslie just shows up and says “hey let me have a swing at this one”. She starts singing it and it’s obvious that it worked much better from her perspective. I get to do a little back-up on that song, but it’s kind of cool. Maybe this began as my band, but now it’s our band. It was definitely a moment where it felt more like; this isn’t just a dude that has a band. This is a group of people, so “Baby Jeans” was important for that matter. I like “Long Time To Lose It” a lot, because it is kind of a dramatic song. “Criminals Win” is another favorite of mine.
With many great vocalists in the band, how are you able to decide who is going to take the lead? Is it just a trial and error process?
Kenny: If I had my druthers, Matt would be singing a lot more than he is. Leslie is with me in Austin a lot, so we work on stuff together and we just practice signing together. When the Wooden Birds are at their best, Leslie and I are both singing. So that’s what we kind of lean towards. But, songs like “Be No Lie” and “Warm to the Blade,” to me that sound like two guys singing together. That’s why Matt sang on “Be No Lie.” To me that sounded like a Matt Pond song anyway, because it’s kind of assertive and that’s all Matt. He started singing on that, and it just made a lot of sense!
You recorded the album in your house?
Kenny: Yeah, it’s a home studio. It’s not like you are in the kitchen with the refrigerator door reflecting. These days, it’s not so uncommon for people to have real project studios in their house. This is the same one that I have had rolling since The American Analog Set, so it is the same eight-track that we recorded those records on and a lot of the same pre-amps that we have bought along the way. I really haven’t accrued a lot of gear in the last six or seven years. This is a lot of the same stuff that we used to make Know By Heart, Promise Of Love and Set Free.
Do you enjoy the self-production aspect of recording yourself?
Kenny: Well, I call myself a “career home recordist” just because I just like the process so much. I like working when you want to work and being able to walk away when things aren’t happening. You can’t do that in a studio. You book time and if you don’t have your ducks in a row, then you are going to blow a lot of money and you aren’t going to get anything that you like. So, we worked on Two Matchsticks and Magnolia. Everything that The Analog Set did, we recorded a lot of it over a long period of time and if we didn’t like it, “Eh. Let’s just scrap it, we’ll try it again next month and we would, and it would get better or worse (if we would go back to the original thing (laughs). I think that helps. If you write as you record, then I think that it is nice to do it on your own. We mixed in the studio, with Louie Lino and Austin. That is where it really held. I brought a record to him, which sounded a lot like a “Magnolia.” He just kind of helped glue things together a little be more and made it a little denser. I only spent a week there. More happened in that week, than any other week because he is really good and has great ears. We recorded it at home, and then mixed it at a “real” studio. His (studio) is like the big brother version of my studio.
What were some off you influences behind this last record?
Kenny: You aren’t going to see this comparison, but I think that the biggest influence on me and what I wanted to do with the Wooden Birds record is Phoenix. It sounds nothing lie Phoenix, but if you listen to those last two records everything is very dense. They have a very big sound, but there’s not many things making that noise. There’s not a lush fabric of all of these parts that are intertwining, it’s got a loud bass part and a loud guitar part. If something is in (a song), you hear it. When it disappears, it creates this void that the vocals kind of jump into and fill up. If you hear some percussion come in, it’s not like “oh, wait that’s where it starts?” For example a weird snare sound will come in, or a tambourine will come in. Everything is very present and very modular. Its like “we’re not going to mix or EQ out a hole for the vocals to go into. We are going to remove an instrument, and the vocals will take its place and it’s going to fill a gap that just left. I don’t know how their records are made, to be truthful. That’s how it just sounds to me. There are a spare number of instruments (on Phoenix’s records), but they are all chosen well. Maybe they started out with many things doing stuff but said, “What can we really do this song with? We can do it with this guitar, this other guitar and we will both switch when the vocals come in.” That’s what I liked about those last two Phoenix records, so I wanted to do the same thing with just acoustic instruments and have it to where everything really matters a lot. There are never double guitars, or some random thing strumming in the background. There’s a rhythm guitar, a lead guitar, there are vocals that are really loud and the bass just is loud for a quiet band. Everything is just up in the mix, equally. It’s not a very homogenized sound. You have to really think about the economy of what you are going to use your eight tracks for. If I’m going to put something on track two, I can’t double it later and then come back and fade it in or fade it out. If it’s going to be the acoustic guitar part, then it’s in the entire song. If you play your bass on 1 and 3, you leave room to lean your guitar towards 2 and 4. You aren’t actually hearing bass and guitar at the same precise moment; you’re not playing the same thing. You are hearing a little bass, then a little guitar and it just goes back and forth, creating some emotion within the song.
Going back to your songwriting, I have read before that you pretty much only write about people. Can you tell me a little about the project that you are working on in regards to telling others’ stories?
Kenny: Yeah, that’s kind of where “Struck By Lightning” came from on the record. With that song, I read a few of the stories, and “Struck By lightning” didn’t come directly from those. Now that I am doing that project, and it’s slower than I thought it would be, but it’s coming along. I read some of those stories and thought “we are going to write a song about many people that kind of have similar horrible lives at a given moment. With it basically being there fault (laughs).” So that’s where that song kind of came from. “Struck By Lightning” is the prototype for what those songs may be like, “hey this person did this, and this happened to them.” I’m trying to not use the names, because people wrote me some very honest stories. The thing I’m working now is something that I thought would be cool, to solicit stories from people. I got a bunch of good ones. Now I am being careful to only do one at a time so that they don’t start overlapping. I start one, I go all the way through it, and then I send it to the person and say “I don’t know, what do you think?” So far only about half of them have written back. I am used to writing songs about myself, so that isn’t really embarrassing to me, but maybe once you hear something that happened in your life re-told in someone else’s words, it becomes a little bit embarrassing. I have and a few people write back and say “I love the song, but I don’t want to be on a compilation. I don’t want this aired. It is very obvious to me that I am the person in the story and I am telling you this story that I haven’t even told the other person. This just needs to stay between me and you.” It’s turned out to be a bit more involved than I thought it would be. I thought I would just write songs for people and they would be like “hey! It’s great! Yeah put it on a record!” Half have written back, and of those people half have declined. It has been a cool project so far?
How did you get the idea?
Kenny: I don’t know where the idea came from. I don’t know where ideas come from. I was probably talking to Leslie about it and decided that it would be a cool way to start some songs. She helped me write up a little invitation for people to solicit songs and we just put it up one day without notice. Then we decided to shut it down because we didn’t want to get eighty of these things. We would be writing for years. We shut it down, once we got three or four dozen. I think it will be cool if I can get a couple more people to agree. My fanatasy was, while we are doing all of this touring for “Two Matchsticks,” to find these people and sit down with them and put them in my little tour documentaries that I have been making. I would ask them things like “what do you think? Did I get it?” We could then play some of the song, or maybe they would read their story to me, even though some are pages long. Maybe I have made  the songs to personal? Maybe I should stop sending them back to the people(laughs)? No, I will do what I said I was going to do. Hopefully by the end of the year I will have enough to start putting them on our site.
Last one. Perfect day, driving in your car with the windows down, what are you listening to?
Kenny: Right now I am on a Ronnie Milsap kick.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cut Off Your Hands Interview with frontman Nicholas Johnston

Quickly gaining notable attention, New Zeland's own Cut Off Your Hands have released their sophomore effort, "Hollow," via Frenchkiss Records. The self-produced album has already received praise from numerous publications, including a short feature in SPIN magazine and solid feedback from Rolling Stone. I had the chance to ask COYH front man Nick Johnston a few album specific questions, as well as hear his opinions on social networking and words of wisdom for new indie bands...

Before writing and recording "Hollow," did you guys sit down and discuss the direction you wanted to take the album?
Johnston: Not particularly with writing, as I wrote a lot of this stuff isolated from the rest of the band, and Brent and Phil worked similarly so there was no point of 'hey we need to make THIS type of album' however in coming to record, which is a much more collaborative process. We were conscious of the sounds we were wishing to achieve for sure. The main conscious decisions made were focused on creating this record fast; I didn't want to spend hours considering drum sounds before or after recording so I limited Brent's drum kit to just 2 snare options, and likewise with guitars. I told Jono our guitarist that the 2 of us would have 3 amps between us and from those amps we got all the main sounds on the record. We just couldn't afford to take too much time, we had a week to record and that was all so economy of choice was key.
Johnston: Partly due to the money factor, but also as I touched on in the last answer it's the ability to just make the record fast that I liked about the process. I get so frustrated with how long everything takes in 'studios'. You spend all day getting things like desks fired up and mics placed and just when you feel like you're ready to record the engineer or producer needs to get lunch or go home and pick up the kids or whatever. I like being in control, working as late as we wanted and as quick as we needed.
Where did you get the idea to make the album yourself?

Do you feel like it is a departure from your previous work,
"You and I?"
Johnston: Definitely, I think that "You and I'' is a very instantly catchy pop record. It's full of energy and hooks and is all over the place sonically and lyrically. Hollow in contrast is very concise, it is a record to be listened to from start to finish, and is far less immediate. I think it is a record that takes its time and requires a little more patience than "You and I" but I also find it is a much more rewarding listen than our first record, it grows on you slowly and sticks, whereas you and I thrusts itself onto you from first and second listen but is very easily swept aside.
Are you pleased with the outcome? Would you do it again?
Johnston: Yeah, I think we will self produce all our records from here on in. It is great to work with producers and gain little bits of knowledge from different avenues etc, but the reality is that we just cannot afford a producer.
How did "Hollowed Out" originally come together? What inspired the lyrical portion of the song?
Johnston: It was one I wrote entirely alone, and initially had quite a different melody and lyrical content. It existed a year or so before we recorded the album and so we had played it live, in its original form. I wanted it to sound like The Byrds with all that chiming 12 string.the minor melody over the top came about from listening to those early verve records, something about the melodies he was singing, like this minor over major thing really captured me. So I  switched it from what was a much more uplifting vocal melody to what I feel is much more interesting and fitting with the lyrical sentiment. The lyrics are pointing at me really, just feeling worn out to the point of beat and how that 'beat' mind frame becomes the platform from which you view everything around you.
You guys recently released a video for your single "Fooling No One." What was the inspiration/idea behind the video in conjunction with the song?
Johnston: The song fooling no one is really me making fun of myself for taking things so seriously, its taking the piss out of myself so in communicating my ideas for the clip to the directors (who are friends of mine from Auckland). I just wanted them to capture a nonsensical vibe. Just for it to be a little silly and playful but other than that I chose not to have much input.
What kind of advice would you have for a band just starting up? Any words of wisdom you would be willing to share?
Johnston: Just to forget about everyone else and make the music you want to hear.
Being that you have traveled around the world performing, where is your favorite place to play? Where are the crowds the craziest?
Johnston: Favorite place to play is Wellington in NZ. Kids go nuts there and just show us a good time every time. I generally like playing closest to home, except Auckland is a little nerve racking as my mum might be there or my closest friends.
Who are some bands that have blown you away with their live performance and stage presence?
When I started this band I was so turned on by bands that went mental onstage, I guess it was from my love of At the drive-in, so spazzy bands like Ex Models, Q and Not U or at home the Mint Chicks (who have gone on to form Unknown Mortal Orchestra) seeing Iggy Pop play was incredible too that blew my mind.
How important do you guys find social media?
Johnston: It's probably very important, but I don’t pay much attention cause I find it really boring hearing about what Tyler the Creator thinks about his lunch or whatever. So I don't really wish to contribute. Facebook is handy for getting in touch with people that enjoy our band. But yeah I think the other guys in the band get involved more than I do.
Perfect day, driving in your car with the windows down, what are you listening to?
Johnston: It's most likely my girlfriend's car as it’s been years since I owned one...which would mean it’s her music blasting, so Robyn's entire back catalogue, Frank Ocean, Wiz Khalifa etc, and to be honest I'm not complaining.
For more info, check out the bands facebook page(!/cutoffyourhands) and download their first single, Hollowed Out," below:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ben Rector Interview

Following a very successful tour with buddy and fellow singer-songwriter Matt Wertz, Ben Rector has hit the studio for his next LP. I had the chance to briefly speak with him and discuss his previous releases, collaborations and writing process. Check him out at

How was the tour with Matt Wertz?
The tour was really great. You kind of become family with the guys you're traveling with, and we made some great memories. The shows were awesome and all in all it was a great experience.
What would you say people can expect when they come to one of your live performances?
Hopefully a good time.
How does your writing process normally pan out for you?
It really varies. Sometimes things fall in your lap and sometimes you really carve them out. I’ve found that songs I really like can happen both ways. I’ve also been trying to learn when to step away and take a break and when to keep pushing through. For me it's a delicate balance of staying inspired and staying consistent, and I’m still trying to figure it out.
Do you write continuously, or are you more of a periodic songwriter?
Definitely continuous.
How would you say your faith impacts your music?
Anything that's on my mind or in my heart is a big part (directly or indirectly) of whatever I’m doing creatively. So, it plays a big role in the way I write and the reasons I write. I also really value the freedom I have as a Christian that's an artist but not necessarily a Christian artist. I think it can be hard to express certain things about faith when there are a pretty specific set of expectations around what you need to talk about and how you're talking about it.
How would you say you’re writing/recording differed on “Into the Morning” in comparison to your previous releases?
“Into the Morning” was the first album I felt like I was beginning to get in the groove as a songwriter. I was just starting to figure out what I needed to focus on, I also started writing more often and more intentionally. The recording was different in that I co produced it with my friend, Chad Capelin. We made the record really quickly, which I think was good. I didn't really have time to second guess anything.
I heard that you did some co-writing on Matt's latest album. How was that experience?
I really enjoy co writing, it's something I’ve started to do lots more since I moved to Nashville. All the songs Matt and I wrote for his album came together really naturally, as we were friends before we ever did anything musical together. Matt’s a really talented writer and it's always a pleasure to write with him.
Have you done any co-writing with other artists? Is it something that you would like to pursue more in the future?
I have. I definitely would love to transition into being more of a writer at some point in my career. I love playing shows and traveling, but I also love writing for other people, and that's something I’m investing my time in more when I’m home.
What kind of advice would you have for a singer-songwriter just starting out?
I’d say to try to focus on songwriting, on how to write songs that people really want to hear again and again. Everything grows out of that.
How important is social networking for an independent artist like you?
It’s a really big deal. If you're making something that people enjoy, they can tell their friends really quickly and effectively, and that's a big thing for independent artists.
Driving in your car on a perfect day with the windows down, what are you listening to?
I’d say lately Randy Newman or Ray Charles. Ask me tomorrow and it'd probably be Katy Perry. It just depends.