Tell us about how you developed a connection with Julian Casablancas and Jenny Lewis. How did your experiences touring with them compare?
I took a meeting with Julian through his manager Darren who I had known for a while because he was involved with Rilo Kiley’s management when Jenny and I were in that band. In late 2009 Julian had a touring band but needed another guitar player. I had just agreed to tour with Harper Simon but luckily the schedules worked out and I was able to play both tours.
I formed a connection with Jenny through a circle of friends in New York in the late 90s before I moved to Los Angeles. I was aware of Jenny and Blake Sennett – another member of Rilo Kiley that I later formed The Elected with – and when I moved, Rilo Kiley started to pick up speed. I went to their shows as a friend and a fan.
Julian developed a specific cult with boundaries so I had to fit into that more than I had to fit into Jenny’s, which is more open-minded. Julian writes parts that are almost like the results of a mad scientist. When I learned his songs, I delved deep inside his brain, which happened more with him than anyone else I’ve played with. Jenny’s music is closer to my heart but I loved touring with Julian. While his world was an exciting place to visit, Jenny’s is a comfortable place to live.
Do you feel limited supporting artists versus when you craft the song?
It is necessarily limiting, but I don’t feel limited. Even if I’m a small part of a big sound I have to use my musical brain to the best of my ability. When I moved to LA I played solo shows, which was freeing. Playing four-hour sets was a great experiment. There’s something weirdly limiting about that freedom because there was no band accompanying me. With Jenny I’ll have set parts but there are moments on stage where I abandon them.
How did these tours compare to the Kings Of Beauty tour with Alan Semerdjian?
Alan is one of my greatest friends. We spent about a week together hearing each other’s sets. Touring the east coast is a lot more possible to do in a car on a limited budget because you can bounce around to ten different cities quickly. We were just a couple of guys with guitars getting down to bare bones and the beauty of songwriting, hence, Kings Of Beauty.
Alan tells me you have the fastest fingers he knows!
(Laughs). That’s nice. I try to slow down sometimes. It can get a little ridiculous.
Explain the formation of The Elected…
Blake had some songs that he didn’t think were appropriate for Rilo Kiley. He gave me three demos and I developed a ton of ideas. He was into the music I put on top of it and that was the initial forming of The Elected but we didn’t know it at the time. One day at his home studio he asked ‘Can you play this thing?’ Jenny bought him a lap steel guitar but he didn’t know how to play it and I had never touched one either. I’ve played slide guitar before so lap steel wasn’t a completely foreign experience. I instantly took to it and what we recorded that day ended up on the first Elected record. Lap steel became a significant part of my life. I tracked a blues harp part, too. Split second informal studio decisions change the experience. We recorded that album like mad men sleeping overnight at Elliot Smith’s studio. Some of the demos ended up being on the real album. When we were done recording we took the record to a studio in Nebraska where Mike Mogis – Conor Oberst’s right-hand man – mixed it. After completion we shopped it around and Sub Pop picked it up which was very exciting. Blake and I became inseparable for several years. We had a mobile recording rig to make Elected music while touring with Rilo Kiley.
Tell us about other instruments you play and any interesting moments you’ve encountered while performing….
Anything with strings: banjo, mandolin, and ukulele. I’ve played keyboards live but they’re not my first choice. I’ve toured playing bass guitar, and I’d love to tour playing drums someday.
Once on a Rilo Kiley tour I played a MIDI keyboard through a laptop, which was harrowing because it’s inorganic and cold. I used software to get certain sounds and when the computer froze on me mid-song it was panic time. There was no backup and I had to just deal with it. After that experience I vowed never to do that again.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’m working on a record called Elle Belle with a friend and that will be a double record, which is insane to do when most people today buy singles, but that’s kind of the fun of it. The music is 60s psychedelic/garage and gets dancy at times and also dark. It’s exuberant, eclectic music with great hooks. Most of the songs originated in my friend’s brain and then he enlisted me to help realize all the songs. I’m working on another record with a different friend who raps, which will be our second collaboration. I’ve been secretively making beats for a while just for fun. Another project I’m working on might be close to what King Of Circles was but certainly not the same thing. I’m working on another record that’s hard to describe. It’s very different and less in the singer-songwriter vain. I’ve also wanted to make an instrumental guitar record for a long time. I have a lot of pieces like that but I haven’t sat down to record them.
Which guitar players inspire you?
Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page…I also loved rhythmic strummers like Richie Havens and Lonnie Johnson. Johnny Marr from The Smiths, is a simple, perfect, melodic genius to me. Joni Mitchell blows me away, too. I generally am attracted to songwriters. For instance, the voice, beauty and intimacy in Nick Drake’s songs hit me first and then I realize the guitar playing is pretty fantastic, too. One of my guitars lives in a tuning I picked up from him. I love weird tunings because they open up a chest of treasures. It becomes a new instrument, as I have to unlearn everything and use my ear to find my way around it. When I change the tuning, possibilities are endless. Sometimes knowing too much theory in standard hinders me.
Who inspires your voice?
I grew up on 70’s songwriters and Kiss records; voices like Roy Orbison and Elvis still stun me. At 13, all I cared about was playing guitar I didn’t think of myself as a songwriter. A couple of years later I started writing crazy, long guitar pieces and recorded them on my brother’s four-track cassette. The songwriter side of me really grew in college but it took a while to think of myself as a singer. The more I did it and developed confidence I thought to myself ‘maybe I can sing!’
When recording, where do you draw the line between keeping a song just vocals and guitar versus a full band sound?
Sometimes it’s just obvious but usually it’s not. Top Of The World on my album I knew right away had to only be that. I recorded the song with my friend’s old ribbon microphone – from the 40s – to his tape machine in one take, vocals and guitar, without any overdubbing to make it more intimate. Today I started a new song with a drumbeat, so I know that it’s never going to just be guitar and vocals. I already have a vision for the full band tone of it. I’ll demo the guitar just to get it down but get stuck on that being the sound and then weeks later I’ll listen back and be bored with just guitar and vocals. There aren’t any rules. I usually sit with a track for a while. I’ll record 75 percent of the song and then weeks later listen back without thinking through the filter of first writing it.
When you discover new instruments, do you question if the song should just be vocals and guitar?
Yes. That applies to everything. I used to get ideas down and figure them out later on in the process. Now I like the idea of committing to the sound, part and arrangement right away. If I get stuck later on with 75 recorded tracks, I don’t know what to do with them and it gets incredibly tedious and watered down. I can add organ or percussion, but will it move me more? Shelving a song for some time helps me discover what moves me.
I’m intrigued by the song title Afterthought To War. What inspired that phrase and song?
I was in Nebraska on tour with The Elected and I woke up sleeping on the floor and the phrase hit me. The main idea of the song is if it’s all thrown up in flames, let’s at least get our kicks while we’re here.
Then “War” isn’t actual battle it’s more of a metaphor.
Not necessarily although actual war was on my mind because the country was at war. The lyrics were written around the title, which is something I never did. I usually just play chords and find a melody and hope the words hit. Lately, I’ve been writing down interesting ideas when they enter my brain. After I play with chords and melodies I’ll dig through those phrases until I find something that matches the melody, which gives me a starting point to write lyrics.
Describe your reason for arranging the song order of King of Circles. As a highly involved musician in the industry compare your own idea of song order versus what you’ve been advised by record labels, producers, bandmates etc.
It means something to me to create an experience for people even if only one person cares. I found a sequence that had an arc to it. I’ve learned over time to take people’s opinions with a grain of salt. In terms of song order and what version to use, I have to please myself and that one person who’s digging in, focusing on details. That’s who I make music for.
Interview by Scott J. Herman