Drummer Will Noon discusses the band’s second full-length The Needles the Space, striving after a more organic sound, the challenges that come with being hard to classify, and his attraction to metaphysical literature.
Happy Thanksgiving, by the way. Do you have any plans for tomorrow?
Oh yeah, big plans. We’re going to be in Boise, Idaho at a hotel, so that should be pretty exciting. We have a day off between Salt Lake and Seattle, so we’re inviting all the bands that we’re out with to this hotel because it’s the only restaurant that’s going to be open. Since everyone’s away from their families for Thanksgiving, we’re going to try and make the best of it. We’re going to hang out and be each other’s temporary families for the day.
You just started this headlining tour, right?
Yeah, that is correct.
How is that going so far?
We’re only two days in and so far, so good. We’re really excited to be out. Everybody’s always going to say this, like “Oh, we’re so excited to be out with the bands.” But, honestly, it’s very rare that you get the chance to tour with bands that you’re friendly with and you appreciate their music.
We right now are on tour with three bands. The first band playing each night is Cassino. Two of the guys used to be in a band called Northstar. We toured with them, and I actually played drums on some of their new band Cassino’s demos a few years ago. I love the band. They’re in the general ballpark of what we’re doing. His voice and his melodies are so great, but lyrically the songs, when you get down to it, are so good. So, we’re really excited to be out with them every night.
Then the second band is the Dear and the Headlights, who are also phenomenal. I didn’t know them until this tour, but I got their record a few months ago from some of the guys at their label and I love the record. I’ve gotten into it so much, so we’re stoked to be out with them.
Then the last band is the Color Fred. I used to be in a band with Fred, so I’m really excited to be out with him. So, yeah, top to bottom, we’re stoked. Usually, you watch one band a night, or a couple songs here and there, but I can see myself for the rest of the tour watching almost every band’s entire set each night.
Do you think it’s a little ironic that you’re touring with the Color Fred right after he left Taking Back Sunday as well?
I guess it can be considered that, but in the same sense not. When me and Fred used to play in a band called Breaking Pangaea, we had actually toured with Taking Back Sunday. I’ve known Shaun for probably 12 or 15 years now, so the guys in Taking Back Sunday have known Fred, known our band, and even known his prior band. When they needed a guitarist, for them to call him made a lot of sense because they knew how good of a musician he was. Then for me to catch up with John and Shaun makes a lot of sense because I have known Shaun for so long, and I’ve toured with John and Shaun.
The music industry is a close-knit community. It’s all very incestuous to begin with, so when Fred was doing his new thing and looking for tours, I’ve actually played shows and filled in on drums for his band as the Color Fred over the past couple years. He’s been doing it for a while, little random shows around the holidays when he had time off, and I’ve always played with him. So for him to be out on tour with us, to me it makes a lot of sense. You know what I mean?
A lot of fans or people outside of the band may think of it as something like, “Oh, someone turned their back. Someone left.” They think of it as much more dramatic than it is. Most of us are all really good friends. We still talk, and everything like that. For me to be out on tour with a really good friend of mine, that’s not ironic to me. That’s not weird to me at all.
So you had your new record come out over the summer, which was a pretty big stylistic jump from the first one. What did you decide to do differently this time around?
Well, with the first record, a lot of those songs had been culminating for a while. Both Michelle and John had been writing. I feel like there was a lot of tie over from what we were all doing stylistically. I was still thinking in terms of Breaking Pangaea, and John and Shaun had just left Taking Back Sunday. I know that their intention was to do something different, but they were coming off of tours with Taking Back Sunday. Michelle was just writing songs on her own. I think that all factored into it.
If you look at the first record and the second record, there’s a pretty big departure, but I think if you look at the EP we put out in between them, it puts it a little more in perspective. On the EP, there’s a small introduction to some of our more electronic music and some loops thrown in there, but there’s also a couple tracks on the EP that are actually far more organic and natural than the full-length. There’s a lot more acoustic guitar, a lot more folk and natural drum sounds.
I think when we got to this full-length that we put out a couple months ago, to me it makes sense. It’s a natural progression of us following our own hearts and making music that, for better or for worse, there was not intention that we had for making it acceptable to the masses. We weren’t preparing it to be catchy or successful, we were just doing what we did. John and Michelle were just writing for themselves. They were trying to write the best songs they could and hoping that people that liked it, really liked it.
So for us it seemed natural, but I understand that there seems to be a large discrepancy between the two records. I think it’s just a progression and an expansion, as far as us being a pretty diverse band to begin with. On the new record, we’ve got horns. We’ve got strings. We’ve got drum samples and drum loops. Things like that, but then we’ve also got some of our most organic sounding material. The feel that we were going for was a very organic, natural feel. Nothing’s overly hyped. Nothing’s overly produced. We wanted it to be a very natural record is some ways, but a very experimental record in other ways.
Were there any influences you looked at to get that sound?
I think it was a little all over the place, and I think that’s what helped. Showing the progression from the first record, I think that maybe some of our influences were coming out a little bit more. John has a lot of influences, anywhere from the Beatles to Radiohead to Wilco. I think that describes some of our stuff that has more of an electronic feel to it, or the samples and loops and things like that. It does show a little bit of a Radiohead type thing, or at least what we’re trying to do.
[Call came to an abrupt end due to poor reception. The rest of the conversation continued November 27.]
How was Thanksgiving in Boise?
I was actually just telling Nicole, it wasn’t that bad. It would have been nice to have been home with family and home cooked food, but we managed to get every single person from the tour to the same hotel restaurant. We had three big tables, so everybody got along and had a good time. Even though we couldn’t be with our families, we got to do something with friends.
I heard about your little book exchange you’ve been working on lately. How’s that been going?
It’s going really well. It wasn’t something that I really planned. I just finished a book and was like, “Hey, if anyone wants to trade books with me, come down.” The next night, which was actually in Salt Lake, two girls came down with books. I was like, “Oh, crap. I only have one book to trade.” So I felt bad, but we ended up traded circularly and I actually got a Ray Bradbury book. He did Fahrenheit 451, which I really liked, so I was pretty stoked on that.
Oddly enough, a few days later me and some of the guys from the tour stopped in on a bookstore, so I bought a bunch of used books there. Then the next night, I got two more books from a fan. She was taking pictures at the show, she worked for the venue, but we’ve known her for a while so she actually dropped off two books. Basically, I’ve got six or seven books now that I have to read, so I’m in the opposite predicament.
Are you a pretty avid reader, then?
I try to be, but a lot of times I’m really busy on the road doing things with Straylight. We’re loading in and setting up, and then dealing with the show, and then I actually manage a band from Long Island back home. I’m usually on the phone or in front of a computer with that, and when I am home I like to do a lot of recording and studio stuff. I’m always researching new gear and new equipment, so unfortunately I don’t have as much time as I would like for reading. Sometimes on long drives there’s nothing to do but kill time, though.
What are some of your top books that you like?
I like a lot of books. I guess I discovered that some of the books that I like are in the metaphysical genre. I only realized that by looking at this bookstore, and all the books that I wanted to read were in the metaphysics section. I was like, “Oh, OK. I guess I like metaphysical books.”
There’s some books, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Those are two in that sort of genre. There’s another book in that sort of vein called Illusions, by Richard Bach. They’re all slightly spiritual books, but not religious per se. There’s another book that sort of deals with that called Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. Basically, they all are ways of living your life better, but they’re not quite self-help books. They’re more like philosophical approaches to life. It’s always interesting to hear how someone thinks a life should be lived – someone else’s perspective on life. I tend to get a lot out of that.
There’s also books like Brave New World and 1984, which were really big for me. Again, they’re more of a philosophical approach to the pros and the cons of power struggles, whether ignorance is bliss or not, and things like that. I tend to gravitate more towards books that deal with theories and ideas and philosophies of what I think, rather than dialogue and prescription.
I’ve read that at least some of the band had a religious upbringing. Do you think that’s impacted the band at all?
Yeah, it definitely has. Not so much me, but John and Michelle grew up in a very religious household. They weren’t even allowed to listen to non-Christian music up until they were like 15 or so years old. Their father was a pastor, so religion was a huge part of their lives. There’s no way it couldn’t influence what they do, and therefore what we do, to some extent. I wouldn’t say that we’re a religious band by any means, but the themes do tie in.
Off our first record, there’s a song called “It’s for the Best,” where John goes into some of the ideas of religion versus finding your own way and finding your own answers. On the new record, there’s a song called “Who Will Save Us Now,” which has a similar theme, but also turns it into a government thing. Whether you listen to a religious leader or a political leader, you have to balance external input versus how you see life and how you find answers within yourself. Whether you solve problems internally or externally, and sort of that balance between the two. So, it definitely comes up in lyrics.
You mentioned about the first album how a lot of the material John and Michelle had already been working on previously. What was the writing process like for the second one then, when everything was all new?
That was the thing. A lot of what John and Michelle had written for the first record was written prior, so I think things were separated between the two of them. Michelle had only been writing for a short period of time. She had never been in a touring band before that record came out, so when it came time for the second record, I think Michelle had a lot more input on the record. It’s definitely visible when you look at how many songs she sings lead on. That’s because she was writing a lot more, so her input was basically half the record.
There was a lot more of the band involved. We would be playing things live, rather than having someone come in with a pretty much completed song and then all just fleshing out our parts. So, it was a little more collaborative of a process. For John and Michelle, they were using each other to play off of. I feel like there’s a lot more mutual singing, rather than just one person singing lead and the other singing backup. They tried to share it more and have the two vocals be prominent. It’s a difficult thing to do, to have two lead vocals, but I think that’s something they tried to do a little bit more on this record than the last.
Do you write when you’re out on the road, or is it mostly just when you’re at home?
We try to do as much writing whenever we can. That’s one important thing for a band to do. The way the industry is now, it’s impossible for a band to just live record to record. It’s important to constantly be writing, and that’s what we try to do, whether Michelle and John are home writing songs by themselves, or whether we’re all together in a practice space and me and Shaun are working on a groove in the drum and bass area.
Or we’re on the road and someone’s got an idea in the back lounge of the bus, or we’re onstage soundchecking. Sometimes we’ll have enough time when we’re soundchecking, with everybody in front of their instrument onstage, to be like, “Oh, that thing you were playing on the bus the other day, that sounded great. I think I can put something to that. Let’s work that out.” We basically try to push it in whenever we can, whether it’s individually or in a group.
Are you happy with how The Needles the Space turned out in the end?
Yes, definitely. We’re all really happy with it. I think collectively we really like the way the record sounds and the way the record flows. There’s a little bit of everything on the record, I guess. Whether that’s a fault or not, we like it that way. A lot of the records made right now have a distinct sound. I don’t know if it’s technical or not, but they just have this modern sound where everything’s fake and everything’s hyped up. Everything is larger than everything else. Everything’s huge, and everything’s so up close and so upfront, that it really doesn’t sound natural anymore. Even though we used some electronic samples, and we do have some loops and some things that aren’t acoustic instruments, we still tried to give the record a natural sound.
We’re hoping that in 10 or 20 years from now, you can go back and listen to the record and be like, “Wow, that record still sounds good. It has that classic sound to it.” Whereas other records from this time, you might be able to listen to them and it might sound like an ‘80s record. If you hear an ‘80s record and there’s tons of reverb on the drums, it sounds like an ‘80s record. We didn’t want it to have that cliché of that record sounds like it was made in 2005. You know what I mean? We want someone 20 years from now to be like, “Oh, that’s a great record,” and not think about it.
As you were saying, you have a little bit of everything in the band. How do you go about describing the band’s sound?
I think that’s what makes it hard. When you stop at a truck stop, or when you’re at a Ruby Tuesdays in the middle of nowhere, sometimes the waitress is like, “Are y’all in a band? Wow, that’s crazy. What kind of band is it?” It’s like, oh, what kind of band is it? Right. To us, it’s definitely pop music, and some of it’s rock music. That’s sort of what we try and say. If we have to go more, we usually say we try and implement as much interesting sounds and instrumentation as we can. Sometimes we’ll maybe say it’s an eclectic rock band, but that’s as far as we can go.
People have described it every which way. Is it indie rock? I don’t really think so, but it could be. Is it emo? I don’t really think so, but it could be if you want it to be. I’ve never really had a complaint about when somebody’s described us as something. To me, I keep it as general as possible and let people decide once they hear it.
Do you find the band is still getting thrown into that rock, or heaven forbid emo, side of things, or are people finally being able to look past that?
I think it’s growing faster. As far as everyone’s understanding of that term, as that grows the popularity of that tagline grows as well. Every time we think we may be away from it, Rolling Stone says, “Is emo the next big thing?” Everyone that hadn’t heard of emo, that would just be like, “Oh, you guys are like this little pop band. I like it. You play some catchy rock music. That’s great.”
Then all of a sudden, those people are like, “Oh, so you guys are one of those emo bands.” What can you do? Do you know what I mean? It’s still the same music, no matter what anyone says about it. If somebody wants to say it, that’s fine. We can’t stop them, so we’re not going to worry about it.
You were planning on shooting a little video thing for each one of the songs. How is that progressing?
It’s been pretty difficult. We were able to do two videos before we put out the record, and then we did one ourselves since then. We were able to do one proper video with this director we really like named Travis Kopach. He did the video for “Hands in the Sky,” a song off our EP, which was amazing. He’s a really talented guy. He just did the new Thursday video.
So I think we got four, and then a fifth is being worked on by our friend Tyler, who is in one of the bands we’re on tour with. So we have about half the songs done, but we’re still working on it. We’re going to try and continue it. It’s just a little harder on the road because everything you shoot on the road looks the same. It’s either the inside of a bus or the inside of a club. It’s kind of hard to get different locations.
You did an official video for “Soon We’ll Be Living in the Future.” Will you be doing another one of those?
We were thinking about it. We were thinking about either doing a song of Michelle’s called “Still Alone” or a song of John’s called “Take It to Manhattan,” but we haven’t decided on anything like that. We’re not really sure if we’re going to push another single, or something like that. We’re hoping that in January or February, when we start up our next touring cycle, we’ll do another video and have another single push, if you will.
You also are on Universal for this record after having been on Victory. What are some of the differences you’ve seen? How has being on a major label worked out so far?
There’s a lot more people, but they don’t seem nearly as inspired as with a smaller label. Our experience at Victory, while they have faults of their own, they were very excited about their bands. They’re pretty passionate about their bands. They’re a pretty big label, but they still care about their bands. I think you see at most indie labels is that they care. They’re still concerned with making money, but they originally started for the right reasons.
Whereas I feel like at a major label, there’s just so much room for apathy. So many people at the label are busy with so many other bands. They don’t really know who you are. They don’t really know about your band until you were signed. At a label like Victory, even the new people at the label knew about our band. They knew about our old bands. They’d seen our old bands play. We probably met them at shows. It’s just more of a tighter network. I feel like with that passion, when people really feel responsible for something, they work a lot harder. Those are some of the major differences we’ve seen.
Has there been any pressure to sell a certain amount of records, or anything like that?
Not really. We actually finished our record before we signed to Universal, so they knew exactly what they were getting when they signed us. We don’t think our record has many radio singles, like radio hits. It’s not a catchy record, where you can grab someone’s attention in two and half minutes. You know what I mean? A lot of the songs are a little bit longer, or a little bit weirder, or they don’t really have a chorus that repeats. There’s a couple songs on the record that actually don’t have choruses. A chorus is what you need to have a radio single, I feel like.
The label tried to do what they do with all their other bands, and almost everything they’ve done for the past 30 years, with our record. It didn’t really work, and it’s like, well, that’s the whole point. This isn’t a radio record. You can’t expect to do the same thing.
That was a long answer. The short answer is no, they didn’t really try and push us in a direction, but it’s almost like they probably should have if that’s how they were going to market the record. Does that make sense?
The cover of the album features this really interesting painting. Is there a story behind that?
Not per se. For the past two releases, the EP and this full-length, we’ve been working with this artist, P.J. He lives in Brooklyn. I think he’s going to Norway early next year to do an exhibition. He’s just a really phenomenal painter. The theme of the EP I thought he captured really well with his last painting, which is what we did for the cover art and some of the inside artwork as well. We basically gave him free reign. We sent him some of the earlier demo tracks, and he basically painted a picture. Our EP was a little darker, I guess, and a little more politically angled, and it reflected in the artwork.
For the full-length, the topic of discussion and the direction of the lyrics were more general on this record. I think he tried to step away from that and do something a little more natural. He incorporated a lot of imagery, like flowers and birds, and nature and animals. Basically, there’s no particular story. It’s just an artist that we liked working with that we try to inspire with our music. He tries to in turn translate that into a painting.
The band is also pretty unique in that you have a brother and sister in it, which is rare these days. How has that affected the band?
They’re all really easy to get along with. There’s no family squabbles, or brother-sister fighting, or anything like that. It’s not like the Oasis, Gallagher brother thing. It’s pretty easy. Surprisingly, they get along better than anyone else I know.
Do they have a closer connection, where they can communicate in like a shorthand, or is it pretty much open to everyone?
I think we’re pretty open and honest with each other. Even though I did say they in particular get along really well, in this band we almost never fight. We never argue. There’s never drama. You know what I mean? There’s never awkward silences.
Sometimes there can be a lot of tension in a band, and it sucks for the crew working in that environment. There’s never a point where it’s like, “Oh my god. What is he doing to do?” We’re just really all laid back and relaxed. We all just want to play music, tour and record records. We’re all looking for the end result and just want to get there. No one’s stepping on anyone else’s toes. There’s no ego. There’s no nothing.
What are your plans for after the tour for next year?
We’ll be home in December for the holidays into January. We’ll probably start writing a little bit while we’re spending some time at home. Then we have more tour plans in January. Basically from the end of January through early May, we’ll be out on tour for a good three or four months. One, we’ll be doing a support tour, and then we’ll be doing a college tour in the spring. It should be good.
Then you might start work on a new record over the summer or something?
Yeah, we have plans to get back into the studio early, as soon as we get back from that college tour. We’re probably looking at May-June when we’ll enter the studio. We’ll do another record as soon as we can because I think it’s important, like I said earlier, for musicians to write as much as possible.
That’s just what we need to do. As things change, we need to keep up with it. We can’t afford to be gone for a long period of time, so we’re probably going to try and write, and record and release records, sooner than we have. Our first record to our second record was almost two and half, three years.
In the grand scheme of things, where do you see the band heading and progressing in the future?
It’s really hard to say. I feel like with this next record there’s a lot of ways we could do it. There’s a good chance we could tighten up and make our songwriting more concise, and put something together that’s a little more similar to the first record. On the other hand, we could get into the studio and make a lot more records like this last record.
I really do feel like it’s very open because we have such a diverse history and a diverse band. We have two songwriters, and male and female vocals. The instrumentals are going back and forth from acoustic guitar, to piano, to electric guitar. The direction that we choose can really dictate where we go, and there are a lot of directions that we have at our disposal.