Bassist Adam Russell unpacks the meaning behind new album The Black Swan, and how the band’s more astute outlook differs from their crazy onstage antics and live show.
All right, first thing – you grew your hair out! What’s the deal with that?
This is actually the same haircut that I had in high school. I also wore flannels in high school, most of my jeans had holes in them, and I wore camouflage shorts. So I just kind of brought it back. Got really emo hair. You know what I mean?
It’s been a while since you guys have been on the road. What’s it like being back?
First day’s always rough. I feel like I got run over by a fucking bus right now.
This is your first show back?
Yeah, we played SXSW and a college show two weeks ago, but this is the first day of the official tour. It’s gnarly. It feels good to be on a bus. You feel like a band again, you know? Not just dudes at home playing music.
Before Warped, you’re doing a headlining tour, right?
Yeah, this is actually sort of the beginning of it.
Are you going to be coming back to SoCal before Warped?
I don’t believe so. This whole tour is kind of routed around these radio festivals, so it’s a really weird routing. We’re going to Tucson tomorrow, then a day off, then to Denver, and then all the way to Oklahoma or something. We’re going to be on the East Coast in like five days. We go all the way across and all this sporadic weird shit, so I don’t think we’re coming back here until Warped Tour.
You have a new CD coming out in a couple weeks called The Black Swan, which is kind of an unusual title. What’s the meaning behind it?
Actually, the idea came from this book that just came out sometime last year, or it might have been earlier this year, called The Black Swan. It’s about this black swan theory. It talks about all the important, earth shattering events in world history. All these unpredictable, improbable events – you know, black swan events. The name comes from the idea that there are only white swans. Sometime in the not too distant past, they discovered a black swan, so it’s like this thing that changes the way you see everything.
There’s kind of a few rules to the theory that say these events have to be highly improbable, totally unpredictable and have a huge impact. Then after the fact we try to explain them in ways where it makes it seem like, “OK, well hindsight’s 20/20. Here’s why it happened.” It seems like everything in our lives happens that way. The way our band happened, the way the music industry’s happening now. There’s a lot of these kinds of events that are shaping the way things go. The Internet, MP3s and iPods in a way shape us. So you can pick from that theory and see how that stuff affects your own life and ours specifically.
It’s an awesome theory, and it can hit home in so many different ways. All the lyrics on the record kind of hit different subjects that can be tied in with it. Although we wrote all the songs, all the lyrics and everything, and then named the record afterwards, it coincidentally coincided with the general theme.
I noticed The Black Swan logo has been featured all over your artwork and video and stuff. Is there any significance to it?
One of the deciding factors of picking that title was it was an easy concept to go with artwork and marketing and all that kind of stuff. The record’s called The Black Swan, so we have a Black Swan logo. Then that becomes kind of like the icon of this whole record cycle.
It’s kind of funny because Jimmy Eat World’s new logo has kind of a similar look. So I noticed some people have been like, “Hey, this looks like that one.”
Really? Oh, crap. [Jokingly] I think we should fucking cut ‘em. You know what I mean?
You can talk to them when they play tonight [laughs]. Anyways, on the new record you did a couple of songs with John Feldmann again and then the rest with Elvis Baskette. What was that process like?
It’s definitely different working with two producers, but it was rad. It was cool to get back with Feldmann. He and I have been friends ever since we first met, so we’ve kept in contact and always talked about getting back together in some way. It just happened to work out with his schedule and what he had open that we could do four songs with him. He naturally picked the more pop friendly radio songs because that’s kind of more his bag.
Then we did another 13 with Elvis, so we had 17 songs total. Elvis was fucking amazing. We recorded at his beach house in Virginia. We lived there and it was an amazing place to record. Dan tracked vocals right next to a big sliding glass door looking at the ocean. It couldn’t get any better. He’s badass. Elvis has done Incubus’ Make Yourself, one of my favorite records ever. He did all the Chevelle records. He’s worked on Stone Temple Pilots. He’s been around the block. So that was kind of like a no brainer when we picked him, and it worked.
Have you developed a set process on how you go about songwriting?
I think it’s pretty much settled into the way it will continue to be from this point on. It’s kind of evolved to this point, but now it’s almost exclusively Ryan bringing the initial song idea. Then we’ll kind of jam it out from there, rearrange it together ourselves, and kind of preproduce it in a way. We’ll add whatever we’re going to add to it, and then Dan, Ryan or Phil will write a vocal melody. Then Dan and I will go back and write lyrics to that vocal melody. Then we go into preproduction and the studio part from that point. It works well.
Comparing this new one to your first two, do you think there are any similarities between them?
I think it’s kind of a good mix of the two records. We have the heaviness of the second record with that more widely accessible, kind of Page Avenue vibe – a little more friendly on the ears. We took the more hook-oriented vibe from that and mixed it with the heavy shit that we like, and then some. It’s right down the middle but still on a more mature level. I think it’s our best record.
Do you still have some killer solos on there?
Yeah, it’s some of Ryan’s best stuff definitely.
Are there any really heavy songs like “‘Is This My Fate?’ He Asked Them?”
We don’t have any fast heavy ones like that. There’s one actually that’s a b-side that I think is going to come as a bonus track with the iTunes download that’s kind of a heavy fast one. But on the actual record, the heavy stuff is a little groovier. We got one that’s in like a 6/8 feel. It’s fucking gnarly, the opener. Then the last song on the record is almost like heavy classic rock in a way. I don’t know. Maybe that’s going too far, but it’s badass, so the heaviness is there.
Did you experiment with anything on this one that you weren’t able to do on the others?
Yeah, there’s definitely some different stuff. It wasn’t necessarily on purpose, but it just kind of came out because we had so much time to work on music. Lyrically, Dan and I definitely pushed it to a new level. Ryan did some stuff on the guitar this time that’s just really new and fresh and rad while still his style. There’s some switching between different feels and time signatures right in the middle of songs, which was pretty cool. We hadn’t really gotten that much into that until this point.
Lyrically, the last record was a little bit dark and disillusioned. Did you want to carry that over or accomplish something different this time?
It was kind of a pissed record, the second one. We tried to take that same kind of aggression, frustration and anger and be a little more positive with it… Not positive, but not as complaining-ish, you know? I think it kind of came off as complaining to some people, which we didn’t intend at all.
With this one, there’s just as many anger-driven things – anger with world issues and politics and things that are really on our minds a lot – but we try to broaden it and make it a more accessible way to get it to people, if that makes any sense. Less like, hey, this sucks and more like, this kind of sucks. Here’s what we should do about it.
I noticed the first single “Wake Up” seems kind of a thematic continuation of “Wake Up the Voiceless” from the last record. Is that true?
It’s actually a totally different subject matter, but I can see how you could say that. I’m so proud of those lyrics. It’s the first time we’ve had a single that really says something broad and global while still being easy on the ears. It was actually inspired by this Carl Sagan book called Pale Blue Dot. There’s this little clip on YouTube that has this excerpt from the book and a bunch of photos. It’s kind of a photo collage that goes along with what he’s saying in this little piece. I remember watching it and just going, “Dude, this is the fucking most amazing, inspiring thing I’ve ever seen.”
It’s kind of about how small we are in the universe, how insignificant our existence is in the grand scheme of things, and how petty all of our differences really are. We’re just one little fraction of a dot in the fucking great enveloping cosmic space. We were writing it, and every time we’d kind of get stumped, we’d watch the thing again and listen to it again, and get really pumped up and write some more. When we finished it we were like, “Fuck, dude. This is amazing. This is badass. This really feels good.” So I’m proud of that.
I’ve seen your DVD and behind-the-scenes stuff online. You guys are kind of a crazy bunch and you’d never guess you would focus on that big picture type stuff. How do you explain the two?
Yeah, it’s weird. I think we confuse people. It’s like our music has always been serious, but we’re just fucking weirdos when it comes to our personal lives. Yeah, it’s a weird combination. We try to balance it well. Some shows if we’re in a weird mood, the entire show will just be a fucking jackoff session. We’re spitting on each other. I’ll put on like a Ninja Turtles costume or something stupid, you know?
At the end of the show, we’re like, “Uh, this is kind of weird. We’re singing about politics, or whatever, and wearing Ninja Turtles costumes.” I don’t know. Bands have pulled it off in the past. Pantera, my all-time favorite band, is a fucking heavy disgusting metal band, but you watch their home videos and they’re just crazy fucking weirdos. That’s probably why we’re like this, because I grew up on that shit.
What’s the stupidest stuff you’ve done where you’ve gone like, “Oh, why did we do that?”
I don’t really regret any of it but there’s been some weird stuff. There’s been a couple times where I’ve thrown like a full trash can out into the crowd, and it’s been crowd surfed around and flipped over and just dumped on someone. One out of five shows Ryan spits the biggest loogie in the world right into my face and in my hair, or I punch him in the face. Ryan’s actually come over with wire clippers and cut off all my strings before.
While you were still playing?
Yeah. We brought out a life-size camel sculpture onstage once. There’s this club, I think it’s somewhere in the Northeast. I think it was probably for Camel Cigarettes or something, but it stayed in the backstage of this club. We brought that thing out, and Josh got on it and rode it. Josh has this horse mask that he puts on every once in a while. If a dude wants a pick, Ryan will rub it on his dick and then throw it to him. It’s always something stupid. It never ends.
I know you’ve been working on another DVD for a long time. Is that getting released soon?
It’s done. It comes out May 13th, so right after the record pretty much.
Does it have a live show and a bunch of documentary stuff on it?
Not as much live stuff this time. We have a few live songs sporadically throughout.
So it’s more like a feature length type deal?
Yeah. It’s probably two hours long, I guess. It’s all of that mayhem, lifestyle, behind-the-scenes kind of stuff with live stuff sporadically throughout it. Part of the special features is a full hour-long documentary on the making of In the Wake of Determination, so there’s a lot of content. There’s probably almost four hours of content on the DVD. A bunch of other things, like deleted scenes and shit like that. Videos, making the videos. It’s good. It’ll be worth the money.
In between these two records, you left Maverick and went to Epitaph. How was that?
Oh, it was a fucking debacle. The Maverick thing was kind of weird because the first record it was Maverick, just Maverick. Full staff, they were a whole separate label under the Warner umbrella. Then sometime in between the first and second record, a portion of Maverick was actually sold to Warner. I guess Madonna sold off her portion, or whatever. So half of Maverick’s staff was gone. Maverick was kind of like the redheaded stepchild of Warner, you know? The big family that we had known as our Maverick team was gone. We had just a handful of people that were still around. At most, more like three. So that was weird.
Then in between the touring cycle of In the Wake of Determination and the writing of this record, Maverick totally folded. We were in this weird Warner limbo thing. A lot of bands were getting dropped, and some bands actually had to even showcase – you know, big Maverick bands – had to showcase to be picked up by Warner. It was really fucking weird because you know the industry’s disintegrating.
So we didn’t end up getting picked up by Warner, and it actually turned out to be the best thing in the world. We met Brett Gurewitz from Epitaph. He was amazing, and we signed to Epitaph. We couldn’t be happier. I think a good indie like Epitaph is where we kind of always have belonged.
It also seems that Epitaph is pushing this record more than Maverick pushed the last record.
For sure. I think everything was so mixed up, and Warner’s attention on Maverick was so hit or miss – just not there – that we in a way got lost in the shuffle. But Epitaph’s fucking killing it. They’re an indie, but they’re a big enough indie that they have the resources to promote a record like they’re doing now for us. So, it’s amazing.
So you’re going to be on Warped Tour this year. Are you stoked to be playing that?
Definitely. 2004 was the last time we played the whole tour. We did a few shows on ’05, but it’s been a while. It’ll be awesome to get back in that summer camp kind of mindset. We know like all the staff now because we’ve played the thing for years and met everyone, so it’ll be a good bro-down. It’ll be hot and sweaty and dirty and disgusting, but it’ll be fun.
Do you have anything lined up after that?
I think we’re supposed to go to Europe and maybe play some festivals. I’m not sure. They’re still booking things. Then I think we’re supposed to headline sometime in the fall, but two of the guys are having kids in September. Two days apart, coincidentally, totally by accident. It’s not like they called each other about having sex or anything, but it just so happened that two days apart they’re having kids. So we’ll take a small break for that.
Do any of you have kids already?
Phil has three kids actually, so he’s working on growing us a whole new staff. All the rest of us have nieces and nephews, but Phil’s the only one with kids until September.
I know you guys are a very touring intensive band. What kind of toll does that have on the family aspect?
Phil hates it. He hates being away from his kids. He loves touring, obviously, but it’s just rough, you know? It’s not like they can all come out here. You can’t put a jungle gym in the back lounge or anything. So, it’s pretty gnarly for him. Being away from my nephew alone is crazy and shitty enough for me. I can’t imagine having three kids. I have a lot of respect for the dude’s dedication to the band.
With your live show, you guys are all over the stage and got a little bit of everything going on. How long did it take to build up to that?
We’ve actually from the beginning been a much better live band than we were songwriters. The live show was the number one priority at the beginning. When we’d write songs, we’d actually think, “Dude, we need a part right here where we can jump.” So once we grew up a little bit and got more to the label material, potentially getting signed level, we kind of said, “Maybe we should not worry about that as much and just make sure our songs are good.”
But the live show’s always been a priority. Every band we grew up watching and going to see live had a lot of energy. It just kind of made sense to us. Those are the kinds of bands we enjoyed seeing. Starting from the beginning, we took all of the best stuff from those bands, what we liked to see, and made that our show. It just evolved from there.
Yeah, I think your live show has become your trademark, if you will.
I think it’s definitely what has kept our core fanbase. Through the last record with zero promotion, had we not been the kind of band that could deliver a live show, we couldn’t have toured and still played in front of 2,000 kids every night.
You had that spot on Taste Of Chaos, too.
Yeah, that didn’t hurt.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Just buy the goddamn record on April 22nd. If you download it, I will cut your head off, unless you download it from iTunes and pay the $10.99.
Or Amazon has a good service, too.
Or Amazon. And MySpace is doing that right now, too. Did you hear about that?
Yes, I did. It will be quite interesting to see how that turns out.
Isn’t it supposed to be free downloads and advertising dollars are paying the labels and the bands, or something like that?
I haven’t heard the specifics. I have been hearing some stuff about streaming being the future, where either it’s free and ad supported or it’s a monthly subscription type deal.
Yeah, it’s being kind of billed as the iTunes killer.
It could go anywhere at this point.
I don’t see it being an iTunes killer, though. Steve Jobs will bring out the fucking missile launchers and take care of shit.
He’ll just take it and incorporate that into iTunes.
Yeah, that dude’s a badass.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press