Frontman Aaron Marsh shares about the band’s latest record You Are My Sunshine, reevaluating music after leaving Columbia Records, the art of producing, his early singing days, and his thoughts on Auto-Tune and following trends.
So are you excited for this tour coming up?
Yeah. We’ve been home for a little while, so I’m about ready to get back out.
I have to give you props because I think it’s one of the best lineups of the year. You did a great job putting it together.
Thanks, man. We’re pumped.
You’re going to be playing a special acoustic show at Hotel Café. How did that one come about?
I think we had a day off with nothing around there, and our manager saw the night was available and asked. They usually don’t have many nights available. He asked if we could do a show, and they said yes. There’s no particularly interesting story there. We were just filling a day off.
You don’t play acoustic shows too often, right?
We hardly ever do ticketed acoustic shows like that. If we do one, it’s usually like an in-store or something like that.
Do you have any plans to do an acoustic tour or unplugged EP at some point?
Yeah. We actually did do half of a tour acoustic, just because we ran out of money and couldn’t afford to have everybody out anymore. We ended up finishing the tour of like a month of shows acoustic with just me, the guy who was playing bass with us at the time and a violin player. I think we played L.A. like that with the Rentals. It was about two years ago now.
But, yeah, we’ve talked about since then doing an acoustic tour. Maybe one day it’ll happen. We’d want to do it more than super stripped down. We’d want to take out a couple string players or something. Make it kind of special.
Your new album’s been out for about eight months now. How’s that been going and been received?
Reception wise, I think it’s pretty good. I don’t think we could ask for much better. We don’t really hear too many people saying many bad things about it. We’re real proud of it still. It’s always weird to work on a record for up to a year, including writing process, recording, doing all the artwork and getting all the marketing together, and see if you still like it after all that. We still really like the record.
You titled it after the song “You Are My Sunshine,” which you covered as a b-side. What struck you about that song to make you want to name a record after it?
That song is really interesting to me. Everyone kind of remembers it very fondly. You hear about that being a romantic song for a couple or having nostalgia from people’s childhood attached to it, but it’s actually a really creepy song. It’s kind of odd, with like “if I can’t have you, no one can” lyrics. It doesn’t take that turn until the last couple verses of the song, which no one ever hears.
I really like art that has multiple layers like that. It might seem very lovely and sweet on the surface, but then it has a darker layer. I feel like a lot of times love is like that. It has kind of this darker underbelly to it. I’m always fascinated with stuff like that. We always try to bring a little bit of that haunting quality into our music as well.
Your record previous to this, Eat, Sleep, Repeat, was a bit of a departure for the band, being both a little more experimental and darker. How much of You Are My Sunshine do you think was a response to that and how much a continuation?
I feel like it was mostly a continuation. I feel like those records are pretty similar. I think we did it a little better on You Are My Sunshine, just because I feel like the songs themselves were better. It was a really similar approach, writing wise and recording wise, but obviously it was a different producer and a different studio and two years later. It isn’t exactly the same record, but I feel like they’re pretty similar.
I’d definitely say they’re the two most similar sounding records you’ve done so far.
For sure, that’s true.
You close the album out with your first 10-minute long song, “Not So Tough Found Out.” How did that one come into being?
That’s the only song that has a really interesting story behind the writing because that song wasn’t even written to be a Copeland song. I wrote and recorded that song to be a soundtrack for an art show that I was going to put on with a friend of mine. I was going to record like two hours of music that was going to be played in surround sound in this art gallery.
Like background music type stuff?
Yeah, kind of. It was going to be mixed in super surround sound, so that you could never really hear the whole song. You could only just wander around the gallery and hear a part of the song, depending on what part you were in. It would have a different mood depending on what piece of artwork you were looking at. So, that was the point of the song. It’s really abstract lyrically. The lyrics are like snapshots of the motions in life. It’s not real cohesive. That was all to set a mood for an art show.
The other guys in the band wound up liking that song and bugged me to put it on the record. I liked it a lot, too, so it wasn’t a hard decision. So, that’s how that one came about. It wasn’t even really meant to be an album track.
One of the lines that really struck me from the record is from “The Day I Lost My Voice” where you say, “I’ve got my life in a suitcase/Ready to run, run, run away.” That seemed to be a very fitting thing from a traveling musician’s perspective. What’s the story behind that?
That’s pretty right on. For the last 10 years, I’ve lived out of a suitcase. Being here and gone all the time has a way of glossing over all of your problems. It’s like, I can’t deal with this. I’m going away in a week. That kind of thing. It’s interesting the way all of our family relationships and all of our friendships here at home have been affected by the fact that we’re always just here and gone all the time.
I’ve noticed a lot of your songs are relational and like to deal with that aspect. How much of that is autobiographical?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s hard to say because it’s so abstract. Some songs might be completely about me, and then other ones might only be half about me and half about something else that I’ve observed, like my friends or family, or a movie or something else. It’s hard to say. Sometimes I don’t even know when I’m writing about myself. I’m just kind of grabbing from my unconscious, you know?
Your writing style kind of reminds me of something I remember Ben Gibbard saying once. He said that a lot of his songs are based on fictitious characters, and then sometimes when fans find out they get a little upset because it’s not actually real.
Yeah. There’s kind of an ungenuine feeling about that as a listener, but I think my songs would be really boring if I didn’t pull from other stuff.
While Copeland isn’t a Christian band, it seems that faith plays an important part in your lives. How much of that would you say impacts the music?
Christianity isn’t really a huge part of my life. For some of the other guys in the band, it is. It’s not something I’m really into, so I don’t think it affects our music at all. Some of the other guys in the band are Christians, but we try to keep everything real separate. There’s nothing particularly spiritual from a Christian standpoint about our music, at least not anymore. I think maybe when I was younger I would try to weave it in, but that’s not something that I really try to do anymore at all.
As far as your writing process goes, do you usually start out on a piano or a guitar, and then how does it take shape from there?
Usually a piano is where it starts. I mean, it could be anything. A lot of times it’s sitting down at a new instrument, sitting down at a piano that I’ve never played before, or picking up someone else’s guitar and just kind of hearing the instrument in a slightly different way. Something like that can spark a song idea, but it’s weird. It’s always different. It never really happens the same way every time. People ask how I write songs and I don’t even really know [laughs]. They just somehow get written.
Do you write a lot while you’re out on the road?
No. Writing on the road is hard because it’s pretty uninspiring. It’s the same thing day in and day out. You ride in the van all day and then play the same show we played the night before. The faces change, the city changes, but it all feels the same after a while. Usually, I have to wait until I get home to really get some good writing done.
This last week you released a new video/song thing for “Tears of a Child,” which apparently is part of the indie film The Mother of Invention. What’s the story behind that?
It’s a comedy film. It’s kind of a joke song. The song was quote-unquote “written” by the character in the movie, so it’s ridiculous and has all this sci-fi language because he’s kind of a dorky adventure guy. The song’s a complete joke, and the video is meant to be silly.
Like a parody?
Yeah. It’s kind of poking fun at us and poking fun at the fact that we would be moved by this ridiculous character enough to record this ridiculous song.
Is that the only song you did for the film?
Actually, I recorded a little scene that got used in some of the trailers. That song is on the end credits.
You worked with Aaron Sprinkle for the first time on this record. How was he different than working with Matt Goldman, who did all of your previous albums, and what did you learn from the experience?
Aaron was awesome. He’s one of the most positive people ever. He’s always encouraging, always excited to be doing what he was doing, always just loving music and always had good ideas. We really liked working with him a whole lot.
Goldman is like family to us. We did three full-length records, two EPs and a bunch of other little one-off songs. He’s been part of our lives for years. I think he always will be a part of our lives, but we were really ready to get a change of scenery and push ourselves to not do exactly the same thing over and over again. I’m glad we did, since Eat, Sleep, Repeat and You Are My Sunshine have real similar vibes. If we had gone with the same producer and the same studio, it probably would have been way too similar. So, it ended up working out really well.
What did we learn? I learn something with every recording. Probably the biggest thing I learned with this record is that a record doesn’t have to be exactly the way I had it in my head for it to be good. Not everything turned out exactly the way I thought it would turn out. I was able to let go of my original vision and let the song take on whatever it was going to be and trust the producer, trust the people in the band and trust the mixer.
The specific idea I had in my head – just because it didn’t hit that mark doesn’t mean it’s not as good or better than what I had in my head. I think this is the first record that I was really able to relax a little bit about the way it was going to turn out and just let it be what it was going to be. That’s probably the biggest thing I learned.
In your spare time you do a lot of producing yourself. How do you like that aspect of things and how did you first become interested in it?
That’s where I really feel most comfortable – in the studio recording. I’ve been doing that since I was about 13 or 14. I recorded a bunch of the high school bands when I was in high school, so I started real young with recording. Back before anyone was using computers, I started out bouncing tracks from one boom box to another to multitrack, then got a four track, then got a reel-to-reel eight track, and so on and so on. Then eventually computer recording came along.
I feel really fortunate that I got my start doing tape. Pretty much anyone younger than me wasn’t even really around when people were recording on tape, so it was definitely a really great way to get into it.
You were involved with making the Anchor & Braille record, which has been done for a while now. How did that come about?
Stephen and I are good friends. He used to live in the next town over. He grew up right next to me. We were always playing the same shows, the same house parties and community center shows back when we were in high school. The way the record came about was he would bring a song to the studio. He would record this scratch guitar and the vocal, and then I would get rid of the guitar and just have the vocal. Then I would build the song around just his raw vocal track.
It was kind of a really unconventional way to make a record. We didn’t even know that we were making a record at the time [laughs]. We were just playing around with some songs, and before we knew it we had 11 songs. We were like, “Oh, I guess we’re making a record now.”
When did that process start?
That started in – oh geez, I’m really bad with time. It had to have been… What year are we in now? 2008? 2009? [laughs] So it had be 2004ish, or 2003. It was a long time ago. It’s been a good five years since we started it. The thing is it’s not like we spent five years making the record. We weren’t working on it steady. Either he was out of town or I was out of town, or I’d be home but I’d have other things to do. There was no deadline. Who knows when it will ever come out?
Then it got caught up in some label politics. Different labels thinking they had the rights to it because it took so long to make. Our respective bands were involved in different labels during those times. It was like no one really had the definite right to release it, so no one did. I would just kind of fiddle with it for five years [laughs]. It’s going to come out now, so I had to really actually finish it. It’s been kind of a pain in the butt, but a huge five-year chapter of my life working on that record. It’s exciting to see it come out.
What else have you been producing lately?
I just did the new Person L record, which is Kenny from the Starting Line’s new band. I did their new record, and it’s coming out pretty soon as well. It’s all done and I think being mastered right now. Then there’s some bands here in Central Florida. I’ve been working with a band called Fairground, a band called Woodale and an artist named MRENC. So, there’s a bunch of random stuff from around here.
You’ve also sung on quite a few of other people’s songs, like Stacy Clark, Lydia and Underoath. Do you have any more collaborations lined up?
No, not at the moment. I feel like I started to do a little too much because there was a bunch I sang on. A band called Denison Marrs. I sang on their record. A band called Handcrafted, which the record never came out. The band broke up before it came out [laughs]. That was actually my favorite little bit that I’ve done on someone’s record. It’s a shame that it’s not going to come out. I kind of feel like I started to do too many of them, so I’ve been trying to back off of it a little bit. I don’t want to be like the Timbaland of indie rock, getting my voice on everything.
How do you like being on Tooth & Nail?
It’s great. We’ve known people at Tooth & Nail for seven years. We really like them a lot. They treat us real nice.
When I first heard about you signing there, I was like, “That move sounds so natural. It’s such a perfect fit.”
[laughs] Yeah, most people thought we were on the label anyway. We toured with their bands so much. But yeah, no, it’s good. We’re pumped.
So are you glad that the whole Columbia fiasco is behind you now?
Yeah. I mean, it was a good learning experience. It kind of put us in a weird spot. It made us reevaluate why we do music and why we’ve been pushing for this for so long. It made us reevaluate our goals and everything. It made us really appreciate just being able to make music, and not have to worry about people interfering, but getting to make music the way we want to make it and really doing it for us, which is why we did it in the first place.
We really love music, and we want to express ourselves the way we want to be heard. Tooth & Nail’s going to let us do that a lot more than Columbia. Certain bands blossom under that major label microscope, and then other ones don’t do as well. I feel like we’re one that doesn’t do as well.
I got to say that I think your voice is just incredible and out of this world. How did you develop as a singer and when did you start singing?
Well, thank you. I was in like church choirs and stuff when I was a little kid, which was probably my first bout with it, but I started writing songs really young. When I was maybe six or seven, I was actually writing songs. It was helpful to at least be able to carry a tune back then.
I think the first time I actually sang in public in a band situation was with one of my bands in high school. We had a gig booked. It was like our second gig ever, and was going to be a pretty big show in the park. The local radio station was there. Our singer just didn’t show up. He called the bass player an hour before the show and was like, “Uh, I think I’m not really that into this anymore.” We were like, “Uh, OK.” I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll sing instead, you know?” [laughs] It was spur of the moment. That was how I got forced to actually get onstage and sing was at last minute, getting ditched by our singer.
But, yeah, I think I developed my voice by just listening to singers that I really liked and trying to emulate them. The fact that I have such a high range is maybe because I listened to a lot of female singers. That’s just where I practiced a lot. I grew up being a big fan of the Sundays, the Cardigans and Sixpence None the Richer, a bunch of these airy, female vocals. That kind of gave me a lot of practice singing like a girl.
As someone with a really strong voice, what are your thoughts on Auto-Tune and how it’s become so abused in today’s music?
The fact of the matter is that people are like, “Oh, the Beatles didn’t have Auto-Tune.” But they did have all the latest technology for their time, and they used that. They used whatever technology they had in their music, so I’m not opposed to Auto-Tune in and of itself. I think that you use whatever technology to make the best sounding music you can. If a singer needs a little bit of help, I think it’s a good tool.
But, yeah, it’s totally overused. It’s totally sucking the life out of music [laughs]. It is being used too much. The human voice just naturally has some pitch dips and scoops and stuff, some pitch imperfections that make the human voice what it is. If you completely take those out then you might as well just have a keyboard that can form syllables.
So it’s a pretty big bummer that it’s gotten to the point that it is, but I’ve used Auto-Tune on records. I’ve used Auto-Tune on my own voice. I think when it’s used as an effect, like the Kanye West and the T-Pain kind of effect, it’s a cool trick, but it certainly shouldn’t be something that you base a whole record around. For sure, it’s a cool sound, but I think it should just be used like any other cool sound. The piano’s a nice sound, but it gets a little boring if all you’re hearing is piano all the time.
I remember you used a lot of Auto-Tune on that one Christmas song a couple years back, but that’s really the only one I can recall where you did something like that.
Yeah. As a tool for just bumping some harmonies in or whatever, if it’s used really subtlety, it can be really nice and can save you a lot of time. It can save the singer’s voice, so you can get more done in that day. If you spend two hours trying to get a singer to sing one harmony in tune, when all of them have been good sounding but just a little bit under pitch. If Auto-Tune could subtlety bring it in without anyone ever really hearing the effect, then why not? It’s a waste of time and money to not bump it in, but for sure the overuse of it is training everyone’s ears to not hear the subtleties of the voice.
One of the things I admire about Copeland is how you don’t really follow trends in music and just kind of do what it is you want to do. Do you think that’s going to help add to the timelessness of your music? Do you think people are still going to be listening to you guys come 20 years down the line?
Aw, man. Well, that’s an artist’s goal, is to make something that will be enjoyed years after. I have no idea. I appreciate that you say we don’t follow the trends because we don’t even really pay attention to the trends for the most part. I feel like I still listen to the same music that I listened to 10 years ago. Not completely, but my favorite artists from back then are still some of my favorite artists now. To some extent, I’m a little bit out of touch with a lot of what’s going on musically. That’s a little bit deliberate, because I don’t want to be influenced by 3OH!3 when I’m making my next record, or whatever [laughs].
I don’t think anyone wants to be influenced by 3OH!3.
[laughs] But, you know, from time to time I will do the Helen Keller. But, no, I don’t know. My only answer to that is that time will tell if people will still like the music 20 years from now. I would love to tell you that, yeah, our music will be around for a long time, but I don’t really know.
Do you have any closing thought you’d like to share?
We’re just excited to get back out to California. My girlfriend is from California. We met in L.A. Now she lives in Florida, but I used to go out there to see her all the time. There’s a bunch of favorite restaurants that I can’t wait to hit up because I haven’t been back in a while.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press