Frontman Nathan Willett speaks about spending more time on the band’s third full-length Mine Is Yours, the differences between writing in the abstract versus relational, and how the group first started out.
So did you have a nice holiday season?
I did. Yeah, it was nice. We went to Australia for a week the day after Christmas. It was summertime there, so it was nice.
All right, let’s dig into this new album you have coming out. I’ve heard you talk about how this record is the most pleased with that you’ve done so far. Can you talk about that a little bit?
The first two albums we really put the biggest emphasis on recording them live and recording them quickly. We spent a week or two on those albums, on the actual recording of them. At the end of the second album, I realized there were a lot of things that I wasn’t that happy with, mostly because of some boundaries we had set for ourselves, like doing everything in just a few takes, not doing too many takes of vocals and all that stuff.
So this one we went into it with a number of differences. We had this producer, Jacquire King, work with us on it. That was the first time we let somebody into our circle a little bit and peak into what we were doing. Then just the way we recorded it, we got to try a lot of different guitar sounds and drum sounds. I got to sing things a lot of times and make sure everything was as good as they could be, which was the first time we really got to explore that.
Were all the songs pretty much written before you were in the studio?
They vary quite a bit. We had some of them going in. We wrote a lot of them there. Most of the lyrics I wrote in between these two sessions that we did, so a lot of the music was already done. I like to write lyrics and keep on rewriting them up into the actual singing them, so I had a lot more time doing that in between.
You’ve also been describing the lyrics on this record as your most personal to date. Can you talk about that?
Yeah. Again, after the second record, I felt the way I wrote the lyrics was kind of the cliché that your second record you’ve been on the road for a couple years and you don’t have a lot of personal experience to draw from. We jumped back into the studio right away and the lyrics were more poetic, more abstract, but I didn’t feel like they were very successful. I felt like they were too far from me, so I wanted to do something more personal that was closer to my heart and that I connected to.
In spending time at home in between these records, we have a big group of friends that we all went to college with, and I got to reconnect and be involved in people’s lives. I felt like I knew what I needed to write about, with my own relationships and with friend’s relationships, and this period of life where people were going through turning 30 and struggling with relationships. So that was kind of the subject matter for me that I felt I needed to write about.
What are the differences between writing from a more relational standpoint and from the first two albums, where it’s more fictional and abstract kind of stuff?
It’s a hard one. That’s a good question. I think that when you’re writing from the more abstract, you can think about how the words sound. I can think of a lot of writers that I really love that I would guess they write more from the perspective of making sure everything sounds good and that the words themselves really grab your attention, versus actually trying to paint a very specific picture, I guess. There’s something really great about the spontaneous – having an idea and running with it and letting it be whatever it ends up being. I think that’s a great way to write.
Then this way, when you’re coming at it more from I have a very specific thing I want to say, it’s more like journalism than fiction writing. You want to tell a specific story, and it’s important that it comes out true and all that stuff. It is harder because you know what the content is, you just have to make the art work with it. There’s something easier in a way about starting with the art and not really needing to necessarily get the story true.
You have a knack for using these vivid images and contrasting descriptions a lot of the time. Like on this record, there’s something like “Cold Toes.” Could talk about how you come up with those?
Let me think. The idea was kind of about infidelity. That song is probably the most abstract of those songs. It’s kind of about how in your dreams you can be cheating on your partner, and then waking up. That one’s definitely different than the rest. I really, really like that song. It’s one of my favorites.
One of the other songs I really love is “Finally Begin.” I really love its groove and the guitar riff. How did you come up with that song?
That one was a really different one. It took a long time. We had these two different parts that weren’t fitting together and we kept shuffling them. We had it so many different ways. It was one of those songs that we felt like we might need to ditch because it wasn’t really making sense. I kept rewriting the lyrics. I wanted to have it be something that wasn’t really profound, but just a simple statement. So I finally had that and it came together at the very last minute, really.
You have a teaching/English background. How do you think that has played a part in your writing style?
I think just from reading a lot it probably makes me think too hard about things a lot of the time. I think from being a literature student for a few years, it helps me to have a more critical eye towards reading things, or what I listen to, and how the words come together. I think it helps me try and do something original, I guess. I really don’t know how to sum that up.
I feel like in some ways I fall somewhere between – I kind of think this might work as an analogy. I don’t know. The National, on the one hand, I love their most recent record, and it’s very poetic language. There’s a lot of symbols that don’t have clear meanings, that sound really good, and it’s definitely going to mean different things to different people.
Then on the other hand, the newest Arcade Fire album is a lot more straightforward and a lot more emotional. I kind of think I am somewhere in between those two. I really have a fond place in my heart for being really straightforward and emotional. I think I’m trying to learn how to do that a little more, but I also love the less direct, more abstract of the National’s style.
What kinds of authors are you big fans of?
There’s a guy, David Foster Wallace, who I really, really love. This other guy, Jonathan Franzen, I really, really love. There’s a lot.
You guys went to Biola and I graduated from there a couple years ago. You’re kind of the only big band to come out of there, so I was wondering if you could talk about the early days of the band and how everything came together?
We started playing after we were out of school. Well, Jonnie was still in school, I think. It was kind of a crazy time. I had started doing this teaching credential stuff, and everybody was in these different places. I wanted to get everybody together and start playing.
I know for me, going through school and going through my early 20s, I felt like I wanted to play music but I wasn’t creating any opportunity to. I wasn’t fighting hard to get people to play together. I think in many ways it felt like a total last-ditch effort in my life where I was going to be able to. I was into teaching stuff, and I knew from there I probably needed to get a real job and go forward. I think it was at that time that I had so much urgency because I knew this was going to be the last chance to go for it.
Going in with that mentality, and really knowing nothing at all about how it worked, we just started going on tours and taking whatever tour. People and fans and other bands that took us out on tour really appreciated that we had no background in this. We didn’t know how stuff worked, but we were really excited about learning. We had a great time, as far as hanging out with people and getting to know people. There are a lot of musicians that set out to make it in music at all costs and with whoever. I think because we were so much the opposite of that, it kind of just came together for us. It made it unique for us.
Are you all originally from California?
Yeah. Jonnie, I think, was born in Maryland. I was born in northern California. We’re from all over, but for the most part all of our teenage to present lives have been in California.
I think at this point in your career you still have done more EP releases than full-lengths. With the whole industry driven today by digital singles and individual songs, what are your thoughts on shorter releases versus the more traditional, full-length type stuff?
For a band like us, it is really important and fun for us, but also it’s on a level where we need to make albums as big statements. Definitely for us, EPs are a good way to keep it fun and feel like we’re making something without thinking so hard about it.
I think that that is becoming more the norm. I think why is because instead of writing 12 songs and putting it on an album, and having that represent you for two years or more, you can make a five, six song EP and put one out every six months or something. It just feels so much more fresh. It feels like you’re making something where every detail of it will be heard.
I don’t know. I think that we’d probably like to do another one after this record comes out, but I’m not sure yet. It’s a very fun medium to work with a shorter form. I don’t know if it’s something that we’ll be able to embrace even more of or what. We want to be a band that’s about our band, and not just about our record.
I’ve heard a couple other artists cover “Hospital Beds,” and I was wondering what it feels like for you to hear someone else cover one of your songs.
It’s really cool. It’s very interesting just to know so many different artists hear your songs in so many different ways and interpret them differently. I think it’s rad.
When Robbers & Cowards came out, that got a lot of good reviews and you were kind of pegged as this indie darling type of band. Now four or five years down the line, what’s that relationship still like?
I don’t know. I guess in a way we do kind of the same things. We do a lot of shows and tour a lot. We still do all the artwork ourselves, and I feel like we have a really direct relationship with our fans. People still really see us as a very similar band as we were then. We grew a lot really quickly, and since then I feel like we have been learning how to fill those shoes. So yeah, I feel like we’re in a similar place.
At the end of last year, you did a performance at Jack White’s Third Man Records. I’ve heard that place is pretty rad. Can you talk about what that experience was like?
He has such a great layout there. He has a recording studio in his office, and a place to write and a live room. There’s a staff of people working in a kitchen. It’s a crazy big area where he’s made his own little world there. It was rad.
I’ve totally looked up to him for years and admired him. He was hanging out the whole night, doing everything from walking around and listening to the sound and making sure everything was good in every way, and yet totally socializing and hanging out. He’s a hard-working man. I really respect him. The whole night was really great.
So are you working on a video right now for “Louder Than Ever?”
How’s that coming along?
It’s coming along good. I think it’s pretty much done. I think we’ll put this one out in a couple weeks. I’m not sure what we’re going to do next video-wise. This one was really cool, though. It’s kind of a story of this girl who’s a runway model who’s torn between her boyfriend and the designer of this show. It looks good.
Does it still have a retro feel like your other videos do?
Yeah, it does. I think it fits in with them.
How did you arrive at that aesthetic?
Gosh, it’s like a combination of so many things. I think in a way it’s just what naturally came to us that we’ve kind of followed ever since. It wasn’t really calculated.
For this year, I’m assuming you’ll be spending a great majority of the time on the road?
Yeah, we have a lot of dates. We’re starting in Europe, and then going through the U.S. all through February and March, and then a lot of festivals in the summertime.
Seeing pretty much the whole year already planned out, is that exciting, or daunting or a little bit of both?
It’s both. I think probably I’m a little more used to it now. It’s definitely both, but your priorities change a little bit over the years. In the beginning, it was just fun and exciting, and you’d just go with whatever happens. Whereas now, we’re a lot more ambitious and really feel like we have high expectations for this record. We want it to do well, so I think we’ll have a higher standard for ourselves.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk