Frontman John Van Deusen chats about the band’s new album Arrows, what it was like working with Chris Walla, and writing from a more optimistic perspective.
So you guys just wrapped up that Death Cab tour last week. How did that go?
The tour was amazing. It was definitely the highlight of our, I don’t know if you’d call it a career [laughs], but it was probably the coolest thing we’ve done as a band thus far. It was really cool. Good crowds, cool venues and the band is really good people, too, so that helps.
Did a lot of people know who you were beforehand, or was it pretty much a new audience?
I think it probably differs from city to city. The tickets sold out so quickly that even if we did have fans who wanted to be there for us and just us, they wouldn’t have been able to get in just because they sold out in, like, 30 seconds. There were definitely people there who had heard of us or seen us play. I think we fit fairly well with Death Cab, so the people who hadn’t heard us seemed to enjoy it. The crowds were really awesome.
You were Chris Walla’s first signee for his label, Trans Records. Can you talk about what the process of signing with him was like?
It was kind of a crazy chain of events. Essentially, he heard our last record that we had released locally. We actually recorded it in our garage. He read a good review for the record, and he bought it and liked it. Then he was interviewed on CNN. They asked him what he was listening to and he said, “Oh, I’ve been listening to the Lonely Forest.” So we all freaked out because we’ve always liked Death Cab for Cutie.
Essentially, we got into one of their shows, we got backstage, and our guitar player got kind of drunk and worked up the courage to ask Chris if he would record our band. Chris said he would. We had that lined up to work with him as a producer before we got signed to his label. He had been considering starting a label when we were meeting to start on our record. We just kind of came together and he was like, “What if I start my label now and your guys’ record is the first release?” That’s kind of how it happened. It’s pretty cool. There’s a lot more to it than just that, but that’s a good timeline, I’d say.
What does it feel like to be the first band on his label? Do you feel any kind of weight to set a precedent?
There’s a little bit of pressure. I think people judge us differently based on that fact alone. “Oh, so the guy from Death Cab signed your band.” People expect us to be really professional and be really good. To be honest, we’re just a young rock band from western Washington. At this point, we just feel really fortunate and blessed and lucky and honored. It’s a crazy thing.
I’m sure he plans on signing more bands, and there’ll probably be bands that are more successful than us and then bands you’ve never heard of. At this point, we kind of feel like the only child, which is good. There’s certain benefits to being the only child because you’re kind of spoiled and you get all the attention, but you’re more likely to be socially awkward and you don’t know how to share. We always laugh about that, that we have the only child syndrome going right now.
Chris, in addition to Death Cab, has produced a bunch of other bands. What was it like working in the studio with him?
It was pretty easy. It’s super simple and laid back. He is friendly. If he doesn’t like something, he tells you, but it’s not like he’s yelling at you telling you you suck. He’s easy to collaborate with, which is really important. It was a really good experience and we’ll definitely probably record with him again because it was so much fun. I think he did a great job.
The Lonely Forest and Chris, we learned how to work together, and I think going into the next project we’ll have a better perspective on what areas we need to work on. We aren’t very… What’s the word? We aren’t very punctual. We’re so laid back and easygoing that it’s really easy to forget that you’re paying money to be in the studio and that you need to work. So I think the next time we’ll probably be a little more, focused isn’t the right word, but more aware of the time.
Does he shy away from doing digital stuff in the studio and do everything live?
We recorded the record live. The studio we were at, we didn’t really use tape. We used tape for a couple of the sounds and piano stuff, but most of the record was recorded in Logic, which is really interesting. I don’t know how many producers use that program very often, but Chris is a true believer in Logic. I think if he had his way we would have recorded it to tape. I just don’t think logistically it worked out.
What did you record on for your other albums?
We used Pro Tools. We recorded it in our garage with a little Digidesign board. It was a pretty minimal setup.
I understand that you’re something of a big reader and the band name came from C.S. Lewis. How much does that impact your writing?
Honestly, it’s probably the biggest influence for me lyrically. I’m kind of a dork. It’s not just books, it can be movies or shows or video games. Anything nerdy, I’d say. I get engulfed in stories and usually that influences the songs I write, or the words I use or painting some picture with my words.
It usually differs depending on what author I’m reading, and whether or not it’s science fiction or classic literature. What am I reading right now? All Flesh is Grass by Simak. It’s this crazy book, so I’ve been writing some really strange and abstract stuff. It doesn’t really make sense, the songs that I’ve been writing lately.
I hear you like to write little phrases and stuff in booklets.
Yeah, I carry notebooks around.
Is that something you draw on when you’re writing songs?
Oh yeah, I’ve got notebooks lying all over the house. It’s funny. You go back and read some of them and some of them are so bad and so ridiculous. I’m always doodling and drawing crazy pictures along with them. I’ve kind of lost track. I’ll find them in random places and forget that I’ve even written that song. It’s like, “Oh yeah, that one.”
Would you say there’s a common thread that goes through this album, Arrows?
Yeah, I think most of those lyrics reflected me overanalyzing myself and the bad decisions I was making. Some good ones, but mainly trying to figure out why I act the way I do, and whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing and if I need to change it. The whole record, to me at least, I feel like that’s what I was doing, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
I actually have a slight problem with some of the lyrics on Arrows. I think they’re a little bit too literal. When you’re an artist you always look at your own work and get pissed and think it’s not good enough or whatever. You’re the harshest critic. The songs I’ve been writing now are a little bit less literal. I guess I would try to be more poetic in the future.
What’s an example of something you feel like is too literal?
Honestly, I think “We Sing in Time” is a good example of a song where I was too literal. I touch on these huge topics, a political topic or war. When I was writing that song, I wanted it to be big and easy to digest, and that’s why it’s so literal. “Let us burn the nation’s budget.” That’s such a blatant, obvious thing to say, and it politically tells you where I stand, or at least where I stood at that point when I was writing the song.
I think in the future I would want to rewrite it and maybe do it in a little bit more of a cryptic way, where the reader has to really think about what I’m saying. Maybe it even goes both ways, because I like the idea of the listener getting their own meaning from it and relating to it in one way than maybe another listener would relate to it.
So more ambiguous, then?
Yeah, definitely. I would love to be more ambiguous in the future.
The second song on the album is “Turn Off This Song and Go Outside,” which I thought was a ballsy song to put at the beginning of an album. Can you talk about that song?
It’s funny because I actually wanted that song to be the first song on the record and Chris really loved “Be Everything,” which is the acoustic song with strings. He felt like that was a really good opener, and that’s why the song is actually track two. You share the stage with enough bands locally, nationally, whatever. Some of them are really cool, but a lot of musicians are really full of themselves and place themselves in a pedestal hierarchy, like, “We’re better than you because we’re artists.” It was really pissing me off.
When you spend time with people, you begin to act like them, and I was becoming fearful that maybe our band was giving off that vibe. I was writing this song to keep us in check. We’re not better than anybody. We’re normal people that just happen to play music. I guess it could be literal, where you could actually turn off the song and go outside, and I’d be really stoked. I don’t think enough people are spending time outdoors and being active. If anything, I just wanted people to be singing along to a chorus that wasn’t a normal thing to put in a pop song. Yeah, I like that song [laughs].
Another thing I thought was interesting were the dual songs, “(I Am) the Love Skeptic” and “(I Am) the Love Addict.” Were those written together?
I had a couple conversations with a buddy of mine who’s actually a drummer in another band. He is the love skeptic. He believes that love is a chemical reaction and is purely this animal thing. I am the love addict. I’m more of an idealist, and I say that it’s much bigger than just chemicals and the need to survive. I liked them to be next to each other on the record to show two different perspectives. Musically, at least, they both sound so happy, so I think it’s fun to have them next to each other.
Would you say overall this record is happier than your past work? How would you describe that?
I think Arrows is definitely the most optimistic we’ve been. It’s not just lyrically, it’s also the songs and the way they sound, the tones, the drumming. Our past records were pretty melancholy, but it’s still somewhat of a melancholy record. I think it needed to show that we’re excited about the world, and hopeful and optimistic in general.
For example, our first record, Nuclear Winter, is about the end of the world. It was so depressing that a lot of people couldn’t stomach it. I wanted to be a little bit more encouraging this time around.
Yeah, nuclear war usually doesn’t sell that well.
No, it totally doesn’t. People give us artistic points, like, “Oh, it’s so great that your debut record was about the end of the world. It’s so ballsy.” I’m thinking, “No, it wasn’t. It was a bad idea.” It was just poor planning.
There is one song on the album that is kind of similar to that called “End It Now.” What’s the story behind that song?
I was flying to Germany and I just started writing all these questions, these stupid things. “What if I swallowed all these pills at once? What if I’d never been born?” All these things. I started writing what would become lyrics. The biggest question in my head has always been, it’s kind of a silly thing or maybe it’s not, I don’t know, but infinite space. The idea of infinity freaks the shit out of me. That’s why I was saying, “End it now.” I don’t like the idea of something going on forever.
In the chorus where it says, “Is there an end? Is there an end?” that’s me wondering, obviously. It’s funny playing that song live when I say the first few lines. I get a lot of strange looks. The song sounds so happy, at least in the beginning, and they’re not expecting me to be singing the words that I do during that part.
One last song I wanted to ask about is probably my favorite song on the record, “Coyote.” How did that song get written and come about?
That’s actually a funny story. I grew up in Anacortes, WA, next to a swamp and the woods. You’d always hear the coyotes howling. I’m sure you’ve heard coyotes howl, but it’s really a terrifying sound when you don’t know what it is. There was this summer where I was still living at home. It’s actually kind of an old song. My parents left for a month and a half and left me there. I was in a bad place personally. Almost every night I was demoing and doing these songs until 3 in the morning, so I wouldn’t go to sleep.
I guess it’s OK to publish this, since it’s Absolute Punk and they don’t care if I do drugs or if I did drugs, but I actually did shrooms and I was kind of freaked out. They started howling, and they turned what started as a fun night into a terrible night. That’s where you have the, “Listen to the coyotes howl / Why do they sound so menacing?”
This is probably too long of an answer, but I grew up in a really strict Christian home. I always felt like people were judging others on what they were doing and their quote-unquote “sin,” so that’s why the line is, “Does your sin seem interesting?”
So I was kind of angry and freaked out, and ultimately the chorus, which was to my girlfriend at the time who’s actually now my wife, she was the only person I wanted to see. She was the only one who I thought could comfort me. “I wish you’d come back home / I want to hold your hand.” That’s where that came from. So it’s pretty basic, but it’s funny that you asked the story. I think this is the first time I’ve told it. There’s a lot more to those lyrics than I think people would expect.
So are you guys going to be on the road for the rest of the year then?
Pretty much. A couple guys are getting married, so we have some time off in the next two months. We’re going out with Two Door Cinema Club in September, and I’m pretty sure we’re going out with another band. I don’t know if I’m allowed to actually say who it is, which sounds stupid, but that’s right after that, and then we’ll be doing a little bit of headlining stuff. I know we’re being submitted for more tours, so essentially once the two guys get married we’re going to be road warriors, touring all the time.
As young guys who don’t have a ton of experience touring the country, what do you think of that lifestyle that you’ve had some taste of now?
It’s work. I think a lot of people have this unrealistic perspective on what touring means. A lot of our friends back home think we’re touring in some big bus and sleeping in nice hotels and eating well. The reality is when you’re on our level, you’re not. You’re not sleeping. You’re not eating well. You’re sharing a hotel room with a couple dudes and sleeping on the floor. You’re squished in a van. It’s cool, don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining, but it’s definitely a job. You have to go into it realizing that if you plan on doing it for a long time, and obviously we do. We plan on touring for the next 15 years of our lives.
There’s other parts that are amazing, like seeing new places. Going back to a place like Toronto over and over again, you figure out where you want to eat, what coffee shops are awesome, where you want to stay, and you make friends. It’s really cool, and I have a lot of fun stories because I’m waking up in a new city every day. I think being nice to the people you meet, even if they’re jerks, being nice to the sound guys and the promoters is one of the best things you could ever do for yourself if you’re getting ready to tour. Just don’t be a dick. We actually have rules in our van and that’s rule No. 1 – don’t be a dick. So if you’re friendly and you’re respectful, it will work out. You’ll be great.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk