Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Interview with Hymns' Jason Roberts

Photo courtesy of Hymns Mypace page

Question: First off…I really love the new record. I thought your previous record, Brother/Sister was one of the best records of 2006, but with Travel in Herds, the band seems to have taken huge strides. What are your thoughts on Travel in Herds?

Answer: I think that Travel in Herds is the album that we've always wanted to make. We’re so proud of Brother/Sister, but this album IS US! It’s a lot more lush, but still remains true to our direct sound that we're going for. Straightforward songs with horns, organ, banjo, etc. I also think the album was created by a much more mature hymns. We were just getting our start on the last album and figuring out the songs and the studio and how to work together. I think the new album shows that we've grown up a lot from touring and playing together so much.

Question: Tell me about the recording sessions for Travel in Herds and how that went down?

Answer: Well, we spent two weeks in our label studio, Vault Studios, doing pre-production on the album with co-producer John Kent. This is the studio in Texas where we recorded Brother/Sister. John and I co-produced the new album together, so we really went through all the songs and just made sure everything was perfect before we went into the other studio to record. We set out the parts and stuff, but tried to not overwork so that the songs would stay fresh. Then we went to Palmyra Studios in Waxahachie, TX for four weeks to record and mix the record. The studio is on 65 acres of land and it's a perfect place to make a record like this. We recorded and mixed to tape. We never left the studio. Slept in tents outside.

Question: According to the credits, most of the songs are Harding/Roberts. Is there a primary songwriter and someone that focuses on the music? Tell me how you guys work together.

Answer: Besides track 10, Brian (Harding) wrote all of the basic parts of the songs himself. Sometimes I would be there with him helping, but most of the time he would bring in a song that was already somewhat strong. Then we would go through the parts and try to really make them solid. He also wrote about 80 percent of the lyrics, but I helped with some of them and I wrote almost all of the lyrics on “Off My Mind” and all of the music on that one as well. It’s credited like that because we work together as a team with all of the stuff. I couldn't write the main song without Brian and Brian couldn't come up with the parts and arrangements without me…you know?

Question: A lot of music is coming out of Brooklyn these days. In fact, I counted over 100 bands from Brooklyn with scheduled shows at South by Southwest. You are not unlike a lot of bands over the past five years, having moved from North Carolina to Brooklyn to set up base. Describe the positive and negative aspects of having the band based out of Brooklyn.

Answer: Well, we love Brooklyn and it's a great place to be if you're a band, but it IS really hard because of all the competition. EVERYONE is in a band. Sometimes it can be really frustrating because your friends or some other smaller band starts doing well and you don't understand why you're not. On the other hand, it's way harder to get recognized in a small town because there are less industry people/clubs/etc.

Question: I had a conversation with a respected local DJ, who lived in New York for a number of years during the 90’s. She told me that, unlike Minneapolis, there really wasn’t a local music scene in New York, where like-minded bands played shows with each other, attended each other’s shows, and helped each other out. She said that New York was too big for a local scene to be happening. Taking her at her word, has New York changed? Is there a local scene there? If so, who are some New York bands that are amongst your circle of friends?

Answer: I totally agree with her, but we have been trying to get some kind of collective together since we've been here. We’d much rather play a show with our friends then some band we've never heard of just because they have some buzz, you know? We actually just did a residency at Pianos ( in the Lower East Side and it was up to us to choose the bands for each week and it was so fun to play all of those shows with only friends! Some bands we love: Young Lords, Blonde Acid Cult, Soft Explosions, Kieran McGee, Indyns.

Question: What are your plans for South By Southwest? What do you hope to accomplish there? Are there any bands that you’re hoping to see while there?

Answer: We have three shows so far at SXSW including or label party (Blackland Records). Our CD comes out the day before SXSW, so we're actually doing an in-store and a CD release party in Dallas that day since that is where our label is based. Our main goal for this year is to try and get a booking agent. We love touring so much and it's getting to hard to set that stuff up on our own! We love SXSW so much and its' so fun to go to Austin for that week and just hang with friends and see bands you haven't seen in a long time.

Question: I have an aquaintance in a New York-based band, The Soft Explosions. I discovered them via myspace in 2005, loved what I heard, and went to one of their shows on a visit to New York that same year. I loved and respected their music and they had listed Hymns as one of their friends. Consequently, I checked out your band based on their recommendation. What are your thoughts on the use of the Internet and sites like myspace and how that fits into your (Hymns) world? Do you have any thoughts on how sites like that have affected the music industry as a whole?

Answer: Ha. I just mentioned them! We’re HUGE myspace advocates. We’re addicted to our own personal sites and I can't believe how much having our Hymns myspace has helped us through the past years. Almost everything we get (shows, interviews, etc) is all through myspace. It’s really amazing that people can easily go to your myspace and hear you, see you, read about you, and see how well you're doing as a band. The only negative I think is that a lot of industry people will skip seeing your show or actually listening to your album because they just check you out on myspace. It’s good for them to come to the show and see how you REALLY are, you know?

Question: The first time I saw you, you opened up for the Lemonheads. Tell me the story about getting on that bill?

Answer: Well...I used to play in Ben Kweller's band with John Kent, who owns our label, and we got to know Evan Dando because he was friends with Ben. After we finished touring with Ben, Evan had John play drums with the Lemonheads some as a fill-in. So, when the Lemonheads started touring, John didn't feel bad about asking them if we could jump on that bill. Evan was into our songs and was cool with it!

Question: I read that Evan Dando joined you on stage in Boise. Tell me about that.

Answer: Ha. Yeah, we had played a lot of shows at that point, but he had never watched us, so that night he sat right in the front and watched our whole show. Then for the second to last song, we played a Neil Young cover- “Don't Cry No Tears”-and he jumped up on the front of the stage and grabbed the mic and sang with us! It was definitely a very cool moment for us!

Question: Jason, you mentioned that you played with Ben Kweller’s band. How did that come about?

Answer: I was in New York working at a recording studio called the Magic Shop and also at a club they owned called the Living Room. Ben had just lost his guitarist and was auditioning people and he had come to the Living Room to check out a guitarist who was recommended to him. I was on stage setting up stuff because I was the sound guy and Ben thought that I was the guitarist! So, he asked me to audition for him and I did a couple of days later and got the job!

Question: Ben Kweller got involved in the music industry at a very young age? Even though he’s still fairly young, he has a lot of experience…What did you learn about music and the music industry from him?

Answer: I really learned so much from him. He controls everything that happens with his music and his tour, etc and I saw how smart that is to make sure that everything goes the way that YOU as an artist want. It’s better to do those things yourself and have your vision come out the way you want instead of someone else who doesn't know what's exactly in your head. He worked really hard everyday to make sure everything worked the way he wanted it to. He was also really good at doing interviews and getting people excited about his music and shows. I was pretty naïve when I joined his band and I think I left his band a better musician and music businessman.

Question: In my opinion, the year Bob Dylan went electric, playing with The Hawks (The Band), is the most important period in rock music. I noticed that your publishing company is called “Dylan Goes Electric”…Would you concur with my statement? Why or why not?

Answer: That's Brian’s publishing company. We are huge Dylan fans and even huger fans of The Band (The Hawks). It definitely was an important time in music because Dylan really bridged so many things together by going electric. It said a lot to the music world when he did that and stuck by it even though there was a lot of criticism towards it.

Question: On the new record, I hear some sounds that remind me of The Band, just as I heard some sounds of Neil Young and Crazy Horse on Brother/Sister. Is it safe to say, that the band finds inspiration in those artists?

Answer: It is VERY safe to say that. Our goal with all of this stuff is to have songs that sound fresh and new, but always fall back on older sounds.

There are a lot of bands doing the retro thing, but it's hard to achieve in this time. I think we did the best we could on this new record! We’ll always love The Band and the Stones and Neil, etc and will probably always try to imitate them as best we can without copying them. It ends up being our OWN sound.

Question: According to the credits on Travel in Herds, Brian’s dad, Dr. John Harding, played on the record. Was he a big influence on Brian getting involved in music? Was his family musically inclined? If so, what kinds of records did he hear around the house?

Answer: Brian’s dad is an incredible trumpet player. He’s been playing his whole life and even has a Ph.D. in brass! He teaches at UNCC (University of North Carolina-Charlotte) and toured with so many bands throughout his life (James Brown, Bee Gees, etc.)
I think Brian got a lot of his talent from his dad and he grew up listening to ALL kinds of rock and jazz music. His dad has a HUGE HUGE record collection, so everything was available to Brian throughout his childhood. Brian’s dad has always played with us at shows in North Carolina and it was such an honor to have him on the record and I think it was cool for Brian to have his dad there in Texas for two days!

Question: I love the sounds of the horns on this record, they remind me of Van Morrison of the early 70’s or perhaps The Band. Prior to going into the studio, did the band have a clear idea of what those horns would sound like, or did you just let the horn section have at it?

Answer: Well, we pretty much knew what we wanted before we went into the studio. We had worked out most of the stuff during pre- production and recorded ourselves playing the parts on guitar so that John could hear them before he got there and write out some rough charts. We also knew what sounds we were going for (The Band/Elton John for ‘I Can't Be What U Want', the Stones for 'St. Sebastian', etc.)

The only song that we didn't expect to have horns on until the players got to Texas was 'Travel in Herds'. We had an empty gap there and just figured we'd fill it with a cool sax solo.

Question: Are there any plans on moving the band up to Poukeepsee and hunkering down in a house, like Big Pink?

Answer: That would be INCREDIBLE and Brian has brought it up, but we do love our apartment in Brooklyn! Ha.

Question: When I spoke with Brian in June (in Minneapolis), we talked about a number of things, including the song, “It’s a Shame.” I love that song, but it still bothers me to this day that I can’t figure out what specific Neil Young song that reminds me of. He had mentioned that before “It’s a Shame” had an official title, it was often called, “The Neil Young Song”. On Travel in Herds, there’s a song called “Blame it on the Mountains.” Was that song, at any point, called The Tom Petty Song?

Answer: Ha. It wasn't called the Tom Petty song, BUT it is very Tom Petty inspired. One day we were in rehearsals and Brian and I decided to stay behind afterwards to write a 'hit song'. Ha. We promised we wouldn't leave until we had something that we thought was really catchy. I had seen Tom Petty the night before at Madison Square Garden, so I was VERY excited about him at that point. Hopefully it doesn't sound too much like a rip off, but I think we definitely achieved what we were going for!

Question: When I talked to you guys last June, one thing that struck me is that your guys seemed focused and had some artistic goals you wanted to accomplish. Where do you hope Hymns will be in the next couple of years?

Answer: I think we're accomplishing some of our goals and I think this album was a big step for us. It sounds almost EXACTLY how we had pictured it sounding and we're very proud of it. I just hope we can keep making music that we're proud of and that sounds like US. Our only goal as of now is to get on tour so that people can hear these songs. Hopefully something will happen with this record and we can be headlining shows all over the country and Europe one-day soon.

Watch Hymns perform It's a Shame live on Fearless TV.

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