by: Thomas D. Mooney
Austin rockers Uncle Lucius make their return to The Blue Light tonight (Friday, Oct 31). We caught up with keyboardist Jon Grossman last week to discuss the band’s upcoming yet-to-be-titled album, the band’s ever evolving songwriting process, and working with one of the best producers in the business, George Reiff.
Watch/Listen to “Keep The Wolves Away” below.
New Slang: This upcoming album, you guys are working with George Reiff. He’s worked with some great people and specifically has done some amazing work as a producer with a number of artists (Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lincoln Durham, The Band of Heathens, Shinyribs for example). What was it specifically that made you want to work with George?
Jon Grossman: I think we all had slightly different reasons, but a common one was because of the last Shinyribs album, Gulf Coast Museum. That was a favorite in the van for a while. There was a list of maybe four people and that was the touchstone with him. That album, track for track, is pretty undeniably great.
NS: Yeah. They played here last Friday and it was just phenomenal. Obviously, they put on a great show, but those albums are certainly great. I’m assuming you guys have already began the recording process.
JG: Yeah. We’ve done a couple of week-long chunks. Most of the actual tracking is done.
NS: Has there been anything he’s done so far that’s maybe opened your eyes a little bit or anything? “Oh, we’ve never tried doing this before” kind of things?
JG: Not so much as a specific “do this, do that” kind of thing. But in general, how he works is pretty interesting. He’s not lax on preparation or anything. We did a lot of pre-production. But after, he’d kind of deliberately kind of throw you for loops in the studio as kind of a rule. We were joking about it. “So this next song is kind of a folk song, so I imagine we’ll all be playing synthesizers. It was almost comically interesting on how he’d help us get out of our comfort zones. He’s a very impressive artist to work with. Very intuitive and just has such comprehensive ideas. A lot of the songs that bore his stamp are some of our favorites. Four of them I would say he’s particularly been involved in messing with and changing–not so much the arrangement–just the instrumentation and kind of the feel. It’s pretty phenomenal. He sat with us for a couple of weeks and found strengths that we weren’t really aware of. It’s probably the best producer experience that I’ve had. It’s been great to see him working up close. Definitely something to emulate.
NS: Whenever you’re going in and working on a new album, what’s the process before actually going into the studio? Did you guys have a few meetings in which you discuss what you want to happen and what you hope they [the producer] brings out of you? What’s been your experience?
JG: I imagine it’s done different every time. I bet George has done it different each time. I guess for this, we got together maybe four or five times. It was never set up as a meeting, but we’d have him over at our drummer Josh [Greco]’s house while we rehearsed. He’d be kind of the fly on the wall. At first, we’d send him rough demos of dubious quality from our phones that he’d have to labor through. For a while, he was kind of hands off and just trying to figure out what kind of vibe and how we all worked together. I guess that’s paramount when working with someone; you have to figure out how they work with each other first. He did that maybe three or four times. And as a band, whenever we could, we’d talk about what we were trying to do with the album. It’s been a long, long, not so linear process. A lot of cul-de-sacs along the way. I’m not sure you can distill it into a formula. I think basically, we had rough ideas and when we figured out he was the guy, it became a gradual back and forth. He’d give us tiny little insights on certain songs. But once we were studio, he had these fully formed ideas. There was definitely a method in his madness.
NS: Right. I find it interesting to see the path a band makes. You know, those first two records, they may be a little scatter-brained. There are songs from all of over the place. But when you get three, four, five records deep, you can kind of see the band think more about the record as a whole. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re concept records or anything, but the idea that the album is more important becomes more of a priority. You mentioned it a little earlier, but what was one of the things you wanted to do on this album that you hadn’t done in the past?
JG: I can’t exactly pin it down to an exact theme, but a sense definitely pervades it. Part of it actually came up out of a negative context. A certain song in our repertoire, some of us didn’t want to perform any more because the subject matter was too banal–too typical of a rock and roll band. That kind of started us in a direction where we started talking about loftier ideas. The nature of people, the temporal reality of reality. The extent to which everything is temporary and fading. Kevin [Galloway] kind of focused on that in a new song of his called “Nothing To Save.” He’s talking about what if there’s really nothing to save. What if this reality really is the last? It’s deadly to get too specific. I think even great concept albums, it’s difficult to nail down a theme in a few words, yet its’ theme is obvious throughout. Everything is very coherent.
NS: Yeah. Nothing trivial. Something I noticed in y’alls IndieGoGo video you did for the album was these black and white photos of musicians behind you on the wall. They were different for each of you. I believe behind you, there was Chuck Berry. Was that all intentional or did it just kind of happen?
JG: Not anything specific to Chuck Berry or anything, but those are just in our practice room. I’m not exactly where those came from. I guess it was kind of on purpose. Sitting in front of Bo Diddley and Berry. I kind of like that. I keep a little Robert Johnson stamp that my sister got framed for me by my keyboard in the practice room. It’s good to have your idols in close proximity lest you get too full of yourself, you can look up and see someone who you could never be.
NS: [Laughs]. Yeah. Just for those times where your head is getting too big.
JG: Yeah. I’m assuming you have a poster of the Watergate reporters near by.
NS: I need to now [laughs]. So obviously it’s different every time, but typically for you, how long do you sit on a song before showing it to the band?
JG: There’s this one song specifically on this album that I started writing with Kevin’s voice in mind. Not just his singing voice, but his world view. I showed it him right after I finished two lines. Basically when I had a verse that you could play along with, I definitely brought it up to everyone. There’s always time when we’re rehearsing where we don’t know what to work on. “Oh, I have two bars of this…let’s try this out…” I’m pretty shameless. Some songwriters keep everything close to the vest. Our former bass player Hal [Vorpahl], he’s much more that way. I’ve only heard something of his if it’s done. He wrote a couple of the songs on this album. I’m sort of the opposite. I’ll give you one line if I think it’s going somewhere. In an as organic way as possible, I’ll leave it open for other people’s input. I love to at least attempt that. It’s amazing. Just fresh eyes will help. That song I was talking about for Kevin’s voice though, even though I showed it to them immediately, I tinkered on it for seven or eight months and continued all the way through the studio just trying to get it as best we could.
NS: What’s the song title to that?
JG: It’s called “Ouroboros.” It’s the mythological creature, the serpent that’s swallowing its’ tail.
NS: Being open as a songwriter, do you think that had an effect on the band when you joined? You think it sparked a little more towards that style of songwriting?
JG: If I wanted to flatter myself, I might say that [laughs]. They had definitely collaborated some before. I think in the past, it’d be more so two of them working on something. Something like Mike [Carpenter] would write the music and Kevin the words. Those kind of things. But some of the songs on the previous album, we actually came up in the room together. Just kind of throwing it together. I think philosophically, everyone is on that page. It doesn’t take much of a leap to realize that everyone’s fortunes are intertwined and the best ideas are best for everybody. It’s pretty natural to go towards that. The ideas only get stronger when you’re bouncing them off each other.
NS: Yeah. I think there’s still a lot of people out there though, who think that the lead singer wrote the music, wrote the lyrics, came up with everything, and just told everyone what to do. It’s not typically how it works. I guess it happens time to time, but usually a band collaboration–especially the really good bands.
JG: Yeah. That’s a big thing with Josh. I think he was talking about Red Hot Chili Peppers, maybe it was someone else, but how everything is credited to the band. There’s not any of this was done by him, this by him and so on. It’s something to strive for.
NS: You guys recently released that live recording at Grady’s (Download here). Do you guys have some other live stuff in the vault somewhere?
JG: Yeah, we definitely do. We recently started working with a manager for the little while named Alex Velasco. He’s our sound man too and we’ve been recording every show. He’s done maybe 10 gigs so far. He’s does a live mix right there and you can buy that night’s show on a wristband with a USB drive. So we’ve got all of those in a vault. We’ve kind of kept tabs show to show, on what songs were particularly good versions. The hope is have enough material in the future where we’re able to make a “best of live performances from summer and fall 2014” and so on. We’re still not exactly sure on how we’re going to put those out. Maybe on another Noisetrade type context.
NS: Yeah. And I’m sure you can have the “super-fan” package where you can get every Uncle Lucius show. I’m sure there are Grateful Dead level Uncle Lucius fans out there.
JG: There’s a select few. There’s a couple in Chicago who we’ve sent a few to. It’s very flattering.
NS: When do you think the album will be finished and released? What are you shooting for?
JG: We just had a meeting on this actually. We’re shooting for April. We’re doing it on vinyl and we’re told for in order to get it on vinyl, it has to be done in December because the turnaround is that slow. We may be able to get it into the hands of some of our campaign backers before then, but we’re shooting for April.
NS: Have a title yet?
JG: That’s this week’s assignment. If you have any ideas, by all means, let us know [laughs]. All puns getting Lucius in there is highly encouraged–at least by me.