Rival Sons: a cry from the heart

“Every artist would love for nothing more than to be as authentic and unique as possible, we all want to see ourselves that way, but you’re going to pay homage to your influences.”, confesses Rival Sons vocalist Jay Buchanan in the following interview, with regards to the band’s latest album, Great Western Valkyrie, released last June. Some of his influences, especially British rock n’ roll from the 70s, seem obvious in his music. And yet the frontman’s musical sensitivities go back even further, to Native American music (including blues and good old soul music), and to his own childhood, when his mother used to sing at his bedside. On his own admission, he had negative assumptions about rock n’ roll before he started to work with his bandmates from Rival Sons, and still now sees rock music as a bit shallow.

Genuineness is what Jay cherishes most about the music that “overwhelms” him, and which he even calls “narcotic”. There’s no doubt the man is inhabited by his art, and his answers will help you understand the trance that seems to overcome him when he’s on stage, singing his songs with his eyes closed.

« Listening to [my mother] singing as a child, I could hear the honesty in her voice. Her voice sounded like truth to me. […] Singing any way less than that is unacceptable. »

Radio Metal: Bass player Robin Everhart left the band last year and said that he was « not a road warrior and that the ‘rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is not for » him. Is the Rival Sons way of life and being on the road with you guys that hard?

Jay Buchanan (vocals): Well, difficulty is all relative, to me for sure. So when you look at the difficulties in our lifestyle… I mean the hardest thing for Robin was constantly being in transit. You know, you are always on your way to somewhere, or from somewhere. And Robin wasn’t comfortable with that transient lifestyle, which is what you have to do. It is difficult for all of us; we’re on the road all the time, away from our families for most of the time. So of course that’s difficult. But it isn’t to say that this isn’t rewarding. It is definitely rewarding. But I think it takes a good amount of focus to maintain a stability touring so much.

Robin was with the band since the beginnings. So how has Rival Sons reacted to his departure?

Yeah, you know, having one of our founding members decide to leave was a very difficult dilemma to be faced with, because you’ve been side by side with this person in the trenches, because that’s ultimately the fight, that’s our fight, it’s us against the world trying to make a name for ourselves and play music every night. And when he decided that it wasn’t gonna work for him anymore, there was a little bit of uncertainty as “Wow, what are we going to do?” Immediately, Dave Beste was contacted. I’ve known Dave for so long, and I’ve so much respect for his work and his craft, we knew he was the right guy. So him coming in changed 25% of the equation, and Dave Beste really fit like a glove. And to talk about our evolution since Robin has left: it’s very much the same band, but just with a bit of a different energy because 25% of that energy is different, it’s a different person. The band is getting along very well, I feel like this most recent record, Great Western Valkyrie, is a very good record; it’s a very concise and cohesive collection of songs. Dave’s energy to the band is very complementary I believe.

What was his input on the album?

Oh, the same: he’s the bass player so he writes bass parts. The bulk of the songwriting is for me to do, and then for Scott to write riffs, but we all arrange. We arrange the songs typically as a group. Arrangement is a very collaborative effort, and I think that Dave Beste’s creative sentiments are apparent on the record. When you look at a song like “Belle Starr”, that actually started out as a Dave Beste [idea]. You know, it’s a collective energy that we get into and that makes things work. Dave’s contribution, just by being there and being a good voice of reason when we are in the thick of creating this collection [of music], makes a huge difference from when Robin was with us. Robin is a different person, so inherently it will be different.

You said that « Every time we set out to make a record, the experience ends up being […] [the] same studio, same town, same on-spot writing/recording process ». Do you need the comfort of a familiar environment and process to make an album?

No, I really don’t. I don’t know if it has to do with it. The most important factor of us going to Nashville is to work with Dave Cobb. He’s the producer that we always use. And we have a great relationship with him and we used to record with him when he lived in Los Angeles. But then he moved to Nashville, so we did it in Nashville because that’s the guy we want to work with. Nashville’s a great town, there’s no doubt about that. They call it “music city”, and that’s the truth: the entire city revolves around music. It’s a little bit of a utopia for a musician. The atmosphere there is a good one. I wouldn’t want to live in Nashville but it’s a good place to visit.

The song titles on the album all comes with a text in parenthesis. What is meaning of these?

Really, I decided to do that just as a play on words. I’m a big fan of how things layout graphically, when you look at words and how they’re paired together to make a sentence. I like to study the way things look symmetrically or asymmetrically, and the way phrases come together, and the rhythm that they have, the phrasing, the syllabic structure of the sentence… So when I was putting the titles together for the back of the record, I was interested in giving it a counterpart to the actual title of the song, in terms of a graphic layout. The same as when I’m doing the artwork for our t-shirts, our merchandising… Putting words together, the way that they frame each other, complement each other just visually… I get a kick out of it.

« [About rock n’ roll] It’s so archaic that it’s exciting to look at this format and to try to interject your own creativity within, it’s like restoring a vehicle in a way. »

As you said, Dave Cobb has once again worked with the band on the production. How would you describe your relationship with him?

There’s no doubt in my mind that he is the best producer for the band. We made five records now, and we made every one of them with Dave. He really understands the identity of the band, and he doesn’t push ourselves to do anything we’re uncomfortable doing. He is a great sounding board. Creatively and in his sentiments, he has a very casual and instinctual approach to music and tones. That’s exactly what I look for. I trust him. This doesn’t mean that he’s never wrong, of course sometimes he is. He’s a human being and we argue and go toe to toe and head to head about things and wrestle over different things. That’s the job of the big creators, to challenge the artist. And he challenges us. He’s there to bring something out of us that we’re maybe too lazy to produce ourselves. There’s that, and then he’s here for good equipment. He has the equipment we prefer to record on: his tapes and his console, compressors, microphones… He knows what he’s doing and we prefer his brand over others, for sure.

And what was his input on the music? Just like with Pressure & Time, Great Western Valkyrie features writing credits by Dave Cobb…

Oh yeah, Dave Cobb is a fantastic guitar player and sometimes when we’re stuck in different spots, he’ll come in and go: “You guys are doing this… Did you try this or that?” He would help with the musical arrangements sometimes on some of the songs. And he’s there sometimes when the band is having a little bit of difficulty or lack of inspiration; he’s there like a shepherd, that’s what a good producer does. A shepherd just keeps the flock moving in the right direction.

Would you consider him as the fifth member of the band?

He really isn’t the fifth member of the band [laughs], because he’s the producer! When we make records, we make records with him, but we spend the majority of our lives… For me, I write songs every day, you know, it’s a compulsion to me, I don’t think about Dave, and when we’re playing live every night, we’re on the bus and we’re traveling, I don’t think about Dave. But when we make records, I think about Dave, he’s there and I trust him. So far, he’s been a great collaborator, he’s the guy that we go to, to make records. I trust his objective opinion.

You always seem to be in trance when you’re singing on stage. What’s actually going on in your mind in these moments, when you’re singing the songs?

You know what? Even if I really understood it, I probably still wouldn’t tell you… [Laughs] I don’t know what it is! It’s just that music is such a powerful medium, it encompasses so much energy and so much emotion that I prefer to just focus on the music. Most of the time, I close my eyes… My mind and my heart are really focused in the music, in communicating with the guys in the band and trying to pay attention to the natural instinct that comes through in the music. And so, when people ask me: “Did you take acid?”, or “Are you on mushrooms or ecstasy?” Well, for the most part, I save the fun for after the show because the music is a powerful enough narcotic on its own, and mixing it with other things doesn’t always work. The music overtakes our bodies, it overtakes people, you can see it in the audience. Music can bring you to tears in a matter of seconds. So the only thing that I wanna do is pay respect to whatever that great energy is.

I’ve read somewhere that your grandma was always singing to you every night. Was she actually an inspiration to you?

Well, both of my grandmothers on either side, my maternal and my paternal grandmothers would sing, but it was really, more than anything, my mother’s voice that would soothe me. Listening to her singing as a child, I could hear the honesty in her voice. Her voice sounded like truth to me, and it sounded like love. And so for me, at a very young age, I’ve learned that that is the measure of a person’s voice: it’s the emotive communication that is in a person’s voice. It’s different from these Disney movies, theater, actors… When you hear their voice, it’s about the voice being very strong and very clear. Well those sound like actors. But when you get a really good voice that is vulnerable and true, it hits you right away as soon as you hear it. If you take someone like Nina Simone: as soon as she starts singing, you believe her. She’s not trying to convince you, you can hear that her heart is connected to her throat directly. And so growing up as a young boy, hearing my mother sing to me that way, it impressed that upon my brain and my heart. Singing any way less than that is unacceptable, it’s only acting. Unless you really sing with your heart, that’s the only way to pay respect to this powerful music.

So is this what triggered your desire to sing and to actually do it with a soulful and authentic approach?

I try to be as authentic as I’m capable to be. It becomes a very difficult thing if you pay too much attention to it. Your perspectives on yourself and the music, and the perspective of being aware of your own emotions or of your own vanity is very important in trying to communicate genuinely with your music, and even with people. You have to make sure that it isn’t your ego that is singing for you, you have to make sure it’s your higher thinking, that it’s your heart. And so of course, I do everything that I’m aware of doing to be as authentic and as natural as I can be, but when you become aware of things… Even when I’m trying to talk to you about the authenticity, you know, I’m sitting here and talking about myself, so talking about the music becomes a scary thing, because your vanity and your ego, in your mind, will take credit for what is genuinely the work of the heart.

« Rock music to me lacks authenticity. »

The album cover artwork looks like an old worn out vinyl cover and features the band dressed in old fashioned clothes. Is old fashion something that you specifically want to maintain?

Well, old fashioned clothes… It’s funny because those are clothes we’re wearing everyday [laughs]. I wear suits every day, all the time, and so do the other guys. And those clothes, that’s the way that we dress, generally. I think that the photographer Matt Wignall from Long Beach is phenomenal and he’s been a good friend for some years. When we commissioned him to take the photographs for this record, we specifically wanted that style of photography. That’s an outdated and very old school camera that he used and he’s one of the few people who can really do this well. We wanted that sort of perspective on the cover because old photographs, when you look at them, you can hear the story they’re trying to tell you, whereas current photographs, you know… A very good photographer will take a photo that will tell you a story. But we’re so inundated with images now with the global media, social media culture, we’re inundated with images left and right with advertisements, and I wanted to take the opportunity to have a photograph that tells a different story than usual photography does.

Since you’re very much inspired by the 70s’ music and spirit, is this a decade you’d have preferred to be living in?

I think Scott [Holiday] and [Michael] Miley are much more in the 70s’ music [than I]. I prefer mostly older rock’n’roll, but I definitely don’t aspire to write 70s’ style lyrics or even though it is. Almost everything that I do personally in this band is based on the blues or soul music, or perhaps Appalachian music, or music that is typically native to the United States. Whereas the other guys, like Scott specifically, he’s very enamored with and has so much respect for the British invasion, you know, that sort of rock’n’roll, and same with Miley. I think that’s very funny, I’ve never really been a rock’n’roll guy. Even getting into this band, I always thought that rock’n’roll was kind of juvenile, and posturing, and image-driven. But once we really got into it, I was able to see another side of this music, to see the way that we created… You know, you’re doing your best to be genuine in a medium that is outdated, this archaic format that’s rhythm and blues, this rock n’ roll music. It’s so archaic that it’s exciting to look at this format and to try to interject your own creativity within, it’s like restoring a vehicle in a way. So it’s been interesting to go back and watch the lineage, and to understand that rock’n’roll begins and ends with blues for me. That’s why rock music in particular doesn’t appeal to me at all. It has to be rock’n’roll, it has to be blues-driven.

How would you explain the success the band is currently coming across and what are your thoughts about it?

Well the first thing I would say is I am very thankful [laughs], I’m very grateful towards the amount of success that we’d be fortunate to have. It still surprises me that there is such a demand for rock’n’roll these days. When we first got together, I remember I really just thought that we would play some shows around L.A. and have some fun. I had no idea that there was such a need, that people had such strong desires for this kind of music. And to this day, it still surprises me and I’m very surprised by it. I’m thankful, because it has given us a career and I’ve been able to have the good fortune of travelling all over the world and making friends all over the globe. Even though I’m so far away from home: I’m standing under what looks to be a bridge, it was built at least 200 years ago, 300 years probably, this huge bridge in Manchester, England. I’m from Long Beach, California, what am I doing out here? [Laughs] And I’m on the phone talking to someone in France. This is crazy! And this demand for the music that we chose to make has allowed all these miraculous things that happened to us.

More generally, how would you explain the success of the seventies sounding bands like you? Is it the authenticity, the fact that people are fed up with modernity and superficiality?

Well, you might think of the things Jack White is doing or the Black Keys are doing… That isn’t being directly retro, it’s like paying homage, and you see that all of these people, and ourselves included, are really making an hybrid of something that has already existed. I know that every artist would love for nothing more than to be as authentic and unique as possible, we all want to see ourselves that way, but you’re going to pay homage to your influences. And I think this is just that time where there are a handful of artists that are really taking that seriously, and making their own hybrid version of this style of rock’n’roll. And I think it’s pretty cool because there is something authentic about rock’n’roll as opposed to rock music. Rock music to me lacks authenticity.

Isn’t it funny that old fashion is actually becoming the new fashion again?

Oh that always happens. In the 60s’, they were harking back to the 30s’ and 40s’, to the blues era. In the 70s’, they were rebelling against the 50s’ and 60s’, and then there’s always a backlash. There’s always a blowback of people harking back to retro things, of what came before you. Because all these people now, they’ve been raised seeing images from their parents, hearing the music that their parents were listening to, this is the kind of thing that get burned into your brain, and they stay with you. So it makes perfect sense to me that every generation has a retro sentiment to it.

Interview conducted by phone on June, 12th 2014 by Metal’O Phil.
Transcription : Chloé.
Questions and introduction : Spaceman.

Rival Sons official website : www.rivalsons.com

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