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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Interview: Generationals

Posted By on Tue, Sep 16, 2014 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge Ted Joyner and Grant Widmer of Generationals. - AKASHA RABUT
  • Ted Joyner and Grant Widmer of Generationals.

The "why don't you move to Brooklyn?" question comes up often. GenerationalsTed Joyner and Grant Widmer — was among one of the first buzz bands to break out of New Orleans following the 2005 levee failures. Its songs are now on TV soundtracks, commercials, and shortlists for music critics' favorite tracks of the last several years. With annual tours and record releases comes the press roundup, and the question persists. "Why don't you move to a 'sexier' city?" Joyner remembers. "I don't want to even understand where they're going with that."

Following the dissolve of the Baton Rouge-based band The Eames Era in 2008, Jesuit High School grads and LSU alums Joyner and Widmer partnered for Generationals — so named after 24-hour news coverage dubbed seemingly every election issue a "generational" one. The band's debut, 2009's Con Law, also was the first New Orleans release for Park the Van (following, supposedly, a chance meeting at Mid-City Yacht Club). The band's breakthrough first single "When They Fight They Fight" glimpsed the band's smart, tight stabs at warm AM-radio pop with instant hooks.

The band has released an album or EP every year since 2009. Last year, the band released its first album for indie rock's massive clearinghouse Polyvinyl Records, home to like-minded pop and rock 'n' roll outfits of Montreal and Deerhoof. For their fourth album, Alix, out Sept. 16, Joyner and Widmer partnered with superproducer Richard Swift (The Shins, Foxygen). The band's gentle fade into messing around with electronic pop (soft synths, snappy drum machines) meets the duo's always-confident, Spector-like songwriting.

Next month, the band — with drummer Eric Rogers (Vox & the Hound, Youth Lagoon) and bassist Ben Jones (Giant Cloud) — hits the road for a North American tour. Generationals plays a homecoming gig at One Eyed Jacks with Arum Rae on Oct. 17.

Below, the band talks working with Swift, growing up in New Orleans and what makes a New Orleans band a "New Orleans" band to the national and international press, and why it stumbles with Generationals.

On working with producer Richard Swift:

TJ: Because we’d never worked with Richard Swift before, we might’ve worked a little extra hard to round out ideas before we brought them in. Working with him was so easy, we just slipped into it. Working with someone for the first time, you don’t know necessarily what to expect, or whether you’ll be on the same page. He was easy to get his vibe and for him to tell where we were going with our ideas.

When we got on the phone to just talk about the possibility of working together, that’s when he was like, "I’m familiar with your records, I’ve heard your stuff." That was helpful as a starting place. He knew where we were coming from, even though some of the stuff on this is pretty different. Every record, there’s stuff on there we’ve never tried before, that’s certainly true of this record as well. 

We didn’t know how radically they’d be changed when we brought them to him. We thought of them as demos. We were really surprised how much of the elements of the demos he wanted to keep. ... Others he came in and massaged what was already there. We trusted him enough that if that’s what he wanted to do we would’ve done that.

GW: The vibe we knew him for was this great drummer, great live room sounds. We’re going to bring these demos we brought on our computer, which are really electronically based, and filter them through his almost-Sun Records vibe, a ‘60s small room with just a few nice mics, a band-in-the-room vibe. Instead, he was like, "No, I’ve been listening to these songs and I think they should be as they are." We were like, "OK, I guess we’ll do that?" That’s cool, this guy we love and has great taste thinks what we did is good enough that it’s almost done? Is he being lazy? We’d definitely go home at the end of the sessions, "Is he trying to get out of doing a more involved session?" We definitely pressed him on that, that this was the right production for this record, and we felt convinced. ... On a couple songs we pulled him up on the drums and honestly, they kind of lost it, the scene evaporated right away. "Are we trying to reinvent this just to reinvent this, or is there a reason it needs to be something different?" He was strongly pushing us in the direction that this was the right way to do these.

He’s a fascinating person to watch in the room. He’ll sit there and put a song on the monitors and zone out, then start pacing around the room and coming up with little production elements, then the next thing you know he’s rolling tape and adding things in and tricking it out. That was, in contrast to the previous record we’d done, which was largely done over email and passed around, to be in the room and be in the moment and energized by the songs.... almost like someone making a clay sculpture or something. The 10 percent he did added so much life, to go over and let him sprinkle a salt shaker on it was worth it.

"My dad’s taste was so broad. He never stopped collecting music, and he was always ahead of me. He would’ve been like, 'Oh, the Descendents? Yeah, I heard them already.'"

On writing as a duo: 

TJ: The way Grant and I work, we each have our own home studio set up, one in my apartment, one in his house. We’re kind of separate for the seeds of the idea, then more systematic on this record. We were constantly getting together, showing each other our progress, giving each other feedback. Sometimes he’d take something of mine and mess with it, vice versa.

GW: It’s all about consensus, and the bigger the band is the harder it is to get to that.

If you don't have someone to bounce off of, or get feedback from, you can get down a weird path and you don't realize it because you're in your own tunnel vision. We're also small and nimble enough to make decisions quickly and pick a direction.

What were you hoping to do this time with Alix?

TJ: Win seven Grammys. (laughs)

Writing mode, recording mode, rehearsing mode, and tour mode, then it kind of starts over again. Each time we get back from that tour, when it’s time for another record, it’s the most exciting time for me. The anxiety of, "Holy shit, do we have another record in us?" It’s scary, you’re starting from scratch each time, but it’s also our moment to repaint the picture with where we are and the kinds of songs we want to make. ... Musically, what we’re into now, to a certain degree is a snapshot of where we are right then.

Every year we either put out an LP or an EP. ... Some of them represent longer periods of time, this record is a short period of time. We got off tour, wrote and recorded within four months. We were at Swift’s place for not even 10 days.

We knew each other a long time before the band. So much of the band dates pretty far back. It’s really useful to have another person. If you’re on your own, that’s challenging. Two has been a good number for us. Three people, not to mention four or five people, who all have input, sometimes it becomes too much. At its best it’s amazing, but people tend to pair off.

Might be times where I’m on the fence, and he’ll send it back like, "No, yes, more of that." ... We have to constantly inform each other what a Generationals song, or whether it is a Generationals song.

GW: We had three LPs we did with this one guy. When we started we didn’t know anyone else. He’s a friend of ours. There was this feeling like, "We don’t know what we’re really doing, this guy is good and he understands our ideas," and we didn’t have the confidence to even explain ourselves to someone else. After doing smaller attempts to record with someone else, or a session with someone else even if it wasn't a full album, we started to think maybe we can go to another producer and see where that goes, and make those first three album their own trilogy.

On growing up in New Orleans:

TJ: We were kind of messing around on guitars. It was never like, "Let’s start a serious band." It was more about talking about music, playing around. ... Almost immediately we knew we had a lot in common. We had a small, tight friend group. We were on a similar wavelength.

GW: (Rebelling) was hard to do because my dad’s taste was so broad. He never stopped collecting music, and he was always ahead of me. He would’ve been like, "Oh, the Descendents? Yeah, I heard them already." If I was going to rebel, I couldn’t have done it that way. I would maybe hole up in my room and be goth for a week, or something. But I couldn’t play music just to piss him off. ... I liked Pearl Jam, and he was like, "I think they’re lame." He wasn’t sold on (Nirvana's) Nevermind. Like, "Yeah, it’s all right." (laughs)

That seems more devastating than a dad who says, "This is garbage."

GW: At least you know where the battle lines are. He was like, "Nevermind? I was into Bleach but this new shit is too corporate."
"We never get the question from fans or people who come to shows. We get it from writers: 'You’re from New Orleans, that’s weird. That doesn’t make any sense.' Why is it so narrow? New Orleans is such a music city, yet people’s idea of what music that is supposed to come out of it is really specific."

On being a New Orleans band but not a "New Orleans" band:

TJ: We never get the question from fans or people who come to shows. We get it from writers: "You’re from New Orleans, that’s weird. That doesn’t make any sense." Why is it so narrow? New Orleans is such a music city, yet people’s idea of what music that is supposed to come out of it is really specific. Some stuff fits really well into that marketing idea, some stuff does not. I don’t know who’s making that distinction specifically. Us saying we’re from New Orleans never adds to the narrative. It’s always a peculiar sidenote to the narrative.

We grew up and live in New Orleans. We were born here, and we were really influenced by New Orleans music. It’s not the first thing that jumps out at you when you hear it, though there are things you can point to that we totally stole from older New Orleans production. We don’t mention it in the lyrics anywhere. Lyrically it seems like a place to go. Maybe we should name check the city. (laughs) Sometimes writers seem to think we’re angry about it, or rebelling against it. It’s never that. It’s a peculiarity to other people. It’s a wonderful city for any musician to be based.

Lo and behold, under our feet this is becoming a little more of a destination for young artists, musicians and creative people.

GW: I’m trying to think of another city where if you were band in that city there’s a strong expectation of what you’d sound like.

It’s a storyline and a sales pitch people are familiar with. People love to support New Orleans. It’s always a big applause line in our shows when we say we’re from New Orleans. To me, my reality of being from New Orleans was growing up and watching MTV. I grew up in Lakeview and there wasn’t a second-line going down the street. I was watching cable in the ’90s, and to me that’s more authentic to my experience. If I was to get a porkpie hat and go down Frenchmen Street, maybe that would read as a more authentic vibe but I would be a huge fraud.
Beavis and Butthead was probably the most formative thing in 6th or 7th grade. I grew up listening to Top 40 and my dad’s classic rock tapes.

We're getting close to the Beatles' anniversary in City Park, right? You could totally go back to something like that and go, "OK, here's where New Orleans music culture and young baby boomers..." Which has nothing to do with New Orleans, though I'm sure if you asked the Beatles they'd say Fats Domino was an influence. After that, teenagers all over the world took on a more "What's the world all about?" and less so what the trumpet player on your street corner was doing. And (The Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas), there was a community of people in New Orleans who love rock 'n' roll, which had nothing to do with New Orleans music.

My grandfather in the ‘50s worked at a couple radio stations in town. In those days, the major labels would send records to every radio station, so there were a lot of rock records around not getting played, he’d take them home to my dad, and over the years he had built a collection of thousands of rock records. He was at The Warehouse all the time and saw tons of shows and was part of that baby boomer generation. There was an appreciation for New Orleans music, but it was a totally international rock 'n' roll crazed youth culture. I remember just having all those records in the house. That really informed the breadth of what I was interested in. 

So it’s really not that weird if you look back at how this community existed in New Orleans since there was rock ’n’ roll music, or non-indigenous New Orleans music. Is it really all that anomalous? 

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