Thursday, September 16, 2010

INTERVIEW: Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin recently released one of the finest albums of this year with their third LP, Let It Sway. The MM-approved record was produced by Chris Walla and Beau Sorenson and features some of the finest cuts of indie pop you're bound to hear all year, including the excellent "Sink/Let It Sway." Not only does the band make great music, they're also down-to-earth, humble dudes who have been working hard for a decade.

I had a chance to sit down with the band's vocalist/guitarist/bassist/Ben's Chili Bowl enthusiast John Robert Cardwell before the band performed at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. this past Friday. We chatted about everything from songwriting to touring to The Cribs.

Interview by Quinn S.

Mixtape Muse: The first two albums were a bit more DIY in terms of recording whereas Let It Sway was predominantly recorded in a pro studio with Chris Walla and Beau Sorenson. Knowing that you’d be working with two producers and entering a studio, how did that change your approach to the writing of the album?

John Robert Cardwell: I’m not sure it really did change our approach to the songwriting too much. Well, if it changed the songwriting at all it was when it became official that we were going to be making it for real in a real studio, with a real producer and stuff. We already had a few songs, but I feel like then the pressure was on to really step up our game and write more songs. But one thing we did differently with this album was that we did demos. We hadn’t done demos on the other albums; the demos were the albums, basically. We just went to work recording songs, and that became the albums. But with Let It Sway, we actually tried to do – especially with some of the songs – we tried to do full on studio demos as much as we could back home, just so we’d be really prepared when we got together with Chris.

MM: In the Let It Sway making-of video, it says you tracked a song a day for the new album whereas before you were taking a lot longer per song. How did that affect the way you approached the songs, at least in terms of recording them?

JC: It should have been a track a day, but it didn’t exactly work out that way – that’s a little too simple. I think this is pretty typical of doing stuff in a studio, but it took a solid day, day and a half, just to get set up, to get all the levels adjusted, and get ready to record. And then it took some time for Chris to figure out what our style of working was going to be, and for us to figure out his. The songs were recorded differently than what we had done before, with us doing multiple, multiple takes live trying to get basic live tracks down that we could build on. It was also kind of weird because Will came down with mono before we left for recording, so a lot of those basic tracks were just me, Jonathan, and Phil. Will was just completely beat. He could work for a couple hours in the morning and then he was just out of commission. He ended up overdubbing a lot of his guitar parts.

MM: I read that “Phantomwise” includes words from an acrostic by Lewis Carroll. What was the motivation behind including that into the song?

JC: That is entirely Phil’s song, almost back to front. We each contributed musical parts to it and stuff like that. I think Phil came across it, and it was just one of those things where it inspired him to set it to music. And then, he ended up liking it so much he wanted it to go on the album, which was fine with us [laughs]. But I’m not really sure what the inspiration was beyond that – just that Lewis Carroll’s pretty rad.

MM: Your songs generally have a sense of adventure to them in that there are little riffs or rhythmic changes along the way, keeping things interesting by adding a certain dynamic edge to the music. I know everyone contributes to the songwriting process. Do songs usually start as just riffs or are they a little more fully formed? I know you guys had mentioned that some songs had riffs by Will dating back as far as high school.

JC: Yeah, I think “Stuart Gets Lost Dans Le Metro” was like that, for sure. That was an old thing of Will’s.

I mean, do you play guitar?

MM: Yeah.

JC: I don’t know. Sometimes you just come up with something cool, but it doesn’t necessarily prove itself to be a song for a long time, you know? Like I definitely have little riffs and things that I’ve been playing for years. And that’s how some of my songs on the albums have come about, too, from just playing them for years and then finally deciding to turn them into songs. “In Pairs” was kind of the same way. The lyric was something that I had written for another Yeltsin song from a long time ago that isn’t on anything as far as I know. Phil just always liked it and wanted to use it for something, so he took that line and put it to his own music.

MM: I read somewhere that you guys have a lot of stuff (riffs, songs, etc.) that you haven’t gotten to. So, would you say you guys kind of stockpile stuff?

JC: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s probably true of everyone that does what we do. You always have ideas kicking around, but it might take a long time for them to become something fully formed.

MM: Well, I guess what I was trying to get at is that some people get an idea and then they just work through it until it’s fully formed.

JC: Right, right.

MM: But then there are people who come back to stuff. So, for you guys it’s more of a case that you have this riff but you’re not quite sure what to do with it, so you put it on the backburner?

JC: Yeah, sometimes. I guess it depends on to what degree you’re excited about it. There was at least one song that ended up not being on the album that we tried really hard to make something out of. It was pretty much just a riff that Jonathan and I had started messing around with on stage, before shows, before practice would start. We would always play this one little riff. We knew we really liked it and that it could be something. So, we tried really, really hard to make a song out of it, but it never actually came about. We actually even recorded it at Smart [Studios] but it just didn’t feel like it belonged with the rest of the tracks.

MM: So did you finish that song? I know on the bonus track edition of Let It Sway there’re three extra tracks, and one of them is “Tanks Jam.”

JC: Yeah, this isn’t on there. “Tanks Jam” is actually another thing Jonathan and I did for a friend of mine back home. He had this student film, and he needed some music for it. I actually did a bunch of music for it. It’s totally a student film; it’s nothing anyone will ever see, I don’t think. I’ve always kind of wanted to try doing music for a movie because I love films. So that’s where that came from.

MM: There seems to be an element of surf/surf rock in a few of your songs. Do you guys ever wish you were closer to one of the coasts since you live in Missouri and is the music a way for you guys to escape your Midwest surroundings?

JC: Ah, sometimes. It’s cool that you hear that. Missouri’s definitely as landlocked as you can get, so we do all have, I don’t know, California dreams or whatever [laughs] – at least I do. Yeah, we all get super excited when we see the ocean, that sort of thing. Even though we’ve all seen it many times, it’s still kind of magical; whereas, if we actually lived by the ocean it would just be…

MM: Just the ocean.

JC: Just the ocean. [laughs]

MM: I was going to avoid asking this question, but I've seen a few interviews where you guys have said that the band has been compared to other bands that you hadn’t heard before, were surprised by, or that you didn’t think you sounded like. So, what are your primary influences? I know it’s a really broad question.

JC: Yeah. I feel like we had a lot of common ground when we first started playing together, or at least a little common ground, enough so that we could get excited about each other’s musical interests. But at this point, I feel like we all kind of have really different musical tastes, which is a cool thing. As far as discovering new stuff, we do like similar stuff. Like Phil and I both really like that Surfer Blood album, and it was kind of one of those things where it was just, “You like this album? I really like this album! Weird!” Jonathan’s really into experimental stuff and noise stuff. And uh…yeah…so…what was the question? [laughs]

What are our influences? I don’t know. [laughs]

I did, on this tour, discover – five years too late – The Cribs.

MM: Their last album’s great.

JC: Yeah, I just got Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever. But the first song I heard that blew my mind was “Mirror Kissers” from The New Fellas. Oh my God, it’s so good. I don’t know, sometimes I feel kind of jaded doing what we do, especially playing live shows and stuff.

MM: Why’s that?

JC: Just discovering something like that feels kind of like a shot in the arm. It reminds me that this can be really fun; this can be really cool. You know, just because you do the same thing over and over again. On this tour we’ve been trying to do a different set every night, and a lot of nights we just don’t even have a set list, which can either be fun and go really well or it can be terrible, panicking on stage the whole time.

MM: Going off of that, when you’re writing songs does it ever enter your mind that you’re going to have to play these songs for the next year or so?

JC: Maybe a little bit, but not too much. That’s definitely not the first thing I’m thinking.

MM: Yeah, obviously.

JC: But I can’t say that I don’t ever think that. There are some songs that we’ve hardly even bothered to work out live. Definitely before we left for this tour we tried every song on the new album. Some worked better than others, you know? So, there’re songs we’re not doing on this tour that we can still have in our back pockets to keep the next tour fresh.

MM: Well, now that you’ve had the opportunity to see the world with the band, do you ever incorporate experiences from abroad into the music – whether it be musically or thematically?

JC: No, not specifically. I mean, I’ve had experiences with this band that I never would have had otherwise. I’ve seen so many more places and met more people, that sort of thing. So, I guess that’s going to factor in there somehow.

MM: You guys received a lot of blog buzz/attention during the early 2000s when blogs were just starting to be a viable platform for breaking bands and drumming up interest for new music. You’re one of the few bands from that era that is still going strong. How have you seen the landscape change for independent music, or just music in general?

JC: It took me a long time to figure out what a blog was [laughs]. It’s pretty much just the same things you see. Everything’s shifting to the internet. I just read something yesterday where the owners of The New York Times are saying that the paper is definitely going to go out of print. There’s no set date, but it’s going to happen. It seems like the same thing that’s happening to books and newspapers is happening to music. It’s not going to be something you can hold anymore. It hasn’t been a thing you can smell for a long time. Aside from that, I don’t know.

MM: What about more people coming to shows, more people finding out about the band?

JC: It seems like every tour we do there’re more people there. That might just be a function of touring for years. We’ve been seeing a lot of people on this tour, and I get the sense that there’re a lot of people at the shows that have never seen us before or who’ve just discovered us from this album – and that’s really cool.

MM: You guys have been a band now for many years. I read somewhere that you guys hold down other jobs back in Missouri. What do you do back home?

JC: We all have little things that we do. I mean, we always pay ourselves a little bit post-tour, but we do other things, too. Jonathan has a little studio and he records music, which is probably the most musical thing that any of us do. Will does odd jobs here and there; Phil does some freelance writing; and I work at a coffee shop back home. I feel like we all do things that allow us to leave at any time. It’d be cool if we could just do music, and we probably could, to be honest, if we were all willing to live more simply or whatever. But, it’s nice to have a little extra income.

MM: After so many years with the band, what is it that keeps you guys going and makes you want to get back out on the road? Is it living the dream?

JC: [Laughs] I guess as long as we sense that there is a demand for it and people want to hear us and want to hear new things out of us, then that’s a good enough motivation for me. I mean, if I wasn’t in this band I’d still probably be playing music in some capacity. A couple of us are actually in other bands back home, too.

MM: What bands?

JC: I play with this band called Sweetwater Abilene. I just play guitar and sing back-up in the band. Will plays in a band called The New Monsters Collective. These are all just Springfield, [Missouri] bands. Jonathan is a hired gun and has played with a bunch of different bands.


My thanks to John Cardwell, Andy DeSantis, and Jay Coyle.

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin just wrapped up the first leg of their world tour in support of Let It Sway. The band starts the European leg of the tour at the end of this month before returning to the States for another U.S. run. Dates here.

BUY: Pick up Let It Sway on peach-colored vinyl, digitally, or on CD here.

SSLYBY Official Site

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