The McLovins return with their third studio album, Who Knows, since their 2009 inception. The work is smart, confident, dynamic, and filled with the sort of hooks a veteran band would produce. Which is an apt thing to say about a trio that became a quartet at year’s end in 2011, seeing the departure of original McLovins guitarist, Jeffrey Howard, who would be replaced by guitarists Justin Berger and Atticus Kelly. While listening to the new album, one gets a feeling that this is not only a breakout piece with a fresh hook-driven direction, but, although the album features the old lineup, one also gets the impression that the McLovins have transcended their early promise when their cover of Phish’s “You Enjoy Myself” garnered nearly a quarter of a million hits on YouTube.
Jambands.com caught up with drummer/vocalist/songwriter Jake Huffman to get a State of the McLovins Address as we enter the 2012 festival season. Indeed, the quartet has expanded their live touring card, ranging from clubs to outdoor venues, and will be on several fest bills including Strange Creek, Catskill Chill, a recent appearance at the LIFT Festival, and yet another spot on the bill at the Gathering of the Vibes, a return visit for the group, who have transformed from a surprisingly powerful band with its talented members still ensconced in high school to a seemingly veteran quartet, maturing in their early 20s to see how far they can take this fascinating adventure. Huffman is a warm, energetic, insightful, and intelligent young gentleman, who is confident in his abilities, but humble, too. The artist has managed to hone his craft, while expanding on his original drum kit base to become quite the potential singer/songwriter gem, as well.
Doesn’t hurt to have the help of some legendary friends like Tom Marshall and his occasional bandmate/co-songwriter/co-producer, Anthony Krizan, who also both helmed Who Knows as co-producers, while offering co-writing help on three tracks. Marshall has been a unique muse and perfect songwriting partner with Phish’s Trey Anastasio for nearly four decades, of course, but he also has had an inspiring influence on the McLovins, too, as they take another step forward on the often unpredictable path of a group of artists seeking their own collective voice. Marshall has steered the group in a more song-oriented direction, and that bit of leadership and wisdom seems to have been a welcome fit, while inspiring the band to see their songcraft in a whole new way.
“Well, I hope so,” said Marshall to me when asked about his influence on the band’s new songs, “and maybe, it’s already shown because some of those songs that did make the final cut of the album were written after —at least “Cohesive.” Maybe, the impact is already evident on that album. (laughs) Which is great; even if there is none, we had a great time, and we learned from them as much as they learned from us. They are great guys, and I was really sad that Jeff left. Part of me thinks that maybe they’ll meet again sometime, but part of me is also hopeful for Jeff’s new project and Jake and Jason’s new band, the new version of the McLovins.”
RR: Jeff Howard left the McLovins late last year. What prompted his departure? How difficult was it to say, “Should we even continue on?” or, “Do we re-group?” or, “We’re moving forward, everything is working out for us, so let’s keep going.”
JH: Jeffrey…it was a big subject because Jason, Jeff, and I are like brothers. We were best friends for three years, so when Jeff left the band, it was very big, especially for our fans who knew our relationship together, it was a really big hit on the head. Jeff called me one night. I had just booked a show, and I asked him if he could make it. He called me and said, “Yeah, I can do it,” hung up, and then called me right back and said, “You know what, Jake there is something I haven’t really been telling you, and I think I should get it out on the table.” And he pretty much said that he wasn’t feeling it as much as he was before. He wasn’t feeling as inspired, and, maybe, it wasn’t the right direction for him to go in as he wanted to focus more on school. He just wanted to take it a bit easy. It was getting really stressful for him being in the McLovins and in school and it was kind of a balancing act, which is tough when you’re in high school. The band kept growing and growing, and it was a difficult balancing act. In the end, I think he decided that it wasn’t the exact direction that we wanted to go in, which is music life.
RR: Like being on the road and doing what you have to do to get to the next level?
JH: Yeah. One thing he told us was that “as of right now, and in the near future, I don’t plan on announcing myself being a touring musician”—always out on the road and always playing, which when you are a musician, that’s really what you have to do to get to the next level, and he said he didn’t really see himself doing that.
RR: I think touring benefits musicians not only as individual artists, but as a group.
JH: Yeah, definitely, as artists and people, we all have to take our own paths in life, and make the decisions that make us happy, and not just what makes everyone happy. As artists, I think it is very good to re-invent yourself and start over and start fresh. Having Atticus and Justin, the two new guys, is really like a new experience, and like a phoenix burned up and we came out from the flames. (laughs) It’s kind of like that.
RR: How did you decide to go on? What was your thought process at that time?
JH: Jason and I had actually played with Justin a couple of weeks before. He had come over, and we were talking about maybe introducing him to Jeffrey and asking Jeff if he wanted him to be in the band. But we never really got to have that conversation. We were already planning to have another member come in, but when Jeffrey called, when I got home that night, I called Atticus, who I went to high school with, and he’s another guitar player that I always played with, and I told him, “Come to practice this Saturday. There’s a good chance that you’re going to be a new guitar player in the band.” I told him the whole situation, and both Justin and Atticus promised us that they would practice stuff
and do that. We made the decisions really fast. We just ran with our gut instinct about it.
RR: How do you get them involved with being a McLovin? Do you say, “These are the pieces that we have done, this is the new album that is coming out (which they are not featured on), and this is the direction we want to go in”? Were they already pretty aware of what you guys were doing?
JH: Justin more than Atticus was. We invited him over to practice, and I think the first song we played together was “Cohesive.” We told him to learn that. We gave both Atticus and Justin all of our CDs, a bunch of archive recordings, and told them the whole history of it, and how we book shows and how we play shows, and give them the whole overview of everything. We pretty much told them to study up, do your homework on it, and take the songs that we already wrote, and make them your own, make them what feels most comfortable to you to play.
RR: And your first gig with the new lineup was on New Year’s Eve, right?
JH: Yeah. Our last show with Jeffrey was December 30. Our first gig [with Kelly and Berger] was New Year’s Eve. It was like New Year’s Eve into New Years. It was really fun. Because of the Phish shows and all the other New Year’s Eve parties that were going on, it wasn’t the biggest crowd we ever played for, but it was a fun initiation/first type of show. We played at the Arch Street Tavern, which is a cool little place in Hartford, and it turned out really well. We had a good chemistry, and we played live together very well. It was a nice entry—step into the door of starting over again.
RR: Will the band tour more? Hit some festivals? What is the game plan?
JH: We’re actually able to play more because we’re not in high school anymore. We can play a lot more. We’re trying to play almost every weekend, and if we’re not playing every weekend, we’re practicing maybe two or three times a week, or maybe going into the studio, and recording a couple tracks. We’re playing a lot more, and seeing each other more, than back when Jeff and Jason and I were before.
RR: Are you concentrating on the Northeast, and moving on from there?
JH: We were thinking we were going to stay in the Northeast from now until May, and we’re trying to book some shows down south, or out west, during the summer when we are really free—maybe, doing our first little tour that we could never do before. We are playing a lot more festivals. Ken Hays said we are going to be invited back to Gathering of the Vibes, and we’re playing at Strange Creek, and Disc Jam, and Catskill Chill, and a lot of other shows. We got the offers for those shows. We’re still playing the festivals. We’re still on the main stages. We’re still playing the clubs. We still have the same sort of gigs; we’re just able to play them more now.
RR: Tell me about the LIFT Fest.
JH: It’s cool because if you look at that lineup, it is primarily electronic and jamtronica artists, and we were one of the only ones who were not jamtronica. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll jamband who improvises. We were honored that we played there. We feel cool that we stand out as a little bit different.
RR: Let’s follow that line of being different and talk about Who Knows. There is some diversity on the new record. Also, I don’t want to use the word maturity, as well, because of what immediately comes to mind when people hear that word, but I thought there was a lot of maturity on this record. If you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t hear three guys who were just out of high school, or still in high school, you’d hear a band that knew what they were doing. And, yes, genetically, or in some other fashion, you were each individually able to play really well at a young age. The record manages to take the listener on a journey, with numerous hooks, which is what it should do. How did you get the material together?
JH: Who Knows is definitely the step up from the past two albums. I think what we were trying to do—and I guess because we were younger and we had a different mentality when we were playing—for the first two albums, we were writing the songs, we were putting them out there, and we just recorded them live and quick in like two days. I think we were trying to show people that we can play our instruments really, really well, and we can play together really, really well. On almost every song, you’d hear a ripping guitar solo, or something crazy and really fast.
We decided that on Who Knows, people know we can play our instruments, and people know what type of artists we are. We wanted people to understand the vibe of us, and how people feel at shows, and how we jam. Definitely, “Hesitate,” the first track on there, is a different kind of style than a lot of other songs. It’s more structured, and it has a lot more layers, and there are many more tracks on the album.
Production-wise, we put a lot of time into each track, and we were very finicky, and we’d go back note for note, and listen very carefully, and if we didn’t like one thing, we’d re-do it. We really took the time and refined our art, and refined our songs. It definitely reflects that the songs are a bit slower. I worked a lot on my vocals on the tracks. We thought about harmony more. We recorded it much differently than the other two albums, so that stands out when you listen to Who Knows.