Maybe there’ll be a Big Sur Volume II …
Could be! (laughs) But that’s kind of the way I write. I accumulate all the little bits; all the raw stuff … and then I go back and try to refine it.
There’s not even that much different material on the album, really. There are pieces that are related to each other; or even the same piece played in a different way.
I remember thinking “A Good Spot” and “A Beautiful View” were variations on the same theme … and hearing quotes of various pieces tucked in here and there. It really gives the album a true “suite” feel. I can easily imagine the individual tracks just flowing into each other, if you chose to present them in that manner.
Oh, yeah. In a few weeks we’re going to be touring in Europe and I’m really excited about that. I’m sure the music is going to evolve and change as we play it. We really just did the one gig in Monterey and then we did the record – the music is really still in the early stages.
Am I right that you returned to Glen Deven with the quartet?
Yeah – right before the Monterey performance. That was cool: they could see what I was thinking about. It was a really great way to rehearse for the gig, because instead of just having the notes on the piece of paper, we all had that same experience of being there.
How structured were the arrangements when you presented the songs to those folks?
That’s the thing: with this band, it’s kind of amazing. Everybody’s looking at the same part – sometimes there could be three or four harmony parts or whatever – but they’re very free to choose what they want to do. They’re making these spontaneous orchestration decisions really quickly on their own. Sometimes everybody will be playing the same thing … or someone will switch to a different part … or they’ll turn it around backwards … and that’s what I love about this band. I’ve known everybody for so long and we don’t have to figure it out … it’s not written out as if it was for the “Such-and-such String Quartet” (laughter) where everything has to be a certain way.
I wanted to ask you about Lee Townsend, who produced the album. With a project such as this, it seems to me that a producer has to walk a fine line between maintaining a certain level of control and letting things happen organically.
That’s right. Lee and I have done so many records together … and he knows me well enough that from project to project he’ll change his approach, depending on what the project is. Like when we did the Floratone records together, Lee was really, really deep into actually affecting the whole structure of the music – compositionally and every kind of way.
With something like this, it’s more just about the vibe; about trying to make it comfortable for the musicians. Lee knows when to just let it go … when to let it happen.
There are some great producers in the world, but you know in a heartbeat that an album is one of theirs, because they slap their trademark sound all over it. But that’s cool to hear that about Lee – it’s as if he’s improvising along with the rest of you.
That’s true. And Adam Muñoz did an amazing job of recording and mixing, as well. He always does.
How about if we look at a few specific songs on the album?
Hopefully, I’ll remember them! (laughter)
Fair enough! “Sing Together Like A Family” made me smile. There’s a hybrid Appalachian fiddle tune roaming around in the background.
On that one, I noticed after we recorded it – and this is one of the things that really excites me about this band – the whole intonation and rhythmic thing that we have together. The music gets into this unexplainable place where everybody is always making these tiny adjustments in tune with each other or in time with each other. Even if we’re playing the exact same thing, there’s a sound that starts happening like a … a … a family that sings together! (laughter) I guess that’s what I was thinking about.
There you go.
So even if the music or the parts are set in a certain way, there’s something else that starts happening … and everybody starts adjusting to each other. It’s really exciting.
I think that’s the key to good formation flying.
Yeah, yeah – exactly! That’s an amazing way to describe it … I’m going to use that. That’ll be another title. (laughter)
I’m deeply honored.
But it’s perfect: if you turn the wrong way –
You take out everybody!
“Going To California” has this grand and stately feel to it; but there’s also this ominous thread that runs through the song, as well. Was there some nervousness on your part when you decided you were going to California to stay at Big Sur?
Well, maybe not before the trip – but that first morning I woke up and said, “Wow – this is the most awesome, extraordinary place I’ve ever seen!” I felt so relaxed; just walking around and taking it all in.
I ran into the caretaker who lives down the road. He’s an amazing guy; he’s lived there for years and years and knows every inch of the land. We talked for a hour and at the end he says, “Actually if you’re going to go down that trail there, I’d better get you a stick – there are mountain lions here…”
And I’m like, “What?” (laughter)
He says, “Don’t worry,” but he’s just sort of planted this little seed of this … this … other thing – the dark side. (laughter) So after that, every time I went out, I had this little feeling of being completely by myself, walking down these trails, and thinking something’s going to jump out at me. (laughs)
Or one night there was this incredible storm – thunder and lightning and wind – and the electricity went out and it felt like the house was going to blow away. I mean, there’s stuff there that’s … scary, really. It’s not like being in a dark alley in New York in the middle of the night, or whatever – it’s a different sort of scary.
I hear you. And at the same time, we have a song like “The Big One”, which is one big, sunshiny smile. It seems like there had to be at least one let-it-fly surf tune birthed from being in that setting. One of the things that makes that song so neat is the fact that you don’t often get to hear a viola, a cello, and a violin play surf music.
Yeah that was cool. (laughs) I wrote that tune when I was at Big Sur and I started playing it at rehearsal almost as a joke, thinking “We can’t really play this …” But then everybody was like, “Oh no, we’ve got to play that!” (laughter) I wasn’t even sure that I was going to put it on the record, actually. But it does make sense with the whole California thing.
“Cry Alone” is a beautiful piece, but it feels so personal that it’s almost embarrassing. It’s like looking over your shoulder while you’re writing in a journal.
Well … (laughs) Thanks!
I just hope you had no reason to actually cry alone.
No, no! (laughter)
And then there’s “We All Love Neil Young” – which we all do, of course … but what was the inspiration for that?
I don’t know … (laughter) Neil lives not too far from there. I’ve never seen where he lives or anything, but I’ve read books about his ranch and all that. We’d always be talking about “Neil this” or “Neil that” and somehow that song just … I don’t know – it made me think of him.
We talked about a string section playing surf music – then they turn around and launch into the blues of “Shacked Up”.
Yeah – that was so great to do that.
We mentioned Lana Weeks earlier, who has a song named for her. We should probably also mention Jim Cox, who “Walking Stick” is dedicated to.
Jim is the caretaker guy I was telling you about. He carved me a walking stick out of a branch to carry around with me. It was cool.
To fend off the mountain lions.
Yeah, yeah – “I’ll take care of ‘em” … with my stick. (laughter)
Bill, thanks so much for taking the time to do this today. I’ve really enjoyed listening to Big Sur – and equally enjoyed talking with you about it.
Thank you – this was fun. And thank you so much for listening; I appreciate it.
Brian Robbins fends off mountain lions and such over at www.brian-robbins.com.