(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Interview - Callers

Before the show, I sat down with Ryan Seaton (guitar) and Don Godwin (drums) from Callers. Sara Lucas couldn't join us because she was meeting with some old college friends. Ryan and Don were both very relaxed and comfortable to talk with. As a band, Callers is based strongly on mutual respect and communication. It's clear that this is just central to who they are as people as well as musicians.

We talked about their approach to live music, the chemistry of the band, and how they've developed their sound.

Jester: I really enjoy your music. You have a really unique approach, which is what intrigued me about getting a chance to talk with you.

Both: Thank you. Thanks.

The sound on Life of Love is so loose. You have this cool experimental feel. How is that on stage? Are the arrangements nailed down or are they also fairly open?

RS: We get a lot of "jazz" comments from people and I don't think that we're anything like that. We're not an improvisatory band. We have definite song structures laid out. We're not writing changes and playing verses and having people do whatever they want over them. But that being said, there's some wiggle room within the forms. We've been playing together long enough that, if we want to stretch something out, we can.

DG: We definitely craft our arrangements. In my mind, I spend a lot of time getting things very intricately dialed in. Then I find myself over tours, kind of trying to break away from that to keep it interesting for us...to keep it from being a static thing. We're all inspired by and influenced by all degrees of experimental composers and improvisatory music in general. We draw some of that into our compositional mindset.

I'm very interested to hear what some of your influences are.

RS: It's limitless. I grew up playing piano and then classical music on saxophone throughout college; studying really intensely. Sara grew up singing in blues and R&B clubs in St. Louis. Then in New Orleans, Don plays in a million brass bands. There's so much. It's a hard question to figure out...

DG: Right, we like good music. (both laugh)

On your cover of Heartbeat by Wire, you took a song with tightly controlled tension and turned it into something looser and dreamier. It reminded me of some of Henry Kaiser's deconstructions of popular songs.

DG: I wish I could say I knew him better. It makes me think of Eugene Chadbourne. He does some similar stuff. We take some stuff and recontextualize it in a way. Like I feel our treatment of Heartbeat recontextualizes the lyrics to make it more hopeful and celebratory as opposed to isolated.

RS: That song is a one chord and a four chord. The whole song. That's the ever-after, gospel amen cadence. That's gospel. And Sara, when she heard it, she immediately heard it that way. There was no real arranging it, we just decided we were going to cover it. There's two chords. And Don, through all of his brass band playing, you shout out a kind of feel to him and he'll play it. Then all I need to do is nail the bass underneath it and do whatever over the top. And Sara's in her own world, totally nailing it on her own.

Actually, that song is what blew the doors open for us to write Life of Love, the record. We just realized that we were capable of making this sound after our first release. So, we just kept that in our new palette of sounds.

So, have you all looked at doing other covers?

DG: We talk about it a lot.

RS: We play an old Marvelettes tune, Forever. That was actually the first song that Sara and I ever played together. (sings) "Darling forever, forever, you can call me names..."

I'm definitely a huge Wire fan, so it wasn't a hard for me to agree to cover Heartbeat.

DG: We've talked about covering some of our contemporaries, which is an awesome tradition that goes back to soul music. Like Otis Redding covering Rolling Stones songs. It's a great way to pay homage to your peers. We want to do that. If we had all the time in the world. We have lots of ideas, we have to prioritize...

Who have you thought about covering?

DG: There's a Brooklyn band called Here We Go Magic, who we've toured with. Ryan has collaborated with Luke Temple, the defacto leader of that band...

RS: We've also been listening to Tirez Tirez a lot lately. They're an old Mikel Rouse band from Kansas City/New York. That's not contemporary, but it's not Marvelettes.

DG: We'd also love to be a Captain Beefheart cover band (laughs)...if we had all the time in the world. I'm a fan of the middle period, like Bat Chain Puller, Clear Spot...

RS: You can write that down. We're all big fans of that stuff.

DG:..Even the more serious studio Beefheart.

How do you develop new material?

RS: Usually it's just the cell of an idea: Don will play a beat, I'll play a guitar part, or Sara will have a melody. And we'll kind of see how it feels under our fingers. Try it out in different time signatures, different tempos, and see where it might want to go and just let it breathe. Most of our stuff, we've kind of road tested. We've played a lot and then recorded. Although the last few tracks we recorded for Life of Love, we started doing more in-studio composition, more overdub composition. Then we'd relearn live versions later. We try to give each song time to develop, until it's ready.

DG: When we were first writing and recording for the album, it was like an EP. The label kind of pushed us to make it an LP. So we launched into this home demo/4 track approach to workshopping ideas. We had never done this before, but it pushed us into a new way of doing things that's more common in bands now.

Now we're able to record tidbits during sound checks and cut and paste demos together.

Ryan, I'm really interested in your work playing guitar and bass lines together, can you describe your setup?

RS: Thick strings, that's it. Down tunings, plugged into a Fender Twin with reverb on it. I just use heavy gauge guitar strings. I use a lot of tunings on stage in this set right now. The most out of standard tuning would be where everything's just tuned D, three octaves of D. The lowest I tune down to is B. With this set, I hardly play in standard tuning anymore. I usually have some 5ths or octaves down low, so I can easily access bass lines.

Sometimes, it depends where Sara starts singing. I figure out where I need to adjust tunings just to do it.

Do you adjust tunings on the fly or have multiple guitars?

DG: On the fly (laughs)

RS: Partially out of attachment, partially out of monetary restrictions.

It came out of playing with Sara and not having anyone else to play with. It just naturally evolved into doing that.

Don, we were talking about jazz earlier. Your drumming style really sounds like you have a jazz background: the openness to what you're doing...

DG: Well, I have a somewhat of a jazz background playing bass primarily. Most of my kit playing has been in sort of the DIY punk rock scene. Touring with hardcore punk bands and then with more experimental bands in New Orleans. I played horn in high school and in 2003, I started doing that again, which led me to New Orleans. I bring a jazz influence and I listen to a lot of jazz but I've never studied it or taken drum lessons.

I really love the way you leave room for the bass to cover the rhythm and how that gives you room to play little accent parts. The way you work together...

DG: Thanks, so much

RS: Sara and I heard Don play for the first time in New Orleans on kit. For both of us, a light went on and we realized we really would like to play with him. When we all ended up in Brooklyn, we had him come start playing. He would just look at a high hat for ten minutes and you could tell he was thinking about something. We weren't sure what. Then he would just touch it once and open up a whole other realm of ideas he had going on his mind. There was never overkill; there was always room for the other people playing.

DG: I was just trying to phrase around Sara.

With Sara's voice, I hear a lot of strong women singers like Phoebe Snow, Maria Muldaur, or even Grace Slick. Is that part of her background?

RS: She grew up singing in her community. Her mom sang. A lot of her peers sang. She just grew up in a really musical community in St. Louis and heard a lot of old soul. I agree with you, I kind of think her voice sounds like Phoebe Snow. She heard Phoebe Snow sometime after someone told her she sounded like her. We listened to it together and we were both like, "Oh. I can see that. Sure."

DG: What's funny is that Sara gets such a revolving door of comparisons...It's just interesting. She gets so many different comparisons that it makes me think that she just has her own unique voice.

It's interesting. A lot of Sara's influences are older, but she's also more in tune with contemporary music than anyone I know and I learn a lot from her.

How do the three of you push each other creatively?

RS: I don't know that we're pushing each other a lot. At this point, we're just really centered and communicating with each other. Feeding off ideas left and right.

DG: It's like cooking a meal together in a kitchen. It's really quick and intuitive. We all have trust and respect for each other.

RS: Totally.

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