‘I’ve been listening to lots of Guided By Voices and remembering that things don’t need to be so slick.’, says Scott Gagner about the new record he is working on.
But we need to talk about his 2017 release Pins & Needles first. So we did.
What was the biggest fun during the making of the last album?
That’s easy: tracking seven songs live with a killer band in seven hours. The drums were being handled by the legendary Pete Thomas, of Elvis Costello and The Attractions fame. He was friendly with an acquaintance of mine, Jason Weinheimer, who introduced us. Pete seemed to like my demos, and agreed to fly up from LA for the one-day session. Once that was set, Jason and his friend Chris Michaels decided to fly out from Arkansas to play guitar and bass, respectively. Add to that my guitarist friend, Arnie Kim, and I had somehow assembled a world-class band, virtually overnight. I sang live vocals with the band, often playing rhythm guitar as well. The whole day had a very fun, loose vibe. We didn’t have time to get precious. Still, Pete was often the one encouraging us to “try one more.” He was by far the biggest name in the room, but was easily the most prepared, and always listened to playbacks with his eyes closed, in total concentration. He even indulged us with old “war stories” from his 70’s touring days. I’ve been obsessed with his drumming since I was a kid, so, in all honesty, this ended up being one of the biggest days of my life thus far.
Which is the song you wish you had written every time you hear it? And why?
I have thousands, but let’s go with two. First, “Something so Right” by Paul Simon (off the fabulous LP “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”, 1973). This song contains one of my favorite lyrical passages of all time:
They’ve got a wall in China,
It’s a thousand miles long,
To keep out the foreigners,
They made it strong,
And I’ve got a wall around me,
That you can’t even see,
It took a little time,
To get next to me
It’s relatable, funny, macro, micro, external, internal, wry, vulnerable, and incredibly clever. Paul has an uncanny ability to take a well known cultural phenomenon and use it as a vehicle to dissect some internal emotional truth. The song “Graceland” is another great example of this.
The other song I wish I had written is “Solar Sister” by The Posies (“Frosting on the Beater” LP, 1993). Melody is extremely important to me, and this song has one of the best verse melodies ever written, fabs included. It’s fairly straightforward if you try to analyze it (a little 3-note ascending melody that repeats, slightly higher, harmonized), but there’s something magical going on that defies analyzation. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the song’s author Ken Stringfellow for a few years, and I asked him about writing it. He just shrugged and said it sort of tumbled out of him in 30 minutes. Then I quit music.
Magic can happen when you are playing in front of a crowd. Can you recall such a moment?
My last show in San Francisco (as part of the 13th Annual “International Pop Overthrow” Festival) was very special. I’ve started experimenting with going off-microphone for small portions of the show to help draw people in by singing softer. I did so for a song called “I’ve Taken a Shine To You,” standing right on the edge of the stage, barely strumming my guitar. Luckily, the approach worked, and you could hear a pin drop. The song was written for my daughter, so it’s already fairly emotional for me to sing it. I got to the third verse which goes “Like the seasick to the land / Like the fallen to the helping hand / Like the broken heart to the blues / I’ve taken a shine to you”, made eye contact with a few members of the audience, and nearly fell apart. In that moment, I was connecting the lyric to each person I scanned in the crowd — how every one of us needs a helping hand from time to time. I pulled it together and finished the song, but it was a very intense, very real moment of connection to the crowd. The applause at the end seemed to indicate that they felt something too.
So what about putting your ultimate band together? No restrictions. No limitations. If you want David Bowie on backing vocals and Prince on guitar, go ahead. What would the band look like? And what is the song you will start jamming on. To find out it if this really works?
Pete Thomas, Drums (Elvis Costello, Ron Sexsmith, everybody)
Gerard Love, Bass, Backing Vocals (Teenage Fanclub)
Ken Stringfellow, Keys, Guitars, Backing Vocals (The Posies, Big Star, REM)
Doug Gillard, Lead Guitar, Backing Vocals (Nada Surf, Guided By Voices)
We’d probably start with “Rain” by The Beatles. The fact that I’ve played/recorded with two of these people is still staggering to me.
She tells you she will decide on a 5-song-mixtape if there is going to be a second date. Which 5 would you put on?
Not a Second Time (The Beatles)
The Second Time Around (Frank Sinatra)
I Second That Emotion (Smokey Robinson)
Second Hand News (Fleetwood Mac)
Don’t You Want Me (The Human League)
What’s up for the rest of the year?
I’m 75% done with the follow-up to 2017’s “Pins & Needles.” Most of the basic tracking is done. I just need to rewrite a few lyrics, sing, and fix up a few instrumental parts. I’m doing things a little differently on this LP, playing all the drums and most of the instruments myself — not because I think I play better than anyone, but because I think my particular approach to playing will give it more of a distinctive stamp. I’ve been listening to lots of Guided By Voices and remembering that things don’t need to be so slick. Anyway, the LP should be out mid-next year, 2019.