The Campbell Apartment – Curmudgeon (Q&A)

Sweet Sweet Musicblog spoke with Ari Vais about producing a cohesive record, Fountains of Wayne, playing for a small crowd, personal lyrics, and recording after a lunch break.

How did this record come together?

Over many years, and many sessions, in San Francisco and then, upon getting the album a home with Mint 400 Records, it spent another couple years back east getting mixed down to rock perfection. It was recorded as a series of “singles” rather than a cohesive album because at the time it felt like people would just as happily consume individual tracks via streaming services as embrace the concept of a record. Luckily in the end, with help from a lot of talented people, it is a cohesive record, our 4th. (Buy here)

Recording music. What’s all the fun about?

I never said it was fun. There are fun elements to it, just loading in and setting up, it’s like the start of a film shoot or something, you know you’ll be entrenched in this space that smells like electricity for a very long time, with a ton of downtime with rough mixes are attempted and bandmates lay down their parts.

There are long discussion breaks and, for me, a ton of vocal takes as I don’t think I was born with a God-given set of pipes, it takes a lot of work. It’s very process oriented.

There are lunch breaks – but it’s fun because, on one day, you know that after the lunch break the afternoon is dedicated to guitar solos. Or the following morning will be all about piano, so you mic up the piano the night before. It’s a very workmanlike process, like cooking or gardening, you get on with it, but there are still flashes of magic, like that killer vocal take that comes out of nowhere when you thought your pipes were shot or that bassline that propels the song, that’s written right there in live time, and without the studio takes and retakes, would never have been written.

Or those happy accidents, like when a piece of equipment falls at just the right second and sounds intentional, or a dog starts barking during a lonesome and stark organ part.

Playing music in front of a crowd. What’s all the fun about?

Now that I find very fun. There’s always the element of surprise unless you’re the Pixies every show will be different in some way. Each one is unique. It’s a mix, impossible to replicate show to show, of how you are as a band, how you are as individuals, how the crowd is, how the lights are, whether the soundman is a dick or awesome, what the setlist is, what the vibe is, what my singing is like, if for who knows what reason one of the songs in the set just sounds sublime and never will be that money shot quite ever again.

It’s everything I like in life: the unexpected, randomness, “feel”, connection, energy, catharsis – it’s all those things you cannot replicate in the studio. Even some studio albums like “Third/Sister Lovers” by Big Star have elements of what it was like to be there then, they kept the sounds of things accidentally falling and they kept all the mistakes, but live there’s that electricity, that danger, it’s sexy.

I remember once in Manhattan at the Mercury Lounge we went on right after Tegan and Sarah, a duo with a huge draw. We did not fit the demographic and as they finished their crowd exited en masse, just emptied out the room completely, deflating TCA. We played anyway but stopped the show short rather disgustedly. There were only one or two people in the fairly large room, it was ridiculous. Well, one of those people was a girl from Reims, France, who told me she was loving it, and when I griped that everybody had left, she said “this would never happen if you come in France” (I know, hot). Epiphany – I royally fucked up when I pulled the plug on that set. One person loving the concert is the same as 10,000 people loving the concert, the energy is the same, you can’t pull the plug on that, it’s a sin.

As an artist, you chose to show your emotions to the world. Is it always comfortable to do so?

Sure. I’ve tried to write about other people’s lives, like Ray Davies and Paul McCartney so effortlessly do, like so many great writers do (and pretty much all novelists do, because if it’s “confessional” then it’s an autobiography innit), but I’m in my “happy place” when I write about EXACTLY what’s happening with me on an emotional level, even naming names, certainly referencing real places and turns of phrase and inside jokes – the more the better – then the song smacks of “realness” which – that honesty – is all I really want in a song myself as a listener, besides a killer hook of course. Whether I’m comfortable or uncomfortable doing so is beside the point because at that stage the art is bigger than the artist.

You can pick 3 co-writers to write new songs with. Who? … and Why?

Chris Collingwood from Fountains Of Wayne, because I’ve loved the band since the mid-late nineties when I first became aware of them, when Chris and Jody from FOW moved up to Northampton Massachusetts where I was living at the time. We all became great friends but during those few years in western Mass. Chris and I were very tight, and then once I moved to San Francisco in ’09, Jody and I became very tight.

But as much as I loved and respected the band, we were more close friends than anything so I never realized how much I liked them, loved them, until their ending this horrible spring with Adam’s tragic death from Covid19. Chris and I would bounce demos and ideas off each other during those years in the “Pioneer Valley” but we never tried writing anything together, even though we’re both very literary writers but with emotional depth and melodic yen, but we never even considered trying to write a song together. We’re mutual fans though so – but I’ve never really written a song with anybody, not actively or intentionally.

Once when I was living in a big house with my wife at the time in San Francisco, FOW were playing in town and I invited them round to our firepit party in the back garden. I was surprised and happy when they showed up and let them in through the downstairs garage, which led right through to the back garden and firepit party where we already had half a dozen friends sitting around the fire drinking and talking and laughing. I pull up the garage door, which was automatic and slowly rolled up to reveal, hilariously, from shoes to face, all four Fountains of Wayne boys.

I’m not sure they did a ton of stuff together as a band, outside of music – I know my band doesn’t – most bands don’t. So it was like something out of a comic book, and we all had the nicest time sitting around the fire out back drinking and laughing and talking (Chris had stopped drinking by then so we had some tasty alcohol free beer on hand). They were playing in town somewhere great like the Fillmore the next evening.

But I never told my other guests who the four guys were, I didn’t want to embarrass them by saying “These four are Fountains of Wayne” or anything uncool like that so I kept mum. Later Chris asked if I told them about the show the next night and I said I hadn’t coz I didn’t wanna be uncool, but Chris looked really sad for a second when I said that, and so I realized I had overthought everything and everybody wants people to know more about you, not less.

I’d also love to write something with Stephen Merritt from Magnetic Fields and with Liz Phair.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s