Monday, February 3, 2014

Q&A with The Farewell Drifters

Right to left: Dean Marold, Clayton Britt, Zach Bevill, Josh Britt

It’s well established that the best thing about tomorrow is that it’s always in the future. But for Nashville band The Farewell Drifters, tomorrow has finally come. Well, Tomorrow Forever, that is, their third album (and first release on Compass Records.) Last week I Skyped with band members Zach Bevill (guitar, vocals) and Josh Britt (mandolin, vocals) who were staying in a cabin in Virginia, mid-tour with the rest of the band. We chatted about the making of the album, listening to Death Cab for Cutie, and finding that moment in songwriting.

One of the last times I did a Q&A on here, I talked to a band on the eve of their album release, and it just so happens we’re in the same situation here. I’ll pose the same question, how are you guys feeling? 

Josh Britt: This is three years in the making for us, so it’s a huge relief. To have this thing that we’ve struggled over for the past three years be finally done, and to be ready to put it in front of somebody else is exciting.

Zach Bevill: I just can’t wait for people to actually listen to it. It’s been done for a while and we’ve been waiting to put it out, for various stupid reasons that don’t really matter. It’s a relief to know it’s finally going to be available, and people will listen to it. There’s probably a mixture of excitement and the normal little bit of fear.

JB: Always lots of fear involved. [Laughs]

Describe the album for me. 

ZB: This album came out of personal struggle; it’s doubting yourself and questioning yourself and the things you’re doing in life, and trying to find hope and move forward, and keep doing what you believe in, even when it’s hard. That came out too in the music. We approached this album differently. We took our time creating it, we spent a lot of time writing it– we wrote way more songs than we’d ever written. It was just a long creative process that felt like it was, in the end, much more fruitful than anything we’d ever done.

JB: The other day someone was asking if our music was folk rock or folk music. In the studio, and any time in the process, I never thought to myself, "What genre are we making?" Or, "What is it going to sound like?" It was more like, "Well, I want to write this song for people that are messed up, and maybe they don’t always want to be messed up." That’s how I felt about myself. I was writing a song for that person, who was me, but with this hope that there’s other people like that who would hear it in the same way I hear it– which is always daunting, because I think if you’re an artist and you put out music, and nobody connects with it, it reinforces the feeling that you’re weird.

When I think about “Modern Age,” “Starting Over,” and a few other spots on the album, what surfaces to me is the recurring idea of a fresh start, or wanting another shot at something. Is that fair?

JB: Yeah, for sure. “Modern Age” is about all that stuff that I just said, just ignoring it and saying, “This is our year no matter what anyone feels or cares about. If I’m the only one who feels this way, that’s fine. Let’s go for it.” “Starting Over” is laying out all the doubt and saying, "Maybe one day you’ll find me happy.” That’s thematic on the record.

ZB: We’re always trying to find that hope. Having lyrics that break your heart is one of my favorite things in the world. If I’m feeling bad, I can listen to something and it makes me feel even more sad, and that’s an amazing thing sometimes. I think that’s a worthy thing to aspire to when you’re writing, to connect with people on that level. But at the end of the day, I don’t feel like we’re the kind of people that wanted to walk away from this record or walk away from life feeling like that, so I guess that’s what comes out in those songs.

I found an interview on Youtube where you guys were talking about “Neighborhoods Apart,” and Josh, you prefaced it with a bit about how there are things you could express in a song, that maybe you couldn’t say otherwise. Why is that? 

J: I think in a song, it’s one layer away from me. That song in particular– I spent my whole life trying to say something to a friend that lost his family. He was my best friend, and even a best friend, I couldn’t bring myself to say "I’m sorry." Nothing felt good enough. And then when I did, it didn’t feel real enough, and to me that’s what music has always been. You listen to bands to feel something even more. I’m a very reserved, introverted person. I have a hard time communicating anything in life. Music has a way of giving me a voice in the world. I do feel weird a lot, and that’s my attempt to be normal.

Tell me about how you guys write together. 

ZB: A lot of times, Josh and I are writing on our own, individually, and sometimes we’ll bring each other finished songs. On this record, we finished a lot of them together. Over the years it’s gotten easier to write together because we know where the other person is going to go sometimes, and we really trust each other. Nashville is a songwriting town, so people can turn it into a business meeting, but to us songwriting is such a personal endeavor– to let someone else in on that process can feel invasive at first. Over the years as we’ve been writing together, we started to realize we’re going through some of the exact same things in life. It’s almost like group therapy.

JB: What I was talking about earlier, writing songs as your own way of doing things– I always hate writing songs like, “Hey, let’s just write a song together because we want to.” And even songs that I have something to say, it’s very internal and I want to get it out. I have a hard time co-writing, but there are a lot of songs like “Brother” and “Coming Home” that we started from the same place– it was a conversation. We were both going through things with brothers and it’s like, here’s what we would say. We actually found ourselves having this common ground even though we’re very different people. Those songs are special for that reason, because they feel like it’s me and him saying something rather than me saying something and then getting together with a bunch of guys around a coffee table to write a song and finish it. I hate that stuff. It’s just a different way of looking at songwriting. I’m never the guy who’s like, “Oh, there’s a song in that.”

ZB: That’s like the most overused Nashville line.

JB: Whenever anyone says that, it makes no sense. It’s so different than how I look at songwriting. I don’t mind writing songs for fun, but songs that are my own and that I really get something out with, I can’t do it that way. It’s never a rhyme scheme or something. But this album is really the first– specifically those two songs, and “Starting Over” was one, where I had a bunch of big ideas and I had everything that I wanted to say out there but I didn’t care about how it went together. And we basically cut half of it to make the song.

You mentioned that you wind up with these big ideas that eventually turn into songs, how do you come to those? 

ZB: To me, songwriting is more like a moment– having a moment that is impacting you in some way and then exploring that. Usually, it’s a feeling or emotion in that moment that you can’t get out of your head, so it starts coming out in a song, for me. I’ve had people in my life, after hearing one or two of these songs that might be sad be like, “Are you ok? Is everything ok in your life?” [Laughs] I’m like, “Yeah, it’s fine.” But that’s because to me, it’s a moment. It’s about being honest. Life isn’t perfect. This thing kind of sucked and I kind of felt this way, but it doesn’t mean that my life is a disaster. But I don’t feel the need to tidy up every song and say at the end, “Oh, by the way, everything’s fine now!”

JB: For me, it’s an emotion more than anything. I did this personality test that said I have a hard time letting go of emotions and I hold on to them for days.

ZB: Which is true.

JB: Songs come out of that personality flaw, perhaps, for me. I get very depressed for two days, then I can’t deal with it, or I’ll think I’m the greatest thing in the world for a day, and I’m super happy. It goes all over the map.

Ok. Let’s talk Death Cab, since we established prior that we're all three fans. This might be an impossible question. If you guys could have written one of their songs, which one would it be?

JB: I would say, “What Sarah Said” from Plans, or “Styrofoam Plates.”

Tell me why. 

JB: I got into Ben Gibbard years ago and I think it was because of “Styrofoam Plates.” It just sounded timeless. I felt so much of what he was saying and I don’t have his situation in that song. Both those songs, at the time in which I heard them, I wasn’t experiencing the same thing, but I was crying. There’s very few people who can do that to me. That whole ending of “What Sarah Said–"  “Who’s going to watch you die?” That made me go into this weird depression for like a week. I couldn’t believe that a writer could be that. He’s like one of the three people in the world that have inspired me to try and write like that. Not that I think I’ve succeeded, but that’s the kind of thing I want to feel when I’m writing a song.

ZB: I would say “The New Year,” just because that song– there’s something about the whole idea of everybody dressing up and pretending to be happy. The feeling that you have to pretend that you’re happy when you’re not, that breaks my heart because I’ve felt like that before. You have to be super happy about what you’re doing sometimes in order to come across like you’re into it. Even being in Nashville, the number one question I hear when I see people I know around town is, “How’s it going? You guys been on the road, touring?” And sometimes I’m tired, I’m doubting whether music is worth it, and I feel like I have to be like, “Yeah, it’s great, the band’s doing well!” I identify with that. Then, “You’re Heart is an Empty Room” also gets me, probably for some of the same reasons– searching for happiness and not really understanding why you don’t have it.

                                                     Bevill and Britt

So, you guys are on tour right now. Tell me a tour story. What’s something that’s interesting or weird that’s happened on the road?

ZB: The other night, we were playing a show in Roanoke, VA and we were playing “Motions,” which is probably the slowest, quietest song on the record.

JB: We’d just set it up with this dark story, like "This is going to be a sensitive moment." It was almost a joke, like "This is the most sensitive we’ve ever gotten." The place is totally quiet.

ZB: I’m sitting there playing the opening lines on the piano, and I sing the first couple of lines, and all of a sudden, we hear this "doom chicka doom chicka doom chicka doom" and it was this drum machine that our bass player uses for a bass synth, and he accidentally pushed the wrong button. It’s like the loudest drumbeat comes in the middle of this sensitive moment, and I just couldn’t handle it.

JB: Then we tried to pick up the song where we left off.

ZB: The whole crowd was dying laughing, we’re dying laughing on stage. It was ridiculous. It’s this song about your heart being broken.

JB: Everyone in the crowd and us was laughing for the entire rest of the song.

ZB: Except for me, because I was trying to sing.

JB: Everyone is dying laughing through “Our love is so worth saving.”

Oh, no!  I hope someone got video.  Is there anything else you'd want to add? 

JB: The one thing that I would like to add is that as songwriters, we’re really thankful to be in a band with guys that want to play our music and want to create the music with us. There was a whole big creative process that happened after the writing of the songs that involved Dean, our bass player, and Clayton, Josh’s brother, who plays lead guitar. He’s probably the best guitar player I’ve ever played with, so it’s cool to be in a band with someone like that.

Connect with The Farewell Drifters

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