Monday, February 16, 2015

Q&A with Seryn

Photo: Molly Valdez

Back in 2011, a band from Denton, Texas landed on my radar with a huge, heart-swelling song called “We Will All Be Changed.” I stuck this band, Seryn, on my Top 10 Finds of 2011 list and wished them the best. 

Happily, they’re back this year with a new album called Shadow Shows, out Feb. 17.

In the years in between, they’ve made a few lineup changes, and moved to my hometown – Nashville. I talked on the phone with guitarist Nathan James Allen about the new record, finding community in a new city, and deciding on how to pronounce the band’s name – It’s Ser-IN.

Allen: You know, I never had a preference, and then about a year ago, [bassist] Aaron and I were at a show in Dallas and this British clarinetist came up to us, and we were talking, and he said, “Oh, Seryn, like serenity without all the messy bits at the end that nobody like anyway.” I was like “Yes. That’s how you say our band name and that’s what it’s about.” We’ve been a band for five years and no one ever put that together. So, I’ve adopted that as the way I explain that I explain the band name -- like Serenity, without all the messy bits at the end that nobody like anyway.

TMI: Tell me about the new album.

We’ve been working on Shadow Shows for a long time and we’re so excited that it’s coming out, and that people can get it. It’s going to be good for us to move forward creatively. We’ve actually already started working on the third record, trying to get the songs written and come up with some stuff. It’s part of a larger progression that we’re working on. The record is mostly about illusion and false ideas about reality, so it’s the process of moving from the shadow shows to reality. I guess the best way to do that is to think about it in terms of moving out of the dream and into reality, that process of awakening and acceptance. A lot of lyrics tie into that idea, whether it’s dealing with life and death and the reality of it, versus mythology or dreams, or fancy false notions. And the music is just more electric than the first record. We think we’re a better band now, so we’re able to record a higher quality, fidelity-wise.

Tell me about how you’ve developed your sound.

It’s a mix between stuff that we like, stuff that we actually can do, and also our own ADD. I kind of like to think of it as ADD music because because we don’t really have the same sound from song to song. It’s banjo here, electric guitar there. Really light drums on one song and really heavy drums on the next, or even within songs. I think the sounds just comes from things that we gravitate toward. I spent a lot of times playing in instrumental bands or bands that didn’t have a lot of vocals, so with this project, I’ve always had a focus on lots of harmonies, lots of vocals. And then also being a big fan of instrumental music. Then a lot of it’s born out of frustration, too. In the new record, it’s reflected a lot because it’s a lot easier to get an electric guitar to sound really good at a live show than it is to get an acoustic guitar to sound really good at a live show, or a banjo, and especially if you’ve got drums going. So, again, walking about of this illusion of an acoustic guitar is going to sound so great during a show, and the reality is that most of the time, an acoustic guitar live just sounds like a shaker.

As far as songwriting, what’s the dynamic in the band?

Everybody writes their own parts and has final say, but we work on things organically. On this record, Trenton, the lead singer, he actually did a lot more of the lyrics writing, and a lot more of the melody than he did on the first one. A lot of the musical ideas started with guitar, or guitar and bass, or guitar bass and drums. Trenton would take a small idea or piece, and bring it to us. There was actually one song where Trenton didn’t really have a lot of music but he had the vocals worked out. He brought it to us and he transformed it into what it is now -- the song “Paths.” Trenton brought it to us with almost nothing, like a couple of chords and a vocal was like, “And then I want it to get really big,” and we were like “Ok.” We tried stuff for a day or two and then found what worked.


One song that I liked a lot and stuck out to me was “Headache,” tell me about that song.

I actually wrote those guitar parts at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. one night. I was sitting there with a friend of mine on the couch and we were just talking about stuff and I was trying to tune the guitar as crazy as I could think to tune it. I wrote those parts and then brought it to everybody else on a day when we had band practice but somebody had to cancel, so we were down a person. This is August of 2012. So, the part’s been around for a while. We wrote it and got the structure together and Trenton came up with the lyrics. It was very much about a struggle -- the headache that life can be and what it feels like. The tuning actually causes a headache to listen to me tune the guitar. The guitar part is supposed to feel like what it’s like when you have to do something when you have a headache. It’s a minor thing but it makes everything else that much harder.

So, Trenton started to put the lyrics together. He did a really good job of synthesizing what everybody else was thinking and feeling about this song. Then he brought it to me, and I helped him write the bridge. It took a long time to work on. We actually recorded it once before, in August of 2012. We revamped it, we moved it down a half step, changed the key just down one and approached it as more of an acoustic guitar and vocal song that had these crushed electronic drums. McKenzie Smith, who we worked with on the album, it was his idea to do that production trick on the drums and make them sound that way, which we thought was cool and nailed a feel, which was that tense, aggressive, knot in your stomach, pain in your head.

So you guys moved to Nashville not too long ago, how’s the city treating you?

I love this city. I don’t think we can call ourselves Tennesseans or even Nashvillians quite yet, although my drivers license expires in July, so I’ll probably be getting a Tennessee license which will be that much closer to legitimacy. I think we’re going to have to wait a couple of years to make sure we can hack it, but we just love it here. Every night I go out and run into somebody who knows someone that I know or has a mutual desire to work on this project or that project. It seems like we showed up and there was a unity that was waiting to happen.

In Dallas, people say “Y’all do what? Why do y’all do that? Why do y’all do that?” Here in Nashville, it doesn’t matter who I talk to, if they’re a doctor, lawyer, cop, barista -- everyone gets what the musician thing is. It’s not a mystery here. It feels like you’re more accepted.

It helps when music is as embedded in the culture as it is in Nashville.

Yeah. It’s very accepted here, like “I know people like you, I know what your lifestyle is like.” It’s a normal, legitimate thing, whereas in Dallas, it’s very fluke-y, out-of-the-norm. No one who’s out of college really understands what you’re talking about. Even some of our friends back in Denton would be like, “Aren’t you worried about not having a resume once you get done playing music?” Or “Are you worried about this, that, or the next thing because you’re not going to be playing music forever,” and we’re like “Yes, we are.” People do it all the time and it’s not weird.

And it makes for an easier support group, I’m sure when you’re not getting those questions.

I think it’s a handful of things. One, the national average for music industry jobs in a city is maybe 1% or 2% tops. In Nashville, 12% of the jobs are in the music industry. Then, so many people here are either on tour, or have friends who are on tour, or are making records. Nobody here is going to call you up and be like, “Man, we haven’t talked in two months, what’s the deal?” People are like “You’ve probably been busy as all get out. Let’s hang out whenever you’re in town.” You have people who are married to musicians, and they all get that too. There’s a large group of people whose significant others are out of town, and they hang out. I think it works out for everybody.

Photo: Sean Berry

What can folks expect from your live shows?

Just a show. Expect to see some people who can play their instruments and who have a lot of passion for what they’re doing. That’s the comment that we get all the time, is “even more than the music you play, is the passion that you put into it. We like it because y’all like it.” Expect to come see a good show – we’ve got some tricks up our sleeves.

What’s next?

Basically, the plan is now to start work on the third record, and then the other plan is come everywhere in the United States and see everyone. Play the record and play some shows.

Connect with Seryn

Upcoming shows
Feb. 19 - Houston, Texas
Feb. 21 - Waco, Texas
Feb. 22 - Denton, Texas

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: The Phosphorescent Blues : Punch Brothers

A new Punch Brothers record. There’s hardly a better way to start off 2015.

Three years after the Who’s Feeling Young, the bluegrass (ish) quintet has released its fourth album, The Phosphorescent Blues.

After driving around with it for a few weeks, I’m finally sorting out my thoughts on this album that at first listen, I didn’t really like.

Immediately, I missed the tightness and focus of Who’s Feeling Young. It was, at times, a ledge to climb up on – Chris Thile and co. referenced more musically than you could be expected to catch, but it didn’t detract from the enjoyment or understanding of the album as a whole. If any a piece of art deserves the non-diluted fullness of the word “interesting,” it’s Who’s Feeling Young.

The Phosphorescent Blues sounds like the album you’d make after being told you’re a genius and putting out an album of mandolin Bach covers. It’s ambitious, but in the mounting sense of someone who is still figuring out it’s ok to be.

And that’s a weird thing to say about Thile, because looking all the way back to Nickel Creek, you couldn’t really say that staying within safe or traditional boundaries was on the agenda.

But take the opening track, “Familiarity.” It’s a 10-minute-long sprawl with three movements, akin to “Movement and Location” as the album’s big swing, but it’s almost too big to see all at once.

The dynamic shifts, the production choices that send Thile’s voice receding into the ether, the Four Freshmen-esque harmonies, all held together by not just a few recurring flourishes, but more so by Thile’s confidence to stray into a space that isn’t even as neat as to qualify as experimental genre-blending.

At their best, the Punch Brothers sound the way you’d imagine the guts of a really high-end, handmade, antique watch look – layers of perfectly functioning gears, ticking away.

That’s where a lot of the enjoyment of their last record, as well as this one, comes from. But as meticulous as they can be in their arrangements, that same intentionality doesn’t always shake out well when constructing overarching themes.

I’ll tell you two things here.

One, I thought this album was mostly about death.

On the cover, a guy and gal try to kiss though their heads are wrapped in white sheets, like burial shrouds – as if Romeo and Juliet even after poison and steel still couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The second track, “Julep,” (more on this later) is a hazed look back at life from a dead narrator. “Boll Weevil” threatens destruction. “Forgotten,” assures someone they won’t die alone and won’t be forgotten.

And in twist of word association that has nothing to the band, I think of a story I heard about my grandfather. When he was a little boy, he lived near a cemetery, and sometimes at night he could see an eerie glow coming up from the ground. It was the phosphorous dead bodies give off when they decompose – an unsettling yet alluring suggestion at both the scientific and the surreal.

So, I think phosphorus, and I think death. And fish. But that’s neither here nor there.

The other thing I’ll tell you – I went on a Googling expedition. Thile and fiddler Gabe Witcher talked with NPR about the album, and in 3 minutes and 52 seconds, blew my illusions about the oddly comforting inkiness of this album from the beyond.

They said the name of the album pulls from the experience of performing to a crowd futzing with its cellphones.

“It's actually kind of a beautiful lighting effect. I bet you they have no idea how well lit they are from stage,” Thile said.

And just like that – everything surfaced. I checked back over the lyrics. When Thile sings “your trouble vibrates the table,” there’s no poetry there. He’s talking about a cell phone. It’s an album utterly stacked with referenced to distraction in the digital age.

That brought me to consider the strange contrast feeling as though they’d reached out and up for some musical grandness, but then really believing that singing about the aesthetic intrusions of technology is way too close to the ground for them.

Do I want Chris Thile preaching to me? I’ll get back to you.

I’d prefer the reassuring lesson that comes with a song like “Julep.”

How’s this for an opening line: “I died happy in my sleep.”

Normally, I’d be wildly uncomfortable. I just don’t like thinking about these things, but “Julep” is so gorgeous. If heaven really is a julep on the porch, then that doesn’t sound so bad. The reflections of the narrator on meeting his wife, having a daughter, experiencing lightness of life in a simple habit like winding a grandfather clock, create a sense of sweet satisfaction that’s not treacly or maudlin. Because it doesn’t have to be! And that’s just not the way anyone tends to handle the topic of dying, and especially when the perspective is from the deceased.

Instead of regret or retroactive interpretation, the narrator has the best parts close at heart and that’s all.

To me, the noble match to what the Punch Brothers are doing musically is not only the treatment of the death in that song, but the way that mood pervades the looser spaces on the album.

But, if you look at the back cover, you’ll see the band staring into their phones, lit up with “those phosphorescent pinks and blues.” In case you’d like to ignore the text, they don’t leave you much of an option.

On the last track, “Little Lights,” Thile takes one more turn prodding the listener with that wry little comment “Look at us, we’re glowing.”

He’s not really condemning. That would be pretty hypocritical. The funny thing is that the swelling chorus toward the end of the song was crowdsourced and came from the recordings a lot of fans submitted from all over the world. Thank you very much, internet, for all the distracting little projects you serve up on a minute-to-minute basis.

If anyone could pull off having it both way, I suppose it’s Thile.

Even the title splits itself into a double meaning in both the color of the light from a cellphone in a darkened concert venue, and the strangeness he and Witcher acknowledged in that NPR interview of playing in front of a crowd of people who aren’t totally there.

I’m due to catch them at the Ryman at the end of the month. You best believe I’m leaving my phone in my purse.