Cris Cohen: I found this quote where you said, “This is the song that made ‘Lagoon’ feel like a real album.” Which is a lot to say about a particular tune, especially one that appeared so late in the process. So how did “Sleeper Agent” have that much influence over this album?
John Brodeur of Bird Streets: I hadn't written a song since the pandemic started. I hadn't written a song and I was just walking around. I was trying to figure out the bridge to another song, but I hadn't written a new song in months and months and months. And then this melody and some lyrics just sort of started coming while I was walking around at night… you know, on one of my four-mile, nightly, peacekeeping walks <laugh>. Like, “Don't lose your brain.” <laugh> “Good luck.”
And that's a song about trying to hold it together basically. So it felt like it sort of summed up the two other major topics that were going on in the record and sort of brought them together in a way that made it feel like a statement, rather than just a bunch of songs.
Cris Cohen: I love when I hear stories like that. Something comes along so late in the process and yet it all kind of ties it together. It makes me wonder about the whole idea that your brain gets in a certain space and then – even when you've stopped physically working on the album – your subconscious is kind of working on it. And I'm wondering if that's kind of part of what brought this song into being.
John Brodeur: Yeah, I guess. It wasn't intentional. It just sort of was. It just sort of manifested itself. It needed to happen <laugh>. I don’t know what else to say about it. It was one of those sorts of bolts from out of the blue that was like, “You’ve got to go after this one.”
John Papa Gros (client): I don't know where song ideas come from. I've read other people's descriptions of them as gifts from the universe, that we are just conduits for these ideas. And I've known other people, other songwriters, who say, no, you just get in there and you work your craft. For me, they are gifts. I make myself available to ideas by being ready to receive them. For me it can be as simple as singing a little melody in the shower, having a drum beat pop in my head while I'm driving. I rarely get them when I'm sitting at home at the piano or the organ. Usually the ideas pop in at the most inopportune times of the day, and completely disrupt everything that's going on. I have to stop and document them in some way, shape, or form, whether it's a scribble on a piece of paper or sing them into my phone. So when I actually sit down to write I have a catalog of ideas to review. I pick one, then I can start.
I interviewed Mike Portnoy of The Winery Dogs. We discussed:
The Winery Dogs webs site: http://www.thewinerydogs.com/
Michael Staertow, guitarist for The Guess Who / Lou Gramm: If you're able to take the fans on a journey back to when they first discovered the music and they can escape to a time of a first kiss, a dance, or a date, you've done your job.
That's our job as musicians: To communicate with people without speaking. The music does the talking.
Cris Cohen: One thing you said about this album, you were talking about bringing 80s hard rock into 2022. From your perspective, what elements of 80s hard rock are maybe harder to find in 2022?
Billy Sheehan of TALAS V2: Well, a lot of it, of what we've just been speaking of – that chaos, that spontaneity, that little bit of pressure to get it done because we don't know what's going to happen the next day. So, things of that nature I think are important factors in the music of then. And now, there is a little bit of relaxation, possibly, not with everyone. Generalities are never true and there's a generality that's always true.
Because you can sit down and get an engineer and piece through things and kind of play a part at a time and go back and check it and change it and fix it if you need to and continue on. It's quite a different thing. We were slaves to the tape back in the day, just before digital recordings. First digital recording I think I did was the first Mr. Big record. But you had to get it on tape, and it had to be right, especially the drum track. That had to be righteous, because you couldn't edit the drums. You could, but it was always precarious to edit the drums on too much tape.
Cris Cohen: I've gone to a number of shows where the band is doing the full electric thing, and then they do an acoustic set. And the bass player will bring out a double bass. I just saw Barenaked Ladies at the Red Hat Amphitheater and they did that. But you stay with it constantly. I'm wondering, what advantage does an upright bass have over, say, a bass guitar?
Barrett Smith of Steep Canyon Rangers: That's a good question. In my case, it's just the instrument that I play. I don't even own an electric bass guitar. I think tonally it's different and its weight has more meat and body to it. There have been times where we've talked about having an electric bass in the band for certain songs and there would be a lot of benefit to that. I have picked up electric basses and messed with them. They have qualities that mine doesn't have. But for me, it's what I'm accustomed to. I don't like playing electric bass that much. I would get used to it if I had to. If they said, “You have to play this,” I would do it and maybe come to love it. But as it is, I like the big, upright bass.
And the band was such a staunchly traditional band for so long, traditional bluegrass band. And then once Mike Ashworth joined, he was playing drums and Graham's writing was changing when I joined. There's so much that is moving us away from the tradition of bluegrass that, for me, having an upright bass in the band is one thing that keeps us anchored in traditional bluegrass. Even just the visual of it, anything that keeps us somewhat tethered to that world, because at our heart, that's what we are.
We still are a traditional bluegrass band. But any bluegrass traditionalist is going to look at our band and be like, “They're not traditionalist.” Because we betrayed a lot of what that is. And not to make any statement or anything. It was just what we wanted to do and sing in our truth. That's the way the band is developed.
There's something about having the upright bass in the band that is important to me to keep us in that way. So, at least the instrumentation feels more like a bluegrass band, because I always want us to be a bluegrass band. And actually, maybe, I should question why that is. Maybe it doesn't matter.
Cris Cohen: I'm always fascinated by singers who were initially drummers. What advantage do you think that gave you as a singer, as a songwriter, to come from a drumming background?
Kevin Martin of Candlebox: Probably the understanding of the song, and the structure of the song, and the ins and outs. The beauty of drummers -- John Bonham, Peter Criss, Neil Peart -- those kinds of guys are all musicians that I kind of aspire to play like, just because they had such interesting ways to get in and out of parts. And of course, Neil Peart being a lyricist as well was... When I learned that as I got older, it was just mind bending. “This guy’s not only behind the kit doing all of the shit he's doing, but he's also writing all the fucking lyrics?!” I guess that's what I learned from these guys, that I could continue to take with me to this day. When we write songs, I'm always writing around the beat. With the perfect example of this track “Let Me Down Easy.”
I knew that I wanted the song to feel like a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song. That's what I wanted it to feel like, because I love that band. And I think that right now, save for the Black Keys, nobody is really doing that kind of music. So I love, love, love Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I pulled from that when I spoke to the guys about it. I said, "This is the drum beat I'm looking for. It has to feel like you've just sold your soul and now you're running down the train tracks away from the devil, trying to get away."
And that's I guess what I've learned as a musician: That I can utilize that energy as a singer and pull it from that energy of the drummer. And that in turn allows me to sing around the rhythms and move in and out of patterns and kind of play both parts, if you will.