Thursday, December 5, 2013
Growing up in Long Beach and Orange County, Ethan Luck experienced the quintessential California Christmas: “In Southern California, you could get a surfboard for Christmas and go surfing that afternoon. I got a skateboard one year (A Christian Hosoi deck) and went outside to ride it...in shorts and a t-shirt!” But since moving to Nashville, not only has Luck’s winter weather changed by 30-40 degrees, his musical landscape has shifted as well.
Luck originally came up through the punk rock ranks with a variety of notable bands, but in the last few years he has added a little solo twang to his repertoire. His newest release, Cold Music, combines festive holiday music, amazing alt-country instrumentation, and a strong dose of DIY ethics. Luck played and recorded everything himself, making this ever-growing album a personal affair and it definitely comes through in his performances.
Traces of Luck’s punk rock roots shine through beautifully on his rockabilly romp through “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and his tumbleweed take on “We Three Kings” showcases his instrumental talents and his refreshingly laid-back voice. I can’t wait to see what songs Luck will continue to add year after year, but I’m putting Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” or the Stevie Wonder/Jackson 5 classic “Someday at Christmas” on my wish list to Santa.
I recently spoke with Luck about his plans for Cold Music, his experience recording the album himself, and his personal connection with Christmas music.
NoiseTrade: You've participated in Christmas releases with a couple of your previous bands, but this is your first solo holiday offering. What sparked the idea for your Cold Music EP and what are your continuing plans for it?
Ethan Luck: I was on a couple of the Happy Christmas comps that Tooth & Nail Records put out, as well as, recording a few songs for the Relient K Christmas record (Let it Snow Baby… Let In Reindeer). Christmas songs are always fun to record. I wanted to start this (what will become a) compilation because I've always liked Christmas time - the weather, lights, fire pits, etc. - and a lot of the music that comes along with it. Speaking of fire pits, the cover art is actually the fire pit in my backyard.
I wanted to start recording my favorite Christmas songs the way I wanted to hear them and sort of make them my own. Maybe there's someone out there that likes Christmas songs, but not the way their grandparents do. Hopefully they'll grow up and realize how good Bing Crosby is though. Anyhow, I didn't have a ton of time at home to record a bunch of songs before December, so I picked my 2 favorites to start with. My future plans for this release are to keep adding to it each year. Hopefully, in a few years time, it will be up to at least 15 songs. Who knows, I may try to squeeze another one in before the 25th!
NT: You recorded "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "We Three Kings" for this initial installment. What specific draw do those two songs have for you?
Luck: I'm 35 years old now and I've heard Christmas music as long as I can remember. Those 2 have become favorites of mine and they never got old to me. My old...old...old band, The Dingees, did a dub version of "We Three Kings" back in 1998. I love how light the content is and how dark the song sounds. I really attached to it back then. I did my best, with the help of a lot of spring reverb, to keep that dark sound to the music.
I've always preferred the old Christmas stuff, for the most part. They're like old hymns. The old stuff is great and most modern stuff is so bland and formulaic to me. "Go Tell It On The Mountain" has also become a favorite. I love Dustin Kensrue's version, but I didn't want to do the same thing. I kept it somewhat traditional sounding, made up my own melodies a bit and turned a verse into a pre chorus. Confession: I watched a bunch of videos of Dolly Parton singing it before I made my arrangement.
NT: What are some of the major differences in the recording process between the full-band releases you've been a part of and your DIY solo output?
Luck: Well, DIY is the best way to describe it. All the solo stuff I've recorded so far has been about 99% DIY. I've had friends record background vocals and upright bass on a few tracks. I record all the rest of it myself. In the future, I want to incorporate more of my friends on songs. One of the exciting things for me is to be back on guitar. Some people may know me as a drummer from my 5 years in Relient K. Guitar is actually my first instrument. I started when I was 10 years old and picked up drums sometime around Jr. High.
The recording process can go a number of ways. Once I have a song done, I usually start with drums. It's weird to record drums by yourself. I just have to know the song well enough to track it to nothing. Other times, I'll record the acoustics and vocals first and just keep layering from there. It's weird to not have someone next to me to bounce ideas off of, however, I've been doing home recordings for so long that I'm used to it now. If I get to a point where I don't know if something sounds good, I'll show it to a friend or two for criticism. No matter what, all the songs have been recorded, in my garage, between the hours of 7am and Noon or 8pm to 2 am (Sorry, neighbors!). For some reason, I feel most inspired and driven at those hours. A lot of the songs I've done so far have been written (or at least halfway) on the road, in hotel rooms. Some I've written with the help of close friends in Nashville.
NT: What's some of your earliest memories of the mixture of music and the holidays? Any creepy children's choirs or Christmas plays in your past?
Luck: As a kid, my parents always played Christmas music starting the night of Thanksgiving. In my opinion, there's no reason to start it earlier. It's the kind of music that reminds you that it's THAT time of year. They always played great stuff by Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, just to name a few. Fortunately, they were never playing the latest rendition of "Santa Baby."
To my memory, I never participated in choirs or plays around Christmas time as a kid. I guess while the Christmas music was playing, I was just playing with my Transformers, hoping I was going to get Castle Grayskull that year. As a side note, I knew where "Santa" hid the presents, in our garage in Long Beach, and saw that I was getting Castle Grayskull one year. I was still so excited on Christmas Day; mostly, because He-Man could finally go home. Thanks Santa.
NT: Finally, as horribly clichéd as the question is, what are some Christmas songs that you look forward to hearing every year and which ones make you grinch out?
Luck: Let's start with the ones that make me grinch out. As I mentioned before, "Santa Baby." It's terrible and usually sung by a pop star dressed in a "sexy Santa” outfit. Also, "Funky, Funky Christmas" by New Kids On The Block. Come on, mid 30's girls...Yeah, they were a catchy boy band when you were young, but there's nothing "funky" about NKOTB. Unless your name is James Brown, there's nothing "funky" about you. I'm sure I could think of others, but again, I mostly like the old stuff.
As far as, Christmas songs I look forward to... the old classics, as I've over-mentioned. As far as modern-ish Christmas songs go, I guess it depends on who does it. "Last Christmas" is a really cool song. Do I like the original version by Wham? Not really, but Jimmy Eat World's version is great! I really do love old songs done by current bands, in a unique way. When U2 did "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” I thought that was a perfect version of that song. Who knew that such a great version would come out when it was released in 1963? I also like when a band does a good original for Christmas. The main one that comes to mind is "Oi To The World" by The Vandals, of which No Doubt does a really great cover.
You can download Cold Music, as well as Luck’s Wounds & Fears EP, here on NoiseTrade: http://noisetrade.com/ethanluck
You can also keep up with all his musical activities at the following places:
Photo credit: Jered Scott
Thursday, November 14, 2013
“There’s a point when the looking and the observing isn’t enough.”
This thought from Jars of Clay frontman Dan Haseltine perfectly encapsulates the band's ethos, as well as their proactive response to last week's devastating typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. As of the last official count, almost 2,500 have been confirmed dead and over 22,000 people are still unaccounted for. In response to the immense destruction and the sustained great work that lay ahead, the band is offering their song "Fall Asleep" with 100% of tips going straight to the relief efforts of the Philippine Red Cross.
While artists afixing themselves to a cause is certainly not a new thing, it’s still a bit of a refreshing anomaly to see artists actually aligning themselves with the people and places behind a cause. Jars of Clay is no stranger to this approach as they have been maintaining a long-term, long-distance relationship with Africa through Blood:Water Mission for the last 10 years.
Over the last few months, an interesting relationship has been forming with the band and the Philippines as well. Before a recent show in Manila, video director Luis Daniel Tabuena contacted the band and asked if they wanted to make a music video for "Fall Asleep" with his crew. The gorgeously stunning video was shot entirely in the Philippines and it was given to the band as a gift. The video premiered in September and less than a month later the Philippines was pummeled with 195 mph winds and 20 foot high walls of water.
But the story doesn't end there.
I recently spoke with Dan as he shared about the partnership Jars has formed with The Philippines, what the relationship between art and activism looks like, and how “The songs are ours when we write them and they cease to be ours when they enter into somebody else’s story.”
NoiseTrade: What inspired the writing of “Fall Asleep” in the first place?
Dan Haseltine: I was actually inspired by the illustrator Carson Ellis. I was flipping through some of her work as we were talking about Inland and what we wanted for the record. I was drawn to these images of trees that were equal parts whimsical and melancholy and I thought it was a great setting for a tragic love story. So the song was first launched from just looking at a piece of scenery and wondering what might happen there. It turned into this guy running away with a girl and her being disillusioned by the whole idea of running away and growing old together. “I wonder what other people are doing right now and what life is like in a different place.” It’s also the first time we’ve ever put a piano ballad on a Jars’ record and it was nice to do something different on this record after so long.
NT: The music video for “Fall Asleep” was shot in the Philippines with an entirely Filipino crew. How did that situation come about?
Dan: We were scheduled to play a concert in Manila and a couple of months before we were supposed to go we got an email that said, “Hey, my name is Luis and I do production here in the Philippines. Would you be interested in staying an extra day to shoot a music video?” Our initial reaction to that was obviously a bit skeptical. Those situations don’t usually turn out so great (laughs). We started talking and he said, “I want to create, as a gift for you guys, a nice, museum quality video.” When we got there, he had this incredible crew and a great idea for the concept. We shot it all on RED cameras. We were completely floored. It turned out to be a stunning video. Probably the best we’ve ever had as a band. It was really just such a gift. We didn’t have to spend a dime on the video; they did it all. After the storm, that’s what gave us the idea to now use this same song and this video to, in essence, try to return the favor as best we can.
NT: As a band, you guys have never shied away from fully immersing yourselves in humanitarian efforts: founding Blood:Water Mission, partnering with the One Campaign. What fuels your drive to get involved and stay engaged?
Dan: For me, it’s really two-fold. A friend of mine gave me the definition of an artist as someone who looks at the world and describes it. We, as a band, have really taken that seriously. You have to look at the world, keep your eyes open, and see what’s going on around you. That’s where the great stories are and were the great songs come from. We’ve found a few of those stories that have really captured our hearts where we knew we could do more. That’s really our connection to Africa with Blood:Water. It’s a story that we felt we could give more of ourselves to than just simply writing a song about it. As artists, I think we have to stay connected to good stories. If we’re not connected to the places where people are overcoming great odds or fighting against strong adversity, I think we tend to lose our perspective. The path of an artist can go a couple of different ways. One of those ways is to use your wealth to pad yourself from the suffering of the world. We try to control our environment and keep those things away. However, those things that we’re keeping away are the people and the places were all the good stories are.
NT: Do you feel that the relationship between art and activism is inherently integrated or do you think it has to be learned through practice?
Dan: It really is an immersive thing. It takes being involved in it and it takes practice. Humanitarian efforts and getting involved in causes is really about people and relationships. You can write about something, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily know it. You just know about it. If you really want to write from an honest place, you’ve got to immerse yourself in it and become committed to it. Artists are infamous for jumping from cause to cause. “What’s the hip thing to care about right now?” They’re very nomadic in that regard. The reality is, the stories that we stay invested in, those are the ones that yield the most natural and true relationship between art and social justice.
NT: What specifically can your fans do to partner with you and join in the relief efforts for the Philippines?
Dan: We’ve tried to make it really easy. We’re trying to raise $50,000 for the Philippines. We’re offering “Fall Asleep” for free via NoiseTrade and if you download the song, we’re just asking you to offer a tip and all proceeds are going to relief efforts in the Philippines. It’s just a part of the continuing story of them offering us a gift and us collectively trying to give a gift back. We don’t all have to feel overwhelmed that we’re the only ones doing something, but together we can do really great things. We’ve learned that over the years with Blood:Water. $1 can give an African clean water for an entire year and over the last 10 years we’ve been able to serve over 900,000 people from small donations. That’s what matters: everybody feeling like they can do a little bit, because a little bit can help a lot.
Here are some additional photos from the set of "Fall Asleep" with the band, the director and the crew: