It seems like every other season, pop music's five-minute memory span turns today's hippest band into yesterday's tiredest party. Tastes change, little impresses, people forget. But every few years a group comes along with an original sound -- something big enough to roll over fickle trends and hip indifference. Dead Meadow is one of those bands. Singer/guitarist Jason Simon, bassist Steve Kille and drummer Stephen McCarty have been collecting fans with their potent, genre-bending mix of molten, heavy rock; chunky, chordal blues and glacial psychedelica since the DC-based act's formation four years ago. This month, they release their fourth album -- their first for indie taste-makers Matador Records.
I spoke with Steve Kille and Stephen McCarty about basic studio wizardry, old records and the real meaning of loud and heavy. If you haven't already, pick up a copy of their new album -- then run home, unplug the phone and get ready to feed your head!
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Splendid: We're here at Matador's office, talking about your new album, Shivering King and Others. For a lot of people who may not have been able to find your records before, this will be the first chance to hear Dead Meadow. And a lot of those people, I'm sure, will have something to say about how big the sound is, especially when you consider it's only three people making all that noise.
Stephen McCarty: We thought a lot about that, actually, especially early on -- to make something that was really loud; to make it as big as possible, whatever way it took. Because it was only a three piece, we felt we had to make it big.
Splendid: Stephen, I know you've been with the band for a while, but you just took over on drums. Do you feel like you've changed the sound at all?
Stephen McCarty: It sounds kind of funny, but I feel like the sound's changed me a lot. I had to play a lot harder and I started breaking things a lot more often. (laughter) People have told me that it sounds different. The new songs definitely sound different. But I wouldn't say that I've consciously tried to change anything.
Steve Kille: I don't think it's changed that much, especially live. I think rhythmically, we've always been kind of a backbeat band. Consistently it's been the same sort of feel. Playing bass, I notice a lot, you know, but I think it's more in recording that you notice a difference, because we've gotten a lot better in coming across with our ideas. I think with the newer stuff, it's a little more in line with what we always envisioned with the earlier records; we got to do some more acoustic stuff, kind of get a little more experimental. Maybe people will hear that when the new record comes out, or maybe they'll think it's not as raw and crazy as the first record. In a way we were only raw and crazy because we weren't able to invest all the time we've put into Shivering King (in an exaggerated voice) -- and get far out!
Stephen McCarty: (laughter) Yeah, the "far-outness", especially of the second half of the new record, really surprised me. Not so much when we were working on it, more when I heard it back.
Splendid: Do you consider yourselves then more of a live band or a studio band? This is really the first time you've had the resources to do more in the studio, with echo-tapes, Moog and sitar, to name a few.
Steve Kille: I think it's two different things when you get into it. When we play live, it feels like its own thing. I mean, even songs we play a little bit more laid-back on the recording, we try to hype up a little live to make it into more of a show. In the studio, it's great because you have more of an opportunity to experiment. Working out ideas, you can say, instead of doing it on a guitar, let's do it with a keyboard line instead. But it's nearly impossible for us to recreate that live. I think we're both (a live and a studio band), because we kind of tweak out a bit as far as studio stuff. (laughter) We definitely fall into the crazy Beatles world of wanting to experiment with everything. I think that first two records would have been as experimental as this one, had we had the opportunity to do it that way. Those are all ideas we kicked around for years. Even for the first record, before we recorded it, we were talking about doing one side all acoustic with keyboards and all sorts of crazy shit, but it just never happened that way. There will always be heavy songs, but there will also always be more experimental songs, and now we finally have the opportunity to do it that way.
AUDIO: I Love You Too
Splendid: But would you say you maintain the energy of the live shows in the studio recordings? That is, are you ever concerned that experimenting in the studio detracts from that kind of explosive side of the live shows?
Steve Kille: When we starting coming up with the band, trying to figure out what we wanted to do, we thought a lot about making songs that had the same sonic quality as old, classic records -- or at least songs that gave you the same feel. Like Neil Young and the Beatles and all these records that approach things in a more laid-back way than more modern records do. It feels like every record nowadays asks the same question: how can we hit things as hard as possible? I don't think we've ever done that with our records. You know, some people may be like: What the fuck? Why do the drums sound that way? But what we're being influenced by is more Crosby, Stills Nash and Young's Déjà vu as opposed to whatever the new modern rock band is -- you know, like Queens of the Stone Age, where everything is like (he sings) da na na na na -- you know, in your face. We purposely tried to pull things back, because I don't really like listening to records that are so in your face.
Stephen McCarty: People always approach us at shows and talk about heavy music. Even though I like some heavy bands, I don't really listen to heavy music a lot. They'll come up to me speaking what sounds like a different language. Things like: "Oh, well you must know Whores Of The Black Night. (laughter) You must be really into Ottoman Scepter or whatever."
Splendid: I've heard you compared to High On Fire.
Stephen McCarty: Well, we really do like High On Fire. But there's a whole world of stuff; it's not that we don't like it, we just don't really have any frame of reference for it, because we're sitting at home in our rooms listening to our parents' records.
Splendid: I read something recently about (Beatles producer) George Martin, talking about the early mono days of the Beatles, when they could only record in two channels. Well, he was really frustrated with EMI not putting money into development for the stereo technology that already existed, so he went out to Capitol Records in LA, where they had, imagine it, four whole channels, where you could record lead vocals in one, background vocals in another and then instruments in the other two. Do you think there was something to the technological limitation of old records?
Steve Kille: You know, Jimmy Page said something interesting about that in an interview I read, where he was complaining about all the stuff he's done since the eighties on. He could never retouch the things he did with Led Zeppelin, because he had to deal with making things work with a limited amount of channels, a limited amount of processing. It's like you had to kind of experiment, and that experimentation is kind of what made this beautiful-sounding music. You would never be able to touch the stuff created on eight tracks for Led Zeppelin IV with you know, the forty-eight tracks he was using for bands he was working with in the eighties. There is so much at your fingertips that you can never really recapture that same sort of magic.
Splendid: What's your songwriting technique like?
Steve Kille: Well, Jason writes most of the lyrics. Especially on this new record, there's a lot of stuff he wrote before we were really talking about it. But I think anything's on the table with our band. We all throw in ideas.
Stephen McCarty: If anyone has an objection, we have no problem saying, you know, "I think that sucks" or "We need to change that", and I think that everyone responds to those objections pretty well, because we trust each other.
Splendid: Do your songs evolve more out of what you do at the practice space? Or do you guys come in with ideas you've been thinking of beforehand?
Steve Kille: Well, in the earlier days, Jason would have an acoustic song, like "Dusty Nothing", and then I'd have a crazy bass line, so then eventually we just ended up sitting down to work these two ideas together that create that song. But I think what's cool with the new album is that we wrote a lot of stuff as we were recording the record. There was a period when I was gone for a little while, and they took a song -- those guys were just hanging out, 'cause we had the studio in the basement of my house -- and they basically added all these extra parts and had all this different music and were recording it and writing it at the same time. And it's really cool to have that ability. It's stuff you wouldn't necessarily have come up with if you were just jamming on it live. There's a lot of communication of ideas.
Splendid: Now that you're on Matador, you're going to be attracting listeners that you probably wouldn't have had before. Are you feeling more pressure to please a new audience?
Stephen McCarty: I don't think we have that option. Even if we wanted to change or be more commercial, I don't think we could. Even if it crossed our minds, I don't think that's really on the table.
Steve Kille: A lot of our songs, I've always felt, are kind of heavy pop songs anyway. I don't think they differ that much from a pop song, other than the fact that they're really long. Especially if you strip them down, if you were playing acoustic guitar -- verse, chorus, verse. Lots of melody. I think the thing I feel more is just having all our shit together; sometimes we have problems with our amps and things like that. I feel there's a pressure as we play more shows to make sure that everything's together, that we're a little more solid than we've maybe been in the past.
Stephen McCarty: The thing is, we're creating so much noise and pushing our instruments and our equipment so much that it feels like nothing is built to do what we do to it (laughter). I was listening to a radio thing that Pete Townsend did, where he was talking about meeting with the guy who created Marshall amps, where he told him: I need a machine to kill people. I'm paraphrasing. I need a bigger weapon to kill the older generation of people who were in WW2, the ones who think we're just lazy. I need to blow their minds. And so with Marshall, they built those amps that could do it. Those amps still exist, but now they're harder to come by. Orange still builds amps like that, but we've got to get them shipped from England and of course we need money to keep them going. (thinks a moment) I need to keep buying cymbals.
AUDIO: Good Moanin'
Steve Kille: (laughter) The type of music we're playing definitely puts more strain of repair of our instruments.
Stephen McCarty: When you first play shows, there's more of that attitude where you're just want to say: "fuck it"; I guess there's still that, but with playing to more audiences, you want to make sure every show is good and that everyone's getting their money's worth.
Steve Kille: When we first started playing, we didn't know if anyone would like our band. Especially coming from DC -- we were coming from this tradition of Fugazi and a lot of punk rock stuff. We were worried that people were really going to hate us, but eventually the people who first started supporting us were the guys from Fugazi -- the same ones we were worried about hating our stuff. I think a lot of bands that try to do a retro sound, tend to be a bit elitist and extreme in the way they go about things, and I think we've always been open to incorporating tons of ideas.
Stephen McCarty: Yeah, they're like: "We're going to do Raw Power-era Iggy and the Stooges!" (laughter) But it's pretty much impossible to capture that magic again -- unless, of course, you're Iggy and the Stooges.
Steve Kille: Wouldn't it feel weird if Iggy Pop came to your show and you were doing that routine?
Splendid: (laughter) On the new album there are a couple of songs that have a real blues flavor to them. Were you guys listening to a lot of blues while making the album or is it something you've always wanted to try out?
Steve Kille: There are a lot of blues scales on the record. Jason definitely listens to a lot of blues. On the second record (Howls From The Hills), we had a lot of ideas about getting more bluesy and, you know, just dirtier like that, but we didn't have a lot of the stuff finished, so we've really spent time with this new record making sure it had the right feel for some of that blues feel to come across.
Splendid: I had a question for Jason about his lyrics that I thought you might want to try to answer yourselves. I'm sure he'd really love that. (laughter) Are the lyrics there for people to really listen to or do you think they're more a part of the band's sound as a whole? A lot of his lyrics, lines like "the stars they shine so bright in the sky" have that quality of seeming really simple on the surface, but on the other hand come across as anything but straightforward.
Steve Kille: I hate to say it about the guy -- (laughter) and I don't want to give him props, but he is a really good writer. Really well-read and all that. (Pause, then in feigned exasperation) Fuck him!
Stephen McCarty: I think that's one of the definitions of a good lyricist and Jason has that: he can say something that's completely simple, but it expresses something completely different.
Steve Kille: Yeah, I think he's getting more to that point on this new record. And he probably wouldn't say this if you were talking to him, because he's not really like that. But just as a friend of his and just seeing it develop, I think it's pretty great, what he's able to do with the vocals. And I hope people pick up on it.
Stephen McCarty: I think that even though the vocals were an important part of the previous Dead Meadow records, it was like there had to be a counter-move to the way most records are mixed, where the vocals are the most important thing. With those records the vocals were mixed down a lot. With this one I think they're at just the right level: not too much up front and not mixed too low.
Splendid: Did you resort to any real studio tricks to get that sound?
Steve Kille: Just normal stuff you do anyways. A lot of the vocals we did a little EQing on, some compression, we had reverb going. We had all sorts of crazy shit going, too. Some of the vocals are actually run through a second line in an amp, like an old Traynor 60 amp, then that amp is miked. So there was an amplifier and a direct-to-the-board. A lot of experimenting like that.
Stephen McCarty: Yeah, the vocals would be run through the amp, through the space-echo, so you'd have the clean vocal track and then you'd have the insane vocal track. In the middle of "Everything's Goin' On" you can hear just the second insane track.
Steve Kille: We recorded the album at my house, in the basement. I actually share the house with a guy who's an amp collector, so there's a lot of great stuff we had at our finger-tips.
Stephen McCarty: Jeff Boswell! Couldn't have done it without him.
Steve Kille: That's true. That's really true. He has, like, a pre-Beatles Vox amp and all this crazy stuff and we used it a lot.
Splendid: Do you see Dead Meadow ever getting away from the slow sound that plays such a big part on your records? There's one track on Shivering King in particular -- "Good Moanin'" -- that's absolutely sludgy!
Steve Kille: I think there's always a place for us to have songs like that, because having songs like that is kind of what makes a three-piece so great live. And "Good Moanin'" is definitely one of our strong live songs. There are songs on the new record where we're like, those are our live songs, those are our more experimental songs.
Stephen McCarty: Lately, we've actually been trying to recreate some of the acoustic songs for a live setting, and by doing that, making a totally new arrangement for them. Sort of like how the older version of "Everything's Goin' On" was a really fast, super punk-rock sort of thing. We still play it that way live, but we also play the new version live. We've been doing a new version of "Heaven" (on Shivering King) that's more for a full band. I don't think anything's off limits in terms of changing songs around.
Stephen McCarty: Maybe in the future we could do the acoustic songs live.
Steve Kille: We actually have done a few acoustic shows in DC.
Splendid: That might freak your fans out. They'd buy the new album, go to the show and have to deal with you guys up there "sshhhing" them. (laughter) Your live album, Got Live If You Want It!, has a couple of tracks -- "Good Moanin'" and "Everything's Goin' On" -- that are included on the new album.
Stephen McCarty: "Everything's Goin' On" was on the second album; we just changed it around. Like the same song with new arrangement.
Splendid: So those weren't songs that were already slated for the Matador album, just things you wanted to include? I'm asking because it's already a long album.
Steve Kille: It's 105 minutes. But they were kind of in development. That was stuff that we had for a new record, regardless of whether we were with Matador or not. But when we recorded Got Live! was during the time we were writing; we were starting the beginning step of writing new songs for the third record.
Splendid: And the title, Got Live!, has something to do with the Stones album? (silence) Right?
Steve Kille: Yeah, we had nothing to do with that.
Stephen McCarty: It was basically Anton Newcombe from Brian Jonestown Massacre, who approached the band and wanted to do a live record -- I think he even purchased bootlegs from someone at Maxwell's (laughter) and then he got the guy from Bomp to do it. And the band was pretty much just hands off.
Steve Kille: He mastered it, he did all the artwork for it and he named it. It was kind of his vision of it, which is cool, you know. It was awesome to have a record where all we did was play the show then get the whole package back, because we record all our albums ourselves, for the most part, and we do pretty much everything from the ground-up -- you know, artwork and everything within the band. So it was nice, kind of a gift, having someone else do it.
Splendid: Steve, you did the artwork on the first and second albums. With the Shivering King, did you do the artwork yourself or is that something you decided to hand over to Matador?
Steve Kille: Well, I did a collage that's part of it, kind of reminiscent of the first record, and then we all kind of put in ideas -- like Steve (McCarty) has a piece of art that's going to be in it and then we did this collage wizard art for it. I kind of feel this new record is a collection of different things we've done with previous records, but now it's all together in one sort of format.
Stephen McCarty: Yeah, the art sort of has the darkness of the second record, but the lightness of the first record.
Steve Kille: It's going to be gate-fold. It opens up to this big wizard sorta thing. I'm excited about it. The second record we did ourselves and we had all these grand ideas with it, like if you look closely at it -- well, you can see it on the vinyl -- there was this sort of art-nouveau, rough collage thing of leather vines wrapped around a picture that we took, and we did all this stuff, but when it came down to the actual post-production of scanning it in and all that, it didn't really capture a lot of those ideas too well. But maybe someday we'll rescan it. I was just looking at the original art and it's crazy how much more vivid it was and how it created a different vibe than the final version that came out on the vinyl -- which was kind of dark -- when it was printed.
Stephen McCarty: With the new one, it's the other way around. The original looks crappy (laughter) and the new one looks better.
Splendid: I want to go back to what you said about it being Anton's idea to name the live record Got Live! It got me thinking about that Stones album, which for anyone into the Stones -- it's really messy, really loud, with all the girls screaming. Do you think Dead Meadow is messy or do you think of yourselves as more technical?
Stephen McCarty: (nervous laughter) It can be, but I guess just thinking about what people have written about our music -- it being organic and something that kind of builds on itself. I don't necessarily think anything we're doing, we're consciously trying to do; if it gets messy, it's because it has to -- not because we're referencing Nirvana or something like that.
Steve Kille: It's definitely something I've noticed with a lot of three-pieces. Your shows vary a lot depending on the sound, maybe because there are three musicians playing, so the way the audience hears it really depends on how loud things are and whether the show was really messy or really tight. It's kind of the same way with three-piece classic rock bands: some shows come off totally raw and crazy-sounding and others sound really refined.
Stephen McCarty: There's something about having another guitar player there that would just ice the messy cake. But when it's just three people I think cooler things can happen. There are some potential disasters, though.
Steve Kille: Yeah, but the disaster only happens when, say, your amp isn't working right. And then it's like, "shit!", there's not a keyboard or anything else that's going to help cover that up. But in a way, that's what makes it interesting, too.
Splendid: I'd like to close with a hard question: If you had to file your music under one category, what would it be? Psychedelic, heavy metal, acid or stoner rock...what?
Steve Kille: I used to work at a record store, so sometimes I think about that. I guess I just think of us as a heavy pop-rock band. I mean we have heavy guitar solos and we do some pretty crazy stuff, but I don't think it's that much different than anything else. In some ways the lo-fi aspects of it gives me the vibe of early Guided By Voices records.
Stephen McCarty: What do you call pop music that's not really popular? I'm not saying I don't want people to listen to it. I think that's a question a lot of people have been asking nowadays.
Steve Kille: Creativity in music is weird. All these crazy bands coming out, like the modern rock hip band that people get into for the week. It's really gotten to this weird level. I don't even understand how these bands are popular.
Stephen McCarty: There's a lot of bands for whom music isn't really the priority.
Steve Kille: I understood it back when bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the major label hip band.
Stephen McCarty: Yeah, well, bands like that were actually good. There's a radio station, HFS in the DC area, and they have a '90s Neuter Hour and they'll play hard-rock hits from the early nineties, and it might just be because I was like fourteen and I thought everything kicked ass then, but it really does sound so much better. Like, I listen to Alice In Chains; I don't listen to the Hives. I'm sure they're a good band in their own right and I'm not trying to get personal; it's just the way it is for me.
Splendid: Well, I've taken enough of your time today. Thanks so much for coming in and best of luck with the new record.
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Rob Guthrie has two right hands.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - katherine radke (b/w), michele montand (color) :: credits graphics ]