An overly-long interview in which we day-drink with Drowners ahead of their UK tour.
On Desire recently came out – tell me about it.
MATT: The one that just came out? Well, we recorded it last winter at three different studios with a guy called Claudius Smittendorfer.
That sounds like a fake name…
MATT: Well, he’s German-born American raised. We’d been writing it for about a year and then he came in. We sent him some demos and he helped us with the arrangements.
DJ: He was our producer and our collaborator.
Did you have a producer and a mixer for the last one as well?
MATT: Yeah, we did the last one with this guy Gus Oberg and another man called Johnny T, but they were totally different. The first time we’d never really recorded – we didn’t do it in a studio, we did it in like a basement so all we did was plugged in and played. Whereas this one we wanted to be able to use the studio. Also, through playing and seeing other bands we became aware of possibilities.
So do you think that changed the sound of [the record] a lot? The opportunity to use an actual studio and to have a producer that was more collaborative?
MATT: Yeah, because the first one was only really meant to be like a polished live recording. This one, from the start we wanted it to be more like considered and atmospheric.
DJ: There was definitely a lot of intention behind the record. There was like a lot of conversations that went into it, there was a lot of thought or you know just like collaborative work together, like prep work.
There was a discussion beforehand instead of just showing up and jamming...
MATT: Well, with the first one we kind of just recorded our live set and going into recording this one, we hadn’t even played them live yet. And most of them weren’t even finished being written by the time we started so there was a lot more room for experimenting.
This [record] has a lot more synth – it’s a lot more 80s driven. How does that affect the live show?
MATT: well we had to get another guy to play live with us because we realised we didn’t physically have enough hands to play everything. That kind of came in because Erik especially had started getting into a lot of synth stuff and it’s also present on a lot of records we like so I just think we were consciously trying to not be so rock.
ERIK: It just goes along with adding atmosphere to a band where synthesizers are a kind of neutral – like it can be anything. Well, I guess not anything. It’s another layer in the whole mix of things that can kind of bring you into a different place – the palate changes.
DJ: Guitars always sound like guitars, and drums sound like drums, but synthesizers sound like anything. You can use synthesizers to sound like drums, you can make it sound like guitars, you can sound like –
JACK: A rose petal blowing in the wind…
ERIK: And we had access to some very amazing, vintage synthesizers so we kind of just dove into it.
DJ: I’m a drummer and a piano player, also – it’s actually my first instrument that I learned so I brought in some kind of technical ability.
Because you’re newish to the band…
MATT: It’s pronounced Jewish!
DJ: I’m Jewish and newish. I’m the newest Jew in the band. I’ve been in the band for about two years.
ERIK: He came in on the last leg of the first record.
MATT: And therefore was at the start of the writing for this one.
What were you guys listening to while you were making this album?
ERIK: A ton of different shit.
MATT: Cats fighting in the streets…
Rose petals blowing in the wind? Any specific influences?
DJ: It wasn’t an intentional thing like, we want to listen to XYZ just because we’re making the record.
ERIK: When you’re in a group and you travelling together, everybody’s got their different times of DJing in the car and I think a lot of it is kind of, you end up knowing each others reference points. You’re like, ‘Oh I really like this thing that Matt played that I’d never heard.’ So I think it’s just, we’re all just fans of music. There’s definitely a love of certain period of 80s UK music. But its not just limited to that.
DJ: I think we also wanted to be able to integrate a bit more dancey-ness and have a bit more of a groove to it. One of the things that we were listening to was a lot of disco music and dance music and stuff like that.
MATT: For me personally, touring the first [album] made me very aware of the strengths or weaknesses of the songs in terms of how people received them. So I was conscious of that – not conscious of who our fans are, but conscious of: if I heard this in a bar, would I be dancing to it? I had more awareness.
Right – because the first one, you kind of made an album having no real experience and with the second one, you obviously had the experience of making and touring the first album.
MATT: Well, I wrote the first one and it was literally the first twelve songs that I’d ever written by myself. And then the next one we all wrote together with an awareness of what its like to tour these songs and with the consideration that we’re better players and writers than we were before.
ERIK: I think that from seeing a shit load of live music all the time, you see how there’s an energy that’s exchanged between the audience and the band and its like this thing you end up picking up on.
MATT: It wasn’t a key factor in writing, it’s just an aspect that I wasn’t previously aware of.
DJ: It’s like a subconscious thing that you just get along the way.
ERIK: When we want to make something more dance-y it’s a result of our observation and shared experience with that energy exchange.
MATT: To dance or not to dance?
DJ: Forget we ever mentioned dancing!
Alright, no more dancing. The first album was a bit more light hearted, lyrically – a bit more traditional guitar rock but this one’s a bit darker, more moody.
MATT: I guess it’s a bit lighter. I think it just comes from knowing more about code things and how to – this is going to sound real wanker-y – turn a feeling into a sound. There’s more awareness of that. Because when you write a song, you’re like, ‘I’ve got this idea, this is how I want it to end up,’ and then if you’re not that good it ends up over there. Then, the better you get, the closer it ends up getting to your original thought. Which is sometimes kind of hard to do when there’s a bunch of barriers in the way.
DJ: And I think it’s fair to say that during the process of writing the record all of us were going through our own personal shit. So that gets reflected in something coming out slightly darker because it’s just reflective of our experience.
ERIK: We also started writing at a point of just coming off the road after what, a year and a half? I mean, it’s weird. It’s a weird thing to tour all the time and give up your normal life and your day-to-day and then suddenly you’re back.
Is it hard to come back?
ERIK: Yeah, for me it is.
MATT: I get the post-tour blues.
JACK: I’ve had both situations. Times where I’ve been hyped but sometimes it’s post-tour blues.
MATT: When you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to sound check today. What do I do?’
ERIK: There’s so much joy in touring all the time. I mean, don’t get me wrong, everybody hits their low points but I think for me, I get confused as to who I am and what I do. It’s not even joy or sadness or anything like that, it’s just going from this one thing and now having to change gears to this other thing so that we can continue to tour again. It’s kind of hard to integrate.
JACK: It’s fun to be on the road because time works differently. I feel like, you kind of get to this place at this time, play for 30 minutes and then hang out at a show, which I like to do anyways. But you’re not really thinking about anything weeks in advance.
ERIK: And you’re free because of that. So it’s nice. And then all of a sudden… I don’t know, it was just a weird time, with people having relationship situations and it’s hard when you’re on tour and you have a girlfriend. I think there are a lot of variables that led to a minor key record.
MATT: The first record only had one song In it with minor keys, so I was interested in trying to explore that whole other realm of what was previously untackled.
Are you guys excited to tour this album seeing as it seems it was more of a collaboration between the four of you?
MATT: The first one was still really fun – playing for different people all the time. This time I’m excited to tour because [the album] was recorded complexly..? With complexity? In a complex manner! It still feels like we can still refine things and I like that we can go, ‘We played it like this today and that bit was good but we should change that for tomorrow.’
It sounds like this time around is slightly more challenging.
MATT: Yeah, I enjoy that aspect of it.
JACK: Well, compared to the other one which was like, ‘Oh, lets just crank the guitars and if all goes well…’ But now you have to pay more attention to certain details but the payoff is larger and it sounds great. It feels fucking good.
ERIK: This is like our baby, and seeing it progress and seeing us individually progress and each song progress… It’s good.
MATT: Or regress.
ERIK: Well, we try to keep each other moving in a forward trajectory.
MATT: We just don’t know which direction its changing.
ERIK: Nah, it’s great to watch things change and become better as musicians and to write better songs.
It’s been a while since you put something out – do you guys feel like there’s been a lot of anticipation building?
ERIK: From us?
Yeah, well you’ve been in the process of making this record for a while, right?
MATT: I was dying to get it out because of the trouble nowadays is that there are so many bands doing so much shit that if you don’t play a gig for a year people forget about you. Or are like, ‘Oh, you haven’t been doing anything!’ But actually we were writing away for a year.
JACK: And the system pushes things back if you miss certain dates and things.
DJ: There’s a lot of waiting. We were done with the record around New Year’s and then what you have to do is you have to sit around and wait for 6 months basically.
MATT: We were like, ‘Okay let’s put it out tomorrow’
DJ: There are a lot of other parties involved and one of the biggest challenges is giving up control of the thing. Reigning yourself and saying, ‘My part, the creative part, is over and now the powers that be have got to do their thing.’
Is it hard to put this project that’s been your baby for so long into someone else’s hands and just be like, ‘Alright, let me know when we’re meant to go on tour’?
MATT: I don’t think it’s difficult because it’s necessary. But it’s more of the frustration of being like, ‘I want people to hear what we just did.’ Because you come out the other end of it super excited about it and wanting to play it to everyone straight away.
DJ: For instance, we’re going to the UK in October and that will be the first time we’re playing these new songs there but a year prior to that is when we were recording them. So to us, it’s not new anymore but you’ve got to find a way to stay excited.
Is it hard to be excited because they’re already old to you or not because you haven’t played them before?
MATT: Well, what I realised on the last one was that, there were certain songs we played hundreds of times but there’s some kid in Wisconsin that’s never heard them live before. And when I realised that, it made me excited to play.
Even though you’ve heard it a thousand times.
MATT: Yeah, but there’s some kid in Liverpool who’s never heard a song off the old album. It’s that thought that makes it exciting all the time.
ERIK: We’ve had enough time away from it too that it’s kind of nice to play.
JACK: Yeah, they’re refreshing in a way. And also sort of take different shape. It’s cool, the idea of the record being out and going back on tour because when you’re playing the new songs live before they’re out, it’s hard to tell if someone is into a song because they’ve never heard before. But now that it’s out, I’m excited to tour and see what people know and like off the new record and what stands out or what gets people off. That’s a very exciting thing.
MATT: We did a tour in that purgatory of having finished recording but the record wasn’t yet out so we were playing mostly new tunes to people who never heard them. And that is kind of weird. They’re like, ‘Yeah I like it but I don’t know what the hell it is!’
Because it’s so different from the first one do people take a minute to warm to it?
MATT: Well, we only really have one example of it on the day the record came out, but it seemed like people were into it maybe because we put songs up before the album came out. But it also seemed like new people who weren’t aware of the first one or maybe didn’t like it are now into it. I don’t think its been alienating.
So people haven’t been like, ‘What is this shit? This isn’t Drowners. I don’t like it.’
ERIK: I Think there’s always going to be that with any band changing what they do. But then there’s going to be the other people who, if you don’t change what you do and make the first group of people happy, they’re going to be like, ‘It’s the same fucking thing.’ Or they’re just going to say bad things anyway.
Don’t you think it’s a little risky for a sophomore album to be drastically different than the first one? ‘Sophomore slump’ is a real thing.
DJ: No, I think you’re right but I’ve found it really weird because I’ve heard people say that it’s exactly the same and that we’ve done nothing to push ourselves or something like that.
MATT: I think its different but then, I also went from being 24 to 28. And I’m a completely different person than I was then.
Right, well it should evolve.
DJ: But it’s not that different. It’s not like we put out a fucking country record or something. It’ll still be rock and roll-based in some capacity. You know, it all goes back to the same root.
It’s maybe a little glam rock.
JACK: Glam rock? I’ll take it!
ERIK: You saying like T-Rex?
Maybe a little T-rex! What do you think the perfect scenario to listen to this album top to bottom would be? If you had to set up the best circumstance to listen in…
MATT: I guess that’s the best circumstance for any album.
ERIK: Best way to do anything really!
JACK: I think driving’s good to listen to it. We definitely drunkenly blasted it out on tour a couple times. Like, ‘Ahh let’s just see what it sounds like in the ol’ van!’ And before you know it, you’re just screaming along and then you’re the fangirl!
DJ: That’s a really hard question to answer because we’ve all listened to the record a thousand times.
But the overall feeling of the record. You know how sometimes you listen to a record and you’re like, ‘Ah, this is a perfect summer record.’ Or, on the other side, ‘This is a great thing to listen to if you were holed up in a cabin.’
DJ: Mid-October. Definitely mid-October.
MATT: I was going to say, I think it’s equal parts road trip and headphones on your walk home in late September.
ERIK: It may be raining lightly.
DJ: There’s a bit of crisp-ness in the air. I don’t think its great for 95 degrees in New York City in the summer…
Maybe like an air conditioned disco hall.
JACK: It reminds me of screaming lyrics in your car, fighting with their girlfriend or boyfriend. Driving home when you’re like 16 and pissed, like ‘Ahh, this is speaking to me!’
DJ: Like, ‘Yeah, he does have cruel ways.’
JACK: Yeah, that sing-a-long the other day was good, how long ago was that?
You guys had a sing-a-long to your own album?
JACK: Nah, a different one but it reminded me of the feeling.
Which album was it?
JACK: I can’t say…
You can’t say because you don’t remember?
JACK: No I remember it very well I just -
ERIK: It was ABBA. Let’s go with that.
What? Now you have to say!
JACK: I don’t have to say.
MATT: No it probably was ABBA!
ERIK: I mean, it’s always ABBA.
MATT: I like ABBA sing-a-longs.
JACK: I almost got the ABBA tattoo last night. On my butt.
ERIK: Did you do it? I could do it!
[Conversation is inaudible but it involves tattoos and the AC/DC logo.]
What’s the worst part about tour?
ERIK: These motherfuckers.
MATT: I mean, it’s probably to completely give up your digestive privacy.
JACK: Not being able to eat real food is always the worst.
ERIK: Eating is hard, but also I get the fear a lot on tour. Because I’m drinking a bit more than normal and I get the fear a lot.
JACK: I’m probably drinking less.
MATT: I’m definitely drinking less.
Who drives the most?
DJ: We split it.
ERIK: It’s kind of split. I’d say me and DJ are close to tied and then Jack is after, and this one doesn’t drive.
Baby Matthew doesn’t drive?
MATT: How much longer can I get away with Baby Matthew at the age of 29?
Are you 29?
MATT: Yeah, I know. Everyone thinks I’m still 23.
[Jack starts singing ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ by Foreigner]
MATT: This is what being on tour is like – sitting in strange pubs, singing to a jukebox.
JACK: Being on tour is like being in a gay bar.
And how is that?
JACK: Nah, that’s not true.
MATT: I feel a lot more liberated on tour because the only people who know what I’m actually like are the other guys in the band and so if I feel like dancing, that’s fine.
Again back to dancing. Why do you feel inhibited here? Why do you have the fear of dancing?
MATT: Because I’m shy!
DJ: It’s because he’s Welsh!
ERIK: It’s kind of amazing because what you’re talking about is a real thing. Aside from the dudes that you’re with travelling with, you’re completely anonymous in any place. So you can kind of be whoever you want to be that day and just make that decision on the fly and just –
MATT: And also have zero consequences, because you’re leaving in 12 hours! Just travel with a suitcase of costumes – different character everyday!
So the glam rock thing is real?
MATT: It’s only a matter of time until everything comes back to glam rock.
What record gets played the most in the van?
MATT: ‘ABBA Greatest Hits’
ERIK: ‘ABBA Greatest Hits,’ yeah!
That’s a lie!
DJ: No it’s absolutely true!
Okay, fine. Favourite ABBA songs?
ERIK: Lyrically, my favourite one is ‘Does Your Mother Know?’ But I think as a song, I’m a ‘Voulez Vous’ guy. Maybe.
Strong choice. Jack?
JACK: I would say the exact same.
No, that’s a cop out!
ERIK: ‘S.O.S.’ is also up there.
MATT: I was also going to say ‘S.O.S.’
DJ: I have no idea what they’re even called.
MATT: I mean ‘Dancing Queen’ is just….
ERIK: I mean, yeah. C’mon. The mega-hits are the mega-hits.
JACK: We listened to one the other day that I didn’t know but was really good.
MATT: Lyrically, I like ‘I Kissed the Teacher.’
ERIK: You [MATT] were the one that turned me on to ‘The Day Before You Came.’
MATT: Ah, ‘The Day Before You Came’! Off ABBA’s last album.
ERIK: Oh, it’s crushing. And that idea has been ripped off so many times in so many other songs.
MATT: It’s about being dumped and then imagining what your life was like before you met that person that would then dump you. And it’s like eight verses long.
Is it sad?
MATT: Yes, all of ABBA is sad!
ERIK: But it sounds so happy.
MATT: We were literally sitting in the van and being like, ‘That feeling when every ABBA song speaks to you…’
What is that podcast that you listen to?
MATT: Oh, Song Exploder! I feel like every single interview is like a Song Exploder.
Okay, if you had to do a Song Exploder, which song would you choose?
DJ: From our record? Pick a song to make a Song Exploder?
Yeah, from your record. Which one would you do?
DJ: ‘Cross the tension.’ That would make an interesting Song Exploder.
ERIK: I was actually going to say the same thing.
DJ: That song went through the most changes.
Musically or lyrically?
MATT: Half the time the lyrics were just monosyllabic sounds, anyways.
DJ: I can’t wait to get on Song Exploder.
Is that the goal? Is that how you know you’ve made it?
MATT: I feel like over the course of recording I’ve subjected people to what is basically my own Song Exploder.
All photos by Erik Lee Snyder
Drowners are currently on tour in the UK and Europe through the end of October. Dates and tickets can be found here.