Interview: Greg Laswell

Posted 04/14/2010 07:35AM by Jonathan as Interview
04/14/2010 07:35AM

In the following phone interview, conducted April 5th, singer-songwriter Greg Laswell talks about his new record Take A Bow, his unique writing process and the importance of holding on to hope.

You’ve said this is the first album you’ve written where you weren’t completely miserable, but all of your albums center around the highs and lows of relationships. What were you trying to explore with this one?

I think it was just a mixture of a bunch of different things. There’s some songs on here that are really happy, and one of the saddest songs I’ve ever written is also on this record. Then there’s a few songs where I’m angry, which I’ve never done musically. I’ve never gotten angry in a song, so I did that for the first time. It felt right and I’m pretty proud of the way it turned out. I think people will be able to turn to my record for more reasons than just when they’re said or feeling melancholy.

One of the things that stood out to me on the record is it seems moodier than your other work. Is that something you picked up on when you were making it?

I don’t know. I think part of it was I didn’t really know what was happening at the time. I never really think objectively when I’m making a record. Then when it’s done I will come back to it for the first time as a whole and sometimes I’m a little surprised at how it turns out. With this one I did the whole thing off by myself in a cabin in Flagstaff with just my dog. I spent a lot of alone time, in fact the most I’ve ever been alone in my entire life was when this record was being made. I think that played into how a lot of these songs turned out.

Did you still write the majority of the songs on the piano?

It’s probably half and half, half piano and half guitar. I bought this little tenor guitar, which is a small, four-stringed guitar that’s tuned in fifths. I had that early on when I started the record and that guitar wrote a bunch of songs almost on its own. It kind of made different things come out and was a jump point musically.

The album’s called Take A Bow and then the cover has a lonely table sitting in the corner. What are you trying to say with those things?

Nothing too literal. I like the image. It tells the story of a lot of things that have occurred and it’s still standing. It’s weathered a lot. I like the image for that reason. You can tell it’s aged and been through several seasons, I suppose. Across my life, I feel like I’ve been through it and I’m still standing. I’m better than just still standing, I’m actually better for it. This album in some ways is a pat on the back, a “Hey buddy, you made it” type thing. I think that’s kind of the gist of it. I like how there’s not a real literal line between the title and the image, which is part of why I liked it.

My favorite song on the record is “Come Clean,” and I really love the soft guitar on the verse and then the huge distortion on the chorus. How did you come up with that?

Oh man, I don’t know [laughs]. I wish I knew. Every once in a while you come across a song that you’re not quite sure how you’re doing it, you’re just doing it, and that’s certainly one of them. The intro and the music of the verses has been a song I wrote instrumentally a little while ago. I always played it at sound check but I never had any lyrics to it or any chorus or any structure, it was just that one little piano riff. That’s where it was. That’s where it stayed for a long time.

Then I started working on this record and I pulled that little link out. I had this other song that I never really knew what to do with and it is the chorus of what is now “Come Clean.” That was all by itself in this other world, and then I decided what it would sound like if I just combined the two. I changed the key of one of them, so they were in the same key, put them side by side and it really worked. It made both of the parts better because of the other part it was attached to.

I think that song flows really nicely right into “Around The Bend.” You didn’t write those two together to bridge them or anything like that, did you?

No. They’re in the same key and I wrote them very close to each other around the same time. I didn’t realize they were in the same key. It was one of those happy accidents. On the first listen you almost think the beginning of “Around The Bend” is still “Come Clean.” You’re not quite sure that the song is over. I did put it there with that exact timing between the songs on purpose, but I didn’t write them as part one and part two. They’re different songs that fit next to each other.

Do you tend to view songwriting as a means to work out your personal stuff or more as an avenue for creativity?

I think equal parts both. I definitely use it as a personal outlet, for sure, and then it is my favorite creative outlet. I kill two birds with one stone.

During the last record you had this cool little quote where you said that you don’t necessarily do happy but you do hopeful. Does that still apply to this record as well?

Yeah, I think so. There’s a little bit more tongue in cheek about this. The lyrics are a little bit more playful and slightly more sarcastic. There’s a song called “Goodbye,” which is basically about saying goodbye to somebody. At first listen it can probably be construed as a pretty sad song, but the actual message of the song about getting to a place where you can say goodbye can be quite liberating and kind of frees you up for what’s next. In that way I think it’s definitely another hopeful record. I don’t think I ever want to get to a place where I’m just writing out of complete despair.

One of my favorite songs you’ve done is a little bit of an older one called “What A Day.” I’m just curious but is there anything that is specifically about?

It was a few weeks after my divorce, which is five years ago now. It was one of those songs that came out really quickly without me really thinking about it. The outro was written the day that my niece was born. In the midst of a very painful thing in my family’s life there’s this little baby being born, which breathes hope and life into the rest of the song. It’s actually one of my favorites, too, to this day for that reason and it’s my favorite song to do live. I don’t think I’ll ever play a show my whole life where I don’t play “What A Day.”

You attended Point Loma University down in San Diego. What did you study while you were there?

Communications and the beach [laughs]. It’s right on the water, which is the big pulling point for that place. I wasn’t really into being in college. I had a lot of fun but I barely graduated. I was a terrible student and didn’t have the patience for it. I was eager to get out just so I could do this.

I know that’s also a Christian university. Does that background have anything to do with the hope that’s found in your lyrics?

No, not at all. I’m not religious at all. In fact whatever religion I had I lost when I went there. I certainly don’t discourage anybody for their faith, but it’s not something that’s a part of my life.

In addition to writing you love to produce music as well. Does that go hand in hand with the writing process?

For me it does, yeah. I write like a producer, I think. I write song parts. I write songs with harmonies and string arrangements in mind at the very beginning. I rarely just write a song that’s complete in my mind with just a guitar and a vocal. I’m simultaneously writing everything all at once.

How much do you figure out while recording in the studio versus how much you written before going in?

Pretty much everything, man. The studio is a huge tool with how I write. I very rarely write a song with just me singing and an instrument. I’ll usually write a song while I’m in the studio recording another song. If I want to take a break, I’ll just start writing another one and record it as I go along. The benefits of that are you get to listen back to it right away and get the benefit of becoming objective in that way. A huge part of how I write is in the studio with the recording button on.

How long were you in the studio for this one?

I was in the cabin in Arizona for six months, but I was on tour off and on throughout those six months. I’m not entirely sure how long total I was there. I’d guess half the time. I did my covers EP there at the cabin and then I stayed there to do my record. So between those three months I did the covers EP and the record.

You still played pretty much all the instruments on this?

I did, yeah.

In addition you’ve produced a couple other artists here and there. Have you been doing any of that lately?

I haven’t. I haven’t had a whole lot of time. It’s something I love to do and I’ll certainly do it again, but I’ve been so busy with getting this record finished and getting ready to support this on the road. It’ll be a while before I have the time it takes to sit down and produce another record for someone else.

Originally you started out playing in a band. Do you miss being involved in something like that or do you like being on your own more?

I don’t really miss being in a band. It was so long ago now that I was ever in a band. We never really got out of San Diego. I was the one that was always the most serious about it, so I don’t miss being the only one that was really serious about it, you know? I still get the benefits of having a band and I take out a lot of the same guys on the road. I feel like I get the benefits of making friends on the road and being on stage with good friends and that sort of thing. Creatively I don’t think I’m supposed to be in a band. I have control issues [laughs].

I was reading that you shot the video for “Take Everything” in reverse. What all did that entail and when will that be coming out?

I had to sing the song backwards so when they flipped it in reverse it would like I’m still singing my words. That was really hard. It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in this career. Learning my entire song backwards is a lot more difficult than I thought when I initially said yes to the idea, but it turned out cool. I’ve seen it a couple times and it’s all finished now. We’re still waiting on a few things, so I’m not sure if I can talk about it yet, but it’s a pretty exciting thing that will be happening fairly soon. Then after that run I think it’ll go straight to iTunes, so people will be able to get it on iTunes, and then obviously it will be on YouTube.

Another thing I want to mention is Hotel Café, which I know a lot of up and coming singer-songwriters over the past couple years have been associated with. You’ve had some experience with it and I was wondering what do you think it is about that scene that makes it so special?

It’s a really natural environment for people who write songs to get support from their peers. There’s very little competitiveness going on. It’s just this community of people who are all friends, excited for each other and supportive of one another. Everyone is slightly different enough to where you kind of learn from each other. That’s the one thing I miss about not living in L.A. anymore is my Hotel Café family. I’m back a lot, so whenever I’m back I go by and visit everyone, but it’s just a really cool and natural thing that happened. It’s really hard to find, especially in this business and with everyone’s egos, to find an environment that’s not assholes being competitive and thinking they’re the best thing in the world.

So there’s nothing out there like that in New York?

Yeah, there is, it’s just not linked to a venue like Hotel Café. I have a lot of really good friends and there’s a really cool small music community in New York and in Brooklyn, but it’s not linked to a venue.

I think it was about a month ago that your record leaked online, which seems to happen to pretty much everyone now. Is that something you still worry about or do you just take it as it comes?

I heard it leaked but I don’t know if it bothers me a whole lot. If people can’t wait and want to hear it that bad to go and download it somewhere, I guess that’s kind of a good thing. It’s bittersweet, I guess.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about being a singer-songwriter these days?

That it’s easy [laughs]. Writing songs is the easiest part, but everything else can be a lot of work to do. It’s a lot of work, actually. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I’ve done some pretty shitty jobs. It’s the most I’ve worked in my entire life, but it’s also what I love. You have to love everything about it, otherwise you’re in the wrong profession.

Do you think the state of the economy has made it more difficult for singer-songwriters to make a living doing this?

I don’t, actually. For whatever reason I think going to a show or going to a movie or buying a record, I think it’s one of the last things people cut out of their budgets, or at least my demographic and the age groups I think I appeal to. Going to a movie or going to a show for 15 bucks is how a lot of people are dealing with the economy. They’ll cut in other ways before they’re going to cut out one of those, at least in my experience. I haven’t seen any change, really. In fact, I’ve played some of my biggest shows over the last year.

Would you say then that the singer-songwriter vibe, where the music is a little bit more real and about ups and downs, has become more relevant to people now than it was 10-15 years ago when the economy was still thriving?

I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t really know the answer to that. I don’t really listen to singer-songwriters, to be honest with you. I listen to hard rock and stand-up comedians, so I don’t really know how to answer that.

What hard rock bands do you listen to?

I like Slipknot, Tool, Nine Inch Nails and all that sort of stuff. Also some old stuff like The Cramps, Suicidal Tendencies, TSOL and all that punk stuff. It’s funny. I don’t really listen to anything remotely similar to my music, and people are always a little surprised by that [laughs].