I recently had the opportunity to chat with James “Cubby” Nelen of the band The Reason during a stop on the current tour with Anberlin, Jonezetta and Daphne Loves Derby. We discussed their new album, touring and their upcoming takeover of the USA among other things. Big thanks go to Amelia over at Smallman Records for setting this interview up!
You guys have been on tour for the past month or so promoting the new album Things Couldn’t Be Better, how has it been going?
Cubby: We came out in February with Ten Second Epic and The Spill Canvas right before the record came out and that was a fantastic tour. This one we’re doing with Anberlin just started three days ago and so far it’s been great.
I heard you named the album before you had even written any songs for it, did you feel obligated to live up to the title at all?
Cubby: Pretty much, before we had completed any songs. We wanted to focus on a theme for the record before we got into lyrics or even into a lot of the music stuff. We wanted it to be a lot more positive and prettier sounding and little bit less aggressive than our last record was.
Didn’t Things Couldn’t Be Better take about two years to write?
Cubby: Yeah, from start to finish. We finished the album last July and we had started in August of 2005 on the album.
Yeah, because I remember hearing all these things about how it was supposed to be out April ’06 and then later and then it never did.
Cubby: Oh yeah, it just kept getting pushed back and pushed back and it was so crazy.
And your older album, Ravenna, took about six months to finish.
Cubby: It was definitely a much shorter of a time span, we wrote the songs and then got into the studio and put it out right away. It all happened in about nine months from when we wrote it to the date of release.
What was it like then, having so much more time with Things Couldn’t Be Better?
Cubby: It was actually not given to us! There were a lot of things that kind of slowed down the process. Halfway through recording our drummer broke his hand and then we had to wait for him to heal. It was a positive thing because we got a lot more time to work on crafting the songs well and making sure that they sounded good and that there were no duds on the album.
Did you feel any pressure at all because you had so much more time with the new album?
Cubby: It was weird because well, kids forget about you quicker than you want them to. Ravenna came out in September 2004 and if you’re gone for a long time people start forgetting about you and it’s really important that when they hear you again you hit them impactfully. [laughs] Like, they hear you and they don’t have to be sold on you again and then get swept up in your band again. So far it has been really good like that but it was definitely kind of worrisome not knowing how people were going to react to the new stuff and getting back to the swing of things was difficult. Getting back into touring was weird because we had basically taken an entire year off the road and that was unbelievable because we’ve never been at home for that long before. We all couldn’t believe how big Canada was because it had been so long since we drove across it!
What was it like working with Gavin Brown for the album?
Cubby: Amazing! He really helped us focus; our song writing was more focused… I just said focused twice…
It’s obviously an important factor to the album!
Cubby: Yeah! He trimmed a lot of fat [off the album]. We had a lot of parts that were completely unnecessary and were confusing to listen to and confusing people who are listening to you isn’t always a good thing. Simplification really helps; a song is basically a melody over top of a rhythm so we really tried to strip it down to that. So we were like “We have a melody and we have a cool beat” and then we just built everything up around that.
How did working with Gavin get arranged?
Cubby: Yeah, we sent him some demos and our manager was ruthless. He was just so persistent and kept on egging him and egging him and eventually he came out to see us out at Edgefest two years ago. Luckily enough we played really well that day and he enjoyed it and agreed to work with us! It was really great because normally he doesn’t agree to work with smaller independent bands; he usually does a lot more large rock bands like Billy Talent, Three Days Grace… that kind of stuff. It was fantastic and was such a great opportunity for us.
Knowing the kinds of bands that he has worked with, was working with Gavin intimidating at all?
Cubby: It was intimidating before we met him and got to know him because once that happened it was awesome. He is such a great guy and so much fun to work with, a barrel of laughs and always super professional at the same time.
How was recording Things Couldn’t Be Better different than Ravenna, especially with the addition of Gavin?
Cubby: It was a lot different! We had never worked with a producer before so it was great having an outside opinion giving us advice. He would do a lot of stuff while we were doing pre-production and he would come out to our rehearsal space and just tell us things like “I like this part and I like that part but switch them around, put that over there… and play!” We were really not used to that, dissecting the song and putting things all in different orders and trying to play it again. After a little while we all got the hang of it and it made us all better musicians too. Once we got into the swing of things it was such a blast but definitely way different to anything we had done before.
What is your writing process usually like and did it change at all?
Cubby: Lyrics are usually the last thing that happens. It’s always been music focussed first. It’s weird because we have this fluid kind of thing and it all depends on what’s happening around us. Adam [White], our lead singer, he does the majority of melody and song-writing type stuff. Sometimes he’ll just have a melody idea and the rest of us will build a song around that and other times somebody will have a little riff or part that we’ve worked on and we’ll build it up around that. A lot of times we’ll actually have parts that are in songs that we write an entire song around them and that part won’t end up being in the song in the end. There was one part that we dubbed “the part that wrote songs”. It was like we had this part and it was such a sweet part and we wrote a song around it and then that part didn’t fit anymore so we were like “ok, lets write another one” and so we started writing another song around it and the same thing happened and so we kept writing songs around it but it never actually made it onto the record!
I’m sure you guys have heard a lot about the obvious changes in your sound and I read in another interview that you said your “change in sound was inevitable.” Was this a conscious change then, to go towards something more mature sounding?
Cubby: It was definitely mostly natural. A lot of the parts were parts that we had always screwed around with before and we kind of limited ourselves and were like “we’re not that kind of band, we can’t play that kind of stuff” and then we just hit this point where we just said “why are we doing that? Why are we limiting ourselves?” I would pick up my guitar and this is what would come out so why would be fighting that? So we just chose to run with it and try and make it work and it was a lot more fulfilling to be able to write and not have one specific genre or sound in mind and just to write what was coming out.
Did you have anything that you wanted to accomplish going into recording?
Cubby: Um, not really! I didn’t have any preconceived notions. Basically I just wanted it to sound amazing and it did so that was all I was hoping for. That’s what we got with Gavin, his experienced ear and all the little tricks of the trade like making the guitars sound huge and the vocals sound really cool and all the stuff that we couldn’t do ourselves because we didn’t really know how to do them. I didn’t have any specific ideas, I just hoped that the end product was really good!
A lot of people are saying that Brown gave you guys a “slick, radio friendly album”. Was this something that you were hoping to achieve with working with him?
Cubby: Well I guess it just goes back to it being all pretty natural. All of us were born in the 80’s and we listened to a lot of really pop friendly stuff. The first band that I ever liked when I was like 5 or 6 years old was the Beach Boys and from there for me it’s always been about really good vocal melodies and really catchy hooks and that’s the stuff that I’ve always liked. I think it was more natural because of this, because we grew up with these kinds of influences.
Yeah, I’ve read that you guys were listening to a lot of The Police and The Cure and what not during recording, was there anything else that you were listening to at the time that influenced you?
Cubby: The ones that you mentioned were definitely the biggest ones for us. It’s weird though because there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t really audible in our record but was still really influential to us. We listened to a lot of R&B and hip hop and reggae and things like that that you wouldn’t really think we would be listening to. It’s not like you would listen to our record and be like “Oh yeah, these guys definitely like Dr. Dre”, you know? But it’s true, that kind of stuff gave us a love for well produced and good sounding stuff. I listen to a lot of different music because listening to your own stuff just gets boring and you need that to keep everything sounding fresh. If you look at my iPod there is the most random stuff on there like Hank Williams all the way to like, John Coltrane. I don’t think there is a style of music that exists that someone in our band doesn’t listen to. It’s all music right? A good song is a good song whether it is played on a banjo or an electric organ.
You said that the album was completed last July right? Why was there such a delay in the release?
Cubby: Basically, once we finished it, we thought we would have it out by October or November and that was what we were all pushing for because we were all so stoked. But Warner Music, they distribute Smallman Records, they really liked the record a lot and wanted to give it a really good push and they would help a lot with that. From their experience they wanted a lot of lead time and a lot of time to get it ready and they didn’t think they would have enough time to do that [with a November release]. So December is a no fly zone, if you want to put something out in December don’t bother because you’ll just get lost in the Christmas rush. The only people that can release a CD in December are like Elton John or Christina Aguilera or something, big HUGE names, and then it’s usually Christmas albums or something like that. So we were like ok, if we can’t do it in December there is no point doing any publicity for it if we can’t release it this year. They couldn’t start publicity for it until January and they like having eight weeks of lead time so that’s why it came out in March! It was definitely a positive thing but we were tearing our hair out over it!
Was it really hard waiting for it to come out, knowing that it was just sitting there?
Cubby: It was just crazy because we are so intimately familiar with all the songs now and it was like by the time we had almost completed all the songs until the time the record came out it was almost a full year. We are all sitting there, hoarding the songs to ourselves and our families and we were the only ones who could hear them. We just wanted to get them out to the fans because that is what it’s all about, getting out and playing live. And then once the fans get the album it’s still a couple months before they start getting used to the songs and start singing along at shows… unless you get like, hardcore fans that pick it up on day one and listen to it twelve times on the way home and memorise all the lyrics. It’s just starting about now where we’ve started noticing people in the crowd knowing the words and the songs and it’s such a great feeling!
Since you completed it so long ago, have you written any new stuff at all? Or have you just been so stoked on the album being completed?
Cubby: We haven’t really worked on completing any songs, we have a bunch of little parts and stuff. But we didn’t really want to start doing any of that because we had just started to do this and by the time we get time to do another record who knows what we’ll be doing and we could like totally different stuff and it might have all changed by then. We’re always just screwing around in practise but nothing really concrete yet.
How many songs did you end up recording for Things Couldn’t Be Better?
Cubby: Just twelve actually! We were originally going to hold back one or two of the songs but then after showed them to Smallman and Warner they were like “You gotta put all of them on, they’re all good songs.” Can’t argue with that!
What is your response to the people who disregard the album because it isn’t as “heavy” or “hard” as Ravenna, especially older fans?
Cubby: Whatever! There’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t continue writing songs like that because it would just be dishonest and being fake in music is one of the worst things you can do. It’s just lying to yourself and lying to your fans and it’s just wrong. You can’t rock out to songs that you just aren’t feeling anymore. So if people don’t like it, that’s fine! They’re allowed to have their own opinions and their own tastes but this is kind of stuff that we are writing now. I think it definitely has alienated some fans, there are some that listened to the last record and they wanted us to come up with songs like “Red Sky Dawn” that were just really heavy and brutal but that kind of stuff wasn’t where we were anymore.
How did the video come together for “This is Just the Beginning” come together with Sean Michael Turrel? Did he approach you guys first?
Cubby: Sean Michael Turrel is just fantastic. We actually approached him first and at first he was kind of unsure because we sent him “All I Ever Wanted” which was originally going to be the first single. He didn’t have any immediate ideas and he’s a really creative kind of guy where he listens to something and if it sparks something then he’ll get really excited about it. When we figured out we were going to be doing “This Is Just the Beginning” instead he immediately had a dozen ideas and things he wanted to try. It was fantastic and such an amazing experience. It was the first time we had ever shot a video like that. It was filmed with 35mm which is SO cool but SUPER expensive. There was a huge crew and it was the first time we ever had to do that. There were seriously like 25 people there working for us and it was such a humbling experience having those people there just for your song. They’re doing all this work just so we can play and get in front of the camera a little bit.
Did you ever think you would make it to that kind of point?
Cubby: Well I had always hoped! It was just like the record, I never realised that it was something that was attainable. It never became a real fantasy so when it actually started happening it was a huge shock.
What is the next single you guys are putting out?
Cubby: I think we are releasing “All I Ever Wanted” now. We just got approval from VideoFACT which means it will be on 35mm again and hopefully a good video like that. I think Sean Michael Turrel is going to be doing it again too, after he had some time to percolate on it!
I get the impression that you have a really good relationship with your label Smallman Records, how important do you think it is to have a close relationship with a record label?
Cubby: Yeah! We love Smallman, they are so great for us. They believe in the same things we do and want to accomplish the same things that we do. On the other hand, I think it’s really important to establish that line between business and friends because ultimately the label has to do what is best for them and we have to do what is best for us. We’ve been really lucky because everyone over at Smallman is on the same page as us and it’s been a really great environment to be in.
You guys have a pretty loyal following in Canada obviously, any plans to conquer the US at all?
Cubby: Yes! Definitely! It’s tricky because in Canada there are only so many cities and you can only play them so many times. We are at our limit already and it’s already only April.
Yeah, three times here [Calgary] in four months.
Cubby: Yeah, that’s a LOT. It’s kind of stretching it thin because you aren’t sure if people are gonna want to see you so many times. Sometimes you need to let the fans breathe and give them time to get stoked to see you guys again. It’s kind of like the whole supply and demand theory, if they just saw you would they want to see you right away? That’s where going to the states becomes really important because it’s really easy to tour down there. There’s way more cities to go to, you could go down there for three months and not even hit close to all the places you could be playing in! It’s super important for us and right now we’re in talks of getting a good record deal down there. It’s kind of hard to tour down there because if you don’t have good support from a record label because there are just so many bands and so many shows going on all the time. We’ve done it before and have toured a bit of the states a couple times and it’s brutal. You’re just trying so hard and like, five or ten people show up and we definitely appreciate them but it’s just hard. To make it worthwhile and to be able to afford to tour down there we have to make a little bit of money! Once the record label thing gets hooked up we’ll be down there ASAP.
What labels have you been talking to, or is it hush hush?
Cubby: Well there’s nothing really specific yet. Smallman manages us as well and they’re in the midst of talking to a whole bunch of people.
Well who would you like to see yourselves signing on with?
Cubby: Obviously there are some majors that would be awesome! But realistically it would be cool to be on Vagrant or a label like that where there are some bands we could fit in with really well and get some cool tours going. A label like that would be really cool and obviously we want someone that’s willing to work hard to break us down there since no one really knows who we are yet.
The band tours a lot, obviously, would you consider yourselves more of a live band or one of those “album bands”?
Cubby: I like to think we’re more of a live band. I mean, I love our new album and I hope everyone else and listen to it and like it but I hope that when you come to the show that it’s even better. That’s what we want to achieve because you want people to come to the show and experience something that they can’t experience when listening to it on headphones.
So when you were recording the album did you hold back at all because you couldn’t do it live?
Cubby: Actually it’s funny because we really didn’t hold back so when it got to time where we had to perform the stuff we were like “How are we gonna do all this!?” Adam had to start playing more keyboards and we have a sampler now, Cam plays to a click track all the time because we have all these samples. It might have helped us if we had thought about that in advance but at the same time we didn’t have to be held back! We want to make the songs sound as good as they can no matter what is required so if it requires that we have to buy a bunch of new equipment so we can play this stuff live, so be it!
What are your favourite new songs to play live?
Cubby: Um… that’s a good question! One of my favourites definitely is “I Felt a Song Inside Me.” That song is really high energy and just really fun to play live and we play it second last now and it’s pretty much the last burst of energy that I have left when we get to it. “This is Where We Go It Alone” is the second, those two are probably my favourite ones to play. My favourite song on the album is “Reset the Breaker” but we haven’t played that live yet because it’s one of those things like we talked about earlier. There’s an acoustic guitar and there’s organs and there’s tons of samples and we just don’t have enough people to do it now! At some point in time we’re going to have to get someone else so we can pull that one off live.
What are your favourite places to play?
Cubby: That’s a good question too! I love Montreal, Montreal is always awesome. It’s so fun to be there and it’s such a crazy city to be in. Being on the island [Vancouver Island] is fantastic, in general any place on there… Nanaimo not as much [laughs] Victoria is fantastic and all the little towns are just unbelievable. Actually Alberta, both Edmonton and Calgary are amazing. Edmonton last night was just unbelievable and tonight it’s another sold out show!
Do you guys prefer to play in smaller clubs like this? Or do you like doing the bigger festivals like Edgefest and the upcoming V-fest?
Cubby: Edgefest and V-Fest are so cool too and obviously playing for more people is fantastic but you don’t get that intimate connection otherwise. I like being able to see the faces of the people that are at a show and sometimes when you play bigger shows they have the brightest lights and you can’t see anything out there and you feel so disconnected. That’s kind of the nature of the game because after a little while you want to be playing those kinds of places because more people want to come see you and there’s not much you can do about it.
What has been your favourite band to tour with?
I know you guys are so stoked on Choke and stuff, like that Smallman Tour that happened a while back.
Cubby: Yeah. I have Choke lyrics tattooed on me! That Smallman Records tour would be hard to beat. It was Choke, Ghosts of Modern Man, Brazil and us and we just had SUCH a fun time. Every band was just so awesome and I just couldn’t believe that one. Mutemath was the BEST live band I have ever seen in my life, we got to play four shows with them in Ontario and it just wasn’t enough, I wanted it to keep going. They were so insanely good and such nice, humble guys too. Actually, every band that we’ve played with on Smallman is awesome. When we toured with Comeback Kid, Bane and Strung out was really fun as well. It was kind of a weird one with us being the odd man out but everyone on that tour was great and the audiences were all mostly pretty accepting which is so important to us and not what we would have expected.
I guess those were all of my questions, did you have any last words at all?
Cubby: Um… Don’t do drugs and stay in school! Because um, I dropped out of school and I’m a good role model! [laughs] No one can see me rolling my eyes right now.
Unfortunately, I am one of those people who loved Ravenna for years and have seen these guys in concert a bunch of times but this new CD is a little too clean and pop for me. I can't stand the soft quality to the synth they use, it's basically a pad synth and it should be a cutting lead. I am still seeing them in a few days because I hope they can still rock it live.