I recently sat down with Richard Wouters (drums) and Steven McKellar (vocals, bass, keys) of the South African-by way of Nashville-band Civil Twilight after their performance at Orlando's Soaked festival. The band embarks on a fall tour with Mute Math, beginning Sept. 13 in Tempe, AZ, and concluding Oct. 23 in Baton Rouge.
1. Was there a concentrated effort to make Holy Weather a darker and more complex album than the self-titled?
Richard: It sort of just came out of us. But to be honest, Steve writes most of the songs, and all the lyrics, so he'd be the best person to ask. I will say that we wanted to make a more groove-based and melodic album than the self-titled. We wanted to work on something that was guitar-based and rhythmic. Something that related to our current emotions at the time.
(turn to Steve and ask the same question)
Steven: Yeah, we were trying to focus on things, to make the album more melodic and rhythmic. We wanted to focus on those ideas. The last album was us just standing in a room and the concepts just came to us on the spot. I wanted this album to be more focused. We had two weeks off the road to write a whole album, and that's what we did. We wanted to focus more on storytelling and draw on all the traveling we had done. We wanted to make Holy Weather less abstract and more about character.
2. Describe the writing of the album. When did it all come together? How focused was it?
Richard: We wrote it in stages between touring in the latter part of 2011. We were touring pretty much the entire year and in between time off we would find time. It all came together in a week. In that week we put together a lot of demos, I think 20 in total. And then cut it down to 11. We worked with a producer named John Congleton in Dallas, and then did some work at Water Music in Hoboken, and then a studio in Times Square for pre-production and then to London, where we worked with Dan Carey. Dan did half the record, John did the other half.
Steven: I did it all using GarageBand, and looping stuff together. It was my first time I had ever used it, and overdubs and all that to write songs like that on a full scale. I wrote it when I was homeless. I was sleeping on a buddy's couch in Nashville. And in a week I just wrote all these songs, they just poured out of me. I'll admit I'm not very tech savvy at all. I'm really bad with technology. But I stumbled across GarageBand and it just worked. I mean I guess I was still trying to figure it all out. And I was hoping something good would come out of it. I took the ideas to the band and they really liked it.
3. Richard you mentioned working with two producers, was that difficult, working with two producers?
Richard: Not really. We liked both producers. It wasn't really intentional. I don't know if we'd do it again though. You sort of lose the flow of what you're working on when you do it that way. We sort of got ourselves in a flow and then we would have to take off and go work with someone else. It was a good experience though, we wanted someone who could handle it and they both did. But now that it's done, we're excited about the final product. We really like the record and the work they did on it.
4. Are there cities you prefer to play over others?
Richard: New York City, definitely. Philadelphia, definitely. Anywhere in the Northeast really. Aside from that, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago. Oh, Dallas and Vancouver. Those are big cities, and Seattle, which I already mentioned.
5. What are your plans for the fall?
Richard: We are headed out with Mute Math until October, then the UK in November, we have a record release show in Europe in January. It will be our first time playing Europe, so we're kind of excited for that. We've played the UK before and our first record was released there, but never Europe. Should be fun.
6. Many bands use social networking in addition to touring to build their fanbase. You guys seem to let social networking take a backseat and just log countless tour dates. Is that intentional? What is the reason behind that?
Richard: We're still trying to figure it out, to be honest. Touring is all we've known and what we've done in the past. People respond to us live, and so we keep doing that. I think that you can tout your band on social networking, but it really helps to see a band live. And I think the response you can feel from a live show is way bigger than social media. But we're still trying to figure it all out.
7, Do you guys plan on working on new material?
Richard: We're thinking about it. We like to block off time. Probably some time early in the new year we will. We like to stay creative, with Kevin (Dailey, on keyboards), joining, we have lots of creative momentum, and he brings a lot of creativity from the production side. He is a great musician and a tremendous asset to our evolution.
Steven: Oh yes. It's hard holding the ideas in my head. I have tons of stuff. I'm always thinking ahead, that's part of my job, ya know? But stuff never happens the way you have it planned and I realize that. But I am anxious to get stuff out there. We will definitely work on some stuff after the Mute Math tour. We go to South Africa for three weeks, and we'll start forming some ideas then. I think this new album will be recorded live, and we'll just do live takes, those are usually the best ones. We aren't going to dabble too much in other things. Just record it all to tape live, and see where it goes from there.
8. When did Kevin join?
Richard: Just after Holy Weather came out. We had been friends for a long time and we have similar tastes. He brings a lot to the table. We're so happy to have him be a part of this.
9. Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Richard: It really goes in stages, to be honest. Right now I am in a big folk phase. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix. I just really like music that has great lyrics. I grew up listening to Radiohead, Oasis, The Verve, that sort of thing. But I also really like Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon. My father listened to a lot of Paul Simon, so I take after him in that regard. We're all very lucky to have grown up in musical households. Steven and Andrew's mom played music, Kevin's father was a pianist. We all had music in the family.
Steven: I grew up listening to opera and jazz. My mom always had it on, so the forms of music I was exposed to were limited. But I was always a musical person, and so was my mother. Through friends I expanded what I listened to. There was one dominant radio station in South Africa, Five FM with Barney Simon. He had a show from 10 to midnight on weeknights. I would listen to it and record all of it on a cassette tape. I still have stacks of cassettes back home. I would just devour all of it. I could not get enough. Those shows helped me dive into music. The Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, The Verve, Radiohead. That kind of thing. My Dad traveled a lot. And one day he took a business trip to London with my uncle and he brought me back a Q magazine. Oasis was on the cover. I had never heard of them at the time, but to me they looked really cool. I wanted their CD. So I went out and bought it and put it in my CD player and I was just floored. I can say with certainty that What's the Story Morning Glory is the one CD I have listened to the most in my life. It's funny how that works. I mean it could have been Boyz II Men.
10. You mentioned Oasis, and they are most infamous for their quarrels. I guess that's a good question to ask what the Civil Twilight band dynamic is like.
Steven: Well, we are very close. As close as we can get, ya know? I mean, we're all here by choice. We choose to be here and do this. I will say there is something about the four of us working together that makes us work well. It challenges us. There is something to be said for dealing with people and communicating, and I think we do that well. I hope that comes across in our music.
11. What are three things people should get from the album Holy Weather?
Richard: Oh gosh, that's hard to say. Really all we want to do is inspire people to create. People will come to us with things they've created and were influenced by. We just performed in New York City for Fashion Week. There was a clothing line that was premiering and many of the outfits were based on Holy Weather. Fans come to us with art work quite often though, it's really quite special.
Steven: That's difficult. The album is really personal and precious to me. I mean I can't write something that isn't personal. The album to me is about the after-life. About the things that impact us every day. I hope people can get that. For me, it's weird. I can't think about what I'm singing up on stage. Or I'm going to lose it. These are songs that are deeply personal to me. I'm not here write a hook or cash in on some big paycheck. I'm just trying to explain myself and get something out of my spirit. If people can relate to that, that's truly moving to me. I never see it that way, cause there are my stories, but if people can relate, that's truly humbling.
12. If you could tour with anyone, who would it be?
Richard: That's tough to say, but I'm going to say Radiohead.
13. When you're not writing music, what are you doing?
Richard: Reading, or looking for a good book. I recently read a biography of Van Gogh called The Life. I recommend it. I usually turn to Steven for book advice. He reads a lot and always knows of good books.
14. If you don't mind, I'd like to talk to you about the title track. It's really like three songs in one, it's very different from what most people are doing with music these days, can you talk about it at all?
Steven: It's funny. Most people don't get that at all. I guess I don't want people to get it. If people get it right away, that means its sugary and tangible, and I want our music to be more than that. I don't want to make something sugary and tangible. We aren't out for instant gratification. I want our music to take its time, to take years to sink in. I feel like if I do that, and I stick around, people will want to come watch us play. Right now, we draw about 300 people in a room, and that's great, I love it. We have really strong and passionate fans. And I guess it could be more if I wrote something tangible and sugary, but I want this to be about more than that.
[The band is gathering up their stuff and about to head off to dinner, so there was only time for one more question]
15. The one song on Holy Weather that hits me more than any other is Sweet Resistance. I was wondering if you could talk about that at all. How it came about, what you were striving for when you wrote it, any light you can shed on it?
Steven: I'm so glad you asked that. That's definitely one of my favorite songs on the album. Really the song is a giant question about when we die and the choices we make. The idea of an afterlife. Existence beyond choice makes us human, and that's the resistance. The resistance is what makes us human. A tree doesn't grow on its own, the tree is pushing against gravity, and that's resistance. As people we're always pushing against something, a resistance, and it's those things that makes us who we are as people. So I was just rattling off that idea in my head and it just came to me. This sweet resistance we are always fighting.
[Steven leaves to join the band, but turns around quickly]
Steven: This was a lot of fun, thank you. I really enjoyed this. I hope we can do it again soon at our next show. Thanks for loving the record. It means a lot.