AP: First off thanks for taking the time to do this interview, we really appreciate it. Let’s get the formalities out of the way—please tell us your name and what you do in the band.
Will: I’m Will, and I’m the singer.
AP: I know it just started a week ago, but how has the “Take Cover” tour been so far?
Will: It’s been great. We’ve had really great shows every night. The fans have been awesome, and we really couldn’t ask for more from a tour, other than like 80,000 people a night, but that’s asking a lot.
AP: What bands on the tour have you enjoyed watching?
Will: Every band on the tour is great—they all bring their individual sound, which is nice, you know? Augustana’s got the more laid-back approach, and Panic! At the Disco’s got that new electronic thing that’s going on, which is really nice. It’s all refreshing. Everything’s different enough where you’re not hearing the same band every time.
AP: Congratulations on finishing your first full length, Chroma—how does it feel to have it done and what expectations do you have for the CD?
Will: It feels great to be done. There’s certain times when you just feel almost sad that you’re finished with it cause it’s been so much fun and such a great experience so far, that not being able to continue recording, to continue building the songs, is kind of like watching your babies go off to college. But no, it’s been great. What was the other part of the question?
Will: Oh, right. Expectations. I mean, yeah, we expect the CD will take us pretty far. Unfortunately, most of those expectations are hinged upon other people’s actions, so I mean, as much as we expect something or would want something to go, it’s not really up to us. All we can do is play shows every night. Do our job. Play our shit. Play it right. Do a good show. Hang out with the fans, you know? That’s our job. Other than that, everything’s left up to somebody else.
AP: What was the recording process for Chroma like?
Will: It was awesome. It was a lot more calculated than I think a lot of albums really have to go down, as we didn’t really have a lot of time to do it. So really like every song had to be planned out just rigorously before we went in. So it was really strained I guess, there was a lot of stress—we were all stretched for time, there was a lot of pressure, other than the fact people wanting us to deliver a good full length at that, and then you know having the small amount of time as it is, it was just great that we got it done so efficiently and so well. Zach and Kenneth are great producers, and we had a wonderful time working with them.
AP: What are you most proud about regarding Chroma?
Will: I would say it’s the level of maturity we brought out in the songs. You know from the EP, I think it really took a big step up. (Note: my tape recorder fucked up right here, so I missed out on the last part of his answer, sorry about that!)
AP: How does Cartel go about writing songs? Does one person bring in the basic structure and then have everyone else “Cartel”-ify it, or is it more of a collaborative effort from the start?
Will: It’s different for every song, obviously. Everything comes in different ways, but I mean, for the most part on the record, I would bring in basic skeletal songs: a verse, chord progression, chorus, melody, things like that. I wrote the lyrics and the melody, so that had a lot to do with it. And the album is very vocal heavy, so obviously you can see that influence. But yeah, all the songs went through what we like to call the “Cartel filter,” and they never would have been the same from the demos, the early demos that no one’s heard. You can definitely see the difference between what it started as and where it ended up. It’s pretty much how it rolls down, but there are a couple songs on the record that everybody had everything to do with.
AP: Speaking of demos, did you guys have any songs or riffs that were laying around for a while, or are all the songs off Chroma totally new?
Will: The old demos were different. None of them were really old things. I mean, there were songs from last year that we used. Like, “Say Anything (Else),” and “Settle Down,” and of course “Honestly” were all written last summer, so I mean as far as being old, I guess you can kind of throw those in there, but those were all written with new riffs. Yeah, there was really nothing and we actually had to scrap a lot of riffs, as you would know from the “Runaway” demo. (Talking about the bridge riff of the old demo of “Runaway” that Will did by himself on his computer).
AP: I miss that riff so much—I had been praying for it to be on the album version.
Will: Trust me—trust me when I say it wouldn’t have worked on record. It worked on the demo because of where the song went after the demo, but it just wouldn’t have worked on record.
AP: I read an interview where you said you guys said you don’t force a song to revolve around an awesome riff—you favor the songs as a whole and would rather save riffs for other songs where they might fit in even better.
Will: Right. Well I think that’s what happened with “Runaway.” It’s a pretty basic song coming up to that part, with the melody and the way everything works. It’s very, very simple—probably the simplest song on the album. And getting to that part, and then going to that riff, you’re kind of going “Oh ok, right on, now we can rock out.” We didn’t want to overshadow the rest of the song with a really good riff in the middle, I think. I mean, that’s happened a lot before in songs before—not with us, but just in general, and I think that’s a bad songwriting technique. I think the best riff should be the riff you use most, so we’re going to take that riff, having stumbled upon a really great one, and use it for another song.
AP: So can we definitely expect to see that riff in a new Cartel song?
Will: I’m sure you will. That’s a riff that both guitarists in the band are really fond of. It’s a very unique sounding riff compared to the rest of the stuff.
AP: Did you guys run into any problems while either writing or recording Chroma? Any writer’s block or technical difficulties in the studio—anything like that?
Will: Really, no. I mean, if we had any technical difficulties in the studio, we wouldn’t have finished in time. Writer’s block, I don’t know. There was a lot of pressure with Andy not being in the band. He had written half the songs on the EP, and really the EP is all people had to go on. And I’m sure people had their own expectations of how Chroma would turn out. But really it was a huge, huge burden on us to deliver after that. Even though Andy was just one small part in the band, he definitely brought riffs, and is definitely a great songwriter. I think that feeling that pressure, there was a little bit of a stall at the beginning when everybody kind of freaked out, not knowing what we wanted—different people not really liking the early stuff. The great part about it is once we got done with the finished product, everyone’s really proud of it, and that’s really what it comes down to.
AP: How did you guys go about writing the beautiful, epic last track “A”—more specifically, where did the inspiration come from, how’d you keep track of all the parts when you were writing it, and how do you even go about recording something like that?
Will: That was actually the easiest song, make no bones about it. We had the idea of what we wanted to do, and really wanted to leave it up to be a studio song. When we got around to it, we knew what we wanted to do. We kind of wanted to end the album with an ellipsis, where you can be expecting other things and not just really closing it off. But really, we worked up to the song in practice, in rehearsal before the album, to get to the part where the chorus of “Save Us” and everything was coming in. Then after that, we just kind of said “All right, that’s when we’ll mess with it in the studio.” In the studio, we needed a couple parts to keep going. We knew what we were gonna do, and just really sat down and worked it. The inspiration, I would say, would come from, and probably everybody’s gonna hate me for talking shit on this song, but we were listening to “Goodbye Sky Harbor” on Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity. I LOVE that song, don’t get me wrong. I love it. And I always felt when it got to the end, when all the vocal parts came in—it was just the vocals, and then they started speeding up and it got faster, and I thought that part was just amazing. But that five minutes or whatever it is before that, I felt, as a song, that that didn’t really work. But that obviously wasn’t their purpose. You could tell that’s just what they wanted to do. With us, we wanted to create a track with movements where everything moved around. I think taking the idea that they did something like that and saying “OK, now let’s build on that and move it further.” Then we kind of came up with the idea with what we wanted to do with that. And we all had the idea we wanted to bring in different choruses of different songs and put them together and see how we could mesh them, and I think it was really awesome. It was really just a bunch of experimentations and kind of, first takes, and going “That’s cool” and keeping it.
AP: I love that part right when you say “When what you want is what you’re getting”—the kind of spacey background thing, I don’t know how to describe it.
Will: That whole part after that is my favorite. That’s where, for me, the song just gives me the goosebumps, I love that part—that was real fun to record.
AP: How’d you decide to use the sort of “Cher”/techno/pitch-shifted vocals on that song?
Will: I mean, honestly, I heard Copeland’s Christmas song from last year, “Can You Hear What I Hear?” And when he got to that part in the middle where he does the high thing—that part to me, I was like “Damn it! Somebody got to it first!” I just think that’s fun. Obviously it’s not like a skill to be able to do that. All you do is just throw your voice around and auto-tune grabs it. We just wanted to do a hard auto-tune part and really make it—it’s electronic already, and you might as well take it as far as you can go, and that’s pretty much as far as you can take it without going over the line. Well, some people might disagree.
AP: Speaking of auto-tune, I heard that you didn’t use auto-tune for the majority of Chroma.
Will: 98% of Chroma is not auto-tuned. The backup vocals are auto-tuned in certain places, just because we had 8 days to record 12 tracks, and that’s just not gonna happen.
AP: One AP user was like “I can’t listen to this band—they’re auto-tuned to hell” blah blah blah, so that’s a pretty good compliment, I guess, in a weird way.
Will: No, it was a great compliment. I read that and just laughed—I was like, I mean, cool. As for the backup vocals, if we had a month to record mostly vocals, then yeah, I could sit there and do the whole thing without auto tune. It’s not really that hard if you can actually focus your energy in the studio. I mean, the next record, I hope to be able to just say the whole thing is without auto-tune. It’s one of those things, everybody’s always just like “Oh, he uses auto tune”, it’s such a “bad” word—auto tune is really just another production tool. You tune guitars, you tune your drums to sound good. It’s a point of fact. Nobody’s perfect. Well, some people are perfect, but not anybody we’ve heard recently.
AP: Here’s a quick question from an AP user: where did the line “Our days were numbered by nights on too many rooftops” in the song “Burn This City” come from.
Will: We were kind of hoodlums in Conyers when we were growing up, and we actually used to get on top of an elementary school rooftop, and just sit on there. I mean, it’s not like an inspirational point in our lives, but that song is really about us getting out of a small town and people telling us we couldn’t do it, and that was just kind of a lyrical ploy to put it on there. But it is true; we actually did spend nights on rooftops: everyone in the band will vouch.
AP: Speaking of AP users, a lot of people have asked about “Save Us” and why the melody kind of changed. A lot of people seem to be attached to the old version.
Will: Well really, that’s the downfall of demos. That song, being as we’re not a piano band (I’m not fuckin’ Billy Joel), that was the first piano song I’ve written. And was really just from being at Joseph’s house and he had a piano, and just messing around on the piano, and I came up with that “Saaave us” melody, then I was like “OK, that’s gold. I love that.” Really, I just started working with that, and never really was able to belt it at his house, but kind of did, and said “Ok, I might be able to hit that.” But when we did the demo version in the studio, the producer recorded the piano on his computer so that we could go and demo it and not have to spend an hour trying to record piano. You know, we had five hours to do all the demos, and I sat there and busted it out, and I mean, yeah it works in the studio, but we all had a conscious decision to say that we’d rather be able to pull it off live every night than mess it up every night and still have the same melody on record. And I’m not an accomplished piano player, and we definitely want to be able to pull it off. Being that the original song is in C, we had to move it to G in order to keep as little black keys out of it as possible, so that I’m not bumbling all over the piano when we’re playing it live, and so I can kind of rock on the white keys and make it easy for myself. If Paul McCartney did it, I have no shame admitting it. So that’s why we had to move it down four steps, and I really think that I’m able to sing it better though. I don’t really think that there’s that much more emotion, I just think it’s really just me going in “please don’t fuck this up” mode, and having to hit it. And I think with this version, at the end especially, I think it allows you really to showcase the vocals, rather than just like “This is high as I can sing and I really can’t get higher than this but I’m just going to stay on this note because this is as much as I can get and impress you.” But yeah, I really like the fact that I can actually really sing it, instead of having to gut it.
AP: Going back to the vocal thing, have you had any vocal training? Not to be sucking your dick, but I’d have to say you have the best voice in the “scene”—I mean, how’d you get your pipes?
Will: The most I guess you could say if I had any would be in church when I was in fourth grade or so, with plays and stuff like that. You know how everybody went to church when they were kids. But during the plays and stuff like that, doing vocal ensembles, etc., etc. I studied a little bit in school, but no actual formal training. I’m actually looking to get some really because like, I know once we start playing more and more shows and playing longer and longer sets, I’m going to need to really be able to increase my endurance. You know, notes are notes. People hit em, people don’t. But for me, it’s making sure my instrument stays as healthy as long as possible.
AP: I notice on the liner notes of the CD that you do vocals, guitar, piano, and do some programming. How long have you been playing piano and could you tell us where on the CD we might be able to hear you playing guitar?
Will: Piano: I’ve been playing as long as I’ve lived in Joseph’s house. It depends on what you qualify as “playing,” but I mean, if you call diddlying around on piano, then maybe 9 months, if that. But I mean, I’m no piano player by any means, I could just play it well enough to record the record.
AP: What about the programming?
Will: The programming is all on “A.”
AP: What’d you use to program?
Will: It was an MPC, it’s made by Akai. I don’t even know how you say it. It’s actually Andre 3000’s. He left it at the studio, and they were like “Oh we can use all this stuff.” Most of the stuff we used on the record was left by famous musicians who just forgot about it. We actually used his Firebird guitar on there—if he hears this interview, he’s probably gonna sue us. [To Andre 3000] We have your stuff. It’s at TreeSound. He left it there. It’d be nice to be rich enough to leave stuff somewhere. And the guitar stuff, I did all the guitars on “The Minstrel’s Prayer,” the acoustic stuff. I played on “Burn This City” at the end when the breakdown’s going on. It’s just because I wrote it on the spot and for the sake of not having to teach it, just played the harmonic part, right after the song, I guess, decays, when you hear that dual guitar part panning left and right. That’s the only other time.
AP: What do you guys think about the “leak” AP is doing?
Will: Kids download the record, kids download the record, whatever. I mean, it’s really awesome, because we’re still a really, really small band, despite what people say, or think, and to have that kind of exposure is great. Jason Tate actually emailed Rory at The Militia Group the number of people who have accessed the page so far [53,000 or so as of late August], and it’s ridiculous. It’s insane—it’s more people than have ever heard us play, and that’s awesome. It’s great exposure, definitely.
AP: Have you guys chosen any singles?
Will: “Honestly” is gonna be the first single. It’d be the first one taken to radio, if and when it does go to radio, and obviously we hope it does, but it’s not really in our power to do that. I would say “Honestly,” obviously “Luckie St.” would come in, and then it’s kind of a toss up between “Settle Down,” “If I Fail,” and “Runaway” for the third one.
AP: Do you guys plan on shooting a video for “Honestly”?
Will: We want to. There hasn’t been any talk of actual video, like starting to do it or when we’re gonna do it, but hopefully we’ll do it very, very soon.
AP: Do you have any personal favorites on Chroma?
Will: “Burn This City.” “Burn This City”’s my favorite. Actually, before we recorded it, that was my favorite song. Listening to the record now, just listening to tracks 10, 11, and 12, (“The Minstrel’s Prayer,” “Q,” and “A,”), that’s my favorite. I love listening to that thing. I don’t know, it makes you feel proud.
AP: I listen to that right before I go to sleep now.
Will: I do too. It’s kind of like I can zone out because I know what’s going on, but I don’t have to think about it. That and Days Away.
AP: Even though they’ve worked on some huge projects, Zack Odom and Kenneth Mount aren’t exactly famous in the “scene,” I guess—how’d you go about choosing them?
Will: Actually, when we played Atlantis Music Conference last year in Atlanta, Rory (TMG) came out and saw us, and that was actually the show that we found out we were gonna get signed. They were actually at that show, and introduced themselves, and about a month after that, we recorded the demo version of “Honestly” with them. It was kind of a trial thing, because we knew we were looking for producers. They’re just the most down to earth, friendly, nice people. I never saw them be in a bad mood, nothing got em down. It was nose to the grindstone 24/7—they were the most amazing people to work with.
AP: Who designed the artwork for the album?
Will: The actual “hands on” design was done by Randall at The Militia Group.
AP: I heard it was printed on velour or something crazy like that?
Will: Well, we had all these crazy ideas. We were gonna print it on vellum, which is what Copeland used on Beneath Medicine Tree. We were gonna do that, but cost issues ran in the way, and it really didn’t reflect the overall idea of the artwork we had in the long run. So we decided to scratch that and go for like hi-res photos and things like that. Chris Donahue, myself, and Randall pretty much came up with the thought for it. Randall took all the pictures and compiled it, and that’s pretty much that. I’m excited to see it because I haven’t seen the finished version.
AP: Here’s a question from an AP user: Do you guys particularly want to be thrust into the MTV mainstream crowd with Chroma as Fall Out Boy, The Starting Line, My Chemical Romance, and Yellowcard have with their last albums, or do you anticipate that happening at all?
Will: I can definitely see it happening. You know, anything’s possible. You gotta keep an open mind and your head up about these things. But MTV, like all that mainstream stuff, it is what you make of it. If you let it become who your band is, then that’s what you become, and kids stop liking you. I can definitely see us moving to that transition and not having the big head about it, or expecting it, or thinking we deserve it. Nobody really deserves that—it’s all about the fans who give it to you, and really it’s not up to us. We’re a band and if people like it and push it there, then that’s just where it goes. Would we like to see it go there? Yeah, I mean, that means we succeed. That means we can actually make a long career out of this, and that’s really all we’re aiming for.
AP: On a somewhat similar note, does the band and The Militia Group have any plans for a major label?
Will: There’s major label interest. As far as plans go, there’s no deals signed or any kind of actual plans in progress. Do we want to go to a major? Do we plan to take it there? Yeah. We believe our kind of music isn’t necessarily strictly independent type music. As much as it might be looked down upon in the scene, mainstream isn’t an evil, at least for our type of music. Major labels are what you make of them. Either you make them work hard for you or you get dropped, and that’s just the risk you gotta take.
AP: Here’s a fun question: some people have been questioning your ability to play your song, citing your decision not to play “The Minstrel’s Prayer” or “Save Us” on this tour—despite the fact that you have explicitly stated you don’t have the funds to play the songs, not to mention half your set already consists of new songs—do you want to further clarify the situation?
Will: We absolutely plan on playing every song that is on Chroma at some point in time. Strictly being, I don’t own a piano, and electric pianos don’t grow on trees. We want to do it, but “Save Us” isn’t going to be just a piano song when we play it live. We’re going to make every song unique to our live set, and it’s going to be a full band thing. Of course we can’t rehearse it until I have a piano, and as soon as I get that, dudes, we’re playing it. We love that song, and “The Minstrel’s Prayer”—same thing. It’s just gotta be rehearsed and the time’s gotta be right—we only have a 30 minute set. It’ll be when we can do long sets: direct support, or a headlining tour. We’ll have a couple extra toms, Joseph will play some ambient guitar stuff, I’ll have an acoustic guitar, and the rest of the guys will be playing the drum tracks.
AP: This is a little random, but when Ryan goes up an octave on the bass during the half time breakdown at the end of “Say Anything (Else)”, just for that one note, it’s orgasmic. I love stuff like that. All the little things you guys do that take it that extra step.
Will: I think that’s what makes this record good—songwriting is songwriting, and I bring in the skeleton of a song, but we really allowed everyone just to do their own thing. Kevin wrote his parts how he wanted to write them, Ryan sat in his room and just played his shit, and he wrote all these amazing bass parts, and we didn’t even hear them until we recorded, and we were like “Sweet!”
AP: “Matter of Time” has some pretty awesome bass work.
Will: Yeah, he’s got great bass lines in that song. I think we just really allowed everybody to explore their own instrumentation on this record, and that’s where we get the more mature sound and more cohesive band sound I think that makes us unique. We really didn’t want to stick to—and I know this is kind of hypocritical for me to say this—but the four chord thing. I know people say they’d rather take Coheed and Cambria over the four chord simplicity, but every song has a chord progression. Yeah, ours are rooted in rhythm chords, but every song is, and we feed off of it the way we have to. We’re not trying to be Pink Floyd. Obviously we’re not gonna go crazy. We’re just trying to be a good rock band.
AP: I hear you guys just recorded a track at TreeSound for A Santa Cause II: what’d you record and how’d you get involved with that?
Will: We recorded “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Rory hooked us up with Immortal, who’s doing the comp. I was a fan of a lot of the songs that were on the comp. last year and it was just really fun to do. We’ve never covered a song before, and it turned out really, really awesome. We really like it—it’s very, very raw but really brings Cartel into it. It’s very kind of showtune-esque actually, it’s pretty sweet.
AP: You guys played an awesome show tonight. What do you enjoy more: playing shows or being in the studio?
Will: Shows are amazing. When you have shows like tonight, you can do it for a year worth of shitty shows after something like tonight—it just builds you up so much. Studio work is fun and all, but I think the most enjoyment comes from seeing the kids react to a song live. Studio stuff is just fun because you let the geek out of you and you just sit there and play with stuff, it’s just really fun. Shows will always trump studio stuff though because it’s so individualistic and allows you to really connect with people, and that’s what it’s about.
AP: What do you think separates Cartel from the rest of the pop rock bands out there?
Will: I think we really, really, really critique the hell out of our music. As much as it comes down to it and people might think it’s simple, but trust me, there’s nothing on this record that’s not calculated—there’s nothing that’s not exactly what we wanted to do. There’s no accidents. And I think that some bands, like I said this before, really get into a riff mindset, where they get a riff and they run the whole song around that, when it’s really the song that matters. Riffs are great, you know? But riffs don’t make a good band. Anyone can stumble upon a good riff. I mean, I’ve stumbled upon a good riff. It’s not a great feat by any means, and I think really some people just kind of settle. And we are just harsh, man. If people could hear what we say to each other when we’re writing songs, they’d just be like “wow.” But we’re really good friends and we can say that kind of shit to each other and get away with it because we know this is about the music and we all want the very best we can put out, and I don’t think we could settle for anything less than that.
AP: This is way, way off in the future, but do you have any idea what direction the next Cartel CD might be going in?
Will: We’ve kind of actually talked about that. It’s funny, a couple days after we got done mastering the record, Joseph calls me and I’m at my parents’ house in Florida just taking some time off, and he’s like “So what do you want the next to sound like?” and I’m like “Well, I haven’t really thought about it.” I think there’ll be more tracks on the record just because we’ll want to explore more things. It’ll be much more of the same. We’re obviously not going to turn into AC/DC like that, or we’re not gonna turn into Pink Floyd or The Mars Volta or anything like that, but I would see a little bit more experimentation with structures and things like that. We’ll still have the singles, we’ll still write the pop songs, but I think you’ll see more of like, I guess, tampering with the traditional structures of pop music. We probably want to break the mold a little bit and bring it back around and show that you can do exciting things in pop music without becoming bland.
AP: A few people on the AP message boards have said that you guys are cocky and arrogant—not sarcastic—based on the past couple interviews or so they’ve read. How do you respond to that?
Will: If anyone hangs around us, they’ll know that we are highly sarcastic, and that we are very humble about the position we’re in. Trust me, there is absolutely not one ounce of rock star in any of us because [looking back at the messy van] this is where we live. It’s a pigsty, you know? It’s not like we’re living in a bus and have all this stuff going on. Do we want that? Yeah, that’d be awesome. I mean, where we’re at is now. We’ve sold six to seven thousand EPs at the time of this interview, which is nothing. You think of a band like Senses Fail who’s sold like a hundred thousand EPs. Come on, we can’t think we’re that big a shit. Yeah we do have a lot of confidence in ourselves, and we have a lot of confidence in what we do, and we really believe in our band and our music. And I think that can sometimes be misconstrued as cockiness or arrogance, but I mean, if you don’t have confidence, and you don’t have belief, and you don’t portray that, then people aren’t gonna take you seriously. If you walk up real meager on stage, or in person talking about your music, no one’s gonna take you seriously. Especially in this industry. And it’s true in life in general. You have to really believe in yourself. And if not, then why are we doing it? So I think, sarcasm aside, we are very, very humble about where we’re at. We know that it has been one straight lucky streak for us. Any band that’s made it big will attest to this: it has nothing to do with really how good you are. There are so many good bands that never make it big. And that’s just the unfortunate circumstances of this industry. But we believe we’re gonna get there based upon the current clout of industry, and we feel what we have what it takes to do that and do it well. If that’s misconstrued as cockiness, then that’s cockiness. But for us, that’s what makes us who we are. It allows us to make the music that we create—that we believe is the best possible music that we can do, and hope that it would inspire others to do the same.
AP: That about wraps it up. Thanks so much for the interview, we really appreciate it and wish you the best of luck with the rest of the “Take Cover” tour and with the release of Chroma. Do you have anything you’d like to say to the readers of absolutepunk.net?
Will: Thanks for all the support. Everything we read in the comments is totally well received, and we take criticism very well. We love you guys and we love everybody who’s been supporting us on AP—continue to do so, that’s really awesome. As much as we’ve kind of taken over the web site—it’s pretty sweet, don’t get me wrong—but sorry for annoying anyone who’s not really a fan of Cartel. And to the kid who thinks we’re buying off Tate, we didn’t give him shit because we don’t have anything. I swear to god if we had any money, we wouldn’t be able to pay him anyway. Thanks once again for the support though, and we’ll see you soon.