As you may have heard, I recently had the chance to talk with Stephen Carradini from Independent Clauses about his indie and folk tribute to The Postal Service, Never Give Up: 10 Years of Celebrating The Postal Service. The epic twenty-one song venture featured contributions from a hugely diverse and incredibly talented pool of artists – some of which I had the pleasure of discussing the album with. Check out what Gregory Pepper (from Gregory Pepper & His Problems), David Wimbish (from The Collection), Brendan Welch (from The Parmesans), Jason Rozen (from Seer Group), and Elijah Wyman (from Decent Lovers and Seer Group) had to say.
TIS: So, who are you and what did you contribute to Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of The Postal Service?
Gregory: Gregory Pepper here. We covered the last song on Give Up, ‘Natural Anthem.’
David: I’m David Wimbish from The Collection. The Collection is a giant family that lives in the mini-city of Greensboro, North Carolina. We throw instruments into a giant hat, each pull out one, and try to write songs on them. We love each other, and share a lot of wine, some beer, and a lot of laughing. Also, we covered ‘The District Sleeps Alone Tonight’ on Never Give Up.
Brendan: My name is Brendan Welch and I play mandolin and sing in a band called The Parmesans. We covered the song ‘Clark Gable.’
Jason: Hey, I’m Jason Rozen from Seer Group. Elijah from Decent Lovers and I contributed ‘Brand New Colony’ to the tribute album.
Elijah: Hi, I’m Elijah Wyman of Decent Lovers. I also am a contributor to Jason Rozen’s collection of musical friends called Seer Group.
TIS: How did you each get involved in this project?
Gregory: Independent Clauses published a few really nice, supportive pieces about my bands – Gregory Pepper & His Problems and Common Grackle. Plus, we really like Ben Gibbard and PS, so this was a no brainer!
David: Stephen reviewed our album when it was still a baby, and was very friendly to it. We read his other reviews and loved them, and, in some sort of digital way, I think we love(d) him as well. So when he asked us to be a part of this project, it was an easy choice.
Brendan: My first encounter with Stephen was probably about ten years ago – I was about fifteen or sixteen years old, on the PureVolume forums trying to force people to listen to my band at the time. So we have been working together for a long time. When he asked me, I was happy to help.
Jason: Stephen asked Elijah/Decent Lovers to do a song for the Never Give Up project, and when I heard about it, I was really psyched. Back in 2005, I started a small record label called Grinding Tapes, and when I first started, it was really tough to get any press at all. Independent Clauses was the first site to actually publish anything about us back in 2007. That first article really helped us out because we could point to that and show people we already had some great press. So, you know, we love Stephen and Independent Clauses and were thrilled to get to join in on this album. Plus, Elijah used to relentlessly evangelize Death Cab for Cutie to me back in 2002, so I knew he was going to make something awesome.
Elijah: Stephen has been perhaps the longest running commenter on my music. He’s been reviewing my albums since I was a teenager. I’ve played with bands he’s booked, and one time he wrote that I may be his favorite acoustic songwriter. He asked me to take part in the Postal Service cover album project maybe over a year ago and I absolutely said yes.
TIS: Why did you choose to cover the song you did? Do you have a special relationship with it, do you really like particular parts of it, or were you just kind of stuck with it – in which case, which song would you have rather done?
Gregory: When Stephen first started emailing feelers to everyone about doing a compilation, they were still debating what album to do. I – with total sincerity – proposed Use Your Illusion I & II in their entirety, with myself covering ‘Estranged.’ Apparently my nostalgia for G’n’R wasn’t universally shared, so they settled on Give Up instead. ‘The District Sleeps Alone Tonight’ is actually my favorite song on the album, but I think it’s harder to cover songs you really revere (plus everyone probably wanted to call dibs on the singles), so I went with ‘Natural Anthem.’ It’s kind of a weird song, right? It doesn’t really share the rest of the album’s instant-pop-gratification, and the long intro was kind of a put-off at first, but it sounds pretty awesome on headphones when you’re baked.
David: When Stephen told us about the idea for the project, he threw out a few choices for an album to do. We had been playing an unfortunate version of a cover of ‘The District Sleeps Alone Tonight’ (not to be confused with ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’). We told him we were in, and then we realized our cover wasn’t very good. We got together as a band and planned a remaking of a remake of the song. The first time I heard The Postal Service, it was that song, and it hit me so hard. It’s always had the potential for such aggression in the chorus, like it’s just waiting to explode, so I wanted to play it that way, to just let it explode. Our band has a lot of members (usually around 14 or 15 at most times), and everyone comes from different musical backgrounds, so it’s very difficult to find a song that everyone knows, much less likes. This one worked well for everyone.
Brendan: Stephen assigned it to us – I’d never heard the song until we were asked to participate in the compilation, though I’d heard a few other jams from that record for sure. Not sure about the other guys in The Parmesans.
Jason: I think Elijah picked the song, but I remember commenting to Elijah that it’s also the song I would have picked. To me, ‘Brand New Colony’ is the climax of the album. It also has a lot of different parts, which is fun because you get to make a lot of stylistic and structural decisions.
Elijah: I love ‘Brand New Colony.’ I like that it is so recognizable by its “bee boo, bee boo” synth hook, and I thought it’d be a fun chore to try and make a different focal point for the song….or no focal point. I do have a special relationship with the song – I believe it was playing when we walked into the reception of my wedding…might have been a different Postal Service song though…meep.
TIS: How did you go about adapting the song from its electronic-based original? Were there key parts of the song that you wanted to embellish, or did you just strip it down to its bare essentials and build it back up as your own?
Gregory: I knew I wanted to keep the melody and song structure intact, but take some liberties with arrangement, instrumentation, production etc. I’d wanted to try and record something with that 4/4 drum pattern / 16th note bongo thing, which seemed like a fun variation on the glitchy, drum-and-bass loop of the original. We also made a point to use strictly “organic” instruments (voice, guitar, piano, drums, etc) to contrast the synth-heavy, programmed original. And then I obviously love recording vocal harmonies, so I scored out all the string / synth patterns that loop around in the tune and did the accapella ending.
David: Music is crazy because nobody knows exactly what a song is. You can take just a melody (sometimes even just a progression), and play it with a completely different style of music, and people will still recognize it. It’s the same song, but different. But the song isn’t just that melody or progression, so in that way, music has the ability to be ever changing. Sometimes you have to push it to see how many elements you can change and still have it be the same song. I think we made it as, “If The Collection had written this song, what would it sound like?” It started out with just me and an acoustic guitar (a little boring, eh?) A few hours later, it had grown branches, leaves, and eventually there was fruit we were hoping to share with other people; no longer just a boring stick in the ground. (Heck, you could throw Christmas lights on that thing by the end). I know we wanted to embellish the chorus especially, and the string part right before the first chorus. The bridge/instrumental section was a lot of fun because nobody knew what they were doing until they recorded it. “Hey, you come in here. Do what feels good. Yeah, that sounds right”. A little cumin here, a dash of salt, and bake it for a bit. I don’t know, hopefully it tastes good. This is the first recording we’ve done since we’ve been graced by a wonderful clarinet player, so I wanted to feature that, as well as my wife who is singing a lot more in the band. I want people to hear her sing, because I’m a fan of it.
Brendan: It was a pretty easy process. It’s a pop song – only a handful of chords, the melody is simple. We didn’t have to think about it too much. We played the song in a way that was most natural for us: kinda raw and sloppy. I think I unconsciously preserved the vocal melody a bit so that the song would remain familiar; put a lot of twang on it though.
Jason: To get things started, I recorded a pretty faithful reproduction of the original with my synth and drum machine. We didn’t want the cover to sound just like the original, so Elijah remixed my electronic version and added the vocals and autoharp. Finally, one of Elijah’s Decent Lovers band-mates played those crazy fast drums over my original slow beat.
Elijah: I was trying to avoid obvious stuff. I thought it would be too obvious/lazy to rely on that synth hook for the main “pop” of the song, and I wanted to interject a lot of what Decent Lovers is into the cover. Thomas, who plays drums in Decent Lovers, recorded the panicked live drums over Jason’s glitchy loops, and I think their combo made the track sparkle. For my vocal performance, I tried to embellish things in (hopefully) non-cheesy ways, and I tried to sound more like Ben Gibbard by bringing in some synths during the line, “I’ll be your phonograph that plays your favorite albums back.” We didn’t really sample anything – Jason either programmed it or sent me things that I chopped up. We used Ableton, Acid and a tape deck. Thomas probably used ProTools too. Most everything on the track is a real instrument.
TIS: Yeah, your cover has an awful lot going on in it. I am particularly fond of the “everything will change” vocal section.
Elijah: I kind of hate the ending of the song: “Everything will change oooooh ooooh oooh oooh eeeeeh.” I used to do this thing where I would sum up the point of a song through its ending, and I feel that same way about this lyric, so I just tried to make a fun soundscape out of it. Also, I don’t think I can sing that “ooh eeh” part. That’s some wizardry that Ben has and I don’t. I just tried to sing like different people, and I tried to make my autoharp sound like an organ underneath us, like a church. Jason sent in that walking synth to help fill in the sound and I spent way too long on an autoharp solo that’s on the edge of painful.
TIS: For Elijah and Jason, how did you find working with each other? How did that collaboration come about and how did you approach working together on the song?
Jason: Elijah and I have been good friends for about ten years, and I’ve always been a big fan of his music. I started Grinding Tapes mainly to release one of his albums on vinyl. So, I’ve been involved with his music for a long time, but didn’t ever collaborate with him until last year. In 2012, Elijah and I started a separate electronic pop band called Seer Group. So, we collaborate all the time now, but working on this song was a fun role reversal. In Seer Group, Elijah sends me his layers (usually vocals) and I’m the one who sets up the song structure and mixing. This time, I got to give him my layers and he got to structure the song. It was really fun to get an email with a mix of the song and have no idea what it’s going to sound like.
Elijah: Jason is a lot of things to me. He’s been my friend since high school and we’ve been constant musical collaborators for years. He’s amazing really. He’s not like other musicians – it’s all really just a game with friends for him. My relationship with him is awesome (he donated a kidney in 2007. It saved my life). So working with him is different than with anyone else. I learn a lot from it musically and personally. With Jason, I don’t think about how the track will be perceived, I just think about how much fun I’m having making it. It’s a feeling I’m trying to have in all of my music. Jason laid down the synth bass, hooks, the really fun digital beats, and arranged it all and sent me the files. This track was honestly good enough to release, but I recorded live instruments over his arrangements and cut it up slightly. Then I bounced it to Thomas who recorded drums for me to drop in. By this time I had tons of tracks between the three of us, and I just started deleting them until I had a few that were cool together. Then I ran the whole thing through a tape deck way too loud to make it sound blasty and all-together-worse-better.
TIS: Has The Postal Service been an influence on your own music? If so, in what way?
Gregory: There’s the well-documented story about how the project’s name comes from sharing parts of songs and collaborating through the mail. I would say it’s pretty inspiring that such a cohesive and successful album could come out of that, what with the two guys not being in the studio together. Nowadays it’s totally normal to share song fragments over the Internet, and I think it’s fair to say that The Postal Service set a precedent there.
David: I quickly fell in love with acoustic instruments when I was young. I quickly hated electric guitars and basses and keyboards and synths. That wasn’t right – I guess I was a little musically prejudice and didn’t have a reason. I believed the stereotypes about those instruments because they were all I’d seen, but The Postal Service was the first bit of electronic music I heard that I could get into. “This….this sounds like…real music….” It was crazy and beautiful and I loved it. It definitely was a moment that shifted my view of a certain group of instruments and textures in a huge way. I think they may have done that for a lot of people. I’m not sure about the whole band, but I know everyone knew and connected with ‘The District Sleeps Alone Tonight’ at least.
Brendan: They haven’t – not a band any of us would typically listen to, which made the cover fun.
Jason: Elijah and I have a very Postal Service-inspired model for working on music. I live in Massachusetts and he moved to Asheville, North Carolina back in 2008, so we write all Seer Group songs by swapping files via email and Dropbox – we’re never in the same room. Also, the idea of a rock or folk singer having an electronic pop side project was not something that really occurred to me until I heard Give Up. It seems so obvious now, but at the time, I remember being blown away by the idea.
Elijah: Well…I had three cassettes in my car throughout high school:
Jay-Z – Hard Knock Life Single
The Breeders – POD
Death Cab For Cutie – The Photo Album
So not exactly, but kind of. Actually, I almost said, no to the project because I was afraid of what I’d make, but my bandmates encouraged me. Thomas got excited about making drums for it and Jason was down, so you know. Now I’m glad I did it – it was fun.
TIS: If you could choose any band in the world to cover the song you did on the album, which band would it be and why?
Gregory: I’ll bet the ol’ Mozzer could croon out a rendition that would bring tears to your eyes!
David: Personally, I’d love to hear Ella Fitzgerald do a version. She would have made it the most incredible thing. Her voice is one of my favorites. Her, or Tom Waits. Or Typhoon.
Brendan: Rammstein. That would be something to see.
Jason: I’d love to hear Björk cover ‘Brand New Colony.’ Doing a cover song is really challenging for me because you need to give a different perspective of the song while preserving some of the key elements. I bet she would totally get it just right!
Elijah: Danielson Famile. I love his thick synth bass circa Fetch the Compass Kids. Also, how would he sing that??? Also, it’d be fun.
I would like to send out a special thank you to everyone who participated in this interview process, as well as to Stephen Carradini for helping to set them up. The album sounds fantastic (check it out here), and it was a lot of fun hearing about how it came together. Be sure to take a look at the main projects of all of these guys – they are well worth your time.
Banner image received from independentclauses.com
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