- Josh Haden Is A Punk Rocker
JOSH HADEN IS A PUNK ROCKER
Ever since I saw Spain play a small club here in Leipzig in late 2012, I’ve been in love with their music. A few weeks ago, they released their brilliant new album “Sargent Place”. I had the chance to chat with Spain songwriter Josh Haden via Skype in February. He told me what it’s like to work with a mad scientist and about his difficulties with music theory.
How do you like your new record?
I like it a lot. I think it’s the best album since “Blue Moods” (The blue moods of Spain) and I’m very proud of it. Every recording experience I’ve had with Spain albums have all been really positive. But recording “Sargent Place” was the most similar to recording “Blue Moods” for a few different reasons. One of them is the producer on “Blue Moods”, Norm Kerner, and the producer on Sargent Place, Gus Seyffert, they’re both very knowledgable about their own studios and they’re very musical and opinionated about music and they’re not afraid to tell the musicians their opinions. They remind me of an older style of producing where the producer is very bossy and opinionated. And instead of the musicians being so egotistitcal about what their original vision was, if there is such a thing as an original vision, they have to be open minded and respect the producer and respect his musical ideas and opinions. Both circumstances with “Blue Moods” and “Sargent Place” was like going on a different planet. Somewhere where I wasn’t used to being and I wasn’t used to working that way. But I let myself envelop by this alien environment and I think the results speak for themselves.
Why did you choose Gus Seyffert as a producer?
We had a, what we thought, was a first choice for a producer and it didn’t work out. That was difficult because a lot of time had gone by and we were starting to get worried that we weren’t gonna finish the record. One time I was out for dinner with my wife and my four year old son and I bumped into this musician named Zander Schloss. He played with the Circle Jerks and is very important in the musical history of Los Angeles. I was talking to him about his record. He said, we recorded it at Gus’ studio. So I called Gus. I know him because he went to CalArts, the California Institute of the Arts. It’s an art university in Southern California where my father runs the Jazz program. And Gus studied jazz bass and jazz improvisation under my father.
"You'd walk into his house and you'd think this guy's insane."
Anyway, I called him and he said, yeah dude come check my studio and I went over to his house and – do you know what a hoarder is? – He is like a hoarder. You’d walk in there and you think this guy’s insane because every square inch of his house is recording gear. His bedroom is a bed and amplifiers. There’s nowhere to sit and there’s no kitchen table. In the cupboards in the kitchen are microphones and guitar pedals and batteries. On the freezer batteries. He’s kind of like a mad scientist and he’s very dedicated to his craft. He knows everything about his studio, every instrument, every piece of gear. There are a lot of sounds and textures on the new album that we would never have achieved without Gus and his formidable recording knowledge and access to all these unique esoteric recording instruments.
Tell me more about those weird instruments.
We were doing overdubs on the song “Love at first sight”and Gus said: “I’m finally able to use this drum”. He was walking on the street in Brazil and a street musician played this incredible drum. It’s not just you hit the drum and it makes a booming noise. How you manipulate the drum causes different notes, it’s almost like you could play this drum like a musical instrument, like a bass. The drum is called Pandero. That’s what you hear on the opening bars of “Love at first sight”. You can hear my bass but that sound dummdummdududu (sings), that’s the Pandero drum. It’s just amazing how many instruments he has. There was this one instrument, it was another percussion instrument that was filled with water. That was at the of “From the dust”. At the very end, you hear this whoowhoowhoo, that’s this weird metal drum filled with water. It has a name but I forget what’s it’s called.
What were your experiences with the pledge campaign?
There is a guy in San Francisco who pledged for the house concert and we did that a couple of weeks ago. It was a lot of fun. I was a little apprehensive about it, but it was a really beautiful experience. I used to be apprehensive about Pledge and Kickstarter and stuff like that. But after doing it for real with the help of my bandmates and management it turned out to be a really great experience.
Your dad Charlie Haden plays on the song “You and I”. You said he hasn’t played on Spain albums before, so how did that come about? Why this time?
I don’t know why we haven’t played together on Spain albums. It might be just because there was never the right song for it, schedules were overlapping and we just couldn’t get it together.
"This sounds too much like U2. You have to change this."
The song “You and I”, originally, was this big stadium rock song that was supposed to be played on a twelve-string-guitar. Gus heard it and immediately he said: This is a great song but it sounds too much like U2, you have to change this. And I thought, wait a minute, is there something wrong with my song-writing? And I listened to it again and thought, Gus is right this doesn’t fit in the Spain oeuvre. We were in the studio and Daniel started finger-picking on acoustic guitar and I said: That sounds great. And Gus said: Josh, this would sound great with acoustic bass. And I said: Gus why don’t you play the bass? Because Gus is a bass player. And he said: Why don’t we call your dad? I’m like: Yes, that’s a good idea. (laughs). He plays beautifully. Me and Gus drove to his house with a mobile studio and recorded my dad in the living room, it was a great day.
How did he react, was he surprised?
He wasn’t surprised. I think his attitude is more: Why did you take so long to ask me to play on your record?
Please tell me something about the song “The Fighter”.
For years and years I just wrote Spain songs on my bass. In the past few years I decided to write songs on guitar or at least try to write songs on guitar because I didn’t know how to play guitar and I didn’t even own a guitar. I was talking to my sister Rachel about it and she said: I have and acoustic guitar that’s sitting in my closet, you can have it. So she gave me her guitar and “The Fighter” is one of those songs where I just sat down one night and started strumming the guitar and experimenting with different chords and that’s what came out. It’s kind of a cool song because it’s a slow delicate song that’s about a boxer fighting, kind of a violent sport. That’s the roots of it.
With your family background, have you ever considered anything else than a career in music?
Honestly, I never considered anything else seriously. I grew up in a musical family on both sides. My mom and my dad both came from musicians’ families. I don’t think that there was ever any question that I would become a musician. It was just, was I gonna become a professional musician or was I just gonna do it for fun? I’m still trying to write a novel and a short story and as part of the pledge campaign I have to do some painting so I’m gonna be painting for the first time. I went to university for writing because I wanted to learn about the craft of writing words and stories. I don’t know how to read and write music. I don’t even know how to play guitar, I just have this app on my phone that tells me what the chords are and where to put my fingers, that’s how I do it. I think of myself more as a songwriter than a musician.
But don’t you need some skills for writing music and songs?
I couldn’t survive without the musicians around me. All three of the guys, Matt, Randy and Daniel are trained musicians. Randy is a classical pianist, Matt is studied in jazz drumming and Daniel comes from a rock background but he has an incredible knowledge in music theory. He teaches guitar and music theory. We practice and these guys start talking about music theory and diminished quarter notes and all this stuff and it just goes over my head. Reading and writing music never clicked with me. I took classes and I just can’t grasp it, it’s too difficult. It’s maybe one of those things, where, if I really put my mind to it and concentrate, I could learn but it takes time to do that and I’d rather spend that time writing songs.
"We're punkrockers. We don't need any of this bourgeoise music technique."
A person doesn’t need to know how to read and write music to play music. Anybody can pick up a guitar or a bass and just start playing. When I first started playing electric bass, I was 14, I asked my dad, how do I do this? And my dad said: Put your hand like this on the neck and make sure your thumb is in this position. He showed me about octaves and where the same notes exist in different places on the fretboard. And that was it. I started out in a punk band when I was a teenager and we didn’t write music, we thought that that’s too square, we don’t wanna do that. We’re punkrockers, we just pick up our instruments and start playing. We don’t need any of this bourgeoise music technique. I’m still like that in a way.
What’s the difference between the band Spain back in the 90s and now?
I was in my 20s back then and now I’m in my 40s. I’m a lot more open minded and open to having conversations about how the music should be presented. In the 90s I felt like this one man army and that was a reflection of my maturity level at the time. Now in my 40s I understand that I don’t have all the answers, I’m not always right and I need a team of people with me to be successful and to reach a bigger audience for my music. It’s not just that the level of musicianship is higher now, also the level of communication. Not to speak badly of my time playing with musicians in the band in the 90s, not at all. I wouldn’t say I’m a different person but in ways I feel like I’m a different person and I think it comes out in the music.
I'm not usually promoting how great I am, I was raised to be humble. But in this case I'm not very humble, I think it's an amazing album and I love all the songs.
Following Pete Seeger‘s recent passing you tweeted that he was a huge influence. How so?
When my mom was growing up, her family was very involved in left wing politics. When she was 12, 13, 14 years old, her parents would send her to these progressive summer camps. And every summer Pete Seeger would come to the summer camp and play his left-wing songs. My mom appreciated it but she would tell her friends that “I don’t like this Pete Seeger, his voice is too nasal.” The influence of Pete Seeger, his music and his politics, made a big impact on my family. When great musicians pass away it’s always sad and when Pete Seeger passed away it was especially meaningful to me because of the stories I would hear about him from my mom and her parents.
What is your favourite song on the album and why?
I try to listen to it as someone else, someone who’s not connected with the band and it really takes me on a trip, when I listen to the whole record all together. I’m not usually promoting how great I am, I don’t like to do that. I was raised to be humble. But in this case I’m not very humble, I think it’s an amazing album and I love all the songs. All the songs are my favourites, actually.Anke