Published on September 22nd, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: Eamon McGrath
Eamon McGrath has torn a well-worn path in the road the last few years, putting out raw, honest music, and touring the hell out of it. His latest album is being released in three digital installments over the next nine months, which will culminate in a full-album vinyl release at the end. It’s aimed at holding not only the attention of a music audience that has so much access to disposable album cuts, but also to hold his own attention, so that he can stay engaged with the songs themselves while on tour. The first installment, ‘Exile Part 1’ will be available on October 15th. I somehow caught up with the always fast-trucking McGrath to talk about the serialized release of ‘Exile,’ recording live off the floor, and the ups and downs of a life in music.
The Feedback Society: Where did you get the idea of serializing the release of the album?
Eamon McGrath: I feel that there’s this kind of ongoing pattern with musicians where you get into this cycle that’s, ‘write, record, tour, repeat’. You tour a record until it’s time to make a new one, and sometimes I’ve felt that the initial feeling of excitement around a release can either kind of stall or bottom out, or not be fully realized at all, depending on the length of time in the touring cycle, the demand or hype around the album, or the wishes of the record label as to when to stop or start that element of music promotion.
I’ve gotten kind of bored of that whole thing, I want to tour as much and for as long as I can, and on the other hand, I don’t want a release to lose momentum or burn out. Releasing an album episodically pairs the touring schedule with the actual release of the album, and also allows for artistic decisions to be made during the album’s release. It kind of mixes every aspect of putting out music into one big artistic process: the touring, the promotion, the creation, the recording, the manufacturing — it all gets tied together and that just sounds like a really great experiment.
The Feedback Society: Do you think there’s merit in artists releasing stuff in smaller, more digestible chunks in our age of disposable digital files? Why?
Eamon McGrath: I think the smaller the content, and the more readily available, the better. As long as content can be viewed, promoted and toured around, then it’s worth putting out. It doesn’t necessarily have to be bought or sold, if the live show is what’s being bought and sold. Records are dead, except in the lives of a very few select devoted music fans that will always love holding that big circular piece of black wax and putting the needle down on a turntable. That feeling will never die for some of us, but there’s people that have never even held a record, let alone put one on a stereo, who still love music. For those folks, there’s YouTube. And for all of us, there’s touring. So do whatever you can that’s going to put you on the road.
The Feedback Society: That brings us to the current state of music media, where you can get the digital file for your iPod, but a vinyl version to collect and play at home. What do you think of the myriad of directions the current delivery systems are going?
Eamon McGrath: I think that it’s probably just as fleeting as any other format for listening to music these days. First CDs killed vinyl, then mp3s killed CDs, and now music streaming is killing the mp3. In another few months something will kill music streaming. In all of this time, the live show has been the one consistent way to see and hear it, the most authentic version of the art form. Nowadays I think it’s the big responsibility of the artist to put yourself in the position where you’re playing live as much as possible, whether that’s touring behind an LP, or a 7″, an mp3 release, or a YouTube video. The ‘format’ itself is a dying thing, but the performance of music has been eternal in both directions.
The Feedback Society: And it really should always be content over format. How does this affect touring?
Eamon McGrath: I think that people are starting to clue in to the fact that it’s easier than ever to release your content, and if you have content, you can tour. I really doubt that there’s ever been as many bands touring as there are now. It used to be that you needed to have a popular 7″ out to tour, there had to be demand for you to go somewhere, people had to have heard your record and want to see the show or buy the record there. Then, after that died, it was that you’d go on tour to sell the record or to get people to hear it, that the only way people would know about your record was if you hit the road. Now, you don’t even need to have a record to sell, as long as there’s some content out that people can hear and know about and use as a reason to see your show. Touring is more important than it’s ever been I think.
The Feedback Society: You always sound like Eamon McGrath, yet your sound has changed with each album. How has your style changed with the new material? What atmosphere or sound were you trying to achieve?
Eamon McGrath: For the past few years, I’ve carefully listened to a really great Australian band called The Drones. They have a record called ‘Gala Mill,’ and there’s a really textural live off the floor feel on it. ‘Tonight’s the Night’ by Neil Young is a constant influence. That 90s Boston band Karate, or Steve Albini’s recordings. You can hear all the stuff between the notes. You can hear the room, the studio, the hardwoods, the amp buzz. I like the blemishes in all those recordings, like maybe the kick drum is late or early. Maybe the guitar is slightly out of tune or something or the bass player and drummer don’t totally lock in. It’s honest and you can’t hide behind anything other than the songs. I’m sick of software lying to audiences. I want the performance to be documented authentically and honestly.
I’d just been wanting to make a record like that forever, and I finally had the chance when I moved out to Toronto and met Rob Higgins, who played bass in Change of Heart and now leads the punk rock band Dearly Beloved. He’s got a studio downtown that he’s set up to accommodate live off the floor recordings. Usually producers are unwilling to do it or they don’t have the room or something, but Rob has set up his whole house so that he can make these kinds of records. So, I jumped at the chance.
The Feedback Society: How did recording with a band live-off-the-floor change your dynamic?
Eamon McGrath: It didn’t affect much at all, actually. I record super fast on my own and I record super fast with a band, so it doesn’t really matter what method I’m using — it’s pretty much three takes, and I’m out. I don’t like wasting time or sitting around. People have come to have very strange perceptions when it comes to recording music. For example, there’s this common idea that being really finicky with the software will save you a bunch of time, but it’s always that nerdy shit that always goes on the longest: quantizing drums, or editing waveforms, punching in nanoseconds of music, etc, etc. All that stuff takes such a long fucking time. What’s quicker than turning on an amp, putting a mic in front of it, getting a tone, and hitting record?
We did ‘Exile’ in about four days, tops, and we did ‘Young Canadians’ and ‘Peace Maker’ sessions in about the same amount of time per session, but with different producers. So regardless of how I’m making the record, I work at pretty much the same speed. The only difference is that with ‘Exile’ there was four people getting the take at once and moving on, as opposed to just me.
The Feedback Society: How did the songs, the emotional core, of ‘Exile’ come to be?
Eamon McGrath: Aside from the way of releasing it, ‘Exile’ was conceived in a hash bar in Amsterdam after a really crazy night out. Wasn’t feeling too good that morning. I realized that I was thousands of miles away from home and totally alone. I thought about how we put ourselves through the wringer for what we love, and for me that’s music, and sometimes music can get you into some pretty heartbreaking situations.
Musicians, especially ones that tour a lot, feel a whole gamut of emotions sometimes within the span of a few hours: disappointment, anxiety, a hangover, the burning fire of stage lights, it’s all on the agenda and sometimes all at once. Touring is the only way to feel all those things in that potent of a cocktail. When you’re on the road, everything is just so exaggerated, life is exaggerated. As an artist, traveling is kind of an ‘exile’ that’s self-imposed, and just like having a brutal hangover in some alleyway in Holland, you’ve also got the highs and lows of playing to 100 people one night and playing to nobody the next. It’s easy to get discouraged, to lose the point of why you’re doing something, to forget about the things that brought you there, but in the end nothing beats having another 25 shows under your belt and returning to that feeling of home and thinking about the route that brought you back.