Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Interview with Justin Wilson (Red Animal War and Saboteur)

Deep voiced and imposingly scruffy, Justin Wilson has an intense presence that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Imagine him on stage, surfing a wall of noise, and you understand the power of Red Animal War and Saboteur.

Justin Wilson is frontman for two bands, the post-hardcore Red Animal War and the punk side project Saboteur, formed with two friends from Slowride. RAW is having a good run. As they put it on their MySpace, they’ve “toured Europe 3 times, America 6 times, released 3 full-length albums, 1 split CDEP, 2 7-inch splits, a dozen compilations, and are authoring a DVD release of 8 music videos and two documentaries.” Whew. And Mr. Wilson still has time for another band? Busy, busy.

Dallas Music Guide: Red Animal War is doing well, really well!
Justin Wilson: (shrugs) Kinda.
DMG: (teasing) Yeah, ‘kinda’ – who else is touring Europe? Come on!
JW: The pAper chAse.
DMG: Okay, they’re doing pretty well too.
JW: The Polyphonic Spree maybe. I thought about what it might be like to be in that band. My friend John was in the band, it was really wild. He got to meet David Bowie. It was cool, completely insane.
DMG: How do you tour with 26 people? That’s a freakin’ cruise! (laughs) Okay, tell me about Red Animal War: describe your sound.
JW: It’s abrasive rock, some midtones. It’s changed because we’ve been playing for a while, six years. We went from a more delicate, clean guitar, classical sound to a more modern sound. Now we’re moving to some mid-tonal sounds where we’re using frequencies you normally might think are abrasive to the ear. On a lot of pop records, the low end and the high end is turned way up and the mid way down, like on your home stereo. What we did on this last recording is turned up the mid-tones, amplified them really loudly, so it sounds crinkly, or crusty. We went for that. That’s what we’re doing right now. It’s always changing.
DMG: Why that?
JW: We had a real smooth sound on our second full length, Black Phantom Crusades. I love the way it sounds, the complete album from start to finish is smooth. We recorded our album Polizida, the next one, with J. Robbins. That was still somewhat smooth sounding. It had more of a live sound to it because we recorded it live, in a room. And then the EP that we did, that hasn’t been released yet, is some of the crusty sounding music I was telling you about. We recorded at the Hit Factory in New York City. Last September, we toured there and back, and we recorded with our friend Adam Schuermann, who worked on the last Coldplay album. He works with a lot of big hip hop acts. He’s an engineer. A producer, it was kind of cool because we’re in this swank studio where John Lennon and – (laughs) I’m just name dropping - but where everyone was recorded! It was fun going for not such a polished and clean sound out of the Hit Factory. We went for a lot of mid-tonal sounds. Of course the drums came out sounding gigantic thanks to Adam and the studio itself and the gear we were working with, but the guitars, mainly, had a really abrasive sound. We’re into abrasion.
DMG: Well, if you’re into abrasion, that limits where you’re going to be popular, right?
JW: The older stuff was definitely more listenable on just a broader range. But it’s a chance you’ve got to take to challenge the stereo. Because when you turn it up loud, it sounds like it’s just ripping your stereo apart. It really does. I like the sound. When I record demos for albums, I record it to where the vocals sound like they’re at the limit, like they’re pushed, like they’re distorted. I must have heard some music like that back in the day. I think it’s a fascination with low fi that never goes away. If you listen to old records and they sound scratchy, I still like that. The scratchiness is really, really more amplified with what we’re doing. We’re taking that thought of sounding like AM radio, or sounding old and vintage-y, and almost turning it on its head and exploring the nasty sound of music.
DMG: (laughs) None of the pretty stuff.
JW: I’m into pretty stuff. I love the way all Radiohead records are recorded. Kid A is dark, but it’s one of the prettiest recordings I’ve heard. We definitely do some pretty stuff, like Jeff recorded some Rhodes piano and the sound just melts into your stereo. It’s a smooth sound. My friend Travis who lives in New York City liked it so much that he made a music video for it – for two of our songs, actually. We’re into melodic things but sometimes, one section of a song or one song as a whole, we crash the sound, make it sound like nothing you’ve ever heard. You turn it up and wonder why you’re hearing that on the stereo.
DMG: Very cool! What are your favorite instruments?
JW: Instruments? (points to the upright in the corner) That’s my favorite instrument. It would be nice if it was a full piano, but I love piano. I used to play it all the time. Now I play guitar in the band, and I sing. I do most of the vocals but everyone sings.
DMG: Who’s your songwriter?
JW: We all are. I do a lot of the songwriting but I wouldn’t even say I’m the songwriter at all because it’s so intensely collaborative that I couldn’t even presume to claim that. I’ll have some cool stuff worked out and I’ll bring it to the band. They change it so much, it’s not even the song that I wrote. It’s different. All the dudes in the band are such phenomenal musicians that I can write a simple song on acoustic guitar and they make it completely technical. We’re lucky. People say, ‘You’ve got a really technical band.’ Whatever. Most of the songs are simple.
DMG: When you write the song, do you write the melody first? Lyrics first?
JW: It’s always different. Sometimes I write a cool guitar part. Or other times I’m singing something in my head. There’s no rhyme or reason…
DMG: What’s your favorite song?
JW: Ever? I always like (sings) “With every season, turn, turn…”
DMG: The Byrds.
JW: The Byrds? It’s my favorite song and I don’t even know who the hell sings it! (laughs) Pretty much any creative song is my favorite song.
DMG: How about of your own songs?
JW: My favorite of ours? Oh, I don’t know. Right now my favorite song is the new song that we’re working on; The Numbers Twist. It’s really long, and it changes a whole lot. It could completely be nothing. It’s 45 minutes long.
DMG: 45?!
JW: Well, it has different pieces to it.
DMG: It’s an opus!
JW: That’s what Todd said. We’re going to have Todd Harwell, from Doosu, play on it, from Flickerstick. Because our drummer Jeff is touring with a new band right now. He’s moving to Miami in two weeks and he’s going to be touring with them until the summer. So that we’re not out of commission, we’ll be writing with Todd. I think, hopefully, when Jeff gets back, what the plan was is that we all play together. We’ll have two drummers. Right now Tony Wann is playing second drums for us. So Jeff and Tony are both playing, and it’s really, really cool. So I can’t imagine being in that band and not having two drummers ‘cause, now that you’ve gone there, you can’t really go back.
DMG: That’s pretty impressive; two drummers. How do you get two drummers on stage at the tiny Gypsy Tea Room?
JW: He doesn’t always play a full drum set; it’s a kick, a snare, and a tom. It still takes up almost the same amount of room. We pack it in there. But Todd & Jeff are both going to be playing full drum sets, so we have to have room. We’ll have a keyboard player, bass player, two guitar players. It’ll be fun. I want some girls to sing, too. Like Red Hot Chili Peppers when they had the girls on tour with them, singing back-ups. It was so cool. It reminded me of something out of Ed Sullivan. (joking) Yeah, so I want to rip-off Red Hot Chili Peppers.
DMG: (laughing) That would be different. What are your favorite places to play around town?
JW: Gypsy Tea Room and Trees. I’ve enjoyed playing all the clubs, like the Curtain Club, Club Clearview, Galaxy Club, Red Blood Club, all those places. But we’ve yet to play in the Gypsy Ballroom, which is what we really wanted to do. And you know what, my favorite place, if I had to choose a place in all of Dallas to play would be freakin’ Deep Ellum Live. I want to play one day at Deep Ellum Live, that’s what I want. One time I played one song with one band there, that’s all I’ve ever done. I want to play a whole show there with my band, you know? It’d be cool. I don’t even know - is that place still open?
DMG: I have no idea. I’ve never even heard anybody playing there.
JW: I saw The Descendants there. I missed the The Henry Rollins show, but I wish I could have gone to that there. It was spoken word. That was one of the last shows. They started having crazy big metal shows there, and then, I don’t know what happened. I think 462 was booking there. I don’t know what happened, but I want to do it. I want to bring it back, you know. It’s all dead and decrepit and I want to bring Deep Ellum Live back. That’s what I want to do!
DMG: How many do you guys usually draw to a show here in town?
JW: I don’t know, we’ve had three or four hundred a show before, but that’s when we’re playing with other big bands too. So if we’re headlining, I don’t know, sometimes it’s way less. Sometimes it’s like nobody. We’ve had shows when there’s just fifty people, or ten people there, you know. It doesn’t really matter; we’re from here, so I’d be surprised if anybody shows up after six years! (laughs)
DMG: What are the bands you like to play with now, here locally?
JW: Slow Ride, [DARYL], Record Hop, Tendril, Men Before Mars, Baboon, pAper chAse…
DMG: Anybody you’ve never played with that you’d like to play with?
JW: We’ve played with the Burden Brothers or I would say the Burden Brothers. I would like to play with Faceless Werewolves.
DMG: Tell me about your recent tour.
JW: It was incredible. We played Holland, England, Italy, Germany, the UK, Slovenia… on past tours we’ve played in Spain, France, Switzerland, Austria, places like that.
DMG: What’s the reception like in Europe as opposed to here?
JW: It’s better. We always dis on the States like it’s not as good as touring here. But people there are so excited about music. We’ve had really good shows in the States, I shouldn’t say that. We’ve had cruddy shows in Europe and we’ve had great shows in America. We’ve had more shows, better shows, in Europe because we’ve played more shows there. We’ll go on a month and half tour in Europe. So you feel like this tour is better just because you’ve had more opportunity. In Europe people will show up and have bread and jam and stuff for us in the afternoon. We’ll set up and soundcheck and then they’ll cook us vegetarian dishes every night and bring it to us and we’ll eat. Then we’ll play. Then they’ll take us somewhere nice, whether it’s to a party or a really nice place to sleep. Then we sleep, wake up the next day and they have breakfast ready for us. We eat breakfast, we all sit around, and there’s always free drinks and stuff too, everywhere we go. You don’t get that in the States. You show up, and it’s like “all right, put your shit here.” A lot of places have been cool, but as a rule it’s not like…
DMG: It’s not the same kind of hospitality that’s part of the culture.
JW: Although on our last tour we went to Florida and back with this band called Mock Orange, and there were good promoters on that tour. But as a general rule, even in big cities, it’s harder to tour in the States. I don’t know what it is. People are more selective here, where in Europe people are more open. Or maybe it’s because we’re an American band.
DMG: Maybe the European bands get better treatment when they come over here and vice versa. It’s the novelty of being across the pond?
JW: Actually, I have a lot of friends in European bands. It’s hard for them there. We toured with a band called Settlefish in Italy and then they went on tour here with us for a month. It’s hard for them. But I think they’re coming back in July, so we’ll see how that tour goes. We’ll see what the States can do! Hook our brothers up!
DMG: So, Jay Robbins? How was that working with him?
JW: Cool, he recorded 15 songs in 10 days. And even took songs home and remixed them at his house.
DMG: Wow, that fast?
JW: Oh, the remix thing was after the 10 days. But he’s a super good guy; I’ve been ripping off his bands for years. He’s the best engineer I’ve ever worked with. I couldn’t say enough good things about him.
DMG: Did you learn anything working with him? Do anything differently?
JW: He’s a really good vocal coach. He’s brilliant at sound and design. It’s much more than just getting a song. He put the whole record together. He made each of us better, like producers always do. That’s what’s cool about going to the studio, you get so much better. It’s such a weird thing. You could practice for nine days at your house, but if you go to the studio and play for two hours, you’re so much better than if you played at your house all day. It’s the pressure. Jay Robbins helped us get a whole lot better.
DMG: Because you want to be good when you’re in front of him, right?
JW: Well, to some degree. That’s what was so cool about him; he’s so laid back. He came to our practice place and listened to us and had ideas for the songs. So we changed stuff up. There was one song where Jeff didn’t stop on the drums. It’s the second to last song on the record. Jay was like, ‘Right here everything should stop, and the song should come back.’ And it was a great idea, so we did it. He has good ideas all the time. He’ll say ‘Add a tambourine’ or tell me to do a guitar part with this cool old amp; always really, really good ideas. I can’t say enough good things about that guy.
DMG: Do you guys use any experimental instruments?
JW: Every time we record. I recorded with a didgeridoo last time we recorded. Matt Pittman played the xylophone on our last record. Jeff played that Rhodes; I don’t know how experimental that is, for us, maybe. I usually play piano, a good amount of piano. My friend Dave Laird came in and played saxophone – two different saxophones on our last record. On our first record, Dustin Pevey played some flute. Jeff played the triangle. On our most recent record we got Jeff up on these ladders and threw drum sticks and old broken cymbals on the ground and recorded it, so it sounds like complete chaos going on. We played big huge bass drums on our split with Slow Ride, made it sound real tribal, stuff like that. We try to do something like that every time we record. Do something more fun, makes it a little sillier. Wondering what four grown men are doing banging around with instruments in a big huge room with a microphone, you know, makes no more sense.
DMG: No Theremins in there or anything, huh?
JW: We haven’t done that, although that’s a great idea. I think the next time we record we’re definitely going to use a Theremin even though everyone says they’re cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason, ‘cause they’re awesome. So maybe next time, I don’t know. It’s not like any of us are actually going to go buy a Theremin. We’re just going to try to find someone with one and coax him in the studio with some bananas and peanut butter. (laughs) It would work on me.
DMG: Is that your favorite sandwich?
JW: Nah. You know, today I had fish for the first time in two years. I’ve been eating pretty much a vegan diet. Today I said screw this, I have to have some fish.
DMG: Fish? Okay, that’s kind of random…
JW: Randomly, I just had to have it. I think when you’re Vegan and you don’t do it right, it’s insane, really unhealthy. When I got home from Europe I was cooking a little bit more and being responsible with my nutrition. But at this point, I’m like, screw that, I’m not being healthy at all. I’m not. You’ve got to have a lot of money…
DMG: I heard you had a little rift in your band.
JW: We were kind of mad at Brian (Pho, the bassist) for a long time. When we played Europe the second time, he split. It was weird. He left, and we were so pissed at him. He had some family problems. Whatever. We were still pissed. We needed a bass player; we still had a month to go on tour. So I got on a bus with these five Italian guys in the band Settlefish I was telling you about. I drove to Slovenia with them, because they were on tour, and taught their guitar player our bass line. He had to learn the song upside-down because he wasn’t a bass player and he’s left-handed. But he’s such an incredible musician that he got it no problem. We played our tour in Spain and France and Italy with a new guy that had never played in our band before.
DMG: …that was playing left-handed and upside-down!
JW: He was really good. One of the best musicians I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe how well he could play upside-down. It freaked me out. He’s an audio engineer and records a lot of big European bands. He’s got this special gift, musical gift. Bruno Germano. They’ll play here in July.
DMG: Red Animal War isn’t on the line-up for South by Southwest. That’s surprising.
JW: Not playing it, I don’t know why. It’s because we’re probably the four laziest people in the world. At least I am; I shouldn’t say that about the other guys. We had our label send our submission in while we were in Europe because we forgot to do it. (shrugs) I don’t know what happened, we just got rejected. It means we should break up and wallow in our sorrows, I guess. We’ve played it before and it was really cool. I know it’s always like the milestone, have you played South by Southwest or whatever. Usually when I send out press packs, I make them real cool. But our label probably sent the normal one, which should be sufficient, if you’re good and big. But we’re way bigger in Europe than we are in the States, so it’s harder for us to get cool shows in the States.
DMG: Who is Saboteur?
JW: Saboteur is the funnest band in the world. It’s just me and two guys from Slowride, Steve Visneau and Rob Marchant, the drummer and bass player. Slowride’s not doing much because the singer, Dan Phillips, is in Austin at the moment. So those guys still want to play, and I was working at a place where I had a huge open loft space that anyone could practice in. I started a band with Steve and we played all the time, just me and him, kind of like White Stripes; a guitar player and a drummer. But Rob was so good at the bass and also our good friend and it seemed silly to not have a bass player and one of our bass player friends not to have a band, so we got him in it. Now we’re playing all the time. So it’s fun.
DMG: Do you have a girlfriend?
JW: No, not at the moment. Actively looking! I do have a huge crush on this girl, though. Is that bad to say in an interview? (laughs) I don’t know. I’m just trying to start trouble.

Red Animal War will release their new EP soon and break down the walls at the Gypsy Tea Room on March 11th.

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