Generationals

TALKING ‘BOUT MY…

For a band so rooted in decades bygone, New Orleans duo Generationals seem to not get too lost in calculating the components of their sound. On their most recent LP, 2011’s Actor-Caster, Ted Joyner and Grant Widmer seemed to have stripped down to an even more retro feel than the slightly sporadic take found on their debut. Widmer, on the phone from a break in the band’s schedule, explains that many of the band’s facets are uncalculated, yet he seems to have answers readily polished for questions. Perhaps it’s just the capabilities of a band well-trained in the media. Or maybe some of the band’s conventions are more strategic than he suggests.

 

Originally bandmates in a project titled The Eames Era which split in 2008, Widmer and Joyner decided to carry on as a two-piece. Of the switch, Widmer says “the recording process is almost exactly the same. The only difference is that we play almost all of the instruments between the two of us now.” Creating a full band’s sound with two people, he explains, is actually quite natural. “We just kind of found the way we work as writers. It’s the right situation for us to create the kind of record we want to.”

In studio, Joyner and Widmer create a five-person sound using multi-track overdubs, playing all the instruments themselves. But live, the guys have three additional musicians to round out the sound created on the albums. Widmer explains that the flexibility to change, and work with different concepts, pays off. “It’s definitely a tricky thing for a band like us, because we do use a lot of things in our records that are synthetic or driven by machines,” he says. “The live show definitely has a more human rock band feel. That’s the approach we’re taking with the band. The songs take on a more ragged sort of feel [live], and that turns out pretty well. We just prefer to play with people than a bunch of computers.”

Though, he’s not writing off the concept completely. “I don’t think it’s a dogmatic thing I’d say is wrong. There aren’t very many hard line rules about what’s wrong and right. It goes down to ‘do people want to watch it and buy a ticket to that show?’.”

As easy of a decision it was to continue as a duo, the band’s name also came quite naturally. “We spent a lot of 2008 recording our first record in Washington, DC, and we spent a lot of the summer watching coverage of the presidential election,” Grant explains. “People would say a certain issue would break down the ‘generational’ lines. So, we kind of kept remembering that word.” As far as words go, Grant also touches on the band’s newest album title, Actor-Caster, by shrugging off any specific depth to it. “It’s more just kind of a sound thing in that it doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “We liked the way it looked, the way it sounds. It’s not a literal reference to anything.”

Taking things literal seems to be a very weary ground in music these days. Bands like M83 have worked on the idea of ambiguity that lets the listener take a record where they want it mentally, rather than concrete lyrics telling a specific story. “I do like the idea of going the opposite way with it,” Widmer explains. “It’s not about trying to invoke any specific imagery. It’s kind of playing around with the vague sense. I think we are just trying to take it really phonetically than be really specific about a reference.”

On the other hand, a huge part of being in a band, Widmer explains, is backing up your material by “owning it.” The cover of the guys’ first album, 2009’s Con Law, is a close up photograph of their two faces, released in a time when every indie band was looking for nondescript illustrative art to front their releases. The idea, maybe, is just as much about taking the road less-travelled as it was about ownership. “I remember seeing a lot of cartoon hand drawn art with some indie hand lettered title, sort of like the way music studios try to model a movie to an indie market in making it feel homemade,” Grant explains. “Putting our pictures on it was our way of trying to do the opposite of hiding ourselves away like bands do when they put cartoons on the front. Step out front, put your face on it, own it, and let it be known that it’s your best work.” Grant sees this move similar to bygone eras, again invoking vintage records, specifically a record like Phil Collins’ Face Value. “That album cover: just super close up, no make up. You can see all the little pores and imperfections in his skin. There is kind of a therapeutic way to lay it there that it was his work, in a painfully invasive photo of his face. Just that idea was the opposite of what I thought was a really common trend a few years ago.”

On both of their albums, Generationals have a sound reminiscent of 60s era radio when pop was still really fresh and smart, before vocoder and remixes ruined people’s taste and attention span. But in staying vintage, the guys know they have to be careful not to be too kitschy. “There’s a lot of ways you could do a cool band or show without doing something that’s totally retro. Like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, a very cool band not trying to be contemporary. People like Amy Winehouse or Adele are drawing from 60’s and 70’s motifs, showing vintage stuff is big now.” Widmer explains the key to making a bygone era work in a contemporary setting is all about pulling it off in the live format, without overthinking it. “When you put a show together, you have to make it exist in a setlist. We didn’t take a hard mind about trying to eye down our band to any one thing, like a performance style.”

Widmer adds, “When people hone in on one specific thing making a decision that you’re trying to sound like one kind of form, well, we never had that conversation.” This lack of directness created albums that have varied moods and feels, created with a plethora of diverse genres in tow. “When song ideas came up, they came in the best ways they’d be developed. Sometimes that’ll be electronic, sometimes it is more of a vintage sound. We follow the songs where we think the best direction it is to go without thinking about what the record or the band is supposed to sound like.”

In a similar vein to contemporaries Peter Bjorn and John, many of Generationals’ tunes stick to your consciousness whether you intend them to or not. And like any modern act aware of their catchy capabilities, the band has given rights for several of their tracks to be used in advertisements as well as film and television. But unlike the past, it’s not seen as selling out, it’s about being wise, Widmer explains. “I don’t really hear anyone use the ’sell out’ kind of attitude,” he says. “Anyone using that should take a look at the economics of being in an independent band, unless you have an instance where a band is obviously changing something to get a big pay day.”

Despite what Widmer describes “the motivation to hit a home run with every song,” that some bands use in terms of hit-making and singles success, he finds that treating each song equally often unintentionally creates great tracks that people connect with. “With us, it’s really an attention thing in that we developed or have ideas for twice as many songs as we record,” he says. “We only make it all the way through with a song we really like a lot, ones that we think are gonna be really good.” He sees this strategy as a natural vibe that advertisers connect with. “Advertising follows pop culture, and in this era, pop music isn’t really as popular for advertising,” adding that companies turn to lesser-known bands to connect people to their product.

But creating songs that sound nothing like most of their peers come with certain tags the guys aren’t necessarily comfortable with. “I wouldn’t say timeless,” Widmer says of the band’s era-hopping albums. “None of our reference points are epic or anything,” he says. “It’s hard to write something anyone would think is timeless. I wouldn’t credit myself with that. We just don’t pay a lot of attention to what format or style should be. It’s about making the song as good as it should be.”

With such avenues as marketing and online exposure, the media outlets act like extra opportunities for exposure. Glee star Dianna Agron recently included the band’s “When They Fight, They Fight” on her instalment of Celebrity Playlists. With plugs from Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Starbucks in the bag, their fan roster is becoming quite rounded. Thus, the opportunity for future releases must be looming. But Widmer explains that, like their previous releases, they don’t have particular plans before going into the studio.

“If you’re paying a lot of attention, it’ll end up making you look really dated,” he says. On the topic of invoking certain trends, he says “If you’re not one of the first people to do something, when people look back on that song or record, it’s not going to stand the test of time.” The key, he says, is to blaze your own path, and start a new trend for other people to explore. “The only way I can figure to do it is to move in a direction you think is different than what else is popular, and if you do a good enough job, that will be your own mini trend.”

With two well-received releases in the bag, Generationals will be going for a hat trick with their next effort. But as Widmer explains, previous experience will ease the process, but not predict the result. He explains that with the experience of the first album done, the second one came easier. “We kind of walked in from day one knowing we could at least finish the record. Musically or thematically, I don’t know that it was a huge departure.” Continuing on then, will be interesting to see where the band takes it. “With the third one, whatever we record next, we don’t really feel like we need to dive into a new genre or thematically change our approach,” he says. “We’ve never consciously done that anyways. So we just write another batch, whatever we’re feeling like when we’re in there. By the time it happens, we could be really hard into metal and make a metal record.”

Leave a comment

ION Magazine 170-422 Richards Street Vancouver BC Canada V6B 2Z4
© Copyright ION Publishing Group 2013