As A Cool Hand prepares to play at Mike n’ Molly’s tonight at 9:30 p.m., I spoke with frontman Justin Tanaka, vocalist and guitarist, on how the band formed and their recent Oct. 14 release Long Live the Night. Tanaka was running around with the band as they prepare their Halloween costumes, featuring Adam Howarter, bassist, as Jesus (due to his huge beard and long hair which they “are capitalizing on”), Tanaka as Clark Kent and drummer Charlie McCarthy will ironically be Ringo Star. The band is still in debates over what guitarist Mike Altergott should dress as.
MJ: What would you describe as the genre of your recent album?
JT: It is multiple genres. Since it’s our first album and we are a relatively new band, we were trying to experiment with different things. Almost every song is a different genre.
MJ: What other musical influences does the band have?
JT: That’s one of the things I really like about our group is that we have a very diverse musical background. We like Radiohead, The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys. Two of us have a a lot of funk and jazz background.
MJ: What was the process like for putting together your first album?
JT: All the original songs were written by me initially. The concept that brought the album together was that they were mostly singer songwriter songs. While working together we were able to deconstruct them and put them back together with the band. It really was a collaborative effort, I wouldn’t say that I wrote the songs by any measure, they wrote them. That’s really important especially because the lyrics are so important to the melody, at least we found that as a good starting point.
MJ: What was the most difficult part of the process of putting the album together?
JT: I would say it was because we were paying for studio time for all of it, so that kind of restricted us. Especially with guitar and vocals and things like that, I think if we had more time to spin off things and let it digest a little bit and get our own feedback, then we maybe could have developed more. There is a limit for what you can do, so what we laid down is pretty much what we did. I’d like to do it again, and I think actually we will do more self recording and kinda save money and make sure that we can kind of direct it more.
MJ: What inspired the album title?
JT: The album name was actually picked by Mike, who is our multi-instrumentalist, and he grabbed it from one of the hooks from the first, the title track “Night Life.” When I first started out and people wanted to hear our originals, they always asked for us to play “Long Live the Night,” so that kind of had to be enforced.
MJ: Now that Jack no longer lives near Champaign-Urbana, is it harder to work together as a band?
JT:Its not really, because Jack only lives an hour and a half away. So he’s here every weekend anyways, and Mike is working full time, but he’s still in Champaign. So although it’s kind of restrictive because he can’t do anything in the afternoon (he’s working a 9 to 5,) but he’s still here. I think because Jack has to travel, we are very efficient with our practices because we know we have a time constraints. So when we were all here, maybe we took it for granted that we had so much time. I think maybe we were less productive than we are now.
MJ: What is your favorite part about the Champaign-Urbana music scene?
JT: My favorite part is how everyone is such a community, and not just the bands who are really great at putting shows together and working together, but also the crowds. I know just, especially we were playing downtown, I’m pretty sure there were a lot of people that were at our last Cowboy Monkey show that none of us knew or brought there. People were just coming off the street, and that’s just really great. It’s not like a big city where you have a lot of competition when it comes to bands. If you’re doing something I think it’s a little bit, maybe easier but maybe better in a way of just getting noticed and kind of making a name for yourself and building that community aspect of it.
A Cool Hand’s Upcoming Shows include:
- Friday, Nov. 1: A three-hour set at White Horse from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.
- Saturday, Nov. 2: They are playing with Chicago-based band Hemmingbirds and The Fruit Flies at Mike n’ Molly’s at 9:30 p.m.
- Thursday, Nov. 7: “Rock the Night for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Medical Relief for Children” benefit concert at The Canopy Club at 7:30 p.m.
As post-rock trio The Life and Times trekked down to Chambana to play their Thursday night show at Cowboy Monkey, lead guitarist and vocalist Allen Epley graciously chatted with me about the coolness of everything from their in-the-works record and documentary to Burt Reynold’s sweet ‘stache.
MP: To start with, are you all still living in different cities and then getting together to perform every couple months or so? Is that still the case?
AE: That is the case. Chris still lives in Kansas City, but Eric and I are up in Chicago, so that makes it tricky to get regular practice time. Generally, what we’ll do is what we did for the last record, No One Loves You. We would set up a couple shows up, and then Chris would come up about four or five days before that, and we would just practice and write like crazy with the “tape rolling.” And then we’d listen back and make some songs out of those. It’s working pretty well. We’re probably six or eight songs into it.
MP: The Life and Times has been a band for about a decade now, and I know you’ve gone through some line-up changes, but overall, how would you say your sound has matured over the years?
AE: I think we are playing to our strengths more. I think we’re better players now. And we have a crazy drummer, so we really try to use what he does best, those great big beats and cool stuff that other people can’t do. We try and have an idea like The Police have, where Sting’s bass line was basically the song, and then Andy Summers added all kinds of stuff on top. He wasn’t always doubling the bass part.
MP: What about this new record? What about it has you excited?
AE: I just think there’s some stuff on there that is way different than what recently has been. There’s definitely an element of not giving a fuck, excuse me, just trying to go for it and not worrying about our detractors might say. There sure is rump-shakin’ stuff going on. Some stuff that’s going to be very surprising for people.
MP: So, when you say “different,” you mean different for your sound?
AE: Yeah. Just singing differently and some of the beats and the way we’re approaching songs. We always try and have a deconstructionist attitude about it. We’re never just flat-out shredding. We’re always trying to think two steps ahead, even as we’re writing.
MP: I also noticed on your website that you’re putting together some kind of DVD, a self-made documentary. How is that coming along and what inspired this whole idea?
AE: It is coming along slowly. We’ve been stacking up hours of footage of what is ostensibly the making of our new record. On the surface, this is a film about three dudes in a band making their new record and their recording process. I think the larger subject is that this is three dudes somewhere around forty who are still doing this, for some reason, and it’s like, “what the hell are you guys doing?” You don’t make that much money. You do what you love, and we’re goddamn good at it. And the ability to play with someone and create with people at such a high level is a gift, and you embrace it. It’s who we are. Not to say that we’re not defined by other things.
MP: Have you seen other music documentaries that you like, that this was vaguely inspired by?
AE: We love all that. We could watch anything, even a band we don’t like, we could sit and watch go on tour. And that was the inspiration, and beyond that, by no means do I think that we are unique in being older dudes still in a rock band, which is why I think this will resonate with other musicians and maybe even be another explanation to our wives and girlfriends who are granting this extended adolescence. We’ve come this far, so why would we stop? We watched that recent Sound City documentary, too. Have you seen that?
MP: No, but I’ve been wanted to. It sounds so good.
AE: It’s awesome. The larger story is about rock and roll and where it’s headed and how digital recording has affected the industry. It just further solidifies our decision to do something like this. The editing of this is what’s so painful. You know the times when you look in the mirror and you go, “Oh man!” and suck in your gut. You gotta look at yourself through a hundred hours of footage and edit it down to something people can see. It’s like therapy. It’s hard on the psyche, but maybe it’s ultimately good.
MP: So, that’s actually the end of my serious questions. This is kind of a goofy one. A lot of alternative bands end up with their songs in car commercials, so which song of yours would you put in a car commercial, and what kind of car would that commercial be for?
AE: Oh, that’s a good question. I could see “The Politics of Driving” being used for a… [Starts conferring with other band member’s in car] “The Politics of Driving,” when the drums come in, are you kidding me! When the solo starts! A Porsche? We don’t like Porsche! [Addressing me again] In a Trans-Am, in like a Smokey and the Bandit-era Trans-Am. Imagine Burt Reynolds and his mustache and hat, cruising along at a 150 miles per hour and Sally Field’s hair flying everywhere. That’s my answer. “The Politics of Driving,” a ’79 Trans-Am, a ’79 T-Top Trans-Am.
MP: Well, thank you very much for your time, and good luck with your show tonight!
When Laura Carter phoned me up on Sunday from “somewhere btwn Richmond / Cincinnati” I felt a mixture of nerves, excitement, and gratefulness that she could take some time in the middle of her busy tour schedule to talk to some college radio station in central Illinois for their music blog. We chatted about Elf Power, Orange Twin Records, Elephant 6, their current tour with Neutral Milk Hotel, and just a lot of really cool things. Here are those things:
JT: When did you start doing music seriously?
LC: It wasn’t really until I had met Andrew [Rieger] and was hanging out that it was ever anything more than just an occasional messing around with instruments, and that was in college going to University of Georgia. And he had kind of an apartment that was close to downtown and a 4-track, and he was just starting to learn how to record and lay down stuff on the 4-track, and then I started joining in on that project.
JT: And that project was the forefront of Elf Power, right?
LC: Yeah, it was Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, and we found a vinyl place that had no minimum so we ordered 50, and that was like the first release.
JT: How successful was that first release? Were you also playing shows around Athens?
LC: Yeah, mostly house parties, and you know kind of underground spaces. But, we sold out of all 50. Pretty exciting.
JT: Could you tell me a little bit about your early involvement with Elephant 6?
LC: I met some of the core people in New York and some of them in Athens. The first one we met was Julian [Koster] who came through town touring with his band Chocolate USA, and we had kind of had conversations, and we knew we were into similar stuff. When we went up to New York we reunited with him and kind of extended our friendship, and that included Jeff [Mangum] and Robbie [Cucchiaro] and then we also had met simultaneously kind of down in Athens Will [Cullen Hart] and The Olivia Tremor Control gang. Suddenly we’re like ‘what? You made a 4-track album? Oh gosh so did we,’ at the same time. So, we didn’t even know each other existed in this same little town. We were all kind of inspired by the same artists but also turning each other on to new stuff that each other hadn’t heard yet. But that’s when we kind of all joined forces, and we’ve taken different roles in each other bands. We’ve all recorded on each others’ records and toured with each others’ projects in different forms or another.
JT: I’ve heard around that Elephant 6 has “disbanded” sort of. Is that true exactly?
LC: I mean, I don’t know that it was ever banded. I would say that it’s not that it’s disbanded it was just never banded. It’s always just been like connections of people helping each other out. The perception of it being some sort of entity like in the sense that you think of Drag City or these things, Elephant 6 has never been like that. There’s no call to order. We have no president.
JT: You’re also a founder of Orange Twin Records. Could you tell me a bit about those early days?
LC: Our label started as a fundraiser because we went in on a piece of 155 acres of land and needed a fundraising mechanism. And so we started just having a web store just where we’d sell any kind of local art. It’s supposed to be kind of like representing our little community of people that were going in on this land, and we would just—anyone who wanted to sell something we’d sell it. And we would take 2 bucks per item towards the land project just as a way of raising funds. And so we started that little store, but it was 90% musicians and then like 10% paintings kind of. Most of what everyone had to contribute was signed CDs, vinyl, like the music stuff was what we were producing more than any sort crafty thing. So then because we were just kind of selling music and had that format laid out that we found this album called Elyse, and um so it’s actually reissued, and he tracked down the artist which was a process, and she agreed and so then we put that back into print. And then that was kind of the start of the record label. We didn’t mean it to be a record label, he just thought that that should go back into print, and then we started picking other things to be in print. And next thing you know we actually had a real label.
JT: Moving back to Elf Power. Could you tell me a bit from your perspective how it’s developed?
LC: It’s just always changing. I don’t know how else to put it. You know. We take risks and you know sometimes retreat back toward our roots. Then we take other risks and retreat. Kinda test waters. Try stuff. Usually works out.
JT: I just have one last question that I’m interested to know. How has this tour with Neutral Milk Hotel developed?
LC: Oh, it’s super exciting for us. We did one of, you know, our first real national tours where we were just hitting every city night, after night, after night was with Neutral Milk Hotel 15 years ago so it’s like a huge family reunion of sorts. Their shows are super spectacular and amazing and the audiences have been really, really sweet, super passionate. It’s real emotional. It’s good.
JT: Great. Thank you so much for this interview! I’m looking forward to seeing you on Tuesday.