THE boys of Happy Abandon set time aside to talk about…
their new music. Justin and Peter talk about the latest single, Heavy Lines, and their superb album, Facepaint. Jake - their drummer when they perform live - tells me how he came to be part of the fold. I find out about the inspiration and stories that drove them; how studies in North Carolina played an important role in the formation of Happy Abandon; the artists of the current-day they recommend – and the classic albums/acts they hold dear.
The duo/trio talk Christmas plans and the music scene where they are; challenges they faced when making their album; what touring dates they have approaching – what advice they would offer new songwriters, too.
Hi, guys. How are you? How has your week been?
Peter: My week has been a mixture of feelings: re-acclimatising to default life, spending time with my girlfriend; catching up with friends - but mostly trying to recharge after being on the road for about two months. It’s always an odd feeling coming home after a tour - but this time, it has been exceptionally jarring.
Jake: I feel like I’ve finally recovered after about ten days of being home – I’m getting back into a semblance of a routine. I made it to Brett’s surprise birthday-party and saw a lot of great local singers take turns doing celebratory karaoke.
It’s great to be back and see familiar faces and places...
For those new to your work; can you introduce yourself, please?
Justin: Happy Abandon is what I like to call an Orchestral-Indie-Rock band. In a live setting, that manifests as a power-trio along with our drummer Jake Waits; with three-part vocal harmonies and various effects pedals, vocal processors - and various percussion flavors to help make the sound more textured. On our recordings; we have a close collaborator named Alex Thompson who provides keyboards, piano and string arrangements; which allows us to incorporate violins, cello; timpani, loads of orchestral percussion - and loads of vocals.
What makes us different, I think, is that, though we all have studied music in some capacity - and most of us have been in choirs, marching bands; orchestras and other Rock bands over the years - the shared experience that all four of us have is theater. I think this background helps with our work ethic when it comes to rehearsals and getting to the gigs but also in the way we value performance, dynamics and the audience’s role in a show.
We’ve all lived in Chapel Hill, N.C. since we met as students here in 2010.
‘Happy Abandon’ strikes me as an interesting name for the band. What is the derivation of that choice?
Peter: To me, the name ‘Happy Abandon' is a very good representation of what music, and art in general, can do to people. A state of ‘happy abandon' is somewhat, literally, blissfully disassociated; or at least that’s how I think of it. A well-written song that strikes me emotionally can take me out of my surroundings and into a place I associate with that song. Whether that emotion is positive, negative - or anything in-between - it is a choice we make every time we put on a song.
So; the choice to name the band ‘Happy Abandon’ seemed very appropriate.
How did you guys meet in the first place? Did you all bond easily and naturally?
The three of us were students at the University of North Carolina (at Chapel Hill) at one point. We all contributed to the college music scene as well as the scene that expanded into the more major cities that surrounded our college town. The chemistry between me and Jake was unquestionable from the first time we played through, what would become, a Happy Abandon song. I respected Jake’s drumming from a band we had both previously been members of - and I was curious to see what he could do with the music I was writing at the time.
Justin was not the first bassist for the band – but, at a certain point in the band’s career, we knew we needed a committed member. Jake and I knew Justin from U.N.C. as well. I knew him as one of the most hardworking and committed musicians in the area. He seemed like the right fit.
Jake: I was inspired by Peter’s work in Morning Brigade and, from the very beginning of Happy Abandon, I was excited to work alongside him. He had all these ideas pouring out: ideas for ways the percussion might fit into the guitar parts. It became a conversation of developing these ideas until they grew other parts and sort of had lives of their own - that was within the first year or so. When Justin joined, it was like something existential clicked into place (along with his sweet bass-lines) and I feel like the band, all of a sudden, was ready to plan tours and hit the road.
Heavy Lines is the latest single from you guys. What is the story behind it?
Peter: Heavy Lines was one of the first songs Jake and I started working on. I wrote that song before Happy Abandon was even an idea. I was writing it during a time when the relationship I was in at the time was coming to its inevitable end. The thought came to me during the scenario I describe in the song - as well as the scenario I describe in Severed Seams.
I think of those two songs as sibling songs.
Facepaint is your album. It has received a lot of praise and support. What was it like hearing it gain so much kudos?
It feels great...
I think anyone getting praise for their work would be happy about it. It’s very encouraging in this unforgiving field. I’m extremely proud of the album; each song coming from a place of significance. When I hear that others are affected by the music in a positive way, it’s very affirming.
Was it an emotionally challenging and difficult album to put together? Did you face hurdles along the way?
The songwriting process was definitely emotionally challenging - but that’s expected.
These are songs that I’ve been working on for years: each one representing an event in my life that took some sort of emotional toll on me. Working on the album was actually an extremely pleasant experience. It was smooth, fun and eye-opening. Hearing the songs develop, instrumentally, was very trippy for me - because I had been playing these songs a certain simple way for so long; with just the ideas of other instruments.
But, actually hearing the strings and timpani and whatnot completely changed the game.
There are soundscapes and lush arrangements in the record. Is Facepaint, to you, part of a single narrative - or a collection of stories that represent different stages of your lives/experiences?
I had no intention of creating an album as fluid as Facepaint.
The songs we chose for the record all came from different stages of my life - but there is still a uniformity between them all. I didn’t realize this entirely until the album was finished. I found that each song was about loss and how loss can manifest itself in so many different ways.
I was happy to find a natural flow to the album.
Who are the musicians you are all inspired by?
My number-one is Sufjan Stevens.
I love his ability to bridge an individual unique sound with accessibility. His lyrics are brilliant and his compositions are very engaging. He doesn’t stick to one model. I’ve also been inspired by Sigur Rós, Andrew Bird; Belle and Sebastian, Gregory Alan Isakov; Björk, Joanna Newsom (and so many more).
Justin: As a bass player; my favorite musicians are John Entwistle of The Who and Ira Wolf Tuton of Yeasayer. As far as bands that inspire me; I absolutely adore Radiohead, R.E.M.; St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear; Local Natives, Alt-j…I could go on forever.
What comes next for the band? Do you have more material in mind? How are plans for 2018 going?
After touring three of the last four months, basically, non-stop; we’re taking time to be home with family and friends for the holidays - and working our survival jobs. We’ll be playing a pair of shows in Washington D.C. and New York City next month before Christmas. Then, we’ll be flying out to Holland in mid-January for a string of dates supporting Bettie Serveert - and a few other shows scattered around Western Europe. We have started messing around with some new songs and ideas - and will probably spend some more time refining and fine-tuning them.
We have no immediate plans following our return from Holland.
IN THIS PHOTO: Birds of Avalon
Those last two aren’t particularly new but they are bands from our neck of the woods that just put out new records - and they are so good.
If you each had to select the album that means the most to you; which would they be and why?
Honestly, the most important record to me might very well be Live at Leeds by The Who
It’s certainly not my favorite album - and as a live record, I don’t think it really ‘counts’ for the purposes of this question - but that’s the record that changed everything for me. Prior to hearing this album, I was learning how to play bass and I liked listening to loads of music; but I didn’t think of it as something I could pursue beyond a hobby.
But, hearing three instruments and three voices filling up all that space live - in the moment, warts-and-all - totally gave me a new perspective on what a band was. I probably played along to that record every day after school for two months - and I almost never go on a road trip without it.
Jake: (The untitled album by) Sigur Rós - ()
I’m fascinated by the percussion. The compositional, dynamic and emotional range of it inspire me. It is slow-moving; filled with some magic resonance or power - and the second-half, towards the end of the record, gets HUGE. It’s a masterwork in my opinion. I always find some new instrumental or vocal line that fixates me in a way that hadn’t before.
T.L.D.R.: I just sink into it. Nothing can follow me in….
What advice would you give to artists coming through right now?
Peter: Be kind, be you; don’t put on a front, ask questions about others - rather than constantly waiting for an excuse to talk about yourself - and your achievements. Be open to opportunities, suggestions; don’t get defensive - but don’t let people push you around.
Justin: Play with people who make you feel like you can always be a better musician and person. Don’t take any opportunities for granted and always listen to your body - especially when you’re traveling for months at a time.
Jake: Be confident, stubborn and polite (not necessarily in that order).
Where can we see you play this year? Any plans regarding coming to the U.K.?
Justin: We have upcoming shows booked in Washington D.C., New York City; Raleigh, North Carolina. Then; we’re playing shows in Oss, Goes; Ensched, Amsterdam and Arnhem - all in the Netherlands.
We are hoping to figure out a show or two in the U.K. between dates in Holland - but having ‘just’ played a couple of shows in London and Milton Keynes this past July: returning to the U.K. might be in the cards for later. We’ll see!
Christmas is not too far away. Do you all have plans already - or will you be busy working?
Peter: My girlfriend and I are going up to D.C. to spend Christmas with my family - and I’m too excited.
Justin: It’s looking like I’ll be staying in N.Y.C. for a few days after our show spending time with my brother; then travel back to North Carolina with him for Christmas at our parents’. I’ll probably work a bunch between Boxing Day and New Year’s.
Jake: Time to see all my family! I am fortunate to have a big extended family that gathers around the holidays. There’s always good conversation, goofing-around and love. I do have a N.Y.E. gig and, even though it’s work; there’s no way I’d rather bring in the New Year!
Finally, and for being good sports; you can each name a song and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that).
Peter: No Below by Speedy Ortiz
Justin: Slip Away by Perfume Genius
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