Tell us a little about your background and some of the band’s influences.
James Phillips: Daniel Michalak started the band with a few college friends: Stuart Robinson, Brian Rahija, and his brother, John Michalak in 2005. Ramseur Records picked up the band in 2006 after they opened up for The Avett Brothers, then I joined in 2007 when they wanted to become a full time touring band. So, I am sort of the new guy.
Now, it’s sort of Daniel and I soldiering on through the music industry and we have a new fellow playing with us, his name is Stacy Harden. As far as influences go, I think Daniel and I have a lot pretty different Influences but also a lot of overlap, I mean I think like everyone in our generation we listened to the Beatles and the Grateful Dead and a lot of the 60’s and 70’s rock that was classic rock then—and then also we’re listening to the music that is classic rock now which is really weird.
Like Nirvana, or Smashing Pumpkins, and then both of us have spent a lot of time listening to a kind of wider variety of music. I would say at this point in our writing that our influences are as much as like creative problems as they are specific artists. How do you incorporate this sound or this instrument? How do you tell this story with a song? I think is where we’re coming from these days.
Can you expand on how the band writes lyrics?
We both write individually, and then as time allows, we write collaboratively. Generally, music and some form of lyrics will come at the same time, Sometimes, when I’m writing alone I start with music first. You’ll have a chord progression on the piano that makes a lot of sense, or Daniel plays guitar or [and] that will make sense as the basis for something, [so] we just sit down and work on it.
I really believe that writing a song is work. You sit down in your workspace like a carpenter and try to chip away and make the best thing that you can. And that takes time, so generally, at any song-writing session, we’ll try to have something roughed out that resembles the song, but there are so many rounds of refinement that goes into before it’s released as a finished product.
Has anything changed since the release of the 2015 Album, “Hold On?”
There have been changes in personnel. Stuart Robinson, who was our third of three people left the band shortly before we released that record; he also wrote some. And then this record that we’re working on now that will hopefully come out sometime next year is more guitar focused and more harmony focused than the last record.
We tried to come up with a cohesive batch of songs that made sense together, whereas in the past we’ve wanted our records to reflect the diversity of our musical interests, this time around we’re trying to make something that feels of one piece.
In order to do that we collaborated with Brian Rahija, who used to play guitar in the band, and kind of found some guitar pieces that he had laying around and wrote lyrics over those and then also worked with a statistician friend. At this point, this will be our sixth record so we wanted to know what aspects of our songs from the past seemed to have appealed to our fans the most.
We just tried for the forthcoming record to challenge ourselves to make something cohesive and something as strong as we could. I feel like this time around we have done more collaborative revision than we did the last time around.
You’ve had a lot of band member changes over the years. Has there been a single thread that stuck with everything? You’ve also chosen to keep the name as well?
There has been a lot of change, but there has been a lot of continuity. Stuart left the band last year and we played a show six weeks later. We played a show two weeks before he left the band. Daniel and I have played a lot together, as have other folks who have been involved in the band. So I think the common thread is a willingness to explore different potentials and an interest in making something unique and challenging for whoever is actively involved in the group to make something as strong and unique as possible.
I think that has been a common thread, and of course, now that we have a catalog of music that we don’t shy away from playing. So we’re playing these old songs still on to this day—and I think any piece of music that you play several hundred times a year is going to have an impact on different pieces of music that you create so that the songs you create become this thread because the band has always been very collaboratively focused. So perhaps not all of the collaborators are present any more but there’s still this document of this collaboration that we can interact with today.
One of your new songs has been featured in the Judd Apatow movie, Trackwreck. Is there a story behind how that came about?
We’re managed by a fellow named Dolph Ramseur and — through working with other bands— he has met Judd Apatow. He saw that Judd was working on a movie with Amy Schumer and knew that we had a song called, “Amy’s Friend” on our new record. So he called up Judd and pitched him the song, and he said “Okay.” Which was great for us.
You guys have recently played in the Raleigh / Durham area. What are some of your favorite spots to play and how do the fan atmospheres differ across the state?
I really love that. We tour a lot and we just got back from the West Coast yesterday from a two and a half week tour. It’s hard to beat, for me, playing at the Cat’s Cradle. Because I grew up in the area, and I grew up going to shows there, and that’s kind of where I saw a lot of the music that’s very formative to me. But, I really love the diversity of places we play.
On this West Coast tour, we did everything from rock clubs to living rooms and to small theaters, you know? And because we’ve been doing this for so long and we’ve opened for people and we’ve played to play as many shows as we can, we really enjoy sharing our music. We’ve played our music in such a variety of places that it’s hard to pick a favorite.
I don’t know, I really love playing music and I love playing for people and it’s interesting as a performer to watch how the different environments in which we play music really impacts the experience for the listener.
Are there any misconceptions people have about the band?
That’s a good question. I have no idea, I’m just me, so I’m not sure how other people perceive the band.
I read a couple articles about you guys today and I saw one quote where you said, “We’re trying to make sure that we’re building this into a career. There are better signs that that is happening.” Does that continue to be true and can you elaborate on that?
Sure, yeah, Daniel and I are both in our early thirties and have been at this for a while and would like to continue staying at it. Money, unfortunately is a concern that we have to be aware of. We would like to grow the band and reach a broader audience that is a priority for both of us, and yes, there are signs that that is happening.
We happen to be in a major motion picture. We’re really excited to work on this new record with John Vanderslice, who is a producer in San Francisco that we’re both really excited to work with, and the fact there are musicians who are still really excited to join the grand and play with us.
Stacy Harden, who is our new guitar player, has breathed such life into the band and has been so fun to play with. He is younger than us, but grew up as a fan of the band so he has a knowledge and enthusiasm for the material that has been very inspiring. I think there’s still signs that we’re moving in the right direction for sure and that’s certainly still a priority of ours to make this sustainable for years to come as we get older.
As a local company, we’re interested in all things local. With that in mind, what are some of your favorite spots in Durham?
I have so many! Durham’s become so great lately, you know? I’m trying to think of the things that are going to represent both of our interests. I really love Bull City Ciderworks, I think over the last two years I’ve just gotten kind of tired of beer for whatever reason.
But there’s this like world-class ciderworks in our town that’s amazing, but then, that being said, I really love Ponysaurus’ new bar. My house is nearby, so Daniel and I will swing by and have a half-pint after rehearsal. As far as restaurants go, probably my favorite restaurant in Durham is the Alpaca.
Then, there’s also one in Brolly. It’s a Peruvian chicken joint. Man, if you get a chance, just go. Then, we both really love coffee, so Cocoa Cinnamon, and then there’s a new coffee counter that serves Counter Culture coffee at the Durham Hotel that we’ve been going to a lot because a musician friend is the manager of the coffee court.
It’s so hard to narrow down, I feel like I’m going to slight someone. I grew up in Durham, so just the influx of bars and restaurants is so exciting, you know? It’s a great place to live if you like coffee, beer, cocktails, food, yeah. It’s awesome.
Is there any type of food, after you’ve been on the road for a while—restaurant or home-cooking—that you guys have to have when you come back?
Daniel has a huge garden so I’m sure he would answer home cooking meal. I think I would go with a home-cooked meal too. We eat out constantly on the road, so it’s nice to prepare something a little healthier when you get home. I’m trying to think of what I would want if I came home and could have anything I wanted…
I got home yesterday and swung by where some friends were hanging out and there were some Monut’s Donuts—a real pleasure, as always. And generally, when a touring band stays with us, we often get set up by musicians on the road, and we try our best to put up musicians that here that are friends, and generally we’ll take them to Monut’s for breakfast the next morning before they head on.
Some of our subscribers may be hearing you guys for the first time. Is there anything else you’d like to share about the band or any upcoming news?
Let’s see, we’ll be touring the region through the Summer and Fall, and we’ll cap off the year with a show in Early December at the Cat’s Cradle. We’ll be playing. There are more records to hear and the new record’s on the way. We’re going to California in September to record the new record.