“Life is laced with many disappointments, but they all lead you to more strength and growth. I want everything to be the most incredible thing it can fucking be. I want it to be art. If we are going to take the time to do this then let’s make it amazing. That’s the only thing that excites me in life. I want things to be special. I’m not afraid to try and make them that way.” (Joseph Arthur, Boston, MA March 11, 2016)
Joseph Arthur has a tireless work ethic. Even being completely in the moment of his new RNDM release, he’s already thinking about where to channel his inspiration next. He paused twice during our interview to take note of song ideas that had just spurred from our conversation. That capturing of inspiration concept has lead Arthur down some exhilarating and sometimes unexpected paths. He thinks in terms of complete art pieces having released a total of 28 full albums (between solo, Fistful of Mercy and RNDM) since 2000 and has number 29 on the way.
In addition to being a painter, Arthur has two very different music projects this year with RNDM’s Ghost Riding record having just come out on March 4th and a new solo record a few months away.
Before RNDM’s show at Brighton Music Hall, I had the chance to sit with Arthur in the lounge of his tour bus. “Lounge” was an appropriate setting as we casually spoke about the different emotions of music, the unforeseen paths life can lead you down (imagine Lou Reed showing up at your first solo gig) and the power of orange pants.
We may have even subconsciously written a song or two.
How has the RNDM tour been?
It’s like a whirlwind. I was in India then Mexico right before we started. When I got home I had just a couple of weeks to get ready for this tour. That was before flying to Seattle to practice with the band at the Pearl Jam rehearsal space. Our first show was during the afternoon, playing for KEXP in Seattle at the Triple Door. It was a secret show and I didn’t even know that. I had texted some friends and thought why aren’t they there?
I don’t think I ever worked so hard on something that was going to be this brief of a tour though. It will be interesting to be home afterwards for two days and think about what I just put my brain through? I’ve certainly learned a lot and my guitar playing has expanded. The songs are taking on a new life live right now. It’s a nice way to launch the album and get some of these shows recorded. Hopefully people pick up on it and it gets a grassroots kind of support.
How is touring with a band different for you as opposed to touring solo?
It’s always different, but it depends upon the atmosphere. Sometimes I’ll go tour with just one person helping me drive and tour manage. It will be just the two of us in a van and I’ll go do solo shows. Or you can be on a bus like this, with a crew, although this is a skeleton crew. You deal with so many different variables. This tour to some degree, is still minimalistic. Like last night for example, we had a day off and I only brought my touring bag into the hotel. I made plans with a friend to go out, but only had these fluorescent orange pants on me. So I’m walking around Boston in these bright orange pants and my nails painted orange. It’s one thing when you’re with your crew and brothers, but you go rock this look by yourself out at night, it’s a bit different (laughs).
Being a New York City guy, what’s the vibe like recording at Jeff Ament’s place in Montana?
The first record was done entirely there. It was just four days and a very different process. For Ghost Riding, we started there for about five days, but it was much more of a patchwork type of album. It was almost like this art school project. Our first record was more down the middle, modern rock then Jeff and I had initially intended. When we started talking about making the second one we wanted to get to a place where we can show our influences like Talk Talk or Peter Gabriel or David Bowie. Approaching it in a more childlike way. We discovered a lot of freedoms since we allowed ourselves to explore brand new ideas and drum machines. We deliberately all came in with nothing. I usually have at least a book full of poems that I wrote that I dip into. This time, none of that. We wrote it all new from scratch. The first four or five days in Missoula, we got down 26 song ideas. No real lyrics, I was just thinking about scenarios. Like with “Stronger Man” for example, I just started thinking about being a guy in jail calling his woman and he’s trying to plead to her. You can only sing “I’ll be a stronger man” from the point of being a weak man. So we had all these ideas and we let months past due to our individual schedules. We then got together finally in Seattle and worked two straight weeks to flesh it out to 16 songs, then cut that down to 12.
I then went to LA and really wasn’t entirely happy with all the mixes. I end up at this party and met this random dude who looked like Brian Jones. He was this super cool, laid back surfer named Rick Parker. I was staying in Beachwood Canyon and he happened to have a studio right there. It turns out Rick was a really good mixing engineer who had mixed artists like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Lord Huron. It was pure luck that I had bumped into him. I was staying walking distance from his studio. The very next day I was in his studio working with him. He started mixing “Stumbling” and it was pretty good. He then went on to mix “Ghost Riding” and it was way better. I sent them off to Jeff and Richard and told them we could work with Rick and I was already here in LA, let’s just proceed. Everyone green-lighted it and that record became what it is. If you’re getting yourself into a record that mixes drum beats and electronics and humans, you are signing yourself up for a long process. There’s just no way around it. But Rick Parker really toughened it up.
The idea of bands taking years to make records is becoming a thing of the past. You are putting that kind time of money and effort into something that ultimately becomes as disposable as an Instagram photo you put up. But you can’t do it for that reason, you have to do it because you love to do it. Ultimately, that’s what you make peace with. If you know you love to do it, that’s reason enough. If there are any rewards that come into your life from that pursuit then great, but if not don’t be bitter because most people are walking around not having something they’re passionate about.
You mentioned the song “Stronger Man” off the new record. That song really jumped out at me as a standout track. It’s very melodic and features Jeff on the piano.
It has that classic R&B feel to it. Jeff just started playing it on the piano. He had that progression. The vibe was there from the beginning. I didn’t have any words for it at first. It was a great exercise for me to not pressure myself to force out words. I just started singing this like Myles Davis-like, trumpet melody. Then the chorus came around and I kept hearing “I’ll be a Stronger Man.” The only way you can sing a line like that is with a lot of passion. I struggled with it at first, thinking it was corny. As soon as I completed the scenario in my head and sang from the perspective of a person in prison, I realized it was not corny. That vocal was actually sung through a phone receiver.
Can you tell me about the themes to RNDM? There seems to be a major art element to what RNDM is. What’s the meaning behind all the orange and the masks?
That part of us stems from Jeff. He has a very real talent for art and design. I’m a painter as well, but I think Jeff has a unique talent for branding. It wasn’t talked about in any diabolical way between us as far as – this how we’ll make an impression. It was more out of fun. Something also that would be somewhat alienating and provocative while maintaining that element of fun. What’s funny is, and Jeff and I were just talking about this yesterday, on our last tour we wore the masks on the first couple songs. We haven’t done it all on this tour, but on the last we had a bunch of masks for sale and hardly any sold. On this tour we are much less mask oriented and yet we are sold out. It makes me think that’s the symbol of it and there’s a lot more intelligence behind it than I even realized.
I always liked the color thing. When the White Stripes did that with the red and white I always thought that was cool.
It seems like RNDM has a lot of humor embedded in everything you do. Even looking at your website there’s a big picture of Kanye West wearing orange pants.
I just went to India and I saw the Hindu priests all wearing orange and somebody just wrote me about the symbolism of what orange actually means. It’s all this great stuff. It’s a powerful color. For Christmas, Jeff got me this Orange ’79 Stratocaster that’s my favorite guitar now. It’s my main guitar I play at each show. You don’t see many orange Strats, they only made a few of them.
You personally, being a New York resident, seem very inspired by New York City. There are three New York titled songs on the two RNDM records – “NYC Freaks,” “Williamsburg,” and “Walking Through New York.”
You’re right, I definitely am more than I realize sometimes. “Walking Through New York” and “Williamsburg” were poems I had written around the time of that first RNDM record. That was the only reason the songs were on that subject matter, because the poems were fresh at that time. But the poems happened because I live in New York and it’s an inspiring force. I don’t plan on spending the rest of my life there, but it’s a hard place to leave. As far as “NYC Freaks,” that was simply putting myself in a scenario. I make a movie scene in my head and then I describe it. With that song it was Scorsese era, NYC night out type of thing. A bit of a club life mixed with Times Square. I sent the record to Ben Harper a few months ago and he quoted the lyric in that song that says, “No one here won’t try to break you down for the crown to be king of Saturday night.” It’s that feeling of being on top of the world on a Saturday night. Maybe we could’ve called the album the King of Saturday Night.
You went to the same High School as the Black Keys correct?
Yes, I did and Chrissie Hynde.
Taking a step back in time for a minute, you were essentially discovered by Peter Gabriel. How did you end up getting your demo into the hands of one his A & R guys?
I was living in Atlanta at the time. I never went to college. I started becoming a full-time musician in high school as a bass player. I didn’t start singing until I was 21. I was more into the fusion stuff, Jaco Pastorius was my hero. It’s really kind of interesting how it’s come full circle, now I get to play in bands with guys like Jeff Ament and Mike Mills, really great bass players. Maybe secretly I want to be a bass player still. But at that time, I was in this mode of jazz and technical proficiency. Finally at one point, the part of me that just wrote poetry really wanted to sing. Mostly poems over songs. So I got an acoustic guitar and learned open chords. I ended up writing a set of ten songs. I didn’t let myself be attached to any identity I had before that. I threw out the idea that I had to be this fancy bass player and decided that I didn’t have to be anything. I gave myself a blank canvas to write melody and words over. It was very effortless in a way. There was so much space there without all these abstractions going on. I was having this folk-rock revelation, but it felt very important because it was discovering my voice in a way. Anyway, those ten songs I made cassettes of. I gave one to a friend with no music business connection at all. I only gave ten tapes out total. My friend gave it to a guy in Atlanta who worked at Capricorn records. That guy thought it was good and sent it to a coworker of his name Harvey Schwartz in New York City. Capricorn Records had Cake and some other southern rock bands. That’s why they had a guy in Atlanta. Harvey Schwartz had a lunch with Peter Gabriel in New York one day where he presented him a bunch of CD’s of jazz influenced music for Real World Records. Peter didn’t like any of them. Somewhat frustrated, Peter said he had to go and catch his flight. That’s when Harvey told him he also had this cassette and said, “Let me just play you this one song before you head out.” Peter thought it was pretty good and wanted to hear the next song which was a song called “History.” In that song there’s a line in the chorus that goes, “history acts as your gravity.” The song ended up on my second record, it was one of the first songs I ever wrote. That line caught Peter’s attention. He’s a big lyric guy. He took the cassette and called me when he got off the plane. So I got a random phone call on my answering machine in Atlanta when I got home from working at Clark Music.
Did you think someone was messing with you?
No. I knew it was legit right away. It was very obvious. That was my entrance into the music world. I then got signed to Real World and moved to England. I was being mentored at Real World Studios and learning record making there. It was exactly the philosophy we instilled in this past RNDM record. The other guys kept saying they never made a record where so much back and forth has happened. In my mind I was thinking we were still at demo stages of making a Peter Gabriel album. It’s a ton of work making that type of project, but that’s the way I learned to make records. That’s what Peter does and that’s who taught me. The people he introduced me to like Tchad Blake are the same way. Tchad mixed my new album “The Family” which is coming out in a few months and he also mixed my record Redemption’s Son, some stuff on Come to Where I’m From and he sequenced a lot of my EP’s. Oddly enough. He mixes all the Black Keys stuff. It’s a small world, Tchad lives in Wales.
Before you even move to England, you get flown up to New York for a showcase and one of your hero’s, Lou Reed is in the audience. Did you know he was going to be there?
Absolutely not. At that point I was still a fusion bass player. I was faking it as this new guy who played songs. I had no fans at all. I hadn’t put anything out. I do tend to make records though. Even then. I had made a full record on that demo tape. Lou Reed came because he and Peter were new friends. It was a casual invite from Peter to Lou Reed to check out this new guy he was thinking about signing. Peter is a very democratic type of guy, he didn’t want to come back and say, “We are signing this guy.” He wanted others opinion and wanted to record me live so he can play it back. It was all kinds of pressure on me. I was facing going back to minimum wage with no other prospects and not much of a popularity vibe in music at all. I prayed on my knees before that gig. I was so terrified.
I did the set, walked off stage and went right up to Lou and shook his hand. He said, “I like that song ‘King of Hide and Seek.’” I didn’t have a song called “King of Hide and Seek.” I had a song with that lyric in it, but that title was infinity better than whatever the fuck I was calling it. Right now, sitting here talking to you I’m thinking I need to go write a song called the “King of Hide and Seek,” about Lou Reed. That’s a concept right there.
Now we have two new songs and maybe even a concept record. That’s almost as fascinating as your stories.
Dude, it just went on and on from there. My first month in England I was getting ready to play at this thing called Recording Week and all of a sudden Joe Strummer came by as an uninvited guest with his whole crew. They stayed in a drum storage room with a four track cassette player. Every time I would walk by I would see Joe trying to hand people his black Telecaster and saying, “Let’s jam, let’s jam, let’s make something.” I’m just this American from Akron and all of a sudden I’m hanging with these amazing people. I got to eat dinner with Brian Eno and the next thing I know he and Peter Gabriel are singing on my first record. It’s super weird and crazy, but it’s such a fortunate place to come from.
I’m back on Real World Records, they are putting out my new solo record in Europe. Once again, it’s all full circle.
So your new solo record, The Family, is done?
Yes, it’s mastered and everything. I just have to finish approving the lyrics and liner notes and that’s it.
Two new records in a year.
Yes, it will be out in a few months and I will tour on it for sure. It’s interesting though, this new RNDM record is real serious, yet made in fun way. I was in a dark place. I was coming from a place of fighting out of personal darkness when I was writing. It was just weather that we all go through. My new solo records is from a more peaceful place. It’s exploratory.
What’s interesting about your work is that you cross so many genre’s in your music, whether it’s solo material or with bands. But even your solo records vary in terms of what genre the music fits into. Is that done on purpose?
I’m just interested in it all. It seems like the way forward when I’m doing it. There’s so many different versions of me out there. I don’t know if it all goes together, but I consider it all art and versions of me at that time. Even with the recent Kanye West thing, I posted a support message on my Facebook page, just because my dreams don’t cost a billion dollars doesn’t mean that someone shouldn’t have dreams that cost a billion dollars. Why judge that? He has a dream that costs a ton of money, so fucking what? Go for it man. The guy has clearly proven himself. Hate him all you want, but he’s made some great records.
What’s the vibe on your new record? Is it more acoustic based?
It’s totally different. I got a piano. I found a Steinway 1912 Vertegrand piano that was in insane shape. Just beautiful. It was from 1912 so it had its wear and tear, but it was in just one family. I ended up getting it for a crazy deal. I got it tuned and wrote a set of songs on it. I had never really written much on piano before. I made the record by myself mostly. It was all about family dynamics. Every single song. I sang from different perspectives; from my grandfather to my father to my sister to my wife who doesn’t exist to my kids who don’t exist. It’s based off my experience, yet fictionalized in a way. It’s a concept record. It’s very modern and my original intention was to just make this lush piano record with no guitars or beats. I ended up cutting everything to drum machine grooves. Tchad Blake then made it sound insane. It’s a very futuristic singer-songwriter record. To me, it shows how I’m inspired in all different ways. I find art everywhere. Interviews are art. We’re making art right now. I’m a podcaster too, it’s called Nothing to Talk About. I’ve had a bunch of people on including Jeff. I respect the art of interviewing. I think it’s fascinating. I love reading interview books.
Even our interview is following this full circle theme.
Really now I know the answer to the original question you asked. The answer is, it’s been fun. It’s been a lot of fucking work and there’s been a lot of challenges, but a lot of celebration with great music coming out.