By Mike Bax
RNDM, the joint project of Joseph Arthur, Richard Stuverud and Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam) released their wonderful sophomore album Ghost Riding upon the masses just last week, courtesy of Dine Alone Records. A sublime mix of guitars, drums, Mellotron and Moog, the eleven songs on Ghost Riding feel less like a side project and more like a band making relevant music. No disrespect to the band’s first album Acts (2012) which was well received, but Ghost Riding takes all that was good about Acts and builds upon it significantly.
Currently on the road doing a seven date run of live shows – the lone Toronto show happening Sunday March 13th at The Mod Club – lead singer and guitarist Joseph Arthur took some time from his hotel room in Boston to candidly discuss the RNDM creative process, touring together, and the prospects of future touring for the band. Arthur himself finished up our call by expressing his enthusiasm for his bandmates, playing live, and the fact that their schedules all have to synchronize to be able to tour as RNDM. As short as this tour is, it was obvious Arthur was glad for the chance to present the material from Ghost Riding live on stage so close to the album’s physical release date.
Mike Bax: You’re in Boston tonight?
Joseph Arthur: That’s right – a day off. We’ve just done three shows in a row.
Mike: Nice. This is a short run for you, but from what I’ve clocked online, it sounds like the shows have been going good?
Joseph: Yeah, the shows are good. There has been a lot of preparation in a short amount of time. In terms of the record, it’s somewhat of a big production. We’re a three piece rock ‘n roll band essentially – that’s how we saw ourselves until we started making this new record, and we kind of expanded our horizons as to what we could become. And then you realize that you have to make this something that works live. It’s actually been good, I think we were all expecting it to be maybe a bit more difficult than it was, because I think once we started playing the songs we realized we could actually play them a lot of different ways and they would work.
It’s like a case of writing songs while producing a record to make the record. So when the production happens and the songs come alive, we didn’t have that moment of yourself in a room where you are hearing the songs really stripped down. The beat has always been there and been an essential part of the songs. We found ourselves working that all out, realizing that these songs are strong and that they would work live. There’s a reason why these songs made the cut for the album and went as far down the production line as they did. I think we had about thirty ideas or so at the start of this album, things that we could work on and complete, you know?
Mike: That’s a lot of material.
Joseph: Yeah. We approached it in a very different way. Our first record was made rather quickly, mostly all done in Montana at Jeff’s place – it was mainly a four day process. And then there was some mixing done for a couple of weeks after that for a week or so. It was a very quick record whereas this one we went to Missoula and, in the same time that we took to make the first record, we gave ourselves that much time to come up with our basic ideas for the 26 to 30 things were wanted to work on for the new album. Then we separated for a little while and we all got back together in the Stone (Gossard) studio in Seattle – the Pearl Jam studio – for another two weeks fleshing out and pursuing the songs and deciding which ones were working better, eliminating the ones that weren’t.
That’s when we went deeper. I was coming up with words and lyrics at that point and then it pretty much went into a two month extended mixing process which I ended up working on quite a bit at home in my studio in Brooklyn. And then I wound up in Los Angeles and met with a mixer named Rick Parker who has done some great stuff like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Lord Huron. I got him to start mixing a couple of the tracks, sent those to Jeff and Richard and they both really liked the way they were coming out. So I wound up spending the better part of a month with Rick just working on mixing that record to finish it. Yeah, it was a long process. A lot of work went into it.
Mike: You come from a musical background of making, recording, and performing music by yourself using pedals. Do you find that is still an element of the RNDM live show?
Joseph: Well, it has been. It’s something I go back to because of the times, I guess. I think I would go back and forth regardless of financial considerations, but certainly in this day and age touring a band requires some thought – you need to get rooms, figure out travel, incidentals, and all of the rest of it. If you’re running a relatively small operation, you can’t always afford to tour the same way time after time so it becomes a thing of necessity. But it’s creatively rewarding for me as well, and it’s something I have been doing for so many years now that I don’t feel particularly trapped by it or that I need to do it. It’s fun to reinvent and re-conceptualize it every couple of years.
I definitely feel like one thing I’m doing this RNDM tour that is reawakening me at this moment is that I like to rock (laughs), and there is only so much that you can rock on stage by yourself. You can rock pretty hard on your own, but it’s good to be playing off of such great musicians like Richard and Jeff.
Mike: I really like the phrase “uncomfortable instrumentation” that you are using in the CV for Ghost Riding. How exactly does one achieve uncomfortable instrumentation?
Joseph: I really think it was just more of the approach of us coming to the table and looking at different things like a cool drum machine app on an iPad – dreaming up some crazy beat while drinking some morning coffee and experimenting with this app, then plugging it through my guitar rig and putting a distortion pedal and a delay on it and then bringing that forward. Jeff would sit at the Mellotron and start playing chords around it, putting some wild Mellotron string sounding chords over it and suddenly you have something. That’s how the song “Trouble” got started. I don’t know who came up with that uncomfortable instrumentation descriptor, but it was a bit of that and a bit of playful instrumentation as well. Like stuff that sort of wakes up that childlike creative spirit within yourself. You are literally giving yourself a toy to play with and write music.
For me, the guitar is a toy to play with, but it is also something I have spent countless hours of obsessive time with. We have a complicated relationship, me and the guitar (laughs) – sometimes it’s just a toy and sometimes it’s more like a relationship, whereas if you pick up some instrument or some music interface on an iPad, it’s different. We used the Pledis drum machine, a bunch of analog gear, a Moog Voyager… basically being open to trying anything that will awaken that sort of playful, experimental spirit and it leads to interesting avenues because when you don’t limit yourself to a certain style or identity, you don’t set those kinds of limitations for yourself, you know? Then styles start to present themselves and you sort of follow them along as you write.
I think when you listen to Ghost Riding, it’s eclectic but it works together because it was all made with the same spirit. Even a song like “NYC Freaks”, which has a kind of a four on the floor seventies disco feel to it, goes really well on the album with a song like “Dream Your Life Away” because it’s coming from that same space of childlike experimentation. But this isn’t to say it leads to childlike fodder musically. Quite the opposite, I find – it tends to take you deeper in.
Mike: I’ve been playing the album for the past couple of days now. I don’t know what I was expecting Joseph, I find it’s a very cohesive album. And a pleasant listening experience.
Joseph: What do you think you were expecting?
Mike: Hmm. This might sound bad… but I didn’t expect it to be what it is. I guess I expected it to be a throw-away jam session and it’s not. This recording reminds me of music by Manic Street Preachers and Modest Mouse. I’m a Jonathan Bates fan and Bates is a musician who has recorded and toured on his own using pedals. I’m seeing some similarities between your material and his, and I’m digging that.
Joseph: Wait, who’s this? Jonathan Bates?
Mike: Yeah. Were you ever into a band called Mellowdrone from about 8 to 10 years ago?
Joseph: No, but I think you’re telling me something I want to check out.
Mike: He’s recording as Big Black Delta now, it’s a variation on what he used to do. Kind of like RNDM is a variation on what you are known for. That’s the similarity for me – your approach to music feels similar. You might like his work.
Joseph: He does it all on his own?
Mike: I believe he does. And he does it well.
Joseph: Cool. I just don’t know how young upstarts make it work. I don’t know how young bands are going to do it – it’s wild out there right now. I am loving playing with Jeff and Richard, having that freedom to just let go and play off of each other. It’s fresh for me.
Mike: And I have to say this – Dine Alone are the kind of label that when they ship you something to check out, you raise an eyebrow to it and make some time to check it out. I get a lot of stuff sent to me as a “journalist” and it’s hard to even put an ear to most of the music you get sent. But anything with Dine Alone attached to it, I try and make time to play. More often than not, the music they are behind is pretty awesome, know what I mean?
Joseph: Yeah. They seem to have a really good reputation in that way, which is cool, but that is disconcerting to hear even though I can imagine it’s absolutely the truth – there’s not enough hours in the day, is there? Even now, my friends will ask if I’ve heard a band and, like you just did there, I’m sure I would love that band. But will I find the time? I’ve never even heard of it, you know? It’s like we are living in this time where there is no centralized information anywhere.
Mike: There’s no centralized place to vet music is there?
Joseph: I don’t even pay attention to the centralized media outlets either, to be honest. I don’t stubbornly ignore them, but at the same time I don’t seek it out either. It’s one of those things now, it’s interesting.
Launching RNDM, and just looking at the mechanics of “How does this work now? How do we make this happen?” Like, would it matter if we went out and toured relentlessly for two months? Could we afford that? Would we get returns from it? I think it could, and it would, but that’s obviously something that we can’t do right now. RNDM has a short touring schedule at the moment. We’ll see if more things open up in the future.
Mike: Do you think you will try and tour RNDM again in 2016?
Joseph: I think we will. But I think that a lot of things have to converge. That’s the dilemma when you are dealing with people with lots of stuff on their plates. (chuckles)
Mike: I’m a Walking Papers fan as well. I look at that band and I think how do they juggle the schedules of Duff McKagan, Barrett Martin, Benjamin Anderson, and Jeff Angell to make music? All these guys are doing different things musically, but there’s an example of a great Seattle band that might take five or six years to make another album, you know? Same story.
Mike: Who was the mystery man in orange who ran out on stage and performed with you at the Gramercy show in New York a few nights ago?
Joseph: Oh, I don’t know if I’m allowed to reveal that. I don’t know if we should keep that mysterious or not, I dunno.
Mike: Will he be on stage in Toronto?
Joseph: Yeah. I dunno, we should give him a name. We should name our mascot. We’ll say that’s Captain Random. (laughs)
Mike: Alright. Fair enough.
Joseph: Captain Random, that’s his name.
Mike: In the past, you have done some mashups of songs while performing live. Is that something you will continue doing on this round of dates?
Joseph: No. What we’ve done so far is we have presented the album from beginning to end and it’s really worked quite well. And then for our encore we have been playing songs from our first album. No real covers this time except for a little homage to Bowie. Interestingly, last night I was wondering what would happen if we flipped it and came out with what we are doing in the encore then play a bunch of the new album, break, and then finish the new album in the encore. I dunno. The show is operating really well right now.
We knew we were going on tour before we got together in Seattle and had five days of rehearsal or whatever, so we were all working individually on it. But still, you have to get together in the room and start doing it as a group, galvanize it and get it to the way you are going to do it live. You want to know it’s going to work. I think we just somehow managed to take a limited amount of time and invented the show together in a way that really works. I don’t know how much we will change it considering I think we only have three more dates left to play. We could move a couple of things around. “Cherries in the Snow” got added in because that song kept getting requested. It’s from our first album.
Mike: How would you as a founding member and core writer describe the difference between Acts and Ghost Riding? Have you had to do that in any of your interviews yet?
Joseph: No, you know, it’s easier to just describe the process on how they came about rather than try and describe a difference. I mean for Acts, Jeff basically flew me and Richard to Montana and we stayed there for four or five days. You’re putting yourself in this position of trying to make something work when you really don’t have any idea it’s going to work at all. In a situation like that, what we did was look at what we had. We weren’t really starting from scratch. I had songs that I hadn’t yet used. “Modern Times” was a song I had going in, “The Disappearing Ones” and “Hollow Girl”. Jeff had a couple of things that were developed already in the studio musically that I would then just sing over, so we sort of put them all together.
And I think there is a cohesion in that record too – the integrated spirit of our time together. When we play those songs they definitely feel as strong and come alive in a way that is different from the new ones. I feel real proud of the new record that we’ve made in that it is definitely a progression and a step forward for us, but I don’t feel like it’s an apology for the first record, you know? I feel like it’s a maturing – like if you listen to a band like the Clash, their first album compared to something like Sandanista, right?
Mike: You hear the progression. I haven’t heard your first one but I can honestly tell you that I did like what I heard on this one, enough that I went and bought vinyl of it today.
Joseph: Oh, great, yeah.
Mike: Well, I ordered it. I know the vinyl is not ready yet. (laughs)
Joseph: Yeah, that’s been a bit of a controversy. But you know, there it is.
Mike: That’s not unusual though. If one orders vinyl now, you go into it knowing that 60 to 70 percent of the time said vinyl will be delayed.
Joseph: Yeah, that’s a current breakdown of the industry right now I think with vinyl. The manufacturing is a nightmare. I have a solo album coming out in a couple of months after this RNDM record on a Canadian label, True North, and also Real World Records in the UK is putting it out. It’s called The Family. Tchad Blake, who is a great mixing engineer who’s done music with The Black Keys, Peter Gabriel and Tom Waits mixed and sequenced it. But they are already freaking out on me looking for the final lyrics and the liner notes and the credits, and this is all down to the vinyl thing – to get the vinyl in time, you know?
Mike: Yeah, it’s crazy. Do you recall how you wound up signing to Dine Alone Records?
Joseph: I don’t really know the story of how that happened all that well. My manager is a Canadian, Peter Wark. He’s Montreal based. I don’t know if he had something to do with that, or if it came through Kelly (Curtis) in the Pearl Jam world. Honestly, that’s a good question. With a project like RNDM being a group project, and a group of people with different management working together as well, I don’t actually know. It was just one of those things where “there’s this very cool Canadian label who would like to sign you and they have offered a pretty decent deal and this is probably the way we should go about doing it”. There were a couple of other options we could have done, but I think we just decided that that was the way to go. In the end it was pretty simple. It wasn’t something that was laboured over. At least from my perspective it wasn’t. And they have been great to work with.