The alternative country movement occurred over ten years ago but don’t tell that to Burlington Vermont’s Waylon Speed. Not that they want to fit comfortably in any niche: they are as apt to cite Fugazi as an influence as the Grateful Dead. And the quartet really doesn’t sound like either of them. But the description on Twitter struggles mightily and fails to capture the essence of the band too: filthy rotten underground outlaw dirt rock.
Formed from the evolution of the band Chuch, and named after one of their offspring, the four men who comprise Waylon Speed--Noah Crowther (bass/vocals), Justin Crowther (drums, vocals), Reverend Chitwood Hammaker (guitar), and Kelly Ravin (guitar/vocals)—are too intelligent to be hamstrung by labels, as is evident in the bassist’s conversation with Doug Collette.
Having just returned from a somewhat abbreviated East Coast tour, Crowther sounded alternately purposeful and guarded in discussing the progress of Waylon Speed within what he agreed with Collette was a remarkably short time period of time. He was unwavering in a more general discussion of the vocation he shares with his three bandmates, however, effectively suggesting each step in their evolution has constituted a recommitment to the group.
At the time this conversation took place, Crowther posited the excitement all four members of the group felt about the release of their latest album, Valance, was further elevated by the prospects, over the course of the coming months, for promoting the recording with appearances at festivals (a Waylon Speed appearance at Grace Potter’s Grand Points North Festival this coming August was just announced), the group’s own shows and the possibility of touring with a big(ger) name. And that excitement seems to translate directly into the pleasure the band derives from playing with each other and for increasingly larger audiences.
I wanted to talk a bit about the new album Valance. Can you tell me a bit about the recording process and how it came to fall into place?
The whole thing began last July when we began seriously collecting songs for a new record and started talking to Ben Collette (recordist and engineer on all previous WS projects) about getting together at The Barn (Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s studio outside of Essex VT) and making the record there. We wanted to go into it as our first real record; you know this is our fourth record, but we wanted to look at it as our first one. Just knowing the quality sound of The Barn and how great Ben is to work with and the quality work that he puts out, that’s the route we wanted to go with it. We got that locked in for October. The Barn is just a dynamite place to relax and do your thing: really kind of sink in to the project. That atmosphere really works well for us. And then Ben creates a really nice recording vibe: real mellow and easygoing—that whole end of it was great. And then you’re looking out the huge barn windows at the leaves changing colors in Vermont, you know, beautiful views of the mountains.
I visited there once as a guest and I could see how easy it’d be to get into a zone of any kind that you wanted.
Yeah it was a lot of fun. The whole recording was just great for us, the best we’ve ever had as a band.
Did you play the tracks generally live and then do overdubbing, minimal or otherwise?
There were overdubs, you know, but it wasn’t a lot. Some songs had more than others, but it was pretty raw because we recorded live then added vocals and solos to retain the feel for every song.
In hearing you talk about that and then your comment about regarding this as your first real album, how different was this in contrast to the Boots EP or Horseshoes & Hand Grenades?
Well, the EP that we put out was done at The Barn as well and that gave us the idea to do a full-length record to match it. The first two recordings, I feel like the band was still getting to know each other in a lot of ways, not that we’re a mature band by any means, but we feel like the band is growing into something we can work with and use. The first two records were kind of scattered, I think. I love every bit of it, but Horseshoes &Hand Grenades was like twenty-two tracks or something like that and a little less refined than this new one. But, you know overall, I’m proud of all of it. You guys must’ve felt like you had some chemistry when you began to work together. Based on other conversations I’ve had with musicians, when they dial that in, it’s like the old cliché of throwing it against the wall and seeing what sticks, then refining it down from there.
That’s really true. That seemed to be the case for us.
When you talk about pulling songs together. Tell me a little bit about how you guys compose songs. Is it one person in particular who brings in an idea, do you get ideas out of formal or informal jams like sound checks, or is it a different process for every song?
We have kind of found a system that seems to work. One of us will bring a song idea to the table, and then the song is written with the band. The skeleton of the song is brought by myself Kelly (Ravin, guitarist and vocalist) or Justin (Crowther, drummer and vocalist), and then from there the band writes the song. Chad (Hammaker, guitarist) has written a few songs, but he does a lot of melody and a lot of hook kind of writing within the songs: so he contributes a lot even though he’s not bringing a written song to the table. Generally, Kelly and I do a lot of the songwriting and my brother Justin does a lot of the instrumental stuff that we do: he’s got a knack for doing these dynamite instrumental kind of metal songs that are great to illustrate different elements of the band. I’m interested to know if there are songwriters you and the other guys in the band can name and perhaps aspire to their level of quality in songwriting?
That’s a tough one because there’s a lot of different things. As with any musician, I grab from a little bit of everything I like. Some of my personal favorites as songwriters span a wide range of music. There’s this band I’m just in love with—they’re my favorite band in the world—they’re called The Mother Hips out of California and I admire them as the band I’m always thinking of their words. I pull a lot of inspiration from the Grateful Dead. Dylan and Wilco figure in it for me and I pull from serious to joking. My dad was a big Frank Zappa fan, so a lot of that nonsensical fun figures in to at least half of the song lyrics I write. Kelly pulls from a lot of singer/songwriter kind of people: he’s a huge fan of the Drive-By Truckers, James McMurtry, Greg Brown he’s a big fan of. Kelly’s’ a big storyteller: without a lot of life experience he’s really able to tell a story, sort of like an old man, to weave a pretty cool story. I always tell him he’d make a great short story writer because he’s able to describe things so well, like someone who’s been through a lot, though he’s just twenty-seven and just been to California for the first time about a month ago.. But he will openly admit, “I have no life experience!?!...”
Along those same lines, tell me if you would if there are bands that you and the other fellows admire for their longevity and their chemistry etc?
That’s a tough one too, but I would go back to the same bands I was just talking about. It’s different for each person in the band. My brother likes a lot of the harder-edged music: he goes from The Pixies and Frank Black to some of the punk bands that have been around a while and are still doing it. The Mother Hips have been at it since the early Nineties and they’re doing better than they ever have; they’re like a blue-collar do it yourself group and I admire that kind of stuff. Chad is a classic rock, Motorhead/Thin Lizzy fan.
When you guys are on the road, to enjoy yourselves and while away the time, what do you listen to for pleasure?
In the van, something we did recently, we dig into our own personal material, sometimes critiquing out own stuff. We will take some of our favorite bands and do a Pandora station on that band and find out about a lot of music we never knew about: it’s a good way to get turned on to new stuff in a similar vein to something you like. We listened to The Evens recently (Ian MacKaye (of Fugazi, formerly of Minor Threat) and Amy Farina (formerly of The Warmers), Drive By Truckers and Tom Petty on our latest trip. We’ll often Google YouTube for the worst metal band (laughs): we spent an hour listening to the worst and, we’re joking about it but…(laughs). I don’t know how much of that translates to our stuff..
I’ve found that getting exposed to stuff that’s not so good is a useful means of avoiding it in the future. Plus you know what you like when you run across something new.
I come from the 90'skind of grunge things, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam, so I listen to a lot of that stuff. And we will listen to a lot of things like Frank Zappa interviews; we enjoy that kind of stuff, interviews that dig into the personality of the musician is fun for us. It’s always interesting to read an interview with a musician and find out how verbally articulate they are in comparison to their voice and their songs. So you had the material together and I gather, at least to some degree, the songs are at least partially arranged when you go in to record—is that right?
For us as a band, we went in with all the songs ready to go and well-rehearsed prior to recording this. Do you break them in live so to speak?
We do. We just did this weeklong run and there’s a whole new album of songs really ready to go that we’ve been playing. Is that right? I thought you guys were prolific, but another whole album?
Yeah, but who knows when that will actually happen. It’s kind of hard to say. We’ve got to kind of ride with this brand new one right now and play those songs live to promote the album. Generally, when there’s a new album out, there’s another new one ready to go. And we’re more pumped on the new songs that the older ones, but that’s the way it goes.
Maybe you should think bout playing all the new songs five or six months from now and recording them live and put them out that way perhaps as a digital download.
That’s not a bad idea.
So how long did it take you, in total, to record the tunes, get everything on tape so to speak, then get it ready to be mastered: was it a week a month?
The full process from recording to album in hand was six months. We recorded in a week, then mixed after that: Ben spent a couple weeks or longer with that
Well that’s pretty good timing. Do you have national distribution with somebody to get it out there?
It’s the standard stuff. Anything that’s going that far is done independently. It’s all over the place nationally worldwide in fact: iTunes, CD Baby, Amazon and stuff like that.
Then you got it covered. That’s the way to go these days. It’s great to know you guys are breaking out and making progress.
That’s the reason we keep at it. You know we feel like if we keep at it, we will see a growth with it and it’s not only fulfilling for us, it seems to be making other people happy. And it’s earning us some money doing what we love to do. That’s great and that’s the reason we do it, whether we're earning money or not: it’s for the love of it. It’s something that the four of us feel we have to do-- for our sanity most of the time. It’s a cliché to say, it’s a labor or love, but that’s what it is.
Well, yeah but if you can make a living at it too that’s pretty good. It always seems, to me who’s never been a musician, to hear a band that needs to keep its day jobs, while working as a band is such a daunting prospect. You guys must’ve gone through that at one point?
We still do. I work when I am home. We’ve created jobs in our lives. I’ve always had jobs that allow flexibility to play music, as with all of us. And that’s a difficult job in itself: working out a means of working and still being able to split as long as you need to, sometimes on short notice. But that’s what we’ve done. Like we’re in it for the long haul. I mean I’m going to be thirty six years old this year and I’m not old, but I’m getting to the point where I feel like this is what I do and that I don’t have a choice sometimes (laughs).
Right, well at a certain point, 26, 36, 56 or 66 you feel like you’ve reached a point where you have enough history you can rely on, you can just go for broke. It’s great that you have that attitude because it’s essentially so positive for the work and for your relationship with the other guys in the band. What have you got planned as the next step for the release of the album, tours etc. to promote the album?
The summertime is good for the festival stuff. There’s a lot of things in the works, including going down South and locally that we are working on for later. We try to play to play not so much around Burlington because we don’t want to burn it out. It is and it’s great you know just to keep at it, we’re open to pursuing opening for larger, name acts, like (in 2011) to tour with Jackie Greene was huge; we were playing big rooms that were very well attended and turned a lot of people on to the band. We sold a ton of merch and gained a lot of fans that way. That’s really good for an up-and-coming band. There’s a couple bands way out west that we’re trying to pursue. We’d love to do a west coast tour for the fall possibly. Have you ever been to the west coast?
I lived out in northern California for five years, a few years ago, and I’ve been in Vermont for eleven years. I did tour with a band (Chuch) before Waylon Speed and we toured out there for a couple of months. But that’s something we want to do as a band.