Tidal Wave Magazine | 2000

Sitting Still -- The TWM Interview with Tony Goddess

It has been three years since Helioself came out, what took so long?

We toured for a good year after Helioself came out. We did the U.S. three times, and Europe three times. That takes a long time you know. I think in the future I want to concentrate on making records more quickly as opposed to touring all the time. I think especially when you're a smaller band, touring is good, but I just think it is better to put out records more regularly, you know. So we toured for a long time.

Then when we came off tour we found out we owed the IRS money, because nobody paid attention to that, so we had to go back to day jobs (probably for the first time since we had gotten out of school). With day jobs, you just have weekends and things just start to drift and everything. Touring for a year, and day jobs...

The album has actually been done since June. So it came out ten months later, it just there was a lot of bullshit to go through. I think they [Minty Fresh] really wanted to get it out in 99, but it would have been a real rush job for them to get it out in 99. We had some differences, once we settled our differences by that time it would have been too late to get it out in 99, so we held it for 2000. There's always this deal with being a small band, there are all these rules that they have: you have to release it when college is in session, they need three months to set it up... so that's what so long. It did take us a while to get back on track after having day jobs.

New record is called Buildings and Grounds, this record seems to be more mature, better songs especially from a pop songwriting perspective. They have a Burt Bacharach feel to them. Helioself was more energetic and giddy. What brought this more "mature" sound?

I think a whole bunch of things. The first record is a much more mellow record, there's some rockin' stuff on it, but the sound, the way we rendered everything just kind of this mellow tone, I don't know how to describe it. The drums aren't real loud; it has a real light sound to it. It's more personal; I had my whole life to write that record.

The second record was made, kind of, in the post-touring vacuum. You know we toured for like a year and half on the first one, and had four months to get together a new album. What do you write songs about when you just ride around in a van? So the songs are almost more, they weren't personal things (well, some of them were but...); but some of them were more about things that happened in the band and experiences. There is one song about playing this bar in Massachusetts, and there was this big fight at the bar. That was a bar at the beach, so that was called "Rolling in the Sand." They are more like story songs almost, ya know.

The other aspect of that second record was this: We knew, there was already a tour with the Cardigans, so we knew we were gonna be making a... we wanted to make the record more boisterous, more easy to play live. We wanted to make sure we had some good rock n roll on it.

So this third one, all of us agreed , we like it, I still like it a lot. But it just doesn't fit into my life as much. It is more of a Saturday night kind of record, this one is more of a Sunday morning type of record. So that's the musical thing.

Then also, I think that in terms of where we are at in our lives. This band started as a hobby in college. We got lucky, kind of lucky. We never had to go through that post-collegiate "What do I do with my life?" Because we were on the road for a couple years, made another record, went on the road again. Having to pull back with the taxes and stuff. When we finished touring with Helioself, we definitely said we'd be taking off some time. And then the taxes thing forced the day jobs. So, I think we have lives now. They're not totally autobiographical, but I am in a serious relationship now, and Shivika is as well. Keith I am not so sure about [with a smile and in a hushed voice].

There was a couple things there: the subject was going to be more resonant. Your in a vacuum when you are on tour, your meeting people every night but nothing real ever seems to happen. Your in a different bar, it's not that is horrible, it's just nothing comes out of it. Your growth as a person comes out of it. Touring there is so much growth because you're in a vacuum. You don't know how much you've grown until you come home and you realize you have been drinking alcohol every night for a year [laughs]. It fucks you up.

Then musically, I think I became a better musician. The second record, I had those guys living at my place for the two months we were making it. And we really wanted to present the three of us singing all the time. This time I wanted to emphasize the individual voices more. So I consciously wrote songs with her in mind. Writing songs that are appropriate for her voice. Which are mellower things, I tend to think. She wrote one of the songs that is more of the rockin' that is called "I'll Be Gone." I wrote kind of mellower songs for her. With a couple of years, we became better musicians, we had more access to recording technology... am I answering the question?

Songwriting, most of the credits show you as the songwriter, with a couple exceptions. How much does the band contribute to the process? Or is it you writing for them?

If Shivika sings lead on it, she generally came up with the majority of the lyrics. I mean, like the song "People Say", I think I had her singing "I" and she [Shivika] had the line saying "She".

I have some sketch of the lyrics and usually the melody. But then songs like "Far from an Answer"[sings la-la-la-la like the melody], all I had was that chorus melody/chord changes she gave it all the melody on the verse. Once a song is kind of earmarked for Shivika, I have usually taken it as far as I can take it and then she gets it and kind of makes it her own. And then there's a lot of, I just come in with some chord changes and we hash it out, see what kind of rhythm feels good, and talk about the arrangement.

That has always been the strength of the band.

I was really into King Crimson as a kid, and was in jazz bands in high school and college. This band kind of started as an accident, I had a four-track and I was recording improvisations. Shivika and I grew up in Delaware together. She inherited a drum kit. She said, "I want to go over to your house to learn how to play drums." So we just naturally started jamming. I wanted to try recording these things, because it would be more interesting sonically, than recording improvisations. So we had these limitations, Shivika never had played drums before. I thought I was some super far out musician, like a jazzbow guy. What is our common ground? Well, our common ground was like rock n roll music and pop music. I liked the idea of having a structure to record a sound on. And also, there was always a big frat scene where we went to college, with all this bands that were "superior" musicians. We wanted to inject some of that raw passion aspect to it. So the limitations of the band, were always our strengths. I couldn't write some things, well some of our songs have weird time signatures (but hopefully they are subtle). Shivika's thing is a steady, pulsing drumbeat, so I write songs for that kind of feel. If I was in a different group, I wouldn't be writing the same kinds of songs (hopefully).

I think the second record, some of the songs, weren't so much Papas Fritas, like "Captain of the City." I wanted to try that... Shivika does a big kind of drum fill, her arms were sore for a week she said after that.

We do collaborate. The biggest thing is the songs are written for the band. I've always tried to make the band, especially on that second one... those are my favorite bands, when you feel each person has made a contribution. Even Fleetwood Mac, it was just the bassist and drummer's name, the way they played their instruments was integral to the band. The Beatles, each one, you know, what I mean? It's not just Kurt Cobain and two... well I guess those guys have personality, their drummer, they're all great... I don't know why I used them as an example [mumbles, rolls eyes, shakes head]. You know so many bands today, it is like just the lead singer with a bunch of goons on the instruments.

[When people here our music], I want them to understand that it is us; that the band has a sonic and musical identity.

At this point takes a pause from me to ask me about where I am from, we get talking about Minneapolis (besides, the Hang Ups are opening tonight) and the scene that once was... especially the Replacements.

Now for the big critic breakdown of the records (could be the worst/most over-the-top setups), that I won't bore you, the reader. Each record seems to "showcase" the growth of Papas Fritas' songwriting.

I think that just comes about when we sing together. The second album there was, [pause] I just wanted to simplify things just a little bit.

[Interrupted by Shivika about going out to eat].

I was into writing songs that are kind of part of culture, and the TV thing. Like that song, "Words to Sing". It was like a sea shanty you know [he starts singing it]. Actually, it's kind of a weird time signature, if that justifies it at all. But I had this idea about going on a trip, a metaphor for touring. I wanted to make it like "Row, Row Your Boat" [he sings it]. So writing songs like that or "Live By The Water", ...

The other songwriter stuff from the first album kind of a more sophisticated chordal sound in the melodies and stuff. Yeah, on this album, like I said, we wanted to make a Sunday morning record, so we had the core, "God, what can we play live? We can't go up there be all super mellow live." I like to be Fleetwood Mac in the studio, and when we play live I want to bash it out. So Keith came in with "Vertical Lives" and Shiv came in with "I'll Be Gone" which is kind of a rockin' one. This record can't be a total snoozer you got to have some rock n roll on it.

You seem to enjoy blending of youthfulness and rock... take "Captain of the City".
When I wrote that, I was trying to write a song like the Band would: you know how they end their songs with like ten chord changes on the end of the melody. It kind of came out over-the-top.

Yeah, I have a ton of influences. I don't want to be just a sixties band. This new album I think there was more of an emphasis of building things from the rhythm up and try to get some funkier things happening. Our thing is you can hear sixties, and seventies, and eighties; I mean I'm not a guy who says, "Let's try an Al Green drum sound with a Beatles melody."

Indie popsters go for the Beatles and Beach Boys, but you guys seem to have a grasp on the Who.
The Who?? HA! That's kind of funny... I like the Who, but I like the Beatles and the Beach Boys as well. People always compare us to those bands, The Beatles and the Beach Boys, but I think that's just what it says in the press release [in lower voice with a smile].

You know the song called, "I Can Tell By The Way You Walk"? When I first kind of did it, I was thinking of it as a rap song with the moog bass on it. You know how Dr. Dre always has a moog bass and a bell ringing on the high end ... "People Say", I was really pretty blatantly going for a Fleetwood Mac thing on it. Because no one else is doing it, and I kind of figured out how to get that Lindsey Buckingham sound, and I figured, "Let's just do it." And that is actually a thread that is throughout our record: a lot of acoustic guitars and muted patterns. Yeah, I like a lot of groups, but the stuff that is just based on the sixties bores me to hell. I'm definitely into more just the soul; music that isn't just all artifice, ...

My favorite band right there is NRBQ. Those guys are like a music preservation society. I studied jazz as a kid, my father played in folk bands. I very much believe in music as a tradition and a history, and that's what I love about it. I can play a song that was written by Mozart, and some people are like, "Why?" You can play something that was written in the 1500s and I'm in the 1500s again, it's alive in my living room.

[Another big setup question that I won't bore you with...] The theme of the query is the live show.
Well, we added two new people to the group. That makes it a lot easier. We're always trading up the vocals and people seem to like that. I just want it to be immediate, I just want... We used to be, if someone would yell out a song we would try it. We got into big fights on stage in front of people. I happen to know a lot of verses and choruses (like if they yelled out a Blondie song, I knew at least one Blondie song), but the other guys got mad at me for taking their requests [laughs]. I just like it to be more immediate and loose. But then we did all these tours with bigger bands, and we would have a road manager drilling us about having a "set" you stick to and perfect. Which is kind of a drag, it seems like it is more of a physical exercise. We don't dress up and we don't have any props. I guess people dance.

I wanted to try to do stuff where Shivika gets out from behind the drums, because the guy who plays guitar with us can play drums. You know be kind of be like a Bette Midler concert or something, singing "Faces of the Night". [laughs] We are just basically up there bashing it out. And hopefully we are bashing it out good. I like to wing it. As a guitar player, I've never been the kind of guy... but sometimes I just have to strum the chords, but I've always been, you know the chords are there with the melody against the bass, and I kind of fill in the gaps. It's kind of fun, so I just do it. I really just want to be like the Replacements [quick to add], well I don't know, nah I really didn't see them in their heyday. But you know, like a good rock n roll band should: tight and clean and fun. I'm not into it when people are just staring at their feet. But I'm not into it when it is so schticky.

We talk lyrics. "Words to Sing" comes up ...
You see, I am really proud of that song actually. We've made a conscience effort to get away from this little kiddie thing. Maybe the material did encourage that kind of thing. I just think there is something when Shivika and I voices come together that has that kind of light quality to it.

Melody... it's like anybody can sing along...

Yeah, but that song is in nine man [laughs]. I have a muso tendency, "well, watch how many times that changes key." That's the whole thing: you got to get some sophistication in there, you got get into the listeners subsconscious so that when you put in a richer chord, they are going to feel a richer emotion.

Do the lyrics contribute to that emotion?

Yeah. This one is more about personal things.

 [Tony goes off on a tangent....]

The second album was at a time when everybody was, I remember doing an interview, and the guy said, "Here's the interview, are you ready? Do you think rock is dead?" I was just ... like ... that' s the thing, music is the expression of people being alive. Music doesn't exist without people. You got to play your instrument, you know... songs my father taught me how to play, then I can teach five kids, you know what I am saying? It is this living thing that ... music that was created in the desert in BC times, is still playable now. The whole "rock is dead" thing drives me nuts. That was "Hey, Hey You Say" all about: [quotes lyrics]. Then the last line: "it's all the same, it's all the same, give us a break" then it modulates up from B to D and a sitar comes in and it's supposed to be kind of like this, transcends. Then it the rest of the record, it's almost like a Sgt Peppers idea; it has all these different styles: here is like a Motown song, here's a T.Rex song, here's a calypso song. Then that song "Wait" which sounds like a transistor radio, just kind of sends it off. This record wasn't so much of a conscious construction, it was just writing songs in the most musical way we could.

Growing up I was playing songs like "My Funny Valentine" and "Satin Doll". They're always about love, or they always come up with a cool way to say it. Or even country songwriting, like how they can turn a phrase. As opposed to saying, saying "Who gives a shit about lyrics?" I'll just write a bunch of blips and bleeps and that'll be fine. I think sometimes people think we're a little lightweight in the lyric department, I don't know I just kind of have my subject matter. I don't know maybe after the group is done I'll start writing like Bob Dylan or something. I don't know. I am not just like this post-modern lyric writer, I just write what I know.

- Chris M. Short