Right When It’s Right: An Interview with Brian Lambert

I’m not sure how long I had been following singer-songwriter Brian Lambert on Twitter when I really started to take notice of him and his work, but over the past week or so, something about his posts really started catching my eye. Maybe it was a reference to Brian Eno’s oblique strategies. Or his recent cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas.” Or the fact that he once played the part of Buddy Holly onstage. Or his yearlong quest to write and record a song a week for a full year. Then again, maybe it was just the overall theme of kindness and generosity that pervades his tweets that made me want to learn more about him. Whatever the case, I’m glad I did, because his big-hearted indie rock reflects an impeccably crafted blend of eclectic interests. 

What inspired you to embark on your fifty-two week song challenge, and how is it going?  

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the challenge and things music and social media.  The fifty-two week Song Challenge was born out of a desire to showcase what is hard to show – talent, specifically the ability to write a lot of songs.   I write anywhere from thirty to fifty songs a year, but that was a hard thing to demonstrate.   The idea of showcasing that process one week at a time and taking people along for the ride seemed the way to do it.  Also I had never felt like I had really ever made a great recording.  Pre-pandemic I was performing three to five times a week and heard “you’re much better live than in your recordings” so much that I wanted to finally get the magic down on tape, so to speak.  Throw in the obsession for mixing and mastering that came as a result of lockdown and a Fifty-Two Week Song Challenge is born.

Has anything about writing and recording a song a week surprised you? Have you learned anything interesting about yourself – or about songwriting – from the experience?  

I think I was surprised by how much I still have to learn and will probably never stop learning.  Probably the biggest songwriting and performance lesson has been about the connection between melody and really hitting the right notes, both from a pitch sense but more about how certain melodic experiences create an impact for the listener.  One of the questions I find myself asking now that I didn’t before, but is the foundation for all I do now, is what do I want the song to do?  What I mean is, how do I want it to make people feel?  Lyrics have always been my focus, but people don’t pay attention, myself included, until the music makes them feel something.  Once you have someone’s attention, they can really hear what you’re trying to say.  

You definitely got my attention! Early in the challenge, you mentioned that your sense of patience was evolving as the challenge progressed. Can you say more about that? Why is patience so important for songwriters and creative people in general? 

Music is right when it’s right.  You don’t have to think about why your favorite songs are your favorite songs.  When it comes out of the speakers, it hits you.  I think as a songwriter you hear a song in your head but getting it to come to life requires sitting with something and listening until it tells you it’s ready.  Getting that right alchemy of beat, rhythm and melody can take time and so can capturing a performance that conveys the meaning you want.  Guitar parts matter, vocal parts matter, and you can’t edit them into existence.   Early on it would sometimes take three hours to really nail the feel and that can be frustrating.  Being patient with the song and taking an attitude that you’re exploring until you find what you’re looking for was a challenge.  Now I’m much more intentional about really asking the question “What am I going for?” before I start. Listening to takes and asking what is missing or what needs to be left out has drastically reduced that time because you can definitely suck the life out of song by overdoing it.

I’ve been guilty of that myself sometimes! One thing that strikes me about your songs, though, is that you’re not only releasing a lot of music, but you’re releasing a lot of good music. These aren’t just toss-offs for the sake of meeting a quota, and you’re clearly thinking about producing a final product as opposed to a demo. What is your process like? What guides your approach to music production?

I’m definitely trying to improve every piece of work that I put out there.  The goal of this is to make a living off my recorded work going forward, so it all has to be good.  All killer, no filler.

My desire is to make music as good as the best music being made and the music being made today is exceptional.

The process really has evolved over the course of the project.  Recently I’ve been doing single mic acoustic recordings, which involves doing takes until I have the feel I want.  For my other work I usually start with some rough guitar and vocal to find a beat, then come back to create a bass line you start with the foundation of the song.  Then it’s a matter of putting down guitar until it’s the right feel, then vocals and solos.  I’ll ask myself, does it need synths and depending on where I am with things add those.  Then mix and master.  It’s not that exciting but when you’re producing a song a week where you’re performing the parts, you really just have to get down to it.

And come up with an attractive way of packaging it! I love the line drawings you use as cover art. Are those your drawings? 

Actually they are my fourteen-year-old daughter.  She really has a talent.  It’s ironic, I’m not particularly good at drawing but my dad is an amazing artist and was the head of an art department at a small college in south Texas.  My wife and both my children are really talented when it comes to the visual arts.

“Shade of Blue” cover art

Your song “Small Mercies” is extremely powerful, and the chorus, “Sometimes small mercies will make all things right,” reflects the sense I get from many of your Twitter posts that the world can use a little more kindness and generosity, especially when it comes to social media. Why do you think it’s so important to share that message right now? 

Once feelings start to get hurt like they have been over the last few years, you notice that the small courtesies or giving the people the benefit of the doubt start to erode.  When that happens meaningful communication can’t happen.  I think there was a missed opportunity with social media to practice kind communication.  Part of that was not connecting that there was a real person typing the words.  We thought words don’t matter but as we have seen though they do and can cause real damage.  The real opportunity that exists with social media is the opportunity to be thoughtful.  There is an opportunity to read a comment and question your own opinions/thoughts/motivations/feelings before sharing them out into the world and that opportunity is still here.   Social media has shown us there is pain in the world that needs healing but it won’t be healed in one big action.  It will heal with small consistent acts of kindness.

A lot of your earlier music has a bit of a country lilt, but your recent work has taken on more of an indie rock feel. What’s behind this shift? 

Honestly, the shift is back to what I was doing before I made “Country Music Jesus.”  Being from Texas I just have that accent and that’s how I sing.  My favorite band is Spoon, and indie rock is the music I love. That being said, I listen broadly to  music. I love Latin American pop and rock from the ‘00s, experimental artists like Brian Eno and Can, as well classic country and what is being called Americana these days. The move to country music was a career move. I live in Texas, so that’s what shows are available to play and get paid for. I have the right voice and can write classic country and story songs so it seemed like a good fit.  It was not. Country Music is a club and I wasn’t ever going to be a member, mostly because my heart wasn’t in it. The music I am making now is the most honest and true to my own musical tastes.

Speaking of “Country Music Jesus,” you sing in that song that you “ain’t got nothing against beers or trucks or America or being with your baby on a Friday night,” but you worry that contemporary country music tends to reduce its fans to stereotypes. I’m guessing this isn’t just true of country music but of all genres. It’s easier to sell music—or any commodity—to a narrowly defined market than to an audience with diverse and complex interests. Is there a way out of this trap, for lack of a better word? 

I believe this is a result of an algorithm driven world.  If things don’t fit neatly into a box then the algorithm doesn’t know what to do with it.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve submitted for playlists and gotten the feedback, “Great song, love the feel, it’s really good but doesn’t fit in with the other music on the playlist.” Well that’s because I’m trying to make something that you haven’t heard yet. If you want to listen to music that’s already been made, it’s already there. I don’t copy it. To overcome this trend, artists must continue to be brave and make different music. For the listener, I’m not sure how you build an awareness that they need to hear a diversity of music. I believe it’s the same as for any process, a diversity of backgrounds, viewpoints, and stories creates better outcomes. Music is the same.

Your most recent release is a cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas.” What attracted you to that particular holiday song?

That’s easy. It’s my wife’s all time favorite Christmas song.  Of course I don’t not have the gorgeous voice of George Michael, but it’s a well written song that lends itself to a different interpretation. Guys who like crunchy guitars get their heart broken too.

And just because I love Buddy Holly, when did you play the role of Buddy, and what was that like?

That was a lot of fun and a lot of work.  They basically came to me and said we need a tall skinny awkward guy from Texas who can sing and play guitar.  Can you do that?  It was funny afterward because people would compliment on the work it took to get Buddy Holly’s awkward dance moves down and I just said thank you, knowing that I was just doing me.  Musically it was an awesome experience because I had to learn 20 Buddy Holly songs and was able to do a deep study into what made his work tick.  It really improved my own songwriting and approach to doing music.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Brian! I really appreciate it!

It’s been my pleasure! I’m looking forward to chatting again soon!

So Many Little Nuances: An Interview with Eric Maynes of Saves the Witch

Sometimes I wonder if I have a mild case of dyslexia. Or maybe the problem is that I just don’t read very carefully. Case in point: There was a pretty decent stretch where I thought the post-rock outfit Saves the Witch was called Save the Switch. Somehow I had convinced myself that the wrong name made sense because I imagined that with all of the effects pedals that guitarist Eric Maynes employs in his deeply hypnotic and captivating music, there was always a danger of damaging a button or a switch. In fact, it wasn’t until I sent away for a Saves the Witch sticker and guitar pick that I realized my mistake. Given that Saves the Witch has a new single, “Embers and Ashes,” I thought I’d get in touch with Eric Maynes to clear up any other misconceptions I might have about his music…

Okay, so it isn’t “Save the Switch” as I had mistakenly believed! It’s Saves the Witch. What’s the story behind that name?

Ah, you’re the first person to catch that! So originally the project was called “Save the Witch.” And that’s a name born out of accepting each other and loving one another despite any differences we may have. Internally it had that name for a while, and as I prepared for the first release I found that there was a project on Spotify with that name already. Granted it seemed to be dormant. I could have used it anyway but I didn’t want the confusion so I added the “s.” I’m pretty glad I did though, because it also takes it from a statement to an action. Something that sounds more present, and living in a more present frame of mind is a huge inspiration for me creatively.

It’s more eye-catching as well. Definitely got me to look twice! Is Saves the Witch a full band, or is it a one-musician operation?

It’s just me. It started as just an experiment. During the pandemic I had gotten in contact with some old band mates from when I was younger, and we were going to remotely record some new stuff. We played more traditional rock, and I had several songs all written and ready to go. I’d sent them the stems and waited for them to add their parts, and while I was waiting I recorded “Voices” as an instrumental. I remember showing that one to my wife and she seemed genuinely surprised and really seemed to love it. I figured at that point in my life there were several aspects of myself that I needed to take control of, and take action instead of waiting around for something to happen. I got tired of waiting and decided that I’d break away from my old habits and styles, and just forge a new project. So I did a few more songs, and it became clear to me that it was going to be my primary project.

I’d always loved Post Rock but had never really written it, and I fell in love with the lack of structure and traditional rules. I was lucky in the sense that I was a drummer first, so coming up with those parts is easy for me. I can play bass well enough to get by too. I can play keyboard but I haven’t used any on this project yet, and I am a decent singer too but I’ve really enjoyed just letting the music speak so far. I’m not opposed to branching out in the future but I like what I have going right now.

You and me both! Your music is both hypnotic and richly-textured. How do you get your sound?

I think every musician or composer gets their sound by so many little nuances that it’s hard to say. I think that with STW a lot of it is in the dynamics. Some of it is the bluesy stuff I’ll sprinkle in. There’s a lot that comes from just exploring effects too. I have certain things that I’ll use more often like vibrato or wet reverbs, but otherwise it’s really just a constant exploration of sounds and what might work or not for a particular idea or composition.

You really have an impressive collection of effects pedals. What got you interested in effects? And what has your “effects journey” looked like? Where did it begin, how did it evolve, and where are you now?

I’ve really only been down the effects rabbit hole for a few years. I used to use a multi effects pedal. A “do it all” kind of thing. There’s nothing wrong with that either. But at some point I ended up getting a Slo by Walrus, and up to that point I’d never played a reverb like it. I realize now there are a lot like it, but that pedal is what made me really start looking at effects differently.

Sometimes you can sit down and write the traditional way, come up with a melody or chord progression, and the effects will be an afterthought. That always worked for me for a long time, but I started letting the effects actually help the creative process and inspire the direction of a piece; and for me there was a freedom in doing that because I’d never done it before. It was new territory for me at the time.

Far as where I am now: It’s always changing here and there. On the first record I’d say the “most important” pedals were the Keely Compressor Plus and Phat Mod, Dark Star by OBNE, Mood by Chase Bliss, The Slo, Iron Horse V2, and ARP Delay by Walrus. I also used the Julianna for chorus/vibrato at that time. With the new stuff I still have some of those, but I also have a lot of inspiration from the Meris M7, Rainbow Machine and Avalanche Run by EQD, The Meteore and Somersault by Caroline, and the Microcosm by Hologram.

I also have a fuzz pedal that a friend built special for me and it’s just… Bad ass!  I think I’m at a point now where my board is “complete” enough that I’m not scrambling to get anything anymore but there are always a few minor changes every so often. I have 18 in my chain right now.

That’s a lot of effects! Do you keep all of the pedals that buy?

It’s just been recently that I started keeping just one or two once I take them off my board. Mainly if I replace one I’ll sell the old one simply to cover the costs of trying new ones. I am by no means rich, and I have to get creative with my bank account to keep trying new pedals!

I know what you mean! How do you side which pedals to keep?

Generally I’ll decide what I’m using based on nuances in the tone, and its functions as applied to how I write. Chorus can be a good example of that. I could use any old chorus pedal, but not all of them have a ramping function or wave selector. Some have one but not the other. Out of all of those functions which ones do I actually need versus does the damn thing sound good doing all those things too? I guess that’s my thought process. I’ll tell you one that fell to the wayside, and I highly regret it: I had a Fender Marine Layer reverb. I ended up selling it because I got a fancier reverb that could also do some of the “normal” sounds of the Fender. But I wish I still had it. It did some of the best Hall and Room reverb I’d heard in a pedal. Maybe one day I’ll pick another one up. I just don’t know where I’d put it on the board currently.

What are some of your favorites? What do you look for in an effects pedal?

I think of my whole board as a favorite! But there are certain ones that I know I’ll never get rid of. The Slo, and Monument by Walrus. The Phat Mod Overdrive and Compressor Plus by Keeley. The Avalanche Run by EQD, and probably the Mecury 7 by Meris.

Back to the music itself, you’re working in the somewhat nebulous genre of Post Rock—and you curate the Post Rock Avenue playlist on Spotify. How do you define the genre, and who are some artists that you think typify its sound?

Post Rock to me is anything that abandons the typical structure of a rock song. I think some great examples are Covet, God is an Astronaut, Mogwai, This Will Destroy You. That playlist right now is just more of a personal list of mine that I love, I haven’t done much to promote it but maybe I’ll have time in the future.

Your songs have some interesting titles. I love “Rebuke the Spire,” “War Never Changes,” and “Dear Edea.” Do the titles come first or the music? Also, are there any stories behind any of your titles? I’m particularly curious about “Rebuke the Spire.”

You had to ask about that one! Ug. So with “Spire,” that was just a slow heavy jam I had started in my DAW, and I’m glad some people like it but looking back I would have cut it. It’s the only song that I think needed more to it before it was released.

Far as titles it really depends on what comes first. Sometimes I’ll have an idea that becomes a title, and I’ll build the song around that. Other times I’ll have the song first and then try to come up with a title that captures the idea well enough. Every single title that you singled out have at least a root in video games! I used to be a big gamer. Edea for example was named after what I feel was a great love story from Final Fantasy VIII. It’s about the idea of love, and when you are in love how conditional is it exactly? Could you keep loving someone even if they did evil things? That type of thing.

Regardless, all the titles have a deep meaning for me even if they draw inspiration from something else. There is one that will be on the new album called “Signal 50.” That’s radio code where I live for first responders, it’s basically how the dispatcher will check on a responding unit to make sure they’re still okay on scene. More than that though to me it’s about mental health, and how we really do need people to check on us all sometimes, to make sure we’re okay. So often the titles will call to something specific in my mind, but they mean a lot more than that even.

You have a new song, “Embers and Ashes.” What’s the story behind that one? How does it reflect your ongoing evolution as a recording artist?

Embers is a really chill one. For me it’s about searching for a glimmer of hope in a hopeless situation. It’s also a call back to some fiction I’m writing to go with the music as well. Nothing super crazy or in depth, but there are some short pieces and here there I’m thinking of putting out for fun to go along with some of the music. I’ve always enjoyed bands like Coheed and Cambria that do concept work and I thought it would be fun to try out at some point.

Thanks for taking the time to chat!

Thank you Marc! I hope you have a great holiday season!

THE ANTI-POP REVOLUTION IS HERE! An Interview with Chris Triggs of the La La Lettes

I first heard the La-La-Lettes a number of months ago when my buddies in Thee Rakevines gave them a shout-out on Twitter. The band hales from Colwyn Bay, Wales, UK, and somehow manages to fuse two seemingly irreconcilable modes of expression by being both intensely experimental and fun at the same time.

Give their 2020 albums Easy Peasy and April a listen, and you’ll hear clear echoes of the Byrds, Syd Barrett, and the Rolling Stones, while 2021’s ONKY and i Godge, Goj, Gols and Gods explore musical territory best exemplified by acts like the Velvet Underground, the Residents, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, and Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

Full disclosure: As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I recently had a chance to work with the La-La-Lettes on their double-A-side single, “Song 71 (You Didn’t Love Me)”/“J’ecoute La Radio,” which calls to mind a cross between the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. I used the opportunity to chat with Chris Triggs, the brains behind the band, about songwriting, music production, and his creative process.

I know of four La-La-Lettes albums and a handful of singles all released over the last two years. You seem to have come out of nowhere! Were you doing anything else musically before the La-La-Lettes?

 Yes, but years ago. I’d been either writing and recording for about 20+ years, climbing the ladder of Hardware recording items, ‘Tape recorder’/’Four Track’ and then ‘Cool Edit Pro’. Then about at the end of 2011, the Time/Sony computer I worked on blew up, and I thought it was time for a rest, which carried on until late 2019. I thought I’d miss it, but my son who was born in 2005 was at an interesting age by 2011 and his life took over mine and I didn’t miss the guitar, writing or anything. Strange really, thinking about it now, but I didn’t write anything for years at one point.

In late 2018, I fell into a real dark hole, and 2019 was my year of hell. Luckily, in December ’19, I was talking to my sister, and she suggested taking up music again, it was like a ‘lightbulb moment’, throw all my pain into music ‘brilliant’. Although my issues were still raging, picking up the guitar helped. I think that’s why ‘Easy Peasy’ sounds so edgy, I was getting a ‘lot out’. After finishing that first album, I didn’t want to let it just lie, so I decided to put it on Spotify etc, which led me to Twitter.

It’s amazing how therapeutic music can be! I’m picking up a strong 60s vibe in a lot of your music. Who are some of your favorite bands from that era, and why does that music resonate so strongly with you?

I just followed the trend when I was a kid, listening to stuff like The Police, Blondie and all that. Then one day I was watching TV and this advertisement came on for a new Beach Boys compilation, and that’s when I heard (a snippet) of ‘Good Vibrations’ for the first time. I guess that was the Siren calling. That was it, Beach Boys forever almost. I realized quite early on that I wasn’t just listening to the songs, but making out the sounds of the guitars, the bass, the amazing drums (probably by Hal Blaine) and of course those vocals. It just spoke volumes to me. As time went on, I listened more intently to my dad’s Beatles LPs, being knocked out by the sounds created on ‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘I Am the Walrus’ etc. They were just gorgeous sounds for my delicate ears. Then I sought of discovered other bands, that friends/colleagues suggested, The Byrds were next, I love David Crosby’s songs (still do), and all that stretched into other avenues, Jefferson Airplane, The Mamas and the Papas, that whole Californian late 60s thing was it for me. Then also late 60’s Motown stuff, Tammi Terrell (greatest voice ever). It was a 60’s thing, tape hiss everything, just beautiful.

Does the name La-La-Lettes have special significance?

No! Hahahaha! At the time I was about to put Easy Peasy online and realized I required a band name, I was reading an article about The Faces who have an album called Oh La La. So I used ‘La-La’ and thought ‘Let’s call it that’ and I wrote ‘The La-La-Lettes’ adding an extra ‘T’ and ‘E’ to be silly. Means nothing lol.

But also in line with some of those great 60s bands like the Marvelettes! Along similar lines, your titles are fascinating. Where did ONKY and i Godge, Goj, Gols and Gods come from?

Years ago, there was a game show called ‘Strike it Lucky’ and one Christmas they did a kids edition, which I remember being hilarious. One question asked to one little girl was, ‘Who was friends with George and Zippy in the (kids) TV show Rainbow’, people from the UK will know the answer is ‘Bungle’, BUT this little 4/5 year old said “ONKY”, I just howled with laughter and the name stuck.

‘Godge’ is a little more tricky. In the late 90’s I did an album called ‘An afternoon with the Gods’, which I did on 4-track. Anyway, when I was doing ‘Godge’ I noticed a similarity in the songs of both albums. I didn’t want to call it ‘An Afternoon with the Gods 2’, I didn’t want a connection, so I made up the word ‘Godge’ and elaborated. I’m not sure, but I think ‘Godge’ actually has a definition,  I think it means something along the lines of ‘punching wind’. In the lyrics of ‘Oh, how we used to laugh’, there’s a part which says ‘pushing against the tide’, which was weird if the meaning of ‘Godge’ is correct.

As a musician—and, more broadly, as an artist—you make a lot of decisions that I’d describe as “anti-pop.” A lot of the sounds on i Godge, Goj, Gols and Gods are jarring, and you’re not afraid to release music that strays off the grid in terms of key and tempo. Those decisions, I have to say, really make your music come to life. What’s the rationale behind them?

“Anti-Pop!!!” What a cool description. I must admit I was on a bit of a roll during the making of ‘Godge’, most of the riffs, chord sequences and ideas came before I’d written a word. It’s a huge mix of influences on that album. Dylan, Beatles, Sex Pistols, Beach Boys of course) and others. So I was really spoilt for choice over stuff I had available, and just had to cram it all together. Lyrically, every song on ‘Godge’ is about someone I know, and to be honest, I’m very proud of it.

I guess I look at a high percentage of bands/artists I’ve discovered on Twitter as “Anti-Pop”. I like to think of us all as the ‘”new wave”, The Kintners, Lunar Plexus, Temporary Longterm Positions, Fendahlene, Thee Rakevines, Blank Cassettes, The Last Ghost, Oplaadtijd, McDead, Touanda, Moistule, Miss Kitty and Rubber Clown Car and the work you’re producing are just some excellent examples. They’ve all done incredible stuff, all different types of music too, brilliant albums, everything. It feels good to be involved. THE ANTI-POP REVOLUTION IS HERE…

Let’s hope so! I feel like the public appetite for interesting music—music that breaks rules and challenges the listener’s expectations—just doesn’t exist. To put it crudely, there isn’t really a market for it. No one’s banging down the door for the kind of music that you and I and others like us make. Which raises a question I think about from time to time regarding my own music: Why make it? And, of course, what keeps you going?

I love the thought of a blank canvas, to paint a picture, to make it interesting and ‘happy’, I keep going because of this. I’ve always been the same since I was a child, inventing, creating, I can’t stop it, it’s a passion. You’re right of course, there’s no market for us lot, lol. But I believe something will happen, doors always open on a journey.

The latest single, “J’ecoute La Radio,” is sung in French. What was behind that decision?

Lol, I work in the Oil and Gas industry cataloging maps, and one day I was working on some French data and I needed to translate a couple of words on ‘Google translate’, which I’ve done hundreds of times before, but this one day, I was just in a funny mood, and began writing words/lyrics onto google translate, which is just a silly idea really. I put the lines into order on a file and printed the sheet. I just fancied doing something different to see if I could do it. Musically it took 3 attempts to get the melody right, it was originally an earworm (a nasty one too).

Needless to say, I’m impressed with your output. Four albums in two years! What’s your recording process like?

Very instant. I have no patience with recording. It’s a ‘now or never’ attitude. Even when I’m recording, I look for a bit of improvisation, mad really, as sometimes when I come to doing the bass or 2nd guitar I forget what I’ve done!

I’m always looking for that one ‘word’, ‘rhyme’, ‘riff’ or a ‘weird chord’ even to help make a song interesting enough for me to like it. As said earlier with ‘Godge’ I had loads of things ready before writing a word

“J’ecoute” was perhaps took an hour, acoustic guitar/vocal, bass, drums, vocal/vocal/vocal/vocal/vocal, electric guitar, Marc Schuster yaaaay. Easy Peasy, love it.

Me too! And speaking of your creative output, what do you have in the works?

I do have a 5th album “Obsession” ready to go. But, I just love working on instinct at the moment. I recently did an E.P. in two days (Days of Winter), and I keep looking for the next song, the next single. I have an idea for something along the lines of a ‘Bo Diddley’ tune for a Protest song, but we’ll see.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Chris!