Interview with Morningbell

Morningbell - Sincerely, Severely

Morningbell - Sincerely, Severely

In December 2009, Morningbell released Sincerely, Severely. So far, the album has garnered high praise, including our own review available here. Damon, one of Delusion of Adequacy’s writers, recently conducted an email interview with the band’s founders, brothers Eric and Travis Atria. Travis is the primary songwriter and performer on the band’s new record.

Delusions of Adequacy: Hi, I’ve really enjoyed listening to Sincerely, Severely, so I appreciate you taking the time to answer a few of my questions. In my review of the album, I said you guys have a “strong musical presence, composing and playing songs that are inviting and entertaining but never cutesy”. Your songs are an anomaly in my playlist because I feel like they are warmer, more lovable than the other stuff I’ve been listening to. So I’m wondering about the roles that a band’s or an audience’s scene play in the creation and embrace of certain kinds of music. Could you talk about that, and maybe describe your area, Gainesville, Florida, for me in your own words? Talk about how the geography, weather, social, political, and/or economic conditions of your community play into your music.

Eric: We’ve always taken a great deal of inspiration from the Flaming Lips who are experts at treading that line you just described. I’d have to defer to my brother for a more detailed answer, as he writes 99% of the music.

Travis: I’m glad you found the music warm and lovable–I think that has always been part of the band, and it’s something that became even more entrenched after putting out our last album. With that album, we opened ourselves up to press and criticism from major outlets, so it was really our first time through that whole ringer, and it was very hard. You never remember the good  reviews, and the bad ones can be very nasty, so it’s easy to get jaded and cynical. I would say that did influence Sincerely, Severely in terms of the outlook. We named it that because I wanted this album to be straight from the heart, but also harder and with more of an edge than anything we’d done before. But, I also didn’t want to take the happiness out of the music. Sentimentality is shunned like a leper with a runny nose, at least in the bitchy, myopic world of music reviewing. I don’t want to be a part of that. I like sentimentality. We’ll never be part of  that cynical, “scene points,” only liking things that are obscure crowd. Thank God.

It’s interesting that you mention the importance of a scene, because I think the experience of touring actually made this album possible. The process of playing a new city every night really changes you as a musician. You figure out what you’re good at, what works, what interests people and it broadens your view. That said, Gainesville is a wonderful town for music. It has two of the best record stores I’ve ever been in–Sharpe’s and Hyde and Zeke’s–that have completely changed me as a musician. Because of these stores, I got into jazz, swing, big band, and most importantly for the purposes of Sincerely, Severely, soul. Understanding soul music and the importance of rhythm has been a radical shift for me and for the band. As for our scene, Gainesville is a town full of college students, rednecks, hippies, punks, and anything else you can think of. But, since we’re not in New York City, most people here aren’t full of pretentious bullshit, so you can just go about your business and if you work hard enough, people will be genuinely interested in what you’re doing.

Eric: Gainesville is really a great town for music, but as with any scene, it has ebbed and flowed over the years. When we started out (2002), it wasn’t anything to speak about. The fabled punk scene was beyond its last throes and there really wasn’t a community vibe amongst the bands that were around. It was very hard to get any newspaper to write about  the band, radio to play the songs, or venues to book us. But we were very fortunate to be present during a swell of popularity for live music. Around the beginning of 2004, several young bands were coming into their own (including us) and shows started hitting capacity crowds. New bands were popping up like mad and we all worked together to put on great shows. Gainesville isn’t a town of elitists cliques. When a new band would start out, the more established bands would welcome them on bills with open arms and listeners would give them more  than a fair chance. There was never a feeling of being threatened by someone new. The music community is truly a community of friends and wonderful people. I’ve never seen it as bands and fans, but just people who love live music.

As far as our audience’s effect on our music: We’ve always aimed for the demographic that isn’t really a demographic for our fanbase. We’re not playing for the fraternity/sorority crowd or the hipster/scenesters. We figure, there are 55,000 students in this town, there have to be a whole lot of them who are people who simply  appreciate quality music. And sure enough, it worked. I think our fan base reflects our own personalities in that manner. Also, I feel that the influence is very reciprocal in that we play what the fans respond to and as a result, they reinforce our musical choices.

As far as the other demographics, it’s a liberal college town. There isn’t much to do besides college sports and  drinking (there are some lovely parks). We’re in the dead center of North Florida, so we get some brutal heat/humidity in the summer, but since we’re farther north, we get some bitter cold winters (20s-30s is freezing for Floridians). There isn’t much money in Gainesville, so it keeps shows cheap (5-6 bucks) and beer even cheaper (2-4 bucks). These are great incentives for people to come out and check out a band.

DOA: Did you really start in Miami and relocate to Gainesvile? Your Wikipedia page claims that you were “dissatisfied with the Miami music scene”. What kinds of things did you find dissatisfying?

Travis: Yes, we did. Miami is simply not a music town, unless you play Latin music, which we don’t. There is no scene there, and there is way too much going on in that city to ever have anyone give a shit about what some quirky indie band is doing. In order to survive, we had no choice but to leave.

Eric: The original lineup of the band all went to the University of Miami for Undergrad. We finally started gigging around the greater Miami area in 2000 and found it nearly impossible to get anyone to pay attention or come to the shows. Miami is a big city, but not in a traditional sense. It’s a southern metropolis like Atlanta in that it’s SOOO  spread out. As with any other big city, there are literally thousands of things to do on any given night, but unlike New York or Chicago, you can’t hop around by foot/cab/train to get to more than one place. Everything is at least a 30 minute drive from anything else. Honestly, you’re only going to get popular down there if you’re catering to the Latin community. I love Gainesville because there are a dozen or so venues within a 4 square block area. You can easily hit 2 or 3 shows in a given night.

DOA: You (Eric) were quoted on as describing your sound as “Blues and funk-infused original rock”. What kinds of things make your music, or any music, original?

Eric: Whoah, that must be an OLD quote. OK, I’ll admit it. When we started out, we were trying to be a cross between Hendrix and Parliament. We quickly learned that no one wants to hear 4 white kids play that music, so we evolved into the more psychedelic, melodic, song crafting oriented band that we are today. Since we’ve evolved, I think our music is pretty original. We try really hard to make music that is inspired by a huge variety of sounds and themes. As you can tell with the new record, it’s all over the place. But, if I may toot our own horn for a minute, I think our experience and skill shows in our ability to make it all tie together. I’m very  proud of the pacing on this new record. If you put those 14 songs in any other order, it wouldn’t work.

Travis: That whole blues/funk thing was an unfortunate part of our history. We learned over the years that we don’t have the chops to play either. Personally, I don’t give a shit about being original. Every artist in history has stolen from other artists. I like to think of it as a conversation between you and every musician that came before you. You hear something you like and then you try to make something just like it, but it comes out differently. It’s a beautiful thing. My feeling is this: Bob Dylan might be the greatest songwriter of the 20th century, but he has ripped everything he’s ever done off of someone else. So, where does that leave us mortals?

DOA: If someone described your music as eclectic, would that be accurate?

Eric: Absolutely. I’d  take that as a compliment

Travis: Yes. I’ve been making albums since I was 18 in my parents’ garage with an 8-track recorder, and even then, they would be full of songs that had absolutely nothing to do with each other, stylistically. After we made our first album as Morningbell, we got some criticism for being a “band that’s trying to find its sound,” so I think with the second and third albums, I tried to have more of a unified sound and style. Then, I heard Broken Social Scene’s records and realized that these guys were doing what I had been doing forever, and they were being praised for it. That kind of gave me the freedom to know that the way I write songs is OK. I basically write in whatever  style I feel like at the moment and then later we try to see which ones fit together. This album is definitely our most eclectic. I think I just wanted to make an album where every song could  have been its own album, but they still all fit together.

DOA: There seems to be pretty widespread agreement that the word “indie” has lost its weight and meaning. Technology has probably played a large role in that, and in the arguably ridiculous proliferation of music genre labels. Could you talk about that some? Did the word “indie” ever mean anything to you? If so, what did it mean?

Travis: Indie meant something to me for about 15 minutes. We’ve never cared too much about labels like that. I mean, if Warner Brothers offered us a contract tomorrow, we’d take it. I think what it really means now has little to do with music and much to do with the fact that, because of technology, you don’t need a major label anymore. And, in fact, a small label is almost worse than no label at all these days. So, I think “indie” just means that the gatekeepers are dying and there are more chances for a band with no money to actually go somewhere.

Eric: Indie is always one of  those words that kinda makes me cringe. When I hear it, I still picture a skinny kid with ironically out of style glasses, wearing an ironically stupid t shirt (like Garfield or some old slogan “Avoid the Noid”), black jeans, and old school Converse shoes. I mean, it somewhat still implies “independent,” which is exactly what we are. I’m thrilled to be independent. We call all the shots. Sure, it would be nice to have label support for a tour or press, but we’re not doing so bad on our own. As far as the explosion of music genre labels, I’m not for or against it, I think it’s simply a fact. I am surprised to see how many more choices there are on Myspace under the genre section than there were even a few years ago. I mean, one is called “Hyphy.” I have no idea what that means!

DOA: How conscious are you of your identity as individuals and as a band?

Travis: More conscious as the years go by. The thing is, it is damn hard to carve out an identity–not just with music, but with the stage show and fashion. You have to go through many embarrassing years, which we did. And, we did it very publicly, because we never played house parties and we never had a big group of friends who would come to see us. So we had to figure our shit out in front of hostile audiences on real stages. But, that has led us to a point where we have confidence in the light show and the music, and I have learned that wearing a white suite is sometimes the right choice.

Eric: I think we’ve always tried to have a very solid band image. I think the band is the primary focus and not any individual in our group. That being said, without Travis, we’d be nothing since he writes all the music. But, we always present it as a whole. We’ve always put “All songs by Travis Atria and Morningbell” and “All instruments performed by Morningbell” in our albums, because we don’t want you to think, “Oh he played drums on this one and she played guitar on that one”. Who cares? We just want the solid unified package getting out there.

It’s funny that you ask this question, because it reminds me of an issue I talk about all the time. When we’re  planning tours and contacting random bands on Myspace, I can immediately tell from the band’s photo if I want to work with them. I know this sounds elitist, but it totally works. My goal  for any image we put out there is to make it look like we’re serious but have a sense of humor. You want anything, whether it’s the first 10 seconds of a song or a video or a headshot, making the listener/observer say, “Yes, I want to see/hear more of that.” Obviously, this is like saying, “My goal is to be witty and charming”. You can’t set out to do something like that, you just have to be it.

DOA: How do you approach leadership in the band? Does anyone hold veto power? Describe your collaborative processes.

Travis: Eric handles the business. I handle the songwriting. Everyone has an equal vote and it takes four votes to proceed. This gets really annoying sometimes.

Eric: We’ve really found a  groove with the current lineup (we’re on our 6th drummer). Not that the other ones were bad or hard to work with (which they weren’t, we love them all), but the current dynamic works really  well.  We usually put things to a vote and it needs 3/4 of the vote to win. That’s how we selected the songs for this album.  Travis had 25 songs and we all voted on them. We ended up with  the 14 that we all agreed on.  As far as veto power, we do get this every now and then. Travis held veto power over the album title. He said he wouldn’t allow anything else to be the title, even  though some of us didn’t really like it.  But in the end, he was right and he properly exercised his veto. I’m the business leader, but I’m always seeking everyone’s input. We’ve learned many  lessons over the years, and sometimes you need each other to remind you of them.

As far as the creative process, Travis will write and record most of the songs and then bring them to us. We all try to figure out parts to add and throw them on the pile (it may not even be for our typical instrument, ie: I came up with and recorded the drum kit on “Marching Off to War”). Sometimes, we decide that a song doesn’t need anything else. There are plenty of songs where I decided that Travis’ demo’d bass line was way better than anything I could have come up with, so we kept it. I think the rule is as follows: always serve the song. If I’m not playing a single note on an otherwise perfect song, I don’t care. As I mentioned above, it’s about the collective effort.

DOA: Why do you think you like the bands and kinds of music you like?

Travis: Because they make me happy. That’s the point of art, I think, to convey emotion. I try not to judge anymore between “good” and “bad” art–although I still do–because if the Ying Yang Twins or Backstreet Boys make someone happy and feel emotion, then that means it’s art. It doesn’t make it better or worse than the Curtis Mayfield albums that I treasure.

Eric: That’s a really hard question to answer. Why do I love fried okra while my wife hates it? I guess I look for a few  common things in music: (1) The basics: Melody, Harmony, Rhythm. These are the 3 basic building blocks of music and unless you know how to use them and use them together, you’re probably not that good. (2) I like music that evokes emotions.  Happy, Sad, Angry, whatever. I’ll take it. I have favorite songs for different purposes. (3) Tone: I’m a gearhead. I’ll use an old  school Rhodes Piano on a record over a synth every single time. I love the way things sound. I don’t want a keyboard that can sound like a Fender Strat being played through a 1960’s Marshall amp with a vintage pedal effect all built in and ready at the touch of a button. I want all of those things to actually be there. We take great pride in the tones on our albums, so I thoroughly respect anyone else who does the same.

DOA: Can you make generalizations about one’s tastes? Is there such a thing as bad music?

Eric: Hrm. Yes and yes. Let me tackle one at a time. Taste: We have a friend whose mother listens exclusively to her ringtones. She drove from Wisconsin to Florida listening to the same 4, sixty second clips of songs that were on her phone for THE WHOLE RIDE. Music: Three words: Right Said Fred

Travis: I kind of answered this already, but the older I get, the more I think there is no such thing as bad music. The only bad music is music that doesn’t make anyone feel anything. Of course, there is shitty music. There is music that I personally can’t stand. But, just because I don’t like it doesn’t make it bad. That whole way of thinking–if I hate it, it sucks–is very immature, and has made Pitchfork very popular.

DOA: Other than music, are there any passions that the band shares as a group?

Travis: Energy efficiency.

Eric: We’re all very like minded people. I mean, Travis is my brother and Stacie is my wife. The three of us have  lived together for 5 years, and Travis and I have lived together for 23 years, so we’re pretty familiar with each other.  Chris is a wonderful addition to the band and is also very like minded. We always love taking photographs and shooting video documentaries of our tours/shows if only for our own personal enjoyment. We also all love books.  We’re not big drinkers, but love trying out different regional microbrews when we’re on the road.

DOA: Again, I appreciate your time. Thank you!

Travis: Absolutely. Thank you for doing this.

Eric: Thank YOU!

Morningbell Online