I met Joel Bravo and Ian Everall from Vancouver-based Brooklyn prodigals The Albertans last Thursday at Williamsburg's Lovin' Cup, the bar and restaurant situated in the front of the Cameo Gallery on North 6 Street. This is the den of bourbon and revival where they will perform a three show residency in April on the 9, 16, and 23. Our intent was to have a few drinks and talk on the heady matters: new albums, tours, influences, live performances, birds of night, and love lives. The Albertans' new album, Legends of Sam Marco, will be released in April on the Ernest Jenning Record Co. label. The first single from the record, “High Noon”, is a sparsely told story of craft and sacrifice, commitment and resignation, richly orchestrated but deftly composed so that each instrument's voice steps out of the way of the next. If you never saw them in '07 when they were performing as Sex with an Angel, it's a great introduction to the band's storytelling style and the wistful bombast Joel Bravo's lyricism inspires in the musicians. If you had seen them in a previous incarnation, you'd hear this new recording's desperate edges in the loud guitar wash all the more sharply.
Impose: How did you guys start playing together?
Ian Everall: Joel and I used to play in a band together a few years ago with another guy called Henry Wolfe. (This was NYC-based Bravo Silva.)
Joel Bravo: Henry's actually doing interesting solo stuff out in LA right now. You should check him out.
But you're based in Vancouver now?
Ian: Yeah. We went on a tour from Vancouver down to San Diego last year, beginning with the first show in Seattle in early June 2008.
Joel: We had bought this propane-powered short bus that we drove all the way down to San Diego.
How did you find a propane-powered short bus?
Joel: We bought it from a really nice hippie guy.
[Above: The truck.]
Ian: He had a really nice dog, too. This guy had converted the bus himself and moved up to Vancouver when he got a job at Whistler, but he didn't have that job anymore for some reason, so he had to get rid of the bus. He liked to go out to the woods to photograph orbs.
What do you mean? He was photographing weird Fortean phenomena- ball lightning, will 'o wisps?
Ian: No, he had big glass orbs he would suspend from the trees or build stands for in the forest. He would take pictures so all you could see was the light coming through them. It was pretty magical, actually.
Joel: So we had gotten this propane-powered bus, which was good because this was when gas was something like $4 or $5. The propane was a little cheaper, but then we had the problem of finding a place to pump it.
How many people were in the bus?
Joel: This is one thing that makes it hard for The Albertans to write thank you's in the liner notes. There is no set lineup for the Albertans. On that tour we were playing with 7 people, but different people have played with us at different times. When I was writing the liner notes for this record I ended up writing one set of acknowledgments to 'The Albertans family', and then another to 'The Albertans extended family.'
How did this tour influence the sound of this new record?
Ian: There was only an AM radio in the bus, so that's all we were listening to- a lot of Republican talk radio and these great AM soul stations. We really like the rough sound of AM, and it was surprising how great some of these soul stations we found were. Soul music is rough-edged, and it really comes through well over AM.
It wasn't just all “Bad Bad LeRoy Brown” over and over again?
Ian: No, that's what you'd think, but this was really good. This kind of soft pop from the beat era that we were listening to during this tour really appealed to us, I think, because we were kind of living a beat existence at the time.
Joel: Yeah, and on this record we really wanted to do an updated version of that soul sound. Songs like “Then He Kissed Me” (by Phil Spector-produced girl band The Crystals), “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, and anything by Roy Orbison. I love Roy Orbison's lush compositions. He always put so much orchestration in there.
Ian: Joel has a huge broner for Roy Orbison.
Joel: It's true.
What bands are you listening to now?
Joel: I'm really excited about Dodos and Fleet Foxes- I really like the acoustic yet lushly orchestrated compositions of Fleet Foxes. I'd be really happy to see them become a lot more popular, to go platinum or whatever. Of course I like the orchestration of Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainright, but now I'm more interested in what's happening with bands like School of Seven Bells and Fleet Foxes. I even like the Mommas and the Poppas, but I guess they really were a simple band. There is a comparison you can make between The Mommas & the Poppas and Fleet Foxes, but Fleet Foxes really is something different when you listen closely. It's more lush.
Do you think the ubiquity of easy-to-use, cheap recording equipment has anything to do with there being a bigger scene of these bands who are not necessarily making electronic compositions, but who are making these albums produced with very layered voice or acoustic instrumentation?
Joel: Absolutely not. I would say categorically that what Fleet Foxes do is not a product of the recording process. Animal Collective, and I'm not saying I don't like them, is very much a product of the recording process. But not Fleet Foxes- they can do everything they do on the record live.
Ian: I've really only been listening to three records on this old flip-top record player Joel found somewhere- when I'm at home- the past three months: this White Magic vinyl, Cat Power's Moon Pix, and Devendra Banhart's double record with the Owl on the cover [Rejoicing In The HandsNiño Rojo]. I listen to them because they're great singer songwriters, but I don't think they can approach Joel's songwriting. And I love the raw sound that comes out of this player. It's really something that we have been trying to capture ourselves on this new record.
Joel: Owls were actually the symbol of last year's tour, and we're thinking of continuing with that image for the new record and the shows that are coming up.
Joel: After 9/11 the image of an owl really resonated with me because I felt that there was a lot of “bird” phenomena. A lot of things seemed to start flying around, people started becoming more like birds, moving… Also, I associate them with death.
That's pretty metal.
Ian: Our drummer, Curtis, is actually a metal drummer.
Joel: Owls symbolize a death that is also a moving forward – a moving forward with some kind of a facilitating event, some kind of medium that can translate you to the next thing. The album that's coming out has a suicide theme, so all these things were able to tie together pretty well. Our tambourine player is a talented visual artist based in Vancouver who also happened to be making a lot of images of owls at the time, so that chance also played a part. She's actually coming out here for our residency.
So, how would you characterize the sound of The Albertans as compared to the bands you've mentioned?
Joel: The Albertans like to tell stories, there's not an A part B part, neither is there a beginning, middle, end- but there is a kind of theatrical progression to the songs. The important thing is that a story is being told.
Ian: On the last tour people had compared us to Sparks…
Do you mean the Giorgio Moroder era Sparks, the electronic disco Sparks?
Ian: More like prior to the disco Sparks, actually. It was before that- more like the prog-rock Sparks. I think that things that people were picking up on- and I'm not sure if it was because of our actual sound as much as our instrumentation and-
Joel: Because of our theatricality.
Ian: Right, and because people were kind of dramatic on stage that comparison came about.
Joel: Yes. We'll always be very dramatic onstage.
Ian: Because we're dramatic people.
Well, you've got that storytelling element to what you're doing, to your songs.
It's not just a bunch of slogans or another repetitive “If you liked it, you should have put a ring on it” sort of thing. There's a development that is happening.
Joel: (Laughs) I love that song. I love that video.
Ian: Or “Take a Picture, Bitch”… that's kind of the same saying.
I haven't heard that one. Who's that?
Ian: No, it's a saying– It's like when somebody wants to check something out for a really extended amount of time, you say, “Take a picture, bitch.”
Oh. That should be the next song!
Joel: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's it.
Ian: It's like, put a ring on the finger so you can check something out for a really long period of time… (laughs) because we're not going to be the same for a long period of time.
So what do the next three months in New York hold for you? How long are you going to be here?
Joel: We're going to be in New York until April 24. We're going to play an acoustic show at Goodbye, Blue Monday on the 20 of February, and then we might not play again until March 13. Then we'll come back and play a lot in April.
Ian: There's a possibility of playing a higher profile show at the end of March, and we're touring down to Texas and back in March hitting Nashville,
Ian: People's bedrooms…
I was listening to the Sex with an Angel recording earlier. One song in particular- “Furniture.” Who plays the banjo? Do you guys still have a banjo player?
Joel: Not live.
Ian: No, Joel recorded all banjo. He wrote all banjo lines. I find the banjo lines really important when I go back and listen to the recordings, but Joel has always been very adamant about not exactly representing recordings live. He always wants the live experience to be different from the actual recordings.
Ian: Which is really interesting for me because I come from the other school where you record something and you try and…
Joel: Try to replicate it.
Ian: You keep those exact sounds and those exact parts and you make it that good if not better live. We try to lose some elements, but at the same time we'll invite other people in. Live we'll have some horn players, or a cellist, or an extra keyboard. So, maybe it'll pick up the banjo part, or maybe that part will be missing but another part will be there, but the basic arrangements remain the foundation.
To me the banjo was the acoustic precursor of the arpeggiator, and you guys use a lot of chords and pad noises on keyboard live, but have you ever thought of…
Joel: Arpeggiating the keyboards? Yeah. But sometimes it's tough to do live. Our current keyboardist can do that- specifically that part on our song “Furniture,” she can play the banjo part on keyboard. It's just tough live. The banjo is hard to play, and when you have a lot of vocals it's a tough thing to organize onstage. Also, when you have a banjo player, a lot of times they just want to play banjo. Banjo is used as a soundin our band, and that's OK. In pop music it's ok to use instruments as sounds and not as instruments.
Ian: I understand your question, because whenever I hear the “Furniture” recording, when that banjo comes in it moves the whole second verse along in that song. I understand that people like a new experience when they go out to a concert- they want to see that you're doing something and that you're playing naturally. They don't want to go out to a concert and see an album played note for note. I already heard the album. But I grew up wanting to see the album played note for note.
Joel: Sure, me, too. Like when I was going to Poison concerts.
Ian: Yeah, and Metallica concerts. But not the Supertramp concerts. Supertramp was actually the best show I'd ever seen live, because those guys actually changed a lot of parts. A lot of instrumentation and orchestration was all different. But it was one of my favorite shows because the songs were still there.
Joel: I think we also take the mentality in the studio, kind of the Jimmy Page mentality. Whatever we have to do in the studio to make it work, we do. But a lot of times you don't have the people around or the finances to replicate it live. So you just kind of make it work with work with what you have. I think then it becomes more about the energy in the room. So, yeah, it'd be great to have a session banjo player, and a horn section, and strings, and that's great, it's on the album, but you can't always hire them- well, you can never do it until you start making money.
Ian: You can do it on the album because we'll all play for free and we play different instruments.
Joel: That's what's cool about the studio, you can play whatever. If it works it works.
Cool. Well, is there anything else you want to talk about?
Ian: Well, I think we should mention the fact that we're both single.
Joel: Oh, yeah. That's true.