JIM VALLANCE

JimVallanceWHAT WAS THE FIRST TUNE YOU LEARNED TO PLAY ON THE DRUMS?

It was a very long time ago (1965?) but I think the first song I played on drums was “Little Red Riding Hood”, by Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs.

DRUMMER JOKES ASIDE, IT SEEMS THE BEST ARTISTS (AND PRODUCERS FOR THAT MATTER) CAN PLAY SOME DRUMS, OR IN FACT BEGAN ON THE DRUMS: HOW DID UNDERSTANDING RHYTHM HELP YOU AS A SONGWRITER AND PRODUCER?

There’s this presumed orthodoxy that everything begins with piano … learn to play piano and the rest will follow.  That’s why so many kids are forced to take piano lessons.  If it were up to me, I’d say “start with drums and the rest will follow”.  Rhythm is the most basic musical building block.

I took piano lessons like every other kid of my generation — except the ones who took accordion lessons! — but it’s drums that taught me how to play music with feeling.  Even now, when I play guitar, I play like a drummer.

WHAT WAS THE ALBUM THAT GOT YOU HOOKED ON ROCK & ROLL AS A KID?

I wasn’t aware of albums when I was a kid.  It was all about singles, 45 RPM vinyl disks.  The first ones I bought were “She Loves You” by The Beatles and “Glad All Over” by The Dave Clark Five.

RodneyHiggsHOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE STAGE NAME ‘RODNEY HIGGS’ WHEN YOU WERE IN PRISM AND DOES HE, AS AN ALTER-EGO OF SORTS, EVER PAY VISITS TO YOUR MIND SET?

I live part-time in London … I have an apartment in Kensington. I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes, that whole Victorian-era thing.  Rodney Higgs sounded like a character from a Sherlock Holmes story.

DID BEING FROM CANADA MAKE IT HARDER TO BREAK INTO THE MUSIC INDUSTRY AT LARGE OR DID YOU SEE IT AS AN ADVANTAGE?

I’ve always wondered if it made a difference.  There were hundreds of bands in Los Angles, all of them within walking distance of the big label offices.  Whether it was Devo from Akron or Nirvana from Seattle, I think there was some novelty attached to bands that were from somewhere other than LA.  So yes, I think it helped to be from Vancouver.

IN YOUR PARTNERSHIP WITH BRYAN ADAMS, HOW DID YOU GUYS WORK ON SONGS TYPICALLY? DID THE APPROACH CHANGE AT ALL OVER THE YEARS OR DID YOU HAVE A FORMULA TOGETHER?

No formula, but certainly a democratic approach to writing songs.  There’s no ego … the best idea wins, no matter who came up with it.  We both write melody and we both write lyrics.  We can bounce lyrics and melodies back and forth until the best idea becomes apparent.  Sometimes I’ll play guitar, sometimes bass, sometimes piano.  It depends on the song.  Bryan usually plays guitar when we write, although he’s actual a very good piano player.

Cars_JimVallanceYOU HAVE WRITTEN WITH A NUMBER OF MAJOR ARTISTS OVER THE YEARS, WHICH WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR YOU AS AS SONGSMITH?

I’m 60.  I’ve been writing songs since I was 16.  You’d think it would get easier, but it doesn’t.  It’s hard work.
Every song, every artist, comes with its own set of challenges, the main one being, you want to do the best job possible.  I admit I was nervous the first time I wrote with Steven and Joe from Aerosmith — same for Ozzy or Alice Cooper — but you get over that quite quickly.  Then it’s all about focussing on the task, spending the time — hours, days, whatever it takes — writing, re-writing, honing it until you’ve got it right.
Honestly, every song is a challenge.  There’s nothing quite so daunting as staring at a blank piece of paper waiting to be filled with lyrics.  Somehow it just happens. There’s that great story about Andrew Loog Oldham locking a young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room, threatening not to let them out until they’d written a song.  That’s kinda what it’s like.  That’s what it takes.
ONE OF YOUR CURRENT ‘PET PROJECTS’ IS JOHN LENNON IN GERMANY FROM 60-62: CAN YOU SHARE A PEARL FROM THE YOUNG TOUGHS DAYS IN HAMBURG?

An interviewer once asked Lennon to divulge the secret of the Beatles’ success.  Lennon replied, “We were a really good band!”.  And they were.  Listen to their recording of “Kansas City”, which is straight from their Hamburg set-list.  That’s four guys in a studio, singing and playing at the same time.  No ProTools or overdubs, just a really good band taking their Hamburg club show into a recording studio.  That’s where they got good, playing eight hour sets at the Top Ten Club and the Kaiserkeller.  There’s no substitute for that kind of apprenticeship.

 HOW DO YOU RATE RINGO AND WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE OF HIS DRUM TRACKS IF YOU HAD TO PICK ONE?

Ringo is one of the best rock drummers, ever. Bonham may have been heavier, and Stewart Copeland may have had more finesse, but you won’t find a more tasteful drummer than Ringo.  Plus, he basically invented the drum fill as we know it.

My favorite  Ringo tracks include “Lovely Rita”, “Carry That Weight”, “Ticket To Ride”, “Rain”.  For that matter, he played great on everything.  Never the same feel twice.

DO YOU STILL PLAY ‘SONG DOCTOR’ AND DO YOU MAKE HOUSE CALLS?

I don’t like the “song doctor” label.  It sounds like all I do is fix other people’s songs, or contribute the last 10% to fine-tune the song for radio.  I might have done that a few times over the years, but 99% of the time I start from scratch, sitting in a room with Bryan Adams or Steven Tyler, blank page, no clue where things are headed, and somehow you come up with a song. That’s a great feeling.  That’s what I love about my job … creating something from nothing. – JIM VALLANCE 

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DONALD DUCOTE

url1.0 – Labels aside, the music on Tracks is hard to pin down, is that part of your vibe as a dude?

I don’t think so.  Maybe more now than the years previous.  We started recording Tracks in 2010 and you could take one look at me and figure it out.  Recovering hipster/pothead and you can bet the farm he started off in the suburbs.  Is that what you’re asking?  I have an aloof card that I can play pretty well, and I have, but lately I’ve been trying to shut that down; it’s boring.  I don’t think anybody wants to be easy to pin down.

2.0 – It sounds as if Ancient History has, ironically or not, been a real organic evolution of sorts; how did it come together?

I met Jim Smith, Austin Lemeiux and Paul Johnson while managing a cafe off the Morgan L stop in Brooklyn. They were all regular customers. I got to know Jim because he recorded the final record of my previous band.  He was also roommates with a friend of mine.

Paul lived in my building and we had been wanting to play together for a while.  Once things got situated with Jim he was the first person I called and we worked out the first couple tunes in his living room.

I don’t know what this says about me as a person, but whatever, it’s funny, I asked a co-worker with which customer she would most like to copulate.  She said, “The earl grey guy with all the tattoos that looks fucked up every morning.”  That was Austin and I can’t imagine there being a better-suited lead guitarist for my songs than that guy.  The next time he walked into the coffee shop I asked if he was a musician.  He said that he was a guitar player and he listed Jeff Buckley as his first influence.  We clicked immediately.  The first song we cut was ‘She Gave You the Keys’ in a basement art gallery in Dumbo and it was just the four of us, Jim was behind the board.  I believe we got it in about 3 takes and I remember us listening back and just being very pleased with what everybody was bringing to the table.

3.0 – Is understanding your sound as simple as the mix of your southern roots embracing the indie biosphere of Brooklyn?

I’m not convinced my roots are southern. I think, if anything, it’s the other way around. When I was in 4th grade I had a Garth Brooks tape and a Trisha Yearwood tape, but as soon as Nirvana showed up I was out.  I’ve always appreciated a sturdy song and I’ve always respected country music for being such loyalists to songcraft, even at the expense of any significant experimentation, but I think for me it’s always been the songcraftier end of my indie influences embracing whatever genre has a documentary streaming on Netflix.

4.0 – How did you approach the recording process for Tracks?

I had recorded with Jim Smith on my last project and he approached me about wanting to record some songs without a full band.  We put our heads together and decided to buy an old tape machine and record another record.  We didn’t want a clock ticking over our head and we didn’t want to record in a sterile studio environment.  That was it really.  We were going for natural reverb and mic placement.  We wanted to use tape and we wanted it to be warm and ambient.  We didn’t want a band album. We made a rule that we couldn’t use a drum kit and we wanted to focus our energy on a song by song basis.

Jim found the machine he wanted and he drove it from Detroit to NYC and we just hacked away at it whenever we could.  It took about two years.  I can’t tell you how important Jim was to this record. He’s amazing at what he does and because of it he is very busy, so there were long stretches between sessions, months at a time, to prep the songs and figure out over-dubs.

AncientHistory5.0 – As trippy as it gets at times, the tradition of story telling seems an important feature to your stuff; to what other artist, or artists, might you attribute the influence?

Storytelling is something that comes very naturally to me.  Anybody that knows me will tell you that I love a good story.  As a musician I’ve sometimes felt that I should’ve spent more energy trying to repress the urge to over-indulge my personal experiences but still, love and heartbreak are not topics that I write about very often. On the three records before TRACKS there are probably only 4 or 5 songs between them that are about romantic relationships. When it came time to write for this record I just said, “Fuck it.  Here’s all the shit I’ve been saving.”  Not sure I’ll ever endorse such straight-ahead narrative ever again, not because I think the record suffered for it, but because nothing I have left to purge is anything that anyone wants to hear about. Regarding influences, I’ve always been drawn to the more subtle characters of Belle & Sebastian and Elliott Smith. I like songs that can capture ordinary moments and infuse them with something unordinary, but at the same time Pedro the Lion’s Control and Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker are two desert island records for me.  I don’t know, I have an undying admiration for Jeff Mangum and the words he writes. Lyrically speaking, I would like to adopt a more abstract state of mind going forward.

6.0 – What tunes on the disc are you digging most now that it’s done?

Hmm.  I love four-leafed.  It’s a song that had been brewing a very, very long time.  My buddy PJ (Michael Poulton) played lead for the first half of the song.  I recorded him in my bedroom in the middle of the night.  I remember we were drunk and he was playing slide with a beer bottle.  It’s one of the few songs that isn’t about a female.  And it’s fun to play.  Clover Honey is a sentimental favorite.  I love Austin’s guitar on that one, when it hits the high note halfway through.  He nailed it in one take.  We were working on Subway Dream and I remember telling Jim that I didn’t want lead guitar on the song.  He said ok, then Austin gave me some weed and I went to smoke in the hall.  When I came back Jim and Austin had finished Austin’s guitar part: that warm, burning distortion that just rolls through the song until it spikes into the breakdown.  Jim just smiled at me.  It took them five minutes and it made the song.

7.0 – How do songs come to you: more as ideas or feelings that lead to ideas?

Lyrics are always last.  Melody happens when it happens.  The riff is always first, the progression, the picking pattern, whatever.  The initial musical idea is what puts the key into the ignition.  To turn the engine you’ve got to grab that change, that switch from verse to chorus or chorus to bridge or whatever.  That’s what excites me.  Great changes.  When it comes to lyrics, I draw from the past, which is something I hate about myself.  I wish I could lose the documentarian in me and endorse a sense of fiction, but I find it very difficult to separate myself from what I’m writing, especially if I’m gonna be asked to sing the words over and over again.  I’m still trying though.

8.0 – What was your favorite 3 records in high school?

I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona.  It is not a very culturally diverse place.  If you were in your early teens in the late nineties in Phoenix you didn’t have a lot of access to underground music.  Thankfully, there were a few people that knew how to find it and they ended up saving me my junior and senior year, but early high school was alot of Weezer.  Pinkerton changed my life.  Other than that my buddies and I listened to whatever radio hits we heard on the bus ride to school.

I was working as a prep cook in Scottsdale when I was 16 and one of the line cooks gave me Modest Mouse’s Lonesome Crowded West and Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity.  It took me a while to absorb Modest Mouse but Jimmy Eat Word, being from Phoenix, was instant love.   They were a favorite for sure.  Modest Mouse, Elliott Smith and Neutral Milk Hotel were all bands that I listened to in high school but they didn’t really do their damage until I left home.  I remember the line cook saying that he listened to ’emo’ music.  That was in 1998 and I had never heard the word ’emo’ before.  It sounded exotic!  It opened my eyes and got me searching for music, as opposed to just buying whatever I heard on the radio.

So yeah, my favorites in high school were Weezer’s Pinkerton, Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity and probably the second Weakerthans LP.  A buddy introduced me to Left and Leaving right when it dropped and for years it never left my side.  My first week of college was 9/11 and I remember being in my car driving to community college when the first tower fell, and ‘Everything Must Go!’ was on the stereo.  Since then ‘Left and Leaving’ has always reminded me of good ol’ high school and pre-9/11 America.

9.0 – What was the first concert you ever attended? did it leave any lasting impression on you today?

I wish I had scalped my tickets.  My second concert was Rancid opening for Garbage and Smashing Pumpkins and I wish that was my first concert.  My first show was important though.

Earlier I talked about my love for songs with good musical changes; the first concert I ever went to was Cheap Trick opening for Meatloaf at what used to be America West Arena in Phoenix.  I’m not sure I’ve ever said this out loud, but I remember watching Cheap Trick play ‘The Flame’ and I remember the changes in that song blowing my mind. First when he breaks into the ‘i’m going crazy/losing sleep’ part, then the way it pounds into the ‘wherever you go’ part.  I fucking loved it.

As you can probably guess, I’m a sucker for ballads.  “The Flame” really got me, the way the parts worked together to form these really heavy moments.  Those are the moments I look for in music.  Those are the moments I want to create because those are the moments that can change the way a person feels.

10.0 – If you were Grammy level stars what you tour stage design look like? 

Whoa. No clue. But pyrotechnics for sure.