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All is not quiet on the Sunshine Riot front
by Eldon McGraw
Phone interview with Sunshine Riot on May 20, 2012
"We were just another band out of Boston. On the road to try and make ends meet." This is a line from the song "Rock n' Roll Band" that came out in 1976 on the debut album by the classic rock band Boston. The song tells the tale of a young band in Boston going from the clubs, to meeting up with a big time record executive to achieve their dreams.
Well, there's just “another” band out of Boston in 2012 and they are trying to make ends meet and move on to the big time, they are called Sunshine Riot. They recently released their first full length album "A Bottle and a Brand New Day." They seem to be living their days just like the album title states. A drink in one hand, and looking forward to many brand new days in their future. This band has it all, gritty rock and roll music, vomiting in bars, ejaculating in bathrooms, and kicking out their original lead guitar player due to substance abuse. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is rock n' roll!
The band describes their sound as Cash meets Cobain. They seem to pull from Old Country, Punk, 70's Rock, and they sprinkle in a little Bruce Springsteen thrown in for good measure. I spoke with the band on the phone for this interview. One thing you could tell from the very beginning is that these guys have fun and laugh a lot. They take their art seriously, but not too seriously. They still like to have a raucous good time when they are out playing live. On the phone was singer Jonny Orton. Jonny comes across as a very reserved and thoughtful person who takes his time and measures his comments. Jeff Sullivan, the bass player, is opinionated and he doesn't care if you care. Lead guitar player, Matt Tetreault, is an easy going guy who doesn't speak much, but his words come across like an azure sky: clear and calm. Brian “Shakes” Tvelia, the drummer, is a man who is very confident and seems like he is a strong leader. With the band today is their guest vocalist on their new album, Carl Smitty Smooth. Carl comes across as a guy you want to hang out with and just swap some good time stories. We spent over an hour talking about their past, present, and future of Sunshine Riot.
What's the rock music scene like in Boston right now?
(Jonny) I think the scene is great in a lot of ways. There are a ton of great venues and a ton of great music. Boston itself is kind of a cliquey music scene. As far as regional bands out of Boston, we are about as big as it gets. In a lot of ways we are kind of weirdo’s because we are not hipsters, we don't wear skinny jeans, we don't play laptops on stage. We don't mind being weirdo’s I guess.
What does hipster mean to you when you say that?
(Jeff) It means high stringy voice and laptops on stage. I mean, “you have a laptop, why don't you just get a keyboard?” Hipster means anyone that annoys me to be quite honest. Also, you have the Berklee scene up there which is kind of intertwined. This is not true of all Berklee people, but when you go to a show with Berklee bands, they never rehearse. They just think they are so good and the only people who are there to listen to them are other musicians. It just seems kind of self defeating to me. Everyone that I have talked to who went to Berklee always talks about how there is a Berklee attitude and if you are not from Berklee they don't want anything to do with you. There are a lot of good people from Berklee, I just don't want to jump on the bandwagon of everyone who hates Berklee. That's basically what I feel the hipster thing is.
On your web site you state that you play “Honest American Music.” What does that statement mean?
(Jonny) I don't know how to define our music. We pull from Blues, from Rock, from Punk, from Grunge, from Country. We are influenced by a broad spectrum of music for better or for worse. I don't necessarily think that is a good thing. It just is what it is, you just can't help it. It's an honest representation of a very broad swath. I think lyrically we write heartfelt stuff. We try to take that element of the music very seriously.
When you say “honest music” that lends itself to state that there is dishonest music. What is dishonest music?
(Jonny) That's a good question. I think dishonest music is music written to appeal to others for that whole reason and not try to come up with something that is creative. When it's all the same and you can pinpoint where the song is going to go right off the bat, that type of stuff gets old. When band A and band B sound exactly alike, I feel that's dishonest. I feel like reggae can be that way as well.
(Jeff) Reggae's all the same song.
(Jonny) It would be dishonest it we wrote about fucking bitches and driving yachts, cause that's not the life we live. We write music about mid 20's broke dudes that are trying to figure out life. I don't think we try to be anything we are not.
Let's say you guys get signed to a major label and they say "nice album, but we need a hit song and we are bringing in a writer to write with you." What would you say?
(Jonny) Fuck that! That's what I despise about a lot of Pop people today. It's kind of like people with great voices go on American Idol, but if they try and write something catchy, they need 20 other writers right off the bat and their names are just in the credits. It's all that Justin Beiber and Britney Spears, that's just bullshit.
(Jeff) It also uses musicians. With all these people as a collaborative effort, it should be a band. I think what really defines Pop music for me is (pauses). We went down South on tour, and we were listening to all these stations and the fursther South you go, the more Country stations there are. I imagine when you get to Florida, it’s all Country. I noticed all the music in Country music is not actually Country music. I mean Modern Country, because I love Old Country music. It was all pop songs with a Southern accent. It wasn't even close to Country at all. Maybe there was a violin or fiddle thrown in, but that's about it.
Is there one lyricist in the band?
(Jeff) We kind of collaborate a lot. Jonny comes up with most of the stuff and Mark has written a couple of songs for us too.
(Mark) I brought two songs to the band. One of them is on the album, "Margaret Mae." When I first gave it to them and I told them I wrote this song. I gave them the foundation and they actually built the house on top of it.
Who is the biggest jerk when it comes to disagreements?
(Jeff) That's me and Johnny. It can get ugly sometimes (Jonny laughs). It will just take a drink or two to get by it.
Jonny, how do you work out the melodies for the vocals?
(Jonny) That's definitely collaboration as well. I play rhythm guitar, so a lot of times I will write a basic song, but if I come to the band with a basic tune, by the end, it's a much different and better song. I'm a shitty guitarist, so I come up with basic ideas that we build on. Often Mark will deliver a complete tune. Jeff and I will write the skeleton of a song together, but it's collaborative.
(Jeff) Sometimes jams work out that way too.
(Mark) He is not a shitty guitarist, he is actually pretty good.
I notice you describe your music as Cash meets Cobain. I hear the Cash influence, but not the Cobain.
(Jonny) That's interesting. I love Nirvana. I think Mark and the rest of the band do too. I heard Nirvana for the first time when I was six years old sitting in the back of my dad's Ford Taurus when my brother put in "Unplugged in New York." I'll remember that moment for as long as my brain works. The moment I heard Kurt Cobain's voice, I was like "Holy shit, what is this? This is what I need to do. This is rock n' roll music, I like this." When I talk about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain's influence on the band, it's not in a sense that the music itself is directly emulative or derivative of Grunge, but I think we have been listening to Nirvana as a group for so long, now it is influencing our writing. Johnny Cash's music is hopeful music and Nirvana's music is kind of the Blues.
(Jeff) Yeah, but Blues I'm getting laid at least.
(Jonny) I think our music is Blues with hope and for me that is Johnny Cash meets Kurt Cobain.
I noticed that in a few of your songs you mention specific geographic locations in the United States. What's the angle there?
(Jonny) We hear that a lot. I don't know why I do that. When I write the words to songs, I definitely try to tell a story that people can relate to in some way. Whether it's a happy story or a sad story. Getting drunk, driving to work, getting laid, or whatever they are doing. I like talking about the United States and places in the country. When you are listening to a song and people are referencing states, it has a unique way of activating memory neurons in the brain and people can start imparting their own meaning to songs based on whatever they think of Nashville, whatever they think of Tennessee.
Is it planned out? It's obviously a theme on this album.
(Jeff) I wrote “Sweet Kerosine (sic).” I was working at a warehouse at the time and that just came to me and it rhymes well. Also, who wants to hear a song about a guy sitting around about a guy watching TV? Going places is what I feel everyone wants to do. I wanna go see the world and I think that is what people can relate to as well.
(Jonny) It's such an American thing to travel within our own country and head West when shit gets bad. That's such a uniquely American thing. I don't think we ever sat down and said, "Let's record a fucking geography record" (laughs). It just sort of happens.
“Sweet Kerosine (sic)” is my favorite song on the record.
(Jonny) Really. That's funny because it almost didn't make the record. Thank you. That's great. We are glad that you enjoyed it. We recorded it and we had a ton of drinks in the studio.
(Jeff) That was our first day in the studio with Carl. We were all nervous. He has such an incredible voice. Our producer said, "That man's voice is a gift from God." We were all celebrating together and getting drunk and then we thought "We have four more hours left in the studio."
(Jonny) Mark's lead guitar on that song is definitely my favorite element on that album.
At this point in the interview, Carl Smitty Smooth joined the interview.
(Jonny) Carl sings on a couple of our tunes.
Carl, how did this collaboration start on this new album with Sunshine Riot?
(Carl) They saw me play at a Blues show and they said "Come on down to the studio with us." I worked with Jonny on the song “Liz Stone” and did some background stuff and the rest is history I guess. When I first heard Jonny I thought he sounded like Daughtrey (Jonny laughs).
Have you been together since 2008?
(Jeff) Me and Johnny went to elementary school together. We messed around a lot.
(Jonny) Musically (laughs).
(Jeff) Well it was a Catholic school (Jeff laughs). We have been playing together on and off for more than a decade.
(Mark) I just joined the band last August.
(Jonny) He joined the band and then like four weeks later we were opening for Everlast. It was kind of trial by fire, but he did great! (Band laughs).
When you recorded the new album, did you do a lot of overdubs or was it live in the studio?
(Jeff) It kind of depends on the song. For "Liz Stone", there were some vocal harmonies in there. We try to play as much as we can on the album live. If a song warrants a three part harmony or gang vocals, which we do live as well. If we think it sounds good, we do it.
Is it important to have the recording match the live sound of your band?
(Carl) Not particularly. The performance seems to dictate itself by the audience. We are an energetic band and it's always about our live performance. In the studio we are a bit more precise with our harmonies and also the instrumentation.
(Jeff) We don’t use auto tune by the way. Let's make that extremely clear (laughs).
Tell me about Brian's performance on this album.
(Jonny) We feel very lucky to have "Shakes", which is Brian's nickname, in this band. Drummers are hard to find and good drummers are hard to find. All kidding aside, and this might sound ridiculous, but I think he is one of the best drummers in the country. The producer on this record is a brilliant guy named George Dussualt. He is a sixteen time Grammy nominee. He does a great job of getting the sound out of the kit in the studio. Between the two of them, there is a lot of magic that happens.
(Jeff) Me and Brian were in a practice band, for like two years, back in high school we became a rhythm section and we played with each other for so long and we knew exactly what each other was going to do. He wasn't in the band from the very beginning. We had a Metal drummer who was extremely talented but his flow wasn't really there. He quit and we suckered Brian in.
So how did your tour along the East coast go?
(Jonny) On this most recent tour we were in Newark, Delaware, which we didn't know existed. It was a ton of fun. We went to this bar before our show and had a few drinks and we went back there after our show and got drunk. Mark was the designated driver. Brian, our drummer, puked in the sink. A member, who shall remain nameless, jacked off in the bathroom stall, and I pissed on the bar while sitting at the bar (laughs). We actually went back the next day and they didn't say anything.
You guys don't seem to have an image when you are on stage. Do you just go up on stage with your street clothes and play?
(Jonny) Yeah, that's a great point and we talk about it a lot. It's something we are conscious of. Building a successful band is a brand, which is lame to say, but if you are trying to build it, you gotta take it seriously. I don't think we have one yet. We are working on it. We're not businessmen. We're musicians. We are not good at the "image" thing.
(Carl) We are America. We are what middle class America is. We are who you are.
How has your sound changed from your EP and the new album?
(Jeff) I can’t even remember. What's on our EP? Well, the sound really changed because of our Producer. George is an amazing guy.
(Jonny) We just developed as musicians. When we first started with the band, I don’t think we were very good. Now I think we are a great band and I love our music. When we first started out we were just learning how to write songs. The change has just been becoming not shitty (laughs).
Does that mean you are taking the songwriting, recording, and live show more seriously than a year or two ago?
(Jeff) When we first started, just to get on stage, I needed to get drunk. We’ve really developed to become more comfortable with ourselves and our audience and more comfortable in our writing. When we wrote that EP, we didn’t know where we were headed or what we were capable of.
(Jonny) Everything got better when Mark joined the band. There was a dramatic change. His influence on the songwriting. His lead guitar, everything.
Mark, tell me about your contributions as lead guitar player on the new album.
(Mark) You have to remember, I came into the group last August and practically half of the album had already been written and recorded. There were two songs that we hadn’t got down yet and whatever they had done really didn’t call for lead so I wasn’t on some of the songs. I don’t consider myself a good guitarist technically speaking, but I like the way I add melody to it. I’m not trying to go out their blazing saddles and get my neck smoking. I just try to make something unique. I really like “Margaret Mae” solo, that’s exactly how I wanted it to be. Its dirty, it got a little choppy at times.
On your new album, there is a punk style song called “Senorita Punk.” I know you spoke about Nirvana as an influence, are there any other punk influences?
(Mark) The thing I like about “Senorita Punk” when we were in the studio, Jonny actually came up with the idea of getting a gang vocal on it. I was really turned on by the fact that Jonny's voice was distorted like through a megaphone. I used to be a really big punk head in high school. Minor Threat,Sex Pistols, The Clash, Dropkick Murphys.
The drummer Brian enters the room with the rest of the band and joins the interview.
Your song “Liz Stone” has a cool line. “Empty bottle of whiskey floating in the sea.” What does that mean?
(Jonny) Half of that song is sort of like a love song about a guy chasing a girl and leaving no stone unturned and half of the song is about our old lead guitarist, without getting into too much detail, we had to kick out of the band. He was like a dear old friend and it was a shitty situation. So it’s two very different subject matters. I just like that image of an empty bottle of whiskey floating in the sea. There’s something sort of desperate about it that I like.
So what happened with your former lead guitar player Nick?
(Jonny) We wish him the best. Musically he was heading in a direction that we weren’t. It just wasn’t the sort of music we were looking to write and there was also a drug issue going on. He’s alive and still above ground.
Earlier you said you are not really into the drug scene, but you like to drink. Was that part of the deal breaker with Nick?
(Jeff) I went to my five year high school reunion. So many of my friends now are addicts or recovering addicts. It just ruins people, they are different. We saw that happening in him too. He’s also a tortured soul himself. I was friends with him back in elementary and high school. It was tough, a very hard situation.
Jeff, you grew up with Nick. How hard was it mentally to kick him out when you were old friends?
(Jeff) It was back and forth. One day I would think it would suck to have him out of the band, you know, you have inside jokes. People do change.
(Brian) The band started to really prepare for that probably a year before we let him go because we knew it was going to happen eventually. We didn’t know how it was going to happen, we just needed to make sure we were prepared ourselves and did what we needed to do. It was a very long process; it was months, maybe close to a year.
Did it make it harder to kick him out because of your past friendship before the band?
(Brian) He stopped being a friend during that year period. We were purely functioning as a business, as a business relationship. It got kind of callous. It sucked when we did it. Honestly I don’t know how everyone else felt, but I felt a breath of fresh air when it did finally take place. It was a struggle to keep the band going with just a three piece. To only have one guitarist at our shows, it was tough.
How did it go after Nick left and Mark came in the band?
(Jonny) From the word go, it was like “this is the guy. We got to get him to join the band.”
(Brian) It’s amazing to have him in the band now. I don’t want to shit on Nick, but there was no sense of lead, he was always noodling. Working with a lead guitarist affects me as the drummer, just because I need to know where to be dynamically in the song. Mark and I have this knack when each other is going to do something. It’s awesome. I love him. I’m going to marry him (laughs).
Brian, how did the recording of drums and your performance on the new album go?
(Brian) I have never worked with a click track. That whole album is just live. It sucked because it will take me two or three tries to get the song down. When we feel it is strong enough, that’s fine for the drums. But when they go in to put on a guitar part and they want to punch a segment in, it's very difficult. The studio itself, we feel like it’s a practice space. It really comes down to George, he really
knows drums. He knows exactly what he’s looking for.
There a line in your song, “Old Soul Blues,” that says “Son you gotta be dead before I save you.” What does that mean?
(Jonny) Sometimes there are sad stories, sometime there are happy stories. I was thinking a lot about religion at the time and how it’s sort of funny how people can’t wait until they die before they feel better. There’s this notion of salvation, but you only get it when you’re six feet under. It’s just sort of cuckoo. I thought thematically that was what I was trying to express in that song, which is when you are low down and out, it doesn’t always make sense.
Jeff, tell me how the recording of the bass tracks went for you on the new album?
(Jeff) I don’t want to say I am a perfectionist. I usually record with Brian and we have used the same take. Usually we are in sync and it works out really well.
(Brian) Jeff and I have jammed since we were 13. When I joined the band four years ago, the band was fucking awful (everyone laughs). I don’t know what made me stick around. Obviously I was under the influence of some type of narcotics. For some reason I could not say no to Jeff because when we play music together, there is that connection. Things got better, the music started to suck less.
Which new songs are going over well when you play them live?
(Jonny) “Liz Stone” with Carl. Holy God! He is a machine. I have never seen anybody with so much energy. “Margaret Mae” and “Natural Causes” too.
So what are some future plans for Sunshine Riot?
(Jonny) The plan is to release this record digitally, do a hard copy release. We will ship the hard copy to every indie label in America and every college radio station including Canada. We’re looking at this like a small business looking for partners. Maybe we need a record label, or maybe we handle the distribution ourselves. We also want to hook up with a national touring agency. Were trying to build this thing and make it a successful venture.
Well thanks a lot for the interview.
(Jonny) You’re welcome.
For more information and to buy Sunshine Riot's new album, visit their web site at http://sunshineriot.com/