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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

For the (Pete) Best? The Deep Cut, Part 1

(Editor's Note: What follows is part one of the full transcript from an interview I recently conducted with ex-Nocturnals bassist — and occasional Solid State contributor — Bryan Dondero, concerning his recent decision to leave the band. Excerpts of the interview appeared in today's music section (3/25). Part two will appear on Solid State tomorrow. -DB)

SEVEN DAYS: So, what the hell happened?
BRYAN DONDERO: (Chuckling) It's hard to digest what happened. I think in some ways I saw it coming. In other ways I feel like I was completely blindsided.

SD: Then this wasn't an amicable split?
BD: Not necessarily. But when is a split ever amicable? Anybody who says they split amicably is full of shit. It's never easy. It's never, "Oh, this was was the best thing that could have happened!" Bullshit. I've been thinking about that word "severance" a lot lately. I like that word, to "sever." And that's kind of how it feels.

I felt like I was put in a position where I was basically being forced to make a choice. And that's what I wrote on my website. I don't know if you saw that quote. One thing I've learned is that it's better to make a choice and make the wrong choice than to not choose and face the consequences of not choosing. That's worse.

SD: Are you worried you might have made the wrong choice by quitting?
BD: I hate using that word too. It's not quitting. It's withdrawing. It's leaving.

I started taking Aikido recently, and I've realized that withdrawing is not quitting. You know what I mean? It's a different thing. Literally the last class I was taking we doing some bokken work, the wooden sword. And the instructor was showing this maneuver that he's . . . you'll have to pardon me. I'll have to show you visually. (Stands) He was standing, and as the person was attacking him with the sword, he's doing this. (Steps back with his right leg, turning his torso) So he's withdrawing. He's moving out of the way of the sword so that it sweeps here (motions across his midsection). And this hip (pointing to his left hip) is going forward. So he looks like he's withdrawing, but his front hip is moving this way (toward the attacker). It was cool. I mean, he's like a magic Jedi, so he can hold sword here (at his hip) and then he just let his hands go and his body was holding the sword into his opponent's body. So . . . that's kind of how I feel right now (laughing). I feel like I'm doing that kind of maneuver. I'm not running and ducking. I'm not coming at anybody with a big hammer to beat the shit out of them. I'm kind of just doing that, which is sort of how it feels right now.

A lot of people have been saying the old adage, "One door closes, another door opens, blah blah blah." And I do feel that way. I've felt for a long time that I had more to offer the band that I wasn't being allowed to offer . . . but not in a Jay Bennett [ex-Wilco] kind of way (laughing). "To quote myself, my days in the Nocturnals were numbered." (Laughing) You know?

But, you know, I love Wilco. You're a Wilco man, right?

SD: (Nods)
BD: He [Bennett] got pegged out to be the bad guy in that video [I Am Trying to Break Your Heart]. And it pisses me off, because when I look back on it, there's no way in hell they would have made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot without him. No way in hell. And that video makes him look like "the villain," you know? And I don't think that's Jeff Tweedy's doing. I think that's the filmmaker realizing that's the way he's gonna show these characters. Everybody becomes a character in the story, you know? And so we're gonna make this person the hero and this person's the anti-hero. But life's never like that. And I think Tweedy knows that, obviously.

He was saying something along those lines in this new documentary [Ashes of American Flags]. They have this cool moment where Tweedy kind of sits there and it's like he's kind of come to terms with everything that's gone on in that band. He looks at the camera and he's like, "I know Wilco's been through a lot of different incarnations now. And people have come and gone. Bad things happened, people not leaving on good terms or whatever. But I love this band right now. And I'm old enough to know it might not last this way. God forbid, one of these guys might leave." But then he looks at the camera and he goes, "But please not John [Stirratt]." The only person that's been with him through the whole experience.

And that resonated. He knows exactly what he's doing right now. And I think they sound great. People piss and moan about Sky Blue Sky. And yeah, it's not the same and sometimes I like the sad, fucked up Tweedy more than the happy, dad Tweedy. The "dad-rock" thing. But that's stupid too. Let the guy be happy, you know?

There's nothing wrong with making people feel good with music. And I hate the fucking snarky hipster shit where they're like, "Meh. I want him to be depressed and on pills." Because we haven't heard enough of music like that. You've got your Joy Division, you got your . . . whatever. Go crack out on that for a while. I don't know.

His songs aren't that bad now. I don't think people are paying enough attention to the lyrics on Sky Blue Sky if they're like, "Well, he's not writing songs as powerfully as before." I'm like, well, it's different than what it used to be. But the lyrics are strong. The moments are strong. Except for that one song that annoys me because it's so dad-rock it's hilarious . . .

SD: I do the dishes, I'm . . . whatever . . .
BD: Do the dishes, yeah (laughing). It's like, you really shouldn't have done that. It's bad enough people call it dad-rock, Tweedy. What were you thinking? "I mow the lawn!"

SD: Didn't Pitchfork call that the musical equivalent of putting on sweatpants or something?
BD: (Laughing) That's good. I'm not afraid to wear sweatpants, dammit. I'm at that point in my life. If I wanna wear sweatpants I'm gonna do it! Yeah.

It's interesting. I'm a big fan of watching band documentaries. And since I started playing music full-time, I've watched a lot of them. And it's always fascinating to me, each time you go back. It's sort of like when you go back and read a poem that you read in middle school or something. And you thought you understood it. But then you go through all this shit and you re-read it and you're like, "Wow. This means something else entirely to me now." And the poem didn't change. You did. And that's kind of how I feel right now.

I look back and watch these documentaries and I can relate to some of the shit. I watch Meeting People is Easy [Radiohead] and I can relate to it. But God knows I've never gone through anything like that. But I can still feel that I've touched a little bit of that world, and it scared me. There's some nasty, messy shit going on in the music industry right now. And it's always left my gut a little bit twisted. There's a better way than going out and doing things this way. There's a middle ground somewhere. But it goes both ways.

The same thing could be said for indie labels too. It's too easy to write off all the major labels and give indie labels all the credit. They can screw over people just as bad.

My buddy's band, No Go Know, I think you reviewed them. I was supposed to go out and produce their record last spring. But that fell through because their record label was being wishy washy with them.

They're an independant label, so they didn't have a lot of money to throw around. And they're like, "We can give you $5000 to make a record." Which is, like, nothing. Beyond nothing. But for a working class band, so to speak, that's the way you've got to make a record. And you can make a kickass fucking record for $5000. You can do it for less. Some of the greatest records of all time were made for less money than that. Like the old, classic blues guys. They were dirt poor. But they made some of the most timeless music ever. And the most important music ever.

Anyway, I was supposed to help them. My buddy was scared to go back in the studio because they were like, "We don't really play well that way, and we wanted time to change the music as we want to do it. If we're paying by the hour, we're going to be nervous, we're gonna be thinking too much." Whatever. So he convinced the label at first to let them buy a bunch of equipment, record the album in their basement and then put it out. And then the equipment is the label's that they can reuse and maybe eventually build a studio or something.

So he put me in charge of the task because I had gotten really into recording and engineering and producing. And I came up with a proposal of all the gear that I thought would be the middle ground . . . as cool as it would be to get, like, vintage compressors and tape machines and all that, I said you've gotta do it on Pro Tools if you want to deliver it to a studio and have them be able to do something with it. As romantic as it is to do it on tape, you're just gonna have to do it on Pro Tools. I would love to have a studio with a nice tape machine, but it's expensive.

So, I made up the proposal and everything was wishy wasy, they weren't sure if they were going to do it. And then the label backed down and kind of screwed them over on some things, because they don't have enough money to make it work. Like, their friend was going to do artwork for the album and the label, for whatever reason, decided they were going to axe that idea. It wasn't going to market as well or . . . who knows? And I think that really hurt my buddy's feelings. And that never happened with the Nocturnals.

The album cover for This is Somewhere — it's that fantastic photo of Grace that her dad had taken. I think it's a beautiful cover and the story behind it is fantastic. And the label let Grace be a strong part of putting that together and express herself through the album art. And I thought that was cool.

You have certain freedoms because they have a budget. If they're fucking making serious money off of Miley Cyrus and shit, they can funnel all this money into helping you become a better band and produce better art. But the Catch 22 is that they're playing a game with you. They need you to work with the expensive producers. They need you to work at the expensive studios. They need you to spend half a million dollars making a record, because that way, you never recoup it. Because if you recoup the money, you start making royalties. And that's how they hold you hostage.

There's really no such thing as royalties. And I've come to learn that through all this. And from my understanding, which could be a litttle off . . . I'm not saying I'm an expert on this. But even a band like U2, they get an album advance with each album that excels what they could ever possibly make back on royalties. And then they owe that to the label. So basically, they're in debt to the label. And they keep repeating this process over and over again so that you're constantly in debt to your label. But the band doesn't give a shit. They're getting millions and millions of dollars, you know? I don't care if it's coming from royalties or if you'e just writing me checks. Who cares? You're sending me millions of dollars. But they're holding you hostage with that and it's really not a fair game when you think about it.

In my mind a lot of the enemy is that people decided that they're going to stop paying for music. And really, that fucked up a lot of things in music. It forced the music industry to get a little more "Sporanos" on artists, you know? And that's kind of why things get so fucked up. Everybody decided to go off the black market and meet someone under the Bay Bridge and get their music for free, rather than go to a mom and pop shop and buy the record. And when people decided they were going to start getting it for free from the crooks, the crooks changed their strategy and became powerful doing it that way. And it became a whole new game.

It's messed up. And it sucks to get caught in that trap. It just sucks. This is the thing that's killing music. And that's what I wanted to break out of. And I believe in my heart that there's a way to make music that matters and is cool and powerful and means something. And it doesn't have to be at some super fancy, hyped up LA studio where Alica Keys is hanging out and The Scorpions are walking around, which is litterally . . . When we were making the last record, I'm watching the lead singer of The Scorpions walk back and forth and I'm like, "This is awesome." You know? It was fun. It was great. I loved it. But I was also like, "this is fucked up. This is not how it's meant to happen."

SD: Is that what you mean when you talk about making choices?
BD: That was in my heart, for sure. And I can't lie about that. And that's been a struggle for me with this band, from the way we started out. We started out making the first record at the Goddard Hay Barn. And I was only in the band for like a month when we started making that record. And that was a really cool experience.

We were sleeping in the dorms. They let us sleep there for free. They let us record there for free. Their only stipulation was that we give them credit. "Just put it in your album that 'this was recorded at the Gooddard Hay Barn.'" So we did a nice little artwork thing that shows the hay barn, some snapshots within it. And we wrote that the liner notes. And that's really cool. It's a very Vermont thing to do.

And it was great. I mean, we were young then so the performance isn't as strong as what we've gotten to. But it's not a bad start out record for a band that's just kind of getting its feet underneath it. That was fun.

And then things started blowing up. And it was a fun ride, you know?. And honestly, I didn't expect to be off the ride so soon, you know? (Laughing) I'm pretty hurt that I'm missing out on some really fun times this summer. They're playing Bonnaroo again and the lineup this year is incredible. It's like, "Dammit!" You know? (Laughing) "I really wanted to meet Tweedy." But at the same time, I'm pretty excited to be home so I can go fly fishing. I haven't experienced a Vermont summer in about five years. So I'm pretty psyched to be here right now.



Good stuff.


"In my mind a lot of the enemy is that people decided that they're going to stop paying for music."

This cannot be restated often enough.


Thanks. Now let's talk about that studio! 8*O


THANK YOU BRYAN! well said brother...well said.


Wow. You guys are awesome. Bryan, I wish I'd gotten to know you in Burlington. What you said about artist royalties is spot on. I'm working on a set of industry principles right now that advocates for direct payment, with a limited three year term from publication of an album during which the label can recoup. And that's only if the artist decided to (temporarily) assign those earnings to the record company in exchange for extra "promotional consideration." So, even if the label owns the sound copyright by contract, any revenue collected for uses of the artist's work must be shared equitably with the artist. Meaning, they get their payment directly from a PRO, just like a songwriter does (or like the performance right for satellite radio and webcasting). Labels have been screwing artists on mechanicals since the seas were cooling. This stuff gets even more important as we transition to new models for access and delivery of music. We can't replicate the flawed structures of the old industry in the new platforms.

PS: I also agree with you and Raph about consumers and "free." it's a bit more complex than that, and there are currently a lot of different discussions about how to monetize digital content in a way that recognizes the new methods of consumption. Not gonna get into that here, tho.

Anyway, thanks for the great read and best of luck. Maybe we can all grab a beer next time I'm in town. Soon, I hope!


Bryan should write a book on the music industry.

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