A Conversation With The Early November’s Ace Enders

The first line that Ace Enders sings on Lilac, the new album from the Early November, is, “I will always be there.” It’s the introduction to blissful, effervescent opening track “Perfect Sphere (Bubble),” the kind of pop/rock song that feels like it’s suspended in mid-air, falling slowly, easily down to earth. Never again does Lilac feel as unburdened as it does on “Perfect Sphere,” but it always maintains that level of earnestness and empathy, even as it ventures into darker territory. 

“I will always be there” has been Enders’s M.O. for nearly two decades. As a solo artist (sometimes operating under the I Can Make A Mess moniker) and with the Early November, the New Jersey songwriter has rarely gone more than a year without releasing a record. For all that time, Enders has never released a song with a less-than-wide-open heart. Still, he’s never been as direct about some painful topics as he is on Lilac. On first single “Hit By A Car,” he bluntly sings, “Depression has become my old friend.” Over the course of the album, the narrator tosses and turns in bed, begging for sleep. They sink into boozy nights to avoid their troubles. On one song, Enders yells, “Where are those pills I decided to hide?/Teasing my mind.” 

Enders describes this newfound directness as therapeutic, a means of facing his own difficulties head on. “I think the reason I’m more direct is because this way there’s no hiding behind it,” he says from his Jersey studio, The Lumberyard. “It made it easier to deal with and realize that you don’t have to be perfect all the time.” 

But for all the struggle documented on Lilac, there’s a light on the horizon. The stormy “Our Choice” sways violently between pain and hope, but it lands with a fighting spirit intact: “Every morning, I will try.” The title track ends the album in a quiet, peaceful meadow, facing some morbid imagery in a kind of blissful tone: “The needle in my hand is coming down/Drilling through my chest, but its oil they found.” The poppy “Ave Maria” sails smoothly, buoyed by harmonies that ring like a choir. There’s hope to be found, hiding in the corners of these songs. 

A much more cynical and conceptual version of Lilac was finished more than a year ago but held up in the release process. “It was a very heavy album and I had built it around the idea of trying to help someone through that dark phase—and not being able to help,” he says. “It ended up that you were in the same exact position that that person was in.” The delay in releasing the album gave Enders the time to reflect and refocus the LP on pulling through it all. Now, he hopes Lilac will help others who struggle with depression or addiction to keep fighting. “At the end of the day, if it can help someone find that inner strength, that’s what’s more important to put across,” he says. 

MAGNET: I wanted to start by asking about Lilac. Can you give us any insight into the recording of the album and how the process might have been different from past records?
It actually was a very different approach. Usually when we do a record, I find whatever moment I’m in at the time and just turn out a bunch of songs. If it’s with the band, we’ll jam on it a little bit together or maybe they’d each work on it separately. That’s all usually consolidated into a month and a half. This was different because the record was done well over a year ago—it was finished twice. There were things along the road that would prevent it from being able to come out or get slated for a release date. That happening really made me think about the album, and so I just kept adding songs. I did some things I had never done with the Early November before, which was really exciting for me. I would start in the early conceptual phases of the song with a beat that would inspire a completely different type of rhythm or melody than I would naturally come up with. I would make the melody first and then I would build things off of that. It was kind of cool to see it all based around melodies instead of being like, “Oh, there’s a rock part here.” I do a bunch of co-writing with artists, and that’s usually how a co-write starts, we’ll play a loop for a half hour until it feels right and they have something that they feel good about.

What changed from when the album was initially finished?
When I first finished it, it was a really dark record. Not sonically dark, but it was just heavy. It was very much built on dark themes, inner demons and addiction and mental health and all that stuff. It’s no secret that when you’re in the music business and you have to survive on your ability to create, it makes you crazy. I think a lot of people in the music industry and any type of entertainment industry, you can sort of see how it can make you question everything about yourself, your life, all of it, all the time … After the record got held up the second time, I had been sitting on it for about a year and I decided it needed a change. It needed to go in a different direction. So now the record kind of reflects the side of pulling yourself out of it … I don’t want to contribute to the dwelling. 

I noticed some of the darkness on the record. I also noticed that you’re a little more direct than you have been in the past—some of the songs address addiction and depression by name.
Yeah, and I typically don’t do that. When I went into this, I think I hit a point in life where I felt like I couldn’t be human if I didn’t take a certain thing. I couldn’t communicate with people. I couldn’t have a normal conversation with you, I wouldn’t be able to go into a room or a co-write and be able to do anything valid to help push my career forward and support my family. For me, I think it was a big help to say, “Look, you’ve said it. You’ve put it out there.” I think it definitely helped me move forward from a lot of it. 

I also can see in the record where you sort of take that turn with songs like “Our Choice.” That’s one that, to me, is very emphatically about deciding to work through the darkness. Is that a song that came later on in the process?
That was actually the very first song that was written on the record. I was in an angry place when I wrote that song. That’s what started the whole idea of the concept to me: not being able to understand how we get stuck in these places. You can be successful and make money or whatever, but I’ve run into so many situations where mentally you’re putting up a front. Being depressed or sad always felt like a warm blanket that I could throw over me and find comfort in. When I felt like I wanted to be like, “Oh, I’m the worst and everything I do is awful.” I don’t know if it comes across like that, but there are many moments that are like me arguing with myself. It does make sense, you can be all right, and figuring that out is hard. I think that’s what I wanted to take away from this, and that’s why that song is at the back of the record. 

It feels like a turning point in the record.
I think it was a turning point in my life. If I’m looking at other songs that came after that or directly after that, including “Hit By A Car,” they all came sort of around the same time. That moment, writing “Our Choice,” it made me reflect on that turning point, and that’s why I decided to go with a conceptual theme. Originally, all of the titles were different, too. I had the titles in sequence so they formed a long sentence and you could clearly get an idea of the concept. I decided to just leave it as a loose concept and not so tight. Because I’ve done that before, making a triple disc, and I decided, “I’m not gonna try and do all that again.” 

Do you remember what the sentence was?
I do not. I have it written down somewhere, but I don’t remember off the top of my head. Like I said, that was a year ago. 

I was kind of surprised to hear that you were thinking about a concept album, since I know the band went through a whole lot while working on the triple disc.
It originally was gonna start as a double disc, and I thought, “Well, I’m saddling up again.” But then I was like, “AYou know what? I don’t think I can handle it.” I could handle it, but I have to wait. Maybe the next one, not this one, though. 

You mentioned “Hit By A Car,” which was the first song you released. It has a subtitle. What’s the significance of that?
The idea behind it is right before the last chorus, I always imagine myself laying down, and I put myself in that place and—the whole record is me talking to myself—I’m telling myself, “It could be worse.” I’m telling myself to please try and get through this for everyone. That moment right before the last chorus I always imagine myself laying on the ground right after I got hit by a car or something like that. It’s that moment of release of all of that baggage. In that song, I also talk about depression as a physical thing and tying it to myself and letting it fall to the bottom of the ocean floor. Nobody can see it, but it’s tied to me. It’s about that moment of laying there and everything goes away and you’re in that euphoric state. 

“Hit By A Car” was the first song you played live and the first one that you released from Lilac. Why did you think this would be a good introduction to the record?
I think collectively everyone—the label, the management and the band—decided that it made sense to go with this song because it attaches itself enough to what people know the band is and it allows itself to be something fresh for people who don’t know what the band is. It’s sort of an easy transition. There are some songs on the album that I know some people will be like, “Oh, that’s way more structured and chorus-heavy.” This one sort of allows it to be a bridge between both worlds. Especially coming from the last record that we did—that one, it’s like there’s not a chorus on that album. It’s all just jamming; it’s just rock. This one, I knew I wanted to do an album where I’m allowed to sing a little bit more. So this was a good bridge between the two. Because the record is noticeably different. 

There are a lot of songs on the record that are pretty different. Some of these songs pick up from where some of your solo work left off, especially Hiraeth. Does your process usually involve trying new things out on your solo work before bringing them in to the band?
You mention that record (Hiraeth), and that was just something I put out. It’s not even on a streaming service. I’ve never really released a record where I tried to do some stuff that had real choruses on it. For some reason, and I don’t know why, the Early November has just never done that. We’ve had a few of them, but never to the extent of what it is now. We had an opportunity to do it, so why not? 

So there’s a lot of emphasis on the chorus this time around?
I hate to say chorus because that’s so vague. I hate to say the more “pop” side of things, but maybe the more “fun” side of things, maybe that’s the better word for it. We never really do things that are fun, like sing-along fun. But I had this moment right before I did the last batch of songs where you’re constantly doing something that’s going to turn the wheel a little bit more for your own career. When I’m making a record, I think about it when I wake up, I think about it throughout the day when I’m working, I think about it while I’m sleeping, nonstop. Because obviously, I wanted to be able to keep going, I wanted to be able to be successful with it. I wanted to be able to keep it fresh and valid, not just going through the motions. I had this weird dream about this chorus—it sounds cheesy maybe—but I had this dream about what the chorus should feel like. It felt right and it made sense. I had the dream when I was on a trip somewhere and I came back and did the last batch of songs and finished it. 

I wanted to talk about the title track. A lot of Lilac is sort of bombastic and has a lot of different sounds, but on that song you go back to what a lot of people know you for, which is just you and a guitar. Was it a conscious decision to end on that note?
Yes. The reason it’s called “Lilac,” the meaning of that flower has to do with purity. I think that track is just supposed to be stripped down purity. It’s a very honest, open track. I thought it was a good way to cap it off.

Beyond just that song, why do you think it was important to attach that flower to the record as a whole?
I forget the exact meaning of the flower, but it basically has something to do with purity. I wanted to go with that name because while it’s alive the lilac is this beautiful thing and then it shrivels like anything else. That’s what the album meant to me at the time, back in the dark stages. It was very much about wanting to hang onto that pure moment. 

At this point, you have a few rotating members who tour with you. Who was involved with the recording of the album?
Jeff (Kummer, drums) is always gung-ho for everything. Our newest guy, Nate (Sander), who has been touring now with us for a couple years, he did all of the strings and most of the piano work. He’s an incredible musician. Bill (Lugg) still tours all the time, and sometimes he’ll play bits and pieces here and there on the album. When he has something he feels good about, he’ll step up and do it. He has great ideas. But a lot of times I’m just jamming through things when it comes to recording.

There’s a lot more trumpet on this record, kind of a throwback to the triple disc.
I know! That’s our guy Nate. He did trumpet on a ton of tracks. He was very essential when it came to a lot of the cooler things like the violin and the trumpets and the pianos. It was cool. I love having all of that stuff. I think it brings out such a personality, especially with a lot of the grander-sounding choruses. It definitely supports that and just pushes it along. 

The album pulls in a few non-musical moments too, like a breathing sound on “You Own My Mind” and a heartbeat sound on “Our Choice.” What was the thinking behind that?
The breathing one is representative of someone having an intense dream, and you’re trying to figure it out from the outside, and all you have to go off of is that breathing. The heartbeat—at the time, I was thinking of how I could give you something that makes the song feel the way it feels to me. You kind of have to focus on it because it’s not loud, it’s very low. And then when it hits, it strikes you. It’s like you’re really concentrating on something and it just smashes in, gives you a little bit of anxiousness, which is what I feel like the song is doing. 

Is there anything, music or otherwise, that inspired you while you were making this record?
I always have a hard time answering this question, I don’t know why. I listen to a lot of news and NPR all day, and it just puts me in weird places. I have records that I love and I love the way they sound, but when it comes to the inspiration of everything, I think it’s just from listening to too much of what’s going on in the world. That usually inspires me to either highlight how I’m feeling or to write about something. I try and stay active now that I’m becoming … you know, I’m not as young as I used to be. I try to stay in shape; I go to the gym at five in the morning every day, and I listen to NPR news while I’m working out, and it’s the weirdest thing to listen to while you do that. I’ll also listen to podcasts sometimes. But I never listen to music. I think it’s from too many years of extremely loud music every single day. 

Are there any songs on the record that you’re excited to start playing live?
I think “I Dissolve.” That’s one of my favorites off the record. Probably after that, I have to say I’m looking forward to playing the song “Fame.” I think that’s one of my favorites as well. They’re both these floaters that are very fun to play. 

What do you hope that people—whether they’re already fans or it’s their first time hearing the Early November—are going to get out of listening to this record?
To be at all able to impact someone’s life in one way or another—especially in a way that can help them overcome something—it means the world. So I think one thing I hope people take away from this is that it’s OK to have those dark times when you’re not sure what is right or wrong or up or down or if you’re going to make it. Hopefully what they take from this record is that it’s all right and you are gonna make it and you shouldn’t do something drastic. I think that an important theme of the record is that it’s OK to feel that way. Don’t let it destroy you, though.

—Jordan Walsh

TakeMeBack Tuesday: A Previously Print-Only Conversation With Ric Ocasek, 2005

It certainly seems like there’s a full-fledged Cars renaissance going on right now. Flip on the TV and you’ll hear “Just What I Needed,” one of the Boston new-wave outfit’s late-’70s hits, rippling through Circuit City commercials. Not too long ago, you could switch over to MTV and catch Fountains Of Wayne’s kitschy “Stacy’s Mom,” featuring a kiddie quintet dressed in full faux-Cars regalia. Check the production credits on new albums from Le Tigre, the Hong Kong and others, and you’ll see the name of former Cars leader Ric Ocasek. (He’s also produced Weezer, Guided By Voices, Bad Brains, Nada Surf, Black 47 and No Doubt.) In addition, he has managed to squeeze in a new solo album, Nexterday. Released on his Inverse imprint and distributed by Sanctuary Records, Nexterday shares the same sense of hook and melody as the Cars, though it’s matured to new-millennium vintage. The only thing halting a triumphant Cars reunion tour is the death of bassist/singer Ben Orr in 2000. Or maybe the 61-year-old Ocasek’s key creative tenet is to blame. “I made it clear a long, long time ago that I didn’t want to jump back on the bandwagon,” he says. “I prefer to live more toward the future than to revisit the past.”

I first met you on the Panorama tour in 1980. I was a cub reporter, and you invited me back to the Cars’ post-show penthouse party. While we were talking on the balcony, two geeks from a local Cars cover band scampered up to you, holding a pricey album by Milkwood (Ocasek and Orr’s earlier outfit). They gave it to you to autograph; instead, you stared at it for a minute, then tossed it over the railing. The poseurs squealed like little girls as it shattered 27 stories below.
You know, I wouldn’t have thought I was gonna remember what you were gonna say, because obviously I don’t remember every little thing. But I do remember that. In retrospect, I do feel like I should publicly apologize for doing that to those guys. But I was going through a funny thing with Milkwood, because it was old work. Sometimes the Cars would play a gig, and people would bring Milkwood albums and hold them up while I was playing, and Ben and I would look at them and think, “What the fuck? Where’s this Milkwood thing coming from? Where’d they get this Milkwood stuff?” Obviously, it was very different from the Cars. I thought it was like our skeleton in the closet. At this point, I don’t really give a shit. But at that point, I was trying to move forward, and so people bringing in old shit was just annoying. Plus, I didn’t really like the Milkwood album (1973’s How’s The Weather). So maybe tossing another one was a good move.

A writer from Rolling Stone had flown in to interview you that night, and your publicist told me not to talk to you since it was Rolling Stone’s night. You pulled me away from her and said, “Hey, kid. Switch on your tape recorder. Fuck the label; I’ll give you all the quotes you need.” I will never forget that.
Well, I don’t know how to comment on that. I mean, Rolling Stone was great and fun, but you know what I mean. We were always taking around records of Suicide and Iggy Pop and all that shit and making DJs play them on the radio or else we wouldn’t go on the station. So we had that kind of attitude when we were first going. Plus, you get kind of crazy on the road.

Panorama is the Cars’ unheralded masterpiece, where you swerved away from your patented sound into strange new directions.
In a sense, that’s true, because I did purposely try to steer that in a non-pop way. Although in retrospect, it’s still pop. But I was thinking, “I really have to try to bend this now, otherwise it’s always gonna be the same.” And so I did get a bend out of it.

Have you seen the Fountains Of Wayne video?
Yeah. In fact, I even met one of the Fountains guys—I guess it was Adam (Schlesinger)—in a studio one day, and he was a little shy about bringing it up. But they wrote me a letter and asked me if I would be in the video, and I said, “No, but good luck.” I didn’t really want to partake of it. But it was a nice tribute, a nice little thing for them to do. They used a Cars sample; it’s gotta be, because it’s exactly the same sound from that old amp of ours and that guitar. I don’t think anybody could replicate it, so I think they must’ve sampled it. But I’m always flattered if somebody’s paying some kind of homage to us.

Well, the Bravery has a synth-keyboardist who approximates the Cars’ Greg Hawkes.
That’s cool. And the Bravery were on that Cars tribute record (Substitution Mass Confusion, on Not Lame) that, I think, was really just released on the internet. But it’s really good; it’s got some really great versions. There’s, like, 20 bands on there, and a few of the versions are just phenomenal; I wish I would’ve done ’em that way. There’s a really good version (by Butch Walker) of “Best Friend’s Girl” that segues into “Magic” on acoustic. And the Red House Painters did a really good version of “All Mixed Up” (which is not on Substitution Mass Confusion).

One day in the paper, I read that Ben Orr was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A few weeks later, they ran his obituary.
That was crazy. I went to see him. He was pretty strong; I have to say that. Very strong, considering he knew very well that he didn’t have very many days to live. It was very sad. It’s hard to even comprehend, because a year before that, there was nothing wrong. So no one really expected that. To make it more sad, he had a little boy who was about four at that point, and when I went to see Ben in Atlanta, his little boy was there, too. It was sad for me, because I have kids, like, “Oh my God, the poor little kid doesn’t even barely know what’s gonna happen.” I guess I didn’t really believe it. I was asking some people around, “Well, how long do you think?” They were going, “A few weeks.” I said, “Nah. You gotta be kidding.” But there’s no way to get out from under pancreatic cancer, from what I understand. It’s a horrible thing to have.

It’s doubly sad, because the time is perfect for a Cars comeback.
If Ben was still around, I would think about it. And I agree, it would probably be an interesting and fun thing, and I love all the guys in the band. And I know a couple of guys in the band still want to do that kind of thing. Greg, Elliot (Easton, guitar) and David (Robinson, drums) are still around, and it’s been talked about over the years.

Is that why you agreed to license “Just What I Needed” to Circuit City?
Well, a lot of that money goes to the band, too. And maybe I’m a little bit better off than the band, financially, because I do a lot of other things in my life. But I got a little bit of, “Oh, could you please? We could really use it!” I kind of fell to that, even though philosophically, I really never wanted to do that. But after Dylan did Victoria’s Secret, I thought, “If Dylan’s gonna do it and Lou Reed’s gonna do it, maybe I’ll just forget about what I said 30 years ago and do this.” So I did it. Plus, Ben’s estate gets a cut.

I’m surprised that you even had time to make your new album.
I know. I did the album in the basement, really. I did it a couple of years ago, oddly enough. I was gonna release it on an indie label or via the internet, but then Sanctuary heard the record and wanted to put it out.

What is this “nexterday” of which you speak?
You know, what it sounds like: another word for “tomorrow.” It really just came from my four-year-old son, who didn’t know what tomorrow was, so he called it “nexterday.”

And you and (supermodel) Paulina Porizkova are still together.
Oh, yeah. For a good 20 years. And it’s still like we just met about two weeks ago. It was the best move, but I knew that, anyway. After a couple of marriages, I learned some stuff about me and what a marriage should be, how you co-exist with a person. So we made some rules in the beginning about this relationship, ’cause we both worked. We made sure that we didn’t grow separately because of what we were doing individually. I went with her when she worked, she went with me when I did. And we always had a very open communication: no fucking around, no lying, no calling each other “fuckhead” or “bitch.” Just a little respect for the other person. I’m speaking for her as well, but I think we’re pretty happy. We’ve got two children, and it’s pretty cool.

Is there any prime directive when signing a group to your record label?
I’m not looking for pop hits. Just some solid, real-deal stuff.

—Tom Lanham

A Conversation With Pete Yorn

After almost 20 years on various major labels, Pete Yorn is finally doing things for himself. It’s quite the feat for any “mature” artist to experience that sort of industry-financed longevity—especially these days. It’s also worth noting that Caretakers (Shelly Music) is Yorn’s most overtly catchy set of tunes since musicforthemorningafter. Even so, it’s a very different record from his 2001 debut—one more apiece with 2009’s Back & Fourth, minus that effort’s earnest indie-folk leanings. For Caretakers, Yorn got together with Day Wave’s Jackson Phillips, who nudged him in a prolific direction while encouraging him not to sweat the simple stuff—and even revel in it. The result is a wistfully introspective album that finds an effortless common ground in classic ’60s pop and ’80s new wave. Prior to heading out of Los Angeles for a vacation with his wife and young daughter, Yorn provides additional juicy details on an album that almost didn’t happen.

So how’s family life treating you?
My daughter’s going to be four at the end of this month, and it’s moving along. It’s definitely the greatest joy of my life.

From the beginning, you’ve always found interesting folks to partner with: R. Walt Vincent, Frank Black, Saddle Creek’s Mike Mogis. And there’s your side project with Scarlett Johansson.
Looking at the whole picture over the years, I prefer it when it’s me and one other person running the show, and we bring in a few people here and there. I like the tightness, and I move really fast that way. The flow I instantly got into with Jackson on this new album was reminiscent of those early sessions with Walt—getting hyper-creative and building the songs up.

How did you and Jackson hook up?
We meet at a birthday party in the fall of 2017. It was date night, and we got a babysitter. It was late, and party was way out in Malibu. My wife left, and I stayed. Things got blurry after that because we started doing shots. I met Jackson there, and we hit it off. His older sister was crankin’ my stuff when he was a teenager, and I was familiar with Day Wave. We talked about getting together at his studio in Echo Park, where all those young hipster kids hang out. [Laughs] A few months later, I went out to his house and we talked about recording an EP.

Apparently, it turned into more than that.
Before we knew it, we had more than an EP, and we were having such a great time working together, basically recording a song a day. We have 25 songs we’re really excited about, and this is just the first installment. We’d say to each other, “Let’s just keep going until we make something we hate.” And we’re still going at it.

In terms of sound and mood, there’s a unified feel to Caretakers.
It’s us playing everything—very focused. I’d typically get there at 11 a.m. Then I wanted to be home at 7:30 each night to tuck my girl in bed—and I live in Santa Monica, which is a 40-minute drive. We almost always had a new song at the end of each day. So, in that regard, it was very fast. But we worked over a long period, starting in January 2018.

Is it true that this album almost didn’t get made?
We started recording three days after I told my brother at lunch that I wasn’t looking to make any new music. I was really focused on my daughter. Then, out of nowhere, I got an email from Jackson’s team.

There is a bit of an age gap between the two of you—he’s in his 20s, and you’re in your 40s. How did that play into the creative process?
There’s this tendency—unless you really go out of your way—to listen to less and less music as you get older. Sometimes it takes a younger person to remind you about stuff you used to be into. Jackson is such a huge fan of music. If you were to ask me what his influences are, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, because he listens to so much different stuff. He’s always digging around on Spotify and those endless playlists. I remember he was playing something that reminded me of Guided By Voices, and he didn’t know that much about them. We really bonded over GBV. 

—Hobart Rowland

A Conversation With MIYAVI

As a guitarist, vocalist, actor, model and humanitarian, Japanese artist Takamasa “MIYAVI” Ishihara is a hyphenate extraordinaire, thrilling audiences worldwide with his unique and virtuosic slap-style approach to the guitar and his passionate performances in films such as 2014’s Unbroken (directed by Angelina Jolie and co-written by the Coen brothers). The 37-year-old MIYAVI shows no signs of slowing down, as he has a new LP (his 11th), No Sleep Till Tokyo, due out July 24, a summer North American tour and a role in the Jolie-starring Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil, in theaters this October.

The new album is fantastic. The lead-off track, “Stars,” seems like a quintessential MIYAVI song, with funky slap guitar, huge choruses and a synth-like 8-bit guitar lead. Your last two albums were collaborative efforts with other artists. Please talk a little about your vision for this LP. Does the title No Sleep Till Tokyo have anything to do with the fact that between recording, touring, acting and your other work, you seem like a man always on the go?
Thank you. My last two albums were collaborative projects, and it was an inspiring process to learn from such a diverse group of talented and innovative artists. As a guitarist, I have always enjoyed performing with great singers/rappers. However, for this new record, I wanted to focus on creating something 100% within MIYAVI’s world. As a Japanese artist, I have kind of been rediscovering the greatness of Japan especially after I moved to Los Angeles. Moving away gave me a new appreciation for how great and unique Japan really is. For example, I have tried to sing in English in the past but realized that I prefer to sing in my native tongue. I am encouraged by hearing songs in Spanish and Korean on the radio today. As long as a track has a high sound quality, foreign audiences are more willing to be open to your music in a different language.

In the videos I’ve seen online, your slap-guitar technique always catches people off guard; it’s so innovative. I believe you developed this style of playing pretty early on and that you might have been influenced by the sound of the shamisen. Is that correct?
Yes, I got the fundamental idea from the shamisen, which is a traditional Japanese guitar. As a Japanese guitarist, it was important to me to find my own distinct style different from any other guitarists, and so I started slapping the strings. I was also influenced by great bass players such as Marcus Miller, Larry Graham and Louis Johnson. It’s all about the passion you put into every slap. 

Your music is very original but also blends many styles from funk to hip hop to rock … I even hear some blues changes in an older song like “What’s My Name?” Please talk a bit about how you compose songs and your approach to mixing different influences together.
It’s important to evolve as an artist and to continue to challenge myself to record new styles of music. Otherwise, I run the risk of getting stuck in a box, and that would be boring.

“Butterfly,” from the new album, really grooves. I don’t think of you as an artist who writes songs for the dancefloor, but that’s probably putting your music into a box. I’m guessing you don’t think of your music as belonging to just one genre. Is that the case?
Correct. I just go with the flow. It’s all about a message and a groove. People wanna sing and dance. As a creator, it’s my job to capture the listener’s attention while relaying a greater message across through my music.

The song “Samurai” talks about “doing it like a samurai” and that it’s “all or nothing ‘til I make it.” The word “samurai” conjures up certain images among western audiences that are probably not culturally accurate. I know you are sometimes billed as the samurai guitarist. Are you talking about yourself on the track, your audience or both? And what’s the meaning behind this particular tune?
An attitude. “Samurai” is such a serious word for us Japanese, and I don’t want to use this word without any purpose. On this track, I just wanted to sing about an attitude and determination. Focus and dedication. Loyalty used to be the most important value to my people, but that’s changed. True value is always inside you, and a dedication to that life motto is the beauty of Japanese culture.

As a guitar player, you embrace a wide variety of tones from acoustic to Telecaster twang to the processed sound on your leads. Am I hearing the new Fender Acoustasonic on some of the tracks?
Yeah, the Fender Acoustasonic is an incredibly unique instrument that has both acoustic and electric qualities. When I first played the Acoustasonic, I was blown away by this guitar’s potential.  Throughout music history, there has always been cooperation between artists and guitar brands to create new tools. I really appreciate Fender’s creative spirit and the company’s desire to challenge musicians by developing innovative products. 

When it comes to percussion and beats, you’re not afraid to use acoustic or programmed drums. Is it a question of using whatever best suits the song? By the way, I love that you added in the early-’80s Syndrums on “Under The Same Sky.” So cool!
Thank you. I have been trying to make some new guitar-oriented music for the current generation. It’s hard to make rock ‘n’ roll fresh, and so I try to innovate while also paying respects to all the rock stars who paved the path for us. Now it’s our responsibility to record music that can be a bridge to the next generation. On “Under The Same Sky,” I tried to sing mostly in Japanese as a message to all my fans who have been so supportive over the years. Even if you are away from whom you love, you feel close when you realize that we are all under the same sky. Sometimes we share pictures of our skies so that we feel close knowing that we are living on Earth.

Speaking of percussion, in the more recent live clips I’ve seen, you have a pretty minimal setup with just a drummer, a DJ and backup singers. That would seem to put a lot of pressure on your guitar work, which has to cover much of the rhythm and melody parts by itself. What attracts you to this arrangement?
I’m not afraid to use any recorded track for my shows. The most important thing for me to share with the audience is passion and explosion at every single moment through a performance. I play the guitar, sing, perform, jump and dance. Everything I can do to be connected with the audience. That’s my mission every time when I hit the stage. I’m not just a guitarist. 

OK, last question. Who do you think will win in next year’s Godzilla Vs. Kong movie? It’s too bad they couldn’t find a way to bring your Kong: Skull Island character Gunpei Ikari back from the dead for the sequel!
It’s really cool to see iconic Japanese brands like Godzilla cross-over culturally. Feel free to start a petition to bring my character back from the dead!

—Bruce Fagerstrom

A Conversation With Travis’ Fran Healy

Looking back, Travis frontman Fran Healy is still in awe of the enormous U.K. love fest touched off by 1999’s The Man Who—its first kiss embodied by the Scottish outfit’s breakthrough performance at Glastonbury that same year. Craft Recordings has just released a 16-track document of the Glastonbury show, along with an expanded 20th-anniversary reissue of The Man Who, one of the finest albums of the millennium’s first decade. The Glastonbury renditions of The Man Who tracks lack some of the drama and subtlety of their studio counterparts, mainly for reasons Healy explains below. But the massive progression from the charming-yet-indistinct Britpop of its self-titled debut is evident. With help from producers Mike Hedges and Nigel Godrich, Travis locked into the vaguely theatrical loud/soft dynamic that would serve the band well for the next several years.

MAGNET touched base with Healy, who reflects on The Man Who’s 2.8 million units sold, the perceived shit show that was Glastonbury and the group’s more personal connection to American audiences.

As reissues go, the Glastonbury performance makes a nice companion piece to The Man Who.
At the time, we thought Glastonbury was shit. We thought we’d blown it. We left the stage patting each other on the back … like, “Better luck next time, guys.” And we got on our buses and went home.

Apparently, there were those who felt otherwise.
I remember walking through the front door after the show, switching on my television and hearing my name before I even had a chance to sit on the sofa. There were these two BBC Radio 2 presenters sitting around a campfire at Glastonbury waxing about how wonderful our performance was. And then they showed a clip of our performance, and I was like, “Wow, this is pretty good actually.”

What bothered you most about the show when you walked offstage?
There were two things. First, I couldn’t hear myself onstage. Imagine feeling the vibration in your throat and your teeth and your mouth, but the sound is being sucked away by the volume. It’s the weirdest feeling. When I finally got in-ear monitors, it really saved my life. Before that, I’d come offstage after every single show totally depressed because I didn’t know whether I was in tune or out of tune. It probably ruined about 10 years’ worth of gigs for me. The second thing was that it pissed on everyone. We looked at the audience and thought, “This is going to crap because it’s raining.” Everyone looked pretty miserable.

Twenty years later, what’s your perspective on The Man Who?
The Man Who was the first big comedown record from Britpop—the hangover. It introduced people to this less arrogant, more introspective sound. On our first record, there was AC/DC, Oasis, a bit of everything. But at the end of (1997’s) Good Feeling, you begin to hear what we’d become. It weaves very nicely into The Man Who.

What are a few memories that stick out from the recording of The Man Who?
We started out with Mike Hedges. We wanted to work with Nigel (Godrich), but he was recording Kid A at that point, so he was super-busy. Mike is a veteran producer who did the Manic Street Preachers and all the early Cure stuff. The stuff didn’t quite hit the ground running like we wanted it to, but we did keep the vocals from “Turn” and “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” from that session because they were really special. Then we did get Nigel involved, and the first thing we recorded, I think, was “Writing To Reach You.” I remember sitting behind him and watching him get a sound together in the studio—he didn’t even have an assistant engineer. He was soundchecking the drums with Neil (Primrose), and he’d say, “Could you hit the snare drum?’ Then he’d say, “Stop,” go move the mic about two millimeters and come back and say, “Hit it again.” He’d do this about six times until the mic was in the perfect position. Bare in mind that he did that with absolutely everything, and there was no EQ anywhere on the board—it was all mic position. I remember being like, “Wow, he hasn’t touched a single knob. He’s just listening.” Another big part of his technique is that he gets the band to play together. He records the take and tweaks tiny little bits of it. It’s all about the performance with him.

The Radiohead connection must’ve loomed large, yes?
For us, OK Computer was such a massive record, and Nigel and I were getting along really well. So it was nice having a laugh and hanging out while I was watching one of the greatest engineers who’ve ever lived.

It seems like, with The Man Who, the Travis sound came into full focus.
We weren’t really trying to go out and find a sound. But I remember opening the front door of my house in London and my two managers standing in the doorway like tax collectors. We were getting to the end of recording, and they sat down and said, “Listen, the album is quite depressing. Could you write a couple of singles?” So I went away, and the first one I wrote was “The Blue Light,” which is about domestic violence in a cul-de-sac in northern England—not really single material. But “Driftwood” did come out of that. If you have a good song to record, it will make you sound like it wants you to sound. We had those songs for The Man Who.

Does it bother you that the album didn’t do nearly as well here as it did in the U.K.?
Epic initially passed on it. Then it came out in Britain in May 1999, and three months later, we were up to 300,000 records. By Christmas, we were up to 1.5 million. Then Epic said, “Well, maybe you can come over here and try to do this thing.” In the UK, Travis became so fucking massive so quickly. One in six households had The Man Who, and the press hated us because we were so massive. We were getting played too much on the radio. We came to America almost a year later. But the interesting thing is that we never crossed over. We were this little island that a lot of people clambered onto to get away from Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears. Our career in England should’ve been what our career was in America. I’m not complaining—don’t get me wrong. But we reside in a really nice locale in America. People were desperate for something that wasn’t shit in the late 1990s, and we were lucky and honored enough make that record.

—Hobart Rowland