First, congratulations on Heart Like a Levee. It is a fantastic album. I’m sure I’m not the only one to say it’s one of my favorites of the year. Can you talk about how you came to be involved in the project? Band leader Mike Taylor uses a bit of a rotating cast for Hiss Golden Messenger and often performs solo under the name. I’m curious about when you came on board and what role you’ve played in the band over the years.
I got involved in 2012. That’s when I met Mike. My old roommate was a guy up here named Grayson Currin. He’s a music writer at a bunch of different places, so we always had a bunch of music playing in the house. At some point he brought me over a copy of Poor Moon and said you gotta listen to this record. You’re gonna love it. And of course I was obsessed with it. And then my brother Phil went to see Mike play a show and sort of confronted him and said hey, my brother and I would love to play with you sometime. And Mike was like, great, let’s do it next week [laughs].
So we got together, and from that moment on, it’s been a natural hang. I started managing Mike right before he did Lateness of Dancers – I tour-managed a little solo tour he did around that time. And at the end of that tour we decided we should work together more formally. When he started working on Heart Like a Levee, he asked if I would be more involved with the production. I don’t really consider myself a full-blown manager. There are two guys I manage and I’m not looking to manage any more. But I love working on records. So if I can work on Mike’s record but stay behind while they go out and tour it, I feel very connected to it still. I’ll sometimes tour with them, I sometimes won’t. Scott Hirsch, who produced the first five Hiss records and plays bass, is coming back to pick up for me in the Fall. So I won’t be on tour with them anymore, but it’s a really healthy, cool, open-door kind of band in that way.
Merge’s promo for Levee features a heartfelt note, written by Mike, about how he started writing these songs in hotel rooms on the road while away from his family. It’s clear that these songs started with Mike by himself, missing his family. How did that carry over to the studio? Did Mike bring a bunch of fully-baked songs that he’d worked up on the road, or was it more collaborative than that?
It was pretty collaborative. The nice thing about Mike is that he really knows what he wants. He knows his music and the music he makes is so his own. Hiss Golden Messenger is Mike Taylor.
But everybody else who jumped on was there to figure out how to make it better for him. And I think a lot of us just love that music and have spent a lot of time playing together. You know, it’s an older band. For how relatively new the momentum is behind it, everyone in this band has been on tour for over a decade. Our new drummer, Darren Jessee, for example, has played in Ben Folds Five and Hotel Lights, which are both long time North Carolina bands. So I think everyone knows how to fall in line and just get behind Mike. Sometimes he’s looking for feedback and sometimes he’s just like I know what this song can be but I need some help putting it together. A song like “Ace of Cups” was a little more collaborative. Phil and I helped establish a map and a bridge, but Mike brought all the changes. But a song like “Heart Like a Levee,” when he showed Phil and me that song, it was already almost exactly like what you hear on the record now. He had almost completely managed that song by himself in his basement.
We did more collaboration in the demo-ing than anything. He would come over to my house – I’ve got a studio in my backyard. And Mike would come over every day and we would work on it. Some days I would go out there and hang out with him. And other times I’d just let him work through what he was working through. He is really clear about when he needs help and what he’s looking for. He’s really clear in that capacity.
You live in Durham. You moved to Raleigh from Wisconsin over 10 years ago. With all the great musical communities on the East Coast (Brooklyn, Nashville, Athens, DC, etc.), how did you choose Raleigh?
Ignorance. Total and complete ignorance. We had no idea why we picked here other than the weather. It was Justin [Vernon, of Bon Iver] and me and my brother and his wife Heather and a friend of ours Keil Jansen (who now runs Ponysaurus brewery in Raleigh). The five of us when we were 23 or 24 said let’s just move. We all made separate lists of cities we’d want to go to, and everybody, unexplainably, had Raleigh or Durham on their lists, even though nobody had ever been here before. We knew nothing about it. We were not hip to Merge Records. We didn’t know why we all thought that was cool, but for whatever reason, we decided to come down here and check it out. A week later we drove down and hung out for a week. We didn’t know anyone. Didn’t know anything. We just loved the vibe. It was in February when we did that, and it was beautiful here. The weather was so bad in Wisconsin, and we were all just like, let’s move here. You can do this drive in a long day.
We would have gotten lost in one of those bigger cities. We were going to get lost anywhere else. You can see it now with Justin. All of us kids that grew up in Wisconsin, the one thing we all shared, is that we recognized the need for creative space. And when we were younger we would practice all the time, but we wouldn’t really play shows. We didn’t need that kind of feedback. We all really just wanted to get better. And we felt like if we moved to a place like Nashville or San Francisco or Los Angeles, we’d have to work too hard to keep up. We just wanted to do our own thing and keep going at our own pace. And Raleigh/Durham is the perfect place for it. We’re still working at it too. We’re still here, and I still feel like I’m getting my ass kicked every single day by the musicians in this community. Friends of ours. I don’t know what cosmic reason it was that brought us here, but it hasn’t stopped. We haven’t stopped growing and being challenged. We keep finding awesome ways to do stuff.
Who did you fall in with? Did you make any connections with musicians when you got here?
No. We just got so lucky. Do you know Grayson?
No. I’m a huge Pitchfork fan and love what he’s doing with all the HB2 stuff in Raleigh, but I don’t know him.
Well he’s a huge personality and music nut. Ironically, when we first moved here, the place we ended up renting was right by Schoolkids Records in Raleigh. It was the first place I walked into. I’d worked at a record store in Eau Claire. I’m kind of the record store guy from our crew growing up. So I thought why don’t I just start there. I got hired and the first shift I ever worked was with Grayson. So he was like the first friend that I made here.
We got caught up to speed real quick because in a way he knew every single piece of the scene here historically. He helped me understand Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Polvo, The Rosebuds, Dex Romweber. He really helped us orient ourselves within this scene. And then I think it just all came together after that. We eventually met the Rosebuds and they were a huge help. Both Justin and I played in that band for a while. That’s where we met Matt McCaughan, who now plays in Bon Iver and has played in Hiss for the last two years. So we still work with him. Through them we met Merge and I got to know Mac [McCaughan] and Laura [Ballance] over the years. It was all so organic.
The thing about Megafaun is that we were never really in the scene. We’ve really just been able to follow the music the entire time we’ve been here. That’s been really healthy for us. It’s why we have relationships with different people like Chris Stamey and American Aquarium. Mandolin Orange. All these friends of ours. There are no scene politics, and that’s a really cool thing to be a part of. It’s been really organic. Everyone’s just been really open and really cool. I couldn’t imagine trying to do that in one of those bigger cities. We would’ve gotten killed. We are far too sensitive [laughs]. I think we’ve all toughened up a bit, but when we moved here, we were all too sensitive.
Your band at the time was DeYarmond Edison, and Justin Vernon was a member. He famously moved back to Wisconsin, but the rest of the band decided to stay in Raleigh. Why?
Joey [Westerlund, Megafaun drummer] actually moved to Los Angeles. But for Phil and me, once we got here, everything made sense for us. The way the people are down here, the culture, the South. It’s so great. Our parents moved down here after we did. Our entire family uprooted and moved. My parents had lived in Wisconsin for 40 years, and they packed it all up to move here. I think there’s something to be said for that. We’re all happy down here. You can’t choose your circumstances or where you’re born. People ask us how we ended up down here, and I don’t know. It’s the most cosmic thing that’s ever happened to me. I literally can’t imagine anything being different. We all met our wives here, met all of our great friends here. Every part of our life that is so rich. I miss our friends from Wisconsin, but that’s why we go back. It’s wild.
Justin needed to get back. And it’s worked out for him. He can break open any door and we can follow him if we want. He has taught us so much because that dude is world class.
It’s big day for him today too. I really like his new record. It’s challenging but it’s phenomenal. His records are so emotional. Sometimes I can’t listen to them. Sometimes I want to tune out a little bit more and you can’t really do that with him.
He gets you. This record especially. He worked on this one for a long time. It was one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever seen. That guy puts himself into a record. He’s not afraid to confront the things that make him uncomfortable or insecure. But he’s also not afraid for that to be a very public thing. But there’s no motive for that man other than the drive to be better. I think for all of us that have seen that from the backside, no amount of success or celebrity or any metric outside of personal satisfaction will work for him. The only thing he wants to do is make a small group of his old friends stoked. And he wants to be stoked.
His music is for everyone and he’s an insanely inclusive person, but he does not buy into the ideas of the culture that come with [celebrity or success]. I think that’s been really important for everyone, and it’s happened for long enough now that a lot of us aren’t motivated by success or money or fame. He’s enabled us to be more free. I think Phil and I are so fortunate to learn that from Justin because he’s an incredible leader in that regard.
You also manage William Tyler, another amazing musician who released an excellent album this year (Modern Country). It also is one of the year’s best, and I suspect that 22, A Million, Heart Like a Levee and Modern Country will all show up on most of the major Best of 2016 lists. I was curious to hear your thoughts on yearend lists. Do they enter your mind when you’re making a record? Does approval from critics affect your view on the success of a record?
Not even in the least. There’s only one thing I think of when I make a record. Fundamentally, I just want to make sure that whoever has their name on that thing feels as good about it as anybody in the room. It sounds weird to say that your favorite band should be your own band, but I genuinely believe that. There’s a healthy way to approach that and just be confident in what you do and who you are and what you have to say. That’s what really makes people singular in this world.
It would have been easier to try and reverse engineer the things that make a good song, but I look at someone like Justin and I don’t understand a lot of his work…and I’ve been playing with him for 20 years [laughs]. His thing is so his own, and you can take anything you want from it, but the experience is so emotional and so real because he knows it and it comes from such a real place. That’s all I ever think about with a record. With William, with Mike, with Justin. I just want those guys to be pumped. I want them to feel like they’re making music that’s really their own and reflects who they are. We don’t consider any other variable.
I want people to make something that they’re proud of and they can go back and listen to. I learned that a lot of different ways, I’ve played in a lot of sessions on a lot of different records, especially in the last 4 years. I’ve probably worked on 60 records during that time. And you start to learn what does and does not make a good vibe or a good record in a recording studio. And apart from your own competence on your instrument, energy is everything. You hear people say the best sounding record is the best sounding band, and I think you should chase that. Get a good song, get some good musicians, get a good recording. That’s the best you can do.
One of the main things we’re trying to do at Cream Puff Records is to turn people on to songs/records/artists/labels that they may not have heard of before. Can you recommend an unsung record or band you think people should hear?
There is a record by this cat named Al Anderson. It’s a self-titled record released in 1972. He was a member of NRBQ. I just got turned on to this record and it’s killing me. It has all my favorite things about my brother’s music and Justin’s and all the music we grew up listening to. Like Paul Pena and early Ben Harper. That record is killing me.
There’s also a record coming out next week, the same day as Hiss that I’m obsessed with. This guy Brent Cobb from Nashville. His cousin is Dave Cobb [the producer of recent records by Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton]. That record is killing it. Great record. Great songs. Great studio.
Despite your success with popular bands, you’ve spent some time recording with underground and avant-garde or experimental labels. I’m thinking of your participation on a couple of Three Lobed projects and Appalachian Excitation, the Arnold Dreyblatt/Megafaun release on Northern Spy. How does the underground inform your approach to performing in and managing bands? Is there a current underground band or artist that you think folks should learn more about?
It’s interesting. I was into very weird music very early. When I was a kid, it was the way I would combat ADD and boredom. I was constantly digging in the middle of nowhere. I found guys like Jim O’Rourke and the Chicago music scene. Through that we stumbled upon Arnold Dreyblatt, because Jim had done a record with him in the 1990s and played some shows with him. So when I was working in record stores, that was something I was fascinated by. I was really into the fringe. I wasn’t as excited about the middle. I was just excited about weird stuff.
But as time has gone on, I’m less into it. There’s still people that get me, but I’m not listening to it as much. Joe [Westerlund] is a lifer advocate for the underground and the experimental. Joe and I always shared that and we would do improv shows in Wisconsin. It wasn’t fashionable in any capacity. We were just really into it. We just loved being on the edge. Megafaun lived on the edge. Half our shows were total disasters because we let it go there. We weren’t afraid to see where the night went, or where we went.
I think you get a lot of your system, though. I got older and I wanted more focus. Willy [Tyler] and I listen to weird stuff on tour all the time, but I go in and out. At this point, I understand it and I appreciate it more than I actually participate or listen to it. With that said, our friend Tom Wincek, who just went on tour with William, is making some of the most compelling laptop music I have heard in a very long time. He has this step sequencer that spits out these algorithms and he feeds it all this information and it’s crazy sounding, but when you hear it, it’s like watching somebody assemble a whole dance track out of field recordings. But it ends up sounding beautiful and powerful and full spectrum sounding.
Speaking of Megafaun, what’s the state of the band? Is there any chance y’all will bring the band back anytime soon?
Yeah actually. I think we’re gonna host a big party here in the Spring. That’s the beauty of that band. Phil and I are obviously brothers, and Joey is just a huge part of our lives. When we were in Megafaun, we never wanted to fight our creative impulses. At some point, we all felt like we needed more space to pursue other things. We’ve actually done a few shows in the last few years. We just haven’t announced them. When we feel like playing, we’ll play here but we won’t take any money for it. We just do backyard shows for our friends. But we’re gonna host this big show in the Spring and be the house band for a bunch of special guests. It will be a benefit show. That’s the vibe at this point. Just to keep it healthy.