MEB: You guys ended 2011 on a bit of a down note. A Lot Like Birds was supposed to tour with Dance Gavin Dance after releasing Conversation Piece, but when that got cancelled you guys kind of lost some stream from the release.
Kurt Travis: Honestly, yes you’re right, it did kind of slow down the momentum because the record came out and then we were supposed to go right out on tour after that. But in terms of internal band stuff, we weren’t really even ready to go on that tour. We didn’t have a van, our Kickstarter wasn’t done yet. Obviously we would have made it happen; we would have had to rent a van and it would have been tough because the guarantees were not good at all for us, which is understandable. We’re a brand new band. This time around, these tours that we’re having now are much better in terms of where we were at when that tour was announced and then got cancelled. We still get to go on tour with Dance Gavin [Dance], and all the DGD fans who wanted to see what was going on with me and the new band, they still get to do that.
Unfortunately it’s not a full U.S. [tour], but I feel like everything worked out for a reason. Of course we were bummed when it was like, ‘Aw shit,’ Jonny [Craig] got in trouble or whatever, got arrested, things couldn’t go. I’m glad we had that time to kind of polish up our act and get everything that we needed to do in order to go out and tour. Yeah, we lost a little bit of momentum, but dude the shows that we’ve been playing… 50 to 70 kids, but those 50 to 70 kids are so excited and so happy that we are there to play for them. And really that goes way farther than bigger guarantees, bigger tours, etc.
Ben Wiacek: As far as internally in the band, there was definitely a period of depression. We were all super bummed. None of us were really working at the time, I had to move back in with my parents, and shit just started hitting the fan. I was in this weird state of limbo all of a sudden. At the same time, it was a blessing in disguise.
How is this headliner with Decoder and Just Like Vinyl going for you guys?
Mikey Franzino: It’s going really well. We’re doing way better in merch than we anticipated. We were expecting to barely be making it to the next venue and worried about what we were going to do for food, but we’re coming out on top. Management is super proud of us. There’s been nights where there’s only thirty kids and we’re thinking this is gonna suck, but those nights are almost the better nights for merch. Those thirty kids were there for us, they knew all the words and were dancing. There’s been one bad night on this tour and it wasn’t even terrible.
Conversation Piece came out just a few months ago. How has the reaction to the record hit you guys?
Ben: What’s really cool is nine out of ten reviews have been nothing but praise, they just love it. It’s been really exciting to see, especially when the music industry has been jaded with the same thing coming out over and over again. It’s cool that people see us as a breath of fresh air and something that kids can listen to and enjoy as opposed to following us because we’re all pretty or something like that.
Kurt: All of our reviews have been really good. MEB has been really cool to pick apart the musicianship as far as dissecting our sound and everything. We didn’t really know what to expect. I thought we put out an amazing record, but who’s to say if people are going to respond the same way? It was a big relief to see that there are kids out there who are getting into our music and making us feel good about the hard fucking work that we put into this. There’s shit on this record that I have never done on any other record. I tried it and it worked and I was very, very happy, you know – constant progression from everybody. And even from Plan B to Conversation Piece, there’s different elements. The old die-hard fans, the old hipster, indie kids, they’re like ‘You guys sold out!’ and it’s like no man, we’re still playing the music that we wanna write and there’s nothing that is influencing us to sacrifice this or that to be more successful. We did exactly what we wanted to for this record.
How important would you say the chemistry of the members in A Lot Like Birds is to the output of Conversation Piece?
Ben: What I really like is that all of us came from different bands; every one of us has a different background. Mikey and I have a really cohesive guitar style. He’ll come up with a majority of the guitar parts and I’ll write stuff as well but it’s always easy for me to adapt to. It makes it that much more enjoyable to be in a band; while I might just be playing stuff that I don’t like, instead I’m getting to play things that Mikey wrote and I really like and I get to play stuff that I wrote and really like. It works out really well.
Mikey: It’s awesome playing with musicians who get me and I get them. Like with Joe [Arrington, drummer], we’ll sit down and jam, and it’s really easy to make music with him. We’ll sit down and make music for hours to a projector screen and riff off each other. He’ll even write guitar parts himself and just hum something and I’ll mimic it on guitar. Everything Ben’s ever written is the perfect icing to any cake that’s ever going on.
Kurt: The relationship between me and Corey [Lockwood, vocals] is the closest relationship that I’ve had to anything. We pretty much do the same thing -we’re both lead vocalists- and with that comes a certain ‘I’m the frontman, no I’m the frontman,’ and that’s what I’ve seen in past bands that I’ve been with. But when it comes to this, Corey is confident in what he does; he’s a fucking genius. He’s the smartest kid ever, I mean it goes for the whole band. This band is very smart at what they do, but between me and Corey – there was no snag, you know what I mean? There was no wall that we hit. Everything, even the recording process, I was there when he was recording vocals and I would tell him ‘Think this or do it like that’ and vice versa. Corey would be like, ‘I really like that take, but I want you to have more passion in this part.’ We’re both coaches, we give and take and give and take the whole time. I couldn’t be happier with another singer right there with me, because he’s confident in what he does, he’s not insecure. He has no, ‘Oh shit, it’s Kurt’ or whatever. It’s the same thing with both of us. We’re one person, we scream and we sing and it’s like we’re one entity. And I’ve never felt that in another band, and I’ve been in bands with two singers and what not and it’s almost like you’re battling against the other guy and it shouldn’t feel like that. It feels like me and Corey have a great chemistry.
When I have this idea, like I have this line and I can’t finish it, it takes him like two seconds to come up with something. I could not have thought of anything better for that. I try to help him out sometimes, but Corey is just a lyrical genius. He’s above and beyond the literature side of the music that we play. There’s a lot of spoken word on our record, I wrote some spoken word shit, and he did as well. Just, everything he says is so deep and relatable, I feel like that has a big to do with the success that we’re having. You can relate to Corey’s lyrics. I have a bit of a different style, I like to go a little bit more heart on my sleeve; this is how I’m feeling. There’s no ego in the way, there’s no insecurity between us.
Ben: It’s cool to see how much inspiration they receive from each other. I’ve been in a band with Corey prior to this band I’ve known him the longest. Corey’s always wanted to sing and seeing him branch out and sing and do backup vocals live is cool to me because I’ve watched this guy grow a lot. It’s all been a lot of help because of Kurt. And Kurt’s been around a lot of the time but you can tell the inspiration is rubbing off on him too with lyrical writing and the spoken word stuff and just feeding off of Corey.
Kurt: I am being influenced by Corey and it’s beautiful. His style of writing and my style of writing are similar but different, but as much as I give to Corey he gives back to me and we’re both learning from each other.
As far as writing and recording is concerned, what would you say were some of the bigger challenges you tackled with an album as dense as Conversation Piece?
Mikey: The hardest was at the point we got a date to record the record – it was a month and a half away from where we were. We only had five of the songs completely written. We had ideas for everything else but they were just ideas. We had to crunch down super hard. I was working at Thrift Town and there would be nights I would get off of work and go home and stay up all night on my computer and just try to work something out and bring it to the guys, like ‘I hope this sounds good.’ And then even in the studio, we had a month to do it.
Kurt: It was like three weeks to write the record that was going to be there forever.
Mikey: Especially for me, because I like adding lots of layers. I like making lots of little artistic additions to a record. It was really hard trying to fit all of those little ideas, like adding strings, adding horns. I love having orchestral elements and alternative percussion. There’s a lot of stuff we wanted to do and I think we really accomplished it for everything that really needed to be there. So we were satisfied with that.
Kurt: There were a lot of vocal techniques that I tried to do on previous records, with Dance Gavin Dance, where I tried them in the studio and they weren’t coming out the way that I wanted to so I had to say ‘fuck it, let’s do something else.’ I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m very comfortable with Kris Crummett [producer] now; this is like the third record I’ve recorded with Kris. We work very well together, and efficiently with the amount of time that we have.
When I say that there is shit on this record that I have not been able to do, I would try a lot of projected falsetto stuff that I couldn’t pull off on any Dance Gavin Dance records and I was able to do it beautifully on this record. I would do a lot of layering techniques, like a full voice of something, put a layer of regular falsetto on it but then a projected falsetto on top of that. I did a lot of octave melodies to where I would do the high and the low and then a projected full voice of the high again, and the mix of those three tracks, it just makes it sound huge. I’ve been trying to do that for a long time and I couldn’t do it. On this record, that’s exactly what I did – I accomplished it. I was also tapping into different vocal styles, like I love Cedric [Bixler-Zavala] from Mars Volta, I love Chris [de Cinque] from Closure in Moscow. I really wanted to do some of his vocal style. A lot of people say, ‘Is that you? It doesn’t sound like you,’ but it’s totally me. I was trying to channel somebody else’s voice through my voice, and I feel that I accomplished that. Progression baby, we’re always trying to progress. Every record is supposed to be an improvement over the last record. Conversation Piece is an improvement over any other record I’ve done. I want to continue to do that.
Mikey: It was very different writing with two vocalists in mind. I had been used to for a couple of years writing instrumental music with the instruments being the main driving force and all the main melodies not being written on guitar. They would be handed to the saxophone. There was one guitar solo on Plan B; I handed all those solos to sax. Writing verses was something new to me; typically it was just one flow idea. This record was much more structured to bring back melodies and incorporate them so that the song was cohesive. There was much more effort to make the guitar tasteful and subtle as opposed to flashy and in your face, it was more just an avenue for the vocalists.
Ben: There was one part in particular that Mikey wrote that I was supposed to play in the studio that I had never done before until I was sitting in front of Kris Crummett and it was kind of nerve-wracking. It was this part where I had an e-bow and a slide, and I had used each of them before separately, but this part I had learned the notes and I put it together in my head but it took me a few tries to make sure it sounded nice.
Kurt: You guys have recorded before, but I just want to reiterate how meticulous Kris Crummett is with takes. You could do it perfectly and he’ll be like, ‘Um…….. I want you to do it again,’ and you’re like what?
Ben: You were fast on that one little fraction.
Kurt: His ear is so good and so in tune. And that’s what you want when it comes to a producer or a sound engineer or whatever. You want that shit to be absolutely perfect. To the musicians, it’s like, ‘C’mon man, can’t you just doctor that shit up?’ and he totally could have bent one of your notes. He totally could have auto-tuned one of my high notes so I didn’t have to do it twenty fucking times. He’d rather have it bam, raw.
Shifting a little bit over to your solo stuff Kurt, you’re releasing an EP through Doghouse Records. How did the whole solo thing come about?
Kurt: It’s kind of a funny story. I got kicked out of DGD, and then I went on tour with the guy who replaced me in DGD, Jonny Craig. I was really bummed out; I was having fun because I was still on tour but it wasn’t the same. One of the bands, I think they were called The Divine, they were supposed to be on that tour and they dropped off and Jonny said, ‘Dude, you’ve got some solo stuff, right? Why don’t you just open up for the tour. Well, I can’t pay you but you can play if you wanted to.’ And I jumped at the opportunity. It just so happened one night, David Conway, our label exec, saw me play solo and pretty much is the reason why we’re doing all of this shit right now. He signed A Lot Like Birds without any music. He sent us a contract without a demo. And then when we gave him a demo, it was an eight-minute fucking song. Extremely unmarketable (laughs). Still he said, ‘I love it, let’s do it.’ I feel like David had a vision of what he wanted to do with me and A Lot Like Birds, and it was really cool.
I’ve been sitting on this solo music… for years dude. The shit that I’m putting out now, I wrote five years ago. With the exception of a couple songs. I’ve been sitting on music for a long time and I’ve shown it to plenty of influential people and nobody wanted to back me but David. He gave me a shot and because of all of this, everything kind of snowballed. Artery is involved now, and I have a solo tour coming up right after this tour. All of this shit happened because I took a Jonny Craig tour doing backup vocals, guitar and piano and it just puts things in perspective for me. Like if I hadn’t done that, who knows what I’d be doing right now? After the ALLB record was out, my day-to-day manager Aaron Poletti from Artery said ‘David Conway is doing this cassette series, putting out 200 copies of cassettes. It’s not just going to be you, it’s gonna be La Dispute, Young Statues.’ I think even The Get Up Kids are doing one. He wants to do Hot Water Music, like some new shit or some b-sides stuff or whatever. Obviously as soon as I heard this, I said of course. So Aaron asked if I had songs and I said ‘Fuck yeah, I got songs. They’re all pretty much written on my Macbook.’ Doghouse loved the songs; they said they were going to remaster them and put it out on cassette. I think I might be able to record two songs before all of this comes out, songs I’ve had written but haven’t gotten around to recording. So my buddy Dominic Bicetti, he recorded the two songs that I did – one of them was the title track “Wha Happen?” and the other was “How Are Things?” He did a great job, we recorded it in his room and they sound awesome. I couldn’t be happier about the things that are going on with A Lot Like Birds and the solo stuff as well. I’ve been trying to get this music out for a very long time, years and years. It’s just hard for a singer-songwriter or solo artist to get somebody behind you and push your music, and David is behind it and I’m just so thankful that it’s all going down.
How does your music separate itself not only from what you’re doing with A Lot Like Birds, but the whole singer-songwriter, frontman-going-solo thing in general?
Kurt: For one, I didn’t write this music for anybody else but myself. It’s the same thing with A Lot Like Birds, but let’s face it, I joined A Lot Like Birds because for one, they’re an amazing fucking band, very talented. The drummer, Joseph Arrington, is a hell of a drummer, one of the best drummers I’ve played with. But in the back of my head, I knew this music was cohesive enough that if my fans from Dance Gavin Dance were wondering what I’m doing, I don’t want them to come listen to my shit and it’s like Yoko Ono way out in left field, being hella weird. With A Lot Like Birds, this is the band I wanted to be in – for that energy, that loud sound that I really like, and the fans who want to hear me sing like that – at the top of my range, balls to the wall. So I wanted that aspect of my career, but for me my solo stuff is just self-therapy. I throw everything down and I have no walls up at all. It’s just me pouring myself out through music. That’s the difference. I love my solo stuff and I love A Lot Like Birds. I do like a lot of softer music and vocal harmonies and stuff like that. And I wanted to have those aspects in my career. So I’ve always been recording and writing without any real knowledge of how I was going to make a career out of it.
What is the plan as far as splitting time between your solo stuff and A Lot Like Birds?
Kurt: A Lot Like Birds is our main band. Corey has a side-project, called First Place Science Project, and it’s awesome. It’s like a hip-hop thing. He’s just screaming his lungs out on cool-ass hip-hop beats. And it’s awesome because he can pronunciate so well, but strain that voice and give it that edge. I’m sure there’s gonna be other projects in the band.
Ben: Joe and Butter [Michael Littlefield, bass] have been doing projects together with other artists in Sacramento for a couple years now. They record with everybody. People you wouldn’t expect, like Autumn Sky, they’re recording currently with Damien of The Speed of Sound in Seawater for some really epic project that I’m really excited to hear. But me and Mikey aren’t doing anything. We should do a project man (laughs).
Kurt: What I’m trying to say is A Lot Like Birds is the main squeeze. It’s the priority that takes over all of our lives. But I feel like if there’s any sort of downtime, I still wanna be active and be creating, writing and playing shows and this is the avenue that I get to do this. This is our band. Everybody works so hard to do this, and I have a lot of faith in this, the product that we’re selling, the creativity we’re bringing to people. Like yeah my solo stuff is exciting and it’s poppin’ off and that’s great, but I want to give A Lot Like Birds priority.
Not too long ago you posted the winning video for your lyric video contest. How stoked are you to see something that crazy get made for this band?
Mikey: It took him six hours for six seconds.
Ben: His name is John Howe. He’s from the U.K., and he’s just an awesome fan. He actually did a video for us as a joke a long time ago for a song called “How I Parted the Red Sea,” it had these cats running around. He blew us out of the water.
Kurt: He poured his heart and soul into that video. He deserves what goes along with that contest and more. To dedicate yourself to doing something like that is awesome. He blew everybody out of the water. There was no other person who came even close.
Ben: That kid’s gonna have a career for sure.
Kurt: The fact that some kid is going to work that hard, I want to try and put that video out wherever we can. We went to a venue and there was a projector on the back and we were like, ‘Dude, let’s sync up the music to the video,’ like that’s going to fucking work (laughs). You know? We definitely don’t take that shit lightly, it’s amazing that that kid did that. You do something like that, you’re going to turn some heads. I hope he gets as much exposure as we do for it.
You guys also are holding a remix contest through Mind Equals Blown. What have you heard so far from what people have made for that contest?
Kurt: You know, we’re extremely critical (laughs) just because it’s our stuff. There’s been some cool remixes.
Mikey: The thing is, and maybe this will reach some kids, is that I feel like we need to release our time signatures as well (laughs). A lot of kids are remixing our songs that are in 9/8 or 9/4 and they’re doing it in 4/4. Some kid did a little ditty of Sesame Street using Kurt’s voice that was cool. We also have some friends who are going to be working on it, and we’re super stoked to hear what they have.
Kurt: My girlfriend’s dad teaches at this ProSound engineering school called Pinnacle, and he said he’s gonna do a remix too just for the hell of it. I’m excited to hear it because he is as legit as it gets. He teaches that shit. I’m really excited to hear what he can actually do with it.
What are you hoping people will take away from Conversation Piece?
Kurt: I just want them to know how much work and passion we put into it. I want them to feel the energy that we’re feeling. A lot of people are getting it which is awesome. I want people to listen to our record and when it’s done, I want them to say, ‘These guys are really passionate about what they are doing.’
Mikey: I’ve said this before, but I hope people are half as moved listening to it as we were making it.
Ben: I’ve always kind of gone with this mindset that I want to be inspirational to people through music or through my actions. I really believe that if you lead by example then people can follow that, adapt and work. Since people are really as fascinated as they are, it’s really something they are taking to heart. We’ve been getting a lot of praise at shows, like they’ll say this is the only thing they’ve been listening to for the past two months. That really reaches me.
Kurt: It keeps us going.
Ben: Like if we got up on stage and played our hearts out for a half hour, forty-five minutes and kids were just crossing their arms we would just be so depleted. But fortunately every experience we’ve had on this tour, leading up to this tour and recording has been positive.
Kurt: Kids are singing lyrics, going nuts. They hear the trumpets starting in “Vanity’s Fair” and they go fucking apeshit. It’s like three or four kids who know everything. That’s the whole reason why I’m doing this shit.
Ben: I remember watching a documentary where Henry Rollins was touring with Black Flag and they played a show at a bar in some bum-fuck town and one dude showed up and he was throwing a fit like, ‘I’m not going to play this show, there’s one dude,’ and the guitar player said, ‘You know what, this one kid came out here to see you, so you fucking perform your ass off,’ and he said ‘You’re right.’ It’s not about all the fans you’re getting or all the fame, it’s about doing what you wanna do and being passionate about it.
Kurt: We know that this tour isn’t going to be a humongous tour. But we’re doing a great job sowing the seeds. I know that that shit is going to pay off.