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INTERVIEW: ’90s alt-country staples The Linemen

Hi guys, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

KJ: Very well, thanks. Happy and busy.

JG: Great, thanks. It’s been a long time since I was a principal member of a band with a release, and it’s very exciting.  I honestly love all of the tunes on the record, and it’s really interesting to see which ones are getting some traction.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single, “Close The Place Down”?

KJ: We accomplished a couple of really nice things with that song. We captured it live, a tough thing to do with a delicate performance. We all fell into the moment, and it just happened. I’m thrilled to open the record with a quiet one—have never done that before and it was a secret fantasy.

Antoine Sanfuentes, our drummer, worked with the recording engineer Andy Taub to create a really interesting kick drum setup for that particular song. It’s the first thing you hear when you put the needle down on Side One.

JG: That’s one of my favorites, just a beautiful tune by Kevin. Probably the most melancholy song about requited love I have ever heard, which makes for a great contrast between form and content. We did it in slow-mo-burn mode, with the depth of the emotions emerging as if from a dream.  We gave it a lot of space in the arrangement to suit the vibe.  I had bought a nice Gretsch 6120 a few months before we recorded and it became an integral part of how the songs evolved, not just sonically but in the way I approached the tunes. The solo on this song is a good example.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

KJ: I had one of those rare nights a few years ago, where you’re with someone you’ve found you like more than just a little, getting to know them, drinking in a killer basement bar. You get to talking, and the night whizzes by. You suddenly realize the bar is closing and you’re the only ones left in the room. All told, a night where time and space kind of fade away, and you forget all the life bullshit for a few spectacular hours. On the night this happened, my new friend and I walked out and it had started to snow. One of those winter nights where you feel like you’re inside a snow globe.

I thought, this must happen to a lot of people, but I’ve never really heard a song that celebrates it. Actually, I do know one song, but I’m not telling.

Any plans to release a video for the single?

KJ: We hope to, maybe next year. We’d prefer to put out a really good live performance or three. I would say that’s a little higher up on the agenda.

Why did you name the album after this track in particular?

KJ: Just a catchy title I guess, I threw it out and everyone liked the idea. Better than Meet the Linemen!!! I kind of like how it’s something of a double entendre. Could mean a “shutdown,” like a night when the band on the stage just kills, or it could mean what it actually does mean, which is that you’re that last people in the bar, totally oblivious to the time, and the staff is patiently waiting for you to pay your tab and get out.

JG: It’s a cool phrase that evokes nightlife and going all in, almost recklessly, but that also has some darker overtones —  “close” and “down” having potentially negative connotations as well.  Plus it’s the title of a badass song, and matches perfectly with Antoine’s cover photo of a closed-up establishment.

Why did you take so long to release this material, and what made you want to team up again?

KJ: I took a hiatus from music in 2001 after giving it a good 15 years. I needed a break, and I needed a life change. I started a rare book business in Baltimore that’s doing really well now, but at the beginning it was a 24/7 venture. It’s still a lot of work, but it has a bit more of its own steam. Starting in 2012 I found I had enough space in my life to get back to music.

JG: Kevin and I had both taken a long break from leading a band, so whatever tunes we had were on the back burner for a long time. If there is no vehicle for your songs there is much less motivation to write them. I became a freelance pedal steel player, working as a sideman and session player, and also giving lessons. I recharged my batteries and learned a lot.

Eventually I started wanting to get back to playing my own music, but I couldn’t figure out how I was going to do it without falling right back into the same role I had been in the last time — or rather, all of them: songwriter, front man, booking agent, manager, publicist and underwriter for all expenses. It’s just a huge undertaking. I also didn’t have a bunch of new songs to justify the effort. So when Kevin called me in late 2012 and said he wanted to get back into it and that we should do it together, I immediately realized this was the perfect situation. Not only would we be able to pick the best of our respective repertoires and split the singing duties, but we would share the work and expenses. Kevin and I always had a great simpatico, and co-leading with him has been a breeze. Plus I get to play both guitar and pedal steel, depending on what the tune calls for.  It’s an ideal arrangement and it has worked out great.

How was the recording and writing process?

JG: Kevin and I co-wrote a couple of tunes, and we each finished some that had been lying around for a while. Kevin co-wrote two songs with Bill and Scott, respectively. We also revived a few of my old Debonaires tunes. The great thing about songs is that they’re right where you left them, and if they were good before, it’s a pretty safe bet they’re still that way.

We decided on Andy Taub’s studio in Brooklyn, a good choice, and the actual recording went very quickly. There were some gaps between the different stages — mixing, mastering, et cetera — but the result was worth the wait.

KJ: Rehearsing and recording the record was a lot of fun. We’ve all been around the block, and experience has its rewards. We all know now that ambition has to take a backseat to relaxing and getting with the flow. No flow and there’s no record. We all like each other. We all write together. We all share ideas. It’s a good flow.

I gave our old comrade John Alagia a call after we had finished tracking and asked if he would apply his substantial talent to mixing the record in Los Angeles, and he said “Absolutely!” John produced my band’s first two records (Memphis for Breakfast in 1991, The Rest of Your Life in 1994), and went on to become a Grammy-nominated individual, working with Dave Matthews, Liz Phair, and most especially John Mayer, for whom he produced Room for Squares and Continuum. So it was a blessing to have him on our speed dial.

Lastly, we got to commit the new record to 180-gram translucent gatefold vinyl, with a nice gatefold package, which for me was a dream come true. In a world that now features the likes of Donald Trump in the headlines every day, it’s nice to hold on for dear life to good news like “vinyl is back!”

With the new vocalist on board, would you describe this new record as back to basics? Are you returning to your roots?

KJ: Well, though this is kind of an oversimplification, we basically took what used to be two separate singer-songwriter-oriented outfits and merged them into one. At the end of the 1990s both Jonathan and I took a break from our respective bands. I did the rare book thing, Jonathan added steel guitar and dobro to his already formidable résumé as a lead guitarist, making him an in-demand sideman in New York City. Bill Williams, our other guitarist, plays mandolin, electric slide, and electric lead, and is a great songwriter. Scott McKnight is one of the best and most prolific songwriters in the DC area, and is a great bass player, organist, and guitarist. We’ve all known each other, written together, and played in various combinations since 1987. Since the whole thing was already pretty incestuous, it just seemed like a no-brainer to make it a band. And we all like each other, a big bonus.

JG: We never left our roots to begin with, really, although those roots are themselves a hybrid of different styles. I think we’re interested in melodic songwriting that’s informed but not bound by traditional influences. I have definitely immersed myself in some of those genres, like bluegrass and country, but I’m no purist, and my real roots are bands like the Stones and Beatles and Elvis Costello, who all made their own mixtures and added some extra lyrical and melodic depth. I think that’s what rock ‘n’ roll is, and that’s what we are. There was no conscious effort to follow any particular route. We just did what came naturally and picked the songs that worked the best.

How would Jonathan’s addition influence the band’s music moving on?

KJ: Jonathan’s a great songwriter, a great singer, and a very melodic, compositional lead player. Plus, he plays steel guitar, and good steel guitar players don’t grow on trees. He brings a strong pure pop element to the band, but is also crazy versatile with country music, swing, you name it. He takes us out of our established patterns and into new territory.

JG: I think I bring a little edge to the proceedings. And the pedal steel is a nice change-up in the sonic palette. My co-writes with Kevin took us somewhere different than we would have gone individually — a little more rock, and darker, I think — and I look forward to doing more of that.

What was it like to work with Andy Taub and how did that relationship develop?

KJ: Our drummer Antoine knows Steve Jordan, and Steve had just finished working with Keith Richards on his most recent album. Steve recommended the studio, Brooklyn Recording, and introduced us to Andy. Andy’s studio is a cosmic candyland kind of experience. Very warm atmosphere, vintage instruments everywhere you look. Insanely cool vibe. It’s a musician’s paradise.

How much did he get to influence the album?

KJ: Andy is a formidably fine tuned individual, which means he knows how to listen, how to make things the best they can be, how to stay out of the way and accommodate rather than push for one sound or another. He and Antoine in particular are very simpatico in terms of drum obsession, and of course it all starts with the drums on a rock record. We pretty much self-produced, and Andy was just there to turn the idea into one big, warm sound.

How did Brooklyn influence the music on the material?

KJ: Andy’s studio is like its own universe. You are not in Brooklyn, you are in a some kind of splendorous garden. The helpful thing about Brooklyn as a city is that it’s got such a great vibe, especially in recent years, and we got to get away from home and do the whole thing in one very intense week.

Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

JG: If I knew that I’d move there. But it usually has something to do with somebody coming or going.

KJ: I like to think that the best songs come from the Great Pumpkin. I should probably say The Great Spirit, though, so as to be as ecumenical as possible. Inspiration is everywhere. Lately I’ve been trying to consciously shift away from songs about relationships and look at other things—I admire songwriters who do that routinely, like Freedy Johnston does and Lou Reed used to do. On a more technical level, the best thing in this outfit is that there are four very experienced songwriters, so we can finish each other’s sentences when necessary and correct each other’s grammar when required. At least half the songs on the record are co-writes, and collaborating is easy and fun.

Any plans to hit the road?

KJ: We just played IOTA in DC, and a great record release gig at Bowery Electric in New York. We’re touring from Baltimore to Providence in mid-December, hitting New York and New Haven along the way. We’d like to focus next year on doing a lot of openers and getting our music in front of as many new people as possible.

What else is happening next in The Linemen’s world?

KJ: We’re looking forward to writing a new batch of songs in the New Year. We live all over the place, so we’re all working together on a device that transports human matter so that we can get together and rehearse more easily. The matter transporter will also send all our music gear from our rehearsal space directly to gigs anywhere on earth with the push of a button. This is especially handy for New York gigs where parking is a problem, and giving us more time to drink beer and tell banjo jokes.

JG: I guess we’re going to find out soon. I’m just glad we made the best record we could.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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