INTERVIEW: Alan Williams

Photo Credit - Adrien Bisson

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

I’m pretty well, all things considered. Hope you are as well!

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Anniston”?

“Anniston” is a song about being trapped in a small town, boldly announcing a plan to escape, but secretly knowing it will never happen. Not a particularly novel idea, but the challenge of resigning oneself to one’s fate, or from the Zen perspective, coming to acceptance of it, is pretty common to most of us.

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

I grew up in a small city, Asheville, NC. These days, it’s a pretty hip place to be – great music, art scene, and craft breweries for days. But when I was a teenager, I could stand downtown in the middle of the day and not see another living soul. I couldn’t wait to discover the world I saw on TV, the hear the music I could only read about, but not actually hear. Kids these days have no idea…

How was the filming process and experience behind the video?

The video was primarily shot at an amazing place called Roadside America in Shartlesville, PA, ironically the kind of place the song’s narrator would probably dream of escaping. The bill themselves as America’s largest miniature village. Also ironically. They were kind enough to let my cinematographer and I bring all this camera gear in and shoot at night after they closed. It really is a massive place, and the amazing thing is the level of detail. Every time we looked through the lens, we discovered more detail. I made a storyboard so we just found places in the village that resembled the locales of the song. I think we both reverted to our 8-year-old selves making the trains move along the track…

The single comes off your new album Evidence Unearthed – why taking so long on releasing this material?

That’s a good question. It’s been 25 years of holding back from putting the music out. Maybe it took me this long to be able to sing the songs properly, and the give the performances the mix they deserved. But there’s an element of unfinished business as well. As we get into middle age, these issues become more pressing. So, at first, I just wanted to put it out so that I could put the whole thing to rest. But the unexpected thing is that once I had better vocal performances down, the songs really came to life, and I found that the music spoke to me even more strongly now than it did then. Maybe it’s like a fine wine? Or bourbon?

As music has evolved in the past 25 years, did you revisit and updated any of the music or you leave it as it was?

Basically, I re-sang all the lead vocals. There were a few lyric phrases that got modified, and I threw out the original primary riff on “Anniston” which was this awkwardly lame imitation of Paul McCartney’s “Coming Up,” which itself was an awkward imitation of a thousand James Brown records. Instead, I recorded a more power chord, Clash-like thing instead and the whole song came into focus. Added some strings to a few things, and completely re-recorded the last song, which was pretty basic, but had so much noise that I figured I’d just re-track entirely, which then resulted in a little more contemporary soundscape-y sonic. But I’d say it’s 90% the same, but with a far more muscular mix.

So was this for you almost like a journey into the past?

Many of the songs come from a dark period in my life after the collapse of a marriage and a band that I had put seven years of my life into. So, going back to sing them definitely put me in a weird headspace, especially since much time has passed, and I am on pretty good terms with all involved. I ended up singing them this time from the perspective of a fictional character rather than as a direct address to my ex-wife. Oddly, this allowed me to be more honestly expressive, instead of the conflicted, somewhat hesitant performances I recorded at the time. Happily, there are also a few moments inspired by the love that emerged during the making of the album, when Darleen and I got together. 25 years later, we’re still very happy, and in a way, the time between originally sessions and now marks a complete life turnaround. A lot of good things can happen in a quarter of a century!

What’s the story behind the title?

The album was originally titled Evidence, so I just appended the Unearthed tag, and the cover images are of me digging up the tapes, track sheets, and unissued CDs from some hidden burial spot (kinda like the tree in The Shawshank Redemption).

How was the recording and writing process?

We tracked the basics – drums, bass, two electric guitars on the stage at the Portland (Maine) Performing Arts Center. My old band Knots and Crosses had performed there several times, and I thought we’d get a good energy if we were on a stage, amps tucked away a bit backstage, but turned up full blast. And it worked! This was in the early days of digital recording, using a long-outdated system called Adats that could record 8 tracks on videotape. You could chain multiple machines together, and so the kind of technology previously only available to the ultra-wealthy rock stars suddenly fell into the hands of decidedly un-wealthy musicians like me. Flash forward 25 years and it was a bit of challenge to find someone with working Adats that could transfer the tracks to a hard drive. But once that was done, it was easy to mix with my laptop in a rented bedroom. The original overdubs were recorded in my Boston apartment, so in a way, the bedroom mix felt completely appropriate, but with a dramatic increase in sonic capability. Plus I’ve learned a few things about recording in the intervening decades…

What role does Asheville play in your music?

I’m not sure that it plays a role at all – I’m certainly completely outside the quite vibrant scene that’s there now. But one thing seems true – the isolation of the mountains has made me more of a distanced observer, always a little outside whatever is going on. The upside of this is that it’s easier for me to pick and choose influences and ideas. I’ve also come to realize that Asheville has always been far more worldly than I was aware of at the time. Black Mountain College was founded nearby, so at one point you had John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Josef Albers creating very modern art in an area the rest of the world would have labeled as “hillbilly.” It’s also interesting that Jimmie Rodgers left a gig in Asheville to make the first country music recordings in Bristol, TN, and 20 years later, Bela Bartok composed a piano concerto there. I’d like to think my music falls somewhere in between those two local musicians…

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

The aforementioned divorce was the impetus for some of the songs lyric-wise, but musically, this is the album that reflected my desire to play guitar, rather than the keyboards I had played in Knots and Crosses, and the piano I had studied since I was 6 years old. So, it’s pretty guitar-oriented, both harmonically, as well as with very basic guitar riffs and power chords. Even though better musicians actually played the parts on the album, the shape came from my getting comfortable with barre chords and rock and roll changes.

What else is happening next in Alan Williams’ world?

Glad you asked! I’m going to be doing an ongoing webcast series, with a shifting line-up and musical theme. The first performance will be about celebrating this new album, but I think the following one will be me with a string quartet. I’m sure there will be some Birdsong At Morning configuration, maybe solo, we’ll see. Oh, and the vibe of Evidence Unearthed has inspired me to come up with a whole new batch of songs with electric guitar and loud drums at the forefront. I’ve booked a studio in November, so will definitely keep you posted when the results are ready for the world. Hopefully, I won’t wait another 25 years…

Evidence Unearthed (Blue Gentian Records) out August 28, 2020 digitally and on CD/Blu-Ray (pre-order HERE)

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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