June 22, 2011
Pristine Boston Pop
The Grownup Noise is a band from Boston that takes it’s folk-pop quite seriously, as you’d expect from four graduates of the prestigious Berklee College of Music. They’re all accomplished multi-instrumentalists and their new LP, This Time with Feeling blends guitars, gently plinking keyboards, cellos, and vocal harmonies into an emotional pop collage that sounds very, yes, grown up. They’ve been a band for 2007, and since that time they’ve been touring and recording more or less constantly. We talked to lead singer/guitarist Paul Hansen recently about his songwriting process, recording vocal tracks in his bathroom, and travelling around the country in a van powered by vegetable oil.
Do you think your music-school background has influenced your sound or your songwriting process?
Paul Hansen: I’ve heard many great artists say “you have to learn everything and then forget it all.” Which sounds strange at first, but we couldn’t agree more. That way, when you’re working on an idea, you’ll have the chops to explore, but you won’t let your technique dictate what you feel. It’s so beautiful to be reminded that a three-chord folk song can be as stunning as a bebop jazz piece, or conversely, they can both be equally lame.
The recording process for This Time With Feeling, sounded kind of ramshackle from what I’ve heard—how did you end up recording in a cabin in Maine and in your bathroom?
Lack of money turned lucky. If someone kindly offers you their lake house in Maine to record, don’t ever turn it down! Also, since we had some fairly portable recording equipment at the time, we were open to record anywhere. And when we couldn’t afford a nice, controlled studio room to record vocals, we found that my bathroom had some nice sounds. Although it does take a minute to get into the vibe of emoting when you’re staring at your toiletries.
What’s the songwriting process for the group like?
The way we like to describe it is that I give birth to a song and then we all raise it together, and then when a song becomes a teenager and begins misbehaving or acting apathetically, we kick it out of the set list.
On your website there’s videos of you playing both house parties and larger clubs–do you like one over the other? Do you hope to play larger venues in the future or would you rather keep things intimate?
Well, from a financial stand point, if you have the audience to fill the larger venue, they are a necessity to play as bands are increasingly making most of their revenue from live shows instead of recordings. And there is something awesome about a big rock show in a larger venue. But we’ve always found that our music seems to connect better in small, more “listening” environments. Which are always much more heart-warming and communal to play in anyways—you don’t have to argue with the door person about the size of your press list or number of drink tickets.
You guys toured in a van powered by vegetable oil, right? How did you get more oil on the road?
Well, first off everyone wonders if you can actually run a van (must be a diesel) on recycled oil. The answer is absolutely YES! We did two full national tours, 30-plus dates, from Boston to Seattle and back spending about $500 on gas for both. Without going into endless technical detail, diesel engines were actually designed to run on veggie oil, not diesel fuel (that’s a oil company conspiracy for another day). But it works and works pretty well. It’s a two-tank system. It starts up and cools down on diesel as veggie oil is too thick to go through the injectors—the diesel gets the van started, pumps coolant to a back radiator in a back tank and heats it up. Once it’s hot, you flip it over and you can drive forever on grease.
The problem is that this isn’t a “production” technology and our system was buggy at best. So every day was an adventure! Would the van start up? Would a line spring a leak? Would one of the three filters we had to change all the time get clogged when we were already super late for sound check?
Finding oil is fairly easy. You can ask or you cannot ask. Or you can use Jedi mind tricks and make them think that you’re the person who is suppose to pick it up anyways… shhh… Most times we asked though and most people were really excited about what we were doing and gave us grease, even if they were getting paid a bit to have it picked up. It definitely adds a bunch more time onto your drives but you meet a lot of interesting people, and you don’t pay for gas!
Do you have any horror stories from all that touring?
We were fugitives for a day when our van leaked uncontrollably in a Taco Bell parking lot and we fled the scene through the drive-thru. After we found a place to empty our tank and learned that the cops were looking for us, we came back with industrial amounts of kitty litter and cleaned it up.
Finally, do you guys feel like grownups, or is that just your name?
Everyone interprets the name differently, including all the band members. One interpretation though is that “The Grownup Noise” (retirement plans, insurance, 401k’s, worrying about the future) is something to rebel against.