“It’s rock and roll, not rock music.” That’s how Rival Sons’ soul powerhouse of a singer, Jay Buchanan describes the music that him and his band create and play. It’s also an art form to this west coast born musician. Rival Sons are Scott Holiday (guitar), Michael Miley (drums), Dave Beste (bass) and Jay Buchanan (vocals). They have just released their fifth album, Great Western Valkyrie and they are touring far and wide hitting intimate clubs and music festivals across the globe. Just after opening for the legendary Aerosmith in Europe, the band came back to the states in an appropriate and historic fashion, by coming through the Big Apple, New York City for a pair of sold out performances. Glide Magazine’s Marc Lacatell sat down with Jay at the Gramercy Theater to discuss the new album, his solo career and the his family life.
Let’s start off by talking about the new album. You decided to record Great Western Valkyrie in Nashville, in the same studio where you recorded Head Down. What was the attraction to return to Music City?
It’s one thing in particular – Dave Cobb. He is our producer and he moved to Nashville. So, we gotta go to Nashville to work with him and aside from that, any musician that frequents Nashville can tell you that it’s a wonderful city. Musicians prosper there. Artists prosper there. Out of all of our artist and musician friends, designers, whatever – poets, writers, it seems that they go to Nashville. And from our experience, they do really well. Literally, from what I know – they succeed.
There’s certain energy there. It’s Music City, USA. So being there is nice. In terms of feeling the spirit of Nashville there in the studio, no – it really doesn’t work that way for me because we’re working around the clock. We’ll go directly from the cottage or cabin that we’re staying in and go straight to the studio and stay there until midnight, come home and go to bed. Or, I’ll have stay up writing and that’s an every day routine.
My responsibility and what I have to do is a lot different from what the other guys do. I have to write around the clock all of the time. I never get any chance to go out to see the city. I’ve seen the city many times and I love Nashville. Really, we go there because that’s where Dave Cobb is.
The album has a raw sound. It’s not as polished as a lot of what is being produced today. I get the sense that you recorded it live – as a band, without a number of overdubs and maybe even wrapped some of the songs in a few takes as opposed to some bands that lumber through twenty-five takes to get the right one.
Yeah, it’s never twenty-five takes. We just don’t do it that way. Hopefully, with the process with which we’ve chosen to make our records, we make each record the same way. We get in there, start the day off and start writing a song and then record it the same day. We work on it and as soon as we have the arrangement kind of together, we hit record to capture that flashpoint.
An idea or a song being born that way, the birth only happens one time and everything that you do from then on with this idea or song is going to end up being a recital of its own birth. I know that sounds heady, but fuck – this is just rock and roll music and it’s very unsophisticated. Creative birth is creative birth. What we’re really trying to do is capture that snapshot, capture a true recording of a song before we truly know it, before we’re really comfortable with it. We try to capture that so that it becomes a shared experience between the band and the listener. When the listener grabs the record, and the listener listens to it for the first time – they’re hearing us literally play it for the first, second, maybe third time tops; so they’re hearing it new and fresh. When they’ve heard it enough times, the song isn’t new to them anymore. But there becomes a shared, in my mind…fuck it, I don’t care about sounding too high on this band because I’m working with a very high-level, highly skilled and energetic group of guys. I’ll put our shit, apples to apples – next to any rock and roll band out there.
A lot of people talk about it. They talk the talk. But, I know for fact, that this band walks the walk because of the pressure that we put ourselves under to do this so that the songs can be born that way – of an honest nature, of an honest birth. Songs will wind up having two lives. They have their birth with the way that this song gets recorded. That ends up being cataloged on the record. And the second life is how a song grows and mutates in a live venue, night after night. These songs take on a new energy. They take on different traits. The spontaneity and the improvisation that is inherent to performing live. The way that we make these records, I feel that it isn’t that unique in the big picture.
Unfortunately, when it comes to rock and roll, there are very few rock and roll bands. There are a lot of bands that call themselves rock bands. Some bands, like the Foo Fighters – walk around declaring that it’s all about analog and that is rock and roll. They’re not playing rock and roll music. They’re playing rock music, and I have nothing but respect – but, don’t hold up a peanut to me and tell me it’s an almond.
What was different about this album, compared to the last one? Does anything stick out as a pinnacle moment?
I can’t recall an a-ha moment where the light bulb went off over my head. Making the album was just a constant wring of the towel. It was a constant struggle to get water from a stone. It is a very different record from the previous record. The last one before Great Western Valkyrie was Head Down. It was a very painful process to create that album. There was a lot of infighting. There was, I feel – a lot of insecurities about growth within our band from interpersonal relationships to people not communicating the way that they should: so Head Down was a very laborious record.
This record was just as laborious because of the workload. Even though we gave ourselves six weeks instead of four weeks to make the record, we did the exact same thing. We just came up with more music, but with this record, the more that you do something, with repetition of any skill – you end up honing that skill. What, they say to master anything – you have to put in 10,000 hours? Someone said that.
It worked for somebody, so they ran with it.
Ha! Yeah, right. But, there was an overall tone that everything was going to be o. Let’s just make records, let’s just write songs, make songs. As usual, throughout the process – the insecure artist within me is always thinking that everything that we are doing is shit! You know, this is terrible and it’s going to end our career because everyone is telling us that we are awesome and I don’t believe that we are. I just think that we are a really good band. We’re doing this thing, there’s been all of this hype and then we are going to crash and burn. These songs are terrible and this album sucks.
I feel this way because you get so close to it. Having a true perspective on what it is we actually created and what that is, takes time and reflection. It also takes fresh ears and I didn’t have that in the studio. Everyday in the studio, I’d say, “Fuck. I gotta write a new song today and I don’t have anything.” But, stepping back now – I just listened to the record two days ago and I think it’s a good record.
Is there a song on the new album that is stands out to you or that is more special in some way?
Oooh. Well, there’s a couple – I think. We took some different turns, artistically.
“Belle Star” seems to be unique amongst the other tracks.
Yes. “Belle Star” is definitely unique within our catalog. I feel really proud about writing a song about Belle Star. I feel that the melodies, the verses and the music are actually pretty unique with its vocal phrasing coupled with the way that I’m singing and Miley’s drums on that song are just crushing. Miley’s drumming, his playing on the whole record is amazing. Now, I’ve known Michael longer than anyone in the band and I’ve been a fan of his drumming for the last fifteen years. We grew up together as kids and watching the drummer that he has become is very inspiring. He continues to become more musical and lyrical in his playing. You’re coming to the show tonight, right?
Hell yeah, man.
You’re going to shit yourself. You won’t be able to keep your eyes off of him.
Michael definitely comes across as being very genuine and loving his role in the band.
Oh yeah. He does. He loves his role probably much more than I do. I love the art. The whole thing of being the front man doesn’t turn me on at all. Sometimes, it gets uncomfortable. But the art, it’s the heaviest narcotic or intoxicant that I can think of.
You clearly convey your passion for this art form during your live performances.
We were just talking on the bus earlier, about missing our kids and fuck, asking what kind of life is this? Scott has to watch videos of his daughter in swim class and he doesn’t get to be there. I’m missing my kid’s summer and I’m missing my woman, Miley’s missing his five-month-old son. We’re talking about this and of course it’s hard. If you’ve got a gig and you have to work forty, fifty hours a week – of course it’s difficult. You’d rather be at home, putting together a jigsaw puzzle, golfing, it doesn’t matter.
We get to come in contact with this energy, this art – and live right next to it. We come in contact with it, every day. It’s not the meaningless stuff, you know – sitting here and talking about myself and the band. It’s not the adoration, that’s totally empty which goes in one ear and out the other – because you don’t know what to do with it. All that stuff is fleeting and all subjective. What isn’t subjective is the energy that accumulates within the room because of music being played.
It’s an energy that can’t be controlled and you don’t know what to do with it. It’s the closest thing to staring into the face of God that I could ever imagine. It’s so powerful. Some nights it just totally crushes you on stage and you have to crawl back to your dressing room just so that you can cry for an hour. It’s like, “What just happened?” because, that wasn’t me. I can’t claim responsibility for any of that stuff. Sometimes this power just comes down and says, “You are shit!” Whatever energy that is, the music – and you couple it with the power of fraternity and sorority within an audience.
On stage, you appear to be on another level. Yes, you’re physically there, but it’s like you’re somewhere else – a different mental or spiritual state.
Yeah. It’s because at that time nothing else matters. You know what I mean? You can’t think about your bills that you’re behind on or – anything. All you can do is focus on being that clear antenna to channel the energy to do what you’ve got to do.
Going back, you spoke about family. Growing up, was music a big part of your family life?
Oh definitely. It was integral to everything for me. It was always there.
Were there musicians in your family?
Yes. My father would play guitar and he’d sing a little bit. My mother would sing and oh, my mother to this day – has the most beautiful voice. When I was home, a couple of months back, I got to sing with her and harmonize and share that together. My grandmother on my mother’s side had a beautiful voice, my grandmother on my father’s side would sing and I have this from my mother to my grandmothers on either side. Hey, I’m not talking about good voices or operatic voices. When they would start singing, man – you’d want to start crying. That sounds like truth, something so vulnerable that it grew up out of the ground. I always had that, music – it was always everything. It just sounded like a different language.
Music is different from other art forms. It’s very different and I don’t think anybody would disagree, but, you can’t show other art forms like dancing, painting or architecture to a two year old and make them flip out. You play music for a two year old and it’s going to control their shit. No other art form does that. Music was like that for me. It was like, here’s this language when you’re really young and you don’t understand all of the words that everybody is always saying because your vocabulary isn’t big enough. Music felt like a vocabulary that everybody speaks. And it wasn’t until I got older, where I would make new friends at the beach or camping – and I’d meet a kid my age and I’d invite him and his parents over to jam with my family so that we can play. And they’d ask, “What do you mean? Jam?” I’d ask what instruments their parents played and they say, “My dad works at the bank.” They’d ask, “What do you mean jam? Like the stuff that goes on bread?” I was surprised that they didn’t play music.
It must have been just second nature for you.
Yeah it’s second nature. My brother and sister were raised that way too. To this day, I’ll go visit my family – a big family and we’ll all get together, set up the drums, the PA, get the guitars and bring everything out to jam and sing. We’ll take turns having a dance off in a circle with young and old people – that’s just the way we do it. And I know that there are tons of families out there that do the exact same thing.
Do you have any significant memories from your early days of performing?
I think, when I was a little kid – my family would always want me to sing all of the time. But, I was mortified to sing in front of people. Mortified, man! Because singing to me, singing in front of someone felt like crying. Singing was too emotional and it felt like crying and I didn’t want to cry in front of people. I’d make my parents’ friends, aunts and uncles and everybody come into my bedroom and sit on the floor. I’d turn the lights off and I’d lie on my bed and be real nervous. I’d sing to them, because I knew that they couldn’t see my face. You see the way that I have to contort my face. I look like a mongrel! But, I can’t care about that anymore.
I think back to some early performances, maybe when I was eleven or twelve and feeling that nervousness – with the sweaty palms. But around twelve or thirteen, I got really serious about writing music and I decided that this is what I’m going to do, every day – for the rest of my life. I’m going to write songs and I’ve got to get good at writing songs and that led to recording and playing at coffee shops. I think that when you develop a certainty of purpose about yourself and you know how things are going to go, you feel it’s going to be all right and you shouldn’t be afraid to fuck up. I have a relationship with this art and I’m not afraid to fuck up, then it doesn’t matter and the nerves go away.
That started happening in the coffee shops and you have to work to silence an audience and use your energy to sync up with the audience’s energy. For years, it was just an acoustic guitar and my voice – so it became a meditation to calm a room that way. Aw shit, I know this sounds so fuckin’ hippie, but I’m wired this way. When I look back at my history or artistic trajectory and relationship with music, instead of feeling like a timeline for me – and this is why I could never write a book – it feels like what it must have felt like for the Grand Canyon to get made. It feels like, an erosion that ended up happening so that a valley could be there, so that this could exist in my life. So that this chasm could be carved in my life and it feels like there’s been this constant growth.
What are your thoughts about social media? It did play a role in the evolution of Rival Sons.
I’m really bad with social media. The other guys are much better than I am, thankfully. Because it is an essential part of – I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s an essential part of being a professional musician now. The culture that we live in, you can’t just make art, a record or anything because there’s no final word and no final artistic statement: there’s no end to it. We make a record and different territories like France, Italy, Germany, UK, even iTunes, Amazon, and Google – and all of these people want exclusive content; They all want something extra.
We just made a record and I’d ask, “What do you mean?” Oh, they want B-sides. What are you talking about? They need B-sides over here and they need B-sides over there. I feel that we just worked our asses off making a good statement and now they want us to dilute it with B-grade material and everybody demands that. So you end up diluting this special thing all over the place with these B-reels and being obligated to record a performance like what we had to do with Amazon. We had to perform the songs before we’ve even learned them or gone out and toured and before the world has seen them or before the record has even come out. Everyone wants this exclusive content and a window into your life; they want to know what you ate for breakfast.
Why do they need more?
It’s all about grabbing someone’s attention. It’s about being the brightest fishing lure – the one that constantly spins, and gives off a different color every minute of every day. People are hitting me up all of the time with the social media thing, but I’m just not wired for it – I’m just not. I have an inbox, and I feel guilty – filled with a thousand great messages from people. I look at it and I freeze up because my world isn’t big enough for this. Am I supposed to develop a relationship with each one of these thousand people? I barely have enough time to be myself, but it doesn’t seem that everyone else has a problem with that. I don’t know how to work Twitter or anything.
Everyone else seems perfectly fine to be glued to this device and constantly be in contact with this vanity culture. Here’s what I’m doing now. Here’s where I am now. I’m taking a selfie. I want to take a picture of this cool life so that I can make everyone think my life is cooler than it actually is. I can’t abide man! I’m just not wired that way.
Then we’ll meet with our label and management and they’ll tell me that they want me to do a web series where I answer questions and put together a photo journal. I don’t care what those people think. I don’t want to make friends with all of those people. There’s only one thing that I have in common with them and it’s me! It’s not the music and that’s kind of a head-fuck, that’s fucked up and it’s weird. It doesn’t feel natural and I have a really hard time getting into it.
I’m a fan of just letting artists be artists. Let them make records and when they feel like making a statement. I don’t want to read the biographies of my favorite songwriters. I don’t need to know what their favorite food is. I don’t need to know everything about them. All I do need is the music that they made because it leaves an impression on me.
Social media did have a direct impact on the start of this band. It’s true that Scott found you through your MySpace page – right?
Yes. Scott found me on MySpace. But, Miley already knew me because we had played together, but he thought that there was no fucking way that I would sing in our band. So he never told Scott about me. Miley eventually called me and said that his guitar player found out about me and he’s really insistent. I told him it wouldn’t work but he begged me to call Scott to get him off of his back because he really thinks that this is destiny. So I called Scott and he was talking about rock and roll, not just rock music. So I qualified him and grilled him and he did pretty well, so we got together and jammed. We recognized that there was a lot of energy going on between us here and we pretty much have to do it.
Tell me about your solo career before joining Rival Sons.
I’ve been making records since I was a teenager and touring with the solo stuff for many years. Though I never had a big attraction to the rock and roll stuff, I remember hearing about the Stones, Zeppelin, the Beatles and the Doors. But then I heard about Buddy Holly and Little Richard. And that, that’s real rock and roll. And I looked around at what was going on and nobody wanted to play rock and roll and I just thought rock and roll for the most part, was a lot of posture and it’s a bunch of dickheads just trying to out-cool each other and you know, out-pose and out dress each other and of course, out-rock each other. I just thought that was just the dumbest thing that you could ever do. And so, I had no desire to ever do that. But I had been raised on the blues and done some time in a blues band as a late teenager.
Were you just singing, or would you play guitar too?
Oh. I wouldn’t even play guitar in these blues bands. I’m a slide player, but usually I’d just sing, as they really only wanted me to sing. I said all right and that was the only time I ever truly fronted a band. And that was me, just being the drunken teenager. They’d throw money on the bar, dance and yell out, “Hey! That kid’s really got soul!” I thought, well this is what it feels like to drink eight beers at fifteen, sixteen years old and I’m making money! And my parents don’t know where I am right now. I put a kibosh on that because I really wanted to get back to song writing.
Back then it was always cafes and acoustic stuff, acoustically driven music. I was just a fan of songwriters, my heroes were the songwriters and it was never the drummers or the guitarists. You know what I mean? The only people I’d listen to would be the songwriters. I felt like they were the ones who really steered and controlled the horse by the mane. The song would do this and it would be the vehicle for great musicianship and for great execution. But it had to begin and end with a great song and rock and roll notoriously doesn’t allow for that. Of course, there are great songs – but the kind of writing that I liked dealt with foreshadowing, rhythmic pentameter and word association. But Rival Sons are far from doing that because we play knucklehead rock and roll.
Are you surprised to find yourself singing in this band then?
Oh my, yes. If somebody from the future were to have told me that I’d be playing rock and roll and that was going to be my whole life, I’d have probably shot myself. But, I’ve found peace with this.
There’s definitely a solid balance between who you were as a solo artist and who you are in this band.
Sure, you’ve got Scott’s fuzz-fueled guitar and Michael’s drums, but your personality and songwriting still shines through.
I feel that way and that’s what’s different. The me from twelve years ago wouldn’t have understood how far compromise can get you, not professionally but as a person. I was very uncompromising and I’d turn away record deals and felt like I had to do it my way – never compromise! This band has been the greatest compromise of my life and it has paid off immensely in showing me what I’m capable as a person and a musician. It’s aligning myself with this group of guys and having this very enriched family. Our band operates very differently, we are really nice to each other and we really get along. A band like this has four different people who are doing this for four different reasons. Music doesn’t mean to me what it means to Dave. I’m not playing music for the same reason Scott is. Our approach in how we see the art is very different, but when you get the four of us together, something fantastic happens. If I had never taken on this compromise I’d have never been shown the beauty of collaboration. I would still be fighting it to this very day.
Did joining the band and playing with them bring out something in you that you didn’t know that you had?
Not performance-wise. Because you have to check yourself every twenty seconds to make sure that you’re not acting. Every twenty seconds, you have to do an authenticity check with yourself to make sure that you’re not acting or reciting. Make sure that you’re not just singing the words: it’s maintaining your antenna. But with the guys, this experience of collaboration is pretty special and it doesn’t matter how much I might whine and cry about it – about how fucking loud it is all of the time. But, it’s pretty magical man. It’s pretty fucking cool.
One thing that it apparent over your entire catalog, from album to album – is that it doesn’t sound like the band is trying to change its sound in desperation to reach a new audience or sell more albums. It sounds as though you’re sticking to your guns and staying true to your sound and style.
I think so too. Definitely. I think that we make rock and roll music and that’s the grid. I’m aware that it’s a very archaic and outdated medium. We’re just making rock and roll. People call us a classic rock band all of the fucking time. They say we sound just like this and just like that. We just play rock and roll and all rock and roll band sound like this to me. I’ve been asked, “What inspires this blues-infused rock?” Don’t they mean rock and roll? Some of these people are so far out of the woods that they think rock got here somehow without rock and roll.
It was really in the 80’s when people took the roll out of the rock because they wanted to be rock stars. But again, we just play rock and roll and that’s always going to be the keystone of what we do. That coupled with soulful and introspective songwriting. I feel like that’s really the common thread when you look at the five records that we have.
I’ve read that people make some pretty direct comparisons to Zeppelin, the Doors and even the Animals. So knowing that you guys don’t like the labels and comparisons, is it comforting that you’re at least being compared to the legends?
Of course! The Animals were a big influence on me growing up, as were Led Zeppelin – because that was what rock and roll sounded like. We’re doing our best to be as authentic as we can. I know that everyone would like to be considered a snowflake, an anomaly. As if we’re all different and there’s only one of me. And that might be true, but you’re still going to be a product of what came before you. No matter what kind of music you’re part of, you’re part of a lineage. Even if you’re avant-garde, and people have never heard what you’ve done – you’re still in the lineage of that avant-garde group.
To wrap things up, if you had to choose one song from your catalog to promote the band as a way of encapsulating your sound for a first time listener, what would it be?
I’d probably have to hire someone to tell you because I don’t trust myself, that’s tough, man. I think that the new single, “Open My Eyes”, and I’m going to sound like a salesman here – but I think that song is pretty indicative of our art and our sound. There’s a message there, screaming vocals and guitar and Miley’s playing a Bonham-beat – which he doesn’t usually do. He’s a much better drummer than some guy that rips people off. He really is just paying homage and it was the groove that just fit into that song and we just went, “Fuck it!” and decided to use it.