A Conversation with Joy Kills Sorrow's Matt Arcara
May 20, 2013
by Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
Boston is a town where acoustic guitars - and their players - seem to collect on the street like so many snowflakes. Whether it's the number of schools and colleges, the diverse community, the weather, or simply something in the water, Boston has granted us folk fans songcrafters as variant as Mark Erelli, Crooked Still, and Lake Street Dive. Wherever its artists have fallen on the spectrum of traditional music, though, Boston has always instilled in them a certain contemporary zeal for creative imagination and aural experimentation.
Joy Kills Sorrow is no exception. Pulling together highly skilled instrumentalists with backgrounds in everything from jazz to classical and indie rock, the troupe started with a stringband lineup and seems to have made every effort to defy its own parameters. On their forthcoming EP Wide Awake, the quintet welcomes new bassist Zoe Guigueno by making space in their style for her influence as well. The result is even more indefinable than the Joy Kills Sorrow you thought you already knew. From the speed-train chugging mandolin of the opening track "Was It You" to their entirely non-gimmicky, reimagining of the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights," and beyond, Wide Awake is a wonderful little disc.
I was recently lucky enough to chat with guitarist Matthew Arcara about the origins of the recording and what has driven the band to where they are now:
Kim Ruehl: Let's start by talking about your new EP 'Wide Awake' - what is this album about for you and where did you start?
Matthew Arcara: For us, I think this record is really about getting a bigger, more powerful sound from the band. Trying to get more of a vocals-in-band sound rather than a vocals-in-front-of-band sound, and trying to make a really strong upbeat record. That informed the whole process from arranging to EQing instruments for the record, how the mix was done - trying to get a fuller sound that has more impact and holds a little bit more air in the band. It informed how we made arrangement choices and what we did with guitar and mandolin at different points of time, how we could fill it out a little bit more and get the power and impact a rock and roll band has with drums and stuff, while maintaining the stringband structure and texture.
KR: Sounds like, instead of just trying to share some new songs you wrote, you're really trying to get the recording experience down, to make the finished product as authentic as possible.
MA: Yeah, I think we really were focused on the acoustic quality of the record as well as making sure the guitar sounded as full as possible and building arrangements around an idea: How do we make this tune really interesting but still stay rocking the whole way through? We were trying to take advantage of being able to do that, overdubbing a baritone guitar to fill things out or taking the octave banjo for a double-banjo [sound], to fatten it up.
KR: Why did you stick to just seven tracks?
MA: We went into the studio with seven tunes prepared that we wanted to record, that we loved, and we felt great about all of them. We made it an EP because we have a new bass player, and we wanted to put out [something] that said we have a new lineup and this is what we're doing. This is a new turn we've taken, and if you know where we've come from, you're still going to like it, but this is a new sound. We wanted to be able to go into the studio, do the tunes, do the mixing and editing and have it come out on a convenient time frame, to make a statement about what the new lineup is doing... The EP format fit that equation and lessened the pressure on us to not have to come up with all the new material. We're planning to do a full-length in the next year, year-and-a-half. But we had some tunes we felt really strong about, so we decided to put them out now and then continue working on the full-length for the future.
KR: Are you using the same arrangements in the live show, or do you allow more improv in that setting?
MA: It depends on the tune. A lot of the arrangements for the new tunes, we tested in gigs in the fall and winter and made changes depending on how things felt onstage. Everybody plays solos differently every night. There will be slight texture changes. People will have an idea and roll with it on a show that's different from what they recorded. There are a lot of tunes that are orchestrated the way they are for a reason, to lead you through the story of the song. A lot of that stuff stays the same [in a show]. But there are also parts where people can toy with it or mess with it, get creative differently every night, depending on how they're feeling.
Like, on the recording of "Get Along," there's a slowed-down mandolin and banjo intro that leads to where the full band comes in. Jacob [Jolliff] and Wes [Corbett] play that differently every night. We never know where that's going to lead.
KR: One of the things I love about your band, you seem like you're more about serving the songs than trying to fit into any genre or style or trend. I wonder if that's on purpose. Like, on "Such Great Heights," you stay true to the original song [by the Postal Service], but then there's this crazy banjo solo that takes it to a completely different place. I wonder if you feel an allegiance to folk and roots music, or if you feel like your allegiance is to each individual song.
MA: I think we feel both. Different [allegiances] rise to the surface depending on the situation. We all love traditional bluegrass and old time and roots music. It's not necessarily what we do all the time as a band, because we grew up on the Beatles. We hear things differently than what would be the traditional way to do it. We like to come up with new ideas, like - Wouldn't it be cool if the we played the banjo part on the mandolin and the mandolin played the guitar part...it would give us this whole new texture to work with. So we do that stuff, but we try to do that in terms of what a song needs.
"Such Great Heights" might not work if you kept every instrument in its traditional role in a stringband. It would be cool: Oh look they're playing a pop tune but they're playing it in a bluegrass style. For us it's more like, let's take this recording that's originally electronic, and figure out how we can make it sound more organic on acoustic instruments. Keep the feel of the original, but keep some of the influence of the banjo getting to roll because that's what a banjo does. We can meld those two things together to serve the songs. In the end that's what matters - connecting to the audience emotionally through the songs.
Posted by Linda Fahey at May 20, 2013 3:49 PM