Wounded Lion: Interview
“I’m a painter so I’m always dealing with a rectangle, basically. Which is a crazy restriction, you know?”
Los Angeles’ Wounded Lion have been quietly building up steam for the last few years with three stellar singles. Even without prior knowledge of their avant-garde videos, it’s natural to make the connection between Wounded Lion and their interest in the arts. The fact that so many of their songs seem to create visual scenes may have to do with the heavy concentration of visual artists in the band. The band boasts two painters, a video director, and a graphic designer. Despite their directness, the songs often feel as though they are begging for interpretation. From songs about big boots to accounts of the Dagobah system that include cars and don’t even touch upon green muppets, Wounded Lion have a way of taking you so close the the familiar that you see it anew. Musically, and lyrically, everything is clearly laid out in front of you — you just don’t always know it immediately.
I was lucky enough to find myself sitting across from Wounded Lion front man Brad Eberhard, talking about fourteenth century morality tales, Plato, and their new release on In The Red.
I want to ask about a few of the changes made from the singles to the album. You sped up “Creatures in the Cave” and added about a minute and a half to it. Did you always have that version in your pockets?
It started out as a ballad and became a rocker. It’s never performed as a ballad anymore. It just happened. It was just an idea. Most of our songs we try a variety of ways and see what works the best. People switch instruments a lot. Everyone has something specific to say with a given instrument. So someone will play bass a certain way so we try someone else on bass someone else on drums … in general. They end up having different characters, you know?
Does everyone in the band think of themselves as being an “every instrument-alist” then?
Right now, four of the five of us are playing drums at some point. Three of the five of us are playing guitar. Three of the five of us are playing bass.
Do you consider it a part of the process to have everybody have a go at every song
We try it with the basic set-up, and if it doesn’t have the juice, we change it up. It’s not like a big plan to have people change. It’s not supposed to be cute.
Would you ever run into problems if someone thought that they had something they wanted to do to it and maybe whoever started out on the instrument wanted to stay on.
Not too much. There’re two songs on the album that are written by other band members and we have another 20 or 30 songs that aren’t on the album, all written by me. I’ve had bands where I’ve tried having it be a democracy and it just turns into mush. There are occasional instances of something different but it hasn’t been a problem yet.
Monty gets to call the shots and write songs in Lamps. He’s our newest member and he’s been in the band for over a year. The band’s been in existence for 5 years. I feel that I’ve learned that someone has to be in charge and, in this case, it looks like it’s me. It’s not that I want to be in charge, I just want it to be productive.
“… Songs can live in that place. That they don’t have to make sense or that you can make it like visual art where you make something that the listener or viewer projects into. Almost like the listener completes it and you kind of let go. “
Is Wounded Lion something that you set out to put together? You know how there are three basic origins for bands, like, “I was hanging out with these guys and we were jamming,” or, “I wanted to make this song and was looking for people that could make it happen.”
Right. I had a band no one ever heard of called Two Percent. We were lucky if we played three times a year. We didn’t know anybody, we were mostly visual artists, we weren’t connected with a music scene. We loved playing, but it was almost like the band existed to practice and eat burritos. It was more like a social club or something. Anyway, I tried this band for a long time and then I met a few people and visualized having a band with them. One being Raffi. The other being our former drummer, Ami. They didn’t necessarily play instruments, but we bonded over certain music. With the drummer and I it was The Makeup, Nation of Ulysses, Ian Sevonius stuff. With Raffi it was a side project of The Breeders called The Amps; CCR, The Clean. I liked them as people and thought, “Let’s start a band.” I scrapped my other band and started teaching the drummer how to play drums, not that I know that much, and started teaching Raffi to play bass. It was a total lark. No expectations really of anything. Shortly later, Raffi’s brother Sean joined us and I started teaching him how to play bass, too. Jun, who was my old college roommate, wanted to participate. That’s how the band formed.
I’ve never really played with strangers. That’s fascinating to me. People who can say, “I like these three bands,” and try out a bunch of people. It’s kind of like romantic relationships, it doesn’t matter how you met. You found somebody.
For “Creatures in the Cave,” is there any influence from Plato’s Cave Analogy?
That’s superb. And it’s not like it started with that. This is probably too long of a question that overlaps into how I make art. Almost all the songs come to me almost like dreams. Usually when I’m driving. And I don’t fuss with them a whole lot. It’s not like anything that comes into my mind is good. It’s more like 1 in 100 things that come into my mind in that fashion is usable.
Words. How words sound together or the images that words produce. Usually they’re pretty simple and not super rational. And I’m all for that. That songs can live in that place. That they don’t have to make sense or that you can make it like visual art where you make something that the listener or viewer projects into. Almost like the listener completes it and you kind of let go.
If you have an association to Plato’s Cave from “Creatures in the Cave” then outstanding. How many people out of 10 are going to have that? One or two, maybe. That’s cool, that’s cool. I don’t want to label it as thus. It’s as much from that and the idea of the ideal and the real being fascinating to me. I love the idea that some huge percentage of philosophy is still dealing with Plato’s legacy. I’m interested in things that stay strange. Things from literature that stay weird. Do you know Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
O.K. Seven hundred years old, still totally uncanny. Right? He cuts off his head and is like, “O.K. See you in a year!” That’s so successful to me.
“I’ve had bands where I’ve tried having it be a democracy and it just turns into mush.”
I think the honor code is always going to be relevant. Everyone is always going to need an instruction manual on how to deal with other people, and this is theirs. No matter how far away in time you get, you can’t break with the fact that people before you interacted this way and that affects how people today interact. You can say what you want about material conditions but there’s something about the legacy of –
Yeah that’s almost the definition of the spiritual. It’s things in human existence that don’t change because of technology and a couple of other factors. Classic, perennial questions.
Where do you see the role of meaning in your work? A lot of the lyrics are pretty short and pretty straight forward … They present a feeling that you create a scene around. The easiest case would be “Silver People.” It’s pretty easy to construct a scene but it’s still up to the listener to discern why they’re there.
But “Silver People” in particular is using collage. In collage you use found images, found objects, or even found phrases. So, like William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique, you’re altering an existing text. “Silver People,” more than a lot of the songs, is doing that in that there is a sort of allusion quote from a Buffalo Springfield song called, “For What It’s Worth.” “Young people speaking their minds. Stop. Hey. What’s that sound…” And the Coors Lite commercial from the past, “Turn it loose. Turn it loose tonight. Coors Lite tonight.” It’s taking these different found… “texts.”
Which sounds pretentious… [chuckles] I am who I am, you know … I like the idea that it’s a simple rock ‘n’ roll band that works with ineffable ideas. I think that’s cool. It’s not typical garage-punk concerns. Or even rock concerns. If there’s stream of consciousness in rock music it’s usually on the psychedelic side where it spirals in and gets really silly. So I really like the idea of really simple, direct songs that don’t have simple, direct meanings. I’ve been really impressed with how language has been used in classic country Western songs where it’s super direct. It’s like, “You’re a pretty lady. You broke my heart. I’m sad.” It’s like A, B, C. Utterly logical. It’s all emotional. And that doesn’t make it unsophisticated, ‘cuz the world of feeling is what fuels so much of the lyrics in popular music. I admire that directness and their value for turns of phrases. “What made Milwaukee famous has made a fool out of me.” (Jerry Lee Lewis.) Things like that.
That maybe gets back to some of the Plato stuff. Attention between the subjective and the universal, which is what all kinds of artists have to deal with. You should write about what you know, but you’re also trying to connect with people through what you’re making. Usually in my experience with art, I can follow this path that’s like, “Dude, no one’s gonna get that.” But it’s where I have the deepest well of energy and interest, so it’s actually becoming the most specific and fleshed out, even though it seems like no one would get it. Because, you don’t want it to be inside jokes.
I often talk about Chuck Klosterman’s essays on the hyper personal effect that universal country lyrics have.
There are paradoxes. There are confusing things. Like connection and emotional works and American Idol-type music. Where probably you or I would be like, “That’s silly,” or, “That’s fake feeling.” But nonetheless, you have to contend with the fact that so many people care about this. So many people are moved by it. So many people are interested in it. That’s an interesting dilemma for the aficionado.
“We try it with the basic set-up, and if it doesn’t have the juice, we change it up. It’s not like a big plan to have people change. It’s not supposed to be cute.”
The idea of being so direct kind of makes me think of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’50s,a maybe ’40s, where you couldn’t be as explicit. Part of the reason I smile so much when I listen to that music is because they had to think up ways to wiggle around it. Would you ever subscribe to the idea that restrictions enhance your creativity?
Absolutely. I’m a painter so I’m always dealing with a rectangle, basically. Which is a crazy restriction, you know? I’m used to totally embracing these funny limitations of a rectangle or these really specific materials. I feel the same way about a pop song where it’s 2 or 3 minutes with drums, bass, and guitar. Of all the possibilities in the world, that is extremely limited. And I love it. I like the boundaries. I’m not living in the same time where I’d have to make up nonsense words like Little Richard to talk about sex or say, “Baby let’s play house,” like Elvis. The band’s not constrained by that so I can’t really speak to that.
In listening to the new album, especially to the new cuts of the singles, it sounds like you’ve made a few aesthetic changes. The bass is cleaner for one. Was that intentional or is it just a side effect of working in a better studio? Can you talk about the recording process?
If we made it, in some people’s perception, too polished, it’s possibly a mistake. We’re learning how to record our band, you know? It wasn’t like, “These singles sound crappy. We need to spruce this stuff up.” We just went in and recorded it and tried to mix it to the best of our ability. I’m trying to be frank with you. We want it to be as live and as awesome as possible. It’s a great fear of mine. I don’t want to sell the band short. What it’s like live. How loud and raw and rough it is. It might be one of these things where we explored this pole of the recording experience and we need to really intentionally move away from that pole and figure out how to make it meaner or whatever. So, I’m not trying to be defensive and saying you’re wrong. I don’t know.
I’m not trying to put you on the defensive that way and make you feel like you went too far…
But I know that there will be people that like the first single… There’s people that, granted, within the very small audience that we have, freaked out because the second single had a ballad. There was this really odd, quiet piano song (ballad version of “Creatures in the Cave”) that was recorded before the first single. The second single was recorded before the first single. The third single was recorded before the first single. It’s not like they started rough and got cleaner. We’ve done a bunch of recordings that are all over the place and released them at different times. But I’ve already witnessed people freaking out about things being wussy. Not everything’s going to sound the same.
I read a little review of the record yesterday that said, “This record’s great but they kind of have a core sound. They don’t really deviate from it, so what you get is what you get.” [sighs] It’s like this hall of mirrors and you can’t make everybody happy. It’s puzzling. All we’re doing is trying to write good songs and perform them with gusto and we try to record them the best we can. We’re super not-pro. And there’s not a producer that knows, “The songs should sound like this.” It’s totally in our hands. There’s an engineer who’s twiddling knobs, but there’s no one telling you, “That’s too dirty,” or, “That’s too clean.” We’re just sitting there listening and trying to figure it out. It’s a big experiment.
[Photo: Joshua Erkman]