To hear Derby‘s Nat Johnson tell it, the musician’s life is a sweet gig — not because of groupies, booze, drugs, cash and millions of fans the world over. Instead, it’s because when he and his Portland, Oregon band mates are making their brand of rock and roll, it’s like they are creating their own toys. There’s some child-like wonder about the entire process that is just riveting to Johnson & Co., and they love being musicians just for the sake of making music.
Maybe that’s why hearing one of their songs on a radio station or in a supermarket still feels surreal to them, or when one of their songs plays on a prominent ad during a college national championship football game, he has a blast when his cell phone blows up with texts from the entire state of Oregon. Maybe all of this is just a bit more fun than some artists realize, and maybe that’s why the music this band crackles more than others and why their art is worth checking out. Because as you’re about to read, Johnson knows he is living a charmed life.
SSv: After the success you had with your last album, why did you decide to follow it up with an EP this time? I’ve read you guys might be playing to release several EPs in 2011. Is this true?
Nat Johnson: Well when we made our album, Posters Fade, we were really focused and we had a cohesive vision for the whole album. Everything just kind of came out at once over a period of time, but it was very focused. We, as a group, have always approached albums as a cohesive piece; that’s sort of the basis of our work. Each song contributes to all the others.
With the EP, we kind of came up with these songs in a batch as well, but we felt like it was really natural and we were happy with it, but we also didn’t want to embattle ourselves to try and create more songs that kind of fit this feel. I mean we have other stuff that is great, but completely different in a good way, and it keeps us refreshed and excited about more music.
So instead of trying to piece together more songs and just say, “Okay, here’s another album,” we wanted to kind of create this nice little package where the songs, to us, seemed to fit together well in their style and even in the way we recorded and mixed them and everything like that. So it was just kind of an honest attempt to say, “This is what we did right now,” and we’re gonna do another one as soon as possible, that will probably have a different sound but they still will be cohesive as well.
SSv: That’s cool because then you don’t end up forcing yourself to do filler songs to fill out an entire album, and at the same time it keeps its cohesion instead of sounding schizophrenic. Sometimes that can work with albums—
Nat: Sure, sure.
SSv: But if that’s not where you want to take it, then it’s a good choice not to do that.
Nat: Yeah. I feel that a lot of bands have first albums that can be sort of schizophrenic, as you say, because they really wrote a bunch of songs and there they go, “Cool, we’ve got an album. We’ve done something!” But somewhere in there you find your own sound, and as we’ve made more and more music we’ve definitely become hyper-critical of ourselves. You know, if you hold up your song against other songs they start to sound like the same thing, so the idea that we’ve made something that wasn’t gonna battle anything else, felt right.
SSv: Some of your songs have shown up in commercials or trailers for movies and the like. Do you ever recognize one of your tunes in an ad and suddenly think, “Man, this is kind of surreal?”
Nat: Yeah, it actually is pretty cool. You know, there have been many situations where one of our songs has kind of taken me by surprise, and the latest commercial — which is a Ford Explorer commercial and features our song “If Ever There was a Reason” — that one was pretty cool because, as opposed to sometimes on television shows where it’s completely in the background tucked behind people talking and other things going on, the music just kind of hits you right in your face and I was kind of like, “Wow, this is really neat!” And me being a graduate of the University of Oregon, I was watching their championship bowl game a few weeks ago, and so was the entire state of Oregon—
SSv: Yeah, basically! [Both laugh]
Nat: And I was sitting next to Dave in the band, and our phones just blew up with text messages of every person on Earth saying, “I just saw your song,” so it was cool. It’s pretty nice. A long time ago I would have thought, “Man, people that put their music into corporate commercials are totally selling out,” but I know much better now than to say that. Not because we’re doing it, but I because I understand it’s a great opportunity for us to allow our music to possibly reach other people if they can identify with some little snippet they heard in a commercial and be clever enough to track it backwards and figure out the band created that song, it can be a really good thing.
SSv: Totally. I remember seeing an ad some years back that played Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Possess Your Heart” and that was the first time I’d ever heard anything by them. Their name was familiar but I’d never actually heard any of their music.
Nat: Yeah. There have been a few instances to me where you couldn’t ask for a better scenario. I think the greatest I’ve ever seen was in The Garden State, when they featured The Shins…
SSv: Oh yeah. No doubt.
Nat: And it was a song off their previous album and Natalie Portman says… I don’t remember the exact words, but she says like, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard,” and I mean, you can’t ask for a better opportunity than that. Ours is nothing like that, but just the idea that it’s out there is pretty cool. I mean I’ve also been walking through some sort of store or some place and heard a song pop on the satellite radio and that to me is just really strange because when a commercial comes on I know that it’s going to be on there. I mean, not that I know the commercial’s going to come up, I know it’s supposed to be there; but when it hits you in a public place? Very bizarre.
Nat: I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to that, even if it continues to happen or happens more frequently. [Both laugh]
SSv: So your people are pretty good about letting you know when things are coming ahead of time. Are there every any instances where a commercial surprises you and you say to yourself, “Wait a minute, I didn’t know we were allowing them to do this?”
Nat: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually that does happen. A big spot like the one I just referenced, we knew that was happening because there was some contractual stuff up front. But we also work with some licensing companies that do smaller, local/regional stuff, and they kind of have free reign to just sort of do what they want to do because it’s a different scale and everything like that. So I’ll get calls…like my mom told me she heard one of our songs in a commercial and I was like, “Are you sure?” But I should know better. She knows everything. [Both laugh]
So yeah it happens, and it’s pretty awesome when it does. More than that we see, we hear, our songs used “illegally” in peoples’ videos on YouTube, just as a soundtrack or background for a lot of different things, but truly I don’t mind. It’s really flattering. People like our music enough to set their little video to it, I think it’s pretty cool.
SSv: So you mentioned you have the new EP coming out and it’s this sort of cohesive little unit, but why don’t you tell us about these four songs.
Nat: The core of our band has always been a three-piece — Dave, Isaac and myself — and we kind of just got together in the basement and cranked up the amps a little bit and got this kind of raunchy sound, if you will.
SSv: Yeah, yeah, I can hear that.
Nat: And we kind of just had fun with this; it’s a different feel. Like, our songs in the past are…we produced them intentionally to be pretty slick with a lot of very intricate things going on in the background, kind of like support or subtle layers, and with this we kind of went for the opposite and just wanted the songs to be pretty open and let the simplicity of a kind of raw guitar or a moving bass to really speak loudly. And instead of filling in those gaps, we wanted to leave them open and let the music breathe. To us it was the next logical step in the sound of the songs.
I wouldn’t say they’re dramatic, but on the scale of “Dramatic” to “Not Dramatic,” they are more dramatic than we have been, historically. So they actually work in, it’s silly to say it, but they actually work in large settings when we perform them in bigger rooms these songs kind of fill the hall. It’s fun. It’s fun to have different kinds of songs for different kinds of settings. So it’s basically the exact opposite of an intimate acoustic song.
SSv: Having listened to your EP and hearing what you’ve just said, I can see how these tracks would fill out the hall, no problem. I can imagine just with their sound and the way they’re structured, and like you said about the guitars being fuzzy or just balls-out and here it comes…
Nat: Yeah. And to follow up on that, one other thing that we did… our previous albums we recorded them in our own studio and because of the setting itself we would track everything separately. We’d do the drums, and we’d do guitar and then the bass, vocals and keys. Everything was done separately. So for this one, because we wanted that kind of bigger feeling, that tighter feeling but maybe being able to get more power behind it like when we play live, we recorded it in one large room at Secret Society Studios in Portland. We did it all at once, all of us together, performing. The only thing… just because of the volume of the album, we went back and did the vocals afterwards, but it was basically a live performance and we did each one a few times and just picked the best one.
SSv: Oh cool.
Nat: It was really, really fun and really refreshing to do that and not having to engineer and produce in the studio. We just concerned ourselves with performing, and that was kind of a first for us as a band, and I think we were happy with the way that it felt and the way it translated. I don’t think you can ever capture the true feeling that you can put out on a stage, like the sheer decibel levels and energy, but we got what we were going for and that was good. I was skeptical that we would be able to do it, but in the end I was very happy with the result.
SSv: So what was the inspiration behind “Creeping Climbing?”
Nat: [Laughs] Well, Dave wrote the lyrics for that song, and if he was sitting here he would never give you a real response. [Both laugh] What it actually means—”
SSv: Now wait, wait a second, let me jump in there. Is this because he’s something of a jokester, or would he intentionally try to misdirect or…?
Nat: He would misdirect intentionally, but everybody kind of has their own take on talking about their own music, and one thing that neither of us have ever really been into doing. I mean some people are really good at it, some people are really bad at explaining their own songs, especially on stage. Some folks are like, “This next song is about blah, blah, blah because I experienced this or that.” It’s just something we don’t do, and I think that Dave actually likes the ambiguity of the song titles, the lyrics themselves, and I mean you can listen to the song and extract quite a bit from it, but I think everyone is right. The idea that you can relate to it in whatever manner you like is sort of the purpose. [Laughs] Even I, being on the inside of it, I have my own interpretation of what sometimes I think he’s saying and what he’s really implying.
SSv: So what’s your interpretation of what you think he’d say the song is about?
Nat: The album itself sort of has a theme of struggle of relationships with people and kind of being controlled by someone else or being…[Pause] Man, I’m trying to figure out a good way to say this. It’s about being in a situation and to me it’s sort of like allowing yourself to be in a situation that isn’t the best. You probably know you shouldn’t be in it, you know why it’s bad, but for some reason you just keep going back. And it’s sort of a commentary on the sorts of people you allow yourself to associate with. That’s the kind of the sum of the parts that I pull from it, and I’m trying to explain it without using any of the words to the song, so it’s hard. [Laughs]
And now that I’m thinking about it, it’s also about having enough self-worth and respect to finally acknowledge issues with other people and other relationships and people and things that just maybe aren’t worth your time. I think that’s sort of what I’m trying to say.
SSv: It’s almost like a self-destructive behavior you just can’t shake, or an unhealthy addiction.
SSv: And you can spend years trying to go into the psychology behind all that but it is what it is and sometimes that’s just what people do. It’s like something out of the Bible, you know a dog goes back to his vomit or whatever…you would think it would be obvious that they shouldn’t do it, and yet they still do it anyway.
Nat: Yeah. Absolutely. [Laughs]
SSv: Why do you make music?
Nat: [Laughs] Well, I can speak for myself, and probably the band, but I make music because I love… well, to say I love music is not specific enough. I love putting pieces together and making something that I enjoy. I enjoy the process and I enjoy the product, and I enjoy them independently of each other but they all fall under the same umbrella of music.
I remember being at the end of college. I’ve played music my whole life. I never planned on playing rock ‘n roll or being in a band or doing any of that stuff, but I’ve always loved music. I’ve played violin since I was a little kid and many other instruments, and just sort of picked up the guitar one day in my teens and started singing with it, and it was just fun. There was never any plan for anything else.
But I remember in college hearing some Elliott Smith and loving the way he stacked all of his vocals, and put all these extra harmonies in, and I was like, “Man, I know that’s all Elliott Smith, I should go try that.” And so I went and just recorded all these harmonies and it just made sense. I absolutely love harmonizing. Any band wants to have me come up on stage and sing harmonies, I’ll do it. [Both laugh] And, you know, the higher the better; it’s more fun that way. I don’t know why.
But I’m getting a little off track. I just love putting all the sounds together and having fun with it. I mean, it’s so amazing that we can make these songs and albums out of nothing, and we enjoy it. It’s like creating your own toy. [Laughs] It’s easy to play a song a million times and maybe get tired of it, but I still have fun doing it, and I think that’s pretty lucky. It’s pretty lucky to be involved with guys I can work with and we can do this together. It’s been a team effort from the beginning and I think that’s the only way we’re ever gonna do anything worthwhile.
SSv: That’s cool. I’m glad you guys are so into it. It’s like you said, you get to create your own toys, in a sense, and have fun doing it, and not everyone can say that. Some people hate their profession, and yet you guys get paid to create songs you love and that other people dig and then play those same songs for them live…that’s a pretty cool deal.
Nat: It’s pretty bizarre. And it’s hard because none of us are really good at self-promotion, so when I can do an interview like this — which is about as much as I can do; you’re asking questions, I’m answering them — I’m not actively telling you about myself. It’s hard. So when you kind of have that mentality it’s nice that people enjoy the music as opposed to us forcing our music on people and making them enjoy it. I always appreciate people coming out to have a good time, and it’s an important thing to remember, as a performer, that people want to be entertained, and you’re lucky that they’re choosing you as their source of entertainment.
SSv: Yeah, no doubt.
Nat: Periodically you see bands that have such a chip on their shoulder and it’s like…you’re not really sure why they’re doing it. [Both laugh] It doesn’t look like fun. But it’s a pretty unique situation to be in, to be an entertainer because there’s a demand for it, I guess.
SSv: So you guys are good at the performing part and just steer clear of being attention whores then, right?
Nat: Yeah. I mean, like, one thing that’s totally true and will always be true is we never decided to start performing music to be something else, for that elusive fame or success or any of that. Because what is that? I mean if I look at what we’re doing right now compared to where we started, it’s pretty successful. But in the scale of what some people consider “success,” who knows what that is. I mean that’s like touring around the world and selling millions of albums and everyone knows your name.
Then there’s a whole other level of that. I mean it’s just ridiculous to shoot for something you’ll never achieve, and it’s all relative to the more financial gain you have, the more you’re going to want. The more notoriety, the more you’re going to need, the more you’re also going to hear negative things. I mean it’s just silly. So for me, for us, our goals have never been these unattainable adjectives; it’s just been about making music, having fun making it and liking the music we make, because when you do that, and other people like it? It’s win-win.
SSv: No doubt.
Nat: If we can do it and nobody else likes it, we still liked it, so that was fun. [Laughs]
Nat: It’s a more positive approach in the sense that we’re not setting ourselves up for failure. It would be very easy to say, “We’re gonna make this music and everyone’s gonna love it and we’re gonna be awesome!” But how could you ever measure that? You’re only going to be disappointed, I think. So we just make the music in the hope that we’ll be able to continue to enjoy playing it, and it will inspire us to make more. When other people like it, that’s a bonus.