Heartfelt Pop Magic: An Interview With Holiday Flyer
by dave heaton
Pop bands are a dime a dozen; the ones that really make an impression have that rare mix of talent and heart. The Sacramento-based band Holiday Flyer have both in droves. Their songs are exceptionally crafted, with pretty melodies and catchy hooks, and just as expertly performed, due to the combined skills of each member. Formed in 1993 by brother-sister musicians John Conley (guitar, vocals), Katie Conley (vocals; she beautifully sings lead on most of their songs), the group later added Verna Brock (piano, organ, vocals--she's also in the rocking pop band California Oranges with John Conley) and, more recently, Michael Yoas (bass) and Jim Rivas (drums). They've released 4 albums, a 10" EP and some 7"s, and have appeared on many a compilation album. Their latest album I Hope, on Darla Records, is a magnificent collection of touching songs that showcases an even fuller, crisper sound than their previous releases. Uplifting in a genuine way (one which recognizes heartbreak, pain and the complexity of human emotions), I Hope is a truly remarkable album. Recently I had the chance to interview John and Katie Conley. Over e-mail they graciously answered questions about I Hope, the band's history and much more.
I Hope has a much fuller sound to it than most of your previous releases. What inspired that decision, and what do you like about having more members in the group?
Katie: John, Verna and I all agreed that it was time to try something new. We had been a trio for several years and wanted to make a record with a fuller sound.
John: Having Mike and Jim in the band has really helped us to achieve a more dynamic sound, and it's definitely made us a stronger live band. With the trio lineup, we weren't able to perform songs like "Trains" live without really losing something.
Speaking of the lineup, could you catch me up on how the group evolved, as far as who is in it and how you all met? How did the newest members end up joining the group?
Katie: The evolution of Holiday Flyer is a bit complicated, but I'll try to sum it up. John and I are siblings. Verna was next to join the band. She was playing bass in Rocketship at the time, and John and I were friends with fellow Rocketship members Dustin and their drummer Jim. John and I met Verna at Jim's wedding. Soon after that, Verna joined Holiday Flyer. Jim and Mike joined HF in 2000. Mike, our bass player, has been a longtime family friend. He and John had played in several bands together before HF and he played on our last album, You Make Us Go. Like Mike, Jim has remained a close friend over the years. When we decided to change up the band a bit, it seemed only natural to ask them if they would lend their talents. Because of the addition of Mike and Jim, I believe that HF has become the band it is meant to be.
Larry Crane produced I Hope, and I think it has a really crisp, great sound to it. How did you end up using him as the producer? What role did he play in the album's sound? As a non-musician, I'm always a little fuzzy about what producers do exactly.
John: We got in contact with Larry through our friend John Baccigaluppi, who is the publisher for Larry's magazine Tape Op. We were looking for a different sound for the new record--we wanted it to sound bigger and more professional. We were impressed with Larry's track record. I talked with Larry several times on the phone about what we wanted to do with the new record. He had a lot of good ideas about how to approach and prepare for the recording. In the studio, Larry played a very active role in producing the record. He really pushed us to get strong performances. We even re-wrote some guitar and piano parts on his advice, and he also came up with ideas for some of the extra percussion that you hear on some of the songs. We just trusted his judgement on every aspect of the recording, from start to finish. He mixed the songs pretty much on his own, whereas in the past Verna and I have played a more active role at the mixing stage of recording.
Many of the lyrics on I Hope seem to have similar themes--particularly the attempt to stave off feelings of fear, uncertainty, loneliness. And for me the album's title jibes well with those themes too. Was there a conscious effort made to give the album a certain thematic cohesion? When you were writing the songs, were you aware of recurring themes?
Katie: We definitely spent more time on the lyrics for I Hope than on any other album. There was a conscious effort to create cohesion in regard to the lyrics. It was only when I heard the record back and we were thinking about a title that I realized that we had done something that we had not done before lyrically. John really pushed for us not to write the same lyrics we had in the past. This may sound a little cheesy, but I'm so glad he did. I feel that, in a way, the record tells a story of how even when things seem bad there is always hope.
John: Verna was reviewing lyrics, looking for an album title, when she saw the line "I hope" in "Signals and Traffic Signs". She really liked that title, because it's also the last line in one of her favorite Stephen King stories, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption." The line "I hope" can convey so much in so many different ways. I'm really proud of the lyrics on this record. We went back and kept working on the lyrics until we felt that they were right.
One of my favorite songs on the album is "Trains," which has a great, slightly country feeling about it. What can you tell me about that particular song and its style?
John: In the last couple of years, I've been getting more into country music. I'm really into Hank Williams, Sr., Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson. "Trains" was probably influenced by those artists. Around the time I wrote "Trains", I was also listening to a band called Smoking Popes. The lyrics to "Trains" are kind of an answer back to their song, "Megan."
Between John's paintings and Mark Robinson's design, the album has a really nice look. Were those paintings done specifically for this album or were they something you had already done? Whose idea was the silhouette "group photograph" inside?
John: The paintings were done specifically for the record. I did quite a few different paintings and sketches before sending Mark the artwork. Some of the early ideas were landscapes, but we'd already done a landscape painting for Blue Harvest, an EP we released on Darla a few years ago. I'm a big fan of the Verve jazz label covers, especially the ones featuring abstract paintings, like Jazz Samba. I did a series of abstracts and sent them to Mark, and told him that he could use them as he saw fit. A group photo was included with the paintings we sent to Mark, and he came up with the idea of just using the silhouette. Some of the early paintings for the cover are occasionally featured on the Holiday Flyer website.
Did the two of you grow up in an especially musical household? When did the two of you first start playing music together?
Katie: Our mom always sang to us as children, but our true love for music came from our dad. There was always music playing in our home.
John: Our dad had a very diverse music collection. Records I remember listening to growing up include Dave Brubeck, Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson, and Fleetwood Mac, to name a few. As a teenager, I started playing in garage bands, and occasionally had Katie sing on recordings. As she grew older, she became more interested in participating full-time in the bands I played in, and I realized that she was becoming a really great singer. Katie and I finally started a band together in 1993--Holiday Flyer.
To me, your music has an instantly accessible, pop feel. I Hope is one of those albums that, when I put it on in the presence of others, people will instantly notice and ask about it. I think your average person on the street would love your music if he or she were only exposed to it. Which leads me to my question: how conducive do you think the current musical climate is to getting your music heard by people? How difficult has it been for you to find an audience?
Katie: This is a hard question. I think that, in a way, our audience has found us. Normally, the people who have found out about us are people who go out and look for the music they listen to, which I take as a huge compliment. It would be nice to have a larger audience, but I'm also happy that our music has reached the people it has. Sometimes I'm amazed when I think about how saturated the music industry is, and how many bands are in existence.
At least a few of you are involved in other bands and musical projects. Please fill me in on what each of you are up to these days, musically, outside of Holiday Flyer. What other releases do you have coming up?
John: Verna and I are in another band called California Oranges. We have one CD that was released on Darla last year, and currently are working on songs for a second album. Katie and Verna also have a project in the works with Ross and Matt Levine (the other members of CA Oranges).
Do you have any current or upcoming touring plans? Has Holiday Flyer toured much in the past? What is your live show like?
Katie: We will be playing the Darla showcase at South by Southwest on March 13. We will also be playing at the first Tape Op conference in our hometown, Sacramento, in May. As for touring, I guess we'll see.
John: Holiday Flyer hasn't toured much in the past. We have played a handful of shows out of town, including the March Records anniversary show in NYC two years ago. We've been fortunate to open up for a lot of cool touring bands in Sacramento. This last October, we played in Portland, OR, and Seattle, WA. With the addition of Mike and Jim, I feel like our live show is pretty strong. Verna had a good digital piano that she uses for live shows. With all of these elements, we're able to reproduce the sound of the record fairly well for live shows. We usually include some reworked versions of older songs with our new lineup.
I read on Darla's web site that you're contributing a song to an upcoming Donovan tribute album that they're putting together. What song are you doing, how did you pick that particular song, and what do you like about it?
John: There's a couple of songs that we're considering for the tribute. We're going to let this one be a surprise!
Here's my usual final question: If there's an album, movie or live performance that has blown you away recently, please tell me about it.
Katie: John, Mike and I went to see Doves last year in San Francisco. They were one of the most inspiring live bands I've ever seen. I still get excited when I think about that show. The Shins are also an amazing live band.
John: My favorite record of last year has to be Gold, by Ryan Adams. I recently got the first Jeff Buckley album, Grace. My old roommate listened to this record all the time, but I never owned it. I was in a record store recently and they were playing it. It reminded me how great the album was, so I bought it. I have to agree with Katie--Doves was one of the best live shows I've seen in a long time.