Letting the Music Breathe: An Interview With Bill Swan of Beulah
by dave heaton
The San Francisco-based band Beulah deserves much love for their new album Yoko, on which they've pushed themselves to strip their sound down and get to the real heart of the music. They're a band that's often praised for their ability to write infectiously catchy pop-rock songs that sound bright and energy, and they should be praised for that. Yet their songs have always had real emotion weight--often touching on dark, sad subjects--within the sunshine, and that's something that's often missed. Yoko, their fourth album (and their fourth great album, it should be noted) pushes the darker side out front so listeners can't miss it, and as a result is as forceful as music comes (and stil melodic and beautiful). It's a challenging album, filled with heartbreak and hurt, and also the sound of musicians challenging themselves to break free from habits and expectations. Bill Swan, who founded the group with lead singer Miles Kurosky in 1996, is Beulah's multi-instrumentalist, playing guitars, trumpet, piano, and who knows what all else. Last week he kindly answered my questions over email, giving insight into the creation of Yoko and much more.
You seem especially proud of this album. Does the more personal nature of the songs on Yoko make the album feel more important to you, like a bigger achievement, or is it more due to the album being a stylistic departure?
I would say more of the latter personally, as the process in making it felt so natural and organic. We focused on the things that mattered and did not overthink the things that did not. It was about six guys interacting with each other and letting the music breathe, not recording on top of each other and cramming things in. Kind of like the difference between talking to each other and listening to what the other person has to say rather than talking over each other to get your point across, if that makes sense.
Yoko is being described as a darker, sadder album than your others. But the lyrics on your other albums often struck me as full of sadness, even when the music was bright and upbeat. To what extent did the sunny surface of your past albums make people miss some of the heartbreak in your songs?
I think especially with our previous record, The Coast Is Never Clear, that got overlooked. Writers often get lazy and just latch onto a meme, which is a chic term used now by journalists and political pundits for an idea that is latched onto by people and they don't really know why, just that someone else already wrote that and so the next person uses that as the starting point in his own account. In our case, the meme was "Sunny, cheery, light, Beatles and Beach Boys derived," and so on. And it's hard for some people to get past that and actually listen to the music and the words. The dichotomy of darker lyrics and the not quite as dark music on Coast was subtle, and often that got lost. It took a more extreme statement such as Yoko for people to take notice.
You're also selling a demo version of Yoko. Could you tell me about that decision, about what appeals to you about the demos CD?
We wanted to present the songs in such a way where the song itself was the focus and not the instrumentation and arrangements. I think in records past, that would have been harder to do in a compelling way. Perhaps some of the songs from previous records may not have stood out on their own but we felt that the Yoko songs did. Plus, we liked the idea of releasing something recorded in the same way our first record was.
How was working with Roger Moutenot? How would you describe what he added to the album's sound?
A pleasure. He was quick, funny, on top of things, and critical where he needed to be. He had our complete trust and that's half the battle sometimes. Because of that, we got right to work and finished things really quickly. He was able to capture the essence of our interaction together as musicians, and in mixing it all together kept things really fluid and cogent. I will abstain from any nerdy studiospeak with respect to effects, types of mikes used and so on, tempted as I might be to go there.
As a band known for writing fairly short, catchy songs, how liberating does it feel to end Yoko with a 7 ½ minute slow song?
Well, we didn't exactly set out to liberate ourselves from the shackles of the two and a half minute pop song. But I do remember being surprised when we began recording rehearsals of the song, and seeing us cross the six, then seven minute mark. We thought that was funny. It is nice to let something develop more slowly. That just about sums up the idea we had for the whole record, to let things grab a hold of people more slowly.
One of my favorite songs on Yoko, one which strikes me as especially different for you, is "Hovering." What can you tell me about the writing or recording of that song?
The initial idea for the song was based on a verse that Pat was working on. Miles then fleshed it out with a bridge and chorus, and he also wrote the lyrics. Since I did not write it, my viewpoint is from the arranging and the technical aspect of recording it. When we approached recording the song, it was originally in the key of b. We had recorded a demo of it but it was kind of fast. Rather than re-record it slowly, we decided to slow down the tape. I had a bowed guitar part at the beginning of the song, and by slowing it down it sounded a little weirder. The drums, especially the cymbals, took on an eerier quality as well. When we went in the studio, we did it the same way, recording it faster in the key of b, but then slowing down the tape to the key of a before adding the gentle, interweaving guitar parts and the vocals. That may in part explain the difference that your hearing.
As a fan of Yoko Ono's art and music, I wonder if you could tell me what she means to you? I'm not asking for an explanation of the title necessarily, just your thoughts on Yoko (assuming the title is at least partly named after her).
I'm probably the worst person to enter into an art-related discussion, but I think Miles said it best when he said she embodies change, progress and risk. As John Lennon often said, she was ahead of her time. Even now that's true. In fact, I would say that doing "Cut Piece" as a woman in her 70s is a little more forward thinking in today's society, where nudity (or the possility of) is more accepted but as long as it's young people. And the fact that she is world famous now and allows a wider audience to participate with pairs of scissors, well, that requires a bit more trust than in a much smaller group of perhaps more like minded artists. She has mentioned that she did the piece this time around out of love for the world, but the word I keep thinking of is trust. It takes a lot, especially in these times where it seems like a majority of people are cynical. I am not that familiar with her music, but I am about to become more familiar, as she has asked us to remix one of her songs. I look forward to that process.
I noticed on your web site that before your recent tour you asked fans to send you the top 10 Beulah songs that they want to hear live. Did their choices surprise you?
A couple of them did, but for the most part we had an idea what they would be. "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart" was at the top of the list, which we expected. We were a little surprised that "What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades" ranked as high as it did.
I've also noticed on your web site that you've been open about your dislike of George W Bush and the way he's been running the country. I admire that; sometimes musicians are reluctant to be seen as political. In general, what are your thoughts on the relationship between music and politics...on what, if anything, musicians can do to cause social change?
Musicians can't do anything to cause social change other than speak up when they're pissed off enough about something like anyone else. The rest is up to the individual, to translate their larger political beliefs to the smallest, every day things they do. That's the hard part. What you buy, what specific things you promote to your friends, and what you do at the ballot box and the fact that you even take the time to register, read up on the candidates and issues and vote at all. We Beulahs are very reluctant to be seen as political, but it's clear that the current administration thrives on being in a perpetual state of war, which includes a war on behalf of the wealthy at the expense of working people in this country. This government, but also many aspects of our society, seems to promote the idea that those who already have wealth should be rewarded and that people who work hard to make a living should be taken for granted. They may not say that, but in their actions it is quite clear. We were pissed off enough about how quickly Bush was willing to go to war in Iraq, and how he kept changing the reasons for why we went as it went along. Our allies are pissed off at us for our lack of diplomatic tact, and rightly so. When we were in Canada this last time around, it was rather alarming to us how much anti-american sentiment there was, and that's entirely due to the reckless "diplomacy," if you can call it that, of Bush/Cheney.
What else is the band up to right now? Do you have upcoming touring or recording plans? You're not really breaking up, are you?
As I mentioned, we're about to go into the studio to remix a Yoko Ono song. Then we'll break for the holidays and regroup early next year for another round of tours. We'll see what happens after that. The last tour was a lot of work, but we enjoyed it in ways we did not expect, and that has re-energized us.
You've had to buy back the rights to your previous albums. How has that experience affected your opinions about the music industry in general?
I'm not sure how much detail I can go into on this, but it's always nice to get paid for your work. When that does not happen you have to take matters into your own hands. That said, we are lucky to be an indie band that owns its first two records, and to be in a position where there are people out there who have our more recent records who have been wanting to buy the earlier ones. The fact that we feel lucky underscores the point that most bands do not make any money from record sales. The reason for that is complicated, and we don't necessarily feel that it's always the evil record companies out there that are responsible for that. They pay for recording costs, manufacturing and marketing of the record, and they need to recoup those costs before being able to make a profit, so it really all depends on how much money they spend on the making and marketing of the record. In our case, we're lucky to have the spillover effect that the marketing of Yoko may have in getting people who end up digging that record to check out the older ones. We're even luckier to have a record label who actually treats its bands as artists and cares about development. Most majors nowadays don't really care about what they're selling, as long as the numbers look good.
One last question: what music is blowing you away right now (new or old), and why?
I just went to see a show by Broken Social Scene and Stars here in San Francisco and I really liked their collectivist approach. You never got a sense of who the true leader was. People would switch from being the bass player standing in the back to strapping on a guitar and singing lead on the next song. they were all obviously seasoned pros and everyone looked comfortable in each role they played. The show flowed really well and was well put together. I also like both of their recent records and didn't know what to expect of them live. I'm a bit old to say I've been blown away by anything these days, so that's not how I would describe it, but I was truly impressed. I also admire their sense of Canadian pride, as they are from Toronto, and these days Canada has a lot to be proud of relative to where we seem to be going. They said no to the current war, and said yes to trying alternatives to the drug war mentality we keep perpetuating. Both bands were not shy in showing that pride.