September 17, 2009
The Heartsleeves Interview
“Born in the glory and pageant of the noble working cities of Boise, Cleveland, Schenectady, Boston and Syracuse, ‘The Heartsleeves’ is the voice of the no frills sincerity of real world American life.”
That’s how Jared Nathanson describes his band The Heartsleeves, five normal guys from forgotten cities who share of passion for music. Check out the interview below to hear Jared get chatty about Boston, their love of all things jazz and whether they are Pro or Con the three minute pop song.
1. Your bio sounds like you guys are all from different places. How did Boston become your base?
Purely circumstance, but we’re all from “forgotten cities.” I’m from Schenectady, New York. Once the birthplace of GE and a city of great industry and history. It’s been going through some tough times, but I love it and it will always be my first home.
Boston was the choice because I wasn’t ready for NYC. I wanted something big enough to hold a healthy art scene. (I got my BA in Fine Arts -always a very useful and lucrative degree.)
The HeartSleeves was formed, essentially, when I met Wayne “Rhino” Flower at a community open studios art show. He was showing his art while Curtis Mayfield was pumping out of his “boom box.” We got to talking music. Wayne, a Boise, Idaho boy had spent his youth in the burgeoning music scene of the late ‘80s west coast, especially early 90’s Seattle. He had an extensive career in music as a drummer and bassist in very influential bands like The Halo Benders, Treepeople, Violent Green (great punk bands I had never heard of at the time). He was this deep and soulful dude and we exchanged the trite “we should jam together sometime” knuckle tap.
About a year later (it should have been sooner), we ended up working on some of my songs in my living room. Just a vocalist and a bass, which is not a very good combo for song craft, but as Wayne liked to say, his bass became like a “big comfy chair” for me to lay out my melodies. We even recorded a few songs on his laptop with Wayne tapping a drumbeat on a cardboard box. We worked on several songs from the album there, “Learn To Live, “Symptoms of Rebellion, and “Glory Pour Down,” which was a song I had been working on since 1994.
We hooked up with my dear old friend and sax genius Joel Greenlee, a proud Cleveland native, and Jazz/Afro Pop player, Ariel “REL” Rejman (The Great Buriers, Air and Space Museum) in a jazz quartet. REL in turn brought in his band mate Joshua Lee Loomis. Josh is a one man music machine and the creative force behind the “The Great Buriers.” REL, was born in Israel but raised in Boston and Josh was another upstate New Yorker like myself, raised in the fine city of Syracuse.
We were playing in this dungeon practice space at the Fenway and I thought a lot about our origins (Boise, Boston, Cleveland, Schenectady and Syracuse) and our influences (Punk, Jazz, Soul, Rock, Country). That’s where I came up with the tongue and cheek phrase “Born in the glory and pageant of the noble working cities of Boise, Cleveland, Schenectady, Boston and Syracuse, “The Heartsleeves” is the voice of the no frills sincerity of real world American life.” It felt like it fit.
When Joel and Wayne moved West, we were very lucky to find Ben Margolis (The Peoples’ Donut) and Robert Gilmore (Air and Space Museum) on sax and bass.
2. What is the music scene like in Eastern Massachusetts and how do you guys fit in, or not?
Boston has a nice group of original bands, but we’re competing with cover bands and DJs at any venue. If a venue can pack in folks to dance with a DJ or rock out to the hits or golden oldies played by tight professional musicians, why take a chance playing original music?
More and more, the wonderful and filthy clubs that used to pride themselves on original music are either having gentrified face lifts or they’re closing down. I was very proud that we got to play The Abbey Lounge in Cambridge before it closed down last year and I was very excited by the reaction when we played Jacques Underground last week. For many talented bands doing the “original music” thing, it is hard to find places to play. Personally, I think The HeartSleeves’ sound straddles the indie and mainstream scene. We are pretty accessible and seem to be able to play our original music in cover band venues without too much trouble. I did get asked to play some AC/DC the other day which was like asking Stevie Wonder to play Ministry.
I think Boston audiences respond to sincerity and that’s all we have. We aren’t in your face or crazy, we’re sweet melancholy music pulled from real life stories and loves and we mean it all sincerely. In that way, I think we really do wear our hearts on our sleeves and I think people respond to that kind of honesty.
3. Who are your musical influences?
I grew up watching “Soul Train” and “Hee Haw.” [I can't be the only one, can I?] I loved watching The Comodores or Heatwave hanging with Don Cornelueas and you never knew who would be jamming with Buck Owens and Roy Clark on a given night. Real, soulful country music, like old country, outlaw country and alt country, has a lot of emotive connections with soul, blues and jazz. I love emotive music. Music that has sincere power and profundity in it. Usually, it’s all just a pretty way of wailing your pain away.
We call our sound “Neo Eclectic Soul” because we are really a stew of many things, Soul being maybe only the most obvious.
I write songs with a heavy influence from The Beatles, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, Johnny Cash, The Velvet Underground, Rashaan Roland Kirk, The Band, everyone at Motown and Staxx, David Bowie, Sly & The Family Stone, Josh White and my muse and inspiration — Nina Simone, probably the most dynamic singer this side of Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. Nina Simone is my place of inspiration.
4. Your lead guitar seems to be a saxophone. Is this a conscious choice in your song writing?
Absolutely! I love jazz, especially the saxophone when played by Rashaan Roland Kirk, Cannonball Adderly or John Coltrane. They all had this love/hate affair with the popular song.
Our first sax player Joel and I have known each other many years and I have always had fun playing off him as if we were two vocalists. The sax is a vocal instrument and usurped by the guitar as the lead instrument in the early days of rock. The sax can hint at the melody, it can be seductive while being just as aggressive as the guitar, but with sensuality that I think guitar only has in the best of hands. The sax shouldn’t be condemned to be a piece of parsley on the plate and we’re just trying to put it back on its throne. After Hendrix, rock guitar is a very much known quantity, and somehow sax, even when it’s tearing it up in a whirlwind of machismo, still has the subtleties and emotional resonance that guitar rarely delivers. I write with the sax in mind, always and with a lot of room.
I work with Ben all the time to help refine the sax in each song. For The HeartSleeves, the sax can be mellow and supportive like a keyboard, smart and sly like a flute or strong and arrogant like a lead guitar. We’re working with an additional sax player now, so we’ll have tenor and alto saxophones weaving some sweet sounds together.
5. The songs on Dirt & Water have a strong jazz element. Were any of you schooled in jazz through a university music program? If not, how do you think you’ve come to write songs steeped in jazz?
Dirt & Water is a Jazz song in that it was created live by the whole band as a jam and we just happened to record it. I loved the original jam so much I just kept asking everyone to listen to it. The first part of the song was literally one song idea that was going nowhere and all of a sudden Joel came up with this incredible melody that cut through and redirected everything. In an instant the whole song came to us and we just did it. That’s Jazz.
It doesn’t hurt that Wayne and I are huge jazz fans or that Joel and REL are trained Jazz players. I got my start as an improvisational performer and I love pulling lyrics and melodies out of chords and little pieces of inspiration live. So that helps too. I think most of us are very into Jazz, and many of us have studied Jazz in college, either as history or theory. For me, Jazz is the clearest hybrid of art and music I’ve ever witnessed.
6. Dirt & Water (the entire record) has a live but polished feel. Was replicating the live mood of a gig a goal in the recording process? Any interesting stories from the process?
We record live and then only do necessary secondary tracks. So vocals, sax and guitar might be a mixture of the best of three or four takes, but a lot of it comes from that first live take. We really are striving to sound live, with just a gentle polish. Plus, I think too much recording and mixing will suck the life out of a performance. Most music is so overproduced and auto tuned that all the interesting “nooks and crannies” are buffed right out of it.
7. What do you guys have against the three minute pop song?
Nothing at all. Some of our newer songs are shorter popish songs, we just started out not caring about limitations. However Motown and Staxx pop songs are a heavy influence for me and I think songs like “Last Night” really express this. I just write the song and then I try to cut it down to its most simple form. Sometimes that’s 4-7 minutes, but a few are shorter.
I love pop music; I just don’t like hollow pop music. I think pop has gotten a bad name in the last 20 years. The Beatles were pop. David Bowie was pop. We have a strong pop influence in our sound. Pop can have sweet hooks and still be about something real.
8. Some towns end up being known for a certain type of music, are there any Boston musical clichés you love to hate?
Boston is a “guitar rock” city and I get a bit bored with the overtly macho heavy rock sounds. ‘70s and ‘80s guitar rock is something I was never into. Every once in a while someone kicks it up a notch and I try to be there when they do. I was more into Funk, Punk, Glam, Folk, Country Rock and Art Rock.
Boston is a loyal town that remembers its glory days. Some of those days are rich in rock lore. With the death of WBCN (for many, it had been a shadow of its former self for years) I often wonder if it’s time for a new voice for original music in Boston.
A good Boston cliché would be the nurturing and supportive nature of music fans for original bands. Many bands would never have made the bigger stage without them. Boston people are tough, but loyal, and I like that. I’m the same way.
9. If you could hit the road opening for any band, who would it be and why would their fans appreciate what the HeartSleeves have to offer?
If I’m thinking of the bigger acts, I think audiences that likes Death Cab For Cutie, Dave Matthews, The Strokes, The White Stripes, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Bright Eyes, Wilco, would find we had something to offer them in our mix of ‘60s, ‘70s and contemporary soulpop, however, I would love to open for Sharon Jones and The Dapp Kings or (if she was playing and sober) Amy Winehouse and The Dapp Kings. Those two have really got it going in new directions. Plus,the Dapp Kings are amazing!
Top of the list of the living? I would want to play with Levon Helm or Al Green. What can I say… Living gods.
10. What’s your favorite gig venue and why?
We love Jacques Underground. It’s one of the last dirty, black basements out there where people who really love new music congregate. Otherwise, we’re still fairly new to the scene and have yet to play the sweet spots like the Middle East.
11. Where should people look for info about where to see you live?
Our site, www.theheartsleeves.com has links to everything FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter and iTunes related. We also encourage everyone to download our whole album free from our site and if folks like it, we ask them to please let us know and tell their friends. Nowadays, that’s the best way to get word out.
Thanks for an incredible interview! If you want to hear more from the men of The Heartsleeves, make sure to check them out on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and, of course, their Web site. Consider us instant fans!
Posted by A. Sogal at 2:18 pm