Those of you who know me, know that Bryan John Appleby and his new album, Fire on the Vine, are and have been favorites of mine since the summer. Also, some of these questions may look and sound familiar, but they’re questions that have always intrigued me and having this opportunity to ask Bryan John Appleby these particular questions has quenched some of my curiosity about this very compelling artist and album.
CFM: What excites you about making music?
BJA: This is a pretty typical answer but really I’m interested in the potential of a song. What I really like about music is, that it can cater to both reason and emotion. You can do so much with the sounds alone. Bands like Sigur Ros or Bon Iver. They make these sonic landscapes that settle into you. This is all really general but I love that the three simple elements of melody, harmony and rhythm can shake and stir a person so utterly. And then you add lyrics on top of that. It’s the potential to communicate on this really meaningful level. So I’m excited about writing a song that messes me up and hopefully messes up some other folks. Make of that what you will. Everyone knows the feeling, when you hear a lyric or a melody or a chord that feels like it’s bending you. You feel it pushing you. I love that.
So that’s the abstract answer. More tangibly, I like finding sounds. When we recorded Fire on the Vine, we looked for sounds in everything. Dropping light bulbs, dragging chains, rattling pistachios in a leather satchel, breaking pallets with hammers. Anything. Half the time it doesn’t work for the song but it’s really fun. This is my favorite. Finding sounds that no one can figure out.
I guess all of this means that I really, really want to make music that I can feel, that really gets in there. I’m not necessarily trying to make something that’s novel or groundbreaking. Not trying to start a new genre or make a modern masterpiece. There are so many great bands and songwriters that get so close to what I want to hear. But there’s still a frontier. If I can find a little musical plot of land that’s my own, that sounds like something else at all, I’ll be happy with that. That’s what I’m working on. That’s what I want.
CFM: What discourages you?
BJA: I have a lot of friends that are some of the best songwriters I know and their songs may never get further than their own bedroom. Conversely, there are so many flimsy little shitty bands that make predictable, uninspired music and they make a good living because they are good at marketing and networking and creating buzz. It’s an old story but it’s still a bummer to see. I get discouraged knowing how many great songs will never be heard by me or anyone just because that particular artist isn’t polished enough to gain the attention of the corporate folks. There aren’t a lot of labels left that will sign a no name just because they happen to like the sound or because they think the art and music is important and relevant. You have to already be on your way up to get anyone’s attention most the time. On the flip side, I think that there are a lot of great bands that have been fortunate enough to achieve a sustainable music career that are doing a wonderful job championing some of the no names. I love seeing this, bands that get huge but still make a concerted effort to keep a finger on the pulse of their city’s music scene. You can say what you will about Dave Matthews, and everyone has something to say, but he is really good at this sort of thing. He has helped countless bands out for no other reason than he liked what he heard. This is rad.
CFM: There are a couple of things that have always interested me when it comes to an artist and their work — creative process and inspiration. What was your creative process like while creating and recording Fire on the Vine? What inspired the album?
BJA: I take a really long time to write a song. I sort of spiral down into it. A lot of phrases and characters and chords and rhythms. Just chicken scratch and noise. Then I just start trimming it down and hopefully pull out a song. It would be nice to get more efficient at it but it usually takes a couple of months to write one song. “Backseat” was an exception. That one was a couple of days. But that was really unusual. Still nice that it happens once in a while.
So, it took me about a year and a half to write all the songs for Fire on the Vine. Then it was pretty much just Kevin Matley, the producer, and me hashing out arrangements and instrumentation. We had access to a warehouse recording studio in Ballard with no hourly charge. It gave us the chance to be a lot more explorative. The album would have been a lot sparser without that space to work in. We took advantage of it too. One week we spent over 100 hours in five days. I lost some portion of my soul after that week. My brain is still trying to put itself back together a little bit.
For inspiration, the usual stuff. Books, songs, pictures, and residual experiences from my youth, everything that’s been packed inside me since my birth; childhood experiences, familial dynamics, the Bible.
I try to mix up a lot of things. It’s always at least a tiny bit true but usually mostly fiction. “Sprout” is the other way. That one is mostly true with a few flubbed facts. But yeah books. During the most recent writing period, I was reading Annie Dillard, David James Duncan, Flannery O’Conner, Marylyn Robinson.
CFM: Where did the title “Fire on the Vine” come from? What does it mean to you?
BJA: Geeze. Ok, this is the best way I can describe it. In the song “Words of the Revelator,” I created a conversation between an old craggy hermit scholar type and a young man. This relationship is analogous to the inner struggle that a thinking, reasoning person encounters when she or he is confronted by irreconcilable ways of thinking. This is my experience in the past three years and the characters represent two depictions of myself; the former self and the current self. I hate to make it sound so complex. I guess in a nutshell, the record, for me, was a casting off a former self. The vine might be a biblical allusion.
CFM: There are a lot of religious/Biblical references on the album. What influenced the allusions?
BJA: I guess we kind of hit this already. To elaborate, my worldview has always been shaped by this book. I read it fervently in high school. I was raised on it. My worldview has shifted but the images still linger, some of them beautiful, some of them terrifying, and a lot of them heartbreaking, troubling, provocative. I reflect on these images constantly. The story of Noah’s Ark, of Abraham and Isaac, of the deeds of the Minor Prophets. It’s really horrifying and I just started getting that in the last few years.
CFM: Are there any songs on the album that have more personal meaning than others?
BJA: Yes. “Sprout” and “The Road.” They are the bookends on my experience with this album. I was in Thailand two years ago when I wrote “Sprout,” the first of the songs. And “The Road” was the last one I wrote. The other songs are further explorations built on the questions I raise in “Sprout.” And “The Road” was written as an attempt at tying the whole thing off, to leave the album with at least a degree of resolution. I don’t think the lyrics are that clever or poetically satisfying in “The Road,” but it had a lot of personal resonance.
CFM: I know you will be touring the west coast this summer, but will there be any shows on the east coast?
BJA: Eventually. I’m still paying for everything myself as an independent artist, so we’ll have to see what record sales look like. I’m sure I’ll be out there by 2012. I’ll be playing in Chicago over the holidays this year. I played in New York City last year. I forget the name of the place. It was a pretty forgettable show but I love that city. I can’t wait to hit the whole coast.