Interview: Garcia Peoples

It doesn’t feel quite right to say we’re at the center of anything—more that we’re one humble star in a big night sky. We absolutely see ourselves as being part of a community, one that’s based in mutual appreciation and support of each other’s work as much as it is in any sort of easily applied genre tag

It’s been a busy 18 months for Garcia Peoples, and with the release of both their debut album Cosmic Cash, and follow up Natural Facts, alongside a seemingly endless touring schedule, you would think they would rest on their laurels a bit. When the fire is hot you need to strike though, and as if from nowhere a third album, One Step Behind introduced yet another side to the band. This time latching on to their status as a live jam band, the extraordinary 32 minute title track highlights a band unafraid to follow their muse in whatever direction it takes them. That the sole other track ‘Heart And Stone’ is no less a beauty of a track, makes for one of the best albums of the year. To find out more, resident psychonaut and Deadhead Martyn Coppack asks the questions. Garcia Peoples’ Andy Cush (bass), Derek Spaldo (guitar/vocal) and Danny Arakaki (guitar/vocal) answer the call...

(((o))): So, three albums in and no sign of stopping yet…what’s the hurry? Where is all this music coming from?

AC: Everyone in the band is constantly writing stuff. And the four from Rutherford, who have been doing Garcia Peoples the longest—Danny, Cesar, Tom, and Derek—have an insanely deep backlog of songs, sketches, riffs, and half-finished compositions that they’ve worked out together over the years, which we’ll revisit and use as a basis for new material fairly often. It’s almost like a secret language that they share, which Pat and I, the newer additions to the band, are learning and internalizing as we go.

Once, out on tour, Cesar texted an idea for a set list to our group chat, which included a song called “Citadel Rock.” Pat and I had no idea what that was, and Pat texted back half-jokingly, “WHAT THE FUCK IS CITADEL ROCK, YOU FUCKING FUCKS?” It turned out it was a loose outline for a jam that all of us were familiar with and had played before, but Pat and I had never heard it called by that name before—some leftover working title from the Rutherford days.

Now, in the batch of new material we’re currently working on, there’s a song that uses the main melody from the “Citadel Rock” jam, set against a new instrumental part that Pat wrote, with new lyrics by Derek, and an additional guitar section that Tom had worked out separately. But there’s also plenty of songs that Tom, Danny, or Derek brought in more or less finished already, that the rest of us have just added our own parts to and helped figure out how to arrange for the full band. A song can come together in any number of ways.

And if it seems like we’re in a hurry, it’s just because we’re excited about getting all this music out into the world, and we’re lucky enough to be with a label that’s as excited as we are. More to come!

(((o))): On a serious note though, the difference in music between Cosmic Cash, Natural Facts and now One Step Behind is remarkable. Let’s talk about the new album. Where did the idea for this come from? What was the impetus?

DA: The way this album panned out was something that simply just happened in the recording process. There wasn’t much of a discussion other than, saying ‘Oh that’d be cool, let’s try it out’. So we just went for it and decided we’d worry about it all fitting on the record once it was finished. As far as influence for this goes it’s all pretty transparent, but of course it’s our own take on it. Something along the lines of Terry Riley. One Step Behind’ adds to our potential to take things into different directions when we play it live and that’s probably what we were most excited about with this tune. Having Tom’s father Bob Malach play saxophone on one of our records was always something we hoped would happen. So that was definitely something we had in mind once we started seeing where the recording was going.

For Heart and Soul we wanted to have a song that would contrast nicely with the craziness at the ending of ‘One Step Behind‘. And something that would show a different side of our group. Derek nailed it with this tune and it’s one of the first tunes where everyone involved shines through equally.

((((o))): Of course, the “jam” has always been a part of GP yet on Natural Facts especially, you seemed to reign this in. Is that a deliberate choice? Does this allow for more experimentation on stage?

DS: At the time that we recorded Natural Facts, the live-jamming aspect of the band, which is now so central to us, was still relatively nascent. We would use improvisation more as a method of crafting and fleshing out songs, rather than a key component of our musical persona. We hadn’t yet allowed improvisation to be at the foreground of our live shows, either.

However, we intentionally captured the jam in High Noon Violence but even so, it’s relatively contained. That song continues to be a regular in our live sets, and we have definitely been known to take it waaay out.

What’s fun now is that, pretty much every song on Natural Facts has a proper jam attached to it, or some opening for improvisation. Our entire approach to playing live has changed since recording that album, really. There’s more trust, more listening, more spontaneity, less overt “planning.” It’s been a real treat to allow space for our songs to grow and transform over time through the jamming elements.

(((o))): Talking jam bands, there’s no getting away from the Grateful Dead connotations, both in name, and to these ears on the new album, Heart And Soul, which sounds like it could have been written especially for Jerry Garcia. How much do The Dead mean to you guys, if at all?

AC: The Dead are huge for us, for sure. If you’re a rock band that’s interested in improvising, like you said, there’s no getting away from it, and if you’re not acknowledging them as a titanic influence, you’re probably lying. Like any good Deadheads, we all have our favourite eras, songs, members, shows, versions, etc. We’ve jammed together on their songs before, and Pat played a heart-stoppingly beautiful version of Mountains of the Moon for harp and voice in his solo set that opened our most recent show.

But especially with our recent stuff, we’re not always drawing from them in terms of direct song-writing inspiration so much as we are from their general approach and sensibility: the willingness to take risks onstage, and the idea that there’s something beautiful and maybe even magical about not knowing what’s gonna happen next.

As for Heart and Soul when Derek first showed us a demo of that song, I was thinking about Will Oldham, the Band, late-period Beatles, and of course, his own song-writing voice. It’s cool that you hear Jerry in there, too.

(((o))): How do you see the band progressing. You have come so far in such a short space of time. Do you see the future as a mix of albums in a similar vein to Natural Facts with short songs, or seeking more experimental paths? What reaction are you expecting to get from One Step Behind?

DS: We like to be unpredictable. So far One Step Behind has been getting very positive feedback. People seem to be excited by how different it is from our previous releases. It’s exciting to us because it feels like we’re really trying to do our own thing, so it feels good to be heard on our own terms. Especially in the realm of rock, people always try to describe a band’s sound based on the context of other bands…. but what’s exciting about One Step Behind is that it defies comparison. For example, the opening saxophone intro, with the looping guitar, recalls the work of Philip Glass or other contemporary avant-garde composers, but then again… that experimental music influence in a rock and roll context creates something different.

Not to show our hand too much, but we’re already working on our fourth album. That album is being recording with our six-piece arrangement, allowing for so much more sonic exploration and possibility. That album is going to be a doozy too… It’s psychedelic rock, progressive… not necessarily progressive in the sense of like… “prog-rock,” though we do appreciate bands like King Crimson and Yes, but a step forward for what the band can achieve musically and sonically. The next record is certainly a fusion of the hard-rock from Natural Facts with the experimental nature of One Step Behind, certainly with improvisational elements, and some new territory as well.

I’m sure we’ll churn out another album of all major-key Americana-type music, too. And some talks about acoustic improvisations. But only time will tell!

(((o))): You guys seem to be constantly on tour, and recently been doing shows with Chris Forsyth. Do you find yourself bouncing ideas off each other, or trying to out-jam each other? What is an average day in a life for GP on tour?

AC: Some of the most fun and rewarding experiences we’ve had onstage have involved playing with Chris. I wouldn’t say we try to “out-jam” each other, but there is a concerted effort to listen closely to what everyone else is playing, and figure out whether it would serve the music to step back and give them space or to respond with a flourish of your own. Sometimes, when Chris or his regular drummer Ryan Jewell plays something really crazy, it does feel like the ante is being upped, in a way that pushes everyone to dig in and play even harder. He’s taught us about the power of grooving on a single chord for an extended stretch of time, and the way you can still fill these hypnotic trance jams with all sorts of little ear-catching melodic hooks. It can make something as simple as changing chords, when you do finally change, feel like some sort of huge seismic event. Chris’s tune Dreaming in the Non-Dream is a great example of all this stuff in action, and it’s one of our favorites to play with him.

The average day on tour involves a lot of driving and a lot of sitting around at the venue between soundcheck and showtime. During that waiting around period, we’ll usually pull out our instruments at some point and do some unplugged practicing, warming up, or just noodling around. Soundcheck can be a good time for a dry run through some new idea for a jam, or a fluid transition between songs that we’ve never attempted before.

A lot of the best moments on tour involve the fellow musicians and other friends who are kind enough to host us for the night: heading back to their place after the show, cracking some beers, maybe sparking something up, and getting a guided tour of their record collections. Some of our most mind-blowing communal listening experiences have happened during these wee-hours rap sessions: Glenn Branca’s Ascension, the Chico Magnetic Band, Willie Nelson’s crazy 2005 reggae album Countryman. Thanks to everyone who’s ever put us up, and put up with us—you know who you are.

(((o))): Taking it back to songwriting, and both Cosmic Cash and Natural Facts have some excellent pop nuggets. How do you approach lyric writing?

DS: How we wrote the lyrics on Cosmic Cash is slightly different than the way we worked on Natural Facts’ lyrics. On Cosmic Cash, whoever sang the song wrote the lyrics entirely, so the lyrics are completely the brain-child of that person.

On Natural Facts, the lyric writing was much more collaborative. For songs such as Weathered Mountains‘, Rolling Tides and Canvas Danny would write a verse, then he’d send it to Derek, and Derek would write lyrics influenced by associations from what Danny had wrote, and so on. We also had a lot of placeholder lyrics that wound up being evocative, poetic gems, too.

(((o))): Being on the Beyond Beyond is Beyond label, you are pretty much centre stage within the psych movement over in the US. Do you see yourselves as part of a collective of musicians within a single scene? Who are the current musicians and bands that are inspiring you? How do they fit in with your formative influences? Who were you listening to as you started to discover music?

AC: It doesn’t feel quite right to say we’re at the center of anything—more that we’re one humble star in a big night sky. We absolutely see ourselves as being part of a community, one that’s based in mutual appreciation and support of each other’s work as much as it is in any sort of easily applied genre tag. It’s always gonna trip us out a bit that we actually have Pat Gubler. Six in our band, after all having been impacted in the past by his beautiful work both as a solo artist and with Tower Recordings. He’s a musical (and comedic) genius, and playing with him is a good reminder of just how deep and strong the roots of this community are.

A short list of musicians who are inspiring us right now, many of whom we can call friends/collaborators/tourmates/labelmates/etc, some of whom we just admire from afar: Chris Forsyth, Ryley Walker, Ryan Jewell, Weak Signal, Mountain Movers, Headroom, Sunwatchers, Heron Oblivion, Howlin’ Rain, Kikagaku Moyo, Elkhorn, Prince Rupert’s Drops, Dire Wolves, Rosali, Long Hots, Sarah Louise, the Weather Station, Circuit Des Yeux, One Eleven Heavy, Hans Chew, Bill MacKay, Steve Gunn, 75 Dollar Bill, Horse Lords, Ohmme, William Tyler, Hand Habits, Weeping Bong Band, Pigeons, Debby Schwartz, More Klementines, Bardo Pond, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Kendra Amalie, High Time, Major Stars, Matt Valentine, Wet Tuna… whew, it could go on and on.

As far as how they fit with our formative influences, it would be a mistake to try to paint with too broadly a brush. But amongst a lot of bands we find ourselves connecting with, there do seem to be some shared baseline ideas and starting points. Like the idea that the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground are probably more similar than they are different. That Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, in their way, are jam bands, too. That you might put on a ‘70s Miles Davis record, close your eyes, and convince yourself that you’re listening to Can, or vice versa. (As Chris Forsyth once memorably pointed out at a rehearsal, you might occasionally mistake ZZ Top for Can, too.) From a song-writing perspective, a lot of people seem to be tuned into the approaches to folk music taken by artists like Fairport Convention, Bob Dylan, and the Dead—the idea that there’s something mystical, strange, and contemporary lurking in these old idioms, waiting to be resurrected. There’s a shared communal sensibility, and an aspiration to reach ecstatic highs: the idea that, when you get together with your friends and start jamming, anything could happen.

…………

(((o))): And yes, anything really could happen with these guys, and that’s what makes Garcia Peoples such an exciting prospect. It’s not just the albums that have introduced us to such a great band, but also the treasure trove of live performances you can find online which will keep you satiated for more. It may have been a crazy 18 months already, but hopefully we can now look forward to years of further exploration and jamming from the band.

Photo Credit: Ethan Covey

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