‘Awaiting Our Return’: Percy Hill, After All
Percy Hill is "back." The band has just released After All, their first album since 1999, and the first since Color In Bloom, the seminal album that managed to win album of the year at the inaugural Jammy Awards. Evoking comparisons to Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder, the album was like little the jamband world had experienced. The album was textured, it was layered, and it was a damn great album. But then just as many, myself included, thought Percy was about to explode in terms of popularity, the group seemingly walked away. A band that had played hundreds of shows just stopped.
But as I said, they are back, at this point with only a limited touring schedule, in support of their newest release and many of the group’s fans, to invoke the album’s first track, have been "Awaiting Our Return." I was anxious to interview the band for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that in 1996 Percy Hill was one of my first "peak" musical experiences, something I’ve learned I share with countless other individuals, who eagerly awaited the band’s follow up. I had a chance to sit down with the entire band before one of their three CD release parties, this one in Brooklyn at the Southpaw. Their responses to the questions are far reaching, touching on the earliest days of the band, the pressure, or lack thereof, of making an album after Color In Bloom, and whether Abraham Lincoln was actually a cult leader.
Dan: Let’s start with the new album, can you talk about what you wanted to accomplish with it. You were coming off recording Color In Bloom, which I personally can’t say enough about, and tons of people cite as one of their favorite albums. It had to have been daunting to some degree going into the studio knowing that Color In Bloom was so well received. Was there any pressure to follow that album up?
Joe Farrell: We didn’t have that much in the way of expectations when we went into it. But it just started to roll and develop. Like, it was just fairly easy. And it came to the point where we realized we were able to make something at least on that caliber. And that became a goal for me. We all felt that we wanted to put something comparable, if not better, out there. But when we first started, I felt like we didn’t have much for expectations.
Aaron Katz: We were just excited to be in the studio again.
Nate Wilson: You know, it wasn’t like we went into the studio for Color In Bloom and we wanted to make, like the best album ever or anything like that. We just went into the studio and do what we do. ‘Cause what we do works really well. And that’s pretty much the same approach that we used this time. All of us are fairly experienced in the studio, and we know what we’re trying to get after. I don’t think any of us were really too nervous going in there.
Dan: At the time Color In Bloom came out, the band and album evoked comparisons to Steely Dan, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder. John had mentioned in a past interview that band was listening to lots of Steely Dan at the time and that obviously had an influence on the band. Do you think After All has the same flavor as Color In Bloom, or there is a progression in the band’s sound or songwriting style?
Aaron: It’s the same instrumentation. The Rhodes, clav, organ, guitar, bass, drums and percussion and are all there. So the similarities are there.
Dan: At the same time, Nate has said in the past that he’s a gearhead and likes to collect keyboards. Is there anything that’s on this album that wasn’t on Color In Bloom.
John Leccese: Wurlitzer?
Joe: We didn’t play any.
Nate: You know, it’s all better working versions of stuff that I tried to use on Color In Bloom. (laughs) All those particular instruments, I’ve gotten newer ones that worked better. Or gotten repaired. For Color In Bloom, we had just come off the road, and we dragged all our stuff in the studio and said "Here we go!" So this time I was happier with the way the instruments sounded. We had all this time to get stuff that actually works.
Dan: I ask because Jaime Shields from The New Deal, in the summer of 2001, I believe he added a new keyboard or two to his rack, and I felt it dramatically altered the sound of that band as a result, for the better. I know you said you didn’t have, really, any new equipment, but do you feel the album was a progression at all because of the newer equipment?
Nate: You know, the real progression for me was just being more experienced. It took less time in the studio for me to get what I wanted out of it. I was able to do it quicker, and I had a better idea of what I wanted in terms of experimentation.
John: In some ways, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
John: I think there are a couple more flavors. You know, same bass flavors, with a couple more tones and other things:
Aaron: Yahuba Garcia is playing percussion on this album. So he’s added a whole dimension.
Dan: One of the few criticisms of the album I have heard, and this comes from some of your more intense fans is that there wasn’t enough "new" material. Because you guys have been playing a bunch of the songs since 2001 or 2002 or so. So I was curious, being that you had all these songs, was getting together to make the album more of a response to the desire to play together and make an album, or more about "Well, we have all these songs. Let’s go in the studio and just record them"?
Nate: I think that some of the material that’s on there we have been playing for a couple of years. Not all of it. There’s material that we never played live at all. But, mostly it’s just stuff that lent itself really well. Both Aaron and I have plenty of material that we could’ve recorded. But it makes more sense to go into the studio and bang out the stuff that you are most comfortable with and is the most developed.
Aaron: Basically we’ve had eight years of pre-production on this material before we entered the studio so we’re very comfortable with it. Like you say, just the atmosphere of the studio breeds its own energy.
Dan: In terms of your decision to step away from the road, I was wondering if you guys ever feel as though had Percy Hill stuck around for a couple more years, you might be involved in what’s going on, and be on the level of a, say, moe.?
Aaron: We knew when it was time to take a little time away. If it’s not working, if it’s not personally gelling, there’s no reason to be doing anything.
John: Plus, you can’t really say we’d be there, because we probably wouldn’t be there…
Dan: You know, I misspoke there and didn’t mean to insinuate….
John: No, no. We had to stop for a reason, and if we kept going, the reason would’ve still existed and we never would’ve gotten there anyway.
Dan: Yeah. I understand that everyone has their own things going on, whether it be a solo band, or playing with Reid, or teaching, but have their been and band discussions about getting back together in a full capacity for a lengthier period of time? Maybe touring for a month, or two months?
Aaron: You know, we’re open to all possibilities. We’re not shutting the door on anything that could come up. I mean, we’re proud of the album. We want as many people to hear it possible. And we are all doing other things, so our time is split up. But we’re keeping our options open.
Dan: Very political answer.
Joe: It’s true though, it’s true.
Dan: You guys have always been known as a very talented band, musically. Everyone always raves about the sound of the band, and how to some degree, it’s very unique in this little world that some of us live in. But as any fan would attest, the band’s lyrics are an important part of the band’s appeal. For this album, what was the songwriting process like?
Nate: You know, both Aaron and I write most of the material. We both have different processes. Material comes from different places. It’s not like we sat down and said "Alright, we have to write a batch of songs for this next album." These are just songs we’re written over the years.
Dan: Do you have a particular style? I mean, I know some people, guitar players for instance, sit down with a hook or riff on guitar and add lyrics to that. Or is it more lyrics first?
Nate: Usually more me, I play harmonically. I think about chords and I think about melodies, and the lyrics usually happen after that. It’s not to say that I haven’t developed a chord progression before I have any lyrics. It usually all comes together at the same time. And I like to use an element of fiction. Something that kinda tells a story, or uses some imagery. I don’t usually try to advance any political agenda.
Dan: Specifically, can you talk about Shining on Creation?
Nate: Yeah, "Shining on Creation" a lot of people think this is like a Jesus rock song.
Everyone: (laughs….a lot)
John: And they’re absolutely right!
*Dan: Well, if you read the lyrics, it is a little religious.*
Nate: Well, the thing that inspired that song actually was I was watching a documentary about David Koresh. And I got interested in religious cults and why that whole thing happened. And why society views religious cults a certain way, when they are probably the same thing that religions were at the very beginning. And I was really curious about that. The song, the character is named "Abraham", and he’s sorta like a religious cult leader. It’s not really about any….
Dan: No specific Abraham?
(crosstalk….someone yells out Abraham Lincoln)
Aaron: Abraham was the first Jew. Abraham was the father of all the Jews.
John: Abraham Lincoln was?
Aaron: Just to answer, for me, I find certain material, with this group of guys, they can express it so well. Certain songs that I write that are more in a rock vein, or more in an ambient vein. It’s not necessarily "Percy Hill." But I think we found, material wise, what the Percy Hill sound is harmonically, lyrically and rhythmically.
Dan: Talk about "Lap of Luxury." The lyrics are fairly direct and I was curious where that came from.
Aaron: That was a time where I was thinking about what was important to me. Looking around, and I guess you are always comparing yourself to other people. Seeing how you fit into the world and finding your own way at the same time. I guess it’s a little bit about denouncing materialism…
Dan: It’s a fairly direct denouncement.
Aaron: It’s saying that’s not the do all and end all.
Dan: So now that’s it’s all said and done, how does the band feel about the album? Not necessarily comparing it to anything, but what are the feelings?
Aaron: This is the best thing I’ve ever been involved in, in my life. Musically.
Joe: I agree.
John: Two thumbs up.
Yahuba: I could listen to it over and over again man.
Dan: Was there a conscious effort to keep the songs shorter and more concise, in an effort to appeal to people that might not already be fans of the band?
Joe: We don’t have any of those types of preconceived ideas.
Aaron: We just try to make the songs work.
Nate: Yeah, we just usually try to do what’s best for the song. Some of those songs have instrumental sections, but I think what works best is they present themselves in logical places. It’s not like we have a big instrumental section, and the song is based around that. There are definitely songs that have that arranged element, like "Door #5. But we try to do that stuff (instrumental sections), but not have it detract from the song.
Dan: So what can we expect from the band in the future? Specifically, are there shows in the future we can look forward to? And what about the summer festival circuit or Jazzfest?
Aaron: We’re definitely looking at different tactics to getting it out in the world. We’re not going to be touring as much as we used to. Radio campaigns, you know, different means of getting it out in the world. We are looking at the summer, and we are going to continue doing shows.