Jeff Austin: In It to Win It with 30db
[Editor’s Note: Here Randy Ray continues his conversation with the 30db founders, Brendan Bayliss and Jeff Austin. Be sure to check out Part One, to hear Brendan’s thoughts and read Randy’s proper intro].
Part I – A Wheel Set in Motion with Jeff Austin
But time is always a mystery: it seems, more than anything else in existence, to be subjective.
- In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles, edited by Jeffrey Miller
RR: Were you surprised at how well your two different styles blended together? As I asked Brendan, it wasn’t like one person had a song and you did it in his style, and then the next person had a song, and you followed his lead. You both worked within the framework of a partnership.
JA: On one side, we have been doing it for a couple of years. Some of the songs are the record, we wrote three and a half, four years ago. It was something that I was really happy when it happened. When you meet another musician, and you have that ability to communicate like that, it’s pretty cool and a rare thing. You can try to collaborate with a lot of folks, and it just doesn’t click. You try and you try and you try, and it just doesn’t happen. I think it starts with how we got along when we first met. We were on the same page, had the same kind of jokes, we were both into the Chicago Cubs, we’re both Midwest guys, so there was an immediate rapport right there.
When we finally broke through the bubble, and were able to write, we were always trying to achieve what you just said: not have it be like “O.K.—I’m going write this kind of song, and you’re going to contribute, and you’ll write your kind of song.” If we’re going to write, let’s really make it cohesive. Let’s make it like a real entity, instead of just, well, “here’s a bluegrass song, and here’s a stretched-out real improv song.” I think if we hadn’t been able to get to that point, I don’t think we would have pursued it like we have.
My favorite thing is when you meet someone who can edit your work without it being just nitpicking. When it’s genuinely for the greater good, when you can find somebody that you can write with like that, it’s pretty rare. I don’t have a lot of (laughs)…this is the best writing partner I’ve had.
RR: Quite frankly, before I got ready to listen to One Man Show for the first time, my initial thought was that I hope this isn’t a project where the two leaders are taking out their frustrations at not being able to do this material with their respective bands. And, much to my relief, it doesn’t sound like that.
JA: That’s good to hear. It goes back to that whole thing. We just really wanted it to become its own thing, and not have it based in “well, I don’t get to play this style of music.” For me, last night [at 30db’s tour opening gig in Minneapolis] was such a cool relief to really rock out (laughs) in a different sense, and in a totally different way. That’s really good to hear, and I’m glad. That’s what we were going for. I think that’s why the project took so long to come to where it is now. We let it really develop. Nothing was rushed. Nothing was hurried. It was allowed to breathe. That’s really cool to hear. I’m glad you feel that way about the record.
RR: The project has taken a very long time to develop. I suppose, obviously, one of the main reasons was that all of the musicians were so busy—everyone from you, Brendan, Cody Dickinson, Nick Forster, and, of course, Eric Thorin.
JA: Eric has his fingers in so many cool projects. He’s producing records, playing with different bands, and arranging. Nick, of course, with eTown, and he’s building E Town Hall, so he’s been doing a lot of fundraising, a lot of traveling, his radio show, and all the bands he plays with, so the scheduling…
Once it became like something that was really real—it wasn’t just a pile of songs that Brendan and I had written (in the early days, we were trying to figure out, “O.K.—is this going to be a duo? Are we going to bring other musicians in? Do we want to try a drum approach?)—and it finally became ‘action time’, and “let’s talk,” then that was the catalyst: full stream ahead.
We mixed the record for fourteen months. We went back and forth with sequences, different ideas—bringing tracks in and bring tracks out. And then last night: we just had a freakin’ blast. We had so much fun because it was finally like “O.K.—now, it’s here. Now, let’s go out, and all the talk, and all the fun that we had envisioned what it could be, now, we actually have it in our hands to make it happen. Let’s take full advantage of these opportunities, these moments.” It was really something. My manager shot a bunch of video last night, and I was looking at it and nerding out, and it’s pretty cool. (laughs)
RR: What were some of your initial impressions that provoked such excitement?
JA: As far as technique, I got to step completely out of what I do at my other job. I didn’t play bluegrass chops on the mandolin once last night. It was a completely new realm to float around in—a lot of sonic manipulation with distortion and stuff. Also, I get to play with Brendan more often than not—we get to play our little duo sets, too—but to get to have somebody like Nick and Eric and Cody to finally stand on stage and make it happen is pretty exhilarating. There’s a lot of smiling going on in the photographs. (laughter) It’s nice. The other thing I noticed, and I was just talking about with Cody, is that [in the May 6 video footage] we are all lurching forward. We’re so ready for this to happen. That talk is over; now, it’s time for action. When you watch the video, we’re all leaning forward and looking at each other, and it’s like “Come on, come on. Let’s get it, let’s get it. Let’s grab it while it’s here.” In pretty much every different way, getting to play different material, and, also, I’ve been dying to play these songs in this way with these guys. It’s a completely different beast when Brendan and I get to execute them as a duo, but then, with a full group… [switches gears] also, too, we finished recording in December ’08, so these songs have been in all of our heads for a long time. (laughs) It was really great to finally make it an actual physical being.
RR: Let’s talk about two songs you brought to the project “Backfire” and “Automatic,” and one song you also developed with Brendan, “Lick # Six.”
JA: We did mutual credits for every tune on the record. If it was mostly Brendan’s idea, or mostly my idea, it came fully realized when we both started the editing process. One of the rarest things is to find somebody that you can not only just write with, but somebody who knows the good that can come from some addition and subtraction. Let’s subtract this last line, and I think it’ll make it flow a little better, or in “Lick # Six,” I came up with that lick and I came up with a couple little lines, and when we sat down, it was like “this could be so much better. There’s something else in this.” It was a different word—I can’t remember what it was. (laughs) I do remember him saying, “You can do better than that. There’s something else there.”
I wrote “Automatic” years ago, and it blew up and was a real kind of drone-y Jay Farrar kind of vibe to it. I thought, “Fuck it. Let’s just blow it up. Let’s see if we can just rock it, man.” And we did. When I first played it for Bayliss, he said, “Play it a little harder. Play it little louder, so I can hear it. Let’s try a different approach.” That’s where, regardless of who sings what—like “One Man Show,” we wrote together, “Always Up,” we wrote together, even though I may take the melody line, or it seems like those were solid collaborations from beginning to end. But “Automatic” is about as far as I could step out of any comfort zone. Comfort zone is kind of a weird phrase. I think you’ve got to be comfortable in your own shoes, and then, everything you step into will become somehow familiar, even if you’ve never been there before.
“Backfire” is not hard to understand (laughs) where that content is coming from [broken relationships, as Bayliss and Austin both got divorced within months of each other], but it’s the same thing. When I sat down, and penned that tune out, the way it changed and developed, and went through the process, was really a collaborative thing that happens. The shit that we both went through really was important because we knew where we were coming from, so it wasn’t like “I can’t identify; I don’t think I have anything to contribute to that because I don’t know where you’re coming from.” The fact that we both had that experience, and we both knew—“Hey, man, I know what you’re getting at”—made that flow and the writing a lot easier (laugh), if you can think that of such heavy content: “Oh, it’s kind of easy.”