Jake Huffman: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young McLovin
RR: What about “Mon Ami?” To me, that’s a very slow, intimate tone poem to a friend, or not a friend, or some sort of relationship that requires intimacy, and I felt it had perfect placement right after “Cohesive” on the album. I bring this up all the time, but I am a big fan of the complete album experience, and sequencing is still a very critical aspect of the listening adventure that I seek, so it is important here, too.
JH: I thought that was a really good idea to put that right after “Cohesive.” I remember having a bunch of different conversations with Tom, and we would always talk about live shows. He came to see us a couple of times, and what he told us after the show was “Jake, you need to play more slow songs,” and I said, “Tom, when we play slow songs, people go to the bathroom. People talk really loud when we play slower songs.” He told me that “it doesn’t exactly matter, at the time, if people are going to the bathroom or talking because you really need to take people on a journey through the whole thing. You need to have ‘go up the mountain’ and ‘go down the mountain’—go up a peak, and go back down—and take people on a ride.”
We wanted people, when they listen to Who Knows, to listen to it as if it is a little story. It has all of these really high points, but it also has some slow, really mellow points. I think it makes the whole…especially “Mon Ami”…it’s very real. There are not too many overdubs. It is very minimalist. Jason and Jeffrey played the same thing on the track, just in different octaves. Jason wrote the bass part, and Jeffrey played it along with him. It’s a very simple tune, but it has a lot of meaning like the whistling and stuff, and it does stand out because it’s not as ripping as the other tracks, but we still tried to put a lot in it, but still keep it on that really mellow, cool little level.
RR: I think Tom Marshall has been in peak form since at least 2000, if not well beyond that, and I am especially fond of his underrated work with Anthony Krizan. The tracks do take you on that journey we have both described—it is a unique skill that needs to be developed over time, and Tom nails it more than anyone else. When you think how that specific way of writing applies to your own music right now, that ability to take your listener on a unique journey, how are you applying that philosophy to your own current live shows? How do you create that sense of adventure, and that word of mouth, so you can continue to do this work as a musician, and continue to make records like the one you just made, Who Knows ?
JH: I think the biggest thing when we’re writing setlists is that we don’t think of it like the setlist is just for when we’re at the show. We know that, in the day and age that we live in, what we are playing is going to be recorded. What we’re putting out musically is not just going to die when we stop playing because there are recordings, and hundreds of thousands of people are potentially going to download the album and listen to it. And the people that download it at home, listen to it a lot closer than when they’re at the show. When they’re at the show, it’s like in the moment, and it’s almost like going all around them, and it’s big and it’s very intense.
When people go back home and re-listen to it, they listen very carefully to different things than they would at the live show. We always take that into consideration. We never play the same setlist twice. We really don’t do that. We always build the sets differently. Sometimes, we’ll start out at a really, really high point and then, we’ll build it, and sometimes, we’ll start really low, and build it up again. We really take into consideration all the different people who are going to be listening to it. We looked to shows in the past with what people liked, and we try to change it just a little bit, or enough to where people will say, “Oh, that’s cool. They sound different,” and they’ll still be interested, and they’ll keep wanting to go to more shows because they’ll know—“I can see them play the song three nights in a row, but it won’t sound the same each time; It’ll sound completely different.”
RR: I was intrigued by 3 Faces of “Close to the Line,” a feature the McLovins had on your site a while back, in which you presented different performances of the same song from three shows in four days. How do you consciously change a song, so that it is a little different each time? Or, is that more of a subconscious thing to you?
JH: I do think it is more subconscious, and a lot of what we are thinking at the time we are playing is based on how the audience is vibing to us, and what we played in other songs before. Like let’s say we put “Close to the Line” really late in the set. There is a good chance that one of us will play a hook that we played in the beginning of the set in “Close to the Line.” We’ll add these things. We’ll have a little hook that we’ll play in a show, and you’ll hear that same hook in three different songs in the show, and then you won’t hear that at any other show. It is definitely more subconscious, but, you know, we do do little things like that with the hooks. Maybe, we’ll play it a little bit faster, instead of Jason taking a solo, Justin or Atticus will take a solo, or we’ll play it more spacey. We do little things, and different, subtle things, and we’ll tell each other before we play.
RR: On that vein—how a band will expand or contract, or do something unique within various performances—let’s take this full circle. I wrote in my notes that “Who Knows is a mature, well-rounded, solidly-produced, lean and focused work. ” We started out in our conversation talking about Jeffrey Howard and his departure, and what individuals do when they are in a group setting, and how people in that group dynamic need to move forward together as a unit. If they don’t, it causes problems. However, friction is also critical in music. You take obvious examples, say from classic rock, where you had Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth, or Jimmy Page and Robert Plant—two opposing forces creating one pristine work of art. Personalities don’t have to be the same, but they need to be on the same path in music. I say all of that because as you go through all of these experiences with the McLovins, are you also looking at your own individual path at the same time?
JH: Jason and I have talked about this a lot more than we have with the new guys just because of how long we’ve known each other. We really have felt—especially, Jason and I—how we play together and interact as people is very unique, and it is something that doesn’t happen with many other people. It’s a very unique situation with how we play together, and how we can interact in music. He and I could play with our eyes closed, and we’d know exactly where each other was going in music. If one of us started a fill, we’d almost know what that fill was going to be. We just know.
I think as people, we try to separate ourselves as people, and then, who we are at the show. You have to have a stage personality type of thing, and you have to know who you are outside of an artist’s world. We always take that into consideration.
RR: Let me try this from a different angle, since I brought up the dynamics of a guitarist and a singer, and, you, of course, play drums. When you were growing up, who were some of the drummers that influenced you? How do you approach drumming these days as not only a musician, but as a listener?
JH: Steve Gadd. The first album that I ever had, and that I really remember listening to was The Rhythm of the Saints and Graceland. I started out listening to Paul Simon. When I thought of music when I was younger, that’s what I thought all music was—that kind of sound. When “Boy in a Bubble” came on, and the drums came on, which were Steve Gadd, I knew right away that I wanted to play drums because that was the instrument that I seemed to connect with the most. It definitely shaped how I think about music. When I play music…and I think this goes for all of us when we’re playing; we’re playing notes and rhythms, but in the end, we’re making a feeling, we’re making people feel something, we’re trying to push a feeling on to someone, so they can feel how we’re feeling in the moment, and it turns into this whole collective feeling that everyone is feeling, and it just builds and grows and changes. Each song definitely has a different feeling that reflects the time of when we wrote it; it reflects how we were feeling at the time we wrote it. I feel like the best songs you feel in your heart and your head when you are listening to it. You have an idea of where the artist was, where the person was in their life, and you can only relate to them more if the song was written with the most feeling.
RR: Do you think there will come a time when you’ll segue from drumming to concentrating more on your songwriting? Or, will you continue to combine the two?
JH: I think, in the end, to be the most well-rounded artist, I have to do it all together. There are definitely some days where I’ll just play the drums, and I won’t sing at all. There’s definitely other days where I will just play guitar. I won’t play drums at all. I won’t even think about it. I really think of it as like I’m a musician, so as a drummer, I can’t really play the melodic part of the music, but I understand the melodic part of the music very well. When I sing, I try to put that out there. I have a strong understanding of rhythm, so when I sing, and do the melodic stuff, I really put more rhythm into that.
When I’m playing guitar and singing songs, most of my songs have a rhythm to it that a drummer would think of. A guitarist would not think of the rhythm like I would be because I’m a drummer, so I think they intertwine and it makes me sound like me.
RR: Taken further, in a live context, are you occasionally leading the jams, or are those changes laid out beforehand, and you are all leading each other, and moving forward as one?
JH: It happens in different ways. There are times where one person will take over the jam, and be the definitive leader, and play follow the leader, and follow them for a while. But a lot of the times, it seems to just work out and the jams almost go where they want to go, and we just let them flow in the right direction. Someone will play something, and that’ll spark another interest of another player, and then it will really expand in our heads, and it’ll go in its own direction, especially when we jam. I don’t think I could describe exactly how we do it, but it is kind of like a stream of consciousness throughout all of us.
RR: Which leads to where you think you are heading in the next year or two.
JH: As an artist, my number one goal is to progress, to know more and understand music more than I already do, and I know in a year, I’m going to be thinking about music in a completely different way than I am right now. And I’m excited for that.
As far as the band, I think that more people will accept the fact that Jeffrey isn’t in the band. More people will find out who we are because we’re playing out more. I do feel that when people really start listening, they will hear that we’re putting in our whole heart, and our whole lives into this band. Being a musician is what all four of us want to do, it’s what we are planning on doing, it’s what we’re practicing for, and it’s what we’ve decided that we are going to do. I think that people will really see that, and in the next couple years, I really just plan on working 110%, all the time, on my art, on the shows, and albums. I don’t know exactly where I will be, but I do know that I will be further along than I am now.