Jeff Austin: Steady Friends and A Step Beyond The Show
Photo by Stuart Levine
It’s been almost four years since you guys released The Show. I hear you have a new album coming soon. Can you talk a little about that?
We have a—it’s an EP actually, it’s kind of fun. We were like, not to make any kind of comparison to The Beatles—ever—but you know how they just recorded records and never toured? We just tour and we don’t make records.
Part of that came out of the fact that we fund everything on our own. And when we put out The Show, we put a lot of money into it, a lot of money behind it, and a lot of this and that and it just fell flat. It didn’t sell. It’s a mindfuck, what did we do wrong? Could this have been different? Could this have been different? And it was just the way the changing of the tide was. People were downloading music. I consciously have a weird thing about downloading music for free. I genuinely avoid it because it’s something like, “I’m gonna pay for it! I want the record, I’m gonna buy it!”
And also, you know, we don’t all live in Colorado anymore. There are three of us in Colorado and one of us in California. So the ability, when we’re home, to say, “We’ve got 4 weeks off, let’s take a week off, then go in the studio for a week,” it’s not that easy. Like I said, there are babies, there are families. I’ll be 40 next year. I’m not the 25-year-old kid I was when I started. There are different priorities in life. I want to be able to be home and retile my bathroom. I know that’s not the most rock star thing you could say, and God forbid if I would ever call myself a rock star, but I love that people are like, “What do you do when you’re home? Go rage?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I pick out paint samples. I pick out cherry wood flooring.” “What?” “Yeah, that’s what I do. That’s really what I do. I fill up kiddie pools and I garden.”
But, so, the record thing. We said, “Let’s start this way: maybe re-imagine the way you release a record. We each pick a song and we put it out. And maybe that’s more approachable, unless you’re on a big label, Columbia or RCA or any of that shit, to print up 20,000 discs and booklets and all that shit. That, to me, just seemed so—the tactile experience of record buying is starting to die off. I can sit here right now on my phone and buy Daft Punk. Right now. Done. You know what I mean? And that’s fine. But how do you transfer the music to people? So I think that the EP idea where it’s accessible, it’s 4 songs, it’s 25 minutes and ‘check it out,’ and then we can release another down the road. It’s just a re-imagining of how it all works. People re-imagine how they tour. If something’s not working in a market, let’s say we went from 2,000 people 1,200 people, what do we do new? Well, it’s the same thing with a record. “Ah, we sold 25,000 records,” which we’ve never sold, and then we sold 5,000 records, so where’s the reinvention of how to do that?
It makes no sense to, like I said, we’re funding it. There’s no guy behind a desk with a big cigar and a monocle going, “Here kids!,” throwing us bags of gold, that’s not how it goes. We’re responsible for it. And if you’re going to spend $250,000 on a record and have it in a warehouse, it’s not beneficial. These are the un-fun parts of the business. You get frustrated. You get weirded out. It’s that self-guessing, that second-guessing yourself.
Well how about a Mountain Tracks Vol. 6?
Oh man, it hit me the other day that about 7-8 years ago we said, “Let’s record every night.” And now there’s a room full of fucking everything. There’s hard drives, just terabytes of shit, years of stuff. So I don’t think that would be something that would be out of the question, but I will say the one thing, as far as transferring music to the fans, the things that we do with the live downloads and stuff, my gosh, those really move. People really buy those. And I will say, we’ll play the big shows and we won’t sell that many. And then we’ll play a six hundred-seat place in Florida and we’ll sell 2,000 of them. I’m going, “This is wild.” It’s wide open. There’s no set thing for it. Whereas I don’t think it would be something out of the question, the fact that it took us since 2008 to record four songs.
And really, the recording of the record came up by surprise. Last year we were doing interviews and people said, “So, tell me about your most recent record.” And I said, “What recent record?” And they’d say “Well, _The Show._” And I’d go, “Oh my god. Oh my. Oh my god, that came out in ’09; we recorded in ‘08 and now it’s 2012.” And it’s like, holy crap, four years in a band, that’s a lifetime.
Speaking of studio work, you guys have recorded a few tracks in the past with drums but you rarely bring them in live…
We have at certain points. We’ve been lucky to play live shows with some of the best drummers, not just drummers, but musicians in general. Jon Fishman, Pete Thomas, who was the Elvis Costello & The Attractions drummer. The guy is on stage with us who played “Watching the Detectives” and fucking “Veronica.” He’s playing the snare drum of the ’70 megahits, you know? Pete’s been with Elvis for 35, 40 years. He’s been with him since the very start and so we have been lucky to have those people on stage. Future Man is another great, great drummer we get to play with.
But there are times for myself, in particular in the studio, where I like to use it for what it is. It is not the stage. It’s different and therefore you can experiment with different things. Like on The Show, I’m not standing on stage during “Honestly” singing through a Leslie cabinet with a microphone attached to it, which I’m doing on “Honestly.” It sounds like a guitar effect; it’s me singing through a Leslie speaker with Tom Rothrock just spinning pedals. It took me a long time because “We’ve gotta sound like ourselves! We don’t sound like ourselves in the studio.” Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s a different place. You’re not on stage, you can do different things, you can try different tricks, you can mess around with things. We’re going to layer four guitars over this song. Why? Because we’re in the studio, we’re not on stage. There is that transferability from the studio to the stage that you want to have some truth to. But I think if you lock yourself into that too long, it can hinder who you are and what you want to do. Myself, I love playing with drums. I didn’t grow up listening to bluegrass music, I grew up listening to ‘80s pop bands. There’s something about the beauty of a three-and-a-half-minute crafted song that had a big hook and a catchy chorus and killer production. I love that, I love it. I also love the 45-minute explorations of a 1989 Grateful Dead show. For me, I love playing with drums. As a mandolinist, as a mandolin player, it’s easier on my right hand too. [Laughs.] I can do different things.