"Still being here, that’s our trophy,” Rival Sons’ frontman Jay Buchanan says as his band prepares to release new album Great Western Valkyrie. “The fact that we get the opportunity to make records is our greatest achievement.”
As Long Beach rockers Rival Sons return with a rampaging fourth record, frontman Jay Buchanan reflects on blood transfusions, self medication and why he can’t wait for his next class photo.
It may seem like a strange statement from a band that has been lavished with plaudits and packed out a steadily growing scale of venues throughout its five-year existence, but things ain’t easy out there, y’know. As the lifespan of a blues rock band shrinks to less than that of your average Premier League football manager, the fact that the Sons are about to drop their fourth album (there was also a self-titled EP along the way) becomes all the more impressive. And it’s certainly not something that Jay is taking for granted.
“We have the privilege of going in there and reinventing ourselves in a great studio with a great producer,” he says across a transatlantic phone line just a few weeks after work on the new record came to a close. “The vast majority of bands all over the world right now are the ones that have come and gone. It’s a tiny percentile of bands that get to go in and have this experience and we’re getting to do it for the fifth time now. It’s a testament to our good fortune that we’re able to do that.”
In equating the band’s relative longevity and upward career trajectory to good fortune, Jay has taken a step too far into self-effacement. Rival Sons are thriving because they have put out a succession of electrifying rock‘n’roll records drenched in blues soul, and Great Western Valkyrie might just be their best yet. Building very much on the mantra of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the band – completed by guitarist Scott Holiday, drummer Mike Miley and new-boy bass player Dave Beste – headed to long-time producer Dave Cobb’s Nashville studio and worked how Rival Sons work best: under intense pressure.
“Our process is always the same. We wait until we get into the studio to create things so it has that Rival Sons taste to it. I write every day – I’m a compulsive songwriter – but the last thing this band needs to do is make a Jay Buchanan record or a Scott Holiday record; we need a Rival Sons record. Sticking to that process helps achieve that with everyone having their stamp on it. The process is a democracy until it isn’t: sometimes there have to be executive decisions. Sometimes Dave Cobb might tell us to stop acting like idiots and say, ‘We have something good here, go with this.’”
Just to add to the pressure of writing with the clock ticking while the studio budget ebbs away, the band gave themselves a mere six weeks to write and record the album. Although, as Jay tells us, six weeks is something of a luxury for this band. “That is a 50 per cent mark-up in time on what we usually do. Even with that extra time, all of the greatest things happened at the eleventh hour. Just like if we give ourselves four weeks, all the magic happens in the last five days or so when you’re really up against it and you know you’re running out of time. The hero comes out of the protagonist in the third act. If we decided we wanted to take six months to record, then that is what we’ll do. But this process has served us well. Fast and hard is the way for us.
“The pressure that comes with songwriting in general is one thing, but then when you put yourself in a pressure cooker like we do and you have to get it done and it has to be the best thing we’ve ever done, every day, that definitely wears on you. With that pressure there’s heavy amounts of drinking and self-medicating. You’re so busy that you don’t get enough exercise and you’re not taking care of yourself because you’re so engulfed in this duty that demands everything you’ve got. But showing up is 90 per cent of the battle. You need to stay in the ring.”
But talk of getting in the ring doesn’t mean that the Sons have it duke it out between themselves in the studio. There is no one member looking to exert control here. “This is the only way this band could work. The last thing this band needs is a boss. This band has four leaders. You can hear that in the music. As soon as you come in with an idea it’s like dropping off your child at the orphanage. Once they’re at the orphanage, you don’t get to tell the orphanage how to raise your kid, and it’s like that when you pass a song onto the band.”
It’s not just his bandmates that Jay passes songs onto: producer Cobb is a hugely respected part of the team and, given that he has been at the desk for every Rival Sons recording to date, it was little surprise when he was called back this time around.
“Dave is integral to the sound of our records. He has amassed so much great gear: old vintage gear that just has that tone. He keeps me from getting too singer-songwriter-y. He says, ‘Jay, you’re in a rock ‘n’ roll band, remember that.’”
Jay adds that the band aren’t closed off to using modern gear and techniques. While the record was put down to tape, the Dave Grohl-inspired purple patch that analogue is currently enjoying didn’t come into the decision process. “I’m not one of those guys that has an allegiance to analogue. I’m not part of any team, what sounds good sounds good. Sometimes recording digitally sounds better than tape. The back-patting that comes on for ‘keeping it real’, well, that’s just good sounds and a good performance: that is keeping it real. You get Dave Grohl making a movie and saying it’s got to be analogue... Well no, what you’ve got to do to make it real is to make it really good.”
By those counts Great Western Valkyrie certainly is real. Blessed with AC/DC-sized grooves, riffs that many a blues master would love to call their own and absolutely steeped in soul, this is by far the band’s most consistent and cohesive effort to date. Opening track Electric Man has all the swagger of a band at the very top of their game, Secret is a rampaging rocker and the album closes with the epic Destination On Course. Not only is the record a triumph, it’s also a very definite progression from 2012’s Head Down. This thirst for evolution was lodged in the band’s mind as they worked up new material in the studio.
“If someone is doing something that sounds like something we’ve done before, we throw up a red flag,” Jay explains. “Any time that happens it is met with agreement of, ‘I guess that is a little too far into the Rival Sons zone.’ There was a conscious decision to make something a little spacey here. You have to make these decisions because we have to play these songs every goddamn night for the next year-and-a-half to two years. You want to spread out and make it a complete buffet. You don’t want to feel like stabbing yourself in the eye after playing it every night.”
The record is packed with Jay’s finest work to date, whether it be the soaring vocal line of Open My Eyes or the deft storytelling found on Rich And The Poor – the latter being Jay’s ode to a late-night sexual union of the working and upper classes.
“Rich And The Poor just sounded like a story of naïve affection and experimentation. It’s about these two kids, one that is privileged and one that isn’t. But the privileged girl has to meet this boy to experience these experiences. It’s the great equaliser of the classes, getting it on in the bushes.
“Writing lyrics, for me, is just about fishing. It’s about listening to the music and thinking what the song wants to be. It’s about listening to yourself and opening up that channel. To me, each phrase is like a small painting, it’s all about imagery. You need to give the right words to paint a picture to lead the listener through a very short story. You might need to explain an entire situation in a couple of lines and then deal with the mundane aspect of making sure you come back to the chorus.”
Despite his love of spinning a yarn in the form of a four-minute rock tune, Jay tells us that he shies away from taking too much of a highbrow approach when it comes to lyric-writing.
“I don’t put a picture of Ernest Hemingway up in the studio to influence me, lyrics come from a much more instinctual approach. My job is to complain and cry into a microphone every day. My job is to mean it, so I make sure that I mean it.”
Throughout our hour-long conversation, the frontman’s wide-eyed love of life as part of Rival Sons shines through. But he does concede that there are times when he can be beaten down by the sheer volume of formulaic, riff-by-numbers, meat-and-potatoes rock out there, and when that happens, it’s the blues that pulls him back around.
“Sometimes I start to feel down, because I’ll look at rock ‘n’ roll and it seems so juvenile and so knucklehead. It’s an archaic genre, but my love for the blues is so ingrained in me that I’m able to have a soft spot for rock‘n’roll because at the heart of it and what I really love is storytelling and the blues.”
Of course the blues seeps through Rival Sons, not just in sound but, as a band that connects so intimately with its music, it is forged deep within their spirit, too. “It isn’t intentional and I don’t think it ever has been,” Jay says of the band’s multi-faceted links to the genre. “We get called a blues band because people just say, ‘What’s the band over there? Oh, it’s a bluesy rock‘n’roll band.’ I have no problem with that. We’re just putting our own hybrid spin on the classic formulas.
“The blues with us begins and ends with Scott’s guitar. If you’re identified as blues nowadays, it’s in the riffs. As much as my voice is greatly informed by blues music, blues is the greatest thing to ever happen to electric guitar. If Scott wasn’t playing blues riffs, if he was just playing power chords and ‘rock’ riffs, I wouldn’t want to be in this band, that’s for damn sure. The blues is so ingrained into what we’re doing that it’s not something we have to think about. Scott loves the blues, thank God.”
With the album of their lives in the can, Jay admits that the process of writing and recording a new disc can leave him drained. “At this point I can’t even listen to the record,” he says. “Too much went into it. It can be embarrassing, the amount of emotion that goes into an album.”
But that doesn’t mean that he’s hesitant about getting back into the studio. “The most frustrating aspect is that now I’m going to have to wait at least another year until we can record more songs. A record is just a snapshot and a statement of that moment. To know that we don’t get to take another class picture for a year and a half: that is bullshit. We’re growing up, out, inwards, we’re in a constant state of transformation. So to know that we have to keep replicating this catalogue for that long without innovating can be rough. You try to re-interpret things to make it entertaining for yourself, but there’s only so many ways I can entertain myself by saying, ‘I keep my head down but I keep on swinging.’ Say that enough times and the mantra has gravity, then you say it one more time and it’s a fucking recital. It loses all meaning. Getting the blood transfusion that is making a record is vital.”
Rival Sons now prepare to release Great Western Valkyrie and then head out on a gruelling tour, and Jay signs off by asserting that they do so in rude health. “For me, I look at Miley, Scott and Dave and think this is a really good band and I start to feel very romantic about it when you look at the big picture and realise your fortune. We get to create something that will last for as long as the medium is around. Whatever happens, we’ll always have these songs, they will always be out there and that is incredible.”
TV talent shows tend to serve up a succession of singers taking a stab at 90-second snippets of standard pop classics or flavour of the week mainstream drivel, so it came as quite a shock earlier this year when American Idol _contestant Caleb Johnson performed the Sons’ track _Pressure And Time on the show. On face value it seems like a notion that is completely at odds with Jay’s organic, real-at-all-costs ethos, but he can take plenty of positives from it.
“I was happy about it because it may translate to more exposure for us,” he says. “With those kinds of shows, I’m without a serious opinion on them. But these contests are weird to me, I do find it odd. I worry about what the expectations of these kids are being trained to be. I’ve seen people that do well in the short run but it ends up being detrimental. But if it makes people happy, then who am I to be the grouchy old man telling the kids to stay off his lawn? Once you write a song, it’s for everyone; it’s for everyone to enjoy in their own way. That episode of _American Idol _is the first time I’ve watched that kind of thing in so long and Caleb did a great job. Hey, that’s a hard song to sing!”
Great Western Valkyrie is out now via Earache.