While VVN Music is dedicated and reports on veteran artists who have been recording for 25 years or more, we occasionally write about newer artists of special merit who actively promote the sounds of an earlier era.
Charleston, South Carolina's The Explorers Club released their second album, Grand Hotel, back on February 14. An amazing amalgamation of sounds reminiscent of the 60's and early-70's, it is one of the most enjoyable and creative albums we've heard this year (see our review here).
We had the chance to talk with group founder Jason Brewer about Grand Hotel, the group's first album, Freedom Wind, and the influences that make the group's sound so unique.
VVN Music (VVN): I understand that the album was a long time in the making. About three years?
We started working on the record in 2009. Had we not run into the financial issue we would have released the record sometime in 2010 as opposed to finishing it in 2011.
VVN: When I reviewed the album, I was just so impressed with the number of different sounds. I know that a lot of people write about the Beach Boys influence but I hear so many other artists that seem to have shaped your sound. When you're writing, is it a conscious decision to say you are going towards this sound or another sound or is it just something that flows out of your writing style?
JB: Probably 50/50. I think part of it is the music that has really influenced me and has been a part of my whole life. Rock and roll to me is Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, whatever. AM radio era. That's just because I used to listen to a station that played all those classic records when I was a child. My neighbor had a bunch of those 45s, vinyl, 8-tracks, all that stuff. That was just what is was to me because that's what I was surrounded with.
I mean, I tried to keep up with current stuff in the mid-to-late 80's when I was a child but I was just gravitated toward the older sound. It's kind of weird but that's just what rock and roll is to me and the kind of music I wanted to play. I just thought that anything else was not as authentic.
When I'm writing stuff I think “well, is this going to be as good as a Grass Roots song or is this going to be something that Frank Sinatra could sing? If I could go back in time and jam with the Turtles, would they be into what I'm doing?” I think that's part of how I think and I also think it just naturally happens that way. When I first started playing guitar around the age of 11, I just got this book that was all Beatles. I guess that's just how I'm programmed.
VVN: When I've been talking to people about the album, I always try to tell them that, while the sound has its roots in the 60's, this is all original music and it's really great originals. I think that everyone that listens to the album is going to hear something a little different. I look at a song like It's You and I hear the New Colony Six but, when you were writing, it might have been something else.
How did you get Mark Linett involved in the album?
JB: Our manager had contacted a few different people to mix the record because we had an original mix by an engineer we recorded with and it was just too lacking. It was too sterile. It didn't have the depth of sound that was needed. Linett responded almost right away saying “this is really great. I can take this to the place where it needs to go.”
VVN: You mentioned that your background and influences were sounds of the 60's and 70's. What about the rest of the guys in the group? Do they have a similar background?
JB: For me, it was definitely the early rock and roll of the 50's, 60's and early 70's. The rest of the guys in the band may have been partially into it but they were really intrigued by the sound. They loved exploring that kind of sound. There are some guys in the band who really love Motown. Others like hippie rock of the late-60's like Traffic or the Grateful Dead. Then there's other guys in the band who like straight up rock like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. There's others who like lounge, exotica, adult contemporary...the Bacharach kind of stuff.
Music was so diverse during that era and there were so many different flavors. It was being played by musicians who were trained in schools and grew up around very limited rock and roll. The Beatles were really influenced by Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. They were influenced by the first wave of rock and roll. They didn't have thirty or forty years of variations of rock music on which to draw. So it's interesting to look at how people our age, late-20's and early-30's, have so many different things that we can be influenced by from “rock and roll music.” That's why each guy in the band has so many different things to pull their influences from.
This isn't the original lineup of the band. We lost a couple of members over the course of making this record. I would say this group, this time around, I was able to not only seek out my friends but to seek out other musicians that I knew to achieve this sound.
VVN: It's great that you have people who are interested in seeking out and understanding so many sounds. When Dick Clark recently passed away, one of the things I like to acknowledge was how he was able to mix so many genres in his work. It wasn't unusual for Kiss to be on the first half of his show and Tammy Wynette on the second. You just don't get that kind of thinking in radio anymore.
JB: That's the challenge with this record. I bet there are tons of folks out there just like you and me who love this kind of music and would totally just go for it but the problem is that radio and television and whatever else says “No, this doesn't fit our format.” I'm talking people of all ages. Anybody could get into this music because it's positive and happy and interesting. It's very musical.
We've just had a hard time with the band. You could find a radio person who just loves the record because it reminds them of a lot of the records they grew up listening to but the problem is, they can't play it or they'll get fired.
VVN: College radio still has some stations that tend to be a bit more free form. Have you found any college stations on which you can get airplay?
JB: You get some of the specialized channels through Sirius and some college radio that plays it. Very selective, non-commercial AAA stations, too. It's been across the board but there just hasn't been that wide reach, that one wide moment.
For us, there are a lot of guys out there who are doing power pop records or traditional rock records that aren't getting a lot of play either. We want to bring this music to everybody. We don't want to be just a footnote. I'm not saying we want to be rock stars but we want to make a career out of what we are doing.
We really feel we have something that is missing from the music marketplace right now. It's a frustration but it's also an interesting selling point. We're basically having to recruit people two ears at a time.
VVN: I don't want to make a complete comparison here, but you think of a person like Brian Setzer who had about three years of great success but he's carried on for another 25 with both rockabilly and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. The market is out there, but it is getting that first big break.
JB: It's interesting. On our first album, we had some television series use a couple of songs and that was really great. It's just that there was never any follow through from that. It was just like it went out into space and just hung there.
Some people's philosophy that we've worked with in the industry has been that things will happen if people are into it and my rebuttal has been “I think people will be into it but how do we expose them to it?” It's just a very interesting kind of catch-22 in a way. We've done this really quality, fun record that's trying to put a little creativity in there and its just very difficult to get it to the people.
VVN: The musicianship is amazing on the album. People who really like music, not just the music of the 60's and 70's but people who understand and love music should really admire the musicianship.
JB: Some of the guys in our band are just total musicians' musicians. I'm a writer and I wish I could be be like them. Some of our players just blow me away. They're just some of the coolest, best playing you've seen. I was really lucky to get to work with these guys.
There are some guys that aren't in the band that are on the record that I got to play with, too. It was like taking a masterclass and I was honored that they were able to play the songs that I wrote.
VVN: You did mention that you had gone through some personnel changes between the first and second album. Do you think you are in good shape now as far as a core group?
JB: This is the best group of musicians that I've ever worked with on a regular basis. These guys are top notch, they're good people, they're great players and it's a good thing that, when we go to perform, I have these other five guys that are totally helping me get where I need to go. It's my treat that I get to write the music but it's also my treat that I get to hear these guys play and perform it. That's any songwriter's dream, in a way, to have the kind of people that you want to work with as opposed to the kind of people you get stuck with.
VVN: It's great to have multi-instrumentalists in the group, but you also have, what, three singers that can take leads depending on the song.
JB: Really, we have five of the six of us that can sing the lead. That's the thing. I like to write songs for other singers. I'm not always writing a song for me to sing. I try to understand the quality and ability of the other singers and try and mold what I'm doing to cater to them. Our keyboard player Paul has this great soulful, rough-around-the-edges voice. He doesn't have a full lead on the new record but he sings the bridge in a few spots and takes over the lead in other stuff and he's a great harmony singer, so I can say “this kind of song right here is perfect for Paul to sing.”
Then, our bass player, Wally, who has a real pure, high, tenor voice (he sings Run, Run, Run), I can say “well, the range of this and the flow just totally caters to his voice.” It's awsome. I love being able to play music with these guys who have all these different qualities that we can bring together into a really unique sound.
VVN: ...and the flexibility has to be amazing.
JB: Oh, yeah. We can go from tropical, basso-nova straight into slushy, southern boogie. We can kind of go anywhere.
JB: You know, that one didn't take very long. Basically, what we did was I recorded the song Forever, which ended up being the first track on that record, as just a fun little thing. I had a friend named Troy [Stains], who writes with me, and we wrote a whole bunch of different types of songs but we chose to record Forever and it was me, my friend Troy and a drummer. I figured “well, this will be interesting” so we recorded it and it ended up sounding really great. I played it for a few of my friends in Charleston and they thought we should start a band.
Based on the success and having a little internet buzz, we got offers from record companies which led to us making “the best Beach Boys record they hadn't made yet.” We didn't really want to be a Beach Boys sounding band but we stuck with a sound to try to be consistent.
Grand Hotel is probably much more representative in approach. Not necessarily in the sound because I don't ever want to have one specific sound, but in approach where it is a mash-up of different kinds of classic pop sounds. That's much more the intent of how The Explorers Club is going to be from this point forward. Freedom Wind was certainly an exercise in one aspect of what we want to do and Grand Hotel is much more of an opening the doors a little bit.
VVN: Leading up to Grand Hotel, you released three EPs with early versions of songs from the album along with a number of covers. Are there any plans for re-releasing any of that as I know they're not available anymore.
JB: I don't really know. We have a fairly large repertoire of cover tunes from doing private events. One thing we've actually thought of doing was a web series of just live videos in our little practice studio of us playing cover tunes. Just as kind of a fan, fun thing.
As far as those EPs go, we'd like to collect them all and put them on either vinyl or digital. A friend of ours has a cassette label, which actually we did release Grand Hotel on, and I think it would be really great to collect all the EPs on cassette which would come with a digital download.
VVN: I've seen a number of your videos on YouTube of covers like Eleanor and it would be great to have a bit more professionally recorded version of that versus, say, a cellphone.
JB: Right, and that's what we want to do. We have a couple of HD cameras we can get our hands on and we're going to try and shoot a bunch of covers for a web series. Maybe do them two at a time where we do a Grand Hotel song and a cover.
VVN: So, what do you see as coming up next. You obviously have a road to go on for promoting Grand Hotel.
JB: The goal is that we are trying to get some more high profile dates this year and, I'm hoping, by the end of the year I'm in the studio working on the next one.
VVN: You mentioned that some of the people in the group are into other genres of music. Any thought of working other sounds in?
JB: I think the biggest things I've been into lately has been the Rascals record Once Upon a Dream. I love Buffalo Springfield then, at the opposite end of that spectrum, I love Motown and Smokey Robinson and the Impressions.
I don't know. I think its always going to be lots of harmonies, interesting, organic instrumentations and good songs. I think that's really the bottom line. We may want to do a really Carolina beach song like, say, Backfield in Motion, something that sounds like that, or we may want to go to For What It's Worth by Buffalo Springfield or Rock and Roll Woman. That's my favorite Buffalo Springfield song.
I think we just want to do all the different stuff that we love and do it really well.
From the album Grand Hotel, here is the first single, Run, Run, Run: