Rocky Votolato is one of those rare artists who can be appreciated by people who usually listen to vastly disparate genres. He doesn’t accomplish this by mixing sounds, instead he focuses on extremely powerful and emotive songwriting, what some would call a universal appeal. Rocky sticks fairly close to the folky acoustic sound that has been part of the American landscape for many decades, mixing in a little country for good measure. Recently the Vanguard spoke with Rocky about his upcoming tour with Minus the Bear, the production of his latest LP Makers, and a the appearance of his music on “The O.C.”
Will you be playing with a full band (on this tour) or just solo?
There will be a full band on this tour.
That’s great; I haven’t seen you with a band that often.
Yea, it’s very rare that I have a full band when I’m traveling, but things are going well and it all worked out and I can afford it, I want to put on a good show and think it will just be a lot of fun too.
So, recently you’ve been playing shows with an electric guitar, even songs that were recorded acoustically, why is that?
I think that, basically, through my own experience and watching other people, it is really difficult to get a good guitar sound out an acoustic guitar live. But with electric guitar, you can just tighten the sound and adapt the song. It sounds better all the way around.
Some people may disagree with me, but whether your Wilco or Krist Kristofferson nobody can get a really good live sound out of an acoustic.
I think some people just like the presence of an acoustic guitar.
Yea… but for me I like the electric better.
So is that going to show itself in your recordings in the future, more electric guitar or are you still going to stick to the acoustic?
I think I’ll probably still use an acoustic for recording.
What was the writing and production process like for Makers?
Well, it was definitely longer than what I’ve done in the past. Which is a good experience, it’s just that it definitely had it’s up and downs over the year and half it took to make. There are a lot of different reasons for that, I recorded enough material to have a finished record, but decided I wasn’t completely happy with what I had. So I started to rewrite it, restarted the process and ended up a year and half after I started with 12 songs that I really liked. That was why it took so long, I wanted to make sure that I made the best record I could and that I was completely happy with every song.
So what happened to the extra tracks that were cut off the original leaked version?
Nothing yet, I went to great pains to try and put out my best music, and I’m not ready to release those songs to the public yet. But I am sure they will surface eventually, maybe towards the end of the year they will be released through Second Nature, maybe as a web exclusive or something along those lines.
How has the new record (makers) been received, from your perspective?
I feel like it has been unexpectedly positive, the response has just been so great. It’s been really fun the whole ride, it’s been out a little over a month now and there has been great press and reviews even from the national press and TV, just so much attention, much more than any record I’ve done before or anything I am used to. I’ve always been kind under the radar and with Barsuk coming into their own as a label as well, I’ve really benefited.
What sparked that change from second nature to Barsuk, was it just something that happened or-?
It happened really organically, I knew Josh the owner of Barsuk from the recording process of Suicide Medicine, which I worked on with Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie, and those guys are all like family. A couple years down the line when I was working on this record, a guy named Phil Wandscher was doing some guitar tracks for me, and he is in a band call Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter (also on Barsuk) and kept telling me “Give your stuff to Josh”, and I think he wanted to have another more country/western type band on Barsuk, so I gave it to Josh and he liked it. So right now for all intents and purposes Barsuk is my record label. They do everything, press and production and all that. But the record is licensed from Second Nature, so if the record makes money, which it hopefully will then they will get part of the profits as well.
You talked about TV earlier, and one of your songs was recently on “The O.C.”, how did that come about, and how do you feel about it?
I feel great about it, I mean I’ve never watched that show and I know it’s kind of lame. But at this point in my career, I just can’t say I care. I mean it’s not like it’s a Mcdonald’s commercial or something. If I had seen the show before and hated, I might not have done it, but it was kind of a last minute deal. Another song got cut from the show, and they contacted Barsuk and said they liked the song and asked if they could use it. And the response from the song being on the show has been overwhelmingly positive, so I’m ok with it.
It’s really good exposure for the bands-
Yea, exactly, and its good to get that in my mind.
In your music you talk about death, dying, darker subject matter a lot, what exactly draws you to write about that subject matter in some of your songs?
I find that stuff very interesting, it’s a really good place for art; it’s stuff that’s real. I feel like a lot of the stuff I write about are like working class type issues, things that I’ve experienced in my own life. But on the new record especially I try to walk that line between the autobiographical and telling stories that are still real, but broader than my own life. I think that that’s a skill that is difficult to develop as a song writer and it takes time to stretch what you know and have seen into something more universal.
On track 4 (“she was only in it for the rain”) it’s credited as being written by “Piss Pissedoffherson”, is that just you saying that you were pissed when you wrote this song?
(Laughter) no, no that actually wasn’t written by me it really was written by my friend Mark Rogers, he goes by that name. He is in a band called the Devil’s Arm and they are based out of San Francisco. He’s just a real fucked up dude, I mean he’s totally nuts like a crazy city cowboy, but he writes these really amazing country songs. I’ve been friends with him for 10 years, and I really love his music, I think he has success ahead of him and I hope he writes more songs for me in the future.
What do you consider your musical influences?
You know for the new record, it’s really been a lot of stuff I grew up on. That has had lot more effect on me than any band in the last 10 years. I mainly listen to bands that have been around a long time, very rarely do I listen to new music. That hasn’t always been the case, I mean I defiantly grew up listening to current bands.
It’s kind of interesting, there are a lot of bands (pause)- but for this record it was like The Band, Johnny Cash, real artists, stuff like that. But I did have a large space in my life where I listened to bands like Jawbreaker and Fugazi, and those bands had a big effect on me in the past, and that time in my life is obviously still with me, but for this record it was mainly the older music.
Well, I actually grew up in Redmond, listening to hardcore, going to the Firehouse
How did that scene and experience influence you? Obviously Waxwing came out of that scene and era, but how does that influence your music now, if at all?
I think it was awesome, it was a growing experience, I am really happy with everything Waxwing did and I am glad that Waxwing is over now because that’s not me anymore. I don’t need to scream. I wont forget that time, but its influence isn’t directly related to my music anymore. And I don’t want to say that it wasn’t important to me or pretend like it didn’t happen.
Well, I know that there are still a lot of kids into hardcore who like and support your music.
I recently saw, “The Edge of Quarrel”
Oh you did (laughing)
And I can’t really speak to the acting performance
No, it was terrible
It was pretty funny
My friend Dave Larson made that, and well you know who he is-
Yea, he runs Excursion records
Well, I’m still really good friends with him and we get together every 4th of July, it’s a tradition. That movie is part of my past, but it always makes me laugh because it still gets talked about, and what is it like 8 years later?
Just continuing the fun questions I suppose, what was one of the most memorable show you’ve ever played?
Actually I just had one, I was headlining out on the east coast and over 200 people showed up, which for me is un-heard of. And I know that like the new record is on Barsuk and it’s been getting a lot of attention. It’s just strange to me to have such help from the media and stuff; it was really nice and surprising to have such a good turnout.
On kind of the same tract I guess, what are your favorite and least favorite songs to play live?
I don’t really play a lot of older stuff anymore; I mean I have my favorites from each record. I really like playing stuff off of Makers, like White Daisy Passing and Portland is Leaving. Those types of songs are just more what I want to be about right now, the type of songs that I feel best about performing. Just from a songwriting standpoint, I really love those songs lyrically as well as musically. I don’t have to be harsh or anything else.
Portland is leaving is a favorite of mine as well; because the day I moved to Portland my brother sent me that song. It was just really weird.
So it has special meaning to you, that’s great.