Concert Heartstrings Interview Review

‘Pushing the Boundaries’: U of Portland/KDUP Radio’s Interview with Rocky Votolato

By Arran Fagan of University of Portland/KDUP Radio

On November 25th 2014, Noah Gundersen, Rocky Votolato, and Armon Jay played a sold out show to an ecstatic crowd at the Aladdin Theater. I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview Noah and Rocky, as well as attend the show.

Armon Jay, a Tennessee native who, while only in his twenties, recently married, produced his own record, was diagnosed with adult ADHD, and has befriended Noah Gundersen, who invited him to play in his backing band, and has now been on several tours across the country. Armon displays his masterful musicianship on the fret boards of his guitars, as well as on the keys. Armon started the show with a few acoustic versions of the songs on his record, he walked out on stage and said “Well shit,” did a double take of the crowd and followed with, “Oh I am sorry for using that Shit word, well there I said it again, you all just look so nice.” He proceeded to ask everyone in the front row how they were doing tonight, and then realized that it would unfortunately take too much time to greet everyone and instead, began his first song.  _vr_9375_compressed

The theater grew silent as Armon showed us his heart, displaying his guitar picking and chord skills while at the same time breaking us down slowly with the emotion behind his words. Sitting back in my chair, I could tell tonight was going to be an emotional experience. In the middle of the song, an unfortunate someone’s phone went off with a Ding! When Armon finished playing, the crowd cheered and went silent, waiting in anticipation for his next song or words to arrive. Armon looked around and said with a grin: “I heard someone’s iPhone go off in that last song, and all that I could think of was this super delicious burger that I threw in the microwave back stage, I didn’t have time to finish it and I was so afraid that ding was the microwave and that I had somehow left it in there for ten minutes, but luckily it was a phone! I am so ADHD that this is where my mind goes guys.”

The tension of Armon’s music was immediately alleviated by his charismatic smile and jokes, Armon played song after song delivering stories and jokes to lighten the mood of his music. At the end of his set, the crowd was aware of his newly found sobriety of two months, and that if anyone has and is struggling with issues and depression, that there is always a way to survive and be okay.

While waiting in line for the concert I received a call from Rocky, who had finished with sound check and was ready to be interviewed. I walked in between the row of excited fans waiting in line and the busy Portland traffic flashing by. I walked around the back of the building to a rear entrance where Rocky greeted me with a smile and a handshake. He then led me into the back of the venue. After a quick trip up a flight of stairs and into a room, Rocky and I sat down to begin the interview.

Arran Fagan: How did you get started in music?

Rocky Votolato: Oh gosh, well my uncle gave my older brother a guitar that kind of started it all. He used to come over to the house and play old Dylan covers and Beatles songs, and he handed down a guitar that had been in the family for a while to my older brother, and then of course I wanted to be cool like him. My little brother followed from there; who is here with me tonight. My brother Cody, who plays electric guitar in a band called The Blood Brothers.

Oh yeah, I know the Blood Brothers, they’re great.

Yeah, they are great and they just did some reunion shows, so he just got back a couple days ago from LA. So he is teaming up with me right now. We get along, no more fist fights (laughs).

(laughs) I have a little brother and we fight all the time! Speaking of siblings and upbringing, what are some of your musical influences?

Rocky: You know, it’s actually interesting because there is kind of two parts to the answer of that question. I grew up down in Texas, and so I was influenced by a lot of the music my dad listened to, he was into a lot of the outlaw country guys like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. He listened to Cat Stevens, early Bob Dylan, you know, folk stuff.

Any Lead Belly?

Rocky: Oh yeah, there was some Led Belly. So yeah, that kind of the country music that I was around when growing up was really influential and then I moved up to Seattle when I was in high school.

That must have been a big change.

Yeah huge change, and then I got involved in the underground punk and hardcore scene, and started playing in rock bands, and from there, I started my first band with my brother Cody (who just walked in), it was a band called Waxwing, and it pulled more from those early influences. I saw shows with bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Fugazi, Jawbreaker. Bands like that were super influential…Murder City Devils, Botch, the whole hardcore scene that was going on in the mid 90’s.

How does those experiences influence what you play now?

I feel like that was there sort of when I was in the formative years of my songwriting, and I feel like that has stayed with me and kinda come in and out of what I’ve been doing musically since then, basically I put out my first record, and it was more stripped down, more or an acoustic-based folk record. Then I think some of the more early influences were coming out, like some of the country type stuff. The songs I am writing now have much more of a rock influence.

I was listening to your music, some of the older and then the newer and there was definitely a shift which is important. There are a lot of people who find the “pocket” and just kinda stay there with their sound and yours is dynamic, which is really nice to hear.

It has changed quite a bit, but I feel like it’s the song that matters. If you have a great song and foundation you can do whatever you want with it and I really like experimenting with my newer songs.

What do you mean by experimenting?

That’s a great question, I mean that is really hard to answer, that’s one you really only know by feeling, but for me it has to do with the lyrics. I am super drawn to writing and that’s kinda what drew me in, in the first place. I almost feel like a writer trapped in a musician’s body, more than the other way around. I always like reading the lyrics and that’s kinda been the main focus for my songwriting. I just finished most of the initial tracking with Chris Walla (former member of Death Cab For Cutie) for a new album. It’s exciting. We recorded 13 songs in his studio — The Hall of Justice — a lot of great records have been made there. We have been pushing the boundaries of the environment that we can build around the foundation of my acoustic folk songs. That’s what I write, but how I produce them and record them from there is what changes the environment.

Do you ever think about writing books?

I don’t actually, I very much embrace being a songwriter. I am happy with this as a profession, and I really enjoy it. I just always approach it through writing poems and I am just always writing. I just keep this (pulling a note pad out of his back pocket) everywhere I go. It’s just the impulse of how my songs begin.

And from there you add music to it? Have you ever tried to create the music first?

It happens sometimes but usually I’m coming at it from an idea or some kind of concept or feeling and I like to play around with words. That’s where the art usually begins for me.

That’s a really cool way to do it. Many start playing the guitar and they then add the verse and lyrics. I am a songwriter as well and that’s how I do it. I couldn’t imagine writing down verse and then making music, but at the same time, you must really put a lot of thought into the music and the words separately when you are doing it that way. Instead of strumming around and seeing what fits from there.

Yeah it’s interesting. I feel like the music is almost an after thought. I’ve got this thing I want to say in this poem, and sometimes the music changes it. I start singing it and then I realize, what looked good on paper, once I add a melody, doesn’t feel right. I’ll start switching things around.

It’s been four years since your last record, correct?

Yeah, this is the longest I have ever had in between records. It feels like a chapter had closed, like the stream was just a trickle. I was trying really hard to write music but it didn’t feel organic and I didn’t want to force it anymore and I just got to a place where I realized that I had been really critical of myself, super critical of my own songwriting. I boxed myself into this corner where no creativity could flow because I was the critic inside my mind. I had convinced myself that I wasn’t any good at it, and I think a lot of artists probably struggle with that, and I had gotten to the point where I was I thought there was no point to doing it anymore.

Can you tell me about what it means to be an independent artist?

There are pros and cons with everything you do in life. There is a lot of freedom but also a lot of responsibility, which comes with DIY, such as handling the merch yourself last minute before the show. It’s not always that way but I didn’t hire a crew like I would for a big tour. Noah asked me to play these two shows. I am super excited to have the opportunity. I think he is such a good songwriter and I just got back from Europe last week.

Do you have any rituals? Before writing? Or before playing?

Yeah, I meditate actually. I am not a practicing Buddhist, but I definitely pull some things from Buddhism. It has helped me deal with mental anxiety and depression, which I have struggled with my whole life and a lot of my music is about dealing with those issues, and that’s one thing that has been super helpful in my life. I got interested in it from reading a book called Siddhartha. If you get a chance, you should read it. It’s about Gautama Siddhartha who was and eventually became the Buddha, which translates to “The Awakened One” or “The Enlightened One.”

Rocky’s set was loud, energetic, passionate, and very powerful, noise-wise as well as emotionally. The band took the stage as sets of brothers: Rocky on acoustic guitar, Rocky’s brother Cody on electric guitar, and two twin brothers (one on bass and the other on drums). Immediately blasting the audience with loud folk rock, skilled musicianship, and some masterful harmonica playing. The songs were old and new; each, so dynamically different while playing live than on record. The songs were anthems. The lyricism blended perfectly with the sound, bringing more emphasis to certain sentences with the loud instrumentation behind it. As Rocky had said earlier, “he had things he wanted to say,” and he wasn’t holding back.

The musicians were all having a blast up on stage, the twins flowing together in a tight groove, smiles on their faces and fire in their eyes. Cody was staring at the floor with his eyes closed, dancing along to the music and playing with emotion. Rocky, standing at the center of it all, in full punk power stance, blasting out the songs with all of the heart and power that he could. The band left the stage and Rocky played some songs by himself. You could tell that Rocky believed in his songs, as his poetic lyrical wordplay traveled from song to song, leading the crowd into heartbreak and tragedy and into good nights and new friends. Rocky’s songs are a perfect blend of lyrics, emotion, and vulnerability.

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