What inspired you to first start making music? And how did you come to be in your current incarnation? Or if you prefer, a brief bio about you.
Please See attached bio / Brief:
The artist Nem Hackett turned me on to punk rock and I am forever indebted to him for that. Having grown up in the circumference of Meat Puppets territory in Phoenix, AZ, I was not to become aware of them until it was nearly too late. My formative years had me in a decade long Grateful Dead coma. Nem and punk rock pulled me from that.
I initially started playing music, during my college years, on the streets and coffee shops (Steep ‘n Brew) of Madison, WI with Dave – an elderly homeless guitar player from Kentucky. A duo, as such.
Nem and I later started ‘The Shelf Talkers’ in Boston in the late 80’s and managed to record one 1/4″ tape 4-track tune called “On The Road”, which was originally written by my brother, Patrick McCabe.
Ten years ago, I started to cobble together a makeshift home studio and began recording demos, which led to my first Studio EP, 2017’s ‘Flower Circle’, recorded and produced by John Kimbrough (Walt Mink, Teen Judge). I continue to write, record & produce new music – as well as make all of the associated artwork.
On May 16th, 2019, I released my sophomore effort: “These Years EP. I was very fortunate to work with the same team as ‘Flower Circle’ at Janky East Studios, Los Angeles.
In 2017, I co-founded Engine Trouble with Don Erikson. We play and perform original, jangly guitar rock; Erikson and I share songwriting duties. Engine Trouble is currently on hiatus. I also perform solo acoustic dates – check out my current show dates across Orange County and Los Angeles.
Provide us with some info about your latest release…
Following the release of 2017, “Flower Circle”, I almost immediately went back into the studio; “Flower Circle” was released on 24th October and by December of that year we were back at Janky East in Los Angeles mapping out what songs would go on “These Years”. The song selection was a blend of 4 new songs and one, “Try to Take Notice”, that I had written back in 2013-14.
Given the working relationship I had built with John Kimbrough on the first record, we decided to approach it the same way: I brought in fully formed demos that I had recorded in my home studio and we picked from a pool of 8-9. The one tune that was certain to be on the record is “One Act Play”; it’s based on the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas on 17th October 2017. At the time of writing it, I had no idea that there would be several mass shootings in the US between writing, recording and releasing the track. Tom Petty also died on that day.
We recorded and tracked in a similar fashion to “Flower Circle”, starting with Jay Skowronek doing a massive ‘drum’ day and tracking all 5 in one long session. From there we crafted the songs layer by layer; John Kimbrough did the bass tracks and I managed the guitars, mandolin and lead vocals. Additional guitars, keys, percussion and backing vocals were provided by John – and we rounded out a couple of the tunes with backing vocals from Lucy Peru.
Which ones would you consider your main influences both music-wise & non-music-wise?
I always say, “if I had a nickel for every time I have heard or read a reference to R.E.M / Michael Stipe. . . I would have a lot of nickels”. While R.E.M. would definitely be an influence, I think that there are a ton of bands that have put something in the musical soup for me. I came late (mid-80’s) to punk rock, I think some of the bands like The Replacements, Husker Dun, Dinosaur, Jr., The Minutemen and the Meat Puppets really stick with me today. I still go back and revisit those bands often – and also spend a lot of time listening to their predecessors, X, Black Flag and the rest of the late 70’s LA Punk bands. Other bands over the years like Rank & File, The Jayhawks, The Gear Daddies and Buffalo Tom were always important to me. These all go beyond the staples that I was raised on: Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground (Lou Reed), Creedence Clearwater, ZZ Top and – as noted above, The Grateful Dead.
If you listen to songs like ‘Try to Take Notice’, you can also hear subtle influences from some of my heroes in early country music: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers and Ray Price. As a kid, my babysitter and I watched “Hee Haw” religiously every Saturday evening – and that was normally followed by The Buck Owens Show, with the great Don Rich on Telecaster. In that same vein, I am crazy about female singers: Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Beth Orton and Lucinda Williams. I rarely perform or record covers, but one of the tunes that I recorded a few years back is Lucinda Williams’ ‘Something About What Happens When We Talk”.
Outside of the music realm, I have been hugely influenced by stand-up comedians. Stand-up has to be the rawest – toughest art form. Similar to music, the art of writing, crafting – editing and telling a story or tight joke is part art / part science. As musicians, we have the opportunity to couple (interesting) music with the story that we are trying to tell; we can slightly hide behind a guitar or piano on stage – and unless the song is really unappealing, the crowd will tend to lightly clap and wait for the next tune. In comedy, the artist is completely exposed: the set-up, delivery and punch line all have to land with fairly precise timing – or there is a collective “thud” in the crowd. Or a boo. Or a heckle. I have been in spots during a performance, where the song doesn’t feel like it’s hitting, so I can make choices to skip the last verse – or only the repeat chorus once. With a complex joke; once the train has left the station – the comedian has to finish the joke, nearly as written. One of my favorite interviews is with Norm MacDonald (Stand-up, Actor, Ex-SNL) and he describes how his ultimate goal in life is write the perfect joke, where the set-up is exact same line as the punchline. He reckons that he got close with a joke about Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett.
In what way does your sound differ from the rest genre-related artists/bands and why should we listen to your music? In other words, how would you describe your sound?
What does it take to get to that point where you say, “I have to hear that again”? That’s the ultimate goal when I am trying write, record and produce new songs. How is it that I can listen to ‘Sweet Virginia’ – or ‘Box of Rain’ for the 1,000th plus time – and it still feels fresh. Or I hear something different; or I am expecting to hear something different.
The most overused expression in music – and I am guilty of saying it – is “all their songs sound the same”. When we made ‘These Years’ the ultimate goal was to have the listener want to hear it again – and again; in order to achieve that, I tried to develop and write tunes that were contrasts. Placing a song like ‘Try to Take Notice’ between ‘One Act Play’ and the very heavy guitar focused ‘Buckled’. I think it creates an atmosphere for the listener to ask, “what’s next”. And then to follow buckled with a mandolin echoed tune like ‘How You Are’ breaks the pace, before closing with the title track, ‘These Years’.
Please name your 3 desert islands albums, movies & books…
Albums: Meat Puppets II, Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones), Blue Earth (Jayhawks)
Movies: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sling Blade, Touch of Evil
Books: Catcher in the Rye, Sometimes A Great Notion, Our Band Could Be Your Life
Do you prefer studio or performing live and why?
I am actually fortunate to have the opportunity to have a “3-pronged” approach: home studio for demo building / recording, local live gigs and the full production studio facility in Los Angeles to finalize the material for final release. The live performances around Orange County (Los Angeles) are a great opportunity to either work out new tunes and arrangements, prior to going into the recording studio. Further, I feel really lucky to have a functional home studio to craft simple ideas or riffs into full workable demos. Playing live is an amazing experience and there are great places to play, however, in a very competitive market like LA / Orange County, getting fans to come out on a Wednesday night at 8:00PM – for a 30-minute set is quite challenging. So, many mid-week performances are me, the other acts, the promoter and the bartender.
Is there any funny-unique story you would like to share with us, always in relation to your music ‘career’?
It’s funny now. I remember about 8 or nine years ago, I thought that I had an amazing song – I had written, recorded it – engineered it – and it was ready to go. My first one! Time for the public to latch on to this amazing new piece artistic perfection. At the time, I elected to put it up on SoundCloud. My initial thought was, I would put it up there – and voila! – everyone on the planet would want to listen to it. Streams would come fast and furious – music supervisors would be pinging me to see if they could use the song in the hottest TV show. As I started to dig a tiny bit deeper, I realized that sitting adjacent to my brand-new song were about 9,000,000 other songs!
In the first month, I think I had 3 streams (one or two may have even been from different devices in my house. Mine.). A bit of an eye opener. To add insult to injury, I go back and listen to the track now – and it sounds exactly like someone’s very, very first ‘produced’ song. . . the mix and engineering are absolutely terrible. But I leave that song up on SoundCloud to this day – to remind myself how much progress we have made, in a relatively short cycle.
Hopeful outlook early on, but painfully naïve.
Which track of your own would you point out as the most unique and why?
Which of your kids is your favorite? I think with each of the tunes I try to make each of them unique in some way. I think for the “These Years” record, the song “How You Are” is unique in that I tried to keep it acoustic in nature and added the piano parts along with the mandolin upfront; I am by no stretch a mandolin player, but found that the simple chords added to the foundation. The electric guitar parts that John and I played are subtle – and I think the very short lead break that I play at the end ties everything together well.
“How You Are” also has parallel story lines about departure, in the classic sense of moving away from one physical place to another – as well as death.
Would you like to share with our readers your future plans?
Keeping at it! Over the last couple of weeks, since the release of ‘These Years’, I have started to organize a list of demo songs for the next – Album. Finally taking the leap from the last two 5-song Eps and recording a full album. I have to work out exactly how we want to record; the initial thought is to maybe take some of the completed working demos and build on those. Since they were all recorded in my home studio, we will need to figure out how to get proper drums recorded. Unfortunately, the drummer that I have worked with on the last two EPs has since moved to the East Coast. So, there is some initial planning to do before we execute – but I am excited with the new batch of songs. I am hopeful to release the record in early 2020. In the interim, I have 2-3 local live gigs per month scheduled over the summer, including – one of my favorite places to play – the Orange County Fair.
Free question!!! (Ask yourself a question) you wish to answer and haven’t been given the opportunity…
If there is one thing you could change about your music, what would it be?
I wish I could sing.
Curated by: Christos Doukakis
Connect with John McCabe:
Art: Saatchi Art