published Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Q&A with Patrick Keenan of The Winter Sounds

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Patrick Keenan, keyboardist and lead singer of the Nashville-based rock band The Winter Sounds, about his fascination with “Gone With the Wind” and how reforming the band in Music City changed its sound and his approach to music.

CP: When were you guys last in Chattanooga?

PK: I can't even tell you the last time. It's been maybe a year and a half or so.

CP: So when you play here, it will be a very different Winter Sounds than people heard last time?

PK: Yeah, it's a new line up, for the most part.

CP: What will be different? What will people hear this time they didn't before?

PK: It's a lot more technical now and more up-tempo and faster. We have a violin player now, so some of the string stuff we have done on recordings we replicate live between the violin and the keys. It's more dancey. I'm playing synthesizer now, and before, I was playing bass, and we didn't have synths. Now, it's more synth-heavy.

CP: Why that change? Was it something you directed yourself or just a reflection of the different lineup?

PK: I definitely wanted it to sound the way it does. When I met everybody, I just wanted them to insert their own personality into it, too, so it wasn't just my idea of what we're doing. That's how it evolved. We're playing a lot of new songs, too, and we've been writing them together.

CP: Was the band before a one-man writing project? Is collaborative writing a new step for you?

PK: Not completely. The last album I did was a collaboration. It just happened that the guitarist who was with the band for a while moved on to L.A. to do some writing. I didn't want to change the name or start over, because I knew I would be playing a lot of the same songs, and I wanted to keep the Winter Sounds name alive. Even though we're mostly playing new songs now, we can still play old ones. The new stuff is also a collaboration.

CP: Can you approach music or songwriting differently with this new blood?

PK: Yeah, actually, it's really cool and exciting. I feel very lucky because everyone is a multi-instrumentalist. We do an acoustic version of everything now, and we do a lot of street performing. We haven't been able to meld the two sets, so we have this totally acoustic sound where everyone plays a different instrument and then the electric set we play at clubs. We're looking to blend the two.

The best part of being able to do that and having new people is that we can do whatever we want. There's no sound we can't work toward. That's really cool. There are no limitations. It's made me really, really excited again about writing songs and trying out ideas. Everyone is very open to doing whatever we want with a song. That part is really awesome.

CP: When you moved to Nashville and started recruiting new musicians, what were you looking for? Did you find it?

PK: Personality was a big thing for me. I felt like, in Nashville, I would be able to pick from really great musicians, in general. I basically wanted people who were musicians and not married to any one sound or style so we could go in any direction we wanted whenever. There were no limitations. Meeting everyone and having people who are musicians at the core is the best part.

CP: I read that you were using Craig's List and social networks to find people. Were you placing ads or responding to them? If the former, what did you write?

PK: I was doing both. I was looking through and posting also. I think my title was something like “Indie band looking for multi-instrumentalists for touring, writing, recording, performing, etc.” Once I got a conversation going, I didn't want to over do it and say, “This is what we're going to commit to” or anything like that, but I wanted to be firm that, “This is what I want to do full-time, so no side projects because there won't be any time for it.”

I didn't want to leave anybody out, but I wanted to make sure that, when I did meet the right people, everyone would be devoted to working on The Winter Sounds. Then, of course, I let them know they could write for it and this would be a collaborative thing.

The timing was perfect because we were between albums. We'd put out an album and toured on that and started working on a new one. As soon as the lineup was reformed, I showed everyone the demos of the new songs, and we started writing stuff together.

It was the perfect time for a transition. I just wanted to makes sure I was direct enough with everyone I was meeting so there wouldn't any issues down the road if we decided to tour for a month straight or something.

CP: Has that played out like you expected? Have they all proven willing to be flexible?

PK: Yeah. It's awesome. It's crazy because the demands for it grow exponentially every day, it feels like, but everyone is just really pumped about it.

All the guys in the band are wanting to play music, so the fact that there's work involved with it that's not necessarily playing music - booking shows and keeping up with everything - everyone is has jumped into that, too. That helps a lot. I feel like we've been moving really, really fast over the last three or four months when we started playing shows with the new group.

CP: You said you wanted to preserve the Winter Sounds fan base by not changing the name. Despite that, was there any lessening of interest in the band, and if so, have you recovered from it now?

PK: I feel like it's right back to where it was and better. When I moved to Nashville, I thought maybe I would join a band. We did the record right before the guitar player quit. We had just become a three-piece, so it was he and I and a friend out in Pittsburgh who played drums for us. There was this really small core of the band, and when the guitar player quit, it seemed like the band was done. I thought I might be joining a band when I moved to Nashville, but I analyzed my passion for music.

I've just written so much, and I personally can't stop doing that. I played in another band right before Winter Sounds, but I wasn't the main writer, and it was really hard having this outpouring of ideas constantly and never having an outlet for it.

Regarding changing the name or anything like that, part of the criteria of joining the band was that there were two whole albums of songs that they needed to learn. We could start playing show right away, which is the cool thing when you're building on something already existing - you can go start playing wherever you want. It was like, “Just learn these songs, and once we learn them, we'll focus on new stuff together.” The majority of the set will always be new songs, but the old ones will be there for requests during longer shows.

So to answer your question, I feel like there was a little time period when things were kind of rocky, but once we started playing shows, it seemed like people started flooding back in. The new sound is an extension of the old sound, so it's not like people are saying, “I don't like the direction they're going in.”

CP: Later this week, you guys are playing in Greeneville, which is your old stomping grounds. Are you nervous about how the band will be received in your hometown?

PK: Well, it's where I went to high school, and I've played there with so many lineups anyway, that basically, my friends come out, so I'm playing for them. There are people I don't know, but for the most part, I know everybody. They're my friends, so they would be there no matter what I'm doing. We've played there a couple of times already with a new lineup, but not necessarily at The Handlebar as big of a show. Everyone just loves it.

All the old songs we couldn't do when the band was changing sounds and becoming a three-piece we basically pull those out of our hats when we want to now and do new stuff as well.

With five people and so many different instruments, we're doing songs with two guitars; songs with synthesizers, piano, bass, drums and trumpets - all this stuff from the recordings that we can actually do live. I feel like a lot of people who have listened to the albums a lot and seen us play are really excited by the full new sound of the band. There are two girls in the band who sing all the harmony, which I used to do on the recordings myself as falsetto. It's more layered now and sounds more full. It's more natural. It's great. It feels really good.

CP: The Winter Sounds have a pretty even gender divide with two girls and three guys. Does having female voices offer you anything, creatively, you wouldn't have if the band was all-male?

PK: The girls are both from Berklee, so in addition to the fact that they're girls and have their own perspective on life, in that sense, they're both exceptional musicians. I've always played music, but I've never been really technical. The language they use when they're discussing songs just floors me. I love it; it's so cool. We can instantly start playing in a different key, if we want to change the mood. All that is new to me. I feel really lucky. I feel like I'm being really challenged by it.

They have such different backgrounds. They've been playing their instruments since they were three and four, and I didn't pick up a guitar until I was 18. Our background is a lot different. That helps me because I can present whole songs fleshed out, without parts - arrangements, melodies and stuff like that. We just start jamming it, and their background lets them build on it really, really quickly.

Personality-wise, it's a really good balance because we're not just dudes riding around in a van, which can deteriorate into whatever. They keep us in check. We party, but not too hard.

Everything about it has worked out really well. I definitely feel like I've put in enough time to where people say, “You've worked so hard. You really deserve it.” That's awesome, but I've heard it so much I don't even think about it anymore. Even the fact that it's going as well as it is and things are lining up so fast … I almost can't even believe it, even though I worked at it for five years.

CP: Do you worry sometimes that someone's going to pinch you, you'll wake up and find things have gone south?

PK: Yeah, part of me feels like something is going to happen. One thing I realized about moving to Nashville is that the foundation that was formed over the last several years is so solid that a lot of people have already heard the name of the band, know something about it or like the music.

In that sense, I'm not too worried about somebody quitting or something happening. I feel very confident in finding people, but I'm also extremely happy with who I'm playing with and who they are as people. I don't want anything to change.

In the past, one of the thing that was totally different was that we weren't in the same town. We would meet with them all over. We had people flying in from Chicago to tour with us or Pittsburgh; we had a guy from Arizona playing drums for us, for a while.

What we would end up doing is doing these marathon tours because, if somebody was going to fly in, we'd get together and rehearse for two weeks and then go out.

I feel it's totally different now because we can go out for a weekend and come back to our jobs in the same town. That's totally new to me. I definitely feel like I'm in a better place, in general.

If we lose money and have to stop, we're all just going to go back to the same town. Worst case scenario? We just practice all the time.

CP: Did Ellen's and Renee's formal training make you feel like you had to step up your game, as a songwriter?

PK: Yeah, absolutely, and I definitely was intimidated. The first month or so when we were practicing, in the back of my mind I kept thinking that I wasn't good enough to play with them.

Since I moved here in August, there was a three or four month period, when I wasn't playing every day anyway. I was still new to playing keys from playing bass, which is a lot of factors, but the thing that happened that made the most sense is that I caught up performance-wise to what I'm doing. I'm not playing scales or Rachmaninoff on piano or anything, but for what I'm doing, especially with singing, it can be kind of complicated, but it doesn't need to be over the top, even if it can be. I'm comfortable now with keeping my part simple and letting them showcase their technical abilities.

They've given me really good perspective, as a writer. Since the first time I picked up an instrument, I've been writing songs, and I've been developing that a lot. I think they know that and are totally cool with it.

That's why we're a really good balance for each other. They can play anything on almost any instrument, and I can write anything. It's a great balance. Them explaining that to me and the value of that made me feel a lot better about my lack of technical precision.

CP: Was it tough giving up bass duties to Ellen, when she joined? Do you miss playing bass?

PK: I do, a little bit, but we've started bringing it back. She also plays guitar, so there are some songs when we switch instruments. We didn't want to be the band that switched instruments, unless it was totally necessary. We have a few songs that are two guitars and bass. Renee also plays piano, so we can do a couple of different combinations without switching for the sake of switching.

I got to play bass again for the first time in two months at practice, and it felt really good. It was cool. I knew that would come back, but in the meantime, I was accepting of just playing keys. I already get to do two things live anyway, so I feel like it's OK. Even if I was just singing, I would be happy doing it.

CP: I want throw some potential influences at you, based on what I heard off “Church of the Haunted South.” The Killers?

PK: You know, I don't really listen to them, and I've never owned an album, but people say that and I think that's awesome because they're a great band. I was the guy who heard the “Mr. Brightside” single and loved it, but I didn't get into the band. One thing I loved, and I don't know where it came from, but it was that arpeggio guitar playing to create movement. They do that a lot. Also their dance beats are a really big influence.

CP: Morrissey/The Smiths?

PK: Oh yeah, definitely. I met this girl a long time ago introduced me to the Smiths, and I have loved them at different times. Sometimes, I think he's annoying, but for the most part, I think they're great.

CP: What about Iron and Wine?

PK: They are also incredible. I've never owned an album, but I've always thought they were great. I've heard enough of their music, that they have definitely rubbed off - like his breathy voice.

Those are all true. Definitely The Smiths. They are the band of the three that I listened to the most, and Morrissey's solo stuff. For a while, I liked the solo stuff more, and maybe I still do because The Smiths are really good, but I don't play guitar - I've always played bass - and many people love The Smiths' guitar stuff. I wasn't as into that stuff as much as Morrissey's choice of melodies and, sometimes, his words.

CP: I think Morrissey would have like “Church of the Haunted South.” It's theme seems to embody his kind of maudlin wistfulness. Was it influenced at all by him?

PK: I think there is a connection that probably happened subconsciously, but the album's theme was supposed to be a retelling of “Gone With the Wind.” We were reading the book on tour, and it felt like there were some parallels to my life. There was a point where everyone in the band had read the book, and we were talking about. It was very interesting.

That story is very Gothic. Also, if you were technical about it, the style the book is written in and wealthy and pretentious characters whose lives are inadvertently changed, I think Morrissey probably wishes he was alive during that time period because he sounds, in a lot of ways, like a whiney guy from the book.

Everything people do creatively is just a patchwork of different influences. I don't consider myself an innovator or completely original or anything. All I do is take in stuff and put my own spin on it.

CP: So definitely The Smiths were an influence, but who else?

PK: There are so many bands. I really listened to Rush the most when I was a kid. I got into punk rock for a really long time. I know on the first album, there were a lot of punk beats and all that.

There was a time period during “Church of the Haunted South” when it was total immersion in the indie world with Death Cab for Cutie and Arcade Fire, big name and small name stuff. I wanted the sound The Doves had when they did “Last Broadcast” with the really clean, layered guitar. All the bands from Manchester always had an effect on me. U.K. bands like Belle and Sebastian and The Futureheads and Stone Roses. I've always loved bands that had that sound from that place.

I guess “Church of the Haunted South” sounds like it could have been put out in Manchester. We didn't go overboard with guitar tones. We tried to make it hit so beefy, and I feel like the guitar tones have a Smiths' sound or The Cure or The Doves.

Recently, I've been listening to a lot of dance/pop stuff like Freelance Whales and Natalie Portman's Shaved Head. Sometimes, it's just random stuff that just shows up in your car stereo at the right time or whatever.

CP: What do you guys have coming up, recording wise?

PK: We actually have a three-song EP coming out. We're going to put “Church of the Haunted South” out on vinyl this summer. We'll tour with that, and if you buy that, you'll get a copy of this three-song EP.

The EP is something I and the rest of the band have become completely obsessed with.

We had the idea based on these random songs we had written that were just for friends or stuff that was completely not for a Winter Sounds album. There's one that's a folk waltz and one that's electronic thing like Peter Gabriel. There are probably 20 or 30 just little ditties we did for people for various reasons, and three of them happened to have the name Michelle in it, so we're going to call it “The Summer of the Three Michelles.” Each song was written for a Michelle, by chance. That will come out with “Church” on vinyl.

We go into the studio officially in July. We'll be recording with Scott Then we go into the studio officially in July. We'll be working with Scott Solter.

CP: He's with Spoon, right?

PK: He's just incredible. I've never met him, but I've heard amazing things, and he's incredibly cheap for someone who has put out the cuts he has. It'll be in Charlotte, so it'll be close to home. We'll hang out at his farm house for three weeks and record an album. I would love to put it out as soon as it's done, but we'll try our best to plan an actual release date that's far enough in advance for our PR to work it.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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