published Friday, March 18th, 2011

Q&A with Aaron Lee Tasjan

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Aaron Lee Tasjan, lead singer and guitarist of New York City-based rock band The Madison Square Gardeners, about his friendship with Drivin’ N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney, why the band is so upbeat and finding his voice.

CP: You guys started off in 2007 playing cover songs. When did you start working out original material?

AT: When we started out, it would have been maybe a year into it or so. Everyone else was doing other things when we started. In our own way, we were all basically a band of sidemen when we started out. We were just kind of goofing around really, in a way. (Laughs.) We were all on the road for fun.

Our friend had a bar, and he would let us play there. It was cool because we didn't have to play anything by Kings of Leon. We could play Neil Young or any of our favorite music. They were cool with letting us do whatever we wanted.

About a year into it. I thought we should make a record. I don't know why. I wrote some songs for it, and that was about the beginning of 2008.

CP: Is that what turned into “Don't Name the Pig?”

AT: That's what became that record. It was kind of an experiment, in a way, to do that record because the way the band came together, it was almost by accident. We hadn't really ever considered - or at least I hadn't - being an actual band.

At the time, I was in a band, and we had a record deal and were touring all the time. I never really thought of MSG as something that was going to be more of a full-time thing for me.

What's also really interesting is that everyone kind of moved here (New York) to be a musician for a living. A lot of guys were kind of doing whatever gig they could do, as long as it meant they were playing music and they didn't have to have a day job. Now, it's the opposite of that, where MSG has moved to the forefront of our lives as a priority. (Laughs.)

If you told me when I moved to New York a couple years ago that “You're going to be in this band and you won't make any money, but it'll be a lot of fun,” I and the rest of the guys would be like, “No, I don't think so.” (Laughs.)

We just ended up, luckily, being all on the same page about that stuff. I wouldn't trade it for anything at this point, as crazy as it seems for me to say. I don't make much money at it, but it's really become my favorite thing to do in the world.

CP: What kind of that kind of enthusiasm for the music have on the music?

AT: It's interesting. We do travel around a lot and get to play with a lot of different kinds of bands. When you're starting out, you get to play weird gigs. In a way, that's the best time for a band, when you're starting out, because you're in weird positions on a bill like being after a punk band and between a fire juggler and after a grunge band from Seattle.

For us, as a band, it's affected the whole message of the band, which is this kind of overwhelmingly positive, happy, sunny disposition. What's cool about it is that the joy just kind of radiates from the music that we make because we all love doing it so much. That comes across.

There have been people who come up to me after shows and been like, “You guys smile when you're playing. I've never seen a band smile like that before. That's cool.” I think that's why, when we play certain places now, people have started coming out, because the shows have become a release.

I know it's not always the most hip thing, or artistically hip thing, to be happy, but we are. We're just happy to be in a world of music and making music and being around other musicians.

It's a lot of fun for us because a lot of us grew up in Ohio. I remember reading a record review in Rolling Stone Magazine of Tim Houston's record “Break Your Mother's Heart.” He was from Ohio, too, and I remember seeing him play in little bars. I remember thinking, “Man, this is cool. I wonder how you do that."

We all grew up really interested in music, even before we were playing it. It definitely affects the music and the things that we write about, too. It's all kind of based around this joy of playing music. The songs and the live show reflect that.

CP: Does that mean your songs are all joyous in tone or can you sing a sad song joyously?

AT: A lot of the times, we like to try and reinvent what we do every night, with keeping that perspective in mind. We're not really a band that gets ready to do a tour and makes a set list and says, “OK, here's our set list for the tour. We're going to open with this and close with this because it's a show stopper.”

For me, it's more about trying to read the room. Even if you can just pick one person out of the audience and try and get their perspective on it for a minute and try to read them and their ups and downs.

Sometimes, we'll take a song and completely change it around so that, instead of being a super up-tempo, pop/rock song, we'll do it so it's more melancholic … or Irish or something. I love the idea of that, too, of changing the tempo of a song or whatever.

It allows me, as the singer, to kind of become a new character, and the words can have totally different meaning. I personally find that if it's more off-the-cuff like that, I can find a way to deliver something about that song that I've never thought about before. That's exciting.

In a live setting, that makes for really interesting moments. People remember that, which is cool, too. They'll be at the show the next time we're in town, and they'll say, “You guys did this version of that song last time that was slow and beautiful. I never thought of the song that way.” It's cool that we get responses to it.

Yeah, ultimately, you can find an amount of joy in sadness. Kurt Cobain had one of the greatest lines about that of all time that, “I miss the comfort of being sad.” I think there is a kind of cool joy, in a way, to being sad. I think Connor Oberst is making a great career out of doing that very thing right now. I'm definitely a fan.

CP: Tell me about the band's relationship to Kevn Kinney of Drivin' N Cryin'.

AT: Well, it's funny. Kevn I remember meeting for the first time in New York maybe three or four years ago. A friend of mine had a Drivin' N Cryin' record at his house. You wouldn't expect this person to be a Drivin' N Cryin' fan, so I was surprised. I asked him why he had this record, and he said, “My friend is Kevn's girlfriend.” So I ended up going to his friend's birthday party for Kevn's then-girlfriend, now wife.

I remember Courtney Love playing the video for “Honeysuckle Blue” when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. We were on summer vacation, and my parents had gotten a babysitter for the night, and she watched MTV. That was my first look at Kevn. I really liked the song a lot - I loved the guitar riff.

Kevn just kind of became, in a lot of ways, a mentor for me. I played with him that night. The vibe at the birthday was that she was having all her friends who played music playing music. I was there playing with my other friend and band mate at the time. Kevn said, “Hey man, do you want to sit in with me?” and I said, “Yeah, sure.” I was a fan, so I knew a lot of the songs already that he played that night.

He was just so cool. I met him that night, and he came to a gig of mine about three weeks later. After the gig, we were outside talking, and he said, “Hey man, what are you doing two weeks from now?” and I said, “Nothing.” He was like, “I'm going to Holland. Do you want to be my guitar player?” I said, “Yeah!”

It's kind of a fairy tale story. He became a guy I could call in the middle of the night and ask, “I don't know what to do. What should I do?”

I got to sit next to Kevn and watch him play. I played guitar with him, and I did a bunch of duo tours with him as well. It was a lesson, honestly, in how to be a performer. He just did so many things I had never even contemplated. I loved Tom Petty and all these kind of guys, but I never got to watch them, night after night after night, and see them walk into a crazy, weird bar, where everyone is talking, sit down, take their guitar out and immediately get the crowd's attention like it was nothing. I got to do that with Kevn.

Like so many artists, I adopted some of his techniques or ideas to kind of give me a starting point to figure out how to do this stuff on another level. That was really the thing I realized when I first started hanging out with him, that there was all this other stuff I need to think about and that I need to work on that had never occurred to me before.

I definitely steal from Kev, but I proudly steal from him. I'm not saying that just because I'm a friend. I don't see why he doesn't get the attention of people like Ryan Adams or Jeff Tweedy or whoever. Kevn is, in my opinion, one of our great American songwriters. The sentiment of a song like “Scarred But Smarter” or any number of other songs he's written, you can't ---- with that stuff. It's too succinctly and beautifully written in a unique, Kevn Kinney kind of way.

Kevn had his own style. To approach finding my own approach, I had to adopt the techniques of one of my heroes to have my own jumping off point.

CP: Have you reached the point where you have your own voice now?

AT: Yeah, I think so. Especially on this last record, I really do feel like I've started to find it. That kind of stuff comes over time.

We talk about this all the time in our group of friends. Bands used to make records, and it would be obvious that it was a band's first record when you listened to it. Then, they would put the next one out, and it would be better, and the next one would be better. You used to really be able to trace their progress. If you listen to early Beatles recordings, who would have ever thought they would have made “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver,” much less “Sgt. Pepper's.”

That kind of thing is what our band is doing. Every time we make a record, it's getting better and starting to sound more like us. For me, personally, I'm getting more of a sense of what I do that's unique that people gravitate toward.

But at the same time, I don't want to over intellectualize it or think about it too much, because I don't want it to become contrived in a way or some thing where I'm trying to sell someone a used car. (Laughs.) Whatever I do, I want it to be as sincere as I can possibly make it.

As a singer, I just want to be believable. Whatever the context of that is, as long as I can be believable to people, at the end of the day, that's what's really going to get the point across. It's just a rock band, a dumb, big rock band, and the focus is heavily on pop songwriting.

We're not like Spoon or Radiohead or MGMT where we have some crazy awesome production element, but to be honest, at the end of the day, as much as I love those bands, I would still rather listen to “Damn the Torpedoes” 600 times. That kind of music is what made me want to pick up a guitar in the first place. I can't explain it. I heard it when I was a little kid, and I thought, “That is the best. There's nothing better than this. This is the best music.”

Yeah, I do feel like it's getting closer down to being more unique and more of a Madison Square Gardeners' sound, and I have more of an Aaron sound when I'm singing. At the same time, I also recognize that it's a continuing journey. That, in and of itself, is important. I remember seeing an interview with Bob Dylan where he said, “You're probably OK as an artist as long as you feel like you've never arrived anywhere and see yourself as in a constant state of becoming.” That was really inspiring to me.

I'm OK with people saying, “Oh, he's obviously borrowing from Kevn Kinney and Tom Petty.” I'm fine with that because those guys are, in my opinion, the best. Any artist is really, in all reality, just a representation of their record collection. (Laughs.)

CP: To discuss your discography a bit. Is your most recent EP “Teeth of Champions” the final release of your series of EPs you started releasing last year?

AT: No, it's the second to last. The last one will come out this fall. This is No. 3 in the mix.

CP: What was the impetus behind following up your debut LP with a series of EPs?

AT: You know, we sort of thought, “We're a great live band,” and it was frustrating to us in the beginning because we felt like we weren't making records that really justified our live performance.

We sort of thought, “Well, how do we fix this?” One, we've got to get better at making records, obviously. (Laughs.) That was a given. The other element of it is that we have to tour - we have to get out there and, one at a time, win people over.

One of our concepts for that was to get out there as much as we can. It became quickly evident to us that you have to have something to talk about when you're touring nowadays because people need a reason to want to talk to you.

I sort of thought that, “If we took the next two years and put something out every four months, we'll always have something new, and it will give people a reason to come back and see us again and give music journalists or bloggers a reason to continually mention our band.”

It was really meant as a way to help build up our profile up a little bit. Everyone had done this really interesting stuff on our own, but aside from the fact that we started up as a cover band, the Madison Square Gardeners didn't have a story of our own. It became a great way for us to be constantly out there playing music for people.

That's the long and short of it. We wanted to play all the time, and we figured that if we made these EPs and released them every few months, we could do that.

CP: Has that panned out?

AT: It's worked out great, honestly. Because the records are getting better every time, more people are covering them. It seems like the profile raises a little bit each time. We put out our first one, and we got some cool reviews on eMusic and The Cleveland Scene. Then, we put out the next one, and The Village Voice and Time Out New York wrote about us - it was a little cooler.

Musically, for what we do, we've been surprised by the response for this recent one, particularly from the indie, blogging community. People like Day Trotter and My Old Kentucky Blog have been remarkably positive about our band. We honesty thought they would hate us because we're such a light pop band, but they've written these cool, super sweet reviews.

It was like, “I guess you can't count anything out at this point.” It's worked out really well for us, and it has allowed us to do exactly what we wanted to do and continues to allow us to do that. We get to play music all the time, and that, to me, is pretty awesome.

CP: So it's mission accomplished.

AT: Yeah, it really feels that way. It's been so much fun being in this band for the last year and a half. We've seen it grow every time we put something out and every time we go out, in terms of who pays attention to the band and who comes out to show. I just feel really lucky is the best way to describe it.

CP: What will you be playing in Chattanooga? Are you pulling from the EP project exclusively or will you go as far back as things like, “My Ex-Girlfriend (Is a Bad Lesbian on Drugs)?”

AT: We realize we kind of have to play that one. (Laughs.) We'll be pulling from everything. Just the fact that we're at a point where people are showing up to gigs and know some of the songs, we're happy to play anything of ours that people want to hear. We aim to please in that department. (Laughs.)

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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