By Kathryn Pinto
Back in June, on the eve of the release of their latest
Five For the Rest of Our Lives, I sat down with the Henry Clay People’s front man Joey Siara for nearly an hour. We talked about the new record, economics,
keeping it real, Pitchfork and debated whether New York or LA has more poseurs
per capita, Siara banging his juice bottle Khrushchevlike
for emphasis. As the Clays wrap up their tour and play a homecoming
show tonight at the Eagle
Rock Music Festival we finally have
the full interview for you.
Tonight the Henry Clay People play the final set of the Eagle Rock Music Festival on the The Ship Studios Stage at 10:00pm.
Kathryn Pinto: Tell me about the new record. What’s the general creative idea of it?
Joey Siara: In all honesty, I think it comes from being burnt on playing music and being burnt with my life and saying ‘Why go out and make anything that doesn’t say anything.” I felt like our last record there were some good tunes on it, but the songs I really liked were the ones that had a clear, angry point and voice.
KP: For example…
JS: On that last record my favorite song was--
KP: You’re talking about the last EP or the last full-length?
JS: The last full-length [Somewhere on the Golden Coast], the EP I consider a transition …taking the bull by the horns and saying “This is how we’re gonna do it.” But on the last full length some of my favorite songs were the first song [“Nobody Taught Us To Quit”] and the last song [“Two Lives at the End of the Night”] and those were the ones that [had] the most heart in them. So in this record Andy [Siara, Joey’s brother and HCP guitar player] and I almost made a pact: “We make an honest record about who we are and the things that go on in our brain, what we think about, what we want and [we] don’t compromise. And if this is the last record we ever make then make it something we can stand by and be proud of.” And that was the creative backbone of the record, “Don’t stop, don’t settle for anything.”
KP: So what are you guys trying to say?
JS: The record is called Twenty Five for the Rest of Our Lives and it’s asking… So there’s a youthful optimism that comes in playing rock ‘n roll music—at first—and then it is also put against the challenges of getting older, what you sacrifice into order to follow your delusional dreams. It’s an honest record about at what point is that sacrificing worth it. There’s a generation I’m part of and proud of that is a little bit in between this optimism. We’re of a generation that went to college and was told, “You’ll have the jobs you want and go out and do it.” I was a history major, I had friends who were English majors and those are very, “Me, I’m unfurling my liberal arts mind” and then we inherit an economy that is not at its finest and so we sit around scratching our heads about, “Is the potential for us to do better than our parents likely?” And I honestly feel like it is economically less likely for us to do as well as our parents. Possible, but at this point in my life my parents had two kids and a house and I’m essentially going to be renting for the rest of my life. I think there’s a lot of dealing with the cognitive dissonance between what we thought we were capable of and, fighting the reality of what we are likely going to get and have to deal with.
KP: Do you think that would be different if you were not doing music or hadn’t been liberal arts major, you still inherit the same world, the same economy so… If you knew that, not even ‘would you have done something different?’ but what would the option have been? If you wanted to be more cynical--
JS: The band was never—the difference between us and a lot of other bands in LA is that I don’t think any of us ever saw it as a career possibility or even wanted it to be a career possibility. It was a happy accident that we got to go and go on tour and quit our jobs temporarily to do music. You know, I was pretty much on track to becoming a teacher, probably a high school history teacher. I taught at museums, I wrote curriculum for museum tours and I’ve done a lot of other little teaching jobs, after school programs, etc., etc. So yeah, I was on track to becoming a teacher and that’s shitty, too. I have friends that are teachers, too and they get pink slips at the end of every year and they have to go and get rehired, and it hasn’t always been like that. But budget cuts, shrinking government and at least that sector of the world has had to do that. On the other side I’ve had friends that were--and I’ve said this in other interviews, too--that were, like my best friend was a Fulbright scholar, went to UPenn, had this amazing finance job. He was making a shit ton of money right out of his undergrad, and you know, a couple years later he was laid off once the economy tanked. Same thing with I had a friend I went to UCSB with and he was one of my best friends from UCSB and high school and he went to law school and got a decent job and then got laid off. Our drummer. He left the band at one point because he got a decent job at an architecture firm and he’s still studying to become an architect, [but] he got laid off from his job. He quit the band because he couldn’t go on tour because of [his job]. He’s like, you know "I got this decent job"—and you know I understood—but when the economy takes a dump and nobody wants to build things anymore, and architect[ure] is one part that is going to shrink and he lost his job.All these people have essentially done the right thing. They excelled in school, they did what their parents told them to do, and it’s a matter of time and place and coming of age in the right time and right place or wrong time and wrong place.
I’ve been getting in political debates with my dad and I love it, and he loves it, too. We will go at it for six hours and have marathon debates and the next couple days writing emails back and forth and me sending him articles and him sending me articles. He was obsessed with me reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers book, and we took very different things from it. He took the whole ‘you work 10, 000 hours at something and that’s what’s going to make you successful or make you an expert at something’ and I took from that book [Gladwell's] idea that the people that are truly--like Bill Gates and the Rockefellers--and a huge component of it is being born in the right time and the right place. So, I don’t know, that’s just a different kind of philosophical battle that I have with my dad. But I think it also applies directly to the music world, or not just the music world, but also the moneymaking world at large.
KP: But you have this whole [idea for the album]: “It’s all taking stock and [asking] how are we doing this ridiculous thing at this age when we should be having some kind of responsible life" and yet you’re saying that you ended up doing music this long because the other [ways of making a life] weren't working out, either.
JS: I’m also I’m very lucky. I pay very little in rent and in the very simplest of ways paying very little in rent has allowed me to like have more time to do music than I should be allowed to. If this world were fair I wouldn’t be allowed to pay rent doing what I do. I would have to work a lot harder and maybe the band would have been sacrificed before now.
KP: So how did the band keep going this long, if you guys weren’t even trying to be musicians, you were just guys in a band?
JS: I think it goes back to the Twenty Five for the Rest of Our Lives idea. That year, when I was 25, and Andy was 22 and our drummer was my age, too. It got to a point in our lives when we got bored at night so then we had band practice and then we had band practice again. Then it got to the point where you want to take that band practice to the next level and play a show Thursday night in Long Beach or wherever because it’s, like, something to do. It’s better than the alternative of like staying at home watching TV or also we’d get tired of seeing other bands. I’d rather go play a show myself. You do that enough and we got to a point where we just kept on saying yes. People would ask us if we’d play a show and we’d almost never said no. I know people have their opinions about 'you’ve got to be careful...' but we were not of that mind. We were not of the mindset that, we’ve got to strategically pick when and where we play. We were just "yes, yeah, yeah, sure, cool, yes," because that was all that we wanted to do.
It was just truly filling up our weeks with shit to do that we found to be fun. And playing rock ‘n roll music and getting drink tickets on a Tuesday night sounded really fun, as opposed to watching Survivor or something. All of the good stuff that has happened with our band happened in that year and it just snowballed in the right way. It’s getting someone like Justin from Aquarium Drunkard to put out our first record. Like I said, we almost never say no. So when that came around he was like ‘Wanna put out your record?’ and we [said], ‘Yeah, sure, of course.’ And then you get asked to go on tour, ‘Sure, yeah.’ That’s the thing, we have maintained—it’s not like this drastic slope or anything, it’s been like a slow, steadyish incline, or like trajectory in the right direction. I told Andy, as soon as that starts to dip or wane, or go in the other direction—I mean it definitely plateaued in the last year and a half,—we spent the last year and a half writing this new record and saying, “We got one more record, let’s go for it.” But I said if I feel like it’s going away or stopping or not as fun as it used to be then screw it. Don’t do it anymore and that’s where I’m at with the band.
KP: Was it never a careerist thing, or did that ever enter into it? Did you ever get to a point where you have a certain amount of success where you’re thinking, ‘What do I need to do to keep this going?’
JS: It got to a point where, in order to go on tour, I had to quit my jobs, which was a sacrifice. “Oh shit, I quit my job” and then at that point you think about “How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to pay utilities?”
KP: So this is when?
JS: This is when we … we went on tour with Airborne [The Airborne Toxic Event] and then we went on another tour… so this is the beginning of 2009, actually might have been 2008. I don’t know I’m bad with years.
KP: The first [tour] where you had to quit everything was the Airborne tour?
JS: Yeah. Yeah, that was six weeks and I quit my job then. But it was like, "Yeah you can come back" I thought, “This will be the one tour that we’ll ever do. We’ll get to go on one national tour” After that we got a manager, a booking agent, and a label. That’s when TBD came in. So that was when it was, “Oh. Crap. They’re going to put us back on the road.” We came home for a month and then we went back on the road again. At that point I was thinking, ‘This is different. I’m taking a sabbatical. This is like my summer vacation for a year." I thought that’s probably all it was going to be. But we’ve gotten lucky and, you know, and also said yes to decent tours that have come our way. That’s kept us busy and kept us from rejoining the real world. We have lived in this alternate reality of limbo land, arrested development where I can come and have lunch at Whole Foods at 2:00 whenever I want. [laughs].
JS: That’s actually not true, I can’t afford that.
KP: So what about, I don’t know how to make this a question. Coming into this [interview] I had a question [about the] politics of music--you guys played Coachella, but then you had not play [LA] for what was it? Three months, six months?
JS: That one, yeah. Most places have radius clauses. They don’t like you playing shows within a certain amount of time within a certain distance of [a show at their venue]. When we were starting to play all those Silverlake Lounge, The Echo, Spaceland, Alex’s Bar, Prospector, those places, yeah they cared, but at the same time we were usually playing a crappy time slot anyway so it doesn’t matter that much. When you’re supposed to headline or when you are supporting a band that has to abide by those rules then there’s absolutely more pressure to follow those rules and absolutely that still continues to be very hard for us. That is why every once in a while we create fake band names…
KP: Every once in a while? like every other week.
JS: Yeah, I mean but part of it is the same thing. I decided that I love playing live and so even if it’s four or five people, I don’t care, change our band name. We probably could use the practice, we’ll change our band name, play a midnight slot at Satellite and probably feel better for doing it and probably are a better band for doing it. Yeah, but that was really hard for us.
KP: But you guys didn’t really play for [a long time]—
JS: You know what? Andy and I talk about that as a moment when that question you were talking about came into my brain, “Is this a career? Is this something I need to think about? What would be the smart thing to do at this moment?” Honestly at that point, I felt like my soul was shrunk. My soul was crushed enough--the moment I started thinking about being smart, about the music industry, part of what was good about out band was lost.
And actually, I probably had couple beers, and I wrote a long thing to our [fan] email list, apologizing for getting to the point where I felt like we compromised too much. I listen to a lot of that record, and I like a lot of it, but part of it doesn’t feel like it’s totally honest with who we are. It feels like I’m looking over my shoulder a little too much. That’s not good. For music, for anything that I think is creative. If you’re answering to too many cooks in the kitchen, always looking over your shoulder your product will be compromised. And I felt like the product—what people had liked about the Henry Clay People—what people liked about us at the beginning was that we didn’t give a shit and we looked like we were always having fun, and that’s contagious, having fun and not giving a shit is contagious and good. We were still having fun, but once the labels and management and agents came in it’s still fun, but we were forced to give a shit—“Give a shit or else you’re going to lose these opportunities." At that point part of the Henry Clay People’s charm was lost. This whole new energy that we have is realizing that we really, we lost a little bit if who we were because we cared too much about things that are not—things that shouldn’t have been—that important to us. So let's get back to what is important to us.
KP: So it doesn’t matter what Pitchfork has to say about you?
JS: It matters for the success of your career. It does, but, you know, but there are also things that are within and without my control and that is definitely not in my control whatsoever.
KP: What do you think their deal is?
KP: I think, it seems to me, that they’re just like unnecessarily harsh on LA bands.
JS: You know a couple of times I did [wrote] reviews for my college newspaper. I was a Pitchfork reader, an early Pitchfork reader, back in 2001, 2002. They have some stuff that I agree with wholeheartedly and they have some really great writers, really insightful things.
I look at the scene that you guys cover, Travis [Woods of Web In Front] covers, all the LA indie rock blogs cover and I look at that and I don’t see any reason why Pitchfork would like this stuff. Not that I’m a Pitchfork defender, but at the same time I don’t think that they are just blanket LA haters. There are a lot of bands for whatever reason some people thought that Pitchfork might like our band, because we’re like The Hold Steady or The Thermals or whatever, and Pitchfork likes them, therefore… I think that’s too simplistic of a thing and to take it personally that Pitchfork doesn’t like us. I don’t think we can take it personally either. I don’t know. It’s hard because on one level our band occupies a space that radio will never love us, we’ll never get mainstream radio love. We’ll never get the Pitchfork knighting and blessing, but that’s something that’s not going to happen, either. So that for the career prospect, or for the future prospect of our band, what does that mean? How does a band that doesn’t have the blogosphere buzzing about them or doesn’t have radio buzzing about them? We also don’t have TV synchs that are coming in it’s not like we have the newest Mac commercial so, what does that mean? Where do we belong? We’ve had people say, those don’t work or those avenues aren’t where you belong then get out there and play live. But that’s also a hard life too. You go out there and play live to eight people in Denver and hope that it’s 16 the next time and hope that it’s 32 the next time. That’s not necessarily the way to go either, the easiest avenue towards growing your band.
The guy that people hate so much or bitch about so much is Ian Cohen. He’s the one who [covers bands in LA] but also I find his reviews to be sometimes the smartest and best written and I agree with him about a lot of that stuff. So when I see people have so much hate and spite towards him. He has a job to be honest about it. We talked about this before, your blog and a lot of other blogs, they only cover good stuff and they’re positive. Too many people are out there patting each others’ backs and giving each other shoulder massages, that at some point people will read Pitchfork because they want to hear something that that is honest coverage.
KP: You know what’s funny, on that subject, I’m going to take it personally here for a second—cause I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, a lot of people up in my face about it—is that you get these guys… Well, for example the most irritating band person of the month [June] is Azad from Torches, in person, via email, on twitter… So people want you to write about them, they want you to write good stuff about them—and trash everyone else—and then, on top of it, not read the site. Like, “Write about us, but I’m not going to read it. I’ll like pull some quotes, or get someone else to pull quotes.” So I don’t know, I inherited the site from Joe [Fielder] So… it’s not like we can’t say anything bad [or negative or critical], but it’s not the spirit of it. It’s to capture what’s worth seeing.
JS: Right. I understand the model. My problem mainly was that it got to the point where there are too many voices that all agree, posting about the same handful of bands. And, what has happened is that a lot of those bands broke up or formed new bands, new side projects, or declined. I guess that’s how, the ebb and flow of how these things go and work. But also people just like bands that define what their voice is. Blogs and writers, in general, and journalists need to figure out what their voice is, too.
KP: Yeah, I think there was [a time] when everything was going off at once. There was a historical moment of, the blog moment. In, like 2005, 2006, everybody’s got a blog.
JS: It was definitely like a new thing that felt like a democratic, active section of the technology world meeting opinions being read and people being excited about finally ‘I have an avenue for my opinions to be heard’ that doesn’t have to be about music. It is about writing and ‘people read what I write’ and that’s good. Everybody wants to be heard, that’s the thing. At the end of the day people don’t want to feel isolated and like their voice isn’t heard. And then start a blog, start a band.
KP: Now it’s gone towards the, on the internet side of things there’s—you got like your twitter tumblr thing. It’s like repost, repost, like a line here, a line there.
JS: Yeah, I definitely feel like that part has changed. I don’t know if it’s changed for better or for worse.
KP: We already touched on this, but the idea of retirement or a lifespan. For music—this kind— it’s almost like you’re an athlete or something —at least if you’re touring in a van and sleeping on floors, right? So then is there a lifespan?
JS: For me?
KP: Yeah. Maybe in general, but from your perspective.
JS: Like when? When’s the right time to retire?
KP: Or does one necessarily have to? Is there a time to bow out?
JS: For me there is, definitely. There are a lot of people that are lifers, that are good musicians. In the Henry Clay People we have had people that are good musicians play with us who I know will be doing it for a long time, and that’s not for me. Part of it is because I have horrible tinnitus in my ears. That definitely put a number on my days in rock ‘n roll music. My ears ring all the time and every audiologist and ENT has said, ‘Yeah, you can’t go much longer doing this.’ I stuff my ears so full of earplugs, but… So yeah, my days are numbered, partially because of that and partially because I have desires to do other things, teach or write. I like writing. And I also have desires to settle down some day, maybe have a normal life. I can do that and appreciate it in a way more than I would have before because of getting the opportunity to be an idiot for the last four years. I’ve gotten to sow those oats and make my peace with that part of my life and therefore be able to join the real world and welcome that opportunity. I think it’s important for the lifer musicians that do it, the ones that are good, go for it, more power to them. It’s just not for me. I don’t know if that was the clearest answer to your question.
KP: No—it’s good. In this town there’s definitely people whose--you can think if a half dozen right off the top of your head—their day job is something else in music even if their projects aren’t their passion projects, their personal artistic vision isn’t the thing that’s making money—they’re doing soundtracks or audio engineering or—
JS: and that’s the thing I was very naïve to, before—Andy and I and our drummer also grew up in LA and Orange County—and so we were suburban LA and Orange County kids, totally underestimating the industry magnetism of Los Angeles and how many people came here to be musicians, actors, screenwriters, whatever. You go to any coffee shop in Silver Lake and you throw a rock and hit two musicians and a screenwriter. That’s part of it—and also that’s part of the reason why people have a general mistrust or distrust of people from Los Angeles—if you’re Pitchfork or if you’re a lot of other people writing about LA you have this idea in your head. “How many of these bands have started up as an enterprise? As a ‘Hey let’s, you get together because you have the cool black hair that crosses your face at just the right angle and you’re the cute bass player and I’ll bang on a floor tom and have a mustache and we’ll all get together and make timely music.” People don’t trust that. I think that people see that happening in LA and they think that you are essentially actors, going and acting like you are in a band. The integrity of why people need to be [making] music [bangs on table] Sorry, I’m banging on the table—This is what happens when I--
KP: Yes, you can take your shoe off if you need to—
JS: This is what I do when I get into things—it has to be passionate, no matter what you are attracted to. People are attracted to some kind of passionate music. When you see that passion and you think, "how much of this is fabricated? How much of this is not sincere?" No wonder people despise a lot of what’s coming out of LA, because a lot of it you see you ask yourself "is this sincere or is this an actors and actresses playing sincere?"
KP: But it’s not like that’s not happening in Chicago and New York. There aren’t a lot of actors in Brooklyn?
JS: I know there are, but there’s an enterprising spirit here in LA of people that have stars in their eyes. This is a place that you come here to get bigger, to get more famous, to be known.
KP: Thank You
Epilogue: Joey and I rambled on for another ten minutes debating about LA vs. New York, after the recorder filled up and the batteries died. Next time you’re at a Henry Clay People show I highly recommend that you say hello to him at the merch table. It’s an election year so his debating spirit is in fine form.
The Henry Clay People play tonight at 10:00 sharp at the Eagle Rock Music Festival on the The Ship Studios Stage. The Eagle Rock Music Festival takes place today Saturday October 6 from 2pm-11pm on Colorado Blvd. in Eagle Rock, free shuttle and parking at Eagle Rock Plaza. All ages, $10 requested donation.