Three weeks ago today, I got the chance to see French Kicks, the band responsible for one of my favorite releases of 2006, the unbelievably excellent Two Thousand. It was my first French Kicks live experience and they put on a fantastic show at Exit/In, officially cementing their status as one of my current favorite bands.
Not only was the gig a great one, I was also lucky enough to sit down before the show with Josh Wise, the band's guitarist, who shares songwriting duties with lead singer Nick Stumpf. It was my first interview that didn't take place live on the air at the radio station, and what I thought would be a short but sweet Q&A at the venue turned into having a drink across the street and talking for nearly an hour. Josh was the kind of interviewee a nervous blogger dreams of meeting - he put me immediately at ease and made me feel like I was just chatting with a new friend.
I apologize for posting this three weeks later - transcribing what turned out to be more of a conversation than an interview was a bitch. But after the jump you'll find Josh's thoughts on Two Thousand, historical reading, "Pitchfork's thing," music blogs and being a college DJ. Here's a little something to listen to while you read, a track that's actually from the band's last album, The Trial of the Century:
Out the Other (OTO): You have a reputation for experimenting and challenging yourselves as a band, and I read that you put a lot of pressure on yourselves while working on Two Thousand. What do you think you did differently this time around with the new record?
Josh Wise (JW): I think traditionally we demoed the songs a lot; we will have recorded many versions before we go into the studio and usually have things pretty part-by-part arranged. We leave room for things to happen in the moment but a lot of things are really prescribed. I think we got to that point where we had tracks that we liked a lot, and then we tried to break them down further and start over, and see if they work on a very basic, kind of chord changes level - "okay, here's the verse, here's the chorus." We added another phase to the way we finalize the songs and arrangements.
OTO: You were even more of a perfectionist this time around?
JW: Yeah, I think a little more... maybe we just changed the way we were perfectionists. We kept big structures in mind and tried to get certain things happening in different songs, we used a lot of keyboard sounds that were programmed, or ones that we hadn't used before. We used some things like acoustic guitars - either prominently or in a more background fashion - and we had a lot of drum tracks that were created from different percussion tracks as opposed to a single drum kit. And that was something we definitely had started to do on the last record and did a little more of. A lot of things I think were begun on the last record that we sort of took a little further on this one.
OTO: It really sounds like you're moving in the direction you started with The Trial of the Century.
JW: Yeah, that's what we hoped - that it would change but there would be a little bit of fluidity between the two records, that you could feel that certain things had been developed that were going on in The Trial of the Century. A lot of the songs - well not a lot actually, maybe two or three - were kind of either begun, or were recorded in some form during The Trial of the Century sessions, so we pulled them back out. We had a lot of songs that were brand new that we threw away - you know, we got into them and then didn't like them - and we revisited some things that we had begun during the last record that we were really into, and started working on again and really liked them, so that creates a kind of continuity between the two albums.
OTO: How did you decide what made the cut for the album if you had so much material? It really does seem to flow well.
JW: We had a lot of songs that we really liked... and we had one song that was just really great that we didn't put on there, and two other ones that Nick and I just recorded in upstate New York and all three kind of hang together and sound very similar to one another but didn't quite fit on the record that well. We tried to create some kind of variety on the record but also have it be cohesive and not have stuff totally all over the place. So there were several that didn't make the cut that will be put out in some form sooner or later, and there were some we just trashed because we didn't like them. That always happens - there will be things we had really worked on, but we weren't happy and excited about them.
OTO: Are you happy with the way the record turned out?
JW: I am. I am. You know it really took me a while to be able to step back and listen to it objectively and it's only been within the past month that I've actually been able to put it on and listen to it and be like "hell yeah that's good!" (laughs) But I can't really listen to our records that much, because once you've spent that much time making them it's very difficult to listen to them without finding something that you would have done differently.
OTO: Do you have a favorite song on the record?
JW: You know what? It really changes. Especially on tour - there are nights where I really get into certain songs - but I can definitely say that I really enjoy playing every song on the record. We haven't been playing every single song live but we've been playing most of the record at least from night to night.
OTO: Do your sets vary much from night to night?
JW: Yeah we've been doing sort of a thing where we've got a template of a set in a certain rough order, and there will be certain blocks that get rotated. Last night we actually played a pretty different set - we decided to start over and do something different - and tonight we might try some stuff that we haven't played in a long time, so it will be fun to start changing it up a little bit.
OTO: I know that everyone probably asks about your musical influences, so I won't do that. But other than music, what else influences you?
JW: That's a good question, you know, because music is one of those things that you can't say explicitly where it comes from. But I think we all on different levels really listen to music carefully, and listen to music with the mind of finding things about it that really excite you that you want to bring into your own thing and explore.
But yeah... other
things... I like reading, I like writing, I like painting - I can't say
that those influence the music at all. (laughs) But I don't know, I
think that there's something to our music that's pretty personal, I
think even the bigger rock songs have a certain kind of intimate
quality. And a lot of people have said that to me on tour - that it's music that often times they listen to alone. I think there's
definitely a lot of that - there's a feeling of personal experience,
whether it's a specific thing or a general feeling or a mood, that I
think we try to get across in the music, and I think that's something
that maybe is different about our band. Or that we feel is pretty
common throughout what we do.
OTO: I do think that definitely comes across. You guys have been touring quite a bit since Two Thousand was released - with the Futureheads, Phoenix, Sound Team, and now The Little Ones. What do you like the most about touring?
JW: Recently I've really enjoyed seeing friends who are
scattered around the country and who I don't get to see very often. Last
night I got to hang out with two friends I went to high school with and grew up with, and it was really cool to visit with them for a
while. I think while touring you get rather claustrophobic some times -
you're with the same people all the time and you have to find ways to
create personal space and just check out. Whether it's listening to
music or reading or taking a walk - and all those things are good. But
meeting up with friends just takes you to another world for a little
OTO: Do you prefer touring to recording?
JW: I don't know, there are times I get really worn out touring
and there are times when I love it. And I really like being in the
studio a lot, I like writing music. But they sort of inform one another
I think. You write with the idea that one day you're going to perform in
front of people and it's part of the excitement, and on the flipside,
touring - you're trying to get across everything you had hoped you would
have made happen in the studio. But they definitely kind of feed each other, and you kind of have
to love both.
OTO: Do you get a chance to write much on the road?
JW: I find it almost impossible. I think Nick is maybe a little
bit better than I am, doing some stuff on a laptop or whatever, but I
find it pretty much impossible. I can take notes and I find I do a lot
of listening on the road - honing in on things that I want to do, and
try. And maybe during soundcheck when you can play around and stuff or
when you have down time... but I have a lot of trouble writing on the
OTO: So what do you do on the road?
JW: I've been trying to read.
OTO: What have you been reading?
JW: I've been reading a book about Native Americans. It's a book by George Catlin and it's one of the only first-hand accounts from the early ninteenth century besides the Lewis and Clark era stuff. I picked it up totally at random, and I've been thinking I wanted to read something like that, and it's really been very interesting. I go through phases where I'll read a lot, and then I just won't read at all and have to get back into it again, but I hope I'm in a reading phase right now.
OTO: What about new music? Pretty much everyone you're touring with this year has released a new record - have you been able to hear their music, and are they bands you're familiar with ahead of time?
JW: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Like both Phoenix and the Futureheads - I really didn't hear their records until right before we went on tour, and it's cool because I was a little bit familiar with them, but it was really while we were on tour that I got to know the music. And that's a fun process, you go see it every night and let it seep into your head a little bit.
OTO: Do you get to see many shows?
JW: When I'm not touring I usually don't really go out to see shows, but I've been trying to check things out when I can. I love being turned on by something exciting and new and I'm really digging the band we're touring with - The Little Ones - great stuff, a really good vibe, that's been a lot of fun.
OTO: You said you're a little behind the curve - do you get online to look for new stuff?
JW: Yeah but usually I depend on the recommendations of friends and also just seeing stuff, talking to people like other musicians. Or people like yourself who are like - "oh, you should really check this out." That's usually how I find out about things.
OTO: What do you think of music blogs, and other music websites like Pitchfork and things like that?
JW: It's cool - unfortunately Pitchfork does not like us at all.
But I think it's cool in that way that there are a lot of blogs that are actually becoming as prominent, so at least there's a counterbalance. There seem to be more sites that are heavily trafficked, so that you can get opinions based on what you feel like is the general angle of a site.
OTO: I think the thing with Pitchfork too is that when there's an incredibly positive or an incredibly negative review on there, it creates so much more discussion about that record than would happen otherwise. I think that's what happened with Sound Team when they got mauled.
JW: Which is crazy!
OTO: Which I think is crazy too, because everyone I've talked to loves that record.
JW: It's really bizarre. I've found also that Pitchfork reviews, when they're bad, are very personal, which is deeply somewhat irresponsible. And also there's a lot of misinformation. I honestly appreciate bad reviews of a record, if they're founded in... you know, actual fact.
OTO: And not obscure metaphors?
JW: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. In ours there was talk of riding scooters around Brooklyn with some kind of monkey. I mean it's very interesting because I honestly did not understand what they were talking about. You know, I accept the bad review, but I don't understand what it's talking about at all. And then the things they said about the music - it wasn't necessarily totally slamming it.
But I'm not going to - Pitchfork has their own thing and whatever, I'm not going to hate on it. But I don't understand it. I think that's my deal.
OTO: Do you have any websites that you read regularly?
JW: I don't, I'm not on anything that regularly. I go to links when people
send them to me, but I usually try to listen to things before I read
anything about them, so I can have an opinion first.
OTO: I'm the same way. Even though I write a music blog, I prefer to listen to a song before I read what someone else has to say about it.
JW: I think the great service that blogs are providing and the thing a lot of these sites are doing is really curating music for people. I think that's really what most good websites do - serve a curatorial function in some way. You can either like it or not like it, but at least it gives you some finite amount of stuff to respond to. And then it creates a discussion, and links off... and from that you discover commonalities with other people who are reading it, or things you like... and then someone points you to this or that.
But you need a strong personality that can say "these are things worth checking out," or are "these are worthy of review." Because there is just too much stuff otherwise.
OTO: I think that's one of the best things I've heard someone say about music blogs.
No, it's true. And that's what a good DJ does as well. A good DJ who
has the freedom to form their own playlist - that's exactly what they
OTO: That's the best thing about college radio. I really wish I could have gotten you guys into the radio station today.
JW: Totally. We'd love that. I was a college radio DJ too.
OTO: Really? Where did you go to school?
JW: I went to Princeton. It's a good radio station there - still fairly free-form with lots of music. I learned a lot there. I like DJing - I love being in a radio station, being where there's lots of music around. That was the best part, just having a library of records that you can listen to.
OTO: And I would think that Princeton students probably don't steal too much from the record library there.
JW: You'd be surprised - but I think it was pretty well policed. There weren't that many people who were into being a DJ either; it's a pretty big resource with not that many people vying for it.
OTO: Well next time you're in town you definitely have to come DJ with me. So I really only have two more questions for you - you were just on the Late Late Show the other night - how did it go?
JW: It was good! I haven't seen it yet, but the actual performance actually felt less awkward than it can feel - sometimes those things are really irritating. But I think it was fun, and everyone was great and friendly and it was well-run.
OTO: My last question is about Nashville. I know you grew up nearby in Alabama, but do you have anything in particular that you love about this town?
JW: I don't know. I feel like Nashville is literally in the backyard of where I grew up so it's sort of an extension of home. I think most musicians are excited to see the Ryman Auditorium - anyone who really knows anything about American music is excited about that. But there's great food here, and I find Nashville to be a very clean, manageable, easy-going town.
Josh and the rest of French Kicks will be back on the road in November, playing a series of dates with Ok Go. I highly recommend checking their site to see if they're stopping at a venue near you, or at least picking up a copy of Two Thousand. For more information on the band, you can also visit their MySpace page and Startime International.