Jul 10, 2001

Cornerstone 2001: Ester Drang Interview

I usually go into interviews with more than a bit of trepidation. But I felt doubly so going into this interview. You see, the night before, I’d just seen Ester Drang put on one of the most amazing and powerful sets I’ve ever seen (in fact, my friends and I still talk about it to this day). It certainly ranks among my top 5 Cornerstone experiences of all time. And I was supposed to interview these guys without coming off as a fawning fanboy (too late for that, I’m guessing).

Add to that the interruptions, changing locations, and the shifting lineup of interviewees, and it makes for one of the more chaotic journalistic endeavors I’ve experienced. Thankfully, the guys were cool about the whole thing. And I did learn one important lesson. Don’t ever use the word “jam” when talking about their music.

You guys just put out Goldenwest which came out on Burnt Toast Vinyl a few months ago. Let’s talk about the recording process. You put out “That Is When Turns Us Golden” on Red Crown a few years ago. Was the time between Goldenwest and That Is When Turns Us Golden just spent writing material for the new album, taking a break from music, what?

James: We were still playing shows and stuff. We didn’t really view it as a writing period. Some bands are like “We’re writing material for the new album”…

Kyle: Not all the songs that we wrote made it on Goldenwest. We probably wrote 4 other songs that we wore out before we recorded Goldenwest.

James: It was a long time, it was a couple years.

Wore out” in terms of you just got tired of playing them live, or they just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the stuff you were writing?

David: I think they just ended up not fitting. They weren’t that great of songs after we played for awhile… I don’t know. I joined the band during that time. They recorded that album and it was about a year and a half, 2 years before it came out.

Are you talking about Goldenwest?

David: No, the first one. So it was a really long time between when they recorded that and we recorded Goldenwest.

How did the songs come about? Is there one of you that does most of the composing, or do you all come with different ideas during practice, during the writing process and just jam and work it out?

James: Bryce writes all of the songs, pretty much.

He’s the guitarist?

James: Yeah… he has every song, in one way or another, written. There are little things here and there that we change. He doesn’t tell us what to play specifically…

(At this point, the metal band starts practicing right next to us. The interview slowly gets moved to the Cornerstone Magazine tent, and in the process, we lose a band-member or two.)

Alright, part two…

Kyle: Could you say the word “jam” again?

Jam?

David: Did you say that earlier?

I did?

Brian: You said it earlier.

I was trying to use some “rock lingo”.

Brian: It was a decent use of the word “jam”.

I was talking about the songwriting process, and asking if you “jammed” on the songs.

Kyle: Right, right… we jam.

So… you guys are like Phish?

Brian: Exactly… hours and hours…

Kyle: Psychedelic freakout…

David: When we were out in California, Starflyer was in the studio a lot, and that was their big word. Anyway they could use the word “jam”, they did.

I was talking to the Elevator Division and The People, and I guess the new word for them “fresh”.

Brian: I always say things are “hot”.

Where I come from it’s “tough”.

Brian: I’ll say “sick”.

Kyle: My big one is “rad”.

Rad”? Bringing back some of the old surfer lingo?

Brian: “Sick” is from the 80’s too…

Kyle: I never let “rad” go.

David: It’s such a good movie.

What movie?.

David: Rad.

Back to the new album, what kind of gear do you guys use? Onstage, you have an arsenal of old analog synths and equipment. What kind of equipment did you use on the recording?

David: Well, we used most of our stuff and some of the things they had out in the Green Room. There were some old keyboards that had belonged to Gene Eugene…

Kyle: His Rhodes…

David: We used his Rhodes. There’s a thing called a “stylophone”, a little toy that works kind of like the game “Operation.” It’s like this little keyboard and you use this little metal pin to touch the notes and it makes this noise. We used this thing called an Optigan. It’s this organ that plays these little discs, these records…

Yeah, there’s a band called Optiganally Yours.

Brian: I’ve heard of them.

David: I think Blur, on their last album, used one.

Kyle: We used a Leslie too, for some of the effects.

David: Just some things like that, plus all of our keyboards. The Juno 60, we used that a lot.

Do you guys consider yourselves huge collectors of old analog equipment?

David: No, I wish we were, but no.

Brian: We’ve got enough stuff as it is, man. Carrying that stuff around… if you’ve ever seen all of our stuff outside the truck, it’s… it’s depressing how much stuff there is. And it’s all heavy.

Well, it’s surprising you guys set up as quickly as you do, with all of that stuff you have.

Brian: With all of that gear, you’ve got a lot of people playing in the band, so it’s usually pretty quick. And our friends help us out.

David: The Green Line 6 delay pedal was a big part of the album. That was used on almost every song, for different noises and stuff. It’s a great pedal.

So, how was it recording in the Green Room? That’s a pretty legendary place in some circles. Starflyer records there, LSU has recorded there. Terry Taylor records there.

Kyle: Deliverance…

Deliverance! Can’t forget all of the old Forefront metal groups. I think Mortal recorded there.

David: It was kind of shocking walking into the Green Room, after knowing all the legends, and it’s just in the back of a house. It’s not really all that impressive, but it was really cool. Coming to Cornerstone in the past and seeing all of these bands that have recorded there, bands that I’ve looked up to, like The Prayer Chain and Starflyer and bands like that, and know they’ve recorded there.

Kind of following in their footsteps…

David: Yeah, it was pretty cool… But the actual building isn’t that impressive.

It’s just the legends that surround it. I want to talk a little bit about your live show. I saw your show last night, and it was amazing, and I saw you guys down in Kansas City. Both times I’ve seen you, your shows are basically seamless, with a lot of intermediate parts. Are you guys tuned in enough to know when to go in, or do you have someone who conducts everything?

David: There’s always cues that we know…

Brian: Usually, when Bryce switches between his Rhodes and his guitar… that stuff we add is kind of necessary because he’s got to switch instruments. And we usually can kind see when he’s ready and give a nod, and someone has to start us off. We don’t usually all just come in. There’s only 1 or 2 songs like that.

David: We practice our sets as a whole. We figure out the setlist and we’ll play the same setlist for several months. We don’t see it as a bunch of songs, but just one big 45 minute piece that we do.

Have there ever been any harrowing experiences live?

Kyle: No. Flawless… (Laughter)

Brian: We’ve run into a few trainwrecks. There are some songs where we have a drumtrack going too, and sometimes those can get a little hairy. If somebody plays a different part shorter or longer and everybody follows them… the trainwrecks happen when somebody does something different and everyone has to decide “Do we stick with it or follow that guy?” But usually, at this point, we’re pretty alright.

I’m going to try and not use the word “jam” again, but during the live shows, do you ever “freestyle”?

Kyle: We jam… “psychedelic freakout” is what we like to call it.

Brian: “Words, Part 2” is pretty much… we know the Rhodes is going to do a thing at the beginning, and then we… that’s our one song where everybody does what they want and we just feel it out and end it when we feel. It’s a jam. And of course, the end of show is just a noise jam.

I saw that. It looked like you were about to obliterate your bass rig. Working out a little aggression there.

Kyle: If you’d had the last week we’ve had, you’d probably be about the same.

David: There was a lot of aggression to work out there.

Brian: Really, it was just sounding so good up there. I can’t speak for everybody, but we were having a really good time up there.

David: It was all due to having towels up there.

Brian: Yeah, that was the first time we’ve ever had towels. That was just the best… white towels.

David: This guy’s like “You need a towel?” and I’m like “Yeah, I need a towel!”

That’s when you know you’ve got it made. That and a hotel room. So, how many years have you guys played at Cornerstone?

Kyle: 3.

David: We played the New Band 2 years in a row and then this year.

How does that work? How do you play the New Band Stage 2 years in a row?

Kyle: We’re that far ahead.

A little something that goes behind the scenes, a little greasing palms?

David: Yeah, last year was a little fishy…

I didn’t have a chance to catch your guys’ set last year.

David: It’s funny, but only other band we know that’s played 2 years in a row was this band from Tulsa that played here a long time ago. They played the New Band Stage 2 years in a row… it’s kind of weird.

But overall, you guys enjoyed the set last night?

Brian: Probably one the most fun times I’ve ever had playing. Except for the first time I played with them. I’ve only been in the band for about 6 months. They decided to do some weird, instrumental thing one night. It was a “psychedelic freakout”. I played my sitar a little bit, and then played the guitar, and it was just this 30 minute set of this one song. And it was just amazing, just one chord progression.

Like Spacemen 3 stuff, right?

Brian: Yeah, real droney…

Kyle: No, it was more like our stuff. Nothing like Spacemen 3.

Brian: You know what sarcasm comes across like in an interview? (Laughter)

Someone’s going to sound like a total jerk! (Laughter) I guess the last thing I wanted to talk about, and then if you guys have any parting words or whatnot, is… and I guess this is a pretty wide-open question, but what is it that you ultimately hope to accomplish with your music?

Kyle: This isn’t going to be sarcastic at all. I think all of us are interested in adding something to music, and not just… I don’t think any of us are in it just to be in a band, just to play music because we like music. It’s more like we want to add something to music, be a contributor. And at the same time, we want to make a difference in people’s lives who might know Jesus, or might not understand it, or are turned off by it, or whatever. I think that’s the reason why we do it and the reason why we do it the way we do it, as far as not really playing in many Christian places, more apt to playing in bars and playing in just scummy places because that’s the people that are there, the people that need to hear what we have to say. And also, we tried doing the youth group thing and the kids weren’t interested in it, it didn’t give them instant gratification, it wasn’t the music of the moment.

How do you feel the music on the new album has been received by the people you’re playing for?

Kyle: Pretty well. I think… we’ve had a lot of positive reviews. We’ve been really fortunate. We’ve only had a couple that slammed us for being Christians, but that didn’t have anything to do with the music. They really liked the music in the review, but they thought we were stupid for being Christians. Whatever… we considered that our joy because we’re suffering for Christ. Being ridiculed, being hated… that’s fine.

So your faith is something you definitely try to integrate into your music, live performances, whatever. Do you ever find that hard, since the vocals are buried low in the mix and the words aren’t always audible? They’re treated like another instrument, they’re not treated as the focus of the song? Do you ever find it difficult to really convey something?

Kyle: Actually no. Maybe if we were just your standard “rock” band, 3 chords, chorus-verse-chorus… but we’re not like that. We can take our music to different extremes and different levels and convey emotions along with whatever else we want to convey. It’s almost like Unwed Sailor. They don’t need to say anything. I think their music speaks a lot louder than any words could ever do and it’s kind of like that with us. Our vocals are just another instrument instead of the highlight, or whatever.

So you use your music more to convey a sense beauty and faith and hope…

Brian: I’m, of course, new to the band and I experienced, what I think, hopefully, a lot of people will experience through our music. You go see us and you may not even know we’re a Christian band before you see us, and you can watch us and hear that this is just stuff that anybody could enjoy… and more, that the people in the band are a living witness. If you do some research on the band, just minor research, you’ll find that we’re all Christian believers and that we live with God, and people will realize that you can still make pretty cool music - some people will call the music “way out there” and stuff - but you don’t have to do drugs, you don’t have to be a weird person that has a down look on life.

With me, I saw them playing and I found out they were Christians, and I’d personally never seen any music done by a Christian band ever, and luckily, I’ve been able to play with them. Not only the music can offer hope, but more importantly, the people involved in the band, if they just talk to us and just do some minor research about the band can kind of be like, “they seem to be cool guys” or “they seem to listen to good music and make good music” and you don’t have to drop everything and just listen to Steven Curtis Chapman to be a Christian. So I think that’s real important with us. I’ve got that feeling from them coming from an outsider, and coming on the inside, I see that happening hopefully.

How long have you been with the band?

Brian: It’s really only been about 6 months. I’m from Tulsa, the same town, actually I moved to Norman recently, and I saw them playing a few times. And then I met James Mcalister at TU where I graduated there. But I slowly started meeting them and groups of friends started hanging out with eachother, stuff like that. And another thing, going along with what I was just saying, most of my friends are pretty much nonbelievers and real critical of the Christian faith, and I guess some of them, one on one, they’ll come up and they’ll be like “So, I hear you guys are Christians. How does that work?” And I’ll just tell them we’re all Christians, and we believe that God gave us the gifts that we have, and hopefully, we can be good witnesses.

(And suddenly, as if to signal that this interview needed to end, a garbage truck pulled up and started doing its business. Very, very loudly.)

This is the most chaotic interview I’ve ever done! Geez! Are there any closing words you want to talk about, any bands you guys are digging right now.

Brian: Godspeed You Black Emperor! is something I’ve liked lately, listen to that a lot. Sigur Ros, like you were talking about earlier. I can’t really listen to that record way too much, but it’s cool. But I haven’t found much else out there. I still listen to the same CDs I’ve had for 8 years.

David: I think we all like Travis a lot. We don’t sound like them or anything, but that’s probably one of the bands that we’re all into.

Kyle: Radiohead, Mogwai…

You guys just recently did a collaboration with Unwed Sailor called Circle Of Birds. How did that turn out?

Kyle: We can’t talk about that.

Brian: Interview’s over! (Laughter)

And with that, the band storms off stage, throwing stuff. (Laughter) So it’s a fairly top secret project coming out?

Kyle: Yes.

Brian: It was really chaotic. We just got together…

Kyle: We didn’t know what was going on. We had no specific plans. It’s all instrumental. I think it’s pretty good so far.

It’s coming out on Burnt Toast in the fall, right?

Kyle: Hopefully.

David: We’re supposed to tour with Unwed Sailor in September, I think, and it’s supposed to be in conjunction with that tour. I don’t know if that will actually happen. It was interesting. Johnathon (Ford) is originally from Tulsa, and we all grew up listening to his bands…

Like Mr. Bishop’s Fist?

David: Yeah… Kyle says that when he started playing bass, [it was] because of Mr. Bishop’s Fist.


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