Just before the holidays arrived Exploding In Sound was thrilled to be able to speak with Matt Drenik, singer/guitarist for Austin, TX's LIONS, as well as his recently launched solo project, Battleme. We talked at great length about LIONS recent UK tour, their new EP Let No One Fall, FX's Sons of Anarchy, and whats to come from Battleme. Matt is truly an awesome guy, and his music is equally great whether its fuzz heavy riff rock with LIONS or acoustic folk inspired tunes from Battleme...
EIS: You just completed the first UK tour with LIONS. How did you end up heading out with Monster Magnet and Karma to Burn?
MD: Sometime in 2008 we were being courted by Columbia Records, an A&R rep had approached us and we were talking about doing a possible thing with them. He had called Peter Nash who owns Helter Skelter, one of the biggest agencies in all of Europe/UK. Peter had taken a quick liking to the band, and reached out about signing us to his roster. When the Columbia deal didn’t go through, for whatever reason, we didn’t lose the agency deal over there, so we got hooked up with them. It was then a slow process of when to bring us over there, with all different kinds of possibilities. They were looking for a pretty big tour to get us good exposure right off the bat, so there were talks about bringing us over there with The Bronx or the Blind Melon reunion tour, up until 2009. Sometime this summer they called and said Monster Magnet were doing a reunion tour and had offered us a support slot on it, so we though that’d be fantastic.
EIS: That’s a good pairing. Do Monster Magnet still pull a good draw in the UK?
MD: Yeah, every show was practically sold out. They were big rooms, anywhere between 750 and 2,000 capacity rooms. Some places were bigger than others. The Magnet guys seem to do really well in Europe, and who knows, they’d probably do really well in the States, they haven’t toured over here in years.
EIS: Did you find the UK audiences to be more or less receptive to LIONS than American shows?
MD: Pretty much the same. That was one of the things that was pretty hilarious, people would say, “Oh, you’re going to Europe” but really we’re going to the UK, which seems a lot more like America than the other parts. London was like New York City, other towns were like Boston, and New England in general. The weather was the same, it was cold and overcast during the winter. Some people would tell us when we go over there it will be insane, they’re gonna go crazy.
EIS: Yeah, that’s always the impression you get from living in the States.
MD: Yeah, and I found that to be totally wrong. When Monster Magnet would play it would be packed, but it wasn’t insane. There weren’t giant mosh pits or people crowd surfing, it was just like an enthusiastic group of people there to see a rock and roll show. It was especially hard for us as the opening band, because no one really knows who we are over there. We had gotten some great press and great exposure, at that point radio was really happening for us and starting to spin. Bruce Dickinson was spinning one of our songs on his show, and the BBC stations had started to pick it up.
EIS: Is “Gimme Riot” the lead single overseas?
MD: That was the one they went with, I know that a big BBC show started spinning “In Your Head,” but then again it was tough because the Rock Sound [magazine] spread had happened, we knew that Metal Hammer was coming out, and they were doing a big feature on us in Classic Rock Magazine, all these pretty dominating European magazines, and we weren’t really sure what to expect. What we found out without looking at expectations was we were the opening band, and were going to have to fight for it every night. We’ve done that for years, so why should it be any different? You’ve got to prove your worth, and some shows are better than others.
EIS: I saw you guys live in New York a couple times, opening for the Toadies then again for Local H, and had never seen the band in concert before, and was blown away by the performance. The band definitely proved their worth those nights...
MD: Cool, those were good shows. That Local H show in Brooklyn was actually when we met the Columbia Records guys. We’ve been through the loop with labels and at one point Roadrunner Records helped fund our entire No Generation sessions, in the idea that they were going to pick it up. We’ve had some great successes in licensing and we have lots of friends in the industry that don’t involve record labels, from blogs to radio programmers. It seems as though the band has to be a slam dunk and it needs to break [to sign with a major label], or it will break their [A&Rs] job. We’ve always had the live shows in our pocket, but "do these guys have a hit song?" I don’t even know what that really means, but probably not if we’re talking what active rock radio plays.
EIS: You mentioned your music being licensed, particularly for the hit FX TV show Sons of Anarchy. How did that come about?
MD: During SXSW some executives from Fox came out to a day show. They showed up to a small venue we were playing at that was real chaotic in a small bar that had about 200 people in it. We played on the floor, which we do sometimes with the audience crowding around us. Our manager who we ended up signing with after that festival had come with Ward Hake, the music supervisor at 20th Century Fox. He thought we’d be great for a pilot show coming out on FX about these outlaw bikers. A couple of months went by, and after we had signed with Uppercut Management, they called right before we left for the Toadies No Deliverance reunion tour. The show was looking for a theme song and wanted us to take a crack at it, so they sent over the pilot episode and we watched it and I wrote for it a pretty heavy riff rock kind of tune. There was another song in the running, and after some back and forth they went with the other song. Which is fine, I didn’t really envision our band writing the theme song to a TV show anyway. We ended up cutting that song with Matt Hyde, who did all of the Monster Magnet stuff last year. The show was coming out and Bob Thiele, the producer, was a huge fan of the band and just kept plugging our songs into the show and all of a sudden we were getting a lot of licensing out of those guys.
EIS: They really capture the LIONS songs great, and not as background music, but complete action and dramatic scenes really featuring the music.
MD: Yeah man, they love it. They’ve been super big supporters. I thought when you were in a band, you went out and played live then you signed a big or small record deal and that was that. That’s how you made money, you sold records or you played live. I didn’t realize the other avenues you could go to, and we’ve been fortunate enough to go our own route and make a good amount of money without having to sign some deal. Fox has been cool, when we went out to Los Angeles to play a date at The Roxy, we went to Fox and got the whole grand tour of the studio. They wanted to invest in the band and were talking about making a video for “Girl From The North Country,” which they knew would be super effective in the show. They signed us on to the [Sons of Anarchy: North Country] EP at that point on iTunes, and it’s been real cool for us.
EIS: Speaking about the “Girl From the North Country” cover, was that something you were already working on?
MD: No, they sent us an e-mail saying they were looking for a cover version of this Bob Dylan song “Girl From the North Country” and it has to be in B flat. Immediately my gut reaction was, yeah we’ll do it.
EIS: It came out really great.
MD: Well that’s the weird thing, after we said we’d do it, they said they needed the track in a week and a half, so there wasn’t a lot of time to over think it. We booked time at our regular studio and started rehearsing it, and I still wasn’t sure how I was gonna sing it. We just started jamming and came up with the way we do it the recording as being the best way to represent the song. It stuck so we went into the studio and recorded it, then listened back and were fairly excited about the way it sounded.
EIS: Definitely. Have you gotten a chance to play it live at all?
MD: We played it live a couple times in October at some one-off dates, and it was pretty funny. We had a real solid big packed show in Austin at The Mohawk, and we ended up playing it towards the end of the set and I remember when I went into it all the girls started yelling [laughs]. They all knew what it was, which is funny because it’s a total departure from what our band is. It’s just music really, I don’t know how to explain how it fits into the set but people seem to react to it just fine, and it’s just one of those things. I never thought we’d be doing a Bob Dylan song and it could be potentially an instrumental song in our set, but it totally is and people really like it.
It was totally unexpected, when we listened to it after recording I never thought about playing this live. When the EP came out and it started charting on iTunes and the sales were getting up into the tens of thousands of that song, we go "ok… people are seriously reacting to this, we gotta play it live," and it’s totally worked, the reaction has been great.
EIS: Talking about new songs, let’s discuss the brand new EP Let No One Fall. Has there been a general reaction to that, or is it still too new?
MD: The thing is, it hasn’t come out anywhere except for the UK. The general reaction from over there has been really good, no one has said anything bad about it... I try to stay away from reviews in general because if you believe all the good stuff then you got to believe all the bad stuff. You can’t please everyone, but the general reaction to the EP thus far from the reviews in Rock Sound have been pretty good. The single has been added to a bunch of things, whether it’s BMX Biker video, radio play, and the UK has been reacting well because we’ve gotten a lot of press requests for it. The EP comes out and all of a sudden they want to do pieces on “breaking band” stuff, so it’s been a pretty solid reaction thus far.
EIS: Do you have plans to release a physical version of it here in the US?
MD: Well it came out in the UK, and there’s been spate in the camp about should we release an EP, if we should release it ourselves, if we should look for a label to put it out, continue writing and finish a full length, or we should just write a new full length in general? Right now we’re looking at different deals for the band in the States before we put anything else out.
EIS: Are these the songs you were working on in Los Angeles with Matt Hyde?
MD: No, we went out to LA and cut a song with Matt Hyde and really liked working with him. Then we came home and started talking about doing a new record with him in the winter of 2008. We were assigned to write the record and demos and send them off. It was a confusing point for the band at that time because we weren’t sure what kind of record we were going to make, we weren’t sure if we wanted to be continually niched as riff heavy… we just wanted to write the record we wanted to write. We started writing all different kinds of songs and started sending them off to Matt and John Agnello, who did the Sonic Youth records, was hearing them to. We got our hopes up that we’d do some portion of the record with him because he really liked the band. John was more into the psychedelic area of the band, songs like “White Angel” and stuff like that, while Matt was more into the driving hard roc stuff from the band. We did about twenty songs and sent them out in February and the reaction was that it wasn’t what either of them wanted [laughs]. Matt thought we were taking chances for songs, and that threw us off a bit. John had more of a positive reaction toward the songs, but Steve our manager was really pushing us to go with Hyde. We said "alright, let’s scrap those songs and write a whole new record" and that’s when we started writing the Let No One Fall songs which were more heavier based.
EIS: Heavier, yet more melodic than what LIONS has recorded in the past.
MD: Well the new bass player that had joined our band Mike, is a strong melody writer and even worked with me a lot on crafting the melodies. We can sing and play heavy, but we can also write some really cool shit, a rock band with pop sensibilities. At that point Matt Hyde had kind of fallen out of the picture as he started working with other bands he had obligations too. Our manager called Frenchie Smith who really wanted to work with us, and we got right into the studio with him. Pre-production for the record began in May and we started a full length in June. We picked six songs out of twelve from those sessions to record with Smith. When the sessions were over we had six songs in the can and have another six ready to go. At that point Maybe Records in the UK were ready for the EP, so we used the tracks recorded with Smith that summer.
EIS: So what’s the next step for LIONS? What does 2010 hold for the band?
MD: As of right now we’re taking a break from the live performances for the next six months. We’re doing a SXSW showcase, but basically we’re going to hole up and write songs and not have live shows be on our back. What happens sometimes is you write and then you have a string of dates coming up and you have to stop writing to get back into rehearsal mode. We have an amazing studio space we just got in North Austin, it’s big and we’re just gonna start holing up in there trying to figure out what we’re gonna do. There are a lot of options, all good stuff, talks with different labels, and I think it depends who we sign with in the US that dictates what kind of record comes out. They might put out Let No One Fall real quick in the States or they might bypass it.
EIS: The songs on Let No One Fall are similar in style, yet so different. Tracks like “Poster Child” and “Screaming Out” are both very much LIONS, but fairly different from each other.
MD: Yeah, we wrote with other people on that EP. That was something that we fell into with a lot of this recording process and I went with it. Are manager works for song writers too and he wanted to know if there was anyone we’d like to write with, and at first it really turned me off like “f*ck no, we don’t write with people." Then I thought "well, we’d write with Scott Lucas from Local H, so I called him up and he said he’d love to write with us. Scott flew down and he wrote “Screaming Out” with us, he kinda joined the band for three days. He got into the rehearsal space, we got some beer, gave him a guitar and started jamming, riffing all over the place. Scott wrote a song for us called “Let No One Fall” and we actually didn’t use it but called the EP that. Scott’s probably going to do that song on the next Local H record.
“Poster Child” came up because Vaden from the Toadies wanted to write a song with us at that point. We said “Yeah! We’ll write a song with you,” so he sent us the demo for the song and we went ahead and reworked the whole thing, changed the verse up and added lyrical content to the verses he had, but he had this great chorus which you hear on the record.
EIS: As far as collaborators go, you can’t go wrong with those two guys.
MD: Right, it was cool. We got to jam with some guys that we really respect musically and that had a big influence on us growing up. In February they’re trying to get me to go out and go to New York City and have me write a couple of tunes with Ginger from The Wildhearts. I’m totally into that stuff, and I think its cool jamming with other people who always give you a fresh perspective. It seems to make management happy [laughs], they just want you to explore other avenues. I think they just like the idea of bands getting out of their comfort zone, and trying different kinds of ideas through a different set of eyes.
EIS: Speaking of a different set of ideas, let’s talk about Battleme! It sounds great, totally unexpected, yet the songs speak for themselves.
MD: Yeah, people are so surprised. It’s so funny to me; I feel like its every musicians duty to write different kinds of songs. There’s no way whatever kind of music you play, you didn’t listen to The Band or The [Rolling] Stones growing up; these are all pretty common denominator things. For some reason, whenever somebody in a hard rock band that’s plays aggressive riff rock does anything that’s a one eighty everyone’s like, “whoa, that’s fucking crazy” [laughs].
I remember when I was a kid my mom bought me my first acoustic guitar when I was 17, and it was a big deal. My brother took me into my room where I had some vinyl and asked what song I wanted to learn. He pulled out Pink Floyd’s Animals and put on “Pigs On The Wing”. He taught me how to play it with C-G-A which was really easy and cool because when you’re a kid and you’re learning how to play that there’s no other feeling better than playing your first song. You play with the record and you feel like you’re in Pink Floyd, like “wow, I could do this! This is easy.” [laughs] I became obsessed at that point with the acoustic guitar and remember in college I used to sit in my closet because I had a roommate. I’d sit with my guitar and write songs while I could only play a limited amount of chords so the song were all C-G-F and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I always had that kind of obsession. That’s when the whole idea of playing softer music came into play, and I remember when I was living in Boston, the girl I was dating said there was a great songwriter called Elliott Smith, we should go see him at Newbury Comics [laughs]. He had a following at that point, but it was very cult and I remember seeing him and being really affected by it, thinking it was a very pure form of art. It was such an honest expression, it was cool, and he wasn’t hiding behind anything. He was talking about drugs and junkies, and all the things I was experiencing at the time. I really connected to it to the point where I always wanted to do similar stuff, so the songs came about just like that while I’d sit at home and write.
EIS: Are the Battleme songs you’ve released so far written from back then?
MD: No, I always just sat around and wrote songs, and there were people in Austin that knew I could write like this. It’s few, but the ones who did have always been really into it. There would be parties where I’d be drunk and all of a sudden someone hands me a guitar and I start playing this soft song and all these people just start staring at me like “Whoa, what’s going on?” That happened a couple times over the past several years. Ward from FOX had come up to me right after “The Girl From The North Country” has just premiered on the show, and he took me out for the night because the other guys were busy with something else. We ended up getting pretty drunk at this bar, and I told him I’d write him a country song for the show [laughs]. He called me a week later asking for the song, and I was like “oh right, that song...” so I sat down real quick and scribbled out “Burn This Town”. I said I’d get it to him in three days, got a session at night in our regular studio, and just had them set up two microphones and have me sing. We did it, sent it off, and they bought it! [laughs] That’s how it all started really, then I sat at home and started writing more songs, and those are the ones up on the website.
EIS: Do you have plans to release a Battleme album?
MD: Yeah! Totally, I’m just not sure exactly where it will fall in, it’s been weird because the reaction has been so good to it. People have picked up on it and all of a sudden The Austin Chronicle wrote a little piece on it, then The Austinist wrote a piece, and the Myspace is filling up with different e-mails about how much the songs mean to people and how effective they are. I didn’t know what to expect out of it, I was just goofing off and writing some songs. You never really know how people are going to react to them, but they’ve been doing well and I plan on doing a full record probably starting with new songs I’ve written. Now that I have a focus on it, it’s cool because I’m actually writing some softer songs that can possibly go on a record that I think people can dig. It’s a whole different crowd than what likes LIONS.
EIS: There’s probably a good degree of crossover as well.
MD: I think so too, I think it’s something everyone can kinda get into. There’s definitely a market for "soul ending" songs, but nobody knows how people are going to react to them. There are people like Bon Iver and Blitzen Trapper, who I always keep tabs on. I think it’s important for anyone who plays music to understand what’s going on around them. Now more than anytime before it’s OK for people to explore options like this, the social culture is into it. I remember going to see the Murder City Devils and the drummer [Coady Willis] is the same guy who plays with Big Business and The Melvins, and the guitarist has a side project that’s a totally weird two piece on Sub Pop. I think the idea of superstar rock bands that don’t do anything but their band is passé at this point. It’s cool if people explore other options, especially if you’re good at it. That’s what’s giving me confidence is that the reaction has been awesome, which is cool because that’s always what I liked to do anyway. I think every musician has a certain striking point within them of things they love to do. I’ve always been really drawn to acoustic guitar and older country.
EIS: Do you plan on playing any Battleme shows?
MD: [laughs] I don’t know man, that’s a good question! I remember thinking about that, but I don’t know if that’s the big deal right know. I’d like to put a full band together for it. I would like a lot of the harmonies to be there in certain songs, I’d like the shakers to be in there especially if you played it live. I wouldn’t be surprised if I put out a record, it all depends… you never know.
EIS: Perhaps a little something at SXSW…
MD: [laughs] That’d be funny, it’s all so new to me… the idea of doing a side project. The LIONS management really likes it and have been nothing but supportive of it, and I know there are going to be other opportunities for that project to live a good healthy life. I am taking it fairly seriously, I do have some downtime and I don’t have a lot of other things I do than play music. There’s a lot of time to develop a project like this, especially slower, more soul based music. I remember the first Iron & Wine record I had that was done on a 4-track and I think with music like this you can do things like that, you don’t have to go and spend 10 grand on a record. You can cut this in your bedroom, that’s sort of the point of it.
EIS: Yeah, the lo-fi adds to the whole ambiance of it.
MD: Exactly, people like that aspect of it, rather than a big production. It doesn’t have to be like that, it just has to be spiritual in a way and speak to people however it does. I really think that’s what I like the most out of it. I always enjoyed the back work of Elliott Smith, because I always liked the band Heatmiser that he was in before he did his solo stuff. They were a hard rock band, and I always thought it was cool that he broke off, did these smaller songs and they were obviously effective to people, influencing bands out there today. The possibilities are endless and I enjoy having the platform to do it right now, because a lot of people can write songs like that but might not get the exposure they need to get them heard.
EIS: Well you certainly have Exploding In Sound’s support with that! With the year ending and websites releasing their top 10 lists, I was curious as to what some of your favorite records of the year were?
MD: Oh man, well… I really liked the Red Fang record that came out this year. Those guys rule, they’re really good friends of ours and I was super happy everything was coming through for them. They finally got the deal they wanted and got the good exposure, and I fucking love those guys. I thought the Them Crooked Vultures record was really cool, but I couldn’t give you my honest top 10 off the top of my head.
EIS: Hey, those are two great choices. I really appreciate you doing the interview, thanks so much and look forward to hearing much more from you in the new year.