Monday, June 7, 2010

The Lighthouse and the Whaler Interview

The Lighthouse and the Whaler is Michael LoPresti, Arron Smith, Evan Storey, Mark Porostosky and Nate (?). They played recently at the Hi-Dive, bringing their instrument-swapping folk to Denver for the first time. I sat down with the guys afterwards to discuss their music and art itself. (UPDATE: Click Here For An Exclusive Acoustic Video Performance Of An Unreleased Song!)

Are you three, Michael, Aaron and Evan, the original 3 members?

Michael: Yes

So, when did the other 2 join?

Michael: Just recently, actually.

Nate: Ya, just before this tour.

So, its just the original three on the LP?

Michael: Ya. It was just the three of us.

You guys constantly trade instruments live. How did you take 3 man songs, and then figure out
how to play them with 5 people? Is that how the extra, free-standing floor tom came about?

Michael: I think that when we were writing the LP we put a lot of emphasis on writing for more than three people. So, because of that, we already had extra parts that we wanted to implement into the songs. But, the floor tom did originate when we added a fourth member [Nate], a while back, and we didn’t have anything necessarily for that person to do at first. And, we liked it so much we decided to just keep it in the band. When we first wrote “Field Song”, Evan wrote it with just a floor tom and a cymbal in the field, and we loved how it sounded, so, we just wanted to keep going in that direction. But, ya, we definitely had it in mind to write for more than three people from the start.

So, in the very beginning, did it start as the 3 of you writing music, or did it start as a solo project that you needed members for?

Michael: oddly enough, it did start as a solo project. I had just graduate from college and I was writing some songs that had I wanted to record. Someone introduced me to Evan, who then introduced me to Aaron. But, after we wrote the first few songs for the EP we realized that we kind of had something going… a chemistry, really. So, we just ran with it, and here we are a year and a half later.

You guys are from Cleveland. What’s the Cleveland music scene like these days?

Aaron: You know… (everyone laughs). No, there are some good bands. For instance, one of the bands that we know, Tinamou, they were doing really well for a while. Unfortunately, one of their members left. But, they’re recording a new EP and kind of going in a new, different direction, which is interesting. They were a lot like us: a lot of harmony-based, acoustic, sort of folk stuff. But, they had a different style because they were each focused on a little bit more virtuosity, while we’ve always been more compositional. A little more simple and layered, which goes back to us writing songs for 4 or 5 people. There were songs we wrote, but couldn’t figure out how to play live for the longest time.

Evan: There’s also some good venues in Cleveland that have been doing pretty well, supporting good bands. There’s one called the Beachland Ballroom, and they bring in some really great acts.

So, there’s still a good music scene there, even if it’s not always local?

Evan: Oh ya, definitely.

Michael: I think that as for the good music scene, especially within the indie movement, there’s a huge group of people who are really into it, and working to make it happen. I think that on a national scale no one knows it’s happening, but in Cleveland, there are a lot of bands, of which I think we, along with others, are on the forefront. We’re doing something that not a lot of Cleveland bands have done, and I’m noticing as we tour around that a lot more bands from Cleveland are starting to have bigger ambitions. I mean, the city has gone through really depressed times; when the economy fell apart, so did Cleveland. So, it was really hard for bands in Cleveland to do anything. But, its starting to blossom a little bit more than it was before.

Nate: One thing I noticed, growing up and going to shows around there, is that it’s sort of a melting pot for the surrounding areas: there’s a city called Ashtabula, which hardcore kids, scenesters, you know, pink duck tape on their shoes, come from there; then there’s the Chardon/Concord area, which has more of the indie scene; I’m from Painesville personally, which is 20 minutes east of Cleveland, and we had a big ska scene growing up. So all these bands all come and open for completely different genres of music, and you get a lot of these really random shows, which can be fun sometimes.

Aaron: Ya, I think it’s really hard for us to describe the Cleveland scene because it’s just going in so many directions.

Could you explain the band name?

Michael: The band name comes from Moby Dick. In chapter 13, there’s a part where they are describing the island of Nantucket, which is actually the title of the chapter. The book explains that the whalers are heading back to Nantucket, which is the most beautiful, amazing place they’ve ever experienced; you know, it’s like home to them, the way the book describes it leaves you feeling warm inside, so you actually want to go there as you’re reading it. So, for the characters in the story, it’s the greatest possible place that they could imagine. So, everytime they go back to island, the first thing they see is a lighthouse. So then, there’s a part of the book where they are heading back towards the island and Moby Dick comes between them. So, it says, “in between the lighthouse and the whaler there was the great white whale”. So, that’s where it came from. The symbolism just struck me, and I felt like I could take so much more from just that little bit.

Do you think that idea, the idea of seeing where you should be, yet being persuaded to go off course, is something that reflects in your lyrics?

Michael: Oh, absolutely. We definitely have lyrics about hope, love, grace and truth. I think that so often people get caught up in the little things in life and miss out on the bigger picture, what life’s really about. I think that a lot of people are unhappy because of that, because of the daily grind or whatever they’re doing. So, sometimes I think you need to just throw that off and take a chance. I hope people grab that out of our music, out of lyrics especially, and can take that away.

You have a very literary style of writing lyrics. Where do you find influence or inspiration for your writing?

Michael: I find in inspiration everywhere. My fiancĂ©, definitely. My faith is a big inspiration for a lot of what I write and believe. Books, movies…I really try to just capture moments in life. I feel like there are certain moments in life, certain beautiful moments, which go by way to fast. So, I sort of try to capture them in music, and hopefully make them last a little bit longer, so that someone could put the song on repeat and take that moment with them wherever they go. That’s a big part of my inspiration.

You mentioned books and movies. I was curious about what types of art, outside of music, inspire you?

Michael: Well, for me personally, my fiancé is an artist and she gets me to go to art museums and different things like that. So, I spend a lot of time there with her, learning about the different artists, and seeing them at their craft. Also, writers. And filmmakers, because I love movies. Its just inspiring to see the creativity that people are capable of.

Evan: I’ve been inspired recently by some classic films and actors. Gary Cooper is someone I’ve been really getting into recently. He just has such a gentlemanly quality, yet he could kick your ass at any moment, and I just love that about him. I’ve only seen a couple of his films so far, but he really processes a quality that I think is very rare today. Also, there are so many great writers out there, but one, C. S. Lewis, has been wonderful to me in my life. But, there are plenty of other authors I would like to tackle eventually.

Aaron: I think that the most inspiring thing to me, in all the different forms of art, is understanding who the artist actually is, and who they are trying to portray themselves as. I think I used to stay very much on the surface level; you know, hear a song or see a painting and think it’s pretty or sounds nice, or whatever. But, when an artist becomes a great artists, it’s because of how they affect people, and the impact that they make. So I’ve been trying to see deeper into the grand picture, into the whole message, as opposed to just the medium that they do it through.

Nate: For me, writing my own music, I’ve just been inspired by things like love, the passage of time and how it gives things meaning and definition, nature, the beauty of god’s creation, and how that spiritual glue holds everything together. It’s an art in and of itself. For me, its very easy to just sit out and look around, and then be inspired to turn it into sound.

Mark: For me, I’m sort of a mix of everyone else (Everyone Laughs). Mainly just experiences in life. I also really like to hear different philosophies, and how different people think. As far as an actual art form, I’m into a lot of impressionism. As far as music, Debussy, who didn’t actually like the term impressionism, but that’s what they gave him. Also, Van Gogh and J.M.W. Turner, are some of my favorites.

I wish I could break each of these answers down, but I’ll have to go with just one. Being a huge fan of films myself, I was wondering what kinds of films, actors or directors you enjoy?

Michael: I really like Wes Anderson movies.

Yes! Thanks you, I love Wes.

Michael: Ya, I love them. The Life Aquatic is easily one of my favorite movies.

Nate: The Royal Tenenbaums.

Michael: Tenenbaums, ya. But, a lot of people rate The Royal Tenenbaums as his best, but for me, I’m a big fan of The Life Aquatic. That’s the one that resonates the most with me.

Photographer Aaron: It’s his funniest.

It’s Bill Murray…

Aaron: Seriously, just put Bill Murray front and center and see what happens. (everyone laughs)

Michael: It’s really great. Even Fantastic Mr. Fox is genius. That truly inspires me. If someone can think up a way to make the human condition look and feel the way he does, then I better be able to do the same with music or I should just stop.

Photographer Aaron: We actually feel really guilty because we’re huge Wes fans, but we’ve been too poor to see Fantastic yet.

Nate: It’s phenomenal

Michael: Ya, it’s awesome.

Nate: I’d say it’s in my top 5 favorite films.

I feel like a terrible fan. We need to go see it immediately. Before we jump off film, anyone else?

Aaron: I really like the Coen Brothers. I haven’t seen Fargo yet.

Oh man, you have to. It’s a classic.

Aaron: Also, of course The Big Lebowski was awesome, Raising Arizona was awesome, and I really loved No Country for Old Men.

That’s their masterpiece.

Aaron: (laughs) You’re not kidding.

Did you notice the complete lack of soundtrack?

Everyone: Yes!

Aaron: It’s crazy. The most amazing part to me, or at least the part that sticks out the most, is Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue at the end. About his dream.

Do you remember the first time you saw the ending, when it just cuts to black?

Aaron: I don’t know how I made it home that night. (everyone laughs)

Evan: That’s a great film.

Michael: Really.

Well, I guess we should probably go back to music questions. This is a weird one, one I can’t really answer myself. Do you think that music is more powerful to the musician, as its being written and played, or to the listener, as its being received and interpreted?

Michael: I think…

Aaron: Don’t say both. (everyone laughs)

Mark: I say musician.

Aaron: I think it’ different for everybody.

Nate: I think it’s the listener, honestly.

Michael: I think it’s the listener too.

Nate: When you write something, its super powerful to you. sometimes it’s a way to grieve, a way to mourn, a process of getting through something, sometimes it brings you joy. But, that’s very timely and conditional. I mean, it will always mean something to you, but its always going to hit someone brand new over the head.

Michael: In a different way too. People are always going to take music completely differently, being that everyone is unique. I agree with it being the listener though. I feel like when I’m writing songs, if I’m not creating something that’s lasting, or that’s going to take someone, kind of, by the scruff of their neck and transport them to some moment in their life, then I don’t know why I’m doing it. I think if I’m just doing it for me, and there’s definitely a time and place for that, but I think that music is meant to be shared. So, if it’s not more powerful to the listener than it is to me, then I’m not doing it well enough.

Aaron: It depends on the artist, too. Like, the Black Keys. One of their albums was done entirely in one of two takes, where they’re just feeling it and laying it down. But, then there’s bands like Radiohead, where, for instance, I’ve read interviews about when they were making Kid A, it just destroyed them because they spent like a year and half in the studio. So, to me, music is like making a mosaic of photographs. You’re up there, doing all the photographs, but when the audience looks at it from a distance, what do they really see? You know, what stands out?

You’ve mentioned your faith. For people that don’t have faith, for those that don’t have religion, do you think that music, or art in general, has the depth to fill that void?

Evan: I don’t know if it can fill it completely, but I think it can give you the feeling of being fulfilled.

Michael: Ya,I don’t think so either. I think it comes down to purpose; I don’t think someone else’s work can give you purpose in life. I think that it can help you to relate to situations in your life, which is really important, and I think a big part of religion’s job is just that. But, I don’t think it can take you as deep as religion is supposed to, in its best form. I know people pervert it all the time, and do things in the name of god that should never be done. But, I think religion in its best form can take you to a place that music in and of itself cannot. I think it can help you to cope, but I think there’s still a void there that can’t be breached.

Nate: For people that don’t have religion, I think a lot of music is written from a spiritual standpoint, from something that’s connected to them very religiously. Some, obviously not, but a lot of it is. But that translates and carries through that song, although they might not even be aware of what they’re doing or feeling, expressing something that might have nothing to do with religion but can be interpreted as such.

Evan: This is just me. I feel like, no matter who you are or what you believe, in a way you have your own religion. So, whether you’re someone like Trent Reznor, who’s almost anti-god, on the left, or someone like Johnny Cash, who was very open about his religion, on the right… you know, I find it so fascinating that Johnny cash covered aTrent Reznor song, “Hurt”, because what Trent Reznor says in that song is, I think, very trueto anyone who has dealt with pain. So, it comes down to your own world-view being exposed, and that says a lot about how you feel about god or religion, even if you don’t mean to, its out there.

Aaron: Music, and all art, has a message, and so does religion. So I think they’re tied together by that message, whatever that message may be.

Wow, great answers. Lets take a step back for some easy questions. Are you guys signed?

Michael: No

Damn, So are both the EP and LP self-released?

Michael: Yes. They’re available on iTunes and

Did you record them yourselves?

Michael: Ya, I mean,we had an engineer in the studio to push the buttons, but we produced them ourselves.

If, for any reason, you don’t get signed anytime soon, do you think you’ll keep going with the DIY approach?

Michael: Ya, I mean, I think we’ll continue as long as we can. There will probably be a point where,if we don’t get signed,we’ll have to go off and pursue other things in our lives. The DIY way has definitely been fine, but I know that we’re all looking to take that next step in our professioinal careers. But, if it doesn’t happen right away, we’ll definitely keep working at it.

Aaron: Its all about making it sustainable, really. If we could just make enough moneyto quit our jobs, you know, I work as a cashier at a grocery store, and we don’t make anything doing this right now. But, if we could just do it all ourselves and have it be sustainable, I’m sure we’d do it forever.

Michael: Ya, definitely, because we love doing it.

The LP is incredible, and I really can’t speak highly enough about you guys. Its just phenomenal. And then to see you guys live… is the next level.

Michael: Cool, thank you, that’s what we want.

Photographer Aaron: We’ve been listening to the album a lot recently, and you guys were really amazing tonight.

Everyone: Thank you.

It’s really become one of my favorite morning albums. You know, its one of those records where you wake up and put it on, and by the time you’re stepping out the house you’re…’s a good day.

Michael: There you go, that’s what we were going for.

Everyone: (laughs) Thank you.

So, I had intended to ask this earlier, but, can we walk through the songwriting process, from initial idea to finished piece?

Michael: It usually starts with me, and sometimes Aaron, coming up with a melody and a guitar or piano line. Then I sit on that for a while and try to get an idea for where it should go. Then, I usually record it and give it to everyone else, and everyone gives their feelings, ideas and opinions on where it should go, which either conflicts or agrees with my original direction. Finally, we attempt to put it together, piece by piece and layer by layer, a lot of arguing and techniques are thrown in and out. It’s a difficult process, but in the end its like, you kind of have to go through the fire to come out with something amazing. There’s usually a clear vision of how the songs should go. But it’s usually a long, winding road.

So, melody comes before lyric?

Michael: Ya, usually. I like to take a melody and then, when the song is finished, based on how amazingly bright or depressingly dark it actually is I can fit my lyrics to the emotion of the song. That’s something I think is really important, for them to fit together. But, I write a lot on my own, when I’m feeling whatever, sometimes to music, but a lot of the times its not. It all comes together in the end. Sometimes it’s a long painful process, but then other times it’s really easy and comes quickly.

So, where are you guys heading next?

Michael: Portland. We’ve never been out west; this is actually as far west as we’ve gone, so that’s exciting.

Well you should get a great reception out there. Thanks again guys.

Everyone: Thank you.

--Z. Saint James, June 2nd 2010

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