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Red Wanting Blue's Scott Terry: A Musician's Philosophy
by Donovan Wheeler photos courtesy of Fanatic Records and Mike Farley
Part I: Intro--
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he day I fell hard for Red Wanting Blue almost didn’t happen. As I’ve already written in an earlier homage during my blogging days, I stumbled upon the group while listening to a Freddy Jones Band “channel” on one of those streaming music providers. Tuning into a steady mix of new acts for me—ranging from Freddy Jones to Carbon Leaf to The Alternate Routes to Stephen Kellogg and The Sixers to The Dirty Guv’nahs—I found myself most captivated by RWB’s catchy ditties every time they popped up. By the Sunday before Labor Day in the late summer of 2013 I sat on my back deck watching the minute hand on my digital clock creep forward.
The boys from Ohio were due to take the stage at Broad Ripple’s first Warmfest in a few hours, and I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go. As much I liked the band, I was also a 43-year-old dude who just wanted to sit at home and throw down the stack of craft beers piled up in my fridge. I mean there was the drive…and I was getting old…and there was that drive, too. At the last possible moment before time crossed the irrevocable line of demarcation which would have rendered the trip moot, I uttered a quick phrase that honestly changed my life:
“Hell with it,” I said to my fiancé. “Let’s go.”
When we arrived, then parked, then started walking to the festival grounds, I glanced at my watch…and the horror struck me. The band was due to start inside of ten minutes. Seconds later I was power-speed walking, fully intending to barrel my way across 38th Street and damn all the traffic in my way. To this day, whenever I’m sauntering through an agonizing Walmart excursion or (much worse yet) one of those day-long efforts at the outlet mall, all Wendi has to do to shame me into motion is announce that, “Red Wanting Blue is about to start…” It’s a relationship code thing, and it works for her. She’s got me there.
Over the next two years, she and I would find our way over a half-dozen of the band’s Indiana shows, catching them everywhere from Bloomington’s Bluebird to the Lawn at White River, to the Vogue. And as I learned more about their history, and the stalwart story of their front-man, Scott Terry, the more I respected them.
Part II: Verse--
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I learned of Red Wanting Blue’s upcoming stop at the Hi-Fi in Indy’s Fountain Square district, I reached out to Terry, who agreed to give me some of his time and share his thoughts. The following interview has been edited for clarity and (on very rare occasions) for length.
Donovan Wheeler: In a separate interview a number of years ago, when you were still an independent band, you described your work as a Sisyphean journey. Now that you’ve signed with Fanatic Records and have appeared on Letterman’s Late Show, do you still feel that way?
Scott Terry: “Yes, absolutely I do. I feel like it’s a new day, and the stones might be a different now that we’re with a label, but there’s still stones to be pushing, and they’ll definitely roll back down again. A label certainly changes things, but it sort of widens the long view in terms of where you’re going and where the band is going. But the label is only one part of this equation.”
“People not involved in the music industry tend to romanticize what goes on. Many assume, that if you’re not on a label that you’re somehow not taking the work seriously, and then they assume that if you are signed with a label that everything is gravy. And that’s certainly not the case, at least not anymore. To use an analogy, this is like saying that you can be a musician and not have an automobile, or you can be a musician and have an automobile. The latter obviously limits you, but you can still do it. If you’re in that predicament you have to be more creative, but that doesn’t mean you’re finished. So, having a label is not a ‘must have,’ but it helps a great deal.”
DW: Several songs speak to this struggle, but one song in particular, “Pour it Out,” speaks to it very strongly. Am I correct in thinking that the speaker feels “disdain” for the influence of the East and West Coasts, or am I using the wrong word, here?
ST: “I think at times it certainly felt that way, but overall I don’t think that ‘disdain’ is the right word. For the most part the song is pretty self-explanatory, but let me dig a little deeper and detail the reality about what it is we do for a living.”
“When I look our work, all our friends, and the people in the other bands…it almost seems as if there’s two streams which every now and then touch each other, but most of the time they exist as separate running channels. There are the bands like us: we travel, we play, and we build up our audiences over time…very grass roots. Then there are acts which sort of come out of nowhere. One minute you’re saying, ‘I’ve never heard of this person before,’ and suddenly they are everywhere. But you can also tell that something is working for these people behind the scenes, getting them visibility, and putting them out there. And for any of these other bands over here in this other stream…if something of that level were behind them giving them the same type of promotional backing…then you sometimes wonder. Maybe it still wouldn’t hit the wall and stick, you never know, but it definitely wouldn’t hurt getting whatever you can from however long you hang onto the bricks.”
DW: How do you think you ended up in your particular stream?
ST: “When I was kid, I remember all the stories of the Dave Matthews Band selling records out of the back of his car until the world could not stop ignoring him. Blues Traveler and Rusted Root did that, too. It really felt like there was scene of these grass roots bands who traveled around, played a lot cities, and they played a lot of college towns. And I really liked that. I thought that was how you were supposed to do it. You go town-by-town, and that’s how you create a loyal following.”
“I don’t doubt that Taylor Swift is a hard worker. Actually, I imagine she’s a very hard worker, but I don’t think that she’s played all these little towns for a long time. She’s an example of how things happen much faster for other people. But from the vantage point of a guy in a rock-and-roll band who has been running around shaking hands with his fans, meeting them one-by-one, and trying to win them over one-by-one…you sometimes look at it and think, ‘Fuck, this will never happen. If I have to go at this speed, I’ll ultimately get there, but it’s going to take me my entire life.’ So sometimes you have to try hard not to develop a bitter attitude, but rather a non-bitter way of expressing that feeling is in that song where it’s saying, ‘I’m sick of hearing about these towns, and how that’s where you have to be to make it.’”
DW: So the issue is less about the coasts and more about everywhere else?
ST: “Lately in the music business, I’m hearing about a lot of bands I know…Brooklyn bands or LA bands which are fleeing the coasts for places like Nashville. And honestly I’ve never understood why musicians would live there, anyway because, by virtue of what you do, you have to travel…so why choose to live in the cities with the highest cost-of-living expenses and never spend any time there? And there’s no room…no space there, either. Working in music means you have to make noise and you have lug around a lot of equipment, so having room is very beneficial.”
DW: Maybe that’s why some bands don’t tour as much as you guys do…?
ST: “Some bands will drop off the scene for a while, and people will ask them: ‘You haven’t been touring. What are you guys up to?’ And they’ll say in reply, ‘Well, the road kind of burned us out, and we decided to hunker down and work on our songwriting. We’re trying to record that big hit, sell it, and then go from there.’ But that doesn’t work. Are you kidding? No one’s ever going to fall in love with you from a basement. I get it that, for a very rare few, you can put something out on YouTube, and it’ll explode. But the truth is there are millions of unbelievable great songs that are written all the time, every day. So when people say that the cream rises, that’s true on some level, but there’s still oceans of cream. So what will actually get your great song up and out is letting people hear it.”
“I don’t mean to talk so much about one song, but you happened to pick one that touches on my core mission-statement as an artist. So, if you think back to those two streams I mentioned earlier…when I was a kid, I always wanted to be in the fast stream. The fast stream was everything. But now the slow stream, where I’m at now…that’s the place to be. For one you’re giving yourself time to actually create something real. And for another, these musicians who might have never hit the surface a long time ago…they’re still here. They’re still out there, and they’re still making great stuff.”
DW: Such as?
ST: “When I was a kid I absolutely loved Toad the Wet Sprocket. I thought they were amazing. And they’re still around…still amazing…still putting out great music. The other night I got to see Greg Allman play at The City Winery in New York, which only holds 300 people, and it was pretty fucking awesome. And Shawn Colvin is another example. Most people only know her for her one big hit in the ‘90s, ‘Sunny Came Home.’ But she sells out places like City Winery, she’s friends with these amazing songwriters, she’s had this long and meaningful career dating back to the ‘70s. This is my point, though: the industry is changing. Sure it’s always fun to go to these big festivals and see a band on a stage sitting a mile away, but for the most part music is something to be shared in a more intimate setting. Think about the old days of ‘80s and ‘90s colosseum-arena rock…in horseshoe stadiums…in front of tens of thousands of people: years ago I went to a U2 show at Ohio State, and the only thing I remember is that there was a lot of fucking people there. Sure, there are right ways to do it, but I think many artists are thinking that instead of going to Irving Plaza for one night they would rather play at City Winery for three nights. Because in the latter setting, you’re connecting with people musically and personally, and that becomes a much more authentic experience.
Part III: Pre-Chorus--
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I was a young man starting my teaching career, I was going to work at my local high school for a bit, write the Great American Novel, and live the “respected” life I assumed those fruits would produce. But I didn’t write that novel. Then I got divorced. Then I went bankrupt. Then I lost my house. Then I got sick. Then I got better. Then my mom got sick. She didn’t get better. When I think about that 20-something young man I was in the 1990’s I see smidges of him when I look in the mirror now. Overall, though, I see an largely different person. The skeleton underneath is perhaps the same, but the tissue covering it has transformed…or evolved…or toughened. These thoughts swirled in my head as I asked Terry to consider his own life from a then-to-now perspective:
DW: If you could go back in time, and speak to the young Scott Terry who filmed “Venus 55,” what would you say to him?
ST: “I would tell him to stay the course and remain honest to himself. I know that this sounds trite and cheesy, but at the end of the day I’ve always been an autobiographical writer. When I think about my earlier material…it was rough in places, but it was coming from the only inkwell that I had which were my own experiences, and I feel that, for me, that’s the only way to be an honest performer.”
“Think about it this way: If you were told that you had to give up what you wanted to do and go to work for…I don’t know…Verizon. You’d never have to worry about money again, and even if you hated it, you’d find a way to turn on the charm and do your job. Then you could console yourself knowing you can go get your mocha-latte bullshit beverage and never have to worry about money. But my parents were huge advocates of following your passion, whatever it may be. They went to college in the ‘60s, and they were the first generation of people to come out and say, ‘You don’t have to do what your father does.’ So I’m huge believer in following passions, and I definitely think you’ll live a ‘richer’ life for it.”
“Or think about the same thing this way, instead: Of the three grandparents I knew, the one who lived the longest was my mother’s mom—she was the crazy one. She smoked a pack a day, she drank a lot of martinis, and she loved to gamble. And she never really had a lot of money…pretty much not ever. She wasn’t even really able to retire. When she moved to a retirement community, she was still always working, and she worked right until she died. And you know what she said? ‘Be passionate about whatever it is that you do because it is the only thing that will keep you going, and you should never put yourself in a position where you’re done working. If you love what you’re doing, you’re going to do it forever.’ That’s a great way to live a full life. The world can find a lot ways to make it very difficult to do that, but if you’re lucky enough to be in a position to do something that you want to do, you’re a fool not to follow that.
Part IV: Chorus--
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]wo years ago, my AP Literature students were ready to rebel. I was foisting one Phyllis Wheatley poem after another upon them, fulfilling my duty as a cog in the great test-prep education reform wheel. On the day I knew I was going to face a mutiny, I flipped on the YouTube video of “Audition,” played it, handed them the lyrics, and said, “Figure it out.” They did. They found the allusions (the song is loaded with them), they picked apart the extended metaphor, and about a dozen of them became lifelong RWB fans in the process. After telling this story to Terry (which he appreciated a great deal), we discussed the challenges of songwriting:
DW: When you write, do you think about lyricism as poetry? Do you think of yourself as a poet? Or do you write musically?
ST: “I have sat down and written, even stabs at poetry, but not for the sake of writing a song. That said, I also think that—as a singer—if you can capture an audience for even one minute then you should have something worth talking about to share with them. And that means that whatever the song’s theme may be, it should be extremely deliberate. I don’t like ambiguous songs connected by a lot of thin thread. It’s like a lot of those ‘80s songs: the image was cool, but you couldn’t make any sense out of it. My lady and I were just joking about this. We recently heard Roxette’s ‘You’ve Got the Look,’ so we looked up the lyrics, and they make no sense whatsoever. It seems as if it was one of those moments when someone comes up with a great melody, and they think, ‘Oh, we’ll just stick some words in there.’ Which is something that happens often.”
“But I don’t think that you can create a song or a poem or whatever by simply starting with a theme or an idea. Usually, a song begins with something very specific. If I’m having a conversation with you, and you make a great point in a well-worded sentence, I might think to myself, ‘Boy, I really like the way you said that.’ And that one line alone can spawn an entire song. Then as I’m writing the words the rhythm of the words and the phonetics of the words often establishes their own meter. So playing with the words is one of my favorite things to do. I have a lot of friends, songwriters with other bands and acts, who often ask me, ‘How did you make that melody work?’”
DW: Playing with the words…?
ST: “Take for example ‘The World is Over.’ My friends will ask me how I came up with ‘So beat that drum/'Til we run out all of the air in our lungs/And kiss goodbye the lovers that we've loved…’ If you read it, it sounds as if it shouldn’t work. The trick is making sure that the melody and the lyrics peacefully co-exist together…because they can. The problem comes when you value the lyrics over the melody and you try to cram too many ideas into a song, or when you work the other way and stretch out the word ‘and’ across five syllables. But in the end I think the songs people like are the ones where the message is clear. Think Tom Petty: he’s ‘free falling’ or ‘he won’t back down.’”
DW: I guess that’s why I liked “Audition” because the central them was clear, but my students had to work around the allusions and other references that front-loaded it.
ST: “There’s kind of an interesting history to that song. First, the song makes reference to Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Gadot. We worked on this play when I was in college, and it was the first play I ever worked on. And the director—who is the head of the school of theater and is a friend of mine—always corrected our pronunciation of the title. He’d say, ‘It’s Waiting for GA-dot…!’ He wanted to impress upon people the ‘God’ connection…this idea of waiting for this divine thing that’s never going to show up. In the song, the lyrics say, ‘Or staying up late, waiting for Godot’ followed by ‘I’m just a friend.’ But after shows I’ve had literary people come up to me a say that it sounds to them more like, ‘Or staying up late, waiting for God’ and then ‘Oh, I’m just a friend…’ But I never meant anything like that when I wrote it. I was just a personal joke based on this experience I had in college.
“The second thing about ‘Audition’ is that it was a song written by my first guitar player. He was into sequencing, synthesizers, and stuff like that at the time. He had written the entire, original version, and he basically gave it to me as it was, with no lyrics or anything like that. And I wrote the melody and the song while I drove around in my car. Literally the night before we were done making [one of our early albums] Model Citizen I had the sound guy record that into the system, and then I laid my vocals over it. We screwed around with it a little bit after that, and that became the song which went on to be one of the biggest songs on the album…which is hilarious.”
“Our current producer, [Jamie Candiloro] who was making From the Vanishing Point at the time, came out to a couple shows to see how the crowd responded to different songs. That’s where he heard ‘Audition,’ and he said to us, ‘What was that one song?’ We told him not to worry about it. It was one of two songs from the old catalogue which we played for the local crowd at home. Nothing more. And he said, ‘Oh, so if it’s an old song, then it’s old enough to re-do old…’ I was like, ‘Nooooo, nooo…’ But we finally placated him, we recorded it, and he said, ‘Okay now we can move to other things.’ Then, a little later on he said to me, ‘Hey, I’m mixing Audition, and I really like it.’ And then the next thing you know it becomes our thing.”
Part V: Bridge--
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ew of us admit when we’re young that we don’t have anything figured out. Eventually most of us face some sort of epiphany, realizing that much of what we thought we knew amounted to the ‘strutting and fretting’ of the ‘poor player’ on the stage. For too many souls, this knowledge means nothing. The job at the factory may be going nowhere, but the mortgage and the medical bills aren’t going away, either. Sure the lessons of aging offer some perspective, but other than that they stand as little more than ‘sound and fury.’ We lucky ones, however, find ourselves able to respond to this new beam of clarity. We quit our jobs, marry new people, or change our addresses. We catalogue our attempts and our failures, and we take a new step with a better sense of who we are.
DW: Many of your early albums, from 2003 and back, have sort of disappeared from your canon. Why is that? Why did you let most of that early work go?
ST: “The thing that’s interesting is that we kept the name. I loved the name, and I loved both what it meant and what it stood for…for me personally. As long as you’re telling your own stories and your own autobiographical tale—which has always been the case for me from my youth until now—then all of that should remain under the same moniker, which for me is ‘Red Wanting Blue.’ But…When you’re a kid starting a band you don’t know all the things you need to know. You’re also getting into all of these relationships, some of which are going to turn into good friendships for life, others for a season. I think the hard part is figuring out who you want to be with because you live once, and you don’t want to be stuck in relationship that’s not working. As you develop as a writer, your interests change, and when you and your bandmates no longer hold the same interests, things get difficult. Because then you become a band with a split-vision. There are ways to do that, but I think eventually it tears bands apart.”
“Pride: The Cold Lover was the first time where I think I surrendered everything. It’s the moment when I told myself I was going to be honest as a writer, and it just so happened to coincide with the period when my original guitar player—who I started the band with—splintered from me. So at this point I’m looking a couple options: I can just quit this and hang it up after I finish this record, or I can continue. And I remember thinking to myself that I was finally getting into my own as a writer. Before that album, everything felt emulated: going off of what was popular and trendy…off of what we hear. And I was a kid, so I was learning on the go, which means that those early records are a documentation of me trying to find myself: who I was, what kind of a player and performer I wanted to be, and who I wanted to do that with. We were in our 20s, and it was a tumultuous time anyway. But I remember thinking that I didn’t like where music in general was going, and also didn’t like where our music was going specifically. I just wasn’t into the scene created by bands like Incubus, Creed, and Nickelback. I thought, ‘Oh God, are we supposed to be doing this? Because I don’t think I want this.’ At the end of the day I was a kid who listened to Sprocket and the Counting Crows. The turning point became the moment when I wrote ‘Pride is a Lonely Blanket.’ It was the first time I felt artful again. From that point on I mentally cut myself off from the early work because it became kid stuff, This was now something I could stand behind as a reflection of me.”
Part VI: Outro--
DW: Your performance in Indy will be an acoustic set. Is this something you enjoy, or is it something you’re doing for more pragmatic reasons? ST: “I love the acoustic sound. I like to think that we are as strong as an acoustic act—if not stronger—than we are as a regular, electric show. We toured in Canada with the Trews on their Canadian acoustic tour, which means we had to be acoustic as well. So, in Canada people only knew us as an acoustic band. And you can tell the difference between an electric band that happens to be playing acoustic tonight versus a band that’s actually modifying songs and making them different for the style. We do a lot of four-part harmony around the condenser mike, and I really feel that’s a way you can separate the men from the boys.” [dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Red Wanting Blue ascends the stage in Indy next month, they will demonstrate the difference between evolution and experimentation. Honing their act into an effective acoustic sound which compliments their trademark voice is certainly a hallmark example of the maturation Scott Terry speaks of at great length. But a greater example is the band’s body of modern work—a testament to the idea that the journey has no destination, only pit stops. And the biggest of those stops? That comes long before the end. That comes when we finally discover who we honestly are, and decide to ride it out to the last days of our lives.