Interviews

Battleme’s Matt Drenik on touring, Sons of Anarchy, and keeping an open mind.

Matt Drenik (Photo by Rebecca Steele)

Matt Drenik (Photo by Rebecca Steele)

If you didn’t catch Battleme’s electrifying set opening for The Toadies and Supersuckers in March at El Corazon (which many didn’t, due to long lines and an early start time), Thursday night you can make up for lost time. After a two week break from trekking across the country, Battleme kicks off a quick headlining West Coast run here in Seattle – refreshed, re-energized and ready to rock. Then they’re off again to the East Coast for a month of dates with Veruca Salt (yep, that Veruca Salt) throughout July. No sleep till Brooklyn, indeed.

The excellent Future Runs Magnetic, released March 11 on El Camino Records, has been steadily gaining attention, as have the songs Battleme’s Matt Drenik contributed to cable network FX’s biker drama series, Sons of Anarchy. (Esquire recently chose “Lights” for Best New Songs of the Week; Drenik was also featured in a recent issue of Magnet and penned an insightful point-of-view guest column there called “From the Desk of Battleme’s Matt Drenik”).

In a very brief moment of downtime back home in Portland, Drenik took a moment to chat about the highs and lows of incessant touring, how he got mixed up with a gang of outlaw bikers, and running into NBA stars on the road…but before we get to that, be warned: it won’t be long before catching Battleme in an intimate venue just isn’t in the cards anymore. With Future Runs Magnetic, they’re poised to make a great leap forward. Tickets for the June 5 Barboza show can be purchased HERE.

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Jessica P: Battleme’s done a couple legs on tour with The Toadies and Supersuckers recently, which kicked off around the time that Future Runs Magnetic was released, if I’m not mistaken. How’s it been crossing the country with all those guys this spring? Is this one of the most extensive tours you’ve been on with Battleme (or Lions, before that?)

Matt Drenik: It’s been so much fun and at the same time completely exhausting. I think this is the longest US stretch I’ve been on in quite some time. Lions toured pretty extensively throughout the US and there was a point where it felt nonstop, but that was years ago. So to get back in the van with 4 other people and zigzag across the country on a big rock tour took some getting used to. It’s tough chasing a bus, and really that’s what you’re doing when you’re the opening band. If there’s a 9 hour stretch between shows, the headliner in the bus leaves after the show and drives through the night, while we get a hotel room and wake up early and try to hustle just to make load in. But, let’s be honest. I’m out here playing music for a living. There is no better job in the world. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

JP: Going on the road requires a certain mindset and tenacity, especially after you’ve really roughed it a couple of times. Do you find it gets a little bit easier to get into “road dog” mode after you’ve done it a few times? Conditions improving and all that, as you move through your career? Hanging with Charles Barkley along the way?

Matt: Yeah, I think it gets easier the older you get because you learn what not to do on the road. You have to pace yourself. A lot of people attending these shows don’t really understand the reality of what we’re going through. I can’t tell you how many times someone came up to me asking about “our bus” and if we’re staying at the nicest hotel in town, etc. Then they go and buy you a shot. And I just want to tell them, “don’t buy me a shot. I’ve got plenty of booze backstage. But a record. I need that to survive.” Of course I’m in a much better position than I was 10 years ago. Back then I just wanted to get out and play and I didn’t care about getting paid or how many people were in the crowd. It was much more idealistic back then. Now it’s a job. And you learn what to do and not to do while doing that job. And one thing I can say is you always have to take advantage of the things around you when you’re on the road. For instance, Atlanta. We’re playing right down the street from the Clermont Lounge. Ever heard of it? If not, look it up. It’s legendary, a trashy strip club that feels nothing like a normal strip club. So of course we have to go there after the show. And of course I end up bellying up next to Charles Barkley who just happened to stroll in the bar. And of course I played the stripper’s jukebox that says “only dancers can touch this. NO ONE ELSE.” And of course I almost got thrown out. I love nights like that.

JP: Many people came to be acquainted with Battleme and Lions through Sons of Anarchy. How did that multi-song contribution and The Forest Rangers collaborations come about? It sounds like it not only provided some great exposure, but produced some musical connections you’ll probably have for years to come…and working with Katey Sagal must be a blast…

Matt: A guy named Ward Hake, who happened to be a musical supervisor at 20th Century Fox, came to a Lions show during SXSW. It was this sweaty, punk rock floor show we did every year at a small dive off South Congress called Trophy’s. He saw us and thought we’d be a good musical companion for a new show he had coming out on FX. “It’s about bikers and the culture around them.” So he sent us the pilot episode and we watched it and wrote some tunes for it. I had no idea the show would become such a hit. So as the seasons went on, they just kept calling me to do stuff. First it was with Lions and then solo attempts. Bob Thiele, SOA music supervisor, became a good friend of mine in the process and we started working on songs together that would eventually become Battleme w/ Forest Rangers songs. And now I’m in the process of working up new material with them for a record they have coming out. Honestly, I think I was just in the right place at the right time. Katey rules! I love working with her.

JP: The first Battleme EP and the debut album were written, played, recorded, and produced mostly by you. Not having a pre-conceived structure or parameters can be freeing artistically, especially when you’re potentially finding a whole new audience out there in the dark. At what point did you decide after holing up for a while on your own that you wanted to have a full band again? (You’ve assembled a top notch one…you guys are super-charged on stage together…)

Matt: Well, the first EP was thrown together with stuff I was doing in my apartment at the time. SOA called me up after “Burn This Town” was released and thought that this thing might have some legs and I might want to consider putting some other material up. Hence, the Big Score EP. Then I moved to Portland and holed up in a basement to write the first record. I still live in the same house, and the basement is much more fleshed out with a ton of gear, but there was something really pure about that first LP I did when I barely had anything. After the record came out, I was hesitant on touring because I got so burned out in Lions. Eventually though I had to go out and play some shows, so when I put together a live band, the songs started to take on more of an organic feel. I was into the idea of opening the structures up and extending the jams live. I don’t think there was actually a point when I decided to have a full band again. I think it just happened because my agent wanted me to tour. And I didn’t want to play live with a drum machine.

JP: Your music’s scope makes me think that you wear your heart on your sleeve, artistically speaking – meaning whether it’s twangy, psychedelic, or a funky keyboard groove, you can hear that you have a keen appreciation of all types of classics from different eras. There are multiple levels of influences churning around in there. In absorbing them, you’ve created something new & exciting all your own. Not an easy feat! What did you grow up listening to?

Matt: I was a little all over the place growing up. My dad was a big Temptations, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters fan. He still asks me to play Hank Ballard every time I see him. I guess I’m eventually going to fire out a version of “Work with Me Annie”. My older brothers (9 and 10 years older) were a bit on the opposite scope of each other. My one brother loved new wave, pop stuff that was happening in the 80’s (The The, New Order, Joe Jackson) and my other brother was more of a punk rock kid (Black Flag, White Zombie, Jesus Lizard). So a lot of these rumblings would creep into my 10 year old walls and soak up into my brain. My first CD was Nirvana’s Nevermind. My parents got it for me for Xmas. It was a big deal to me. They also got me a Bangles CD as well. But I loved Soundgarden, Janes, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins. That was the stuff that was happening when I was a kid. And then I found Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd in junior high and high school. And then hip hop like Bone Thugs and Easy E. I was into it all. I really hated the idea of clichés and allegiances. I loved the idea of loving the Grateful Dead and Bone Thugs. I loved the idea of Bob Dylan vs. Jane’s Addiction. It was all there for the taking.

JP: So you’re from Cincinnati originally? Then Austin, and now Portland? Austin and Portland are a bit similar, don’t you think?

Matt: They have similar mindsets. I think Austin is a bit more set up for disaster than Portland. You have to understand, Austin is still in Texas. And there’s this mindset in Texas that business is good, taxes are bad, guns are good, everything should be big and new, business is everything. So they give lots of benefits to big corporations going down there and crushing out the old with everything new. There are so many people moving there for different reasons that it feels like a different city every time I go back. And there’s not really any public transportation so they just have lots of new people with cars and traffic. Portland, like Seattle, is a bit on its own island. It has the ability to weed people out because of the weather. People look at Austin and go, “yeah, it’s sunny like California. Let’s go!” But you really have to commit to the rain to survive in the Pacific Northwest. And there’s something about that that I love. But don’t get me wrong. These are the two best cities in the country. I love both of them. I’m just happy about being in Portland now. It’s way better than Cincinnati.

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Chelsea Wolfe: shedding some layers with EELS.

Chelsea Wolfe (Photo by Kristin Cofer)

Chelsea Wolfe (Photo by Kristin Cofer)

Last fall, I had the extreme pleasure of chatting with the enchanting Chelsea Wolfe while she was on the road in support of Pain is Beauty. Though her music  – not unpleasantly – sounds like the sonic equivalent to turning blind corners (running the spectrum from hushed and ethereal to full on black metal), there’s a fragile, dreamlike quality underlining each album.  It’s just enough to make you listen closer and wonder about the person beneath.

Finally, Chelsea is coming around on tour again. Since early May she’s been on a month-long acoustic tour, complete with strings, opening for EELS. This marks the first time Chelsea has done an acoustic tour since 2013’s Pain Is Beauty and should reveal a side of her we didn’t get to see when she was last in Seattle over at Barboza.

Most recently, Chelsea and director Mark Pellington have collaborated on a long-format film called Lone. The film, much like Pain Is Beauty, is awash in themes of “nature, sexuality, memory, mortality, forgiveness, love, innocence, fragility, violence and beauty,” according to Pellington (the “Feral Love” video is excerpted from the film). Lone is available for purchase on a quite handsome custom-designed USB key; it’s also available on iTunes and other streaming formats. Trailers for the film can be viewed here and here.

Catch Chelsea Wolfe opening for EELS Saturday, June 7 at The Moore. Go early…and get your tickets HERE. Until then, here’s an excerpt from my email chat with Chelsea last fall:

Jessica Price: I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with all your records over the last few weeks to get ready for your Seattle show…congrats on the new record- it’s lovely. I find Pain Is Beauty the most soothing of all your releases.  It’s kind of distilled a lot of elements from your previous albums in an interesting and very focused way.  Do you feel you have more freedom than some artists to follow your creative muse where it leads you, stylistically?

Chelsea Wolfe: It’s a choice that I made to not limit myself or box myself in. When I started writing electronic songs with my bandmate Ben Chisholm about 2-3 years ago, I originally felt that we should do a side project with the songs, but over time I realized that this project is a flexible organism and can be or should be whatever it needs to be at any given time.. I’ve always liked to experiment with different styles of music and different ways of using my voice. I’m glad you find the album soothing and enjoy it – thank you.

JP: As I’ve been listening to your albums in succession I’ve been thinking a lot about how artists evolve, both personally and professionally over time.  When you look back on the music you’ve made so far, how do you think you’ve evolved?

CW: One of the main things I can see is that I’ve learned to edit myself. In the past I would release a song as soon as I finished recording the first demo of it, but now I prefer to step back from new songs for a bit, then add or take something away from them. Often the songs reveal what they mean only after listening a few times, so basically nowadays I like to understand the songs before I release them!

JP: There’s a playlist you created on Spotify which contained great classic country as well as tracks from legendary Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky and current German artist Sibylle Baier (who sounds remarkably like a female Leonard Cohen to me- I almost wish I could hear them duet, or get into a lover’s quarrel, if that were possible).  In a sense, your music – although arranged much differently – shares characteristics with these classics. Many of these artists were social outlaws or left of center individuals that never quite fit with the status quo, nor did they want to.  When you strip your music down (which you did beautifully on the acoustic Unknown Rooms album), your songs contain that same essence: a little bit of darkness, a little bit of the outsider, with simplicity at the core.   What appeals to you most in artists that you admire?

CW: Honesty is what drew me to music and it remains the quality that stands out in artists that I admire. When I made that playlist I was just grouping together some of my favorite voices, but I think you’re right about what you said, that they’re all a bit left of center or a bit outlaw. I guess I forgot to put Nick Cave on this playlist; he’s one of the most inspiring artists in this regard.  I’ve always been a bit of an outcast myself, and maybe I’m attracted to other misfits, loners and troubled souls, or just those that don’t give a fuck about taking the standard path.

JP:  Being an artist- especially a female one- can be a strange balancing act it seems.  It’s an extrovert-centric career often approached by introverted people.  Do you feel at odds with being out there for public consumption at times?

CW: Very much, yes. I’ve loved writing and recording music since I was a little girl, but I never imagined that I would be a musician for my career because I never could see myself playing in front of people. As a slightly hermetic person it makes my skin crawl at times thinking about performing in front of an group of people. But it’s something I’ve had to accept and overcome over the years because I want to take my job seriously and to be able to share my music in that way. There are nights when everything feels right and I truly don’t mind being onstage and it’s a great thing to experience those songs and moods and emotions with the audience. A lot of it really has to the with the audience actually, and I feel really lucky to have some amazing people who come to my shows and I can really feel their energy and goodness and it helps me get through the set.

JP:  You’ve performed extensively both in the US and abroad.  What has been the biggest revelation to you about traveling and performing for such diverse audiences around the world?

CW: One of the simplest revelations is that we need to take more days off while on tour. When you expend that much mental and sometimes physical energy every night and then barely sleep and then drive for 7-12 hours in an uncomfortable van the following day you start to unravel pretty quickly. Having a day here and there to just rest or wander around a new city is a holy miracle when you’re on tour. It’s also important because if you don’t get enough rest you can’t be your best onstage, which is the whole reason you’re there in that new city!

JP:  You have a connection to a Seattle based artist-  King Dude (TJ Cowgill of Book of Black Earth), with whom you recorded an EP “Sings Songs Together”.  How did that come about?

CW: TJ Cowgill is a great man, and my true brother. I was fortunate to have met him when we played together for my album release of “The Grime and the Glow” a few years back. We became friends and recorded some songs together when he was in LA. It took a long time for those first two songs to get released but in the meantime we did a tour together. We recently recorded a couple more songs in Seattle actually. He’s one of the only people outside of my own band members that I feel comfortable writing with. Also he has excellent taste so if I ever need a tie-breaking opinion on artwork or something I ask him and he blesses me with his advice.

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Chelsea Wolfe (Photo by Johanna Torell)

Chelsea Wolfe (Photo by Johanna Torell)

A Q&A with emerging soul diva V. Contreras.

V. Contreras (Photo by Jason Ganwich)

V. Contreras (Photo by Jason Ganwich)

~ Written by Jessica Price. This review also appeared in Seattle Gay News (April 4, 2014)

Victoria Contreras (or V., as she’s commonly referred to) is emerging as Seattle’s answer to the most memorable alternative soul divas of recent memory: Amy Winehouse, Adele, Joss Stone. Although unlike at least one of these beloved ladies, there’s nothing tragic about V.; she’s got the strength and talent to go far. Since the success of Northwestern artists Brandi Carlile, Neko Case, Macklemore, and rising star Mary Lambert, there’s been a watchful eye turned to Northwestern talent, particularly its leading ladies. V.’s self-titled debut album will be released this month and she’ll headline the Triple Door’s opulent mainstage April 11. No small accomplishment for a new artist, but one that speaks volumes for the preliminary buzz on her inaugural album, produced and engineered by Martin Feveyear (Brandi Carlile, Common Market, Blue Scholars) and featuring string and horn arrangements by Andrew Joslyn (Macklemore, Mark Lanegan). V’s songs fall somewhere between elegant, modern torch songs and sizzling retro soul. Though there’s an obvious kinship with iconic influences Dusty Springfield, Linda Ronstadt, The Ronettes, and Patsy Cline, V.’s music is sophisticated and all her own. It’s positively addictive.

V. recently took time out to talk about the beginnings of her musical journey:

Jessica Price:
You’ve earned great advance buzz and have an upcoming cd release show this month. Have you felt a lot of momentum building since the release of your single and teaser EP?

V. Contreras: Yes, I have felt an enormous amount of support from friends, family and fans. This is partially due to the fact that I launched a Kickstarter campaign over two years ago to help fund a portion of the album and quite honestly, to help push me to get into the studio. When you have to be accountable to 100 people, it makes a huge difference.

Right after releasing the first single Lush, I had my first performance at The Triple Door and was so flattered by the reaction to the music. You never know how people will respond to music they have never heard and I teared up at least twice at that show due to the audience enthusiasm. Since releasing Lush as a single and then the EP Burn, I have felt a significant amount of momentum building and I’m thrilled with the new fan base I am starting to build. I feel very lucky.

Price: You are a classically trained vocalist and long-time jazz aficionado, which really comes out in your music. What did you grow up listening to? Have your tastes changed much?

V.: My parents are from a small town in Idaho that is 8 hours away and those round-trip adventures became my induction to music. My parents were not that interested in modern music at the time. They loved music from 50s – 70s. So, my sister and I sang, as loudly as we could, to artists like Linda Ronstadt, Patsy Cline, Heart, The Supremes, Sam Cooke and Dusty Springfield. I started singing songs from those artists on stage when I was 8 and at 12 years old I had an opportunity to be one of the featured singers fronting the Highline College 25-piece jazz band. I played with them for at least 4 years at clubs and recital halls and that was when I became obsessed with jazz – Sarah, Ella, Carmen, Aretha, Diane Schurr… I was in heaven immersing myself in their tones, inflections and eerie intervals. I also have a great appreciation for all of the extraordinary music being created today. I’m really a nut about lyrics and musically, I particularly like anything that sounds unique and hard to classify. For the past 6 months I’ve been listening to BANKS non-stop.

Price: What sort of female stars appeal to you, and why?

V.:
I have great respect for those who stay true to themselves as artists and human beings and who use their celebrity status in a positive way. (So, basically, if you have a sex tape on NetFlix, I’m not talking about you). One of my favorite autobiographies is Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline. Patsy Cline was revered as a kind and smart woman, yet strong as nails and philanthropic to the core. I adore current stars like Adele, Jennifer Lawrence and P!nk. They seem to be strong and sexy yet they don’t take themselves too seriously and they all seem to possess a vulnerable side as well.

Price:
You’ve performed in public often (featured vocalist with Seattle Rock Orchestra, the Patsy Cline Sweet Dreams Tribute, etc) but it’s taken time to get comfortable with presenting original work. Did you feel the time was right to reveal something new to yourself and to listeners?

V.: Yes. I have been singing covers in front of audiences for a long time and have also been writing songs, in what feels like almost a hermit capacity for years. As for the songs that people have actually heard, prior this album, most were songs written with other people, with specific guidelines and structures in mind. I also spent a few years writing songs on my own with other recording artists in mind in hopes to pitch the tunes to them and get my fix of writing without having to put myself out there. In that capacity, you tend to write really generalized lyrics that anyone can relate to.

Eventually, over at least a three year period, I started writing a collection of songs as a way to work through some things I was going through. They were inspired at random times in random places and I felt liberated writing them, knowing no one would ever hear them. They felt like a secret pool of ridiculous, lustful, and sometimes very sad songs. Without boundaries or guidelines, the lack of rules became the foundation of the album. I eventually played one of the songs for a very close friend late at night and she connected to it more than any of those songs I had deliberately written with broad topics and strong hooks.

I guess that was the catalyst that inspired me to record these songs. They had served my purpose while writing them and maybe they could give some fire or solace to someone else by listening to them. Even if it makes me feel extremely vulnerable, touching even just one person’s life is a lot more useful than storing the Garageband files on my Mac.

*****

V. Contreras performs at The Triple Door April 11. Get tickets HERE.