At what age did you realize that you loved music? What kinds of music do you recall hearing first? What was the first music you loved, and which was the first favorite band that you discovered on your own?
It was immediate. It's all I really remember from when I was very young. I grew up in New Orleans, and my dad would take me to all these rock concerts, from Memphis to Florida. Journey, Iron Maiden, Queen, Heart, etc. I have ticket stubs from all these shows, and I can remember parts about a lot of them. So I grew up listening to that kind of rock, along with all the Headbangers Ball stuff that came along later.
When I was like 5 or 6, I really started to dig Rick Springfield and REO Speedwagon. So I started my own record collection, and if either of those came to New Orleans or Baton Rouge or anywhere near, my parents would take me to see them. I saw both of them a bunch growing up.
After about 10 years old, I had an uncle who started to introduce me to all kinds of music. I discovered many of my current favorites through him, starting with The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, The Cure, etc. and then even bands like Oasis, Weezer, and Fountains of Wayne in the 90s. He heard those bands before I did. He bought new cassettes every week, and he'd dub me copies of almost everything he bought. It was really cool.
High school and college was when I really started to seek out all the albums by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Ramones, after realizing that every song I'd ever heard by these bands was amazing. But those aren't bands that you really "discover." Then Ramones stuff led to MTX, the Queers, the Huntingtons, Groovie Ghoulies, and all of that.
Somehow MTV and rock radio gave us stuff like Green Day, Superdrag, Nada Surf, and Eels, along with all the British stuff. It’s hard to imagine such cool music being mainstream, but it was, at least for 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation, right?
So I guess the first bands I "discovered" on my own would've been bands like the Apples in Stereo and Belle & Sebastian early on, just stumbling across those initial reviews or whatever. And then it soon became discovering bands who were just on tour and playing shows with them.
The Beach Boys are obviously an important band for you - how did you get into their music, and how did your view of their songwriting changes as you developed knowledge of songwriting yourself? Did you ever "study" their music in order to better understand harmonies or song structure?
I've always written songs, but I didn't get serious about it until college, which is when I also got serious about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. I was a music major at the time, and I was studying everything about music.
I spent my second semester at the University of New Orleans, and it was just all of this jazz stuff. I'd drive to school listening to the Doors and the Beach Boys, and then I'd spend hours breaking down crazy chords at school.
There are entire books and even some documentaries out there which focus on Brian Wilson's songwriting. I've spent more than 20 years trying to absorb it all. And while you probably would never know it based on my three-chord progressions, I do hope that the harmony studies have paid off in some way! That's what I've always tried to bring to the table: catchy melodies and harmonies.
When did you first pick up an instrument, and how did you learn to play? When did you write your first song, and what inspired you to go for it? Were there certain bands that you were trying to sound like at the time? How did you develop your knowledge of music and songwriting? Any lessons or theory courses along the way?
I had a snare drum and a guitar when I was 5, but I never learned how to play guitar until college. With that first guitar, I'd just sit and pretend I knew how to play Rick Springfield songs. This is also when I started "writing songs," but I think they were basically just plagiarized rewrites of songs that I liked.
In middle school, I became a pretty good trumpet player, and that became my ticket to college. I did write a little in middle and high school, but it was mostly goofy rap songs.
I got serious about writing right around the time I started college, which was perfect. As a music major, I was starting each day with theory classes and spending hours each night at rehearsals or in practice rooms. I was surrounded by music and started to come up with some really fun ideas. I had a pile of songs within a few months.
Over the next few years, I taught myself to play guitar, worked on writing as often as I could, and eventually started The Robinsons.
The Robinsons was a great band that was also a well-kept secret during their active years. What were your goals with that band, and what are some of your most memorable experiences playing and recording with The Robinsons?
With The Robinsons, we didn't really have any goals. We just wanted to have fun, and we wanted our audience to have fun. We loved playing all-ages shows, basements, garages, or anywhere else, and we loved being a part of the New Orleans DIY scene. Everyone really accepted us, despite the fact that we were a whimpy pop band posing as "pop punk."
Things really changed for us when we established ourselves in Baton Rouge. Our NOLA shows were fun, but the Baton Rouge shows were the kind of thing you'd dream about when you're first starting out and playing guitar in your room. Everyone knew the words to our songs, and they'd all sing along. Eventually, when we got to play House of Blues and other big venues in NOLA, our Baton Rouge friends would always come down and support us when we needed them. It was great.
The other cool part about the Robinsons was all the friends we made, not only locally, but through all the touring bands we played with.
As for the best memories with that band, there are just so many to choose from. Once in 2002, we showed up to play at a bar in Baton Rouge. LSU had won a football game, and the place was packed. Then we found out they’d double-booked us with a cover band. We went on stage and played about 30 minutes, and then we announced we’d be cutting our set short cause we were double booked. I think “near riot” is OK to explain what happened next. But then a few guys yelled that we should come to their apartment and play there. Our friends in a local band left to grab their PA system. And the guy who booked us wrestled a bunch of the door money away from the door guy and ran! We played until 2:00 a.m. outside of this apartment building, and it was one the best shows we’ve ever done. Several of the LSU football players were even there partying with us.
How did Hurricane Katrina impact your life? Did it change your lifestyle significantly? What are your feelings about that event looking back on it? How did it impact your activities as a local musician? How long after the storm did you stick around New Orleans?
Personally it was huge. I didn’t lose my house, only because we had just moved across the lake 10 months earlier. The house I’d just sold got 12 feet of water, as did most our friends’ and relatives’ houses. “Gutting” houses was something I’d never heard of, but suddenly everyone was doing it, either to their own houses, or helping others.
Although I stuck around for two years, I knew pretty soon that I’d be leaving. Our sons were both under two, and it just suddenly had turned into a place where I didn’t think I could raise kids. So we took a little while, looking at the East Coast first, and then settled on Nashville in 2007.
In the meantime, we did everything we could to help bring the music scene back together. Earlier in 2005, I’d broken up my band Sally Stitches, and we’d just started an awesome project called the Sunflowers. We played a few shows, including two shows the weekend before Katrina. My brother Brett was in that band, and we practiced at his house. Unfortunately, all of our equipment was there and was wiped away.
Brett had evacuated to Nashville and stayed here, so then we decided to continue as a three-piece and just went back to using The Robinsons as our name, figuring it’d be less confusing during all of the rebuilding. But that time period was a lot of fun, as everyone started moving back to town, venues started opening and re-opening, and touring bands started coming through again. We played a bunch of shows in those gutted houses, bringing in generators for power at first. They actually made great venues, and the neighborhoods were mostly empty anyway.
Our friend Bryan Funck, who plays in the awesome band Thou and runs noladiy.org, moved back to town and jumped right back into booking shows. He made each show a community event, usually with free jambalaya or red beans, and also started adding documentary screenings at the start of each show.
Overall, the storm sucked, obviously. But I was so proud to be a part of that community for the next two years, both as a musician and a resident.
The Loblaws were a great band but was the only release the 7" on Mutant Pop? How did that come about? It seemed to be much later when I wasn't even sure the label existed anymore. How did you come into contact with Timbo, and do you still keep in touch with him? What do you think of his contributions to the pop punk scene through his label? Do you recall writing the song "Tossing and Turning"? I consider it to be one of your best.
It WAS much later, and the label did NOT exist anymore. It was one of those crazy times in life where awesome and fun things just happen. I’d moved here in summer of 2007, and we started the Loblaws in January 2008. My brothers (Todd and Brett) were both living here, as was our best friend Wyatt. So it just made sense to finally start a band that we could all play in together for once.
I had a few songs I’d written since the last Robinsons shows, including “Tossing and Turning,” and we threw in some of my old songs too, along with some covers and new stuff that Wyatt and I were working on. It came together super quick, and after a few practices, we were ready to play live. It was the kind of thing where you might stop a song once to work out a harmony, but then we’d mostly nail it after that.
In March we decided to demo a few songs in Wyatt’s studio. We shared the demos with friends, and it just spread from there. The songs got posted to the Pop Punk Message Bored and got mostly positive responses. Timbo was a member there and was immediately supportive. I signed up to the forum and just started interacting with everyone. I couldn’t believe the response, honestly. (In hindsight, it’s even more amazing, considering those guys mostly hate everything and everyone.)
Eventually Timbo started joking about reviving the label to release a record for us. It was like he wanted someone else to beat him to it so he wouldn’t have to, but for us, there was no rush. It’d only been two months, and we were fine with taking the time to write enough songs for a full-length.
One day Timbo sent me the official offer, and that was it. We were going to do two 7-inches and then a full-length. But first, he had to do some catching up, as far as I understand, to complete some deals he’d made before originally shutting down. In the end, he ended up putting out like four or five releases at once, including ours, which cost a ton of money of course. As a result, before we could finish recording the second 7-inch (“Arrested Development” theme!), Mutant Pop was shut down again.
It was fast, but it meant so much to us to be a part of Mutant Pop. It’s the only time we’ve been on a label where people just bought every release, even if they hadn’t heard the band. Then with the color variations (and we had an unfortunate “error” sleeve as well), it was fun to interact with collectors. For me, it was also great to be introduced to James from Kung Fu Monkeys, Adam from Dirt Bike Annie, and other awesome songwriters on the label. It was a lot like That Thing You Do, but online.
We had the opportunity to play Insub Fest in 2009, and we did a split with the Sci-Fi Nightmares for Killer Records in Finland. But Todd moved to Cincinnati around that time, and Insub Fest actually ended up being our last show.
Yes, Timbo did a bunch for pop punk, which I think is a given. But he also did so much for me personally. I’ll never be able to thank him enough for the confidence he’s given me as a songwriter. We talked every day for months. He wanted to hear every song I’ve ever recorded, and he had nothing but praise for anything I did. I think he has great instincts, and we’d talk about song lengths and arrangements and things like that. He was like a great coach who made me feel like I really belonged in this genre. We do still talk every now and then. I always tell him I’m waiting for the next Mutant Pop revival. In a perfect world, someone would put up enough money to fund Mutant Pop, and he could just run it like he used to.
For “Tossing and Turning,” I definitely remember writing that one. It was spring of 2007. I was about to move, and I was already feeling nostalgic about the Robinsons. The lyrics were originally about some of the terrible bands that the Robinsons used to play with back in the day. That’s where the “ska, then metal, then a ska band playing metal songs” line comes from. But once I moved here and we decided to do The Loblaws, I knew I needed a good song to start with, so I grabbed that one from my demos. We wanted to be Lookout Records pop punk, so I tried to make the subject and lyrics sound something like that. Wyatt did most of the arrangement. He’s always been the perfect producer for my songs.
How did Vista Blue come about? At what point did you start recording and releasing songs using Garageband rather than going for a "real" studio sound? What are your thoughts on home recording in the digital age? You and I both have taken advantage! What are the pros and cons?
Well, in 2010 I did another Robinsons album, which Brett produced and Wyatt helped a bunch on, but then I kind of went into sleep mode. I did a few songs for some movies, mainly some horror films for our friends at Slasher Studios. I was finally making myself learn how to record on my own. Todd and I did a “soundtrack” EP for my horror novella that was published in Australia in 2013. I did podcast theme songs for a bunch of friends, and I recorded a couple of Christmas songs each year. But mainly at this time, I was writing articles for Yahoo Sports, podcasting, and writing children’s songs for this education company. Looking back, though, I know all of this helped me to step away from the typical boy-girl pop songs I’d mostly written and helped prepare me to write based on themes.
When The Ueckers (Mooster Records baseball punk) came to Nashville to record in 2013, they asked me to come out and help on some songs. I fell in love with writing about baseball. In 2014, I wrote like 10 songs for them and told them they could have them. But then they entered the studio that summer with like 30 songs, since they write a ton themselves, and they really didn’t need mine!
At the end of 2014, Bryan Funck opened a record store in NOLA and asked me to write a theme song (“Sisters in Christ”). I got Todd to help me with it, and I realized we’d both become pretty decent at home recording. We did another song for a Slasher Studios film and finally decided to just start a new project. He could stay in Cincy, I could record here, and we could put it all together on computers.
We settled on the name Vista Blue, which was the playground where we played baseball growing up. I went through all my files and found I had collected more than 200 demos/song ideas in the five years since the last Loblaws/Robinsons records. Then Todd sent me another 50 or so demos that he had! It was all pretty awesome. Not many projects start with so many decent ideas to choose from.
We had the pile of complete baseball songs that I had written for the Ueckers, so we started there for our first record. My retina detached while we were recording in early 2015, so Todd finished it up, and we released our debut (Good Eye) in time for Opening Day 2015. We realized that we could write baseball songs pretty easily at that point, so we planned baseball EPs for the All-Star Break and the World Series. As Mark Hughson told us when he interviewed us for Zisk! baseball zine, if we didn’t want people to think we were a baseball band, we were going about it the wrong way.
But to us, it didn’t matter. We had no plans and no road map. It was so great to be playing music with my brother again. We had no idea that people would actually like it.
Clearly, recording at home has made it so easy to just produce music whenever I want to. I can write a song, record it, and release it within an hour or two if I want to. I guess some people don’t like it, but there will always be people who don’t like what you do, no matter what. Most people who record in studios make really awful music. I don’t care where someone records, as long as it’s good. I’ve always loved lo-fi recordings anyway. And even though I record digitally, I try not to go in and correct every mistake. I try to get every part done in one or two takes. After that, it starts to feel more like a science project. I don’t know. You’re right, there are pros and cons. But the pros are far greater, I think.
I should note, we have used the studio a little bit. The drums on our curling split were done at Drastic Sounds, as were the drums for all the Loblaws tracks and the Vista Blue songs on the “Betsy Took My Baby Away” EP. We’ve talked to Drastic about taking a weekend to do a full EP with him, but we’re all just so busy, especially him. His studio stays booked.
Vista Blue is interesting because you've released many "themed" albums but there's no set aesthetic aside from the consistently melodic songwriting. Do you plan to continue exploring different themes with that band? Will Vista Blue remain your main project going forward?
Vista Blue is definitely it for now. Aside from Todd pitching in when he can, the other guys playing with me are so awesome. Mark has played bass on most tracks since the start of 2016, and Reese joined as our live drummer that year as well. Reese did drum on the curling split, and he’s done some vocals on a couple of tracks. My wife Donna has done some vocals, and I’m probably going to get her more involved as we go.
The plan is to keep doing themed releases, although we’ve signed on to do another 12-inch for Something To Do Records, this time with no theme. So that will be fun. We’re going to keep returning to baseball, and we’ll definitely record Christmas songs every year. We’re doing another set of songs about urban legends this fall, and we’re hoping to add Thanksgiving songs this year as well. We did our first basketball song this year, and eventually we’d like to add football and soccer, among others. After doing the curling split with the Zambonis for the Winter Olympics, we’ve already talked about possibilities for a 2020 Summer Olympics split with them. Badminton and ping pong have been popular themes to joke about so far.
Overall, I have no idea how long I’ll keep this going. We have a long list of releases planned for 2018 and 2019, so we won’t slow down any time soon. But I could see myself starting to hit the brakes sometime around 2021 or so. Maybe just do a baseball EP and a Christmas EP each year. Something like that. I don’t know. I will say, though, that as long as people are listening and as long as labels are releasing our music, I’ll probably keep doing it.
Your songwriting is VERY consistent and your songwriting personality is distinct. How did you develop your style? When I think of a Mike Patton song, the following comes to mind: concise and straightforward melodies, advanced understanding of harmony, deep knowledge of classic traditional rock, a traditional pop punk chord progression, and a neatly wrapped package that always feels just the right length. Thoughts on your own songwriting style?
So, take that description and apply it to the Beatles. The Queers. MTX. I don’t know. I think it fits most good bands (that lean heavily on melody and harmony). So to me, that’s a huge compliment.
I love bands like Fountains of Wayne, or even The Zambonis, who can totally adapt and fit many different styles. I could attempt to change things up and keep people guessing, and I guess I’d be OK at it. But why not just stick to what I’m good at? There is so much music out there to listen to. I feel like we fill one very tiny groove within people’s music collections, and I’m totally fine with that.
I guess overall, I like my songwriting style. I throw away any song idea that doesn’t immediately get stuck in my head. I like to think I’d probably listen to my band if I weren’t in it.
We both share a love for 90s rock music that kind of teeters on the edge of being pop punk. So let's name some favorites starting with me: Gin Blossoms, Goo Goo Dolls, Lemonheads, Weezer, Nada Surf, Semisonic... now you! What is it about these bands that draws you in? Have you ever considered writing more in a "rock" style and straying from your pop punk instincts?
OK, my top ten 90s bands… Weezer, Better Than Ezra, Oasis, Fountains of Wayne, Superdrag, Nerf Herder, Nada Surf, Pulp, Everclear. Man, that leaves out Gin Blossoms. And Goldfinger. And Ash. And Blur. I can’t do it. Did you ever see The Refreshments live? That might be the BEST 90s band, and no one ever mentions them. There are just too many great bands from that decade. It’s like everyone forgot that you were supposed to play actual instruments in the 80s, and then the 90s came along to totally redeem it all. Suddenly dudes were playing guitars and drums again!
Like I said, I know my limits. I’d love to write more of a rock album some day, but I probably won’t. Todd is such a good rock writer. He’s responsible for “Bad Days” on our Jamie Lee EP, as well as “A Life Worth Living,” the closing track on our newest baseball record.
I’ve joked for years about starting an Everclear cover band, but it’s such a dumb idea because I’d be useless. I can’t play the guitar, and I can’t sing. If you want me on keyboards in an Everclear cover band, I could make that happen.
And actually, Mark, Reese, and I started a cover band recently where we mostly do 90s rock songs. Mark’s wife is a great singer-songwriter, and she sings lead on a lot of the songs. We had our first gig recently, and it was a lot of fun. Plus we made actual money. So that will probably be my “rock” outlet, I guess.
You're a father and a high school teacher. Here we also have something in common - how do you balance your busy life with your passion for music? Is it difficult to find the motivation to continue at times? Are there people in your life who are sources of encouragement for what you do? What does your family think about it? How about your kids specifically - do they enjoy your songs?
The trick is to just not sleep! That’s kind of a joke, but it’s also kind of true. Whenever friends tell me they just don’t have the time to do all the things I do, what I think they’re saying is that they sleep more than I do. (Or watch more TV shows?) As I’ve gotten older, I have had to slow down a bit. For a while, I was doing a podcast and a zine and was going on about four hours of sleep a night. Now that I’m actively playing music again, though, I had to cut back on some activities.
There is absolutely no way I could do the things I do without the support of my wife, Donna. She’s been in bands with me, she’s sat through hundreds of shows, she’s put the kids to bed while I’m locked in a room recording, and everything else in between. It’s probably much easier for a spouse to support this stuff when there is some level of money and fame involved. But to support this as basically a hobby takes a special relationship, I think.
My kids are definitely in the same boat. Even if they don’t always dig the music, I think they definitely appreciate that I set goals and work really hard to achieve them. I think they certainly respect that people out there do enjoy my music. They get a kick out of things like when I was interviewed on NPR or when one of my songs is in a movie. My daughter is 9, and she loves everything about it. My sons are a bit older, and while they’d never listen to this kind of music on their own (yet!), I can tell they think it’s cool. They’ve also grown up sitting through shows and traveling around to do this. They’re all very supportive.
My parents have always been supportive, and I’m lucky enough to have a bunch of uncles and aunts and cousins who are also totally behind anything I do.
And then there are friends who have just always been there. There are too many to name, but I can say most recently that Matthew from Something To Do Records has put so much effort, passion, and money into my music. It’s amazing. The guys who contribute to this project, Mark, Todd, and Reese, have obviously been behind me 100 percent. There are so many guys and girls with radio shows and blogs who constantly promote our work, like the Ice Cream Man, Cat Beast Party, Just Some Punk Songs, Mr. Suave’s Mod Mod World, Red Red Wine on a Sunday, Chasing the Essential, and a bunch of others.
As a teacher you see what kids today are into, and if it's anything like my experience there seems to be a shrinking number of teenagers starting rock bands. Are you able to find a connection and common ground with your students when their musical tastes veer more towards the mainstream? How often do you encounter kids who are really interested in rock, and how much of that do you think comes from parental influence?
Over the years, I have made it my mission to help any kids who are willing to put in the time to start a band and attempt to write songs. Before Katrina, I’d bring out our PA system for any band who needed it. I’d try to put at least one high school (or middle school) band on every show I booked. I’d record their bands on my four-track, or I’d just loan them the equipment to record themselves. I’ve been lucky enough to work with quite a few talented bands consisting of teenagers. The last one I worked with was in 2014, and they had so much talent and potential. But, being teenagers, they had some weird drama and they all ended up quitting music. Very weird.
The trick, I think, is figuring out which kids would appreciate help and which ones would rather be left alone. So I tend to default to the latter and just let them do their thing, even when I know there are ways that could help them if they wanted it. But you know, most kids start bands to move away from adults anyway.
It is always cool to come across a kid who likes Weezer or the Beatles. Sometimes you can find a Smiths fan too! I had a couple of really cool kids this past year who were doing podcasts where they explored the discographies of the Beatles and a bunch of other bands. I brought them on my radio show that I do here in Nashville, and I had them listen to some Beach Boys albums to discuss on the show with me. It was fun.
Your music has always felt timeless and your lyrics are clever, tasteful, and relatable without being too extreme or vulgar. Is this something that you designed from the beginning? Throughout your catalog there seems to be a "general audiences" feel where pretty much anyone from any generation with an interest in rock could potentially become a fan. Have you purposefully steered clear of controversial themes and lyrics?
I like music that is timeless, or evergreen. And yeah, our all-ages DIY background has definitely somewhat influenced the language we use in the songs. There have been a few examples of profanity, but when it happens, it has the right effect. For the Mutant Pop record, we all sat down and wrote “It’ll Take a Lot” together. Todd threw out the last line about “your Mickey Mouse shit,” and it was perfect. It had to stay. So it’s not that I’m totally opposed to it, but in the end, if something worked for the Beatles and the Beach Boys, I think it’s OK to follow that line of thinking.
Aside from music, we all did a horror podcast together for about six years. That was definitely not all-ages friendly.
What are your future goals as a songwriter and musician? What would be part of your "bucket list" of accomplishments to check off? What are the accomplishments you're most proud of at the moment, musically or otherwise? And finally, who are your favorite songwriters of all time?
Wow, I feel like I’ve done so much. I always feel like it’s a good time to walk away since I’ve done way more than I ever thought I’d do, but then some new fun opportunity comes along.
Let’s see… First of all, growing up as a rock fan in New Orleans, the ultimate dream was just to play at House of Blues. The Robinsons did that twice in 2002. We played Howlin’ Wolf, Tipitinas, and all the clubs we could ever dream of playing. I guess all that’s left down there would be JazzFest, which would be crazy.
I think the accomplishments I’m most proud of would include the Mutant Pop record, playing Insub Fest, having songs in about five different movies now, releasing our first 12-inch, being interviewed on NPR about our baseball songs, and self-releasing the curling split with the Zambonis.
I really have no idea what else I feel like we could/should do. I think eventually when I slow down, I’ll probably try to do some actual songwriting around here in Nashville. I know I could do it, but I don’t know how hard I want to try to knock down all the doors it would take to get into that scene. Of course, money can provide a lot of inspiration, and there are guys living here in huge houses who you’ve never heard of. But they’re writing songs for all the big artists around here and putting their kids through college.
Other than that, I’m just enjoying the amount of collaboration we can do these days. I’m able to work with some of my favorite musicians. Digital splits are simple to throw together, and even songwriting is easier with the internet. It looks like I’ll be helping one of my favorite bands, Parasite Diet, write a sci-fi record very soon, and I’ll also be joining them for some live shows, starting this fall. There are other collaborations in the planning stages as well, but none that I can announce yet.
Meanwhile, we’ll be very busy the next two years. We have at least a handful of digital releases planned for the rest of this year, along with a few physical releases already set for 2019.