Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Andy Werth Interview
Andy Werth and his band play buoyant, upbeat piano and horn driven pop. You’ve got two chances to see them perform this weekend – 1:30 PM Friday at Legion Park in Everett at the Everett Fourth of July Festival and Saturday night at The Tractor Tavern with Gary Reynolds and Dept. of Energy opening.
Seattle Powerpop Blog: What kind of music did you grow up listening to? Were you brought up in a musical household?
Andy Werth: My dad was a great trumpet and sax player growing up in the New York jazz scene, but had hung it up by the time I came along. We always had a piano, but not much music was made in the house. I never turned on the radio, and didn’t listen to my first record until I was in seventh grade. That’s when I found my dad’s trumpet in a closet, started playing it (badly), and dug through his jazz collection to see what it should sound like. He wasn’t much for giving lessons, but those records helped a lot, and eventually I found a really good teacher. All I listened to was jazz until I was 16, when I heard Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time and immediately dusted off the piano and started figuring that out. When I was about 17, an ex-hippie teacher lent me an old vinyl copy of Rubber Soul after I told her that 60’s music “was crap” (actual quote). That record changed a lot of things. I permanently borrowed a friend’s guitar and a chord sheet and started singing. So I slowly turned it into a musical household, though I’m not sure how the rest of the house felt about that.
SPB: So you taught yourself piano and guitar? Do you read and write musical notation or do you play by ear?
AW: We had an old beat-up piano, and when I was in elementary school I started playing songs that I’d hear coming out of cars or through church doors or that my parents would hum. Unfortunately, this led my parents to enroll me in piano lessons. I was difficult to teach, so my teacher and I usually wound up talking about her many, many cats. I never learned how to sight-read piano music, though I did learn that Manx cats have no tail. My parents let me quit about a year later when I agreed to take swimming lessons instead. Those lessons scared me off of piano enough that I didn’t mess with it again until I heard “Whole Lotta Shakin.” Luckily I know a lot of theory and have a pretty good ear, so I can usually listen to a song and figure out what’s going on. I have to notate music for a variety of instruments, so I’m a good note writer but a bad reader!
SPB: What’s your songwriting process?
AW: For me, there are three stages of songwriting: inspiration, building, and editing. Inspiration comes when I’m sitting at the piano or guitar, or playing a bass line, or screwing with a drum track, and something catches. I record the idea and put it in a folder with hundreds of other ideas.
Later, I troll through my folder of ideas and pick the most promising one to build on. Once I’ve built the song, I rehearse it with the band and then play it on stage. Playing for an audience makes an uninspired melody, a dead spot, or a bridge that destroys momentum very apparent. Sometimes I can work out the problems, but this is often where a song dies. It’s really important to feel good about killing a song that doesn’t work. The day my mind says “good enough” rather than throw away a song, it’s time to stop writing songs for public consumption.
If a song survives a few stage performances, I start editing it for a record. That’s the most fun part for me. I try to get inside a song and figure out how to shape it so that it hits people the way I want it to. I fill up a notebook for each song with production ideas, and I’ll use that in the studio. I just opened the notebook for the song I’ll work on tonight, and the latest entry says, “Bright, choppy piano chords on chorus like ‘Star’ on Ziggy Stardust.” The entry before that says, “Harmon mute trumpet/drum combo for intro like Dizzy Gillespie on ‘Lorraine’ live.” So I’ll go into the studio with these scratch tracks and notebooks and work with the engineer to get the sound I want. For me, writing and recording are part of the same process.
SPB: How do you work out the arrangements?
AW: After I lock the traditional instruments down I try to arrange other instruments so they enhance the song rather than muddy it up, which is the goal of any arranger. I grew up listening to great arrangers like Gil Evans, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and George Martin, and I’ll pull out “Martha My Dear” or Miles Ahead to remember how it’s done. I’ll often go through a dozen arrangements before I find one that starts to work. For the record I’m working on now, I’m arranging for a lot of instruments that I can’t play, which is new for me and kind of weird.
SPB: What are you working on now?
AW: After our show on Saturday, we’ll be taking a break from shows until late August to work on the recording. It’ll be our first full-length (I’ve put out two EPs), and I’ll be using traditional rock instruments, orchestral instruments (played by humans, not machines), ambient sounds and just a bit of electronica.
SPB: What shows do you have coming up?
AW: We’re playing a two-hour show for Everett’s Fourth of July festival, and then the next day (Saturday) we’re headlining the Tractor Tavern in Ballard, and then we take a break until the Lake Union Festival in late August--we’ll be playing at the end of the night with Harvey Danger, and I think the Blakes might be playing that one with us. Then we’ll probably go missing again until our CD release sometime in October.