When I talked to the band’s guitarist, Jared Phillips, it was during a brief (too brief) break between tours, one that brings them to the Black Cat on Memorial Day. He didn’t sound frustrated so much as simply tired. The band has released five albums and toured almost-constantly for the last few years and seems to be stuck in neutral, so to speak.
“We still love playing. The shows are fun,” he said. “When we were in Europe the shows were awesome and we were doing encores and [expletive] because people were really into it. The few people that come are all about it, you know? But then the rest of the time is just stress. Trying to park a giant van in Paris. It’s like, what the [expletive]? Why am I doing this [expletive] still?”
It’s an honest take and one that’s a bit depressing to hear from one of your favorite bands. When I last saw TNV (in Baltimore in November 2009) it was a great show but the band, particularly Phillips, looked pretty miserable. He and his bandmates seem too much like rock-and-roll lifers to simply throw in the towel, but I know I’ll be savoring Monday’s show a bit extra.
So are you sick of everything yet?
Um … you know … sort of? I guess? I don’t know. It’s just starting to feel like we can’t do this [expletive] forever. It’s not like we’re doing any better or any worse than we were three years ago. We’ve hit a plateau. Unless I’m going to actually make more money, I can’t keep doing this. Being constantly poor, it’s just like, [expletive] it. You’re a [expletive] idiot if you think that something’s going to happen and we’re going to sell a lot more records. And it’s not like we’re going to start playing for a thousand people a night. I could do it forever but I’m getting older. I’m tired of being poor. [Laughs.] Like everything else it just gets exhausting. I’m stick of being away from my family and friends. I love it for 45 minutes a night that we play. But the rest of the time it’s just the same [expletive]. I’ve been to all these places so many times and I’ve never seen anything. I see a club …
Say someone came up to you 10 years ago and said 10 years from now you will have released albums on Siltbreeze, Matador and Merge. You will have toured with the Clean, Yo La Tengo, Pavement and Guided By Voices. What would you have said?
Right. Yeah. I wouldn’t believe that for a second. It’s great, and I’m glad we’ve gotten to do all this stuff. And we’ll probably still make records but I think we just need to slow down a little bit. If we slow down and people are like, “I never got to see you guys!” it’s like, well, you had your chance. [Laughs.] I busted my [expletive] for four years making records trying to keep putting stuff out on a consistent basis, touring... it’s such a bleak landscape for bands. There’s just no money to be made. That’s not our motivation, but still. You gotta have something. Unless you’re somebody that’s uber-accessible and makes a certain type of music, or just by a fluke gets really big, it’s just something that’s better kept as a hobby. It’s better to not make yourself jaded on what you love doing because then you start becoming real [expletive] at it.
You’ve mentioned that you thought you dug yourself a hole in that after making lo-fi records for so long then making an album in a studio, that becomes the only talking point. And if you made another lo-fi record, then “keeping it real” would be the angle.
It’s true. I don’t know, it’s sad. Sometimes I think if I could go back and be like, “Just go to a [expletive] studio. Your songs are good. Don’t be afraid of doing something like that.” But [expletive] it, it’s done. I like the way those old records sound, but I also like the way other records sound. At this point, especially after the “Born Again Revisited” record — that record, nobody even knew that record existed. We were just super bummed out. We were like, maybe we’ve only got one more chance to make a record on someone else’s budget. So [expletive] it, let’s just go to a studio. This might be the last one. And it would be kind of sad to know that we never tried it. But you’re right, it’s [expletive] if you do, [expletive] if you don’t. That’s the selling point. We recorded it in a [expletive] studio. I mean that’s really ridiculous when you think about it. “What’s the deal with this record?” “Oh, it’s done in a studio.” So, what does it [expletive] sound like? That doesn’t tell me anything. I don’t know. We did it.
Your music is kind of chaotic — do you consider yourselves to be chaotic people?
I think I’m the most normal person I know! I think it’s the rest of the world that’s [expletive] crazy. We’re pretty normal people. It’s just records. I don’t think that there are very many people anymore that live like their music. Someone makes a really depressing folk record, it doesn’t mean that they’re [expletive] depressed. It just means they like depressing music. I just feel like that whole thing of being a rock-and-roll band and living on the edge all the time is [expletive] stupid anyway.
It sounds like you’re not really sick of your bandmates or being in the band, it’s just taken its toll.
It just gets really — I don’t know. You don’t feel encouraged to do it anymore because once you make it your job it’s just not the same. There are certain things that happen that hold you back from wanting to do it. Like money. All these other reasons before that you wouldn’t have cared about. Like why are all these [expletive] bands getting really popular and we’re still sitting here at the same place? Things that just make you depressed. Before it didn’t matter. It was like, those [expletive] bands are getting popular because their [expletive]. And popular music is [expletive]. So as long as we’re not popular, we’re doing well. You’re allowed to think backwards. But then when you start making it your job you start caring about all the wrong things. Things that really don’t matter, but they matter to you because you gotta eat. I don’t know. Once we stop caring about that we can get on with making records. I can make records in my socks in my living room for as long as I live.
So last time you played in D.C. was the night Obama was elected. That must have been fun, right?
Oh yeah! That was fun. It was just [expletive] madness. I remember seeing this dude with dreads sitting in a cop car. The cop got out and was just like, it’s cool, you can sit in here. And he’s like turning the [expletive] siren on and [expletive]. It was pretty crazy. It was a good time. Everyone was such in a [expletive] good mood. It was like a very, very happy anarchy.