Right after the Conservative victory in Canada & playing a self-admitted sub-par set at Bamboozle, Tokyo Police Club’s Graham Wright sat down with QRO to talk about his upcoming solo record, Shirts vs. Skins. In Part One of the extensive interview, Wright talked about Shirts, the pressure on a ‘solo debut’, how both are different than in Tokyo, future solo records & solo touring plans, playing nearly all the instruments, the instruments he can’t play – or just can’t play well, why the TPC keyboardist has almost no keys on Shirts, comparing himself to Neil Young, and much, much more…
QRO: How does making a solo record compare to making one as part of Tokyo Police Club?
Graham Wright: It’s totally different, and awesome…
I love working,
Writing the songs isn’t necessarily the most ‘fun’ part of Tokyo Police Club. I mean, kinda on purpose, because we work really hard, and we hold ourselves to a really high standard, and I think we write really good songs because of it – but it’s not the way I have fun creating, I guess?
I just work in a different way. So, by myself, I can do whatever I want. It was just me and my friends Steve & Jay [Sadlowski] in the studio, goin’ crazy, anything, "Just put that microphone there! Go, quickly – let’s just do this!" It was one of those things where we’d look outside and it was dark, and we hadn’t eaten anything in ten hours because we were just so involved in what was happening…
It’s the same thing that happens even when I’m writing, when I had my apartment, I wrote and demoed all the songs. Sort of the way that I was able to write them was just tracking a bunch of stuff, and singing the parts and harmonies, and sort of throwing stuff at it. And it’d be the same thing: I’d realize that it was night, and I just hadn’t eaten food, showered, anything – that’s such a good feeling to me, the day goes by…
QRO: You said that it’s kind of good that it’s hard for Tokyo Police Club to write, because it makes better music. Do you worry that your solo writing is too easy?
GW: Sometimes I worry that I’m not realizing the full potential of the material. Because I really purposely don’t over-think things; I think I err on the side of under-thinking things a lot. Actually, Dave [Monks, Tokyo singer/bassist – QRO photos] and I were talking about it yesterday. I’m sort of the guy in Tokyo Police Club that’s always like, "Wait – maybe it’s good, maybe we should stop worrying about something and stick with it." I’m all about moments – I think it’s really important when that magic comes up to grab it and bottle it right then. Even if the guitar tones are not exactly right, or the performance isn’t note-perfect, to me, it’s so much more important to get the magic and the spark of that moment. And I really feel like I captured that with this record.
At the same time, though, sometimes, because I watch what happens in Tokyo, where Dave will come in with a song that I think is amazing, and I’ll be like, "Great! High-five!" And then he’ll go and tinker with it, and work at it, and it will enrage & frustrate me while it’s happening, but then he’ll come out the other end and it will be so much better! And so sometimes I think, "Maybe if I were to do that, I could be writing songs that were way better as well," but I don’t think it’s in my constitution. It’s so important for me to just enjoy every step of the process.
QRO: Is there more pressure on you with Shirts vs. Skins, considering that your name’s on it?
GW: Yes and no? I don’t ‘feel’ any pressure, because a) it’s all brand new. It’s sort of like going back to the beginning where there are no expectations. People don’t know I’m making a record. If I hated the record, if it turned out shitty, I could have just put it in a drawer, and called it a lesson.
So in that sense, I’d never felt any pressure while I was making it; it was all done very much in a bubble. But, at the same time, it all comes a little closer to home.
I’ve always not cared about reviews – I hate even saying it, ‘cause it sounds like I’m protesting too much, but it’s really something that’s never bothered me; good or bad, it just kind of rolls off my back. I don’t care.
And I am curious to see whether I still feel that way when it’s my name and my efforts, stuff that’s actually close to me, that came from something that’s important to me, getting, you know, a 2.5 on Pitchfork, getting torn apart – as I’m sure it will somewhere. I don’t know how I’ll take that. Hopefully well…
QRO: Before this, you did do your solo The Lakes of Alberta EP…
GW: That was so low-key, though. Self-released it online, people heard about – I think people downloaded it. It was just a ‘pay what you want’ kind of thing, get it for free, so every once in a while, I’ll get an e-mail saying, "You’ve got fifty cents!" "You got two dollars from so-and-so…"
Basically, it fuels my eBay purchases. It all goes into my PayPal account, and then I just forget about it, and it’ll be in box, "Oh good – I have sixty dollars! I can buy this poster…"
It was created in a vacuum, and more or less existed in a vacuum. There was a few news stories about it, but I don’t think it was substantial enough – we didn’t do publicity for it, we didn’t get reviewed places.
QRO: So do you feel like this is your ‘solo debut’?
GW: Yeah, I really do.
A) It’s totally different from Lakes of Alberta – it doesn’t sound anything like that.
And b) I recorded it in a studio, and I took time with it, I’m doing interviews, I’ve got a CD on a label with cover art and stuff. It ‘feels’ real, whereas Lakes of Alberta just kind of felt… It lived on my computer, and then I pressed a button, and then it was on the internet, I guess? But it didn’t feel like anything happened.
QRO: Do you perhaps feel more pressure now, that you’re doing promo, than when you were doing it?
GW: Well, now I understand that it’s going out into the world and people are going to listen to it. But that’s fine – this is the part of that where you have to separate and let it go.
QRO: How does the pressure for this, your ‘solo debut’, compare to the pressure for Tokyo full-length debut Elephant Shell (QRO review)? Greg [Alsop, Tokyo Police Club drummer] had said (QRO interview) that people had preconceived notions of what your first full-length would sound like…
GW: I don’t really relate the two in my head, and I don’t know if that’s right or not…
The pressure in Tokyo is just totally different for a lot of reasons, because the EP what the EP did, whatever hype or buzz around it, so it was very clear that people were going to be listening, there were expectations, there was anticipation.
And that just doesn’t exist [for Shirts]. Hopefully, it’ll go really well, and for my next record, I’ll be able to have that pressure. It’s fun to create in a bubble, but if you create in a bubble forever, it means that nobody likes your music… [laughs] And that’s not fun.
QRO: Who else did you work with recording Shirts?
GW: I did it almost all of it in Toronto with Dean and Jay, at Chemical Sound, which is also where Tokyo did Elephant Shell. And we did some recording in New York, sort of at the beginnings of Champ (QRO review). While we were [in New York], we did some stuff in a studio in Hoboken called Water Music – The Hold Steady (QRO live review) did a couple records there; this really awesome, really good studio.
The guy that was assisting us on sessions there also did production work. I was like, "Hey, I’m not doing anything this weekend. We have Sunday off…" They had a huge, fancy room that Hold Steady recorded in, that Tokyo was recording in. But they also had this small room that has all these crazy instruments in it – when I see that, my brain just goes… Just weird pump organs… That’s my bread-and-butter; that’s my favourite thing, just to tinker around with all those different instruments. So I wanted to go in and use that room – and it was cheap, ‘cause it was little.
So I took the train out one day, and it was awesome, ‘cause I got there, and he was like, "Bad news, man: they double-booked the small room. So we have to use the big room." So I was like, "So I get to use the big, expensive room for the price of the little small room?…"
And then we got to go in the little room at the end. So I did "Chucklefucks" and "Evening Train From Kingston Station" – the really nice, roomy organ and ukulele I recorded in the room there; really beautiful and rich sounds. And then I took the tracks into the other room and played a bunch of crazy crap on ‘em! It was great…
QRO: So the recording, was it all you? There wasn’t someone else playing drums?
GW: Mmmmmostly it was all me. Dean [Marino] and Jay are both musicians, so Dean drummed on a couple songs, my friend Will [Currie, of Will Currie & The Country French] drummed on a couple songs, and I drummed on a couple songs with the assistance of a computer – and Dean spending hours fixing my…
Whatever – it’s my record; I’m gonna drum on it…
QRO: So you’re not challenging Greg?…
GW: Nooo, no; decidedly not. It was just the kind of thing where I would play all the instruments until I needed an instrument that I couldn’t play. So the strings on a song, Mika [Posen of Timber Timbre – QRO album review] would come in and do that.
She’s so good. She just sat – because me, Dean, and Jay had no idea about strings, how to play them. We don’t know music theory. And so we’re sitting, looking at her through this window, she just has headphones on, "Could you do something more… sad?…" "Now what if it sounded more… big?…"
I wanted upright bass on a song, so Michael [Liston] came in and did that. Will Currie played drums on a couple tunes, played people on a tune, and sang a bunch. And I had to have some yell and shout, so whoever was around would do that.
QRO: When you start writing a new material, is it always, ‘Okay, this is for my stuff,’ or is do you ever think it could be for Tokyo Police Club?
GW: No, Dave and I, right at the beginning – I’ve always written; I was writing songs before Dave was, kind of. I feel like we both sort of matured as songwriters together. At the very outset, we didn’t even talk about; we just kind of agreed that he would write the songs for Tokyo.
I think it’s important to have that unified vision. The reason Tokyo Police Club sounds like we sound is ‘cause it’s all Dave’s songs. I don’t think my record sounds much like [Tokyo Police Club] at all. I think that you have to be really damn good to have two separate songwriting voices in a band, and make it work together.
QRO: Yeah – the Hüsker Dü (QRO spotlight on) kind of thing…
GW: Exactly! It’s weird.
I’m happy with that, and I love keeping my stuff to myself. If I come up with some keyboard part, then maybe I’ll bring it to Tokyo, but as soon as I sit down with a guitar, it’s always going my way.
QRO: Did/do you write material while on the road?
GW: I never did; it’s really hard, especially when we’re in the van. You’re such in touring mode – you’re just not in writing mode…
This tour, I got Logic, so I got a little mini-keyboard, so I actually spent a lot of time in the van, on my computer.
If you listen to the record, there’s one keyboard. And I really didn’t want to have it on there, and John Critchley, who mixed it, convinced me – I had it muted, and he convinced me to back in. He was right, but it was really important to me to be it organic, I don’t know why. I think it’s part of having ‘the moment’ or whatever…
But now, recently, the new Sufjan Stevens record (QRO review), the new Radiohead record (QRO review), I got really into these computer-y records, so now I’m really psyched about that stuff. So the new stuff that I’m doing now – God knows when it will come out – is a lot more computer-y and stuff. So I was able to build sort of a little soundscape, mess around with that stuff.
QRO: Did you at all not want to have keyboards because that’s what you do in Tokyo, kind of ‘sick of keyboards’?
GW: I don’t know – people have been asking me that.
I didn’t set out to say, "No keyboards! I’m sick of keyboards!" There’s tons of piano and organ – it’s not like I didn’t want to play it. It’s just as it went, I wanted it to be organic, and as it went, it sorted revealed itself to me, what it was going to sound like, kind of, and I just felt like synth and stuff didn’t have any place in it.
And when I listen to the record, I don’t hear anywhere where it would be improved by synthesizers. But now I’m all about it! Now I’m going crazy with the knobs and stuff…
QRO: The record has a lot of styles – were different pieces written at different times/in different moods, were you experimenting with different styles, ADD, what?
GW: My natural mode, as a songwriter, does tend more towards The Lakes of Alberta thing or "Birds of a Feather" on this record, where I do write folk-ier guitar songs. That’s just what I like to do – and when you’re a solo musician, that’s what you do; you’re stuck with it.
But I really wanted to purposefully not do that. A lot of songs on this record, which were the ones I wrote first, like "Soviet Race", like "Heavens Just For Movie Makers", like "Potassium Blast", were really purposely not that, and I really put myself out of my comfort zone, just to see what would happen.
And so that’s where those come from. But then of course, it still snuck back in that I was going to write these quieter songs.
I wrote a lot of songs in 2009; there’s hopefully going to be more records that are sort of all related. I tried to put twelve together that kind of made sense together, but it’s definitely pretty stylistically all over the map. That’s kind of where my interests are.
QRO: How hard was it to prune down songs? Was it, ‘these songs go together,’ or ‘these songs are the best songs’ – maybe a mix of both?
GW: A mix of both. Basically what happened was it became clear to me very early that I had just hit this creative streak that I’d never, ever been on before in my life. I just couldn’t stop writing songs. There was one weekend, where I was super-busy socially, hung out, did tons of stuff – and still wrote five songs. Which was unheard of for me, up to that point. Really early on, I thought, "It’s not possible for me to narrow this down."
I’m also really bad at self-editing. I love all the songs that I write. Of every song that I wrote that year, there’s maybe one that I don’t think is awesome; and I think it’s pretty good. I don’t know why. I guess I have a hard time ‘killing my darlings,’ as they say. They’re all really important to me, they all come from a place, and I hear what’s different about them.
"I can’t just have fifty of these songs on a record. I need to do something." So I ended up on the idea of making three records. ‘Cause things were sort of slotting neatly into categories, anyway. There was the sort of pop/rock-ier songs that are on Shirts vs. Skins, then there were the folk-ier songs, and then was the really dark, sad, self-pitying break-up songs – that was sort of the catalyst for the whole thing. There are three really clear categories here, so I thought, "Well, I’ll make three records." And, as soon as that happened, it became really obvious.
These are definitely twelve of my favourites of them – I wanted to obviously start strong. There’s two songs that are probably my favourite I wrote from that year, that are not on this record, which will be on the sequel to this record.
QRO: Called "Skins vs. Shirts"?…
GW: It’s going to be "(something) vs. (something)". The cover art’s all going to be similar – my Ditch Trilogy, kind of.
QRO: Did you decide to go with, like you said, the more "pop/rock-ier" songs, on the first record to be more accessible?
GW: That was part of it, but it was also that’s what I wanted to record first, that’s the most fun. Especially at the time, that’s where I was at – "I don’t want to go into the studio and do all these brooding songs… It’s summer, with my friends – I wanna go play saxophone!" I wanted to record those songs first, so I recorded those songs first.
But yeah, to be accessible was a big part of it, definitely.
QRO: Most of those styles don’t really sound like Tokyo Police Club, at least on first listen – did you try to differentiate yourself from your group’s style?
GW: I didn’t need to try. I just had never written like that.
I think Dave has a really unique songwriting style. I kind of wish I could rip it off, but I don’t know where he’s coming from with it, so I just do my own thing.
QRO: How do you handle knowing that whatever you do is going to be compared to Tokyo Police Club?
GW: I hope that I stack up well.
I’m a huge, huge fan of Dave’s songwriting. I love it. He’s one of the best songwriters I know – so good, so unique. Obviously, it’s always a little nerve-wracking to be held up against something you hold in such high esteem.
But at the same time, you know, that’s life, that’s the name of the game. If I wasn’t compared to that, I’d just be compared to something else. It’s out of my control.
QRO: Will you be touring Shirts vs. Skins at all?
GW: I don’t know… I want to. Well, I kinda want to.
We’re trying to get shows – it’s back to the beginning, right? It’s hard…
I have a Toronto show I’m going to play with Ruby Coast (QRO album review). Then, I don’t know. We’re looking for tours, but the thing is, I don’t want to go to tour with myself. I don’t think that will be that much value. "(of Tokyo Police Club)" is gonna bring a few people out to every show, but not enough to make it worthwhile to travel across the country. So we’d like to get an opening slot, cut our teeth that way.
If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t – it’s not like I don’t tour enough already.
QRO: For the show you’re doing in Toronto, do you have a band?
GW: Yeah, The Good Times Band.
QRO: Is it going to be billed as "Graham Wright & The Good Times Band"?
QRO: Did you think of calling yourself something for the solo record?
GW: Not for a long time. When I was in high school, I thought maybe I’d use different names, but I don’t feel that there’s anything that would describe, that I would want to take on as a moniker for myself. I’m just not that kind of guy.
QRO: No "Apostle of Hustle" (QRO spotlight on)?…
GW: If I’d thought of a name that rad…
It’s not my style. I’m just a dude, just a regular, boring guy. So I think it’s appropriate to have my name stuck on it.
And also in sort of a more strategic way, I guess it’s kind of a branding thing. I do radio as well. When I get into doing other stuff, I feel like if I attach my name to everything, then it all sort of goes towards the same place.
QRO: You didn’t think of doing a stupid pun on ‘Wright’ or ‘Graham’?…
GW: Two of the guys in my band are left-handed, so I wanted to kind of only have lefties, and call myself, ‘Graham Wright & The Lefts’… But, unfortunately, I need my righties.