Where we left off in my conversation with Rocky Nelson and Jon Januhowski of Crimson Arrow, the band members had just walked me through the meticulous recording process of their album Living In Still Frames, and talked about some of the struggles of perfectionism from a production standpoint. Now, we dive into the lyrics and themes that make the record so special.
Alex Dansereau: Transitioning a bit — Rocky, the album is titled Living In Still Frames. For me that seems to suggest a fixed mindset, or being stuck in a situation you can’t get out of while the world is moving around you. What were some of the life experiences or ideas that led to choosing this title for the record?
Rocky Nelson: You actually said it pretty well. The original concept was basically to move forward and leave the past behind. Originally the demo album title was Antiquate, so to make old… like antiquing, that kind of thing. But we had one of the songs which was called “Living In Still Frames”, and we decided to change that to be the album title ‘cause it still fit the theme… that song is now called “The Golden Scene”.
R: Living In Still Frames is like a snapshot of your current problems and situations. The record itself is working through those personal trials and insecurities, with mostly relationships: romantic, personal, spiritual. And then our friend Jonathan [Mazaltov], who did all the photos for the record, just posted something that I think is pretty on point. It says “capturing an image that felt alive and ever moving, while you (the subject) is just watching it pass by”. So it’s kind of like being stuck in the snapshot and watching the rest of the world constantly moving around you. There’s so many other people with all of their problems, and every once in a while you have to stop and focus on your part of the picture, and figure out what you’re going to do. So a lot of it’s just about change and growth.
A: I think that’s a really relatable feeling. You feel like people around you are making changes and improvements in their lives, and you’re not keeping up and are just stuck in the same place. So with that being said, are there any particular songs/lyrics that you feel encompass that feeling specifically?
R: Yeah actually, there’s quite a few. The intro track, “The Other Side of Everything”, gives the most big, overall picture of the record. The chorus is: “The pessimist always saw the glass half empty/the optimist had better things to do with his time/Like stare up to the sun and blind his eyes”, so it’s as if no matter what perspective you take, it’s still within that little snapshot — that frozen chunk of time. It gives the whole spectrum of the record — because there are a lot of points where I’m extremely pessimistic, and then there are a lot of moments where I’m hopelessly optimistic.
R: I often write from a really personal space, and then broaden the idea with metaphors to make the idea more adaptable and universal… but I leave a lot of specific and really direct trinkets that are connections to my life. The best example of that would be the song “Kimberly”. Some of my lyrics are literal phrases that clients at work have told me, mixed with my internal thought process — in this instance I had a client tell me that her boyfriend was abusing her and cheating on her. She was really torn up about it and seemed really innocent, and I remember crying in my car before going home that day. I always drove by Kimberly Avenue on my way to and from massage school, and I didn’t want to use the girl’s name, so I used the street name instead, and encompassed this theme of abuse and mental instability.
R: Another example would be “Kings”. The grand theme of that track would be not letting a large force control your mindset or actions. I use a tyrant as an example of government or religion making you feel like a tiny cog in a massive system, but then realizing we all have the potential to affect our own changes — so you’re a God made of man, not a man made of God. A lot of the record flips back and forth from being on the dark side — the negative, pessimistic thoughts that are all too real in all of our lives, and a lot of hopeless optimism. Especially in the medium of music, that kind of over-the-top optimism can be a shining beacon that people can stick to, and if they’re feeling a little hopeless themselves it can inspire them to make their own changes.
A: Would you say it’s pretty common to draw upon the experiences of strangers like you did on “Kimberly”?
R: That’s pretty much like… every song I’ve ever written. [laughs] My writing style is kind of unique — I tend to take literal things that I hear out in the world and write them down. When I’m out in public I’ll hear somebody say something, and it can totally be eavesdropping, not a part of my conversation at all — and I’ll think that I like the way something sounds, the way the words fit together — and I’ll write them down really quick in my notes. And then all of a sudden, one day I’ll feel inspired and something will come to mind, and I’ll open up my notes and piece them together, and it flows from there. I’d say the majority of my songs are lots of very, very personal experiences, broadened out so that it’s not like the Bright Eyes-esque folk lyrics where it’s very literal storytelling, where they paint you a picture with no room for your own imagination… “I went down to the well, and I was there with my dog, and we were playing in the fields of flowers”… it doesn’t give you a lot of room to put your own thoughts, ideas, and personal experiences into it. I write from a very personal place, but I try to make my stuff as universal as possible.
Jon Januhowski: Rocky’s lyrics are almost always written separately from the music, like poetry. With this album, we went to the studio at the beginning of August to track the record, and at some point during the previous month, Rocky and I sat down on the back porch and applied lyrics to the music we had written. It was insane to me as we were playing songs off our phones throughout the night, and the songs were just getting pieced together — and a lot of the lyrics seemed so fitting to the songs.
R: I’m always writing lyrics, and a lot of times things will just sit in my phone. Other times I’ll write something and will be super proud and know it’s going to be for Crimson Arrow — but I won’t know what notes I’ll use yet. A lot of my creative process is after we decide what’s getting paired up with what, and then I’ll write my vocal part. I let them make the music that sounds good — I’ve been with these boys with… how many years now, Jon? Seven, eight, nine…
R: Yeah, forever. I grew up with these kids, so I know how talented of musicians they are and how well we all vibe together. So I kind of let them do their thing, I do my thing, and then Jon shows me stuff they have and I’m like “I have three things that could work really well here, let me smash them all together and turn them into a song.”
A: Changing gears completely, the album has features from Kurt Travis on the song “Antiquate”, and Andrew Wells of Eidola on the song “White Noise”. What was the process of working with those two like, and what did their contributions add?
R: Kurt recorded the demo of “Antiquate” at our home studios, while he was crashing in Houston on a tour date.
J: It seems a little pretentious looking back, but we had actually written “Antiquate” planning to get someone to feature on it. [laughs]
R: Yeah, it was a very long song and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with the ending section, but I knew it should be epic and it seemed like a good spot for a feature. We kind of build that with someone in mind.
J: Not necessarily Kurt or anyone else.
R: Yeah, we had a really large list of people whose voices would sound good, it didn’t even matter if we were connected to them or not. Our original list had Aaron Marsh from Copeland, Leighton Antelman from Lydia, Andrew Wells was on there, Kurt was on there, and Tilian… we had a huge list of people. Those kinds of vibes. We set our sights high, and Kurt ended up agreeing to it. So he crashed at our place on a tour date, and I gave him two lines and told him to do whatever the fuck he wanted from there. He wrote a very beautifully multi-layered epic part at the end of the bridge, I ended up harmonizing some vocals with him, and towards the end of the song we do dual vocals, with different lyrics that match up. One word from the lines is “never”, so when we both sing “never” it lines up and makes a chord. So it’s like we’re fighting and dissonant and then that pops out, and then we fight again. So that goes to the end, and Jon re-screams the lyrics of the chorus — so it’s like this huge, stacking, epic vibe… very Receiving End of Sirens-esque.
R: Andrew, I met him on the first Sianvar run… he was doing merch for A Lot Like Birds. We traded CDs, so he gave me The Great Glass Elephant and told me I needed to listen to it, I gave him Modern Thieves…, so we just fell in love with each other’s bands. So I’ve been in pretty close touch with him since then. When he gave me Great Glass Elephant, I had that album on repeat for months… same with when Degeneraterra came out. I’ve always been extremely impressed by his voice, and the way he can switch between gritty and clean tones, as well as his range… he always has, like, a manly sound about him. Also as a lyricist, I love his meta-spiritual lyrical content. It was a no-brainer to put him on “White Noise”, which is about technology overrunning our personal relationships, and weakening the bond between people. It’s something we talk a lot about as millennials, where we’ll say “Technology is pulling us apart!”, and yet we’re on a Skype call together for this interview, so we do have a lot of cool advancements from it, but the human connection has vanished a bit.
R: So that song is called “White Noise” because we have a noise section with no time signature or key signature… just noise. So with those themes for the song, we knew we had to get Andrew on it. So we messaged him and he said “Sure”, and like two days later he sent us something back and said “Is this good?”, and it’s on the record.
A: Finally, do you guys have any upcoming tours or other projects you want to let us know about?
J: No, all of our focus is on the record. [laughs] Please buy it, please listen to it. We’ve spent literally over two full years working on it.
R: Getting closer to three at this point!
R: We are actually playing a show in Austin on May 13th for the release of the record. When we’re all free in late fall or end of the year, we might do another Texas run, or make it back out to Cali, or hit the East Coast, but right now it’s just…
J: Too many people in school, too many people starting legitimate jobs… We’ll be able to make it work, but right now it’s just such a relief to have the record done. I would love to be able to start touring on it immediately. But I hope we can let it simmer and there becomes a demand where people want to come hear us play the songs.
Be sure to pick up Living In Still Frames, out May 13th!