I’m sure Alanis Morissette would say it’s ironic that I would position myself in a comfy chair in Starbucks to transcribe an interview with Chris Seefried, member of the new collaboration Low Stars, a band whose first album was released in collaboration with…Starbucks. Never let it be said that I don’t enjoy Ms. Morissette’s particular brand of irony, or a caramel macchiato.
Low Stars is comprised of four singer-songwriters, each of whom has been around the music biz long enough to know that this kind of collaboration doesn’t come along every day. Along with Seefried, there’s Jeff Russo, lead guitarist and songwriter for the band Tonic (I was always a sucker for “If You Could Only See”); Dave Gibbs, who, in addition to his own bands, has worked with Counting Crows, Lisa Loeb, Babyface, Matthew Sweet and Ringo Starr; and Jude — just Jude — a songwriter who’s been heard in television and movies, from City of Angels to Alias, Lost and The OC.
Though Low Stars have thus far been compared primarily to The Eagles and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, I also hear a little bit of Tom Petty, and a bit of the gospel and country music that I grew up with in the Midwest. Their eponymous first album is unlike anything playing on the radio these days and you get the feeling that this is music these four guys like, not music they made to make money — something Seefried confirms during our discussion. It’s refreshing.
No song on Low Stars ever fully rocks out, and that’s okay. The strength is in the harmonies, and the sincerity of the lyrics. From “Tell the Teacher” to “Love Love Love” to “Forever LA,” this is just plain nice music, with great instrumentation and soothing vocals. You might say it’s the perfect music for drinking a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper (even if the statement is a bit too easy).
PopGurls caught up with Seefried just hours after the release of Low Stars. He took us through the songwriting process, the formation of the band, and why it’s important to make music for yourself and not the masses.
Today’s the big day; the album is on a rack taunting Starbucks customers everywhere.
I know, finally! But we’ve had rehearsal, and we’re preparing for our record release party, and it’s been pretty hectic.
Did you get to celebrate at all?
Yeah, we had a coffee record release party this morning at 10, which is entirely strange, because you’re standing around drinking coffee with people that early in the day, getting them excited for the release of your album. Then we went around to a bunch of Starbucks. It was a great day.
Do you have a special Starbucks order that you get every time now? Maybe a venti non-fat, no-foam vanilla cappuccino?
(laughs) No, I don’t go there. I’m pretty straight up about my coffee.
Is there a difference between releasing an album through Starbucks, and doing it the old-fashioned way, where you had to go out and beat the streets on your own?
We had been thinking about doing this album for a while but it took time for it to happen. When we finally got the four of us together, we realized we had something special. Originally we were just like ‘hey, man, let’s play some tunes up at the house for our friends,’ really getting into the whole Crosby Stills Nash & Young myth, being in the canyon with our friends, turning them on.
The way that Starbucks fell into this equation is that initially we were really idealistic about what we were doing, in that we wanted to sit on the couch and play these tunes, and they’d sound how we ultimately wanted them to sound. We’re all from major record labels, so what we didn’t want to do was have some record label come in and try to change the sound. We didn’t want it to be like, ‘You’ve got to do this, or you’ve got to do that,’ all the things we were used to.
At the same time we were starting to play for labels, Starbucks came in and sat down and listened to us play at the Four Seasons. They were like, ‘we love this. We want this.’ What was different was that they were entirely supportive.
Oh, I’ve had good experiences with labels, too. I got signed by Quincy Jones and he was great working with me on my first record. But this was one of those experiences where they were really supportive of what we were doing. And our music works with their demographic, so it’s a natural fit. It’s not like a major label where you’re so above the demographic and they try to put it in the middle to sell it.
This new album is more paired down and quiet than even the Death Cabs and Snow Patrols that have gotten popular in the last couple of years. What kind of audience do you think the music appeals to?
I think it’s kind of a wide demographic. What we expected from Starbucks was somewhere in the mid-30s or 40s, which is the demo they have, but I found straight-away with this band that it appeals to lots of different people. I remember the first time we recorded “Why Not Your Baby,” which is an old Gene Clark/Byrds tune. I had this recording of it — on the same day I took my BMW to be serviced, the guy in the shop was like, ‘oh! I love that stuff,’ and he was an older cat. And then I was driving home, and this young teenaged couple was making out on Melrose, and they heard it and came over to the car. It was two completely different sets of people who chose to comment on this music, just because my window was rolled down!
So, I guess I don’t really know! (laughs) We find that we’re attracting a new audience of kids who know about classic rock by virtue of the older stuff. [Our music] kind of has a similar feeling.
I think music overall might be getting more thoughtful, and maybe this is a logical next step in that.
One of the things that all four of us had in common was that we were playing the folk clubs in LA, and you see all these great singer-songwriters on a nightly basis. But no one is doing this kind of thing, which I think is an anachronism. In the late 60s, early 70s, every band was based on two or three lead singers and songwriters. Go back to The Beatles, and you have Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. And then The Eagles had Fry and Henley and they also had Timothy B. Schmit.
It’s kind of an old idea, rock bands used to have different voices. But the model changed in the 90s, and it turned into one guy with his sidemen. So we knew we had this thing, which was a unique blend of our voices. And then the goal was to give the project the best songs we had. We chose from like 50 different tunes, from all our solo records and stuff that we started writing for the record.
Does the fact that everyone in the band is a songwriter in his own right make it easier or harder to collaborate?
When we first started the project, Jude and I didn’t know each other. We met via the idea of this project, and quickly discovered on the first night of meeting each other that we could write tunes together. He sort of helped me with a song of mine, and I helped him with a song of his, and we just got really into this songwriting thing. We ended up writing music for Lost, but the main thing we were doing was writing songs for the album.
We were lucky that Jeff and Dave really liked the tunes we were writing. And they were really supportive of the idea that Jude and I had hit on songs kind for the band. Straight away we wrote “Warmer Wind,” “Tell the Teacher,” “Sometimes It Rains,” “Just Around the Corner” and a whole bunch of tunes that didn’t make the record. And then we also wound up choosing songs from each of our solo records.
You know, I think like the rest of this thing, it all just fell into place. Obviously, everybody has their own personal favorite song, but the material — all except one or two songs that made it onto the record — those songs were agreed upon by the band to represent our sound and the kind of music we wanted to present.
You brought up writing for Lost. Does the writing process change at all when you’re writing songs or scores for television, and when you’re trying to put together a rock album?
When you do score or you do stuff for TV shows, often times they’ll give you a working template to work off of, which is really fun to do. Like in the case of Lost, we were writing a song for this fictitious band DriveSHAFT. You know, one of the lead characters, Charlie, was in this band. In fiction, he was in this sort of B-grade Oasis band, and they had one hit. (laughs) That’s basically what they gave us to write from. That’s what we did.
In Low Stars, we’re really just passing songs around, even from our back catalogs. I already had “Child” and Jude had “Mexico.” And we thought those songs would be good for this album, and then we wrote other songs that worked with those. The nice thing when you work with TV shows is that you’re writing for a director. You’re really helping him realize his vision through music, whereas when you’re the artist you’re the director. It’s your vision.
What are your favorite things about this album? Maybe not particular songs, but sounds, or edits, or lyrics.
I love the artwork, the fact that Henry Diltz took the photos. Henry Diltz shot our cover, and the cover of the CSN album, and he shot Desperado by The Eagles and he shot James Taylor’s Baby Blue and he shot all these seminal California singer-songwriters and bands. San Francisco had Jim Marshall, England had Michael Cooper to do Sgt. Pepper and LA has Henry Diltz. And he wound up shooting our cover, which is one thing I love so much. The picture, to me, is that iconic type of shot.
Musically, the things where the sound coalescences, the sounds that are real harmony songs are the ones I love the best, like “Child” and “Warmer Wind” and “Why Not Your Baby.” Any song where we’re featuring a three- or four-part harmony, those are the core tunes that we started with, and that’s what got us so excited about what we were doing. I still get such a buzz listening to those.
Low Stars came right out of the gate with some pretty amazing props from fellow artists like Rosanne Cash, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, and Tom Morello from Audioslave. Is there someone you’ve looked up to in your career, who you’d like to hear from about the new album?
We’re getting a lot of people mentioning Crosby Stills Nash & Young and The Eagles with respect to this album, and if either of those collectives hears the record, I would hope that they don’t hate it. (laughs) I would hope that those cats would say, ‘hey, that sounds pretty good.’ That would obviously be a real thrill for all of us.
We started this thing in the LA community, and we got all these props from our friends. It gave us the confidence to do it. The response from people we admire and respect was so good that it gave us the okay to move forward, that what we were doing was working.
I read a little about Handheld Comedy, a podcast for stand-up comedians that you’re involved with. How do you think podcasting technology will or has impacted the recording industry? What kind of interaction will you guys have with fans online?
Music is totally viral. We just did a couple of videos here in town, I’m sure they’ll go up before we even know it. I just think the immediacy of being able to record, and get it out right away is amazing. In the old days, you’d go in and make an album, and you could have it out the next week. That was when music was such a vital reflection of what was going on, because you didn’t have to wait for this big buildup.
I think that’s happening again with MySpace, and all the different kinds of portals where you can find music. You can go, you can record a thing in your house, and you can put it out there and get a response immediately. I think that creates an instant emotion about the music, an instant feeling about what you’re doing, when you can get feedback straight away. I think that’s really helpful.
That instant feedback becomes addictive.
It’s outstanding! It’s like the entire process is compacted, but in a really good way. Someone sent me an e-mail about this Evan Dando website, and wanted me to record a song. I clicked off the e-mail, turned on my recorder, ripped the lyrics off this one song, recorded, and 10 minutes later I put it up on my site. (laughs) It was a great feeling to turn it around so fast, kind of bizarre, but great.
I know it’s not the same as a live show, where you can see the faces in the crowd and hear the cheers, but it must be pretty amazing to have that instantaneous interaction with fans.
It really is. It’s wonderful. I think it’s so much better for musicians or anyone in the arts right now, because the moment you can make a movie on your digital camera, the minute you can make a record on your digital recorder, it took all the bullshit out of the way. You don’t need to have budget to have access to the studio, you just need to have the idea. And that’s what it should be about.
What’s the next thing for you guys? You’ve got the album release party next week, and several tour dates coming up. Do you already have another album planned?
We’re not planning a new album. We did release an EP before the record that has two extra tracks, and we do have half an album already in the can, certainly a full record already written. But the initial plan is we’re going to go to the East Coast and do mostly radio promo type stuff. Then we’re going to come back, do some West Coast stuff, and then go back out on a real tour, with a larger tour in the summer. The first couple of times out we’re going to go with just the four acoustics, and as we head into the summer we’re going to do the full thing.
Well, Chris, thanks so much for your time. I’m really enjoying the album, it reminds me of the stuff I grew up with, and I don’t get to hear this kind of music on the radio.
That’s so nice of you to say and feel. You know, when you asked me about things I liked about it — I think we all wanted to make music that we like, you know? And I learned early on that you can never expect to have a hit in any way, so you always have to be able to put it on for your friends and be happy with it, and I take that with me into every record. Because, ultimately, the idea that people are going to like it…you can’t control that. So you’d better make something you like, because if you make something for them and they hate it, you’re screwed. (laughs) But when I sit down and listen to this, there are things that make me so happy about it, and I just think ‘yeah, man. I’m making music.’
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