Of Guilty Pleasures & Celebrated Comedies

9 Mar

Zander Grey of Letters talks about their Return to Sender EP, Nietzschean philosophy, and your favorite bands from high school with IFP Staff Editor Caleb Wilson

..collectively, Letters is a group of ordinary guys playing music that's just the opposite.

It’s about 6 o’clock when Zander Grey pulls into the parking lot of my place of employment to pick me up for a Letters rehearsal. He shows up in a Subaru wagon that looks better suited for a soccer mom than the front man of an aspiring rock band. This is just one of many indicators I’ll see today that demonstrate that, collectively, Letters is a group of ordinary guys playing music that’s just the opposite. I’ve known Zander casually for awhile now, having met him mingling in bars after shows and at various after parties. But as I’ll soon learn, he’s recently put partying on hiatus to focus on his music. It shows. He’s somehow more calm now, more focused when we spend the better part of an hour talking about things. Things like his desire to be respected as an artist, his shortcomings as a vocalist, infamous critic of religion Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical impact on his lyrics, and much more.

I ask him a series of questions; some of these questions pertain directly to his band after I spent the afternoon listening critically to their “Return to Sender” EP. Others, I blatantly stole from interviewers tied to various more respectable publications. In my nervous mind, official sounding questions would make this an official sounding interview (my first since I managed a Round Table Pizza many years ago). But Zander is not a teenager looking for a pizza job (despite the economy), and the official sounding questions become increasingly awkward, so I quickly disperse with the formalities and let the conversation flow organically. This is a good thing, as I’ll learn just how multi-facted my previously casual friend is as we make the short drive out to Brownsville from my native Port Orchard.

When we arrive at Letters’ rehearsal space, I’m greeted warmly by a group of guys that don’t give off the “musician” vibe. At all. Looking at their keyboardist Aaron Moody’s t-shirt for example (featuring all the various weapons of the Halo franchise, with the phrase “Tools of the Trade” on it), his loose jeans, and his very unpretentious smile, you’d never guess how brilliant of a pianist he is, or how seemlessly he’s able to portray his technical proficiency while remaining faithful to Letters’ sound. New listeners of Letters will learn quickly that apparances can be decieving. We go downstairs, and I immediately become a fly on the wall. Once they begin playing music, their friendly dispositions collectively morph into ones of intense passion for what they’re doing. The small room in the house of the small town we’re in quickly becomes a whole different world for the members of Letters, and I’m impressed.

Between songs, Matt Melanson (an employee of a small music shop nearby) playfully teases Zander for buying his tuning pedal on Amazon.com instead of supporting his employer, citing Zander’s savings at a paltry $10. As someone who is both a habitual online shopper and the son of small a business owner, I realize that I am a hypocrite and begin to feel guilty. I remain silent and hope no one notices this, though the conversation eventually drifts. I then begin focusing on the well represented low frequencies of Letters’ sonic presentation. I find myself drawn to his basslines, despite feeling like they were intentionally written not to stand out. This perplexing contradiction is something difficult to achieve, but is what more bassists should strive for. Matt’s theory heavy “band nerd-esque” contributions bring a unique prog rock element to the picture which adds up to be a refreshing take on the post-hardcore genre that Letters dances around, but never quite settles on.

Out of coffee, operating on only a handful of hours of sleep, and a perpetual sufferer of anxiety, I feel a kinship with Letters’ manic instrumentation. I find it funny that I’m tapping my foot and nodding my head to a song that Zander told me is about the rise of Adolf Hitler just an hour ago. Even without his vocals, I feel as if every song is about something important, with a sense of great urgency. Guitarist Tra Milburn’s (pronounced like “tray”) style is driven and consistent, though difficult to describe. He lingers somewhere between playing traditional leads and creating ambient atmospheres with tasteful use of his pedal board. [note: a technical breakdown of all the gear and pedals Letters uses can be found here: http://wp.me/p2h5Oh-k]  It is both pleasing to hear and fun to watch. He is continually in sync with drummer Clint Westwood (which I have to say is one of the most badass names I’ve ever heard), whose busy drum beats match every hit without fail.

After practice, the guys all talk about bands they like when Tra mentions that he loves the band Finch, a sentiment with which I agree, mentioning that they’re a guilty pleasure of mine. This then begs the question in my mind: Is Letters a “guilty pleasure” band too? It’s certainly a fair question; they’re catchy, uniquely unhip (in a very charming way), their style seems to be modeled after an era past its respective prime, and their influcences consist almost entirely of bands (Thrice, Circa Survive, Thursday et al) that people much cooler than me might scoff at. These same people, though, might then stealthily listen to those bands at home, in secret; perhaps using YouTube playlists instead of iTunes to avoid detection on Spotify or Last.fm trackers (I had a roommate that used to do this, though I’m not naming names). Anyway, point is, while Letters might not be pushing boundaries or bending genres, they provide a refreshing take on existing musical safe spots and present a degree of technical excellence while remaining true to their soulful style. Guilty pleasure band of the Kitsap area or not, these five guys have something great to offer to anyone willing to listen.

You can catch Letters this Saturday at The Manette in Bremerton, WA.

Interview with Zander Grey

How does it feel to be asked questions about the personal aspects of your music like this? Is it as awkward on your side as it is on mine?

(laughs) It’s not awkward, no. Is it awkward to ask? I guess I can see that. But, for me, you get used to having your friends ask you about stuff. It’s just a nice conversation to have, because you’re asking about my passions and interests. So, no. It’s not awkward for me. Not anymore.

Do you smoke? Your voice doesn’t sound like a smoker’s.

What do you mean, smoke what? (both of us laugh) But really, no. I did a long time ago, but it was affecting my voice and my range so I quit. I’ve actually quit drinking. It’s only been a few weeks so far, but I have. It’s been kind of difficult, you know, but I was watching Anthony Green perform awhile ago in Seattle. And he gave this awesome performance that was almost two hours long, and I was thinking, man, I really need to focus on improving myself and working harder for this band. So I’ve stopped for now, I’m just trying to focus on that right now.

The songs you guys did on your return to sender EP remind me of a more modern take on the stuff I used to get down to in high school. What bands did you guys have in mind when writing these songs?

It depends on the song, I guess. Thrice, The Dear Hunter, and Circa Survive. It really just depends on whose idea the song started with and where it goes from there. We all have diverse tastes in music, but at the same time, we do like a lot of the same bands so you might start to notice patterns.

That brings us to my next question: What’s the the song writing process like for you guys?

Every song starts with an idea, sometimes it’s mine, sometimes it’s Tra’s or Aaron’s or whoever’s, you know? One of us will throw out a skeleton of a song and we’ll kind of build it from there, but usually Tra and Aaron handle the music and they trust me with handling the lyrics.

You recorded these songs with Derek Snyder. What was the process of working with him like?

We did it at Duffy, the sound tech from The Manette’s studio, mostly. I did some guitar parts at Derek’s place. He can be a little intimidating with how much he knows, but it was totally cool the whole time. It wasn’t stressful at all. He was really open to trying things, and was open to suggestions. He was super easy to work with and was a lot of fun.

Which song feels the best when played live? Why?

Mona, it’s gotta be Mona. It’s just really tight for us as a group and that makes it a lot of fun to play.

One of my favorite parts of your live show is watching your keyboardist, Aaron, play. He is obviously very proficient, but unlike a lot of pianists that join rock groups, he’s able to convey that without sounding sterile. He just “gets it” I guess.

Yeah! He gets it, he blends in really well. Perfection is his thing, the cool thing about Aaron is that he knows when and where to come in and out.. where he can play little licks and where he can’t. He’s not trying to do too much, which helps.

So he knows how to work within the limitations of your sound then?

Yeah, and it’s just crazy. He knows exactly when to turn the switch on and off. I’ve always wanted a piano player in a band and I guess I just lucked out with him. He’s a good guy.

What is the band’s main focus right now?

It’s gotta be new material (laughs). I told the guys, hey, we’ve gotta get new stuff going, you know? We’ve been playing the same songs for months. I really love the songs we’ve got, but it gets stale after awhile. We’ve decided to slow down on gigging soon and just work on that.

What’s the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome as an artist?

Musical tastes. I guess I mean, starting out, I didn’t really have a lot of luck joining bands. I’ve got a different sounding voice, you know, and I’d try out for bands and I’d hear “you’ve got an okay voice, but you’re not what we’re looking for” a lot. Or I’d hear from people “the music is great but I didn’t like the vocals”.

Yeah, man (laughs). I can absolutely relate to that, and it sucks to hear.

Definitely.. and it’s fine, I guess just from being rejected so many times I’m used to it. I don’t know if you remember this, but even way back in the day, I tried out for your band, Mary Jane Watson and you guys said no thanks.

Wait really? I don’t remember that at all.

Yeah (laughs), it’s okay. I was a lot younger then. I tried out at Olympic College with a couple guys from your band, you weren’t there. I was less experienced then and really nervous. Really, getting rejected like that, and with me getting kicked out of my old band (Crimes Against Broadway) it’s helped me kind of develop thick skin, you know? What’s important though is that I’m with a band that my voice works with, and I’m happy to be writing these songs with these guys.

Like many bands running the regional circuit, Letters has relied heavily on social media for promotion. For instance, you’ve been involved in Facebook polls where people vote to have you play at specific venues, and you’ve posted a link where your fans can vote for you to play at Warped Tour. How do you feel about promoters and venues using this kind of advertising?

I think it’s a 50/50 split. It’s a creative way for promoters to see who’s going to get people to their shows, and like it or not, it’s kind of about the money for some people. For others it might just be making enough to make the show happen, but it’s about money. I can’t really say that I like it, because I don’t, but I guess I get it.

Doesn’t it feel kind of lazy on the part of the promoter though? Do you feel like it might cheapen the experience of booking shows when a band that might not really fit a bill can get a show simply by spamming a poll?

Yeah, sometimes. We’re not very good at promoting ourselves and networking. We’re the kinds of guys who just like to go out to shows, meet people, and just introduce ourselves you know? It’s all about getting to know people. I might have like 500 friends on Facebook, but I don’t even talk to half of them, it’s kind of sad. It’s just not how it used to be, just going out and meeting people.

My favorite song of yours lyrically, and perhaps musically, is “The Comedy of Celebrated Men”. The song comes across to me as a manifesto of sorts about individualism and rising above expectations, spiritually or intellectually, or whatever. How badly did I butcher the song’s meaning with that interpretation?

Well, no.. (laughs) that’s really close. You put that into words really well. At the time I wrote that song, I was reading a lot of philosophy, a lot of Nietzsche. The line “the comedy of celebrated men” was actually something [Nietzsche] wrote about politicians, or people in positions of influence.. celebrities, leaders, whoever. The line “I brought the rain along while we dance aimlessly” is about, say, someone like Hitler, and he’s giving these speeches and people just kind of blindly followed him. I think people in positions like that often don’t live with good moral values.. and we just kind of accept it. Really, that’s what that song is about.


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