A feature by TJ Foster
As both a musician and a fan, one of my favorite things to read about is an artist’s perspective on their own music. It’s fascinating to me to read about what they consider their own best material, what certain lyrics mean vs. how they’re often interpreted, etc. etc. Half the beauty of writing songs is the story behind them, whether it be the writing process itself or the lyrical content. It’s that, coupled with the more sporadic listening habits of fans these days, which led me to the idea for a new DWP feature called “Desert Island Five.”
The concept is simple. Look back through your entire discography and pick your five favorite songs. The five songs that, if unfamiliar listeners only had that much time to devote to your band, you would ensure they start with. For the first installment of this feature, I was super excited to sit down and chat with The Racer frontman, Pete Marotta. Check out his Desert Island Five in this Spotify playlist, along with a brief interview about his picks.
For what it’s worth, this song would be in my top five Racer songs as well (which I’m sure you already know considering there’s a line from it tattooed on my arm). What is it about this song that solidifies its place in your Desert Island Five?For me, “Legends” captures the sound and story of the band when we first decided to get together, which is a time period that is truly precious to me. We literally decided to do this with no musical experience whatsoever as just sort of an adventure to go on as friends. I’m so
grateful for the time we have had together based on that irrational decision. I say this all the time, but I think everyone should be in a band. Hopefully this could possibly inspire someone to do so. Also, because it captures the sound of our early recordings, I think it is a nice peek into the evolution and growth of our music over the years.
I agree with that sentiment. Being in a band is the best amalgamation of every type of relationship out there. Lyrically, what was your thought process behind this song? There’s this underlying sense of “never grow up” that I personally always gravitate to…
Certainly there is a wish that no matter your age you retain the hope, joy, and some of the recklessness of youth. There’s also a piece of advice to enjoy the journey along the way because you ultimately will look back at it with fondness and an appreciation for going through it and an appreciation for the people who you shared it with. The title comes from one of the first venues we ever played in our hometown. There’s a line about the nerves we felt playing music in front of the people who we grew up with but had never seen us perform. Also, no one would ever get our band name right! It was so bad they literally would not only mispell the name but just make up new ones. “Stuedabakers,” “Starting 5,” “Your Momma’s Eye.” That being said, they did all give us a chance and we’re super supportive early on. We were very lucky to have such great people around us.
“A SONG ABOUT GHOSTS”
This song is pitch perfect if I do say so myself. It’s chilling and yet, by the end, so triumphant. Do you have any vivid memories of recording this one? There’s a lot of heart in it as proven by the performances you guys captured.
I have vivid memories of us playing and writing the song in our rehearsal space and feeling that it was special right away. The song has such a delicate vibe that it was almost like we didn’t want to look at each other while playing it because to get to the essence of the song we needed to be vulnerable. When Mike and I worked on the lyrics we tried to express the feeling the music and melody were providing. Once the lyrics were set it was really easy to get to that place emotionally and capture the recording of the song.
Speaking of the lyrical content… who or what are the “ghosts” this song is about?
The ghosts are really anyone who has left an imprint on you. One of those people who no matter how far you are from them or how long it has been since you have seen them, are somehow always in the back of your mind. Always with you. That could be a current love, former love, friend, family member, really whoever fits that description for you. Certainly there are many people in the lives of the band that fit that description. These people have always been my muse for other songs but with this song I wanted to specifically address how they act as my ghosts.
Another Giant cut. How did you guys approach this record differently than the two that came before it? It definitely has that “all grown up” feel to it. This song especially feels like the adult version of some of the songs on Passengers.
Well, for one we worked with Dan Hannon who has produced some of favorite bands including Manchester Orchestra. There was a pressure to deliver on the recording that we had not felt before and I have to say everyone really stepped up and gave it their all. We prepped for 8 months and recorded basically without sleep for weeks. We truly poured our lives into those recording sessions. Also, the themes and lyrics were approached in a much more critical and painfully honest way.
That dedication really comes through on the entire record. This song in particular always struck me as a perfect live song. Is it a regular in your sets still? If so, what is it about the song that keeps it as such a staple?
It certainly was a regular and I will always probably want it to be. I think it has a great balance of being energetic but not obnoxious. The song sort of hypnotizes you into moving until all of sudden we are at this big ending. I also think it is a song where each band member gets a chance to highlight what they do best as players and writers. Also the lyrics mean a great deal to me. I have a cathartic experience each time I get to sing them.
So shifting gears a bit to a more recent one – not only is “Young High” (and a lot of the others you’ve put out recently) a demonstration of you guys branching out stylistically a bit, but it’s also a shift in release strategy for you guys. What made you decide to start releasing singles sporadically as opposed to putting together a full album or EP?
For the first time it made sense to release singles rather than albums for many reasons but the main reason was that we wanted to constantly be providing content and allowing people more time to really live with one song at a time rather than skimming through an album, finding the tracks they like, then after a few weeks moving on. We did not want to have to wait another year or two to put out new material, have people check out for a few weeks, then have to wait another year or two to feel that same excitement of a release. We still love albums, but we also recognize how people are changing their listening habits and even how our listening habits are starting to change. For example, when The War on Drugs and The National released their new records they released a song a month or so for 4-5 months before releasing the full album and I really enjoyed the experience of seeing a new song pop up and living with it until the next song came out. All that being said, we do have some plans up our sleeves that I think album-lovers will appreciate.
I love that mindset. It’s sad but true these days. How long ago was this song written? Are you releasing these relatively quickly after you finish recording them or is there a “marinating” period?
Basically we start by picking 7 or so song ideas to focus on at a time. The songs that seem to be coming together quicker or the songs that just stand out and demand our attention, we focus on more. For example, we had 3 out of the first batch of 7 songs ready to go at the start of this whole release process: “Apogee,” “Spiral Staircase,” and “Skeptic.” So we picked the order that we wanted to release them in over a 2 month period, knowing that in the mean time, we would focus on the other 4 songs and have them ready to release ASAP.
Some song ideas have been around for years and were worked up in the live room but the majority of the songs are really being written while recording. This time around we wanted to use the studio as an instrument in the process, rather than just trying to capture a well-rehearsed live take of the song that has been fully fleshed out before.
In the case of “Young High,” we had written the song in our rehearsal space probably over 2 years ago. We had played it out a few times live but then really reworked it in Pro-Tools. The final version is based on the original live arrangement, but by using the tools (no pun intended) of the recording software, we were able to take it someplace new and fresh for us sonically.
As we’re talking, it’s been less than 48 hours since you’ve released this one to the public. In the same vein as “Young High,” it’s quite eclectic and you’re experimenting more with your voice. Why did this song make the list of five that unfamiliar listeners must listen to?
Well for one, I’m always excited about our newest material. I think as a band we still believe that we have not written our best song yet and this is one step closer and I think an indication of how we are still searching and experimenting. Also, lyrically it’s about the people in your life who have saved you who may not know how much they have held you up. So to any listener, especially those who really connect to the music and express support, it is a thank you note. They will never know how often they have saved us as a band in our moments of doubt.
The song sounds like a combination of everything you’ve ever done. Your more mellow stuff, the harder stuff. It goes in a few different directions without ever feeling odd. What was the writing process like to capture such a feeling?
Mike [Esserman] had a simple guitar riff and the simplicity of that riff allowed us to build many different layers around it. Each layer is pretty simple but when put together in the mix it sounds more dense and interesting. The chordal arrangement does not have too much movement so Eric [Sosler] came up with a bass line to counter that and give the song more movement and a chord progression. The bridge was a response to the groovy vibe of the verses. We wanted contrast to that spacey bouncy flow with something more abrasive but without totally deviating from the mood of the song.
The vocal melody came after the bass and we toyed around with a couple styles but stuck with the simple flow we have now so as not to feel like the vocals are sung over top the instrumentation but rather become a part of it. That’s why we added some simple harmonies in the verses, to spice them up and continue to add atmosphere to the song.
The chopped vocals have been something we have been toying with a bunch during our recording process and we only had it at the very end as like a lo- fi vocal jam/outro but it was so compelling we wanted to use it to hook people into the song.