American Arson is a two-man band based out of the Detroit metro. I took some time to speak with vocalist/guitarist Evan Baker (in the middle of the night on a Thursday) to discuss the the lifespan of the band, the writing process, and his feelings about changes in the music industry.
Casey: Today we have Evan from American Arson from Detroit, Michigan. They describe themselves as a two-man wall of sound and that’s a very big description. If you wouldn’t mind going ahead and describing what encompasses your sound. And again, since you have a two-person band. what was the inspiration for limiting yourself to two people? Why do you think it works and how do you pull it off?
Evan: Sure. I guess I’ll start with the technical side of things. There’s just two of us. I play guitar and sing and Jesse drums and sings as well. I route my guitar through my main guitar amp and also through a bass amp. My main main guitar amp has cabs that are split with both sides of the stage and then I create live loops. Everything we do is created live. We don’t have any pre-recorded tracks. I’ll play a part and loop it back and then play a different part of that. I feed the loops to Jesse’s ears. Some songs we really build the layers. Some songs, the loop may be a lead or just some ambient sounds. We have a couple songs where I build the loop up pretty big then step away from the guitar and play a floor tom while Jesse also plays drums. We try to use it in different ways and try to do something unique and different. As far as why I decided to do this, it would be because American Arson started as a solo project and I added Jesse along the way. In my former band, we did a lot of DIY tours and started to see some success but it was really hard to preserve the momentum we had created due to deteriorating relationships within the band. I guess I just thought the fewer the people that were involved in the problem, the less chance there would be of some interpersonal drama derailing the momentum we were able to generate as the band. I was hiring a drummer for a while before I branched out and wanted someone to be equally invested in it as me and that’s where Jesse came in.
C: So obviously, starting it as a solo project, going from a band to writing everything by yourself with looping, that’s naturally a big shift in the writing process. How has the songwriting process changed? Is it more difficult having fewer people? Is it easier because you have more freedom to do what you want?
E: I would say it’s harder in a sense. It’s more difficult from a technical perspective and in terms of music theory, there are certain things you’re limited in with looping, just in terms of song structure. A standard looper is going to be in an AAB format. If you think of A as the time you’re recording a loop, then when you push the button to lock it in, it’s also going to play it back once. So you have to make sure you’re piecing these songs together so it’s not incredibly boring and repetitive for people. So, you’re going to get that element coming into the songwriting so it’s trying to find different and creative ways to start loops. Maybe you’re looping the rhythm part and the next song you’re looping the lead or or maybe you make a different loop for the bridge. So from a purely technically standpoint, a lot more thought goes into it rather than “I play these chords, you make up the lead, and away we go”. You have to map things out a little bit more. However, where I would say it’s easier, there’s certainly a lot more freedom. I get the color and feel of a song in my head before I get any chords and lyrics. I think “I want to write a song that feels like this” and I go ahead and do that without worrying about how it’s going to be received or if I left room for everyone to feel like they’re included. I’m the only one playing a pitched instrument so I don’t need to think about that because I cover all that ground myself and of course Jesse comes in with the percussion. We chop up the vocals. When he first joined the band, he didn’t have any experience singing behind the drum kit so the vocal stuff was a little more rudimentary. Now we’re trying to add in a little more complexity on that end as he’s gotten more experience. Obviously, playing a ton of lives shows and touring, he has more experience now singing behind the kit. So that part we’ve been able to branch out a little bit with. It’s still, at its core, comparing this band to any band I’ve been in in the past, it’s still rock and roll. I’ve had some people say “This sounds nothing like anything you’ve ever done” and other people say “The second I heard it, I could tell it was this guy from Good Luck Varsity”. So I don’t really know what to think about that. Lucky for me, my job is not to perceive or interpret it so other people can think or feel what they want to about it.
C: Sure. So going along with that, and also going into the technical side, throughout the four EPs, I’ve definitely noticed a progression in sound and of course there’s a bunch of gear and you touched on music theory a bit earlier. So how would you say you have changed as an artist. How does that relate to the music you’re listening to now as well?
E: So, changed over the course of this band or in general over the course of being a musician?
C: Yeah, in general. Even music as a whole, the industry for instance, I have a couple questions on that in a bit.
E: I have completely left behind any notion, when I sit down to write a song, of “I wonder how this is going to be perceived”. I’m just trying to have as much integrity as I possibly can. Every time I write something, I want to write something I’m proud of and something I enjoy playing and something I think I would enjoy listening to. It just so happens those things end up coming through in a rock, punk, post-hardcore vein but I’m not afraid to genre-span a little. I’m not too worried about fitting inside a genre box. So I think that has changed for sure. I didn’t have any idea what any of this was going to sound like when I first started American Arson. It felt like at first it was easier to do the looping and easier to have a big, full sound with some of the heavier stuff, the drop-tuned stuff obviously. I do use some pitch shifting on my bass amp. So with some drop tuned stuff and some pitch shifting you get a low, dirty sound. So at first it felt easier to do that with a heavier sound and there are definitely some big, fat minor chords on the most recent stuff but I’ve kind of explored some pop-punk leanings as well and some stuff that’s a bit more major chord-based than what people are used to from us in the past and I was totally fine with that. I think if people sit down and listen to an American Arson EP and then another one, they’ll say “Yeah, this is the same band” because there’s the same energy behind it all. But then again, I’m probably not the best person to ask about that because I don’t get to sit down and listen to them from a completely neutral standpoint.
C: So, that was a good bit on how you’ve changed and grown as an artist. But obviously, as we all get older, we don’t live in a vacuum. The world around us is changing, especially the music industry. Some really big things right now are crowdfunding, people ditching the labels in favor of going independent, and streaming as well. What are your thoughts on some of these things. Would you ever do a Kickstarter or anything like that?
E: I think crowdfunding is an overall good thing, not just for the music industry but for a lot of independent video game developers or inventors – lots of different things artists and creative types. I think right now that some band will use it to – well, we need to make the distinction between crowdfunding and asking for free money. In my my mind, crowdfunding is when people are going to help you fund a creative project and then you’re going to reciprocate by giving them a reward, something tangible, something that makes it worth their time. But now we’ve developed this mentality that everything that happens to a band out on the road is the responsibility of the fanbase. “Oh, we blew a tire. It’s time to do another IndieGoGo.” I think when you keep going back to the well like that, you’re just really diluting the marketplace there. I think there is definitely a danger there of there being so much noise with crowdfunding at the center that people get sick of it. So that makes me a little bit nervous. I don’t know if we’d do a Kickstarter or an IndieGoGo or anything like that. In the past, we haven’t done that. We see it as our privilege to play for people, we see it as we’re the ones who are blessed that anyone would take time to listen to us. The crowdfunding thing is awkward for me because it flips that on its head and says “Look at this awesome thing I’m doing, will you all please give me money so I can continue to do it?” I’ve done one before with a previous band and it was fine, it didn’t feel grimy. Like I said, I don’t have a problem with bands that do it. Maybe it’s just not for us. What was the other part? Streaming?
E: So, streaming is cool. We’ve never been in it for the money. So even though services like Spotify don’t offer the most competitive rates, you have to change with the times. That’s the way people are listening to music, so that’s where you need to be accessible. We still sell a lot of CDs at shows. I don’t know if that’s because people want something tangible they can leave with in their hands or because we did the Origins Trilogy and set it up to be a collector’s item kind of deal. I don’t know if it’s because people still have CD players in their cars. I really don’t know what it is that causes CDs to sell, but it is a way for us to leave a town and for somebody to remember us. So I think whatever’s cool for people, we want to meet them where they’re at. If they just stream videos on YouTube, cool. All our stuff’s on YouTube. If they want to use Spotify, all our stuff’s on Spotify. If they just like downloading to a digital device, our stuff’s on iTunes. If they’re a hard-copy person who wants to have CDs and thinks they’re collector’s items, we have those too. I just feel grateful anyone would care to listen to my music in the first place so whatever way they want to listen to it is fine by me.
C: Awesome. So you mentioned the Origins Trilogy a little bit and you’re just off the release of the fourth EP, Waymaker, and between the four, so as you mentioned, the first three are meant to go together, but even with Waymaker, there’s continuity in terms of lyrics, this level of storytelling, almost literary in a sense, I would say. So is there anything outside of music that influences you to take that lyrical direction.
E: Yeah, I love stories in any format. I love books. I am constantly reading. I spend a lot of time on the road and driving, and whether it’s when we’re on the road or at home, because i have a long commute, I really like audiobooks. I really like podcasts. Any sort of storytelling I really enjoy. So for me, it’s always more interesting when an artists seems to be telling a story through their songs. I think that we’re at a point right now where bands, artists, pop singers, whoever put albums together with this mindset that there should be a little something on there for everybody. A love, let’s have a heartbreak song, an “I’m going to go party with my friends” song, and to me, that’s not an album. That’s a collection of songs, that’s a collection of singles. My favorite albums have always been ones that have continuity, where I feel like they progress from one song to another. You really get the sense of where the artist is at by the time you’re done listening to that album. Some of my favorite albums have motifs that repeat, whether musical or lyrical, throughout the album. Or maybe it’s just a general feel of the album. Some of my favorite albums are concept albums, so I think that definitely bleeds into what we do. I want there to be something for those who want to look a little deeper. It’s totally fine if a person says, “Well, I really only like this one song, it’s really the only one that speaks to me”. But I always thought that it was cool to have something there for the people who do want to look a little deeper and want to decipher it, the meaning behind the songs. I remember being eleven and twelve years old and buying CDs and going home and put the album on and the first thing I would do is pull out the lyrics book and follow along with the music and just try to piece together everything that was going on with that artist as the album went along. I guess it goes all the way back to those days – “I want to write albums like this some day”. So I guess that’s what comes out.
C: Awesome. So if you wouldn’t mind giving us just a couple examples of albums that really inspired you, either musically or lyrically. So a couple older examples and a couple more recent ones, or ones you’re really listening to lately.
E: So, I guess some of my favorite concept albums, I really like Coheed and Cambria. I like almost everything they’ve done. But I think The Afterman: Ascension and The Afterman: Descension albums do a really good job of crafting a story, pulling you in, and making you realize there’s something a little deeper. On Ascension, there’s a song called Domino the Destitute that they put out a music video for that I would encourage anyone who is interested to watch it. It’s more like a short film than a music video, I think it’s nine minutes long. But that was the first bit of music that I heard from the Afterman albums and it was from watching that video. I walked away thinking, “Wow, I want to know the rest of this story”. And really, they don’t revisit much of Domino’s story on the album but you kind of get a clear picture of what’s going on in the midst of the rest of it. That’s not incredibly recent – I want to say they put those out in 2012 or 2013. House of Heroes is another band, they have an album called The End Is Not The End. It’s probably from the same time period actually, and it all kind of shifts between World War II and Cold War-era concepts. Very, very good album. I guess not a concept album in the same sense, as there’s not a continuous story that begins with the first song and ends with the last song. I think they even said they didn’t set out to write a concept album – it certainly ends up feeling like a concept album at the end of the day with the consistent imagery. Oh, what was the rest? Recently? How recent is recent?
C: Like something that you would be listening to currently.
E: So this is always such a whirlwind of podcasts and audiobooks and an album from ten years ago.To get back to something more current, I really like the last album a band called Can’t Swim put out. I don’t know if too many people know of them, but they definitely deserve to be known more than they are. I want to say that came out in early 2017, maybe February or so. I know this whole summer while we were driving around, we went all the way out to the west coast. We went up the coast to California and Oregon. We were listening to a bit of everything. We definitely had some nostalgic, throwback times listening to the latest Blink 182 album. I know there are a lot of mixed feelings about that. But just light-hearted stuff that makes you remember. I think I was probably in 10th or 9th grade when Enema of the State came out and I remember sitting in biology class with my friend having one earbud and me having the other one and holding them to our ears while we kept our elbows on the table so the teacher wouldn’t notice we were sitting in the back listening to it. So every time Blink drops a new album, I go “What’s that about?” and have to check it out. Also Taking Back Sunday put out a really great album last year. But I have to say my favorite album last year was the new Thrice album. Thrice is another band that does a great job of telling stories and they’ve experimented as well with conceptual-type stuff with the Alchemy Index, but that’s a band I always come back to. I was really anxious about this latest release and what it was going to sound like and what it was going to feel like and I was really blown away right by the first listen. It’s a band that we sometimes get compared to I guess because Dustin also sings with some grit in his voice or maybe it’s because they do a lot of minor chord-based stuff and we do that too. But I definitely come back to Thrice.and I think they’re a band that has a lot of thought that goes into their lyrics and I really appreciate that.
C: Sure. And I know they dropped a single for Record Store Day. I don’t know if you had a chance to check it out at all.
E: I did not. That’s actually new to me. That’s cool, I’ll have to check it out.
C: Yeah, so it’s a b-side from the album.
E: Yeah, I’ll definitely have to check it out.
C: So we’ve had where you’ve been up to this point. What’s next for you guys?
E: Well, we’re announcing a tour really soon. Actually probably by the time this interview comes out we’ll have announced it already. Just another opportunity to get out there and play shows. We actually had a release tour when Waymaker came out but we haven’t toured sense. That was only last month so it wasn’t too long ago. We actually had some different plans and the band that was supposed to go with us flaked out on us so we had to pull this together last minute so I called my friend Tighe who is in the band Sink In to pick his brain to see if he knew of anyone who was looking for a band to tour with and they were in the same situation where they were supposed to go out with a band. So the two of us put something together and now it’s looking like it might be more fun than either of our Plan As would have been for the summer. I would really like to stretch the boundaries with the next release. Maybe do something less traditional. If there’s some sort of a way we could have an accompanying story in some format – I don’t know what that would be – written or graphic or whatever it would happen to be. Do something a little more out there or bigger than “Here’s five songs”. I think we’ve kind of exhausted the run of EPs here for a little bit. Initially, the Origin Story I guess could have been a full-length but it made more sense to break it up into separate EPs and Waymaker might have ended up being a full-lenth if we hadn’t had some trailer and vehicle catastrophes last year. But when we finished Waymaker, I didn’t feel like “I have so much more left to say that I didn’t say”. So I think that’s probably the way that it should be and that’s the way it should have come out. But I’m definitely excited to see what comes next and I’m hoping we get a chance to do something that stretches the boundaries and allows us to be creative and original. There’s a lot of noise. I want to do something that is significant to someone I guess.
C: Yeah, just to go back to something you said earlier. A lot of bands write the love song and the breakup song. You’re definitely forward with your lyrics. There’s some sociopolitical stuff and some faith-based elements. Personal pain, even. But again, it’s very artfully-construed. So beyond the fact that, as you mentioned, you want to convey a story, what else do you want people to take away from your lyrics? Even if there’s some kind of action you’d like people to take as a result?
E: I think every song is different in that regard. Overall, I hope everyone takes away authenticity and that whether they agree with the ideas we’re putting out there or not, they can say “I believe that person. I believe what he’s saying”. There’s power in truth and when you don’t try to misrepresent yourself in your songs or in your art at all, when you’re just willing to be laid open and have integrity – my definition of integrity when it comes to music is writing what is in your heart and what you feel compelled to write rather than what you think is going to sell. So I hope everyone would leave with a sense of authenticity, whether they agree with it or they believe it, that they would walk away thinking “That guy really believes everything he’s singing about”. But yeah, individual songs, I guess they all have their own miniature calls to action within them. As you said, whether socio-political, faith-based, or even examining something personal. But I think as overarching concept, I want people to come away with a sense of authenticity when they listen to our music.
C: As you mentioned earlier, when it comes to songwriting, to say “I’m not trying to write a specific genre. I’m not setting out to please people”. So I think the theme of authenticity definitely encompasses what you’re striving for musically.
E: Good, I hope so. I think that’s the best any of us can offer, our true, untainted experiences. And I think when you do that, that’s when you find community because people can related to that. So I would challenge all musicians, all artists, writers, to be authentic because then we’re not misrepresenting ourselves to people out there. I think there’s this sense of anyone who listen to music or watches a movie to come away, “Well that’s all fine and good for someone else but it’s not for me” and I don’t want anyone to listen to our music and come away with that feeling. I want them to know that the things we feel and experience are real things and we can relate to some of the same things they’ve gone through. That’s my hope.
C: Well, that’s incredibly humble. I think that’s a great approach and I definitely attest that I see that in your music.
E: Good, I appreciate. You can’t always tell if it’s coming across so that’s encouraging to hear.
C: Sure. Well, it’s 1 AM your time. It’s midnight here, so we can wrap this up. But if you have any final thoughts, maybe some local bands or bands you’ve toured with, you’ve already mentioned Sink In, but anyone else you might want to give a shout out to. Really, the space is yours.
E: First, thank you to you for being flexible and understanding with my ridiculous schedule right now. Yeah, a couple bands around here we’re playing a showing with in July when we get back from this tour, a band called Narco Debut and a band called Carved Out. Really cool bands from the Detroit area for everyone to check out. We’re also playing a show with a band called Roosevelt that we ran into down in Cincinnati. We played with them and they were one of the best bands we played with on a tour in a really long time. Very compelling, so I’d recommend everyone check out Roosevelt from Cincinnati as well. That’s all I got.
C: Well, thanks again. This is a lot of information and I’ll get this written up. Try to get some sleep.
E: Thanks, you too.
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