An email interview with Christoper Keene of Surrogate.
JoshIVM: You were previously in Number One Gun and once it disbanded you started Surrogate, which has a decidedly mellower sound. What led to this choice to pursue something different?
Chris: Number One Gun was an amazing experience for both Jordan and I, we really grew up as musicians and learned how to be in a real band, however I was never really that involved with the writing process, so when I started writing my own music it just had a different feel than NOG. I think the biggest reason why it sounds so different is because Jeff [Schneeweis, NOG] and I simply listen to very different music.
In my opinion your last album was one of the underrated releases of 2007. Looking back on it now, how do you personally view it?
Thank you very much! I’m very proud of Love Is For The Rich, all those songs are very meaningful to me. That being said, it was my first time engineering a record, and looking back there are a few things I wish that we had done differently. For instance, we discovered after we got the mixes back, that one of the songs was about 15 beats per minute slower on the recording than on the demo, which was NOT intentional. Establishing a tempo BEFORE the recording process begins is one of the many things that i took away from that experience.
Walk us through the song writing process for you. Do lyrics come first or does it all stem from a musical idea?
About 90% of the time a Surrogate song is written with a melody and chord structure first. Almost every Surrogate song has a very generic larva stage where the chords and rhythms are very similar to other songs that I have written, and I really focus on writing an interesting melody over the skeleton. I pretty much spend the rest of my time trying to make it NOT sound like other songs haha. Lyrics generally come last, after the feel of the song is established.
Speaking of lyrics, is there any overall theme with the new album or is it varied? If it varies, what kind of topics do you cover?
The songs vary pretty significantly on subject matter, “State of Jefferson” is about the creation of a 51st state, and “Surprise” is about a run-in I had with a homeless gentleman, but thematically there is a common thread of advocating moderation throughout most of the record.
Do you find yourself constantly at work on new material?
That’s kind of a tricky question because I sell a lot of songs to other people, so when I’m working on other people’s music I find it difficult to be creative for myself, but when I take a break from writing for a while, it picks back up and inspiration strikes on a pretty regular basis.
So Popular Mechanics just recently released, how has the response been so far?
We’ve gotten some shout-outs and accolades from some blogs and review sites, so overall we’re very pleased. Plus, my mom REALLY likes it… so I got that going for me, which is nice.
Did you approach the recording process for Popular Mechanics in the same fashion as your debut? If I remember correctly you recorded Love Is For The Rich at your apartment. Did you record the new album there as well?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure my neighbors hated me in that place. I’ve moved since. In some ways this record was a very similar process, i.e. it was primarily Jordan and I, but we actually recorded in a studio this time around. And I ended up handling all the mixing, which was new and kinda scary.
Was there anything that you purposely sought to change on this album?
Actually yes. The last record was made in a very minimalist fashion, I really wanted the songwriting be the center of the record and it worked out nicely because I wasn’t very good at recording at that point. So on this record we purposefully went kind of the other direction, we had people come in and play trumpet and violin, we have a few songs with around 50 tracks of doubled and tripled vocals and guitars and synths, etc. So I think that affected the overall feel of the new record.
You play a number of instruments. What led you to learn so many? Did you learn at a young age or decide to pick them up later on?
I was lucky enough to have parents who knew the value of a good musical education, so from the age of 7 I was always taking piano and theory lessons so new instruments have always come relatively easy to me. And because Surrogate started as a solo project, if I wanted something specific in a song, I pretty much just had to borrow whatever it was and learn how to play it.
You guys aren’t a full-time touring band, constantly on the road, so what do you do for a living?
I work at a recording studio as an engineer, and Jordan is a fire fighter.
Are there any plans to hit the road and tour this new disc?
Being that we have jobs that we like, it’s hard for us to get time off for touring, but if the right tour came along I’m sure we could work something out…
Having been around the industry for some time now, what are your thoughts on the current state of music being released, from an artists perspective?
I think that music being released right now is as good as it’s ever been. There certainly are some pretty shitty things getting played on the radio, but at the same time, there is SO MUCH out there that there is literally something for everyone. “Variety is the spice of life” – Bobby Flay or someone.
What are some artists, current or from the past, that you draw influence from or that inspire you?
Oh man, well I guess America, Red House Painters, Pedro the Lion, The Flaming Lips, Built to Spill, The Dismemberment Plan, Sufjan Stevens, Starflyer 59, THE BEATLES, Elliot Smith, The Band, The Eagles… These bands (among others) have and do inspire me every time I play one of their records.
What about the other side of the spectrum? The music business is being completely overhauled with the emergence of the digital age. What are some positives and negatives that you see around you?
It’s true that technology is really trimming the fat from the music industry, but at the same time advancing technology is allowing people like me to make records in their apartments without $100k worth of equipment. The industry, especially the majors, had been making horrible business decisions for years, and I think it’s catching up with them. Gone are the days when they could spend $300,000 on a record and decide, after the fact, that it’s out. And good riddance, as far as I’m concerned. But then again, I don’t make the majority of my living off of my band, so you should probably have a few grains of salt laying around to take with my opinion.
Down the road, when you look back on Surrogate, what will you hope to have accomplished? Are there any specific goals you’d like to achieve with it?
I hope that I will always be proud of the music I’m putting out right now.
Last question, what record(s) have you been spending a lot of time listening to lately?
Well, right now I’m listening to MeWithoutYou: “It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright!”, I also just re-bought Built To Spill “Keep It Like A Secret”, David Bowie “Best of 1969-73”, M. Ward “Hold Time” and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.
Thanks for the interview! Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
Thank you for the interview! You guys have always been so kind to us, and that means a TON!