Edgar B. Herwick interviews Zach Williams of ‘The Lone Bellow’
EDGAR B. HERWICK III, INTERVIEWER: Alright. Here we are in the green room at the Paradise with The Lone Bellow. There’s three of you, so which one is ‘the lone bellow’?
ZACH WILLIAMS: It’s our tour manager actually, Chris.
HERWICK: How did the three of you meet? You guys are based out of Brooklyn but that’s not really home, right?
WILLIAMS: I’ve been in Brooklyn for about eight years but Brian and I have known each other for the past twelve years…old friends. And we met in Virginia, lived together in Virginia. Kanene’s older brother is one of my best friends. I sang in his wedding and Kanene also sang in his wedding. We actually sang together…sang duet. ‘Oh Happy Day’…it was pretty awesome. I was like, “Man! You’re on fire when you sing. Let’s do music together.”
HERWICK: Wait, wait. Did he really say that?
KANENE PIPKIN: Not directly to me. He was actually allergic to the flower on his lapel. So, his face was all swollen.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, but I still wanted to dance. My was all swollen shut and I was like, “I’m still dancin’!”
HERWICK: Bet you couldn’t stop your feet?
WILLIAMS: Everyone thought I was on cocaine or something.
HERWICK: It’s funny that you mention that you guys sang together. This sort of ‘sing together’ thing is kind of like a signature piece of what you guys do.
WILLIAMS: It’s a brand new idea…
WILLIAMS, BRIAN ELMQUIST: …that we just came up with.
HERWICK: Harmony. How did that develop? It seems to me when I talk to musicians that there are two paths. There’s the “we just locked in and it worked. That sort of ‘family sound’. And there are other people you talk to. You hear Jay Bennett talk about the Wilco stuff and he’s like, “I would work out all of the stuff on piano and then I would teach the band and we would all follow our parts.” You know what I mean? Take us inside the magic process of singing together.
ELMQUIST: The first time we actually sang together Zach was trying to work out some songs and we were going to supposedly start a honkytonk band and I was really excited about that.
HERWICK: Define a ‘honkytonk band’.
I don’t even know. It’s just a honkytonk band. So what we really did was like work out some songs. A bunch of our friends showed up and we all sang ‘You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional’. It was one of the first songs we sang together and all of us hit the note together and we were like, “Holy cow. That’s real cool.” We leaned in to it and realized it was something we really needed to take seriously. That’s kind of where it started. But it’s basically just trying to play around with stuff. It wasn’t anything that came naturally. It was very fun.
HERWICK: Is the sing together one of the more rewarding parts of doing this? Is it something you spend a lot of time on and think about when you’re working out a song?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean it’s one of the things that remind you that you are friends that trust each other, first. And then you make music together and I feel like when you sing together you just feel that camaraderie. It’s just a good reminder of that.
HERWICK: What about for you, Kanene?
Yeah. Definitely. The way our voices sounded together when we first started singing together is what made want to be in this band. When you have three people singing together you can sing something really sad and it doesn’t sound quite so depressing. Because even though the subject material can be really sad, it’s still three people doing it together. There isn’t the lonely quality of it and I think it makes it accessible to people. It makes people want to sing along to songs that otherwise might depress them. And kind of gives you the feeling of, “It’s okay what I’m going through because these people are going through it too.” I think there’s a real safety and then just a real power in it when you have three people hitting a really high note and there all hitting it. It’s just kind of this wall of sound that’s very arresting and makes you notice.
HERWICK: For you guys it gives, what I would call it, a very ‘big sound’. There’s tons of bands trafficking in that ‘New Americana’ space right now. A lot of them are piners for an earlier time. “Let’s crowd around the single mic. Let’s get real bluegrass. Let’s be really authentic. They’re buying really old instruments and they’re wearing really old clothes.
WILLIAMS: They’re shoving dirt on their faces.
HERWICK: They go out in the field and work before they actually do the show.
WILLIAMS: There are all sorts of injustices happening in their circles of friends.
So they’re cultivating that, right? And then there is this other category. You have something like Phosphorescent with a lot of bleeps and blurps. Kind of like ‘bleeka blooka bleeka blooka blooker.’ That’s kind of what I call it. A little bit of pseudo-electronica with it. You guys are sort in this in this New Americana space but you guys have this sort of anthemic, rock-roots, big thing. Is that something you guys…to me it’s a different quality than what a lot of the other band are doing.
PIPKIN: I think have a lot of R&B influence. Not just 90’s R&B, which we do love. Boyz to Men, Mariah, Whitney, Bodyguard soundtrack. Anything Babyface touched. But, we also grew up listening to Sam Cook, Otis Redding and lots of soul music and Motown R&B era. I think all three of us have big voices but somehow they still fit together. I think that’s what the sound kind of lends to.
WILLIAMS: What’s been a lot of fun is you do something that you just kind of came up with. You didn’t even really come up with it, you just started singing together. This record that we made is our first set list. It’s like our first eleven songs that we had and we weren’t trying to do a particular thing. Bit then what happens is people listen to it and then they define it for themselves. It’s kind of a memorable process watching someone pull a definition out of something that you are just doing. That’s just how you do music or whatever. It’s that fun give and take of a listener and a musician.
HERWICK: Do you agree?
ELMQUIST: I agree. It’s been fun becoming a band. We were in New York with regular jobs. We played these songs and we knew they were special. When we finished the record two…two and a half years ago we thought it was special. So, we took our time putting our team together but it wasn’t until January that the record came out. Then it wasn’t until March after South by Southwest that we actually went on the road. So, once we started playing these things every night the band itself has taken on a whole new unity and it’s really fun to be a part of because it feels like something that is growing in sound everyday. It feels really rewarding to be a part of it, especially with your friends.
HERWICK: Cool. I want to talk a little about the beginnings of you as a songwriter. Obviously, there’s this big story behind that. Your wife got in an accident. A horseback riding accident. I don’t if you’re comfortable talking about that but could you walk me through that story and how that brought you to songwriting.
WILLIAMS: I grew up on a horse farm down in Georgia. I was going to school in south Florida and these storms came through…hurricanes. So, me and all of my buddies piled in a few cars and drove up to my parents farm, because we were evacuated from the little town that we went to school in. We all go up there. We’re hanging out. We wake up the next morning and we saddle up a couple of the horses and we’re just riding around. And sometimes animals can feel weather. It will make them not act completely normal. Just like the pressure and stuff, it will kind of psyche them out.
And my wife…we still don’t know exactly what happened. No one physically saw it. I think a horse took off and ran her under a tree limb. She fell off and she broke C1, C3, C5 and C6 in her neck. They shattered and went into her spinal cord. We got to the hospital and they diagnosed as quadriplegic. And then we just lived in that reality. Actually Kanene’s older brother was one of the people that liked lived with me at the hospital. There were like these fifteen people that lived with me in the hospital for a long time. I was going through the different phases of grief. I was mostly in the numb phase. I would teeter in and out of angry and numb.
So, I was writing everything because if you start writing and you don’t stop no matter what, all of the sudden the things that are way down in there…you start writing and you’re like, “Oh. That’s what I’m feeling.” That was the practice that I was doing…trying to dig out of this numbness. I would write in rhyme because it just helped me keep going. My buddies were like, “ You should make these song and learn how to play the guitar and sing at the same time. And just go and play open mics. So that’s where songwriting became a cathartic thing for my rhythm of life.
And my wife…we basically said, “If something happens. If Stacy gets better by a miracle, let’s all move to New York City together and just do life together. And she did.
That was like ten years ago. And those fifteen people all moved to this little neighborhood in Brooklyn and this band is basically an extension of that group of friends and their values. A lot of the stories are out of this group of people and this little neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s neat because the music that we do now is still the fundamental core…ways it can happen…just like tangibly…I’ve got three little girls living in 500 square feet so we have her sister and his wife…all of these friends…we just help each other raise the kids…I don’t know… I feel like this music has always been an extension of community for me. That’s how it started with me.
HERWICK: I’m sorry I’m blanking on the name. But there’s a song on your record and there’s a really good story on your website about going out in the rain and laying in the rain and about recording that one. Give me the background on ‘Teach Me To Know”.
WILLIAMS: Actually, another one of those friends that lived with me in the hospital…his name is Caleb Clardy…we wrote that song together. I’s a lot of fun singing his words. We made a record in Rockwood Music Hall, which is this great music hall in New York City. It took three days, three nights. The last night we were recording this song called ‘Bleeding Out’. We had to lay it down like twelve times. We would sing it at the top of our lungs every time…really exhausting. It started pouring down rain. So, we ran outside and ran in the rain. Our band is out on Allen Street at 1AM.
HERWICK: Who went out first?
WILLIAMS: I think our piano player Brian Murphy went out first. He went and just laid down in the street. So nasty. I’m surprised he didn’t get eaten by rats the second he laid down. And then Jason and Kanene ran out there and were slow dancing in the pouring rain and it was just like this moment. We were out there losing ourselves. Meanwhile, Charlie Peacock and Richie Biggs…the engineer and the producer reset all the mics…set them up where we were looking at each other and really close to each other. When we came inside they were just like, “I know you don’t have a second verse to the song yet but we’re recording the song right now.” He wanted us to record it while we were feeling that high of being out there. So we did and there’s like a video on youtube where someone captured that moment. We’re all completely drenched and standing too close to electrical things to be wet. It was cool.
HERWICK: Real quick…round robin. I want you to tell me as quickly as you can. What songs are you enjoying playing the most right now? And also what are you listening to right now…between gigs and stuff like that.
ELMQUIST: Well, you guys don’t know it but there’s a new song called ‘Hickory to Telluride’ that Zach wrote and we are working on. A lot of the new stuff we are really enjoying writing. But what we play live I’d probably say ‘Fire Red Horse’. It’s my favorite song to play live because it’s hard. You’ve got to get through it and I like the challenge. Then I’d say what I’m listening to right now…man…we were just in Maine…and if you turn on ‘Tallest Man on Earth’ when you’re driving around in Maine it is made for that state.
WILLIAMS: I think my favorite song to sing…ah man…my favorite song to sing right now is the first that we do where we like pull together. We get around this condenser mic so we can stand real close to each other and feel the ebb and flow of this mic. It’s Brian’s song called ‘Watch Over Us’. I just really like singing that song. And then I’ve been listening to Jim James’ new record. What’s the name of it?
PIPKIN: ‘Regions of Light and Sound of God’
HERWICK: Do you follow him all the way through? Do you like all of the My Morning Jacket stuff? All of his stuff? You’re just 100 percent behind it?
PIPKIN: It’s good. We’ve been doing this thing where we either sing around a condenser mic for a couple songs or we just…if the venue is conducive we go out in the audience and sing a couple songs, just totally acoustic. And one of them is ‘Two Sides of Lonely’ which is on our new record and I love singing that song.
PIPKIN: I remember really vividly recording it and it was one of those songs that would be really hard to sing if you were singing it by yourself but is not so bad if you have other people singing it with you. And then listening to…I mean it’s November, which for me is fair game for Christmas music. So I’m waffling between the Sufjan Stevens Christmas catalog…I listened to him when I was living in Virginia…and then the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown soundtrack. I got it on vinyl. I listen to Vince Guaraldi all year round.
HERWICK: Cool. I know you said we’re done but can I just ask really quickly? Tell me about playing in Boston…what you guys have done before and you had a good story.
WILLIAMS: Oh man. I think the better story is…it was the night that you guys were allowed to come back out of your apartments after the marathon bombing. We drove up and there were tanks hanging out. We were like, “Man…what is tonight going to be like?” The audience filled the room and there was this sense of just release and I felt like we had this honor of leaning in to this cathartic, “Okay. We’re back out in our city. We’re back out on our sidewalks. This is our town.” We were watching these people come back to life and it was unforgettable to be a part of that.
HERWICK: Guys, thank you so much.