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July 7, 2011

Rhapsody Radar Interview: Rival Sons

by Rhapsody  |  July 7, 2011

Welcome to Rhapsody Radar, our month-long series highlighting 24 up-and-coming artists we're thrilled about, augmented with a truckload of playlists, videos and other goodies. Today we've got an exclusive interview with Jay Buchanan, lead singer for Rival Sons, psych-boogie warlords from Los Angeles.

Every couple of years or so, some joker out there in the media-sphere declares the death of good old rock 'n' roll. These shenanigans have been going on since punk and hardcore declared war on the dinosaurs of classic rock back in the late 1970s. They're never right, of course; the music, as always, keeps on surviving. In fact, these days it's thriving, with such heavies as The Sword, Graveyard, Night Horse and Buffalo Killers bringing the riffs as if the Western calendar never made it past 1972. We can now add Rival Sons to the list, frying ears with their soul-infused brand of vintage hard rock. Rock critics keep comparing them to Led Zeppelin, and while they're not incorrect, true music nerds (like myself, I suppose) hear a band that's significantly more inspired by the groups that actually pre-dated Zep: The Jeff Beck Group, Eric Burdon and The New Animals, Vanilla Fudge, Blue Cheer, Bloomfield-Kooper-Stills and so on.

I recently talked with Buchanan while Rival Sons' tour made its way across the Midwest (and then on to the United Kingdom, where they're playing a spate of gigs with the mighty Judas Priest). The guy is a fabulous howler, one with an impressive range and a sharp sense of craft. He's outspoken, too, which made for a fun interview.

Rhapsody: How's all the touring going this year?

Jay Buchanan: Good. We're in Chicago right now.

You're playing Kalamazoo, Mich., tonight.

Yeah, that's where Gibson started.

It's also home to Bell's Brewery. In fact, you're playing Bell's Eccentric Café. Be careful knocking back those high-ABV brews. They're potent.

Well, we can't party too much. We have to leave early and get to Toronto.

So, the phrase "Rival Sons advocate veganism and spirituality along with classic rock 'n' roll" pops up across the Internet. Is this a joke?

It's serious. All of us, at the bare minimum, are vegetarian. And we're definitely spiritual people with different philosophies.

It definitely subverts the stereotype that all rock 'n' rollers care about are booze and babes.

There's always the boozing, but yeah, we're not into playing the part.

Rival Sons have drawn numerous comparisons to Zeppelin, but I think the group, had you guys been around back in the day, would've pre-dated them. To these ears, the heavy psych-soul aspects of your sound have more in common with The Jeff Beck Group and their Truth album, which came out in '68.

Like you said, everybody is influenced by Zeppelin. But there are so many other bands that mean something to us: The Jeff Beck Group, The Animals. Eric Burdon was a badass. They were doing R&B, and that dude wailed.

I've read other interviews, and it seems as if the band was under the gun when recording your new album, Pressure & Time. How does it differ from previous releases?

The more we grow as a band, the more our sound changes. Each time we go into the studio, it's a snapshot of where we're at, at that time. You can definitely hear the differences between Before the Fire, our first record, and our EP, which we put out last January. The new record is kind of an amalgamation of the two. We went into the studio with nothing, and we had very little time. That's where the title comes from. We wrote, recorded and mixed it in less than three weeks.

Is it weird rocking out in a studio, where there's no crowd getting you pumped?

The only thing that makes it weird is if somebody is f*cking off. We tour so much and play places like radio stations, where you have to set up your gear. Then you're in an arena, and after that, a bar in the middle of nowhere with five people. You just play, and it's the same thing in the studio. You never phone it in.

Songwriting. What is the band's approach? Do songs emerge from jam sessions, or just riffs and grooves? When are the lyrics written?

Sometimes, I'll come to the band with a song. Other times, somebody else will bring a riff. We can build an entire song from a single riff. I'll then write lyrics as the song comes together. Everything gets written at about the same time. [Guitarist Scott Holiday] and I are the chief songwriters.

You guys signed with Earache, the home of grindcore, death metal and thrash. What an odd pairing, right?

The label's owner hit up our management. We didn't take him too seriously, actually. How would we ever fit into that world? But the label really courted us. They way they tie us into that market is that we play the type of rock 'n' roll that directly preceded heavy metal. That's their logic. I thought it was fuzzy at first. But if you look at the timeline, you have Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, then the rest of the lineage. It works.

Do you think Guitar Hero and Rock Band have helped expose kids to classic rock? It's a silly thought, yet it seems as if video games exert more influence than radio these days.

I can totally see that. It makes perfect sense that they would reignite people's love of actual rock 'n' roll. You just made me pretty happy.

Lets talk about graphic designer Storm Thorgerson, who created the cover art for Pressure & Time. What a legend. This is the guy who designed the the Dark Side of the Moon cover.

Storm is a bag of tricks. Working with him was a pleasure. He's very invested and doesn't take his work lightly, lots of long conversations and waxing philosophical. I love how the cover turned out.

Did you discuss your own philosophical and spiritual insights with him?

Our own spiritualities have very little to do with the cover. Storm listened to the record a lot and threw out some different perceptions of the lyrics. That was enough for us.

You've shared stages with Alice Cooper, Ace Frehley and AC/DC. Who has aged the most gracefully?

Ace was very disappointing. It was horrible, and I felt really bad. Alice did a great job. Really nice guy, he has helped us out, too. But without a doubt, it's AC/DC. Backstage, they look their age. But when they hit the stage they blew my head off. The amount of energy they have is insane. I'm looking forward to seeing what Judas Priest are all about. It's an education just to be around these guys.

Judas Priest have aged really well, I think. One of my faves.

I'm looking forward to hearing how [Rob Halford's] voice has aged. The range he maintains requires a lot of work.

Last question. This really cool teenager -- who loves Rival Sons, of course -- runs into to you and asks for a handful of records that'll help teach him the history of rock and roll. What titles do you pick?

I'd start off with the blues, because that's where rock 'n' roll came from: a Son House collection and a Robert Johnson album. From there, I'd go with some Buddy Holly, who was this kid sweating it out in a garage in Lubbock, Tex., and writing these incredible songs. Then I'd definitely go with The Jeff Beck group's Truth and Led Zeppelin's first record. After that, a little AC/DC, because they're a whole different beast, an entirely different kind of rock 'n' roll. Everything is maximum, everything. It's very exciting music to listen to, and I love it.

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