Friday, June 11, 2010

Interview with Greg Laswell

A version of my article originally appeared in the North County Times []. Photo by Lauren Dukoff, courtesy of Vanguard Records. Laswell plays San Diego tonight and the Hotel Cafe in LA on Saturday-Sunday.

Making music videos are seldom easy, but Greg Laswell didn’t realize the one for “Take Everything” would be as challenging as his college studies in San Diego.

The concept revolves around a raucous house party where all the action takes place in reverse around the singer/songwriter. To prepare, he had to relearn his song lyrics backwards – a process that took four days (longer than recording the actual tune).

“I spelled it out phonetically, which took a good chunk of time,” Laswell explained, en route to a Boston gig. “Once it was done accurately, I had to start practicing.” The sentences came out like Russian. “It sounded like a completely different language; I was pretty stressed about the video.”

Currently top 10 at AAA radio, the spirited tongue-in-cheek track ridicules a dishonest person. It’s one of several songs on solid new album “Take a Bow” featuring backup vocals from Ingrid Michaelson and Cary Brothers (fellow regulars at LA club Hotel Café).

Deciding that he’d be more creative in a remote environment other than SoCal, Laswell wrote and recorded the third full-length Vanguard Records effort at a remote cabin in Mountainaire, Ariz.

“A friend of mine in Flagstaff let me borrow it once during an off day on tour. I just fell in love with the [relaxed] pace. I was living in LA at the time and it was quite a difference.”

During a six month span spent with his dog there, Laswell played all the instruments (guitar, banjo, piano, synths, drum programming). Occasionally, musician pals like Michaelson would stop by to contribute. He admits others will “play a part better than I do, I just like the way mine sounds with imperfections.”

Among the album highlights are an atmospheric, Doves-styled “Around the Bend,” haunting Radiohead-leaning “My Fight (For You)” and earnest, poppy “In Front of Me” (about pining for your best friend). Then there’s the vitriolic “Come Clean,” with an unusually edgy rock chorus.

People are often surprised to discover Laswell is an avid listener of heavy rock acts like Tool and Slipknot. They’d probably be more taken aback by his guilty pleasure of contemporary country music. “All my credibility, if I have any, is probably going to go out the door,” he said with a laugh, “but I also like Miranda Lambert.”

Last year, Laswell released the “Covers” EP, where he sublimely tackled Echo & the Bunnymen, Mazzy Star, Kristen Hersh and others. The enjoyable process alleviated a dry writing spell and “opened me up production-wise,” so he plans to do another batch soon.

A longtime San Diego resident who now lives in Brooklyn, Laswell majored in Communications at Point Loma Nazarene University during the mid-1990s. After graduation, he fronted Ocean Beach indie rock band Shillglen. Their self-released disc “Sometimes I Feel” came out in 1999.

About his time in the local music scene, Laswell said he considered it a learning experience. “I haven’t thought about that in years. It was just rock music. We were all real young and worked hard. It was fun.”

The novice musicians “really didn’t know what we were doing; we printed 1000 CDs we recorded ourselves and they sounded terrible.” Still, the album was moderately successful and earned a couple San Diego Music Awards nominations.

“We’d play once every two or three months at places like Easy Street, Java Joe’s and Brick by Brick.”

Laswell didn’t like being in a band and “was more serious than the rest of them” [about a music career]. Independent solo album “Good Movie” emerged in ’03 and garnered a SDMA. Steady gigs at Hotel Café and elsewhere in LA led to a deal with Vanguard.

Since then, various splintered relationship songs from subsequent albums “Through Toledo” and “Three Flights from Alto Nido” have landed Laswell multiple spots on prominent TV shows. Producers of “Grey’s Anatomy” were so pleased with Laswell’s lovelorn material (six placements to date), that they requested a song specifically written for the fifth season finale.

Only problem was the show execs were vague and couldn’t provide a script for reference. “I asked what the episode was about and they said, ‘we can’t tell you that.’ They wanted a song that got really big and really small without any resolution lyrically. I had started working on ‘Off I Go’ right before they came to me. Based on their description, I thought, ‘ok, I can change this one.’ It worked out alright.”

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