A Conversation with Papadosio's Anthony Thogmartin & Billy Brouse
Interview By Coleman Schwartz
Photos By Scott Shrader (J. Scott Shrader Photography)
In the midst of an extensive tour for their new album, Extras in a Movie, Papadosio’s Anthony Thogmartin and Billy Brouse took the time to sit for an in-depth interview, presented exclusively by MusicMarauders.
Coleman Schwartz (CS): I’ve heard a lot recently about your new modular synthesizer setup. Can you talk a little bit about what that does and how you use it onstage?
Anthony Thogmartin (AT): It all started when Sam and I went to watch a demo at Make Noise, which is a company that makes modules in Asheville. After we saw it we were like “God, we have to get one of these things.” It was an eventuality. They’re not exactly cheap, or easy to come by. What I primarily use it onstage for now is kind of embellishing what already exists musically, but it’s rapidly becoming a really awesome composition tool, because it makes new sounds that we haven’t heard before. It’s very exciting! I feel like we will use it more and more as time goes on, but for right now it is mostly just an extra voice, an extra option when we are improvising.
CS: It’s the same type of thing Radiohead uses onstage, correct?
Billy Brouse (BB): Yeah it is. I remember, awhile back, seeing a video of them playing “Idioteque” live. I was like “I don’t know what that plug box is…but I want it!” I had no idea what it was, but it freaked me out, and I loved that. If there was no Kid A, I would not be doing any of this today.
CS: This is an analog device; do you mind touching on why that is important?
AT: Yeah, let me explain. Most electronic music these days is being composed on laptops. There are some types of sounds that laptops can reproduce well, and others that they struggle with. For example, it can be tough to digitally reproduce bright sounds, as well as the character of distortion. You just can’t get the same kind of sound with a digital simulation. With analog, it really feels like the instrument is alive. All an oscillator does is cycle electricity, so it’s just singing electricity in an analog device.
CS: While we are on the subject of gear, how often do you each modify the equipment you are touring with? Have you ever considered posting individual rig rundown videos?
BB: Well, I haven’t actually changed out any of my gear in a while. I need to do that. I got a vibraphone recently, but I haven’t brought it out on tour yet because it’s gigantic. I think we should do rig rundowns, it would be fun!
AT: We would love to do rig rundown videos with the right people, under the right circumstances. It’s just that we have been so busy lately. Our gear has been changing a lot recently, but we discussed this a few weeks ago and we are all feeling close to prepared to break it down for people. We do things very differently. We use a lot of devices that other musicians use, but we are using them in an improvisational setting, which has its fair share of in’s and out’s. I think that should make it really interesting.
CS: 2016 is going to be a big year for the band, with their first headlining Red Rocks gig and first Bonnaroo appearance, among other milestones. What are some of your future goals with respect to venues and touring?
AT: Honestly man, goals are self-generating. At this point, our goal is just to get better at what we’re doing, and to consistently differentiate ourselves from what we have done in the past, as well as from everything else. We are always trying to figure out what it is that we can uniquely contribute to the arts scene. Hence our new album, hence a different sound. I think whatever happens next, recording-wise and songwriting-wise, will be just as drastically different to this album as the last one was to this one.
BB: I’ve never done a side-project before, so I think that would be really fun. To do stuff like that, we need more time, which I guess could be a sort of goal. I would just fill that time doing other music stuff, so I guess I wouldn’t actually have any more time. As a band, we are just focused on getting better and putting new sounds out there for our fans.
CS: Three PA sets in about two months is historically unheard of. Any plans to make these performances a more regular occurrence?
AT: Not necessarily, there were special circumstances involved in why that happened. Two of those were planned, and the third one only happened because of Sam having to take off the last day of the tour. We really enjoy them, and we actually come from a background of improvisation. We do aspects of that in our normal gigs, to the degree that you get a good 15-20 minutes a night (sometimes even 30 minutes, depending on the set) of that PA set sound. We might even start changing what we call that, because it’s really just an improv set at this point. The whole PA set idea originated back when we were using far fewer instruments to do the actual sound generation. Now that we have switched things up, we are using more instruments and using them more fully. We mostly call it a PA set for familiarity’s sake, it’s really just an improv set now.
BB: I wouldn’t mind playing some electric guitar. I’m only playing acoustic right now.
AT: Everybody knows how to play. When we write music, we aren’t really thinking about how it’s going to be played. Also, we don’t always write with all of us present. So, we often just got back later and figure out how to make it work. Because the Brouses are both good at guitar, and I now have more synth capabilities, as does Sam, we can pass around jobs in each song. It all depends on what roles need to be filled. We are trying not to have a filter, if someone wants to write a song that has a certain sound, we don’t want to have to make sacrifices to do it live. Not all of us can do a shredding solo on said instrument, but we can all hold it down if we need to. Unless you’re talking about the drumset, because not all of us can rip a drum solo like Mike can.
CS: Who are some artists that you would like to collaborate with?
AT: I’ve always wanted to write a song with Beck. He’s one of the best songwriters of our time, and people care about him and give him awards, but I think he’s going to be more popular 50 years from now.
BB: I want Pamelia Kurstin to sit-in, that Theremin-shredding chick from the Moog documentary. She is unbelievable and I love her. People wouldn’t realize what she was doing, they’d think she was just waving her hands in the air. She can sound like a violin or a double bass, it’s crazy!
AT: I want to be a backing band to some really amazing female vocalist. I really like the girl from Hiatus Coyote a lot. It would be really cool to hear her voice outside of the sound that they have. I’d like to hear her do something different, just to see what it’s like. And the girl from Little Dragon too. They both have really unique voices.
CS: Who are some of the artists in the jamtronica scene that have had the most influence on your creative direction?
AT: Well, I would personally say I didn’t really listen to that much jamtronica at all. The culmination of listening to electronic music and listening to other music led us in the direction we went. We commonly get compared to all of these jamtronica bands…I shudder at the word jamtronica. We have listened to those bands and played festivals with them, but if you looked at our CD collections, we had Phish albums and a lot of Yes albums. We had lots of those kind of sounds, but we never listened to the more contemporary stuff when we were shaping our sound. There is so much out there! I’d say electronically we were listening to Aphex Twin, or more recently Telefon Tel Aviv. We all really liked the music that was coming out of the 70s. I listened to a lot of Tool and Nine Inch Nails, and I’d say infusing that sound into our music was a much bigger influence than say, the Disco Biscuits.
BB: Yeah, I think I went to like three festivals before we became a band. I didn’t realize this was such a big thing.
BB: I’m not saying that we don’t like those bands. They’re awesome, they are really great, but it wasn’t what we were going for. I personally think we sound really different from them if you listen to it.
AT: Because there are a lot of people in this scene who don’t listen to things outside of it, we are commonly pigeonholed into that category. But, for instance, we have songs that are just acoustic. We just write whatever is happening. It’s sometimes a little frustrating to only hear people say “Oh, this sounds like this band or that band,” when really if they knew where the influence was really coming from, they would say “Oh, this definitely sounds like this band from back in the day.”
BB: This sounds like Goblin from ’73. That stuff is crazy, and that’s who all of these guys sound like. Get your shit right. Also, like I said, we don’t mean to talk shit. We still have a great time listening to these contemporary acts.
CS: Ever since the band parted ways with Rootwire, fans have been clamoring for another Papadosio-curated festival. Is something like this in the works? How does the Great Thaw fit into this equation?
AT: As for the Great Thaw, we just happened to be playing three shows there at a time of year when the weather changes in Asheville. It was our first time since Rootwire playing three sets in one state, so we figured we would name it something. I don’t think any of us were even that excited about the name in particular. As for a festival, it’s hard being a band on the road without a huge, financially-crushing investor. You just can’t really take on the financial risk of doing a large festival. We learned really quick how money and all of these other things can play into making it really difficult for a band, who is just trying to pay the bills, to take the risk of a large festival. There is no shortage of festivals these days. I don’t necessarily think we won’t do one again someday, but we have to be real with where we are at right now.
CS: Is the proposed IMAX theatre tour still on the table?
AT: Everything is on the table!
AT: Here’s how it works, I’ve looked into this a lot. You have to buy out each seat in the room. So if you do a tour, you have to buy seven to ten IMAX theaters entirely out for a night. The ticket prices would depend on the city and what normal IMAX prices are like there. You need content prepared in the highest resolution, I think it’s like 8K or something, in order for it to run on the projectors. We are getting close to having the technology and the know-how. Our visual guy, Jason, is really good at what he does, when we have him with us. It’s just a matter of getting a bunch of content. We just made our first music videos this tour. I really love the idea; it would be amazing. If you had the right gear and some good low-light cameras, you could even splice in live footage of the show. I don’t want to ever let that idea go, and I feel like it’s one of the first ones we will be able to do when we can afford to. It’s gonna happen, I just don’t know when. It could be a year from now, it could be ten years from now.
BB: It would be the coolest thing ever!
CS: Is Jason Takahashi still with you at each show, or is he only there part of the time now?
AT: Yeah, he was pretty solid through the first part of the tour. He is gonna be with us at Red Rocks, but he is not with us presently. We are picking and choosing our battles right now, when it comes to being able to make it all happen financially, and with the gear that we like to use. We don’t want to cut any corners. The gear he uses is rather pricey, so right now we are focused on trying to decide when it is best to roll out with the full visual show. Also, we want to make it a special thing. He puts a lot of work into this, and we don’t want people to see it and say “Oh, there’s the video again.” I want it to shock and amaze people, and for them to be grateful that they got to catch it.
CS: Which songs from the new album have presented the biggest challenge in translating to a live setting?
BB: Therian was weird for me for a little while. Whenever it’s just me playing, I end up thinking about things I shouldn’t be thinking about. It’s so bizarre, I don’t know if I am trying to escape and act like it won’t be a big deal, but then I always ended up overthinking it. At this point, I think I am pretty good with it. As a whole, we are all good now on the whole song, but it was weird at the beginning.
CS: Drip.fm recently announced they will be shutting down. What direction will the band look next in terms of subscription services?
AT: We are gonna do the same thing, but I think we will do it through Bandcamp. They offer literally the same service, but I think they will soup it up. If Bandcamp is smart, they will step in and fill the void. I think Drip wasn’t financially making sense for the company. I’m also not sure that they really expected to have all of these random bands, like us, get on there and upload so many shows. I think it was overloading the site. That’s just speculation, my best guess at what was going on. I know that Bandcamp can handle that kind of thing, because they already have our entire library on there. I think it will be a pretty seamless switch for us. I would like to see Bandcamp make it easier to import their stuff directly into iTunes, taking a cue from what Drip was doing. Hopefully, they will just hire some people from Drip’s team.
CS: What are a few of the requirements for you to get in the zone with respect to improvisation? Do you use any exercises to improve your communication?
BB: We used to play games. We still use hand signals sometimes, to go to the third, or the fifth, or the sixth, or whatever. We used to have more complex ones, but now I think we pretty much know what’s about to happen or what could happen. We are still always learning. Communication onstage is very important, and we have a talkback system in place now, which is amazing. We can talk to each other, which really helps when there is an emergency, such as my computer crashing onstage, or someone’s foot catching on fire. We can say “Hey I need everybody to hold it down for a minute while I put out this fire.”
AT: All we’ve done is jam, the whole time we have been playing together and before we were even writing songs. We are very familiar with it. We all speak a lot of the same musical languages. It is still a struggle, night after night, not to step on each other’s toes. We try to pay a lot of attention to each other so that we don’t have to rely on the talkback system so much. We are incredible victims of circumstance, night after night we will do something better and better each time, but still lack in some other area. That’s the nature of coming up with music in the moment.
AT: Yeah, the biggest plan right now is we are just trying to figure out how to tour less, but still make it feasible. Multi-night runs are a big part of that. Literally, just not going as far is the place to start. We have to admit to ourselves that we have a following that drives everywhere we go. Our personal touring lives have changed somewhat, for instance we fill up water jugs to avoid wasting plastic, but none of that will matter at all compared to how much we make people drive and drive ourselves. We are really trying to work that angle, trying to make sure that everybody in our network can still make due, and even do better, by doing less moving around. Multi-night runs are the point that every touring act that tours with this type of frequency wants to get to.
BB: Also, I want to talk about how festivals fit into that. Festivals are great, lots of fun, but they are big parties that just trash everything. They need to get their shit together and stop leaving so much trash everywhere. Not all of them do that, but a lot of them need serious work because they are producing far too much waste. And getting there, we normally like to fly. We can do two in a weekend like that. We do that because we have to. We would prefer to stay in one place and play two nights there and not use up all of that fuel. That would be great.
CS: Was there a certain point or show where you realized that your work with the band could support you?
BB: Yeah, I think it was in Lexington, which is weird because we are in Louisville right now. We made $1000, and that was just crazy to all of us. I don’t even remember what year it was, but it was a long time ago. Also, we were playing at an open jam night at this place called Jackie O’s in Athens, OH, and the place would just be packed. I’d like to think that people were coming there to see us, and that gave us a lot of confidence to take it on the road.
CS: Earth Night has moved around in the past couple of years. Will that continue or is the event destined for a return to Ohio?
AT: We are trying to figure that out. Just like everything else, it’s an endeavor. There are a lot of logistics to deal with. When the opportunity and the logistics line up, we can do some really cool stuff with it. We are looking at a bunch of different places. I think it has been envisioned that it will continue to move around. In the future, I hope it can be a beneficial endeavor as well. We want it to not just disseminate a good time, but to generate capital for ecological initiatives and things like that.
If you have not yet partaken in the genre-defying, transformational experience that is a Papadosio concert, then check their tour schedule and be sure not to miss your next opportunity! These guys play a beautiful fusion of organic and electronic music with a powerful and positive message. At the very least, download their new album, Extras in a Movie, and give it a listen. They truly have something to offer to fans of nearly any type of music.