Frontman Daniel Layus discusses the expansive process behind Augustana’s self-titled album, how growing older has affected his writing, getting more in touch with early influences, and life on a major label.
I understand this record was a slow process and you originally started recording it back in 2009. Can you talk about what went into making this album?
The process was definitely a long one. We really worked basically from the ground up. We put a lot more focus and attention into every detail and every aspect of the writing of the song, the recording and performances of the song, the production, the mixing and the mastering. We were pretty hands on all the way through.
It took about two and a half years to get going and finish it. It’s going on almost exactly three years since our last release, and it definitely feels good to have something fresh and new to work with.
Did you do a lot of different recording sessions?
We did. Initially we set out to make the record with Jacquire King, who’s done some great stuff with Kings of Leon, Norah Jones and recently Cold War Kids, a lot of really great bands. We set out to do kind of the classic format of a live studio setup, recording everybody in the same room, trying to cut 10 to 11 songs and get the best raw performance of the song, whatever that take was, even if it took 50 takes.
We got about halfway there. We turned in the record and we were able to keep about half of that part of the record. Then we ended up readdressing our stance on it and going back in with some different producers and trying some different things from the back door. We ended up coming up with “Steal Your Heart,” “Shot in the Dark” and “Borrowed Time,” some of the songs that I think are really big staples of the record that weren’t there for quite a while.
So I take it you have a lot of b-sides then.
We do. We’re only keeping two bonus tracks. The rest I think are just going to be scrapped and possibly used in the future. We definitely wrote a lot of songs for the record, and whittled it down to what we believed were the best 10 as a group.
I definitely think this one sounds a lot different than your other albums, which I take it was intentional. What were your goals for this album and what did you want achieve?
We set the bar pretty high. We have pretty big aspirations for where we want to go as a band and with our career. We definitely wanted to raise the stakes. We wanted to further our career in a way that made sense to us. We were also very conscious in making sure we didn’t completely alienate fans or listeners of our previous projects. We wanted to make sure that people weren’t like, “Who is this band? This isn’t Augustana.”
We wanted to do something for ourselves and something that made us happy as well, which is always a tough balance. It’s tough to keep those things in check and make sure that you’re not losing too many people on the way, but also make sure that you’re not conceding too many things just for the sake that people still like your record.
It seems you might have more of a Southern rock influence on this, like Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty. How do you think your influences have changed since Midwest Skies and All the Stars?
The thing is they haven’t really changed. The influences have always been there. When we were younger, we didn’t necessarily know what we were doing maybe as much as we do now. We’ve been playing for so long, touring for so long, made a couple records, and with that growth process we were finally able to make those influences a little bit more relevant and prominent in the production of our own music and making it our own.
When you’re younger, you just want to sound like the bands that you’re listening to. When we were making our first album, we just wanted to sound like Counting Crows and the Wallflowers. Now, we felt like we were able to actually find our own voice and properly use the influences of Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, Wilco and Springsteen in a unique, Augustana kind of way.
As far as vocally, when I first heard it there’s a couple songs that don’t sound at all like what you’ve done in the past. Did you sing things differently? How did you play around with that?
It kind of goes back to what I was saying before. It’s just the natural progression and the maturing process. It’s learning what the strengths of your voice are and how to use those strengths. I think it just comes with the territory. It comes with playing thousands of shows and making records, seeing what you’re good at and maybe what you’re not so good at. Then it’s finding your own skin, finding your own voice, and feeling comfortable in that. It wasn’t a conscious decision to sing differently. It just kind of happens.
There’s lots of examples of bands who did that. Bruce Springsteen’s one of them. If you listen to his voice on Born to Run, it doesn’t even sound like the same guy on Darkness On the Edge of Town. Or Ryan Adams, from Whiskeytown to the stuff that he does now. I think there’s a lot of examples of that. It’s more so just life, and the progression of learning and changing as your life changes. I think your voice naturally changes as well.
When “Steal Your Heart” first came out online, I saw a lot of people were saying how you sounded like Brandon Flowers, which I thought was interesting.
I love the Killers. I think the band is phenomenal and I think Brandon Flowers is a great frontman, a great entertainer and a great songwriter. I think there’s some influence there. I don’t own any Killers records, actually, but I’m certainly very familiar with what they do, and Kings of Leon.
I felt like I wanted to not necessarily be thought of in that same group, but I wanted to take some pointers from them. I think subconsciously I’ve taken some pointers from those bands that are great, successful, American rock bands. They found a way to be unique, but still timeless and classic in their own right, yet still be modern, pushing the envelope and pushing people into new frontiers, listening-wise, of music.
Switching gears to the lyrics, what were your influences in that area? Did writing it over such an extended period of time have any effect?
Yeah, certainly. When you’re putting together a record and writing, if you’re doing it over the course of two months, not much is going to change. You’re just in one session and you can bang it out, so it’s going to be a little more consistent, but this process took two to three years.
As things changed in my life, you naturally change with those changes. I think lyrically that certainly comes through. I think there’s a bit of a story involved in this record. There’s a running theme in the sense that it’s a bit of a life journal, a living journal. There’s certainly a lot of my life in this record.
Would you say more so than the other ones?
I think there’s more of an honest assessment of things in my life on this record than maybe on previous records. I was trying to find my way on how to write about my life on previous records but there wasn’t that much experience to draw from at that point, especially on All the Stars and Boulevards. I was 19 or 20 years old at the most. I guess you only have so much to draw from. You’ve only been in a high school dating relationship. You’ve never made your own money. All those things, it’s like what do you have to bring to the table?
Now, there’s a lot. I’m seven years in, doing this, and there’s a lot to draw from. I think it naturally manifests itself on the record in probably a more honest way with a little more substance. Just like you might have more to talk about at the bar with your friends at 26 than you did at 19, or at least more substantial things and things with more consequences.
So I want to ask about a couple songs real quick and how you wrote and came up with them. The first one is “Hurricane,” which I thought was a really cool song. Obviously, a lot of other artists have songs about hurricanes and stuff like that, but I thought you approached it from a little different angle. Can you talk about how you wrote that one?
We wrote that song down in Mississippi actually, on a casino riverboat. We were on tour with Counting Crows a couple summers back, and it was just very fitting. It was the right mood at the right time in the right setting. It came about in a natural way. It was fitting some of the themes that were going on in my life as well.
Sonically, as far as the instrumentation and the presentation and the performances on the song, you probably haven’t seen us in a lot of years but if you’re familiar with the band live that’s certainly the angle that we take and the form of music that we feel the most comfortable in. I don’t want to pin it as alt country, or folk rock, or whatever you want to call it. The Jayhawks, Wilco, Jackson Browne, Ryan Adams – those are the influences that speak the loudest to us at times, especially in a live setting.
That was just one of those songs with Jacquire. We got one really good take of it and tried to keep it honest, not do any overdubs, and try to keep it real raw and true to just a band playing a song.
The next one is a song you’re mentioned already, “Borrowed Time,” which is more of a stripped-down, slower song. Again, it’s a theme that a lot of people have written about, but it becomes more relevant to you as you grow older.
Absolutely. There’s a lot of real life experience going on in that song, taking off of something that was certainly happening in my life at the time. I had just seen that movie Crazy Heart. I really liked that and the music in that with Ryan Bingham and Jeff Bridges. Obviously, the Dude.
I just picked up the guitar and got in the studio with this guy named Jeff Trott, who’s done some really great stuff with Sheryl Crow over the years. He was really great. It was just me and him and the guy who happened to be his drummer at the time. It was one take on the vocals and one take on the drums. We played some bass and some steel guitar and some harmonies, and just put it together. It just felt like a real natural take of the song.
Lyrically, it certainly is something that I felt was important to include on the record. I think it fits in there as a really important piece of the puzzle involving a lot of the other songs, which are themed around fighting your ass off, giving it your heart, and swinging for the fences for a relationship, your life, your career or whatever it is. It fits in there because why are you doing it? Why are fighting so hard? Why do you care so much? Well, I guess you care so much because time is short and you have to make the most of all this while you can, naturally.
The last song I want to ask about is the last song on the album, “It Only Means I Love You.” I thought the verses were very interesting and not your typical love song lyrics you would expect for a song with that title. Can you talk about that one?
That one was written in one sitting while we were rehearsing. It’s a very, very honest song, almost in the way that can get you in a lot of trouble. It’s one of those things that maybe you’d normally put in your private blog or private diary and nobody would read it.
I liked that I was taking that risk, even though it was scary. It’s definitely scatterbrained in the thought process of trying to make a relationship work. Or you’re trying to figure out what’s worth fighting for, and you go looking for it sometimes. Being in love or having a great relationship doesn’t solve everything.
I think that’s part of it as well, is realizing that and being willing to accept that it doesn’t solve all problems. Just because you have a great relationship, or just because you have somebody that loves you, doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to work out exactly like it’s shitting rainbows or that kind of thing. It’s just part of the puzzle, and I think it’s an important piece of the record.
You’re married and have two kids now. Does that play into giving you a new perspective on those things?
Absolutely. Anybody that has kids, or is married, or has responsibilities where people are relying on them to make things happen, I definitely can relate to that. This record is very real life. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly. There’s a lot of hope. There’s a lot of exciting things and themes on the record, but there’s also a lot of heartbreak and human condition, digging in deep and trying to figure out what this whole journey’s about.
The kids and relationships, all those things, I think that’s an essential theme of why you do what you do, why you wake up every day and keep trucking along, because if you don’t they don’t have food on the table and they don’t have a roof over their head. That’s certainly something worth fighting for.
How old are your kids now?
I have a 4 ½-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son.
Almost starting school then.
Yeah, almost in kindergarten. It’s crazy. It’s going too damn fast.
As you mentioned on one of the previous songs, you did a lot of co-writing with other studio musicians or guys from other bands on this record. What was that experience like for you and had you done a lot of that previously?
No, I had never really collaborated with anybody outside of our band before. I was a bit reluctant at first to do it. I was a bit one toe in the door for a while. I kind of got nudged into it by some of the people that work with us, like management and the label.
I didn’t want to do it because I had always felt like, “Why can’t I do this? I can do this. I can take the burden on my shoulders and I can handle it. I can write a great record by myself.” That really wasn’t the case. I thought that was the case, but I realized that I was missing out on some opportunities to write better songs and further songs that were already completed in my mind.
Opening up my mind to that, being willing to listen to other people’s ideas and being positive in that arena, was really, really important in getting the best out of myself and getting the best out of the band in the long run and getting the best out of the record. Those quote-unquote “co-writes,” or whatever you want to call them, are some of my favorite songs on the record and some of my favorite songs that we’ve ever written. It’s certainly something I would look into in the future as well.
This album is going to be your third album for a major label. A lot of bands these days don’t get to album number three on a major. Do you feel lucky to be able to do that, and do you feel like maybe this is a make or break album for you to continue to be a major label band?
There’s a couple things in this question. As far as getting to record number three with a major, it can be difficult at times. I think the thing to keep in mind is that they’re not the big bad wolf. You talk to a lot of people, you hear a lot of horror stories, and they’re certainly not lying. There are a lot of horror stories from bands that really did get dicked over by a major label.
I think that in a lot of those cases, I don’t know and I can only speak for myself, but I found that pushing back doesn’t help or do anything. I think that’s probably the case, whether you work at McDonalds or in a band that is supported by a label. It sounds kind of cheesy, but if you have a positive attitude, try and realize that they want you to succeed just as much as you want to succeed.
You might have some difference in opinion along the way. Actually, it’s guaranteed that you’ll have some difference in opinion making a record and putting it out. Everything from the artwork, to the lyrics, to the band lineup. All those things come into play. There certainly can be frustrating moments, but they just want you to do well. They want you to succeed, because if you succeed, they succeed. As Charlie Sheen says, “Everybody’s winning [laughs].”
If you can keep that in mind, I think you can figure out a healthy place to compromise on certain things, and then they’ll respect you. If you give them the amount of respect that they ask for, then they’ll respect you on certain decisions. It’s just a matter of deciding which hill to die on, which battle do you fight over and which one is not worth fighting for.
Is the single cover really that important? If I concede that, I’ll be able to get the record layout I want. It’s those kinds of things. It’s realizing after three records that that’s part of the process, and just being grateful for the opportunity that you have to be supported by somebody that wants to see you succeed. At the end of the day none of us have enough cash to finance our own record anyway, so you need them. Basically, we need them more than they need us.
Has there ever been a lot of pressure to write a “Boston: Part II” type of song?
I didn’t feel any pressure to write a “Boston: Part II.” Every song has its own potential and its own right, and I think you have to hold each song up to its own standard. I don’t think there will ever be a “Boston: Part II,” and I hope there’s not. I think that keeps you in a box and I don’t think you want to be there.
What you want to do is always move forward. You want to challenge your listeners, and you want to challenge yourself. You want to expand your potential musically and as a songwriter. As a band, you want to always be moving forward. I don’t feel the pressure, necessarily, to match the success of “Boston” commercially, but I certainly feel pressure to see this record through till the end and see if it can be successful in its own right.
When I say that, I mean more so that it can continue to open the door for touring for us because that’s really our bread and butter. That’s where we make our living. That’s where we feel the most comfortable and that’s where we’ve thrived the most in our career, working on the road and just being a touring band. That’s what we’ve always based our whole thing on.
Hopefully, this record will open up that opportunity again and get people back into shows. Whatever happens with it with radio, TV shows or movies – that stuff is so far out of your hands that you can only do whatever you can do, put wings on it and see where it goes. People will either pick up and love it, or it will just be what it is. We feel really proud of it and put a lot of hard work into it. We’re excited to see what the future holds, for sure.
You have this tour coming up in May and June with the Maine, which I thought was a really interesting band to co-headline with. How did you guys wind up together?
Normally, it comes by way of management and booking agents. I got this call and this suggestion saying, “I think this could be a really good thing for the tour.” We’ve toured with every kind of band you can tour with over the last seven years. You name it, from pop to hip-hop to country. Well, maybe not thrash metal, but just about everything else, and I’m sure that’s on its way as well. By next summer we’ll be out with thrash metal [laughs]. We’ve toured with everybody, not band-wise but genre-wise.
It’s interesting. People look really deeply into putting a band in a box, but when you have a camaraderie with a band or tour with them, you realize that everybody’s really the same. Generally speaking, every band is the same. Every band wants the same thing. They want to go out. They want to fill up the room. They want to have a good time, do the best they can and further whatever their goals are.
The dudes are just dudes, regardless of whatever music they’re making. Regardless if you’re a pop-punk band or if you’re Augustana, you want the same things, and you can relate to those people regardless of what kind of music they’re playing. It’s always exciting to meet new guys and spend eight weeks on the road with them. You get your own camaraderie going with them and it’s fun. It’s one of the perks of the job.
So I have one last question for you and it’s about an older song called “The Devil’s Blue Eyes,” which I just recently discovered on YouTube not too long ago. It’s an unreleased song that’s probably the longest song you’ve ever written, and I was blown away by the lyrics and the storytelling of the song. What is that song about?
Wow, nobody’s ever asked me about that before. I wrote and demoed it four and a half years ago, a long time ago. It was at a time where we weren’t making an album. I was just writing something for myself for my own personal expression.
I think there’s a time and a place for a record that has that going for it. I think there’s going to be a time where I’m going to write a full record where the songs sound like that and feel like that, where they’re very small but intense and intimate. Maybe a song like that could possibly end up on a solo record somewhere down the road, something that kind of makes sense with a collection of songs like that.
It reminded me a lot of older Springsteen, with the storytelling aspect and stuff. I really hope you can pursue something like that.
Thanks, man. I was listening to a lot of Nebraska at that time. It’s funny how when you’re pounding a record into your head, I don’t know if you write music or play music, but it just naturally starts coming out of your fingers and your head, and you try and make it your own.