Lead singer Keith Goodwin and guitarist Dan Schwartz discuss Good Old War’s new album Broken Into Better Shape, the challenges of continuing as a two-piece, their positive outlook on songwriting, and how they are able to get all those gorgeous harmonies.
This record seems to be a little bit of a departure for you one a few levels, the first being you decided to fund it with Pledge Music and go that route. Can you talk about why you choose to do that and how you liked that experience?
Keith Goodwin: We liked the idea of the platform being a way to show people an inside look of the whole process of making an album, what goes into it. That was the appeal for me, that and putting up some cool preorder stuff.
Dan Schwartz: Yeah, it was cool. This was our way of connecting with the fans and doing just a little bit more because we’re not taking a whole lot of money to make the record. Just what we can, you know?
I know one of the main things people have been wondering is how much of a role Tim played on this record, being that he left midway through. Can you talk about what his contributions were?
Keith: He helped us write a lot of the songs. He was there for, I’d say maybe half of it, and then when he had to leave, it was upsetting, but we took on the challenge. He was there for a lot of the writing, which was cool. The drummer that ended up playing on the record did a great job, but obviously we missed Tim. We love Tim.
Dan: He’s with us for touring, so we got to get him back. It’s hard for us to imagine playing shows without him. We’ve never done it. We were lucky enough to convince him to come back and he’s into it, so that’s great.
So he’s going to be touring with you on this upcoming tour and then whatever you have planned for after that?
Dan: Yeah. If it’s not him, then it would just be the two of us. We’re not replacing him.
You would have to have other musicians onstage though, right? Or could you just play the songs with the two of you?
Dan: We can. We can do acoustic versions of them with just guitars, a vocal and beats. We can pretty much play all of our songs like that. That’s kind of a prerequisite for a Good Old War song, is to be able to play it with just the two of us. Then after that, obviously when we play with a full band then we have to have Tim, and when Tim’s there then we’re all doing a lot more.
Being that the three of you were such a well-balanced equation up until that point, what was it like then to finish the record and write the rest of the songs just the two of you with one man down?
Keith: Making music in general is always sort of a challenge. It’s a sweet challenge, so this was just one more thing we were challenged with. It was figuring out what that band would sound like from there, because we didn’t want to make the same record that we would have made. We just treated every song like its own thing. We didn’t really know what the band was going to sound like going into it, so we put whatever we could think of on it.
Dan: It was a longer demoing process than usual. We really spent time on the demos, working them out. I think Jason Lehning, our producer, had a lot to do with helping us figure out our direction when Tim left.
As far as the recording process goes, I know in the past you’ve liked to record in a bunch of random places, like basements or random spots around the house. How did this one compare? If I remember correctly, you did this record in a couple different spots.
Dan: Yeah, we did a little bit of all of it. We did the main tracking at Echo Mountain in North Carolina, and then we did a whole lot of overdubbing and things of that sort at our houses.
Keith: And a lot of the record was made at Jason Lehning’s dad’s house.
Dan: Oh yeah, we did a lot of stuff there, too. He has a home studio there in Nashville.
Keith: It was comfortable, though.
With this record, especially on the first song “Tell Me What You Want from Me,” you can definitely tell you’re aiming for a bigger, more massive sound, and as you were saying you wanted to switch it up and not make the same record again. Was that always ingrained from the beginning, that you wanted to expand your sound that way?
Keith: Yeah, we were talking about it from the beginning, sort of building tracks and making songs out of those tracks. We had done it in the past. We did a couple little ditties on our second record. The idea was to build a track like those little ditties and actually make a song out of them.
We started there, and then we just kept going with it and trying more things, trying different collaborations and working with different songwriters and producers. We were trying to figure out how far we could take it without losing the sound that we’ve already built.
Dan: The cool thing is if we’re already writing the songs, then it’s going to sound like us. We don’t have to worry about it too much. We can kind of grow out from there. I don’t think there was a single song written the same way as another song. Every song had its own little story, so it’s hard to say what worked and didn’t. Every single song was written differently.
I remember reading, when you premiered “Tell Me What You Want from Me,” that it was written after you had already demoed 50 songs but you’re manager wanted more. What was the story behind that?
Keith: That is the story pretty much. After you put so much time and effort into writing a bunch of songs, it’s not really the greatest thing to hear somebody say just keep trying. I was like, well, what do you want me to do? You know what I mean? Tell me exactly what you want me to do. That kind of thing.
Dan: The funny thing on the other side of the coin is that it’s the best thing in the world to be asked to do. If you think about it from the other side, we’re songwriters and somebody’s asking us to write more songs. If you try to approach it from that side, then you can get back into it and excited about it. At first you’re like, “Ah, what do you want?” And then you’re like, “Oh, this is great. They actually want more from me.”
Keith: Not to mention that we wrote some of our best songs later on, after we had written tons of songs. It actually worked. When we were making the record, after the first or second night I called up our manager and was like thanks for pushing us. It was getting me psyched, so it actually worked.
In that article they didn’t mention that part, and I definitely told that dude that. It doesn’t sound as cool, like, “Oh, but they were right,” but they were. We got to write tons of songs, and them pushing us made us write better.
Dan: It definitely made us see what makes a song so great. What are we missing? What can we make better? Even some of the songs we already had, we had to get them up to the same level as our best songs. We really just tried to do our best.
I can definitely see that song blowing up, if you will, and being played all over. Have you had any traction with it yet?
Dan: Yeah, it’s doing really well on radio and it’s building. Everything’s building. It’s been nice. The album hasn’t even come out yet and it already feels like people are excited.
For a band like us, who’s been around for a while and took a long break, we basically have to re-let people know we exist. It’s building beautifully and there’s excitement around the band again, and that’s really nice. It helps put a little bit of wind beneath our wings.
The album premiered on Pandora yesterday and some of the pledgers got their copy a little earlier as well. Have you been able to see some of the reaction out there so far?
Dan: Yeah, it seems real positive so far. We’re just excited and going to hope that people get excited with us. Once we get on tour, we’ll be able to gauge that a little more, because we’re still in the practice space and not talking to people. So, we’ll see.
You also did some co-writes and different collaborations that you haven’t really done much of in the past. What was it like working with these various other people from that angle?
Keith: It was cool. We tried some that were really great, and then we tried some that didn’t work out. Going into session songwriting, you have no idea what’s going to happen. When you get in with somebody that you gel with, you basically have another member of the band that has their own set of skills. Not only were those people really talented songwriters, but they were talented musicians.
Jason, for example, when we were writing with him, he would sit down at a piano and write. That’s a little different than the way we sit down and write on guitars most of the time. Seeing that go down was pretty cool.
Then we worked with this dude, Emile Haynie, who produces Lana Del Rey and makes beats for Kanye and stuff. He had a whole different way of working that was really inspiring, too. He was really great with words and really rhythmic with his melodies. He worked really fast.
Just watching these people work and how they do it is inspiring. When it works, it’s really cool. We take a lot from it and learn a lot from it.
He worked on “Fly Away,” right?
Dan: Yeah. For Keith and I, writing with a whole bunch of other people and seeing a bunch of different people’s processes I think opened up a lot of new doors for writing songs in the future.
There’s one song in particular I wanted to ask about, which is the title track, “Broken Into Better Shape.” That seems to be the emotional backbone of the record, and I love that simplistic but powerful imagery of the pieces rearranging and stuff. Can you talk about how that one was written?
Keith: That one had to do with a lot of our personal relationships with friends and stuff. It relates to a lot of different things, but mainly we had a couple friends who were going through some stuff. Issues with drugs in their case.
Actually, one of the dudes said to me that he was one mistake away from losing it all, and that’s where the song started. I had no idea he had any problems at all, but when he said that I was like, that’s a pretty heavy thing to say to one of your friends, you know?
Once I kind of figured out what his situation was and saw it going down, that was the thing that was resonating in me. I basically wanted to make a song for him being like it’s going to be OK. It’s going to be fine. It’s a weird situation to be in because it affects everybody.
You could even relate it to Tim leaving the band and us feeling like we’re a little bit broken, but we can bounce back from it. It’s better to feel like you can bounce back from something than to just sink into a rut. Basically, the idea of it is being hopeful.
I can tell why you ended up calling the album that, because it seems if there is one main theme that runs through it, it’s that idea of getting kicked around and still getting up, like that line in the song says.
Keith: Yep, definitely. Picking a title is not easy, so when we were talking about it that definitely was coming up. That title worked for a lot of the themes of the songs.
Not only on this record, but in the past as well, you’ve always liked to write about serious subject matters, or something that was bittersweet or downtrodden, but the music is still very upbeat or happy sounding. How do you like playing between those two dichotomies?
Dan: I think that’s what we’ve always strived for, to give everything a hopeful tone no matter what, even at its worst. That’s the approach of the entire band. If something sounds too down or too sad, we just don’t get as into it. We’ve always tried to approach things and make things a little bit more positive in general.
Keith: I was thinking about this the other day. Something came up and I was like, I kind of feel like writing a song about that. Then I was thinking to myself that it’s so weird I get inspired to write songs about things that are serious like that.
I don’t necessarily go to write when I’m having the greatest time. For some reason, that’s not when I’m like, “Oh, I want to write a song about how I’m just having the greatest time!” I have no idea why I don’t do that all the time.
Dan: It’s your strong emo past [laughs].
Keith: Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know. It’s definitely a funny thing.
Dan: It’s definitely that we’re more inspired to write while we’re down, but on the other hand we never can leave it at that. We’re not the type of people that can just leave it at that. It’s like, we can get out of this, you know? By the time you’re done writing a song, you feel better, and that’s the whole idea. You can tell the story of writing the song with the song.
Keith, I read somewhere, I think it was on your bio, that you try to write a new song idea each day. How does that work? How do you keep that ambition going?
Keith: Sometimes they’re terrible songs, you know what I mean? It’s just a matter of actually sitting down to do something. I know Dan is always playing the guitar too, and it’s the same kind of thing. You sit down and you just try to make something new. If it goes, it goes. You can make something great or you can make something that’s not so great, but then maybe next time you’ll get to it.
I started doing it because we were writing so much for this record, and I kind of don’t want to stop now. I want to keep it going. I think I can speak for Dan too, but we have so many ideas, so many things that we love about music, that it’s just trying the things that we love and putting our own twist to it and seeing if it works or not.
Do you have a set time of day where you like to write?
Keith: It’s usually when my wife and kids fall asleep late at night, or if I have time open before practice I’ll try and do it. At least one time a day, I’ll try to do something. Even when we’re on tour, you can break out the laptop and make something on the laptop or making something on the iPhone.
Dan: I literally just play guitar as much as I possibly can. If you’re playing all the time, you’re bound to stumble across ideas.
One other song I wanted to bring up is “Never Gonna See Me Cry,” which I think is really catchy with some interesting lyrics in the verses. How did that one come about?
Keith: I think the original idea, the first thing that came up was this attitude of you’re the guy at the party that’s the cool guy. I know somebody brought up that life is a joke, and then somebody brought up love is a joke. Then we started talking about love and the heart and the soul. We made up a bunch of lyrics based on those things, and then coming back to but you’re never going to see my cry about it, basically.
Dan: We wrote that song in two hours with this guy, Daniel Tashian, who’s a brilliant songwriter, too. He really helped us along with that. He was like, “Keith, pick a speed.” We picked a speed, then I picked some chords and we started singing. Everybody was just coming up with ideas. Everything came out really easily.
Ever since you first started, gorgeous harmonies have always been your calling card. How much work and time do you put on getting those together and in the right place? Is that something that’s just second nature at this point, since you’ve been doing it for so long?
Dan: We change the process a little bit all the time. It’s just something we know we’re going to have a lot of. This time, Keith and I were just building stuff, building beds of harmonies and taking turns coming up with ideas. That was really, really fun, just going for it and turning those into, OK, what are the most important parts of these harmonies? Let’s take as many ideas as we possibly can and take turns.
We used to just write the song, and then sometimes the person who wrote the song would demo all the parts. Sometimes we’d all sit in a room and make them all up, basically argue through it until we got exactly what we all wanted. We’ve tried so many different things, but luckily everybody enjoys the singing part so much that it’s just a part of us.
I don’t know. What would you say, Keith? I don’t feel like we ever really think about it much. It’s just there all the time.
Keith: Yeah, we’ve put a lot of work into figuring out how to write harmonies. I think the challenge now is really trying to come up with new ways of stacking harmonies, so we’re not doing the same tricks all the time. I think we’ve also learned a bunch of tricks throughout the years, so we apply them to new songs. It’s not so hard making harmonies as much anymore as it is hard to come up with some new way to do it.
Kind of going along with that, you’ve always been such versatile musicians even before Good Old War with your previous bands, then being Anthony Green’s backing band for a while, and then obviously what you’ve done with Good Old War. What do you think has been the biggest key that has allowed you to jump between all those different genres?
Dan: I think it’s the willingness to try anything and work really well as a team. Everybody wants to be as good as they can possibly be, and also everybody loves what each other does. I think that’s been really good. I love to make up a song that Keith can sing, and Keith loves to make up a song that I can play the guitar for.
For all of us, including Anthony too, everybody has a lot of faith in each other’s abilities. Also, we love so much different music that we’re just excited to get to play with the people that we think are the best musicians that we could be around. We’re around people that we all think has something that they do better than we do, if that makes any sense.
I want to be around somebody that can sing better than me. I want to be around somebody that can play drums incredibly, and so on. That is inspiring, so we’re inspired to play together. It’s almost like we feel like there is no limit to what we could do. If we put anything in front of the other guys, they’re going to come up with something cool.
Keith: You said it earlier, but I think the main thing is we love all kinds of music. To just play acoustic songs like this is cool, but it’s so sweet to be able to switch it up and do all kinds of stuff. Again, we like the challenge of making music.
That’s a cool thing to have to try and do. Like, OK, let’s make something heavier, or let’s make some sort of electronic music. Let’s make a blues jam. Whatever we’re thinking about, it’s a cool challenge to be able to try and do it, learn how to do it, and get good at it.
Looking back now, your first record came out in 2008, which was roughly two years before the pop-folk, for lack of a better word, style of music was really embraced into the mainstream. I was curious about a) what you think about that style of music being relevant on a mass scale again, and b) what it’s like seeing all these younger and newer bands get really big while you’ve more or less stayed on the same level.
Dan: I don’t think we really think about that too much. Obviously, we want as many people to hear us as possible. It’s cool. I think a lot of those bands are great bands and they deserve what they got, personally. But everything happens for a reason.
I think we’re all believers that if something had happened differently at that point, we wouldn’t have made the record that we made this time, which is the best thing we feel like we’ve ever made. I think there’s a reason why we didn’t jump out, but it doesn’t really bother us.
Keith: Yeah, I’m not trying to think like that. It’s not a good way to live.
Dan: You have to be excited for other bands, too. If they do well, that’s great.
Keith: Mainly, we make music for a living, so we don’t really have anything to complain about.
Dan: Yeah, exactly. We’ve done great.
Do you think it’s cool that at least you’re no longer one of the lone bands doing that style of music now, that there’s a lot of other people doing similar styles of stuff?
Dan: I don’t think we’re even doing that anymore. I wouldn’t say that our records are on that sort of Americana plain anymore. I don’t know.
Keith: I’ve always thought of our band as being its own thing, just in the way that we put things together, what we sing about and the way the songs come out. It’s hard to say. I don’t ever really think about it.
I’m happy that people like that kind of thing, music with acoustic guitars and stuff. It’s hard for me to say, because I feel like I like all kinds of music. I would like to think that maybe the radio likes all kinds of music, too.
So the record officially comes out on June 29, and then you have the tour after that. Is there anything else people can be on the lookout for?
Dan: The tour, making sure they come see us. Come see us and sing as loud as you possibly can, basically. That’s what I always want to say to everybody.