Interview: Scott Ayotte of Born Without Bones

Born Without Bones will release their new album, Young at the Bend, on May 12th. I recently sat down with vocalist Scott Ayotte about the difficulties of writing music, starting his own label, and what it means to be young at the bend.

So I know you self-released Baby, and you recently started Devil You Know Records. Could you just tell me a bit how that process has been?

It’s been pretty cool. We haven’t taken it super crazy seriously. Like, the name Devil You Know Records was around when we were putting out Baby, and it crossed our minds at the time, like, “You know, maybe, since we’re self-releasing this, maybe we should put this out under a label imprint.” I think we just chose not to, because we were very into the idea that no, we’re not going to put up this front, we’re just going to be this band, be like, “We do this, it’s just us, that’s it.”

But with this one, for some reason, when it came time to decide, we were all on the fence a little bit about it, but we all discussed that it opens us up a little more to maybe put out music for other people at some point. I’ve definitely in the past wanted to. I’ve definitely heard bands in the past few years where I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to put this band’s demo out,” or something like that. And a lot of our favorite bands have gone a similar route. Like, you search Favorite Gentlemen on Google and Manchester Orchestra just comes up. Their kind of ethos is definitely something that influences us a lot. Maybe not necessarily their music – we’re all big fans of Manchester Orchestra – but just the way that they’ve released music and their relationship with their fans and the way they conduct their business I have a lot of respect for, and we all have a lot of respect for. Saddle Creek as well. I used to watch, like, the Spend an Evening with Saddle Creek, just a documentary about that label. Like Conor Oberst’s brother putting out the first Bright Eyes cassette – it wasn’t even Bright Eyes at the time, I think it was just Conor Oberst and the cassette was called Water. I think we’ve all been into musicians that have followed this DIY ethic and need a label for it and kind of built a community out of it as well, which I hope we can do eventually, but it’s kind of hard to think about the future of the label right now with the new record coming out so soon. That’s definitely the main focus.

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You don’t want to start working on something new until you’re done with what you’re doing now.

Yeah, you know, I feel like we could maybe make the logo a little cooler, or start talking to other bands and try to get another release going. Like, a lot of my favorite labels started from just a band or somebody in a band being like, “I want some outlet to put my band’s music out on, so I’m going to start this label.” That’s how Epitaph started, it’s how Saddle Creek started. That’s how a lot of labels started. It just seemed like a logical step. We like being an independent band a lot, and making a label makes it seem a little more legit. Maybe a little more necessary, I guess. When you’re putting out a new record like, “We’re Born Without Bones and this is our new record and we’re putting it out,” I think – even with, like, Chance the Rapper being an independent artist winning Grammys – in the music community there’s still a stigma against bands who self-release. I think we’re just trying to break that for ourselves and I hope, eventually, that just goes away altogether.

I think that’s respectable as hell. I hope that goes well for you. I think Young at the Bend is a great album to get it started on.

I appreciate that. We definitely worked really hard on this one. With the last one, I remember thinking that I’d never worked that hard on anything in my life, and I really wasn’t looking forward to having to work harder on something in the future. Then with this one we definitely worked way harder than we did with Baby, and now again I’m like, “I really don’t know if I want to work even harder for the next one.” [Laughs] It was just a lot of work and lot of brainpower that was being used everyday for a little over a year.

What made it so much harder? I know in the Clairvoyant interview that came out with the stream of “Muscle,” you mentioned this was the first album you didn’t write all by yourself. Do you think that being a more collaborative album made it at all easier? And how do you think that makes Young at the Bend stand out as a Born Without Bones album?

I think it was difficult at first. It was hard for me to give up the reigns and let the band be the band, instead of being this solo project with some musicians who aren’t being represented creatively as much as I am. That’s just really not fair to do to your bandmates. I think if you want your band to be happy and grow and last, everybody needs to feel like they’re equally involved. At first I was so used to being the songwriter, the maestro, and letting go of that was hard. I’d hear their ideas, and I’d be stubborn, and I wouldn’t let their ideas sink in for me. But after demoing the songs, and trying to write songs together, I had these epiphanies, with, like, this particular verse – the idea I had is just nowhere near as good as the idea Jim had. Jim or Jonathan would write a riff that’ll get stuck in my head and I’ll just be playing it on my guitar when I’m just sitting around. Once I embraced it, it got a lot easier. It was actually a lot of fun. And, you know, I think we made better music because of it. Three heads are definitely better than one.

As far as why it was harder, there were a lot of factors. When we were recording Baby, I was only twenty-one. I didn’t have a whole lot of responsibility. I’m older now, and, like, even writing sometimes I don’t have a lot of time for. Specifically, I was living in Boston for a few years. When you live in that city, the lifestyle kind of eats up your time, between work and being on a train all the time and just trying to be social, because if you live in Boston you’ve probably got a big friend group, so finding the time to make it all happen is hard. And because I’ve been writing songs for so long now – I’ve been writing songs for about fifteen years – it’s a lot harder for me to impress myself. I’m a lot harder on myself now and I don’t let myself get away with writing a song lacklusterly, and I work on songs a lot more now. On Say Hello, they were written in the span of how long the songs themselves are. “Privileges” was written in, like, five minutes. There are songs on Young at the Bend that are that way as well, but I’m really prone to working on a song way more now. The only two songs on Young at the Bend that were written really quickly and really easily were “Wishing Well” and “Romance.” Those two songs just fell from the sky and I got lucky, I was ready for them. I wrote the lyrics down real quick and just demoed them on my phone and just thought, “Oh, this is done and I don’t need to work on this anymore.” [Laughs] That was awesome because I’m also a pretty lazy person as well, so when a song just immediately comes together it’s like, “Sick, I don’t need to do anymore work.”

Another way it was harder than last time was that, with Baby, we didn’t really know what we were doing. It was our first time self-releasing a record and trying to do it in a legit manner and we definitely made some mistakes. We did no press at all. Naively I thought that day it came out I could just submit it to, like, NPR, and I had a list of about twenty publications and I could just submit it to their regular submissions page. [Laughs] Obviously none of that came to fruition. [Laughs] That was kind of disappointing but I should’ve known better. It was easier to get the vinyl going this time around too, because we did it last time. It was cool to use that muscle memory of like, “Oh yeah, I did this last time.” We just tried to do more than we did last time, and I think that made it harder. Instead of just pressing vinyl and thinking, “Cool, the job is done,” we also tried to come up with a cool preorder package, come up with some cool album rollout. We were planning some small tours, planning some record release shows, being more active on social media and actually engaging with the people that support our band. Especially with being an independent band, the people that support us are the only reason we are a band. They’re the only reason we’re able to afford any of this. It’s essentially the people that support our band that are our record label, it isn’t really Devil You Know. It’s the people who come to our shows, support our band.

It’s funny you’d mentioned “Wishing Well” and “Romance” as the easiest to write, because they’re probably my favorites on the record.

Well thank you. “Wishing Well” I actually wrote in traffic. I keep a notebook next to my driver’s seat and I had this tune in my head and every time I’d hit a red light I’d jot a few more lines down. I came home and picked up an acoustic guitar and immediately knew what the chords were supposed to be. I had the melody and the lyrics figured out already. It was pretty cool. I wish that happened all the time. I’m sure that’s how it must be for, like, Paul McCartney. Everyday songs just fall from the sky into his lap. Then “Romance,” I came home late one night and I was super tired and just started playing guitar and “Romance” just sort of happened. It was really weird. I totally thought I was just going to go home and pass out, but instead of laying in bed I picked up a guitar and then that song happened. I sent it to the guys the next day.

I want to go back to something that you said before, when you were talking about how the writing process changed. You said that writing Say Hello was really different. How do you think Say Hello-era Scott would think of Young at the Bend?

What would Say Hello Scott think of Young at the Bend? I think that Say Hello Scott would be pretty pumped, because Say Hello was a lot more radio rock and poppy than I initially thought it would’ve come out. I should’ve known that those songs were just inherently that way, but when I was going in to record it, I wanted it to be more raw and I wanted it to sound really natural. It ended up on the more produced side of things. The way that we’ve progressed, I think we’ve gotten more rock and more boiled down to an essence. I think seventeen-year-old Scott would be pumped, like, “You’re still writing poppy songs but they’re more natural and the tone of the songs isn’t lost under the production anymore.” It’s not just a fun, upbeat, catchy thing anymore, it’s a song that tries to encompass some kind of emotion. It’s a lot more vibey now. But maybe Say Hello Scott would be like, “Yo, man, maybe you should just write pop songs again because those were cool.” [Laughs] That would be cool, but I think even then, I was thinking about being a really solid rock band that could play in a blues bar or play in a basement or play a bigger venue and just be ready to rock. I think he’d be pretty pumped on it.

I was just going to mention how it feels like Say Hello is a more pop-rock album, then Baby feels like sort of in between that and Young at the Bend, which is a straight-up rock record. Like, I think “Young” and “I Am a Ruin” are probably the heaviest songs you’ve ever written.

For sure. We tried to write a heavy song on Baby, “Rough Terrain (Reprise).” On the record it doesn’t sound particularly heavy, but when we play it live, it’s really heavy. A lot of our friends who’ve seen us live will be like, “Oh man, I’m so used to seeing you play ‘Rough Terrain (Reprise)’ live and when I listen to the record, it doesn’t do the same thing for me.” So with Young at the Bend we had these two songs on the heavier, more abrasive side and we’d learned our lesson last time that “Reprise” could’ve been a heavy, hard-hitting song, but we didn’t record it that way. So we wanted to take these two songs and make them actually sound like heavy songs. That was cool, because when I was growing up, there were a few bands in Massachusetts that were on the more abrasive side. Last Lights was one, I Rise. Our studio drummer slash occasional touring drummer Pat Murphy plays drums in this band called Mountain Man. Those are all super heavy, abrasive bands I grew up really loving. They were good at that, but I was always the guy who wrote the singer-songwriter kinds of songs. I never really got too into trying to write a heavy song, but Jim wrote the bassline to “Young” and I absolutely loved it. I thought it was our opportunity to make a heavy song.

Oh yeah, the first time I listened to the album, when I got to “Young” I was really taken aback. I hadn’t expected a song like that.

For me a goal has always been to be a little different. Say Hello and Baby are definitely different. I think Baby and Young at the Bend are different. Whatever we do next, I think, will be pretty different. We always try to throw a few curveballs, some songs being dynamically outliers. I’m always trying to expand what the band can do. I wouldn’t be surprised if we made a more Americana record at some point. I also wouldn’t be surprised if we made a really catchy punk record. I don’t know. We just write a lot of songs and it doesn’t matter to us if they fit together. We write all the songs and then we figure out what the tone’s going to be. We come up with the tracklist, and then it starts to make sense to me. We just write all these songs, and then whatever we think are the strongest ones – doesn’t matter if they’re heavy, catchy, slow, quiet – are the ones that go on the record.

That’s interesting. I’ve read a lot from musicians who really try and figure out the vibe of the album beforehand and make it work from there, so it’s cool to hear something different.

Yeah, I think that’s my gripe with Say Hello, to an extent. It sounds like two EPs. The first half is all these poppy rock songs and the second half is all these slow songs with a couple rock ones peppered in. A lot of my favorite records are totally all over the place, and I’m fine with that. I don’t mind the challenging of the listener, and I don’t think we mind challenging the people who listen to our band. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing “Sunday” or “Young,” it’s still us. There are still common threads in all three records. We’re just trying to do some different stuff and keep it exciting for us.

I know Young at the Bend is from the songs “Young” and “The Bend,” but why’d you choose that as the title of the record? And what’s that mean – if anything – for the story of the record?

It’s the first one I didn’t name myself. “Say hello” was just something I would write on my notebooks in high school. I knew that when I put out a record eventually I wanted to call it Say Hello. It just seemed like a sensible first record title. With Baby, I wrote the song “Baby,” and then all the songs were about relationships, love, heartbreak. A lot of people that are in relationships – including me – call their significant others baby, so that worked. This time I wanted to call the record Blue Prince, which ended up becoming the title for the instrumental track in the middle of the record. I wanted to call it Blue Prince and Jim wanted to call it Takes Time, which we ended up using for the title of the first real song on the record. It was Jonathan who thought of Young at the Bend. He was listening to a podcast about millennials and their relationship with the Church – I actually listened to the podcast the other night, but I didn’t hear where he got the title from, or the idea for the title from. [Laughs] I still don’t really understand how he came up with that title. When he first told it to me, I legit thought it was just a saying, like that it was just something people said. I know that people say “coming around the bend,” so maybe I was just confusing it. I kept all the potential titles on a wall in my room, and I just kept coming back to that one. I felt like it related to the overall narrative of the record, which is just discussing the different facets of the anxieties of my peers, my generation. A lot of my friends struggle with financial insecurity. A lot of my family members are starting to lose family members for the first time. We’re at a very young age at a very scary era in history. We all have these similar problems and I thought that it was relatable to write from the relationship standpoint I had in the past, but I wanted to write something that was relatable to me in my life, instead of just one part of my life. I wanted to write about the gripes of myself, my friends, and the people I know and what we’re all struggling with in this day and age.

I think the bend in the title represents those obstacles, whether it be financial insecurities or trying to get involved in politics for the first time because it feels like it’s starting to affect you and the people you love in a more direct way. I just wanted to discuss and write about things that stress me out nowadays that aren’t just relationships. I’ve covered that topic – I’ve kind of beaten it into the ground – and there’s a lot more that affects me internally that I’ve never written about, so this was the time to do so.

Anything else you want to say?

Thank you for the interview, and I hope everyone’s doing alright.

Zac Djamoos
Zac Djamoos Zac Djamoos is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @zacdjamoos on Twitter.
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