Monday, June 20, 2011

Interview with Guards Richie Follin

Wednesday, the very solid lineup of Writer, Guards, and Cults each sprung their own brand of fuzzed chords, reverb, and nostalgic pop on a sold-out Brillobox crowd eager to inhabit the atmospheres they were offering. Guards and Cults are bands related by elements of their retro sound, but also related by blood: Richie Follin of Guards and Madeline Follin of Cults are precocious brother and sister. This past year, they were swept, ready or not, to a level of buzz and popularity that they themselves wouldn’t have predicted even weeks before it began. It is a meteoric rise that can be as rewarding as it is unforgiving and quick to spit out those who let the buzz drive them, rather than the other way around.

A few hours before the show started, I had the chance to speak with Richie as he waited in Pittsburgh in the downtime before the show. He seemed to accept that daily interviews come with the territory of being the man behind a band whose name is on everyone’s lips and whose songs are getting stuck in all of our heads these days. He did say, though, that he regrets the loss of mystery. He likes the idea of listeners relating to music on its own terms, sometimes without the influence of the musician’s persona or own ideas about their music.

“I was excited about having some mystery at first,” he said. When Guards’ music was first made public, it was through their Bandcamp page (where the EP is still available for free download). He used the site to post the songs for Madeleine and friends to hear, but didn’t reveal who Guards was. He said, “I know that anytime I hear music from anybody I know who has previously released music, I’m automatically biased towards it. So it was cool to have that mystery…for a second.”

The Guards EP has an interesting origin story. Las year, Cults put their song “Go Outside” out there in the blogosphere, and it blew up. Madeline and Brian from Cults devoted themselves to pulling together an album and a live band as quickly as the could—a band that included Richie in the lineup until just recently. Richie began writing songs on his own that he thought might become good material for Cults. A few months later, he found that he had a number of great songs that were initially envisioned for Cults.

“It completely changed the way I wrote,” he said. “I wasn't writing for myself. It wasn't until I ended up singing on them that they kind of became my own. Basically the whole year I was just working on Cults, and it was only during one of these breaks that I had some time to get it together. The response that I got from friends and my manager was that I should definitely release them in some form.” Although he is still a member of the band Willowz, he said that the songs were “such a different thing I thought I would release it under a different name. And then Madeleine tweeted about it [the Bandcamp page] and then it was on a bunch of blogs the next day.” The rest is the history that is still to be written.

Writer opened the show with an engaging two-person sound featuring lots of tambourine and drums. Guards came next. There seems to be a theme of tall men with long hair in both Guards and Cults—Richie and Brian from Cults both even wore matching white button-down shirts and ties. Richie’s vocals came through layers of reverb while he played guitar. Most of the songs, however, were written on an omnichord; an electric harp-like instrument with a strum pad and buttons for programmed sound. Now that Guards has filled out to a full band, band member Hailey sat serenely in the center of the stage on the omnichord, along with other members on keyboards/guitars, bass, and drums. Everybody sings on most of the choruses. The live show was an outstanding translation of the record.

Both Cults and Guards have been described as having a 60s sound. I asked Richie about what influence he thinks his upbringing had on how he approaches music today, considering that his father himself was a musician who recorded with punk rock legends when Richie and Madeleine were young. “The main thing I think it helps with is the aesthetic,” he said. “I feel like it gave us a strong sense of what we perceived as ‘cool.’ And I don't think it's changed much over the past fifteen years. I think I got better at what I was doing, but the idea of what I thought was good, and what music and being in a band should be about, hasn't really changed.”

While Guards was on stage, Madeline stood near the speakers at the front, plugging her ears at some point because, Richie said, “She has sensitive ears.” Later, when Cults took the stage, there stood Richie in nearly the same spot. With life and music so entwined for the two of them, they each appeared to be beaming with enthusiasm, and maybe a touch of pride, while watching the other play.

Richie and I continued talking about the meaning “cool,” and he said that while he wants to produce a certain aesthetic with his music, he has no interest in pretending to be “cooler” than anyone else simply because he’s on stage. “I've always hated that. I know when I was younger I was worried about proving how cool I was. I guess that's just something I don't care about anymore,” he said. Then he laughed. “Maybe that's a horrible thing.”

Cool or uncool, the music industry is something that has changed dramatically since the Follins were young. Richie said he is still figuring out how he feels about this new world and the prospects to make a living as a musician. “[With Cults] we've been in situations where we've been offered money to be in a commercial or to sell something, and I think about how all my favorite people would never have done that. But I'm starting to realize that this is one of the things that have changed. Most of these people are doing that now, and that is one of the things that have changed. Even since I started doing music, the way that you make money today is so different. Pretty much the only way to make money is doing ads and touring.”

Most bands I’ve talked with over the past year have echoed this. Record sales are low, unpaid downloads are high, and even those albums that do sell through online services provide very little money for the band. Touring has the potential to bring in money if a good crowd shows up. For anyone out there who wants to support touring musicians—buy something at the show instead of online. This is the only way the money goes straight to musicians.

As to his ambivalence about the new methods by which music is marketed and discovered, often through advertisements, he said, “At the same time, if it's getting your song to a person who is potentially going to be a fan, maybe it's not such a bad thing.”

Guards’ music is available on their Bandcamp page, on several Kitsuné compilations, and on an upcoming single through White Iris Records later this summer.

--Daniel Hammer