[Originally for DC Music Download on 29 November 2012]
Interviewed By: Clay Conger
While most bands dream of packing their bags for flashier territory (e.g. New York or Los Angeles), Norman Rockwell‘s mantra has kept a dignified sense of hometown loyalty. With an aesthetic somewhere in the crossroads of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, they released a polished debut album Fare Thee Well last month that solidified the strapping musical prowess of the group.
While in the midst of promoting their new album, tragedy struck for the band, as bassist Sean Meyers was involved in a serious car accident-passing away a few weeks after their release. Shortly after his passing, the band released the following statement via their Facebook page:
We are deeply, deeply saddened to announce the untimely passing of our dear friend and bassist Sean Meyers. He brought so many of us together and truly loved each and everyone of us with all his heart. His jovial charm and unabashed humor will be forever missed. We are thankful to have had such a timeless and caring soul as a bandmate, but more importantly, as a friend. He was a good man to ride the river with.
The D.C. community quickly took to Facebook and Twitter to express their sympathy and support towards the band. While the news was unwarranted, one affirmation that was made clear was how supportive the D.C. music community to one another. This was one moment that exemplified the true spirit of this notion.
This interview was done before Meyers’ passing with Joshua Johnston and Ben Hirsch. While the news was certainly unexpected, our interview recaps some of the best moments that the group has had together.
DMD: I’ve read that the beginnings of Norman Rockwell were actually quite spontaneous. Please elaborate.
Joshua Johnston: Our band was very lucky to have a very organic and cathartic formation. I had recently left college and was back in the Northern Virginia area playing at various local open mics. Ben Hirsch was also playing at many of the local open mics in the area and we met through these, both being mutual fans of one another’s music. One of the open mic nights that Ben and I used to frequent was at the now defunct Soundry, a coffee shop/performance space in Vienna, Virginia.
Our bassist Sean Meyers ran and hosted this open mic. I remember that Sean didn’t like me at first as I was “Just another kid with long hair and bunch songs”, but over time I guess he learned to like the songs. Sean had the idea of putting a band behind my songs and shortly after we were formed. We decided on a night to get together and work on some songs and see how things would work as a unit. Both Ben’s and my songs were shown to our now drummer Nathan Read and he came to work out the songs with us that night. Everything gelled instantly, we were shocked with the sound of things and decided to be a band pretty much then and there.
DMD: Who are your biggest influences?
JJ: Member to member our influences differ pretty heavily, but we all have a mutual respect of collective idol Tom Petty. Whether it’s his heart stopping lyrics, his wailing guitar licks, or just all round cool attitude, we just can’t get enough of him. That music video he did in the ‘80s with the all-girl back-up band and the paisley flying V he had, that was awesome. We watch that together over and over again. He has pretty much bridged the gap for all of us in the band.
DMD: Where did you record Fare Thee Well and how was the recording process?
JJ: Fare Thee Well was recorded in six very, very busy days at The Bastille Studios in Arlington, VA. Our sound engineer and owner of the studio was Eamonn Aiken and made our experience absolutely amazing. We spent six days recording drums, bass, guitar tracks, guitar solos, violins, banjos, and harmonicas. The Bastille Studio is attached to the notable Inner Ear Studio, so we also spent a lot of time staring at photos and memorabilia that was splayed on every inch of the buildings walls.
It was a humbling experience being able to record in one room, take a break, and walking right over to where Fugazi and Scream recorded some amazing records. The initial tracking was a lot of busy work and putting the nose to the grindstone-it was the months that followed that made the whole thing difficult. We had to come back in a month later in order to record all of the extra harmony parts on all the songs, and later had to record some of the additional percussion tracks. At the end of the entire process, the main burden was merely money. We were just doing what we could when we had the money, then stopping, then getting some more money and then doing a little more. Eventually we got the product we wanted.
DMD: Does having more of a blues/folk style open or close doors for you in terms of promotion?
JJ: I don’t think it changes a thing. We definitely have some songs that would fit into the “blues” or “folk” song frame, but we have also have some songs that fit into the “country” frame or the “rock” frame. The batch of songs that are on Fare Thee Well were primarily written without a band in mind, and have that semi-brooding emotion you find in a ton of folk or blues records, which may be the reason for the bluesy/folksy sound on the record.
When we write songs as a band, we don’t particularly write songs based in a blues or folk song frame. It’s just a song or structure we try to give justice to anyway we can. Many of our newer songs that aren’t on Fare Thee Well stray much further from the blues or folk mind set. The next album will definitely have its folky gems but will also have bleeding, fuzzed-out rock songs. We all enjoy both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between.
DMD: Are there specific kinds of shows you prefer to play? What has been your favorite concert so far?
JJ: For the time in which we have all been in a band together, we have all enjoyed playing at Jammin’ Java in Vienna very much. We played our first show there in December 2011, and have returned many, many times either headlining or opening. Our favorite concert so far was the album release show, of course, which was also at Jammin’ Java. We got to play a long set in front of all our supporting fans coming to see us release our debut album, and also got to have our friends Jayme Salviati as well as The Family Plots open for us. Another great concert, simply due to the sheer volume and size of the venue was headlining State Theatre last April. Our friend Mokey Doris opened for us, and that was just a night of awesome rock and roll and great people.
DMD: It may be early, but what is your favorite Norman Rockwell song so far?
Ben Hirsch: That is a tough question that’s almost impossible to answer. Songs are very much like moods, and it requires all of them to be a well-rounded person or band. Sometimes you want to grab a beer, dance and rock out. Sometimes you just want to mellow out. Sometimes it’s a cup of tea and rainy day kinda mood. All these songs represent a different kind of mood and all have their time to shine. Each song is a different groove, a different emotion and everyone’s favorite song is probably just dependent on their mood that moment. There are no absolute favorites.
DMD: Your music, as well as your homepage, has a very natural, outdoors feel to it. Does the outdoors ever contribute to your music?
JJ: Making everything earth-toned and outdoors just came more naturally. We got our press photos shot outdoors on a freezing morning in February or March, and that probably scared most of us from the outdoors for good. I used to work on goat farms and vegetable farms in Vermont, but other than that no, we aren’t hyper-influenced by nature or the outdoors. We don’t go on any band hikes or camping trips or anything like that.
BH: I had spent several years living in the much more rural Shenandoah Valley of Virginia during my early college days, and during that time I began to develop an affinity with the music and the spirit that comes from that region (folk, bluegrass). At least for me and my past experiences while living in Appalachia, it wouldn’t be that far off for me to say that it’s had at least some influence on me musically.
When I incorporate certain instrumentation (banjo, fiddle) to a given song, it very much stems from my love of various folk, bluegrass and mountain music. Plus I have a lot of fond memories from all the camping and hiking trips I did growing up, so that may have subconsciously leaked into how I play sometimes.