Monday, March 21, 2011

Jay Berndt Interview on For Lack Of A Better Title

Here is a killer link and repost to an interview with Jay Berndt over on For Lack Of A Better Title. The photo was taken by Heidi Finn Photography.

Link to article over at For Lack Of A Better Title

Just about two weeks ago I reviewed a really great solo record called Sad Bastard Songs by Jay Berndt. I knew a little about him through some mutual friends and he has a very unique story. Hopefully, you'll get to learn about Jay and his music through our interview together.

How did you get started in music? When did you know you could sing? How did you develop your voice?

I got my start playing drums when I was about twelve. I was living in California and I joined my junior high school marching band back in ‘83/84. My instructor didn’t just teach me how to play drums but taught everything about the ensemble. I learned about saxophone reeds, tuba mouthpieces, clarinet finger pads… Everything about how the ensemble works together as a unit. I think that was what inspired me to experiment with other instruments. I didn’t have any fear about “I don’t know how to play that”; I’d just pick it up and try. My family moved back to Rhode Island in ‘86 and my drum set was in storage. My dad had this ‘58 Kay Archtop guitar around and I tuned it to an open E and learned how to play some Ramones songs. From there I learned how to actually tune a guitar from some books and began to play full chords. I think I started fiddling around with bass guitar around that time too.

I guess I started singing along to Black Flag, the Misfits and Bad Brains records in the late 80’s and I thought I did a decent imitation. So when Brian McKenzie was putting together Kilgore in 1990, he had asked Bill Southerland to play drums and I bluffed my way into singing. I had never even sung into a microphone but I just went for it and it sounded pretty good at our first practice. I got better from scrutinizing Beatle records and obsessively learned all of the harmonies on “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”. Bill’s father was also a great hard rock singer and he gave me lots of great tips on stage presence, and dynamics. I felt like I started to develop my own sound once we started playing regular shows around ‘93. Once we started recording our first album, I had to see a vocal coach because I kept blowing out my voice on the road. That really taught me what I was doing right and wrong with my voice and how I could preserve it. I haven’t taken any vocal lessons since ‘94 but I learned a lot in just those few lessons. These days, I feel that my voice is really the strongest it’s even been. I don’t smoke anymore, I eat healthy and I try to stick to singing baritone.

Talk a little about the Kilgore (Smudge) days…I know you guys toured and recorded with some big names in the business. What were the pros and cons of being in a working band for you? When did you know it was over for you? Or rather, when did you know you wanted a change?

I guess the biggest pro’s were being able to travel some of the world, meeting some of my idols, and playing with awesome bands… But the best feeling was watching the band get good. We were a decent band but I remember coming home after our second tour, and we were this well oiled machine. All of us; we just got so much better as musicians. These were guys I went to high school with and they were all damn good musicians, but the road made us stronger.

But the road also tested our nervous systems. It really zapped our heads. I always called it the Kurtz Syndrome… “Every day I was in the shit, I couldn’t wait to get back home and every day I was back home, I couldn’t wait to get back in the shit.” It wasn’t easy. We had some casualties along the way. I remember one tour where we all ate salami sandwiches for three weeks straight. I think we lost our bass player after that tour and then our founding member and main songwriter, Brian McKenzie left about a year later. I knew we were in trouble after he left. We banded together and worked hard to trudge on but some of the magic was gone. I remember being on Ozzfest in ‘98 and just feeling miserable. We didn’t feel like we were playing well, we were fighting a lot… We should have been on top of the world, but it just felt like a drag. Plus playing the same songs night after night, year after year… It just felt like, lather, rinse, and repeat. We lost the reasons of why we had written the songs and feelings we were trying to convey. It’s why to this day; I really don’t like playing many shows. I really knew it was over when we started writing songs for our third album and I just couldn’t come up with a single melody for anything. It was quite an eye opener…

Why did you leave the music industry? What happened during the “lost years” (1999-2003) of Jay Berndt?

Well I had grown weary of the major label treatment. Throughout our time with Warner Bros, they were always trying to make us something that we weren’t. Punk got big in ‘94, so they were suggesting we sound like that. The whole Korn sound got big and they suggested we start wearing Addias… The last straw was a radio DJ telling me he was really excited to hear the industrial remixes of our latest album… I fucking lost it. It wasn’t just the label; our manager, our lawyers… they were all giving us advice on how we should change what we sound like or what we look like, how we could sell more records, be more marketable towards a certain target demographic… I just began distrusting everyone.

They even offered me a solo artist contract if I would stay with the band. But I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with music. I knew I didn’t want to play metal anymore. I felt that it was too constricting and I wanted to try different styles. Plus, I didn’t trust anyone, except my wife Jessica. So I just dropped out… I spent most of that time trying to figure out what I wanted to say and how to say it. I just holed up in my basement with 4-Track recorder and kept writing and recording songs until I found something that got me excited. But that wasn’t really until I tried country music in 2003.

Were the bands; The Revival Preachers and The Brimstone Assembly test runs for what you’re doing now?

I suppose in retrospect, yes… I never had any plans of doing anything as a solo artist. At the time, those were serious projects for me. I learned more in the two years I played with Damian Puerini (guitarist for the Revival Preachers) than in the ten plus years I had been playing guitar prior. I mean I had barely played guitar in a band, never mind playing guitar and singing at the same time. It was also the first time I fronted a band where I wrote all the songs, produced our records, booked the shows… So I had some growing pains, and there were some frustrating times. But overall I’m really proud of those bands. The music was good and we had a lot of fun. Plus, each of those bands had really amazing musicians and they’re all great people as well.

How do you feel your music and songwriting has progressed over the 20 years you’ve been doing it? Besides, the obvious of going from metal to country/bluesy rock.

I think in the last four or five years, I’ve really come into my own with my songs. I never really wrote any of the music with Kilgore. I wrote all of the vocal melodies, lyrics and I'd make suggestions to arrangements or key changes, but I just couldn’t write metal songs. I always felt that great metal songs were based on the guitarist being able to write a great riff, like Tony Iommi or Ritchie Blackmore. I tried to write some songs for the band on the second album and one of them almost made the cut but they were just bad Soundgarden rip-offs and didn’t really fit with the rest of the album.

After I left the band, I was stumbling around trying to find my voice in my songwriting. Somewhere around 2001/2002, I got inspired by the European acts The Hellacopters, The Hives, and Turbonegro. They were just making cool rock-n-roll records. All that stuff made me break out my Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Carl Perkins records. Just a simple verse, chorus, bridge structure with a catchy melody. So that’s the thing I spend the most time on, trying to find a good melody. I tend to write most of my songs when things are quiet; like when I’m walking the dogs, ironing cloths, doing dishes… I just start singing. Once the melody is there, I pretty much completely hear the rest of the song in my head. Drums, bass, guitar, piano… It’s all there. The lyrics always come last. The melody sets the tone of the song and lets me think of ideas or stories I’d like to convey in the lyrics. And it really doesn’t matter to me if it’s gospel, country, blues, rock or a metal song. As long as you have a good melody and something interesting to say, you have the makings of a great song.

Talk about your latest album, Sad Bastard Songs. I really enjoyed it. My review was no BS. Was it difficult to write such personal songs? You played many of the instruments yourself. What’s your secret for being able to learn so many instruments?

Well thank you. You really hit the nail on the head with describing these songs as my children. I’m really proud of them and the album as a whole. I think it’s some of the best work I’ve done. It was challenging to write such honest songs. I’ve always written about myself, but I always felt that I didn’t want to give up too much, so I hid behind allusions, flowery language or humorous stories. With these songs, I felt I needed to purge some demons I had been wrestling with. I had written and recorded about half of the album when my wife really helped me realize that the strongest songs were my most honest ones. So I actually scrapped a few of the songs I had already recorded and I started over. Even as the album was ready to be submitted to the label, I had 11 songs that were heartfelt, honest and raw and 1 song that had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of them. To replace it, I actually wrote, recorded and mixed “Running Blues” in a day or two before handing in the masters.

Handling most of the instruments was a challenge. Mostly because I record to analog tape and you can’t copy and paste like you can in digital recording. You hit a bum note while recording and you gotta do it again. Seeing as I’m not much of a solo player, I felt I needed to bring in experienced players to add that missing something to some of the songs. The foundation was there but it was the piano, guitar solos, and pedal steel that pulled it all together.

What is Moto Destructo Studio? How did it come about? Are they open for other bands to record there? Do you need a helper, because I need a job?

Hahaha!! Moto Destructo is the name for my home recording studio. It’s really just a one man operation. It’s a fully analog recording studio, with a Tascam 16 track, one inch tape machine, 24 track Soundcraft board and numerous external pre-amps, compressors and effects. I learned over the years by recording onto tape and invested the time and money into the equipment, so I never really had much desire to “upgrade” to digital recording. Plus, I just can’t get past having to use a mouse instead of faders and knobs on a board. And people can argue endlessly about which is better, but I still like the sound of tape. I’ve recorded all of my projects at the studio and I do take in other clients, but it’s mostly singer/songwriters or bands that I know I would enjoy working with. I’ve done a number of albums with local artists such as; Joe Fletcher & the Wrong Reasons, Brian McKenzie, Chris Fullerton, and Villainer.

What are the Broadside Basement Sessions that I’ve seen on You Tube? Will they continue?

The Broadside Basement Sessions is a video performance series with me and some of my friends working on some original music and some covers. All of it is very raw; we only rehearse the day of the shoot and have only played the songs a few times. It’s an opportunity to throw a few musicians together that really haven’t worked together and see if we can create some magic. We have done two sessions already with a new one launching in early April. And I’m definitely planning on releasing more… You can find some of the videos here:

Who are your 5 all-time favorite bands/performers? Are there any guilty music pleasures?

I’d say the artists that are always in rotation for me would be: The Beatles, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Howlin’ Wolf. They are always a source of inspiration. There’s so many more, and don’t get me started on a “Top Ten...” list!
I wouldn’t say it’s a guilty pleasure but for decades I’ve been saying that I don’t like Bruce Springsteen and I have recently fallen in love with the Darkness on The Edge of Town album. I don’t have that punk rock integrity thing where you’re not supposed to like something. To paraphrase Smokey Robinson; “If the song makes you tap your toes, it’s a good song and it’s OK to like it.”

Is there anything or anyone that you’d like to plug? Take this space to talk about anything you like.

I’d love for everyone to listen to Sad Bastard Songs, of course. And I’d love to have everyone come down to the German Club show on Sat 3/26. This will be the first show I’ll be performing songs from SBS with a full band, so I’m really excited. Also there’s the Tom Waits Tribute/Benefit for Amos House on Fri 4/1 at the 201 in Providence. Lots of great acts coming together for a great cause…