One of the many, many wonderful things about our music scene here in Portland is …
Good rock ‘n’ roll will never die because, at its best, it tells lies we can all see the truth in, and everyone knows honesty doesn’t get old. Portland’s hard-working Tango Alpha Tango has the swagger and stage chops to make indie fans blush, the wit to leave cynics mumbling, and the bravado to hasten a boy back to the bar to buy that cute girl next to him a damn whiskey sour. And here they come, new album in hand, to give you a dash of the sweet on your lips. Songwriter and frontman Nathan Trueb has written his most concise, poignant material on White Sugar, and he sews it through with lyrics that stir and melodies that stick. There’s something for everyone on this record because, well, it’s an album for the tempted. Catch Nathan, his wife Mirabai Carter-Trueb (bass) and Joey Harmon (drums) March 4 at Doug Fir.
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ELEVEN: Your music draws heavily on older, traditional blues-rock styles. Did you grow up listening mostly to guitar-driven blues and classic rock?
Nathan Trueb: So, the brief history of where I came from is kind of a lot of oldies growing up, Motown, Beach Boys, The Beatles. Then I got a little older, introduced to the guitar around sixth grade, and that whole world opened up through my older brother. Stuff like Led Zeppelin, Cream, Hendrix. And with my friend group we all went nuts on that stuff for a while. Then as I got older, and progressed with the guitar, I started being interested in bands like Steely Dan. And that led me to playing jazz. I studied jazz for a bit in college; I love playing it still. That influence doesn’t always come across, but maybe in the composition/progressions aspect.
11: There are also elements of country and folk. Within the American musical landscape, where do you locate your main wellspring of influence?
NT: I think the other part of growing up was being around music. I mean all my family were musicians, and for a long time they would play country music. Not by my choice. I grew up on a farm in Oregon City, the outskirts, so I always grew up with animals and chores and that kind of thing, and country music. So whether I like to admit it or not, I do love country. But, as people call it, “real country.” I don’t enjoy the big-box Nashville stuff. Hank Williams was a big influence. And then all the influence that just comes with being a guitar player, all those Nashville players. I feel like that’s their version of jazz. They’re playing to the chords rather than just jamming abstractly over a key.
11: There’s also a strong element on the new record of contemporary indie music that you successfully blend with that older bluesy sound. Are you worried that by relying heavily on an older styling that you won’t sound current enough?
NT: Well I do feel like we are moving away from that with this new album. As you’ve heard, the last album Black Cloud had several very bluesy tracks on it, and I feel like sometimes people like to find, not in a negative way, a way to pigeonhole you so they can describe it and say what the show’s gonna sound like or the album’s gonna sound like. If you listen to the first few tracks you might think that we were a blues band but there are lots of pop songs on there too. But I feel like with this album I’m always one foot in that classic guitar world and another foot in wanting to be a great songwriter. I’m not filtering it through the question of “are these bluesy enough;” it’s more like “no, is this the best song that people will relate to the best?” That’s how my vision is these days.
11: The new album, “White Sugar,” has a more produced and succinct quality as opposed to “Black Cloud.” How do you feel your songwriting and recording processes have changed between the two albums?
NT: Black Cloud was a pretty lengthy album, it has 13 songs, and we were kind of playing catch up with older material just so it could be there as a snap shot of what we were doing at the time. It became more of a rock ‘n’ roll album in that sense, because of the nature of where we were at as a band. Whereas this album we had a lot of time to home in on the tracks, and not just me, but the band. And my writing process, the inspiration came in a little bit of a different way. I was listening to more Paul Simon. I wanted this album to be more melodic and I wanted to explore different ranges of my voice, like falsetto. I’ve always been into that. I’ve always sung along to stuff that’s maybe higher than my voice, female vocalists, Stevie Wonder. So I think this album stemmed from a little of that, just wanting to write some memorable melodies and more structured songs.
11: White Sugar is loaded with clever, often poignant lyrical turns, I’m thinking of the bonus song “I Won’t Tell,” with the lyric “a creature of habit with the habit of a preacher” and “here I am lord, I’m at your door/I’m not your only client,” and the opening track’s lyric of “I gotta girl with the Ray Ban sun tan/she shake and rattle like a rattle snake spray can.” Your lyrics can be serious and they can be playful. What do you find most important in making a song’s lyrics resonate with you?
NT: I’m really influenced by literature for my writing, rather than another person’s songs. We’re all guilty as musicians of thinking “Oh, I wish I had written that song.” I find the more I start reading, the more inspired I get musically. Sometimes it’s just a memorable tagline that I know is going to be the hook for me, and then the rest of the lyrics come from the questions “What does that mean and what am I going to write about?” Usually it’s just something autobiographical or autobiographical from someone else’s point of view when I’m writing. But I’m very picky about lyrics. I try to stay away from trite things or things that are going to be worn out in a couple years. I don’t like to talk about texting or cell phones. There are certain things that put an expiration date on it and I try to stay away from that stuff. And sometimes it’s to mask what I’m saying because the songs are really personal to me, or to people around me, and you don’t want to give everything away. You want the listener to feel like they’re having the experience too; because I feel like if I’m experiencing this then I’m sure that others have been there too. We’re not all that different.
11: In the album’s title track, a refrain at the end goes “White sugar calls/green dollar falls.” What is the metaphor here?
NT: So maybe to even paint a broader brush, and I didn’t mean to write it this way, but the concept of the album for me, White Sugar, whether I knew it at the time or not, seems to be a temptation album. I mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, all those things that not just rock ‘n’ rollers deal with but everyone deals with in my age group, and younger too, and older. So White Sugar has an obvious reference to drugs. That’s the first thing that everyone comes up and asks me: “Is that song about cocaine?” Well it is, but it’s more about what that represents: a fleeting good time.
11: There are lyrics in the song that make it sound like you’re almost talking about a woman. Like a one night stand. And then other times it’s more explicitly a drug reference. So it does kind of seem to expand the metaphor to be about indulgence and excess, not necessarily addiction.
NT: Yeah, flirting with all that stuff. In relationships too. I feel like Black Cloud was more of an album that was good versus evil, whether it’s spiritual or political, kind of those wide-encompassing topics. And then White Sugar, as a continuation, is more personal. How does the individual, myself, or whoever, deal with adultery, temptation, girls, drugs? I feel like that is the umbrella that the songs all unintentionally fall under.
11: I didn’t want to presume too much, especially because your bassist is also your wife, but it does seem like there are several lyrics in various songs that seem to have this “little secret” aspect to them. It does seem like that’s a theme.
NT: Right it is, and like I said, or maybe I didn’t say it explicitly, but the “me” isn’t necessarily me. You know when you’re friends with a writer or songwriter then you’re going to be an open target for what I’m experiencing through you and how it’s affecting either your friend group or your family.
11: Those around you can become an object of observation?
NT: Yes. And for the record, me and Mirabai are fine [laughs]. But yeah I mean it’s just things that everyone deals with. I hope it’s relatable. The goal for me is to just, like I said, write a song that someone can sing and feel—you know people write you nice stuff like that sometimes, like “Man, this song got me through this time,” or “That’s exactly about this thing that I don’t even need to tell you about, but that’s my theme song for this.” And at the end of the day too you can listen to the song “White Sugar” and it’s just a party song. You know, whatever, if that’s as far as you want to take it then that’s all it needs to be. »
– Ethan Martin