Before Chicago’s The Kickback plays Mississippi Studios on Wednesday, we talked with frontman Billy Yost about the band’s Jim Eno-produced debut, what it’s like to have a sibling leave the band, and what on earth an airline does with an exclusive version of one of your songs.
Since the members of Diarrhea Planet met in 2009 at Belmont University–a school that’s music department would balk at the idea of producing such a rowdy, boisterous group–all they’ve ever wanted to be was the opposite of what Belmont University represents: loud, offensive, carefree. From the beginning, Diarrhea Planet have personified the classic rebellion of the angst-filled teen in any story ever written. But recently, things seem to be changing.
Up until now there was a certain feeling you could only ever get from Diarrhea Planet’s live shows, a visceral response to seeing four guitars played in tandem on one tiny stage, that years of lo-fi production couldn’t compare to. Even though the fuzzy quality of their previous recordings feels so representative of their persona, it’s a shame to let interesting musicianship be drowned out in the noise. Their most recent album, Turn to Gold, however, marks a distinctive change in tone. As we all must someday, Diarrhea Planet has grown up. There is a certain care put into the production, making each part clear, and strong enough to stand alone without competing. Everything about Turn to Gold is subtler and more refined. This release feels like the consequence of supremely talented musicians who are ready to admit it.
With some downtime in the middle of their current tour, Diarrhea Planet guitarist Evan Bird took a minute out to chat with ELEVEN about Portland, touring and what it was like making Turn to Gold.
ELEVEN: Do you have any specific highlights from your most recent West Coast leg of tour?
Evan Bird: At the risk of playing to my audience, the show at Doug Fir was actually really cool. We played a show at Doug Fir and a show at The Crocodile back-to-back and they were both Red Bull Sound Select Shows, so Red Bull rolled out all the bells and whistles and it was a lot of fun.
We played a Sound Select show in Nashville a couple years ago and it kind of spoiled us, so when we heard they wanted to do it again at Doug Fir and The Crocodile we were really excited because we’d played in both of those venues before and loved it, but obviously getting the boost from Red Bull is a huge help.
11: For sure. Those shows are always really fun.
EB: Yeah, it was a lot of fun; there were a lot of familiar faces. The crowd all really seemed like they were there on purpose rather than, “Oh it’s a $3 ticket.” But people were singing along and the lineups on both shows were a lot of fun. I grew up in Tacoma, so anytime we are near Seattle or Portland it’s really special for me, one of my aunts growing up had a house right off of Alberta.
11: Oh. Cool!
EB: Yeah, it’s like another home away from home for me. Portland and Seattle are home base for me.
11: Because this last tour was in support of the new album, Turn to Gold, but it hadn’t been released yet, did it feel weird to play songs that the audience hadn’t heard yet? Did you notice a different vibe from the crowd?
EB: A little. But I don’t think it’s bad. Generally people were really excited. They weren’t singing along but they were paying attention. And, luckily, one thing we have going for us is that we can ramp everyone up and keep the energy going for the whole set. So typically, even if someone doesn’t know any of our songs and is seeing us for the first time, it’s easy enough to find the downbeat.
It’s a little weird playing songs for the first time and trying to gauge the reaction, but outside of that… now that all the songs are released I think it’s going to be business as usual.
11: What song off the new album is the most fun for you personally to play live?
EB: I really dig playing “Life Pass,” because it starts with that kind of butt-rock intro where it’s like, “Oh boy, what are we getting into.” You can kind of tell when you look into the audience, everyone is kind of like, “Oh. Okay.” but then the song picks up. And the solos at the end, Emmett [Miller] and I both play little solos and trade off, and I’m particularly proud of that because both of us felt really proud of what we did but hadn’t really consulted with each other before we were actually punching into overdubs the day of.
I mean, I knew how he ended his solo so I tried to make mine in a way that segued with that. But, for not having practiced with each other, and not having practiced the solos at all on our own, I think that turned out really well. It’s really fun to play live and kind of shout to each other and start dancing around like an idiot.
11: For sure! My only experience is with Portland audiences, but Portland is always really into that.
EB: Yeah! Portland is always really energetic. And we’ve been really privileged as far as where we’ve played and crowds being really receptive and wanting to be a part of it. Our goal is to make everyone feel like we’re in it together. For me, I like people to go home and think, “the band couldn’t have done that without me.” Not that we’re co-dependent, but just to have the vibe be “you push us a little, and we push back and everyone is having fun together.”
11: The new album is a lot more produced than your past releases, and I know you’ve said previously that you’d like to make a more mature album, but what was the inspiration behind making something less lo-fi than in the past?
EB: First and foremost, every producer we’ve had we’ve sought them out specifically for what they do specifically. They have a fingerprint they leave on all of their recordings, and Vance Powell was highly respected, and he definitely has a sound. He’s done stuff with The Walkmen and Titus Andronicus and you can hear him on it which we all really dig, and that’s what we wanted.
But retrospectively, when a lot of people think of us they think of our live show and a consistent comment we get from our fans, and ourselves, and our parents is “This is great and I love hearing these songs, but listening to this, this is an opportunity for me to learn the songs for when I see you live because they can’t compare.” And that’s fine. Most of the CDs and bands I listen to, between the record and the live show there’s a disparity, but we got to a point where we’d heard that so many times that we were like, “Ok, fine. Let’s listen to everyone’s gripe, let’s really try and close the gap.”
And the other half was like, “If we’re going to try and close the gap let’s really see what we can do as a band.” I think, even for us, our strength lies in our live show. I think we’re competent as a studio band, but our focus has been on the live show for so long this was a nice opportunity to get more comfortable in the studio and flex that muscle. Ultimately we were feeling like we should try a little harder for the sake of everyone complaining and push a little harder for the sake of us not knowing. And working with Vance and his engineer was a slam-dunk. He could just read our minds, every sound we were trying to get they could find. I don’t know if I can speak for the other guys, but at least for me, this was the most pumped about the way an album sounds sonically I’ve ever been.
11: Everyone on this album is so clear and it’s easy to hear every part, where past releases some of the parts are hard to discern, this album does such a great job making every part stand out.
EB: Thank you! That was definitely the goal. It is a nightmare trying to mix us in any context and we are cognizant of that. Our first full-length, our really good friend, Ryan Ellis offered to record it and mix it for free because we didn’t have any money and he pushed really hard when we were starting the band to help us out wherever he could.
I don’t know what he was thinking agreeing to that. And given that he was doing it in his room in his spare time over the course of four or five months, tracking everything individually and none of us expecting anything to come of it, he really did a hell of a job.
And for the second album Kevin McMahon did the same thing. There are a couple songs on there where there are some overdubbed parts, like “Emmett’s Vision,” where the original version had 12 different guitar solos from different people that mixed in and out of each other. Just some unreasonable expectations that we would throw at him and he would take it in stride and roll with the punches and appease us the best he could.
And in both cases, neither of them ever said anything or complained, but you can only do so much with that much mid-range. You can only get so much out of that kind of mix. But with Vance, he started his career doing live sound and has cut his teeth on the road dealing with a bunch of ridiculous assholes like us. It was the first time where we set all our stuff up and someone was like, “Ok, let’s get started.” instead of “Let me figure out how I’m going to do this.” He was just like, “I already know what I’m going to do. You do what you do best and I’m going to do what I do best.” »
– Sarah Eaton
*Diarrhea Planet plays live in Portland on Aug. 28 for the Project Pabst music festival.