Interview with Carter Gravatt from Carbon Leaf

All photos courtesy of Elmo Thamm.

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I had the great pleasure of sitting and speaking with Carter Gravatt of the Richmond, VA. band Carbon Leaf on the April 19. Aside from playing acoustic and electric guitar in the band, Carter also mans the mandolin, violin, banjo, bouzouki, lap steel, cello, and a number of other instruments (he’s in the market for a nyckelharpa). After we knocked out the usual topics such as Game Of Thrones banter, we were able to get into the meat and potatoes of the band and their newest PledgeMusic project, Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat‘s revamping. We also took the time to discuss the making of their last release, Indian Summer Revisited, and a ton of other musician-specific questions, as well as some random oddities. For the full hour and a half audio interview, check out the provided Youtube video (opening it up in its own window provides a Table Of Contents to skip to specific topics). Below, however, is a transcription of some of the highlights, with a focus on the band and their current project!

What’s been going on with you and the band for the last four months?

January we had a little bit of downtime. We usually have a little bit of time off at the first of the year. We had the Rock Boat and we also had been working on a record project which has just now come to light. We were re-recording Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat. So we were starting that earlier in the year. Then we had shows throughout March – some stuff in February – and April we’ve had, for the most part, off. It’s kind of a vacation as we get ready for this Summer. Terry is mixing and working on the record and I’m fixing stuff – shipping instruments away to get fixed – and getting ready for the Summer to start it all over.

On how Carbon Leaf makes setlists:

We’ll show up at a venue and go in and take a look, especially if it’s a place we haven’t played before, and decide what kind of show it’s going to be. Is it going to be a rock show? Is it going to be an acoustic show? Will it be something in between? Once we do that then Barry will make the setlist and he’ll go through the setlist with me and decide what kind of instruments he wants on what songs. And hopefully I can play it!

So is that something you decide on the day of the show?

Yeah, absolutely! Every day is a little bit different. On any tour there will be a core of songs that we want to play or that we’ll fall into a groove with, where everybody is on the same page and playing it well. But we’ll take a look at the last time we were out on the road and what we played. Barry has a list of all the shows, all the venues, all the setlists, and we’ll look and see what we played last time we were in town and the time before that. Then we’ll go through and try to come up with a good list of songs and have the core things that people want to hear, but still have some stuff that we haven’t played, have some new stuff, and try to make a pretty creative list out of it. But yeah, that all happens once we get to the venue.

As you said at the beginning, Love, Loss, Hope, Re-Repeat?  Something like that?

Repeat Repeat, or something like that. I’m not sure we’ve settled on anything, haha! Repeat Again?

You guys recently just came off of doing Indian Summer Revisited last year and touring behind that. And now you’re working on Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat’s sequel, so to speak, but this one you said is going to be less faithful to the original songs. You’re going to mess around with it some more?

Absolutely! This one is going to be very different. There are a few things about it that I’m really excited about. There’s a tune called “Block Of Wood” on there and it’s actually, unless it’s been edited without my knowledge, actually has all the words in it now. That tune, I was always a little bummed that we sliced out some of the lyrics, because I didn’t feel like it made quite as much sense. But it’s a great song and now I think the full lyrics are in there.

When we made that record originally it was the first time we did a record not at home or in a studio that we could control the amount of time we had to work on it. The label said, “Look, we need the record by this date.” That was also the first time we’d ever had someone tell us when we had to have something done. We were kind of used to taking our time. We had been on the road touring intensely behind Indian Summer ever since it had come out. We hadn’t had the chance to stop and really develop the songs. The songs that we’d started to develop would be the songs that would end up on How The West Was One, so that was kind of where we were and that was our headspace at the time. A lot more ambient, kind of dreamy material. “Texas Stars” was slated for How The West Was One, “Under The Wire”, some of those songs. So they were kind of supposed to be part of a different project that we didn’t have time to work with at the same time.

We were up against the wall and we went to Nashville to record [Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat] with a producer who was really great, but we had the wrong batch of songs for what we needed to put out at the time and we didn’t have time to finish them. A lot of it, to me, I hear that stuff we didn’t get to put on the record and I feel like we finally got to straighten things out and do the versions of the songs that we would have done, had we had time. There are some things about the original recording of the record that I really do like. “Texas Stars”, the version on the original, I really enjoyed. It was a little bit more aggressive than the original treatment of the tune. There are little things, going back and listening to it, there were things that I really liked.  Like “Royal One” was actually, I think, captured in one take. That was Jordan, the drummer, and myself just playing in the studio together. But yeah, there are things I like, but I’m way more excited about finishing up with the new one.

Photo Courtesy of Elmo Thamm

I really do like the record the way it stands, but I know that there are things that you guys have said about it. That it was a very weird time for you all in the studio. 

It really was. It was just a lot of different things coming at once. There was the label saying, “We need the record.” There was the producer saying, “We’re not going to have time to do this record the way they want to do it.” Us finishing up our time at Nashville and not having the time to take it home…we basically like to get started, let things percolate, play some stuff and see how it sounds – see if it’s come around – and work from there.  So we were really out of our comfort zone with that. And during mastering,…Barry threw his back out and was singing literally right up to mastering, sitting across the street on a couch with ice on his back in a hotel room with Terry. But it was really, really rushed.

Do you feel that the new release of this is going to be different simply based on choice, or also because you have people that weren’t there originally, like Jason and Jon, now taking their own personality and putting it on the songs?

There’s some of that and the songs are going to be different.  It’ll be a pretty different sounding record. It’s just one of those things where, when we did Indian Summer Revisited it was nice to have that record as our own again and not be associated with our former label. We had talked about revisiting some of the older stuff, like Echo Echo, a while back.  It was one of those things like, “You know, when we get time…” We have a lot of those. The thought to redo the other two Vanguard records has always been…you know, we’ve always wanted another shot at Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat, and we just said, while we’re doing this let’s go back in a re-record Love, Loss… the way we wanted. Because with Indian Summer Revisited we really wanted to be as truthful to the original as possible, because that’s what we wanted. We wanted to have those songs back, and just to have the record again just to be able to sell to fans. We haven’t sold any of the Vanguard records since they sold out years ago.  It’s just cost ineffective for us. We don’t sell our CDs for more than $10 at a show, so with the amount we had to pay the label for the CDs, shipping, and then venue percentages, and damaged goods, we were basically paying people a few bucks to take the CDs. We thought we should do something about that. But we wanted Indian Summer Revisited to be very close to the original and I think we did a good job of trying not to ruin it for people. I hope we didn’t!  Our hope is not to ruin it for people that liked the original.

To me, the new one sounds fresh, but it’s close enough that I have a hard time telling the two apart.

There are little nuances that you don’t really notice are there at all until they’re not there. And then you’re like, “Wait a minute, something’s missing.” We wanted to minimize those, but there were some things we wanted to not be there. We used drum loops a lot on the original, because we had to, and we wanted to completely avoid that when we re-recorded it. And a couple of other little things, but overall I feel like it was a very honest and truthful recreation of that album. And it was kind of interesting to go back and listen to that record, because I haven’t listened to that record in years! And then to learn a lot of the same parts that I would have improvised in the studio the first time and I had to go back and learn them! That was an interesting challenge. And trying to figure out what I would have used to get some of the sounds to be as similar as we could. Of course, the funny part of that was that a guy that was working on the project with us videoed a lot of it and the video showed up about two months after we were done re-recording. It was like, “Man, I really could have used that a couple of months ago.” Because it’s got a video of all the amps I was using, a bunch of pedals and the order I had them set up in, which was really hard to figure out when you’re just listening to things. Cause there were a few things in there, especially in songs like “The Sea” and “Paloma”, where there are a lot of really effect-y guitars that don’t even necessarily sound like a guitar. So trying to figure out all I’d done, and of course this video surfaces after we’re done and it shows me doing half of it…I was like, “I really could have used that a few months ago.”

You buy the IKEA table, you put it together, and then someone shows up with the instructions.

Yeah, yeah! Like, “Huh, so that’s what happens when you put the legs on top.”

You hardly notice!

Yeah, you hardly notice. It does sit on the floor and it’s really weird, but…it was a lot of fun to do that. And Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat and anything else that we redo, will be a departure from the record unlike Indian Summer RevisitedLove, Loss, Hope, Repeat was the opposite, and I look forward to people hearing it! We’ll see what people think.

Photo Courtesy of Elmo Thamm
On a record of new material:

Barry has been writing. We’ve got 300 to 500 pieces of unfinished music that are just waiting to be finished up. It also crossed a lot of different…I don’t want to say genres.

More than one mood?

Oh yeah, tons! And that’s what Barry does. He separates it all out into his own moods. I’m not sure what he’s writing to right now. I know he’s been working on stuff for a while. Usually when he has a batch of songs done, he’ll bring them back to us and we’ll start picking through and figuring out what we’ll do. That’s what we were going to do with Constellation Prize, but when he brought back the batch of songs there was a chunk that had that Irish thing going and a chunk that was what would ultimately become Constellation Prize. We said, “Alright, let’s stop right here and divide this up and make two albums that kind of make sense together, but not intermingle the two.” So then we wrote out the rest of what would be Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle and then wrote out the rest of Constellation Prize. That way we had two different things and not taking a half of each, putting them together, and going, “Wow, this is a really non-cohesive blob of songs.”

You were talking about Barry bringing batches of songs and you guys going through them. Is that normally how the writing process for the band works?  

There are a couple of different ways, but essentially we’ll write the music and then give it to Barry at various stages of “doneness.” Sometimes it’ll be a mandolin piece or a guitar thing, and sometimes it’ll be things that we’ve fleshed out with the whole band and be kind of a finished song. But he’s got all of that and then he’ll pick through and find what he likes and we might start to sketch out some ideas with him. Or he’ll come back to us and say, “I like this and I like this. What I want in here…how about a bridge?” or “Can you take this part out and add in something from this other song?” It’s kind of like Legos! But you know, once things start to move towards becoming a song we’ll maneuver around what he wants to do with it. And some things will be done and he’ll come back with exactly what we gave him and he’ll have written lyrics and it’s done.

For instance, the song “She’s Gone” off of Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle. That was done pretty much exactly like the demo. And “Love Rains Down.”  “Ragtime Carnival,” I think, was another one that he just came back with…that’s the most fun ever, actually, is that first time we get together, we’ll sketch out the structure, and we’ll play through it. And to hear what Barry has come up with over what you’ve written is…man, that’s just the best ever.  I love that part. It’s the best part of the creative process for me. Like the first time we played through “The War Was In Color.” I was just standing there with my jaw hanging open, going “Could you…could you say that again?  Could we do that again, just so I can catch all the word again?” Or, I remember the first time we played “What About Everything?” and going “Wow, I think people are going to like that!” Or “One Prairie Outpost”…so many other songs. It’s so much fun. The first time to hear it and to be there.

Because you guys don’t discuss what the subject matter is going to be before Barry brings it back to you, do you?

Uh, sometimes! Sometimes with some of the stuff I’ve written I’ll tell Barry what I’m feeling or what I’d like to hear for a song. And that’s also amazing, to be able to have a little input. And whether or not it works out for that song, he always files that stuff away in his mind and it’s a really amazing thing. Some stuff off How The West Was One was a lot of stuff that I wrote on my own and had ideas for some of it. I’m always impressed when he comes back with words for it, because I sure can’t write them, heh!

It’s like, “You get me, man. You get me.”

“Yeah, man! You understand me. No one else does, but you get me!” Haha! But yeah, man, it’s fun. That’s one of the greatest things, is finishing songs.

Carbon Leaf - RagTimeCarnival_2015Next month, May 15 and 16, you guys have the Ragtime Carnival Campout. You did this last year and you’re doing it again. You’re going to have bands like Ben Daniel’s Band, Mandolin Orange…

Red Wanting Blue is coming. Trigger Hippie. Golly, I can’t remember the line-up now. But yeah, it’s going to be a lot of fun.

This is going to take place at Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield, Vir. Can you tell us a little bit about where the idea came from, how last year went, and what you guys are planning for this year?

Well, to set it up we used to do a luau and campout…man, it must have been about 10 years ago. We did all the work ourselves.  It was a real ordeal to put it on. It would basically be one day of shows in which you’d camp out and the band would cook you breakfast and then you split the next day. But we just got too overwhelmed once Indian Summer started rolling and just didn’t have the time to put in to make it happen. We wanted to revisit it for a long time and just didn’t have the venue, because the place we were having it closed down. It was an island that was in the middle of the James River, which was great, but it got to the point where you couldn’t put on a show there. So we didn’t have the venue and we didn’t have the time. I guess a promoter approached Barry about two years ago and we had a real good time doing it, and a good turnout. Especially for the first year of doing something like that. I wasn’t completely sure if we were going to do it again and then found out last fall that we were definitely having it again.

The first day, you’ll show up Friday and there’ll be two stages. One is at the bottom of the hill and the other up on top, and it’s a little bit smaller. Slightly more acoustic acts will play up there, but there will always be someone playing. The main stage, someone will play, and then while the changeover is going on the other stage will be going.  Then after the show…I think we’re going to try and do a bonfire this year. We were going to try last year but we had some logistic problems. Then the next day the music will start about lunchtime. I think [Carbon Leaf] will start with an acoustic set on the small stage and then a closing set on the main stage that night. It’ll be all day. There’s great trails; I took my bike last year and rode a bunch. Yeah, great stuff to do and really pretty. The weather was really amazing last year, which makes me think this year will be terrible. You can’t get that lucky all the time! But yeah, I was excited about it last year and I’m really excited about it this year.

You mentioned trail biking. You guys have some interesting Pledge Rewards for the new Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat Pledge Music campaign. 

Haha, yeah!

You can go fishing with Jason, and he’ll even clean your catch for you if you want to keep it; Jon is offering intro boxing/juijitsu lessons.

Juijitsu probably, yeah! He is super big into that stuff!

And you can do a 30 minute guitar lesson with you or Terry, and you have a Mountain Biking reward, where people can go out with you and mountain bike. I’m taking that this is kind of a big hobby for you.

You know, well, I do try to go riding. So, if somebody gets it we’ll go out and get a cup of coffee, drive out to one of my favorite spots, and ride for a couple of hours. Then probably go get some barbeque or go to one of my favorite little dive restaurants and get a late lunch. Then I’ll happily send them on their way, hopefully dusty and dirty, but nothing broken.  Yeah, it’s going to be fun!

 

For more on Carbon Leaf, visit:
Official Website
Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat, Re-… PledgeMusic.com Campaign
Facebook
Twitter
Youtube

Bonus – What is Carter listening to right now?
Planxty – “Smeceno Horo” from After The Break