One Eleven Heaven have just released a wonderful album full of joyful, roots-music inspired rock with »Everything’s Better«. skug talked to two of the band’s founding members, Nick Mitchell Maiato (guitar, vocals) and Dan Brown (bass), about their recording process, musical influences, plans for the future, and the redemptive quality of playing music together.
skug: Reading the line-up for the first One Eleven Heavy album will raise great expectations in people interested in the more jam-oriented side of experimental music. How did the idea for the band evolve and how did the band first come together?
Nick Mitchell Maiato: It’s been such a chance development, really. I think the main reason it came together is just that Toth and I liked each other so much when we hung out. He first came to Manchester, I think, in around 2008 to play a show I set up – his wife Leah was with him – and we all just really hit it off. Like many of our peers, we were raised on a diet of underground American rock, as well as Neil Young and the Dead, but I think we sensed that we shared a particularly, uncannily, similar musical trajectory, growing up. Teenage metal kids who, via grunge or whatever, hit upon the 90s sub-underground – Shadow Ring, Strapping Fieldhands, Harry Pussy, et al – and went deep into that and then came back out the other end with a shared bent for great songwriting – Dylan, Hunter-Garcia, Neil Young, contemporary dudes like Jerry DeCicca or whatever … The main point of our initial connection, though, was our shared Royal Trux / Howling Hex obsession. James is the only guy I know – except maybe Mick Flower – who really had that almost compulsive attitude toward Neil Hagerty’s music that I had, and I think that’s what really bonded us and how we ended up chasing down ex-Trux bassist Dan Brown to join One Eleven Heavy when we started it. Me, Toth and Dan had a kind of »theoretical band« for a little while. Then, in December 2016, we got together to record a cover of Bert Jansch’s »Open Up The Watergate (Let the Sunshine in)« and John Moloney from Sunburned Hand of the Man / Dinosaur Jr. recommended that we get Ryan Jewell in on drums. We all knew and loved Ryan and he was totally into it, so that was cool. Hans Chew came later – right around the time we booked the album sessions in Richmond, VA. Toth was keen to get a piano player in on the act and I’m so glad, after the fact, that he pushed for it. Toth already knew Hans from the New York scene and I knew him a little bit via his wife Melodie (aka Connie Acher) whose last record I put out on my old label Golden Lab. As for the impact on the experimental music heads, I don’t know if the record will have any, if I’m honest. I don’t think there’s much about what we’re doing that slots into that world at all. It’s a side of music that will always be with me and I’ll always want to pursue it pretty vehemently, but One Eleven Heavy is definitely my populist outlet – and by populist, I mean it in the strictest sense of being anti-elitist. This is a record that I knew my mum would like as we were making it – I even named the last song on the record after the street she grew up on for that reason. I think it’s important to make honest music that people can access, especially if you’re disseminating it via any kind of mass medium.
Dan Brown: I’m surely the band »bench warmer« in the sense that I’d really gone way off the radar. I played bass with Royal Trux for the bulk of 1994 to 2000 and after that band imploded on the road, Neil quickly started up his solo band and I did that for maybe a year-and-a-half or two years. After I stopped playing with Neil Hagerty in 2002, I drifted away. At one point, Jennifer (Herrema) asked me to tour Europe as her bassist with her then-new band, RTX. But I was so fucked up that I told her I’d need 100 mg of methadone every day to go. Even the most progressive European promoters probably don’t put methadone on the tour rider, so I kind of killed my one offer. Ha ha. So, I had been entirely out of the music loop, just getting sexually aroused in pharmacies. Long story short, I had to change my life and just focus on finally getting clean and trying to live clean. All of the other players in One Eleven Heavy had been really active in recording and touring, but during that time, I had pretty much stepped away from music. I say all of that to express how One Eleven Heavy was a kind of pleasantly jarring opportunity to come barreling my way. I don’t know when, but years back Nick had contacted me via Facebook and told me he dug the Trux stuff that I’d played on, which was and is always flattering and appreciated. When he released »The Hildreth Tapes« on Golden Lab, he made sure that I got a copy; which was also appreciated. I liked that whole package and sound / vinyl quality, as well as Neil’s imaginative, reconstructionist-history liner notes that would make Barry Hannah blush. So, through the miracle of social media, Nick and I became friends from afar and stayed in touch. It’s kind of interesting how one can get a read on someone by what music they post on Facebook and suggest via messages; and Nick is into some really choice stuff. He contacted me and said that he and James were starting a band and wanted me to sign on. Naturally, I climbed on board. In December of 2016, Nick, James, Ryan, and I all rendezvoused in Richmond to record the Jansch tune »Open Up The Watergate (Let the Sunshine in)« at Sound of Music studio; oddly enough, that was the last studio where I recorded with Royal Trux in 2000, for »Pound for Pound«. One Eleven Heavy had all separately listened to the tune but had never rehearsed the song, let alone played as a »band«. We kind of ran through it a bit and recorded it. We might have done two takes, but we just rolled it out and I think we were collectively impressed that it was so casual. But recording serendipity aside, I think it was apparent that we all really got along really well. I gotta acknowledge that out of the gate, Nick has really busted his ass in coordinating and propelling this band forward; something he does to this day. So at one point he did a group temperature check about recording a full-length album. Hans signed on (another stranger to me, albeit one I’m also glad I met!) and, like that Jansch session, it really happened fairly quickly.
Listening to your first album »Everything’s Better« and looking at the accompanying artwork, I cannot help but feel that The Grateful Dead, particularly in their early 1970s incarnation, as well as some other bands of that era – New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco, Kak, Buffalo Springfield come to mind – have been an inspiration for the recordings. Would you say, this is true, and if so, how much has a common love for this kind of music been a factor in getting the band together?
NMM: Absolutely! You know, I think New Riders Of The Purple Sage might be the most overlooked element of the recent revival of interest in the Dead. »Lonesome L.A. Cowboy« from the »The Adventures of Panama Red« LP was a big influence for me, in particular, because (lyrically, as well as musically) it helped to remind me that country music has long been universal or without a geographical centre or whatever. Their version of »Dead Flowers« takes that kind of meta-country thing one step further, too, being that it’s a Stones song – written by two British dudes. And it’s this fast, coke-fuelled, shit-kickin’ rager – I like it more than the original. I definitely want to head a little more down that avenue with the band. I was very heavily into Neil Young’s »American Stars ’n Bars« LP, especially the song »Hold Back The Tears«, and the whole Raccoon Records catalogue at the time I was writing for the record: High Country; Michael Hurley; Youngbloods (especially the »Good & Dusty« LP, which is an all-time top ten record); oh and those two amazing Jeffrey Cain records on the label. All those Raccoon Records are so fuckin’ cheap, too, and every single one of them is incredible. A couple of folks wrote, recently, that One Eleven Heavy reminds them of Holy Modal Rounders, which I think is hilarious, but I can totally understand it because that shit just seeps in as if by osmosis – you know, Hurley and The Youngbloods were closely connected to those folks, so yeah … I’m not surprised if people can hear them in a song like »Zygo Grip«. Everyone just regurgitates what they hear, to some degree, I don’t care how »experimental« they consider themselves to be. You hear it, process it, connect to it and it comes back out in your own playing somewhat different and warped and with your own stamp on it. I think that’s just the nature of music – it’s the folk tradition in the age of mechanical reproduction, right?
DB: In 1994, everyone in the »Thank You«-era band line-up of Royal Trux was a total Deadhead, myself included. Or at least everyone had a strong appreciation of the Dead. Robbie Armstrong, the percussionist that actually got me into the Truxiverse, is one of my oldest friends. He and I »discovered« the Dead in 1985, after he stole a cassette copy of »What a Long Strange Trip« … we actually thought we were two of the only people who knew how remarkable the Dead were; and we were sorely mistaken. Ha. Those Dead albums from 1967 to 1970, along with the Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service’s »Happy Trails«, really altered our musical and emotional genetic coding. My awareness of those other bands you mentioned surely tendril’d outward from being altered by the Dead, Airplane, etc. I was 13 or 14 when this all occurred and was admittedly getting deeper and deeper into smoking pot and taking LSD. But drug use aside, I was enthralled with the idea of taking some three-minute song or old blues song and stretching it out to its possible breaking point. I admire that era of the Dead for their willingness to completely fuck up a performance in the same way that I admire Duane and Berry-era Allman Brothers Band’s ability to play in a more motivic manner, and dance and zip around a recurring riff. Of course, over time, you realize that these types of experiences are about as original as a broken heart or toothache. So, going into One Eleven Heavy, it became apparent that this form of music, most notably the Dead, is a shared frequency and reference point musically as well culturally. I think the Dead, Little Feat, Band comparisons of »Everything’s Better« are apt. But it probably just comes down to signifiers. Even though it can be used as a weapon to tear a band apart, I think signifiers in a band’s sound are unavoidable. Considering we’re getting »compared« to artists that we all like makes sense. I think the first day we met in July of 2017 to record the album, Nick and I hugged each other in the studio and he was wearing an Allman Brothers Band shirt and I was wearing a Duane Allman shirt so even our fashion sense is based on playing the »Dorian Mode« for 25 minutes. So, it was a case of two signifiers signifying with slob fashion.
What did the songwriting and recording process for the album look like, especially considering that the band is divided across two continents?
NMM: Well, I think because Toth knew my other band, Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura, he was expecting us to start some kind of Les Rallizes Denudes type thing and for it to just be a kind of side project at first. But then I sent him a rough, but fairly complete, demo of »Old Hope Chest« and he was like, »Ohhh, okay!« I think that’s when he realised it was going to be more of a serious endeavour for us both. He’d sent me a couple of his Wooden Wand-style, amazing, downer type songs as demos, but he realised they weren’t the right vibe, so he went away and wrote »Crosses« and »Kitty Clyde’s Sister« and I think that was that. We were on a roll. I’d had the guitar parts for »Valley Bottom Fever« half-written for about ten years, so I finally got my shit together and finished that, which I think is one of my best songs, and sent him the demo. Then we shared them with the rest of the band, all learned them at home (not very well, to be honest – we had way too much learning to do in the studio) and then just got right into it when we arrived in Richmond, VA, to make the record. Scott McDowell from Kith & Kin / WFMU had fronted us as much money as he could afford to pay studio costs, which gave us just five days to make the record. It was intense, workmanlike, fun, positive and just a blur of great energy. It was – and will remain – one of the best weeks of my life, partly because I’m prouder of this record than anything I’ve ever done, partly because I got to hang and jam with the best musicians I’ve ever played with, partly because I got to develop the weird, brotherly-loving, intense friendship I now share with Dan Brown and partly because it directly preceded my and my wife’s wedding up in Albany, NY, a week later. I have to say, for a »transatlantic« band, it worked remarkably well.
DB: Prior to us meeting in Richmond, Nick and James had emailed out their demos of the songs. It was an interesting A / B’ing of their approaches as James’ demos were pretty minimal and Nick’s were kind of mixed through these psychedelic effects. Ha ha! By then, Nick had hipped to more of his music and I investigated more of James solo and Wooden Wand stuff. But for some reason, I had this certain belief that we were going to record this gnarly, droned-out, heavy psych record – and I was pleasantly surprised that was not the case. As much that I imagined another album of said styles / results, however interesting and with the »featuring members of« sticker, would probably be consumed in the ephemeral blur of »limited edition of 50 / Bandcamp page« underground music deluge. I really need to acknowledge this element for myself, as it was pretty crucial in my trip of getting to Richmond to record. I had resigned from my day job two weeks prior to leaving for Richmond. My mom had been decimated by dementia for the previous three years and it was apparent that she was readying to leave the body. Richmond was locked in: Nick was flying over from the UK, Hans and Ryan were heading in from (respectively) NYC and Columbus, Ohio, the studio time was booked. So, on my last day of my job, I went to my folks’ house to essentially begin a death vigil over my Mom. I kept the guys in the band in the loop and they assured me that I could eventually record my bass tracks remotely / via long distance; an offering that I surely saw as a loving option. My mom finally passed, and I conferred with my dad as to what he wanted me to do. He urged me to head up to Richmond. So, within two days of her dying, I’m driving up to Richmond and meeting everyone at the studio. Recording with and being around those guys was precisely what I needed. It wasn’t really a distraction but rather a tactile reminder of what I should be doing and who I am. After all, my mom was a big fan of the Royal Trux song »Ray-O-Vac« – ha ha – so she was probably encouraging more of my bass-fuelled forays into creative ascents from the spiritual realm. So, all of the guys were there for me, dealing with the grief, but quite frankly it was never an issue. Other than me flubbing the bass line for »Valley Bottom Fever«, as heard on the end of the song. In the biz, we call that the »grief lick«. So that created a kind of emotional »combat unity« for me with these guys since they were more of a healthy distraction than they’ll ever know. I really feel tightest Nick. He and I had gotten into a mild dust-up not long after we recorded; which I actually initiated. Silly. On some level, I think Nick and I have bonded so tightly since he’s from Northern England and I’m from the South in the US. Both of those mentalities are the same. He and I both grew up in kind of »redneck«, salty parts of the world and I think our tastes in music and temperaments are highly similar. At the very least, I think he and I are probably the most coarse, crude guys in the band. Ha ha. But as far as the »production«, Nick, James, Hans, and I jammed about in a »drum-less« capacity for the first day and then Ryan arrived the following day. We had John Morand engineering the session and he was fantastic. He had all of the whistles and bells you’d want in a good studio – nice, large recording room, a barrage of gear, including wacky effects; even a goddamned Mellotron! – and he seemed pretty fired up about what we were doing, as well as the speed of which we naturally worked. But yeah, it was a pretty »up« vibe. I think One Eleven Heavy surely revealed that ineffable »lightning in a bottle« quality that is rare with any form of art. We would quickly run through songs and hit record. Everything was recorded live and then there were some overdubs and solos ducked in later. But in my mind, it’s a live recording. I celebrated this joy by dislocating my left shoulder when James and I were unloading my bass gear back into my van. It was raining, and he and I were talking about how great Yes and Chris Squire were. »Chris Squire was a motherfucker!« I said, then falling between two cars, cracking my left eyebrow open and knocking my shoulder out of socket. So we went to the ER, and the band and James’ wife Leah waited for me until I was bandaged up. How’s that for unity? Death and dislocations aside, during the whole experience of being in Richmond, there was a confidence and trust in each other that I do think is apparent on the finished album. Some of this could be due to age and experience: at 46, I’m the band geezer, but the median age is probably 41 and we’ve all been playing music, recording, and touring since we were kids. But, as I think any musician would attest to, you really can’t invoke that kind of innate familiarity between players. It’s a gift. And we recognized that.
Unfortunately, you had to postpone your European tour until 2019. Can you give us some idea of what to expect at those shows? Do you generally see One Eleven Heavy more as a live or a studio project?
NMM: Yeah, we were sorry to have to do that. Sadly, as is often the case with such things nowadays, it was a financially motivated cancellation. We just couldn’t afford to do it. We had European promoters telling us, »Europeans don’t like rock music«, which destroyed everyone’s confidence a little bit. I mean, I already fucking knew that, but I see enough rock’n’roll bands touring over here, so I’d figured we could somehow do it, but yeah… it got messed up. Now the record’s out, though, I think we’re hearing a different story from a different set of people. We had a couple of UK festival offers right off the bat and, now, it looks like we have a whole week of shows lined up in the UK for 2019. I don’t know if we’ll stretch that out to Europe at all, because with the exception of the ever-tasteful skug (ha ha!) we haven’t really seen any kind of impact on the continent, but maybe that’ll change. I’d certainly be down for extending the tour by another week if there was significant interest. Right now, our plans are mostly located in the US as that’s where most of the people who’ve bought our record are. We’re touring over there in November. Our first ever show will be in my »second home« of Albany, NY – my wife and I are hoping to move out there soon, all being well – and then we’re headed in a big circle that takes us across the east coast, into the Midwest and loops around through the South. So yeah, it’s definitely a live band. We’re gonna be playing a couple of covers, so it’s not just going out and playing the record. We’re doing »Sway« by the Stones and The Youngbloods’ version of »I’m a Hog for you, Baby«, so that’s gonna be fun! We’ll be jamming out the latter and our own song, »Peaking In The Middle« is gonna have a big jam section in it – I think we’re gonna try take it into some more dissonant zones and really blow the audiences’ minds in a way that a record can’t at 21 minutes per side.
DB: I kind of touched on that in my previous, grief-slathered answer, but I totally see this as a live band. Granted, I’m also highly pleased with this album, and I’m equally a fan of specifically what I consider to be »hermetically-sealed« albums, like »Anthem of the Sun, Music from Big Pink«, Germs’ »GI« etc. I was totally bummed that the European thing fell through, but I think it came down to being realistic and humble. I’m a total Anglophile and love the UK, as well as much of the continent. I played some great (and terrible as well) shows with Royal Trux over there between 1995 and 1999. But Nick was busting his fuckin’ ass (once again) to line up the shows to make it viable and connect the dots, but it wasn’t meant to be. We’ll surely get over there – as Nick said, 2019 shows are already popping up. Other than seeing old friends that I haven’t seen in years, I’m kind of burnt out on even playing America (sorry, homeland!), but I’m psyched to get back to Europe to play both the major cities but equally excited about playing smaller cities and towns. When you play Birmingham, UK, there’s less of a chance of people standing in the audience with clipboards or iPads, writing their review in real time on their Tumblr page. Like Nick, I’d say I’m a »populist«, especially in regard to performing. This might not be as true today, as everything is available online and is digitally transmittable, but I’d wager that most people hear »Led Zeppelin IV« before they hear »Metal Machine Music«. Unless you’re just the most precocious kid in the world, and let’s not bullshit ourselves – who needs that kid? Ha. I grew up in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, which is essentially a surfer town and hardly a major »market«. Thankfully we had an incredible all-ages club called Einstein A Go Go, and when I was a teen in the mid-to-late 1980s, I saw amazing shows by bands like the Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. etc. and I would witness those bands being blown away by the love of 200 kids looping back to them onstage. And the bands would acknowledge this from the stage. This is a sweeping generalization, but for me a lot of the best shows I’ve ever played weren’t in major cities. Many of my favourite vinyl bootlegs (Led Zeppelin at Southampton, for one) were recorded off the beaten track and not in »major« cities. Granted, you need to play larger scenes for exposure and of course money. But personally, I’m fired up to really head out deep into UK and the States. There’s an element of people being really excited that you’re there, and, not to sound arrogant, you might be able to expose someone to music that they weren’t familiar with. I’m more interested in what those people think of this, and what they’re thinking about. It’s inevitable that we are going to open it the fuck up live. Or, I know that at least Nick and I will, and hopefully won’t ruin every song by wandering off into bouncing around notes off one another. I’m excited about playing with all of these dudes.
Speaking of recording studios, is there a second album already on the horizon?
NMM: Definitely! I’ve already started writing for it. Hans Chew will have a couple of his songs on the second one, too, which he didn’t on the first. Hans is super integral to the band, so we gotta give him some room to open up and do his thing – I think it’ll really elevate the group. I’m envisioning a double LP. The plan is to hole-up in Northampton, MA, with Justin Pizzoferrato (Dinosaur Jr.) and do it at his place. Ryan Jewell is no longer with us as he was unable to commit the time without some more immediate financial security as he’s hustling out a life as a pro drummer, so that’s a shame as we all really love his drumming and goofy spiritualistic vibe, but it is what it is. However, we’ve been fortunate enough that a number of other drummers were ready to step into his shoes as soon as they heard we were looking. We’ll be touring the US with Adam Kriney (from New York Dead covers band High Time) on the skins, so my feeling is that he’ll likely be on the next one – who knows, maybe we’ll have a second drummer in on the thing, too. Maybe I just said something I shouldn’t have, though, as I don’t know how anyone else would feel about that. Ha ha. I’m not sure when we’re going to be able to record it. I initially thought it would be March next year, but I think that might be a little ambitious. We’ll see. It’ll be sometime in 2019, for sure.
DB: We’ve all invested so much time in this, as well as our thus-far unilateral losing of money to make it happen, that I’m also sure we’ll do a second album. Hans adding tunes would be a crucial progression. Haven’t even met Adam yet, but he seems ideal for this band and I am looking forward to playing with him. I think we all feel like Everything’s Better was a success, but it was such a DIY / quick affair. I think that if we had even just two weeks to really go full »hive mind« in a studio with a sympathetic engineer, we could really create something even more impressive, or at least representative of who we are.
One of the things that strikes me most about the album is that it has such a joyful vibe, which is really refreshing. Was that a conscious decision to make a record that unironically celebrates 1970s rock with such abandon?
NMM: We’re hearing that word »joyful« a lot and, yes, it was absolutely intentional, so I’m glad that it’s translating to the listening experience for so many people. It’s the highest possible compliment to be told your record inspires joy. I actually get goosebumps when I think about it. It makes what we’re doing feel as though it has some value beyond just allowing us to get our rocks off. Personally, I’ve spent the last fifteen or so years embedded in an underground music culture that’s very political and I’m kind of tired of that right now. I understand the bent toward offending and subverting expectations of the socially conservative – it is and always will be a righteous endeavour – but I also think it can be so inward-looking and self-flagellating that a lot of the joy goes out of it. I wanted to get back to that feeling you get where a certain note is played a certain way and you just want to cry. You know, the intangible beauty of writing, playing, improvising … You can write the political into that, for sure, or you can take it to a political place, but the act itself must, for me, be joyful. I actually think that’s why I’ve always been drawn to American music and musicians. I feel a great sense of righteous anger coming from a great many of them, but at the same time, they know how to roll back the rug and have a good fucking time. And I’m not sure that it’s got anything to do with the 1970s. You know, no one talks about Jooklo Duo as a celebration of the 1960s free jazz loft scene. No one talks about … I don’t know … Trash Kit as a celebration of the late 1970s Rough Trade scene. The problem with rock’n’roll is that perception of it shifted in the 1970s. It went, via FM radio, from being the art of the antiestablishment to representing the establishment. That’s why people have been so upset by it ever since. But that just means they’ve stopped listening. They can’t actually hear what’s happening within it – which, to me, allows a great deal of personal transcendence from mundane reality – even heady FM radio rock like Little Feat: check out »Easy to Slip« from the »Sailin’ Shoes« record – it’s just amazing. I mean, what’s so anti-establishment about a band like Goat Girl who’ve got billboards all over the UK advertising their album? The punk aesthetic, today, is no more potent than the rootsier rock’n’roll that its purveyors often so staunchly deride. Sonic Youth put out a record exclusively for Starbucks a whole decade ago now, ya know? We’re all victim to the capitalist machine and, whilst burping into a microphone while rustling around a load of »found objects« in a wheelbarrow might be a fun way to object to its signifiers, it isn’t actually going to do anything more than that, so I say fuck it … let me play my guitar and enjoy it.
DB: Joy is the goal! Every day isn’t our birthday, but happy, joyous, and free is attainable. Music is the ultimate mood enhancer. There’s always time for self-centered moping with music, but there’s even more time to lift the spirit through listening and playing exciting music that hopefully excites listeners. That joy isn’t confined to any decade. I think people kind of romanticize »non-joyous« music confusing that with »coolness«. But cool is for corpses. I believe that sometimes people will consider upbeat music to be a »guilty pleasure«, but why have guilt in your pleasure? That’s some religion-induced, anti-pleasure damage. Pleasure is pleasure and feeling good is what it’s all about. In hindsight (as ever) I can »hear« how the record has that »up« vibe, but when we were recording I don’t know how conscious I was of that quality. As the band hillbilly Gnostic, I think it goes back to a quote by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: »Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.« But you can swap out »God« with sincerity … humility … art … whatever. As a totally depressive fucking person, I think that it can actually be more work to cultivate sadness and pain than just surrender to hope and happiness. Music can be the ultimate fuse that lights that bomb. Jesus, now I sound like a total fucking hippie. I agree with Nick’s sentiment regarding FM radio and 1970s music, particularly in music being co-opted and being this ephemeral thing that label heads squirted everywhere. While there are probably 50 million radio stations you can tap into digitally, when I drive around town I just listen to the shitty classic rock station on my equally shitty car stereo. How many times can you hear Boston’s »Smokin’«? Apparently one more time. But like Nick’s example of »Easy to Slip«, something like Led Zeppelin’s »The Rover« suddenly jumps out of the airwaves and I’ll think, »these guys really were geniuses«. But to be fair, I think there a couple of solid »trip bummers« on our album. »Dawson’s Lane«, »Panopticon Blues«, and »Geneva« are hardly thigh slappers. Maybe the key to One Eleven Heavy’s success is to anchor our albums with a couple of real hemlock-chuggers to highlight some upbeat, neural-boogie action.