The Dartmouth Independent - Interview by Jamie Berk.

Climbing Everest
BY JAMIE BERK | Nov 03, 2009 10:41 PM

L.A. folk-rockers EVEREST have had their share of disappointment. Its members have been in and out of bands like Earlimart and Sebadoh, searching for a creative home. Now, with a critically-acclaimed debut and an international tour with Neil Young under their belts, the band is on the cusp, putting together a key follow-up.

JAMIE BERK caught up with the five-piece at Bonnaroo and found an unusually honest and unsentimental portrait of what it takes to make it in today's music industry. Here's a hint: it's not about the money.

You guys have been in a bunch of different bands. What was it about those bands that turned you off to them?

Russ Pollard (vocals, guitar, drums): It wasn't necessarily a turn-off, but bands are like relationships: they come and go. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. You hope that you can hold onto them and make them work for the rest of your life, but that isn't always the case. More often than not, it's not about something you don't like – the band just doesn't work. At a certain point, you embrace that and go, “I'm not happy. I want to do something that makes me happy.” So you start something new.
And if that works out and you're happy, that's great. That's the ideal goal – to be creatively happy and fulfilled. That's why you keep trying to start stuff. It's no different than trying to find a partner you're compatible with. Hopefully you find someone, and when that happens, really cool shit happens in your life – you learn a lot of lessons and you experience really cool things together. That's what happened with us – we put this record out and we've done tons of great, fun, life-enriching things in the last year. A lot of things I never experienced with any of those bands you mentioned, at least to the degree that we have in the time we've been together. So it seems like it's working.

Joel Graves (guitar, keys, vocals): I never played Bonnaroo with any of those bands, or did a lot of the stuff we've done in the past year. It's been like a total dream come true. I think we followed the right path for us.

When did you start playing together?

Russ: December 2006. Sometime around then.

You guys were just sitting around, playing each other demos, and the rest was history?

Joel: Russ and Jay have been friends for a long time, and I just kind of met Russ and then we started playing in a band together. He was playing drums and started sharing songs with Jay. They told me about it and I got to come over and hear some stuff in the living room and it just kind of happened naturally.

Jay Soda (guitar, keys, vocals): We had a friend who sort of played matchmaker, who kind of cemented the deal, I guess. He came to us and was like, “You guys should be doing this.” And we weren't even really aware of what was happening, we were so lackadaisical about all those meetings and songs. And he was like, “Hey, you should do this!” And we were like, oh, alright.

Joel: We just got more serious about it. 'Cuz we were doing it and having fun just as friends. And then we were just like, yeah, we should do this.

Russ: Yeah, we were sort of in a fallout, all of us. “What do we do next?” We were all kind of in that spot at the same time, which is a miracle, really, considering there's five people involved and we were living in a pretty major city. There's a lot of stuff going on. To have everybody be like, “I'm open, let's try something,” is really cool. I remember when Jay and I were sitting on my front porch and we were like, should we book a show? Because I feel like, if you book a show, then you've got to do something. There's a challenge.
“Let's call Davey!” We called Davey, and Davey was like, “I'm in, let's do it!” And that's kind of how the band started really working. It was an idea. “Let's try something. Let's do it.” And it was kind of nerveracking, because I was kind of comfortable not doing anything at that time. Especially not being a singer, because I'd never done that before. So I was like, well, if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna call my tightest bros, and feel really comfortable about this. And that was the basis of it all, which is great.

How much of being a musician is made up of lucky things like that, where you and your friends are all open at the same time and you say, all right, let's do this?

Joel: I think timing worked out in our favor that time, but we fucking worked our asses off for a lot of years. I think, mainly, it's been hard work on all of our parts. In different ways: from sitting in our beds to touring and figuring out how to tour and how to be in a band and how to get along with other people on the road and all that stuff. We kind of got put into a crucible in other bands, and we'd been through a lot of other situations that showed us what not to do, for sure.

Jay: I bet you that there are very few bands here, even on this giant roster, that can say that they planned to do this. Every band is like a wadded-up, wet paper towel, just being thrown to the wall. You know what I mean?
So when you say you needed to get serious, what do you mean?

Joel: It's different for everybody. There's no formula, I don't think. But I think we were all fairly serious about music and intense about playing and wanting to have a life that revolved around making music, in some way or another.

Russ: The funny thing about this band is that we didn't say, “We need to get serious.” We just wanted to play shows. And how cool of a concept is that? I just want to play music. I just want to play shows. I don't want to look at this as an endgame and a “serious” thing. And as long as we can hold onto that, we should. Every band should. It's not something you want to end up resenting. It's not something you want to treat like an office job. You don't want to get into that rut. So the idea of like, “When did you decide to get serious?” it's kind of a scary thing. I mean, it' s work, and you have to do what you have to do to get out in front of people, and that's absolutely essential. But keeping it fun and trying really hard to not make it super serious is important. Because if that seriousness reflects on the way you play live, it's not very fun.

Where does Bonnaroo fit into that narrative of Everest?

Joel: Who knows?

Russ: It's another fun thing to do.

Joel: It's a cool experience.

Russ: Everybody wants to play here. Whenever you hear about this festival, it's like, damn, that's a good lineup. A lot of people are going to go there, a lot of like-minded people. It's a great way to go to one place, see a lot of your friends, and play for a lot of people who are going to be open-minded. It's a huge impact, to go to one place and play to audiences that are buying a ticket to see over a hundred bands or whatever it is. You're tapping into a percentage of all these different cliques and musical styles. If you can get in front of that many people from all those different places, it's great. That's where it fits in.

Playing a festival with a bunch of different acts and a bunch of different kinds of fans, do you change your approach at all?

Jay: I think your job is to win them over, especially if they're like, “Uhh, yeah...” You judge people when they walk up on the stage, right off the bat. You're either like, “I'm gonna stay for a minute and then split,” or “I'm gonna watch the whole show.” And you can't be thinking about whether you need to bend what you're doing in order to cater to the dude wearing the cool fucking pants or whatever. You just need to do what you know how to do the best, or it's a farce. Make people go, “Man, shit, that was fucking awesome.” That's the goal, I guess.

Do you guys talk about your goals going into a show, or do they just evolve organically?

Russ: I don't think it's that specific. I mean, we talk about what we want to do that's gonna stoke us out.

Joel: I think we all want to give back to people and put on a good show, just like all the great shows that we've seen. I want someone to leave stoked, want to play guitar, whatever. Just like I did when I saw a band that made me excited and feel alive.

Russ: Most of the time I think those bands were probably fulfilling themselves, and you were feeding off of that.

Joel: And I think that's mainly what we do. We're pretty tuned into each other. We spend a lot of time just making sure that we're happy. That's the main thing, and I think that translates kind of naturally. So we just do that.

Some of you have voiced frustrations with the way songwriting took place in your previous bands, and how the creative process was dominated by certain people. How important is it to Everest that it's a much more collaborative effort?

Joel: Everybody's capable of writing songs in this band, and everybody has good ideas. We come from completely different mindsets, and we like what each other does, so when we put it together it's...I don't know. But I think it's always helpful when a band works on things together. We come up with something that's us, and not just one person's vision. But the band kind of started with Russell. He had a bunch of songs, and we were like, wow, we like those songs! And being the singer, he writes the words and the melodies and that stuff.

Russ: The cool thing about that is that as a band, there's something to work off of, there's something to spread out and play. It's cool when something skeletal comes into the band format with a bunch of guys in a room and it starts evolving and taking shape with everybody grabbing on. If the idea is good, and everybody feels that way, it's rad, because all the sudden you hear a baseline Eli's playing and it can literally transform the song. Or a harmony, or a guitar part, or drums. That's writing. It's not necessarily what the verse and the chorus and the verse and the chorus are; it's what happens when the whole collective paints the picture together. What are the colors, what's the texture of it, what is it doing? Everybody's heart is beating at the same time, doing something really cool together, and that's how we're trying to do it. We're trying to stick to that.

You guys toured with Neil Young, and now you're on his label. What's that like? Does he call you up and give you advice?

Russ: He's not the kind of guy who pushes his thoughts on anyone. He's focused on his own thing. He's given us some nudges in certain directions, and I think he tried to give us some stuff to think about, but he's not directing us. He's letting us be us. He's the type of person who would never want someone else to come in and try to control his career, and he's respected us in that way. And if he thinks we're doing something wrong, I don't think he'd hesitate to tell us, in a fatherly sort of way. He's been supportive, but kind of from a distance. He's letting us go through our adolescence on our own. At least that's the way it feels to me. I mean, he likes us. He's taken us out a bunch of times, which is great. It's cool.

Since you're associated with Neil Young, a lot of music writers approach your music from that perspective, and they try to draw comparisons. Do you ever worry about being pigeonholed?

Russ: Sure. I mean, if it was anybody else, it would be the same question.

Eli Thomson (bass, vocals): Wait for the second record. Nobody will ask those questions then. They say stuff like that because there's an upright piano and slide guitar, like there haven't been a hundred other bands that use that combo. It's not as if we're out there trying to be like Neil Young or anything like that. We, like probably 95% of the bands here, love his music, have listened to it, have worn out his records. But there's a thousand other people just like Neil who we respect, who don't sound anything like Neil Young.

Russ: True.

Eli: It's an easy – and I think lazy – association for critics to make. Because like, duh, we're on his label and we're touring with him. We're influenced by him, yeah, but by no means are we trying to replicate what he's doing or what he's done. Not any more than Radiohead is. I know Thom Yorke's a huge Neil Young freak, and nobody says that about them. But I can point to certain songs and say, “That's a straight rip off.”
We don't need to be doing that. That's not music criticism. That's easy. Ultimately, every band is connected to every other band that's ever played, in some way, shape, or form. There isn't a single band here that is an island unto themselves. So to ask those questions, I think it's a waste of time, and it's not very interesting from a music criticism standpoint.

Russ: Yeah, the chords G, C, and D sound really good.

Eli: He doesn't own those chords.

Russ: And my range is really good on those chords, so I use them a lot. So does he. Same timbre. That doesn't mean...You could go into it all day. There's a common thread with us and a lot of musicians, and we take what we need from them, because we should. We're all record collectors. We all listen to music. There's no way that you can close down your mind and go, “I'm just gonna close off everything I've ever absorbed.”

Eli: Imagine that Graham Nash goes and does a solo show, or David Crosby. And this isn't an offense to them at all, but odds are, they'd be in a small venue. And Neil Young is in a basketball arena. Why? Because there's something special about Neil Young. Because he's an icon in music. He's been at the top of his game for 45 years straight. I don't think there's anyone else, except maybe Dylan, that's still as relevant and provocative and important, by and large, to most contemporary bands today.
If you're a musician and you're studying this stuff, if you pass over any one of those guys that you'd call an icon and ignore what makes them special, you're just shooting yourself in the foot as a musician, because ultimately our charge is to understand our predecessors and understand why some individuals are more compelling than others. And with Neil, I think it's because he's his own man – he never tried to be anything that he wasn't. He just is. And he has a high standard for himself. That is influential, and I'll take that to the bank. I think that's the way to be. But the only way I can know that is by analyzing his music. So that's the way it goes. And whatever little things you hear pop up in our music, you can go, “Oh, that's from there!” Well, yeah.

Russ: I know exactly what you mean.

Eli: Those kinds of associations are associations that any idiot can make after listening to a band. Music criticism should be something more than that. We should be in it together, ultimately.
What I don't understand is why music critics pick on bands who are good and give a free pass to shitty bands. Because they go, “Oh, well those bands know they're shitty, so I'm gonna take the bands that are actually trying hard and pick apart every influence I hear on the record, and then I'm gonna stand on my hill and say, 'Those people aren't worth my attention.'” It's like, fuck you. Who are you? What have you done? Go ahead. I could do that for any band here. I could pick apart every influence. You want a fucking medal? It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean anything. Let's talk about music. Let's talk about the chord changes. Let's talk about standard chord changes versus changing keys every four bars. Let's talk about our time signatures. Let's talk about production techniques. Nobody wants to get into that stuff because it's over their head.

Russ: There are a lot of haters.

Eli: Most people don't want to even read that shit anyway, and I don't blame them. There's just too much involved to break it down to somebody's influences. And – I don't mean to go on a rant here, but, you know – bands get asked the same fucking questions every fucking interview. And it's like, “Oh, who are your influences?” What? How about what I think about. What matters to me. What are my thoughts as a human being that might have some insight into the music you associate me with. That's important. That& #39;s what I want to know about these other acts. I don't care who they listen to. I can tell in five seconds. That's not important to me. What's important to me is, what are you about? What are you trying to accomplish with music? Who are you trying to appeal to, and why? The tragic thing is that most people don't even have an answer for that.

Russ: And the cool thing about that question is that you're actually making a person think, and in thinking, you're actually getting to know someone, rather than triggering some off-the-cuff response that they've said over and over to the same questions. That's not getting to know somebody. That's not getting to the point of who they are. That's awesome, man.

Eli: Wanna know something funnier? There was an artist I used to play for, who will remain nameless. I used to write his onesheets (like, the stuff the label sends out). 90% of the reviews that were ever written on him were a re-wording of the onesheet. Laaaa-zy. And you want us to worry about what you're saying? Come on.

Davey Latter (drums, percussion): Hallelujah!

Joel: Preach on, brother Eli!

Eli: Sorry, I haven't had a lot of sleep.

Joel: No, that was awesome. I love it, man.

So what is Everest trying to accomplish?

Eli: We're trying to be better than we are. We're trying to put ourselves in a position that's totally uncomfortable and do the things that don't come easy. So, if our first record is what comes naturally, our second record is beyond that. So, wait and see. We have to find out, too. We have to go in and beat each other up for a few months and hope that the struggle is something that lets us say, “I think you should listen to this, not because it's me, but because I would buy this if I heard it.” And I don't think very many bands say that all the time. I know that because, so many times, bands have handed me CD's and given me a bunch of disclaimers about why it's not the perfect vision that they had wanted it to be.
And we can point out and blame all the industry factors that force artists into that sort of pussy place, where they're not willing to face the challenges of being better – not to be better than somebody else, but to live out your fullest potential. And to have a transcendental feeling about your own music, so that every time you step on the stage, it's a spiritual experience. You're on the mount of transfiguration with fucking Moses and Elijah, and you're going, wow, this has nothing to do with me and my fucking musical tastes.
This has to do with a primal thing between musicians and people. Like, let's discover this together, and maybe it'll become something completely different than what we thought it was even in the studio, because that was just one moment in time. Songs live. They breathe. They're not static. They change over time, and they get boring. And you have to make something that's new and fresh. And then people complain that you're not playing your old songs. It's just a pain in the ass.
But, ultimately, you've gotta do whatever you think is best for yourself, and fuck everybody else. It sounds like an arrogant place to be, but unless you do that, unless you have that attitude, it's a weak presentation. In basketball, they say “paralysis by analysis” – people are going through the plays and they're thinking too much about X's and O's and where they should pass the ball instead of just playing the game and being unconscious about it. It takes a lot of work to be able to execute and be unconscious, but that's the goal.

Russ: Dude, that's exactly right. You can't just go and be unconscious unless you're tapped into some other energy all the time, that you're just channeling. But it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of work to be effortless.

Jay: It's like when people go to Africa or Antarctica or something. They come back, and you're like, “How was it?” Like you don't know what they're going to say. And they say, “It was fucking awesome!” And the reason it was awesome is because they'd never been there. And if you learn a song that's got three chords, it's hard to play that song twenty times and go on a fucking mission with it. But in and around that, hopefully you can.
So, to make a great album, where does your mind need to be?

Eli: Honestly, very little has to do with music. It has to do with people being in the right psychological place, and being in a place where they can even begin to allow themselves to be creative. To put yourself in a situation where you're able to close out the external world and go into an internal world and explore there, it takes an awful lot of organization and set-up and money. So the pressures there are for young bands to work hard and find a situation where they're able to do that, because it's so hard.
And I think that's our hope for ourselves, that for this next record we can all be at that place where we trust ourselves, we trust one another, we trust the gifts that we have. But, ultimately, those are just tools toward achieving something that doesn't exist – something that's a desire in our minds, a figment of our imaginations. A carrot on a stick that keeps us striving to self-improve and to be better. Ultimately, our goal is, like Joel said, to return the favor, so to speak.
Anyone who does music does it because, at some point in their life, they saw somebody and they just went, “What? This is something that's esoteric and bizarre and I can't even say why I'm in bliss, but I am.” And then you start wanting to play music because you want to be a part of it, not just a spectator. And that's what drives everyone to get better and to be a better musician and to come up with better ideas and challenge themselves.
A young band doesn't have a lot of room to do that kind of stuff. You have to lay a foundation and then build off of it. I mean, can you find any correlation between In Rainbows and Pablo Honey, by Radiohead? That's because it's a journey that they're not done with. And to hold them accountable for their sins in 1993 would be ridiculous, because we would look now and go, “I don't care.” The difference between Wilco's first records and Wilco (The Album) – fucking light-years away. You can't just have that automatically. Again, like a basketball team: you can put five talented people on the court, but they're not going to win a championship. You need a whole bunch of other intangible things to make it work.

There are a ton of people out there who have an EP, have been playing it for a few years, and that's kind of their thing. For you, is there a greater sense of urgency to keep innovating?

Eli: Only because people rush to judgement. They don't give us time to develop. They want to pigeonhole us right from the beginning. Critics, I would say, not everyone. But that's the thing we're trying to shun. We're trying to grow as a band. We don't have it all figured out, but we're trying to figure it out. We're just on a path and we hope that people are patient with us. The only thing that's urgent is industry-related stuff, because everywhere people are telling you that you've gotta win people over before they get bored with you and you're a flash in the pan. So there's this pressure to pick up the pace and convince people and browbeat people maybe even before you're ready to do it. So that's the pressure and that's an unfortunate reality. But I think bands have to be tough and withstand that. And rise above it.