Tired Pony and tales of America's underbelly
Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody and REM's chief twanger Peter Buck are the driving forces behind on-off supergroup Tired Pony.
Established in 2009, the band were supposed to be an outlet for Lightbody's love of country music, but their second album The Ghost Of The Mountain ditches that in favour of a mix of Americana, soul and even Krautrock.
What remains the same is the narrative, with every song a chapter in the story of two lovers on the run from the law.
Lightbody and Buck sat down to discuss the making of the record in the Santa Monica mountains, and how Buck's hoodlum grandparents could inspire a follow-up.
Tired Pony contains members of Snow Patrol, REM and Belle and Sebastian, as well as super-producer Garret Jacknife Lee - and you have Minnie Driver singing on two songs. How on earth do you get all of those people together in the same room at the same time?
Peter: We're all really busy but you make space for something that's worthwhile doing. We all knew how great the record was last time. I particularly was saying, 'I have a lot of time on my hands now. I'm no longer employed! So just give me a call.'
Scanning through the titles - Blood, Wreckage and Bone, Punishment - it's not exactly a barrel of laughs.
Gary: I guess it's not. The first album was written about invented characters and this album continues their story. Each song picks them up at different points in their life, so in terms of narrative storytelling it's sort of like Tarantino.
It's an American story: A boy and a girl, that met in the first song of the first album, who have been through hell and back.
In terms of their relationship?
Gary: They did something terrible. I'm never going to tell what it was.
Peter: I asked. He didn't tell me. I think blood was involved.
Gary: It was very bloody.
Well, you did say Tarantino…
Gary: It's basically about being in love with someone, but not being to look them in the eyes. Even the touch of their skin, sometimes. It's a tragic story, set to really uplifting, beautiful music.
Would you ever write the story down?
Gary: I'd like to make a movie at some point. There's a whole life's worth of stories. Sure, they're invented characters, but they're composites from novels, movies, Snow Patrol's experiences on tour, people that I've met, stories that I've heard.
Gary: I met an old guy in a bar and he told me the story of how he got to Boston. He started in Hawaii, he joined the navy and went all around the world. This incredible story. That guy is the guy I think of as the character as an older man.
Peter, as an American, what did you think of Gary's vision of your country?
Peter: The first record reminded me of stories my grandfather told me. He grew up on a farm in Nebraska, went out to California in around 1918. He worked for criminals, then he was chief of the vice squad for the police department. He was a gambler and he carried a gun. He encompassed a whole lot of things about America that are good and bad.
Did you know him well?
Peter: I used to hang with him in his trailer out in the desert. He'd just be drinking whiskey and watching TV. But funnily enough, that book that just came out, Gangster Squad? He's in it.
They don't use his name [in the book] but Mickey Cohen sent some guys to beat up a bookie after my grandfather had been in his shop. He got beaten half to death and my grandfather got kicked off the force for a year. At least, that was his story. I assume he probably was taking bribes for beating up bookies... So anyway, I read this book and I thought, 'wait a minute, that's my grandfather!'
Gary: You're writing the next record at the moment. What you're saying is pretty much it.
Stories like that must make being a rock and roll guitarist seem tame.
Peter: Oh yeah. My other grandfather got in a barroom brawl at 82 and bit a guy's ear off. That's the kind of a life that we don't think of any more. They were a tough old breed, those old people.
Back to the album... How did recording in Topanga Canyon influence the sound?
Gary: It was beautiful up there for sure. It definitely made us more relaxed.
No rattlesnakes, then?
Gary: No, not at that time of year. You're up at the top of a mountain, the studio doors can all be opened, there's fresh air. Everything feels breezier and brighter. You can't help but feel influenced by that environment. So even though the lyrics are dark, that's probably why the music is so upbeat.
Why did you abandon the concept of being a country band?
Gary: That's a great myth I created that never quite materialised. But it was the jumping off point, you know? I was fascinated by a couple of compilations I had called Country Got Soul which was the inspiration for going into this record and giving it a more soulful, Americana vibe.
What's on that album? Country artists covering Marvin Gaye?
Gary: It's literally country songs that sound like soul music, and soul music that sounds like country.
Peter: There was a big thing in the South where you'd grow up listening to black music and Grand Ole Opry and somehow they'd cross over. I grew up playing with blues bands - but you'd always listen to what the black bands were doing, because they were always a step ahead.
Gary, are you singing differently with Tired Pony? It seems you're using ranges you don't normally use on Don't Want You As A Ghost and Beginning Of The End.
Gary: It's funny - Garrett kept pushing me to sing worse and worse. 'More croaky, go and shout for a couple of minutes and come back and do it again'. Funnily enough, my voice hasn't sounded as good as it's done in a long time.
When you go out and shout in the canyon there must be a fantastic echo?
Gary: I've startled a few deer in my time.
Everyone in the band's a multi-instrumentalist. How do you decide who plays what?
Peter: It all depends on the songs Gary brings in. We'll say, 'that one should be a finger-picking one, and this one, let's push it somewhere else'. I go in at noon, and I don't have a clue as to what we're going to do.
REM was the opposite, wasn't it? You'd came up with the instrumentals and have to wait for Michael Stipe to add the melodies and lyrics.
Peter: Well, right. I had to write 20 songs and by the time I'd written 20 songs, I'd have a vague idea of where the record was going to go, even if some of them got rejected. But this is really refreshing - not having a clue. No demos, no rehearsal, no cassette tapes in the mail. It's terrifying in its own way because every day you've got to be as good as you can be. Every day is a brand new song.
Do you prefer that approach?
Peter: Yeah. My theory, that drove everyone in REM crazy, was that your best thought is always the first one, and you should always try to get something down as quick as possible and then just walk away from it.
You've just put together the anniversary edition of REM's Green album and a lot of reviews said the same thing: This was the first album the band ever made knowing that people were paying attention. Does that level of scrutiny change the way you write?
Peter: I think it's good. When I played with REM, I always felt people should hold us to a higher standard than they do a band making a record in three days for $15,000 (£9,500). It was nice to know you were being taken seriously, even if they seriously disliked it.
Gary: I think the best thing you can do is be selfish and write what you want. Which probably wasn't always my mode of thinking. Certainly at the very beginning I wanted to be the biggest band in the world - but it didn't happen for 10 years and we got our asses handed to us many times. That kind of ego gets punched away.
Do you think new bands are being deprived of that opportunity to earn their stripes?
Gary: Now it's a case of be awesome or be gone. You don't get the time to find your feet. I mean, we had so many terrible gigs and it was before camera-phones, so none of them were ever recorded. A band growing up now - even if they're not successful at the beginning, at some point those video things are going to come around like a bad smell.
Peter: We spent three years on the road, playing to a couple of hundred people a night, throwing away songs. No-one knew who we were, it was great experience.
I felt so bad for the Arctic Monkeys - I like them a lot, but their first demo tape was on the cover of a magazine. That can't be good. It puts them right in the spotlight way early. They seem to have handled it pretty well, though.
Gary, I hear you've been writing with One Direction for their next album?
Gary: Writing with Harry. Jacknife [Lee] and I wrote a bunch of songs with him. There might be one on the record, might be two, there might be none.
What sort of constraints are there when you write for a pop band?
Gary: None. We just wrote. Harry loves Frightened Rabbit, so his music taste is very varied, it's not just pop. We were pretty much writing whatever we were feeling that day. We did four tracks together and hopefully some of them will see the light of day. He's got a great voice, he's the real deal.
You did one song on Taylor Swift's Red album as well. Is it interesting to dip your toes into those waters?
Gary: Again, working with Taylor was just sitting down with a couple of guitars. She didn't come up with an entourage, there was no management looking over our shoulders. She's very down to earth and there's no starriness to her. I haven't had any pop writing sessions that have put me off pop writing sessions.
Peter, you never sang during your time with REM - but you've got behind the mic for your solo album. What's that been like?
Peter: I'm not very good at it but, do you know what? I'm less nervous singing than I am playing guitar with REM. I mean, how bad can it be? There's been plenty of really bad singers before me - and I can hit the note most of the time.
When I did the record Mike Mills [from REM] was there and he said, 'the kind of thing you're doing, all it really takes is energy and chaos and you're doing that fine'. I took that as a compliment… or maybe not.
Tired Pony's album The Ghost Of The Mountain is out now on Fiction. The band play a one-off show at the Barbican on 14 September.