Analogue Music | Generationals


By Matt Conner

Richard Swift represented one of the last voices Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner cared about pleasing.

The duo known as Generationals abandoned their worries about fan expectations or critical perspective years ago, with a impressive catalog of experimental indie pop to show for their efforts. External voices be damned. Joyner and Widmer have been monogamous with their own interests for several albums now.

Enter Swift, an acclaimed producer well-respected by anyone even remotely familiar with his work (The Shins, Damien Jurado, Nathaniel Rateliff). Before working with Swift on the band's last studio album, Alix (2014), Widmer says he was nervous to bring him their "shitty-sounding" demos. Fortunately, Swift was on board.

The lessons learned from Swift, who tragically passed away last summer at the age of 41, fit right alongside Generationals' ethos—namely that worrying about what anyone thinks is only an unnecessary anchor that mars the actual work.

Generationals' newest album, Reader As Detective, fits right alongside their previous releases, a pop music masterclass marked by new interests from the past and present. We recently asked Grant and Ted about their approach to the music and the marketplace and what they remember most from their sessions with Swift.

Analogue: You guys worked with Richard Swift on Alix. Do you remember where you were when you heard of his passing?

Grant Widmer: At our space in New Orleans. Very sad day.

Analogue: What do you think was your primary creative takeaway from working with him?

Grant: The thing I think about all the time is that he had done this amazing thing, which is that he totally embraced low-quality recording techniques. He was a huge fan of old records and 7"s from the '50s and '60s. He even had a standing DJ night at a bar in Cottage Grove and he would spin these ancient 7"s.

Reader As Detective
Reader As Detective

So when we brought him our demos, we were bashful about how some of the tracks were shitty-sounding because they were recorded on the fly with bad equipment. And I clearly remember him saying, "I love shitty-sounding records." And it was like a revelation.

Once you let go of the desire to make everything sound pristine, you're free to focus totally on the feeling, which is obviously what makes a song great. Everything else should be downstream of the feeling, including the recording technique. Recording quality has gotten exponentially better since the 1950s but that has not produced exponentially better songs. So I think of Swift a lot in those situations and I thank him for giving me permission to focus on the feeling and never let recording quality steer the ship.

Analogue: Your last album, State Dogs, really did away with convention, yet here you are back again with a full-length of new songs. When it comes to format and your approach to the marketplace, what'd you learn from the release of singles that eventually formed State Dogs?

Ted Joyner: I thought it was fun to release songs digitally and one at a time. Not going through all the waiting that usually comes with a physical release. Going into it, the idea of working on a song at a time appealed to me. But as things went, and looking back on it all, I think I’ve discovered that I do a little better to work on a batch of songs at a time. More in line with the album approach.

Grant: I learned that it's good to shake up your routine. It felt good to try a new approach for a while, to go down a road that we did not know the end of. In general, I try not to have an approach to the marketplace, I just hope the people who like us will go along for the ride with us and understand that we're human, that we're trying to express ourselves and sometimes we want to express that we're tired of the old way. I think that to deny that truth and just keep marching like machines through cycle after cycle would be dishonest and bloodless, and I don't think any fans would want us to do that. I just hope that's one of the situations where the right thing to do for us creatively is also something that our fans like.

Analogue: Did you miss the album format at all? Were there other reasons for returning to it?

Ted: I think we were interested in switching things up again. I don’t think we had ever really intended to say goodbye to albums forever, and to come back to the album format and to work with Dan again after so long was obviously appealing.

"I guess it goes to show that we all need validation and we're all human, but I don't ever want to feel that compulsion. If you get a warm feeling from the good ones, you are doomed to suffer the pain of the bad ones, so I'd just rather live in the dark."

Grant: There are certain efficiencies that you lose out on when you record singles over a long period instead of a record all at once, but I wouldn't say I missed the format. I just saw it as a different project that was a new challenge and exciting in its own way. We will definitely do more standalone singles. We enjoyed the process.

Analogue: I read an interview where you mentioned advice from producer Dan Black who said, "Never let outside voices crowd your head when you're pushing to make what you want." After several albums, I'm curious if that becomes easier or more difficult once you know you have an audience with expectations?

Grant: If our audience has expectations, I haven't heard them. I think that Dan had adopted that mantra back when we were getting reviewed more and we were younger and we felt maybe more vulnerable to second-guessing ourselves. There's a kind of brainworm I used to get where I would anticipate the harshest possible review of a lyric or a song, and that is just absolutely toxic when you're trying to make something. So I think he was helpful in getting us to tune everything out, and speaking for myself, I have done a pretty good job of ignoring outside voices since then.

Ted: I think it’s easier now that I’m older. Not to say it’s easy, but I think I’m better at being conscious of that sort of outside noise thing and getting better at maybe trusting my own instincts to some degree.

Analogue: Have you learned some tangible ways to keep those sorts of pressures or voices at bay?

Ted: Yeah, just to make a lot of stuff and also to be patient with an idea and if it sticks around and you find yourself coming back to it, there’s probably something there. Ultimately you have to make what you yourself are drawn to. It’s a strange weird process and will always be, but if there is a key to it it has something to do with some kind of patience and openness and trusting yourself. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.

Grant: I try hard to ignore press. And there's not much press so it's not that hard to do, but yeah, I go out of my way not to read reviews.

I recently read a piece by the guy who did the last interview with David Berman before he died. He said that they had originally connected because Berman had searched "Silver Jews" on Twitter and that's how he found this writer who had tweeted something kind about them. But it just made me so sad to think about this guy, highly respected by all of his peers, considered one of the best lyricists of his generation, and he's still out there seeking out strangers' opinions.

I guess it goes to show that we all need validation and we're all human, but I don't ever want to feel that compulsion. If you get a warm feeling from the good ones, you are doomed to suffer the pain of the bad ones, so I'd just rather live in the dark.

Analogue: How did the singles approach on State Dogs affect the creative approach moving forward? Could you tell a difference as you went in to record Reader as Detective?

Grant: I think it made us more confident in our ability to record and produce ourselves. It also put us in the mindset of producing video and visuals for every single song, which made us much more competent at producing and editing videos. So now if we choose to collaborate with a music producer or a video director, it's strictly a creative choice because we love that person's ideas. Because otherwise, what's the point? We know we can do it ourselves if we want.

Ted: I think the general approach to songwriting remains the same but I think the two years-ish spent making singles was time spent learning new stuff and giving ourselves a little more time to sit with ideas for a while to see where they go. On an album approach, you’re kind of working on a batch of songs at once. To work on a single at a time is to kind of shine a really, really sharp light on just one song, and that can be good but it can also be bad.

So it was a learning experience to see how, if given all the time in the word to perfect one song, you still have to be vigilant that you’re not just sort of writing in circles or over-polishing something to death, you know? Both approaches are different and cool in their own way.

Analogue: There's such a wonderful range in influences and interests on Reader and my assumption would be that you two feel as much musical freedom as ever. Does that statement feel true?

Grant: That's always been true of us but maybe even more so now because we're older, more comfortable with ourselves, more confident in what our strengths are. And comfortable going into uncharted territory, for us, without the fear that we're gonna ruin everything.

Ted: Yeah I think that is true. I feel like we’ve stretched our sound as far as we can and now we have this sort of wide open space to create within.

Analogue: Is there any track in particular that you're most proud of among the new set of songs?

Grant: "Turning the Screw" and "A List of the Virtues" stick out as the ones I feel most proud of at this moment. I hope that in five years I'll be able to say that about stuff that we haven't written yet.

Ted: I like how "Gatekeeper" came out. It came out very differently from how it was first envisioned and sometimes that’s a really good thing.