Q and A with Ethan Driskill
By Brian Tucker
Driskill’s sophomore album Love, Dreams, & Foolish Things is actually two EPs recorded in 2017 and 2018. The result brings together a sound that reflects who they were and where they’re going. Its eight songs offer off up fun rock and roll with substance (“American Dream,” “Just Another Bar”), love songs (“Hopeless Romantic”), soul (“In Your Arms”), and gospel (a cover of “Uncloudy Day”).
They’re also a trio now with two singers, Ethan Driskill and JD Williamson, with Joel Wise on drums. Since the release of their 2016 debut Country Blues the band has grown a lot, specifically in their sound and not in membership – Dylan Drake left last year, working on part of the album’s material before moving out west.
The new album offers a mix of rock, country, soul, and gospel without calling too much attention to it. The variety really works, especially so when rollicking instrumental “Mountain Hoedown” can be followed by the intimate “Righteous Man.” Love, Dreams, & Foolish Things will likely serve as middle ground between their debut and future albums as the band aims to move from its folk/country beginnings to a more fiery output. In the process of changing they haven’t lost any ability to write solid songs, illustrated by “American Dream” or “Hopeless Romantic,” notably lines like “I’m a hopeless romantic, you’re hopefully it.”
Below Ethan Driskill answers questions about the band, changing things up, and their great new album.
Is the album two EPs, recorded over two separate periods? If so, why the delay and how did that affect the second EP?
Ethan: We’re setting out to make a “double-EP” is a commonly used phrase. The original intention was to release an EP of the first four songs at the end of 2017, but following the departure of our bassist Dylan Drake last year, we left the songs on the table to focus on our sound as a band. Throughout our time as a four piece band, we found ourselves abandoning folk and becoming a more-pronounced rock band. Most of 2018 was spent figuring out how to combine the best elements of both, which has resulted in a true Americana/Alt-Country sound. At the end of last summer, we decided on recording four, fairly acoustic/folky songs to add to the EP, thus becoming an 8-song double-EP/album.
Was there ever a thought to divide the album in two sides in terms of the slower songs and the faster songs?
The funny thing about recording two very different EPs, in two very different places, and bringing them together as one album is the slight difference in tone. We thought through every possible way of arranging the track-list, but we want to always first consider the rare and cherished person who listens to an album straight through without skipping. “Just Another Bar” ends the first half of the album with a fading electric guitar and “Better Than That (Sweet Version)” begins the second half with a very pleasing banjo and acoustic combo. In the end, it just made sense to keep the two separate EPs back to back in the same way they were produced.
“In Your Arms” is soaked with old soul sound, and that harmonica playing… You’re taking folk/Americana and blurring the genre.
Shout-out to Cowan Johnson for the harmonica playing. The song structure hasn’t changed much since the first time we played it, but it treads along a 60s-era border we crossed in some of the newer songs we’re currently recording. We’ve found that most Americana music has the same basic structure and feel, so we’re hoping this becomes our niche. We’ve been called “poppy Americana” within the last year, so maybe that’s what they were referring to?
Can you point to something about how much the band has changed since 2016?
We could probably point to each instrument and say how different each one is used today. For one thing, I finally learned how to play the banjo properly. In all seriousness, our drummer Joel Wise adds so much. In 2016, it was JD and I with a banjo, guitar, and kick drum. Today, it’s Joel on the drums, JD on acoustic and electric guitar, and myself on the banjo, acoustic, electric, harmonica, kick drum, and kick tambourine.
With newer songs, we may play as a double electric guitar setup for the first few takes and eventually switch to a banjo/acoustic setup. Creatively speaking, our sound has evolved more from our ability to bring unfinished works to the table as opposed to each of us writing and completing songs on our own time. I think we have a lot of respect for each other in that way. We not only accept the good songs but also call each other out on things that don’t work. It’s a very productive atmosphere.
Having two singers gives “Just Another Bar” more persona. Does ego ever get in the way?
We mostly stick to the formula of “you write it, you sing it,” but there are a few instances where this doesn’t happen. The only real deciding factor of “who sings?” is just picking who sounds better for the song. Ego hasn’t been in the way yet, but it’s always a funny thing to talk about with other people. Some people prefer me and some people prefer JD, so in a way, we’re bringing people together.
“American Dream” opens the album with a lot of energy. Do you see it as a departure for the band sonically?
Yes. We started playing “American Dream” live about a year before we released the single. It very quickly became our most requested song along with “Hopeless Romantic.” The amount of people asking for those songs proved to us that it was an opportunity to capitalize on a more energetic sound.
The guitar early on with “Uncloudy Day” is very atmospheric, hanging back but always building.
The guitar intro on “Uncloudy Day” was an addition made by JD toward the end of the recording process and the earlier version sounded very different. The original composition was just banjo, acoustic guitar, and drums, but adding electric guitar actually made it easier to focus on the lyrics of the song thus bringing more lyrical feeling. Other versions of “Uncloudy Day” sound very different from ours, so big props to JD for the standout guitar.
The album title is philosophical, big in scope but very internal.
Love, Dreams, & Foolish Things felt like a perfect summary of the songs on the album. The overall message or question we want the songs to bring to your mind is “What motivates you?” “American Dream” questions the dream we seek through the love of money and in turn calls it all a foolish thing. “Hopeless Romantic” and “In Your Arms” essentially ask if it’s a foolish thing to chase love. “Just Another Bar” is a reflection on the foolish things most of us put ourselves through in our early 20s. “Better Than That” is about love and dreams and “Mountaintop” about dreams. “Righteous Man” is about a step in the right direction. “Uncloudy Day,” a song about the hope we have in Jesus, seemed like an appropriate ending.
Is there a different version of “Better Than That”? Why choose the sparer version of it?
I wrote “Better Than That” about six years ago and always intended for it to sound like the “sweet version.” There was a much faster and energetic version on our 2016 album Country Blues, but with a more acoustic B-side. We thought this was the perfect opportunity to release the softer and (sweeter) version.
What did you learn from making “Country Blues,” in approaching the production of the new album that was different?
Country Blues seems like ten years ago when looking at how much has changed in the band as well as our individual lives. The two big changes are in the production of the music and the writing. Our Country Blues recording process was very DIY and we ultimately didn’t know what we were doing and it became a big musical experiment.
This time, we recorded the first four songs at Logan Manor Studios with Lee Hester and it was a game changer. We learned so much from him in the time we spent working with him. Since we knew the second half of songs would be mostly acoustic, we decided to do it ourselves once again and it really seemed to work out. JD has spent the last few years mixing and working on his production chops and it really shows in this new album.
Going into making Love, Dreams, & Foolish Things, were there specific things or concerns about how it needed to sound this time?
I remember stepping into the studio very worried that we were going to over-produce the songs. That wasn’t the case at all. Lee and Dylan spent a lot of time setting the room up just right so we could capture a live/raw sound. Overall, the entire album is a live band cut with a few extra layers added afterward. We forever want to keep the organic sound in the music we put out because we know there’s something very special in music that can be played live the exact same way it was recorded.