Underground radicals, The Courtesy Tier, were friendly enough to emerge from the depths of their recording den to answer a few questions on free-wheeling improv, the blues and their excitement over their new album: Resolution. The album will put Tier on a new map when it breaks ground Next Thursday at Pianos. Here is the duo: guitarist Omer Leibovitz and drummer Layton Weedeman of The Courtesy Tier.
Interview by Sam Houghton
Knocks: for me, music began with the Stones. I remember hearing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” for the first time. It totally blew me away. After that, I looked for what they had listened to and found Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters and then all these great bands on down the line… Jimmy Read, Bo Diddley and here I am listening to you, the Courtesy Tier. So I guess my question for you is, what is your core influence: That one song or band, and the branches off of that?
Layton: If you were to ask me that a couple of years ago, my answer would be totally different. But lately, and I think Omer would agree, I would immediately go to Nirvana. That’s the reason I started playing drums. As far as my influence goes, when I’m hitting the drums, I’m thinking of Dave Grohl.
Omer: It all started out as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin… all the time. And then it was like, well, where did they get this stuff from and going back to all the old blues and getting records from my dad. Then I went to Berkley and met Layton, and Layton introduced me to jazz. At that point, it was like going backwards from Zeppelin, Howlin Wolf, Son House, all that, and building back up to the Jazz stuff and studying guys like Miles Davis really, really heavily. And after getting burned out on that, I went back to the Teenage stuff – playing Nirvana with Layton.
Lately I’ve been diggin into the past of that stuff, going from Nirvana to the Pixies, from the Pixies to the shoegazey stuff.
Layton: …The Pink Floyd and Zeppelin stuff for me too. It was always on in the house because my dad would listens to them constantly. He’d either be playing his records or it would be on the radio. It was inevitable that it would rub off on me. I knew I loved it at the time, but I think when I first started playing drums… well I started hanging out with a certain group of kids who were skating and smoking cigarettes. We started listening to Hendrix and it was like: “Whoa, this is cool.” I remember one specific night coming home after hanging out with those kids and going up to my dad and asking him: “Have you ever heard of Jimi Hendrix.” He just laughed at me.
Omer: (Mocking voice) “I think he’s this new indie guy.”
Knocks: I think about this point all the time: Most people in our generation know who Jimi Hendrix is. There are a lot of theories you can take. Some people are trying to create a new sound, but what’s the point of reinventing the wheel. What are your thoughts on that?
Layton: I don’t really think about it that way. I know what excites me, and there are definitely new sounds that excite me. When we play together and we come up with a new riff or a vibe or something, it brings that kind of feeling, like: “This is exciting, lets stay here.”
Omer: We came to the conclusion that if you want to come up with something cool and new, the last thing you want to do is sit down and think about what people want to hear. I’ve been listening to the Stones a lot lately, and I realized that the Stones just sound like a blues band… but they don’t. It’s not because they sought out to make something different. It’s because they sought out to make exactly what they were hearing, but their personalities were just different.
We really like things that are accessible, so we’re gonna try and recreate and we hope that we’re weird enough that no matter how much we try to replicate something, it’s gonna sound a little tweaked.
The Stones are a perfect example. They’re trying to imitate, but it’s Keith Fucking Richards. That guy is never going to be normal.
Knocks: Or Mick Jagger for that matter… They compliment each other well, I guess. Talk about that: What is your bond like? How does your friendship affect your music?
Layton: It’s uncanny.
Omer: Last night we had a guest appearance from a good friend of ours – an amazing bass player. It was awesome, but it really made me notice the fact that we do some erratic things when we play. Things are always changing: verses are dropping; random things just happen; we get spaced out. With just Layton, the two of us have played together for so long. We trust each other in this way where if one of us is gonna go somewhere new, we respect each other’s musicality to not question it. We just think: “This guy knows what he’s doing. Usually when he chooses stuff it comes out good. If he’s gonna go there, I’m just gonna follow him.” There’s never a musical break down where we are kind of pulling apart from each other, basically fighting over the measures.
Layton: That’s exactly right. I’ve always felt like in other bands, especially if they don’t know each other very well, they stick with what they know and what works. But they will always reach a point in the song where everyone will be playing that same role and there will be no more mesh. Everyone’s kind of just standing their ground the whole time, being careful, and some will even take it a step further and say: “Well, I don’t trust what he’s doing anyways.” They might be stubborn and just stick to their role instead of lending a helping hand.
Omer: With us it’s great. We just listened back to the Brookly Bowl recording and realized on our last song – in the middle where it’s somewhat improvised – I don’t know why, but we’re rocking out real hard and all of a sudden I just decided to go to zero volume. If it was a band of people that didn’t trust each other and I did that, the band would keep blowing and be like: “What’s he doing? This is not what we do.” But with Layton, he hears it. I dropped down and he knew exactly what I was doing and “bam,” we were able to create. I guess the idea of having songs that you play every time live, but creating completely new moments or completely new, you know, emotions… that keeps people interested.
So what’s going on in your mind when you’re up on stage?
Layton: Lately, nothing at all. I really try and not think. If it is a thought, it’s about being relaxed and keeping my ears fully open.
Omer: If you’re thinking, you’re working. Something is wrong.
Layton: And that’s what allows me to try and be completely open-minded. It allows me to be right there – if, say, Omer decides to drop out or vice versa. At the same show, my stick broke at the end of a song. I couldn’t just end the song. It was the end of the set. So I just went fucking berserk smacking cymbals with my palm. Omer was right there going nuts on his guitar.
Omer: We are trained heavily in improvisation. We put in such small pieces of improv. there’s no room for it to be boring. We leave ourselves with only two moments in the whole set to improvise. It keeps it exciting for the people watching it, but it’s also exciting for us because you have that perfect blend. You have something written: I’m not just jerking off in their face but, instead, giving a taste of unexpectedness or mystery so our fans are like: “Ok, I’ve seen these guys ten times, but every time they give me something else a little different.”
Knocks: I don’t really like jam bands. There’s a few I like, but there’s a fine line where it becomes, exactly, jerking off in my face? Are you guys playing for other people, or are you going nuts off in your own head? I guess what I’m asking is how do you find the balance between the two: having fun while pleasing the audience?
Layton: If anyone was gonna ask if we have a jam band influence, I would say yes. We go in that direction in songs like “Friend” or “Cold” for like two minutes. The song was written with a riff and it was driving. Driving is the most important thing. Once that driving force is gone or we lose interest, then we gotta move somewhere else. With “Friend” and “Cold,” they were written with this riff with a driving force, but after verse, chorus, verse, there’s a moment we can experiment with it a little bit. Basically, we try to keep it driving so that we never get too fluffy.
Omer: We’re reeling each other in without being afraid of each other. It goes back to the trust thing. We can be like “Alright yo, that sucks. Lets not do that.” Or, “That guitar part is too much.” Doing the record, I get excited and start experimenting. But having someone there that you trust as an objective listener to be like: “Alright, that is fun, and that is cool, but you’re jerking off at this point. Take it back a notch,” that is amazing.
Layton: The trust thing, that’s the biggest and hardest thing, but once you get over it, it’s the best. There are a lot of bands out there that don’t do that with each other. They’re afraid to hurt each other’s feelings. They’re afraid to be like: “Bro, I love you but that part is shit.” That was huge for us.
Omer: A lot of bands fight. They really, really need a specific producer that’s the one that can play that role.
But going back to the original question: the idea of getting on stage is strange as it is, but why would I get on stage and do it for myself? I’m on a stage, obviously, and I should remember that and do it for other people and understand that they don’t want me to jerk off in their face.
Layton: There was a point when I was heavily influence by the Mars Volta. Their first record totally just blew me away because they encompassed a classic 70s rock sound, like Zeppelin and Pink Floyd combined. Plus the drummer was insane and I was totally into it. One of the guys in the band said something that I really liked answering the same question. He said something to the extent of if we really like it, than other people should like it also.
("Hey Bee" off Resolution)
Knocks: This is a hard one for me to ask but it is something that interests me. Not many bands are making money these days. What’s the draw for you? Is money part of it?
Omer: After you’ve been doing it since you were ten? Let me put it this way: If I worked in a mail room or shipping, I’m still gonna have to call up Layton after work and play just for that therapy and creative outlet.
As a business and a band, having reachable goals is important. You know, nothing big. Somebody could put us on the road year round, then we could make just enough money to pay our rent and play year round. We would probably make less money than we do now with a real job, but the idea of it is appealing because we get to play year round.
The other motivation is I’m always retaining albums really fast, consistently buying and listening to them. It’s because each record gives me a piece of what I want to hear on our album, like the guitar or the voice, but I’m never getting all of it. I do when it’s a band we all love, but I’m consistently searching for that next one, that next great band. That’s the motivation: making that record that we both want to hear. “Lets do that.”
Knocks: So what’s the new album like? Do you have all the songs?
Layton: We’re really excited. No one really knows about it. We haven’t really told anyone. We did 13 original songs.
Knocks: What’s your favorite on the album?
Layton: All of them. The recording process is so great, and laying all the tracks down. The first week was just drums, and it was like: “Wow, we got really awesome drum sounds.” Then we did guitars and it was like: “Wow, I was not expecting that. That sounds incredible.” Then we did some other instrumentation that we don’t normally do live, and it was like: “Man, that just totally opened a new door.” And now we’re doing vocals… and it’s turning into what I really was hoping for. It’s happening.
Omer: We’re doing it, again, all by ourselves. At home. Engineering it and everything. I mean it’s a really good fucking album. But the idea, we didn’t do what a lot of people do with a kick starter page and beg for $5,000 and go into the studio and demo 10 songs and put out an album. We sat down with just Layton for two weeks on drums. We were able to have that time to do three takes of a song and then go back and say, “Yeah, that snare sucks. Lets detune the drums or move them around…” It let us be very meticulous.
Knocks: Let me interrupt for a minute. Dylan said that Blond on Blond sounds most like what he heard in his head. Do you think that is a talent you just have?
Layton: Honestly, I think it’s just experience and listening to all these albums, like Omer was saying. I listen to a ton of hip-hop and a ton of indie stuff and a ton of weird sound stuff, so I guess when we did Map and Marker, it was so impulsive. We had just formed a band and we were excited about making a record. So whatever drums we had, or guitars we had live, it was just like “GO! Lets get this.” It was one or two takes. Now we’re here, and we’re taking our time with it. One example is the snare drum. I had a really tight snare. We would be writing new songs and this ring my snare had would be really annoying. So I put some duct tape on the drum and took out the ring. So when you say it’s a talent, I think it’s just going and really hearing what you think would fit better.
Omer: I think it depends on who you are too and what your role is. If you have the money for a producer, that’s the job of the producer. When you listen to the drums on a great record, you realize every song has a different drum sound. There are subconscious things that keep the listener going from the beginning to the end of the record. We don’t realize that the producer has made sure the band has pulled the curtains, changed the scene, and brought you into a new environment. He is being very meticulous about that. We were meticulous about having a completely different snare sound for every song, or a completely different guitar sound for every song.
Going back to the original question – the idea of hearing it in your head – I think that some people do have that skill. I think that we all have that to an extent and it depends on who you are and whether you have the knowledge to execute on that. Or, it’s about finding the perfect match with a producer - Bob Johnston for Blond on Blond - that can create that album for you.
We both know what we want to hear on an album, but mostly we knew how we wanted to make the album. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a certain type of album where we approached it taking our time on certain things, but we’re also play with space a lot. So it’s a combination of knowing and leaving enough unknown.
Layton: We didn’t dwell on mistakes like we did in the past. I’d fuck up on the bridge or something and do a weird fill, but the feel was there. We’ll say: “Lets just keep it.” As we finish and ad more tracks, it becomes something.
Knocks: Is that philosophy you just came up with or where did that idea come from?
Omer: I really love engineering. I have studied it a lot and I work at studios. As an engineer, and reading about a lot of engineering, it was mostly an adopted philosophy of the moment of the producers I was into at the moment – Bob Johnston, Daniel Lanois – guys like that who talk about leaving space, or leaving holes and things like that. So for our record, we would keep telling each other to leave holes, leave holes, all the way until the end because every time there’s a hole, you’ll fill it with something different in the end. A little improvisation.