Young Widows are arguably the highest low-tech rock band playing today. Over the past decade, and three full length records, the Louisville power trio has stripped and refined its sonic profile multiple times over, from something like straight-ahead pigfuck to looping post-rock to ashen, "Echoes"-esque bleakness, and back again. The one constant? Somewhat ironically, the staggering amount of gear the band has always taken pains to lug around on tour.
At a recent show in Brooklyn, I simply lost count of the sheer number of pedals between guitarist Evan Patterson and bassist Nick Thieneman. There were just so many. Draped over the whole set, in which Young Widows performed their seminal 2008 album Old Wounds in its entirety, were the twin Emperor cabs. Fitted with spotlights, the hulking pair of amps have become a signature of Young Widows' blistering, creeping live show, leaving stage and crowd awash in jaundiced ambience. With a simple on/off switch, it's a masterful command and use of technology to build tension and release.
Just don't call it a "light show," Patterson told me. With a new long player, Easy Pain, out next month on Temporary Residence, I had a chance to catch up with Patterson. At home in Louisville, running his screenprinting business while prepping for an upcoming slate of shows in support of the record, he opened up on the Fear of success, techno reliance, death, (not) giving a shit, knowing when to walk away, mimicking Cheap Trick, and the new Beck record.
MOTHERBOARD: Hey, Evan. How are you doing?
Doing alright. Working. Screenprinting.
The opening track on Easy Pain is titled "Godman." Who—what?—is the Godman?
My Aunt Nita passed last year. I went to a service for her. It was a really strange service—family and everyone all quiet, and this preacher got up and talked forever about how Jesus was a Godman. He ranted and ranted for probably 20 minutes, about Jesus being a Godman. You know, the whole stereotypical Christian branch of goin' to Heaven.
He probably said Godman—I'm not kidding—maybe 30 times. It turned almost comedic to me. It was like, 'I've never heard this before.' I've never heard of someone refer to Jesus Christ as being a Godman. And then he ends the conversation with, 'I didn't know Nita very well. I just started working at this church, and only been coming here three months.'
It really impacted me. Like, this man who didn't even know my great aunt felt it was proper to get up there and rant about a religion. He doesn't even know the woman behind him, really. Who's actually dead.
It's a really strange, dark humorist thing for me. The song is a reference to that whole experience. Whether we're going to Heaven or Hell, or if it doesn't even exist, which I don't think it does. To the best of my knowledge.
As Easy Pain was coming together, what else was going on during the writing and creative process? What other stimuli—media, information, life events—were you taking in?
The music was one thing. Some of those songs came together in the last three or four months of the whole writing process. But a lot of it we've had for a long time. We'd been playing out six of the songs any time we went on tour over the past couple years. I'd been improv singing, just creating ideas and melodies live. Which I had never really done.
Which was really nice because we went in and recorded an entire record without doing vocals, and then took a six week break. I'd been going out to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a lot to visit my girlfriend, who's in grad school. It's a place—there's something about being there. I don't know if it's the altitude, or scenery, or what it is. But it's always a creatively inspiring place to be.
So I kind of out set out with the intention to do most of the lyric writing there. A lot of it is just based on the idea of health and death, and this is it. If the world ends tomorrow, am I where I want to be? Am I doing the right thing with my life? Are my goals and my ideas, and my mental health and my physical health putting me in the place I want to be as a human being?
"Every now and then, you'll step out—to go to a funeral, or to do things with family. I work pretty much by myself. Self employed. I don't watch a lot of TV. I don't read the newspaper."
I'm not really one to be affected by media. My surroundings really are just my friends. Mostly it's musicians. Every now and then, you'll step out—to go to a funeral, or to do things with family. I work pretty much by myself. Self employed. I don't watch a lot of TV. I don't read the newspaper.
Most of it is a mental record of my past experience with coming to grips with not being depressed. With being in love with someone and then deciding you shouldn't be with certain people, that you can't subject yourself to certain things in your life just to be the best person you can be.
And now you're set to go out and support the record. I have to ask: How many pedals are you currently playing with? Walk me through your spread. How do you keep control of it live?
It's kind of a mess at this point. But the whole idea is that we have a stereo set up. Amps on both sides.
Basically everything on the right pedal board is a mono signal. About two years ago I got a—I'm horrible with this sort of thing. Honestly, I just get 'em and I start using 'em. I've had the Line 6 delay modulator, and recently became obsessed with the ping-pong delay. I've always really liked it, but I've recently decided to make it go as fast as I can possibly get it to go. Now, when I hit a single note, it's like a shattering echo. It bounces between both amps. That's the whole idea around the sound of almost the entire new record.
Over the years, how has your reliance on gear and technology evolved or changed as Young Widows has matured?
I feel like I was more reliant on it on our last record [In and Out of Youth and Lightness, 2011]. Right now I'm probably running twelve pedals. I don't use them all the entire time. But this new record is more just based around a lot of distortion, honestly. I've got a micro amp pedal. And a Voyager—that's another I've been using a lot. I feel pretty confident that I can just unplug everything, plug into my amps and play these new songs and not feel like I have to have the pedals to create the same intensity.
Of course, your lights have been a constant presence in your live show for years. Why replicate the same ambience night in, night out?
It's something Nick and I have been doing for well over a decade now. We did it in our band before [Young Widows]. Sometimes we discuss using different lights in different ways, but it's just nice to always know how it's going to look and feel on any stage, because the sound isn't always going to be the same. The sound from our amps might be the same. But every stage, every room sounds completely different.
It's kind of our comfort zone at this point. It's not even so much a light show. It's like, we are playing, and when they go off, we aren't playing anymore. That's the idea.
The lights are your rock in the stream. Something like that?
That's a good analogy. It's a strange thing to even discuss because it's just been a staple for us. It's not even a conversation of, 'Are we going to use these lights?' At this point it's just what we do when we play. It's not, 'Should we use the lights tonight?' It's how we do it. And it's how we're always going to do it.
It's funny, because in a way it's become sort of a live signature for our band, almost to the point that if anyone else started to do the same thing, if you're familiar with our band live, your immediate thought would be, 'Oh, they're using lights in their cabs like Young Widows.' It would kind of be an honor if someone did do a similar thing. But we also stole it from Cheap Trick. [laughs] Let's just salute to Cheap Trick for being rock gods.
How does all this stuff—the touring gear, the lights, everything—translate across the spectrum of live settings? Do you run into problems trying to adapt from small, dark clubs to larger outdoor venues?
We recently had problems down at SXSW (2013). We played in Dallas the next day at an outdoor beach volleyball court. We were playing a deck, more or less.
"We're slaves to technology at this point."
Power ran from somewhere, and it was not cooperating with our amps. And we couldn't get into our comfort zone because we couldn't use the lights. I would say I had less than a good time. It wasn't the best time I've had playing. We're slaves to technology at this point. Tonally, with our amps and our sound and our cabinets—which are a total pain in the ass to lug around—it's a labor of love. That's the difference between being a slave to technology. If we didn't love doing it, or love having this setting we create, we wouldn't be doing it.
When you think about relying on gear—on being a slave to technology—what worries you? Another instance like Dallas? Or something bigger, more existential?
I wouldn't say I have any worries. I feel pretty prepared for any situation we could go into—and even more so with the new album. I feel like it allows for more leeway in a situation that may not be fitting for our gear, or fitting for our lights, or whatever. We can just get on stage and play the songs, and have some of the best times we've had being a band just purely on how we wrote the songs. This last time around, it was a very relaxed writing experience. More than it has been.
We're prepared if we run into a problem that's devastating. We have two amps, so we can always play out of one if we need to. I'm willing to sacrifice anything to get through it and have a good time.
So you don't have too many outright worries. But is there anything that's nagging you? A Fear, biting at your ankles?
I've recently developed a wider perspective and appreciation for music than I've had in my entire life. Through that, it's the Fear of being a genre-specific artist or band.
It's an extremely important thing for me—we might be a heavy punk band, but it's not about being a heavy punk band. It's about the composition of the songs, the ideas of how we've worked the songs, and the progression of the songs. The influence.
All those things are very important to me. An outsider, or someone who is not a musician, could look at our band and hear our songs and be like, 'Oh, these guys really like Sonic Youth. These guys are just a noise rock band.'
To me, we're not just one of those bands. We're just creating new music. It's about creating new music, not just about being successful. That's never been the goal of the band.
Our bass player is a dad. Our drummer is getting ready to be a dad. We have bills to pay. When we go out, we can't lose our act. We are always going to be creating new music and new art, and it's not about success. It's never been about the money. We sold out of our pre-orders in 24 minutes—that's a fucking great thing. It's motivating. But it's not what this is about in any way. I hope it never gets to that place.
It would be great to be a full-time musician. But at the same time, that's kind of a scary thought to be like, 'If this was my full-time career, would that even be something that would make me happy?' I kind of think it would push me away from it drastically.
I was talking to someone about this new Beck record. I listen to it, and I'm like, 'Only Beck can make a record that sounds this good. It's not even about these songs being good.' I mean, with the guitar, some of the songs could be pretty good. But listen to it, and the production and the amount of time spent creating the atmosphere, the sounds—the record sounds insane.
When you get to that point, and you're making records that are just all-encompassing textural sounds, at what point do you go, 'I like what I'm doing' or, 'Is this what I want to keep doing?' or, 'Do I want to perform this live, ever?' or, 'What does it even take to perform this live?' It all just seems to pile on, and pile on, and pile on the more successful you get.
In my mind, it's being steady with where I'm at. Being content. Being scared of success, but obviously you can't say no to success, as well. I'm not sure if that hits the nail on the head of Fear.
I think it does. Thanks for your time, Evan.
Take it easy.