Greylag are Andrew Stonestreet, Daniel Dixon and Brady Swan, a Portland-based trio named after a wild geese that’s been making quite some noise with its self-titled debut album, a captivating, melancholic blend of rock and folk. A little while ago the band made stop in Brussels, and we had the chance to sit down with lead guitarist Daniel Dixon over Belgian meatballs; killing time while frontman Andrew went on an admin marathon to get his stolen passport back.
I’m from California, Brady from Texas and Andrew from West Virginia. Those places couldn’t be further from each other culturally. I was in Kentucky for a brief time because of a girl and there my path crossed with Andrew and we did a bit of music together. When my girlfriend and I broke up I was in a pretty dark place and wanted to leave, and I called up Andrew, who had become a really good friend. He invited me to West Virginia and I actually moved into his family’s basement for a while. This is when we really started working on music together. Eventually I went back to California, but we always kept talking about forming a proper band. So at one point we both moved to Portland where we met our drummer.
What drew you together musically?
I think we’re attracted to similar things in music, even though the kinds of music we like often differ.
When you decided to form a proper band and really go for it, did you talk about what your goals were, about where you wanted to go musically?
It was an ever-evolving sort of thing; we have these conversations continuously. We didn’t really know what we were going to do in the beginning. I think it’s a dangerous thing in music to have too clear of a vision of what you want to do. Everyone has so many different influences. When you close it off too early and say ‘we’ll be this kind of band’, then you limit your creative territory. In that sense it’s very good that we took so much time after our first EP to make the debut album. We made this first EP as quick as we could, I guess mainly just to prove ‘We made a record! We’re a real band!’ and then we took four years to really evolve: figure out how we want to write together and all that stuff. I think it’s through trial and error that we get closer and closer to it. It’s more of a narrowing of focus and it takes time. There was lots of excitement, lots of fighting…it was a very long process.
In the very beginning it felt more like a singer-songwriter project. The songs came from Andrew and we were trying our best to support his creative output. He’d bring a song and we’d try to make the best we could out of it. That’s a very different process than starting from nothing together, which we do now. We don’t want to limit ourselves and everyone can bring ideas. Things go really well for the band when we start with strong, catchy ideas that are not fully formed yet. It doesn’t matter who they come from.
When did you write the songs on the debut album?
Almost all of them were written in the year prior to recording the record. We consciously took off a pretty significant chunk of time from touring and playing shows to just write. That was from the end of 2012 to the beginning of 2013. We recorded about 80 songs over the course of the year.
What were your lives like back then? Did you have day jobs and worked on music at night?
I don’t think we did. We’re all pretty industrious and jump from project to project. Playing guitar for someone, producing a friend’s music,… My parents have a toy company in Southern California where I work for a couple of weeks if things get bad. We’re lucky that Portland is a pretty cheap place to live, which gives us a lot of time to work on music.
Many of your songs are quite melancholic. Where does that come from? Are you all pretty melancholic people?
I guess when we made the record most of us were in a bit of a dark place. I don’t think we’re particularly melancholic. I’m pretty happy right now! We’re all in good spirits.
But is it something that just happened? Or do you at one point make a conscious decision to not write cheerful songs?
My favorite music is sad music. Music is a powerful, emotive sort of thing. It’s one of the few things that bypasses the cognitive processes of our brain and goes straight into the emotional side of things. It’s easier to tap into negative emotions because they’re very connected to the brooding, thoughtful side of us. When we’re happy we’re just happy and don’t think about it. No one tries to process happiness. People spend a lot of time on figuring out their dark emotions, and I think that’s why there are a lot of melancholic songs being written. I think that this is a pretty strong thematic direction on our record, this sort of honesty, admitting the difficult things in life while not responding to it by being cynical or pessimistic. It’s more about what you’re going to do about it, figuring out how you want to live. Some songs advise you to tune out, others suggest to take a trip with someone you love…others recommend to tackle everything head-on. It wasn’t really our intention; it just ended up being a very reflective record because of the things we were all going through at the time of writing.
The producer you teamed up with for the album, Phil Ek, has worked with bands like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses before, and really seems like the perfect choice. How did you get in touch and what was it like to work with him?
We had known about Phil for a long time. He has a very strong presence in our region. He was definitely always in our collective consciousness and we loved his records. He was this dream producer for us and we never seriously thought we’d get to work with him. But we have this awesome manager who gets things into people’s hands at the right moment and Phil got our demos and to our surprise he was really into it.
That must have been a huge stepping stone for you.
Yes. That was the first moment when we saw a real path forward. We had been working on our music for years and of course believed in it, but we hadn’t had this kind of break yet. We were struggling through and asking ourselves if we were wasting out lives (laughs). So we went to meet him in Seattle and got along really well which is really important when you spend 12 hours together in the same room every day. We got an apartment in Seattle and made it our home for three months. It was wonderful working with Phil. He really fit the character and the nature of the band. He is not the kind of producer who will break everything open and start from scratch. He’s genius at choosing what he likes and then getting the best performances out of you. He doesn’t tell you how to fix things but tells you ‘this is not working, go fix it’ which I find very stimulating. He put all the control in our hands. It was all about what we wanted and he was a great facilitator. And his recordings just sound great.
What was it like to spend so much time together as a band? Did you want to jump at each other’s throats at one point?
It was pretty intense. We were all doing something that it is extremely close to our hearts. We all worked really hard and wanted to make the best record possible, and that does create tense situations sometimes. When you really care about something then you will defend it.
How did you solve disagreements in the band?
You have to be as nice and understanding as possible. We usually don’t kill ideas from the start if one of us really believes in it. But when two are against it, it won’t work usually; it’s like a small democracy in the end.
Have you checked any of your music’s reviews? Do you ever Google yourselves?
I do check from time to time. I know that there will always be people who don’t like what we do. But I’m confident because we did the best we could. I’m not embarrassed by it in any way. There’s a lot of music I don’t resonate with but that I can admire. I would hope that people, even if they don’t like it, at least respect it. I don’t care if someone slams it, because I strongly believe that we did a good job.
Your label is Dead Oceans. How did you get together and how important was it for the development of the band?
We had been talking with them loosely for a while. They’re an indie label that’s had quite some success in the past and we had a feeling they could be great for us. They’re based in Austin, so they came to see our show at SXSW. We had drinks afterwards and got a long really well and a few weeks later we had a deal worked out. Having a label adds resources that we never had on our own. So many things have happened since we signed with them, like being here now in Brussels, for example. It’s so much easier than forging your on path.
I can’t finish the interview without asking you about the much-hyped Portland. It’s supposed to be a kind of “Brooklyn in the nature” and the capital of creatives. What’s it really like there?
Regarding the Brooklyn connection: that’s totally true, it’s very similar culturally. Many people go back and forth a lot. There are some really wonderful things about Portland. It’s very well connected in a community-sense. If you’re into something you’ll always find someone to do it with. There are so many musicians there. And bands are not competing against each other, everyone plays in five or six bands. Maybe it makes it harder to stand out as a band. We were always pretty dedicated to not just be stuck in Portland, which can easily happen given its isolated geographic location. The next real big city is San Francisco, which is 11 hours away.Why did you choose it as your homebase in the first place?
I read a lot of books that took place in the Pacific Northwest. I always had this romantic sense about the region and the moodiness of it, dark and green. I came to visit and had some friends who moved up there. I really fell in love with the geography of it first. I mean there is a volcano there! It’s such a dramatic landscape with large rivers and gorges and beautiful forests. It’s incredible. Plus there’s Portland’s reputation of being full of creative people from everywhere. And it’s very progressive and liberal. There are so many people with a young mentality who are creatively gifted. But it’s very easy to get by in Portland, so a lot of people never get into the routine of having to work hard, which can be a bit frustrating. You look at people and think ‘you’re so gifted, why are you not doing anything with it?’ Personally I get a very lost feeling when I’m not being useful.
So if I ever make it to Portland, what are the three places I should definitely check out?
I would choose geography to go to. A drive through the Columbia gorge, which is just gorgeous, a drive to the coast, to Astoria, where the mouth of the Columbia river dumps into the ocean. There’s this beautiful peninsula with incredible beaches and rocks out in the ocean. Then there’s a huge park just next to downtown with the mountains straight behind it. I think it’s the largest park within a city in the whole country with trails, waterfalls,…it’s very beautiful.