From The Horse’s Mouth: Ben Sweet (Southside American) on In Our Keystone State EP

In Our Keystone State

In Our Keystone State

Southside American, the solo project of Pittsburgh-based singer-songwriter Ben Seet, offers a stellar debut EP of tightly-crafted original compositions that touch of subjects as diverse as frustration with American civic life to the joys of fatherhood.  In his unique voice, which pairs equal parts folk, lo0fi, Americana and indie rock, he navigates similar rock waters to Deer Tick, Ryan Adams and Amos Lee.  For the In Our Keystone State EP, which was released by Wednesday Records this week, he enlisted the engineering help of Angus Cooke, production assistance from Jonathan Miller, and mastering expertise from Alan Douches.

Ghettoblaster recently caught up with Sweet to discuss the record.  This is what he told us about it.

When did you begin writing the material for your most recent EP?  

The first song I wrote for the album was “Angel of the Night.”  That was in the late summer/early fall of 2011.  Jon (Miller, co-producer) and I recorded it as a demo in the basement of my house in October of that year.  The others followed in the months after that.  “In the Dust” was the last song I wrote for this project, and that was probably in July of 2012.  At some point, we sort of decided that we wanted to do an EP.

What was the most difficult song to take from the initial writing stage through recording and mixing?  Why was it so troublesome?

It’s ironic.  The song that Jon, Angus (Cooke, engineer on the project) and I would all probably identify as the “single” from the EP is “Ocean Deep,” and for me it was also the most difficult to get where we wanted it.  The song is about being a father and we wanted the production to reflect the aspirational nature of the lyrics – at the same time, given that subject matter, we knew a wrong turn here or there could take us to a cheesy place.  So we took several passes at that one before we felt good about the direction we were headed in. 

Another issue was the bridge.  Jon and Angus called me from the studio one night where they were mixing and told me they weren’t feeling the bridge, and to write a new one.  It sounded a lot like an order.  So I sat down and wrote a new bridge right then, recorded it on my acoustic guitar into my phone and sent it to them.  Then Angus laid it down on electric guitar in the studio and it sounded fantastic.  That bridge is one of my favorite moments on the record, musically. 

Which of the songs on the record is most different from your original concept for the song?

I originally wrote “Godspeed” on the piano.  The tempo was much slower.  It was an entirely different song, really.  I came up with the upbeat version later on.  Jon advised me to stick with that one and, as usual, he was right. 
Did you have any guest musicians play or sing on the record?

Lindsay Waldron of The Blues and Grays joined me on harmonies on “In the Dust.”  We had a number of terrific guest musicians join us on several of the tracks, including Angus, Jon, Austin Beede, Thom Flowers, Kevin Kelly and Will Gallivan.  The whistle solo on “Lip Curl Smile” belongs to our buddy Reed Smith.  He nailed it in one take, which was extra impressive given the number of drinks he consumed before recording it. 
Who produced the record?  What input did that person have that changed the face of the record?

The production process was really a team effort all the way throughout between the three of us.  Jon’s fingerprints are all over the production, certainly.  I think his biggest contribution, which I am sure comes in large part from his vast experience in making records, was in ensuring that we didn’t settle for something less than we wanted.  We made the record over a long period of time and I think the long periods between sessions lent to good decision-making all round.  My instinct is always to just get things done but he preached patience throughout, and I think we were much better off as a result. 
Is there an overarching concept behind your new EP that ties the record together?

These songs are all fairly personal and were, with one exception, written in a spare bedroom of my house on an acoustic guitar.  I can’t say there is an overarching concept at play.  But certainly several of the songs explore relationships and longing. 
Have you begun playing these songs live and which songs have elicited the strongest reaction from your fans?

We have been playing out regularly and have been pleased with the reception the songs have received so far.  I would say “Ocean Deep,” “Lip Curl Smile” and “Godspeed” seem to elicit the best reaction.