Trailblazing Into New Territory; An Interview With Ryan T. Jacobs of Melville

Melville’s 2013 “Maquette” perfectly illustrated what was unfolding for the band.  The debut EP was infused with alt-country infused melodies, however there was still more that the band could explore musically.  Spending the next couple of years honing onto a more energetic rock sound to their music, Melville have accomplished on achieving their vision within their first full-length ‘The New Zero’.

Recorded with Gregg Williams and mastered by Paul Gold, ‘The New Zero’ marks Melville’s ever constant progression as a unit.  The culmination of past events are now forging into the beginnings of something new.  Sharper writing from lead singer Ryan T. Jacobs, catchier hooks and melodies are defined with precise focus on ‘The New Zero’.  Ultimately, Melville wants “The New Zero” to be an album to convey that while moments in our lives change, we have the chance to shape what comes next.

We recently caught up with Jacobs to talk more about the new album, his extended stay overseas, and how the NBA team Portland Trail Blazers are associated with the group.  Here is what he had to say:

Jacobs-I read that you spent some time in Berlin, working on perfecting on your songwriting and exploring other parts of the world.  During your stay overseas, what did you come to learn about the craft?

I speak several foreign languages and you realize that when you’re dealing with a foreign language, at least up until you hit a certain point of fluency, there’s a certain distance between you and the language that frees you up to be less critical of yourself because expectations are lowered of what you are actually able to articulate and convey. Being so far from home and not being known by anyone provided a similar comfort to try my hand at writing songs and not being as hypercritical about what was coming out as I may have been had I been in Portland just starting out writing. I think another thing that was instilled in me is that melody is king in writing songs and lyrics follow. Melody transcends language and only once people are interested in the melody are they interested in delving deeper into the meaning of the song. You could write Bob Dylan caliber lyrics but if there’s an absence of a catchy melody, most people will never give it a shot. I think the other tie between foreign languages and songwriting is that there really isn’t such a thing as “perfection” or being finished which could be maddening for some people but I really like the idea of always learning and improving and not reaching stasis. No matter how much of a language you know, including your native language, there are always new idioms or words to learn. Songwriting is the same; no matter how many songs you’ve written, good or bad, there’s always more out there.

As we all know, Portland has produced some of the best indie rock bands.  What is it about the area that has bands coming from there see so much success?

It rains a lot so there’s plenty of indoor time to write. I kid (somewhat). I think anywhere with easily demarcated seasons tends to lead to introspection and that tends to lead songwriters and artists to produce in my opinion. Also, though this is changing somewhat as of late, things are affordable enough here for artists to live. It reminds me very much of Berlin in that regard, which of course, has it’s own thriving arts scene. There are also numerous solid mid-sized venues in town, which once you get to other cities on tour, you realize that that isn’t the case everywhere and that we’re pretty lucky in that regard.  That kind of helps to encourage people to get out and play/come to shows I feel.

How did it take for the band to become finalized to the lineup it is now?

We opened for 3 Doors Down at Britt Festival last year and I recruited Ryan Aughenbaugh to play bass for that show. He then became a member and fortuitously he knew the other guys (Dan Bacon, Juan Felipe) from previous projects. The current constellation took a couple months to finalize and has been around for about a year now.

The band had their song “Heart” debuted at a sold-out Portland Trailblazers game, which is an incredible opportunity.  How did it come about for the band to land the chance to showcase the single?

The Portland community is pretty music focused and particularly on local music so there’s myriad opportunities to get your stuff out there if you’re looking.  The Trailblazers are no exception to this and, at least the year that we were featured, they were actively searching out local bands to feature whose songs fit what they were looking for in terms of programming. I have a friend that works for the team in ticketing and I was actually fortunate enough to be able to be in the stadium to witness the song being played. It was pretty surreal to see a song you wrote in your living room being played in front of 20,000 people. I imagine people were wondering who the guy was filming the Jumbotron so intently…

Going back to having the chance to have “Heart” played at the Trailblazers game, do you think bands need to do more unique ventures to get their music out to people?

This is a tough business and it’s difficult to get anyone to spend more than a couple seconds listening to your band before they’ve made up their mind about it usually. The goal is to try and expand that window to get more of a chance to present your songs, so, it would definitely be a good thing to figure out a unique way to get your music in front of people. However, most people seem to need to have context to know if they like the band or not and that context usually comes in the form of a trusted outlet of sorts giving their stamp of approval to the music. That isn’t always the case, but it certainly incentivizes people to listen more intently, give repeat listens to try and expand that window I mentioned in order to see what the band and the music are actually about. In my opinion, bands should be seen as small businesses because that’s absolutely what they are. I think if people experienced bands through that filter that there would be a lot of people who’d be much more willing to monetarily support bands. No one would try and get free anything or exploit a local small business while enjoying their products. Instead, people actually often times go out of their way to support these small businesses in comparison to larger corporations. If that were the case with smaller bands, I think we’d have much fuller music communities with people being able to actually subsist on their art.

How long was the writing process for the new album?

The new album has some older tracks written from my time in Berlin but also several newer tracks as well so it’s a bit of an amalgam. Recording is trying to catch lightning in a bottle and there were a few tunes from the EP (‘Maquette’) that I felt could be captured in different way that might be a truer representation of the song. I was happy to feel like it happened this time around. There were a lot of songs that were written in the year leading up to going into the studio as well though. The real lengthy portion of it was the recording process. Unfortunately, as happens with bands, the members that recorded the basic tracks with me needed to move onto other things and weren’t able to finish the entire record. I was left with their respective drum and bass parts and then went on to write and record all the overdubs, guitar parts and vocals slowly but surely as funds became available. The good news is that we’re about halfway into basic tracking another record already in bassist Aughenbaugh’s nice home studio so the process should go a bit smoother this time I hope.

With ‘The New Zero’ sonically, the band seems to move some extent away from the alt-country feel on the EP ‘Maquette’.  What was the driving force to have ‘The New Zero’ be more of a rocker?

It probably reflects a change in the music that I listen to and my horizons expanding. I was always a Wilco and Ryan Adams fan for a number of years (and still enjoy both) but I listen to a bit less of that kind of music now for whatever reason. I’m personally of the opinion that a good song is a good song regardless of genre and am not really restrictive in terms of what I listen to or write as long as it moves me in some way. I think I’ve always been attracted to energy in music and the ephemeral transcendence that it can bring. I feel that even more than a coherent record, which unfortunately seems to make less and less sense in the day and age we’re in, that just writing a good song is what the goal has become for me and I hope the record reflects that a bit.

I think it also has to do with the fact that, by necessity of sorts, I was also writing a lot of singer/songwriter type songs when I lived in Berlin because the logistics of having a band were a bit more difficult to iron out for myriad reasons. In addition, I think I just really enjoy working with other people who are good at what they do and see where it can take the song. I think also I was partly tired of performing alone and not being able to entirely flesh songs out as they were in my head. People always enjoy a song they already know and love getting stripped down to its most bare and vulnerable elements, and I enjoy doing these songs like that now when I get a chance. It’s much tougher however to get people to pay attention to those quieter, more introspective kinds of songs if they’ve never heard them before. So, I suppose it was just more fun to be loud and play with a ton of energy to try and make people listen and dance or at least have to put more effort into talking over the music if that’s really what they want to do.

You recorded with Gregg Williams, who has an impressive resume that includes working with The Dandy Warhols, Sheryl Crow, Blitzen Trapper.  What did you take away from working with him?

Gregg’s a good buddy and of course really great at what he does. He’s this super jovial character and really easy to work with, the consummate professional to be sure. He also knows how to have fun with the process though and simultaneously encourage you to give the best performance you can give. I’d say I learned that there’s no cutting corners in the process and if you feel like something needs to be redone in order to be happy with it then it’s worth doing no matter how long it may take.

The band will hitting the road soon, performing mostly around the West Coast.  Is there plans to go on the road around the United States and beyond?

We just did a west coast tour and it was a lot of fun besides the fact that more or less all of our stuff got stolen in San Francisco! We did manage to rally and finish the tour because people were kind enough to loan us gear so we didn’t have to cancel our show with Collective Soul and the rest of the dates we had left. The silver lining was that it was really nice to see how willing to help people were when we needed it. We’d definitely like to do a national tour and I’d love to get back over to Europe where I lived for so long and revisit some of the old spots I used to frequent.

Melville’s ‘The New Zero’ is out now.

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