The Banner Year Gets It
By Sean Claes w/ photos by Jay West
INsite’s Sean Claes had a chat with The Banner Year’s lead vocalist Jason Small and they discussed the new album, what being DIY is like, and the final season of LOST.
Sean Claes: Tell us about the new album, which is dropping on April 10 at an INsite Night at Red Eyed Fly.
Jason Small: It’s called “What You Won’t Get” and it’s a pretty relentless rock record. A lot of these songs are the heaviest and most intense we’ve ever written and a couple of them are very soft and fragile at times without ever dipping into ballad territory. We didn’t limit ourselves in the songwriting process and ended up pushing the boundaries of what constitutes the ‘Banner Year’ sound in every direction.
Claes: Do you have a favorite track?
Small: As a group we were blown away by how “The Barrier” turned out in the studio. It was one of the last few songs we wrote for the album and have only played it live a few times, so we weren’t sure what to expect. It’s a fast, bouncy, moderately depressing song about putting up walls and isolating yourself from the people that care about you. You know, sing-a-long material. It would probably be the first single if we were a band that released singles.
Claes: Are you “leaking” any tracks early to your MySpace page (myspace.com/thebanneryear)?
Small: Leaking? Yes. Early? No. Honestly, we’re working on the record down to the wire and don’t want to put any unfinished material out on the web. We’ll post a couple tracks for free download and a couple for streaming on our MySpace as soon as we’re done but it might not be until a few days before the release.
Claes: One of the things that draws me to a band is lyrics. The Banner Year has some very well crafted messages to the songs. Where do the words come from?
Small: Our last album (2007’s …And Straight On ‘Till Breakfast) was written when we were all in college and I had lots of big ideas about how the world should be and stories to tell with the songs. This time around I was on a wavelength more akin to our first album (2004’s “thebanneryear") and had enough going on in my own life to worry and write about without looking for outside inspiration.
What You Won’t Get isn’t a concept album or a song-cycle but it does deal almost exclusively with the themes of loss, desperation, confusion, and frustration. It essentially tells the story of the personal sacrifices and mistakes we’ve made over the past few years while working dead-end jobs, living in crappy apartments, leaving our lives behind to tour the country and trying to turn what we love to do into a sustainable career.
Claes: Who writes thse music and how does that process go?
Small: It really varied with these songs. There were a number that were written by Mike (Murray) or Mike and me at home and then brought to the rest of the band in the practice room, but we also collaborated as a group on about half the songs, which we hadn’t really done before.
Often we’d hit a wall when trying to work on a song that one of us brought to the band to be fleshed out, so someone would just start playing something random and we’d all work off it. ‘Hellbent’ grew out of a drumbeat, ‘At a Loss’ started with the bass part, and a few of the others came from Mike or Charlie (Fisher) just striking a chord or playing an improvised melodic line that inspired someone else.
“Misfire” was a combination of guitar parts that the two of them had written independently that happened to fit perfectly together. That was the first song we ever collaborated on the lyrics as well as the music, which was an entirely new experience for us.
Claes: How did it end up being 3 years between releases?
Small: Well, you can’t really follow the major-label pattern of record, release, tour, rest, repeat every two years when you’re taking every step on your own. We decided while we were making the last record that before we even tried to affiliate ourselves with a label or management we wanted to prove that we could survive the road (and each other) without help from anyone.
So no matter what happens we can always look back and know that we did more than most independent bands get to do, and we did it our own way. Plus, three years is a lot of time to make a lot of very bad personal decisions, so that tends to help with the songwriting.
Claes:...And Straight On 'Till Breakfast was tapped as one of INsite’s top 10 albums of 2007. The tracks I’ve heard from the new album are on-par lyrically and tighter musically than your debut. How do you feel you’ve progressed as a band?
Small: We learned a lot from working with our producer Paul Soroski on the last album and re-arranging songs in the studio to work better and since then we’ve written our songs with a new perspective and a better understanding of what makes a good song and how to differentiate between parts that are essential and parts that will benefit the song as a whole to let go of. We feel we’ve written a batch of songs that hit hard and don’t get bogged down or lose steam before the end, but that are still catchy, heartfelt and musically interesting.
Claes: Are you on a mission to be a DIY band, or are you looking for a label at this point?
Small: We’re on a mission to rock and if we happen to cross paths with a label that shares the same values and can take us to the next level of what we do, we’d definitely consider it. We’d love to do this as long as we can and reach a larger audience with our music.
Claes: Last year you did a three-month stint out on the road, being a band with no financial backing did you do a lot of couch sleeping?
Small: Couches are a luxury! No, we’re lucky enough to have great friends and family all over the country so about half the time we were well-fed and had couches or beds or at least carpets to sleep on, though we did spend our fair share of nights camping, sleeping in the car, or just driving through the night after a show to the next city that we had friends in.
After one attempt at the five of us sleeping in a Ford Expedition in a parking lot in June we can pretty much get comfortable anywhere else. Oh, and if you check in to the Econolodge after 4AM you don’t have to leave until noon the next day. That’s like two for the price of one if you don’t go to bed until five every night!
Claes: Charlie Fisher is the “mohawk” of the band.. but last time I saw him he had a full head of hair. Is 2010 the time for a new mohawkless Banner Year?
Small: Haha, we miss the Mohawk. He wears a hat ninety percent of the time because he apparently is incapable of getting a good haircut.
Claes: You’ve gone out and toured the country a couple of times on DIY terms, meaning you book all your own shows and make all arrangements. How has that worked out?
Small: Way better than the few times we’ve relied on promoters to arrange a show. We book almost all of our appearances directly with clubs and often line up all the supporting bands. It’s a lot less stressful and easier to promote and organize when the loop consists of just us and the venue and we don’t have to work out details through other parties or middlemen.
We’ve managed to put ourselves in front of some great crowds, big and small, just by being professional and respectful to everyone we meet and work with. When club owners see you give it your all for five off-the-clock employees and the bartender they are a lot more likely to throw you a bone and put you in front of a big crowd the next time you come through town.
We would definitely like to keep growing though and wouldn’t want to keep working 100% independently at this point.
Claes: Who are some of the bands around the US you’ve played with which we may not have heard of yet that deserve a listen?
Small: We’ve played about fifteen shows around Texas with Say When from Boston that just disbanded. Some of the guys have a new group that just started up called The Death of Paris that should be going places quickly.
We’ve played many times here and on the east coast with the Spines, a great indie rock band from New York. And we were at a house show with O’Brother in Louisiana that got busted by the cops before we could play but they were really good guys. They are on tour with Thrice and Manchester Orchestra right now I believe.
Claes: Who are the bands you’ll play with for the CD release on 4/10 at Red Eyed Fly?
Small: Antidote for Irony, who are also on our San Marcos and San Angelo CD release shows, Floorbound, who are headlining our CD release in their hometown of Houston, The Fight of Our Lives and Post Society.
Claes: Let’s say The Banner Year fan who’s reading this wants to buy the band a round at the CD release show. What’s everyone drinking?
Four totally off-the-wall questions:
Claes: How do you think the final season of LOST will end?
Small: The same way it began, with none of us watching it.
Claes: What color should I paint my living room?
Small: White with fake painted-on doors and cabinets, just to really screw up your kids.
Claes: Why do dogs have black lips?
Small: That’s racist.
Claes: Who is your favorite cartoon character and why?
Small: Does Wall-E count? He’s CGI but damn, does he tug on your heartstrings.