Los Angeles-by-way-of-Portland, Oregon-based indie-folk/bluegrass revivalists Water Tower are proud to announce the release of their debut album, Fly Around (Dutch Records), a ten-track collection of songs rooted in bluegrass and folk, while managing to blend psychedelic and punk influences to create their own brand of Americana.
For every band, there is that moment when they ask themselves, “should we call it quits or keep going?” Even in the strongest of bands, that question will arise, if even briefly. Water Tower (formerly known as Water Tower Bucket Boys to those that have followed them for a long time, changing their name in 2012 after the release of their Meet Me Where The Crow Don’t Fly EP) front man and co-founder Kenny Feinstein asked himself that very question following the recording of what was to be the christening of the new Water Tower name, their full-length,Secret Love Buzz, the title taken from a line in Feinstein’s song, “Bobcats.”
After recording Secret Love Buzz and planning the album’s release, Feinstein found himself without a band, the other three members quitting over immense band turmoil, following a tour to SxSW in 2013. Worried about the future of Water Tower, Feinstein focused his energy on his debut solo album, a cover of My Bloody Valentine’s seminal album, Loveless, entitled Loveless: Hurts To Love, released in the fall of 2013 (Fluff & Gravy Records).
Once Loveless: Hurts to Love was released, Feinstein decided it was time to regroup and put together another line-up of Water Tower, calling on friends Pat Norris (bass) and Harry Salek (drums, backing vocals). With a band in tow, Feinstein began to plot Water Tower’s next move. There was discussions about releasing the already recorded Secret Love Buzz, but after much soul-searching and late-night pondering, Feinstein decided to start fresh, with the new members, and make another record. That record would become Fly Around.
A huge fan of bluegrass and traditional folk music, Feinstein also grew up on punk and psychedelic rock, citing The Germs (and, obviously, My Bloody Valentine) as big influences. Reaching out to former Germs’ drummer Don Bolles, Kenny enlisted his help to produce Fly Around, bringing the L.A.-based Bolles up to Portland, Oregon, where Feinstein was living at the time, to track the record at Deer Lodge Studios, with Ezra Meredith engineering.
“Working at Deer Lodge was so fun because Ezra was very relaxed and open to ideas as well as having ideas of his own to help guide us with setting the foundational tone of the record,” recalls Feinstein.
Following the tracking of the album in Portland, Feinstein and the band moved to Los Angeles, where they kept working on the record, recording overdubs and mixing the record at Nightbird Studios in Hollywood, with the help of engineer Juliette Amoroso, and Bolles again producing. Bolles would also bring in friend and bandmate Ariel Pink to assist in production and help perform on the record.
“[Overdubbing and mixing] at Nightbird Studios helped us to really refine the production,” adds Feinstein. “With Don Bolles bringing in Ariel Pink to assist us, we really achieved something that we could've never imagined possible. Plus the added benefit of Juliette, who was instrumental in engineering the ideas that flowed out of Don, was great. Don Bolles is a punk rock legend who brought something to the plate that was very raw, an unbridled enthusiasm for our music, which was already steeped in tradition from another era.”
Bolles would go on to handle all the drums for the album, as well as play some guitar and bass, and as Feinstein puts it, “all around directed everything.” Ariel Pink contributed bass, backing vocals, keyboards, and co-produced the album. Other guests would include Black Flag’s second singer Ron Reyes adding lead vocals to “Anthem,” ex. Old Crow Medicine Show (a band that helped Water Tower Bucket Boys in the beginning) member Willy Watson on lead vocals on “Fly Around” and harmonies on “Come Down Easy,” as well as Bullets and Octane’s Gene Louis on backing vocals for “Fly Abound” and “Bobcats.”
The result is Fly Around, a concept album focused around the idea of leaving home for another, ideally better home, which Feinstein himself did while making the album.
Track six, “Mile High Club,” is a spacey, psychedelic instrumental featuring samples from Bolles’ vinyl collection of airplanes taking off from LAX, as well as keyboards from Ariel Pink’s keyboard player Shagz. The song, which is the mid-point of the album, symbolizes the voyage from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles and the rebirth that happens in your new hometown.
“The album is very much about leaving Portland for Los Angeles, or leaving one lover for another; or, saying goodbye to an old life,” points out Feinstein. So, while “Mile High Club” may seem out of place when it first hits, taken in context it fits in perfectly and helps explain the further psychedelic moments of the proceeding tracks, as well as the punk-rock infusion of album closer, “Anthem.”
One thing folk traditionalists will recognize is the title track, “Fly Around,” though they may not recognize its offspring, “Fly Abound.”
Speaking on why they chose to title the album Fly Around, and also decided to include “Fly Abound” on the album, Feinstein says, “‘Fly Around’ is a version of a traditional song, but we changed the structure just a little bit to make it our own. We then decided to call the album Fly Around, because there is also a song called ‘Fly Abound,’ which is another take on the same song, but changed so dramatically that it is barely recognizable. We slowed it down and changed the key. ’Fly Around’ has been a very important song to us throughout the years. It is a song that we have been playing different versions of for so many years. There are lots of songs that get deeper every time you listen to or play, and this is one of those songs that we have lived. There is a difference between playing a song and living a song. Some of the lyrics are traditional lyrics that have been passed down from generation to generation, so they are universal emotions and thoughts. They are experiences that can be related to a romantic relationship, as well as any sort of relationship to any person, place, or thing.”
“Fly Around” lyrically spoke to Feinstein, and the band, and helped sum up the feelings of love, love lost, obsession, death, and moving - all topics Feinstein felt were alive in the album’s other songs.
“Lyrically, we ended up alluding to the mental anguish that is caused by dependency and loss,” he says.
However, even Feinstein will admit, while the lyrics may be darker at times, musically the album veers in a more upbeat, positive direction.
“The slower songs seem to have a poised, upbeat, melancholy to them,” he says. “The faster songs also have an element of sadness, but it is that ‘high lonesome’ sound that we are borrowing from bluegrass. Songs like ‘Anthem’ are very inspiring to us to get up and grab life by the hand.”
Feinstein’s favorite track on the album is “Fly Abound,” which contains his favorite lyric from the album: “Nighttime falls and sleeplessness begins again, all for nothing. Nothing's there anyway.”
“It really sums up a lot of tough nights that helped create this album. But, it’s not my favorite just because of those lyrics. It’s my favorite track on the album because it’s one of those songs that was written in the studio while we were sitting around in Deer Lodge setting up equipment. We started playing around with a very slow version of ‘Fly Around’ and nobody could even tell it was the same song. It just became a totally different thing, so we wrote different lyrics to it, changed the key, and it's amazing how it creates an entirely different feeling. The chorus really soars through the air like an eagle. The texture is very thick with trembling mandolin and contemplative picked guitar. The piano part for this song was totally improvised because the actual piano itself had music coming out of it. It just so happens to be the original piano that ‘Stand By Me’ was written on. So that was inspiring.”
Starting the record in 2014 and finishing it in 2017, then scheduling a 2018 release date for it when the band inked a deal with Portland upstart indie Dutch Records, that can really take a toll on a band. Whereas a lot of bands would just be eager to get the record out and start working on something else, Feinstein and company are so proud of the record, they’re eager to get it out, re-establish Water Tower with fans that have supported the band all these years, and make new fans. Oh, and share the songs with everyone that will listen.
“This record came out totally different than I imagined it would,” admits Feinstein. “Initially, I thought we would be able to finish it in a few weeks and that it would sound somewhat like our live performance, like our previous records under Water Tower Bucket Boys did. But since we brought Don Bolles and Ariel Pink into the mix, they brought completely different ideas that I would have never imagined. And the album ended up taking over three years to complete, from the initial tracking to mastering, which I would have never expected. Don is a perfectionist. He knew exactly what this record - and the songs - needed in order to be perfect. Don really is the one who had an amazing vision for our songs.”
Now, some might wonder why a band rooted in bluegrass would approach a punk rock drummer to produce their record, especially since he had no history or experience in the traditional bluegrass or Americana music scene. Feinstein is quick to answer that question; it is exactly why they sought Bolles out: “The main reason we approached Don to begin with was because we knew that he hadn't done much work in the old-time/bluegrass/country genre, so we wanted to throw him in the deep-end musically. He knew exactly how to treat our songs in order to make them something that he would enjoy listening to. That in itself is a challenge, to make music that Don would enjoy. Don is very specific about his musical tastes. We wanted to have his punk rock/bubblegum influences - and he gave us that and more.”
Asked what he thinks people may compare the album to, Feinstein, a huge fan of Spiritualized and Spacemen 3, is quick to point to those two bands, especially since the only cover on the album, “Come Down Easy,” is a Jason Spaceman cover song. Also, he points out that they’ve always garnered comparisons to friends and mentors Old Crow Medicine Show, as well as Willie Watson and his solo work.
“There is a big folk revival that has been happening for the last fifteen years and we have always tried to have our fingers on the pulse for how traditional folk music is mixing with today's modern culture,” he says of both comparisons his band may receive, and how Fly Around will fit in to the musical landscape of today. “The music borrows from tradition, but feels no sense of restraint when it comes to traditional rules. We have spent many years playing traditional bluegrass, traditional old time, and Cajun. Within these musical groups there are many stylistic idiosyncrasies that are important to adhere to, but in the making of our album we treated the tunes as traditional songs that we wrote, that we've then felt we could break down and beat the tradition out of while still maintaining old-timey relevance.”
Realizing the band has kept their fanbase waiting for a few years, Feinstein hopes fans, upon hearing Fly Around, believe it is worth the wait. He also hopes to reach an entirely new group of people with the album, music lovers who may not have ever heard of any of the traditional elements of their music, but who are fond of their modern take on tradition.