Posted by: Necci – Oct 05, 2012
Netherfriends is an indie rock band, ostensibly from Chicago, but for the past couple of years they've pretty much been on tour at all times. Initially leaving behind the comforts of home in spring 2010, leader and only constant member Shawn Rosenblatt set out on tour with the goal of writing and recording one song in each of the 50 United States. The 50 Songs 50 States Project, as it came to be known, was a relatively high profile affair, earning him coverage from the AV Club and Paste Magazine, as well as from all of the biggest newspapers in Chicago. However, in spite of the attention, Rosenblatt still had to complete the project on a very limited budget, and by the end of the tour, he was out on the road by himself, performing as a one-man band. Since then, he's been working on compiling and releasing the songs he recorded for the project, which has so far resulted in the 2011 Angry East Coast EP on Cellar Hits, and this year's Middle America album, on Kilo Records. But Rosenblatt has also continued full speed ahead on creative endeavors, making records like Netherfriends Does Nilsson, an EP constructed entirely from Harry Nilsson samples, and available as a free download from Netherfriends' Bandcamp page. He's also continued with the endless tour, and Netherfriends have become a relatively familiar fixture in cities and towns across the United States and beyond. Since early 2010, he's performed in RVA several times, and he returns to Richmond this Sunday, October 7, for a show at The Nile. In advance of his visit, I spoke to him about subletting in Chicago, touring in Alaska, and his newfound love for hip hop production. Read on:
You've been doing the endless tour for a pretty long time now. Is it still a viable procedure at this point? How well is it going?
It's going OK. I mean, I'm able to survive off of just music, but it's definitely a bit of a challenge.
As far as the 50 Songs 50 States Project goes, I know you recorded at least 50 songs, probably more, but at this point you've only released the Angry East Coast EP and the Middle America LP.
And another 7 inch that had "Dennis, MA" on it. It was put out by the same guys who put out Angry East Coast. I think it was only a 50 copy or 100 copy pressing. It was tiny.
So do you have any further plans to do any more 50 Songs 50 States-themed releases anytime soon?
Yeah, I'm [releasing] The Sun Belt, which is all the states in the South, and just trying to finish up as many songs as I can. I'm thinking about just releasing the rest digitally, just because I don't want to keep waiting for these releases to come out. It takes a long time for a record to come out through a label, and I feel like I've been sitting on these songs long enough. The longer I sit on them, the less I enjoy them. It's more difficult to try and take a song you wrote two or three years ago and try to make it into something that you'd want to put out today.
What I was really wondering about was your songwriting process on that tour. Obviously everything was done pretty much on the spot. How different is that from what you do when you're writing your other material, such as the songs on the Barry And Sherry LP [second Netherfriends LP, released in 2010 by Lateral Label]? Was it a big change to start showing up in places and going, "OK, I'm gonna put together a song by, like, 4 PM, and then go play a show"?
That's kind of how I worked before. When I made Barry And Sherry, I went to an ex-girlfriend's parents' house. They moved out of their place, and they were trying to sell this house in Minnesota. It had a baby grand piano there, and all their furniture was still there. They let me go there and work on the record by myself. So I was there for about a week, and I wrote and recorded all those songs. I learned that I can write pretty quickly, but it is very difficult. I'm working on a bunch of other records right now, and I've been working with a lot of rappers in Chicago, doing a lot of hip hop with them. Making beats for rappers is something I've learned to really enjoy.
Would that be separate from the Netherfriends?
Nah, I think I'm gonna keep it the same.
Are you planning to release a Netherfriends hip hop album?
I am, yeah. I'm working on that right now, just trying to get all the material. That's probably gonna be the most focused record I'm ever gonna release. I'm just trying to make as many tracks as I possibly can, and then take the best ones, and put them out on a record, like a mixtape--just put it up for free online. There's a lot of really talented MCs in Chicago that I've been working with. I've also been really interested in the idea of making hip hop, but just [with] me singing on top of it. I think I kind of did that with the Harry Nilsson sample album that I did [Netherfriends Does Nilsson].
So you feel like that was more like a hip hop production in nature, as far as putting the music together?
That was before I really even liked hip hop. I was like, "I'm gonna make a sample album that's not a hip hop album." I didn't think that I could ever make hip hop. I didn't think that was possible. It was something that was pretty fun to do, and I got hooked up with a rapper [Show You Suck] who rapped on one of the tracks. Because of that, I got exposed to a lot of other rappers in Chicago, and met a few people. I keep meeting more and more rappers who are interested in working together. That's kind of how it happened. I was living in a hip hop studio last time I was in Chicago, and I'm going back and living there in November as well.
When you put together hip hop beats, do you do a lot of original composition that you then sample, or do you use old records?
I really like sampling [from records] a lot. It's a very fun way to make music. I do it by hand. I mean, I record onto a computer, but I don't use a computer. A lot of hip hop producers use programs like Ableton Live and Reason to make beats. I'm really into the idea of doing it all by hand, with my fingers, or with a drum pad. I've been really excited about doing that, because I don't know anyone that makes hip hop beats that does it by hand.
Yeah, that's old school. So are you still making pop music as well?
Yeah, I mean, with my live show now--I don't know if you've seen any videos of me playing live recently, but I've been doing the one-man band thing for the last year and a half, and it's gotten to the point now where I don't see myself playing with a band unless I somehow acquire a bunch of money to pay musicians to play with me. But I really enjoy performing solo. In November I'm doing a residence here in Chicago. I'm playing every Monday. I'm going to do a live album; just track everything live onstage, and have a friend record it, and then go back, edit it, and make an album out of that. A lot of people who've never seen me before, strangers who see me for the first time, will ask me, "So which albums sounds most like your live show?" And I'm like, "None of these." [laughs] But I really want to make an album [that does sound like the live show]. I'm gonna try to write a few new songs for each show that I'll be able to track, and have them for a new album. So that's what I want to do that will kind of feed the pop side of Netherfriends.
Last time I saw you was here in Richmond at Strange Matter, and you were doing the one-man band thing. I thought it was interesting the way you were looping other things into previous songs that I already knew, and they were transforming into new things. So yeah, I've seen the one-man band thing, and it seems like you pull it off quite well.
I hate to say it like this, but that was me not really knowing what I was doing. [laughs] When I did that tour, that was the first tour trying to figure out how to play solo. It's kind of embarrassing to look at old videos of me playing solo, because I really didn't have a grasp on it. It's funny how a lot of friends who were at those shows who've seen me since then have said, "Dude, it's so much better." And I'm like, "Yeah, it's because I've been on tour ever since then," you know? [laughs] I've been figuring it out. That's all musicians really need is to play live as much as they possibly can, to kind of grow and figure out what it takes to win over a crowd of strangers.
It seems like a lot what you do is throwing yourself into unfamiliar situations and forcing yourself to create in a fashion that is less than what people would see as ideal. And maybe you do see it as ideal, but I think a lot of times people feel like they need to be adequately prepared. It seems like you're almost trying not to be prepared, because you want to see what will happen. Am I getting that right at all?
Yeah, it was like that with the live show for a while. I think now I'm more prepared to perform than ever, just because I've been playing the songs long enough. I didn't have time to practice, so I was just on tour practicing. I remember reading an article about the Black Lips, and that's what they did--just toured so much that eventually they got decent at performing live. It's kind of the trick. You have to jump into it. I just didn't want to wait around for anything to happen. A lot of people I know that play music just kind of wait for something to happen. And it might never come. I think everyone should just do what they want to do as early as they can and as hard as they can. That's not the goal in most people's lives.
As far as jumping into things, and the financial aspects of all that, do you feel like you're getting to the point where being out on tour by yourself pretty much all the time and not really having a fixed address is starting to become profitable? Is your situation improving?
Well, I subletted for the first time this summer, so that was pretty cool, that I was able to do that. I never thought that was possible. That was really nice.
Where was that, in Chicago?
Yeah, that was in Chicago. I subletted in June, then in July I toured Alaska, then I came back and subletted in August.
Tell me about Alaska.
I toured Alaska for two and a half weeks. I played a college show in Fairbanks, Alaska, and then I toured with my friend's band, Feeding Frenzy. We played shows in Kodiak, which is a really small island off the Southwestern tip of Alaska, and then played in Anchorage, Homer, Denali, and Talkeetna.
How was commuting around Alaska? Did you have to use planes at all?
No. We had to use boats, though. We had to take a 14 hour ferry to get to Kodiak. I slept on a lot of boats.
Crazy. So is it still pretty undeveloped out there in the rural parts?
Uh, it's pretty developed. It kind of reminds me of the South. The people are very similar to people in the South as well. I really enjoy Alaska, especially in the summer. It's sunny at night, too--it never really gets dark.
Yeah, I've heard about that but never really experienced it. Did it make it hard to sleep?
No, it was fine. It maybe makes you drink more, I think.
[laughs] Gotcha. So what do you have coming up after the tour you're on right now? Where's Netherfriends going in the next year?
Well, in January, I'm going to be living in New Orleans. I'm actually in New Orleans right now. In December, I'm going to be in Austin. In February I'm going to be touring Europe again. In March, I'm going back to Austin for South By Southwest, and then in April I'm probably gonna tour through til May, then go back to Chicago in the summer.
All solo touring?
Yeah. I'm doing this [current] tour completely by myself. It's... I'm trying to think of the best way to describe it. It's mentally taxing, I think. [laughs] Driving by yourself.
Do you get really bored?
No, it's not really about boredom. It's about your headspace and what you think about. I think too much when I drive. It's not really good for the ego.
How does it make you feel creatively? Do you come up with more ideas?
Yeah, I mean, I developed the idea to record a new album onstage when I was driving. I think of a lot of ridiculous album ideas. I want to sample music from Woody Allen movies, make an album out of all the jazz he uses, and call it Sometimes I Feel Like Woody Allen. [laughs] I dunno, stupid ideas that sound really great at the time, and then as you say it out loud, you think, "I don't even know if that's a good idea." Like, I wanna make a rockabilly album, just sample rockabilly songs [laughs].
That sounds cool.
Yeah, I know, but I think the only reason is because I really like pinup girls, and [laughs] that's not a reason to make an album.
Netherfriends will be performing with Flossed In Paradise, Night Idea, and Vinegar this Sunday, October 7, at The Nile Ethiopian Restaurant, located at 309 N. Laurel St. Show begins at 10 PM. Donations are requested.
By Andrew Necci