Winter holidays and Indian Summer: Catching up with Carbon Leaf before their Saturday show at The National

by | Dec 12, 2014 | MUSIC

After 21 years of being a band, it’s hard to believe that Carbon Leaf is busier than ever. Over the past twenty four months, the band has released two new studio albums (the Irish offering Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle and the more mellowed Constellation Prize), started their own music festival called the Ragtime Carnival, re-record one of their most beloved albums, Indian Summer, and still managed to tour the country as much as possible.

After 21 years of being a band, it’s hard to believe that Carbon Leaf is busier than ever. Over the past twenty four months, the band has released two new studio albums (the Irish offering Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle and the more mellowed Constellation Prize), started their own music festival called the Ragtime Carnival, re-record one of their most beloved albums, Indian Summer, and still managed to tour the country as much as possible.

The band, easily one of Richmond’s most successful acts of all time, has been through a lot in those 21 years–trying to make it as a independent band pre-2000, being the first unsigned band to play on national television, signing to their first label, going through some lineup changes, abruptly leaving their first label, and trying to make it again as an independent band. Despite that turmoil, the band has stayed as humble and down-to-earth as the day they started. Not only are they finding ways to have old fans fall in love all over again; they are connecting with a whole new generation of eager fans through their eclectic, still-growing catalogue of premier music.

This Saturday, Carbon Leaf returns to Richmond for their annual holiday show, which is one of the most unique concerts you’ll see. Not just from Carbon Leaf; from anyone. Before the show, Carbon Leaf’s loquacious frontman, Barry Privett, talked with me about their crazy output, crowdsourcing, labels, and, of course, Christmas!

2013 saw you guys release two full length albums. 2014 saw you start your own music festival and re-record Indian Summer. What’s in store for 2015?

Good question. We’re still in the thick of the Indian Summer tour. We’ve got ten more shows to go for the year, and then we’re laying relatively low for the first quarter gig-wise, but we’ve already kind of started to talk about the projects we want to do next. We haven’t decided yet, but we might continue re-recording some of the material from our former label. Vanguard Records owns the masters, but we own the songs just like Indian Summer, so we’re going to look at that while we’re writing new material. It’s going to take some time to develop some new material though. 2013 was just a lot, with us writing as much and releasing as much as we did. Then we toured behind that new material and then went right into Indian Summer. We’ve released something about every eight months for the past four years which is a lot, but we’re going to continue to write. We’re also going to do some more of the re-recording of the older material because we really enjoyed that with Indian Summer. No firm decisions yet.

Do you worry at all about trying be able to top the previous two years in 2015?

I think we’ll be fine as long as we’re doing the releases for the right reasons and not feeling pressure to keep up the pace for the pace’s sake. It has been intense. We just want to make sure the new material feels good and right and that takes some soul searching. You know, you’re never in the same place that you were in and you always want to explore new things, so those both just take time. It’s not a matter of second-guessing, but a matter of letting the voices bubble up to the surface.

So let’s talk about Indian Summer Revisited. You mentioned earlier your former label, Vanguard Records, owns the master. Did you get any pushback from them or hear anything at all?

No, we haven’t heard a peep, which isn’t to say we won’t, but the contract was pretty clear that after a certain amount of time off the label, we were allowed to re-record the songs as they are ours. I can’t imagine any pushback lasting very long. They’ve gotten their money out of us, so I don’t think it’s going to make any sense for them to do anything about it business-wise. We’re not doing anything remotely illegal at all and we took the time to double check that, so everything’s above the table.

That split between you guys was pretty sudden. I think I heard you on WNRN in Charlottesville one day before a concert and you just randomly announced you left the label.

Yeah, it might have been on The Corner – one of those two stations. I don’t know. You just roll on. It was a nice place to be in, but there wasn’t anything left in the relationship to pursue so it just made sense to be on our own again. There’s certain benefits you get from being on a label, and there’s certain things that they can buy for you access-wise. Most of those bands that you see on the late night circuits – that’s paid advertising. It’s not just booking what’s popular, you know? You are booked by a label that has long-standing accounts with media outlets. Those things don’t present themselves as easily when you’re independent, so you really have to look for different measures of success.

Now for this re-release, what was the most difficult thing about the project?

For us, it was getting it right and making sure people were able to listen to the re-recorded album with open arms. We wanted them to be able to embrace it and not have it feel unfamiliar. That was a challenge of pulling up ten year old tracks in a different studio with different gears and trying to emulate that. It took some detective work and Terry did a great job of trying to match the tone of everything.

What’s improved upon is just the playability and the more organic feeling of a band playing these songs, which some of Indian Summer didn’t have. A lot of that stuff was so new that we were kind of constructing it and layering it as we went, because we didn’t know where it was going to go. We had the benefit of knowing the songs, and that was the easy part. The hard part was making sure we got the nuances right. Your ear hears all kinds of little hooks in a song that are not the big-picture hooks. In the songs themselves, there are little pieces in a performance that your ear loves to hear that you don’t really notice until it’s gone, so we really tried to get as much of that subtle, sonic stuff in there to make sure that people didn’t miss it.

This was your second time using the crowdsourcing platform PledgeMusic. Do you see yourself using them again in the future?

I don’t really know. We’ve done the two projects and have had some good success with it. We’re open to trying some different things and that’s really going to depend on what the next project is and how we want to offer it to the fans. It’s worked out pretty well so far. There are a few things that I would change, but nothing major. I don’t really have a good answer for it yet, but it seems to work well.

Now, the ethics of some portions of crowd-sourcing can definitely be a hot topic, especially in the case of Amanda Palmer and Zach Braff. Where you guys hesitant at all in crowd sourcing these projects?

We talked about all that and our philosophy and asked the question, “What are we really doing here – are we asking for donations?” The fact is that everything we’re offering takes time, effort, production, and costs, but everything that we’re offering are either experiential or they are products that you get. Essentially, it’s more of a pre-sale along with a list of offers that are tied to the project that people can either choose or decline. You want a hand-framed set of lyrics? We’ll take the time to do that and frame it up nicely and we’ll spend some decent money to make it look nice. You want a house concert? We’ll do that and it’ll be great. Or maybe you just want the music, and you can get that.

There wasn’t anything in our offers that was saying “hey, give us a bunch of money and we’re going to put it toward this or that.” We actually never said anything about where the money is going because it’s not a fundraiser behind releasing the record. We’re making this record, this is what we have to offer, and you can choose as you’re interested. Some of that is going to go to promoting the record directly and some of it’s going to go to managing the business just like any type of record sales would normally. I guess it’s all of a matter of what you’re telling the audience what it’s going to be for, but you don’t necessarily need to make that part of the campaign. You don’t have to say “we’re raising money to take this album to radio and that’s going to cost $100,000” and then end up not doing it. We never implied that was what we were going to do, and for that very reason: we didn’t want to convey one thing and then not deliver it.

You guys are doing your annual Christmas show at The National this Saturday and I think it’s your fourth year in a row doing it. Did you guys always aim to make this a yearly tradition?

We kind of just fell into the time slot really. Basically, we want to play Richmond twice a year with an outdoor show and an indoor show. Well, the outdoor show is going to be spring or summer and the indoor show is going to follow six months later, which puts you right at the holidays. In the past, we’ve experimented with all types of things. We’ve done Halloween shows in October, a couple of New Year’s shows, etc. The past few years, we’ve fell into the December schedule because it’s when we’re back from the West Coast, and hitting the East Coast in November and December just fell into place. With that said, we do try to come up with something that’s festive and can hopefully be something a fan look forward to in their mind. It’s got a homecoming feel to it as well. Visually, it’s fun and lighthearted. I don’t know though – sometimes I think we should alternate and not do it in December each year.

You guys always seem to make it a really creative and unique concert, like with playing “Jingle Bells” on a bunch of iPhones or having Jon Markel unveil his Christmas classic, “Carter’s Christmas Beard.” Do you have any surprises this year?

Not tons. We’ve got a few little things that we’ve added into it or have planned, but we haven’t fully figured out what we’re going to do. It’s tough because at the same time of this Christmas show, we’re coming out with new material and there’s a lot of material you want to get too from the latest release, so it can’t be a full Christmas show. I think that’d be kind of boring too. We’re not going to go overboard with it, but there’s definitely a lot of stuff for it, like the stage lights coming from Christmas trees. Really, it’s just about making it a good rock show in December and we’ll throw in a few nuggets that are different, but at the same time, we won’t flog a horse with the same thing each year.

Random topic, but I recently talked with Eric Hutchinson and he had nothing but positive things to say about you guys. I know Delta Rae has said the same and more in the past. Do you guys try and be supportive or take a mentoring role to young artists opening for you?

Talent is talent, so you want to play with musicians regardless of their age or where they are in their career. Hopefully it works out well and you can get some good shows together, but people have different paths and they move in different directions. I don’t know if we’ve mentored people, but we try to be good, friendly guys and be a positive influence for people just starting out who are learning the ropes. You get a band like Delta Rae that gets some good early success like getting on a good label that’s pushing them hard, spending money, and putting them on those aforementioned media pipelines, and that’s obviously more than we could ever supply. Our philosophy is pretty simple: be very accommodating to any band that shares the stage with us, and hopefully that gets reciprocated in time.

All right, big question – what’s left for Carbon Leaf?

Well, that’s a big question and again, I don’t know. The last four or five years, we’ve been focused on getting out of relationships that weren’t proactively helping the band go forward. With that, there was a lot of taking over the reins, bailing yourself out of a bad spot, plugging the holes that are leaking, and trying to make sure that you’re protected. That’s a process that takes a little while once you’ve been in a system where there’s managers, labels, and sunset clauses involved and your money is tied up in these different and weird places. You’ve got to untie it all and right your ship. That’s what we’ve been focused on.

With the fans, we’ve just simplified things again. We’re an independent band and I think there’s a lot of reality of labels and what-not wanting nothing but very young artists that they can exploit for a long time–and I don’t mean that in a negative way. A band like ours that’s been around for twenty-one years isn’t necessarily what those types of companies are looking to align with, so the success we have, we’ll have to go about it another way. I’m not sure what that looks like. We can continue releasing albums for our fans and we can continue to look for opportunities to license music in meaningful ways. Am I in a hurry to work a single into radio? I’m really not. I’m going to take some time this year and think about that question a lot and hopefully, I’ll come up with a good answer.


Carbon Leaf will perform Saturday, December 13 at The National with Chamomile and Whiskey. Doors open at 7 PM. Tickets are $16 in advance, $20 day of show, and can be ordered here.

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.

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