TAP Interview: The Drowning Men’s James Smith (Playing Mercury Lounge in NYC 10/27)

Five piece, California, indie-rock band, The Drowning Men are setting out on a US headline tour during the months of October and November. Our writer Cassandra Paiva caught up with guitarist James Smith right at the beginning of the tour. Read as they talk about touring, technique, and transvestites.
Fun fact: James and Cassandra unknowingly grew up literally a few miles away from each other. He recognized her area code and asked about it, to find out she lives in the next town over from where he grew up in Massachusetts.

So, how are you?

Good. I just woke up, yea, it was a late night. It was good, so it’s ok. There’s actually not a whole lot of service here, so I’m calling you from a landline. I think the squirrels have something to do with it. (laughs)

Have you guys left for the tour yet?

Yea, we just left for a month tour. We played in Pomona last night, it was pretty fun, a little warm up show. And then we meet up with Bad Books in Seattle in a couple days. Yea we’ve started off with a bang. We stayed at our friend Mark’s house in Riverside, California last night, and at one point I was like, “Wow, there’s no girls here..” and immediately a bunch of transvestites walked into the house, and it was perfect. I was like, “Wow.. I asked for it.”

…Not the kind of girls I asked for but… That’s really funny.

Yea, it was, trust me, you should have been here. It was hilarious.

(laughs) Alright, so you guys have been a band since 2006, but you’re just starting to gain exposure now, give me a little bit of background about yourselves.

Todd, Rory, and Nato all grew up in Oceanside, California, just playing in punk bands mostly together and in the same circle of bands since they were kids really. Right around that time, right around 2006 we had just started playing music, kind of casually but often and didn’t really set out to do anything in particular, and we never really stopped. And then we picked up Gabe at the beginning of 2011 and he came in right when we were really going for it, when we were touring all the time, trying to treat this like our jobs. There were a few years in there when we were kind of just a local band, we were playing music often but we weren’t setting up to tour all the time and get it out there on a national level. And for the past couple years we have been and it’s been a wild ride.

What made you guys decide that you wanted to be a national band? What set that spark?

We had the opportunities. Our friends Flogging Molly asked us to go on their Green 17 Tour and it’s like their biggest national tour of the year. We had played one show before that of that size and then we played 30 in a row on a big tour across the states, and that kind of set it off, and then everything kind of snowballed from there, with getting other tours with Alkaline Trio and Airborne Toxic Event, and doing our own headlining tours after that.

Since you’ve toured with Flogging Molly, and Airborne Toxic Event, and Alkaline Trio, and River City Extension, what are some pieces of advice that each band’s given you?

Flogging Molly did a lot. The band mates helped us out a lot, they kind of, they knew our situation, and they believed in what we did pretty quickly. They just wanted to help us. We weren’t used to, it’s kind of a different show when you play in front of 3,000 people instead of 100, and we didn’t have a whole lot of experience with that, so the band kind of took us under their wing. And also their stage manager Badger, everybody calls him, really, really took us under his wing and he likes telling people what to do, so it was a natural fit, because we kind of needed to be told what to do I guess. They probably more than any other band, gave us a ton of advice, and I don’t even know where to begin with all of it. Just more of how to play in front of that size of a crowd and how to command that room when you’re opening up, when 3,000 people aren’t there to see you, you’ve got to try to figure out a way to win them over, you know?

Yea.. What are some crazy, fun tour memories?

Remember when I told you about the transvestites last night..? That’s a pretty good start! I know you’re taping this so “refer to 5 minutes ago.” (laughs). Umm, well we all like to drink, so when you like to drink, you make really bad decisions sometimes, and sometimes it’s hilarious.

It’s just like, really more than the craziness and any of that, it’s great to just get out there with your best friends and do what you love to do most. That sounds cliché and everything, but that’s what we’re out here to do. We’re not out here to meet chicks or party. Partying happens, but we’re on the road to do our job and do what we love, and hang out with the people we love. Creating that bond and being able to solidify that bond with your band of brothers. I’m sure when I look back when I’m old and gray, if I make it that old, that’ll be the best memories to have. I sound like a god damn Hallmark card, but that’s just how I feel right now.

Where’s one place where you’d like to tour to?

We actually haven’t been to Europe yet, and I’ve never even personally been to Europe yet, so that’s an easy one. Hopefully the end of winter, we’ll be out there. We’ve had opportunities but it’s always conflicted with other things. And we still haven’t gotten out there and it’s definitely an easy one, that’s where I, and really collectively we’d all like to go next. We’ve really beat the shit out of the states. We’ve done, I don’t even know, in the past few years, we’ve probably done the states almost 10 times or something. It’s time to make the trip over the pond.

What state was your favorite to spend some time in?

That’s a loaded question. I love it up in Portland, Oregon. We’ve had some good shows there. I’m really looking forward to going to Boston, I grew up in the area, but also, I feel like it’s going to be a fun show when we’re there. Pittsburgh was a surprise, I didn’t know it was such a fun place to be and play music. A lot of those smaller market, little towns are not surprises anymore, because you kind of know, those are the places people are like, “Thank you for coming to our little town.” I mean, like the Boises and the Flagstaffs, those kind of places where people really appreciate the fact that you came and drove through and played some music for them. We’ve been all over the place, and we’ve been all over the place for a reason. There is no town that it’s like, “Oh my God, I can’t wait” it’s really anywhere. You go to places like Detroit that are just having a rough time right now, and you drive through and you’re like, “Oh man, this place, it’s pretty rough here” and then you just meet the best people you’ve met in your life. You never know, you just show up and you play, and you can’t have a bad attitude because your expectations will always be wrong.

What are you thinking of before you go on stage, like along that line of showing up ready to play?

Yea, I definitely don’t get there ready to play. We’re an extremely punctual band. I know it’s not like rock and roll or anything, but we’re always on time and I kind of like to be able to get there, and get my bearings, and get my wits about me. Before we go on stage we usually warm up a little bit, and try to yell a little bit so you don’t go on stage with your voice all cold. So warm up and have a couple drinks to loosen up and try not to get too sloppy. There’s definitely a routine and there’s definitely that moment right before where we just kind of freak out a little bit sometimes. Yea, you just get up there with all the adrenaline and try to put on a good show and keep it together.

Now, I know Nato can play somewhere around 14 different instruments, do you play different instruments or do you just stick to the one?

I really just play guitar. I mean I’ll play other things. Gabe our keyboardist is actually a really good guitar player. Nato is really the multi-instrumentalist in the band. He’s one of those assholes who’ll just pick up anything in a week. I pretty much play guitar, I’ve been playing it most of my life and I still suck (laughs).. no.

So what do you like better then, being live on stage or being in the studio recording?

I think neither. I probably like getting together with the group and experimenting and writing or just jamming out more than anything. Being in the studio and being on the stage are two totally different things. Probably what I like most is just getting together with the boys and just jamming.

Do you write any lyrics, or is that just up to Nato?

It’s Nato, yea. I might give him a little input and he’ll be like, “That’s a horrible idea,” you know. But, Nato writes all the lyrics. And all the songs start with Nato, and then we’ll fuck them up a little bit. Oh that’s a pretty song, we’ll just make a big mess out of that for you. So we all have our input after the skeleton of the song is started. But the last record, from what he started with and what the finished product was, was really a big difference than how it started as opposed to the last record. They really went through some comprehensive changes and some songs completely took on like 3 different forms before they became.. like the song “Smile” on our new record, we didn’t exactly know how to play that song, and we played it a few different ways, it was a few different songs before it became that song. This last record we really, we tried to take whatever idea we had and make it the best song we could. Not that we never did that before, but we really kind of worked it out more.

Was that a result of working with a producer for the first time?

Yea, a little bit. And being signed for the first time, and knowing that we had the means to spend a little more time on the stuff. But yea, working with a producer was definitely a big factor in that. Billy [Mohler] was great, he’s such a great guy to work with, just positive, thinks really quick musically, and communicates so well musically and otherwise. Working with him was just a pure pleasure, and working with other musicians sometimes isn’t. Sometimes you’re like, “play that part,” you don’t know how to really communicate sometimes, and he was just really good at it. He kind of brought us together, does what a good producer does, and comes up with good, quick ideas. A lot of the ideas he had were just really simple, just like “don’t play on this part” or “back off a little bit,” because a lot of our music is just really, everybody all at once is in, and it’s really just like this wall of melody and sound and noise. On this record we backed off a little bit at parts, kind of like the song “Breathe.”

Now that you have the two albums out, looking back, what would you have done differently on the first?

You know what, I like the way Beheading of the Songbird came out, and actually I think it was my idea to record it [that way]. We played those songs going into the studio so much, that I felt like, the way we performed them was the way to capture them. So we recorded most of those songs where we’re clicking on pedals on the fly, we’re not doing a lot in post, and we’re basically tracking the songs like we’d play them live and we wouldn’t section them off and take them piece by piece. And it was my idea to do them that way, and I think that’s why it kind of comes out stunning live and raw. And there was one song that we didn’t do that with, and I actually really like the way it came out, we tracked “More Than This” on Beheading not doing it like we would live, and I really like the way that song came out on the last record. But I mean, once a record’s done, it’s done and I actually really like how that record came out. Paul Jenkins did a great job recording, he didn’t do comprehensive produced production on that record, but he definitely had a hand in it and a lot of great ideas. I really love that record, I still love listening to it, you know, whatever I would change about it, or we would change, we kind of just put that to the next record, we put those thoughts into All of the Unknown and that’s just how you do it, and you don’t really look back.
I’m pleased with both of the records, how they came out, and they were done really very differently.

Ok, going along that line, what’s in store for future albums?

Well now we’re really just touring on All of the Unknown, it’s only been out a couple months and Nato’s writing all the time. We’ve already heard some of the new things he’s been working on, and messed around with them a little bit. We’re not focusing on new stuff right now, but I can tell you the stuff that he’s been coming up with, I’m really excited about already, but we’re really not focusing on recording just yet. We’re trying to just tour for this record and probably come winter we’ll be working on some new stuff and start thinking about a new record.

Pick up The Drowning Men’s All of the Unknown on iTunes, Amazon MP3, CD

Catch The Drowning Men on tour this fall


10/16 New Orleans, LA – The Parish @ HOB

10/17 Birmingham, AL – Zydeco

10/18 Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge

10/19 Atlanta, GA – Masquerade


10/20 Wilmington, NC – The Soapbox

10/21 Norfolk, VA – Jewish Mother Backstage

10/23 Asbury Park, NJ – The Wonder Bar FREE

10/24 Philadelphia, PA – Milkboy (w/ Margot & The Nuclear So & So’s + Gentleman Caller)

10/25 Hamden, CT – The Outer Space

10/26 Cambridge, MA – TT The Bears

10/27 New York, NY – Mercury Lounge (w/ Bronze Radio Return)

10/28 Pittsburgh, PA – Club Cafe

10/30 Chicago, IL – Schubas

11/1 Denver, CO – Lion’s Lair

11/2 Salt Lake City – Kilby Court

11/3 Las Vegas, NV – The Lounge at The Palms FREE

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