So I recently spoke with the Valery Trails’ lead vocalist and songwriter Andrew Bower. In this Q&A we talk about how the band writes and records material with two members of the band being in Bower’s native Australia, the DIY approach the band took for their latest EP, Feline, and much more.
WRH: How did you get into music?
AB: I started off at a young age by exploring my parents’ record collection (which was heavy on 60s folk and country music), then graduated to AM radio (falling asleep with a transistor radio under the pillow). I was always a little more into music than the average kid, with a bit of a tendency towards music snobbery – my first album purchase was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was a little too young for punk, but new-wave and post-punk captured my imagination when I was in high school and that was the music that inspired me to actually pick up a guitar and figure out how to make some somewhat tuneful noises out of it.
WRH: How did the band form?
AB: My brother Sean (VTrails’ bass player) and I were in a jangly guitar-pop band in Brisbane, Australia in the 90s, and as that band was winding down we started working on some material that was moving in a more experimental, noise-pop kind of direction. Our intention was to find a drummer and start a new project called The Valery Trails (we had filed the name away for future use after seeing it on a roadside sign a few years before). We got as far as getting some tracks down in my home studio on an 8-track recorder, but things were put on hold when I took a temporary job in Papua New Guinea. That three-month assignment turned into a full-time job which put The Valery Trails on hold until recently when we decided that after fifteen years, maybe I wasn’t going to move back to Brisbane, so we should try and figure out how to progress the project despite the geographical challenges.
AB: Always hard to sum up from the inside, but my soundbite is – atmospheric guitar-based indie rock.
WRH: How did you end up in Houston? And did you have a sense of culture shock once you were in the States?
AB: I work for a big evil multinational energy company, which has moved me to a few different places in the world before bringing me to Houston, which is pretty much an inevitability if you work in the industry long enough. I first came to the US in 1995, buying a car in San Francisco and basically circumnavigating the country in an epic 4-month road trip, and I came here fairly regularly after that before moving to California in 2005, so I’m pretty acclimated by now. Coming to the US from Australia, I didn’t experience the classic culture shock from unfamiliarity. I grew up watching American TV and movies, so arriving in the US the overwhelming sense was a kind of strange familiarity, like being in a TV show. I remember arriving in NYC and my first thought being that it looks just like Sesame Street.
WRH: Part of the band is based in your native Australia, while you’re currently based in Houston, TX. How does the songwriting process work with such a great distance between you and the rest of your bandmates? And how does the recording process work? In the case of the actual recording, do you go back to Australia at all?
AB: I start the songs in my home studio, and once they get to a point where they are at least somewhat fully formed I send them off to Sean and Dan to soak on until we can get together and work on them. For Ghosts and Gravity, I traveled back to Australia and we spent a couple of evenings in a rehearsal studio playing through the songs to work on ideas for bass and drums and to get a sense for what the songs would sound like if we were to perform them live. This helped enormously when we went into a studio a couple of days after that to spend a couple of days laying down bass and drum tracks, followed by a day of guitar overdubs and percussion. I recorded vocals and a few more overdubs back in Houston, then we sent everything off to New Zealand to be mixed and mastered. I think that for albums (as outdated as the concept of an album-length unified piece of work may be) we’ll always want to get together for core recording sessions. We might experiment with doing things totally remotely for a one-off song or two to see how that works, but being in the studio with the other guys is so much fun that I want to do that wherever possible, and I think that will get the best results.
WRH: Earlier this year, the band released their debut effort, Ghosts and Gravity which was well-received critically, and you followed that up with the Feline EP. How do these albums differ? I understand that the new effort is self-released and that the band has taken full control of the publicity function (whereas the debut effort had a PR firm behind the publicity function). What brought that about? What do you think the advantages of doing it completely on your own are? What are the disadvantages?
AB: The Feline EP came about as I was writing for the next album. A few songs emerged that didn’t seem like they would suit the full band treatment, so we decided to get them out as a digital only release – the advantage of the internet and digital recording is that you can get a release out very quickly and easily. Of course, the disadvantage is that everyone else can do the same thing, so getting noticed amongst all the noise. That’s where it makes sense to use a PR firm if the budget allows, although I think it’s very important to find on that’s a good fit for the type of music you make and your business model – we use a firm that specializes in guitar-based indie music, and works with DIY artists. They are also selective in who they take on and they have previously worked with Sean’s other musical project (Grand Atlantic), so we knew they were going to do a good job. We’ll definitely go that route again for the next album, but the Feline EP was more of an interim project to get out there mainly for people who already know (and hopefully love) us, so we went with the DIY approach. The advantage of a DIY approach is obviously in the money saved, but if you choose the right professional help I don’t know if there really are any other advantages to the DIY approach, unless you already have an extensive network you can tap into directly and the personal approach is the way to go. Maybe there is a concern about keeping control of your message and “brand”, but if you work with the right people and stay engaged with the process this is very manageable.
WRH: With the band being located so far across the globe, it makes touring difficult, if not exorbitantly expensive and seemingly impossible. And of course, these days touring winds up being an important part of promoting projects – you release a record and you support it with a tour, even if it means that you have 4 guys (or girls) driving in a van across North America. How does the band promote their work without touring?
AB: As well as the PR services, we also did a little bit of promotion to specialty radio – it was cool getting a spin on KROQ, but the more helpful impact has probably been from internet radio, which has been very supportive. I also did a DIY college radio campaign (lots of addressing envelopes and trips to the post office) and managed to get airplay on more than a dozen college stations, including some pretty major ones. We’re also working the internet pretty hard, although there is the issue I mentioned previously – you’re a voice in a million. As a non-touring act I think you have to adapt the old mentality of playing to people and winning fans one person at a time, it’s about getting your music to one person at a time who will appreciate it. We’re also pursuing whatever opportunities we can to place music in film and television, with a small degree of success so far – a couple of songs placed on a very cool NPR series called Roadtrip Nation. We don’t have any lofty goals for world domination, basically the reason for doing any promotion at all is because we made an album that we’re quite proud of, and we want people to hear it, so we’re pretty happy with the way things have turned so far, it gives us a base to build on for the next album.
WRH: What advice would you give to an indie band/artist trying to make it?
AB: I’m definitely the wrong person to advise on “making it” in any kind of business sense. I had the opportunity to hang out at SXSW last year with a hero of mine from the Aussie guitar-pop underground, and we were chatting about life choices. He said to me “you did the right thing, you got a real job”. I think the key thing is to make the music you want to make, because the only reward you can really rely on is the satisfaction of recording a song and the end result sounding just like you wanted it to (or even better), or playing live to an appreciative audience (I haven’t done that for quite a while, but I remember it was pretty cool). Maybe there are some genres left where there are concessions to commerciality that you can make to improve your chance of success, but as far as I can see, indie rock isn’t one of them (especially when guitars are involved).