A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of talking with Raj, singer and cofounder of a really great rock band, The Sunpilots. As they had just wrapped up a long tour in January, he was back home in Australia, so we made arrangements to meet through Skype.
Starting out with a bit of history, I’d read through the bio on their site and saw they had been semifinalists in an international songwriting competition for their song “Metric System”, which appears on their debut album Living Receiver.
Me: I saw that you were a runner-up in an international songwriting competition. The two things that were most notable to me about this, as a fan, was that it’s an international, which sounds like there is probably a huge number of entrants competing. The second thing was that Robert Smith, of The Cure, was one of the judges. Sure, there’s no way to know for sure if he actually listened to or voted for your song, but as I’m a huge fan of both of your bands, I like to think he did.
Having said all that, first, congratulations on the award. Obviously I’m a few years behind, but as a recent fan, I think this is a well deserved award. Next, with receiving honorable mention in the competition, and being a new band, did this change how you go about writing songs at all, or did it more solidify that you were on the right path and to just keep doing what you were doing.
Raj: It’s always nice to get positive feedback. At that point, too, we were not 100% sure how people were going to receive the album. It was our first very serious musical project. We (Raj and the other members of the band) had been in other bands, but it wasn’t until The Sunpilots where we decided that we really wanted to make a serious go at it. We’ve always wanted to make the music that we wanted and then figure out where it fits. As opposed to a lot of other bands which determine where they want to fit, then write the music for that, which limits their creativity. While it is fine, and it can be entertaining, it lacks passion.
Even though we didn’t write for any particular group of people, compared to our latest album, King of the Sugarcoated Tongues, our first album was quite conservative. When you come into a new band, you have a collection of old songs or bits of old songs floating around that you turn into songs with the new band. Whereas the second album, we had gotten to know each other, and each other’s capabilities a lot more. We were able to pull upon each other’s strengths to write a great album. The songs that Bob (Spencer, guitar) and I wrote together have a whole other level of complexity.
Me: I can see that. While I’m not a musician, surrounding myself with creative people helps inspire my art, as well as gives me ideas I don’t know that I would have had on my own. It sounds like it’s the same with creating music in a band. Going along with that, what is the creative process like for you? Do you have an idea for a story you want to tell, write the lyrics, and then come up with music that fits the words, or do you have a tune in your head that you flesh out, and then write the lyrics to go with the music?
Raj: It really depends. It has happened both ways. Sometimes, I’ll have a melody in my head, and once it has started to take shape, I’ll write out the lyrics to go with the song, then Bob will add guitar to go along with the song. Other times, one of the other band members will have an idea that will inspire a melody in me, and then the lyrics will come after we’ve formed and shaped the song. We usually work on multiple songs at once. I’ve found doing this, the songs kind of cross pollinate and work off of each other. Either way, though, the song has to have feeling and emotion.
And feeling and emotion, they do have. Check out a writeup I did previously after seeing them perform live at Freebird Live in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. There’s also a link to their Youtube channel where they have videos from various live performances, including when they played a festival at the legendary Woodstock.
Raj: We have a lot of strong ideas and views about social issues that could be fixed if people just cared and/or tried more. If you inspire someone, the pay it forward concept could take place, and that’s great.
A lot of people just simply don’t know about a lot of social issues that are out there. The media and social media are biased and 1 sided. So if there is something we feel strongly about, the first thing we do is to try and inform other people of the issue. One thing a lot of people have easy access to is music and entertainment and one thing we, as musicians, have is a microphone. I always say to people, if you have a microphone, you are able to reach people. We can get information out there. The bigger our audience, the bigger the chance that we can help make a change.
There’s a lot of music I can’t stand. It’s playing to the lowest common denominator. Like that new song “Shake It Off”. It’s meaningless. Sure, it might be catchy, but it doesn’t say anything. Whatever it is your singing, make it say something. Make a difference.
For example, I heard Nickleback’s latest song the other day “Edge of a Revolution”. I didn’t…it’s not my favorite song…I think they were talking about a lot of the propaganda that governments are spinning. It’s quite interesting for a band like Nickleback to write a song like that.
Some of the comments on Youtube are interesting. To the 4 people in our band, it’s obvious what the band is talking about. But a lot of the young people are talking about this for the first time because this is their first exposure to it. They grow up only listening to and watching things that either their close friends or families are listening to and watching. They may grow up thinking that everyone watches and agrees with Fox News. They may not know there are atrocities going on in the world.
Me: Since you brought it up, I’ll check it out. I’m not a fan of Nickleback, so I wouldn’t have known anything about it had you not told me about it. Speaking of favorite and disliked bands, what are some of your favorites?
Raj: There are 3 or 4 bands that I always go back to. I really enjoy classic 70’s rock, but some more recent bands are Radiohead and Pearl Jam.
Me: Really? I was just talking to my friend Taylor about Radiohead. It’s one of her favorite bands. We were discussing favorite albums, and she said her least favorite was Pablo Honey, which surprised me, because that is my favorite album from them. Granted, they’ve put out plenty of albums I haven’t heard, but their second left such a bad taste in my mouth, that I kind of lost interest and decided that Pablo Honey was going to be my only Radiohead album. Favorite Radiohead album hail to the theif and in rainbows.
Raj: It’s so great and mysterious about how people can have so much in common, but then have different tastes. My favorite albums of theirs would probably be Hail To The Thief and In Rainbows.
Me: Switching gears a bit, you just wrapped up a four year tour. How did that start and what was it like?
Raj: With everything so far apart in Australia, and with such few towns, you run out of places to tour really quickly. Between 2007 and 2010, we were spending every moment away from our jobs playing shows and working on the band. We did five national tours in that time. It worked out really well that we each have a European passport, so we decided to go to Europe, specifically Berlin, I love the place. I’ve been there before. We have a lot of friends that were there and said it was great. We shared an apartment for about one and a half years to help save money. After we had enough money saved up to last about 12 months, we decided to go over to Berlin and play our asses off and see if we can make enough to keep going. At the end of 2011, we were making enough for food and gas, but not rent. So we had to decide what to do. We made a pact to give up the apt and to live on the road full time. We tour 7-8 months a year and stay with friends and fans. Then for the remainder of the year, we go to Berlin, where the street music scene is enough for us to stay in a really cheap apartment.
It’s difficult what we do. Our typical day is you wake up, hit the road an hour later, then drive 6-8 hours, get to the gig, usually late, you’ve been stuck in the van all day and been eating crappy food, you’re stressed and running late, but have to do load in and do sound checks. It takes a lot of time to set everything up, including the merch table, hopefully eat a meal, then play the show, hang out with fans, then get home around 3am.
Even in the car, you’re online contacting bands about promotions, and backlines, and then working on promoting/thinking about other shows and the next tour. It’s an endless stream. It’s easy to get fried. And to top if off, you’re ALWAYS with the same people, often within the same 10 feet of each other. We do have fights, we blow up on each other, then 5 minutes later you get over it. You have to. It doesn’t do anyone any good to stay mad. Especially in such close quarters.
I don’t know if it’s the most healthy way to do it, but it’s the best for what we’re doing right now.
Me: Yeah, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in such close proximity to the same group of people for such an extended period of time. Especially when you don’t really ever get the chance to take a day for yourself and just have some alone time to decompress.
At this point, what would be your idea of “making it”?
Raj: The last 3-4 years have been really stressful. We love what we’re doing and want to keep doing. Our goal would be to play for a few hundred people at every show. With that, we could get a cheap apt for each band member, and then maybe even get a hotel room every few nights on tour. Having a little bit of privacy would do wonders for us.
We’ve come from nothing. We’ve played rooms where it was literally the bartender, the sound guy, and his dog. Having a room with a few 100 people would be like a larger band playing to 1000s of people.
Me: Thank you, Raj. I really appreciate you taking the time to meet with me and I look forward to seeing you on the next tour and hearing the new album you guys are working on.