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Photo by Joshua Touster
Making an album is nothing like a live performance, so testifies the sultry-voiced and multifaceted lead woman Grace Potter. Despite a penchant to really lay it all out on the stage, when making The Lion The Beast The Beat—the fourth studio release from her band the Nocturnals—things didn’t exactly gel right off-the-cuff in the studio.
The Burlington, Vermont, musicians had been touring hardcore for years, writing from the road, and as they stepped into Jim Scott’s PLYRZ studio in Valencia, California, the writing was far from done. After two months, Potter says she wasn’t sold on the direction the album was taking, and she had more work to do. So she sent everyone home, got into her car, and went on a journey to find inspiration.
But Ms. Potter isn’t the only Nocturnal who’s been on a quest for unique musical voice. While frustrated with being pigeonholed as blues-rock players like idol Duane Allman, guitarists (and sometimes switch-off bassists) Scott Tournet and Benny Yurco have developed as players into something Tournet calls a “serious bromance.” They’ve forged a double-guitar attack driven by a love for sonic exploration and a self-described obsession with all things pedalesque.
With the addition of bassist and multi-instrumentalist Michael Libramento on hand (former bassist Catherine Popper left the group last year) for the new album, Potter encouraged this dementia. The liner notes include zany asides for sounds credited as “airplane landing,” “Kubrick noise,” and “space noises,” some of which were inspired by Potter’s enthusiasm for watching Stanley Kubrick films. “I wanted to incorporate some of those evil elements on the album,” she says, “so I sat Scott and Benny down and said, ‘Make the weirdest noises you know how to make. I don’t know where they need to come from, but just find a way to make your guitars do evil things.’”
They needed little prompting. After all, this is what Tournet and Yurco live for. Tournet’s pedalboard has gotten so out of control (“It’s the Moby Dick of pedalboards,” Potter says with a laugh) he admits “it’s embarrassing,” and Yurco’s spiraling out-of-control devotion to the color seafoam green (which began with a Jazzmaster) now extends to the bedroom: it’s the color he chose for the sheets on his bus bunk.
Here Potter and the Nocturnal guitarists explain their 6-string journey as a band, the instrumental loves of their lives, and the power of restraint.
Photo by Joshua Touster
The Lion The Beast The Beat studio sessions were originally delayed. What happened?
Potter: It just sounded too much like we were searching for a hit, and that’s not the kind of record I wanted to make. We’re not really a hit song kind of band—we’re more like this slow-burn, album by album band that plays music that makes us happy, because when you make a record you have to play those songs over and over again. I just wanted to make sure every song mattered so I kind of started from scratch in the fall [of 2011], when I wrote “Stars” and the beginning to “The Lion The Beast The Beat.” I had the structure of a couple of other songs that turned into “Parachute Heart” and “One Heart Missing.” A lot of the songs were slowly changing.
We kind of reinvented the whole thing about halfway through … There was a lot more creation in the midst of recording than there ever has been before, which is a very nerve-racking way to make a record.
Yurco: We were doing a lot of stuff as a four-piece, we didn’t have a bass player so Scotty and I were switching back and forth from who was playing bass and we were kind of losing the double-guitar attack we are known for. I’m glad that Grace did what she did, because it gave us a chance to look at the big picture. Next thing we know, we have Michael Libramento from my favorite band, Floating Action, recruited to come in and do some multi-instrumentalist work. It was actually a blessing in disguise.
It does have a turning point, coming-of-age feel. What are you most proud about this album?
Tournet: We took some chances and didn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator, which can be easy to do sometimes. It was somewhat risky to do, instead of doing an overtly commercially appealing album. We’ve gotten a bit weirder. Sonically it’s different—we didn’t rest on the same shit. We messed around on some keyboards to avoid falling into some cliché typical guitar stuff. We were trying to push the envelope a little bit, because in the past people said we sound like the Allman Brothers, and we’re like, “We don’t want to do that.” We love the Allman Brothers and I grew up with that, but we don’t really want to be blues-rock guys. We want to do stuff that pertains to now.
Does everyone write their own parts or do you all write together?
Potter: A lot of the songs are just jamming. We sit down and I show them the basic structure of the song and they just go with it and they have so many great ideas. The two of them together [Tournet and Yurco] and individually are a creative force in and of themselves. They actually were in a band called Blues and Lasers together, without me, for years. They also split off and did their own solo records this winter. So they’ve got unbelievable individual talent that I love tapping into, especially if I’ve hit a wall or if I’m just not finding the inspiration I’m looking for. They come up with pieces and sounds that one human brain just isn’t capable of coming up with. It’s a really great way to open up a song and say: “I’ve done everything I can for this song, now it’s time for you to help me out.”
Tournet: Benny and I write songs and we understand compositions. Grace will write a melody and that’s what it’s supposed to be. Sometimes it’s cool when she comes up with a part that we wouldn’t normally think of. I ponder big philosophical changes in the sound and [Yurco] makes it happen. “Parachute Heart” was my main contribution, and then as a band, with Dan Auerbach, we crafted a few songs as well.
Photo by Joshua Touster
How do you divvy up the guitar parts as a band?
Tournet: We’ve been playing for a long-ass time. Michael can play everything, and Benny and I can fake it on every other instrument. I think that helped the music in a way. Just as a guitar player, when you think, “How can I stand out and make my statement as a musician through the guitar?,” sometimes you can smother the music trying to fit your own ego in there. Especially with two guitar players, you have to think, “What does the music mean?”
Benny, you’re the relative newcomer to GPN, but you’ve been playing in bands for years. Was it hard to be the new guy?
Yurco: No, not at all actually. I knew who they were, I’m from Burlington and I was really familiar with what was expected and I got excited to get in there and play and not overstep my boundaries and be in the mix with the band.
So what does Michael Libramento bring to the big picture?
Yurco: Since I was playing bass and guitar, it’s freed up a lot of things and given us more musical possibilities. It frees up Grace to do the frontwoman thing and it gives her stability.
Grace, you’re an accomplished musician on multiple instruments as well, but when did you first pick up a guitar?
Potter: I started playing guitar when I was about 20. I took two guitar lessons while I was in college and I bought this weird Canadian acoustic called a Garrison for like $200 at the local music shop in Canton, New York. I tried and tried and I put it down after a while. I was like, “I can only play three chords.”
As the band grew and Matty [Burr, GPN drummer] and Scott came into my world and we started making music together, and the songs started coming out, these were all songs that I was writing on the keyboard. About the time we were making the second record I wanted to write songs that were more limited. I thought what if I picked that guitar back up, and try again, but use the limitations of my skill on the guitar to my advantage. Because they always say in country music: it’s three chords and the truth. And so I thought, “OK, well maybe that’s what I need. Maybe what I need is just three chords and I’ll write better songs.” I’m limited in that way. So I sat back down with the guitar and began writing.
Photo by Joshua Touster
You’ve described yourself more as a rhythm player. What are some of the differences between playing your Hammond B3 and playing your Flying V?
Potter: Both instruments are very muscular in the way that I play them. I’m just a muscular musician, I don’t like “tinkle-ing” around. It just doesn’t fit my personality, it doesn’t fit the sound of my music, and it certainly doesn’t make me feel the power of a song as much as when I’m really letting ‘er rip.
When I was learning how to play guitar, I wanted to be able to make noises that I couldn’t make on the keyboard. So I did differentiate my styles a bit where you can be rhythmic and chunky on a keyboard, but there are certain messages you can’t convey on a keyboard the same way as when you’re playing rhythm and just ripping it up. There are moments on in the studio or when we’re out onstage, where I’ll try it on both instruments and I’ll say, “Let’s try this one on guitar, no I’m gonna go back to the keys, no back to the guitar.” I’ll kind of waver in my preferences because you know both are good in their own way, but very different instruments. But certainly the common thread is that I need a grinding, thrusting, powerful noise behind me before I can even sing the first note.
Who is playing the delayed riffs near the three-minute mark on the track “Never Go Back?”
Tournet: I did those using one slide and one regular guitar. Both of them are using delays, but in a way that’s become kind of my thing. I like to use a Line 6 M9 delay but it has an expression pedal where you’re basically controlling how much feedback of the delay happens. When you turn up a regular delay pedal, it repeats itself a certain amount of times. The pedal I connect to it is basically like a volume pedal, just an expression pedal that controls how long the feedback will go on for. I have it set up so that if you push it down it’ll just go and go and build on itself and go crazy. If you pull the pedal back, I have it set so it goes to, like, nothing.