The Accidentals – WPTS Interviews
On February 24th, The Accidentals performed at Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale. The next morning, they were kind enough to meet for an interview. I spoke with Katie Larson, Sav Buist, and Michael Dause.
You just started a new tour, called the Jack Pine Tour. What’s the story behind the name?
Sav: It’s kind of a long story. There’s a song I wrote called “Arizona Stars,” which is really coincidental and will come into play later, and there’s a line in that song:
I think that life is like a jack pine
We cycle through the growth and fire
When someone burns us down, we rise up through unlikely ground
And this time we grow even higher
Just a month ago our trailer was stolen as we were passing through Tucson, Arizona. We were trying to get to Phoenix, where we would have a place to stay, and our van’s engine completely died. We had to stop and get it fixed in Tucson and we stayed in a hotel. When we woke up, our trailer was gone. We lost $70,000 worth of equipment, which is already bad enough, and then our insurance company denied it because they sent a renewal policy to the wrong address, where it sat and did not get renewed. That was really rough, but we set up a GoFundMe for $35,000, and our fans raised that money within a week, which is insane. It was amazing to get that kind of outpouring of love. We are treating this like the Jack Pine Tour because it feels like we had one of the biggest hits that a band could ever get to their career, and yet we’re able to keep going. I feel like this is a chance for us to come back even stronger. The songs feel more authentic now because we’ve been writing about overcoming obstacles. You think you’re overcoming obstacles when you start out young in this industry – young and female – trying to make something happen, and then something like this happens and it gets more real. This is definitely a Jack Pine tour for us and it means a lot.
Did you ever think you would have the type of audience that’s able to come together and raise that much money to support you?
Katie: Well, we kind of got into the whole music industry without any expectations. Sav and I met truly accidentally in our public high school orchestra class. Both of us were really introverted, so for a career in the music industry we were like, “We’re just going to see what happens.” Then we started singing together, we started writing songs, and it just took off. We paid a lot of attention to growing our grass roots in the city where we grew up and then our home state. We made friends with all the local musicians, we had great connections with all the local venues and bookstores and breweries, and so we really cut our teeth by making connections and friends. I feel like our base has always been really important to us, and just to have seen it grow and be able to do something this big has been incredible. We’ve been lucky to be growing like this since the beginning.
I’m sure it’s still been very difficult to finish the last tour and then start a new one after all that.
Katie: We didn’t have much of a break.
Sav: Here’s the hilarious part: we woke up, our trailer was gone, we freaked out, we called the tow truck companies to see if they may have mistakenly taken it, we called the cops and filed a police report, and then we just went and drove to Phoenix. We had one mic, an analogue board that sat in the back of the car, and we brought in our instruments the night before to keep them warm, so we had those. Michael lost a drum kit but he had a snare drum. We drove to Phoenix and opened for our hero, Gabriel Kahane, at the Musical Instrument Museum. Michael literally stole a strap off Katie’s cello case and tied it to his snare drum and played it.
Michael: At the Musical Instrument Museum they had a full backline drum kit. They asked if I wanted to use it and I said, “No, the thieves left me a snare drum, I’m going to play a snare drum.”
Sav: It was crazy. Immediately after that we had to completely replace our van’s engine, which cost another ten-grand. We rented a car — none of us are old enough to drive it yet except for our sound engineer — and we packed what little gear we had left plus the five of us into this tiny little car and drove to Los Angeles. We stayed in an apartment there that accommodated two people and all five of us were in it. That was the ultimate test for this band of,
Do we love each other? Do we love what we do?
That definitely proved it, because it was a week of non-stop touring. Even then we went straight to a conference called NAMM, which is a gear convention, and we were telling everyone our sob story to try to replace what was lost.
Katie: After that, we went home and started prepping for a studio session. We finished the tour with the trailer, did a recording session in Portland — three new songs towards the new album, flew home, promoted and hosted an acoustic concert series in Michigan, were home for less than 48 hours, then started Jack Pine.
Sav: In the 48 hours we had, Katie and I ran around town collecting gear to build pedal boards. That’s the one thing we really wish, other than the drum kit, we had grabbed out of the trailer. Pedal boards are not the type of thing you can just pick up at the store, they are custom built and they take years. Instead of taking years, we took 48 hours and ran around town to get enough junk to basically put together new boards and we were able to take them on tour. That was how we spent our time home, and then we hit the road for this tour.
So, you are already insanely busy with your schedule, and then adding this event to it: how do you stay sane?
Michael: When our trailer got stolen, we just went into “go-mode.” It wasn’t like a freak-out thing, because we’ve handled a lot of crazy situations before. For staying sane on the road in general, you have to find your things that you can control within your environment and then keep those going. I always bring a pillow from home because pillows tend to be terrible and I’ll wake up with a broken neck. I know Sav does a journal every day and I’ve started that too, Katie does yoga in the mornings, and we all check in with each other. If anybody has any bad energy in their heads or anything that’s stressing them or putting them down, we share it with the group and let everyone know what your situation is so that everyone can either accommodate you or help you out. Out here we are pretty much just a family and we are all in a very tight space together, so we have to be open and honest with each other.
Sav: I actually go insane if I can’t do a daily work out. For a couple of days, we were at Millennium Music Conference and our schedule was so backwards and we were in such a tight space together that it was really hard to do anything but get back and go to sleep. Finally, at Mr. Smalls Theatre last night I was able to take a shower at the venue, work out for a little bit, eat, and wash my dishes. It was like restarting and I feel so much better. When we come back to the same environment over and over again, we forget what it’s like to have clean dishes and what it’s like to make your own food. That kind of stuff keeps you sane. I’ve been journaling for a long time and we recently just started a Patreon before this all happened, so the whole incident is very much documented. If you pay $10 a month you can read this crazy journal that never gets boring. There is never a week that goes by where nothing exciting happens to this band. It’s a good time to start a blog about it.
With how busy you are and how close you are in proximity, how do you maintain the family aspect and not getting on each other’s nerves?
Katie: It kind of goes into what Michael said. We know each other really well from being on the road full time for almost five years. 2014 was our first summer after I graduated high school, and we hit the road. So, we know each other well, we check in with each other and stay open. Communication is definitely the number one thing. It’s so easy to keep your feelings bottled up or lash out, and the best thing to do is to have clear, open communication. Every tour we bring someone new with us, so this tour we have our awesome tour manager Elle and we have Evan doing our front of house. We sat down and said, “What’s everyone’s roles and how are we going to be an efficient team?” and just totally made the dynamic really steady.
It reflects on your performance in your chemistry on stage. It was definitely cool to see the instrumental medley at the end of the concert. When did you start doing that?
Katie: I think that goes back to when we had four-hour gigs playing background music at bars and wineries.
Sav: That’s actually Medley #2. We have a Medley #1 that’s kind of phasing out, but Medley #2 is like Moon Hooch going into Dave Brubeck into standard fiddle tunes.
Katie: We’ll play around with tunes during sound check and joke around saying, “We should learn this one,” and then we get a kick out of finding ways to seamlessly transition between them. That’s been our thing. Every show we end with one of our various mashups.
Sav: We are working on Medley #3 right now. We are hoping to incorporate some Rush, Vulfpeck, and one other, which I think was another fiddle tune.
Michael: We’ve got a couple mashups that are just two songs that we go back to back on.
Sav: Same key? Might as well.
My favorite thing last night was the story behind “Requiem for a Lark.” Would you mind telling that again?
Katie: Yeah, so when we introduce it we like to plug our local music system because up in Traverse City, Michigan we have a really good orchestra program. Sav and I started playing violin and cello through the school systems. We had musical families but we were really excited about learning in that environment. We had a duo come do a workshop with our class in our school. One day in class we were playing Béla Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances” and I became obsessed with the tune. I decided to write an original song based off the chords and the lyrics are based off the composer, how he made the piece by traveling around Europe and collecting the folk melodies. I was really inspired by that, and we started playing it for years. We just recorded it live with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra in Cleveland, and we had the chance to score out all the parts for the students and work closely with the conductor.
Sav: They were so cool. Actually, we got there and sometimes the environment can feel awkward when you don’t really know each other and you’re just going to start playing music. The first thing we did, I had a bunch of organic chocolate and candy that I picked up from a natural store up in Traverse, so we just started handing out chocolate covered almonds and candied ginger. I actually learned a lot from them because, apparently, there are some foods that are too acidic in content for horn players and they would say, “Sorry we can’t have that” and we would give them the almonds instead. Then we all ate snacks and they taught us how to make paper cranes in the break, and meanwhile we were just playing music between. On the last take, which we were recording, there was a drone hovering above everybody. We could hardly focus because it was so exciting just to have a little drone videotaping the entire orchestra. It was super cool.
So, you are actually working on recording a new album right now. What all can you say about it, or is it mostly under wraps?
Sav: We are, we’ve worked with two of our bucket list producers so far. We’ve worked with John Congleton, who’s gotten a Grammy for St. Vincent’s self-titled record, and he’s worked with the Decemberists recently. He’s also working with Amanda Palmer and Sharon Van Etten. He’s been on our list for a super long time, and we were amazed when we got to work with him. The other bucket list producer we worked with is Tucker Martine, who works with the Punch Brothers, Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case, and the Decemberists as well on their earlier stuff. It was cool to get that balance because the Decemberists are one of the bands that we really look up to. We played a show with them in the past, and they have the same kind of career path that we want to follow where they tour, put out these amazing records, and then in between have these side projects that they can do. The album itself is going to be kind of a mix between both of their styles, but the undercurrent of us will always be beneath it. We are really excited to be able to put that out and are hoping to later this year.
How would you describe the songwriting process for the albums?
Katie: Sav and I split up all the songwriting. When it comes to recording our albums, we look back to the past couple years of touring and look at the songs we’ve been playing live. We try to hash out all of our songs live on the road and get a feel for the arrangement and then we record the songs that have been doing the best at shows. One thing we have been working on is trying to stay more true to the live essence and the sound of that without overproducing. This album has a lot of newer songs that are a little more fresh. On Odyssey, we were doing songs all over the place, songs that were super old and ones that were new. These ones are new, but still across genres.
Sav: I think what’s nice about this album too, is that — not that anything else we’ve done is disingenuous — we’ve recorded songs that were written five years prior and this is more current. This is more honest and how we feel right now. It’s a more genuine snapshot of where we are at the time. The whole point is to connect to other people, so we’re hoping that this album reaches out and really validates what people are feeling.
I know that your most recent single, “Heavy Flag,” was featured on the most recent Now That’s What I Call Music compilation. How do you feel about that?
Michael: That was really awesome. We had a song on Now 64 as well, it was “Odyssey” because it was right after the album came out. When I was a kid I had Now 0 through 23 or something; like, I was the kid who collected all of them. That was definitely a bucket list thing to see us appear on that list. I was so happy to see that we landed on that, especially because the list of people that are also on that compilation are insane, and just to see us up there was sweet.
Katie: Michael’s got the CD in his collection.
Michael: Oh yeah, my parents went and bought one and when I got home after the last tour it was sitting on my kitchen table.
Do you have a song that’s your favorite to play or that means the most to you?
Sav: Right now, for me at least, I mean you cycle—
Katie: “Crow’s Feet”?
Sav: Yeah, shut up.
Katie: I knew it was going to be.
Sav: But you cycle through having favorite songs all the time. When you first write a song you’re really excited to play it, but then, like, a month later, you never want to play it again. But “Crow’s Feet” was one I wrote just before we started touring full time and I think I was anticipating how that was going to feel, how homesick I was going to feel, and how life was going to completely do a 180. We would be living on the opposite schedule of everybody we loved. I think I wrote it as a reminder to stay present, because life moves really fast and it can feel like time is scrambled and the only way to grab it and make sure it stays put is to stay present in it. It’s one of those songs that after the trailer was stolen stood out because one of the lines goes,
Sometimes I lose all I have just to see what remains
When I sang that after the trailer was stolen it was like we just had to follow our own advice at some point or another: pay attention to what’s still there around you; and part of that does go along with staying present, as hard as that is in today’s world. You have to be in the moment, not thinking about dinner on stage, which is typically my MO.
Katie: It’s really easy to get in a rut and get a little bit complacent, and when that happens I get hyper focused on, “Oh, this note I played was super flat, and this thing, and the audience is probably super bored.” When you put the songs in a new context, all of that goes out the window and you’re just completely embedded in the songs and the experience again. I’ve been grateful for that.
Michael: I always love playing “Heavy Flag” live just because it’s such a drum driven song. It’s in a weird time signature and there are different parts switching between time signatures. Even if I’m not sweating by the time we hit “Heavy Flag,” I end up drenched.
Sav: I always have to double check, because there’s an encore that we do with “Taxman” by the Beatles going into “Tom Sawyer” by Rush, and I always have to turn around and check with Michael that he’s ready to do it, because he’s about to rock out.
Michael: And right after we got our trailer stolen, I basically built a drum kit with a cajon as my snare drum, a kick drum, and a high hat and I was playing with these brushes. That’s what I used to do in my first few years in the band, that was my main kit, but having not played that set up in a while, my right arm was numb from trying to get sound out of the brushes. After one show Sav was like, “We’re going to do Taxman” and I panicked.
Sav: That’s one thing we haven’t really thought about until this tour, the fact that we started out having our cables in baby bags and having Michael on this tiny kit. We didn’t have some instruments on stage and now through six weeks of working we built up all this equipment to make it more cohesive and then we lost it all, so now we’re back to baby bags. It’s a really strange experience but also really humbling. It makes me think of Spy Kids with “an agent’s only as good as their gadgets,” and that’s not true. I’m growing up and realizing that you’re not as good as your gadgets, you’re as good as your music is, as what you put out there and what’s more honest and real.
You mentioned playing a variety of instruments, and you guys played a crazy amount last night. How many can you play?
Sav: Anything with strings really.
Michael: Katie’s got accordion under her belt.
Katie: I’ve got an accordion but we stopped bringing that on the road. Sav plays mandolin and banjo. We dabble in the piano, but we’re not super tight on it.
Sav: We used to bring an upright bass on tour but we were too accident prone to do it. Mainly though, I’m on violin, electric bass, and acoustic guitar. Katie is on electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and cello. Every once in a while, we will throw the bass back and forth but for now I play a lot of bass. Michael plays drums and, every once in a while he plays guitar, which nobody sees coming. It’s hilarious. We are all multi-instrumentalists and we have a lot of fun switching not just instruments, but genre every couple of songs. I think we’re all musically ADD and it’s a lot of fun to try out different things and still have the same cohesive sound underneath.
What else do you have coming up this year that people should be looking forward to?
Katie: Well we’re finishing the Jack Pine Tour and then we’re planning a trip to the UK. For the month of May we’ll be doing our first UK tour and we’re really pumped about it. Then we come back and summer is our festival season. We’re still booking, but we are hoping to come back out here. Then we’re really ramping up to release our album this year, so keep an eye out for the date on that. Should be later this year, after the summer is wrapping up.
The Accidentals are a female fronted, multi-instrumentalist, power trio. Their music is dynamic and intelligent, a blend of Neko Case lyrics, Jack White rock, and Queen influence throughout. It’s edgy, indie folk-influenced, pop rock. You can check out their Instagram here and their website here.
Edited for Content and Clarity by Bethany Brubeck