by Perry Shirley
Published in Musezu Online Zeen - January 12, 2011
Cowboys on horseback galloping after villainous outlaws, guns blazing in the hot desert sun: the stories of the Far West have always been a fascinating part of Americana. But to the band members of San Francisco outfit The Green Door it was the Spaghetti Westerns films of the 60's that really thrilled them. In tribute, they've crafted Psychedelic-Rock songs spiced up with the cinematic flavor of Western classics like Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars."
The band's lineup feels well-calibrated and ripe for fruitful work. The songwriting falls mostly to lead singer and guitarist Mike Carnahan and drummer Vanessa Wolter, a long-time couple since their days in school in Florida. Bassist Devin Triplett learned to play academically, taking courses while he studied to become an English teacher. The gearhead in the group is guitarist Nick Di Lillo, forever tweaking knobs and pedals to find new sounds and infusing the room with boundless energy.
I've come to a little studio in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, an area not so gentrified you can't turn the volume knob to 11, to watch them play. The band is setting up for the first of two rehearsals in the days before their show at Irelands 32 Irish Pub on Friday, January 22. With the instruments plugged in, the lights are turned off. "We only discovered mood lighting, as of the last practice," Mike explains. "Helps set the mood. Makes it less industrial." While the music oozes out, the space has become dreamlike, steeped in black with just a few candles, more histrionic than useful.
They've been subleasing the place from folk-rocker Chuck Prophet. It was originally just while he was touring in support of his new album "¡Let Freedom Ring!" but they got an extended invitation to share the space. After running into the career musician there, I had a chance to ask him what he thought of The Green Door.
"Mike and his gang?" Prophet wrote in an e-mail. "They got taste. They got instincts, muscle and heart. Not big muscles but muscles nonetheless. Smarts too. If Mike didn't set up the Internet here, how would I surf for more broken gear on the web? I like those guys (and girl). What can I say, if they asked me to piss in a cup and pour it over someone's head, I'd probably do it."
On action-flick soundtracks, the car chases are always augmented with rock songs packed full of testosterone. If The Green Door was doing the score to a Western, the song "Nessuno Ritorna" would be that rock song. The drums attack with hooves of the riders in chase, getting louder and louder but in rhythm like a heavy-footed marching band. Left. Right. Left. Right. LEFT. Mike shouts HEYs into the microphone to punctuate. I think this is not the most pop fare song, but this music has instant likability if only because of that movie quality to it. It's classic. The "gallop" pauses for a shrilly riff, sitting high to give a little drama and then the beat picks up again for several bars before wrapping up.
The fascination with the Western theme began with Vanessa, once a film student at the University of Florida who also took courses on the American Old West. Mike wrote lyrics to an early song while in Death Valley, in one of the most desolate and Western landscapes you can find. Fittingly, the lyrics to most of the songs are stretched howls and ghostly murmurs that add on to the general atmospheric vibe. "The vocals are meant to be another instrument," Mike says. "More so than it being about the lyrics." It's more cinematically haunting and Western that way. And the whole band's in on it. They found a thematic glue. When I first asked the bassist, Devin Triplett, what his band sounded like I expected a lot of uhhhs followed by an evasive answer. Instead Devin said, "We sound like the soundtrack to 'The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.'"
Okay, fair enough. And it's not a hard sell because when you think about Clint Eastwood, you think cool. They really believe in it too. Excitedly, Devin mentioned buying a DVD set of the band's favorite fare: Spaghetti Westerns. Made popular in the 60's by Italian directors like Sergio Leone with Italian and Spanish actors subbing in for Mexican frontier men and lawmen, these movies show the culture of America’s Western culture through the lens of European outsiders who can't help but mythologize. When I asked Chuck Prophet what he thought about the band, he said they had great taste. "Yeah taste," he wrote."Mike and I love the Spaghetti Western music of Ennio Morricone." That connection is part of the reason he lets the band use his studio.
As far as direct, less esoteric musical influences go, their sound is akin to the Brian Jonestown Massacre and early Dandy Warhols. When pressed, Mike and Vanessa say they've been listening to a lot of Dead Meadow, The Black Lips, while Devin is more partial to Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach.
In between songs, the banter flies casually. There's regular check-ups on the Lava Lamp that was set between two of Prophet's keyboards. They're wondering if the vibrations of the music are somehow invigorating the lava lamp which, just days ago, had showed the pulse of an indolent sloth. Today it's decided that the globs show promise. A little while later, Nick's tuning his guitar and he asks: "Do you guys ever worry that your string is going to break and hit you in the eye?” Devin holds up his pinky finger: “One time I was tuning, it broke, I look down and there’s an E string going through my pinky. But it's okay now.”
Evidently, there's been a feedback problem haunting this practice, although you wouldn't know unless you knew the songs real well. After running through "Hole In The Wall" the guitarist Nick shouts at Mike to adjust the volumes. "You should turn your vocals up.” Mike, leaning forward goes, "What?” Nick deadpans, "Exactly.” Behind her drumset, Vanessa hardly says anything all night but she’s game to kick up a beat in between songs to riff on.
One very evocative track is "The Door." The drum rolls churn throughout, unperturbed while Nick does the vocals in a deep register. There is a constant wall of guitar wobbling on till Mike’s instrument pierces through the fog, providing treble to a song full of low notes. Imperceptibly, the song evokes a tale of despair like something about a man at the end of his rope or slated for the sway of the rope. But that dreams of escape and headlong rushes into the western sunset. There's an outro on "The Door" which is a nice change considering how often producers only let songs fade by turning the volume gradually down. For nearly a minute, it's only the singer and rhythm guitar going on softly, with the smallest hints of snare drum carrying it forward.
As the evening rolls, the room warms up, perked up by an ancient-looking space heater in an open space between the bassist Devin and the guitarist Nick. During the run-though of "Revolver" (another obvious addition to the western theme), Nick is swaying his guitar, pivoting it on his hip vigorously, pigeoning his toes and bent far forward. A manic ball of energy who stabs the air emphatically with martial arts moves in between songs, Nick asks to let the air in a little and you can hear the cars roll by on the rain slick outside. It's refreshing and awakening.
At one point, Mike takes off his shoes, getting comfortable in the place they've come to assemble at least twice a week. The band is loose and the mood is light. Nick remarks, "That one made you want take off your shoes, huh?" Devin is quick with the quip: “You want to know why he did that? Because it goes straight through the soul.”
Later that night, heading home on the N-Judah train with Devin, he tells me that the band appreciated my being there, to be a kind of mini audience to bounce songs off before the real show that weekend. Rehearsal spaces become cocoons after a while. Someplace warm and safe. Chuck Prophet was there for a minute as the band set up, showing off new plugs that let the music on his iPod really fly. He lives in a small apartment, he explained, and so he comes here sometimes to turn up the volume loud and just lay down on the floor listening. "I don't like sharing my space with anybody," he told me by e-mail. "But for Mike I make an exception. I met him and within ten minutes I gave him my keys and told him I'd be back in a few months when I got off tour. True story. He's been here ever since."
Listening to this young band, I marvel at this ability of musicians to somehow make it work. Before leaving them to their practicing time, Chuck Prophet told The Green Door members about the tour he just wrapped up—26 straight nights of shows across Europe, of hauling amps and gears into clubs followed by a 25-date U.S. tour—all that and, he said, “when we’re touring, we’re just happy to break even.” It’s a two-year cycle after every album release populated with the touring to support the record, the breaks, the loss and replacement of a band member, the small gigs to keep the juice flowing while new songs are penned. Prophet was signed to New West records in 2002 after the label promised to pay off the touring van that sits in front of the rehearsal space. “I don’t have a job,” he said, “but I guess I make a living.”
Well, if it ain’t about the money, then I guess it’s about the music.
Before settling in for another rehearsal, Mike, Vanessa and Devin sat in for some questions about the idea behind their band, the creative process and to explain the name of the band. Read on.
THE GREEN DOOR INTERVIEW
Perry Shirley: Talk about your influences. It seems there is a running Western theme going on here.
Mike Carnahan: That’s a huge part of it. Kind of a fascination with the Spaghetti Western and themes behind it. Vanessa had big curiosity about it. She was really drawn to it.
Vanessa Wolter: The Spaghetti West, it’s the rebellious Western. There is something kind of darker about it.
MC: The sort of separation of culture helped it to become more mythologized in a way, more in an objective way. If you grow up in a certain tradition, the myths of that country are so common place. Maybe the fact that it was the Italian looking towards the American West, it was more subjective.
VW: For Italians history and myth is such a big part of their culture. They really incorporate their own myths because of that. A lot of Spaghetti Westerns have Dante's Inferno themes. Heroes and gods, life and death.
How did the interest in Spaghetti Westerns lead to writing song?
MC: In addition to the movies themselves, the soundtracks were influential. Ennio Morricone: The sound he was able to come up with. It was huge and it makes its way into the lyrics. Sometimes more abstract and sometimes more apparent except for the fact that it's always drenched in delay and reverb. And nothing’s really obvious.
Talk about the writing process. What is one of the older songs?
MC: Death Valley is one of the earlier songs. It started with a poem written in Death Valley. That song was one of ones that came out the easiest. The process was more spontaneous with that one. I had some chords in my head for a while, and I just started playing them and began to add other layers on top of it and then sort of randomly sang out the poem. Recorded the initial track all myself then worked it out with the band. That song pre-dates the band. Then slowly we picked up members. Lately, the writing process has been really everybody involved in it.
Often I sort of wait for it to happen. I have some that came about gradually. Typically, a first part of the song comes out of the air. And then I add some riff to it or something. Sometimes that additional second part could be a real struggle where I'm consciously thinking about what I'm doing. It's a blend of things that come together on their own and parts that are laborious struggled through.
It doesn't just come over night, huh?
MC: It seems to take a while. Each song has taken a long time. Just a long process. I'm always thinking about it and trying things out. When the chords are kind of written out... With the songs that have vocals put on there it's not the final product and then people add on, you record it and something sounds cool so you keep it or you change something. Each song has that "Ah-Ha" moment where it comes together and it's kind of obvious at that point, that "Okay, we finally grasped it."
Although many people recognize the "Green Door" from the title of the Mitchell Brothers' groundbreaking 1972 pornographic movie "Behind the Green Door," there is a reference to Bob Dylan. Explain the name of the band.
VW: [laugh] We didn't know about [the porn] until later but it's based off the Bob Dylan scene in the documentary Don’t Look Back where he's getting interviewed by somebody. Dylan is ornery with the guy. He says something like, "You don't know me. Just because there is a green door doesn't mean we look at it the same way."
MC: Kind of like this perception of reality. The way that Bob Dylan used it in the quote is that a green door is symbolism of two people looking at one object from completely different points of view. That brings in the Psychedelic Rock part of our sound where psychedelia becomes very connected with consciousness and perception of reality, which I think always leads to the western and cowboy idea. There is a frontier and at the edge of society where rules and common perceptions and conventions of society start to break down. When you start to think about reality, you really try to hold less stock in common conventions.
Like back then when they carried six-shooters, there was a lot of lawlessness going around and more of a free for all.
MC: Yeah. And we try to bring that into our sound, trying to have an element of spontaneity. Not everything is always completely worked out... in a good way. [laugh] Not because we didn't plan it.
A proven industry veteran like Chuck Prophet talked about doing tours in U.S. and Europe and being happy to come out even. He said, "I don't have a job but I guess I make a living." Is that unnerving or inspiring?
MC: At the base of it all, we all like to play music and have an interest in music and I think that's the most important aspect of it. I think it would be awesome to get to that point of making a living by doing music and I know it's a really hard place to get to. I'm open to that happening and I'm always working toward improving the music. We all are. We all believe in it. [Pause...laugh] Is that a politician's answer?
Devin Triplett: It's also cool that we live in an age where the industry is very versatile. You can market yourself without really having to tour, getting a record deal. I used to be if you wanted to be a musican and make a living out of it you had to tour all the time and, like, have the wife stay at home a.k.a. Johnny Cash. It sounds disastrous.
Do you think about marketability when you're writing songs or do just roll with the creative process?
MC: I don't think our songs are really pop-oriented a lot of them are seven, eight, nine minutes long with extended intros and minimal lyrics and most people aren't expecting that or even wanting that. We don't really have a really traditional song format as in verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Marketability is not really something we think about too much. I think our songs have hooks to them that you can grab onto but these are more like vehicles that take you into a psychedelic, western landscape. They are part of a larger story that you can become immersed in.
How is this different from all the other bands you've been in?
MC: It's more focused. It was more "whatever we come up with, we'll use it somehow" whereas with this one we have an idea of what the band wants to sound like. This has kind of given us a framework.
Pretend I was record company executive and sell me your band.
MC: It's a western psychedelic sound where the sort of western frontier meets the psychedelic 60's. It's song-writing approached though the idea of it being art and myth.
- See more at: http://thegreendoorband.com/press/#sthash.YAJDjeH0.dpuf