With Earl Burrows, multi-instrumentalist and accomplished musician Mark Watrous is experiencing another musical rebirth.
Watrous got his start in the Tri-Cities area in the Pacific Northwest. At the time, the entire region was a hotbed of musical creativity with a burgeoning scene. As part of Gosling, Watrous was signed to V2, a fork from parent Virgin Records. Gosling's final album, 'Here Is...' was released in 2006. It wasn't until 2008 that he would meet V2 alumnus Brendan Benson though, through Jack White co-fronted rock act The Raconteurs. As fictional characters "Midas Well" and "Upton O'Goode", the pair released a two-song EP. Watrous later toured with The Shins, James Mercer's acclaimed alt rock act. Once that tour cycle ended, Watrous decided that it was time to explore some of the many song ideas that had begun to accumulate in his head. With the help of his brother and longtime partner in musical mayhem Joel, Earl Burrows was born.
Earl Burrows is a humorous rendition of the Ouroboros concept, of the serpent who consumes its own tail, forming an infinite circle. Watrous misheard the term and thought "an old blues guy" was out of place as the name for the concept, but rolled with it. Eventually, he realized the name Earl Burrows was incorrect, but it "stuck" in his head, and found fresh life as the moniker for his new band. Watrous recently enlisted Benson as producer to help guide and record Earl Burrows' debut, 'No Love for the Drowning'. Working with Benson at his Readymade studio was familiar and allowed the musicians to explore their creativity fully.
As someone who's tasted the good and bad sides of fame, having shared stages with some of the rock music world's biggest names, Watrous remains humble, approachable, and articulate. He seems to recognize the cycles or periodicity of life, acknowledging this through his art. He shared some details regarding the band's debut, his approach to creative endeavors like music and art, and his experiences as a professional musician.
What a great album. How long did 'No Love for the Drowning' take to write and record?
Thank you! It was a layered process. A couple of the tracks had been floating around for a while in different forms, but the bulk of the record was written in 2013, as the band was first forming. We tracked the bulk of it at Readymade in Nashville over the summer of '14.
Which song did you write first, and did that help set the tone or timbre?
'Hey Me Israeli' was the first one written off of this record, and its sense of humor in the lyrics and music definitely helped steer where the rest of the record went. It needed to be on the record, and the record needed to feel like it belonged there.
Is the music a conscious effort to 'bring back catchy, hard rock', or is it... a natural output of your collective headspaces at the time?
It's what we were all raised on, and part of how we learned to think musically, so probably a bit of both. The songs were written from more of a pop perspective than from rock, and once we started figuring them out, this was the shape they took.
You mentioned that Joel helped you with some of the tunes before you knew they'd be on the album. Over the years, how has it been, working with family?
Joel and I grew up making music everywhere we could, so it comes naturally. We think very similarly about music and how to make it, and I think we both know how to compliment the other's ideas well.
Was James Freshwater drumming solely for the album? Your social media and bio only have three names.
James was part of the band when we very first formed, and played on a good portion of the record, with Isaac Carpenter playing the remainder. Sadly, James had to step away for personal reasons last spring. He's still a good friend, and we love the guy. Since then, Carson's brother Will Medders, and Graham Bechler have both toured with us.
It sounds like you've got a lot of classic rock to draw from. The music is really evocative of times and places. Did you deliberately channel any musical influences? Who inspired you, growing up, musically?
I listened to anything I could get my hands on as a teenager. Washington was teeming with new bands, and it seemed like labels were popping up everywhere, so if you were making music of your own, you got good at rapidly digesting what was out there and figuring out what it was about. We didn't necessarily set out to make a record that sounded like "classic" or "glam" or any of the things we've been compared to. The songs themselves are just as much a product of listening to Unwound, Ministry, and Jesus Lizard as they are a product of anything from the classic rock era. From my perspective, it's a modern record; we just shied away from a modern production style as we were making it.
How was the music written? Was it planned all in advance, or did you do the build-ups once you got into the studio?
It was different for every song, as I think it usually is for anyone. I'd demoed the songs on my own, and had pretty clear ideas about how the major parts and rhythms would fit together. We would work with those as a blueprint in rehearsal, and then find ways of personalizing each part to make sure everyone had their stamp on it. A good portion of the record we completely tore apart with Brendan. We'd get a good drum, bass, guitar and scratch vocal take and start building the song from there. Sometimes we'd refer back to the demos and sometimes he'd inspire us to go in a completely different direction.
As far as writing, most everything was written on guitar, and most of the time I'd start scratching out a demo before lyrics were written. Those are typically the last thing I do.
Are the lyrics personal - situational, or are these character-based tunes?
These songs turned out pretty personal and autobiographical. I've tried doing the character-based thing, but in the end, it always ends up being about something I've experienced or witnessed.
When you write lyrics, are you trying to channel or capture a sentiment, or is it a personal catharsis?
It's always different. I don't usually know what a song is going to be about before I start recording the idea. The chords and melody almost always come first, so I'll start with abstract lyric ideas and find something among them that feels personal that will shape where the song goes.
The tunes are really engaging. 'Hey Me Israeli' is so strange. Why the full-tune falsetto? Is this a "boundaries expansion" type tune - you guys pushing the creative envelope?
I don't remember why the falsetto thing happened. It was the first song I wrote on the record. I'd been having a series of conversations with a friend back in LA about life, and letting go of past hangups, and 'Hey Me Israeli' just came out of those talks... Kazoo, falsetto, and everything. It was more of an exercise in creating something that felt big, happy, and fun than anything else.
In 'Our Kind', the quandary between having a quiet life or a well-known one... that's fantastic. You've played on some of the biggest stages in the world. Why is "fame" so polarizing and emotionally expensive - can't people leave well enough alone?
That's an interesting take on the song. I've never thought about it in that way. Several years ago, I had a couple close relationships dissolve in ways that really hurt my wife and I. I found myself becoming increasingly distrusting and questioning how we fit into the world around us. 'Our Kind' came out of some of those conversations Jaime and I were having.
Then there's the invisible outsider, standing by... in 'I Live in the Walls'.
'...Walls' was written right around the same time as 'Our Kind'. Apparently I wasn't big on humanity that week.
'Infinite Spaces' is a really poignant closer. What's it about, and how did you sequence that - why does it end the album?
It's the most difficult song on the record for me. It's largely about the loss of a friendship with someone I'd grown up with, and my guilt that he spiraled out of control once we drifted apart. I hadn't spoken or heard anything about him in years when we recorded the song, and then strangely the day Brendan and I were sitting down to finally listen front-to-back to the final mixes, I got a call from his family that he had passed away. It's one of those cases where as Cheyenne (Medders), Carson, and I were brainstorming lyrics, we were trying to create a character, and it wasn't until the song was finished that I could place what I was drawing from.
One thing that's great about being an 'independent' is that you can pick bandmates or guests from virtually anywhere - you don't have to take an offer from your label, like 'so and so from our stable wants to collab...' You have your pick of the litter, so to speak. And you ended up with Carson - how cool.
Yeah! We met when he was working as a guitar tech for Brendan Benson, and we hit it off pretty much immediately. It kind of became an unspoken rule that we'd start something together at some point. His ideas are always great and unique, and he's always dedicated to making things the best they can be.
It was interesting to hear little hints of Brendan in some of these tunes... it underscores just how important it is to pick the right producer, and have that be someone you're comfortable working with. How was it, returning to your old stomping ground at Readymade?
It was really fun. I love working with Brendan, because he works fast, and can really quickly zero in on ideas. Readymade is such a comfortable and well set-up space that you don't really have to wait in order to get an idea down... which is not the case in a lot of studios.
Which character were you in Well & Goode? It's still an adventure, trying to find that album. From the write-ups, it sounds brilliant. That wordplay!
I think I was Midas Well and Brendan was Upton O. Goode. That was a fun project! We really just did the two songs. Brendan had some song bits he sent up to me when I still lived in NYC, and we went back and forth, working on them long distance. I'd record lyric and bridge ideas, and he'd work up a full arrangement and send them back. It was a great precursor to working on 'No Love for the Drowning'.
And speaking of wordplay. Ouroboros sounded familiar: there was a jam band in Ohio called Oroboros. To get Earl Burrows from that... it's a great derivation! It's tough to come up with a memorable band name that isn't a "special character" on a keypad these days.
Yeah. I don't know how anyone chooses something to call themselves these days... or ever for that matter. Earl Burrows had a comical backstory to it, and it felt as much like a funny reminder not to take ourselves too seriously, as it seemed to fit the sound and idea behind the band.
Earl Burrows' members aren't 'from' Detroit, so there isn't a really clear linear path to working with Brendan Benson. The six degrees of separation isn't obvious. How did you first meet?
Brendan and I met in 2008, when I came in to play keys on the Raconteurs' 2008 tour. Their manager had hooked us up, and then he invited me to come out on tour with him to support his next solo record after that. I think Jaime and I must have moved down to Nashville just after we finished touring on that record, and he and his family have been some of our closest friends ever since.
I'm asking because however it happened, it blossomed. You guys started working with each other a while ago. You ended up in The Raconteurs for a bunch of tours, did the Well & Goode EP, Brendan's 2012 album 'What Kind of World', plus contributions to Cory Chisel's, Young Hines's, and The Maine's discs... that's a lot of work. What have you 'taken' from each of those projects? Do you think they were stepping stones to where you are now? Or is it part of a process, a continuum...
The beautiful thing about the majority of those projects was that they were tracked live, which forces you to let go of the perfectionist urge. Before that, I'd only worked in studio settings where we tracked separately, and painstakingly scrutinized each part. That was a great thing to be rid of.
There's a lot of creativity in there, a lot of ground to cover. How does working with others inspire you, versus working alone or on solo material?
I get tunnel vision when I work alone, so working with other people forces me out of that. I never would have thought to put the chorus of 'Delicate Ribbon' where it is. That part happened after the solo to me, and Brendan spotted it immediately and said "that's your chorus". There wouldn't have been a guitar solo in the middle of 'Our Kind' if we weren't in the room messing around and bouncing silly ideas off of each other. All of those things that still excite me about this record are because Carson, Joel, Isaac, Brendan, and James all shaped it into something different from whatever the initial idea had been.
Do you enjoy "studio pressures"? Does the recording studio bring ideas out of you that you don't get in a more relaxed milieu?
It does and it doesn't. Sometimes the right thing won't hit for months, so in those cases, working in a more relaxed way is beneficial. You have the time to let ideas develop. In the studio, things either sink or swim. I love the pressure of working in a studio, because it forces ideas under a much finer microscope, but it's not always conducive to allowing an idea to become the best it can be. Often a great direction can get abandoned because it's taking too much time to develop.
How did you come up with the album title? Is there a story behind the phrase? Especially paired with the 'painted desert' nude for the cover art. It's got some 'opposites'.
It's a line from "The Glistening Sea". We had several titles floating around, and that one felt the most overarching for the record and had the most room for interpretation as well. The record is largely about modern humans being isolated and estranged from one another, and that phrase, "no love for the drowning", seemed to sum up that feeling to us. People pushing each other down to keep their heads above water. I especially love it with Shae Detar's painting. It doesn't make much sense at first impression, but the juxtaposition of "no love for the drowning" with the image of someone lost in a desert felt even more poignant. The idea that what we're all starved of might be killing someone else.
Was this studio-only, or do you have plans to tour? (or at least play a bunch of local shows)
We've been playing steadily for the last year, and had been doing more and more weekend runs leading up to the record release. That's tapered off a bit over the fall, but we definitely plan on picking back up in 2016.
How cutthroat is Nashville, anyway? A few people have told me that Nashville has more monster players per square yard then like anywhere else in the world. That's got to be challenging.
It's fun. I haven't experienced it as a cutthroat business at all. It feels more like a community of people who all want each other to succeed than anything else. That hasn't been the case in the other cities I've lived.
You've been a vital part of some greats! What runs through your mental highlight reel when asked about a favorite gig?
My favorites are always the tiny venues. I grew up in a town where we had to throw our own shows in order to play, so you were always playing to 150 people crammed into a living room or a square-dance hall. Those shows feel the best to me. Playing the Basement in Nashville is about as good as it gets. It's small enough that it never feels empty, and the crowd there loves music. They show up and they pay attention. It's a great venue. One of the tours I was on did a show at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. They have a series of massive bio-dome type structures filled with plants from just about every environment you can imagine. The show was really fun, but getting to tour that place was pretty unforgettable.
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