Interview: John Ralston
Born and bred in Lake Worth, John Ralston first hit the national music scene as the leader of Legends of Rodeo, a quartet that tended towards a sort of whiskey-soaked, on-the-road wistfulness. After recording for both Vagrant and MCA, the band, as all bands do, started to implode. And Ralston was itching to release the thoughtful pop creations in his head, introspective but sweeping little compositions. His first solo album, Needle Bed, was self-released, then picked up by Vagrant. Its warm reception allowed him to truly pursue this solo thing full time. With Ralson’s latest record, Sorry Vampire, out October 2 on Vagrant, he makes his home turf proud. On it, Ralston’s backed by a full band, and warm aural pillows of intricate textures – some songs feature up to 100 tracks. Really.
This fall, Ralston’s figuring out how to translate that live as he opens up for another South Florida boy made good, Chris Carrabba, a.k.a. Dashboard Confessional. They play a two-night stand Saturday and Sunday nights at City Limits in Delray Beach.
I caught up with Ralston this week by phone, during one of his rare days in his Lake Worth home base. Read the full Q&A after the jump. – Arielle Castillo
So how long have you been back in Florida? Do you still technically live here?
Yes, I still live in Lake Worth. I just got back from playing Austin City Limits.
How did that go?
Austin City Limits was great. We played with Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine. We toured with them on the way out, then the three of us split up after ACL. Now the Dashboard tour is starting with these two shows.
How much time do you actually spend in South Florida?
It kind of depends. Last year I didn’t spend more than a month or two here. Actually I took this whole summer off and worked a little bit in the studio and did some more recording. I produced a couple of records for my friends. So this summer I’ve been here more than I have in the last two years combined.
What were you producing?
I went up to Knoxville again to record an Athens band called Richard and All God’s Children. It was kind of drunken gospel revue type thing. Then I also just came back down here and there’s a studio I work at down here…. Then I produced two local bands here Noble Rocket and the Summer Blanket. We’re gonna go back and finish the mixes. That’s what I did this summer.
Did you know those bands from before?
We’ve known each other forever. They’re old friends of mine.
How do you think living in Florida influenced what you ended up doing, if at all? Did you find it hard finding good music down here when you were growing up?
It’s weird growing up down here, isn’t it? In some ways it’s detached from even touring routes for bands. A lot of bands don’t come down here. But I was sort of always around music and always playing, even though you’re kind of in a bubble down here.
We always booked our own tours really early on, ever since I started playing guitar and playing in bands. We’d get online or make cold calls, the whole D.I.Y., book-your-own-life sort of thing. That sort of opened my eyes to a whole new musical world, I guess. We just kind of went for it. We did the whole country based on cold calls.
That was with Legends of Rodeo, right? How did you meet the rest of the band?
I’d known Jeff the drummer -- he still plays drums for me now, since we were about 16. The other two guys I met at college; we had similar tastes in music.
Where’d you go to school?
Palm Beach Atlantic University. I studied English. I have no formal training.
So how long have you been playing?
Probably since I was like 15 or 16.
So when did you finally get to make music your full career?
I don’t know, you know. Even really early on, I didn’t really view it as a career ,so much as what I had to do. So that’s why I put all the work into it. It’s just something that I’ve been doing.
So you never had to take the post-college English major crappy job?
[Laughs] I haven’t really had a job in a long time. I painted with a friend last night, but that doesn’t really count. Pretty much since Needle Bed came out I’ve been touring nonstop.
So Legends of Rodeo: the Myspace page says you guys are still a band, but I’ve read elsewhere that you’re on permanent hiatus. Which is it?
I dunno, your guess is as good as mine. At the time when we stopped playing we were in the process of recording – we’d recorded 60 songs.
6-0 or 1-6?
Did you always write that many songs in preparation for an album?
No, but the thing is, we didn’t have a label; we didn’t have an outlet to put it out. We had put out all our own stuff before, and I guess that’s what we were coming back to. We had all these songs from all these sessions, and we were going to put together a CD, and then I put out Needle Bed at the same time. I think we’ve all talked and we’d like to release those songs at some point in time. We’re not playing out or anything. But it’s something I’d like to do someday.
So why did you stop playing together?
There were a lot of reasons. The main one for me is that I really believed in Needle Bed. To date it’s my favorite recording that I’ve ever done. There were other factors too… It was kind of an easy decision, as easy as a decision like that can be, at least.
So where did you record Sorry Vampire, and how long was the whole recording process?
It was recorded in several studios. I guess it started up in Chicago, and then we had probably like three or four sessions in Knoxville. We had two sessions here. It was probably more like six, seven, or eight sessions involved over the course of about three years.
So that must have overlapped with the recording of Needle Bed.
Yeah, it did. I think I started like a month after I started recording Needle Bed.
Well, how did you decide it was an entirely separate album, then?
Well, the reason I had gone up to Chicago originally was to do overdubs on Needle Bed. We were listening to the music, and just decided right there to not to any overdubs, and just to proceed with recording new material. From there --
Hey, King, stop! Hold on; my dog’s rolling in the dirt. I have two dogs, and one of them can’t help himself. He loves to roll in the dirt when he’s outside. Welcome to my life when I’m home.
What kind of dogs are they?
Two pitbull mixes; I got them from the pound. They’re babies. They’re sweethearts who like to roll in the dirt….
So we just started recording new songs. The intention wasn’t really to bring this out over the course of almost three years and six or eight or nine studio sessions. It’s just kind of how it happened, which is kind of nice. The end result is actually a combination of all those sessions, and that’s why we have all these textures that all sound different. All these sessions sort of work together.
So there must have been a lot of leftover material.
Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that’s either finished and didn’t make it, or is halfway done. I think what I’m gonna do actually is, starting in January, do a singles club thing, like an online thing. Like Sub Pop used to do.
The stuff that made Sorry Vampire was really the best out of all that stuff. I’m really proud of it. So much is going on, the idea is hopefully you wont be able to listen to it the same way twice.
I read that there are almost 100 individual tracks on each song. Is that true? How precise is each individual track then? Why so many?
On some of the songs, actually, it was probably like 120 tracks. A lot of times, you have bands talk about a lot of tracks, but then they go to mixing and peel back the layers. We left nearly everything, and Charles Dye mixed it, and he did a great job making all those layers fit. It was like working on a puzzle with 500 pieces. Mixing took a while, but he really went above and beyond.
So what kind of small thing might be on one individual track?
There’s, like, keyboard textures; on certain songs there’s like 10 or 15 guitar layers. Then you have all the vocal arrangements, and I’m singing each one individually. In the middle of that you have the band. It’s a Beach Boys-type thing. On some songs, there are three drum kits. I mean, it did seem like overkill on some level when we were recording.
So how many hours, on average, would you say it took to record one song?
Some songs we recorded three and four different times. So for one song we might take the first session vocals, the fourth session drums. Not all of them are like that, but some of them are. But we weren’t doing it just to do it. I knew I would know when it was right, when it was all done.
You must have a really patient band.
Yeah, patient everybody I guess! We spent countless hours, sometimes a day on just a guitar sound. I couldn’t have done it without them being on board. We were really trying to make it special. Music is disposable a lot of times because a band isn’t allowed to do that, or can’t afford the studio time or whatever, or just doesn’t care. But I really wanted to make something that would stand the test of time. Also I wanted to make it so that the listener could hear it differently every time.
Is your live band the same band that’s on the record?
There’s a lot of people who played on the record. The core band is Nick [Eberhardt, guitar], Dustin [Dobernig, keys, vocals, and programming], and Jeff [Snow, drums]. And then we have probably like five or six guests who played varying roles.
Do you worry about how you’ll translate all that to playing live?
I worry about it. [Laughs.] I worry about it a lot! Once we finished I was like, ‘Oh shit! How are we gonna do this live?’
But it’s like anything else. If you put your mind to it, you find out who plays what, you play two instruments. It’s sort of trial and error. You can come to rehearsal tonight and see. I think we’re pulling it off.
We played that run at ACL and were like, hey, we CAN do this record live! It was intimidating at first. There’s so much going on. It’s like, there’s only a certain amount that the live energy in a room can carry you. That’s what you really have to figure out, how to get all these parts with five people playing
Was the ACL run the first time you had played this material together?
Yeah. A couple of the songs have been in the set for the last year. This was like an eight-day run, and it was the first time we got together in a room and even played these songs, much less played them live. But it definitely works live.
What’s the significance of the title Sorry, Vampire?
I don’t know. It’s something that’s best left unexplained.
How did you meet the Postmarks, who appear on the record? Did you know them before from the South Florida scene?
John Wilkins and I had talked about doing some recording together for quite some time. We’ve known each other for a while, and somewhere in the course of the recording process, I sort of hit a wall and didn’t know the way to go.
There was a ton of songs out there, a ton of tracks, where do you go from here? So I called John again and explained the situation, and he really helped me figure it out. He stopped the room from spinning basically. He came back to Knoxville with me and it really became Sorry, Vampire during that session. He played a big role on this record and of course getting Tim [Yehezkely, Postmarks singer] to sing [on “I Guess I Wanted My Summer Now”] was really a nice touch.
So how did you set up this tour with Dashboard? Did you know Chris from back in the day, or did you meet him later on?
Oh, it’s all the South Florida people, you know? I met him back when I played in Legends of Rodeo.
You’re playing with a full band, but he’s not. How do you feel about opening in that setup for a guy with just a guitar?
I think it’ll be fun. I think it’ll be nice for the audience because they’ll get the best of both worlds. It’ll be a fun tour. I personally like those shows where you have a little bit of variety anyways.
When was the last time you played in South Florida?
I don’t know.
That long ago, huh.
I just have no idea. I don’t know if it’s that long ago so much as my memory isn’t that great.
Details: Dashboard Confessional and John Ralston perform Saturday, September 22, and Sunday, September 23, at City Limits, 19 NE 3rd Ave, Delray Beach. The show starts at 7:00 p.m. both nights, and tickets cost $27.50. Call 561-279-8222, or visit www.ticketmaster.com.