Hear First: John Calvin Abney’s Familiar Ground

An album premiere, plus a conversation about it between Abney and his old friend Bartees Strange.

John Calvin Abney: You introduced me to Thomas Erak and MF Doom in the same week.

Bartees Strange: Yeah, I was definitely in college and that was all I was listening to. [Laughs.]

John: I remember very well, man. Hell, I think you introduced me to Maps and Atlases too. You know, just a lot of those post-hardcore bands and mathcore bands. 

Bartees: Yeah, that was my shit. 

John: It’s cool to hear your influences from back then bleed into Live Forever too, because I remember jamming with you, spinning records, and, you know, playing loud ass electric guitar.

Bartees: Yeah, dude, I remember kicking it at that little spot you had in the cut. You would, like, play your base through your AC15 — I was like, “Can you do that?” And you were like, “Yeah, man, this is the only way I do it.” And I was like, “Oh, shit.” And still to this day, when I record bands I’ll say, “Let’s try a couple of guitar amps on the bass, it’ll be fun.” I totally learned that at your house in college. 

People ask me what are some of my favorite shows, and I’m like, “Man, I’ve seen John Calvin play Big Red Cup Night at The Deli, like, for hours — like, collective hours.” Talk about some of the hypest, most enthusiastic people I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve never seen anyone do that like that, [who] was my age, you know. 

John: Man, I can completely return that sentiment. I was in this nascent country rock thing coming out of my high school Jimi Hendrix obsession, and I was trying to wrap myself around backing songwriters and more compositional stuff instead of just, like, burn it down shredfest,. Every time I watched you play, your electric guitar stuff was always so blistering, but it was composed. It was so rhythmically interesting and melodically captivating, and I remember just thinking to myself, Dude, I have to learn some more so I can keep up with this guy

Bartees: That’s hilarious. 

John: Especially because it was all coming from that post-hardcore stuff, and at the time I didn’t have any experience with a lot of that stuff. I was more the, like, Dashboard Confessional, you know. It was more like the acoustic emo stuff that I was sinking myself into back then. To hear you play, I was like, Fuck, man. Just everything about it. I mean, that was a real dreamy time and existence.

Bartees: It really was. Looking back, we were so… I don’t want to say the word “green,” like we weren’t green. We had so much potential, in a way. [Laughs.]

John: We were hungry for the music! I mean, I remember you bought the MF Doom Special Herbs box set, and I remember sitting with you and listening to every single side of that, and just talking about crate-digging for, like, nine hours. I had never heard that shit before, and that predates all the lofi hip hop stuff, all the chill beats playlists — you know, the advent of massive streaming and stuff. Even back then, it’s so much different 10 years later. But I remember listening to that being like, Oh, my god, this is the coolest stuff I’ve ever heard in my life. And that led me to Dilla. 

Bartees: Oh, man, that makes me feel amazing. He’s one of my greatest inspirations in music, that guy. Like everything about him — his story is incredible, his career is incredible. Probably because of how I know my career will go, I have a penchant for people who build careers over long periods of time. When I look at people like him or The National or TV On the Radio or Future Islands, Samantha Crain — all these artists, there are people who have been watching them play for 15, 20 years before anybody gave a shit about their music.

John: Well, slow burn man. You can’t fire all cylinders all the time. It’s good to be able to have some some planning and some idea or direction that you can hurtle towards. I feel like that was my problem, because I was so I just was so disparate. Direction, and that that concept of being able to plan some steps ahead instead of being completely spontaneous all the time, especially in music — it’s helpful, man. And I feel like I disregarded that so damn long.

Bartees: It’s funny you say that because a lot of people have been like, “Oh, it must have been very annoying to hear what people have said, like, ‘How are you getting so much press on Live Forever? How are people finding your music, you only have, like, a thousand Facebook followers?’”And I mean, none of this was spontaneous. This record was done a year and a half ago. Like, what do you think I’ve been doing? I’ve been releasing music for 10 years and touring and watching all my friends release music to some success and to some great failures, and you learn from all those and you just try to do better next time. It takes a long time. 

John: That whole concept, being aware now that I had learned from all these failures — because, I mean, my whole road was paved with stumbles and failures, man. I feel like the older I get now, I can peer into the other side and say, “Oh, I learned from taking a fall again and again.” It’s about getting back up. 

Bartees: You’re a really good songwriter, John — I feel like you’re always writing.

John: Oh, dude, that means a lot coming from you. I feel like a lot of that has had to do with just… you know, the writing all the time is, you write 99 really terrible songs then you get one keeper out of the batch. [Laughs.] But going in, I always felt a kinship to the whole recording guitars and vocals at the same time [method], and that’s a scary thing for being able to separate and provide a separate atmosphere for vocals and guitars. But I double track and guitars vocals at the same time, and that was a big way I moved through the fact that I couldn’t really sing when you and I were like hanging out as kids. I could play, but I just didn’t had found my singing voice yet. So I was doing a lot of double and triple-tracked vocal stuff. 

I feel like going into the studio was always an expensive and anxiety-ridden thing when I was younger, too, because it was always like, “Oh, man, we didn’t get the record done and I’ve got no more money.” I was always like, “I want to get this done,” so I was like, “OK, I’m going to track this whole thing in three days,” and the band would be like, “You’re doing what?” And I was like, yeah, we need to learn these songs before we go in. And you’re right, sometimes I have caused I have caused many an engineer a headache because of the fast-paced and imperfect swing-to-the-fence kind of mentality that I had when it came to recording records. Now that I’ve got time and I can work on it at home, I’m only a headache to myself, which is a lot better. [Laughs.]

Bartees: [Laughs.] Well, I’ve played in those bands. I’ve definitely pulled up the studio, and I’m like, “Yo, so I have $700 and I need…” Like, I’ve done it, and even now — I work at a studio now, and the biggest thing, the greatest blessing that the studio is giving me is, I’ve got a world class studio I can record in for free, like, whenever I want.

John: I would love I would love to work with you one day, man, it’s a long time man. I feel like last time I saw you was in DC. 

Bartees: Yeah, you were playing. That was such an inspiring night, man. I was like, Oh, man, John fucking did it. He’s on tour in DC, look at him! How did you record this album you have coming up? And how long have you been writing it? Because every time I hear your music, I’m like, I know John is always writing stuff, so I could be hearing the song in 2020, but he could have written it in 2008 and worked on it for six years. I’m curious, always, which songs are new and which ones are older, and then what was your process for deciding what was going to be on the album. Because I know you’ve probably got 50 demos.

John: [Laughs.] Well, back in the day, I’d write, like, 15 to 20 songs or something, and then just pick from the ones that I really think would float the general sentiment of the snapshot of my life at that time. Some of those are ripped apart and and chopped up and turned into brand new compositions, lyrics cut to ribbons. 

I feel like this time around was strange because there was a distinct break in the stratigraphy of the process because of the pandemic. I had been writing these songs, and then right when the pandemic started, I realized that I was going to be home for a while. So I ended up starting to write and, you know, I didn’t want to completely base a lot of these songs off of the general anxiety of being in quarantine. So the process for writing this record, most of the songs were written the month leading up to the stay-at-home phase. “When This Blows Over” is interesting because I had written that song for quarantine. I was just missing being out West. I really wanted to go to California and see some old friends and see some old places and just. It really didn’t have much of a meaning except a yearning to reunite with places and people. Then quarantine happened, and I made some lyric edits that were effectively about the fact that I couldn’t go everywhere anymore, I couldn’t just pack up my car and then just exist normally and safely. 

The process didn’t change as much, but the recording process did because [producer John] Moreland and I couldn’t get into the same space to record. Dropbox was the real MVP the whole time we were recording the record because everything was done remotely. That was mostly just cutting a double track guitar and a double track vocal to a click, and then sending it over to Moreland — he’d play drums and send it back. We were sending these nine gigabyte Logic project files that took, like, 20 minutes to upload because I had crappy internet. 

But, you know, it was really a beautiful process because I got to sit and compose. My studio was in my tiny little bedroom in this apartment I had in Tulsa, and I could get up in the middle of night and be like, Oh, I’m going to do a string section on my Mellotron. I’d get out of bed and cut Mellotron and then go back to bed. The million, ten thousand things that surround booking a session and going into a session and preproduction and post and everything — it was all on my own terms for the first time. And that’s half the reason why I named the record Familiar Ground, because it was done in the most familiar ground of all, my bedroom.

Bartees: It sounds like bigger picture, it was done your way, you were calling the shots.

John: Yeah, and it was a beautiful collaborative process with Moreland because I’ve been his sideman for four years and in the studio for almost seven years, so it was really cool to flip the script and be able to use his vast encyclopedic knowledge of music and his dead ringer ear for the process. I’d bounce ideas off of him all day long — I was as annoying as a dog that needed some love, like, “Dude, what do you think about this? What about this? I think this is the one!” Yeah. And he was he was clutch, man. He was unbelievably important in helping me craft this, because the day tour got cancelled, I showed up at his house to load the van, and he just said, “Hey, man, we’re not going on tour anymore.” And then he gave me the iMac that he recorded In The Throes on, and was like, “You should take this home and we should record your record.” And there it was.

I’m sure you can relate — there is a sentimentality to some pieces of gear that span projects and time. I’ve got my tape machine, and lord knows how many times that’s been used by different people throughout time. I’ve got this ‘62 Martin that I’ve been playing now for a while, and I’m apparently I’m the fifth owner — it’s like, where did that go? What did it do? What stories did it tell? Who did it accompany? What did it see?

Bartees: Yeah, man, I have a ‘67 Epiphone Casino and every time I play it, it’s so sick. I love guitars. 

John: Dude, I know! You have good taste too. 

Bartees: I love having them and buying them and trading them and collecting them. They’re great, and I love playing them even more.

John: I think you’re one of the people that can recognize the sentimentality and the power of just about any instrument.

Bartees: Yeah, totally. And as much as I talk about guitars, I know that there’s really no rhyme or reason to what’s going to sound good, you know. Honestly, you’re going to sound your best when you feel your best, so if you feel best on a Strat — fuck it, cool. You’re probably going to sound best on a Strat. 

John: You’ll be more comfortable.

Well, man, what do you have planned next? You’re working on a new record? 

Bartees: Yeah, I’m working on a record, and I just put out Live Forever, so I still feel very in it. We had a really good writing session in Maine, and, you know, I’m just going to take my time with it. I’m in no rush to put out two records this year. I’m gonna just keep collecting songs and keep demoing. I’ll record something hopefully before it picks up again, but, you know, regardless, just kind of collecting the songs.

John: Man, thank you for the new record. It really is something special, and it’s so good to just hear you bloom before us. You’ve always been an inspiring musician to me. It’s been too long — we gotta get some Thai food and play some electric guitars.

Bartees: A dream — it’ll happen. Dude, I can’t wait till this shit is over! I feel like I’m like, no, I’m just going to be like, “Let’s just get a Winnebago and just go visit all of our friends. Like, let’s just do that for a year, please.”

John: Well, sign me up, man. I’ll be there. We’ll make a convoy.

Familiar Ground will be out November 20 via Black Mesa Records

(Photo Credit: left, Ian Hanson; right, Julia Leiby)

John Calvin Abney will return with his fifth studio album, Familiar Ground, on November 20, 2020 via Black Mesa Records. Co-produced with longtime collaborator John Moreland during the country’s pandemic lockdown, the nine-song set often contemplates the acceptance of our own mortality, as well as the strength it takes for us to weather the storms of life.

Abney serves as Moreland’s touring guitarist and when the shows around Moreland’s new record LP5 were canceled in March, Abney spent his extra time off the road writing the songs that would soon comprise Familiar Ground. He shaped each track using a ten-year-old iMac, writing on guitar, piano, and Mellotron, then sent them over to Moreland, who would add drums and bass. They bounced the songs back and forth remotely between their home studios, with Abney playing piano and synthesizers and composing the strings that lend the record a dreamy, expansive feel.

Though Abney’s influences are far-reaching, from the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to contemporary peers like Laura Marling and Christian Lee Hutson to the surreal writing of Haruki Murakami, his art has the intimacy of a conversation with an old friend. Pulled by pangs of steel pedal guitar and buoyed by his gentle vocals, the record takes us on a meandering journey through cities of the mind as Abney mulls over what it means to fully experience our fleeting lives on earth.

(Photo Credit: Ian Hanson)