An Interview with Carbon Leaf in Austin, Texas

The coolest thing about Carbon Leaf (besides their name and it’s origins) is their eclectic, genre melding musical style that has a unique Irish slant. Although Wikipedia describes them as a 5-piece indie-rock band, they are much more than that. There’s a depth and breadth to their sound.  Maybe it’s best described as Indie to Vanguard Records (corporate?) and back. The Virginia natives weave their signature indie-rock blend of Celtic, Appalachian, folk, and country into a rousing new brand of music best described as ‘ether-electrified porch music’. Pioneering dreams, broken hearts, love’s renewal- all traverse the American landscape as common themes in Carbon Leaf’s music (via http://www.carbonleaf.com).  The band consists of five guys – Barry Privett (lead vocals), Terry Clark (guitar), Jason Neal (drums), Jon Markel (bass), Carter Gravatt (all sorts of instruments including mandolin, lap-steel, violin, etc).  In general, all of the guys end up playing various instruments throughout the performance. Barry also plays guitar, penny whistle, bagpipes.

CL has had a steady career spanning 23 years from their college days in Virginia (which btw is where DMB made their debut) playing the college circuit, to radio success and critical attention with songs “The Boxer” and “Life Less Ordinary” and gaining true indie respect winning “Best Unsigned Act” at the American Music Awards (AMA’s). You’ve seen them play a multitude of festivals- Bumbershoot, Wakarusa, Summerfest- but did you know they actually started their own music festival? Yes, it’s possible. Their festival is the Ragtime Carnival, which attracted performances from Holly Williams (daughter of Hank Williams Jr.), The Black Cadillacs, The Wild Feathers, and Delta Rae. The band has also shared the stage with immense musical talents such as The Avett Brothers, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Dave Matthews Band, Guster, Matt Nathanson, Jason Mraz, and David Gray (many are currently touring).  CL already has 11 albums, 2 just last year, and the band just released (September 9, 2014) the album Indian Summer Revisited which is a complete re-recording of the band’s breakout album Indian Summer released ten years ago.

The guys are kind, fun, humble, and sometimes serious. They are also now in control, from rights to their music and song recordings to where and how they want to play. They have tremendous fun performing with high energy (as much as the fans) and are continuously engaged with the crowd who are often up close and personal at the stage. They also enjoy taking short breaks during the set to enjoy and toast a shot o’ whiskey. (often gifts from fans and friends). Just saying.

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During my interview with Carbon Leaf in Austin for their show, many of my questions revolved around the album, what they’ve been up to, and how they stay sane on the road.

So how did everyone meet and how did the band actually get together?

We met in college while Barry, Terry and Carter were attending Randolph-Macon College. It is a really small school and there weren’t many musicians, so everybody knew each other.

 

You recently started your own music festival? That’s very impressive. I never knew you could start your own festival how does that happen?

We had been thinking about hosting our own festival for the past few years, but the timing / locations haven’t worked out.  Recently a promoter (Pocahontas Live) started doing shows at Pocahontas State Park and it seemed like a natural fit.  They are about 20 minutes south of Richmond and have an amazing amphitheater, campsites, a lake, etc.  We worked with our agent and Pocahontas Live to put together a killer line-up and everything took off from there.

 

Bumbershoot- you recently played the famous Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle-labor day weekend-one of the biggest fests – how was that and are you all still recovering? It’s so huge now- I’m from Seattle and grew up with the festival.

Bumbershoot is awesome!! We have played it twice now and both times were incredible.  In 2011 we played after Leon Russell and it was really cool to be able to see a legend like that from the side of the stage.  One of the amazing things about Bumbershoot is how all of Seattle comes together to support such a huge event.

 

So, you have been supporting many other tours-and playing on stage with some really big names! It’s cool you’ve been touring with some of my favorite bands- Jason Mraz, Wild Feathers, Matt Nathanson, David Gray and my long time fave- DMB (the Dave Matthews Band). How does this work?

We have been fortunate to tour with some great bands and make some great friends throughout the years.  A lot of times a tour is put together by agents and managers, but sometimes we will have suggestions or will just reach out to bands that we like directly.

 

You just released the re-recording of “Indian Summer” called Indian Summer Revisited. How did this new album come about? What was it like to re-record the same album? Did you change it up a lot or do an exact re-recording?

Indian Summer is one of our favorite albums and is very important to us… it yielded our successful radio singles and really got us out of Virginia touring-wise.  It is also a big fan favorite and was where a lot of people discovered us.

 

Unfortunately, the rights to that album are controlled by our old record label, which we are no longer associated with.  When it came time to celebrate it’s 10th year, there wasn’t much that we could do.  So, we found a loophole in our contract: we don’t own the master recordings to Indian Summer, but we do own the songs.  That means that we were free to re-record the songs.  

 

Our goal with Indian Summer Revisited was to capture the elements that made the songs special the first time around, but be able to update it to based on 10 years of playing the songs live.  We think that the new version has a much more organic / live feel to it.

 

I just read that you have released 11 albums? Wow. Are there some songs that didn’t become your big ones, that you thought might have or should have?

Hah! That’s a loaded question! All bands think that all of their songs are great and should be hits!  That said, in hindsight our first few albums are us becoming a band and becoming musicians. We were learning to write songs and play our instruments.

 

Who does the writing in the band? Is it typically a group effort?

Traditionally, the band writes and records music first and then Barry writes lyrics and vocal melodies over top of the music.  That said, Barry makes changes to the music as necessary – change a chord or two, alter the length of things, change the key, etc.  When he is done, we all get together and tweak the arrangement until we are all happy (or mostly happy!).

 

On our 2013 album, Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle, Barry actually came in with 4 songs that he wrote from stem to stern… the band just helped arrange them and flush them out.

 

Barry also does other types of writing – I think that he is currently also working on a screenplay.

 

Do these deep, emotional, growing up songs with getting older lyrics come from personal experiences of pain, loss, etc?

Of course! That’s what life is about!  Most of the songs deal with the human condition… it’s what we all have in common.

 

So what’s this new genre that I’ve read about describing the band- “Ether-Electrified porch music”?

Ether-Electrified Porch Music is a moniker that we came up with to describe the combination of genres that make up our sound: rock, folk, Americana and Celtic. It is also the name of an album that we released in 1999.

 

With regards to playing many different venues with varying sizes, I’m always curious if a band/artist thrives only on the adrenaline of the massive venues. The Lambert’s venue in downtown Austin is a bit small but personal which I actually prefer.  Do you guys prefer the larger venues or more intimate ones?

Having a great audience is what makes a show fun for us, it doesn’t matter what size the venue is.  As long as it’s a packed house and people are into it, we are happy.  Lambert’s in Austin is a great example of a really fun show in a small room… 200 people were packed in there, sweating and singing along with every word.  Big shows and big crowds are fun too; one of our favorite shows of the year is our annual show at The National in Richmond, VA.  It’s about 1200 people and it feels like a homecoming!

 

I still can’t wrap my head around touring, and how, for ions, bands/musicians have taken their sets on the road, traveling long distances usually by bus, and often playing a show every night- how does that work? How does it stay exciting? How do you get motivated? Most importantly, how do you stay sane?

For the first leg of this tour we are doing 31 shows in 35 days – about a 10,000-mile loop around the country.  We have a lot of ground to cover and don’t like wasting time on the road.  Several of us have families, so we don’t want to spend more time touring than we need to.  We try to keep sane by giving each other as much space as possible… everyone reads books, watches movies, etc., so it easy to tune each other out when need be.

 

What have been your most memorable highlights of the band’s 20+ year existence? I imagine winning the American Music Award (AMA) for best unsigned act has to be up there.

Winning an American Music Award and getting to perform during the show was definitely one of the biggest highlights.  Others include playing Red Rocks a few years ago, traveling overseas with the US Navy and having a top 5 Triple A radio single.  Smaller milestones are also a pretty big deal as you grow as a band: writing our first song, first show, first sold-out show, first tour, fist bus tour, making the Billboard Charts, etc.…. and hearing your song played while shopping at Home Depot.

 

Does anyone in the band still live at the infamous Richmond “House”?  (“The House” is also the home studio they built in the detached garage where much of the recordings are created)

Our singer Barry and our bass player Jon still live at the “house”.

 

Does the band have any favorite TV Shows?

Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Twin Peaks, The X Files, The Dukes of Hazzard, Dick Van Dyke

 

Is Barry left handed?

Yes

Well, that explains everything! He’s in good company with Paul McCartney and Jimmy Hendrix. The multi-talented frontman not only writes, sings, plays multiple instruments, but he also acts (most notably in Spielberg’s award winning ”LINCOLN” (2012) and writes screenplays in his spare time. Just don’t ask about the black eye-it’s a long story.


Currently on a 50 city tour promoting the re-release, you can catch Carbon Leaf with upcoming stops in Seattle, Portland, L.A. and beyond. The full tour schedule can be found at  http://www.carbonleaf.com/shows/ . The photo gallery from the Austin show is on Austin101blog.

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