August Wells: Lounge Music and Majesty
Beware of the worried
The tired and unsteady
The rich might get richer
But the poor might get ready
Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce August Wells: a New York City-based musical project spearheaded by Irishman Ken Griffin and New York pianist John Rauchenberger.
What do they sound like? Imagine the dying embers of a late night party held in the Las Vegas branch of Toys ‘R’ Us, if the entertainment for the evening was Kurt Wagner’s Lambchop with a guest appearance by Burt Bacharach. The darkened aisles are strewn with glasses, bottles, and the occasional shoe. It’s way past time to go home, way past the point you realize you shouldn’t have had that last cocktail.
Before August Wells, Griffin was the ingenious instigator behind several other projects. During the 1990s in Ireland, his band Rollerskate Skinny toured with bands like Mercury Rev and Mazzy Star. When they split, Griffin moved to New York City, where he released Dead City Sunbeams under the name of Kid Silver. He’s been Stateside ever since, and his music has continued on its path, including his part in the band Favourite Sons, and today’s majesty of August Wells.
Griffin’s lyrics assemble characters like one would dress an action figure: layer by layer, complete with the tiny accessories that get it to do what you want it to do. The songs are packaged in the lush schmaltz of his baritone vocals, wrapped up in the piano, French horn, viola, violins, trumpet, saxophone, flugelhorn, bass, guitar, and drums of his collaborators.
To get inside the songs you need to remember that this particular Toys ‘R’ Us branch sells deviations from the Top Ten Christmas toy list. Peppa Pig has been replaced by The Night They Shot Bob Dylan Plush Toy — just squeeze its hand to hear what Bobby said. The Disney Frozen Sing-A-Long Elsa has been exchanged for the Lego Kill Your Dreams Factory, which shows girls and boys how it will feel to grow up big and strong and have a job that hates you slightly more than you hate it. Batteries not included.
August Wells’ most recent album A Living and a Dying Game — out last year — is immersed in the day-to-day struggle to stay alive. Not just to live, but to be alive. The dull, harsh realities of a tough life don’t stamp out dreams; they don’t stop the desire for love, or the desire to be “broken open by something outside of me.” Among the detritus that life leaves in its wake, the songs offer shelter and, at the very least, an explanation. Like a lounge version of a Willy Vlautin epic, these songs have not lost hope. They’ve survived the desert. They’re thirsty and brittle. They need a good listener and a pair of warm arms. This is easy listening that’s hard to swallow.
In a small series of transatlantic email conversations, Mr. Griffin eloquently answered some questions.
Cara Gibney: In A Living and a Dying Game I hear lounge music, indie folk, easy listening, 1970s country, and more. Are there any glaring omissions there and is there a particular sound that you are aiming for?
Ken Griffin: Ha! Well I think that’s enough to get started. I am obsessive about a kind of flow. Everything — musically and lyrically — has to flow. Some people call it perfectionism, but that doesn’t really define it for me. It’s a very personal kind of flow. It has to sit with something almost physical inside me. If it doesn’t, I actually feel ill, uncomfortable, nauseous even.
Lately I have actually been questioning and fighting that feeling, because I am beginning to sense that I might not be looking in the right place for what I am searching for. Maybe, eventually, you have to turn your back on your muse. The sound I am looking for is very personal, so I have to struggle to let go of some of what I have learned along the way.
Could you tell me what it is about John Rauchenberger and his playing that is good for August Wells? How involved is he with the arrangement or writing of songs? Have you worked with him on other projects?
We have made just this one album together, but we have worked on over 60 songs.
John plays in a way that seems unobstructed and uninformed by rock or pop clichés. He approaches the songs in a very pure artistic way. He responds to the song itself. He doesn’t wonder about the style of the song — he hears it as a unique piece of music, which is refreshing.
I write the songs. I bring in the songs, in various states of completion. I usually have the structure and melody. Then we play the idea together, with very little discussion, over and over until it has that flow I talked about before. Then I take the song back home, I complete the lyrics, I arrange some horns, strings, backing vocals, and small lead guitar bits. John works on the piano arrangements, then he writes the horns and string parts onto sheet music. Then he records it all in his home studio. We bring in other musicians to play the arrangements. Occasionally we have a musician improvise over our arrangements, and we edit it.
The lyrics in A Living and a Dying Game — especially on “Here in the Wild” — are powerful. It seems on every listen I hear something new. You create stories and characters and outcomes. Can you give me an example of where you would get an inspiration for a song? Are songs your sole form of writing output?
A song starts and ends, so it can often have the feeling of a story, without always being one. I am not sure I write stories with outcomes strictly, but for some reason I am glad when people think so.
For me it feels like I slice into and out of life, or an image, at certain points. I like it to seem like a story. I think in a way life seems like a story, but in reality it’s not. I like to build abstract metaphorical lines into the middle of some plain observations. Sometimes a dull line can actually empower the next line — a kind of imagery dynamic. Life is so dull and so astounding at exactly the same time, so I try to serve both. I have no idea if that answers your question, but I tried.
You’re from Dublin and now live in New York. What brought you to New York? Why have you stayed and is there anything you miss about Ireland?
A sense of adventure, the need to escape [my] roots. New York seemed colored in, Dublin seemed grey and white.
I stay because, like art, there is something about New York that seems unreachable. It will befriend you for a while, carry you along, fulfill you, reward you. Then it will also reject you and leave you behind, watch you fail, and bring you to the brink of oblivion. So for me it’s fascinating. I miss a certain feeling of home in Ireland, a certain ground beneath me. I miss the air that matches my life a little better.
August Wells is the latest form that your music has developed into since 1992 – From Rollerskate Skinny, Kid Silver, Favourite Sons. Has this been a deliberate strategy, or is it simply how the dice have rolled?
There has never been a deliberate strategy. Albums are a reflection of where you are at any given time. There tends to be about three years between each of my records, so three years is a long time. All the human fleeting experiences are involved, you find yourself happier and safer making some work, and distraught and fearful on other work. So if my work was to be consistent in sound and emotion, it would not reflect my life. Each of my albums has been made as honestly as I have wanted them to be. There has never been a bigger plan, believe me.
I read that you have up to 50 unrecorded songs. Is there perhaps a new album to look forward to?
Hopefully August Wells will continue to release records a little faster than every three years, because I have so many songs. We hope to have one ready for early 2016.
“Alice Dear Alice” is the latest single, released also on Forever In Financial Arrears (FIFA) Records. Why did you choose that as the next single?
Well, it’s kind of odd. We have released two stand-alone singles: “Here in the Wild” and “Come on In Out of that Night,” which will appear on our upcoming second album. But we hadn’t really released our first album A Living and a Dying Game properly. Myself and Sarah Iannone had shot a video for “Alice Dear Alice,” and as we had nothing scheduled for release, we decided to put it out. We are very happy with our first album A Living and a Dying Game, so it was a way to draw some attention to it.
Any tour news?
We are opening for Glen Hansard at the Beacon theater on the 1st of December. Then we play our own show at Rockwood 3 on December 7. Touring is always strange for a practically buried underground artist like me. Is anyone out there listening? That’s the constant question.