Massy Ferguson: Victory And Ruins
Music video for “Hello!”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paIB_9Y2kCU
“It sounds like warm, sunny music, something that would be playing on a crappy car stereo while you and your buddy got beer-canned wasted hanging out in your dad’s broke down El Camino in 9th grade during an August heat wave,” jokes Ethan Anderson, front man/bassist for Seattle, Washington’s rock band Massy Ferguson. Often referred to as alt. country or roots-rock and Americana, Massy Ferguson, who has drawn comparisons to Son Volt, The Bottle Rockets, and Blue Rodeo, as well as Thin Lizzy and Bruce Springsteen, has been described by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as “the people’s band” and a “roots Americana quartet” that “combines steady, blue-collar alt. country with Southern rock and an everyman ethos that has helped it land gigs all over the world.” Comprised of Ethan Anderson (vocals/bass/flute), Adam Monda (guitars, backing vocals), Tony Mann (piano), and Dave Goedde (drums), this quartet lives up to The Seattle Weekly’s assertion that “you know only good things can come from a band that named itself after a farm-equipment company.”
And, while they may fit in well with The Blasters, The Jayhawks, and The Backsliders, Massy Ferguson isn’t just an alt. country band. “I’ll never forget, we got billed at a show in Moscow, Idaho as ‘alt. country.’ We played our first set with what we do, which I always thought of as fairly alt. country, but louder than most of those bands. And this couple came up to the stage and said, ‘you’re not alt. country like the marquee says, so we’re leaving.’ I was just kinda of dumbfounded,” recalls Anderson. “The thing is, we’re not quiet, we don’t do the acoustic thing that you typically associate with alt. country, so I think we often bring up that question for people, what is alt. country and can a band like us be put in that category?” That question is answered on the band’s third full-length, and fifth release overall, Victory & Ruins (Spark & Shine Records). Following up 2007’s Massy Ferguson EP, 2009’s Cold Equations, 2010’s Hard Water, and 2011’s Damaged Goods EP (the last two also released on Spark & Shine Records), Victory & Ruins is a rock band that has matured, knows its sound, and plays around in the genre, without losing fans of their previous body of work.
The album opener sets the tone, quickly proclaiming, “Hello! It’s good to see you all again, but you’re really not my friends ’til you see me at the end” with a steady rhythm and hooky guitar leading the way. A straight-forward rock song, it is quickly followed up with “Renegade,” a song that says Massy Ferguson is indeed an alt. country band. “2am Beauty Queen” tips it’s hat to Southern rock, while “Everything’s Done” shows the band can be tender without losing it’s pop sensibilities and country-fried touch. “Labour In Vain” owes more to Tom Petty, but still keeps the small town roots-rock vibe of Massy Ferguson, while “Apartment Downtown” shines with a glowing cello leading the tender song, proving that Massy Ferguson can tone it down and still keep you hanging on every note.
“Bring Something Back” is a straight-ahead alt. country/roots-rock number, and so is the shuffling beat of album closer, “Been Around,” which incorporates the band’s melodic sensibilities to ensure the album goes out with a bang – and makes you want to grab another beer (or shot of whiskey) and hit play once again. “We did more live tracking with Johnny Sangster, the producer,” says Anderson, discussing the band’s approach to recording Victory & Ruins. “He said, ‘set up like you always do as a band and play,’ rather than cutting the basic tracks separate and overdubbing like mad on top of those. I’ve always hated the standard recording process, it felt so artificial. It felt robotic,” he continues. “I love tracking live, it puts your balls on the line and I think that kind of raises your game, your level of playing. You feed off each other more. I could probably never be a solo act for any extended period of time, I like playing with other musicians, feeding off their energy, using their powers to help me – l ike that show The Highlander.”
When the conversation turns to the lyrics on the album, something fans of storytelling songwriting always gravitate towards with a Massy Ferguson album, Anderson says he just writes about what he knows about. “Lyrics tend to evolve along the way,” he says. “Women seem to have a prominent role in the lyrics of this record, among other topics. There are references to women who show up at the bar for last call, Midwest girls with drinking problems, small towns and tattoos, sand and dirt, rebellious women who can’t be tied down, hometown heroes, girlfriends and ex-girlfriends, small town summer festivals, making a name for yourself while running away from your town, only to come back”
Imagery is big to Anderson and his lyricism, so it comes as no surprise that when he discusses the band’s sounds and lyrics working together, that he uses a lot of imagery. “Our sound reminds me of landscapes and places I saw while looking out of an old jalopy car, sitting in the backseat with the windows down, in rural Snohomish County, sitting on ripped upholstery with no seat belts.”
Very proud of his small town upbringing, he furthers by saying, “Some of the tones sound like Eastern Washington to me, snarling, hot and dry, calloused fingers on rusty guitar strings, dust and cool water. So, I tend to dip in to stories of people I knew, references to local places. I think the lyrics take you there, the place where everyone drinks Schmidt beer from a can with a deer on it – including my mom, it’s her favorite. A place where your town has its name printed on a water tower, the place where you take your girlfriend to the town festival and maybe have to get into a fight with some drunk local dumbass who is bored and looking to start something, a place where your buddies who get cut from the basketball team immediately announce, ‘I think I’m gonna become a stoner,’ and yet somehow end up cooking meth within a year of dropping out of high school.
Which is why the band decided to title the record Victory & Ruins, a name that has everything to do with life, good and bad, for the band. “This band, like most, is held together with duct tape and staples, constantly on the verge of going off the rails or toward some sort of ruin. Three of the members have had kids in the last two years, including me, and I believe there is a certain Victory & Ruins to having kids.” One of the album’s biggest highlights is “The Hard Way,” which features a duet with Seattle country songstress Zoe Muth. “She was dynamite,” proclaims Anderson. “I gave her some words, a melody sketch, and she walked in to the studio and knocked out her verse in just over an hour on a couple of takes. It’s amazing how great she sounds, it actually makes me sound better.”
The album wasn’t without its hitches though, which Anderson is comfortable talking about. “With any project, you have high hopes for some songs in particular and sometimes you are disappointed with how they turn out. But, other times you’re totally surprised and floored by a song you didn’t expect. I was so frustrated writing the song ‘Renegade’ – we just couldn’t make it sound good in pre-production. Johnny made some tweaks that improved it, tweaks to the baseline, the drums, etc., like he always does. I think Johnny called himself the ‘drummer oppressor’ at one point by the way. And, you could say the same about the bass, too. But, in the end, he was spot on and I am really happy with how that turned out. It’s got a very cool groove and, to me, is just kind of a perfect little song.”