by Michael McCarthy
When I listen to indie pop band TENTS‘ dreamy new album, Medicine, I tend to feel like I’m floating in the clouds, perhaps riding a magic carpet. Their music sweeps you up, almost providing an out of body experience, giving one a natural high. Suffice to say, listening to it is always a voyage as their songs fill you with wonder, their subtle pop beats – think Chairlift meets Boards of Canada – tickling your brain – in a good way.
I’ve often found myself viewing Tents’ songs in different ways at various times I’ve listened to them. Sometimes, a song like “14 Years” makes me feel melancholic. “I’ve been hiding out on the back streets,” confesses singer-primary songwriter Brian Hall, explaining that he’s been down, which strikes a chord with me if I’ve been feeling that way myself. But then he sings, “I never said the world was ending,” with an air of optimism and I can’t help but find myself feeling hopeful. It’s rare that you find an album where almost every song walks that fine line between such opposite emotions in this way. To that end, most of the songs on Medicine would seem to be written for the listener to interpret for themselves. If you want an album to make you feel euphoric, give it a listen and it’ll feel like a kiss from the one that got away. However, if you’re feeling sad and blue, you can find companionship in the more downtrodden lyrics. Call it every mood music.
Aside from giving you catchy but artsy tunes you’ll want to listen to repeatedly regardless of your mood, I think the band’s mission is to make you think. These are intellectual songs that will stimulate you to contemplate a myriad of things. Musical food for thought, if you will. You could even meditate to it; I tried it and it worked quite nicely!
I suggest that you put on your thinking cap before you read the following interview, during which Brian gave me many pensive and brutally honest answers, which made him a pleasure to speak with. (Medicine will be out 10/11 on Badman Recordings but you can enjoy the singles below.)
MM: First of all, what inspired you to call the band Tents?
BH: We were workshopping ideas and there’s this old Beethoven song about star tent. He was talking about the cosmos. And our drummer was like, what about just Tents? So we shortened it but we’re referencing the cosmos, I guess, which no one has ever picked up on. We like it because it’s simple.
MM: Which drummer recommended that?
BH: Josh [Brine].
MM: Is he still your drummer?
BH: No, Joe [Greenetz] is our current drummer.
MM: What Beethoven song was it you were referencing?
BH: You know what, it was years ago. In college. I sang in the choir. But it was a song we sang.
MM: When I looked you up on Facebook, there was also a duo using the name Tents. They came up first, although you have a lot more followers. Do you know which of you was using the name first?
BH: I think the one your thinking about is Austrian. They’re a cool band. And I want to say we were, but we weren’t using it to any real commercial impact. It was a choice when we got signed. Either try to change our name or stick to our guns. I think the territory thing is a big deal. It only becomes an issue when one of the bands starts breaking out into larger territories. As of yet, that hasn’t happened. So, we haven’t worried about it.
MM: I know your band is based out of Portland, Oregon. Is that where you’re from originally?
BH: I am from the Pacific Northwest. Most of my youth I spent in Corvallis, which is about an hour and a half south. And I made the journey [here], gosh, 12 years ago.
MM: Would you say that you come from a musical family?
BH: Yeah, yeah. Mostly my mom. Because my mom grew up with a lot of choral music as part of her family life. She didn’t self-identify as a musician as much as she was just a really great singer and grew up tinkering on the piano. I was involved in choirs throughout my youth. Sort of. Not in the way some are.
MM: Do you recall what the first instrument you ever bought or were given was?
BH: Yeah, it was a Mexican Squier Strat. That was given to me by my parents when I was 13.
MM: Did you take lessons?
BH: I took lessons. My first lesson, my instructor sat me down and he didn’t really teach me a lot about guitar. The good first thing he explained to me was to listen to a song on the radio and hear the chords change. And then if you’re good enough at it you could just tell what the chords were. And it blew my mind and I became obsessed with it. In parallel to learning guitar, I became obsessed with learning how to develop my ear and my understanding of music theory.
MM: Were you in any bands or otherwise making music prior to Tents?
BH: Yes, I am a lifetime musician. I’ve been in a dozen bands, probably. Most of them short-lived and not as serious as this band. I think what really pushed this band over the edge, in truth, going forward, was label interest. But, yeah, it’s always been a part of my life. My job is writing music. I’m a composer. So, I have a studio and Amy, the singer and I have a couple kids and I have a studio in the garage and that’s part of our life.
MM: What sort of things do you compose for?
BH: Well, a mix of documentary films and independent films and advertising.
MM: Good work if you can get it, right?
BH: Yeah, yeah. It’s complicated work. It is good work if you can get it, but I also think it’s difficult to be an integrated artist that’s sort of in that headspace and write music for brands a lot. It’s very difficult to tow the line.
MM: Your new album comes short on the heels of your previous album. What was the reasoning behind releasing them so close to each other?
BH: I’m kind of crazy. [Both laugh] It’s actually coming out October 11th so the full album’s not quite there yet. Yeah, what happened? Our label told us, hey, it doesn’t work well with these smaller bands that are just getting started when they put out a record and then they wait for five years. You need to keep your momentum going. We put some singles out. And I’ve also been in a sort of sabbatical. Two years ago I survived cancer.
BH: Thank you. And when that happened I re-evaluated my life and decided I wanted to be an artist for a while. And sort of focus less on money and my career and more on art. Which I wasn’t particularly given to just the grind of trying to make money from movies, but I was certainly caught up in a sense of obligation to sort of lead a certain path. Having that experience made me much more inclined to say fuck it. So, you know, to some extent I was in a space where I was really eager to write. I wanted to write a record right. And it ended up being around a year from the first that we had a second record. A little less from our street date. We were about done at that point. Early summer. And here we are. I wanted it to come out in the summer. I thought it was a summer record, but it’s all good.
MM: Tell me about your songwriting process. I understand you like to film video footage and then write based on that?
BH: Yeah, which is an extension of my career path. I was kind of behind the veil, isolated as a musician for about a decade of my career and I was inspired by this New Yorker named Casey Neistat, who has a very influential Youtube space. And I got a camera and started shooting. At first, I was making strange things. But I eventually realized the pure thing that drew me to it wasn’t that the footage had to be amazing but [that] there was a really strong, resonant sort of story there for me. If I’m having an experience and I point the camera at stuff around me when I’m having the experience it sort of would anchor the moment for me. Then I could return to the moment almost emotionally. And it was a really good exercise to give myself, to not write these sort of lazy dream pop songs. [Laughs] Which I love, but I just had this disposition that can maybe get a little bit melancholy or a little bit cynical. I’m not always like that, but I am sometimes and when I write I want to not just sit in the same space all the time. So, this exercise helps me explore other spaces, I guess.
MM: Can you give me some examples of songs that started from video?
BH: There’s a dancer that we worked with, Jess Evans, and we took her out to a beautiful, abandoned warehouse and took her dancing and she’s really into the idea of self-love and dancing as a meditative act. She’s an incredibly engaging performer. And “Hutah!”, for me, didn’t actually feel to really connect with what she was doing, but it was a sketch. I wrote a ton of ideas to that because I felt like it was so provocative, the footage we got of her. The one that I really ended up loving was the four bars and chorus or something that I wrote for “Hutah!”. So, that was one. “Medicine” was just me going on a walk. I went on a walk and I think it was at a time in my life when I felt like I needed to evolve as an artist and I’d been writing a lot of escapist, sort of sad music. And I was just feeling resolute and thinking about what it meant to me to go somewhere else and so I had this walk that kind of lead me into a moment of writing. So, I captured a bunch of video of myself. I set up a camera and danced in the park. In a public park. I just acted silly in front of the camera. And then I went home and wrote that song.
MM: That’s cool. Do you ever get ideas for songs when you’re out and either jot them down or sing into your phone or anything like that? Or do you just start with the video and rely on that for memory?
BH: Yeah, you know, I should say that probably seven songs on the record were written as these exercises and the other three were written more in collaboration with our guitar player Chris, who helps me. He’s a guitar player first and foremost, but he helps me a lot with the production. If I’m about to give up on a song, he’ll come in and just destroy it. And then turn it into something completely different or he’ll try to rediscover it. So, there will be things about the song that we’ll keep. Actually, in terms of this record, I don’t know if voicemail actually had a big role in it. I definitely have song ideas on voicemail, but not for these ten songs. We wrote a lot of songs. We wrote 40 or 50 songs. Not all of them got completed but in various stages of completion. We wrote a lot for this record.
MM: So, do you self-produce your music then?
BH: Yeah, [but] I don’t mix it. Actually, I do. I mix it with somebody who has better mixing skills than I do. So, I get the song fully produced and everything’s done then I start sending it back and forth to this one friend of mine who’s a mixing engineer and producer in his own right and we collaborate on that stage. But, yeah, we do it all in my garage.
MM: I was watching the “Always Be My Baby” video earlier and thinking that must be your own studio.
BH: You know, that was my old studio. We recently moved. And the new one is in an actual garage. That was a garage, too, but it was converted and soundproofed and the new space is not converted or soundproofed.
MM: Are you going to soundproof and convert it or are you just going to leave it like that?
BH: I hope so. We’ll see. I’ve been spending too much time making art and not making money. [Laughs] But it’s fun to be in a garage again. It’s kind of punk rock. It feels, actually, in certain ways, more like me. Because I’m actually kind of a crazy slob so I always I felt like I was not bestowing upon the finished studio with drywall the love that it deserved. Out in the garage, I still try to keep it as clean as I can, but if it’s not clean, hey, it’s a garage. [Both laugh]
MM: How are the acoustics in the garage?
BH: I have some panels up and it’s OK. And I have a ping pong table that I use the two sides of in an upright position. It’s almost like what we call gobos to put around the drummer. My listening position is not great. It’s OK. It’s not terrible. It’s good enough. [Laughs]
MM: What’s the longest period of writer’s block you’ve ever experienced and how did you get past it?
BH: You know, I think there’s a Paul Simon quote, but I can’t be sure. It’s there’s no such writer’s block, there are just artists not liking whatever is coming out of them. I really resonate with that. So, to me, writer’s block is synonymous with going through something and it doesn’t resonate with what you want to share with the world. I’ve definitely gone through it. I haven’t always been as intentional and active as a writer as I am now. In my job, it’s weird because you always have this external inspiration. With writer’s block, it’s the equivalent of just kind of failing because if someone gives you a piece of a scene and says hey, I want something like X and you can’t get there sometimes it’s an emotional problem. Sometimes it’s a technical thing. You don’t have the ability to write a certain way. Or you’re struggling. That’s been most of my life as a writer. As a songwriter, probably through most of my adult life, I haven’t actively been trying to write.
MM: You just write when it comes to you?
BH: Yeah, and the periods of writer’s block feel less important because when I’m trying to write songs – traditional song structures – it’s usually not [for] a long period. You know, the worst writer’s block that I’ve gotten is when I’m trying to finish a record. That’s totally it. I feel like the way to make a record is to forget that you’re trying to make a record. And just write and write and write and wait for a bunch of songs to surprise you. Wait for the moment when you can feel something forming. And then that’s the moment when you transition into finishing a record. Until then, you just have to be determined to write the best. You just have to be on the hunt and try to enjoy the journey of unearthing good song ideas. You have to create an opening for them in your life as much as you possibly can and keep waiting. Or fishing.
MM: Most of your songs, to me, sound very upbeat musically, but then the lyrics tend to be kind of melancholic. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
BH: I cherish conflict. I think it’s so important. Especially in pop music. It can just rely on a good hook, but I want the music to feel resolute. I don’t want it to feel like anything. One of my goals with this record was that I wanted to make music that sort of floats above the vitriol and all the cultural toxicity that’s floating around. And, personally, I deal with a lot of sorrow about the way the world is. But I also feel a lot of hope, you know? So, I want to share that hope with people. I think the meaningful way to do that is to bring people into your sorrow. And then try to get through it. Become friends with your pain. So, I feel like, for me, on some level there’s an exit strategy in there. There’s a sentiment that life is rich and beautiful and full of meaning. And that the hard stuff is that life is, you know, if you consider someone who’s dealing with thoughts of suicide, my persuasion of this period of my life is that life is just really, really, deeply substantial. And the beauty of a blade of grass or a smile from a loved one is so substantial that it just turns everything we have.
MM: What would you describe your personality type as?
BH: I’m an ENFP, a 4 with a 3 wing on the enneagram, and a high D high I, low S, very low C on the DISC assessment. That’s enough of that. We don’t need boxes. I see myself as a romantic. At least around my work, I’m hopelessly intense and driven by a desire to find meaning in it. And that means that I struggle to do things like be in a band in a casual way. As you know, it’s very difficult and costly to work hard in a band when you’re [like that]. I think in normal life I kind of drift. I grew up very religious and I still hold a place in my heart for the divine and experiencing the divine. And I see a lot of particular abuse around that and that has caused a haze of cynicism in my life. Something that I care deeply about is framed up in all this abuse and ego. So, there is for sure some cynicism there. I feel outside of that pretty positive. Parenthood has made me a happier person. I enjoy the simple things a lot more than I used to. Life makes more sense to me. Work makes more sense to me. So, I guess it depends on the contexts of the day. [Both laugh]
MM: On “14 Years,” you’re wishing you had “a few more days” or “a few more weeks” as you think about all the places you want to go and things you want to do but haven’t gotten around to yet. What are some of the things you’d do if you had more time and the money? In other words, what are your bucket list things that you’ve yet to get to?
BH: You know what? I don’t know which way to take this question because that’s actually a really interesting reflection on that song. That song was about a death in the family. It shook me and I was really depressed for about three or four months. And I didn’t know why because the person that died wasn’t super close to me. Something about the context of their death was so gripping that I couldn’t figure out why I was depressed. So, that song, in my mind, I was kind of reflecting. That song’s super melancholy. That’s like the most melancholy song on the record. I was reflecting on, you know, how they talk about the absent father or father figures who are not present – not emotionally present – just dealing with internal woe that’s suffocating them and making them unable to enjoy their kids. It was something I was feeling very strongly in that period. But it’s interesting that you found it and directed it toward this sense of wishing you could do more, which is something I hadn’t thought of, but it does resonate. So, the answer to that question would be that I wish I could spend 80 hours a week [making art]. When I started my career in my 20s, I was a workaholic and I was married, happily married, but a wife is a lot easier to stay emotionally connected to than an entire family. So, you know, I wish that life was simple and singular. Sometimes I just wish I didn’t have so much responsibility so that I could give myself completely to one thing instead of a hundred things. If I could, I would just make more art. [Laughs] I’m already getting to do a lot of [it] but not like before.
MM: It’s tough being pulled in different directions.
BH: Also, it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful and brutal at the same time.
MM: But if there are a few bucket list type of things that you really want to do, what would those be? Are there any countries you’d like to visit, for example?
BH: I mean, I think right now in the midst of an album release cycle, and all the emotions that go with that, it’s to be known. [Laughs] Enough to be understood and share my little seeds with people. I guess I would really like to become super fit and obsessed with soccer. I grew up playing soccer and my days of being fit enough to continue to play are waning. I had knee surgery last year and I’d love to get fit and do that. Join an adult rec league and go crazy. That’s a bucket list for sure. Traveling sounds wonderful but I guess I get too pragmatic about it. I want to be around my kids so much right now. I traveled a little bit. I’ve experienced a lot. I started a company in my 20s. It was a music licensing company. I almost started it by accident. I was a composer. There were two founders, me and my friend, and he was this gem of a business partner. I didn’t realize it at the time. I was a creative and he was finding me gigs writing. It was getting harder to write music. So, I was this composer. It’s a very mellow kind of story. And then, as the company grew, we started transitioning into being a licensing company. That’s something I had not done. Something I didn’t have a ton of interest in and now we had 50 employees. And I’m not that involved. So, part of this whole sabbatical thing is an extension of this immense privilege and what I perceive as responsibility. To do the thing. The reason that I got into that was because I was so scared of adult life without finding some creative joy. And then I got to this moment of sort of feeling I’d reached stasis. I was no longer in danger of having to go get a job as a clerk, you know, or whatever. I don’t have a lot of regrets. I’ve had so much joy in my career and in my life and I’ve gotten to do so many wonderful things.
MM: Do you do much licensing of your Tents music for movies or television or anything?
BH: You know, I think the middle center with the indie band thing is not as hot as a commodity as it once was. So, I actually don’t see anywhere near as much action. There’s a kind of idea and undertow to what we do that I love and that’s how I’ve always relied on a certain degree of controlling how DIY something feels. Just enjoying that palette, you know? And it feels like we’re just where things have shifted in the industry. There’s a little bit of space for that now, but it’s not the same. So, no, I do not make money. I just lose it for all intents. [Laughs] That’s not why I do it. It almost adds meaning to it. What happens, I think, is that you make something that’s really special to you and maybe, hopefully, to an audience, and then it earns money, and [when] you follow it up you have a responsibility to decide whether or not you want to write a song that’s meaningful to you or you want to try to pander to corporations who will license it from you. In a way, it’s almost meaningful to me that it hasn’t produced money that way because it means I don’t have any information about what might license when I sit down to write.
MM: Do you have any live shows coming up?
BH: Yes, we’re doing a very short West Coast stint. I think we’re playing the 10th in Seattle and the 15th in L.A. The 16th in Oakland. The 17th in Portland. Yeah, it’s still a little early. We’re kind of under the wire. I think everything’s confirmed. I’m going to check on that right now because I would love for you to be able to share that information. [The tour dates appear at the bottom of this interview.]
MM: Are you generally headlining now or are you opening for others at this stage?
BH: We are not headlining all the shows. We’re supporting in all three non-Portland markets. I think we’re first support. Yeah, we’re in L.A. opening and in San Francisco, I think. I’m not really sure. You know, I think because we have kids, for us, it’s about relying on grandma and our oldest kid has some special needs so we can’t leave our kids with just anybody. Not that you would anyway. You don’t want to leave your kids for very long. But it’s both of us [parents] in the band. So, part of the reason we do so much with video content and everything else is because we want people to have a way to connect with us where we can’t play live as much as we’d like.
MM: When you’re depressed, are you more likely to listen to sad music that suits your current mood or do you listen to happy music to cheer yourself up?
BH: I do not listen to music. When I’m depressed, it’s most often that I desire silence to help right myself.
MM: If the world was going to end in one hour and you only had time to listen to one more album again before you died, which would it be?
BH: Oh God… Probably Sufjan’s Illinois. [Sufjan = Sufjan Stevens]
MM: When was the last time you went to an actual record store and what did you buy?
BH: God, it’s been a minute. I’m exposing myself as a guy who works in his backyard. The last record I bought was – do you know Japanese Breakfast?
MM: I’ve heard the name but I’m not familiar with their music off the top of my head.
BH: I was her guitar teacher and she’s become quite successful and I just saw her at The Crystal Ballroom, but that was not a record store. I haven’t been in a record store in a longtime.
MM: Are there many of them in your area anymore?
BH: Yeah, they’re all over. Actually, that’s not true. I have been in a record store, but not with the intent of perusing records. But there are totally record stores. Portland’s got a great kind of classic urban, wonderful, fun loving music community here.
MM: Are you a vinyl junkie?
BH: I had a record player sitting on my hutch for most of my 20s and eventually felt like it was not an appropriate use of space. I just wasn’t using it enough. It was depressing that I didn’t use it more, but I just didn’t. So, if I get around to possibly doing a build out here and getting a little more space out [of it] then it will go in the studio. Probably. I have some of my parents old Simon and Garfunkel records. Classic stuff. Rare things I’ve picked up in bins over the years. And probably a dozen records that were made after 2000, most of which I bought at my friend’s shows.
MM: If you could resurrect any one musician from the dead and they would be happy to be back and make new music, who would you bring back?
BH: Hmm. Bowie. Bowie, Bowie. I think he was so important and I look to a lot of his 1980s stuff. I feel like it was the last time really great, vintage songwriters could survive in the mainstream. You know, the iconic writers of the ’50s and the ’60s and the ’70s. I feel like ’90s had really cool stuff, but pop music either got darker or it got more like candy, you know? And I just feel like Bowie and Paul Simon, that’s a great era.
MM: If someone was giving you a million dollars to give to charity and it all had to go to the same charity or cause, which would you give it to?
BH: I would probably find it really hard to give all that money to one charity for a few reasons. One is because I think that the best place your money can go is in your community, and the closer it is to you, and the closer you are to the people that are running the non-profit, the better. And there are a lot of non-profits in Portland that are serving under-privileged communities. And underrepresented communities. If I was really into it I would be looking at ones where their total income is less than a million dollars. I’d worry about building them up that much. So, it would be the one on my street corner. And there’s a few that Amy and I give to. Like a really amazing school in town, Kairos PDX. I guess if you want one that would be my answer. Kairos is amazing. So, my kid’s problems aren’t substantial, but he struggles in certain environments. One of them is chaotic environments. So, it’s one of those schools that create space. I think people that are working in those spaces are amazing. Working with kids that either have biologically things that make it really hard for them to grow in traditional spaces, or because of their circumstances, they maybe struggle in the school system. And Kairos is so amazing as an organization. It’s really special in that way. I’m not very good at concising answers. Forgive me. [Both laugh]
TENTS TOUR DATES:
10/10 – Seattle @ Central Saloon w/ DATENITE
10/15 – LA @ The Moroccan Lounge w/ yoga
10/16 – Oakland @ The Starday Tavern w/ yoga & n. Lannon
10/17 – Portland @ Bunk Bar w/ MAITA & yOya
12/4 – Portland @ Holocene w/ n. Lannon & Cataldo
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