Building the Foundation – Interview with Barley Station
Written by Jan Ostegard. Posted in Music, Music Interviews
Published on March 10, 2012
Barley Station is a rare breed of band that successfully combines all of your favorite genres into a unique sound of their own. On the heels of their first album release, I am very pleased to present some of the nicest, funniest, most talented and genuine musicians this side of the Mississippi. Meet Randy Belt, Brian Kious, and Emily Thomas:
EV: Welcome to Entertainment Vine. Thank you all for taking the time to discuss your new album “After All”.
Emily, Randy, Brian: You’re welcome, glad we could do it!
EV: In less than a year you have formed Barley Station, recorded a full-length album, released four singles, and launched your own record label Barleyfields Records. Last week marked the release of your first album “After All”. Could you describe what this journey has been like for all of you?
Emily: It’s all been happening very fast for me because I came in more recently.
Randy: Relentless midnight-oil-burning work! Building the foundation and organization for it was a lot of work. I’m a huge organization freak so it came naturally I guess. It’s been 9 months actually, from the first inception of this group until the full-length release date. Originally we wanted to do it on Valentines Day but we had added Emily to the band by then and wanted to make sure she was on this album. The next best release date (we wanted something memorable) was February 29th. It occurred to me this is a leap year and I suppose you can say the album will only be a year old in four years when we have the next year with 29 days in February! We thought that was kind of funny, and it’s not something anyone can do very easily for obvious reasons. (laughs)
EV: The first single ‘Common Knowledge’ has a cool retro-alternative feel blending perfectly with your country/folk roots. How would you describe the general sound of this album?
Randy: Like a country living calico cat that wanders into town, gets lost in a city for a couple days, then makes his way back to town more savvy for the experience. What was the question again? Oh yeah … we have a more rural sound but with hints of urban. That song was kind of the oddball though and I almost cut it from the album, but everyone thought it would be good to have something a bit more “out there” than the rest. Once the background vocals got added on the album track version, it took a turn to what Brian called “cinematic”. There’s a lot going on when you listen close but it still has a lot of space and has a bit heavier sound, especially on the chorus where it is very driving. I’m glad you think it blends.
Brian: This album sounds like what your iPod playlist probably sounds like. A little bit of everything, yet tied together neatly because it’s your soundtrack. Some of it sounds like Johnny Cash’s band gets held hostage by the Rolling Stones. (laughter)
Emily: I would say the general sound … this is hard to describe … kind of a mixture of rootsy music and contemporary music, like Fleetwood Mac meets the Killers or The Beatles jammed with Feist. I mean the way the songs move around and mix genres and arrangements a lot.
EV: That’s what I loved the most about your album, there are so many different sounds but they all work so well together. With your song ‘Abilene’ you veer from the traditional route by using a ¾ time waltz. This is a perfect way to add an entirely different emotional layer to the song. Where in the songwriting process did you decide on the waltz?
Randy: It’s not something you think about, you just do it. It was more in the song “picking” process so I’ll defer to Brian. He wrote it. I produced it more or less and dressed it up.
Brian: It just came out that way. We’ve written a lot of waltzes. I think my thought pattern runs in a triplet. So many songs that I begin start out either in 3/4 or 6/8 (which is really just 3/4 after having 7 cups of coffee). (laughter) And reminiscent songs that take place in old Texas dance halls cry out for a waltz beat!
EV: When collaborating on songwriting how are you able to merge your work together, for instance does one person focus on lyrics while someone else creates the melodies?
Brian: Outside the studio, we all write independently. As for me, especially with what we’ll be recording for the next album, Casey (he’s not here today) and I do a lot of collaborating. I tend to be able to write verses but no choruses. Casey has the knack to come up with the anthemic choruses that my writing needs. In the studio, however, we might listen to the song we are sculpting and one of us may just say, “what if we try this idea on that bit?” All very spontaneous really.
Randy: We each write most of our songs independently, then help each other with small bits, like a word or phrase, sometimes a structure, or suggest an intro or outro, things like that. Usually after the song is taken to the band in bare bones form that’s when it gets worked up more into its final form. And in the studio. A lot of creativity is spontaneous in the studio. Any one of us could write any kind of song but I feel Brian is better with lyrics and I with melodies. He’s a word person. So is Casey. Emily and I like melody and harmony more but we’re all capable of anything. Brian and Casey have similar writing styles and Emily and I do as well, so we’re kind of two small teams within the big team but then put it all together. You’ll probably see more collaborations in the near future. Brian is working on a huge anthem (for maybe album 4 or 5) and Emily and I are working on a duet type-thing for the next which will be kind of how “I Found You” turned out but with more interactions within the song. All awesome stuff in the works!
EV: It is rare to have a tri-fronted band. How do you make it work sharing the spotlight and decision making process?
Emily: Personally, I’m used to being the main focus coming straight from being a solo artist and then joining the band. I actually really prefer sharing the spotlight with Brian and Randy, I don’t like all the attention focused on me. I think we all mesh well and our on-stage personalities really compliment each other. We kind of feed off of each other, Brian could nod at me and then we’re both jumping while playing guitar. (laughs) There’s no selfishness or dominating persons in our group.
Randy: Just very interesting personalities, peculiarities, and idiosyncrasies! (laughter) We learned to share in Kindergarten! (laughter) And we all have a deep respect for each other’s talent. My background is musical theatre with a lot of people on stage together sharing the spotlight (and never forget the people running the spotlight!). It takes a team for a good production. It’s less pressure and more fun. Decisions are pretty democratic. Sometimes you need to lead, sometimes you need to follow. A good leader knows both, and knows how to delegate. Aggregation leads to frustration. I think triple-fronted is a huge strength. Even Casey sings some lead parts on “Can’t Sleep For Venus” though he mostly sings backup and harmonies.
Brian: We each carry different strengths for different sides of the band. Randy is master of behind the scenes stuff. He’s the one you talk to if you want to get a straight answer on what we’re doing. I am more the emcee, the stage performer, I think I’m just very comfortable being up there. Emily, we are finding out, is the more personable one who can mingle and schmooze the venues and crowds and not feel awkward. I think that’s why we are able to do this so well. Each of us is a fine songwriter in his or her own right.
Emily: We all have our own jobs within the band, kind of like what Brian said, one is better than the other at certain things. It all evens out when we work together and it works out in the end.
Brian: Our decision making process is like our song writing process, we all come in with different decisions and then make different decisions. (laughter)
EV: Have you found that in playing your own instruments it gives you the flexibility to improvise the harmony in the moment of performing rather than relying on a set standard?
Brian: What?? (All laugh at Brian)
Randy: Brian and I have been playing and singing together for many years so we know each other pretty well and can adapt in a live setting to any deviations from the standard. We get adventurous on occasions. You become a part of your instrument and vocal, I can’t imagine NOT playing and singing though I think it must be easier to be a singer/performer when you’re hands are more free and not wrapped around the neck of a guitar or bass.
Emily: Yeah I agree
Brian: I’m a fan of spontaneity. I understand that we all need to rehearse and I love the tightness we achieve by doing that. But when it comes to a show I like throwing curve balls. I can see changing some of the songs on After All sounding completely different 1 or 2 tours from now. We actually did work up a reggae version of “Kitty Kat” one night at rehearsal just for a giggle. Am I throwing out a spoiler? Maybe?
EV: Which musicians have inspired you?
Randy: First I just want to say that I think our most common thread between all of us, as songwriters at least, is The Beatles. And we all love harmonies.
Randy (continued): Since we are multi-instrumental this could be a long answer ha ha. For me personally though, I’d say for bass guitar – Geddy Lee, Paul McCartney, and Sting. They could all sing and play bass, which isn’t easy sometimes but they showed me it could be done. Also anything from 60s and 70s Motown. For my guitar influence (which is how I do a lot of my writing, though sometimes on Piano too) I’d say my first influence was Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar work, those Led Zeppelin “B” sides were great! Then later guys like Michael Hedges and Alex De Grassi when I went through another altered- tuning phase.
Songwriting – I’ve always liked the melodic writing of Lerner and Lowe, Rogers and Hammerstein, Stephen Soundheim – the show tune writers you know. They really understood melody and counter melody, which is my big thing. I don’t remember lyrics very well (not even my own sometimes) but I remember melodies. And in more contemporary popular music of course, The Beatles, The Cure, Johnny Cash, John Mellencamp, Matraca Berg, Keith Urban, and Ron Sexsmith, just to name a few.
Emily: After consulting with my documents, I have concluded with the following report (laughs): my vocal influences are definitely Feist, Lykke Li, Rod Stewart, and Bonnie Tyler. My guitar playing influences begins with George Harrison, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, and Miike Snow. Overall general influences include John Lennon (solo), Foster the People, Jethro Tull, The Killers, and The Beatles of course.
Brian: Like Randy said, the Beatles. He and I also share admiration for the many faces of Neil Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House, Finn Brothers, Pajama Club). We like opposite sides of the same groups as well. We both like Fleetwood Mac: he likes the popular Buckingham-Nicks years whereas I’m more a fan of the Bob Welch years. He likes the Police, I like Sting (yes, Sting!). For me personally, Gordon Lightfoot has played the biggest role in giving me the image of the guitarist/singer/songwriter at the age of 3. Musically I love R.E.M. of all decades, primarily because they gave me more of, I think, more intelligent music than what else I was hearing growing up and into high school. Al Stewart also because of the more learned subjects he would tackle in his songs (great for the history major). From a guitar playing standpoint, Richard Thompson really is inspiring. Nick Drake also. If I could play even the smallest fraction as well as these guys I would really feel like I could do something with those 6 to 12 strings. Ha! I feel like I should be 30 or so years older than I am after hearing all these old school names I’m throwing out.
EV: What can we expect from you later on down the road? Have you already started scheduling shows for a tour?
Randy: Immediate future – shoot video and continue rehearsing for the live performances. We have to get Emily worked in all the way in the sets. And she has some great songs that will be on the next album that we will be playing live.
Tours are in the works, but no dates yet. I know Dallas/Fort Worth area is a must for us. Nashville also, where we have a lot of friends and some family. Mainly kind of medium region tours for now, but you never know what can happen. We love the studio but are itching to get back onstage. We intend to promote this album until autumn meanwhile getting tracks started for the next album on the in-betweens, and perhaps release a new single in the summer during that time. And hopefully get the next album done before the year is up. That’s the goal – two albums in one year! It can be done easily if there are no surprises. We’ve already started selecting songs for it. Between the three of us we have over four or five hundred songs. We have high output, which is a good reason to have our own label. A bigger one couldn’t keep up. We love writing songs!
Emily: We’ve got cities in mind but nothing scheduled yet, but we are looking forward to getting on the road after I’ve been fully worked into all the songs. I’ve got some bugs to work out … some of Brian’s chord progressions get me mixed up. (laughs)
Brian: Film some videos, another album, children’s coloring book, action figures, our own fragrance … (laughter and groans)
Emily: And my own clothing line! (dramatic pause) I’m just kidding! (laughs)
Randy: Down the road artistically though, I think we’ll always have roots. My own writing has always had a bit of pop influence in it, it just comes out that way, maybe ‘cause I grew up on top 40 stuff, but we like to experiment. Sound is our canvas, our voices and instruments are our paintbrushes.
EV: Wow, that is the perfect metaphor. You have a very close relationship with your fans and even share sneak peaks of songs with your mailing list subscribers. How important is it for a band to personally connect with their fans in today’s social networking environment?
Emily: We have a lot of fans following us on Twitter, I have great chats with them, I love being in contact with people that listen to our music. Literally everyone who has listened to Barley Station will tell me how much they like our sound, and I try to keep in contact with them. It’s a special bond, they like the “intimacy” and I like knowing what they think and I feel it keeps me grounded, like I’m constantly reminded of my roots. I never want to forget where I came from, when that happens that’s when you lose your fans because you can’t connect with them anymore.
Randy: I’ve always loved it when bands I like share sneak peaks so we try to do the same thing. Empathy is important. I think people connect with our music because it delves into all aspects of human existence. That connection thing is important. As for today’s social networking environment – hmmm – it’s definitely important but there’s still nothing like seeing a live concert!
EV: I wholeheartedly agree with that, live shows are the best way to connect with a band. What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
Randy: Never give up. Find what you’re really good at and utilize your strengths and strengthen your weaknesses. And do what comes natural. I don’t pay attention to sound trends. Just do your own thing.
Emily: You need to be sure to surround yourself with people who can work together and lift each other up. Also, don’t try to be a certain “sound”. When you try too hard, you sound terrible. A lot of artists and bands never get far when they force themselves to be a certain way, just go with the flow.
EV: One last question, if a music themed restaurant based solely on this album opened in your hometown of O Fallon, Missouri, what would the signature dish be?
Brian: I don’t know, I got nothing. I generally live on a steady diet of rice and sugarsnap peas. Last Nashville Roast Beef??? On barley bread??
Randy: Casey is the food expert. Brian, call Casey! (Brian calls Casey on his cell phone – but no answer)
Brian: Ok, just answer for him then.
Randy: Ok. Hmm. A sandwich on barley bread! (defensively) that’s what he would say, I’m sure – maybe a BLT …
Emily: No no no no no, it would be … um …. well, definitely bar-b-que. It’d have to be something like a beef brisket with a sweet and smoky sauce, on barley-wheat bread. Now I’m hungry …
Randy: Well, we agree on the bread at least. Next song! (laughter) And that’s how we roll!
EV: (laughs) Now that’s funny! Thank you all so much for sharing with us today.
All: You’re welcome and thank you so much for taking your time with us. It’s been fun!