At the second night of a three-part Don Giovanni showcase last Friday, we caught up with three of the New Brunswick-based punk label’s brightest and best. We also decided to pioneer a new interviewing technique based on a popular children’s fortune telling game, using a folded paper “cootie-catcher” (or “saltcellar” or “chatterbox” or “whirlybird” or whatever you may have called it).
Laura Stevenson’s been a part of the Don Giovanni family for a few years now, having released a solo project under the name Laura Stevenson & the Cans on the label in 2010. Stevenson released Wheel last year to much acclaim, keeping her live band but dropping ‘the Cans’ from the moniker for more clarity. “Now it’s just my name, and it’s really really weird. I don’t know how to introduce us” she says, laughing warmly. She and her four bandmates recently moved into a house together formerly rented by The Felice Brothers, a folk rock band with whom they’ve frequently shared a bill. Her history of making music stretches far back into her childhood (her grandfather was the composer who wrote “Little Drummer Boy” among other Christmas classics), with stints as a keyboardist in Bomb the Music Industry! and Radiator Hospital.
LAURA PICKS BANANA, 5, 2, 6 and gets the question: What’s the best song someone’s ever put on a mixtape for you?
LS: My friend Katie made me like the best mixtapes ever. She introduced me to a lot of bands. she introduced to the Mountain Goats, and she put that song “Going to Georgia” on it, which was really good.
AF: Were you going to Georgia at the time?
LS: Well, no. But I’m usually traveling so maybe she foresaw that happening.
AF: Do you have mixtape go-tos?
LS: I really like that song “Maria” by American Steel. I put that on mixtapes, that’s a good one.
LAURA PICKS TREE, 3, 8, 8 and gets the question: Name something that inspires you to create music.
LS: I guess just life, just things that I’m experiencing personally. I have a lot of feelings, which can be hard for me. I’ve never done hallucinogenic drugs because I’m terrified of what’s going to come up. My friend was like “You’ll think about every blade of grass,” I’m like “I already think about every blade of fucking grass.” I don’t want to think about everything. Maybe it would actually be freeing, because I do worry about lots of things. I feel like maybe all of that is fodder for a long career of songwriting. Or maybe my head will just explode.
LAURA PICKS SKULL, 2, 7, 5 and gets the question: I don’t if you read what people write about you, but you have a very unique voice. What’s the most annoying phrase a music writer has ever used to describe your voice or your music?
LS: I read everything. I’m not at a place where I don’t desperately care what people are saying. Let’s se, uhm… “cute”. That’s like across the board. It’s like oh, I’m like a baby. Or a small dog. And not like a grown woman with like real-ass problems.
LAURA PICKS KEYBOARD, 4, 4, 9 and gets the question: Tell me more about your childhood – growing up on sugar barges, having a grandfather who penned some very well-known songs…. I was just wondering if you hate Christmas music.
LS: I love Christmas music, for sure! My parents got divorced when I was very little so it was like having two childhoods. At my dad’s house he was super into music, always playing guitar. And he was in the shipping business so he would always take me on big rigs, on Domino ships. The sugar ships were the worst smelling things in the world. The thing is, the sugar gets spilled out of whatever the containers are, like on the deck. And the water comes up because it’s crossing the Atlantic. So briny salt water mixed with the sugar… it makes it smell like greek olives but like rotting Greek olives. But I really loved just being on those huge ships. Things at my dad’s house were a little loose. He would take me to see Jerry Garcia bands and all those iterations of Grateful Dead and then we’d go to go see Phish, and that was a whole thing.
AF: And yet you’ve never done hallucinogens?
LS: I probably have, just like, accidentally, in the air somewhere. But I would hang out with people that were definitely on acid, they’d be spinning around and dancing, and I was a little girls so I was like “This is cool! These people are awesome! They’re treating me like I’m their equal!” And then at my mom’s house, she was like “Play piano!” As a single mom she was working her ass off but she was constantly taking me to lessons because she saw that I had an ear for the music. And her parents are the musicians. So they were always coming over and my mom would say “Play them something!” And I was like “Noooooo, that’s fucking terrifying.” My grandfather plays Bach – closes his eyes and plays the most difficult thing in the world. And my grandmother was an incredible piano player, it was so crazy. So I would never want to play for them. And then I started writing stuff, and my grandfather helped put things on staff paper for me and that was really exciting. There was always kind of a pressure, but I was the only grandkid on that side that got into music, so I felt like I had to represent. It was kinda scary.
AF: Did they ever get to hear your music? It’s pretty different from “Little Drummer Boy”.
LS: No, they’re long gone. “Little Drummer Boy” is a fucking weird song, it’s based on a Hungarian carol. So it has these hints of Eastern Europe and very interesting melodies. It’s one of the weirder Christmas songs. And people hate it. But I like it cause it’s just like, oh yeah… it’s the song. My grandfather was a famous choral arranger, that was his big thing, so all my chorus teachers growing up would study him when they were studying how to be chorus teachers. I don’t know what kind of classes you take in college for that… choral science?
AF: And they knew that you were related.
LS: Yeah, and they were so into it. At least for the first week of school, and then they’d be like “This little girl is annoying, never mind.” I thought we were friends! But it worked for a little bit. I was a star student.
LAURA PICKS TREE, 5, 7, 4 and gets the question: Do you think fans of Bomb the Music Industry! or Radiator Hospital were surprised by the direction you took with “Wheel”? Just in that it steps away from lo-fi recording and has a more polished sound.
LS: As far as people that knew my writing and were fans already, I feel like they were like coming along on the ride with us. So I haven’t gotten and flak from fans of other bands I’ve been in.
AF: I wouldn’t expect flak, I think people were probably pleasantly surprised that you pulled it off while staying true to your prior work.
LS: They’re super open, and that’s really cool. Bomb definitely draws a crowd of people that are open. Either they like it or they don’t, but they don’t say that they don’t like it if they don’t like it. They just quietly don’t like it. But they will request Bomb the Music Industry! songs at shows. My accordion player reminded me of this today – the last time we were in Dallas we had all these nice posters and we thought, either we’ll give one to someone if they buy something, or they can get a poster if they give a dollar fifty or whatever they wanna give, so we had a sign that said FREE POSTER WITH TIP. And this kid after the show goes “Here’s a tip: play more Bomb the Music Industry! covers” took a poster and walked away. So maybe there are some fans out there that might not be into it.
AF: I mean, is that hard for you to do both things? I’m sure your head is in different spaces approaching each project.
LS: Yeah, but this is where I do the writing. With anything else I’m just playing whatever somebody else writes. I’m enthusiastic about it, if I like the person’s writing. I’m not gonna play with a band that I don’t like. I’m not going to do guest vocals on a record that I don’t believe in. I did something for our friends The Saddest Landscape, the polar opposite of our band. They’re a screamo band from Boston, and they’re super super awesome, and people still thought it was weird. But if I believe in something, it doesn’t feel weird to me at all.
AF: Music is music, it’s probably good to switch it up.
LS: Yeah, it definitely changes your brain. I can be open to different ideas melodically.
That covered one of our other questions as well, so we skipped it. Next, LAURA PICKS SKULL, 3, 5, 3 and gets the question: If you met someone who had never heard your album, how would you recommend they listen to it?
LS: The order?
AF: No, in what setting. I listened to it a lot while I was driving on a recent trip home. And it was perfect.
LS: I was gonna say driving, because even though car stereos might not be the best you’re still getting stereo. Our van is very wide, so the speakers are like very far apart. So you can really hear the ideas that the engineer had when they were mixing it. So depending on how wide your dashboard is I think the car is a good spot. There are some slower songs, so definitely not if you’re tired, but usually it gets picked up with an energetic one right after, just in case people are starting to get bored.
LS: I don’t know! It was so weird!
AF: Did anyone claim it?
LS: No, nobody told us. We were in kind of in an industrial area. We were out East, in Copiague, Suffolk county, Long Island, seeing a band called Iron Chic. I’d never been to Copiague. I drove my van to the show because we don’t have a car, just use the van when we drive around, and right underneath that back tire was a giant dildo. It was crazy. And the dildo was a deep black color, the color of the asphalt. But it was kind of raining, so there was a little glimmer of wetness. Otherwise I wouldn’t have seen it. I just saw moonlight shining off of it. And I was like, that can’t possibly be a dildo, that’s ridiculous. But it was a dildo. It was so crazy. I thought somebody was probably playing a trick on us, but after this all happened and I put it on the net, people were saying, “Yeah, people find dildos all the time.” And apparently there’s this dildo-finder twitter and they retweeted me. They just retweet anybody that finds a dildo. There are so many people, they turn up everywhere, who knows why? I guess if you’re in a car and you’re going somewhere and you’re using it with someone, and you’re like “gotta destroy the evidence” and just toss it? I’m not sure.
AF: Dildos are expensive though.
LS: Yeah. They’re like $25, the cheapest ones. So yeah, I don’t know.
AF: A mystery for the ages.
As silly as that story might seem, Stevenson’s music is all about untangling life’s absurd mysteries. Calling her “cute” is an absolute disservice; on stage she is nothing short of captivating. She exudes the kind of confidence that must come from a lifetime of performing, the range of her voice not only robust but extremely emotive. She never lets it get away from her, knowing when to belt out her unabashed lyrics and when to whisper more tender ones. At the Don Giovanni showcase, she played plenty of material from Wheel but didn’t neglect the older songs in her catalogue like “Nervous Rex” and “Master of Art”, the latter of which she dedicated to her sister, who was in the crowd. She shared funny anecdotes between songs, and though she introduced most of her tunes as “sad” there were plenty of smiling faces in the audience, often singing along.