I had an opportunity to chat with Michael Ford, Jr. of The Apache Relay, currently touring to support their new album, the self-titled Apache Relay, which is, hands down, one of the best albums of 2014. If you’re in or near Nashville, you can see them perform at Nashville Dancin’ FOR FREE on July 3rd, along with some fantastic other bands, like Steelism, Promised Land Sound, and ELEL. “Doors” (there aren’t really any doors since it’s outside, but you get the point) are at 5pm and the show starts at 6pm. Did I mention it’s free? Get there!
Eo8: I’m going to try really hard not to geek out because I’m a huge Apache Relay fan; I first saw you perform back in 2011 at The Fillmore in Charlotte when you opened for Young The Giant, it was a great show. I can safely say I downloaded your then-new album American Nomad before I even left the show that night. We didn’t get any new music from the band until early spring 2014 when you released the single “Katie Queen of Tennessee.” Why was there so much time between American Nomad and Apache Relay?
MFJ: Well, one of the reasons is that we were touring on Nomad for such a long time, and we were going through a bunch of musical evolutions during that time period, we were trying to figure out what the next step was musically after Nomad. We would go into the studio and demo, and we’d be writing songs, we’d take them back out on the road, and we’d realize it wasn’t quite what we were trying to go for, so we would keep going through that process over and over again of writing songs and trying to find the right ones, trying to find the right next step for the band. We definitely felt like we were a different band than the one that made American Nomad. We felt like we had grown a lot, our tastes had changed. So yeah, part of that was just a musical journey, just waiting for it to feel right, to make another record. We wanted to be patient with it and not force it or try to make something happen that wasn’t organic. All in all, the touring and writing and trying to find the right sound took about 3 years.
Eo8: How many songs do you think you wrote to try to form the new album?
MFJ: There were probably 40 songs, there were so many. We got out to California to record, and of those 40, we only used about 10 or 12; we kind of restructured them from the ground up out there. We ended up rewriting a lot of them again out there, making new versions of older songs.
Eo8: I love your new sound. I liked your folk rock sound a lot too, but I’m a retro girl at heart, so I enjoy the vintage sound and the dreamy, reverb-y vocals. What inspired the change?
MFJ: We went out to California, and we were rewriting the songs like I said, and we felt like the songs dictated that production; “Katie Queen of Tennessee” was the first song that we finished out there, and it felt retro and poppy, and we thought it was the kind of song that would take reverb-y vocals and that Phil Specter thing, that kind of vibe, that kind of late 60s early 70s pop. That era is really something that the whole band is behind, it’s a part of us all pretty naturally, we all love that sound, so that’s how it kind of came out, that’s how it was. We didn’t go into it planning on doing the retro pop thing, it just kind of happened while we were in the studio. I certainly feel like we’ve come full circle, that we’ve all kind of come into this full circle place and I think we’re all excited about where we are, and it feels authentic to all of us, which is great, it’s exciting. It takes a while for a group of 5-6 people to be doing something that’s in line with everyone’s view of what the music should sound like, and I feel like we’ve gotten to that place.
Eo8: Will you continue to play your older material?
MFJ: Yeah! What we’ve done is, some songs we play just like we played them on Nomad, some of them we’ve actually revamped and redone to fit with our new material. The reworked Nomad songs are still true to the originals, you’re still going to hear the familiar vocal melodies, but with an updated aesthetic, to make it more cohesive, because there certainly is a gap between Nomad and the new record. We spent a while trying to figure out how to make both of them live together in the live setting.
Eo8: Would you say you are walking away from that folk rock style then?
MFJ: I would say that is accurate; what we did with Nomad was a time period thing, that’s what felt natural at the time. With that record also, we weren’t trying to do folk rock, it just kind of happened that way. I think with every record, our goal really is to not repeat ourselves; we want to keep pushing and keep exploring, and at the same time we are growing as people and I think that that also informs the way the songs turn out and the way the production turns out as well. I don’t think we’ll ever make another record that sounds “folk rock” like American Nomad.
Eo8: I love the new album, and it’s really hard for me to pick a favorite song, but I think “Terrible Feeling” might be it. I love the lyrics and its dreamy sound. A close second would be “Happiest Day of Your Life.” Can you tell us about the inspiration behind those songs?
MFJ: Whoa, alright, I like that, the slow ones! I want to give credit to Jonathan Rice, he wrote the lyrics for “Terrible Feeling” and a few others on the record, so credit to him for that for sure. I don’t want to speak to the inspiration for Jonathan’s lyrics, but the music part, that chord progression, was something that Kellen and Ben spearheaded before we went out to California, that’s kind of their baby. For me, that song was a standout on the record, because it had come such a long way from when we were tracking it to hearing the final version, it had grown so much, and I was thrilled with the way it turned out. “Happiest Day of Your Life” is actually a Jonathan Rice cover; we were in the studio and he mentioned that he had a song if we wanted to put it on the record. He played it for everybody and we were blown away by it. I wanted to track it, but I wanted to do it justice, it’s such an amazing song, and when he sings it, it’s incredible. It literally took me 3 months to get that take, that’s a completely live take of me playing and singing it. Basically the way we ended up getting the take was, I went into the tracking room, and we set up a couple of mics; our producer told me to go ahead and play the song so they could get levels and make sure it sounded right, and then we were going to actually record it for real. What I didn’t know was that they were recording the song while I was just playing through it, not thinking about it too much, just playing the song, and that ended up being the take that we used for the recording. I had to get outside of my head; when you are recording a song that’s that vulnerable, you want to do it justice and give it the feeling it deserves to have, it’s really easy to overthink it, so it took me a long time to kind of get inside that one and figure it out, but it worked out in the end.
Eo8: I have to ask about the Apache Relay album cover; it looks like Kellen [Wenrich] is jumping off of a roof into a pool, and I love that his hair is flying free; actually, one of the things I remember most from the first time I saw the band was Kellen’s hair. What is the inspiration behind this album cover?
MFJ: That beautiful mane….he hasn’t cut it since that show actually, it’s been growing ever since. That picture is from Bel-Air, at the house we rented and stayed in for about a month and a half, there was a pool there, and we’d swim after long days in the studio just to try to relax. We eventually found out that you could jump and make it from the roof to the pool, and we thought it would be amazing to try to capture that shot. We ended up being able to capture it and it worked as a record cover. It’s kind of ridiculous but I love it. It almost looks like Kellen is just placed in the air in the photograph, sometimes you can’t even tell he’s jumping off of a roof, it’s kind of crazy. It wasn’t a conscious effort, but I really like that both of our record covers have scenes of motion on them…this one and the bicycle photo from the cover of American Nomad.
Eo8: Are you excited to perform at Nashville Dancin’ tomorrow night (7/3)?
MFJ: Very, very excited. It’s going to be a good time. It’s so cool to be playing with all the bands on the bill. We’ll also have a string section performing with us, which is really cool, we’ve never had a string section play with us before. That’s going to be exciting. And it’s free! Everyone can just come on out and hang, it’s going to be a really good time.