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Across Tundras Members Discuss The Band's New Album "Sage"

The sound of Across Tundras has hints of metal, psychedelic, folk, country, and blues; pretty much any style of music you can imagine. All of these clashing musical genres somehow make sweet music, and the band harnesses this power to craft earthly, raw albums that lean far away from any kind of linearity.

Their latest album, “Sage,” continues this direction with better production and a stronger chemistry between vocalist/guitarist Tanner Olson, bassist Matt Shively, and drummer Dan Catron. I was scheduled to have a chat with Olson, but got a pleasant surprise when Shively joined in the conversation to offer his perspective on “Sage.” The interview jumps between the two musicians, as they discuss a wide variety of topics regarding the band’s love of demoing material and the importance of the record on a personal level.

Heavytothebone2: The band has a new album out, “Sage.” Now, their last album, “Old World Wanderer,” came out just last year. What do you attribute the short time between this album and “Old World Wanderer” to?

Tanner Olson: We kind of recorded “Old World Wanderer” on the fly. Right when Matt (Shively, bassist) joined the band, we had a fist-fury of creativity and we were playing a lot and jamming a lot. Those songs came together fast. We actually recorded that record pretty quick after he joined the band.

With this new one, we had time to tour on that one a bit. We did a big West Coast tour last April, went out for about three weeks. We got home and we didn’t really plan on writing a record, but we were taking a little time off that we kept jamming and all the songs just started coming out. We don’t have any trouble writing songs. The songs flow and the riffs flow really good when we start jamming together.

Heavytothebone2: Since you had more time to develop that chemistry between yourself and Matt, do you think the songs came out better than the last album?

Tanner Olson: Yeah, definitely. We sat down and we started writing it last April. We were practicing them non-stop all the way up until late November, when we started recording. We demoed the songs a whole bunch of times over, and we recorded two or three versions of some of those songs. We had really clear ideas of what we were going to do with even the production before we went in recording the record. Nothing on that record was really on the fly. We knew what we were going into and it turned out great.

Heavytothebone2: You said you recorded two or three versions of certain songs. Did the songs change between each version?

Tanner Olson: I think this is definitely a good question for Matt to answer. He went and recorded whole demos of songs, like “Hijo De Desierto” and “The Book Of Truth.” He can tell you a little bit about the recording process of those and how they evolved.

Matt Shively: When I first wrote the two I did, they sounded completely different than how they sounded on “Sage.” “The Book Of Truth” was more of a Doors-type song. “Hijo De Desierto” was even more stripped-down, because I used regular chords on it. Tanner really expanded upon that on that song with the way he plays guitar is completely different than my way of chording. It made it way more interesting than the original demo version. After we recorded as a band a couple of times, we made changes and recorded it again with the changes. So we got three or four versions of some songs, where you can hear how they developed each time they are demoed.

Heavytothebone2: What do you do with the demos that you leave behind?

Matt Shively: I still listen to them sometimes because they sound completely different. As far as what we will do with them, pretty much nothing. I would like to at least give them away. Maybe put them up on our website as a free download down the road.

Heavytothebone2: I talked to Tanner earlier about how you came into the band when the last album came out, so you didn’t really have that much time to form some type of chemistry. From your perspective, how did you feel about writing and recording this material compared to the past album?

Matt Shively: There’s a big difference, as far as my role in it. With “Wanderer,” I did a lot of improvising on that album. I knew the basic structures and I would just jam out on them, like you would in jazz. With this one, since we’ve been practicing so much, I had time to go over my parts. I have more set parts now, and I still improvise over the “Wanderer” stuff live. This time, I think it’s more calculated.

Heavytothebone2: When you play these songs on “Sage” live, do you see opportunities to be able to improvise on some parts?

Matt Shively: Yeah, I still do. I’m allowed to do some stuff that I thought of afterwards was cool, so I just throw it in there since we’re doing it live and having fun with it. The “Wanderer” stuff, I feel that there is a ton of room to improvise on. We play some of those completely different than we did on the album now. It’s got a little bit more riffs in them.

Heavytothebone2: So when you play these songs live on the upcoming spring tour at the end of the month, do you see some of these songs evolving like the “Wanderer” songs did in a live setting?

Matt Shively: Well, what we’re doing now is we’ll pair them up and keep a really good flow going with our live set now. We might throw some end of one song from “Wanderer” into something on stage. That’s kind of developed in that sense, as far as trying to connect them together. The “Sage” stuff sounds a lot like on the album. I might jam out a little bit extra on there sometimes, on certain nights, but I pretty much stay true to formula on that stuff and jam out more on the “Wanderer” stuff.

Heavytothebone2: Did you demo any material that didn’t get on the final album, and if you did, what kind of stuff was left out?

Matt Shively: We were going to do this whole interlude thing in-between the songs that were just instrumental pieces, supposed to be more like soundtrack-y. After we were done recording the actual songs on there, it took up a lot of space, so we didn’t really have room for it. Over the last few weeks, Tanner and I have been recording and mixing some stuff from that, as well as some new stuff. We have a CD-R we’re going to bring out on tour. It’s going to have some of those interludes that were supposed to be on “Sage.”

Heavytothebone2: What did those interludes sound like? Did they all have a connecting theme behind them?

Matt Shively: Some of them are the same one, we would just do it a different way later. We wanted to break them up throughout the album. They’re instrumental. There were no words to them, to kind of give them a movie feel to them.

Heavytothebone2: By the time you guys got in the studio, did you feel you had the bass parts down or were you able to work around and evolve them in the studio?

Matt Shively: All of them were completely worked out by the time we were recording. We had demoed them so much, but the last track on there, “Shunka Sapa,” was pretty much all improv on that. I knew where the chord changes were and I just do runs right there. That was the only one that developed in the studio. The rest of them, I had them drilled in my head time and time again, so those I felt really solid about.

Heavytothebone2: I think “Shunka Sapa” is a very interesting track, because it feels like a true jam. Where did that song come from?

Matt Shively: We knew we wanted to do one, like how we did on “Wanderer” with “Rainmaker.” We had the basic structure of it and that came as we were writing it. We saved a lot of it for inside the studio. Most of it was based off a set rhythm and we just built upon it and take it somewhere else at the end. That part was pretty rehearsed. As far as my part, I pretty much saved it until right then.

Heavytothebone2: Were there ever any lyrics or vocals for that song?

Matt Shively: No, that was written as an instrumental.

Heavytothebone2: Do you see you guys playing that one live on your upcoming tour?

Matt Shively: We haven’t been playing that one lately. It would be cool to start practicing that one again, but we’re just doing a mixture of “Wanderer” and “Sage” stuff on tour. A pretty good amount of each, more “Sage” than “Wanderer.” It’s a pretty good mix. We start off with “Vanguard Battle Hymn” from “Old World Wanderer,” then just take it from other songs from “Sage” from that point.

Heavytothebone2: What’s your favorite bass part on the album?

Matt Shively: I like “In The Name Of River Grand.” It was a change we made in the last second. Right before it get real heavy on “River Grand,” there’s a part that me and Tanner do the same riff on. We weren’t do that until the last second, then we tried that. I love that part. Playing that live is really hard, but it’s fun.

Heavytothebone2: What songs from “Sage” are you personally excited to be preforming in a live setting?

Matt Shively: “Tchulu Junction,” because that one’s got a lot of crazy parts and it’s fun to play. “Hijo De Desierto” is just an awesome one to rock out to. It’s hard to pick a favorite one. This week, I guess it’s “Tchulu Junction,” but it could be different later on in the tour.

Heavytothebone2: What does this album represent to you not only as a musician, but as a person?

Matt Shively: We focused on it and made a list of things to do and just knocked them out. It wasn’t near as hard as we thought it was going to be, but at the same time, we worked our asses off. It raised the bar for us, I feel like. Now since we put this out, we want to try something different next album.

(Author note: At this point, Shively departed from the interview and Tanner Olson was brought back into the conversation)

Heavytothebone2: When I talked with Shively, we talked about the bass parts on “Sage,” and I want to now talk a little bit about the guitar work. What moods or atmospheres did you want to express with your guitar playing on “Sage”?

Tanner Olson: I think I’ve always tried to go for something that felt natural and familiar, rooted very earthy. I based a lot of my playing on traditional American music, whether it’s blues, jazz, folk, or country, and re-amplify it a little bit and tweak it a little bit. I play through an old SG and I play through a Fender two-band and that kind of stuff gives it a distinct sound I think to the guitar work.

A lot of metal bands nowadays, they play those amps that have so much crunch in them that it takes the feeling away. When you’re playing those Fenders that have all that clean headroom, you have to really lock into your guitar a little bit more. They’re not as forgiving. I’m really happy how the guitar parts turned out on “Sage,” more so than anything I’ve recorded before. I think it’s a really good representation of what it sounds like live.

Heavytothebone2: I talked to Matt about the songs he wrote. For the songs you wrote for the album, where do the ideas come from? Do you start with a riff and it goes from there?

Tanner Olson: There will definitely be songs that Matt and I will each bring to the table. The early stages of the ideas are pretty fully formed, even in the instrumentation. I kind of did that with “Buried Arrows.” That was an acoustic demo...with that song, we didn’t know totally what we were going to do going in.

Some of the stuff, like “In The Name Of River Grand,” a lot of those riffs will come from when we practice. We’ll take 30 minute of practice and just jam out. Sometimes, when you’re jamming out that way, you’re really tapping into a different part of your playing than when you’re calculating your stuff.

We always come up with something when we’re jamming, completely unrehearsed. Somebody will remember afterwards and be like, ‘We got to work on that.’ We take some of those really good ideas and refine them. Maybe one of us have a half-finished song and we have this whole catalog of jamming to go back to and parts we might remember, if we’re ever stumped on a change. There’s a lot of riffs out there, so we really don’t have too much trouble (laughs).

Heavytothebone2: What interested me about what you said is how “Buried Arrows” started as an acoustic song. Did you ever think about having that as a pure acoustic track, like “The Old Sexton”?

Tanner Olson: Yeah, definitely. “Vanguard Battle Hymn” started out as this folky, dark bluegrass number with mandolin and stuff. We thought there were some parts in it that would work really good with electric and in a little heavier sense, and like I said, to amplify it and put a little analog delay on it and put some more grit on the bass. It gives it a whole different presentation.

On “Buried Arrows,” we tried to keep it really traditional with the instrumentation and tried to not put a lot of distortion on it. That happens with a lot of our songs. They start out sounding completely different than they end up, when we represent them in a rock n’ roll setting. We have those two faces to our band. We really like playing our acoustics and our mandolins on our porch, and a lot of ideas come from that. When we play live and we go to record, a lot of it gets electrified.

Heavytothebone2: Have you ever thought about doing an album that is entirely acoustic?

Tanner Olson: I think it will happen sometime. We’ve also talked about playing some shows that way, going back and pulling songs from our very first record. Those are all still in our catalog, to some extent. Matt and I have jammed out a lot of those songs. It wouldn’t take us very long to bring them back. We definitely talked about getting a bunch of our friends together, because we would need some more instrumentation to pull it off. That is something that I think you can expect to see at some point in time.

Heavytothebone2: Which song are you most satisfied from a guitar standpoint?

Tanner Olson: The most challenging song for me to play personally, if I was worried about any song going into the recording, would be the first one that we wrote for the album, which was “In The Name Of River Grand.” We’ve been playing that song for a year. Just the vocal interplay with the guitar work; I guess I’m just judging it from a live standpoint. The guitar stuff was quite challenging. We recorded everything right at our house in our studio out here. It was really comfortable. I think I really nailed that song in one take. I don’t think there’s a punch-in on that whole song at all. I was pretty stoked.

Even through the whole album, there’s very limited fixing. We tracked everything live in the room, with our amps turned on a little to get good isolation for the drums. The basic tracking is all live, but we went back and redid our guitar parts and the bass parts, over the top of it. Even when we did that, we do that stuff in a take and try to maintain the live feel of it.

Heavytothebone2: What’s more challenging for you; doing vocals or playing guitar?

Tanner Olson: I think I have a lot of room to keep growing as vocalist and as a guitar player. Before, vocals were very secondary to me for a long time. We would play some shows where I would not even sing the parts right. Now, if they are on a recording, that’s how they are going to sound live. I practice hard to make it sound correct like that. I’ve been doing a lot more work; definitely as a vocalist, I think there is a big leap there. I have a long way to go as a guitar player too. I think integrating the two and making them tasteful and tight and sound good live is the most difficult. It’s not really one or the other; it’s just doing them both and walking away from a show feeling like you really executed them both well.

Heavytothebone2: Do you feel like you’ve reached a point as a musician where you can do both in a live setting and feel satisfied with the results?

Tanner Olson: Yeah, definitely. I couldn’t say that until maybe the last year. It started with that tour we did back in April. We’ve been really rehearsing hard for the past two-plus years, starting with when we were writing that “Wanderer” stuff. Just all the playing, playing the songs live, has really helped that feel comfortable to me. Now, going into a show, I feel pretty confident I know where the keys are at. Even if I can’t hear myself in the PA, I feel pretty comfortable with the singing. I feel a lot better walking away from shows now, like I executed both good.

Heavytothebone2: Where there any song ideas or demos you had that didn’t turn up on the album?

Tanner Olson: Oh yeah (laughs). Matt and I are constantly recording. We both go to a recording school for music technology. I say we’ve both been experimenting with recording since we were 12 years old. That’s something I’ve always done, and when I ran into him (Matt) and met him, I saw it was something he always did. We had piles and piles of everything from reggae songs to Joy Division, whatever we did when we were bored.

We have a lot of stuff that fits in with Across Tundras that hasn’t seen the light of day yet, but we’re not too shy about releasing any of that stuff. We like to put the demos and other stuff out there. We recorded it, we did it; why not put it out there? A lot of bands shy away from that and they go with the studio album mentality. I think the way music is going right now, that’s not enough anymore. I think it’s cool to be personal and put those personal recordings out there.

Heavytothebone2: Tell me about the tour you guys are doing in May and June across the whole United States.

Tanner Olson: We’re going to hit up the whole Eastern half of the United States, up through the Northeast and all the way over to Chicago. Probably in late September/early October, we’re going to hit the West Coast and do the whole loop around the country like we did last April. By the fall, we would want to have played about every state in the lower 48.

Heavytothebone2: I asked this to Matt already, and I wanted to get your opinion on it. What does this album represent to you not only as a musician, but as a person?

Tanner Olson: I think you get to a point in your life when you become aware of everything and everything starts making sense. I was a teenager until I was 28, and now that I’ve turned 30, I feel like things are starting to make sense. I’m starting to feel a lot more comfortable as a musician and as a person. Just trying to work towards better things and being self-aware.

“Sage,” on a musical level, represents us growing as a band and as songwriters and as musicians. It has that personal level too. We’re all about trying to live a positive lifestyle. We have our own organic farm out here and we’re really involved in the local food scene and try to promote eating healthy and not big corporate bullshit basically. That’s something I really started to grow into the last three or four years of my life. That’s the direction I think we want to keep going. Positivity keeps the music flowing really good too.

Heavytothebone2: If you could tour with one band, past or present that you’ve never toured with, who would it be and why?

Tanner Olson: If we could go on tour with Black Sabbath when they were touring Paris in 1970, I don’t know if it gets much better than that. They were out of control at that point in time.

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