Dan Nigro of As Tall As Lions
As Tall As Lions have been honing their craft since 1998, traipsing around the country and playing to increasingly larger crowds as their fans continue to spread the ATAL gospel. After over a year of touring with their most recent album, You Can’t Take It With You, this eclectic prog-rock conglomerate celebrated the completion of their tour with an all-ages crowd at the Middle East Downstairs on May 9th in Cambridge, MA.
Despite very different performance styles, the members of As Tall As Lions are able to pull together a pretty cohesive set. Dan Nigro, a powerhouse of slithering soul and the band’s lead singer, rotates barefooted between keyboard and mainstage guitar. Saen Fitzgerald, though as a guitarist is not often acutely featured onstage, is the real tour de force of the band, doing the majority of songwriting for the group even if not as much actual singing. Julio Tavarez, the band’s bassist, is more of an onstage exhibitionist, playing up to the very front of the crowd, leading mid-show banter, taking on lead vocals for a handful of songs, and toward the end of the show even coming down into the crowd to play. Cliff Sarcon, the band’s drummer, holds the show together with precision, wind in his hair (literally), and a very sparkly kit.
Don’t be fooled by their onstage Rock Star persona - the gents from As Tall As Lions are nice as can be, wandering in and out of the crowd without pretension, chatting with long-time fans before and after the show, and thanking their tour openers, Bear Hands, with class and whiskey shots. I was lucky enough to sit down with Dan (and Saen briefly) for a bit to discuss their varied sound, their interstate travels, and handclaps.
Interviewed by: Dorise Gruber
This most recent album, You Can’t Take It With You, seems to embrace a lot of different kinds of sound: ambient, soul, indie-pop, and electro-ballads. What do you see as the thread tying this album together, most representative of the sound you’re trying to accomplish?
You know, it’s hard to say. I think we were going for something very eclectic. We just, one thing we always talk about with the band – that if we’re writing the songs, they’re always going to sound like As Tall As Lions songs, you know? So no matter what we do or what style of song we’re trying to write, there’s always going to be something that connects it no matter what because the people writing it are always the same.
In listening to your album I sometimes hear seemingly opposing influences, depending on the song, so sometimes I hear you like Mars Volta, and sometimes like U2, sometimes a little more like Minus the Bear – who do you feel most influenced by?
Well, I think you hear opposing influences because everyone in the band is influenced by different music. So whereas our drummer listens to Mars Volta, I listen to U2, you know? So if you hear those two influences, that’s where that’s coming from. That’s why it might seem a little bit varied. So it’s different from band member to band member where the heart of their inspiration is coming from.
And most of you guys have been playing together for over a decade, so how do you manage to stay together this long without killing each other?
I don’t know! Haha, that’s a good question. I think having patience and trying to be as understanding as possible to everybody’s different personalities.
Right, right – and when did you guys get Julio?
2004, he’s been with us for 6 years, and Saen and Cliff and I have been playing together since 1998, so 12 years.
So you have toured with Silverchair, more recently Mutemath, I read Minus The Bear too, and now you’re headlining you’re own tour for the first time in awhile. How is it going from opening for some pretty big names to being the big ticket feature?
I like it, I like it. There’s different things that you get out of being an opening band and different things you get out of being the headlining band. When you are the opening band, you’re walking into the situation with a completely open palette, where the canvas is blank, and there’s a lot that can go really extreme. The crowd could just completely embrace you, and you know that you’re making this connection with somebody for the first time that will be really hard to match or that people will just not like it at all. So the highs and lows are more, because when you feel that connection for the first time with fans or people who listen to your music for the first time you can tell they’re experiencing this thing, that they’re really in that moment, and it’s really special. Whereas with headlining shows it’s really great because every night you know it’s going to go really well and that everyone who’s coming out is there to see you, so it’s really hard for it to go sour. But like, there’s also expectation involved with that, where fans – they’ve seen you before, they’ve already been really impressed with your show before, so they’re looking for it to be amazing, you know? So you really, at that point..it really depends, I like both, for different reasons. I like opening shows and I like headlining but there’s different energies to the shows.
You talk about the people who have seen you guys a lot – is the crowd what you would expect the crowd to be? What does your fan-base look like?
Most times, yeah. I think it’s pretty varied in age, you know, the type of people that come. From city to city it seems to be pretty similar, but there’s definitely a big age range from like 15 year olds to 55 year olds, so it’s very varied.
I’m really jealous you got to go to Coachella, so, can you tell me a little bit about Coachella and what some of the highlights were?
We haven’t played too many festivals but in the few that we have played, there’s been a lot of expectation going into it whereas we feel a lot of hype. We think “Man this is going to be really great we’re playing with all these big-named bands.” And then you get there. We were playing Voodoo Festival and we were playing with Lenny Kravitz and Eminem and the Flaming Lips and all these big groups, and then we find out that we’re playing at 11:30 in the morning on the first day, and we ended up playing to like 19 people in an empty field. So it’s like all this hype going into the show that turned out to be nothing.
So did you have a bigger crowd at Coachella then?
So at Coachella, you’re excited, and you want it to be great, but you don’t want to get your hopes up too high and be let down. Because for all you know you’re playing this tent that holds thousands and thousands of people, and you might walk in there to play it and there might be 100 people watching, you know? So you don’t want to build it up that much, so I try to keep my expectations for the show low, in order not to be let down, and it ended up exceeding my expectations tenfold. The tent was completely packed, everyone was really attentive and really into the set, and I think we played really well, it came across as really professional, and everything that I was hoping to accomplish with the show seemed to pan out, just in terms of playing well, and getting to play in front of a lot of people that had never seen us before. Those are the two things I wanted to get, and we got ‘em. So it was like, mission was accomplished. And then, the weekend itself was just incredible, seeing so many great acts, and was really inspiring because you’re really playing with so many A-level bands, which you don’t get that often. All the groups playing were just the best of the best. Walk around from tent to tent and you’re watching a show that has a band on their A-game – it’s really impressive and makes you want to be that much better.
What was the best live set you caught? (Besides your own, of course)
I didn’t have one in particular – I mean, the Dirty Projectors, I really enjoyed their set, I enjoyed the Local Natives set, I enjoyed the Gorillaz set. Jonsi’s set was great, Major Lazer’s I really liked, Julian Casablancas I caught some of that but the tent was so packed that I really couldn’t get a good view of it, but that was really intense. There was a lot of good shows that I watched.
Alright so if you could pick any artist from any span in time to join the band for a day and play some random instrument, who would it be?
I always go to Bjork. Always. She puts on a great show, she’s got some great melodies. I feel like there’s very few artists that have such a clear vision of what they want to get out of their own music, you know? And I feel like she knows exactly what she wants. And when you listen to a Bjork song, I feel like what you’re hearing is exactly how she intended you to hear it, and I don’t think you can say that for a lot of artists.
That’s a great way of thinking about Bjork. Let’s talk about your album a little bit more for a minute. I’m a firm believer in the handclap, and you guys do a good job of including it in a few of your songs. How do you guys decide when to use handclapping or other alternative forms of percussion?
Just when you feel it. Writing music is, on a very elementary level, a very natural thing. Writing music is very in your blood, the way that you feel about music. Music can become very formulaic, and very over-thought, but when you really think about it if you’re trying to be open about it, that kind of stuff just comes natural. It’s like, well, what kind of natural instruments do we have? We have, HANDS, you know, so *clap* that sounds good *clap*, so it’s not something that you really over-think. Whenever we add handclaps, I think it’s something that’s very natural so like “Oh, well, that would sound good if this was there.”
What was the fanciest trick you busted out for the album, in terms of recording production?
You know, I don’t know. There weren’t too many crazy tricks on this record. For the most part, most of the instruments are organic. We recorded it all into a computer, but it was mainly guitars and bass, drums and vocals – like a lot of vocals, a lot of keyboards. There wasn’t a lot of fidgeting around on the computer. I’m trying to go from song to song and think about fun stuff that was recorded. Like something that you wouldn’t really expect.
I read about some clapping on cases?
Yeah, “Circles” has some fun stuff, the way that the stomps and claps were recorded was, everybody…except for me because I had to go somewhere that day, I had to do something…
Hah, you got off easy!
Yeah, everybody in the band got to sit around in a circle around my piano case and do ba-da-ba-ba-ba (*clap clap clap clap clap*) on that case, and that’s kind of cool because what I think everyone tried to do at first was to do it with their feet and couldn’t get the timing right because the stomp of your feet aren’t as strong with the rhythm as the clap of your hands are, and so it was a lot of trial and error like “Alright, well, what can we bang on?” and trying different things to figure out what to bang on. I’ve heard a lot of people say that when they hear the song, and actually somebody asked me the other day, “Who sings ‘Circles?’” I was like, “What do you mean, who sings ‘Circles?’ I sing it!” They were like “Well it doesn’t sound like you.” And the cool thing with that is that, in the studio, it’s fun to play around with the fact that you have a studio. I recorded my vocals for that song four times. When you hear the main vocal take of the song, it’s a quadruple of me singing as soft as possible, but overdubbing it. A lot of the vocals we’ll dub it twice to layer it. It was something that we had fun with because when you look at the tracks in Pro Tools between the harmonies and the main vocal it was like nine tracks of vocals singing.
It’s like a Chorus of Dan!
Yeah! There’s only so many different ways that you can use your voice as a single instrument but when you’re in the studio, you want to give each song its own texture and feel and so something like that obviously you can’t replicate that live. I sometimes get mad when I listen back to recordings of us playing it live because it just doesn’t sound like the way that it’s supposed to sound because it has such a distinct sound on the record. But there’s nothing that you can do about that, that’s the way it was recorded.
[at this point Saen pops in, chuckles, and sits down for the tail-end of the interview]
So you’ve spent a lot of time now recording in a lot of different cities. Long Island, Chicago, my college town of Madison and most recently California. Do you guys thrive on the variation, or is there something else driving you to the various locations?
I think we had very specific reasons for each place we recorded. When we did our first record, we were young, our producer was living in Chicago, so the thought of leaving our home-state to go somewhere else had this really grandiose vibe to it. We were doing something Epic because we were leaving home to do it.
SAEN: We were like Rock and Roll stars.
Yeah. And, the second time, was for the exact opposite reason. It was like, well, that didn’t go well, so let’s stay as close to home as possible the next time we record the record. Madison you mentioned that was part of the Chicago process, it was in the same vein. But for California we had spent so much time at home writing the third record that the last thing we wanted to do was record it at home because we had done all the demos at home and we had spent so much time it was like “let’s get the f**k out of here.”
One last question – this is the last stop on your headline tour, so what’s next for As Tall As Lions?
You know, we only just recently started having conversations about that. It’s really up in the air. I think the goal for this headline tour before we left was to get through it and have a good time, and we’ve been on the road now for a year, on and off. But including writing this last record and going away to California to record it it’s been 2 1/2 years now. I wouldn’t see us touring much more off this record. So I think we just need to take a break, and then when all the dust settles I would assume that it would be writing another record. To me that’s the only thing to do next.