Interview with Josh Haden of Spain on August 1, 2016

Interviewed by Harry Kaplan

I had the honor and pleasure of speaking with Josh Haden. Haden is the founding member of the band Spain. Carolina is Spain’s 6th full lenght release. It is very rare that an artist gives such an honest and candid interview discussing such topics as songwriting, touring, singing, and the business end of music. Haden was gracious enough to open up and really tell it like it is. He is intelligent and engaging. The interview below is a fantastic read and really gives insight into the mind of a dynamic performer.

 TwangriLa: How’s everything going with you?

Josh: Fine. Just working on securing gigs. Spain has a month long residency in LA in August. We are working on that and practicing. Also, promoting the new album. We’ve been pretty busy.

TwangriLa: I really love the album. It took a listen or two for it to click. But as I said in the review, perseverance certainly pays off. It’s a great album.

Josh: Thank you. I appreciate it.

TwangriLa: So these really are not traditional songs, they are more like short stories or novellas. Was this a departure from your normal writing style?

Josh: I think it was. I never really consciously pursued an approach to songwriting which was creating a short story in each song….Having a beginning, middle, and end…. And having specific characters, maybe even a protagonist….Having a specific time referenced or specific places….And drawing on my own life experiences as well has never been so much of a concern with me on the past Spain records. I wanted to see how writing songs in a short story format would impact my songwriting. I think it was successful, at least for me.

TwangriLa: Definitely. I was able to get a really vivid picture of the characters and stories that you were writing. It was like painting, a vivid picture in my mind. Your imagery of snowstorms, the reconstruction, and the Depression was very powerful.

Josh: That’s great. I am glad to hear that!

TwangriLa: So one question I have is about the song Lorelei. Was that about anything specific? I couldn’t really tie that to a specific historical event.

Josh: Not really anything specific. It was inspired by recent cataclysmic and tragic events that were happening in Europe. I really wasn’t thinking about any specific event when I started working on the song. That is a song that I have had the kernels for ideas for a couple of years. The stuff that’s been going on in the world has affected the way I was viewing that song.

TwangriLa: Did the name come from the water spirit, Lorelei that lures sailors to their death?

Josh: No, I just liked the name and it seemed to fit the song. It wasn’t until after the song was recorded, that I said maybe I should google search Lorelei and see what it means. And that came up. I think it works for the song.

TwangriLa: It actually fits really well because it is a tragic song. Well that’s amazing you didn’t plan that in advance. It was serendipitous.

Josh: Exactly. It was serendipitous.

TwangriLa: It’s funny how that happens sometimes! So how were you able to write about so many different events? It seems to flow from historical events to autobiographical. I guess you must read a lot.

Josh: I do read a lot. Most of the important aspects of my songwriting is reading and letting all of the things I have learned from reading sink in over time. That really influences what I am doing. I think that’s really important for any songwriter, to have a deep well to go to for inspiration.

TwangriLa: I totally agree. I also think it’s tough to write songs about historical events and you pulled it off perfectly. It brings to mind the Clash writing about the Spanish-American War or a song about Montgomery Clift. I think that’s tough to do and do it well, but you definitely nailed it.

Josh: Wow! Thanks! It’s good to know I am on the right track. I worked really hard on that. It was really important to have feedback, especially from my producer, Kenny Lyon. He would tell me things….Especially on the song Battle Of Saratoga….Especially the third verse. He would say be careful and don’t make the sound too much like a history lesson. So I tried to ride that fine line between being too didactic as opposed to being artful and creative. It is hard to do and it is good because I am learning as I am going along. I think I will be even better at it by the next record. I am really excited about the new songs and being back in the studio.

TwangriLa: So you’ve already got material for the next album? This one just came out a couple of months ago. I guess the next album is still a little bit in the future?

Josh: It is. But I have learned that it is good to start the process early because the label always need a three month lead time. If my goal is to release a Spain album every year, starting early is best. 

TwangriLa: I agree. I have spoken to other artists and they all say you have to strike when you have the inspiration. You don’t always know when it’s coming. So when it’s there, you have to meet it head on.

Josh: Exactly. And I met Kenny and we work really well together. He is really open to having me come in the studio whenever I have ideas, just to work on ideas at a somewhat casual leisurely pace and not have to rush things.

TwangriLa: Is it difficult to switch between writing songs about historical events and then your own personal experiences? Does that require using different parts of the brain?

Josh: I think it does. Definitely different parts of the brain. That is definitely calling on two different abilities and two ways of thinking. It is a challenge to bring together those aspects. It’s fun. It’s almost like learning how to write with your left and right hand and trying to make sense of that. The song Tennessee, for instance, it starts out in 1875. And by the end of the song, the characters are driving down the interstate. Obviously, the interstate couldn’t have existed in 1875. So trying to present this picture and letting the listener try to come up with their own interpretation that is different than mine.

TwangriLa: I think that song works very well. Doing it in the manner in which you did makes it difficult to achieve continuity, but you pulled it off. Bob Dylan would do that in his writing. He makes references to different time periods in the same song. When it is successful, it is a great technique. In your case, it works tremendously well.

Josh: That’s a huge compliment because Bob Dylan is a master songwriter, if not THE master song writer. For genres like pop, rock, country and folk music. He is a huge inspiration to me. His ability as a song writer never seizes to amaze me and I always learn something from his music.

TwangriLa: When I was listening to Carolina, I definitely hear a similarity in songwriting style to Dylan and even the Clash.

Josh: The Clash as well, they are so incredible. Their songs paint such a vivid picture, and as you say, it is very difficult to achieve that level of communication. For you to compare me to those artists is a huge compliment to me.

TwangriLa: Well, you are in really good company! All the songs on Carolina are great recordings. How do they hold up in a live setting?

Josh: I try to make the Spain live show as exciting and as unpredictable as I can. We were just touring Europe for a month promoting the record. We had this one show in a city called Nantes in France. It was a great show. People made posters for the show. And on the poster, they described Spain for people that have never heard of us before.

They described us as indie pop, slow-core, Americana, and free jazz. And that is exactly what we sound like when we play live. I had never put all those pieces together as a genre description. So I stole that description and now I put it everywhere. When people ask me what we sound like, that’s what I tell them. That is a perfect description of what I am trying to do live.

I am taking traditional elements of American music and combine them with contemporary elements. Then putting in a big improvisational element that comes from jazz. I try to make it unpredictable and artistically challenging. Challenging the listener and audience to almost having a level of danger to it on a musical surface. And making it exciting for the audience.

TwangriLa: I get it. I would imagine when you play the songs live you stretch them out some so there’s a certain amount of improvisational feeling to them.

Josh: Yes.

TwangriLa: There is a certain amount of danger or excitement because you don’t know where the song is going to end up.

Josh: Right! I think it’s surprising because somebody who would hear the new album may not hear the songs performed live in the exact same way as the album. Depending on our mood or our intentions for that night, we could play a song completely different than it appears on the record. Or we can play it exactly the same. We take a lot of liberties with the earlier material. The Blue Moods Of Spain, especially, from 1995. There is a lot of room for moving around and for improvisation on those songs. So I love bringing those songs into the set and jamming and seeing what happens with them.

TwangriLa: As an artist, that has to be a really rewarding thing to do. It has to be exhilarating to be able to do that on stage.

Josh: Something that I noticed was that when we would play with other bands or open for other bands was how closely they would adhere to playing what was on the record. I was super aware of this during the last tour. I thought, what a waste that is. When you are playing live and have all the freedom that you need to do something different. You are not confined by the studio and when you are on stage, you can let your creativity run wild. You can still be captivating, appealing, and entertaining for the audience. We really push that to the limit when we play live.

TwangriLa: Although your music is different, it is similar in philosophy to what The Grateful Dead used to do. They would take rock and roll songs and add that element of jazz improvisation. And try to push the envelope every night.

Josh: Exactly! And a lot of people were comparing our live set to The Grateful Dead, which is another huge compliment for me. I don’t think we are at that level yet, but there were people coming up to me after the shows in Antwerp and saying we saw you in Brussels and we drove two hours to get here and see you again. Or people saying they had driven 500 kilometers just to see us.

TwangriLa: That’s great!

Josh: I am trying to cultivate that by putting on an amazing show that is emotional and soulful and would attract people.

TwangriLa: I think also different. Because if you play the same songs in the same manner every night, people won’t want to see more than one show because they already saw it once.

Josh: Exactly. That spontaneity is really important.

TwangriLa: There is a current band that I am sure you have heard of, The Drive By Truckers that adhere to that philosophy. They don’t have a song list or a standard set. They may play the songs a bit differently every night and I think that builds a real connection to the audience. It is surprising at times and filled with spontaneity. It also makes the audience want to go to more shows because the more shows you see, the more likely you are to hear that gem that they don’t play very often.

Josh: Yes exactly, and I love the Drive By Truckers too.

TwangriLa: So what is the status of the band? When I looked at your line up, it appears that you are the only constant member.

Josh: As much as I would like to have a stable group, it has proven itself to be impossible. Currently, it is myself and Kenny Lyon, who also produced the record. He also plays most of the guitars. So for the upcoming LA shows, it’s Kenny and Danny Frankel on drums. He also played drums on the record. That’s the core unit right now. We did the European tour with myself, Kenny, and a drummer from Barcelona named Ivan Knight. It depends a lot on who is available. Kenny is very busy and I don’t always know if he will be available so I might do shows with another guitarist. The only constant member has been me since the band started in 1993. I do my best to keep the lineup as stable as possible.

I am really looking forward to these upcoming shows in LA and really working on our live set. Being able to bring our live show to more places in the states is my biggest priority right now. We are going to make it happen.

TwangriLa: I was going to ask you about that and any plans to play the east coast.

Josh: We did shows for the last album, Sargent Place, which came out in 2014. We were able to do east coast shows. I hope to and I am working on it. The biggest issue is financial. At the end of 2015, we did a show at Lincoln Center Atrium, part of the music series that they do. It was a free show and it was really fun. A lot of people showed up, I think there were 200 people. The fee for that one show from Lincoln Center paid for the 10 days touring that we did. So if I could find another gig like that to pay for the whole tour, that would be great. I do want to bring my show to a wider audience and increase the awareness about Spain, so it will happen.

TwangriLa: So on a separate note, what was it like when you found out Johnny Cash was going to record your song Spiritual?

Josh: I was surprised and happy. Johnny Cash is one of my biggest inspirations. So finding out one of my biggest inspirations is going to record one of my songs, how can it get any better than that? I was speechless. I am still speechless. I still can’t believe it. That was one aspect of it.

When my dad was a child, his family was a country bluegrass gospel singing act on the radio in the 1930s and into the 50s. My dad’s family had an act called the Haden family. And they would hang out with the Carter family. Maybelle Carter would play with my dad when my dad was an infant. That’s how close the families were. And Johnny Cash married June Carter. There was an undeniable, important family connection there that I thought was a really nice closing of the circle when Johnny Cash recorded one of my songs. I don’t think Rick Rubin, who was the producer of the album Unchained in 1996, was aware of that family connection. I am not even sure if he is aware of it now.

TwangriLa: Maybe he will be once this interview comes out.

Josh: (Laughter) Yeah!

TwangriLa: That is a really neat story. Another little bit of serendipity. So you have a long history of music in your family. There has to be a genetic aspect to it. That along with a lot of hard work.

Josh: I think so. It’s in the DNA. People ask me if there is anything else I would do for a living and I always answer no. I have tried to escape music and it brings me back. The difficult part of music is the business part, at least for me. The survival part of it becomes secondary when I feel like I don’t have any choice. If I could do something other than music I would, but I can’t.

TwangriLa: Clearly, you love what you do. It shows on the products and music you put out. I think if you can wake up every day and love what you do for a living, that’s more than half the battle right there.

Josh: Yeah, I agree.

TwangriLa: So do you have any other projects coming up besides Spain?

Josh: I do have a project with a totally different group of musicians, completely unrelated to Spain. But it is a little early to talk about since it is not official yet. It is something that I am very excited about. I will keep you posted as it progresses.

TwangriLa: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to speak with me. It has been a real thrill for me.

Josh: Wow, I appreciate it and thanks for supporting the new record. It means a lot to me. Getting the word out is the most difficult thing. So all of this is helping the awareness and getting the message out and I am very grateful for that.

TwangriLa: The pleasure is mine. 

Here is a link to listen to all of Spain’s material (full length songs!). Also, a link to buy Carolina and other Spain releases. As I have said before, it is so important to support local, independent artists such as Josh Haden and Spain. They make such good music and without our support, they won’t exist.

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