All Things New: A Conversation with Anthony LaMarca of The Building

by Eryn Brothers

Photo by David Pokrivnak

Anthony LaMarca has enjoyed the kind of career that most musicians can only ever fantasize about, serving as the guitarist for War on Drugs and a drummer for both St. Vincent and Dean & Britta while also finding success with his own project, The BuildingEryn Brothers recently had the opportunity to hop on a call with LaMarca to discuss everything from polka to  spiritual healing to his dog Petra, who serves as the namesake and cover star for The Building’s new album PETRA. Read the interview below and be sure to catch The Building this Saturday, November 16th at Mohawk!

Eryn Brothers for Ovrld: I was reading your album picks from Clash and I gotta say there are some curveballs in there. John Cougar Mellencamp was a big one for me because I’m a big Mellencamp fan. He’s known as being this heartland rock sort of butt country as I like to call it-

Anthony LaMarca: Ha! 

Ovrld: (laughing)  But he is so detailed in his songwriting, and so I can totally see that influence in your work. Would you say is there anything in particular about his songwriting style that influenced you beyond you seeing him live when you were a kid?

ALM: I don’t know if there is a direct influence, beyond the fact that when something is your first love it’s always gonna influence you I think. That sort of subconscious influence that he’s always been very intentionally an Indiana musician. I feel like I have always tried to always be very intentionally a Youngston, Ohio musician even if I wasn’t living there. As far as a direct link from my songwriting to this influence I don’t know what to say…with something like that, it’s kind of your first love, it’s always gonna be in there somewhere.

Ovrld:  I was really interested to read that you are also into polka music.

ALM: Oh yeah. I mean, Austin is right in the zone for Texas Polka.

Ovrld: Really? 

ALM: Oh yeah! 

Ovrld: Ok, I know nothing about this kind of music so please educate me forever.

ALM: The studio that I record all my stuff at, Peppermint Studios, is run by Gary Rhamy. He came up in the 60’s as an audio engineer doing whatever, but became famous as a polka engineer. At the time, the Grammys had a category for Best Polka Record, and Gary was engineering a lot of those records. So he became “The Guy.” He still does a lot of mix work, particularly for Texas polka artists. One is kind of having a moment right now, Mollie B is her name, has a band called Squeezebox. [Mollie] is from maybe a little outside of Dallas, and is featured in that Clint Eastwood movie, The Mule. The movie takes place in Texas, and Eastwood wanted a Texas polka band to play this DFW dance hall, and so they brought in Mollie B and she performed a song. That song was recorded by the same guy who recorded my album, Gary Rhamy.

Ovrld: That’s so cool! I was reading your interview with him for Tape-Op today, and it was so fascinating to read y’alls perspectives on Polka because it’s definitely niche music.

ALM: It sort of is and it isn’t. I just read this really interesting book that’s kind of about polka music but also about ethnic music in general. We think of it as kind of niche music but when you actually look at it, it’s always been sort of pretty mainstream. Which makes complete sense– we’re a nation of immigrants, therefore that culture tends to be the mainstream culture overtime. It’s not like I am saying that polka is the mainstream culture right now, but in the 50’s it was very much so. 

Ovrld: You know, I was trying to think about this today and after reading your interview with Peppermint Productions, I was wondering if there are more polka influences in more modern work? The closest thing I could think of was Talking Heads.

ALM: Yeah, in True Stories, that David Byrne movie, takes place in Texas. He incorporates polka musicians to play throughout the movie. 

Ovrld: Oh yeah!

ALM: Other than that, I don’t know. I’m working on it! Next album!

Ovrld: The next album!

ALM: Going full polka.

Ovrld: You have a lot of hometown heart. Every city has its own imprint, and exploring that has been a huge part of your own musical story. How would you describe Austin’s imprint and vibe?

ALM: I mean, I don’t live there, so it’s hard to answer that. I’ve been through a bunch of times on tour…I love Austin! I guess Texas in general is one of those places that has strong regional pride and identity. [Texas has] identity markers that have made it into the world to create a standard…rather than the stuff that is only is known if you live there. I think Austin is a place that has gracefully maintained its character. 

Ovrld: I agree, Austin’s pretty special.There seems to be a totally different minutiae from southern culture to midwest culture. You regale your hometown, and it’s a different sort of perspective.

ALM: Sort of going back to talk about immigrant culture to mainstream culture, those things make up a place. They created the things that you know about that make you a local. The things you know about that make you a local. It’s usually something that is of a tradition of that place. The majority of the United States was brought there by other people. Like kolaches are huge in Austin, right?

Ovrld: Yeah, there is a sizable Czech and German populus here.

ALM: It’s a thing from the immigrant population that became local knowledge and made it a staple for everyone in the area. Youngston has a huge Eastern European background, but also a huge Italian culture as well because those were the immigrants who were moving to come work in the steel mills. That’s where my family came from, Italy. 

Well, this is more of an ethnomusicology dissertation than music interview!

Ovrld: Dude, I’m totally here for it. I was actually about to ask you what the name of the book you mentioned earlier is, because I am super fascinated by this. I think a lot of traditional folk strums certain heartstrings that other music really can’t. 

ALM:  It’s called A Passion for Polka, by Victor Greene. Be prepared, it’s fairly academic. It goes regionally, so it hits all the different pockets and the different ethnic music that made up those areas.

Ovrld: I didn’t think that I was going to leave this conversation with a polka book suggestion, but here I am. 

It’s interesting to see how far we’ve come from people ordering sheet music from a catalogue to being able to click a button with your experience for the day. 

ALM: For my stuff, that’s what I want to put out there, something that is very honest and sort of blunt, but can also be very pretty. What I do, I tend to think as much as one can about every aspect that is going into the recording or how the recording is being presented. That means physical media, artwork; I’m very hands on about design with album artwork. Even the other parts of releasing music today with social media, how that works, what does it look like to other people…as corny as that is. Ultimately it is a part of how you are presenting your work. Promotion sounds icky, but the promotion of the work is pretty important. It’s often times how people will perceive it.

Ovrld: Of course you as an artist want to be part of that in some way shape or form, part of that curation. One of the reasons why I love this album, PETRA, is how extremely personal it is, and how it absolutely focuses on circumstances that I am not privy to. Yet because of how it was portrayed, how it was recorded, how you wrote it, I find myself becoming very involved with it and simultaneously getting healed by some of these songs. A lot of that has to do with the intense curation that you’ve done. “All Things New,” in particular is one of my “Walking and Thinking Anthems” right now. 

ALM: I love it. I love that “Walking and thinking anthem,” that’s my new favorite quote about the album. Good walking and thinking music. 

Ovrld: You can use it if you want. It’s definitely not an album that you have on arbitrarily in the background. I think people dismiss more thoughtful, or contemplative music to be coffee shop noise, and PETRA is far more than that. Where were you when you writing that song, “All Things New?”

ALM: I wrote that song when I was writing the songs for Reconciliation, the last record. My niece and nephew made me a painting, I forget which Bible verse it is. Revelations maybe? It says, “Behold! I am making all things new.” They made a painting of this on a canvas to give to me when I was going through the heaviest of my treatment. I was going to have to be in the hospital for a couple of weeks, so they made me this. That phrase “I am making all things new,” had gone with the melody that I wrote before, so it became a song. 

Where it comes on this record is important, right after “Transform,” which is a very fear based song of a pretty grim look at life in general. You’re born, your body decays, and you die. For me, I had written those two songs at a similar time, and so to me those two songs cannot live without each other. I would never perform “Transform” without playing “All Things New,” it needs the resolution of “All Things New,” that song is a part of “Transform.” It’s about taking control of my own fear– it’s about my health, it’s about my mortality. 

In the moment, it was also just a simple way of giving myself confidence. I don’t need to have this strong man image, like “I can do it, I’l be tough,” I could still be like, “I am very scared, but I am going to do it.” It’s less of a blind confidence and more of a realistic confidence. Like yes, I am scared, and I am facing a lot of unknowns. I’m also not going to try to do it alone.

Ovrld: It’s like the inspection of the two faces of acceptance. One is very fatalistic, one is very much about graceful realism. As a listener, that’s very profound. Has touring with this album been a spiritual healing process for you?

ALM: I don’t know. I mean, we are still pretty early on the tour, so I guess we’ll see. It’s definitely really cool to see people coming out to these shows and people responding. That’s a very cool thing, for anyone that shares with people it’s always very affirming and nice. 

Ovrld: The contribution of creator and witness is always an astounding experience. I know when I come to your show, I’ll have certain songs that I am excited to hear. Do you have songs in your set that you can’t wait to get to?

ALM: I really like playing “Never Was Alone,” and “Peace’s Eternal Truth Renews All.” Those tend to be my two favorite songs on the record. I play “All Things New,” too, but “Never Was Alone,” and “Peace’s Eternal Truth Renews All,” are definitely my favorites. I think it’s because “All Things New,” is older so I have been playing it longer. The other two are more…fresh.

Ovrld: I get that. I know I personally have my own songs that I’d rather break a finger off than play again. Do you have songs like that?

ALM: I definitely do, and I don’t play them (laughs). I don’t have any from the last two records, though. I think that’s a good thing, that sort of self awareness. I see that as a good sign that I don’t…believe it anymore. If one is fortunate enough to have a career twenty or thirty years down the line, I imagine that road gets a little tougher. You’re growing as a writer and a person, and the things that used to resonate with you don’t really anymore. But you have this audience… I guess you have to keep playing them. Look at Bob Dylan, he still plays them, he just plays them in his prickly way.

Ovrld: Prickly is the perfect word to describe Bob Dylan.

ALM: Right?

Ovrld: I recently saw Nick Cave on his Conversations tour, and he made the comment about “Red Right Hand.” “That song won’t fucking stop following me.” It’s like…you’re Nick Cave. You don’t have to play it if you don’t want to. 

ALM: I’m jealous you got to go to that! And yeah, exactly.

Ovrld: So not only does your wife play on the album, and PETRA is also named not only for your mantra “Peace Eternal Renews All,” but your dog, Petra. Does your pup make an appearance on the album?

ALM: No, unfortunately. I thought about recording her running around outside of the studio. She’s on the cover! But her voice is not on the record. (laughs) It’s funny though, because she barks when I play drums at home.

Ovrld: Aw, really?

ALM: She’s not a vocal dog, doesn’t bark at the mail carrier or anything like that. So it’s extraordinary. I can’t put my finger on why she does it. She just stands in front of the drumset just howling. I don’t think she’s trying to say “This is too loud,” or “This is scary,” it’s almost as though…it feels like she’s singing along.

Ovrld: Holy shit, she’s jamming with you! 

ALM: Haha, yeah!

Ovrld: Speaking of animals, do you have a favorite animal sound?

ALM: Favorite animal sound? 

Ovrld: Throwing in some curveballs! We’ve talked about polka, John Cougar Mellencamp, now it’s animal sounds. Let’s fucking do this.

ALM: I do love the sound that the mourning dove makes. That to me, is a relaxing peaceful sound.

Ovrld: I’m pretty partial to owl sounds myself.

ALM: Oh yeah!

Ovrld: What do you do outside of playing music? I know you are on tour right now but-

ALM: (laughs) Well right now I drive for fourteen hours a day, drink coffee…You know, I just do normal things that everyone does. When I am not on tour I cook, cooking is the closest thing I have to a hobby. I run for exercise.

Ovrld: I like to ask people this, because it’s so easy to go down the rabbit hole and get focused on that one passion. If it gets taken away from you, it’s very much a “Holy shit,” moment. You’re so open about your recovery [from multiple myeloma], and you said in a recent interview and on the album that during treatment all you wanted to do were normal things. I was just wondering about the normal activities that you enjoy that you are like, “Wow, this is beautiful.”

ALM: I know it sounds silly, but one of my favorite parts of the day is grocery shopping, cooking, eating. I think that for a lot of people that is one of life’s simplest most pure joys. 

Ovrld: What’s your favorite meal to cook?

ALM: Oh, I love pasta. 

Ovrld: I mean, duh.

ALM: I like making sauce, but I don’t make fresh pasta that often. I mean obviously fresh pasta is the best. I like making salads, I love making hashbrowns in the morning. Not every morning, but on special days.

Ovrld: Well, when you are in Austin, if you want fresh pasta, you should check out my friend’s stuff- DeCarmine’s Handmade, if the name means anything to you.

ALM: DeCarmine? Says all I need to know! (laughs)

Ovrld: He’s a G for sure. Outside of the pasta business, how has your songwriting changed over the years?

ALM: On this record I spent more time in the studio than writing in the studio than I did on the last record. On the last record the majority of the songs were written before going in to the studio. PETRA was more writing as I was recording. Changing more stuff along the way. As I mature as a person and as a musician I’m a little bit more open to things not being how I originally envisioned them and realizing that that is often the most exciting stuff that comes out of recording and writing-the stuff that doesn’t go according to plan.

Be sure to catch The Building this Saturday, November 16th at Mohawk!

Eryn Brothers is a poet, writer, musician, and all around jerk of all trades. A high school dropout who never graduated from Possum College, Eryn has published comics, essays, and poetry with Venison Mag, LIFE RAFT ZINE, RAWPAW, and the up and coming BIBLE BELT QUEERS. She also is currently working on her own sad bastard indie country that eventually will be public. Eryn can be found idolizing Nick Cave at your local bar and singing Robyn loudly from her bike. Follow her on Spotify for a dose of weird on her friday playlists. They’re a hoot and half a holler. (Which is, surprisingly, how tall she is.) Follow her at @regaldebbie on IG for righteous memes, musical opinions, and weak attempts at yodeling.