Ride It Out: A Conversation with The Sour Notes’ Jared Boulanger

by Brian J. Audette

Sour Notes

The Sour Notes were my gateway into the world of Austin bands. When I first moved here at the end of 2009 I remember seeing a blurb somewhere about the band and picking up their The Meat of the Fruit EP digitally. Two years later in 2011 I picked up their third LP Last Looks and immediately afterward embarked on a deep dive of the back catalog that I had missed. The first article I ever wrote for OVRLD was about The Sour Notes’ split 7 inch with Marmalakes. I’ve since interviewed them, written about their releases, and seen them live all over town more times than I can count. You might say that I’m a fan. One of the great benefits of being a local music fan however is that you can often get to know the musicians whose music you love and so it has come to pass with myself and The Sour Notes frontman Jared Boulanger

With the release of their 5th LP Darkest Sour, I got together with Jared to catch up and talk about the past, present, and future of The Sour Notes and ended up covering everything from his thoughts on local festivals like FunFunFun Fest, SXSW, and Levitation, his new found love of solid state amps, how to properly “sell out,” and the differences between starting a band now versus 10 years ago.

Part 1: Hitting a Stride

Brian Audette for Ovrld: So it will be ten years in May since The Sour Notes’ first EP The Meat of the Fruit came out. How does that feel? Any signs of slowing down?

Jared Boulanger: I’ve hit a stride – from recording Darkest Sour – of productivity that I haven’t had since the beginning. I have some stuff in the can, ready to go and it’s kinda like – since I’ve been exploring guitar stuff more, listening to a lot more Dinosaur Jr., Built to Spill – I’ve changed the way I play. I’ve changed the amps I use, the pedals I use. I don’t know if you can tell, but the guitars on this album are much heavier.

Ovrld: Yeah, I definitely got that. It’s much more of a guitar album. It’s sort of half and half. Songs like “Clock Strikes Twelve,” “Loose Leaf and Bleak,” and “Ride it Out” are much more guitar focussed, but different than some of the more guitar driven tracks on previous Sour Notes albums. Was that direction a conscious thing on Darkest Sour or just where you ended up?

JB: That was a conscious thing that I started. Conscious by way of noticing that I was experimenting with different gear. And as I was trying to find different sounds and getting frustrated with my existing gear, it just got me obsessed about finding out how … like Johnny Marr or J. Mascis got certain sounds, which just got me way more interested in guitar honestly. There’s even kinda some Smashing Pumpkins’ riffs in there, some Billy Corgan kinda stuff messing with some solid state amps.

I’m actually playing completely solid state now. I used to play out of a Vox AC30, but over time I was just fighting with my gear. I was fighting through these love/hate relationships, but I’ve dialed it in. I play through a Jazz Chorus amp now. It’s solid state and I let my pedals do the work instead of letting my amp be the tone, which is different. That’s why we’ve got these releases [a 7 inch and a 10-song covers album planned for next year] coming out so soon after Darkest Sour. I just got into the zone. I just started writing and researching everything, so it was really cool.

Ovrld: Vocally Darkest Sour has gone back to you as a primary vocalist after having had a number of amazing local female vocalists guest on your previous release Do What May. I think I remember the last time I interviewed you back in 2013 that you had mentioned that this was going to be the case. 

JB: I think at the time we did that interview there were no female singers in the band. I think that’s probably when I started recording, shortly after that. So that was probably my hope and direction for it. People have come and gone. We did lots of touring around then and a few girls came and went after that and we ended up with one [Yola Blake] that stuck around for the whole album and lo and behold: background vocals.

Ovrld: I remember shortly after the last time we talked that you guys did the second to last FunFunFun Fest. You opened up the Orange Stage that Saturday and at that time you had added a couple of people to the band.

JB: Yeah, that was [Yola].

Ovrld: I thought so. And Yola’s been playing live with you guys ever since?

JB: Yeah.

Ovrld: You also added a second guitarist, which was something you hadn’t had in awhile at that point either.

JB: Yeah, Chris, they’re both on the album.

Ovrld: Chris Page? You’ve been collaborating with him for years, right?

JB: Since the beginning. Yeah. He is a long time friend. He’s come and gone based on his schedule and that, but right now we’re playing [without Chris Page or Yola Blake] as a three piece again. I think that over the years I’ve kind of developed more as a guitar player.

Sour Notes

The Sour Notes playing Sidewinder last year with their expanded line-up. Photo by Ashley Bradley

Ovrld: You’ve mentioned before that (despite primarily playing guitar with the band live) you’re more at home on the keys.

JB: Yeah, but lately I‘ve kind of like found my sound a little more by experimenting with amps and pedals and different guitars, and kinda grown as a guitar player that way. I’ve also realized that a lot of the bands I love most are three pieces and subconsciously I enjoy playing that way more. You can hear everything so much better and a lot of the dynamics (especially in our songs) things don’t repeat. You’ve got “part, part, part,” you’ve gotta pay attention. So I feel as a three piece that comes across a lot better. We play a lot of bars where people aren’t paying attention that much … they’re drinking. If they can hear everything a lot more precisely with three people, they can pay attention easier. So even though we record a lot with extra instruments, we’ll be playing more as a three piece.

Part 2: Festivals

Ovrld: So something I wanted to ask you about was SXSW. I’ve been going every year for about eight years now and last year was the first year in a long time that The Sour Notes weren’t playing any official showcases.

JB: We didn’t apply.

Ovrld: I was wondering about that. What are your feelings on that experience? Have you applied for this year?

JB: No. Didn’t apply this year. Last year we were recording the album heavily around that time and our work schedule didn’t just permit us playing a lot of showcases, but I had more fun playing exclusively at a couple places like Hotel Vegas. I spent every day at Hotel Vegas watching every band and I got to just see so many bands and I had a great time! And I was like “I kinda want to do it again this year.” But I was also thinking that sometimes local bands get flack for playing too much and not letting the out of town people come in and blossom. So I was like “that makes sense to me a little bit.” I have definitely benefited from SXSW and I’ve played it many times.

The Sour Notes playing HAAM Benefit Day in 2014. Photo by Carlos J. Matos

Ovrld: So even with all the craziness, playing SXSW as a local band you would say was a positive experience?

JB: I would say that if you’ve got all your ducks in a row leading up to Southby, you’ll get a good gig. But if you don’t, you’ll get some weird bills. One year we were like playing at 12:30 on dirty 6th at some bar with a mechanical bull in front of us. Unless you work it for yourself and be like “Hey, I wanna get over at Hotel Vegas and play this showcase” it can be very like … it can be bad for a local band, and it can break up bands too.

Ovrld: So what about festivals? As I mentioned before, you opened the Orange Stage on Saturday of the second to last FunFunFun Fest. How was that?

JB: FunFunFun Fest was the single greatest band experience I’ve ever had. Even though we didn’t get a sound check because Modest Mouse took too long, because the headliner gets to check first. So we just got on stage and played. But after that we got to watch Dinosaur Jr. from the side of the stage … every band from the side of the stage. But yeah, after that we did a couple tours: we did the UMS festival in Denver, we went up to Toronto and did NXNE, and yeah … we did a lot lot of festivals around then. The only ones in town that I think we haven’t done are like ACL and Levitation. Which, Levitation I apply to every year. We’re not on their radar yet.

Ovrld: Are you not psych enough for it? Is that it?

JB: I don’t know. I feel like that’s been our realm of music, but we might be just a bit too poppy for them.

Part 3: Selling Out

Ovrld: So getting specifically back to Darkest Sour, is there any song or songs that you’re most proud of?

JB: I would say probably “Ride it Out” has everything I wanted to do in a song. You know, it has the boy/girl vocal counter play, it has some shoegaze guitars in it, it has some synthesizers in it. That’s the reason we made a music video for it. I feel like “Ride it Out” encapsulates all the tracks, which is the reason we put it at the end. It just ties everything together. Yeah, I would say “Ride it Out” and “Loose Leaf and Bleak.” Sort of the halfway point of the album and the very end.

Ovrld: So the sequencing of the album is important to you? It’s definitely something you think about?

JB: I definitely think about the sequencing early on and want it to be like a conceptual album.

B: Is it important for you to try stuff out live first or do you prefer to just go into the studio and figure it out there?

JB: We’ve always (up until Darkest Sour) recorded first and then figured out how to play it live second, which has led to problems and is the reason why I’ve been enjoying playing as a three piece so much. Because if a song works as a three piece then it’s gonna work on the record. Lately, I’ve found it easier, playing songs live first and then figuring out how to record them. I like both ways of working, but the recording first method definitely has more problems for live.

Ovrld: So let’s talk about licensing. The Sour Notes have licensed some songs before, with a couple tracks off of It’s Not Gonna be Pretty having made their way onto the Showtime show Shameless. Let’s say someone comes to you and says “we want to use your song for a car commercial.” Are you “selling out” or just doing what’s best for the band at that point?

JB: Uh, it’s definitely like … a question of “are you going to be able to retain your rights?” Because I remember like … Tame Impala sold a song for a commercial for an insane amount of money, but then they got really unproductive. There’s problems with that: getting lazy and not working on stuff because you have it easy for a little bit. Even with a band like Jawbreaker “selling out” to Geffen. I actually think that was a good move for them because they needed to do that as a band. They didn’t lose their moral fiber. They were still the same nice dudes.

“One Fell Swoop” was used in the second season of Shameless

Ovrld: And I think in a case like that it wasn’t the deal that broke the band up. They had already been moving in that direction. I guess the thing is to understand that if you’re going to make a deal like that, it could be a big thing.

JB: I think that’s just the way the world works now and I feel like it’s getting less frowned upon. Most bands don’t have like, solid parental support or come from money, or even have good jobs. Because being in a band can be severely career limiting. I think if you were to ask your audience “would you rather us break up because we couldn’t afford to be in a band anymore or get this little helpful hand and keep going and try to keep our head on straight?”  I feel like if you present it that way, it’s a no-brainer. You should just take the help where you can get it. In the end they’re wanting to buy your song because they like it. As long as you can meet on some sort of terms that make sense to both of you, I think it’s a good thing to do.

Ovrld: What about streaming? Do What May was your first album that was physically released at the same time as it was digitally released on iTunes. Darkest Sour is following suit. Some bands like Quiet Company have gone on record with the strategy of more, and smaller releases, because people stream you and then move on and it’s important to stay in their field of view.

JB: That’s a good way to look at it, because it’s true.

Ovrld: Do you think that’s the direction that – looking forward – is a thing you want to do?

JB: Yeah, I definitely want to release more stuff, faster. And especially having a back catalog of stuff recorded helps that. With this album I had to make the choice – because of band finances, and publicists, and tour management you have to plan this stuff up to a year in advance – am I going be able to get this out on vinyl or am I going to use that money to be able to put out the next four releases? Because in the end, one album all the way on vinyl is going to be about the cost of three or four albums on CD and streaming. So I looked at our past statistics from iTunes, Bandcamp, Spotify and we end up making more from streaming than physical merch. Because we can only play like one or two shows a month until we go on tour and the band is functioning by getting those streaming checks. Those have been more helpful with licensing deals and royalties than people buying the music at shows.

Part 4: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

Ovrld: So earlier we were talking a bit about your having collected a lot of new gear (guitars and amps and such) and even setting up your own home mixing/recording space. I feel like a lot of musicians when they get to that point eventually start working with other bands in a mixing or production capacity. Is that something you’ve thought about? Leveraging that home studio in some way? 

JB: That’s actually my next focus musically. I want to go back to school and I want to get into film scoring. I went to school for TV and Film and I never really used my degree that much. I just want to fuse my two passions. I appreciate a lot of film scores and I want to have a crack at it.

Ovrld: That being the case and with the fact that you’ve been doing this for ten years, what about the next ten? Will there always be a Sour Notes?

JB: I think so. A lot of bands as they get older, the songwriter will start a solo project in their own name. I think The Sour Notes is already that for me. I started it by myself originally so I feel like whatever direction my rock songwriting goes in the future it will just always be The Sour Notes.

Ovrld: Knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself ten years ago, going into this and in the same vein, what would your advice be to someone starting right now?

JB: I’m glad that I did not start a band in this year. I feel like I started The Sour Notes in an era that was … I don’t want to say a little purer than now, but like I said there was less [solo artists with just] backing tracks and laptops in the world and there was still like … a more DIY scene when I started The Sour Notes and I’m glad I caught the tail end of that.

Ovrld: Do you think if you had started it today you would have had that temptation to be just the guy with the backing track or laptop alone on stage?

JB: Yeah. Well… I don’t know. But I come from a foundation of a different scene and a different time and it wasn’t acceptable to do the things that are happening now, then. If I could go back and do anything over again I just probably wouldn’t have taken three years between Do What May and Darkest Sour. Those last three years were a little dark, thus the name. Personally. Financially. Being on the road a lot. Not being able to attend to the band the way I wanted to because so many things were in flux. I wish that I had started Darkest Sour earlier. But, it’s all learning. When we first started the band we went on tour right away, after our seventh or eighth show.

Ovrld: And you think that was a good thing?

JB: Yeah! That’s the only way a band is going to reach a new audience, get people interested in them. You’re not a real band until you go on tour. I just wish that we had continued that wave of recording and touring and didn’t wait so long. We’re playing a little bit of catch up right now.

I feel like with any film director or a songwriter in a band you need to have that time to reeducate yourself again or kind of just like have that spark again. Sometimes you just drift off into the unknown and you need something to redirect you artistically. I’m not saying I lost anything like that, but sometimes there’s only so much new ground you can break. Take a film like 8 ½. Marcello Mastroianni has something he wants to say and he’s stringing everyone along, being like: “I have an idea! Let’s make this movie! Everyone come on, we’re gonna build this big set!” and you know he doesn’t really have his idea, he just knows he wants it to be like this pure thing. And it ends up taking him a long time and wastes a bunch of money. That’s kind of how it feels to be in a band sometimes. I would say that those three years between Do What May and Darkest Sour were that kind of learning experience.

Ovrld: And do you think that Darkest Sour reflects that?

JB: Yeah! I would say a lot of things I was thinking about at the time lyrically have to do with paying your dues and finding your own way through the world. I would say that there’s a lyrical theme. I do talk about financial struggles. It may not be apparent because my lyrics tend to be a little vague, but there’s a line in “Soft Applause” that says “The money talks/No one cared to shut it up” and it’s kinda about rich kids saturating the art world. The backing tracks and the money squeezing everyone out. Thats kind of the lyrical theme of it I guess.

Those are kind of dark times for me thinking about all that stuff. We had been riding a wave of productivity with festivals and everything for so long and I was exhausted and the band was exhausted and we needed those three years to start up again, even though we didn’t stop playing. You have to keep playing because you don’t want to be all the way gone. Even if there’s three years between albums, you have to keep playing otherwise people will forget about you.

We’re definitely still figuring out our way. We might never maximize our potential, but we’re still trying.

The Sour Notes play Hotel Vegas tonight, November 24th for Darkest Sour’s release.

Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at brian@ovrld.com or on Twitter at @bjaudette.