Thursday, June 21, 2012
Liam Fitzgerald of The Rainieros Declares "Last Call!"
Started in 2006 by Liam Fitzgerald and Tyler Johnson, Liam Fitzgerald and the Rainieros, is an original honky tonk, western swing, country and western band. Liam Fitzgerald is the song writer for the band. They have played all over the Northwest and have even ventured out to Montana, Utah, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Northern California.
The latest release from Liam Fitzgerald and the Rainieros is titled, Last Call!, and is a collection of 10 original honky-tonk songs written by Liam.
When and how did you discover honky-tonk, western swing, and western music?
Liam: I heard honky-tonk music thru my dad, but it is hard to say when I discovered the music. It's a big part of American culture.
I have a colorful Western family background. My grandfather was a sheep rancher from Ireland. My grandmother grew up on a farm in Oregon after her family moved out west from upstate New York. My father grew up on their ranch outside of Klamath Falls, OR. with twelve siblings. My uncle is a big cattleman out west. My great grandfather on my mother's side was a dust bowler from Oklahoma. He and my great grandmother were ranchers in Oregon. My mother's father's side was mostly Native American, and my mom grew up in a little tiny town in Oregon named Chiloquin. My mom's cousins were professional rodeo stars and her grandmother is a direct descendant of Ike Clanton.
That's a pretty colorful Western American background, but I can't say it contributed to me falling in love with honky-tonk music. To me, if you love the music and want to keep it alive, that is all that matters. I don't like how music is used to divide people up. North versus South, Rural versus Urban, East versus West.
Would you say that country music was a big part of your formative years that led to your own musical development?
Liam: I can't point to a particular time when I discovered the music. From the time I was born until sometime in my 8th year, I lived in Klamath Falls, OR. Country music was just around all the time. I didn't think much different about it than I did rock music. I think they even played them on the same station back then.
I did used to watch Hee Haw and the Lawerence Welk Show with my parents and grandparents. My dad would play country music albums around the house. I must have heard Tompall Glaser's "T for Texas" and "Put Another Log on the Fire" a million times as a kid. I was aware of the music as far back as I can remember so, I can't pinpoint a time of discovery.
My interest in country music probably really took off in high school. My dad would always tell stories about the big songs of his day and the taverns he heard them in. The Johnny Cash stuff, Buck Owens, Marty Robbins, etc. He'd sing "North to Alaska" every time he mowed the lawn. I really liked my dad and it is fun when we shared interests. So I started buying some of those recordings and listening to them with him.
And your interest and record collection just kept growing?
Liam: I continued thru college with more Buck Owens, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Gram Parsons, etc. I would sing some of their songs at the college parties and open mics I mentioned earlier. I even started writing country music, although mostly for myself. At that time I was still weary about playing live. Plus, I didn't think classic country music forms could be played anywhere around town.
I didn't know that anyone else was into it around Seattle. I do remember going to family reunions around that time. Playing songs around the campfire. I remember that if you wanted to stand out among all the aunts, uncles, and cousins it didn't hurt to play a country song. That was motivating. I always wanted to be liked by my family.
How and when did you decide that this music was the direction you wanted to embark on artistically?
Liam: After college I discovered that one of my oldest friends, Tyler Johnson, was interested in country music. Around the same time he became interested in playing the bass. We would get together all the time at his place or mine, drink beer, listen to country records, and try to play songs. We decided we wanted to play music together so we joined a rock band. We still didn't think there was an outlet for country. We would play country songs for the other guys at practice. We even would play during the other rock band's breaks and opened up a show playing country songs for them.
We started noticing how much people liked it and we got excited. The rock band broke up and our friends told us we ought to consider playing country full time. Well, we thought they were crazy. We didn't know who would possibly go out to see that. We were just happy to get together in the garage and play country songs for friends. We thought that was the limits for it, and we were okay with it.
Then by chance, we went to the Little Red Hen in Seattle and saw Jerry and the Philbillies. We couldn't believe it. They were playing all the songs we loved, and even more surprising, there was an audience there just as much in love with the music as we were. We ran into another artist, Knut Bell, playing a show for Rainier Beer. He was just fantastic and Tyler and I decided that we had to do this. Eventually we met all these people who shared an interest in the music and they turned us on to so many different artists that we just were swimming in Honky Tonk and Western Swing.
As you developed your own sensibilities and songwriting, who were some of the artists that influenced you most significantly?
Liam: I'm influenced by writers of all genres. I really get into people that can put words together. However, in the interest of keeping it simple, I will narrow it down to country artists that I listened to that influenced the song I wrote. Not all of them wrote the songs they sang, so we'll stick to the artists that performed them.
I really dived head first into the Ernest Tubb catalog sometime ago, and I haven't come back up for air yet. I'm in love with his style and delivery. He did write some great tunes, but a lot of the great songs he does are covers of his contemporaries. I also became fixated on Tommy Collins. His lyrics are fun, playful, and full of double meanings.
You can't forget Lefty Frizzell. He was a great songwriter and inspires me to try different things with the melody. Same with early Ray Price material. Those two played with the melody and took it to unexpected places. Hank Thompson and Merle Travis influenced a lot of my songwriting. I draw influence from the classic Bakersfield artist like Wynn Stewart, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens. Don Gibson for sure influenced and inspired me on some of the "Last Call!" tunes. He is one of the better song writers that I've ever heard.
The Rainieros started in 2006. Can you take us through the band's evolution?
Liam: The Rainieros really started with me and Tyler. It will probably end up that way again someday. Tyler and I, listening to and playing country music. Either in his basement or mine.
When we decided to start the band, we didn't know any other people that played traditional country/honky tonk music. We'd seen the Philbillies and Knut's band, but weren't in the scene so to say. We recruited friends that played music and tried to get them into playing the music. It was both fun and challenging. We learned a lot. Eventually as we started to play shows, we met a lot of other roots musicians. We recruited a steel player, Jimmy Peters, we'd shared a bill with. We met tons of traditional players in the Rockabilly scene. We met people in the country western scene down at the Little Red Hen.
As time passed our original players moved on. It was just Tyler and I again so we grabbed some of the available played we'd met along the way. For a year or so we played without a drummer. We were kind of a hardcore Hillbilly Honky Tonk Band. We had Greg Brandelli on acoustic and harmony vocals. We also had Moses Clough on electric lead and harmony vocals. Sometimes we were joined by Kevin Campion on the straight steel. Tyler had bought a stand up bass so we had that very early honky tonk sound. It was great fun! We bought a van and did a quick tour of the Western States. I'll never forget those shows! I think the peak of it was playing the Redwood in L.A. and opening for Deke Dickerson. We really felt great about that. We came home and played the Tractor Tavern in Seattle. What a great homecoming that was.
Moses and Greg, really started getting in to writing songs together. They formed a great band called the Hilltones. They're a great brother style act, somewhat in the Louvin tradition, but with really fantastic song arrangements. Around the same time we decided we wanted drums again, so we asked our friend, Donnie Staff, to play with us. We also were joined on lead guitar by our good friend, Johnny Mercury. We were back to a four piece with me on acoustic and Johnny on electric. We decided to record an album together, which ended up being Last Call!. Johnny recorded and produced the album. He had a lot of experience with that and was able to guide us into pushing ourselves musically.
Towards the end of the recording process, Johnny and his wife had a son. Johnny decided to step back from playing live so that he could spend time with his new family. He continued thru recording and mixing the album. For the live shows we were able to play with one of our friends from the local scene. His name is Nick Streeter and he's fit right in. We haven't really missed a beat and the whole thing just seems to be continually growing.
How can newcomers obtain some of your previous recordings?
Liam: I did an EP last year that I'm really proud of. It's being mastered this week and should be up for sale at www.therainieros.bandcamp.com very soon. I didn't do much with it last year because I became so focused on Last Call!. I might dig out some of the other recordings and get them mastered after that. I want to work on recording some new tunes as well.
As the primary songwriter, can you discuss your own songwriting process, both lyrically and musically for Last Call!?
Liam: I don't sit down to write. I just get hit with songs. I have stretches were nothing comes to me, and then suddenly I'll get hit with 5 tunes all at once. Usually an experience of mine, a bandmate, or close friends will trigger it all. A phrase like, Last Call!, will start forming in my mind for a hook. Once I have the hook I start writing the lyrics around whatever experience I'm describing. The melody usually develops in my mind around the same time. Once you have your melody, your music to go along with it is already written, so I pick up my guitar and strum along to it.
I start picking the melody on my guitar and make adjustments if things don't seem write. This of course might change a chord or two. Anyhow, I start singing the song and try to find the write key for my range. If it's a good song, it all usually happens in a short amount of time. Only a few tunes, I've started and then held on to for awhile while I waited for more of the song to come to me. I like to finish them as quickly as possible and adjust them later once I take them in and try to play them with the band.
How collaborative is the process of developing/ finalizing the arrangements?
Liam: I take the songs to the band with rough sketches of the arrangements. We play thru them and if someone has a great idea for what style beat we should play, what kind of bass line works, what part of the song we should play the solo breaks over, etc.. we will try them out. If it works we go with it. If we play it live and it doesn't work, we'll all talk about it and try changing things until eventually we got the tempo, the beat, the right bass line, the write intros and endings, and the right solo arrangements for the tunes.
Can you discuss some of your band members' biggest contributions to the band, regarding writing, recording, and live performances?
Liam: When it comes to writing, their contributions are them and the stories they tell me or the things I observe about them. Often a song will be about many different people, myself included. Something they have done might end up as a verse in a tune. They're great subjects to write about. Especially Tyler and Donnie!
Johnny's contribution to the recording part of the band cannot be understated. He did it all. He produced the sessions with all the different musicians, he engineered the recordings, he mixed the album, he helped me arrange the tunes. It was a fantastic learning experience. It's helped me understand music more. All the guys, and Nick now too, are fun to play live with. I can't say enough about how comfortable they make me feel up on stage. It really helps me to perform the songs having these guys do what they do.
How has the Rainieros' live performances influenced the recording of Last Call!? Was this an element you wanted to capture, and if so, how did you do it/ how do you think you did?
Liam: I wanted the capture relaxed nature of our shows. Recording vocals is tough. It's hard capture the feeling behind them, so I really just tried to pretend I was on stage with the guys in front of a captive audience. I get pretty loose when I'm singing live with the band and I wanted that to come out in the recording. I hope it worked, but it's hard for me to judge on my own. I imagine the live shows are still more loose and lively.
We definitely wanted to capture the live feel of the acoustic instruments, especially the drums, so we recorded them in a large room with a high slanted exposed cedar ceiling. It makes the drums, acoustics, and fiddles sound live with that natural reverberation.
What were you listening to most while writing and recording the album?
Liam: I was totally influenced by everyone around me and our shared experiences. Musically I was mostly listening to the same people that I mentioned as song writing influences. Ernest Tubb, Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart, Lefty Frizzell, Don Gibson, Ray Price, Hank Thompson, and Merle Travis. They weren't the only artists I drew inspiration from, but definitely were the ones I listened to the most.
What are your biggest non-musical sources of inspiration?
Liam: I guess in a way, the lifestyle that goes along with playing live honky tonk shows in local taverns. We have a great fans and really nice local scene. Everyone is a character. We've had some really fun nights that just make songs happen. They also make doing what we do worthwhile.
For Last Call, you were joined by some of the finest country and western musicians in the Northwest. How did you connect with these players?
Liam: For the most part we've connected with them by playing locally. We've shared bills with tons of great musicians like Russ Blake (pedal steel) and Mike Geglia (harmony vocals). I can't remember how I tracked down Greg Canote (fiddle) from the Canote Brothers, but I've used him for all of my recordings. He's a very kind man and super easy to work with. He was out of town when we recorded the first round of Last Call! so he recommended a friend, who in turn recommended, Joe Fulton (fiddle) from the square dance band the Tallboys.
What do you feel their greatest contributions were to the recording?
Their contributions were enormous. Russ Blake is a fantastic steel player. He plays 6 string with the Lucky Stars in L.A. and pedal steel with Lisa and Her Kin in Portland, OR. He really brought those great pedal steel hooks to the songs that really helped tie them together. He really helped set the mood for some of the tunes. Mike was a huge contribution because he's a great harmony singer and guitar player locally with the Roy Kay Trio. I've played with them many times and knew he would be one of the few guys locally that had experience with harmony and could sing above my vocal range.
Can you discuss how the Northwest roots and country music community benefits you artistically and musically?
Liam: We all share our musical finds. They've turned me on to so much good music. I can't emphasize enough how much that has helped me as a song writer and a musician. Plus, we all kind of push each other. When your playing bills with these bands, you always want to do your best. As they keep getting better and better, you know you have to push yourself to keep up if you want to keep playing with them. I love that aspect.
Tyler and I played baseball together from little league through high school. I loved sports and competition. I think I probably still do. I probably brought some of that with me into music. Although the bands I play with are my friends. I don't want to necessarily beat them.. but I want to keep up with them competitively for sure.
What are your plans for the rest of 2012?
Liam: The show calendar is filling up nicely. I'm excited to play all these shows this summer. People have really been digging the new album and have brought that enthusiasm to the shows with them. Last night was a blast! I've got a whole new batch of tunes I want to work up with the band. Maybe that's something we can do when all the babies arrive!