Shouting Matches: We'd get hammered and see what happened
Photo by Graham Tolbert
It was only a matter of time before a project like the Shouting Matches -- featuring decade-plus pals Justin Vernon, Phil Cook of Megafaun and Brian Moen of Peter Wolf Crier - came to fruition. Initially born of boozy jam sessions in the mid-'00s, the Eau Claire, Wisconsin-bred band purposely gigged just a handful of times a year. Performance rules were put in place to ensure maximum fun and minimum fuss -- including only practicing for a total amount of time equivalent to the length of their set.
Things have grown only marginally more serious on the Shouting Matches' debut, Grownass Man. As loose-limbed and cocksure as its name suggests, the record showcases three talented friends blowing off steam and living it up. Purposefully setting the stakes lower than on their carefully labored-over primary projects, the Shouting Matches nevertheless remain highly enjoyable on their own frivolous- but-oh-so-fun terms. Going back to the lower-register singing voice he employed in his pre-Bon Iver bands, Vernon proves just as charismatic in the role of barrel-chested bar-band singer. Grownass Man darts deftly between bluesy boogie ("Three Dollar Bill"), loping Neil-Young-inspired balladry (the outright gorgeous "Gallup, NM") and even reggae-tinged mid-tempo pop ("I'll Be True").
Ahead of Friday's show at First Avenue, drummer Brian Moen took time out from his new home base of Oakland to talk with Gimme Noise about the Shouting Matches casual evolution into a full-fledged band.
City Pages: A lot of national press has mislabeled the Shouting Matches as Justin Vernon's "new band." When did you guys actually form?
Brian Moen: It was really just something we used to screw around with as kind of a side-project to DeYarmond Edison when we were all in that band together. I think we played just one real show with the three of us in June of 2006 at the House of Rock in Eau Claire. Then that was it because they moved to Raleigh. Then when Justin moved back we started doing it again as a two-piece just for fun. We had a rule that we could never practice for longer than our set time. Most shows we'd just get pretty hammered and see what happened. Justin and I did that as a two-piece maybe twice a year whenever it was convenient. A lot of those early shows were just testing how much we could drink while still being able to play, so I don't remember them all that well. We were pretty loud and ridiculous most of the time [laughs]. We decided last year to really make a proper record and get Phil back in the mix and see what could happen.
CP: The record feels like a striking contrast to the other albums you've all worked on recently, which were heavily layered and meticulously recorded. Was that lean and live approach part of the appeal of the project?
BM: That was exactly the appeal. It came at the perfect time for all of us because it felt like the natural flip side to all the work we had been doing in our other bands. We all went into it agreeing not to over-think things. We just wanted to feel it. Other records we've all worked on start that way, but then there's usually months and months of thinking and tweaking. We purposely wanted to keep this a very visceral record. The whole record came together over two seven-day sessions and pretty much everything you're hearing is just our first takes of the songs.
CP: The Shouting Matches first "official" gig after regrouping was at Coachella. Were you freaking out considering all of your previous shows had been informal hometown gigs?
BM: We all did a good job of keeping each other relaxed. Justin has played so many huge shows with Bon Iver at this point in his career that I'm sure he doesn't really get nervous at this point. But those shows were easily the biggest I've ever played. There was definitely potential for that on my end. That's where having such a long history together really helps, there was a level of familiarity with how we play together that I knew I could just go out there and focus on the two other people on stage and I would make it through all right.
CP: For using a fairly limited range of instrumentation Grownass Man manages to traverse a lot of genres. Was that intentional?
BM: We weren't really going for anything specific, which is why I think it turned out to be so wide-ranging. Nothing was rooted in the desire to fit a certain genre. A lot of it came down to wanting to explore different instrumental combinations. It's a trio album, there's nothing on there we can't recreate live with just the three of us, but other than that we didn't place limitations on ourselves. It was sort of like, 'Well what can we come up with if it's Phil on harmonica, Justin on bass and me on drums?' Then all of the sudden it's three hours later and you've got a song like "Three Dollar Bill" in the can.
CP: As one of his closest long-time friends you've seen the effects of fame in the music industry on Justin up close as Bon Iver has exploded worldwide over the last six years. By all accounts he's managed to stay a remarkably grounded, humble and giving guy. Why do you think that is?
BM: He's really able to maintain his personal friendships in much the same way he always has. Every time I see him it's always the same. There's no pretensions there. In the end he's just really not full of himself. I don't really understand why that is. I'm not sure that's typical. I'm not close to other people with that kind of stardom so I can't really say. He's managed to keep his head on his shoulders in a great way. There are hard aspects to being close with someone that's had so much success. You have your days when it's like, 'Hey, what about me?' I've been doing the same thing [time commitment wise with music] he's been doing this entire time and it just worked out on a different level for him. The reality is he just made music that meant so much to a large swathe of people and you can't take that away from him. More than anything it's just inspiring to be close to that.
The really great part of Justin's success is that he's sharing the wealth as much as he can and that just seems to come really naturally for him. There's a real community aspect to what he's doing with [his studio] April Base and that's the thing I'll look back on and smile about in 30 years. Some of my greatest memories have just been hanging out there and recording with him on various projects, or just getting to hang out when things like the Volcano Choir and Field Report records were happening. The weird part for me is reading some of these reviews of the Shouting Matches that paint some picture like "Justin Vernon decides to slum it with local buddies for an album after finding success." That's just really unfair and inaccurate as Phil and I have also been professional musicians this whole time, we just haven't had the same monumental success as Bon Iver -- because basically no indie act does. It's not like Justin was sitting around thinking, 'Man I'm friends with these guys and I want to do them a favor but it will feel weird if I just hand them money.' This band is not some sort of charity case, its just friends that want to play music together and love doing it.
CP: Does that mean we'll see a second Shouting Matches record sooner rather than later? Or do you guys avoid making those sorts of formal plans?
BM: It's tough to say. It has stayed fairly informal. We don't want to be idiots about it. If this opens some doors and opportunities for us then we'll at least look at them. Would I like to make a second record? Absolutely, and I hope we do. It's just about finding that common lull in everyone's schedules again. Because of the way we write music we could make as many albums as we have time in a room together. I view it like an ongoing conversation between friends that I hope continues. I hope the Shouting Matches are still playing shows 20 years from now, whether we just put out that lone album or have made ten because we decided it was a lot of fun and wanted to put more time into it. It's really anybody's guess. Right now we're still doing it very much as a side-project in terms of the time commitment. Phil has a two-year-old child for whom he's the primary caregiver and none of us really feel like touring a ton. It's nice right now to just play fewer higher-profile shows and share a great time together. We want to stay true to the spirit the band was formed in. If it starts feeling too planned then it's sort of counter to the whole point.
The Shouting Matches play with Alpha Consumer on Friday, August 2, at First Avenue; 612.332.1775. Tickets here.
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