eMusic Selects: Blue Giant
Blue Giant may be a new band, but its members are no novices. For the last decade, principal songwriters Kevin and Anita Robinson have been the driving force behind Portland guitar-pop band Viva Voce. Drummer Evan Railton used to play with Portland’s Swords Project. Bassist Seth Lorinczi used to play with Circus Lupus and Golden Bears, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk is a longtime member of the Decemberists. What’s novel here is the approach: forsaking their respective indie-rock pasts, the members of Blue Giant instead turn out stark, moody, loping alt-country, writing songs that burrow down deep into the dark broken heart of man to dredge up the hate and the fear and the spite that bubbles near the bottom. The results are both gripping and devastating. eMusic talked to Blue Giant’s Kevin Robinson by phone from his home in Portland.
On meeting Anita and the mystery of songwriting:
Anita and I both played music in a small town in Alabama, so it was just a matter of time before we met. She was a guitar player in one band and I was the guitar player in another band, and we just kind of went from there. We were both songwriters on our own, but as soon as we broke out the 4-track, we were writing together. It’s remarkable — whenever you start to create things you have — not rules, necessarily — but a path set out in your mind. The reason it’s fun to collaborate with people is because, almost immediately, they derail those rules. Anita and I have completely different instincts, but the result of collaborating basically gets us to where we both want to be. I mean, in a way, it’s the dullest thing to talk about — there’s no real moment where a giant lightbulb goes off and we figure out how the chemistry works. It runs to both extremes: one of us could be sitting in the kitchen with a guitar and a song comes out, or we could be sitting in the studio for four hours beating our brains out and screaming at each other. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it.
On the transition from Viva Voce to Blue Giant:
Last year, Anita did some songs with the Shins on their last record, and so as a result we kind of got grafted into their touring cycle. As we toured, we got to see the dynamic of being in a band. There was a lightbulb that went off, where we felt like there was something missing with us just playing and working as two people. And, I mean, touring with bands like the Shins and Jimmy Eat World just challenged me personally as a songwriter. Those are some fucking great songwriters, you know? So we sought to correct that as best we could. Blue Giant is definitely its own thing. We’re gonna see it through to the bitter end, through the breakup and then through the reunion. This is anything but a side project, and we wanted to make that clear from the get-go.
On how a change in identity sparked a change in approach:
There was definitely a shift in songwriting — we started writing a certain kind of song. We were writing songs that didn’t necessarily sound like Viva Voce songs. We were kind of rediscovering classic country, and then infusing it with our own skewed, fucked-up rock & roll past. Anita and I both grew up in Alabama so, like it or not, this music is a part of our upbringing. This whole past year leading up to the election, it was kind of a bleak time to be an American. I think American music is the one thing that you can always point at and say, “This makes me proud to be where I’m from.” It’s something you can always hold as prestigious, no matter what’s going on in this country. So we just got back to that idea, almost in a defiant way. Like, “Yeah, things are really fucked up now, the music industry is fucked, it’s like Lord of the Flies; the whole country is going to hell in a handbasket. The best thing we can do is write the best possible songs we can in the best possible format.” That format ended up being this kinda countryish vibe.
It was pretty remarkable, when we got back and started to record it, how many people were on the exact same page. As soon as we started to write, a band just sort of formed around the songs. We got together a rhythm section of really close friends in a matter of weeks. It wasn’t anything we had to force into place. As soon as the songs were written, boom, there was a band. I met [drummer] Evan [Railton] years and years ago, and have always bumped into him. We were both on a hiatus, I guess, after touring so much — I mean, physically my hands were shot after touring so much — so I was like, “I’ve written some songs on guitars, do you want to come drum on them?” And Seth [Lorinczi] is basically the best bass player I’ve ever met in my life. Chris [Funk] and I have known each other peripherally for years. He got a copy of our demo and basically called me and said, “I have to join your band.” In a way I feel like we just took the best players in town and said, “Sorry guys, you’re stuck with us!”
On the importance of Portland:
Several years ago, Anita and I moved from Alabama to Nashville. We didn’t have any expectations when we moved there, we just knew we didn’t want to live in Alabama. Well, basically, we got there and got all the problems of a small town and all the problems of a big town without the benefits of either one. I just really fucking hated that place — I called it “Satan’s asshole.” Looking back now, it was a dark time in my life; my father passed away — there was just a lot of dark shit going on. And unless you’re trying to become a gospel legend or Big & Rich and ride an inflatable horse, I just don’t think Nashville is a great musical culture to be in. It’s kind of poisonous. So we just ended up touring a lot.
Portland is to people our age what Florida is to old people. It’s a beautiful city; it supports local arts; it’s a culture where we immediately thrived. So we went back to Nashville and literally sold everything we had and moved here. We stayed with some friends for about six months until we got jobs, and that was it. The town actually makes a pointed effort to support local anything. People will protest a Starbucks because there’s a mom & pop shop that’s in the area. I mean, for us, it’s like a love story. So when we started this band, it was like, “OK, you’ve loved what we’ve done in the past — here’s some pseudo-country jams for you.” And the town was like, “OK, we love it, let’s go.”
On the themes of Target Heart:
All these songs are just stories. Some of them are personal, some of them are just storytelling. I think that was the shift, getting back to what I considered to be classic songwriting styles. There are several songs on the EP that are about abusive love — hanging on to something when there’s no reason to hang on, staying in something out of just stubbornness. It’s not necessarily something I had to experience, it was just something I had to have the perception to write about. I didn’t have to shoot a man to watch him die. It’s just brutal imagery — you’d just stay and get shot down over and over and over. I’ve seen it happen to people around me. Anytime you watch someone you love go through some horrible ordeal, you kind of live through that a little bit. This has been a strange year for people in our lives — we’ve seen a lot of heartbreak. I mean, a song like “Hell or High Water” continues that idea. Sometimes there can be situations where love and affection becomes a weapon. You can even tie some of these ideas back into the state of the country — regardless of how shitty this is, I’m not going to lose hope.
On the benefits of a good concept:
Portland has consistently lent us its ear. Whatever crazy idea we’ve had, the town has supported. Let me give you an example: there is a certain type of 3D Glasses that makes certain kinds of light appear 3D. Like, if you look at a blue light, it makes everything but the blue light 3D. So we did this one Viva Voce show where we gave everyone who came custom Viva Voce 3D glasses. We had all these crazy projections and lights. I have no idea if it actually worked, but it was kinda cool to look out and see 400 hipsters wearing yellow 3D glasses.
With Blue Giant, right out of the gate, we’re trying to connect with people in the same way. It may not be as silly as 3D glasses but, for our first show, we had programs like church bulletins that we gave away with the EP inside. The little tour of Portland that we did, we gave a single away to everyone who came. That helped to almost instantly create a sense of something special. There was a reason to be at the show. Also, any time we do a show in Portland, we try to get another artist involved. Our last show we had Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney and Sam from Quasi come and play with us. With Blue Giant, we want to make it so that anything we do is going to be bigger than just us individually.