The Music of Desperate Times:
listenlisten leads the sounds of Appalachia out into The Modern World.
(l to r) Shane Patrick, Ben Godfrey, & E. Marshall Graves.
Photo by Ben Godfrey.
Okay, so what the hell am I supposed to make of these listenlisten folks, anyway? They're a cryptic bunch, playing live only sporadically, keeping a low profile in the Houston scene, capitalizing their name a ridiculous number of ways -- over the past few years, I've seen Listen Listen, listenlisten, LISTEN!LISTEN!, and ListenListen!, myself -- and then releasing a beautifully-done self-titled EP this past year that's a CD sleeve glued to a slice of honest-to-god wood with the band's name (and EP title) burned into it. (And yes, I'm assuming it's a limited-edition deal, because I can't imagine that kind of thing's real mass-producable.)
On top of all that, there's the music. Like scene compatriots Buxton, The Scattered PAGES, Georgia's Horse, and to a lesser extent, Papermoons, listenlisten delve deep into the well of folk music for their sound, coming up with a seemingly fully-formed brand of indie-folk that's appropriately dark and mysterious and that sounds like it meandered out of the Appalachian backwoods with mandolin in hand and tragedy on its mind. There're elements of bluegrass, country, gospel, Scottish folk, and good old-fashioned rock, all stitched together into a somber, beautifully melancholy canvas that sounds like not much else that's out there right now.
How'd something like this arise out of the Houston muck? I have no clue, but we're fortunate as hell that it did, because what band members Ben Godfrey, Shane Patrick, and E. Marshall Graves have created is truly something special, a sort of deepwoods-bred answer to Murder by Death or The Black Heart Procession -- rural music dragged kicking and screaming out into the light and made to survive in The Big City, but still mysterious and strange. We've asked a few questions to try to break through some of the mystery; here are the band's answers.
listenlisten plays at Rudyard's on Saturday, March 15th, along with Citay & Sunburned Hand of the Man.
SCR: Okay, so where the heck did this come from? Were you all raised in an isolated Appalachian cabin or something?
Ben Godfrey: Yes.
Right, so I ask a dumb question... I'm just somewhat amazed that a band that sounds like you guys could rise up out of the steamy, chemical-smelling muck of this city. How did you arrive at such rural-sounding music?
Ben: Hard to say exactly how, it just happened. Probably not much different than anyone else who's been inspired by the same types of music, maybe it's just unexpected because so many people in Houston are stuck in the '90s.
Can you tell a bit about how the band was formed? Who's actually in the band?
Ben: Shane and I formed the group, then recruited our viola player, Joe Joyner, who recently moved out of state, so we started working with Elton.
E. Marshall Graves: Shane and I were in many failed projects through high school and beyond. When we parted ways, Shane started making good music. Thankfully, at the beginning of 2007 he was kind enough to invite me to be part of that.
Shane Patrick: Elton actually joined the band just before we found out that Joe was leaving, but we have found that the three-member dynamic suits us well. Ben sings and plays acoustic guitar, piano, banjo, and organ foot pedals. Marshall plays electric guitar, bass, piano, organ, banjo, and drums and sings backups. I play banjo, drums, bass, piano, electric guitar, trumpet, and trombone and sing backups.
I caught a video of you performing from back in 2006 -- how hard is it to play drums and trumpet at the same time?
E. Marshall: It's totally easy; that's why we make Shane do it.
Shane: It was pretty tough when I first tried it out, but it has gotten easier every time we play. Multi-instrumentalism is a big part of our set. Elton and I switch instruments quite a bit throughout the set, and Ben plays acoustic guitar and organ pedals in a few songs, as well.
Is it "listenlisten," or "Listen Listen," or "Listenlisten"? Or are those all totally wrong?
Ben: It's listenlisten or LISTEN!LISTEN!
Gotcha. So the ambiguity's intentional, then? I'm only curious because as a group you seem somewhat, well, mysterious, for lack of a better word. I had a heck of a time finding out anything about you guys, I have to say...
Shane: We like to distance ourselves personally from the music. Which is one of the reasons we chose our name. There is very little pretense to it, so it allows people to accept the music on its own merits.
How'd you come up with the wooden CD "cover"? It's pretty damn impressive.
Ben: We wanted to give people something real and we didn't want to contribute another bland plastic jewel case to the world.
Shane: Our music is very organic, and the processed "normal" packaging that people are used to doesn't represent us very well.
A lot of the songs on the EP seem to deal with loss and pain fairly specifically; was there an overall subject to the lyrics?
Ben: Originally we intended there to be one, but we kind of broke away from that as the material developed. Looking at it now, I can see how does seem to have pretty consistent themes anyway. Regarding the sound, I have been inspired by music that seems to come from a desperate time when people have to make the best of it.
(Music courtesy of listenlisten.)
listenlisten MySpace Page
Sunburned Hand of the Man
Interesting; does that mean that you didn't have a particular aim in mind, stylistically, like saying, "wow, I really like the sound of all those old backwoods folk and bluegrass songs"? That you went more for a period than a style?
Ben: We haven't ever made a very intentional conscious decision to gravitate towards a certain sound; it just sort of happens as we figure out what best reflects how we feel.
How do you handle the songwriting duties within the band?
E. Marshall: Generally, Ben will come to us with a skeleton of a song. Then Shane and I will do our best to add structure and weight until we have a product that everyone's happy with.
What's the response been like to your music? When you play live, do people seem to get it?
Ben: Pretty much wherever we play, we have a positive response and people do seem to get it.
E. Marshall: It helps to tailor our set-list depending on the atmosphere.
(l to r) E. Marshall Graves, Ben Godfrey, & Shane Patrick.
Photo by Paul Bryan.
What do you think of the recent handful of "folky" bands that've come out in recent years here in Houston, people like Buxton or The Scattered PAGES? Do we have a real-live "nu-Appalachia" scene going, here?
Ben: It's an emerging trend, for sure, but it's happening everywhere because of the recent success and popularity of some big name folky acts. It's always cool to see other people into similar stuff.
Also, have y'all toured at all outside of town?
Shane: We have played in Austin, Denton, Abilene, La Porte, and New Orleans. We will be going on tour early- to mid-summer to support our upcoming full-length.
You've been awful quiet since the EP was released; what's the band been up to? Planning the subsequent release, I hope?
Ben: Yes, we have been hard at work on our full-length, Hymns from Rhodesia, due out spring/summer 2008 on Murkville Music.
That's awesome news. Will it be similar to the EP in sound, or are you heading in a different direction this time out? Can you tell us what you're aiming for, musically? And why Rhodesia? Have y'all been delving into Boer folk tunes or something?
Ben: It might sound similar to some parts of the EP, but mostly it will be a very new sound. The name is in reference to the political and historical significance of the story of a country like Rhodesia; none of the music will have any actual connection to the country's culture.
E. Marshall: Ben has been utilizing texts from old hymns for about half the tracks, so with that in mind, we've kind of been tailoring the tunes to suit that aesthetic. Basically, we've been using piano and organ a bit more and writing a lot of waltzes.
Shane: It is a lot darker than the EP, and a much more complete work. We spent a lot more time working out the kinks and arranging this set of songs. END