Great Apes

Photo by Katie Hovland

Photo by Katie Hovland

This Friday, San Francisco’s Great Apes will release their second full-length via Asian Man Records, called California Heart. We spoke with singer/guitarist Brian Moss about the album’s writing process and its concept. We also talked in detail about what it was like recording with Jack Shirley, as well as where the record’s title comes from, its overall style and more. This album finds the band combining heavier elements with pop tendencies to create a wide-ranging, complete punk record that redefines their sound. If for some reason you haven’t previously listened to Great Apes, do yourself a favor and check them out now.

Bill – When did you begin writing songs for California Heart and did you intend from the beginning to write a new album or did the record just take shape over time?

Brian – I think it’s important to address that generally the way I write, which has proven to be true with basically almost all the bands I’ve been in, when one set of songs gets finished I tend to kind of need to decompress and not write for a while. I’ve found over the years that when I try to force things it just doesn’t work. With this record, I’d taken a pretty big break after the Playland at the Beach EP. I don’t remember what initially inspired it, but I started writing something in my bedroom and I thought to myself for kind of a myriad of reasons it’d be cool to write a song about a kid that’s really battling with severe mental illness and depression. And kind of coupling that up with your standard adolescent thing. I demoed the song “California Heart” and it was a really stripped-down version of it compared to how it sounds on the record. I got to thinking that I would follow through with it and thought it was a cool concept. Great Apes, pretty much since our first few 7-inches, has been a strictly conceptual band with the records we’ve done. I gravitated toward the idea and then just started outlining the narrative I suppose and writing it song by song. The first three or four songs I did on my own in a very stripped-down version and then sort of brought them to practice and talked to everyone about it. Everyone was onboard, so we kind of pushed through with that notion.

Bill – Compared to your previous full-length, Thread, where each song was told from the perspective of a different person, this album, like you said, revolves around a single character. How different was it to make this record?

Brian – It was definitely a challenge, especially because with Thread, while I was writing from someone else’s perspective and trying to give a voice to these interviews that I conducted with people, it was strictly nonfiction. Playland at the Beach too, it was historical and it’s really creative in the sense that the buildings are narrators. Like you said, with Thread, each song is a different character and it’s all history and sort of nonfiction opinions almost. With this, it’s entirely fictional. That’s a part in writing, both with music and then as a creative writer, fiction is not my strongpoint. So that was a challenge for me. However, a lot of personal experiences and a lot of experiences that I’ve heard about through friends or through the band members in Great Apes came into play and influenced it. I think that at least in theory, almost all fiction is obviously influenced by reality and by the writer’s own experiences or from the experiences of those around them.

Bill – What inspired the album’s title?

Brian – I almost wanted to name the record in kind of this over-the-top, basic sense, because I think the record itself is really complex and some of the subject matter is really dense, and also complicated and heavy. I felt kind of like the music itself, which is fairly straightforward, that a straightforward album name would lend itself to the subject matter. It sounds really happy and borderline cliché, and the record in my opinion is neither one of those two things. It’s a counterpoint and of course in a cheesy way plays off “California Love” and so forth. Lastly, I think too, when we think of California, I’m like “Oh, I love California!” But the Central Valley in Fresno is most likely not going to come to mind as a setting for that. There’s just like landmarks and postcards that come to mind when most people think of California. Not this downtrodden, suburban, hot, Central Valley setting that goes against that. So again, the title is balancing that as well.

Bill – Once again, you guys recorded with Jack Shirley at Atomic Garden. What was different about working with him this time around and what are some of your favorite aspects of how the album sounds?

Brian – I’m a loyalist to Jack for sure and I think that everyone in the band shares that sentiment. Everything about him is kind of right up our alley in the sense that first and foremost, what he is able to do as an engineer is what we’re looking for. He puts out quality material, he knows his craft through and through, and everything I’ve done with him in the past or that I’ve heard from him has exemplified that. So, it’s a no-brainer for us to go record with him. He’s also a fantastic guy. I respect him as a human and enjoy his company. So, there’s all that and then in terms of production and working with him, he can be really hands off, but if you want him to push you a bit more or interject with his own feedback, he’s more than happy to do that, which is really nice. I’ve never wanted to be in a band where I’ve been thrown at a producer that kind of dictates or rearranges entire songs or a record. He’s never done that, but I do like a little bit of a push and I do like some of the constructive criticism, and just hearing ideas or perspectives from people that are outside the band. And he’s great for that. With this record, in terms of changes, I feel like doing what he does as a professional, he’s going to be evolving all the time. So, just from him kind of building his knowledge base or through his experiences over time, his records are going to start to take on new characteristics, whether they’re obvious to the layman or if you need to be an audiophile.

Overall, I’m more happy with this than I have been with other stuff I’ve done with him and I’ve been pretty ecstatic with all the stuff I’ve done with him. In terms of our own decisions, I can tell you for sure we opened the drums quite a bit. Matt, (drummer Matthew Kadi) tends to prefer more of that tight drum sound, whereas I come more from the Chicago Albini school, like huge room mic kind of deal. And the last record was a really tight drum sound; this one goes in the other direction. I don’t think maybe to the extent that I would like or that some of the bands I listen to use, but the drums are more open. I think the whole record sounds a little bit bigger to me and guitars maybe a little bit more classic on the tonality, which I like too, but that’s a lot. It’s a culmination of all those things. We layered some, but with bands that I’ve been in that go out and play live, I’ve never wanted to record in a way that the songs can’t be replicated in a similar sense live. Like I’m not going to go and do three of my own harmonies, because the song will never sound the same live. There’s a little bit of layering, maybe a little bit of extra vocal stuff here and there, but it’s pretty fundamental in terms of sticking to the basics. So, there’s that.

Bill – Do you have a favorite song from the record in terms of how everything came together as a finished product?

Brian – I really like “Prom Com,” but that may be because I feel like the record, more so than our older material, while it’s diverse it’s also a little bit more fluid in its consistency. But “Prom Com” to me is this oddball, super-fast punk song and I’ve never written or recorded a song like that, at least in recent times. It was kind of a fun departure for me and I really liked the way it came out. It’s also kind of different on the record and I like that it stands out a bit.

Bill – From a musical standpoint, how does this album compare to the band’s previous material?

Brian – I think Thread was more on the poppy side of what we do and then Playland… had that, but it also had really heavier songs too. This, I think, falls somewhere in the middle ground, which I really like. I think it’s a pretty accessible record, which balances the lyrical content pretty well. I feel like if we had written a heavier or dark record that had tackled this type of subject matter, perhaps it would have been harder for listeners to digest it.

Bill – Tell me about the video that you guys made for the song “Brown Dots.”

Brian – Sure, so when we put out Thread, Asian Man Records and Mike, (label owner Mike Park) likes to do a little promo video before the record comes out just to kind of introduce it. So with did that with Thread and we never did one with Playland… What he’s basically saying is it doesn’t have to be a music video; it can just be a little clip or whatever you want to represent the album and help the label put it out there. With this, we just kind of did our own little DIY video. The song is basically about the main character taking hallucinogens while at high school. So Matt, our drummer, he works at GoPro and he’s a photographer and likes doing video stuff too. He kind of conceptualized the idea of using these weird watercolors because of this hallucinogenic trip. It’s pretty obvious with that. And then I wanted to mix it up and have a little bit of footage of us playing. And then I thought it’d be fun to jump in a pool, because it was free and we had the cameras to do it through Matt. There wasn’t a lot of thought, honestly. There were the watercolors and that’s how it started. And then we determined the video needed more than that, so then the other two ideas just kind of evolved out of that.

Bill – What motivates you to continue writing music and playing shows?

Brian – The answer to that is pretty simple and that if I’m not creating stuff, I start to go kind of crazy. I think a lot of people feel this way, as though there’s something trapped in them that needs to find a way out. Whether it’s a creative force or even just struggles in their own lives and they need a way to get that out, that isn’t simply having a conversation or going to the bar and having a drink or going on a hike. Whatever it is, that has to come out. Writing and playing music is a catalyst for me and I realize now that I’m well into my thirties, I’m not expecting to go play a show for a bunch of 16-year-olds and have them even relate to me necessarily or even have them want to buy a record. At this point, if widespread acceptance or fame or money had anything to do with it, I would’ve stopped a decade ago at least, (laughs). It just has to happen, basically.

Bill – What’s next for Great Apes?

Brian – I don’t know and that’s the fun of it too. For all of us, we’re doing this because we enjoy each other’s company and we enjoy having this creative outlet. We like playing shows. If I were to sit here and tell you we’re going to knock out a national tour or three national tours, it’s either not true or I don’t know if it’s going to happen. It’s just kind of a matter of pushing forward and seeing what comes out of it. I think that, as I mentioned in the beginning of the interview, probably at this point in terms of writing, we’ll take a break and reset and plays shows and hopefully do a little bit of traveling off this record when we can. When the next idea pops into my brain or someone else’s brain in the band, then we’ll go ahead and push forward from there.

Great Apes – Brown Dots from Matthew Kadi on Vimeo.