By Julie Garisto
Below is a transcript of an interview with Will Quinlan on Feb. 19, 2009, conducted when I was gathering information for tbt* Ultimate Local Band profile I did on his band Will Quinlan and the Diviners, which ran in tbt* on March 20.
I’ve noticed you’ve gotten some recognition on a nation level. What’s the feedback you’ve been getting on the CD?
Initially when we sent our record to the Americana Radio Network we did pretty well. Early December tied for No. 1 for most adds to playlists. It’s been pretty steady since then; been getting pretty consistent airplay. Funny, it’s been mostly in Europe, in the Netherlands, Belgium and France. More plays and CD sales over there than over here. … I wish I could go over there. I may just have to get over there by myself.
The reviews that have come back have been really good. Americana UK, a Web site and network in England that pretty much covers all Europe. … I’ve been really happy with the feedback. It’s been really great.
Anything specific you remember people telling you about the record touching them a certain way?
For one, I’m glad to see the main thrust of the record is coming through to people. It’s easy for them to not only see what it’s about as far as the concept of it being mostly about my mother’s life, her passing, my relating to all that, the fallout from that. … In some of the reviews, they mentioned – It’s hard for me to quote them because I feel like I’m blowing my own horn – but they just have been really complimentary in how they describe how the songs are written, how it’s a difficult subject to write about and not sound maudlin or depressing. One guy, whose snippet I used in a press sheet, said the vocals were the equivalent of the Thousand-Yard Stare, the famous World War II photo from the Vietnam War. He said something about the song (Remember the Beatitudes) had plaintive, expressive vocals and how it reminded him of the photo. It struck me how he related it to the subject matter of the song. I liked that descriptive idea. It acknowledges certain emotional connection. To me, it’s flattering and it makes me feel good to know that the expressed emotion is getting across. That’s a big weight songwriters take. I don’t write things too literally. I smear things a bit, make them slightly vague. That’s always been my style. I prefer the aesthetic of suggestion – something a little ghostly, a little cloudy, instead of something hard and cut in stone.
The mood comes through first …
Exactly. It’s more about the mood. Read some of the lyrics and it’s obvious what it’s about here and there, but in general, the vibe is suggestive.
So you feel like you’ve reached another level of support and popularity?
Yes, I think so. Since I’ve been unable to get out on the road, it’s been mostly through online outlets, MySpace and whatnot. I’m starting to feel if I could get out on the road, I could do all right.
So you’ve been chomping at the bit to go on tour?
Oh, yeah. I’ve always been. Part of it has been that my father’s health was shaky up until the last year. He had prostate cancer and some other issues, and his wife left him in the middle of all that. She tried to take a bunch of money of him. It was horrible. So now it’s a problem I deal with and worry about because I’m pretty much all he’s got, and I’m his support network. But at the same time I have to struggle to try and balance that with moving forward.
Do you feel like your personal struggles help you grow as an artist?
They have. Have you ever watched that show Northern Exposure? Do you remember the cranky old lady Ruth who lived alone? She was really wise, cranky and brilliant. She had a son who was a musician and another son who was a straitlaced CPA, middle-of-the-road white-bread achiever. The other son was a musician who was always. … She came back from visiting him and was talking about her son and said that artists needed obstacles for their art to develop. You don’t develop certain sensibilities unless you have difficult circumstances.
Do you feel like your ability to cope with those difficult circumstances has changed over the years?
I cope a lot better now than I used to. All the crap, the fallout of my mom passing away, the way I dealt with it in the first two years was unfortunate. I shut down. I indulged in a lot of self-indulgent and self-destructive behavior, giving into the emotional swings. I was pretty volatile. At the same time, I got really numb and started internalize a lot of stuff. Stress-related illnesses blew up on me in both ’03 and 04. Having gone through that, I’m much better able to deal with it all now.
So you have balance now?
Yeah, part of what got things rolling with the Diviners was my finally realizing from the illnesses and suppressed emotions that came up that I needed to get back to writing and playing. It was a catharsis. It sounds kinda clichéd but everybody needs that kind of thing. For me, it’s music. I realized that it’s not something I do because I want certain attention, it’s because I need it. Plus, I love it. Having objectives is something you have to prioritize things. … If anything that I’ve been glad about too, since this last record came out, is that the feedback I’ve gotten has made me feel good about the fact that people understand why I’m doing. That’s very gratifying in its own way – to have people like what you do and understand why do it and respect you for it. I struggled for a lot of years to get back the respect that I had lost.
I didn’t think you lost respect.
Well, I felt like I did.
Maybe within the inner circles, with musicians?
I was the clichéd narcissistic, self-destructive artist from the late ’90s up through the early 2000s. There was a part of me, that other part of your consciousness, that sits back and watches what you do. It’s awareness on a deeper level of why you’re doing certain things that you don’t necessarily want to admit to yourself. It’s hard to acknowledge that because people repress those things, why they’re doing certain things.
Or they pretend like they don’t care.
Yeah, sometimes that’s a crutch. And I did that for a long time. It was an unhappy balance. Part of it was I was just what I was. I was indulgent, a self-destructive, pugilistic drunkard. I’m surprised I didn’t get into much more trouble than I did. I was lucky, very lucky. I think that a lot of people understood and were cool to me when it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for them not to be cool to me.
Did you feed off your friends and your loved ones as far as the good vibes they gave you, the recognition? Is that been something that pulled yourself up?
Yeah. I became aware of it. I was shut off to a lot of things. It became one of those unfortunate double-edged kind of issues. You have to go through that kind of crap to know what you were missing or neglecting. It’s unfortunate but that’s how we learn sometimes.
So you’re in a pretty good place now?
Yeah, much better.
You have a girlfriend; are you dating anyone?
I’m dating – sparsely. When it comes to that, I’ve been so wrapped up in the last year with working that it’s been hard for me to take time and it’s hard to find individuals who can understand that. In the past when I had steady girlfriends, my last one was four years ago, it was difficult for her and girlfriends I had before that, to realize that the music is not more important but as important. I’m sure it’s difficult for anyone, male or female, to date an artist. Whatever medium that might be it’s more than a career but a passion for what you do. It’s difficult for some people. They feel like they’re competing. If you have someone who doesn’t understand that dynamic, then it’s not going to work out
You have a day job you have to go to that’s not music-related?
Fortunately right now I don’t, but I may have to in the future. I have some savings and some income from my family’s mineral rights from tracks in Texas, my mother’s family. It helps me scrape by.
Better to live like that than a job that takes you away.
I’ve been in a place the past two years where I don’t feel like I need to do that. That’s why I’ve been so manically invested in working – I’ve been working on three projects right now. I have a tendency to procrastinate and be a little lazy, so I have to poke myself.
How do you find it within yourself to motivate yourself to do all that?
It’s about self-awareness. Some people come to it quicker. I know 24-year-olds who are so self-aware and on the ball.
Do you ever feel like the ideas are coming from different directions and you have to find a way to filter them out and narrow them down to a few central ideas?
Yeah, that’s tricky sometimes. Like I said, I have three projects right now, and for me sometimes it’s difficult for me to figure out where to split it up. I’m working on a semi-solo project that’s going to be a companion piece to Navasota. I wrote all these alternate versions of several of those songs, and some of them are actually original versions, and they changed to become what appeared on the record, and so I was going through notebooks of all this stuff, ideas and song notes and whatnot.
I have my own way of mapping songs out. Remember those outlines you’d have to write in English class, in high school? It’s kind of like that. There’s that and there’s the next Diviners record and a side project, the Holy Slow Train record, which has been pushed back and is due to come out in June.
So your current lineup still consists of all the folks listed on your MySpace page?
Any guest players, plans for the new Diviners CD? Where are you going to record it?
At the moment, it’ll be just kind of doing the same as had done on Navasota where it was split 50-50 or 60-40 between my house and doing it over at Steve Connelly’s Zen studio in St. Petersburg. We do some of the recording over there and when it’s all done, we do all the mixing and mastering over there. Steve’s great. I’ve known him for a long time, since before I played out. He’s got a great ear for what I do and the way I write. He has a very empathetic ear and response. I could start to describe an idea or a concept for a song and before I’m done, and he’s like, ‘I got it.’ He gets the sonic aesthetic I’m going for – that rangy, dusty sound, organic.
Let’s go back to your previous work.
Pagan Saints had its embryonic spasms in the early 90s… we were called the Pagans briefly. We were a duo. We found out that the Pagans were a Thai punk band. They had the name and we got a letter from them to let go of the name. That turned into Pagan Saints – the name was coined when were a duo – and went through several revolving lineups. Officially, the beginning was – I’ve settled on 1993, through October 2003, when I pulled the plug on it. I should have done it earlier but it was hard for me to tell what to do at the time.
Like being stuck in a dysfunctional marriage?
Kinda. I mean, it was hard for me to admit to myself. It was March 03 when we got invited to go to Austin (for South by Southwest) with BAAMO, the first year they put on the Tampa Bay showcase, but the whole band couldn’t do it. At the time, Mark Bustin was playing guitar with us, so Mark and I went. While we were out there, going around to see all these great bands, I realized we were not as good. I mean, we were good but we hadn’t worked hard enough, and it was then that the Pagan Saints bubble burst for me, but I couldn’t acknowledge it. It was this kind of inertia I didn’t feel until months later. I felt it but on a subconscious level, and I didn’t want to admit it. So, we drug things on through the summer of 03 and we played the SMA conference in St. Pete, at the State Theater. When I walked onstage that night, I knew – it clicked – it was a couple days after that I told everybody, ‘That’s it.’ It’s unfortunate it took me several months.
That seemed to coincide with the end of the period, for lack of a better phrase, of your lost years.
Yeah, my mom passed in 2000. From 2000 to 2003, it was shaky. We had some good moments in there, and there was good stuff we recorded at Panda Studios with George Harris, but I kept dragging my feet and I didn’t know why. The material was good. I still regret not finishing that record. There was just something in me I couldn’t acknowledge.
After that, did you feel like you were starting from scratch or were you already delving into your solo material?
Part of what took me so long (to work on the solo material) was I was terrified of not having my band. That’s all I had for 10 years – technically a little more than that. I started getting horrible stomach disorders from that and all the other stuff I had been repressing for 2 and a half- 3 years. What’s funny, it was the beginning of October 2000 when we had my mother’s funeral and three years later to the day that I finally ended Pagan Saints.
How do people interpret the religious iconography on the Navasota record?
Some people think when they lightly listen to it and see the song titles, like the sacred heart on the cover record – which symbolizes my mother, but that’s another tangent – they see me as a religious person. I am not. I have somewhat of a mild obsession with what could be called the mysticism of Catholicism before it got warped. I grew up Catholic, but now I’m more of a secular humanist pagan, a mash-up of all those things. There was an element of Christian mysticism there before it was killed by the church. For me, the problem was with the structure, the hierarchy of the church, which contradicted all the teachings they professed to have this great faith in.
In my early-to-late teens I started noticing all the contradictions, and I couldn’t stand it and I got away from it. … I think people feel like it’s like opening a big can of worms. They don’t want responsibility for heavy things. They want to put it in the hands of that mother or father figure who’s going to take care of us. It’s a holdover from childhood. … Being Irish-Catholic there’s that guilt. It hangs over you like a black cloud blasting out lightning bolts all the time. We mentioned the Beatitudes earlier. Part of the concept of Remember the Beatitudes came from a debate I had with a really uptight coworker, who was what you could call a new charismatic evangelical Christian. They try and act open outwardly but beneath that there’s this thin veneer of tight-clenching hatred of anything that isn’t what they are. I debated and argued with this person all the time. It got pretty heated. I was almost yelling at him. I started going into this spiel about the Beatitudes – ‘What about the meek shall inherit the earth, blessed are the poor and it’s harder for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?’ I said you people never remember things like that. You just gloss it over and the concept stuck with me. I think I said verbatim ‘Remember the Beatitudes? Or ‘What about the Sermon on the Mount?’ They were talking about all this fire and brimstone, strict conformity. … Jesus was the premier socialist, the complete socialist hippie. If he were alive today, he’d probably be thrown in jail.
What was the other personal connection with the song title, with regard to the relatives who died in Vietnam?
One was a cousin, one was my brother. They both were like older brothers. They went away when I was 7 and they both were gone before I was 8. The title (in relation to the memory) had to do with a concept of the charity, the truth, the core, the seed about what Christianity is supposed to be about – about accepting and giving. That applies, and that concept came to me in a fated, indirect way. They were the core issues that were contradicted by all these negative horrible things – the push, the brainwashing that got us into that war. It was all tied together in that respect. The propaganda that got us into that war was the same as the propaganda that got us into Iraq. All these politicians and leaders that got us into Vietnam and Iraq profess to be Christians but if they were truly devout and followed those basic core concepts of what Christianity really is, they wouldn’t be pushing anyone into war. They wouldn’t be pushing for war anywhere anytime. Once again, it’s that contradiction I came back to with “Remember the Beatitudes.”
All these realizations seem to have led up to progression in the caliber of your performance. There’s just this sense of a connection you have with the audience now, something resonating on another level, the cohesion of the band and a beauty you’re bringing to the music, I think.
Wow. That’s cool. For me, it’s hard to have that kind of objectivity. At times, I sense something that I like, something that feels good. Definitely in the last couple, few years I’ve become more confident in performing on stage. In past reviews, there would be a mention of how I was static and I would just stand there and hug the mic and didn’t move around much. It’s not about jumping around like a wild ape. I’ve seen people stand stock still and bang on their guitar, and it’s amazing. I think there’s room for all of that within one set.
Do you feel like you have a certain confidence in your instincts now?
Once again, it’s a balance of taking into consideration how people judge things or perceive me and not worrying about that, pushing past it. I still get a little nervous before we play. Specifically speaking of that set at the State Theater (Geri X CD Release Show, Jan. 17), there was a kind of – I hate to use flowery terms – but a kind of joyful abandonment that hits you at some point when you’re on stage and you know it’s going well. I can see it in the crowd and literally feel it. You get high off the crowd. That hits you and you give more and it becomes this continuous feedback and it gets stronger and stronger. The last song we did was a preview to the Holy Slow Train material. It’s called Emmanuel (The Western Line). A bit more – and I am loath to use certain terms more –
indie rock, folk rock. The country elements are pretty much not there. A friend of mentioned that it’s kind of like the Decemberists meets Iron and Wine meets the Shins with My Morning Jacket and something else thrown in there that’s kind of ragged. Maybe Neil Young’s electric stuff. It’s more of a mishmash of progressive indie rock stuff. I’m reluctant to use the term indie rock but it points to an aesthetic people recognize.
You’ve always drawn from early bluegrass, folk forms, the kind of music that germinated into what we have now. Is there anything recently you’ve gotten into that’s inspired you in your songwriting?
I listen to all kinds of stuff, everything from old bluegrass stuff like you mentioned – Bill Monroe and the Carter Family and stuff like that, up through the Americana stuff like Uncle Tupelo and, of course, Neil Young. If I were forced to choose a favorite artist, it would be Neil Young. There are always rock stars and pop. I’m always surprised that people don’t hear the pop in my music. They hear stuff that I don’t hear at first because it’s different from the perspectives. It’s related to what they know. It’s hard for me to be outside the material. I’m so close to it, but to me, there’s a strong use of melody, which I love and it comes out naturally. Yeah, so there are pop influences in there – Elton John, ELO. … I had a fling with Metallica in the ’80s and I listen to classical music, too.
Has your ability to collaborate, your chemistry with others on stage gotten better than in previous years?
Yeah, I’m more relaxed. It’s not such a heavy thing as it used to be. At times, I could be a little too heavy or intense for some people.
You’ve been more open to absorbing everyone else’s input?
I don’t get a lot of it. This is tricky to explain. The individuals I work with now, they came into the band with an understanding – they’re all great people, open, very aware and sharp – they see that I’m writing the songs and I’m directing it, and that’s cool with them and they accept that dynamic. Some bands are like that and some are true total democracy. I used to have a much more difficult time talking about that dynamic, but I do now because I understand and I accept it and I don’t worry about it. I trust it. If I’m true in what I’m doing and I’m honest, and I feel that I am. It’s not about my pride or ego, it’s about what’s best for the song. It’s really a blessing for me to have people around who get it. Some people understand that and can work with it and some people have a problem with it because they want to be in control and see me as being in control. Technically, it’s not about that. It’s about the fact that there’s a group, and there’s a leader, and it just happens to be me. This is my thing. I’m moving forward and I’ve been very fortunate in having over the years, with one or two rare exceptions, people who’ve come on board who got it and came to me and offered their services, especially with all the turnover I’ve had. I still call it the Pagan Curse, a constant rotating door. It always seemed like it wasn’t meant to be. We’d get rolling and the wheels would fall off, somebody would have to leave town. That would happen all the time. But there was always someone there waiting, willing to offer their services. There was a stretch in the mid 90s up until the last incarnation of Pagan Saints, somebody couldn’t play anymore, and within a week I’d be getting phone calls from people saying, ‘I’ve heard you need somebody.’ So on one hand there was a curse and on the other hand there was always somebody there who was really fit and a great person I got along willing to come in and take somebody’s place.
You said without misgivings that you are the leader. Was there a time when that Catholic guilt crept in and made it difficult for you to say that? I would think that when you were younger you had some discomfort or anxiety with that.
I did. For the longest time, a time in the beginning when it was Will Quinlan and the Pagan Saints. I was so self-conscious about that. I dropped my name because I was so uncomfortable with my name out front. I felt that way until just a little over a year ago. It was December of 07, when I decided to put my name out front, just as we were mixing and getting the record done and getting it out. … Over time, I became comfortable with it.
Do you feel like the Pagan Curse is gone?
(Laughs) It’s somewhat diminished a bit. A good part of that was me, not letting it have such weight, acknowledging it for what it was and letting it disperse. It’s going away, and I don’t think it’s completely gone. We’re not on the road. If we were, I’d say flat out the curse is gone, but there’s still part of me that’s tense and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Would it be possible for some of your bandmates who have day jobs to take time off to tour?
Even take a hiatus, a sabbatical, so to speak. None of them, with exception of Soraya, our keyboard player, none us has a day job now. But she has a really cool boss. I was at a gig and her boss came out to see us and I met him, and I kinda joked with him and asked, ‘Are you going to have a problem when I take her away from you for six months?’ He kinda laughed and said, ‘We’ll work something out.’