In many ways, Greylag’s self-titled debut album feels like a culmination. For the Portland trio themselves, it represents the endpoint of four years of hard work, sifting through musical influences both modern and classic en route to a formidable cocktail of rustic yet metropolitan rock ‘n’ roll. The music rumbles and gleams, like a capable outdoorsman who also happens to be extremely well-groomed. Furthermore, that string of influences stretching from CSNY to Band Of Horses suggests Greylag as the next step in a continuum of wistful, guitar-powered folk-rockers. They seem like an antidote handed down from God to shut up certain people who like to complain that they just don’t make rock bands like they used to.
Although they’ve recorded dozens and dozens of songs since officially forming in Portland four years ago, Andrew Stonestreet, Daniel Dixon, and Brady Swan have only released one eight-song EP, 2012’s The Only Way To Kill You. That changes next week when Dead Oceans releases Greylag, an accomplished and attractive set of songs produced by Pacific Northwest producer extraordinaire Phil Ek, the guy who helmed classics by Modest Mouse, Built To Spill, Band Of Horses, The Shins, Father John Misty, and — perhaps most pointedly given Greylag’s sound — Fleet Foxes. The album’s bursting with energy and ideas, and unlike many ambitious young bands, Greylag actually execute their wild musical excursions. It’s a hell of a record; Greylag co-founders Stonestreet and Dixon called from Portland a few weeks ago to talk about how it came to be.
STEREOGUM: Even though you’re in Portland now, you first met up in Kentucky, right?
DANIEL DIXON: Yes we did. Strangely, neither of us were from Kentucky and spent very little time there, but Andrew is from West Virginia, which isn’t too far away from Kentucky. I was living in Louisville. I’m from California, but I was trying to chase down a girl out there. So I was trying to find something to do in Louisville. We had mutual friends that ended up coming out there and ended up introducing us, and then we kind of just kept working together — finding little things together, little recording projects here and there. Eventually we just kept pulling it together, and I was in Portland, and Andrew was looking for somewhere to be, so he came out here and we made a band out here.
STEREOGUM: How did you guys hit it off musically?
ANDREW STONESTREET: I heard from mutual friends that I needed to meet this Daniel Dickson guy. When we met up in Kentucky we played music, but it was pretty brief. We ended up keeping in touch and nurturing a friendship and eventually got in a location together. He came up to West Virginia.
DIXON: Yeah, it happened really organically. Because I wouldn’t say that there was a time when we sat in a room and were like, “Hey, do you like that band? Yeah! Check that off the list,” and he was like, “Cool, we’re on the same page, let’s do this. It was one of those things where I had nowhere to fucking go so I moved in with his family for two or three months trying to figure out what to do next. So we spent a lot of time hanging out and playing music together, so it happened very organically where we’re just hanging out and listening to music and at one point it just clicks like, “Wow, we’re on the same page. We like the same kinds of things, and we’re moved by the same kinds of things. And this is totally working.” It was something we never had to question because it was always pretty obvious.
STEREOGUM: I know you said you guys moved out to Portland one by one, but how did you guys end up out there?
STONESTREET: We had talked about that when we were in WV. We didn’t stay in West Virginia, and I had lived in Tennessee for a few years, and Dan had been bouncing around. He ended up moving to Portland about nine months before I did, and I came out and visited and then moved up here. It was all to start the project and get things rolling. We met our drummer here. He moved here a day after I did, and I met him on the street. And I kept seeing him around, and he had heard some of our music, and we ended up having mutual friends. He joined up with us, and its been the three of us for the last four and a half years.
STEREOGUM: Did it take a while to grow into the sound that’s presented on the record, or is that how Greylag has sounded from the beginning?
DIXON: I think it’s pretty safe to say it took us a while to work into it. I think that there was a strong mutual core to what we all liked, but that our individual music journeys took us through some many different landscapes and genres of music. And so it was a matter of getting through that and making some cohesive sense out of it. We have written a lot of music, and most of it has been thrown away never to be heard again. It was all this elaborate process of asking, “What is it that we all want to make together?” Because we all respect each other and what each other’s strengths are, and so it’s a matter of asking, “How do we get the best out of every single person? All of their influences, all of their skills and their background, how do we pull it out and make it a cohesive whole?” That wasn’t a very easy task to do. I think back in the beginning we were working a lot of what Andrew had already written. It’s easier to sort of get the ball rolling when there’s one vision and everyone tries to make that vision go. But since then, we’ve been really pulling together what we really want to make together, and that’s much more complicated.
STONESTREET: Yeah, it’s easier for one person to voice something and for others to play along. It’s definitely more complicated and rewarding when everyone finds a way to voice things together. Where we do like, “OK, Brady is going to bring something to the drums that’s going to lead it in a different direction, and we’re going to respond to that.” And so with this record more, and for future records, it is about, “How are we going to voice this together” How are we all going to be mutually invested together to create something mutual instead of following the leader?” It’s like everybody’s a leader in the room and we’re all carving that out together.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned it’s a bit more difficult when you’re trying to approach it democratically, but it sounds like the music pulls off something that’s difficult to achieve, which is that it sounds completely familiar but it’s also impossible to define or pin down. I was thinking that’s probably a result of the democratic approach.
STONESTREET: I think so. I definitely think so. I mean because we’re overlapping in so many places but we’ve all had our own experiences with listening to things and playing things and writing things, so when you open it up we’re all bringing those pieces that are overlapping, and we’re bringing other pieces as well. And what you get out of it, you’re right, I hear all kinds of things in it.
STEREOGUM: As far as your previous discography, you’ve got the one EP The Only Way To Kill You. Is there anything else I’m missing?
DIXON: No, nothing else that was released. I think that back in the early days, there was lots of demo-making and sort of wanting to put titles on things and say, “This is a record, right?” And then that never came out, so I would say that’s in everyone’s favor that it never came out. The only thing we’ve actually put out into the world is that EP, which is only two years old as far as when it came out, but is four years old from when we actually made it. So there had been a lot of time since the making of that and then this new record.
STEREOGUM: So does the music on this record span your whole history as a band, or is it mostly newer stuff?
STONESTREET: It kind of spans a long period of time. Some of them are older, some of them are new, some of them are just ideas that we ended up refining later on. So it’s kind of stocked from a long period of time that we ended up refining. There are much newer songs like “Black Sky” and “Mama.” There are several that are pretty fresh.
DIXON: For me it’s kind of the other way around. There are some old things, but most of it is pretty fresh, that’s at least how I think about the songs.
STONESTREET: You know what, you’re right. A lot of the stuff we ended up putting on the record.
DIXON: Oh yeah, we recorded somewhere between 80 and 90 demos before we widdled them down to what we thought was the most cohesive presentation of them. So there are a lot of different things floating around in our minds as far as thinking back on the record, but there’s only a small amount that’s actually out there. I think that most of the stuff that’s on the record is within the year leading up to making the record.
STEREOGUM: You actually made the record with Phil Ek, right? How did you get hooked up with him?
STONESTREET: We’ve had a lot of conversations about different producers we wanted to work with, and Phil was always up there on the list. From a lot of different projects he’s worked on in the Northwest. We kept putting feelers out, and we had a friend named Matt who was working with us, and he had been friends with Phil for 15 years or something and reached out and sent him some demos. And Phil heard it and reached out pretty quickly and found out that we had mutual friends and he liked our music and wanted to meet. We had dinner with him and ended up doing some pre-production and making the record in a six-month window. We were in the process of trying to find someone to help us make it, and it ended up working out pretty quickly, where Phil heard our stuff and reached out and said he wanted to do it and we were like, “Yeah let’s do it.”
STEREOGUM: What was working with him like in the studio?
DIXON: It’s always so funny that you think about these people from the audience perspective. You know, we had made him into a mini-celebrity for ourselves, and then we actually met him and he’s just this really tall, hilarious guy that could be your uncle or something. And our personalities really clicked quickly, and that’s one of those things that made it feel really right. Because not only did we really respect the music he made but he’s one of those people you can spend a lot of time with in a small room. As far as how it musically went down, he’s a guy that you respect because of his background and this catalogue of work but also just because the good things he has to say and his command of a room and a situation. You know, you listen to him, and he works really hard to get really good performances out of you. He’s not one of those producers who wants to open up a can of worms and break open a song and pull all the pieces out rewrite it and rearrange it. He expects you to do the work before you get to him. We did a week of preproduction before we got to him, but he’s kind of like, “Are you kids gonna do the work or not?” I like that a lot because for me it said, “The bar is up here. Are you going to step up to the challenge?” You know, try to be great. No one can make you do something special, you’re either going to find a way to pull it out of yourself or you’re not. That was intimidating but really good for us and where we’re at and getting really good performances on the album.
STONESTREET: Yeah a lot of the arrangements too maintained kind of where they were at. We definitely refined them with Phil, but a lot of the arrangements we took to the table stayed pretty much intact. There were songs where we definitely cut and carved and had musical sections here and there, but it was really a group effort in the respect that Daniel’s talking about in having the respect for Phil and listening to what he’s saying and Phil having respect for us and the arrangements we had already. He wasn’t there to completely transform our project into being something else, it was just a continuation of taking what we had done and making it even better.
DIXON: Yeah, trying to make us the best versions of ourselves. Which is something that is important when you’re going into the recording situation. Like, what’s this person gonna do? Are they going to want to remake us? We felt like as a band we had a strong idea of what we wanted to do and who we wanted to be, and he fit perfectly into that because he was about making us the best we could be and not turning us into something else. That was a huge part of the puzzle. Walking into a situation with a producer that you have pretty lofty ideas of and wondering, “What’s he going to like? How’s he going to change it? What’s it going to become?” It was a lot of hard work, but it was one piece fitting with another piece and everybody feeling good about it and maintaining that respect for each person.
STEREOGUM: Did you guys do a lot of live takes? It feels live, but there are so many sounds that I figure there have to be some overdubs.
DIXON: I’d say there’s this two-pronged approach in that we got everything set up and ready to go and we basically did the songs live first and saw what we could keep. The drums would always stay the same, and if there was a really good guitar or vocal take that had that magic quality to it, that would stay in there. But we would build off the drums which were totally live, and I think the way we tried to maintain that live integrity feel is that all the performances for the most part were one long take through the track. They might be overdubbed, but they weren’t us going through bar by bar, and very rarely did we move anything in Pro Tools to where it needed to be or nothing was sent through beat detective. All the drums are just live and that’s how Brady plays. All the performances, they’re are actual performances — even though they may be overdubbed, they are performances. So they have that sort of heart and that sort of interplay with the other music and that off-the-cuff feeling, because that was really important to us. So we were very conscious of how the recording process would reflect that feeling that we were going after. So yeah, it was kind of like both hands, I guess.
STEREOGUM: How did you guys get hooked up with Dead Oceans?
STONESTREET: I’m not exactly sure of the initial who reached out to who, but I know our first personal interaction with them was at South By Southwest after our first showcase there. That’s when we just sat and had drinks with a few of their dudes. After our set that first night, we probably sat around for two or three hours and talked music. It was a pretty easy meet and greet, and it just turned into like, “We really like these dudes.” And the feeling was mutual, so we ended up staying in touch. We saw them throughout our time in the festival. You know, it’s sort like on a first date. You’re like, “I like this person! I hope it works!” It was kind of like that. So, you know, obviously it’s much more difficult to get a contract. It was brought up and then signed and everyone was happy and, you know, just that different stuff that has to happen and it takes some time to do. So yeah, there was just this sort of like beady-eyed, “I hope this works, this is great!” kind of thing. It’s been great. I don’t know if you have ever talked to those guys, but the kind of quality of people we work with is very important to us. The kind of quality of people’s work is also highly important to us, but, you know, there are so many people out there to work with, why not work it someone you like as well? We have to spend a lot of time with these people, so if you can get both of those worlds together it seems like a no-brainer. So we respected them, and also like them as people it was a pretty done deal as far as we were concerned.
STEREOGUM: I know you guys have done some touring, but have you gotten to play many festivals yet? I feel like your stuff would go over really well in that environment.
DIXON: Well, we really haven’t played a whole lot in the past couple years. Just in that we have spent so much time demoing things out and then making that record. We spent about a year, a year and a half doing that. But up until that point we had been touring pretty solidly, and it sort of culminated at a northwest festival called Sasquatch!, and that was really fun for us. That was probably the largest festival slot we have ever played, and it was really exciting. We were sort of in a place where we were either going to keep pushing this last record, the EP — we were going to keep touring on that or go and make a record. We made the decision to go and make a record. So we are trying to get back on that train right now because that is where we want to be and from my perspective. The band members have so much talent as live performers and we have so much fun doing it. We like being in the studio, but we would much rather be playing on stage most days. And yeah, it has been too long. We are actually leaving for Europe tonight for a little press tour, and then we will be back, and we are going back out for a little West Coast tour. We are going to start hitting it hard as we can, and I think it’s something we are really looking forward to.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned “Mama” is one of the newer songs. Is that pretty literal or biographical, with the lines like, “If you could see me now, you’d be so proud?”
STONESTREET: (Laughs) How can I answer that? Yeah. Yes. I think it is pretty autobiographical; there is a lot of stuff in that song kind of talking about slugging it out and getting to a point. You question things, you’re looking for a fix, you’re looking for your writing on the wall, you’re looking for all these things, and you feel like you’re finally getting somewhere. It’s kind of like, “Whoah!” It’s also kind of a laugh too. It’s a lot of things. It’s just packed full of emotions, that one is.
[Photo by Chloe Aftel.]