Track By Track: Banner Pilot

October 25, 2011 by Bryne Yancey

Track By Track: Banner Pilot

BANNER PILOT take us track by track through their new album, Heart Beats Pacific.

"Alchemy"
This is one of the older songs on the album, and it didn’t change much from inception to recording, unlike most of the other tracks here which went through a slew of different iterations before landing in their final forms. It’s a straightforward punk tune and I had a feeling from the get-go that it would make for a good opener. Starting off fast and not letting up is usually a great recipe for an opening track on an album. It’s like an elevator pitch; you need to grab someone quickly if you don’t want them to bail on you and listen to something else instead. You don’t want to start off your record with 45 seconds of feedback or some arty crap like that; you want to clobber the listener over the head with a (sonic / metaphorical) two-by-four and then save the pretentious feedback for track 5 or 6. Hopefully when the person stands up at the end of the record, and you say, "Sorry for hitting you with that metaphorical two-by-four, bro," they’ll just rub the bump on their head and say, "Naw man.... it’s cool. It’s totally cool."
It’s funny, though; this feels like a fast song to me but if it was on our first record, it would be a slower tune. I guess we’re getting old? The BPMs (beats per minute) keep drifting downwards with each record; a doctor would probably be concerned about our BPM levels if he saw us and he’d prescribe something to get them back up. Mountain Dew, perhaps? Or meth, if he was crooked?
But you know what? I think this song kicks the crap out of any song on our first record. So screw you, doctor. --Nate Gangelhoff

 

This was one of the hardest ones to sing—I think this is probably the highest key we’ve done (or will do!)  We experimented dropping it a half/whole step in practice and it just didn’t have them same energy. One of my favorites, now just have to figure out how to do it live…The first line up until a few weeks of recording was "Scene opens under frozen sky"—I thought it was sweet in a visual/play kind of way, but the rest of the guys thought it was pretty lame in a visual/play kind of way. In hindsight, probably a good call. --Nick Johnson


"Forty Degrees"
Another relatively speedy one. I wrote the basics to this song a month or two before we hit the studio and, as with "Alchemy," we didn’t change much up. I had vocal melodies for the chorus and post-chorus, Nick came up with the verse right away, and boom—we had a full-formed song just a couple of days after I started messing around with a basic chord progression for it. It’s funny how that works—there were a TON of songs for this record where we invested 30 or 40 hours trying to make them work only to decide, "Hey, you know what? This completely sucks" and scrap them..... and then there were songs like this, and "Eraser," that came together quickly, out of nowhere.

 

The original dummy song title (I have to name them something when I save the drum track file on my computer, and usually it’s on the fly and ends up being something incredibly stupid) was "October Rain." I thought that would be rad, a prequel to the classic GNR song, covering a month where it’s slightly easier to hold a candle. But Nick’s lyrics went in a different direction, more about the optimism that can come with spring's arrival and the melting away of winter's baggage. So the title we went with was a great fit for that feeling: "Forty Degrees," a temperature that feels amazing in a Minnesota March, amazing in a way that’s hard to describe if you don't live in a geographic region with brutal, isolating winters. Of course, the funny part of the title is that to most people, "Forty Degrees" is fuckin’ cold! And it’s also funny because although we came up with the title in the spring, the song is being released in October, a month when forty degrees feels completely different here in MPLS. Now, it sucks ass. We’re on the downslide. Additional factoid: originally, it was called "Fifty Degrees" but we figured that would lead to annoying 50 Cent jokes. --Nate Gangelhoff

Another snow-related song? Didn’t we just cover this theme in "Alchemy?" --Nick Johnson

"Red Line"
I was listening to Foo Fighters a fair amount for about two weeks in the fall of 2010 (some of their stuff is quite good but it's hit or miss and I didn't really listen to much by them after those two weeks; it didn’t stick with me, if that makes sense) and wrote the music to this one during that period. So, it reminds me a little of a Foo Fighters song; I don’t think it necessarily sounds like them, but it’s what I was shooting for. In fact, now that I think about it, it’s a total failure if the objective of the song was "Sound like the Foo Fighters." Yet it’s one of my favorite songs on the record, so it worked out! That was actually the idea I had for the new songs once we wrapped up Collapser: attempt to write a wildly different song by aping a band we sound nothing like, fail completely, take the failure and turn it into a "Banner Pilot song." In other words, sit down and be like, "OK, I’m going to spend the next six hours trying to write a Pixies song......"

(six hours later)

"Oh man, this sounds terrible! Jesus! But I guess this one guitar riff is kind of cool... maybe if I add that on top of that chord progression I always use it’ll... yes!"

This proved to be too ambitious, though, and I didn’t do it outside of the Foo Fighters / Red Line thing here. Next record, though, I’m doing it! Hopefully you’ll hear a song and think, "Hmm, this sounds like the guy tried to write a Pavement song, realized he was in way over his head, and then scampered back to the safety of a punk rock song."

Additional factoid: the intro guitar lead to this song is not particularly difficult to play, but it ended up being the biggest instrumental headache of the entire album. I bet I played it fifty times and Jacques [Wait, producer] probably spent four hours focused on it. We couldn’t figure out why, but some of the notes were clashing in this weird, dissonant way—"There’s a gremlin in this riff, somewhere" as Jacques put it—and fixing it required a long time, multiple guitars, and an alarming amount of time staring angrily at a tuner. Once the Riff Gremlin was defeated Jacques made the part sound great, and natural, masking all the grief that came with it. --Nate Gangelhoff

Zack from Dear Landlord came in and did backups on this one; he did a great job I think. This is one of two songs on the record that are in drop D tuning, which we have never done before. See, we’re progressing! --Nick Johnson

"Spanish Reds"
Probably my favorite song on the record. At first I thought it was a throwaway but when I sent it (the super rough initial version, at least) to the other guys they liked it, and Danny [Elston-Jones, drummer] said the prechorus reminded him of Andrew WK, so I knew we were onto something. This sounds completely cornball but I love the "feel" of this song, particularly with Nick’s lyrics. It’s one of those songs where the mood and feel of the music is right in line with the lyrics. The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" is probably the perfect example of that phenomenon—our song isn’t even close to being in that league, obviously, but that’s a good example of what I’m talking about. You have a chord progression or guitar lead or harmony that sounds sad, or hopeful, or confident, or whatever, and add in words that occupy the same space—it’s a great effect. And I think this song has that. I was trying to understand wine last year—not in a, "Hmm, the floral mouthfeel brings to mind boysenberries and a reassuring swirl of vanilla; perchance this indicates the terroir enjoyed a remarkable degree of sunlight blah blah" way; basically, just an attempt to gain enough knowledge to move past the "Boone’s Farm Strawberry tastes like strawberries!" realm. I learned a few things but mostly failed. But I wrote the music when I was reading about Spanish wines, thus the title. --Nate Gangelhoff

A couple people have been wondering who the mystery singer is in the verses of this song—surprise! Just me singing in a lower register.  We tried it a couple ways but this sounded best (I think). --Nick Johnson

"Eraser"
The last song we got together for the record. We scrapped a few average songs in February and March and were prepared to move forward with a ten-song record unless anything good came up last minute. Luckily, this one came together in just a few days in April. There’s a definite Jawbreaker vibe here, and that was intentional. I didn’t learn how to program a half-time beat into my drum machine until last year, thus this is the first (I think?) BP song with a half time part, or Mosh Section to use the formal term. --Nate Gangelhoff

"Expat"
I had the outro guitar riff for this one written back when we were still writing Collapser, and it went through three different songs since then, never really clicking. Finally, though, this tune came together and it was a good fit for the ending of it. I like this song; I’m glad we have one slower (like, legitimately slow) song on the record. I mean, it’s not Straight-to-Hell-by-The-Clash-slow (those kind of songs are really hard to write! For me, at least), but it’s a-slower-Green-Day-song slow at least. I have a feeling this will be like "Starting at an Ending" on Collapser, where some people love it and other people think we were insane for writing it. And that’s cool.

The lyrics for this one were pretty fun. I remember we played a show with Dear Landlord in May and at the time we had all the music and melodies for the song done, but no real lyrics, just dummies. Between bands Nick and I had a beer at the bar next door and kicked around ideas. "Paint white walls" was one of the dummy lyrics and it acted as a springboard for a story about someone moving to a new place and failing to fit in, but continuing to try. We kicked ideas back and forth and lyrics came together over the next month, finalizing right before we had to enter the studio. Down to the wire, but fun.
The shuffle-y prechorus to this song took us, like, hours to nail down. It wasn’t really difficult; we just couldn’t figure out exactly where the chord changes should land. We are not professional musicians, folks. --Nate Gangelhoff

"Isolani"
Oldest song on the record, I wrote the guts to this one way back in 2009, right after Collapser came out. I was fucking around playing stuff in Drop D tuning and came up with this. Seemed kind of weird and lo-fi at first, but Nick came up with some good melodies for it and then it sounded better once we tried it as a full band. It has a cool, almost dark vibe that I like a lot. Nick writes 99.9% of the lyrics, but just as I helped out a little with "Expat," Danny helped out with a couple lines on this one, and I think it was a good collaboration. It’s a song about feeling defeated and marginalized and looking for ways to not feel so small. When the lyrics were done, we still needed a title and I found Isolani, which was a great fit: "accessible, dynamic web applications." Just kidding. That’s a different definition for the word, according to Google. Actually, I was looking through chess terms to try to get ideas and Isolani seemed to mesh well with the lyrical content: "an isolated, weak pawn." --Nate Gangelhoff

"Calling Station"
A midtempo sounds-depressing-but-is-kind-of-hopeful tune. This is another one where we kicked around lyrical themes for a while. To me, the song is about finally getting out of a situation, but doing so when it’s too late in some ways. You’re still getting away, and it’s a great thing, but it’s bittersweet because all the time that’s passed waiting to make your move isn’t coming back. But you try not to look back too much, and you still make the most of it. I wanted to call this song "Under Setting Sun" because I thought that phrase does a good job of conveying the sentiment: the characters are fleeing, finally, but doing so as their time is running out. It’s not time to call it quits, and they’ve got time in front of them, but they have to acknowledge much of their lives has passed and isn’t coming back. But man oh man did the other guys hate that title! "It sounds like a crappy Lifetime movie or something," Danny said as we drank and discussed final song titles in the studio. "Anything, literally anything, would be a better title than that." I looked around the room. "OK, how about "Sink?", I said, pointing at the sink. "Would that be better?" "Yes! Seriously, "Sink" is a way better title. I would be totally, 100% OK with Sink.” I should have said "Spatula" or "Dishwasher" to make my point better, but he was right. "USS" wasn’t a great title, in retrospect. To find a superior title, I looked around through different terminologies (for movies, poker, chess, etc) and found "Calling Station," which I thought was a good one. It’s a poker term "used to negatively describe someone who consistently calls bets and rarely (if ever) raises, regardless of the strength of his/her hand." That seems to fit the characters in this song, playing it safe and automatic for most of their lives, until they finally make a change. Basically, being "Calling Station" all their lives until they finally make a huge bet on what’s become a weak hand. Also, I like the sequencing in this section of the album. "Isolani" is about being defeated and not getting out or getting away, and playing tricks on yourself to think you’re doing well when you’re not (sitting on a rooftop getting drunk and thinking you’re literally, not figuratively, above everything). Whereas "Calling Station" comes from that same spot, but the narrator actually does get away, eventually. --Nate Gangelhoff

"Western Terminal"
This song went through four or five different versions before landing here. It was kind of a tedious process, but it definitely got better as it went along. This one probably sounds, or at least feels, the most like our older songs out of any of the tunes on this record. For the intro riff, I was shooting for Gaslight Anthem. Did I hit it? Not quite, but approximate; if they’re The ’59 Sound, this is the ’62 Sound. (The rest of the song sounds nothing like them.) You want to know a secret about this song? When I was writing it I copied some Blink-182 drum tablature for the drum track, to try to force myself to come up with a different style of guitar playing. Usually I’m lazy and I just plot out a 4/4 beat with an uber-basic snare/bass pattern. Having some crazy drum stuff to play over would, I thought, pry me away from some of my normal chord progressions and guitar styles. It didn’t work—the guitar parts on this song are admittedly completely generic— but I think the drum stuff influenced Danny’s eventual parts in a cool way. Thanks, Blink! --Nate Gangelhoff

Probably my favorite song on the record lyrically—I incorporate some lines from the movie "Cool Hand Luke," such as "rabbit in my blood"… which became less cool to me as Charlie Sheen’s "tiger blood" entered the lexicon! When we were deciding which song to cut to make the album 11 songs, I had to defend this one. Couple people had this one on the chopping block; I’m glad we kept it. --Nick Johnson

"Intervention"
Nick wrote the first half of this song, and it ended up fitting really well with some ideas I had floating around that became the second half of the song. I like the lyrics to this one a lot; you can really picture the character as being this semi-pathetic, frustrated guy who is pining for another chance but maybe doesn’t deserve it. --Nate Gangelhoff

This is first in a trilogy of songs inspired by A&E television. Nate and I are working on piece as we speak called “Hoarders” and “Flip This House” is almost done. --Nick Johnson

"Division Street"
All the music on this record I initially wrote on guitar with the exception of the main riff for this song, which was written on bass. It sounded relatively cool—I mean, not Primus-cool, but cool—but ended up making more sense on guitar. This was one of the last songs written for the record and it made me realize that, next time around, I want to write more stuff on bass. You’d think that would be more limiting—you’re missing two strings, after all—but I think different ideas can come from it, occasionally in a cool way. (That said, guitar is going to be a way better bet 9 times out of 10)
Anyway, this song set two Banner Pilot World Records—first song over four minutes and first song over five minutes. I’m really happy with how it works as a closer to the record, right down to the last line. --Nate Gangelhoff

 

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