One of Canada’s biggest rock bands,Finger Eleven, are back with their latest release, and sixth studio album, “Five Crooked Lines“. We got the chance to talk with lead guitarist, James Black, and find out how these last five years between album releases has impacted the band.
Now that “Five Crooked Lines” has been out for a few months, how do you feel the reaction has been to the album?
Awesome. It has been a long time since we have made a record so there is the excitement of being back, seeing some familiar faces and being out there, doing it. The music itself – there is a conviction when we are out playing it. There’s something that translates that you can’t put a finger on that happens when someone really believes what they are doing. I think that is happening. There are people who have seen us countless times and that are seeing it and saying that it is like we are brand new or something. At the heart of it all the songs, the energy and tone of it; it feels like the right time for us. The people who are seeing us doing what we are doing now are getting it more than ever before.
The last five years between albums – what did the five years teach you?
There was a lot of life that happened in that time. Everyone’s home life evolved. Everyone has a little more of a family than before. Personal life gets a little bigger. It takes something even more special to drive everyone together to do this. I’m going to leave my house, spend all day and night and months and months away, so it has to be for something really good. One of the big things part way through this writing process was an elevated expectation of ourselves of what we should do. We didn’t want to just make some music where we would think it is pretty good. That didn’t exist anymore. If it was going to be awesome we had to pack up and go away for six months. This music has to resonate some different emotional boxes. The first part was defining what we wanted to do and the hard part was really getting to that point; you have to be so honest with yourself when it is not there. Being super honest and analytical about the band and how some of the decisions we were making about the band are not the same ones we would listen to. When you’re in the driver seat, you sometimes do different moves than watching the race kind of thing. There was a lot of self examination. Then, part way through we realized that our band itself was a little dysfunctional, changed our line up and approached it in a different way. Doing things for too long in the same method starts to exhaust itself. Everything about it had to be rejuvinated and it had to be genuine, doing it because we wanted to, not because it could pay pretty good.
When all the technology and industry is pushed aside and you’re standing in a club, the band is on the stage, that is the moment when the band has to be awesome or not. It is that moment where there is nothing else, just you and the band. If that moment is awesome then it doesn’t matter if it is modern times or caveman times.
If you compare your career now to when it all began as Finger Eleven. Is there a difference in the way you approach music?
In some ways this record was a little more similar to the old ways than previous stuff. I think it is more about attitude and naivety. When we first started we were young punks. You think you know everything and you don’t really exactly know what you are doing but you don’t care. In a weird way, that is what Rock ‘n Roll is. As you get better and become more refined and you become a “musician”, everything becomes more articulate and it stops having that attitude. We are more similar now to our old, young band. We sort of discovered that along the way. Just because we are people that are growing , it doesn’t mean our band has to put on a cardigan and start eating soup for dinner. Our band is still a young punk; the challenge is to keep it that way.
Working on tracks, are you ever surprised at how good they become? Are there any that really surprised you on this album that turned out different than you initially envisioned?
As you’re going, there is a little seed of something in each song. You hope it blossoms into something. Sometimes you’ll hold onto this idea and every incarnation of it you can hear the potential but it is just not coming out. Too bad there are twelve other songs that it did happen for so you have to take this one out behind the barn and put him down. Some of them, you just hope. There is a song called Absolute Truth that on the record, to me, sounds absolutely perfect to what it was supposed to be, wants to be, and how it compares to my ears and what I like to listen to. I love it. That was one of those songs where there was a good chunk of time we thought it would not make it onto the record. Somehow it turned around and it ended up being almost the perfect version of what I imagined it to be.
I love being able to sit down, look inside ourselves and try to figure out something that will resonate with mass of people. I love that. I love being able to do that all day.
What makes a good song?
The usual ingredients but they all have to be together. A great guitar riff, a guitar lick that can stand on itself, a great verse that is direct and can say a whole book-load in a couple sentences and a great melody. Those are ingredients that separate songs can have and if you have a song that has them all, you’re pretty off to the races. That is the thing – our method is designed to overcome that. We will have ideas that we will keep around because we like the lyrics, or it has a neat melody. There’s something about a song that can keep you hooked. Even though I’m a songwriter and I’m writing a lot of lyrics down, my whole life I have been more of a music person. There are still some of my favourite Beatles and Pink Floyd songs that I don’t know the words to. For me, I’m definitely the music resonates me, the notes, more than the words. It is good that we have a team – like, Scott is very word-minded. It is push and pull until we think that some one who follows the lyrics will enjoy it and someone who doesn’t will still enjoy it.
The record industry continually changes. How does Finger Eleven continue to keep on top of it all?
This is the big million dollar question. So far we have just kept evolving with it and going along with it. It seems like to be resistant with it would be the way to fall behind. If you’re like “I like things the old fashioned way,” and then everyone overtakes you. Congratulations you like things on vinyl, but it doesn’t matter anymore. At the same time, what people say about the music industry, they really mean the music business. The commerce of the industry is changing and maybe going down into the toilet, but making music and recording music is on the rise. I think the symantics of it is interesting. The music industry is only those who don’t make music, those who are trying to sell it. That is what their industry is doing. What music makers are doing right now with state of the art equipment and writing songs with people across the world on the internet. It is evolving in a great way, but the commerce of it has not quite figured itself out. What we try to do is make it work with us. We are recording at home on our laptops, we are exchanging through Dropbox and things like that. I think the most important thing for any artist is that when all the technology and industry is pushed aside and you’re standing in a club, the band is on the stage, that is the moment when the band has to be awesome or not. It is that moment where there is nothing else, just you and the band. If that moment is awesome then it doesn’t matter if it is modern times or caveman times.
What do you value most about your whole experience in music?
All of it. Expression. We have been doing this for our whole lives, so there is a lot of stuff we knowingly take for granted. Even the idea that most people from Monday to Friday wake up at 7am and go to some place they hate, spend all day there and come home and try to entertain themselves. The fact that we don’t do that and get to wake up and do what we do, that is amazing. Some people have to go to a therapist for expression, or some people go to work and nobody wants to listen to them. I love being able to sit down, look inside ourselves and try to figure out something that will resonate with mass of people. I love that. I love being able to do that all day.
Who was the last person, or what was the last thing, to really inspire you?
The other day we were watching a web series with a guy named Matt Sweeny. He is a guitar player and he interviews other guitar players. There was an episode with this kid Jake Bugg. He’s a british kid with a couple records, really great. He is maybe twenty years old now. They have him hooked up to this guitar, he is showing them some techniques and it is mind blowing stuff. When you see the next generation of artists coming up. He can’t even talk about what he is doing; he is just doing it. Seeing that was inspirational. The level of prowess on the guitar was WOW. For a young kid it was amazing and just for a person on guitar in general it was really amazing.
+ Debbie Fettback