Interview: August Wells
I caught August Wells (website / facebook) about a half a year ago at the last Big City Folk Festival in Long Island City, where Ken played some tunes off of his then-forthcoming record Madness is the Mercy (iTunes / Amazon). There’s a patient pacing in August Wells tunes that seems to have stuck in my head the past few months – the new record is filled with many moments of well-observed calm. I sit down with Ken Griffin of August Wells and chat about the record.
Andy: The first thing that immediately hits me I think, is your resonant baritone, it’s almost operatic the way you use vibrato. Which is somewhat rare, right? I mean, when you think of people that are doing broadly pop-oriented material, the voices tend to be tenors that can hit high notes. When I think of baritones in pop, there aren’t a whole lot, am I correct? I think Magnetic Fields, Crash Test Dummies (really he’s like a bass?), Nick Cave. You make it work for you in a lot of interesting ways. I mean, has it presented challenges for you as a writer? Has it been an advantage?
Ken: Its just my natural voice, but i have an unusual range, i also have falsetto, and i can sing almost as a tenor. Bowie and Johnny Cash were baritones, Elvis and Scott Walker too. Crash Test Dummies? They strike me as a novelty act. I try to sing as honestly and as unaffected as possible so what comes out comes out. I have had no training. It’s hard to sing fast songs as a baritone.
Andy: “Here in the Wild” and “Come on in out of That Night” in some ways are escapist pieces, is my thought. You have like a metaphysical idea of what it is that will bring some release or redemption to the protagonist who is trapped in some state of disillusionment – that release comes in the form of “the Wild” or “the light”, respectively. Is that right? I feel like these are cathartic pieces from the perspective of someone who feels caught in a rut.
Ken: I assume wrongly or rightly,that everyone has an idea of a place, a place where things will all be better. Or a state of mind where all will be better, a shaping of a fantasy future that comforts some kind of deep fear. The wild feels like freedom to me. I would not call it escape, i would call it acceptance, a willingness to see the truth.
Andy: The use of horns throughout the record is I think a really nice touch. Usually when I hear horns in a modern record, it’s usually a kind of big-band effect. But here, they’re more isolated and not used in that crowd-effect sort of way. How’d you go about orchestrating the record?
Ken: Most of the time i write the horn lines, and various players play them. Then we will always have a horn player do an improvised track, and we will edit it. I kind of see the instruments as characters all playing their parts in a story.
Andy: Can you tell me what “Madness is the Mercy” means? I’m inclined to interpret it in the context of this “wilderness as redemption” idea – that in order to get redemption the protagonist has to do something unconventional, something which seems from a conventional perspective a kind of madness. Is this like Dada-ism? You can stop me at any time, ha.
Ken: Sometimes when the mind breaks a certain kind of beauty can pour out, a level of honesty, a stream of words, a world of inspiration. Maybe the cracks are more true, more perfect even.
Andy: So, August Wells is a joint effort – the project is made up of both you (Ken) and John Rauchenburger, correct? How is the writing divided up when it comes to August Wells? I’ll say, for me I find it very difficult to write with other people – I’m sure a lot of that is a deficit on my part. What are the challenges that you’ve run into with that? What are the benefits?
Ken: I write the songs, then John and i work on the guitar piano and vocal arrangement. Then John records us, i will write some counter melodies for strings or flute or horns. Then we have various musicians play on the arrangement. Then John mixes it.
Andy: This is your second album as August Wells, yes? Did you find any challenges with that? People talk about the sophomore album as being a kind of curse – maybe it’s a writer’s curse or maybe it’s a listener’s curse, I don’t really know. But there are challenges with that, right, because the listener only has a single history from which to approach the second record so it constrains how they approach the second record?
Ken: Well this is actually the 7th album i have recorded so its been a while since my sophomore effort, i always try to have about 30 ideas on the go at any given time.
Andy: Ah wow, so I guess that’s a very different animal then. Do you feel that there are challenges that come with being at your 7th record? Or is it something where you’ve had enough experience that the process comes easier?
Ken: Seventh record, every song has the same problem, you get the original wave of inspiration, sometimes its a line, sometimes its half a song , sometimes its the whole thing. Then the hard part is trying to match that original piece of inspiration with the rest of the parts.
Andy: So, I know you had a prior music project you were a part of, Rollerskate Skinny? What happened to that? And how has August Wells changed your approach to music?
Ken: In between Rollerskate Skinny and August Wells I also made one album under the name Kid Silver, Dead City Sunbeams, and two with a band called Favourite Sons, Down Beside Your Beauty and The Great Deal of Love. All of which i think show the progression between Rollerskate Skinny and August Wells.