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Fort Wilson Riot talk about life on the road, musical surprises, and their new record “trIllIun”

by David Campbell

May 23, 2014

Fort Wilson Riot will be celebrating the release of their new record trIllIun with a show Saturday, May 24 at the Triple Rock Social Club along with La Liberte (a project that features Doomtree member Cecil Otter and Lookbook/Votel vocalist Maggie Morrison) and also C.Kostra (a bedroom pop project by Ryan Olcott, who you know from Mystery Palace and 12 Rods). DJ Minnie Blanco is on the bill as well.

Jacob Mullis and Amy Hagar of Fort Wilson Riot stopped by the Current's studios to talk about what they've been up to for the past few years and the process of making trIllIun. Our interview below appeared on the May 11 edition of the Local Show; we're sharing a transcript here in advance of their Saturday show.

You two are not two people who like to stay in one position or situation for a very long time, do you?

Jacob: Not as a band, for sure.

You're travelers.

Jacob: Yeah. We like our comforts, but we like to see a lot of things.

Amy: We get comfortable really fast.

Specifically, I was talking about how you switched the style up on this particular record. Why poppier, and why now?

Jacob: I think we've always kind of experimented with a lot of different elements, but for me, I felt like before we were very keen on really messing with song order and song dynamic, and it kind of felt like within one song we'd experiment with different styles. With this record, we just decided that for each song, we were going to commit to one solid style. I still think, with this new record there's still a lot of variety within the album, so instead of experimenting within each individual song, the record itself was like, oh, we're going to try this style and we're going to try this style, but each [song] was committed to [its own] style.

I'll never forget your rock opera project Idigaragua [2007]. You made a Tommy, you made something really high-concept right out of the gate.

Amy: We sort of went back in time.

Now it's back to, like you said, you just approached the songs in a very specific way and let them be how they were going to be without an overall concept—as far as I could detect. Did I miss anything? Is there a narrative that I'm missing?

Amy: No, you're not missing anything. I think that there are some conceptual ideas that we were trying to get at, though.

Jacob: For sure. Within the lyrics there are themes, but not necessarily any intentional [themes]. Just kind of what's happening in our lives.

What has been happening in your lives? Aside from stylistically making some changes, you've been nomads—very literally. You've been roaming around the country for the last...three years?

Jacob: The last year we've been in Minneapolis.

Amy: Yeah, we came home.

Jacob: But before that, we were on the road, yeah, for about three years.

Amy: Meeting people, trying to—I don't know, just explore. I love being in Minneapolis, but it was fun just to see what was available in the U.S. We actually haven't been outside the U.S. much, which we'd really like to do.

Jacob: I think with the Internet, the idea of what makes you successful musically has changed so much. It doesn't seem like there's this prescribed path: "This is how you get your music out there!" I read this book called Our Band Could Be Your Life, and just reading about what Ian MacKaye and the guys from Minor Threat, the process that they had to go through in order to set up tours nationally, I started feeling like an idiot for not touring more, because I was like, oh my God, it's so easy now!

Amy: They had to mail out tons of things, use the phone, call these venues over and over, no one would answer...

Jacob: Venues that don't care about original music they haven't heard of.

Play some cowboy bars, get out of there before you get beat up.

Amy: Now we just have to just e-mail enough people.

Jacob: Yeah, with little links. So it kind of made us feel like, okay, we can totally do this D.I.Y. pretty effectively. I think in Minneapolis, we've seen a lot of our favorite bands get stuck here because it's far from the next closest city; it's seven hours to Chicago. So it was just, let's live out of our van for a while, get ourselves out there.

What a terrific American experience. There's always been this subculture, I think, of travelers in America that we celebrate. Kerouac's On the Road is the blueprint for doing this thing: you and some people that you love, following your nose and ending up where you end up. Did you have an experience like that, or because you were going from city to city with the idea you were going to perform, kind of have to follow a more rigorous schedule? Was there room for adventure?

Amy: There was definitely room for adventure, because we actually took a lot of time. We would go to some cities for a day, but other cities we'd go to for a week and just kind of hang out, meet new people and have them show us around.

Jacob: It was definitely work; we were definitely working hard and the purpose was to get our music out there, but developing genuine bonds with people in different places is part of that in the sense that I like working with people that I like. Ideally, those are the connections you're making: people you can work with, and who are also good friends with you.

Is this record the first thing that Ryan Olcott's produced for you, or did he do some singles before too?

Jacob: We released a single produced by him; that was just the first thing that we put out, but it was part of the whole album.

You were trying each other out, see if it worked out.

Jacob: Yeah!

And it did work! Where did the idea for that come from, and what was your experience with him?

Amy: I guess just seeing him all the time at the Kitty Cat Klub...

Jacob: And being big fans of his.

Amy: Yeah. Just mixing us really well when we performed there, I liked the way he did that, and he was fun to hang out with. He was really nice.

Jacob: We had a large batch of songs going into this record—like 25 songs—and once we honed them down to what would probably be the record, we knew we wanted to work with someone. The last couple of records were pretty much just the two of us, and we loved working that way, but we just wanted to try jumping in with someone else who'd be willing to get in there with us and play around with the songs. We did talk to a few other great engineers in the Cities, but he's always been on the top of our list as someone whose work we've loved, and so when we met with him we knew right away that he was the right guy to work with.

Amy: We also wanted someone who could gel the two—electronic and live instruments—together. I wanted the drums to have that vibe where they'd be electronic drums and then live drums mixed together, because it just adds such a good vibe.

Where do you think Ryan helped you to get to sonically on these songs that maybe you would have been unable to get to on your own?

Jacob: I think "Drift" is a really good example, because pretty much the instrumentation on that song is the way it was when we brought the demo to [Ryan]. I'm very familiar with what Ryan has done in the electronic world, but I didn't know what he'd do with a song like that. So that song in particular, I was like, okay, what's he going to try with this? A lot of people don't know this, but he majored in percussion.

He played the timpani, didn't he?

Jacob: Yeah. So that was surprising. I remember, we got "Yes Indeed" back from him, and then "Something Left Alive," and we got pretty much what we expected from him. When he sent us ["Drift"], I was like, this is so perfect! The touches that he gave with the wood block, and the cowbell, and the timpani, are just so perfect. I don't think we expected to go in that Beach Boys Smile area.

So that was kind of a surprise for you.

Jacob: Yeah. It's kind of like a Julee Cruise song for us. We love that Julee Cruise record Floating Into the Night—the music is written by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch for Twin Peaks and stuff like that—so that was kind of the reference point for us, but when [Ryan] put that other stuff on it, it was like, oh my God, that's so perfect!

Amy: He even put saxophones in there.

Having the last couple of years to operate as a duo if you needed to, then making a record like this, which is busy—not in an uncomfortable way, but there's a lot going on—how do you handle the performance of a record like this?

Amy: We definitely enjoy having a band. We have a drummer, Ryan Mock; and we have another guitar/keyboard player and someone else who sings, Greg Reese. We've always been about singing—lots of harmonies and stuff—so it's really nice to have another person who does harmonies. Then we have a bass player, Don Hanft from Hardcore Crayons; just a super-solid bass player.

Do you ever feel like there's not the ownership that they might have had if they'd been involved a little bit more in the recording process?

Jacob: We've been friends with them all for a really long time. Dom one time, at a show, came up and said, any time you need a bass player, I'm there. So we kind of had our idea of who we would ask. Ryan Mach actually came in at the last minute; I've known Ryan for a long time through the Alarmists and Joey Ryan and the Inks and everything, and his sensibility immediately clicked with us. When we gave him the record, he was just really excited right away, really wanted to get those songs right how they were. It felt great.

Amy: He's a musician who can play everything. It's kind of cool to listen to him, because we're writing some new songs right now, and everyone will be kind of playing, and he'll be like, "Okay, I think we should work on that section where we go to the key of E," and we're like, wow, the drummer's paying attention to what chord? And Greg, who we're singing with, he wrote "Yes Indeed" with us.

Jacob: Last summer when we were in the Cities, we were just trying to work on some songs and we weren't really getting anywhere. The two of us were just stuck in a rut, and Greg came over and our friend Jared came by, and we were like, let's make up a song. We'll just make a fun, cheesy, R&B song, and "Yes Indeed" just kind of came out within a couple of hours. Greg wrote the middle section of it, and it was like, oh, this is actually not just a stupid thing, this is kind of cool. It was one of those great moments that just comes out naturally and feels so good.

Amy: Yeah, and it adds so much to the show, having the full band. It's so pretty.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.