Video Premiere: 'Fools Were Made to Be Broken' by the Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

Official video for "Fools Were Made to be Broken" by the Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers. Words and music by Nikki Grossman and Joe Hart. From the 2018 album "Don't Think About Tomorrow Tonight." (Logan Poelman)

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers are an Americana duo comprising Nikki Grossman and Joe Hart, based in Soldiers Grove, Wis., in the Driftless region of the Upper Midwest. Following on their 2015 album, Ocooch Mountain Home, the Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers are back with new music. They've released a brand-new video for "Fools Were Made to Be Broken," the lead single from their forthcoming album, Don't Think About Tomorrow Tonight.

The video was shot on location at the Hi-Lo Diner in Minneapolis, and it was directed by Logan Poelman. In the run-up to the premiere of the new video, we connected with Joe Hart of the Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, who spoke about the video and about the making of the new album. Here's what he had to say.

Luke Taylor: We're really excited about debuting your new video — the lead single from your album — the song is called "Fools Were Made to be Broken." Now, let's talk about the sound of the song first. The new song is still well-grounded in Americana music traditions as is your previous work. but it seems to move forward a little bit. Tell me a little bit about that. Do you see yourselves growing sonically, or how would you describe it?

Joe Hart: If you look at our history as a band, we started out, Nikki and I knew each other through the old-time music scene, and then I had need for a fiddle player for a bunch of wedding square dances, and I hired her, because I knew she was a good fiddle player, so that's like our roots, is playing square dances. Gradually, as we've evolved we started writing more and more of our own material, and when we started working on this new record, we were like, "This is really a songwriter record. And it doesn't matter if we can recreate this onstage or not, it's about, 'What do these songs mean?'" So I'd say that's the biggest difference, is the last couple of records, we've been, "Let's make this sound like something that was recorded at the Bristol Sessions, or let's try to get this exact Charlie Poole lick right." And this one, we really are just like, "What does this song need? It needs a pedal steel and a piano, that's what we're putting in it."

LT: And for "Fools Were Made to be Broken," the video is kind of film noir, it's really beautiful, and you worked with director Logan Poelman. How did you connect with Logan?

JH: Logan originally was a family friend of Nikki's who recognized her talent when she was young, and has sort of taken an interest in her development ever since. The interesting thing about Logan and about this video is that recently he has started building these hybrid cameras that are really cool. He'll take the body of an old vintage camera and he'll take it apart and put in a digital processor. So for him, it was an opportunity to play around with this new toy that he's built, and for us it was a great opportunity to get some really brilliant artistic direction.

LT: You were working on-location at the Hi-Lo Diner — were you drawn to that location because of its mid-century look?

JH: Yeah, it's a good look, and the lights at night are so beautiful. And when we asked the staff if we might be able to use the place, they were very enthusiastic about it, too.

LT: The video takes place at night, which is a perfect fit for the song, but is also probably a pragmatic fit for making the video. Were you guys working all night overnight to shoot the video?

JH: We did a couple different sessions over the course of what was probably five or six hours. Partly why it was so quick is that we sort of went into it saying, "Let's not try to tell the story of this song in video. Let's just capture a bunch of images and then kind of weave them together and let the story tell itself through that." So we weren't worried about shot sequences and all the stuff you worry about when you're trying to do a narrative film, which is 10 times more work.

LT: It does have more of an impressionistic feel.

JH: Yeah, you know, both Nikki and I — you might not necessarily get it from our music and everything else — but we're both big fans of surrealism, and one of the principles of surrealism is that you drop an image and you drop another image next to it and the viewer, their brain will make the connection, like a dream sequence. If you're dreaming and there's an elephant image and a bus image, then you turn that into a story, right? And that's what your dream is. So the video takes a similar approach, where you give an image and give another image, and the viewer is going to turn it into a story. And of course, there's the story in the song as well.

LT: On the new record, you and Nikki took a creative leap, reaching out to a rather remarkable producer on this project. Can you tell me about that?

JH: Well, it's kind of a funny story, actually. We were at the early stages of planning for the record, and we had just put in a long day on work, and we're sitting around, listening to music and drinking a cocktail, and we put on I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, which is one of the best records ever made in my opinion — Richard and Linda Thompson from early '70s. And I was like, "Let's find this guy and have him make our record! This record is the best record in the world!"

And so we did a little sleuthing and we found out the guy who made that record is called John Wood, and he founded, with a couple other people, the studio Sound Techniques in London back in the mid-'60s … so Richard and Linda Thompson, Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Dr. Strangely Strange were in that crew. All these late '60s, early '70s folk-rock revival folks. So every one of your favorite records from that era has John Wood's imprint on it. Well, lo and behold, he's in his seventies, living in Scotland, and so we sent him a letter with our old CDs in it and said, "Would you be interested in helping us make a new CD?" and he said "Sure! How are we going to do this? I'm in Scotland, you're in Wisconsin." So, we kind of sorted that out, and it was fascinating to work with this guy. I mean, he's such a pro.

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers
The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers are Joe Hart and Nikki Grossman. (Micah Robinson)

LT: You say you sorted it out; did John produce it remotely? Or did he actually come to the studio for a while?

JH: What we did is we recorded demos and sent those to him digitally. And he listened and sort of helped with some arrangements and gave us feedback, most of which we took. And then we recorded at Creation Audio in Minneapolis with Tom Herbers, who had helped us with the last record and a couple other projects; he's just a pro and he's a really easy guy to work with and we love him.

So we recorded digitally at a super deep bitrate, much deeper than you would normally use. And then those files got packed up and sent to John in Scotland. He took them and transferred them back to analog (he does all of his mixing analog), and then he mixed us and sent it back to us, and we would listen and give him feedback and kind of go back and forth that way, until we reached a spot where we wanted to rest. And then he re-imported them into digital and sent those back to us by post. So that was sort of how we worked.

The other thing is we had to make a decision early on [was] whether we wanted to do sort of an old-school style, gather around the microphone, which is what we've done in the past, or whether we wanted to get separation and build tracks and stuff. And we decided since we were working with John, to give him the most flexibility to work on the material, we would separate. So that was a really different process — a very slow, layered, studio process, rather than advanced rehearsal, crowding around the microphone, getting it done.

LT: With the John Wood workflow, when you're sending files in various means and getting them back, and getting feedback, but working remotely without that face-to-face interaction, did it take a little bit of time for a sense of trust and respect to develop among you? How did that go?

JH: Definitely. It was challenging. I don't know that I would do that again, honestly. I would rather be face-to-face. And especially in the studio, I would rather have the producer in the studio. We really missed him.

The other thing about John is, we did a bunch of research and reading about him, and even back in the '60s he was known in the studio for being very crabby and curmudgeonly [laughs] and so that hasn't changed in 40 years or whatever. There were a few moments where we were like, "Gosh, can you just say one nice thing about this project?" [laughs] You know, at one point he sent us back to redo all the vocals. He was like "These aren't good enough; I don't want to work with these." So we had to go back to the studio and re-record maybe 80 percent of the vocals.

And he was right, we got better stuff, but it was still a painful process that was not made easier by communicating by email. Ninety percent of our communication was by email.

LT: In addition to working with John Wood and Tom Herbers, you surrounded yourself with a cadre of pretty remarkable musicians in the studio, which was another step for you. Did Tom help recruit people like Toni Lindgren and Chris Hepola? Did you guys reach out to folks? Was it a combo?

JH: We actually put that lineup together. Toni was really the only person we'd never worked with before, or didn't have kind of a personal relationship with. We saw Toni with her band when they performed at Boats and Bluegrass in Winona. As we packed up and were walking out, and I just heard a little lick out of the corner of my eye — the corner of my ear? — and we turned around and walked back into the festival to find out who that was playing guitar. And we were just completely blown away by [Toni's] live performance. She's so talented, so good. And you can hear, you know, her regular band is Reina del Cid, and they're a little more rock than what we play. But you can hear that she cut her teeth playing country western, it's unmistakable. So she was really excited about our songs, and jumped right on board and fit in perfectly; she's great.

Bassist Liz Draper, both of us have been friends with her for years and worked with her on various different projects. Chris Hepola, we know, originally due to the Cactus Blossoms, who we've worked with before, too. Patrick Harrison was on our last record, and he and Nikki go back to high school [laughs] they all went to the Arts High. And Randy Broten, we'd never worked with him, but he's kind of a friend of a friend, and one of the obvious pedal steel players to go to. And then he's connected to my sister Maria Hart, who plays piano on one of the tracks.

LT: You have some tour dates coming up, including a showcase at South By Southwest, and I know for example, Toni's right now touring with Lissie, and she's got Reina del Cid, too. Will some of these musicians be joining you on the road, or will you be back to the duo configuration for these gigs?

JH: We're kind of playing it by ear a little bit. We've confirmed that most of the band will be with us for the Minneapolis gig at the Hook and Ladder. And then we've got a couple people that we are either starting to work with or are starting to talk to, to really kind of be a third to our duo, and I feel like that may end up being our baseline configuration, is Nikki and I as the duo and then a third person, a multi-instrumentalist, on the side.

There's economics to it, right? If you play in a band you'd be bringing in a certain amount, and with just the duo it allows you to be quite a bit more flexible.

LT: When it comes to releasing the new album, Don't Think About Tomorrow Tonight, you've got vinyl on the way, as well as CD and digital download, and then this video. In a constantly morphing musical landscape, where do you see each of these pieces kind of fitting or reaching listeners where they are?

JH: There are a lot of people who are negative about our current world and the state of the music industry in particular. We feel like it's pretty open and flexible. People ask for vinyl all the time, so we're providing that, but the same people want a digital download so that they can pop it on their phone and listen to it while they're jogging or whatever. And that's how we see it, is that most people are operating on all these levels at the same time, and they're using the technology for different purposes. You know, the vinyl's going to be something real precious that you take out once in a while to listen to in a very different context or environment, and a different listening style than you would, you know, your mp3 on your iPhone. And with the internet, we have learned to try to focus our efforts there. There's so many different platforms and so many different ways to reach people and some of them are more effective than others. And we can really get lost in there and just spend all our time online, updating our page instead of making music and connecting with fans face-to-face. So we've tried to balance that out, we really use Facebook a lot, and then beyond that we try to keep it to a minimum and really focus on our fans when we see them in front of us in the concert hall.

Interview transcribed by Colleen Cowie

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers new album, Don't Think About Tomorrow Tonight, is available for presale via the band's website, along with upcoming tour dates.


The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers - official site

Hi-Lo Diner

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