Q & A: Ross Flournoy of the Broken West

The Broken West burst onto the scene as a highly enjoyable but easily definable entity last year on their debut album I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On. It was a record tailor made for power pop classicists, all Byrdsian jangle, gooey harmony vocals and fist pump friendly choral refrains. The band’s sun splashed songs seemed written with beach bum days and convertible cruising nights in mind. Although the occasional feint towards other moods and genres was made – a distorted guitar solo here, an atypical keyboard fill there – the album largely played by a set of predefined power pop rules.

On Broken West’s just released sophomore album, Now Or Heaven, the young Los Angelino quartet throw the rule book out the window. Bright guitars are largely banished, ebullient choruses scarce. In their place is a set of subtler yet no less insidiously catchy songs, tunes whose appeal lay largely in emotive vocal melodies, beguiling rhythms and atmospheric synthetic textures. While not as immediately palatable a record as its predecessor, Now Or Heaven is ultimately far more interesting.

Listen to “Auctioneer” from Now Or Heaven

There are still plenty of hooks to be found, dispensing them more judiciously only makes them hit all the harder. By foregrounding a variety of instruments rather than solely the trusty six-string even the album’s more traditionally anthemic moments like “Auctioneer” sound fresh and innovative, the listener’s attention shifting first from an icy descending piano figure intro into a lithe bass line led verse before the arrival, nearly a minute in, of a dual guitar assault. Broken West front man Ross Flournoy recently took time out to talk with Reveille about his band’s shift in sound, the collaborative nature of their songwriting and keeping the “bullshit quotient” low in their music career.

Reveille: A lot of bands pay lip service to the idea of change or growth but kind of find their niche and then repeat themselves if people like what their doing. This album’s really a pretty huge departure from I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On which to me was really defined by that big guitar sound. Was it a conscious change in direction on your part?

Ross Flournoy: It was a conscious change on our part. We knew even before we started writing songs for the record that our overarching goal was to focus on the rhythm section. We didn’t want to remake the last record. Ultimately that may have been a bad career choice because as much as anyone knows who we are we were definitely defined by those jangly guitars on our first record. [Laughs]. I love that record and we might someday return to that sound but for our own satisfaction we wanted to challenge ourselves as musicians and try something completely new. It was never explicit to the point of, ‘Hey, don’t play that guitar part, it’s too Byrdsy,’ we just really wanted to explore a different area. From talking to people already I can tell we’ve alienated some of the people who really liked our first record.

Reveille: I guess that’s always the danger in changing course.

Flournoy: I’m OK with alienating some fans the hope is of course that you end up gaining more people than you lose. [Laughs] Without sounding like a braggart I think we matured a lot as songwriters on this record but it all feels pretty natural. We’re a song-based band and try to write the best songs we can. That’s the one constant, how those songs are executed and presented has changed a bit.

Listen to “Perfect Games” from Now Or Heaven

Reveille: I didn’t realize until reading some other press how collaborative the songwriting process was in the band, probably because you’re the only one singing. What appeals to you about this power-sharing songwriting set-up?

Flournoy: I prefer it because I’m working with incredibly talented guys, Danny [Iead], who’s our guitarist and co-songwriter and Brian [Whelan], our bassist, are two of the best musicians I’ve ever met. I really defer to them a lot in the songwriting process because those guys are just so fucking good. It would be foolish for me to dictate to them because nine times out of ten they are going to have a better idea for a part than I had. We all feel blessed to be in this group together. On this record Brian wrote one of the songs and the rest were pretty much co-writes between me, Danny and Adam Vine, a very close friend of mine who wrote a good deal of the lyrics. I think it helps that Danny, Adam and I are all really close personally, we each can complete the others sentence when we’re hanging out so the songwriting sort of has a natural telepathy to it that’s really fun. Especially on this record there was a lot of re-writing and paying close attention to the lyrics, just trying to get them as tight as possible. I think by and large our egos take a back seat just because of the mutual respect we have for each other.

Reveille: Your gig here in Minneapolis is an opening slot for the Walkmen and you’ve done some pretty extensive touring runs in support of other artists. Do you approach the show differently as an opener versus headlining your own gigs?

Flournoy: When we were touring behind the first record we opened for the National for a week, for Fountains of Wayne for a stretch, bands several rungs up the ladder from us with really great crowds. There’s a little bit more anxiety when you’re in that opening band situation but it’s also exciting. You know there’s going to be a lot of people there and it’s your challenge to win them over. It’s still kind of hit or miss for us around the country in terms of headlining shows. There are some cities where we can do pretty well and then other places – like the whole south (laughs) – it’s a little bit more of a struggle. Smaller shows can still be gratifying, the last time we played Minneapolis we did a co-headlining tour with the Whigs and there were maybe only 30 people there, but they were all really into the music. When you can go to a place where you don’t really have any personal ties and people seem excited about it that’s great. At this stage we still relish the gigs opening up for bigger bands though.

Watch this strange musc video for the Broken West’s cover of Tegan & Sara’s hit “Back in Your Head”

Reveille: Now that you’re pursuing music pretty much full time as an occupation do you think your relationship with it has changed at all? Does making music feel more like a job the more your income is directly tied to it?

Flournoy: The bullshit quotient is a lot higher now than when we were unsigned. Even on our small level there’s still a bunch of logistical business b.s. stuff that’s not really fun to deal with. Overall though the more making music becomes my career the more fun I’m having doing it. The more intense my commitment to it becomes the more passionate I am about it. We do all work part time jobs and try to make money when we’re not on tour but this past year we devoted a solid four months just to making this record. It was our job seven days week, that was hard and frustrating but in the end it was exactly what we wanted to be doing. I hope as time goes on we can make this a relatively long term career. Each one of us feels blessed and lucky to even do what we’ve done so far. If it all ended tomorrow and the band broke up we’d all be eternally grateful to have made these records and had some people pay attention to them at all is great. We’re still maybe a little bit innocent, check with me in another ten years and we’ll probably all be bitter pricks, but right now it’s great. [Laughs]

COMING UP: The Broken West open up for The Walkmen and Sleeper Car on Saturday, September 13, at the 400 Bar . 9 p.m. $15. 18+.

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