Matt Huseman Interview
Matt Huseman is an independent songwriter and musician best known for his work with the Baltimore-based Greenberry Woods and subsequently with Splitsville. Currently a member of Denver-based Able Archer.
Hanley: Let’s talk about the art of songwriting. When you sit down to write a song is there like a creative space that you get into, or is it just something you push yourself to do? What’s it like for you?
Huseman: I’ve been writing songs for so long now that I just kind of set aside a little time, and I noodle around mostly on guitar and just kind of focus on the melody. I know it’s different for other writers. I understand Elvis Costello will actually write the lyrics before he writes the song. And Elliott Smith was the same way which astounds me. I’ll actually just babble stuff to a melody and find melodies that I like and then I decide whether the melody I’ve written is a chorus, a verse or maybe even a bridge, and maybe I haven’t even written a song yet. Sometimes I’ll go back into some older pieces that I have and maybe rip a melody off, and what I thought maybe was a chorus before it becomes a verse. But typically when I’m doing that, like I said, I spend a lot of time just kind of babbling lyrics. And sometimes one of them will catch where I’ll have an idea. I’ll see something like the word “emoticon” struck me just recently, and I thought that was a great title for a song. So actually I have a ton of song titles based on words or phrases that I like. And then I’d maybe try to fit the lyrics to fit that.
Hanley: What you just said reminds me of how Neil Finn describes his writing process also.
Hanley: Yeah, he also says that when he’s going through that - like every time he gets on a major songwriting bender he’ll go through hours and hours of just nothing. He feels like he can’t write anything good and he’s never going to be able to write another song again. Then finally something will hit him. Do you relate to that?
Huseman: Oh, absolutely, no question. And honestly I think Neil Finn is probably one of my three favorite songwriters ever. I just think he’s fantastic.
Hanley: Same here.
Huseman: Especially because I listen to a large variety of music. I don’t try to just listen to one genre. So I’ll hear something by a band and it might be something that I would never even consider writing. Maybe I’ll try to challenge myself to do that and fail miserably. I’ll write it in that sort of style and fail miserably. I could go weeks and weeks, months even, without writing a good song. And then just two nights ago I was kind of playing around with a chord pattern. What I’m really trying to do now more is write different scenes in songs. I’ve been trying to do that ever since the Greenberry Woods days. I’ve always been a fan of doing abrupt scene changes in songs. And so it just became one of the things. There has to be some cohesiveness to the song. You just can’t do it for the sake of doing it. And I just happened to come up with one of those songs last night from something that’s been going through my head for like two days. And that’s the other thing. I know when I’ve written a good song, for myself at least, when it does what I know when I hear a good song does which is two or three days later the song is going through my head ad nauseam. So if it happens to me with one of the songs I’ve written, then I feel like I’ve probably done my job.
Hanley: Now when you’re really in the middle of composing and you have a sense that something good is happening, what does that feel like as best as you can describe It? Is it somewhat euphoric? What feelings are associated with that?
Huseman: It is a natural high. It’s the same natural high you could get from, I’m sure, winning a game, a sporting event, something like that. It’s a euphoric feeling that you get where you’re just like, “Wow, look at what I just did,” especially when the pieces kind of come together, especially if I can get some good lyrics on top of it too. Sometimes I’ve listened to my older material - I don’t really do that too much - but when I do I’m sometimes kind of re-impressed by some of the songs as well. Believe me, there’s plenty of times where I’m like, “Uh, did I write that? I can’t believe that. Or did I sing that, or were those my lyrics?” But sometimes you do sit back and you go, “wow” and kind of get a little bit of that feeling again. You can kind of revisit that feeling. It’s part of the reason why you end up doing this.
Hanley: Well, since you mentioned it, what are two or three of your songs you’re most proud of?
Huseman: I think as far as the sort of classic pop rock kind of genre that I wrote both of the songs in, “Trampoline” for Greenberry Woods and “Yearbook” for Splitsville, are kind of two naturals. When I wrote both those songs, they came extremely easily. You struggle a lot with songs and sometimes it’s a real struggle. “Trampoline” I wrote in five minutes and “Yearbook” I was lying in the back of a van one night on the way home from a gig and wrote it all in my head, which is pretty rare for me, too, without a guitar. I think those two still stand up. The more obscure ones, I like “Oh, Janine” off the Greenberry Woods album, even though those are not the original lyrics to it. I like the song itself. I think off our last Splitsville album I really like the song “Sasha” about my dog but probably about me and my relationship with my wife and stuff like that too.
Hanley: I love that one.
Huseman: Oh, cool. Thanks.
Hanley: I have such a hard time discerning your voice from your brothers. I’m not sure which ones are yours. But I also like “Hold On” a lot.
Huseman: Yeah. It’s me.
Hanley: Did you do “Super Geek”?
Hanley: That one’s a killer.
Huseman: My wife loves that song.
Hanley: I’ve probably played that one more than anything.
Huseman: I also thought that was more of an obvious single off that album, but c’est-la-vie.
Hanley: Now you mentioned getting inspiration riding in a van one time. So you have that unexpected inspiration. Do you get woken up in the middle of the night sometimes and you just have a good idea?
Huseman: It’s funny you say that because with “Sasha,” that song, I had the main part of that song literally for five years probably. And I’d just revisit it every now and then. I just didn’t know where to go with it. And one night I woke up and I just came up with chorus, “I see in your eyes.” I ran downstairs. We lived in a row house in Baltimore at the time so not a lot of private space. I clicked on a tape machine. So you hear at the end of the song me kind of singing into a tape recorder? I re-recorded it so it sounded better, but I wanted to capture that spontaneous feel of actually writing the song. That’s why I put that at the end of it. Anyway, yeah, inspiration can come at any time. It sometimes will just hit you in the middle of the night. And the worse thing to do, John, honestly is when I have a song going through my head in the middle of the night and I’m too lazy to get up and the next morning I’ve lost it.
Hanley: Well, do you have the old tape recorder nearby where you can at least hum it?
Huseman: Oh, yeah. I used to do it on like a boom box that recorded. Now I’ve got this little guy. I’m sure you’ve seen them. It’s like the size of maybe half the width of a cigarette pack and about that length as well. And it’s a digital recorder.
Hanley: That’s what I’m using for the interview.
Huseman: There you go. I mean it’s great. It’s perfect. And it’s easy to travel with. If I bring a guitar with me on vacation or something, I just pop it in the guitar case so I have something to record with.
Hanley: Perfect. So if you take your favorite songs of yours as a guide, are there any general things you can say about what works about those songs? What makes them so pleasing to the ear?
Huseman: Well, theory-wise I’m sure you could. I read a book on the whole Beatles catalog and the author actually kind of put all the songs in context and he’ll ascribe some music theory to it as well as in, “Isn’t it pleasing the way that you go from a D minor to, I don’t know, E 7th,” or something like that. Well, I’m not that bright. I didn’t really pay attention to any of the theory that I learned so I can’t really say from that point of view with respect to my work. I just think for me there’s an emotional resonance to certain chord patterns and more likely certain melodies over chord patters. And in fact with the song that I just wrote a couple of nights ago, that’s what struck me most is that it’s haunting.
And, John, I’ve been doing a lot of writing with some other people recently, which is kind of a fun challenge for me because I normally in both the Greenberry Woods and Splitsville would typically bring almost solely realized songs to the band. Just the other day I had written some lyrics to someone else’s tune. The chord pattern and the melody that I wrote on top of this chord pattern I really felt was haunting. But, the lyrics that I wrote were a little too mundane. I actually went back to the guy and said, “Look, I’ve got to redo these because I’m not doing the song justice.” And that’s kind of my way of saying that there are certain melodies that you could put on top of a chord pattern and automatically I could just hum the melody to you, and instinctively you’d say, “That sounds like a driving song, or that sounds like a great song to dance too,” even if I just hum the melody. So I think that you can base some of the songwriting around that idea. Like I said, I can’t theory-wise tell you what makes a song work. I just think it has to be pleasing to the ear and have some emotional resonance.
Hanley: I remember listening to Todd Rundgren talk about songwriting years ago. And he was saying when he was younger what bothered him is that he got in a certain pattern. He says it was just so easy to write these songs. He would just start with I think he said he like F major 7th and off he was. And in 20 or 30 minutes he’d have a song. First of all, do you notice yourself going into a pattern? But maybe you’re not against it like he is. Maybe you don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. What do you think about that?
Huseman: That’s another great question. Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve done an interview because I try to kind of get away from them. I wish people would ask me these kinds of questions in our career. These are really insightful questions.
Hanley: Thank you.
Huseman: But, actually you’re right. In Splitsville there were songs that I would bring up and the guys would be like, “No, it’s too much like x, y, or z.” I find myself doing the D minor to G 7th thing probably more than I should. I can tell even when like Paul or Brandt will bring up a song and it will automatically trigger one of their previous songs because you do end up writing in a pattern. And I’ll tell you, kind of go back to that last question, or at least my last digression, that’s what’s so exciting about writing to other people’s stuff right now. They will bring up chord patterns that I might never have put together. Even when I’m with this alt country project that I’m doing, sitting around and the drummer might have a drum pattern or the guitar player will goof around, I’ll just try to put a melody on top of it. It’s much more of a challenge in a way, and it’s a blessing because it does take me out of my comfort zone and makes me have to try to stretch my songwriting muscle. And I think it’s great.
Hanley: Now, another guy that I love is Paul McCartney. And he talks about how he’s tried a bunch of different things, of course, millions of pop songs, but he’s also some classical and some experimental stuff. He says that no matter what, it always sounds like me. “There’s something about the way I’m wired that it’s going to sound like me.” Do you find that there’s a Matt Huseman sound that you can’t get away from and wouldn’t want to?
Huseman: I think that if you listen to the canon of my material expanding seven albums or eight albums, you’ll definitely see that. Getting back to Neil Finn, I remember getting “Together Alone” and thinking, “Wow, it’s such a departure from his stuff. I don’t know if I’m really into it.” And then listening to it a handful of times and I realized that, at the core, it’s still Neil Finn. It’s still fantastic songwriting. In fact, I think I might at this point like that album more than any of the others. If you take three albums removed from the Crowded House first album which is keyboard based pop because producer Mitchell Froom was all over that one, but still it’s that same Neil Finn sound and it bleeds onto his solo albums as well. And you could tell his stuff from Split Enz too; you could tell it’s him as a songwriter. It kind of shows. So I’d like to think the same thing happens as you listen to songs that I wrote. Earlier you asked me if I wrote a few tunes and, sure enough, you guessed correctly so clearly there is a sound. I find this to be the case a lot. When people would list their favorite Splitsville stuff, quite often they’d all be Brandt songs or they’d be Paul songs or mine. So I think people recognize those patterns and they kind of identify with them. Does that make sense?
Hanley: Definitely. I think I tend to gravitate toward your tunes. Like did you do “Joan of Arc?”
Hanley: Did you do “Master of Space and Time?”
Hanley: Those are my favorite from that album.
Huseman: And like I said, that’s not unusual. I kind of see that pattern all the time. I appreciate that you do like that. And some people say that they like the Brandt tunes more than mine. It doesn’t really bother me because I know he’s a frickin’ talented songwriter.
Hanley: Just a matter of preference.
Huseman: Exactly. I mean it’s tough to describe, but there’s got to be some sort of innate, whether it’s the timbre of my voice or just the chord patterns that I use or even the melodic structure that I use, which is slightly different from the other guys. There’s something that is just more appealing about that for some listeners. And how do you pinpoint that? I don’t know.
Hanley: The one that I really thought was you was the “The Next One.” But I guess that is…
Huseman: It’s Brandt.
Hanley: Do you know what I mean though? That kind of sounds like one of yours.
Huseman: I agree with you. I think it actually does. And I used to sing it in practice sometimes where I tried to get him to let me sing that one.
Hanley: That’s definitely a great song. Now, I guess I love reading these rock n’ roll interviews so I’ve got all these references here. I remember Keith Richards talking about how every rock n’ roll writer is a thief. And we’re all taking stuff from other people. Have you ever had a specific song in mind from the past and said, “Ok, I want to write something like that”?
Huseman: Oh, I do it all the time. I mean shoot, again, I think it’s pretty obvious. I heard through the guy who directed the video for “Trampoline” that Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub apparently heard our song and identified that I’d nicked a piece of “Alcoholiday” from it. I mean, I’m not going to lie. It’s a very similar chord pattern at least. I’m not saying melodically the song is, but the chord pattern itself was reminiscent of Teenage Fanclub. So, yeah, we do it all the time. It happens all the time. But I don’t actually set out and say I’m going to write “Alone Again Or” or something like that. I’m not going to go and write my “Penny Lane.” But production wise sometimes sure. I mean, well look, let’s face it, the Complete Pet Soul was kind of a goof but we took it very seriously. And you can identify the ‘60s tunes in that album.
Hanley: When you’re sitting there writing the song and it could be lyrics, it could be the melody, I wonder how much does emotion play into it? For example, like if you’re writing about love, do you feel that? Even going back to “Sasha,” some people might think that’s, I don’t know, a little strange, but I don’t think so. It really comes through that you do love your dog in that. So I’m wondering like did you feel that when you were writing that? Or if you’re writing a more angry song, are you feeling the rage as you’re doing it?
Huseman: I think any good songwriter does. I think you can tell when they don’t. You can tell a top 40 hit that was written by a bunch of professionals and you can tell a Kurt Cobain riff. There’s just a difference to it. I don’t care how much people put emotion into the singing. I’m saying the actual song itself. And I totally agree. What I try to do with just about every song I do is tap into some sort of vein, whether that vein is indifference, which “Trampoline” was really just about indifference. And again “Sasha” is not just about the dog. I’m not going to go into psychoanalysis 101 in my brain, but it was definitely about more than that. So you just tap into those feelings. I dated a girl for about six years in my 20s and wrote a lot of the stuff in the late Greenberry Woods, early up through Splitsville and I probably still do. It was a relationship that was just really volatile, so, I’m able to still go back and tap into that sometimes, those feelings, with bad relationships or whatever it should be. I think it makes songs a hell of a lot more emotional, resonant, and more interesting.
Hanley: Definitely. So like if we take “Sasha,” the line “You run away from the people who love you,” was that a main theme you wanted to bring out?
Huseman: Yeah, and you don’t have to know it’s about…I mean it can obviously can be about a human being too. And in some ways it is.
Hanley: I think we can all relate to that. I think it’s a brilliant line. It speaks to me in a lot of relationships I’ve been in.
Huseman: Sure, absolutely. I think it’s rare that both people enter a relationship without at least one person with at least a toe outside of that relationship ready to turn tail. In most relationships I’ve been in, at least one of the parties was always hedging their bets. I called that song “Sasha” because that was my dog’s name. If you know it’s about a dog, you can ascribe the lyrics to the dog, but it’s not only that. It’s really not. In fact a very good friend of mine called me up right after she heard the album for the first time and she said she cried during that song because she said that song is about you, which is something that I felt. I know again it’s a big digression there, but that’s what songwriting should be about. I don’t like putting songs in a box. I can tell you what “The Next One” is about. It’s actually about two stories in Brandt’s life that he juxtaposed together. It’s a poignant song because he actually tapped into two different kind of pains. One was the pain of unrequited love and one is the loss of a good friend of his who died at a young age. And that’s why I think that song is so frickin’ brilliant. He kind of pulled it all together. I mean that song has real emotion. He could have delivered it deadpan or something like that, but even then I think the emotion of the song is still going to be there.
Hanley: That’s interesting you said that because that helps me with that one because in a way I couldn’t quite figure out what he’s saying there. But, then, on the other hand, I like that. It leaves me to think about what do I make of this? What is this “next one” that he sings about referring to? There’s a nice mystery to it.
Huseman: I agree. Not every song has to be linear path. I love songs that are stories. The Kinks used to do that all the time. Ray Davies wrote a lot of songs with a story to it. That’s what I really liked about the Fountains of Wayne first album that in a sense it was very Kinks-like in the way that a lot of their songs are kind of like little mini-stories. Elvis Costello, on the other hand, his stuff would be--I love Costello; I’m a huge Costello fan; I always have been--he’d be singing about “Oliver’s Army,” and then there’d be a line or two about a girl, and then it would be about, I don’t know, about being in Palestine. I try to do that as well as I’ve matured as a songwriter. I can be singing on something entirely different and then slip in a line or two about something that is poignant to me, something that has some emotional resonance to me and that will make the song for me that much stronger. And unless I actually explain it to you, you’d never figure out what it was. You inherently, I think, recognize that there’s something to those lyrics. There’s something behind it. A different approach is like Lenny Kravitz, who I like. But I get the feeling that he does what I do which is sits around sings gibberish to his songs. “I like to love and rub it up”. But he actually just keeps a lot of it as the song. You know what I’m saying?
Huseman: I don’t really get that emotional resonance from a lot of his stuff. And I’m not cutting on the guy. He’s obviously had a good career. And the stuff that he does where he actually spends times writing lyrics, you can tell he does it.
Hanley: Let’s just talk for a minute here about the Beatles. I’m assuming you admire them a lot?
Huseman: Yeah. I could even joke. When you say you like Paul McCartney. I thought, Paul McCartney, hmmm…who’s he?
Hanley: That British guy going through a big divorce.
Huseman: No kidding.
Hanley: It struck me, I was listening to the new Beatle compilation album, Love, that they came out with and there’s like, I don’t know, 25 songs on there or something like that. And I had this conclusion. I want to see what you think of it. If you take any one of those songs and a band puts that on their album but imagine there was no Beatles, ok. Imagine somebody just wrote “Blackbird” or just wrote “Come Together” or whatever. My sense is any one of those songs would be the best song on pretty much anybody’s album that they came out with. I mean, they’re that good. Now, you don’t have to agree with that specific conclusion. But what can you say about just how good they were as writers?
Huseman: I think I’d have a hard time disagreeing with that. I think I was telling you earlier about a book that I have. I can dig it up. I’ve got quite a few books on them. I’m a huge Beatles’ fan.
I probably have it sitting in here. It’s Revolution of the Head by Ian MacDonald. And it’s every song they’ve ever recorded from obscure ones that I didn’t even know they recorded from their first sessions even before they had Ringo in the band. He goes through and in various degrees tells you about the history of the songwriting, maybe even what the impact the specific song might have had on pop. And it’s just a fascinating read, I tell you. He’s highly critical of a lot of the stuff. “It was lazy songwriting,” and stuff like that. Some of the stuff is really lazy. One thing I remember from that Beatles Anthology that came out 10 years ago or so was Beatles’ producer George Martin sitting there going, “Man I wish we had made the White Album just a single album and cut out all the fluff and all the stuff,” then they cut to McCartney and he goes, “But, it’s the flipping White Album.” I’m with Paul on that one. If you think about, especially all the stuff on the Love album, which I think were all singles of theirs, a ton of them, you put it on someone’s album today and you’re right. It would stand out as one of the, if not the best, track on the album. Their songwriting was that strong. And a lot of it was due to the competition between Lennon and McCartney. I have no doubt about that, and that there was a healthy amount of competition between the two that allowed them to do that. I totally agree with you. I mean, they were that strong as songwriters. When you talk about any of their foibles, you have to put it in the context of, well, it’s still the Beatles.
Hanley: And it’s funny. I enjoy some of the lazy stuff. I think that has its own charm to it.
Huseman: Oh, I agree, plus the fact that this was 30, 40 years ago now. We’ve heard a ton of music since then. And (a) this stuff still holds up, and (b) when they were doing some of that stuff, it was pretty new at the time.
Hanley: Let’s talk a little bit about what makes a hit song. Now I know you have to think about the marketplace and America seems to like dance songs and all that, but tell me if I’m wrong. I still like to believe that something like - let’s go back to Neil Finn and his classic, “Don’t Dream its Over.” I just cannot believe that would not be a hit. It just has to be. So is there a certain magic around certain tunes that maybe you can’t even describe, but it just leads to mass appeal?
Huseman: There’s no question. I can certainly tell when I’ve written something special, and I’m not saying I’ve had any sort of that success, that mass appeal success. But, in my world it would be the ones that people consistently say, “Oh, that’s my favorite song,” or it’s the catchy ones. So, yes, “Don’t Dream its Over,” I still hear it to this day and I still enjoy hearing it. Another song that I’ve heard more times than a human should hear it is “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. And any time I still hear it on the radio, I listen to that song and say, “Now that is a single.” “Don’t Dream it’s Over,” that is a single. It’s just an innate thing about those songs that just have an appeal on the first listen and an appeal on the one hundredth listen. It’s incredible if you can capture that. And that’s the thing with the Beatles is that they could capture that on eight or nine songs on an album.
Hanley: I know. It’s crazy.
Huseman: And everything else they put on the album would help frame the singles to sound more distinctive. Let’s take Rubber Soul as an example. You can’t have an album full of ten “Got to Get You Into My Life.” You have to have a “Tomorrow Never Knows” and a “For No One” even. I mean a “For No One” is a forlorn sparse piano ballad that offsets the “And Your Bird Can Sing” which is more trippy. If an album had ten songs line “Every Breathe you Take” on it, the actual “Every Breathe you Take” would have a less impact on that album.
Hanley: I get what you’re saying.
Huseman: So you have to have that diverse songwriting which you certainly have when you have three and occasionally four songwriters like the Beatles did.
Hanley: I want to ask you some questions on performance in a minute here. But one last thing in terms of creativity. If you could extrapolate from songwriting and give some advice I guess or counsel to the every day person who’s creative in whatever they do, whether it’s writing or in business, are there some keys you’ve identified that help creativity and others that get in the way?
Huseman: The thing is it’s probably different for everyone. But I have to have privacy when I do it. Like if my wife is listening I can’t write. I just can’t do it. But that’s just me. I remember reading about Elliott Smith writing X/O and he apparently wrote a lot of it in a bar in New York. So privacy is just what works for me.
Hanley: What about something like I heard somebody talking about creativity once said the killer of creativity is “should” and “shouldn’t.”
Huseman: Oh, there’s no question that you have to take yourself mentally to places that you might maybe not even want to go sometimes. I’d say that, and it’s a risk for you to stretch yourself. And it’s a risk that you have to allow yourself to take. So, yes, I agree with that assessment. Beyond that, I don’t know. That’s a tough question for me.
Hanley: It’s hard to say. When you say risk that also brings up that there’s a vulnerability involved just in a willingness to create anything because, when you create something, you’re identified with it and you’re going to get critiqued. So you have to have that willingness to put yourself out there to the world.
Huseman: I agree. I don’t even think you realize it a lot of the times while you’re doing it--but, if you record something and you put it out there, you’ve now just set yourself up for critique and especially in today’s day and age where it’s very easy for people to have their opinion known to a lot of people. But I don’t think you can think about that when you’re doing it. Some of my favorite stuff is when people completely go outside of their comfort zone. I think that makes them more interesting as an artist. Let’s face it, the people you’ve named, Neil Finn, the Beatles, they didn’t just write the same album over and over again. They went to a lot of pretty different places as they progressed. You’ve got to do that. That’s what I’m trying to do right now in a couple of the things that I’m doing, and it’s rewarding for me. I think I’d be really depressed if all I was doing was kind of Greenberry Woods over and over. You hear sometimes, “Ah, why can’t you do another one of those?” I keep thinking, “I’ve kind of been there, done that.”
Hanley: Well, alright, speaking of risk, let’s talk about being up in front of that audience. How do you handle nervousness?
Huseman: It’s funny you say that because like I said I’ve been playing with this new band. We played our first show on Tuesday night. I don’t really get nervous anymore, it’s more of a nervous anticipation. But, I’m sure if I were to start playing big clubs again I’d probably feel a little bit of that normal anxiety. For me, in general though I get kind of jazzed about the opportunity to sing or to perform in front of people. So for me it’s kind of different. It doesn’t really make me nervous. It makes me more excited.
Hanley: Do you ever feel embarrassed up there just like there’s all these people looking at you and you’re looming over them? Do you sometimes feel overexposed?
Huseman: Not really. I mean, it’s weird. When you’re playing live, a lot of times you’ve got lights in your eyes. And what I do when I’m onstage, I’ve really established in my head that I kind of own the stage. It’s my place. It’s my workplace. So I don’t ever get self-conscious about people staring at me. But I do go through a range of emotions while playing. If you’re having a bad night you can get pissed off. I’ve been bored playing before where we’re all laconic during a show. It’s just not working for us. It’s just not happening. That’s an awful feeling. Or if you’ve been on tour for a while sometimes - maybe it’s due to something that happened that day - but there can be shows where you’re sitting around before hand thinking, “I don’t want to be doing this.”
Hanley: Do you like to improvise during shows or do you like to stay on a set schedule?
Huseman: I’m not a very improvising man. I’m a pretty OCD kind of guy anyway. So I prefer to have sort of everything figured out before I go onstage. I don’t like a lot of surprises. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not that talented of a guitar player. I’ve never been a jam band kind of guitar player. It’s just not me. I can’t do it. And it’s not really the style of music that we do. That said, we’ve taken some chances while we’ve recorded before and while we’ve been onstage, we’ll go into new songs and try songs out and stuff like that. But, in a sense of like “jam bandy” kind of stuff, nah. That’s not my scene.
Hanley: Well, since you mentioned the guitar playing, let’s talk about that for a moment. I tried to learn guitar when I was growing up. And the thing I came up against is I could never transfer what I was hearing onto the guitar neck. My brain doesn’t work that way. Now, I assume you can do that. But, what do you think separates you who I think is a very good guitar player from somebody you would consider better than you. I don’t know, I mean even back to Neil Finn because I know he improvises a lot on stage or there’s the real flashy guys too. What is that extra something that makes them better?
Huseman: It’s tough to say. I think honestly as stupid as it might sound it can come down to something as simple as hand-eye coordination. I agree, I think Neil Finn is a better guitar player than I am. I don’t even think there’s any question about that. I’m kind of a hack to be perfectly honest. I think it could be like asking why can someone write a book better than someone else or why can someone shoot a basketball better than someone else. I just think some of it is just innate talent because I’ve been playing guitar for a long time. I tell you I’m also my own worst critic. I’ve also played in bands where I thought that the people that I was playing with were really good guitar players and then I realized I was at least as good as they were. But, I’m realistic about it. I’m never going to wow someone. No one in their right mind stands by the stage and watches me play guitar unlike Tony from Splitsville. The guys just a natural talent. He’s a fantastic guitar player.
Hanley: Do you like to solo or do you like more the Townsend rhythm?
Huseman: I’m actually much more of a Townsend power chord kind of guy. That’s kind of my forte. I’m not a good lead guitarist. And the funny thing was I was the lead guitarist for Greenberry Woods so we were only going to ever be so good on our instruments with me as the lead guitarist.
Hanley: Well, we have some time left. Let’s talk about band relationships because I think everybody can kind of relate to this. I know music is its own thing, but essentially you have a team there. So I want to talk to you about what works and what doesn’t work from your experience. The nice thing is you’ve had some varied experiences there.
Huseman: No kidding.
Hanley: Here’s another reference for you. I remember Michael Stipe from REM was saying that in his opinion the only way bands really work is that you have to grow up together and you just kind of fall into it. I know that was the case with REM and a lot of great bands. Do you think there’s anything to that?
Huseman: Maybe some. But I mean I thought Zeppelin was pretty good. They didn’t do it that way. And, shoot, Ringo was added to the Beatles and he was a hired gun. So I mean, is there some truth to that? Sure. I think you just have to have an affinity for the people in the band for it to work. Let’s face it. You’re going to be hopefully touring with these people. So you learn about people. That’s what happened with Greenberry Woods. We got on tour with each other, and we realized, “Ok, we don’t like each other.” Maybe that’s too strong of a word, but there was some truth to that. We realized that we had a different mindset about everything essentially. That was a real negative experience with us, and I think if you got all four of us in a room, we’d admit it now.
There was a lot of healthy competition. There was also a lot of unhealthy competition between us in that we really just didn’t manage our internal relationships well. It got to the point where my brother and I were writing letters to each other towards the end of Greenberry Woods. We were living in an apartment together, a really small apartment, and we were communicating through letters. We were writing things like: “I respect you as a person and a songwriter, but we’ve got to stop going on in the same way. I would rather not be in this band and not pursue this any more if we can get our relationship back on track.” It was really that bad. And then with Splitsville, it was a completely different thing. It was Brandt’s idea to put together the band as a side project. And we got Paul involved. So the dynamic worked really well. We actually set up the dynamic from the start so it would work better. Paul is a friend of ours. He was a bartender at a bar that we used to go to all the time. We knew he was a talented musician. We liked him as a person. We knew he was a likeminded soul, someone who read a lot, and had a lot of same interests. It was like night and day. We would tour with Splitsville and the three of us in the van, we didn’t have a crew then, and we would just tour around and talk for hours. It was amazing to us because when touring with Greenberry Woods we were picking on each other all the time. It was just different. I don’t necessarily think that you have to have known each other since childbirth or whatever, be childhood friends. I’m enjoying the people that I’m playing with right now and we met here in Denver. But we’re all likeminded people. Another thing I’ve learned with bands is that I think you have set the ground rules early. Democracies are great and every band I’ve been in has been a democracy of some sort. But at some point someone’s got to be able to be the ultimate decision maker or else you’re screwed. With the dynamic of Splitsville when there were three members it worked well because you could always be two against one, majority rules. I also think you need to assign responsibilities early. If someone is better at booking shows than the other person, have them book, or whatever it’s going to be. But in the creative process you’re going to typically figure out who is the stronger songwriter or whatever the case might be and each members strengths and weaknesses as a musician.
Hanley: Lot’s of good stuff there. I’ve got a couple of more questions for you. I live out in California. I haven’t ever had a chance to see you live, but I first heard about you I think, when Greenberry Woods were in the Billboard magazine in the early 90s. Were you guys on the cover of that? There was a big article before your album even came out, Greenberry Woods.
Huseman: I think we were. I think there was an article on pop. I can’t remember what it was. But, I seem to remember something like that. I know we’ve been in there a handful of times. We did make the cover once.
Hanley: They talked about you guys as maybe the next Beatles and all that. When that was first happening, were you just thrilled and excited and just riding on a high with such great hopes? So that’s one thing. And then juxtapose that with the kind of disintegration within and also the lack of support you got from your company. Was that really deflating because of the initial high?
Huseman: I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t. But it’s interesting. When you put it in context, we were 23, 24 years old. So I was fairly young and obviously had never had any experience like that before. So it’s not like I had anything to relate it to. And I kind of always assumed, “Hey, we’re good. We’re going to be successful.” But, early on in our career in Warner Brothers, we went played on a flatbed truck right outside of Warner Brothers Studios. We were fired up so we toured the building after that. And, as we walk through, we noticed something interesting on their computer screensavers. There were all sorts of screensavers and posters and everything of Green Day. See the problem? We were the Greenberry Woods and we were at the same label as Green Day and their album was coming out right at the same time ours was. And we were like, “Well shoot.” We figured it out pretty early that we weren’t going to get that level of support. I think we did pretty darn well for our first single on the East Coast, especially. But, we kind of knew it was going to be an uphill battle early on. It didn’t make us happy, but it was what it was.
I don’t know, John, it’s tough to say. Yeah, we were euphoric, but you’ve got to understand. Ok, so we recorded an album in the summer and then it didn’t come out until February or March the next year. In fact, it got delayed because there was an earthquake I remember in California. So there’s a lot of time where you’re just kind of sitting around and you’re not doing anything. We weren’t doing anything. We weren’t really touring. They were waiting until the album got released to tour us so we just kind of sitting around. I think Brandt and I were both temping at the time. So you still felt like some normal 24-year-old schlub that doesn’t know what’s going on. Along the way there were some brief moments of brilliance, like playing on Conan O’Brien’s show and doing some stuff with MTV. But ultimately pretty early on we realized that it was going to be an uphill battle for us. Plus the fact the music we were doing, let’s face it, especially at the time, wasn’t exactly timely. We were doing pop in the era of grunge. So it was a tough nut to crack.
Hanley: Going back a little bit in your answer there, it’s interesting you say that you just had a confidence that you were going to be successful. So like when you and your brother were teenagers or young 20s you just knew or had a really good sense you guys were going to make it big?
Huseman: Yeah, almost as soon as we started writing our first songs. If I would go back and list them now, I’d probably be horrified, but, on second thought, I can’t even say that. I mean “Oh, Christine” was one of the first ones that we wrote, which I still like. But, anyway, back then we just knew we were good. I guess you just have to innately believe in your ability. If you approach anything and you don’t have that, you’re not going to be a success. There’s a lot too in that visualizing and the power of positive thinking and all that. You know as well as I do. You conceptualize your own success. But again it wasn’t like I was actively conceptualizing my own success. I just naturally assumed that, “Hey, we’re talented. We’re going to be rock stars.”
Hanley: Now, in this world of everything’s indie, let’s talk a little bit about how do you balance everything now? You’ve got your every day job. You have practice in music. You’ve got to market your music. You’ve got family. How is that working for you?
Huseman: When I moved out here to Denver, we were still doing some Splitsville stuff, but not really. I mostly stepped away from music. I was still writing a lot. It was great because I was writing an awful lot when I came out here, but as far as doing anything really productive, I just wasn’t doing it. So I’ve just started really over the last six months deciding that I want to get back into doing it. It’s different now. There’s a lot of free outlets for you to put your music out. We didn’t have anything like MySpace when the Greenberry Woods started out. We didn’t have anything like iTunes even or the web.
But now it’s fairly easy for you to market yourself and that’s what you have to do. Now what you have to worry about is getting at least heard out there. But I think if you have a good product, being the songwriting, you’ve got a better chance than others. Plus I think people are more tolerant of the indies. People listen to iPods. I can tell a vast difference between the sound of an MP3 and a cd. So people are a little more tolerant of maybe production that is not pristine, 48 track kind of stuff. And again it’s just like anything you do. I’m actually recording an album with Able Archer right now and I’m sure I’ll put it out. I just approach it positively, that’s what you have to do. I don’t pretend that I think I’m going to sell as many albums as Britney Spears or some people.
Hanley: Right. Any Splitsville later this year?
Huseman: We keep on talking about it. So stay tuned.
Huseman: We keep on saying it’s going to happen so I believe it. I tell you, I’ve got the album written if we ever do it.
Hanley: Well, cool, man. I think we got a great interview here. I think we covered a lot of great ground.
Hanley: I really appreciate your willingness to do this.
Huseman: It’s an absolute pleasure for me. And I hope some day you actually get a chance to come to see us play.
Hanley: I’d love to.