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Music Interview

The Emperors of Wyoming interview: 'Taylor Swift isn't country at all'

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The Emperors of Wyoming
Butch Vig is probably best known for his production work on records from Nirvana's Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream to Foo Fighters' Wasting Light.

Garbage fans will also know that he's a pretty nifty drummer. In the mid-1980s, Butch drummed in a group called Fire Town fronted by Phil Davis. They've now reunited, and together with Frank Lee and Pete Anderson (Phil's old Buzz Gunderson bandmates), they are The Emperors Of Wyoming.

Separated by large chunks of America, the band have recorded their self-titled debut without ever being in the same studio, the songs coming together through the magic of technology. In much the same way, we at Digital Spy have spliced together our separate chats with Phil and Butch about their new project.

How did you guys get back together after all this time?
Butch: "It came from the love of the four of us for American music, which could loosely be called country rock, but also embraces folk rock and more contemporary artists like Tom Petty, Neil Young and Johnny Cash. I grew up listening to music like that. I grew up in a really small town in Wisconsin - all four of us in the Emperors did."
Phil: "Peter talked with Butch and just said in passing, 'Phil and Frank and I are going to start making a record'. Butch said, 'Do you have a drummer?' And we didn't. He said, 'Hey, I can help,' which is full circle for me, because Butch and I worked together in the 1980s... 17 years later we got back together!"



How hard was it to make a cohesive record living so far apart?
Phil: "What made it possible was the new technology. It wouldn't have happened, it would just be too difficult the old way... When you work in a studio with four or five people for months on end, that has its own creative energy but it can also be wearing. This was the opposite. It was always exciting, there were discoveries all the time."
Butch: "Even though we haven't played together recently in the same room, there's a feel of understanding with one another - almost a sixth sense in a way... It's possible if we all sat in the same room together it might have sounded worse! Maybe there would have been more pressure if we'd all been sat in a recording studio and the red light went on."
Phil: "Our influences are somewhat different, but we all have the same vocabulary - we all went to the same school - rock and pop radio. We can talk in shorthand in a way. That made it more cohesive. There was no real problem."

You needed the internet to get the album together, but are you worried about filesharing?
Butch:: "In the long run, it's getting harder and harder for musicians to make a living. I'm not talking about bands like Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones - I'm talking about bands that play down the street... There's a whole generation of young music fans who are obsessed with music and they're going to get it."
Phil: "There's a generation of some people growing up who don't believe you should have to pay for music. I think you have to pay for art, art isn't free."
Butch: "If you write a really great song, overnight you can be a sensation. In the course of a week you could be playing in a 2,000 ft theatre somewhere because your track has gone viral. That wouldn't have happened 20 years ago. There's pluses and minuses in any new revolution, and the digital revolution is still being worked out."

Jack White (The White Stripes)

© Rex Features / Jim Smeal/BEI

The Emperors of Wyoming














Jack White's got his Third Man Record label which reclaims albums as an artefact...
Phil: "When I started buying records - whether it was early records like Petula Clark or [Rolling Stones live album] Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! or The Velvet Underground or whatever - it was always a vinyl record and there was usually an effort and fun and creativity with the album cover and it was a thing that was sometimes really cool and beautiful. CDs reduce it down, and it doesn't have that power and that presence of a record."
Butch: "Vinyl sales keep going up every year... I think it's encouraging that people either love that medium or are just discovering it. There's a lot of young fans who have never heard vinyl and the first time they hear it they're blown away by it. Most kids I don't really think pay attention to sound quality - whether you gave them a full 24-bit 44.1k thing or 128k mp3, they just hear the song. It might be the beat, it might be autotuned vocals that they like!"

Will Butch's involvement attract some younger people who maybe aren't country fans?
Phil:"It might. His name and his long-running musical career, people might give it a listen to see what he's doing. 'Oh he's involved with that, I loved [that] Foo Fighters record, I wonder what this is about, this is different'... I think an open mind is the key. If you are open to stuff that grabs you, whatever that is, then there's a chance, and that would be very satisfying if we could reach out to younger people."
Butch: "Hopefully people will be pleasantly surprised when they hear it... people who I've played it to out here is that they are kind of surprised. When I say we've got a 'country' record they're not quite sure what to expect. It has a vibe to it, it has a feel. Part of that also it is centred by Phil's lyrics and singing. He has a very strong idiosyncratic voice - it has a lot of character."



The Emperors got together in 2009 - did Garbage's reunion affect you guys?
Phil: "No, it didn't really. I didn't even know they were recording. Butch has a number of things gong on simultaneously. He just directed his efforts when we were doing stuff towards us, but he was producing the Foo Fighters while we were doing this in Dave Grohl's garage. He has other stuff going on, but he seems to be able to do it!"
Butch: "It didn't really impact it that much. Everybody was busy doing their own thing. We wrote songs and recorded it at our own pace. Frank would be working on a film or I'd be in the studio with the Foo Fighters or whatever, and then all of a sudden there'd be another flurry of activity with a couple of new songs [that] would come out... We weren't signed to a label so there was no agenda, no time constraints or anything, so we let it unfold at its own pace."

Your record is quite eclectic - is the Nashville country scene too conservative?
Phil: "I think it's not conservative, but I do think that it's very business oriented. There's a lot of money in it and there are a lot of people invested in the business of it... Country radio has formats and if you're down there and making a record, the way you sell is getting on the radio."
Butch: "Any sort of genre, whether it's electronic music or hip-hop, you default to tendencies. I always looked at Nashville as two schools there. There's the old school - pedal steel and twangy vocals. Then there's the new school, which is more pop and can sometimes crossover to commercial radio. Taylor Swift for example, to me she's not country at all. She's a pop artist."
Phil: "One of the things with The Emperors of Wyoming was that it really is anything goes. We were willing to try anything - sometimes it didn't work, sometimes it works way better than we'd thought. "
Butch: "I don't really know where we fit in. Obviously we don't live in Nashville, so I doubt if we'll ever really be embraced by the community there, but I think that anybody who's really into songwriting will appreciate some of the songs."

The Emperors of Wyoming is released on September 17 on Proper Records.

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