When Philadelphia's The Starting Line
finally earned a major label record deal with Geffen a few years back, the bandmates assumed it might be easy sailing - or at least in terms of publicity. But with the release of their debut Based On A True Story
, they felt that the record just wasn't getting the push it deserved. Feeling anxious about the sudden lack of momentum after the CD's release, the pop punk band essentially begged Geffen to break the contract. The execs at Geffen obliged, providing The Starting Line
an opportunity to sign with its current label Virgin Records.
The band's latest CD Direction
(released on July 31, 2007) marks the first go-round with Virgin Records, and there seem to be no hard feelings about what happened with Geffen. Vocalist/bassist Kenny Vasoli
has been making it clear via the band's blog that there is an optimistic feel to most every song, and the band as a whole has never felt more confident. Vasoli recently chatted with UG writer Amy Kelly
about the record label drama that influenced much of what you hear on Direction.
UG: The band went through quite a rough patch with Geffen. How much did that influence your songwriting on the latest album?
A couple of songs were written before we went to Virgin, but overall the fact of us switching labels just gave us an abundance of optimism for the new record, way more than we had for the last one. It just reinstated our confidence in the band.
The band has stated in the past that Geffen didn't promote the band as much as it could have. What was the general mood during that time?
The morale was pretty low. It was like to go from such a perfect high point and have momentum going so well, then have it slowed down so much by the label. I guess they didn't really get what we were doing. It was a pretty bad experience for all parties, but just the fact that they let us go and they realized that it wasn't really gelling was big of them. They didn't have to do that.
So you didn't have to beg too much to break free from the contract?
It was probably like an hour call with them really hashing it out. At the end of the day, they honored our wishes and that was probably the greatest thing they could have done for us.
For the latest record, was there one band member who was responsible for coming up with the initial song ideas?
That would probably be me. I bring a skeleton of the song to the band. I kind of show them the rough sketch of the idea that I have. From there, the guys will tell me what they like about it and what they don't like. We end up collaborating and we get the song from there.
You're generally known for your bass playing, but are those first ideas written on an acoustic?
It doesn't always. Sometimes I'll be playing on an electric for some of the edgier songs. But I would say that 90 percent of the record was written on the acoustic guitar.
The acoustic guitar is a significant part of your music and you've done quite a few unplugged shows. Do you feel just as comfortable behind an acoustic as the bass?
Actually I feel way more uncomfortable playing acoustic in front of a ton of people. With an acoustic, all the pressure is on my fingers. It's just like a voice and what we're playing on guitar. There's not much more room for error. But if I had to pick up an instrument and start playing around, I would always go for an acoustic guitar. I love playing it in private. But onstage, I would probably play a bass.
There is a great melodic line that goes in and out of the song Island. Did you originally write that riff first or did the chords come way before it?
|"The fact of us switching labels just gave us an abundance of optimism for the new record."|
That song went through all sorts of different stages of writing. It pretty much just started off with the first verse part. We had that one kind of pretty-ugly chord underneath. We had the idea to keep that constant and then have like heavy, White Zombie chords rocking out over the top of it. The chorus was always a big question for us. We actually bought a guitar just so that we could finish that song. We just took a couple days and really thought hard about it, then came up with the chords for it. It kind of all tied together after that. We took $400 out of the budget because we were just out in L.A. and we didn't have any personal instruments in the house. It's a Martin DX1.
Would you consider yourself a Martin guy when it comes to acoustics?
I think so. I used to have a Takamine and that was pretty cool. I hear that Taylors are all right.
Considering that you write most of your material on acoustic, how soon after do you tack on your bass lines?
The guitar line is usually what comes first and then I usually add the bass line to whatever the drum is doing. The drums will go through a lot of changes, too, during the recording process. So I usually kind of wait until I'm actually recording to 100 percent write the bass lines. I usually have a pretty good idea of wanting to do, but as far as like fills and slides and stuff like that, I would always wait until all the drums are put together.
I read that you looked to Bob Dylan and James Brown for inspiration. What about those 2 distinctive artists spoke to you?
Listening to those 2 artists, it super spoke to me about songwriting. When I was a little bit younger, I had the misconception that the more you add to a song, the better it's going to be. Especially with Dylan, he showed me you can have a guitar and play the same chord progressions for like 5 minutes. As long as you have subject matter and lyrics, that could be the most amazing song ever. He wrote so many.
It was the same thing with James Brown. He would just rock through the same groove. The whole song could be the same 5 words over and over again, and it would be fantastic. It took a load off my mind to know that you could simplify songwriting like that, and I really tried to adapt that mentality.
You mentioned a song needs to have a strong theme. Can you often tell if you've got a good song on your hands just from the lyrics?
The lyrics are definitely the part that takes the longest for me. I'm always second-guessing if something is getting the message that I wanted to get across. I wonder how people will read certain things. There are a few songs on the record that I wrote the lyrics on the first draft and said exactly what I wanted to say.
For those particular songs, were you also forming a melody in your head while writing the lyrics?
Those ones were all sort of laid out. They started from a couple simple riffs that I had. I think I just sat down and they just kind of came out. Usually the best ones are when I just have a part then come back to it. The ones that come more naturally usually end up taking way more time.
How influential was producer Howard Benson while recording Direction?
I don't know how much of an influence he was, but I think he was a great motivator to get us to where the song should be. I was really scared he would be pretty much a dictator about the record and whatever he said would go or he would always try to put his stamp on it. He really didn't do that. He really understood what kind of band we were trying to be and honored that throughout. He always kept me involved and it was really a collaborative effort. Any suggestion that he had was really valuable. He had a lot of great ideas.
Did he offer a lot of input about what equipment you should use for the record?
He could care less about equipment or guitars and stuff like that! If he walked in and we were re-cutting a guitar for a song, he would say, Oh, yeah. That's going to sell you 3 more records.
He just thinks it comes second fiddle to the actual song. It's true. You could have the best guitar but the song sucks, no one is going to care what the guitar sounds like.
What kinds of basses and amps did you end up using?
I used a Fender P-Bass. I'm not sure what year it was. I didn't really check out the amp. I have a feeling it was an SVT by Ampeg. That's what I use live and that seems to be the way to go no matter what.
So do you usually use the exact same setup live as you do in the studio?
|"I bring a skeleton of the song to the band."|
No. They had so many different amps and stuff set up, and the engineers were slipping in and out so fast. I don't even know what they were using. Live, the guitar player Matt (Watts) uses Orange heads. I think they use Mesa cabinets. Mike (Golla) has some sort of Orange combo that he uses.
Are you someone who enjoys the studio or the stage more?
I kind of don't dig the writing process! I enjoy creating songs, but actually getting it to where everybody's happy with it is really torture. It's worth it, but I'm always happy when it's over.
You had Tim O'Heir as a producer on part of your last album Based On A True Story. Is it true that Geffen wasn't satisfied with how those particular songs were mixed?
Yeah, they wanted us to re-cut the singles. That's how we first started working with Howard Benson.
Will those 9 songs ever see the light of day?
I think they're floating around somewhere. I think they released them on PureVolume, but I don't think they're up anymore.
This summer you're headed to your 4th year of the Warped Tour, which a lot of bands have mentioned is a tough gig. What has been your experience?
It's a love and hate kind of thing. The living conditions are kind of to be desired. The actual reality of it is getting a chance to play for all those crowds and sometimes playing after your favorite band when you were 13. It's such a surreal thing to go through. It's sitting down and seeing Fat Mike, it's so messed up! But we've really got the hang of it now. Now I spend a lot of the time outdoors, running around in the heat right before Warped Tour to kind of get my bearings.
That's a very smart idea.
Yeah, I'm going to come out with guns blazing!
When you listen back to the songs on Direction, are there a few that you think are the best examples of what you learned from Bob Dylan or James Brown?
I'd like to say yes, but I'm probably my worst critic. I feel like it's a healthy attitude to not feel satisfied with what you're doing. That's what keeps my drive going, to want to improve. That's what is going to make the next record so much better. It is exactly what it is. I'm sure if you ask Bob Dylan what he would do differently with Like A Rolling Stone, he probably wouldn't write it like that at all anymore. I hope that somebody can look at those songs and compare me to one of those guys, but I would never dare do it.