Interview: The Black Lillies Weather Big Changes, Come Out Stronger With New Album
The Black Lillies frontman Cruz Contreras calls his band's new album, Hard to Please, "somewhat of a miracle," and it's hard to argue with that assessment. Mere weeks before the now-sextet was to begin recording their latest disc, things weren't looking so good.
For starters, two of the band's longest-tenured members, Tom Pryor and Robert Richards, left the band, "really, on Day 1 of pre-production," according to Contreras, because they were burned out. (Since forming in 2009, the Black Lillies have released an album every two years and played about 200 shows per year, all as an independent band.)
"I don't ever look at it as a failure, like something went wrong ...," Contreras tells The Boot of Pryor and Richards' departures. "Sometimes people just decide that they need to be doing something else with their life."
However, he adds, "the timing was a serious challenge. It would have been difficult at any time to replace players in a band -- find someone to pick up where they left off -- and withstand that change, but add to the fact that we were at the very beginning of the production process for the record ..."
The Black Lillies also didn't have their new record written yet; in other words, they knew they had both vacant spots in the band to fill and studio time coming up, but they didn't have ideas for replacements, and they didn't have songs. A situation like that would be a make-or-break moment for any act; fortunately, the Black Lillies made it.
Contreras planned to spend the couple weeks prior to their recording sessions penning Hard to Please's songs, with remaining bandmates Trisha Gene Brady (vocalist) and Bowman Townsend (drummer) on call to help out once he got each tune to a certain point. In an interesting twist of fate, a timely snowstorm in the band's hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., "[made] it easy to kind of lock the door, go to work [and] work around the clock," Contreras explains.
Band of Horses bassist Bill Reynolds, pedal steel player Matt Smith and guitarist Daniel Donato filled out the Black Lillies' sound during the studio sessions for Hard to Please, but the band's lineup now officially consists of Contreras, Brady, Townsend, Jonathan Keeney, Mike Seal and Sam Quinn.
"It came together," Contreras says simply. "It was somewhat of a miracle ... and I don't know how we made it."
The result is a 10-track project that Contreras calls "our best record." And because the album was both written and recorded during the Black Lillies' time of tumult, it wholly reflects the band's experiences over the last few months.
"The heart of it does reflect that nature of change and the nature of coping with change, making the best of it," Contreras notes, specifically mentioning the disc's final song, "Fade." The track was written throughout the time the group spent in the studio, and Contreras waited until their last night, after all of the recording was technically done, to bring it out.
"The song has meaning on a lot of different levels," he says, "but I think it encompasses what was going on: change even when you don't want it."
There was another big change for the Black Lillies when recording Hard to Please: For the very first time, the band worked with an outside producer, Grammy Award winner Ryan Hewitt, who has previously produced projects for, among others, Johnny Cash. Contreras says that the decision to bring Hewitt on for their fourth album was "a natural progression" -- one that ended up being especially fortuitous in light of all of the other things happening with the band.
"For me, I knew it was time to bring in a producer so that I didn't have to play that role. It was just too much ...," he explains. "It was more uncharted territory for us ... and it ended up being a great fit."
For the second time, the Black Lillies used PledgeMusic to raise money to fund their new album; their 2013 album, Runaway Freeway Blues, was also partially funded through a PledgeMusic campaign.
"If you don't have a record deal and you're not independently wealthy, making records is something you need help with," Contreras says with a laugh, "and in our case, that's our fans ... We know a lot of our fans personally, and they believe in us, so it makes sense for us to do something like the PledgeMusic campaign."
It also makes sense because of the band members' creative personalities. Among the rewards offered for contributing to the Hard to Please campaign were handwritten postcards from Townsend, who enjoys buying and sending postcards while on the road; an aluminum print of a photograph by Brady, who, during the Black Lillies' first PledgeMusic campaign, offered handmade gourd percussion shakers as an incentive to contribute; and a custom song by Contreras.
"Everybody is encouraged to do something unique to them," Contreras says. "You learn how to tailor [the campaign to your fans."
Hard to Please is available through the Black Lillies' website as a digital download, on CD and on vinyl. A complete list of upcoming tour dates, which stretch into early 2016, is also available on the band's website.
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