Artist Spotlight: The Weeks talks ‘Twisted Rivers’, articulating their anger and quarantine livestreaming
Nashville band The Weeks is here to inject some Southern rock bops into your quarantine isolation. The group has returned with their latest album, out September 4, and the ramp-up to this record was anything but traditional as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic. At just 35 minutes and 8 tracks long, Twisted Rivers is lyrically and instrumentally rich, as the group draws on their “articulated anger” while also giving y’all a little something to dance to. Atlas caught up with singer Cyle Barnes, drummer Cain Barnes and guitarist Samuel Dee to talk about how the album came together, the band’s consistent summer livestreams and their newfound quarantine dart skills.
Congrats on the new album! How did Twisted Rivers come together?
Sam: Initially, we felt really lucky because we had decided late last year that 2020 wasn’t going to be a big touring year for us. When we make records, we typically do 20 to 25 songs in the studio, which leaves you with a boatload of unused songs here and there. This record is eight of those that felt like this is a record all on its own. A lot of these are from the same session and we’d been planning on putting out a single every couple months this year so we could stay active while we work on a new record. And then everything in 2020 happened so we’re like, let’s just skip the whole ‘we’re going to build into this eight song album one song at a time’.
Then eventually it’s like, let’s just put this out like a proper record all at once and just do one or two songs in advance and then just drop it all at once instead of piecemealing it.
What was the writing process like for putting these particular eight tracks together?
Cyle: I was gonna say, at least lyrically, a lot of these songs are some of my favorites because they’re very dense lyrically and it was nice to have an album that definitely feels like a story album. The fact that it took a while to get the songs together and figure out which ones went on the record was really no fault, like Sam said, of the songs- most of them it was just in the grand scheme of whatever we were recording at the time, this stood out as something separate entirely. I feel like it’s nice to hear those songs that, back then when you first started writing them, you held in such high regard and then to hear them together [and] finished, it makes more sense why we waited to put them out like we did.
Sam: Yeah, like a song like “Doctor”- it was so dense. When you’re in the process, like I said, we like to do a bunch of songs for a record. We did a lot of these in Memphis at Ardent Studios. When it came time to come back and start mixing, when you’re sending out the rough mixes of how everything was when you left Memphis, it just wasn’t in the same place because it was so much more dense and there’s so much more going on. Some of the songs are just standard rock songs- guitar, bass, drums, vocal. This song was like pianos, Mellotron strings- there’s so much going on that we didn’t really finish it as much. It was something that needed some post-production to bring it to life. But when you send out the 20 rough mixes of where everything else is to start narrowing down what the record is, a song like “Doctor” is not in the top 10 because it needs so much more work that, for whatever reason, we just opted to go with other songs in the moment.
Honestly it took having a bunch of time at home. This was the first time I felt like I could open up these files and start diving through and separating what’s what with a lot of these songs. Some of them were kind of ready to go beforehand- I’d say half of them were ready to go beforehand- and then I mixed the other four once all that stuff started. The release date, instead of being singles every other month or so, when everything got pushed into one record, that was the first moment to open up everything and figure out how to organize. Which is honestly a lot of fun because you put some time between the writing, recording and then the mixing like a year later. You’ve got time to let the songs sit.
To stay on “Doctor”, our bass player Damien went to school for upright bass. One track at a time, he was building this symphony of strings. And in the moment, I didn’t really realize the full picture of what he was putting together. When I was pulling up these songs, I was like, ‘this thing’s buried in the mix’. I didn’t even know it was there, so I took out so much stuff and just put those way at the top, and [it] totally changes the vibe of the song.
Is there a track that stands out to you on this album, or one that has really significant meaning? You were talking about “Doctor”- is that the one?
Sam: That’s the one. That’s the one. Even if it’s this record or if it’s all the records, to me, that one is like…that’s the one. When we first did it, it was really fast and kind of boppy and when we got to Memphis to record it, something about the first version didn’t really happen. It just never struck a chord in us really and so we completely dissected it. And we’re just like, let’s slow it down and just twist it up and see what happens. There was a lot of magic on that song- too much magic for the record that we were recording at the moment when we recorded that one. I think it was just too much to really handle at the moment.
What made it so significant for you in terms of lyrics?
Cyle: I started writing some of those lyrics on tour a long time ago, just getting a little bit of the idea and it was almost like collecting characters. You’d meet somebody and you’d embellish your character off of someone that you met and try and make it fit. That’s why it’s kind of cool that it took a while to come out and all the way come together because it gave me enough time to meet enough different weird people to throw together in a song and have it fit. We talk about our art teacher who was- to Cain and I- a guru to us and just an amazing guy. I know he would probably hate to know that we’re giving him so much praise because he’s a very humble guy but Twisted Rivers…that line is about sculptures that he would do and stuff like that. So [it was] nice to talk about him and show him little love.
And also when you asked about what song stands out- as far as another fun song and weird to the times- with John McCauley, who sings on this record, we’ve always wanted him for “Shame”. Since the day we wrote that, we said his voice would sound great with this.
He had agreed to do it and then the pandemic started and he had to do it from his house and send it in without us being there to watch and record it. And it was a nice thing that came out of a really bad situation. We were all bummed because of being locked in our houses and it’s nice whenever you can get a track that just has one of your favorite singers singing on a verse to your song. It was a happy surprise for the pandemic.
A lot of people have been running into that same problem of being stuck separately. Things have been different for you all with the livestreams and recording, right?
Cyle: We keep our circles small.
Were you going to do those livestreams anyway or did you speed things up when everything else shut down?
Sam: Yeah, because we didn’t see anybody. We were all holed up for what was like 80 or 90 days.
Cain: A long time.
Sam: We didn’t see anybody. I just didn’t leave my house and even still that’s pretty much…I’ve extended my circle from two people here to like eight people.
We just felt like we wanted to play anyways and so I just felt like, what can we do? We talked about livestreams in April [and] March right when it started, but we didn’t want to just put up a little iPhone and have it sound bad and look bad. We did some videos where I would play the whole guitar part and then send it to Cyle for him to put headphones on and sing to. That was the best we could do for the first couple months. Eventually, once we sort of let our guards down a little bit, we took a couple of days to really make sure that all the audio and video components would be really good. We watched a couple of livestreams that all ran the gamut of audio and video quality and we really wanted to make sure we were on the top end of that.
We sort of just made it up as we went. The first show was literally just for us, and we just turned some cameras on and talked to people and it was a success. So we’re like, let’s just do this every weekend as an excuse for us to just get together anyways.
Cain: The livestreams were very fun to do, and I feel like for the fans, they thoroughly enjoyed it. But we were all saying whenever we would get finished, the super selfish side of it is we all just really enjoyed finally playing music with each other again since we’d all been locked away. And it was kind of nice- like after that first one to look around at everybody and be like, ‘it was weird, but man did I need it’. We’d all been itching for it.
Cyle: We got a lot of response back from fans too, which makes sense. It’s not exactly like a show- it’s not as interactive but it’s nice to have something to do on the weekends and know that you can sing and act stupid in your living room if you want to and do whatever you want.
Sam: I know the big thing for us and the fans was just providing any sort of consistency to a week. It was every Friday [at] 8pm Central- we’re on YouTube and we’re in our basement. We’re not going around to different venues yet at that point, we weren’t trying to change the time; we just want some sort of consistency. And I think that paid dividends for everybody.
It’s kind of fun. It’s not the real thing but it’s the best thing right now. We’re gonna start trying to get into some venues and streaming and trying to help out staff and venues around town so that they’re not all gone when we can come back.
Cyle: That’s what I was gonna say. It’s all fun and I realized that fans are starved for shows, but as far as venues and just bands, it’s a crazy time to have to think about how to put stuff out and do things on top of just worrying about your favorite venues or the places that you tour around to shutting down or something because they can’t have people play at them.
How would you describe the evolution of your music from when you started to where you are now?
Sam: We started out angry and then it got a little more…
Cyle: Articulated anger.
Sam: Yeah, it got a little bit more deliberate in the middle. And I think we’re getting back to the anger.
Cain: Yeah. With the times.
Sam: We just think about it more now. We used to just sort of make stuff up. There was a lot of rawness.
Cain: We’re better musicians now! That’s for damn sure.
Sam: Sometimes I hear the stuff we did when we were kids and I wouldn’t ever come up with that again.
Cyle: Yeah, that kid was crazy!
Sam: I think we just think about it more. There’s positives to that, obviously, but I think there’s negatives to thinking about it more. Like the early records- whatever you heard on tape was probably pretty close to…we probably hadn’t played those songs more than 10 times by the time we recorded them.
And then now we might have toured a song for six months before we commit it to tape because it’s the final version. When you do those things and you play a song 10 times [and] you put it on a record, that’s the one everybody hears forever. Then you tour it for a couple months and you’re like, man, we just came up with so many cooler parts.
Cyle: Yeah, it’s so much better now.
Sam: So then we’re like, well, maybe we should start like playing the shit out of these songs before we commit it to tape so that whatever we commit to tape is actually our best idea of what this song could be. I think there’s pros and cons to all of it. For us, we just try to do it different every time.
Since you’ve been a band for so long, does the creative process feel intuitive when you’re all together? Do you just play off of each other and is it just natural at this point?
Cain: Certain ideas are incredibly organic. Even in our worst struggles of writing, like if there’s a part that’s not coming together quickly, I have seen other bands write together and realize like holy shit, we actually have pretty good chemistry whenever it comes to writing. I know that it can be super hard for other people, but ours is like certain songs that I feel like we’re passionate about tend to flow a little bit easier. But then if they get stopped, then everybody gets all cranky.
Sam: Honestly, I think the thing we struggle with more is it’s so easy- playing with each other. And you don’t have to really talk about stuff. We’ve got so much chemistry that we can kind of just turn in an average performance and it’s still going to be great.
Cain: And that’s what we’re trying not to ever do.
Sam: For us, it’s a lot about forcing conversations about a part- this transition from this verse to the chorus. I know that we can all nod at each other and do a decent version of that, that a lot of bands would probably be really happy with. But let’s talk about it.
Cyle: I think it’s good to be picky with yourself, as long as you don’t put a stranglehold on an idea. I think that’s what we’ve been good about. And it’s taken time- we’ve been together since we were kids. It’s nice to know [that] you can tell when someone’s passionate about an idea. When someone’s passionate about an idea, you want to show them just as much enthusiasm back to it. The whole band, when we’re playing together, can tell relatively quickly if a song is working or not working or if it’s doing what it’s supposed to. And if it’s not, we can set it aside and it’s not like it’s gone for forever.
Sam: Like “Shame”- the song with John McCauley- we probably started writing that song in 2015 and then I put a bunch of guitars on it like four months ago. And then some of these things are literally like, in one room you toss around an idea and then you go into the tracking room and you nail it down and then that’s that. There’s no rules. I think that’s one thing we’ve made sure to continue on. If a song comes together in five minutes, great. If it takes five years, that’s fine, too. There’s more songs behind it. There’s no reason to get stressed about like, no, this is the song we have to finish today because we don’t have any other ideas today. If we can it, then we’ll just make something up.
Cyle: Trusting the people that you work with too. I just do the lyrics. So whenever I’ve given the lyrics to the guys and been like, here, this is what I want, I never doubt it because time and time again, I’ve seen them take what I’ve given them and turn it into almost exactly what’s in my head, but better, you know what I mean? By this point, I never go into a session worried because I’m pretty sure we can figure it out. If not, we’ll make something up for sure.
Are there any topics that you haven’t been able to explore that you’re hoping to dive into for your next album?
Cyle: That’s a good question. I feel like we dabble a lot in a lot of darker subjects a lot of the time and mainly story-driven themes. I’d definitely say, given the state of the way everything is right now, it’ll be hard pressed to not have some of that come through in our writing and be reflected.
Sam: I think we’ve done a lot of storytelling from other people’s point of view and I think for this one, I want to tell more stories from our point of view. I’ve never been this angry when we’re making a record. I don’t necessarily want it to be like a thrash metal record, musically, so I’m gonna have to lean on Cyle some to transpose all of our anger. Otherwise if it’s just musical anger, it’s going to be fast and hard.
Cain: Just remember, I’m down with that.
Sam: We’ll have a sample drum beat out of us breaking shit.
Cyle: In my head, I’m just like, I don’t know what I’ll write to it but I’ll figure that out I guess.
Can you each describe your own relationship with music and what that means to your lives?
Sam: For me, it’s kind of the only thing. I don’t really do anything else. My dad’s a musician and so I grew up…my crib was like a kick drum case on the side of the stage. I don’t really have anything else. That’s really it for me. I listen to music 24 hours a day. It’s kind of annoying if you’re not me. If you’re near me, it’s a little annoying. That’s really all I got.
Cyle: As far as just getting started with listening, we were raised by our aunt and uncle and our Uncle Charlie would take us hunting when we were really, really young.
Cain: He was basically just making us wake up super early and ride in the truck super early in the morning.
Cyle: Yeah, sausage biscuits and sitting in the woods is mostly what it was. But he would always listen to different Southern rock and stuff like that. He’s an amazingly sweet person, but he’s not very talkative all the time. He’s got a mustache and a good silence about him. But he would always get really, really passionate about music whenever he was talking about it. We watched The Last Waltz. He woke us up one night while we were sleeping because The Last Waltz was on TV and he was like ‘you need to come out here and watch this’. And I was like, ‘well I’m already up past my bedtime so this is cool’. And just to see a very stoic Southern man be all smiles about music was something that was like, ‘oh this is cool, clearly there’s something here’.
Sam: I thought about it some last night because there’s this short on Netflix called John Was Trying to Contact Aliens. There’s this artist that I like that did a lot of the art for the documentary but all the imagery- it looks like just a crazy guy who’s trying to find aliens or whatever. But what he really did was him and his grandfather basically built this insane transmitter that would send sound a million miles into space. He was DJing vinyl to the aliens [in] outer space. He was sitting there playing Afrikaans music and CAN and Kraftwerk. He went from a crazy guy to this guy I really loved a lot. At the end of the documentary, he’s like, ‘I have no hard data that there’s anything out there’. He wasn’t disappointed in it, he was just like, ‘I still want to know’. It was always about the unknown.
What else is coming up now that you’ve been raising money to build a studio and record more music?
Sam: That’s pretty much it. Just writing the new record, recording and doing a bunch of livestreams and I think that’s really what we’re limited to at this point.
Cyle: And then hoping that someone finds a cure.
Sam: That’s pretty much it. We usually write records really quick. I think with this one, we jumped in really quickly but I want to make sure that if there’s an opportunity to tour this record, that the record comes out in an appropriate time.
We’re just kind of taking it easy, trying to keep it a low stress environment within the hellscape that’s outside of our doors.
Are you planning to head out on tour as soon as it’s safe?
Cyle: The moment that I know that it’s actually safe and that I don’t have to worry about our fans. We’ll be on stage [and]I feel like we’ll probably be okay. I don’t want anyone in our crowds getting sick for any reason. I think that would be terrible. The moment that everyone gives us the a-okay and it’s good to get back out there and it’s totally safe, we will be coming to party with everyone and do all that. But that’s only when it’s safe.
Is there anything else that you want people to know about you, or is there anything that you wish you got to talk about more that you may not get asked?
Cyle: That’s a great question.
Sam: I feel like I talk a lot.
Cain: I will say on a funnier side, in quarantine we have all gotten incredibly good at darts. We’ve all got dartboards and have gotten eerily good at darts. So once it is time to go out to the bars again, get ready people because The Weeks are coming and we’re gonna fuck you up.
You might have to put one at the merch table and challenge people.
Cyle: That’s a great idea. And you can win a prize if you get a bullseye. We will absolutely bring a dartboard on tour.
Story by Olivia Khiel
Images courtesy of The Weeks