Tuesday 13 March 2012

The Wiyos Interview: Part 1

Just before I saw The Wiyos in action last month, I found myself in the very privileged position of being able to interview Teddy Weber and Sauerkraut Seth Travins. This is what we talked about...

Your new album - Twist (reviewed here) - marks a new path for you. How did the idea originate?

Well, we've spent a lot of time in Kansas over the years – just randomly. And an old friend of Michael’s from Wichita State– a guy called Nick Johnson – got hold of our Broken Land Bell album and he and his wife wrote and choreographed a whole piece based on the music of that album but following the story line of The Wizard of Oz. He had us come out and we were the pit, if you will, we were the band for the modern dance production and it was live on stage. There were images projected on a screen and we sat on the side of the stage and we played that album, note for note, the entire way through, along with some other embellishments that we did and one other piece we wrote just for that event. We actually did two runs of it; we did four shows and then we came back a month later and did a couple more. And that was really the start. 

We’d been talking about doing a theme album and after that whole experience we just thought this is really cool, we’ve always liked The Wizard of Oz, it was totally random that Nick picked that movie and book for the storyline. So that was really where the idea came from, that was a big part of it. Anyway we thought well, why don’t we actually do this and write an album loosely based on the Wizard of Oz? Well actually it just started as, let’s just create a show. We were trying to come up with ideas to focus our live shows. And once we’d started, Michael and I were sitting in his little apartment and we started writing these songs and we’d started playing with Seth at the time and it just snowballed. 

Then after a while we thought we should really do something with this and that’s when we met Kenny, who’s with us tonight on keys and he co-produced the whole album with us. We went to his studio in Catskill, New York, and we recorded – I believe three songs, and magic happened, right then and there. Until that point we were just thinking, let’s just record some of these songs, let’s get some of this down for documentation and then once we did we thought, all right, we’ve got to move forward with this. 

Kenny just said, well, where’s the rest? We said, well, we’re still writing it! We came back a few months later and a lot of it was prepared but some of it wasn't…we were writing in the studio, Michael and I would be sitting down, tweaking words together and chord progressions and then we would go right into the recording room and then try some takes out with the full band.

Interviewing Teddy in The Wiyos' Cluny dressing room
Was it daunting, knowing that you had to fill a full album with songs around the same concept?

No, no, it just wasn’t. We had numerous conversations where we were reading the book and watching the movie of The Wizard of Oz and thinking, do we want to represent this scene in the movie? Or we’d compare things in the book that stood out for us and that were unique and could have alternate meanings, and life lessons and things like that and so no, it all just happened. If anything, we ended up with - some might say - too long of an album. We wanted to put it on vinyl; after a lengthy communication with a vinyl duplicator in Nashville they said, you’ve got to go to two records and then you don’t have enough music for two records so anyway, now we know. If you want to put it on vinyl, you need to keep it to 18 minutes per side if you want it in high quality. So if you’re going to do a double album – I think the record's 53 minutes long  - well, we fell right in the middle there. We couldn’t fit it all on one but we didn’t have quite enough for a double LP release.

(At this point, Sauerkraut Seth Travins entered the room to join in with the interview.)

How about permissions to use the story of the Wizard of Oz? Was that a problem at all?

Well no, because we’re not following the exact story, we didn’t use any of the music and in only in one song did Michael use a couple of the words from the movie so no, there was no issue there. We – actually, we recorded a twisted version of – can I say the word ‘twisted’ with no irony? – of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and If I Only Had a Brain as instrumentals. Those aren’t on the record but we’re hopefully going to release those as digital extras. Then there’s another song called Inspirational Voices where they get out of the woods after they meet the lion and they’re running through the poppy fields, you know…and we’re thinking of doing a version of that when we’re back in the States. We’ve been playing around with that. And just for a fun side note, probably just releasing those for free, because of the copyright issues.

So if they are free there are no issues?

No, no…

When you are putting a song together and it’s credited to more than one writer, how does it work in practice

It was both. The whole album was both. There were times where Michael had words and I had progressions and we would come to a spot in the song where we knew that we wanted it to shift and change and he would have some words but no music and I would go back and say, what about this? This might work. And then in the case of Seth’s song, he had his pretty fleshed out. We always work together as a band with suggestions. You know, why don’t we try this…? Change the key, change the feel or whatever. So it was a mixed bag. Sometimes I might have a whole song: the music, progression, the words, or sometimes just pieces. Michael probably wrote more words and I probably came up with more little musical ditties, just because those are our strengths. He had a lot of words and I had a lot of little riffs. But overall we all collaborated.

Seth: Yeah, I think in some cases there may have been a song where Ted had a progression but Michael came up with a really nice counter-melody there, so it was a real collaboration between the two of them.

Sauerkraut Seth joins in

(To Seth) What did you feel when they told you they were going to do something about The Wizard of Oz?

(Seth) I was a huge fan of L. Frank Baum growing up. I had all the books that he wrote.

Ideal for you, then?

(Seth) Yeah, I actually have a first edition of the seventh book of the Oz series, so…yeah! I was certainly into his writing.

Without hesitation! We said, ‘This is what we want to do’ and Seth said, ‘OK!’ And later I was borrowing – and still am – his copy of The Wizard of Oz.

How does it feel to tour the album? Is it limiting the rest of your repertoire that you may want to play, knowing that you have fit virtually the whole album in, or is it just fresh and different?

We tailor it every night. Most nights we’re not necessarily playing the whole album. We played most of it in the States just before we left but here we haven’t even had a full night yet, a full two-set night. So when we do that, we’ll play probably every track but one. There’s just one that we haven’t been playing live; it was just a real studio piece for us. We probably could play an alternate version of it live; we just haven’t got around to working on that yet.

To be concluded...

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