Catching Up With Giving Tree Band's Todd Fink
The Giving Tree Band released their latest album Vacilador on Oct. 2. A extremely personal album, Vacilador gives just a small glimpse into the lives of the band. Combining heavy spanish influences and their own folk sound, the band managed to combine two different genres into a new and refreshing sounding album. We recently talked with founding member Todd Fink and found out the meaning behind the mysterious title, the bands recording process and what inspires him to write music.
Paste - Vacilador sounds like an extremely personal album so I was wondering what was the inspiration and theme for the album? How did the idea for it get started?
Todd Fink : Maybe I will start with the theme. Its called Vacilador, which is a spanish word, that doesn’t have a direct English translation, my brother found the word in a John Steinbeck novel called Travels With Charley. It refers to an adventurer who goes in search of something that he knows he won’t be able to find, like looking for the fountain of youth. For example, like Ponce De Leon, he knows he can’t find it, but he goes and searches anyway and what he ends up discovering in this quest proves to be more valuable than what he was looking for in the first place. That, in a nut shell, is what the word means. So when we learned about that we felt like, ‘Wow, that really resonates with us,’ because of how the album was made. We started out with one idea, one vision, and we had lots of challenges and obstacles to face. We ended up kind of detouring a little bit and the album took some different directions and where we ended up seems to be better than what we were originally achieving. So we thought that word was a perfect fit. Also, the album has a lot of south west and desert influence and some Mexican influence, like in the art work and in some of the musical arrangements, the horns and incorporating different rhythms and so on. So the music, on the album, is way bigger in terms of arrangements than anything we had done previously. We have a lot more instrumentation, a lot more electric instrumentation, and a lot of orchestral parts to the songs. So it is really exciting for us to do something bigger musical speaking, but it also feels like it’s right in line with everything that came before it. It feels like a natural set.
Paste : I can hear the Spanish influences that you were talking about before, I think a perfect example is “Cold Cold Rain.”
Fink : Absolutely, that is definitely one of those with the pulse and some of the head arrangements and the way the drums come in, it kind of has a bit of a Latin feel to it. On top of having a kind of old West kind of vibe, I feel like it is some Western film score in there, the south western desert mood or high lonesome mood to the music and lyrics. Then you also have some kind of Mexican influences in it as well.
Paste -So is that why you guys chose that song to be the lead off single for Vacilador?
Fink : I think so. I think we all felt that the intro to that song really kind of invites the listener into the album, starting out with just the pulse of the drum and then the claps, it just seemed like it was welcoming people in, then it just sort of kicks off after about a minute, when the whole band kicks in. It doesn’t stay up at that high level, of high tempo and energy, but it just felt like a very fun way to kick off the album. We were kind of debating on whether or not that should be first or last on the album. In concert we perform that song last, because it just seems to have this intense climactic feel to it, so we were kind of torn between putting it in the beginning or putting it at the end. Listening to it on record, it feels like the beginning of something.
Paste : I see that and I think it sets up perfectly for the rest of your album, personally.
Fink : I am glad to hear it, because honestly we don’t know. We don’t know how people will feel about it. I am very curious to see how people experience the album with that as the lead off track. We feel like you should go multiple places in an album, like up, down, sideways.
Paste : I agree. Some albums can be so stagnant, so it’s refreshing to hear your album. So was there a process to writing Vacilador?
Fink : Well it’s a combination of songs that we had been performing for a while – we usually do a combination of songs that we have had for a while, songs that we are currently working on, or either at the beginning or at the end of an album we add one or two brand new ones that seem to fit the theme or the overall aesthetics of the sound. That was kind of the case with this. There is a song called “Brown-Eyed Women,” which is a Grateful Dead cover, which we didn’t anticipate would be on the album. We started to perform it at concerts earlier this year and then we ended up recording it for this Dead Covers project, which was something that the Grateful Dead were running on their website. We thought ‘Oh, we will do this,’ because we really like the Grateful Dead, then we won that contest. Their management was really supportive and encouraging with us to put the recording onto an album, it was because of that, that we really listened carefully to how it fit with the other music that we were working on. We thought, even though it’s a Grateful Dead song, it really feels like an appropriate fit for this album and it seemed like it just made sense. So that’s just another example of how some things took a turn on this record.
Paste : Congratulations.
Fink : Thank you, thank you. It’s been really interesting and exciting to get more involved in that world and have the Dead community become interested in what we are doing. So that has been a real positive thing for us.
Paste : Have the Grateful Dead always been a musical inspiration for your music or was that just an opportunity that the band saw?
Fink : They have been one of the major influences of the band, the Grateful Dead, for sure. I think just because there is so much Americana entrenched in what the Grateful Dead is all about and I think that people can even be confused about that – just even because – of maybe just even – because of the imagery. I remember as a kid I thought that the Grateful Dead was a metal band, you know, because of the artwork. So I was a little bit weary of getting into it at first, because I wasn’t into metal as a kid. Then I came to find out that Jerry Garcia played the banjo. The kind of projects that he was involved in had so much of a bluegrass face and folk face. There is just so much of a richness there, in the song writing and the arrangements of their music, it’s been a big influence on us. The way that their band was so successful through so many decades has always been an inspiration to us. My brother has really appreciated the song writing of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, who wrote with Jerry Garcia, he has always been inspired by them. Some of the other songwriters are like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, just real classic songwriters. It’s classic stuff, but the amount that you can learn from that is endless.
Paste : It definitely still resonates today, I mean the Grateful Dead has just as many fans today as they did back then. I kind of wanted to switch gears a bit here, I read a lot about your band’s green efforts in the recording process. How did that play into recording Vacilador?
Fink : Well this time around we recorded in our home, in our home studio. Before we started this record we did all kinds of renovations to the studio. My brother and some of the other guys in the band worked on the studio themselves. They did a lot of things that were environmentally sound. They rebuilt some of the studio booths using reclaimed wood, using bamboo flooring, using cork flooring in some of the rooms, re-found doors and windows in the garbage from different peoples’ homes that we used in the studio. It was really a great project to kind of enhance our studio space and to do it that way was really meaningful to us. That was two or three months of work before we started recording. It was kind of nice for a lot of the guys to do manual labor and then sitting down to finish writing and recording this record. It just put us in the right frame of mind, channeling what we wanted to channel to get these songs down.
Paste : Well, I really admire your efforts and the rest of The Giving Tree’s green efforts. I wish more bands were like you guys and would participate in trying to record in more environmentally conscious ways.
Fink : I think so. We have the ability to influence people. People look to artists for inspiration so I think that there is even a responsibility to do what you can or to be at least as aware as you can because people are paying attention. If people are paying attention it’s an opportunity to make the world a better place.
Paste : Do you feel like that came across in the writing at all for Vacilador?
Fink : I think for us environmentalism deals more with how we do things. How we record, how we are going to manufacture, how are we going to distribute the music, how we are going to tour and so on. The songwriting itself is still just about very honest and meaningful things that happened to us. You know, stories about love, stories from our parents, stories from our grandparents. A lot of our songwriting is just retelling stories that we have either experienced or that have resonated with us. And I really think that that ends up being a more powerful environmental message. If you are just singing about conservation, for example, it becomes preachy and you lose a lot of people. We try to just sing about things that anyone with a heart would sing about and let our examples lead the way with how we are doing things. When people like music or start to fall in love with an artist they are definitely going to learn as much as they can about the artist. They want to know about how they live and how they do things. That’s where I feel like where we have the ability to inspire other people and engage them. It’s such a peaceful way of going about it, too, I feel. It’s gentle, it’s encouraging, it’s not preachy at all and to reach more people, too, that way. When we were younger, you know when we were kids, we had a lot of things to protest about (and still do) but more in that mindset it seemed like we just stirred up more anxiety and frustration than anything else. That’s really now what we want. We want more harmony, more corporation among people and more dialogue. So we just focus on writing about things that resonate with us and stories that we love.
Paste : Now is that hard to refrain yourself from sharing things that might be too personal or do you feel like it is a nice release to get your story out?
Fink : You’re saying is it hard to be that open about some really personal things?
Paste : Yeah.
Fink : Yeah it is sometimes. I think sometimes you might have to tell it in a different way. You might be singing a song of a character or a victim as if it’s not you, but it is you. That’s the only way that you can let it out in the open without being afraid. There is different things like that.
Paste : Were there songs like that on Vacilador?
Fink : Absolutely. “Cold Cold Rain” is a very true story about love lost. “Higher Than The Levee” is a story about people in our family, that’s the case with most songs. “Miss You Now” is a song that I wrote about a woman that I loved and always loved and how things didn’t necessarily go as expected. Sometimes – yeah- you just tell it, you tell it from the heart. Sometimes you tell it more as a tale, like a story you might have read a long time ago. You tell it as it happened from some time long ago. Usually you have some kind of sense of how it meant to be shared, whatever that experience is. A lot of these songs, both for me and my brother, just kind of come. They come to us one way or another, maybe in a dream or maybe while we are driving. My brother might be driving just tapping his hands on the stirring wheel looking at a cornfield and he starts to remember something and it comes out as a song. You know, for us there isn’t really a lot of sitting down working on a song, where it is like, ‘Okay, I got one line now what is the next line?’ It is really sort of like there is something urgently poking its way out of us. It feels more like finding songs then writing songs. I have a lot of respect and admiration for people who can just at any moment sit down and write a song, because I don’t know how to do that. I think that would be nice and because I don’t know how to do that I don’t write as many songs as people. What happens to me is I just wake up in the middle of the night or in the morning and there is a song. Then I just go and grab an instrument or a piece of paper and get it down and then it might not happen for months, or there might be a string of them and I just let it be at whatever pace it is. I have faith that another one will always come. I used to be scared, ‘Well, what if another one never comes?’ and I would sit down and think, ‘Okay, I have to learn how to sit down and learn how to write a song’ and you know that didn’t work for me. Then I just trusted in that process and it continued to work out.