Beneath Portland, Ore.'s nationally-recognized layer of musical talent lies a bedrock of more than one thousand working bands throughout the metropolitan area. Among these up-and-coming acts, the country-rock quintet Weinland stands out as one of the most promising. The band’s third LP, Breaks in the Sun (out in May via Badman Records) is eleven tracks of what the band does best: intelligently-crafted pop with all the fringe and loose strands left hanging, emotionally-resonant folk and country with enough edges to draw blood but with chops and melody to spare. When Paste recently met up with frontman Adam Shearer (he of the Neil Young pipes and Hank Williams, Sr. sensibilities) for dinner and drinks, he told the occasionally harrowing but always compelling story of a band fighting some serious, Steinbeck-like headwinds to get its feet planted firmly beneath it.
Paste: I recently read in the New York Times that today’s teens don’t relate to J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield character like they once did—they think he’s a whiner now. You worked for six years in a mental health facility, the kind of place Holden ended up in. How did that experience affect your songwriting??
Adam Shearer: I only read bits of that story, but I can see that. I worked at a mental health facility for a super long time, and many of [the patients] were street kids with severe mental illness who were blown up projections of themselves, all this swagger and bravado but without the skills necessary to navigate in society. It’s interesting, their little culture—and they definitely have one—is very hierarchical but also strange, because it has no relevance outside their little world. The toughest, most badass kid will do and say anything to anyone, yet it comes off as whining or complaining in the ‘straight’ world. Even though they’re the strongest and biggest dog in their pack, they can still erupt in tears over just having to clean their room. Our 2008 album, La Lamentor, was recorded over the course of a full year, in little one or two-week segments. The lyric segment, where we wrote and recorded most of them, was literally the week I stopped working at ChristieCare. I was seriously fucked up, emotionally distraught, and even talking about it right now, I can feel my physiology change: I had some real stress coming out of there. The lyrics that really bite all come from that experience—“God Here I Come,” “Sick as a Gun,” “La Lamentor.” I’d seen a lot of really traumatic things happen there: cutting someone out of a coat closet after hanging themselves, saving a kid who fired off a fire extinguisher in his mouth and tried to leap out a glass window. I came home after that day and tried to play my guitar and got so freaked out in purging the experience, I knocked a corner off the headstock; it left that guitar scarred. So I guess I had a lot of meaningful but short lived relationships with people, by definition—the longer I got to know them, the less successful I was at what I was supposed to be doing. I was in a really weird place, and I never noticed it when we were recording, but I noticed it later, and really notice it now.??
Paste: Is it hard to play or listen to those songs now without being teleported back to that strange, stressful place in which they were written? ?
Shearer: Not necessarily to play them, but they are hard to listen to, because I think “Hey, other people are listening to this, too,” and I want people to hear the band as it is now, rather than where we were then. But they’re not hard to play—like most songwriters, I don’t have names or places called out in the songs, and the way I avoid phoning them in is that the lyrics need to be vague enough about the experiences and situations that I just relive them in ways I need to in order to keep them fresh. You know how you can get the same physical therapy for two different injuries? If I break my arm and learn some stretch, then twist my wrist some other time, I can use that same stretch to solve a similar problem—songs are like that for me. When I sing “Sick as a Gun” now, I’m not relating it to the weird relationship that it’s about between an adult and a child that I had to be witness to—rather, I’m relating it to whatever relief I need to get therapeutically now, today. It may not be as dramatic as it was then, but I can still garner some relief from applying current situations to the lyrics, performing them, and letting it out just as much as I might have used a job to let out aggression at one time. Now I’ll sing a song to let it out today, and you get that validation from people who are listening and you know it’s providing the same experience for them.
Paste: Your latest album, Breaks in the Sun, doesn’t sound nearly as dark lyrically or sonically. But in order to make it, I know you had to cash in your 401(k) to come up with the funds. So in some respects hardship remains very much a part of the Weinland story.?
Shearer: The way to get it out was that we were gonna have to pay for it ourselves. Like every other small business right now, record labels don’t have a lot of money, certainly not to throw at “labor of love” projects, a category that describes us well. So in order to make it happen, we were going to have to cover more of our own costs up front. We had the same deal with Badman, but with La Lamentor and the economy a little better, we were able to get away from paying our share through a licensing deal, up front, because the record recouped fast enough to pay the label back. This time, no go—we had to put everything in up front. We needed a new van, we pay 100% of the recording costs because we own our own music, then there was our cut of the promotion, print, manufacturing, and whatever else. Our share was about $17,000. I had just quit my day job, [multi-instrumentalist] Aaron Pomerantz had been laid off, [bassist] Rory Brown and [pianist] Paul Christensen had both lost their jobs because of touring. And Ian [Cameron Lyles], our drummer, did too. All of us being unemployed, and Aaron and I both being homeowners, too—we both worked at the mental health facility, that’s how we knew each other—I had $10,000 in a 401(k) and Aaron had the other $7,000. We put out the record in April, and we’re still trying to dig out from under the financial sacrifices we made to make it all possible. That’s what we had to do—we had a long, hard band meeting about it: “We love this record and believe in it. We’re not trying to make hits, we’re trying to make meaningful, lasting music. No-one’s going to shower us with money. So if we want to do it, we’re going to have to take on the responsibility for it.” And that’s what we did.
Paste: You described La Lementor as having been recorded over the course of a year. Given the financial constraints you’re speaking of, how did Breaks in the Sun differ in terms of the way it was recorded? ?
Shearer: The way I described it to the band was “Hey, this is what bands in the ‘70s did, and they did fine: you get a bottle of whiskey and some studio time, you go in and play, and when you’re done, you have a record.” I had no idea what it would be until we’d done it, and with no specific influences in mind, everyone was still cool with the idea. Before we started recording, we had only one complete song: “I’m Sure It Helps.” Everything else was relatively skeletal, if anything at all; the rest we created in the studio. The upshot is that I feel like we got some great moments on the new record, and when it happens—when you go in and have nothing, then come out with something completely new you didn’t even know you were capable of, you captured it all in the moment it was created—it’s really exciting. So for seventeen straight days, we trudged right up this street [from Type Foundry Studios] to Liberty Glass, and we celebrated: “We wrote that song today, recorded it, and finished it. Let’s have a drink!” [Laughs]
Paste: If you’re going to hang out somewhere for nearly three weeks in a row, you could certainly do worse than that place!?
Shearer: Well, we’ve made records in other places, and I’m not gonna name any names but if it’s not comfortable [to be in] it’s not comfortable artistically, either. And Type Foundry, to us, is totally comfortable. I mean, we have our own keys, you know? [Laughs] When they got a beer machine, they called us up to ask if we could take delivery in the studio!