Finger Eleven is back. The band formerly known as Rainbow Butt Monkeys played at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney on Oct. 31 in support of their new album Five Crooked Lines. It’s their first album in five years, as well as the first under their new label, The Bicycle Music Company. The Martlet had a chance to catch up with lead guitarist James Black on the phone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Emmett: You had a show in Winnipeg last night.
James: Yeah, it was the first show of this tour. It was awesome! Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
And you were hand-picking the opening acts as well, correct?
Yeah, for the whole tour. Pretty much every city has a local opener. So we started out with our own ‘Battle of the Bands’ — pick one in every city.
Was it tough choosing [each band]?
It was and it wasn’t. The good part was that it was not hard to pick a good band in every town, because there was a lot of good entries and a lot of good bands. It wasn’t necessarily a huge challenge to pick the bands, but in the best way possible. We’ve got a shitload of really good bands all the way across the country. here’s a lot of really good music going on [in Canada] — undiscovered talent.
Are you happy to see that as a band that’s been around for quite some time?
Absolutely. We’ve toured long enough that we know sometimes local bands get put on the bill and it’s just ‘cause they know the guy that owns own club, or something like that. They’re not really the best that that town has to offer; they just know the right person. So that was one thing I was tryna figure out. Like, “OK, if some local band’s gonna get the shot, let’s make sure that we can pick one that’s kinda cool.”
And then, on the other side of it, me and Rick have occasionally produced some bands along the way. Actually, we’re on tour with Head of the Herd. They’re the direct support on the tour. We met those guys ‘cause we produced a couple tracks on their last record. So [on] the other side of the coin, we’re hoping to find maybe some awesome young band that, like I said earlier, nobody has heard of yet. Maybe they just need an extra little push — maybe some songwriting tips, and a little bit of help in the studio, and all of a sudden they’re the next big thing. So it’s exciting all around, because it’s just all potential. We were proof that one gig can change your whole career. So, maybe if we give one of these young bands just one gig, it might be enough to set it all off on the right trajectory.
You lost one of your members recently. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah, anyone following the band knows that we took about five years between Life Turns Electric and this brand new one, Five Crooked Lines. I think in the outside of our bubble, people thought we had just taken a break for a bit. And that wasn’t the case. We were writing songs the whole time, tryna be a band the whole time. And I think about half way through, two [or] two and a half years into it, we just kinda hit a creative wall where nothing was happening, and our dysfunction as a band was more apparent than our music. So we knew something had to change, and however the decision-making process came down, it was like, “OK, we need to part ways with Rich [Beddoe] and a find a new way to move forward in order for it to get at something that we’re tryna get at that we’re just not achieving.”
That was an emotional thing, but it was creatively one of the best things we could have done . . . It’s almost like . . . You know when you go to buy, say, a Star Wars Lego set. And it’s for an X-Wing fighter. So you get it, you got all the parts and the instructions, and you put it together, and it makes an X-Wing fighter. And there you go. You have the picture that’s on the box —you got it. Every time you take it apart and put it back together and you use the instructions, you make the same X-Wing fighter.
After a while, it’s sort of no longer Lego, it’s just an X-Wing fighter. So, as a band, everyone was so in their roles that I think sometimes we just [kept] making the same thing. Even though we have all these blocks that we can make whatever we want.
So, in breaking open the band itself, and kind of losing the rhythm of it . . . to further the analogy, we threw out the instruction booklet. So it was like, “OK, we have all these pieces, now we’re not building an X-Wing. We’re gonna build whatever it is that we want, ‘cause we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. We no longer have all the beams to make the X-Wing any more. And I think that’s what we were looking for. It was like, “How do we stay as passionate and energetic but not keep making the same song over and over again?”
As long as my answer is, that process — going out of your heart and your mind — that’s years of our lives tryna figure out the best way to get at that. So it ended up being that Rich wasn’t the right guy to be in our band at this point in time. And I know that he’s landed in a band and he’s out on the road and he’s playing and I totally truly, truly wish good success and safe travels for him. But for me, and for us, creatively, it’s just a necessity.
And it sounds like — reading interviews with you guys — that you’re really happy with the product.
Yeah. It’s been a bit of a shadowline [sic] thing, when . . . half the topic is what we’re talking about here. Like, “You’ve had this guy in the band for a while, and now he’s not in it.” And there’s emotion attached to that that’s a little bit sad. But at the heart of that, and as a result of that, the record . . . I feel unnaturally excited about how good it is. So it’s a funny play of emotions that happens. This tour bus, the guys in the band on this bus right now, this kind of positive energy, and [readiness] to go out and kick ass and kick doors down and grab people by the scruff of the neck — it wasn’t been there a long while. So I know that we’re in interviews saying that we love it, but there’s something even happening in our behaviour . . . I can tell in all of our body languages that we have a conviction in this new record like we haven’t had for a long while. I think it all ties [back to] what I was talking about. We were trying to get at something [creatively] for so long. It almost feels like we finally got to the pot of gold. And then who knows if that’s the same pot of gold we’ll wanna make next time, but this time it was like, “Yes! This is it! This is what we’ve been debating — what we’ve been fighting each other tryna make.”
You definitely went for that very primal, raw sound. Around times of “Paralyzer,” you had a lot of high-production stuff, and now you’ve stripped it down. Why did you feel the need to do that?
It’s just how it sounds. In the beginning, you form a band, and you’re just a couple kids, and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. You’re just making a bunch of noise hoping that it sounds cool, and it’s fun to do. Then you go to record it, you don’t know again what you’re doing. You just do it. And comes out and it’s got this raw energy that you just can’t buy anywhere. You can’t figure out what the hell it is. And a lot of it is just that you didn’t know what you were doing. And then, the next time you go to the studio, and you have a little more time in the studio, you know what you’re doing, “maybe we’ll try this amp, maybe we’ll do this, oh, maybe we’ll go back and we’ll fix that part. Do this, and we’ll add a harmony here…” And you start adding layers, and it starts to achieve that what you were talking about . . . just a production. It becomes a big, smoothed-out piece. And the more harmonies you put on it, the more smooth it feels, then in the studio, there’s nothing more exciting than, “Oh my god! We can have an infinite amount of tracks? Fuck it then, I’m gonna go Night at the Opera.” I’m gonna do, like, 40 harmonies on this song because I can. It’s super fun and you learn a whole lot about music and interacting with your own tracks, and harmonizing and all that stuff. It’s so fun, and so satisfying.
But then at the end of it, after you had all that fun, it’s sorta like, “Oh, it doesn’t sound like it has any edge now. It sounds a little too nice and soft.” And I think this record was about knowing that. And I’m a big part of that. Like, harmonies and overdubs. Like, [Electric Light Orchestra] and all those bands are my favourite stuff, so I was just chasing that for so long. And I think the end result [is] I like raw rock & roll records that don’t have a lot of that stuff. So it was kinda like, I’m overdoing the productions, and I’m at the end of it going, “I don’t like how overdone this is.” So it was a little bit [of] self-restraint that I had to do, and we knew this has to be good enough that it’s basic. And [that] we don’t get to the studio and go, “Oh, we’re gonna fix that part with a harmony, or a solo, or something.” We’re just like, “No, no, we’re gonna go there, with these songs, and if they say, ‘No, you can only play it once,’ then these songs better be good enough that that’s it.” So when we booked the studio for this record, we booked only 12 days. And it was just for that purpose of “okay, let’s go down there and let’s get it.” Not sit and think — like take two weeks and go, “what can we add to this?” You know inside [of] you, you have this kind of thing you wanna do, and you don’t know necessarily how to get it out.
But you think you’ve done that.
I know you switched labels, but [with] your previous label, was there any pressure to recreate that more radio-friendly sound?
No. I think the only pressure — and it wasn’t really pressure — the only whiff of that was maybe when we launched the new record going with “Wolves and Doors” as the lead [single]. It was like, “Well, we’ve been away five years and this one kind of resembles a bit of what we were last around the scene.” And having done that, as almost like a reminder gesture of “OK, that’s done, let’s just turn the corner now.” And “Gods of Speed” is the new single, and it’s like, “OK. Forget all of that. Forget tryna make any connections to the past. Let’s just be abrasive and big right now.”
Is that your favourite song on Five Crooked Lines?
I’m torn. There’s one called “Come On, Oblivion” that’s like a long journey. And it’s one of those songs that we’ve been waiting a lifetime to make, a song . . . that’s kind of lengthy and patient. It’s not long because it’s self-indulgent. It’s just a nice epic journey. I love those kinds of things, like old pop records. So [there’s] “Come On, Oblivion,” and then a song called “Absolute Truth.” It’s just all that I’ve been talking about. The sound of the song is so much like what I like. If I’m listening [on] my iPod to something, and a song like “Absolute Truth” comes on that sounds like that, I would be like, “What is this? I love this.” Whatever we were trying to do, we got it with that one. But it’s really hard to pick them, because every day you play them, and you get a different vibe, and some songs are more fun live, and some songs are more fun to listen to. And ultimately, they’re all your babies. So it’s hard to pick a favourite.
Is there anything special that you’re gonna be bringing to your live shows that you haven’t in the past?
Yeah! This time around, we’ve done a couple things. We’ve added some songs we haven’t played in a while, definitely a good selection from the new record, and then at the end of the show we’re stripping it down to an acoustic thing. And doing some stuff we have never done. So it’s cool. The full set is just high-octane, Finger Eleven the whole time. And then we get to do something a little more exposed for the quote-unquote “encore,” let’s say . . . [it] feels like a new thing for us, so I’m guessing it’s new for anyone coming to see us.
It sounds like a big refresher for this album. Where do you see Finger Eleven going next?
I don’t know. I mean, we definitely think about that. We talk about that probably non-stop, because it’s our survival. I think that our main agenda for 2016 is to make sure everyone knows that Five Crooked Lines exists. Just making an awareness that Finger Eleven is still around, and we have a new record that we are out there shoving into people’s faces. Like, if you like rock & roll, and you think it’s dead, no it’s not. Here’s another one that’s keeping it a little bit alive.
Beyond that, I think, now that we’ve hit a different stride, we’ve just gotta follow through on that. Just keep making records. But with this record under our belt, it’s sort of an affirmation [that] we can achieve exactly what we want if we’re patient enough to do it. So I think that was the lesson on this record. I contend that our next record should be even more focused, because we learned a tremendous amount.