John Moreland: The 13th Floor Interview

Born in Texas and living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, John Moreland is a big, burly guy who makes big, burly music.

Moreland’s new album, Big Bad Luv finds the roots-rocker in a celebratory mood after the success of his 2015 album, High On Tulsa Heat.

While that record was a mostly solo effort, this new one was made with a band, recorded mostly live in the studio. Its the sound of a man kicking up his heels and reacting to the world around him.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to John Moreland just after the release of Big Bad Luv. The conversation begins with a discussion of the current Tulsa music scene. Click here to listen to the interview with John Moreland:


Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: What’s the scene like in Tulsa these days? I know, back in the ‘70s, they used to have quite a groovy, little music scene. Is it similar to that now, or have things changed over the years?

JM: I think it is probably similar to that now. There’s actually a few of the same venues still around, and a lot of people who carry on that J.J. Cale, Tulsa sound tradition.

MD: Was it a big influence on you? I assume it was.

JM: You know, it has been more recently. Growing up, I didn’t know much about that stuff. I was vaguely aware of it, but I didn’t really become a J.J. Cale fan, or a Leon Russell fan, until the last four or five years.

MD: My understanding is you were involved in the punk and hardcore scene before that.

JM: Yeah. That was my ‘wheelhouse’. I grew up playing in punk bands.

MD: It seems like a common move: going from that scene to the kind of thing that you’re doing now. Do you see a thread that runs through all that?

JM: I think so. I think I was attracted to punk and hardcore, because of the very direct songs: straight to the point, no extra stuff. No ‘noodling’, no jamming; stuff like that. I think I still prefer that. My songs are a little longer now, because they’re slower, but it’s still the same idea: you get right in and get to the point, and say what you’re going to say.

MD: This new album, Big Bad Luv, is the follow up to High On Tulsa Heat, which a lot of people consider to be your breakthrough record, but this one is a very different sounding record compared to the previous one. What kind of process did you go through in order to come up with the sound that you’ve come up with on this record? It’s a bigger band thing, as opposed to solo acoustic.

JM: High On Tulsa Heat: that was mostly just me playing most of the instruments on every song. There are a few songs with full band instrumentation, on that record, but it’s me playing everything, building the track; whereas, on this album, the songs were written in the same way, but then when we went into the studio – I actually had a band, in the true sense – a lot of the songs were recorded mostly live with the band in the studio. I also mixed High On Tulsa Heat myself, and this time, this album was mixed by Tchad Blake; so, a huge difference right there.

MD: Is there a danger of being too close to the whole thing, when you’re doing everything like that on your own?

JM: Yeah! Where it gets tricky for me, is when you’re making a record, you already have a tendency to over think things and second guess every decision – and then, the more jobs you give yourself, the more stuff there is to second guess – so, I would find myself going back and forth, second guessing every recording decision, and then I would do the same thing in the mixing process, too. It would take forever, because you can tweak things forever and ever, and never be satisfied; so, that gets a little tricky. It was much easier just to hand it off to somebody else, who you trust.

MD: Did you have people to bounce things off…?

JM: I was in the studio with a band this time; so, yeah, there was more of that. Instead of just me in a room by myself, there were five other people to weigh in. But, honestly, I don’t remember ever even having any conversations like that. Everything came together pretty naturally, and we didn’t really have to fight too hard on any of these songs; they kind of just happened.

MD:  You’re on 4AD. That’s a label that you wouldn’t put two-and-two together, and come up with you and 4AD on the same label, because their sound is traditionally thought of as somewhat different from that. How did that combination occur? What did they say to you, what did you say to them, to make it happen?

JM: They just approached me and said they were interested in signing me. I was really into that idea. I like the idea of being on a label that’s outside the normal box of what all my peers are doing. It gives me a window into a different world that I might not have access to otherwise; so, that’s really cool! As far as the story of how we came to work together, that’s pretty boring: they just contacted me, and we talked for a while, and then we signed the deal.

MD: Were you familiar with the label and its history before that?

JM: I’m not familiar with a ton of the bands that are on the label now, but I know The Pixies. I’m a really big fan of The National; they’re really the only current band, on the label, that I’ve listened to. But yeah, I was definitely aware of the history: Bauhaus and 4AD in the ‘80s.

MD: Actually… one of your label mates is a singer by the name of Aldous Harding, who’s from New Zealand, who’s very big around these parts.

JM: Yeah, I just checked out her record the other day. I saw that it came out… and me and my wife listened to it the other night.

MD: What was your opinion? Because she’s kind of a polarising presence around here.

JM: I thought it was cool. I mean, I don’t know anything about her – so, I don’t have a context to put her in – but the record was cool. It almost seemed like a different person singing every song. I don’t know how, she does some crazy stuff with her voice, or something; but I’m definitely curious to hear more of her material.

MD: I’d definitely recommend checking her out, if you can; especially live, she’s very intense. I think she’s going to the States; she’s over in England now. But getting back to your stuff: my understanding is that when you started recording the album, you recorded a batch of songs, and then ended up scrapping them, and then did some writing as the recording was going on; is that how things worked?

JM: Yeah. I scrapped about half of the ones that I recorded. The first session we went and recorded nine songs, and I kept four of those and scrapped the rest, and then I just kept writing. Those original nine songs didn’t really feel like a complete record to me; so, I just kept writing, and kept searching for what I was trying to say, and trying to put out there; so, it took almost another year, after that, to finally figure it out.

MD: So, you think in terms of putting an entire record together…that the songs need to have something relating to each other, in order to put them out together.

JM: Yeah, I think so. It might even be more abstract than that. It’s not that I feel like it need to be…where all the songs are about this broad subject. It doesn’t have to be that much of a concept, but more of an abstract, internal thing. I just gauge everything I do on, “Does this feel good or not? Does it feel right, or does it feel weird?” that’s my approach.

MD: Was it tough to discard those other songs? Do they get used possible at other times, or are they in the dust bin?

JM: No, usually, once I scrap a song like that, it’s gone forever. I don’t think those will make an appearance on a future album, or anything; I’ve kind of already forgotten them, probably.

Rick Steff

MD: I think I read somewhere where your piano player, Rick (Steff), inspired some of the later song writing; maybe you can tell me a little about that. What was it about his presence, and how did that work its way into the song writing process?

JM: I just loved his playing so much, and I wanted to get him on the first session that we did, but he plays in a band, Lucero, and they were on tour at the time; so, I couldn’t get him there for that one. Then, later on, I had been working on the record for a while – trying to write the songs that would complete it – and I was having trouble, and I went ahead and booked a session, to finish it up, even though I didn’t have any songs yet, and I ran into Rick in Memphis, about a week before the session, and it just occurred to me that I should ask him to come play on it. We were recording in Little Rock, Arkansas – so, that’s only about two hours from Memphis – so, it wasn’t far from home, for him. I asked him if he would play, and he agreed, and then I went home and I wrote four or five songs in the next two days, just thinking about what would be cool to hear Rick play on, because I’m such a fan of his playing.

MD: Recording in Arkansas: is it important for you to be in that area, making the music that you do?

JM: No, not really. That was a studio that the guys in my band were familiar with, and one of the owners of that place – the guy who engineered the record; his name’s Jason Weinheimer – he lived in Tulsa for a while. I didn’t know him prior to recording there, but I think all the guys in my band were friends with him, and spoke very highly of him; so, when I was trying to figure out where to record, that just seemed like a nice fit. Little Rock is about a four hour drive from Tulsa; so, it wasn’t too far away.

MD: But still, you’re not home…

JM: Right.

MD: Speaking of home: you’re now married, and – from what I’ve read – consider yourself having grown up over the past few years. Is that something that you feel is important in order to make the music that you’re making now? Has one thing affected the other?

JM: I guess the music I’m making is definitely a direct result of that. I would still be making music, otherwise, but it would be very different music; I definitely wouldn’t have the same perspective. I’ve always just tried to make music and write songs that feel relevant to me and my life, at that moment; so, that’s what I was doing, and we justy ended up with the record that we’ve got.

MD: I guess it’s a more joyous and outgoing record, than the records that you’ve made in the past. Do you give any thought to how your previous fans are going to react to a change and shift in the mood?

JM: No. Music has always been – and not just in my professional career, but my whole life – that outlet for me to just make sense of things and make myself feel better when I need it. It’s my catharsis, I guess – that’s a super cliché word to use, but it’s true. That’s always my primary concern, because I feel  as long as that’s true, then it’s going to resonate with somebody. As long as I’m not bullshitting myself, people are going to be able to tell that it’s real, and it’s going to resonate.

MD: I guess, by widening the scope of what you do, you take away some of the expectations and it frees you up to be able to do whatever you do on the next record: it doesn’t have to be one or the other, it can be whatever you’re feeling like at the time.

JM: Yeah, I definitely feel like the future is wide open, and I’m still very free to go wherever the road takes me.

MD: Have you given any thought to that, or is it too soon after this record, to think about where you’re going next?

JM: I have given some thought to it, but I’m not too sure about anything yet. I think, when I get some time, I’ll just try working on some songs, and see what happens.