Making Wassaic Way With Johnny Irion (Interview)

Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie have been making music together for over a decade. Sarah Lee is the daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody Guthrie, while Johnny Irion can claim a few notables in his family tree including author John Steinbeck. For their latest album, Wassaic Way, the couple has recruited a couple of members of Wilco to help with production…Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone.

The 13th Floor recently spoke to Johnny Irion about the making of Wassaic Way and working with Tweedy and Sansone.

LIsten to the interview with Johnny Irion here:

Or read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: I thought we’d start out by possibly talking about the overall sound and the idea of you guys working with the guys from Wilco; Pat Sansone and Mr. Tweedy. To me, initially some of the tracks sounded more along the lines of what I’ve come to expect from Autumn Defense (Wilco spin-off band with Pat Sansone and John Stirratt) and I was wondering if that showed of Pat’s influence in the production more than Jeff’s?

Johnny: Well I think it’s a fine balance but probably what you’re hearing is Pat’s way of how he approaches mixes and uh, some of the uh, maybe some of the fairy dust as he likes to say-that’s added in there. We actually call it sprinkle town in the van. But you know definitely his influence is there. But Jeff’s influence is probably heard more in the song writing  and Jeff was definitely there for all the mixes. I would say it was a complete collaborative effort but I can see where you are coming from with some of the tracks. It was something we were concerned about you know, talking with them and making the album. How much Pat are we getting? How much Jeff are we getting? We’d never worked with them before. You know Jeff was there every morning; very instrumental in the song writing side of things and then Pat’s role with Tom Schick as the engineer and Tom Schick has engineered all the last couple of Wilco records and  the Mavis Staples records. All the stuff that’s coming out of the Lost now Tom Schick is working really hand in hand with Jeff. I don’t think the Autumn Defences has done a lot of stuff in the loft per se; but I know Pat has his own studio in Chicago. But we didn’t do anything out of there. But I think it’s a fine balance and the 80’s stuff is definitely a part of me. John Stirratt sings on the album as well. And Pat’s guitar playing is his signature on a very spoken part, very reminiscent of whether it’s Badfinger or the Beatles or these guitar moments they kinda happen and go away or Todd Rundgren-esque, which I’m a huge fan of. On Wherever She is it’s Spring you know that’s Pat and Jeff nailing it. I’m playing electric in there as well. But the guitar solo moment is definitely their baby.

Wassaic-Way-15320378-7MD: It’s interesting you mentioned Badfinger. The Beatles reference is kind of obvious. But there is definitely a Badfinger feel to it and they have their own sound that’s closely compared to the Beatles. On the track that you mentioned, Wherever She is it’s Spring, it almost feels like an outtake from Revolver. Were you going specifically for a thing like that or had it evolved?

Johnny: When I wrote this song it’s a true story of us getting snowed in here in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, which is a small hamlet about three hours north of New York and two hours west of Boston. We had a huge snowstorm in October and I was reading a lot of Henry David Theroux and partaking in some substances that grow and you can roll up. That was at the time we found out we were making this album with those guys and I was manically writing songs, any ideas that came to pass I would go after and hole up in the basement. I wasn’t really going for anything but a great song. I’m trying to be a great songwriter and Jeff felt like we had accomplished that on the record. We would get to the point in the record and Jeff is like “Well what do you think Johnny?” And I said I’m just trying to hope we wrote a good song and he said “Well I think we did that.” You know that’s constantly my effort and that’s why when we go to studio, Sarah Lee and I, we work with other producers. I have ADD to some degree as far as the output of art. I definitely someone to help reign me in and help put these ideas here and those ideas over there or else it’d be all over the place.

MD:  I notice particularly your harmonies, like Sleep On It, it sounds like you’re singing the high harmonies. Is that the way it works between the two of you?

Johnny: It depends on the song. I’m singing high harmony on the album and Sarah Lee and I will switch. I do have the capability to sing high but Sarah Lee can do the same thing, so you know, at the end of the day we are probably both in there somewhere and that kinda reverts back to Pat being able to really, he’s kinda a pro tools wizard. We refer to it as donkey comping. He would just get up on the computers and I was just like “man it looks like he’s in an arcade over there.” So there’s a lot of our vocals together singing high. There’s a lot of Sarah Lee singing Low. I’m singing low in some parts. So there’s really no telling what’s going on in the jambalaya so to speak.

MD: Do you guys spend a lot of time singing together outside the studio? Obviously you live together. Is it something that occurs naturally around the house?

Johnny: Yeah, I would say early on we probably would spend some time sitting round singing and working on stuff. But nowadays, with the two kids and everything we have going on, I feel like we know we’ve gotten to the point where we have gotta change the key of that. And normally we’re working stuff out on stage. Normally it just kinda happens with us. Sarah Lee sings a tight harmony; our ranges fit together very well. So we’re very lucky in that sense. We don’t spend a lot of time working…I suppose we probably should do more because it will be really awesome probably. But you know that’s why we work with producers. We let the songs take on a life of their own. If the song makes it to the studio, hopefully you haven’t painted yourself in any corners too thick.

MD: One thing about the album that is kind of surprising is, anyone looking and seeing  the Guthrie name on it and Jeff Tweedy involved in the production would expect it to be a roots’ folky kind of record. And it starts out almost like a power pop record, maybe early 80’s, new wave sound to it. Were you setting out to try and alter people’s expectations of what to hear when they hear you?

Johnny: No, I think. I wrote all the song on the record except for one and that’s kinda been, you know Sarah Lee’s normally got two on each album; I’d like for her to have more. But I think with this album, for me personally, I knew that I could bring out that side of me that has been kinda put away in a little rock n roll closet so to speak for the last maybe 10 years. I felt with Bright Examples we stepped out a little bit but it was still very drenched in some folk ideas and some conceptual, the songs themselves being more like a Hurricane Window, with some protest leanings and hey why don’t we think about this for a while. But with this one I just manically wrote and I knew working with Jeff and Sarah Lee and I, we could be free to explore whether we sounded like Yo La Tengo or Sonic Youth or Superchunk or something like that. And these are bands that I grew up with playing and opening for and going to see and have always had that side of me. Once Sarah Lee and I got married, I had redefined my role as a musician in this world at that point in my life. It was like no band, no nothing, just the song and if I can’t do that then I have to do something else. So for me it was brewing a non-alcoholic. Getting it to taste just like a beer but you can’t tell if it doesn’t have any alcohol in it,  so boiling it down to the song so to speak.Then we just gradually on a 45 degree angle have worked our way up with all these influences and then kind of opening up the treasure chest. I have friends who say “Oh Johnny don’t forget that you kinda do that. And you do it well.” So I think with this album and working with Jeff it was a chancefor us to have fun and not worry about taking a band out to do the album. You know, who cares. Let’s just do it for the sake of the song. And we sent them 45,50 songs.

MD: Good God.

Johnny: And there were definitely more of an Americana record there. There’s songs like Cabin Fever and Hard Working People and Will You Be Left Behind, the kinds of songs I think we will just end up making like a live, gootsy record. But those songs didn’t make the list and they were definitely sent and the songs that they chose, we got to The Loft and it was ok. How did we want to approach this? And we would either try to get into it like the demo. Whether I had made or Sarah Lee had sang. There’s two tracks in the album which we had recorded in the basement just acoustic and guitar track. Wassaic Way being the title track and Still Dreaming were just demos I had put down in the last 11th hour before we were going to Chicago. Sarah Lee was like “you have to send them Still Dreaming and Wassaic Way.” I was like, they were two songs I had written a long time ago, had forgotten about and it never really felt right. She said “we’ll just play down the guitar part and I’ll sing em.” So we sent them those and they called and they asked how did you record the guitar and the vocal? And I was thinking Oh my God; they don’t really want to use this stuff do they? And sure enough we got there and they did. And Pat and the drummer Otto and I just went in and we built the track around our basement, which was not down to a click track at all, which gives the songs an unweighted feel to them.

MD: Right, they move around a little bit huh?

Johnny: Yes they do.

MD: So you’ve worked with other producers before. Is your plan to continue to work with Jeff and Pat and try and work with someone else on the next project?

Johnny: I don’t know, we’ll have to see how the album goes. For me, I personally, we self-released the album. Sarah Lee and I have morphed into a record label now. Um, and you know for the main reason was we felt like we might be able to do it better than other labels that we’ve been signed to. And if we couldn’t do it better than them, at least we’ll know that we are to blame. So we have been knee deep in it so to speak. So for me I’ve really had to put away the anxiety of other records and other songs and really focus on getting the band in the van and doing these 36 shows before Christmas that we have. But I would love to work with Jeff again. I’m definitely of the ilk…I know how it’s sometimes good to move on and we did that. There’s a part of me that says that but there’s a part of me that says; can we do it any better? I don’t know. I would hope that Jeff would say yes but we haven’t gone there yet.

Click here to read the 13th Floor review of Wassaic Way.