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On The Sofa
Frank Critelli
An Interview Series
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I Think You Know
an interview with
The Sawtelles

by Frank Critelli      

Olympia Diner
Turnpike, CT


Frank: Okay, first things first, everybody wants to know.  Explain “Nerve Rock” as a genre.

Peter: I don’t know.  Nerve Rock just seems to be an accurate description of what we do because it’s a lot of different elements that come together.  We had no term for what we did.  I mean, I guess everybody’s stuff seems different to them, right? Would you agree with that?

Julie: Yeah.

P:  And, I don’t know.  The legend is that...We were playing at the Empress Ballroom, and it was an all-ages punk show and some kids were like listening to us play and one kid said, “What kind of music is this?”  I think one of the other kids said “Nerd Rock.”  And I misheard it as “Nerve Rock,” so we just kind of adopted that.  But I think it’s grown out of that.  I think it’s music that’s improvisational by nature that’s based out of the songs that I write.  And that means that they could morph from gig to gig or over many performances.  We don’t have one set way of playing any song.

J: I think Nerve Rock is not jam, funk, jazz, punk, folk.  It’s kind of little bit of everything thrown together.  Some guy last night in Fleischmanns called us edgy-folk, and that’s okay.  That’s falls into the Anti-Folk type thing.

P: If you think in terms of the band, the performance philosophy is that we morph the presentation to the venue that we’re in.  The Sawtelles have always been a looser sort of thing.

J: We played Las Vetas on Friday completely unplugged.  Now tonight we’re going to be blastingly loud.

F: What other bands do you think fit into that category?

J: Probably different bands at different times during different songs.   Sometimes some of Bret Logan’s stuff, because sometimes they can totally go off on a tangent.  Sometimes they just get in this groove and it goes someplace.  Sometimes Lys Guillorn’s stuff, you can’t really pigeonhole her either.  Sometimes Carlos Project can be Nerve-Rocky.

P: We don’t rehearse.  It’s just subject to change.  If we had to rehearse every week, I’d probably quit the Sawtelles.  Music for me is a different thing.  I trust Julie and Pete to do the right thing.  I trust their judgment.  I’d rather have them constantly putting their two-cents in...

J: ...and have it be spur-of-the-moment, free, not tied down to anything.

P: I was influenced as much by Charles Mingus as the Beatles. There are elements of both styles of music there.   I equate it with more of a jazz sort of thing: the interpretation changes depending on the performance.

F: Do you make set lists or do you just make it up as you go along?

P: We wrote set lists earlier on.  I suppose if it was a 25-minute showcase show where we were trying to show off a certain aspect of what we do, I would write a set list.  Most of the time there is no set list, but there’s a master list of all the songs that we currently do.  So if I’m really stuck, I can look down.  I usually try to get a feel for what the next song should be when I’m playing the current what direction do we want to take it.  I try to pace it.

F: Part of your appeal in live shows is the physical interactions with the audience like prize giveaways...

J: That stuff’s all new.  Peter and I would be all set with just going up and playing music and not talk at all, but it just seems like the more you put yourself out there, the more people will pay attention and see what you do.  I think it’s also trying to make friends...  Sometimes we’ll be at a place and there’ll be nothing to talk about and people are doing whatever they’re doing, and we’ll just play the gig.

P: For me, if it’s a good night I can interact a lot with an audience whether it’s telling a story about the song or...

J: The pigs! (refers to driving to a gig in Amenia, NY and seeing two pigs running wild and free on the side
of the road)

P: Oh, we have a new story...Today, coming over.  We’re driving through Waterbury and this guy’s changing lanes from the middle lane to the left lane, which we’re in.

J: Where 84 joins up with 8 North.  I’m driving, and I see this guy in kind of like a tourist-y vehicle and first he was in the first lane, then the middle lane, and it looked like he...Tell the rest of the story!

P: He just keeps going over and then all of a sudden he has two wheels up on the Jersey barrier.

J: And the car like smashed into the barrier, and I’m thinking ‘Oh my God. it’s going to flip over!’ I saw him drift over and I was wondering if he just wasn’t paying attention.

P: I didn’t know if he was looking at the Holy Land Cross or he fell asleep or...

J: I didn’t know what was going on with this guy, but all of a sudden the car was up on the Jersey barrier and I saw the whole thing coming.  There was dust and smoke.

P: It didn’t flip over, and he didn’t blow out a tire.  He went back into the middle lane and drove with his hand over his face like “I’m such a moron...”  But that’s the kind of thing we would bring to a show...Like the thing with the ringtone (referring to Billboard magazine now charting cell phone ringtone downloads).  I heard that story on the news, and I thought “how ridiculous.’  But the other part of my brain was trying to think of how I could cash in on that.  But some nights it’s a struggle for me to interact with an audience at all.

J: It depends a lot on the vibe.  Sometimes you get that crossed-arm sort of vibe.

P: Or something immediately goes wrong...

F: Do those interactions ever break the momentum of what you’re trying to create musically?

J: Yeah.

P: I think the second time we did that (giving away glamorous dollar-store prizes to audience members), I was like “Okay, enough prizes, let’s play.”  It’s weird.  I wouldn’t like a band that was totally goofy and not serious at all, but yet, sometimes I think it’s pretentious when they’re so totally serious all the time.  You have to strike a balance, and that balance is different all the time.  That may be one of the things that may have appeal for the Sawtelles over time...that it is different all the time.

J: Maybe it creates little memorable events that people can key into, but you don’t necessarily have to do it all the time. We’ll at least do it once a year on our birthdays.  But whoever got the 30-pack Family Comb set will remember that, you know?  We spare no expense at the dollar store.

P: People have different schticks.

F: Change gears just a little.  Talk to me a little bit about how the songs get written.

P: It mostly all comes from me...that’s about ninety-eight percent.  The two percent might be if Julie and I are rehearsing something and I’ll just start playing a riff or a couple of chords.  She’ll say, “What’s that?”  And I’ll say, “I don’t know, I just made it up.”  She encourages me to push myself and finish it. But most of the time it’s just me sitting there.

J: I can’t write.  I have no inspiration, no desire to write songs.  I don’t feel any pull.  I’m not compelled to write songs. Maybe he’ll play something, and I’ll say, “That sounds like this kind of idea.”

P: And then I’ll take that and turn it into lyrics.  It’s almost like being commissioned or something like that.  I don’t necessarily wax and wane over it.  We were driving back from a show that we played, and she said, “That thing you were working on should be about this.  And I found a pen and an envelope in the car, and I wrote before we got to the Mass Pike.  Sometimes it’s easy when somebody says, “Just do this.”  I’m not sitting there trying to express myself; I’m sitting there trying to express the idea that was brought up.  It’s hard to divorce myself or make myself do that all the time.  I’m a big minimalist in terms of lyrics; I very rarely have a song that’s like a story.  I tend to be more fragmented lyrically.  I really want someone to interpret it.   “Rain” is probably the closest I’ve come to a story song.  “Garden” is so fragmented, really only I know, or you (refers to Julie) might know what it’s about.  It’s definitely about a true event, but I just wanted to portray it impressionistically.

F: I’ve been listening to Yellow for a week, and you definitely have a knack for saying a lot in a few words.

P: Well, I think my big rule in lyric writing is that the speech rhythm in the lyrics has to fit the melody rhythm.  I’ll pair my lyrical idea with the melody idea.  I’m not a Dylan type of guy.  Once the melody is written then I tailor the lyrics to that melody.  And I’m happy with paring it down or pushing the envelope of the idea, or the impression, or the image to fit with that.  That’s my own personal thing.

F: So would you say that you write from a musical place or a lyrical place?

P: I try to strike a balance but definitely the melody has the last say over almost anything.  Actually some of the songs are about two things at the same time.  They could have been two totally different songs, but I come up with a couple of lines that have to do with the car accident we saw in front of us.  Or I’ll come up with a couple of lines based on something somebody said to me.  I’ll have those two ideas in my brain at the same time, and I’ll morph them into one song.  So to me it’s about two things at once because I thought of those things one after the other, or one made me think of the other.  But the melody has the last say.  To me, the best pop songs are the ones with the strongest melodies.  Second, how the melody fits over the chords.  Third, the general “feel” of the song.

(we are interrupted here by the waitress who brings more coffee)

F: I might have been able to guess that most of the songs come from Peter, but to the casual observer at a show, it definitely seems like a group effort.  Julie, you seem to me to be like the “secret weapon.”  You seem to lead by hanging back, and you play the song instead of the drums.  What’s different about the way you approach your instrument than a more typical rock ‘n roll drummer?

J: I have no training whatsoever.  Most of the time, Peter will play a song and it will speak to me and I’ll know exactly how it needs to be played.  Occasionally, I’ll get stuck. On those stuck songs, it might not go anywhere because I just can’t get past that.  It doesn’t give me any ideas...but that’s so infrequent.  I grew up listening to a lot of music, I see a bazillion concerts, but I have no idea about notes or timing.  I play by instinct, really.

P: She has a dance background.  We would be driving along and a Led Zeppelin song would come on the radio, and she’d play the drum part on the steering wheel.  She has an innate sense and love for music.

F: I was watching you pretty close this past Tuesday night at cafe nine, and Julie has a very melodic style.  You were talking about the importance of melody before.  You seem to put together very interesting combinations of snare and tom and a tap dance is a more melodic style of dance with the different heel and toe sounds.  Do you think your dancing might have pushed you in that direction as a drummer?

J: Yeah, I’ve taken tap.  Tom Dans (the Furors) says my playing was very staccato, or syncopated, which might actually come from my tap background.  A lot of it might be from osmosis because I’ve listened to Peter play drums for so long.  A lot of things I might come up with are things he’s already done.

P: The thing about the Sawtelles is that there’s a balance.  There are times when people play and when people hang back in all three parts.  All three parts could be taking the lead in some way at any time.  It’s very equilateral, and I like to have a balance between melody and musical support.  I like space.  I feel fortunate that the Sawtelles have developed the way they have.  It’s everything I could have hoped for the songs to have.  Even when we play as a duo, that element is still there.  There’s a delicate balance.

F: As a trio, talk to me a little bit about the chemistry that you have in a live setting.

P: We started playing together quietly and in close proximity.  Acoustically.  We started off playing strictly coffeehouse gigs and grew into the clubs.  We learned to play quietly first and that gave us the ability to listen to each other.  If somebody goes somewhere or steps out...Pete is prone to playing a solo or a lead part.  Some of the songs live have an open-ended bass solo or lead part like “Mr. Attitude” or “I Think You Know.”  We always lay back and let him play.

F: He does a lot of interesting things on bass. Is that you giving him room to breathe or...

P: Yeah.  It’s really only like less than four times a year that he’ll actually play a note over a chord that I don’t agree with and I’ll say, “Resolve it to this note.”  It’s really very rarely.  I play a lot of open tuning and partial chords so he’s more free.  He’s also says he’s more free because there’s no kick drum.  He’s not tied down to playing a beat that’s married to the drum part.  The drum and guitar provides the outline, and the bass connects the dots.  Pete’s bass playing is very active, and it makes my guitar parts seems more like rhythm parts.

J: You play differently when we play as a duo.

P: Yeah, definitely.

J: You play more actively.  We’re more random and might go off on a tangent.

P: It’s all very natural.  The best thing I could do for the Sawtelles is not tell everybody what to play.  I let the song dictate instead of me dictating.

F: How do you compare the Sawtelles on record with what you are capable of live?

P: I think on record you’re getting the essence of the song.  I try to get the most concise version of the song for ease and economy of recording.  Less is more.  You’re always going to get the shortest version of any Sawtelles composition on record.

J: Except for “Garden.” It’s till a minute-fifty-seven no matter where we play it.

F: The Sawtelles seem to have a certain mystique among other bands in CT.

P: We do!

F: Hey, I’m just telling what I’ve observed!

P: No, that’s awesome!

F: How does it feel for you guys to be considered among your peers to be the Real Deal?

P: Good.

J: Yeah, that’s awesome.

P: I always think of success in terms of the jury of my peers.  And if people we know say nice things, I feel really happy.  I feel happy that we’re getting across.  That kind of response from peers means the most to me.

J: The thing with us is that we’re not “straight-up.”  Someone made the observation that we are an acquired taste, and I agree with that.

F: Part of my experience with the Sawtelles was like a Buddhist’s Enlightenment.  All of a sudden, one day I looked at you and it clicked.  A light went on somewhere and I thought, “Holy Shit, these guys are fantastic!  Why didn’t I hear this when I put Yellow on for the first time?”  I felt like I had taken acid for the first time.

P: I think some of my favorite bands have worked that way.

F: So what’s the appeal?  Why do so many artists like the Sawtelles?  Ray Neal (Miracle Legion, Jellyshirts) told me the other day that you were his new favorite band.  I’ve said those exact words, and so have other people: “They’re my new favorite band.”

P: To me, those comments mean that we’re along for ride with everyone who’s serious about what they do.  So maybe that means we’re serious and honest about what we do.  We just go up there and try to get it done the best way we can.  Some nights you think we suck and I can’t get out of my own way musically, and people will think it’s great.  And some nights you think you play a great show...

J: ...and nobody says anything.

F: I’m going to push my original question: what do you think it is about the Sawtelles that appeal to other artists in particular?

J: I don’t know.

P: I would say it’s honesty.

J: I mean, we’re not Mick Jagger; we just do what we do.

P: We do it because we love it, and maybe that comes across.  I’m just happy that people say that about us.

F: It’s well-known fact that the Sawtelles must have been cloned because you’re everywhere.  If you’re not out playing, you’re at someone else’s show.  How much have other artists in the area influenced your work?

P: A lot.  We have this thing in the Sawtelles called “The Bastard Award.”  Anytime we hear a song that we just think is awesome we say “You Bastard!” because I wish I wrote it.  Some of Mr. Ray’s stuff.  Some of Bret Logan’s songs; “To The Lake.”  To me, it doesn’t get better than that.  The Furors.  I think we’re influenced by everybody.  When I hear something that’s really good, it makes me want to do it too.  Miracle Legion.  Dum Dum Boys.  Camera Face.  The Scene and wanting to be a part of it, that’s what influences me.

J: We’re trying to build the scene.  We like going to see the people we know.

P: There are so many people whose music I love, and I want to hear them play live.

J: When I lived in Massachusetts, I never went to see a local band.  But when I moved down here, I was totally blown away by some of the local bands that we saw.  I couldn’t believe it.  I never knew how good local music could be until I moved down to CT and started seeing shows in New Haven.

P: There was a whole other world you never knew existed.

J: Oh, absolutely.

P: I think the best music, especially in the U.S,. is music existing on the local level.  Maybe that’s part of the Sawtelles appeal, we’re pests.  We’re always around.  You can’t get rid of us.

J: (laughs) They won’t go away!

P: ...but in a good way.  In a supportive way. 

Get more info on The Sawtelles HERE
 & more info on
Frank Critelli HERE.

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