Interview with David Mead
Full disclosure: I saw David Mead open up for Ron Sexsmith at Schuba’s in Chicago in 2004, and Mead absolutely wiped the floor with Sexsmith using nothing but a guitar, his pitch-perfect voice, and Stewart the Canadian (that will make more sense later). But that wasn’t even the best part of the night. That came later, as Mead, who didn’t know me from Adam, joined me at the bar, where we drank until the wee hours of the evening, talking about our wives, the late, great pop rockers Sugarbomb (Mead was as big of a fan as I am), and Sexsmith’s questionable taste in groupies. Before the gig, I thought: David Mead is a great songwriter. After the gig, it became: David Mead is a great guy.
Soon after that show, Mead lost his contract with Nettwerk Records, but he’s getting the last laugh. He’s back with a new album, the exquisite Tangerine, on his own label, Tallulah. I caught up with Mead while he was driving to the next date on his tour, and we talked about his new D.I.Y. venture, the rise of the creative class, and how most singer/songwriters suck.
Bullz-Eye: Is this the first date on your tour?
David Mead: No, this is the fifth.
BE: I hit your MySpace page, and it must have taken out all of the previous dates.
DM: Yeah, it does that when they drop off. It started in Charleston on the 25th, then Charlotte, Atlanta, Raleigh, and tonight’s number five.
BE: Do you have a full band on this tour, or is it just you and a guitar?
DM: It’s just me and, like, five instruments.
BE: Okay, so similar to when I saw you open up for Ron Sexsmith, then.
DM: Yeah, minus Stewart the Canadian.
BE: Stewart the Canadian, I love it. Well, going back to that, what happened with Nettwerk Records? They seemed to like you, you seemed to like them. And then, poof, you’re gone.
DM: Yeah, they basically lost their distribution deal with EMI, and they decided they wanted to go in a grass-roots, touring-based…I think what they’re trying to do now is have management, publishing, record company, everything under one roof. Which is probably a very forward-thinking model, and they want all their artists to be really self-sufficient. I don’t think they really perceived me as being that way as much, but (that’s) probably partially because of some of the decisions they made on my record, which were to spend more money on things, like radio and promotion and that kind of thing, than they normally do. And to be fair to them, I didn’t tour that record, at least in the United States, as hard as I should have. Anyway, it was like, you can do another record, but the structure of your deal is not going to apply, which was interesting. I had actually booked the studio time and the producer and some of the musicians for Tangerine when I got that news. They had picked up my option and took it back, essentially.
BE: So you were already in the process of making Tangerine when all of this happened?
DM: I wasn’t literally in the studio doing it, but I had set it up, it was that close.
BE: Tell me about your new label, Tallulah. What made you decide to start up your own label instead of signing with someone else?
DM: It was a combination of necessity, frustration, and, um, divine intervention. I have this guy, his name is Bob Nichols, he’s a businessman from Jacksonville, Florida. He just randomly approached me at a point when we had basically shopped Tangerine around to all the labels that were interested in releasing it. Really, the only offers that came back sucked, basically. So I just didn’t know what to do. I figured that, you know, for someone to give me a $5,000 promotion budget for you to sign over your masters seemed ridiculous. I didn’t want to do it, but I really thought that this record was special, and deserved an audience more than anything else I’d ever done. So anyway, Mr. Nichols materialized, and said he was interested in investing some money somewhere, and what did we think was the best business plan? So my manager and I discussed what we thought was a healthy and focused budget to put the record out with, and went to him with that, and he agreed to it. That’s how the label was born. At first, it was pretty overwhelming, but as the work started to get done and all that stuff, it made me realize how nice is it to exercise your own opinion and intuition, and how the marketing of it should go. Honestly, I think this record has, for all intents and purposes, the best entry into the world of any of my records so far.
BE: You’re very lucky that you were in a position to record an album without needing any record company money.
DM: Unbelievably, yeah. My dad lent me some money just to give Brad (Jones, producer of Tangerine) in good faith, and Alex the Great (the recording studio). Those guys were also amazing too, because they basically sat around for a year and didn’t get paid. But they did eventually, so kudos to them, and you’re right, I’m incredibly fortunate.
BE: Does Tallulah exist just to release your records, or would you delve into signing other artists?
DM: We’ll probably have a better idea about that in six months or so. The whole process of setting it up and establishing all the relationships that are necessary to have in order to make it work is a ton of effort. But assuming that the model that we’ve constructed is successful, then I would be interested in trying out other artists. That being said, I can’t pretend to have a very high opinion of the music industry. It’s exciting right now, because it’s changing so much – and I think it’s changing for the better – but it’s still essentially a racket, and I’m not our to change the world or anything. I think that there is a smarter way to do things, and we’re trying to put that ethos into action. I guess if it works – this is a really long answer to your question, sorry – if it works for my record, there are records that would be a lot easier to market than Tangerine, I’m sure. So maybe so.
BE: What have you found so far to be the best and worst things about doing everything yourself?
DM: Well, I’ll go with the worst (first). It’s a lot of details, and I don’t really like being on the phone trying to get the best quotes from four different companies on posters, or trying to work out a deal with the manufacturing company, all those kinds of things. And there is the very real aspect of being super-close to the money, which is a little daunting. I’m probably spoiled in this way, because I’ve been on (major) labels before, and everybody knows it’s kind of a crapshoot going into it, and everybody, hopefully, does the best they can. Obviously, labels have other acts that can pick up the slack if things don’t go well. And (with Tallulah) I am the only act. So there’s this investment riding on the shoulders of my project, or my next two projects, more accurately. So there’s more pressure, but at the same time, it’s much more gratifying that I have total authority on how money is spent. But I don’t get to spend any part of my day being an irresponsible artist. (laughs) So my license has been revoked. I’m very white collar now. Well, blue collar, maybe.
BE: I just asked Karl Wallinger from World Party a similar question, because he just started his own label to get his last record out. And he said something very similar, that he spends his days going, “Yeah, that’s a nice t-shirt design.”
DM: Yeah. And I think it’s in how you think about it. I just had to completely shift my thinking. I’m embarrassed to admit that there have been many moments in my past where certain things would come up that I’d have to deal with, and I would think, “Well, shouldn’t someone else be doing this? Why am I handling this?” And again, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it’s true, and it’s an outdated mode of thinking. The best thing that I can come up with right now is that I fee like I’ve started up some rare and fine antiquities store. It’s very tiny, and it has a limited size clientele, but it’s still a fine way to make a living. So everything that I do is based around trying to make that idea work, and that’s actually great, because you don’t have that much time to worry about the slow and continual bruising of your artistic ego. You know, it’s just day to day, and you go and do the work. I’m a lot happier with it this way than sitting around assuming that I will be appeased at one point or another.
BE: Let’s talk about the new record. For Indiana, you stripped the songs down, but on Tangerine, they’re all decked out again. Did you go into the making of the record with a certain sonic approach in mind, or did it just sort of happen while you were recording?
DM: I went into it with a slightly different approach. I thought it would be cool to do the electric pop version of Indiana, and we’d make it one guitar, one keyboard, drums and bass kind of record with the same four guys, and we’d knock it out that way. I had very specific ideas about the arrangement of the songs, but Brad asked me for one-instrument-and-vocal demos, which I did, and I’m glad I did, and I see his point in hindsight now. Basically, there is so much opportunity to expand (these songs) into something beyond that if you want. And at first, I was like, “Yeah, I’ve done that before, and it freaks people out.” It seemed like the more direct approach gives the listener a little more access to the personality, and all that. And he said, “Well, you have to trust your intuition here. Why would you bother trying to appease this idea of who you think your listener is? The reason they listen to you in the first place is because of the choices that you’ve made to take them somewhere that they didn’t expect to go.” So yeah, good point, duh.
So all bets were off at that point. It even affected the song structure to a certain degree. I’m obviously a huge champion of the verse-chorus-verse-chorus kind of thing, and it’s something I do really well. But at the same time, some of these demos, Brad would say, “I love this verse, I love this chorus, but I don’t really understand why I’m hearing it again.” Good point, I’m kinda bored by the second verse too; it’s just there because that’s what you do. So it was a lot of fun just shuffling things around. I always think of Def Leppard, funnily enough, just because the way that they structured their songs, it wasn’t like they had verse-chorus-verse-chorus. It was like, verse, pre-chorus, another pre-chorus, some kind of break, and then the chorus. There’s also a similar thing to (the Beatles’) Abbey Road. It’s not an issue of whether a particular section had to come around to create this refrain in a habitual sense. You just come up with interesting parts, and you keep going with it. That way, it comes more linear and almost conversational to me, because if you think about it, there are several songs that lend themselves to having refrains and repeats and things you can come back to that you’re familiar with. But that’s not the way music has to work, and I wanted to make a record that addressed that, because that’s more the way I’ve started thinking about it. I just wanted to make sure it had enough of a melodic sensibility to hold it together.
BE: You’ve gone a ways toward answering my next question, but you’ve created an interesting detour when you mentioned Def Leppard: have you heard that covers album they just put out?
DM: Who again?
BE: Def Leppard.
DM: No, I haven’t. I didn’t know they even put anything out.
BE: They just covered a bunch of ‘70s glam tunes, and it’s really good.
DM: I don’t doubt it!
BE: Tell me about working with Brad Jones, because it seems he was born to produce a David Mead album.
DM: I know, it does, doesn’t it? It was really intense, in the sense that it was a really engaging conversation with someone who holds really strong opinions. And I don’t mean this to sound like the other producers I’ve worked with – I feel like this is going to sound condescending to the other producers I’ve worked with, and I don’t mean it that way at all – I think Brad and I assemble things in a similar way mentally. And on that level, it was like I had met my match. There would be these big, long, drawn-out conversations about the scale that the calliope plays, and to an outsider, I think it would have sounded like bullshit, but to me, it was really important to find that balance between stream-of-consciousness ideas and…I don’t know, I just sort of work in a free associative kind of way when I’m in the studio. A lot of times, it produces some pretty interesting stuff. But it was nice to be challenged, and have to really back that up. Not on an intellectual level, but just put it in a context in the song that made it stick out. Brad would key in on details, and that is something that has been missing on some of my other records. He would find one-note things in passing that I might be doing on guitar, and say, “Let’s pick up on that, let’s develop it.” And a lot of times, those would become my favorite moments in a song, or maybe even on the record.
BE: Well, in fairness to your other producers, you haven’t really made a record like this before.
DM: No. I feel like this is a much more mature and focused version of how I wanted The Luxury of Time, my first record, to sound. And I don’t think I was old enough or experienced enough to pull that off. And I also had a lot of people looking over my shoulder at that point, too, and the great thing about making this record without the label people involved is that I didn’t know if anyone was going to hear it, much less care if it had a single, or was too odd structurally, so that was great.
BE: That refrain that pops up in “Tangerine” and “Hunting Season” reminds me of Ben Folds.
DM: Oh, it does? Interesting.
BE: Not his current solo stuff, but maybe during The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner era.
DM: Oh, gotcha! Well, I’m glad I remind you of something that you like! (laughs)
BE: Who have you been listening to lately?
DM: Um, I have been listening to some old gospel, some Brazilian stuff. I kinda like that Dresden Dolls record. I like that new Paul Simon, too. But other than that, on this trip, I haven’t been listening to any music, I’ve just been listening to books on tape.
BE: Well, what books have you been listening to?
DM: I’m almost done with “Huckleberry Finn,” and I listened to “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, and this book called “Never a City So Real,” about Chicago.
BE: I can relate to that.
DM: I know you can!
BE: If a singer/songwriter similar to yourself came up to you and told you they wanted to make a career in the music business, what would you tell them?
DM: Well, first I would ascertain that they were similar to my style, but…I don’t know, for as optimistic as I have to be, and am, I don’t think the future is particularly bright for singer/songwriters, unless they’re extraordinarily gifted. Unfortunately, it’s a genre that’s so weighed down by mediocrity at this point that people are sick of it. The people who wind up being the poster children for singer/songwriters are always really sub par, in my opinion. I don’t feel like the ones that are really that extraordinary ever really get that much attention, you know? It’s really, really hard, and I wouldn’t necessarily advise anybody doing it.
BE: (laughs) I couldn’t have scripted that answer any better.
BE: I was reviewing some album – Our Lady Peace – and it seemed like they were trying to make the songs sound like Rob Thomas songs, and I said, “There’s just one problem with this: he’s not that good of a songwriter.” Everyone treats him like the golden goose, and it’s like, he’s not that good, people! Let’s raise the bar back up a little bit.
DM: I mean, it’s getting to the point where I really want to tell most of the people to quit. It’s not that I don’t want everybody to get their yeah-yeahs out, but at this point, there is so much shit clogging the pipe that I almost take offense at their existence. It’s like, you are making it more difficult for me to feed my family, you know? Get out of my way!
BE: That is the single greatest quote I’ve gotten all year, maybe ever.
DM: (laughs) I’m just really sick of singer/songwriters. You probably caught me on a bad day. I just played a three-act bill with two other male singer/songwriters, and both of which are actually pretty good – I’m not going to say who they are – but I think I had a five beer night last night, and I got into the ‘hopelessness of it all’ frame of mind. But I’m back today, I feel great. But yeah, I should just keep my mouth shut on that topic.
BE: Hey, if you want to talk off the record, I’m happy to dish, if you want.
DM: Everything I’ve said at this point is fine to be on the record. I decided on this record, I’m putting out the challenge; I’m not going to play nice anymore, because, why (should I)? I’d rather that people get on with their lives and do something productive, instead of making mine harder. I see a lot of people who have part of the deal. They have a particular charisma that would be very good if they wanted to go into marketing, or maybe they have a nice voice, or maybe they’re incredibly good-looking. But if they want my opinion on (their talents), I can’t advise them to go forward. It’s going to take you years, and there’s something very obvious in your character that tells me that you’re probably not going to want to do this for years if you don’t see some immediate results. And you know, someone would have probably told me that ten years ago as well, so I always take that into consideration, and there’s probably somebody who can still tell me that. There are a lot more things you can do with your life that are a lot more gratifying than driving around, playing shit gigs and trying to be somebody you’re not, you know?
BE: What do you think the reason for all of this is? Do you think that these guys with guitars learn to write these kinds of songs because they think that’s good songwriting, or because they think that’s what will sell?
DM: I think it’s a deeper thing, in a way. I look at it as a slightly older version of suburban teens getting into hip hop. There’s just nothing (for these songwriters) to complain about. I mean, if you’re white, American and male, good God, you can do anything in this world! That’s such a meal ticket to success that I think there’s this innate need to create friction in their lives because it’s so fucking easy! It totally makes sense that white kids gravitate to hip hop, and you know, it’s the same reason that I gravitated to the Smiths when I was a kid. That was this exotic thing to me that made my life have a little bit more validity. But I think there’s a very dangerous trend of 20- to 30-something-year-old guys and women, albeit for slightly different reasons, going around trying to play out that same thing, and they just don’t have the talent to back it up.
BE: (rendered speechless laughing)
DM: I feel the chorus of the interview changing, that we’re going from the Music section to the Rant section. “Why singer/songwriters suck,” by a singer/songwriter.
BE: I’m probably not helping matters, but your answers are feeding right into my wheelhouse, because I feel exactly the same way you do about this stuff. I see these bands sell tons of records, and I think, “You have absolutely nothing to complain about, and yet, here you are.”
DM: Yeah, wasting my time. Thanks a lot.
BE: The reason I asked you about the songwriting thing is that I didn’t know if you had heard of people sitting around like they were playing with math formulas in a lab, X+Y=Hit. I didn’t know how conscious people were about trying to write something successful, as opposed to writing something good.
DM: Nashville guys are very much like that, and I mean the songwriting community in Nashville, where they have to write five songs a week, that’s their quota. And it’s very precise, and calculated, but that’s going to a very specific niche in the market. It’s really more like copywriting for a brochure for Target than it is songwriting, in the sense that you and I probably know and enjoy it. But as far as your singer/songwriter people…I don’t know where they come up with this stuff. It’s the same themes, generally speaking, you’ve got your relationship people…David, am I answering the question? Did I understand what you were saying?
BE: Yeah, that’s fine, keep going.
DM: Well, you’ve got people who are stuck in emotion, right, and are absolutely convinced that if you’re a woman, and you’re (emotionally) tortured enough, then that’s attractive, and if you’re a guy, and you’re sensitive enough, and you have a falsetto, then that’s attractive. I’ve been reading, on and off, that biography of Neil Young, “Shakey,” and there’s such a great quote in that, when he’s talking about songwriting, and he says what people don’t understand, and is of the utmost importance, is that ‘when I write a song, it’s not about me; it’s about the person that’s listening to it.’ You’re trying to build a house that the listener can emotionally live in. You don’t build that through yourself, you know what I mean? And I think there are probably .000002% of the people that write songs right now that understand that. Again, most of it goes back to this need to create this sort of identity for yourself through songwriting. It’s a lost cause, you know? That’s not the point of it. And I feel like people are trying to build houses that they can live in, instead of the listener. It’s just a completely different art form, really.
BE: That’s a good point, I hadn’t thought of songwriting in those terms.
DM: You know, I hadn’t either. But it shows me that the songs that get the most commentary from people are the ones that do that. They’re the ones that leave enough space between the lines for people to inject their own experience into it. And it’s really pivotal for me to put those things together. I think I’ve done it intuitively, and everybody does it to a certain extent, because everybody who gets on a stage obviously has a certain need and a desire for an audience. Anyway, I plan on getting better at it.
BE: Before I forget, I wanted to ask you about the song “Chatterbox.” Was I onto something when I made a comparison to Earth, Wind & Fire?
DM: It’s not anything I can reference, because I don’t know a whole lot of Earth, Wind & Fire, but I’m sure you’re right. I’m sure it’s something I heard on the radio at one point and, you know, coughed up again.
BE: Well, it’s not like I thought you sounded like you were sitting around listening to all of their records, but you hit a note at the end of the verse that reminded me of Philip Bailey.
DM: Cool. You know, that song actually started out as a completely different thing that I wrote. I submitted five or six songs to an A&R guy at Jive Records four or five years ago, right around the time Mine and Yours came out. I met this guy on a panel that we had done, like, judging New York high school kids’ songs. I said, “I know this sounds weird, and I don’t even know if I know what I’m doing here, but I’d really like to try to write some songs for some of your new “soul” acts. And he was like, “Great, man, I’d love to hear them.” It was a completely different lyric and structure, but that chorus melody and that part that you’re talking about, that was part of (the Jive Records version).
BE: You could make a ton of money if you wrote songs for the kids.
DM: Hell, yes. I would love to write songs for that genre. It’d be amazing.
BE: Well, they could use it, that’s for sure.
DM: Yeah, but have you heard that guy Van Hunt?
DM: Yeah, I just heard one song on the new “Paste” sampler (that’s right, kids, musicians find new music the same way the rest of us do), but it sounded really good. He’s in that Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo vein, he sounds like he really knows what he’s doing. And he’s got a great voice. Much better than that John Legend guy.
BE: I have one question left, and I’ll let you get back to the road: what is the biggest difference you’ve noticed in the industry in terms of how they handle or deal with artists now, as opposed to when you started?
BE: I don’t even know if there’s an answer to this question. I just know that you’ve seen a lot, and was wondering what the craziest thing is that you’ve observed so far.
DM: Yeah. Not to get too clever, but I guess, to me, it’s almost like you have to reverse the equation. I’m a lot more aware of how artists deal with the industry, and it seems like the culture of self-sufficiency has just blown up. It’s almost like the less cool kids have one up on the cool kids now. Being on a major label is so immediately suspicious now. And when I was signed to RCA, it was looked at as an accomplishment, you know, going to the Golden Carrot and everything. And I don’t know if, because I’ve already gone through that, maybe when I hear about people doing that, I’m like, “Oh, Christ, whatever.” Maybe the kids are excited about it, but I get the impression that the kids are a lot more like, “You did what?” It’s obvious that they’re paying attention (to the fact) that that’s a dying model. You know, it’s really on its last legs. So I think what’s exciting, to me, is that kids, and even people my age, are getting the idea that they are the ones doing the cutting edge stuff, and they’re the ones that are ahead of the curve. I think we’re seeing the dragon stumbling, bleeding into the ground, and breathing its last breath.
BE: It does seem as though the balance has shifted toward the consumer, and the labels don’t like that one bit.
DM: I would totally agree.
BE: The idea of suing the very people that buy your records, I just find that hilarious.
DM: It is hilarious. It’d be great if this is a trend that, over the next 20 years, is going to continue to play out throughout corporate America. I find it exciting. And you know what’s happening in the music industry is that there’s actually a burgeoning middle class again, of people like myself who are actually making it work. I can’t believe I haven’t had a day job in eight years. And I don’t mean that in a boasting way at all; I feel incredibly lucky. But it seems like it’s getting more and more possible. It’s still really, really hard, but I think there are a lot more ways that (making a career in music) can work, and there is more opportunity to make it work. Before, it was like the economy now, there were the haves and the have-nots. And that is changing, and it’s great. Because you know, on a more philosophical level, that’s how I feel about the whole rise of the creative class. I feel like that’s how America could potentially win again, and not devolve into a class war, is if people reclaim that entrepreneurial spirit and begin to inject the national and local economies with money that’s generated and spent in this country as opposed to being sent away. That’s how we get our economy back, and that’s going to take a while, but I think the music industry is an example of how that can actually happen, strangely enough. (Pause) Suddenly, I’m going from calling it a racket to holding it up as a model for how you can save America.
BE: Hey, we’re going to end it all on a bright note, from pleasantries, to a rant, to hope for the future.
DM: Yee-haw. (laughs) Well, David, it’s been a pleasure. I can almost taste the sweet fizz of a gin and tonic on my lips. It’s Columbus you’re in, right?
DM: I’m pretty sure I’m going to hit Columbus sometime this summer, I’m getting a little bit of airplay up there that I’d like to follow up on.
BE: You mentioned that. What station is playing you up here?
DM: You know, man, I couldn’t remember off the top of my head. Probably the non-comm(ercial), college, maybe even AAA station.
BE: Well, I hope you do make it to Columbus. I’ll definitely be there if you swing through.
DM: Cool, well, I’ll let you know as soon as it happens, and we’ll definitely hook up.
BE: Awesome. Thanks, man.
DM: Thank you, David, I appreciate it.
BE: My pleasure. Best of luck on the tour.DM: Okay, take care, man.