INTERVIEW: Herman Jolly
Vocals/Guitar for Sunset Valley
By: Alex Steininger
With their 1998 debut release, THE NEW SPEED (Sugar Free), Sunset Valley established themselves as one of the most intriguing Pixies-influenced bands of this decade. Pop music with an edge, each moment sets you up for the next without giving everything away. And the lyrics, well, let's just say the space metaphors are at first tricky, but sophisticated and enticing.
In the studio recording their follow-up, and possible major-label debut, Herman Jolly speaks about his band, as well as his recently released solo album, MAD COWBOY DISEASE (CD review in this issue -- March 1999). This time around showing his drunken country take on life, Herman proves himself quite the talented songwriter.
Alex: What do you think of Sunset Valley's current "buzz" around town [Portland, Oregon]?
Herman: Well, I don't know how much of a buzz there is. We haven't put out a record in a while, and we're taking a break from the live shows to work on the next record.
Alex: Is Sunset Valley in the midst of signing to a major label, or is the next album going to be on Sugar Free Records?
Herman: We're working that out. I don't really have a definite answer and am kind of hesitant to talk about that while everything is still unknown. But, there hasn't been a land rush to release our next album. Let's just wait till something happens.
Alex: Was your solo album something you put out in between Sunset Valley albums, or are you going to try and do solo albums and band albums at the same time?
Herman: I suppose it was just something in between Sunset Valley albums. I don't know what kind of career a solo career would be. I just went in and recorded songs the band wouldn't. Songs I really couldn't see the band doing. I wouldn't like to do just one, though. I may do another solo album in awhile, or I may not. But if I had to pick one, I would have to choose the band.
Alex: So, you like doing the pop stuff with the band more than the solo country thing?
Herman: Yeah, I like the band more. The solo stuff was just songs Eric, our bass player, and I were working on in the studio. He owns a studio, J.P.L., and we recorded the songs one at a time over a year's time period.
Alex: Why did you self-release your solo album instead of seeking out a label deal?
Herman: If I shopped it around, it wouldn't be out for another two months. There was a label that was interested, but they wanted two albums. And I didn't really know if I wanted to do another one. I just don't know if I have another record in me right now, although I might in two years. Sugar Free wasn't interested at first, so I decided to self-release it, and then they were interested but I had already decided to self-release it. But, if it weren't for Nail [local distributor] I would have needed a label. They wanted to distribute it, and it was convenient, so I self-released it.
Alex: How is your solo album doing around town sales wise?
Herman: It's not really happening yet. I haven't been playing any shows, and there haven't been any reviews for it. I do, though, have a show on the 12th at Berbati's Pan. It's a double CD release party with Little Sue. I'll probably play a show to promote the CD every two months or so. I just don't want to do too many shows now that we're in the studio working on the next Sunset Valley album.
Alex: How did Sunset Valley's last tour go? I heard you came back home with a booking agent and a manager?
Herman: That was our first tour back in May. It was a great tour...we had great word of mouth throughout the industry. We secured a booking agent and then got a manager. Then, two months later, we had an East Coast tour. New York was great, a lot of people came out to see us, but the South wasn't that great.
Alex: Any tour plans in the future?
Herman: We'll probably tour the West Coast and then shoot out to New York about three times this year. We're not going to do any major touring, just surgical strikes at this time...just going where people will come to see us and where the record is selling well. Like, if we go to Ohio we'll get five people, so it's more worth our time to fly out to places like New York where we'll have a good crowd. Also, San Francisco and Seattle are always good for us. Definitely not Georgia, though, where are records aren't even in the stores.
Alex: How about a tour with a Portland band? Any interest in doing this?
Herman: Well, we toured with Creeper Lagoon and got strong San Francisco ties. So, we're looking to tour with bands that can offer us something else. If we toured with Portland bands we'd get the same highs and really wouldn't be gaining attention in other areas where we aren't known.
Alex: What are some of your musical influences?
Herman: A lot of different stuff. George Jones, Cat Stephens' solo stuff, Flaming Lips, the Pixies...and then there is stuff that isn't an influence that I really enjoy. The Beastie Boys would have to be my favorite band. As for my solo stuff, influences like Harry Nelson, John Lennon and all the Beatles, Iggy Pop, Zeppelin...it's hard to say, I can't distinguish influences from what's in my CD player right now. Basically, I'm trying to break new ground, but am now jinxing myself by saying that. Also, work can be an influence. Yeah, work is definitely an influence because if we signed a major label contract today I'd still work for another year. I wouldn't want to blow our advance all in the first year paying my bills and eating off of it, because then we'd have nothing to tour off of, so I'd save the advance for when I really needed it and work to support myself.
Alex: So, how's the recording of the new album going?
Herman: We're recording at home, at Eric's JPL Studios. The recording is going good. It's hard scheduling around everyone's schedule, because we tried to finish by Thanksgiving, but after that it wasn't a complete album so now we have to work around everyone's schedule to find the time to record the rest of the album. We have time blocked off, so we hope to be done by May. Now we have a chance to pick out the best of twenty songs, rather than just using the next twelve songs I wrote for this album. It's weird making a second record. On the debut it's basically your greatest-hits-up-to-this-point. All the songs I wrote in high school and beyond, I was able to pick the best and use them for the album. But on the second you don't get that chance. I wrote "Red Thai Sunday" eight years ago. But now I've used up the best stuff and need to write more. Of course, on the second one you want the songs to be just as good...but you really want them to be better. And it takes time to write a lot of songs, because you don't want to force the songs out. Like on the solo album, I wrote a lot of songs that I could never see Sunset Valley doing, so it wasn't taking away from the band. It just seemed so obvious to me they weren't Sunset Valley songs.
Alex: On the solo songs you went primarily solo acoustic, but you used Joe Davis of the Pinehurst Kids on a few songs. Why did you feel the need to add drums to the songs if they didn't feel like band songs?
Herman: The songs needed the drums, but nothing major like the band. It was basically just brushes on snare.
Alex: What are your band goals for 1999?
Herman: That's hard to say without talking about labels. We just want to make a better record and get our shit together. We need to get our tour system down, and just get better. So, in 1999 we just want to get better and record the best songs we can. I have a lot of goals, but I can't talk about them.
Alex: If you could tour with anyone, who would it be and why?
Herman: Beck. He's the best entertainer. His band is the best of everything. I didn't mention them on my list earlier, but they are definitely a band that I love. If we had a choice, we'd pick him.
Alex: What do you enjoy and hate about the music industry?
Herman: I enjoy the music and hate the industry. There is a lot of people making some real great music...you could probably write this question without me answering. Basically, bad bands get elevated and good bands break up. It used to be like that in the 70's, but then bands like the Talking Heads and Devo broke out and did the world some good. Now it is wrapping around and we have one-hit wonders like Harvey Danger.
Alex: Harvey Danger seems to be on everyone's 'one-hit wonder' list.
Herman: I don't mean to take anything away from them. They've got one hit and I don't have any. So, I don't want to say it's bad to be a one-hit wonder. Having one-hit is better than having no hits.
Alex: What are the highest and lowest points the band has experienced so far?
Herman: The lowest point is pretty easy. We were playing my hometown of Bowesman, Montana and I wanted to quit the band after every song. It was the single worst experience, ever. But, the high points are moments like, because of my band, I've got to meet cool people like Frank Black. Other than that, the big shows are always high points. It's like a funny joke. I'll be playing in front of 200 people here and think I'm the shit, and then think of a show a few months ago that was completely shitty. It really puts things in perspective.
Alex: What made you want to be in a band?
Herman: I think it was a Violent Femmes concert in Missoula, Montana, or maybe a Pixies concert. It was just seeing live bands. I lived in Montana and didn't go to too many live shows. But it was great to see bands up there that were human and doing that. I thought "I could do that. I'm human."
Alex: Did moving to Portland have an effect on you?
Herman: Yeah, I was scared. I didn't go to shows for five months. The first show I did go to was Swoon 23 and King Black Acid. I couldn't even approach them to say "Good show." I had what I call the "chicken shit" factor going.
Alex: So, has being in a band and playing live helped you beat this 'factor'?
Herman: Yeah, you can't really be shy when you're up on stage and everyone is starring at you.
Alex: What goes into good music making for you?
Herman: Originality...trying to be original. It wouldn't be too hard to run around and pick apart my music and figure out where parts came from, but it's my own. The lyrics are a bit part of the music, too. Songs need the lyrics. Like with the Pixies, there are some songs that I don't even know what they mean. I love the songs, and then one day my wife asked what they were about, and as I sat there and tried to defend them, I realized I didn't even know. They probably mean something to the person that wrote them, but even know I have no clue what they mean, they still move me. So, you need good lyrics to make a song work.
Alex: What do you want the listener to get out of your music?
Herman: I want them to...everyone gets different stuff out of music. I want people to listen to the words and get something out of that. I want them to lock into a vibe, the vibe I get when playing it, or have the song crack through their skulls. I want them to go, "Did you listen to those words?" Basically, I just want the songs to be great. As for my solo stuff, I want to crystallize songs or their emotions. I want people to relate to it. If they can't, too bad for me. It all comes down to having them to relate to it.