James Downes of TEOA on Socially-Distant Singles

Even absent COVID-19, folk rock trio The End of America (TEOA) live a socially-distant life by design; Brendon Thomas, James Downes, and Trevor Leonard have all been based in separate states since the band formed going on 15 years ago. It hasn’t stopped them from consistently teaming up on cinematic tunes fueled by an earnest sense of wonder and optimism for the human spirit.

If anything, they’ve become more consistent over time. In the back half of 2019, they set out to record and release six singles in six months, leading up to the compilation EP Light Within. In 2020, the pandemic may have put a hold on live shows, but they’re well equipped to keep a similar schedule, starting with the April release of “Not the End”–a coincidentally-apropos anti-apocalypse hymn built on the group’s trademark three-part harmonies.

The band has taken to recording remotely from their individual studios, where for the last three months, they’ve also kept up weekly livestreams on their Facebook page. Since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, they’ve put those events on hold in deference to the continuing protest movements unfolding from one end of America to the other.

Their latest single, “Canyon,” came out this week as previously scheduled, but with all Bandcamp proceeds going to Color of Change to support the cause of racial justice. During the first week of June, Downes spoke to The All Scene Eye about TEOA’s current series of singles and the way the band continues to adapt with the changing state of music and the world at large.

Last year, TEOA released six singles over six months, and then collected them as the EP Light Within. How did that project take shape initially?

We were thinking about the atmosphere or the culture of the best way that music could be released. We’d released full-lengths and EPs before. We all grew up in the 90s listening to and loving long-format LPs, but these days, it really helps to have something to release on a consistent basis, and the singles felt like the best way to do it. It gives us a reason to make noise on our socials–from a business perspective, the nuts and bolts of creating content, it makes a lot of sense. Also, we’re a band that will write songs together, but we’ll also write songs independently and bring a finished shell of a composition to the group, and in that sense, we get songs that have their own personality and really stand out from one another. From an artistic standpoint, it was a neat way to showcase the individuality of each song, to have them come out separately as opposed to coming out initially as one body of work.

How did that approach to the songs change your day-to-day as a band?

It created sort of a rhythm for us. With an LP, there just tends to be this herculean push to get a giant boulder up a mountain, and then you get it to the top, and then it rolls down, and you hope that it does what you want it to do. But with the singles, again, there’s a rhythm. We knew that if they were coming out every four weeks, we needed to have the music video finalized three weeks before, and we needed to have all of our mailing list emails drafted and ready to be sent out two weeks before. As a team, River, who you know, our management, and us, we handle all the promotion ourselves, so it’s something that we pay close attention to. The singles allowed us to have a checklist, go through this process every month, tighten things, see what worked, and see what didn’t. On a day-to-day basis, it helped us get some clarity of what things were important to do and when, and we certainly spent a lot of time promoting these things. [laughs]

Did you record all of those singles around the same time, or was that gradual as well?

That was gradual as well, which was tough at times because life happens, and somebody might not have been as available one month or whatnot. Sometimes we were down to the deadline, and we were just like, “Holy shit, what do we do? We’ve gotta get this song out,” but we committed to it because we knew we could do it, and we just loved the idea of the challenge of creating something every month. Not everything was recorded all at once, and I think that added to the personality of each song. You kind of started each song from the ground up, and it could develop into its own creature.

What was it like releasing that EP as a group of six songs and retroactively looking at them as one unit?

It was really cool to have them sort of all united under one banner, under one piece of artwork. The whole ethos of our band is just–not to sound corny, but to spread positivity and to cherish the good and the bad of life’s moments. I think at the heart of the lyrics, that’s what we touch on a lot, and it was really nice to take all these different examples of that concept and unite them under one name, Light Within. It was a lot of fun. I loved seeing the songs under one album on Spotify and stuff. It’s sort of a selfish thing, but I really loved it.

You’re back on the schedule of a single per month, with “Not the End” last month and “Canyon” this month. What did you learn from having one of these projects under your belt, what does the one in front of you look like?

We certainly learned a lot about lead time, in terms of needing certain things ready, and also, I think that we’re a lot more aware of the importance of getting these things done far enough in advance that the whole process can remain fun and not be stressful [laughs] to have this looming due-date and feeling like you need to rush. 

To me, it looks like another great challenge to have these consistent release dates coming at us–they’re like waves. They just don’t stop, and to me, that’s really exciting. But I’m glad that we have the experience of the first round under our belt so that when we come to this, we’re going to feel a little bit more prepared. As a creator yourself, I’m sure you can identify that releasing your next thing into the world is what it’s all about. It’s just awesome sharing and creating stuff, and we’re thrilled to be in the band we’re in, to have the privilege to release music out into the world, and people actually listen. We’re just stoked on it.

Let’s talk about your next release, “Canyon.” That song was written by Brendon–do you remember the first time you heard it?

Yeah, I do. It was a couple months back, and we were at the beginning of the phase of, “Okay, Light Within is out. That’s finished, and we’re starting to focus on the next batch of songs, so let’s hear what you’ve got, guys.” Trev shared “Not the End,” I shared a song called “A Million Miles of Low Road,” which I believe is going to be the third single, and Brendon brought this one to the table.

It was heavy. It had a purpose. The subject is really important to Brendon, and as good friends, it was a real gift to be able to get a window into what he’s feeling about this really personal situation. I don’t know if you dive into what the song is about specifically, but it’s a lot of strong emotions, and it’s really nice that he’s getting it out. We’re proud of him for it.

I haven’t heard the story. Obviously, it’s not your song, but if you wouldn’t mind summarizing that for me–

For sure. The song is about a person that Brendon lost a couple years back. She happened to be his partner for a couple of years. They weren’t together at the time when she passed away, but they were still good friends, and it was a tragic situation where she left before her time. She was an incredibly talented musician, and that’s how they met–playing a show together–so the song is reflecting on the shared dream that they had, that they wanted to play Red Rocks together some day.

The chorus has a line about, “If you’re here, sing now,” and it’s an invitation from Brendon to Amy’s spirit–her name’s Amy Regan–an invitation that, “I’m so sorry you missed out on this. Share it with me now and be here with me as we experience this.” He feels a lot of hurt over the fact that she had so much to offer and folks might not get to know her genius and all the gifts that she had to give. It’s sort of a reconciliation of that pain and an offering of whatever gratitude he can give to her.

There’s a lot of heaviness there, and I’m so sorry to hear about that. For you, what was it like, having heard that song for the first time and then taking it on as TEOA?

It was heavy, but in a good way, you know? As a friend, I know how hard that was for him, to go through that experience, and it was hard for us, too. We all knew and loved Amy–not at the level of closeness Brendon was at, obviously, but from the perspective of a friend, I know the weight that he carried, and it really made me so proud of him to see that he was processing it and expressing it in a really awesome way. I hope that folks will listen to it and identify with their own version of that, whatever their story may be. I think it’s awesome that he’s using things that really hurt in his life to potentially ease other people’s pain when they identify with it, and I was proud to be a part of the machine that could help support and lift it to whatever heights we could get it to.

Where did you record this batch of songs for the new group?

They’ve all been recorded under quarantine. We’re all engineers and we all have our home studios, so everything was recorded in our respective homes. I live in The Bronx, Brendon lives in Keene, New Hampshire, and Trevor lives in Philadelphia.

Tell me a little about your recording space at home. What is it like working there?

It’s awesome. It’s great to be able to wake up, do my morning routine, and then walk into my studio and have everything I need. We’re always looking to improve our recording techniques, but we’re really stoked with where we’re at. We’ve all been at it for–jeez, over a decade and a half of recording, so we’ve got a lot of time under our belts. Trevor and Brendon are incredibly talented mixing engineers in addition to recording, so they mix all of our stuff. It’s a total gift to have all these tools at our disposal.

It can be a challenge, though. Two of us live in cities, so–for example, at 10:30 a.m. every morning, there’s a restaurant that turns on an exhaust fan. I have a guitar tuning app on my phone, and when the fan is on, it just hums at a steady C#. [laughs] It’s nuts. I can’t use a microphone after 10:00 a.m. or before 11:00 p.m., so everything I do, like, recording acoustic guitars and vocals, has to be done early in the morning or late at night. I don’t stay up super late, so I usually wake up stupid early and get things done before the restaurant starts.

The other option is that you just start writing everything in the key of C#.

[laughs] I was going to say–are you a piano player at all?

I’ve been teaching myself over the past year or so, and I’m still in the very basic levels.

Yeah, so the key of C# is, like, all black keys, and I would become the best piano player in the world [laughs] having to write in the key of C# all the time. I’ve thought about that. “How do I mitigate this situation?”

On the band Facebook page, you announced that you made a New Year’s Resolution to be reading and playing intermediate piano by 2021. Now we’re halfway there. How is that goal coming along?

It’s coming along great, actually. For the past four months, I’ve been waking up early, and before my wife even wakes up, I try to get in an hour of piano practice. I’ve certainly made huge strides. [laughs] I set that goal really high for myself, so–I guess it’s subjective, but I certainly made a ton of progress. I’ve always been pretty decent at just playing chords–basic singer/songwriter stuff–but I really want to play classical music and be able to read that sort of stuff, so I’m on my way.

What inspired you to get into that more classical mode?

It sounds pretty cliche, but Beethoven. I’m not a classical junkie or anything like that. I actually mostly identify with hardcore and punk [laughs] so I’m definitely not a super intellectual when it comes to music, but there was something that hit me really hard this year when I heard some Beethoven, and I was just like, “God, that’s just so beautiful.” It hurt me, you know? It hit me so hard, and as a songwriter, I wanted to understand a little bit more about what makes those melodies and those chord progressions so powerful. I thought the best way to understand what I was looking at when you open the hood is to learn the piano, so that’s really all it is–just a desire to understand what’s happening in those songs, and to hopefully steal from them in some acceptable way. [laughs]

Has it influenced yet the way you write or think about writing?

For sure. I’ve been writing some piano pieces that sound more classical, so that’s directly influenced by, “Oh, okay, I’m learning this technique. I’m going to apply it to songwriting.” It hasn’t as much worked its way into the songwriting that I do with a rock band in mind, and I think there are really awesome ways to do that. I think Paul McCartney really nailed that, and a lot of other composers were able to incorporate really cool non-blues-based, non-simple-rock-and-roll-based progressions and melodies into their writing. I’m not comfortable enough with it yet to make it feel real, so I’m keeping the separate realms.

Since the start of the lockdown, the band has been hosting TMI with TEOA on Facebook Live, where you have guests and play games and do all kinds of fun things. How did that concept develop?

Like so many other touring bands, we were smacked in the face with the reality of all of our tour dates being cancelled. We thrive off of the energy of performing and connecting with the folks who support us, and we’ve been lucky to have established a really cool core group of–not that I don’t like the word fans, but they don’t feel like fans. It’s just, a lot of times, we roll into a city, we see a lot of the same faces, and they start to become like a family. And the idea of cancelling these dates and not being able to see those people really hurt. We were just like, “How the fuck do we do this? How do we see them?”

Of course, the live streaming thing caught fire, and everybody’s doing it, but we didn’t want it to be so one-dimensional as, “Hey, we’re going to play a song at you.” I love seeing artists do that, but we knew we wanted to do it on a consistent basis, so we needed to have a show format that could continue to evolve. Eventually, we’d run out of material, too. We only have so many songs, and these shows are available to everybody, so, supply and demand. You’d lose your audience after four of those, or whatever, but we’re at show number 11, and–well, we’re taking this week off in observance of making space for more important messages right now, but this is the first one we’ll have missed in three months. We love doing it and we love staying in touch with the people who show up, and it felt really important to us.

You’ve also been able to feature guests who are also musicians in a similar situation as you. How has it been engaging with people who are in that same boat and hanging out with them on stream?

It’s been awesome. Some of the folks that we have on are our good friends, like American Opera, Matt Cascella, and Heather Mae, and some folks are people that we don’t know as well, and it serves to be a really cool intro and, I think, strengthens beginning friendships. It’s like when you hang out with somebody or you play a show with somebody–you feel a kinship, and that’s been really awesome. We had The Accidentals on last week, Joseph Parsons a couple of weeks earlier, and other folks–I’m sure I’m missing some–but the guests have been the best part. They show up and the whole energy changes. Everybody’s got such an important message, but they’re coming at it from a different angle, and we love introducing our core people to artists that they might not know. It’s just a blast. We love that aspect of the show.

If you could have anybody on an episode of TMI with TEOA, who’s your dream get?

Alive or dead? Or just alive? [laughs]

Let’s say alive or dead. No rules, just right, lockdown.

Well, she’s alive. I would say Joni Mitchell. I just want to hear her talk. [laughs] I just think–she’s like she’s from Mars or something. I think she sees the world differently, and musically, just brings otherworldliness to the table, and I’ve always really respected that. There are a million others, but that’s the first one that comes to my mind. I want to be exposed to the genius of somebody like that and just listen to her.

But also, we do stupid games. It’s oftentimes really funny to see guests react, and obviously, I don’t know her personally, but she seems so smart and maybe even serious at times. I would love to see her play a game of charades.

2020 marks 10 years since you released your first album, Steep Bay. What is it like looking back on that record where you are now?

It’s certainly a trip, because it is a reminder of how fucking fast 10 years goes by, as I’m sure we can all relate. That album was intentionally recorded to be a snapshot of what it was like to be at a cabin with three best friends, hanging out and making music. We recorded it all live on a battery-powered recording machine–there’s no electricity at this place–and there’s a lot of ambient noise. We recorded all sorts of stuff, like diving off of rocks into water. A lot of the songs, you can hear the birds in the background. It’s a very documentary-style recording, and it was meant to be that way, so looking back at that 10 years later–I actually listened to some of it for the first time in years this week, coincidentally, and it was just such a trip. You could hear the way the air sounds in the cabin, and you could just hear the leaves rustling. It really feels like a time capsule, so it’s a cool reminder of where we started, who we were back then, and how we’ve changed, but also how we’re the same.

How has the outlook of the band changed since then, or not changed, as you alluded to? Now, of course, you’re in three different cabins.

[laughs] Exactly. Well, at the time, when the band started, we were all living in separate states. I was in New Haven, Connecticut, Brendon was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Trev was in Washington, D.C., and we all met through touring, through our separate solo projects. We just recognized that we all really loved to travel–to see the world–and a large part of what brought us so much joy about playing music was the touring aspect.

We were all reading On the Road at the time, and there’s a passage that talks about traveling to the end of the continent in search of inspiration, arriving at the end, and realizing that there’s no place to go but back. We thought that it was such an awesome simile for self-exploration: traveling as far as you can go outwardly to see what’s out there, to push your boundaries, and when you reach those limits, there’s nowhere to go but back–to see what you can discover by looking inside and growing. That’s what The End of America is all about, and we still really feel that. We love to see the world. We love traveling to other countries, or other parts of this country–it’s so huge and awesome–and unfortunately, we’re not traveling now, but that hasn’t changed. We really want to get back out there, meet new folks, and discover new cities and countries.

We had the invite to go to Germany in October, and we’re so thrilled. This would be the first time the band’s ever left the country. We were really blessed to get an offer for a two-week opening tour with Joseph Parsons, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that the virus doesn’t keep us from doing that.

You’re canceling the livestream for this week, and the band has posted on social media in support of Black Lives Matter and the movement for justice in the murder of George Floyd. How are you planning to spend that time you normally would have spent streaming?

Well, we’re writing music, processing a lot of the emotions that we’re feeling. I don’t know how to put it eloquently, but as three privileged white boys, we’re so painfully aware of our position in this world and in this story. We know we can’t begin to imagine what black folks are feeling, the pain that they’re feeling, but we want to learn, and we want to know how we can help the best we can. We know that writing music helps at least us process our emotions, and hopefully helps other people understand their own emotions about certain things, so we’re writing to understand for ourselves–we’re doing that this week.

Certainly, we’re looking to educate ourselves as much as possible. We’ve got a queue of stuff, documentaries to check out, and going to protests whenever we can. I live in the city, so we’re lucky that we’re just down the road from movements that need our support. My wife and I went to one yesterday that was incredibly uplifting, and I just want to say that being around people made me feel so much more optimistic about the direction that we’re headed. I felt so isolated and helpless, but being around other people who are so wildly impassioned, it made me feel a lot better. There is a lot of anger, but for most of us, it’s anger driven by love because we can’t accept that this awful shit happens to people we care about. Thanks for the question.

It’s what I’ve been trying to interrogate, as somebody who’s got–a small platform, but a platform. In the midst of the action that I’m trying to take, I also want to see where other people are with this, you know?

It’s intense, right? I mean, the intensity of what we’re feeling is nothing compared to the intensity of what black folks are feeling, but on a personal note, I feel what you’re saying–you have a platform, and what is the best way to use the platform right now? It was a personal decision, and we totally respect whatever decision anybody’s making, but we felt like there were more important messages this week than anything we could offer in the social media sphere. We’re going to lay low. We’ll support off the internet and let the messages be heard. But I feel you; it’s confusing to know the best way to go about it. We can only stay open, learn, and be flexible.

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