June , 2013
By David Huff
Make No Bones About It
JAM Interviews Gustav Wood
Photos courtesy Young Guns Facebook
Live Photo By Crystal Prather
In most instances, when the British press hails a musical product from their country as the next big thing, more often than not, it's usually the kiss of death when they make their first foray into the U.S. to ply their trade. America, as many stellar English acts with similar musical pedigrees in their home country can attest to, is a very tough nut to crack.
Young Guns is a U.K. import currently making some impressive inroads as they tour from coast to coast. They have landed opening slots on some impressive tours, and have also found themselves included on several notable rock festivals. Founded ten years ago by vocalist Gustav Wood and guitarist Fraser Taylor, the band has evolved into a solid core unit that includes Simon Mitchell on bass, Ben Joliffe on drums and Fraser's younger brother Taylor on second guitar. With the release of their second album late last year, Bones, the band is gaining some real traction thanks to the strength the namesake lead single is getting on radio.
Comparisons are inevitable for any rock band that starts to make some serious musical impressions with critics and fans alike. Young Guns is no exception. If there was ever a second coming of Def Leppard, this group has the ability to fill those mighty shoes. With a brilliant lyricist in Wood, and a formidable foundation of musicians who live for melody and catchy rock songs, all the necessary tools are there for Young Guns to make themselves a global name. The bar has been set with their sophomore release. Whether or not their third effort kicks the door wide open remains to be seen.
If past experience has taught this band anything, it's to never take anything for granted. Success, as the old adage goes, can be fleeting. That reality is never far from the thoughts of this 'five-man electrical band' as they introduce themselves to rock fans from coast to coast.
JAM: Young Guns finds themselves in a fairly good position as they tour the U.S. for the first time. First off, you are not an unknown quantity. You have already polished your act in England where you have gained a sizeable following. Do you see that success following you to this country, or are all of you a bit cautious not to be too optimistic.
Gustav Wood - Well, being English we are fundamentally cynical, bitter and sarcastic. That frames everything that we ever do or think about. The nice thing about that attitude, despite how pessimistic it sounds, we know everything depends upon how our single "Bones" does over here. Right now it has reached the Top Five in the singles chart. Now there is a degree of validation in that, but at the same time it was like, "Holy shit! Look what that single did over here." I think it's nice to go into a situation expecting the unexpected, and that's exactly the attitude we adopted when we came over here to tour.
JAM: That's actually a very smart attitude to take. The U.S. market can be brutal, especially on acts coming over from England, the British press has dubbed as 'can't miss.'
We have always loved the idea of going into a new country and just grinding it out. It doesn't matter if you are playing for 20 people or 2000. We play hard and try to be the same band live that we were in the studio. I like to think that everything else just takes care of itself in due course. We focus on that rule. Things went over real well for us at home, and we were lucky to do something positive there. The success we had allowed us to come over to the United States, a little bit more assured, that what we were doing had a chance of catching on. Despite the initial success with our single, we still have a long way to go in proving ourselves. America has been very difficult at times, don't get me wrong. Young Guns is just trying to carve out its own little space.
JAM: Over the many years I have been doing this, I've seen many successful English acts come to the United States thinking they will conquer the hearts and minds of fans here. For some reason or another, their music just didn't have the same impact as it did back in their native country. Does the band fully understand the challenges that await you?
This band has the experience of not getting ahead of ourselves as far as our expectations go. To answer your question, yes, we know the level of commitment it's going to take to make a name for ourselves. We are up every morning doing radio promotions and acoustic sessions, even when we are jet- lagged, tired and all that stuff. I actually feel there's a better chance for us to be accepted by American audiences, apart from Europeans, because they are a bit more skeptical over here. In this country, you have radio stations that cater specifically to the kind of music we play. The audiences we will be performing in front of are agreeable to our form of music. That knowledge is really exciting for a bunch of U.K. rock guys who have that level of potential. This country is a much bigger challenge for us, and we know acceptance is going to be a tough thing to accomplish. I can assure you we're up to that challenge.
JAM: A lot of rock bands in this country can't seem to figure out there's a real art form to creating a catchy melodic three-and-a-half minute song. The challenge is taking your heavy riffs and skillfully inserting them into the song. Your tune, "Weight of the World", is a great example of what I'm talking about.
Thank you for saying that. The one thing we've been proud of is staying true to the kind of band we are; inspired by the music we love and eschew the rock star persona. When this core unit got together, we really wanted to try and figure out the art of writing a really good, direct song that would have some merit to it. I think there is a real art form in writing music that is cool and something people can identify with. Writing a stripped down, yet effective melodic song, is something we're always attempting to do. I don't think we are quite there, but we are getting better at it.
JAM: I have always felt that rock bands that scream their lyrics end up going nowhere; those that actually sing the words end up somewhere. Do you understand what I am saying?
I do, of course. We all grew up listening to rock, metal, hard core and punk. There is space for all those forms of music. Metallica is my favorite band of all time. The thing is we listen to stuff like Hatebreed as much as we do Michael Jackson. For us, our approach to creating music was to always make sure we didn't set any boundaries, or restrictions, for ourselves when it came to writing. We never liked the idea there was a ceiling and you could only go so far. From day one, even though the band loved heavy music, we wanted more than just the screaming vocals with a heavy and aggressive twin guitar attack. We all love a good melody and what it does to our songs when you hear it.
JAM: I was aware of Young Guns because you're publicist sent me a link to your current hit single, "Bones." As I continued to seek the band out on YouTube, it dawned on me the difficulties facing rock bands today. You all grew up in this new social media world we all live in. As songwriters, has it forced everyone to think visually when it comes to composing music. In this day and age, you need to be seen in order to be heard.
That is a very interesting question you pose. This is what I can say for me, personally, as the lyricist for Young Guns. Everything I do is actually quite visual. When I write a song, the first thing I'm thinking about is the concept and the direction. To me, a well-painted image is what connects me to a story in the song, so visuals are a really big part of what I do.
JAM: The social media phenomenon has forced me to totally reevaluate how I do business as a journalist. For example, I watched several videos of Young Guns on YouTube as opposed to listening to your album in digital form to get a better feel of the band.
It's funny you said that. Sometimes I tend to write what the music video is going to be for a song because it just helps me crystalize the vision for the lyrics I'm writing. As a result, I kind of give the song an identity for the rest of the band to write music around. I am a real believer that a song needs a theme and a meaning. Incorporating a visual component throughout a tune is a great way to realize that.
JAM: Ten years ago, that kind of attitude would have been unheard of for a musician to embrace. I can only imagine the challenges the Internet has both presented, and confounded the band with, as you integrate it into your business.
From where I first started out with this band, to where we are now, the business of music has indeed changed dramatically. It has opened up an assortment of possibilities for us to use. For example, the video we shot for "Bones" wasn't even about a set story per se; it was just centered on strong visuals and silhouettes. Besides it being quite a good song, the imagery in that video really brings the song to life. I agree that videos give the viewer, or listener, a lot more contact with a band as well as helping people understand the song a little more. For us, it's great to go to YouTube and click on one of our songs to see all the people that really give a shit about your music and the band. Every day we wake up and see messages directed to us from Twitter or Facebook. It is very encouraging.
JAM: Has the unlimited contact the Internet provides been a source of inspiration because you know you have a worldwide outlet for your music? No matter what you do as a band, you aren't spinning your wheels hoping someday your music will be heard.
I think that is a huge advantage for bands. There are definitely some negatives to the way social networking completely changed the way artists conduct themselves and how you are paid. We all grapple with the positives and negatives the Internet has imposed on the industry. The positive being the potential for connecting to people all over the world is huge and amazing. No longer do you need a big record deal, and a great public relations firm, to get yourself into the public eye. You can do it through creative social networking pages and other tools available online. The Internet has allowed a more DIY (do it yourself) approach for bands to take these days. The negative of course is there are more bands than ever today. It is harder to get noticed now because there are more people in the world looking.
JAM: I would also interject this. The element of surprise has vanished somewhat because there are so many groups vying for attention, it's tough to spot the diamond in the rough.
Growing up, I was a great believer in the idea of bands having a bit of mystery to them. I liked it when my favorite groups were somewhat secretive about what they were doing. Social networking has eroded that component of a band. There seems to be a constant need to feed, or sustain your fan base with knowledge, to keep them happy. That means you have to be much more pedal to the floor at all times which is a tiring way of operating. But overall, the benefits are great because you establish a strong dialogue with your fan base.
JAM: At what point in the past do you recall saying to yourself, "You know, this band has finally found its identity and we are creating really solid, well-written songs?"
I think it is still happening to be quite honest with you. As you grow up and become an adult, I don't think you ever stop figuring out who you are as a person and what you want out of life. The question of who you want to be as an individual is a constantly evolving idea. The same principle applies to a band. Every album you release is a growing stage in your development as an artist. I like where we are, but at the same time I also want to make sure we are creatively challenging ourselves. Our second album, Bones, allowed us to crystalize our ideas a little more. It definitely was a watershed moment for Young Guns because it gave us the confidence to give this a proper shot. In my heart, I strongly thing this album is just touching the surface of what this band can be. I feel we can write better songs than we have and grow even stronger as a unit. The new record was a step in the right direction for us to take and has led us to where we're at today.
JAM: When you sell everything you own, sleep on couches and make sacrifice after sacrifice because you believe so strongly in what you're doing, what is it inside you that says, "You have to push forward. You are on the right path!" I mean seriously, trying to make it in the music business is not for the faint of heart.
No, it is not.
JAM: Where does your drive, the band's dedication to this project, what's the glue that holds this foundation together?
I think it's a refusal to grow up really. Again, that's a very cynical English viewpoint. I think the basic drive comes from the fact that even when we hate what we're doing at times, we love the fact we're actually doing it. This job of ours fills us all with pride. It makes everyone happy the way nothing else we've encountered in the past ever has. To be honest, without sounding trite, Young Guns is not a conscious or cerebral kind of thing I do. It's the only thing I know how to do well. Seriously, we all feel we have no choice but what we're doing right now. Apart from anything else I've done in the past, I don't have any other job options but this. There is nothing out there I give a shit about but making this band successful. The decision to pursue music as a full-time occupation is almost instinctive in a way. It wasn't too long ago we were all holding down shitty jobs. Everyone was always bummed out having to get up early to go to work after a night of working on music. If we ever get slightly annoyed doing this, we can always remember what it was like beforehand, and those negative feelings go away. The drive to pursue music comes from the fact it's the only thing I know how to do well. It wasn't a difficult decision to make.
JAM: I think you are in the perfect position to answer this question, and it's something I have always wondered about bands. After the surprise has worn off that you actually are not living the dream any more, you aren't sleeping on friend's couches and your personal sacrifices have finally paid off, did you ever go through a brief period of "Man, what do we do next?"
I can't say that we've reached that point. Maybe it's one of those situations where the goal posts are always moving. I feel we have already made a great leap forward and achieved something, but there is no sense of fulfillment or appreciation that I've' done it'. We're still broke and the reality is us still being in a band struggling to make ends meet. We're somewhat in a funny place because we still operate with a 'do- it-yourself' mentality. We are achieving results, especially here in the States. We are occupying the path of least resistance at the moment, but I can't imagine us never wanting to be hungry. I can't ever perceive us saying, "We've done enough, it's cool." There is no end - it's just a mutual thing on our part of continually trying to move forward. To me, fame is still fleeting, so the only thing I want this band to do is move forward. Maybe when I own my own house and have a car in the driveway, I will feel a bit different, and that's a lovely idea. I don't know if that answers your question, but that's where we're at as a band right now.
JAM: I had a singer once tell me that finding the right musicians to form a group was like winning the lottery. How difficult has it been for Young guns to actually become the band you envisioned when starting out ten years ago?
It was very difficult. Fraser and I started the band in 2003. We spent six or seven years looking for an alignment of like-minded musicians to make this band work. We spent years with different people that just didn't work out. It was horrible. People were butting heads, there were arguments, no one was happy. We had a guitarist who left us in 2008 that had become a dominant force in the band. What he was attempting to do was something no one was happy with or enjoying. When he left, we got Simon and suddenly the chemistry was right. We always knew this band was close to being there, but Simon's presence sort of cemented that.
JAM: What does 'falling into place' for a band actually mean?
Well, in this particular circumstance, it wasn't Simon's writing contribution that was important. It was the emotional aspect his being in the band that made the difference. You are right! When a group finally does settle in with the right combination, it is like winning the lottery, because everything just starts falling in to place for you. When you're a member of a group, it's like a marriage. After the commitment has been made, then the real work starts and you have to start figuring each other out. You've got to understand what makes each of you tick and when to give space. It's good, and it's terrible, to know what pushes someone's button, and what turns them on. When you have a common goal, however, all these little nitpicky things seem to go away. Fundamentally, we are all best friends in the band and that is really important. This current line-up has been together for four years now. That's when we started creating the kind of music we play now. In the beginning, it was like two or three of us were in one band, the others were in different ones. We were playing music together in a loose circle of friends for like a decade.
JAM: Songwriting is a difficult craft to master. Do you write words to match the music; create music and add words later; rely on rough sketches of a song and work it collectively?
Lyrics are a constant struggle for me, so they tend to be the last thing that happens once the music has been written. We all sit in a room and jam until an idea comes up we all like. The guys will also break up and go work on the computer to create different demos and present them to the band. Regardless, I always write the lyrics after working on the melodies. I will listen to the music and write on how it makes me feel. I can also visualize the music, and drawing from the mood it puts me in, compose lyrics around those emotions.
JAM: When you grow up listening to all types of music, does it make it easier to create your own sound once you have found like-minded musicians to join you? When you hear so much noise in the world, how do you filter it all out to create your own identifying sound?
Half the time the songs we create are a happy accident. We all come from different places of music we enjoyed growing up listening to. That can create problems only because we have so many different ideas being thrown out there at the same time. Sometimes we want the band to sound like Radiohead, other times we want it to sound like Metallica. In the end, you do what feels true to yourself. If the music you're writing isn't coming from a creative place in your heart, and doesn't feel sincere, you are just spinning your wheels because you're not going anywhere. The only thing I care about is when people listen to our band, they know we aren't bullshitting them. Young Guns are trying to have as much fun as possible by creating music we can be proud of. The long and short of it is this. We try to write songs that are cool. We don't always manage to do it, but we try and in the end, our band sound works itself out from there.
JAM: About 20 years ago, Van Halen could sell out arenas and amphitheaters all over the U.S. When they took their act overseas, however, they had to open for Bon Jovi. On the flip side of that, back in 1993, Bon Jovi could barely sell arenas and sheds in this country. My point is this. Has the band learned to taper down its expectations when it comes to acceptance in different markets around the world?
Yes, and it pretty much has to be that way anywhere we go. I always had a gut feeling there was a good chance that people in the States would get what this band was doing. You can never really tell what's going to happen on the surface. You can go into one country to play, and no one is turning up at your show. You cross the border into another country and you sell-out. Music isn't an exact science. It's really based around people's emotional involvement with what they are hearing from you.
JAM: No truer words have ever been spoken.
It's a real quest on a band's part to create the right balance in your music. You can drive yourself crazy trying to analyze the different ways your band fits in and will it work in these situations. There is no exact science to this business. You just have to put yourself out there and try. That's all we have ever done. We write songs, release records and tour. Young Guns never had a game plan. We just write music and go on the road to any country or venue that wanted us there. That is what we have done for years and it has worked. It is weird and crazy the types of music that go over big in different countries. For instance, Placebo are huge in the U.K., but they disappear in other parts of the world. However, you go to a place like Germany and the band is headlining a festival in front of 80,000. An artist like Billy Talon is another example. In Canada and Germany they play in arenas, but in the U.S. and England, they can only do clubs. It's really funny how the world works when it comes to accepting music.
JAM: With the Internet playing a prevalent part in the way people listen and obtain to music, bands today are just a mouse click away from people moving on to another group, if you can't keep their attention in the first ten seconds of a song. Because that sword is always hanging over your head, are you better songwriters today knowing that okay isn't good enough, the song has to be great?
You're right! The Internet definitely has brought about more pressure. There are more expectations on bands that come on the scene these days. Everyone expects you to be great straight away. Your fans want you touring all the time and putting out new music. People don't have patience any more. The days where a band would go into a studio and stay for 12 months are over. Now if you disappear for a year or two to write an album, people start wondering what you're doing. The funny thing is bands can disappear in seconds these days, like you said, with the click of a mouse. That is why artists are constantly engaging their fan base to keep them apprised of what they are doing to make sure they are still with them. It's definitely a bit of challenge today than it was before. But I think this new environment we're competing in forces you to become a better band, or you're over with. The days were a group could procrastinate are basically over if they still want to have a career. It's a good thing, but it also brings on a lot of aggravation.
JAM: You noted that people don't have patience with artists anymore, because there are so many options available to them. Time, in a sense, isn't on your side like it used to be?
As you well know, artists aren't given the opportunity to develop anymore because labels have stopped nurturing promising acts. That aspect of the business becomes quite apparent as you progress forward. We adjusted to the world around us because as a matter of survival. You have to put your head down and get out there. I find that challenge inspiring to tell you the truth. Don't get me wrong, it's hard to constantly put yourself in the spotlight. I think in the end though, the quality of the music has improved. It's just the way the world is now.
JAM: You found out early on in your career that no matter what kind of press you receive, if your music doesn't connect, you are just wasting your time. Do you recall the first time you felt Young Guns, as a whole, had actually made the right musical connection with fans?
When we first started out, our dream was to take on small sweaty clubs and sell them out. When that started to happen for us, and the audience started singing our lyrics, we knew people had a passion for what we were doing. That was a huge moment for the band. We knew there was something special about our band and people were genuinely connecting with our music. That was a really big moment.
JAM: Is there any one thing you fear in this business?
I don't want what we do to ever feel clinical. You can drive yourself crazy if you start thinking about what could happen. It's better if you just enjoy the moments as they come, build from that, and not think too much about the future. There's always the potential you're not going to have a future in this business, so you might as well enjoy what you have and take it a day at a time.
JAM: When you tour in foreign markets, the playing field is usually stacked against you. Have you learned anything from past tours in your native country and Europe that will help you deal with the finicky U.S. market?
We have never taken anything too specific from successful groups. What we do is watch how other bands behave and learn from that. For instance, when we landed big support slots opening for big groups in England, we would always watch how they performed and handled the crowds. It's not rocket science! It's a lot of hard work. You have to be focused and passionate about what you do in order to succeed because it is so bloody damn hard. The question is how much do you want it? That's really it.