Rowboat started out as the more acoustic and folk-oriented solo project of Sam McNitt, then the singer and lyricist of Blue Million Miles. With that band, McNitt learned to transform acoustic songs into heady, often aggressive space rock, but his words always seemed to come from a place of refined emotional sensitivity, even as he expressed pain, frustration, disappointment and triumph over all of it with a rivetingly emotional delivery.
See also: - Saturday: Rowboat at the hi-dive with the Big Get Even and Hollow Talk, 2/16/13 - Blue Million Miles is Building Walls, only to tear them down - Freeloader: Sample a track from the Hollow Talk
McNitt brings that quality to Rowboat, even though the sound is very different from Blue Million Miles with rich and more spacious atmospherics. In addition to McNitt, Rowboat is made up of guitarist Danny White, drummer Johnny Lundock and bassist Matthew Till. The band's latest album, Of Disappearing, may be McNitt's strongest songwriting to date. We recently spoke with McNitt and guitarist Danny White about how the two came to work together, the themes of the album and Townes Van Zandt.
Westword: You've been writing Rowboat songs since before Blue Million Miles?
Sam McNitt: I've been doing Rowboat songs and albums since I've been playing music, so it predates Blue Million. But I never really did anything with it. It was more a folky songwriting outlet. I did that for five or six years and played a few shows like when Blue Million was taking a little break, and I'd throw together random people in the band. It was always different people playing different things, and it would be either fun or devastating. You know, no practice until two days before the show, and Hey, let's get this guy to play the piano on this one: "You've never played the bass, but you're my friend. Just learn this part."
Was it still essentially a solo project?
SM: It was. I struggled to write for Blue Million. The songs came a little bit less frequently. In the meantime, I was writing all these other songs that, in my mind, were, "These can't work in this band. I'm not even going to try them." It eventually got to the point where we were just not really even practicing and just hanging out with one another. So we [Blue Million Miles] called it a day.
Danny [White] and Johnny [Lundock] were having a little party here, and people were playing, and I decided to play some songs solo, and Danny asked if I'd mind if he jumped up on stage and play. All these songs worked so well with what he does on guitar, so we decided to try something out. If I had called it day, musically, I would have felt really disappointed in myself if I didn't give Rowboat a true try with a full, steady band and realized songs. So that's kind of how it came to be. It was mostly just me and Danny that first last year, and Johnny jumped on, and we tracked down a bassist once we booked that Gathering of the Clouds show.
How did you two meet?
Danny White: Basically, through Johnny. I've known Johnny forever, and Blue Million had picked him up as a drummer. I was living in New York, and when I came back, I got back into the scene. I was out there, and I don't think I was quite ready for being in New York City, so coming back here in May of 2009 and being active in music was more accessible thing for me, immediately.
I also wanted to be around my nieces. I paid a thousand dollars for rent in Chinatown, and the logistics of living and trying to get out and meet people and play was a little overwhelming for me. I had a friend here, and I flew back and did a two week tour with him to Chicago. When I moved back, we started a band, and that didn't work out, and I met Mike Perfetti through him, and I started playing in Sunder. That's when I really started going into stuff, and this came along the following year.
SM: Danny played bass in Blue Million when Ethan [Ward] moved, very briefly. We played two shows, at the Meadowlark and the UMS. We were on the tail end of things at that point. I love Jeff [Shapiro] as a guitar player, but when it comes to Rowboat style of music, Danny's the best guitar player I've played with. I think he has this unique sound you don't hear from other guitar players in Denver. It's just the texturizing of the songs.
I write super simple when it comes to these kinds of songs, and I always push people to keep it as simple as possible and find what works quickly and not over-thinking it. Danny does a great job of playing so subtly but so right. Just the right note at the right time. It's that idea of leaving space in the song, which is what these songs are all about. The volume swells he does remind me of this score to Twin Peaks or something like that -- this dark, drone-y swell that comes out.
DW: I've been lucky to come across some pedals, mainly through Jeff -- not directly, but he's turned me on to certain websites, and I wouldn't have otherwise had access to this cool, boutique stuff. I bought my current amp directly from him that he got from a website -- a Dr. Z amp. It's a cool, kind of copy of a Fender Black Face 1X12.
SM: Jeff is the gear guy. He's the guy to go to for advice on what to get. If you're not into it on your own, which I am not at all, and I think, "God, I need a new pedal or I need a new amp, but I only want to spend eight hundred dollars," I can always go to Jeff with that kind of stuff. He just likes reading about that stuff and playing through it. I miss seeing him play and hearing his guitars because he always had energy to him.
He's a maniac -- brilliant but a maniac that still manages to sound good.
SM: That's a good description of him. He was a good balance to my statue-like, unable-to-move-while-playing [style].
DW: When you're not playing and singing, it's easier to get nuts.
Are you playing acoustic or electric for this band, Sam?
SM: Electric. They're all written on acoustic, and we started playing them acoustic. Then we both realized, "I like this vibe but I want a little more energy out of it or a little more control over the tone." There's still elements of Blue Million Miles in it, but we definitely wanted to build the energy, even though the songs are slower and quieter sometimes.
The album is called Of Disappearing, and that phrase appears on more than one song. What is the significance of that motif?
When I have a surge of songwriting, it's typically within the same theme and different songs fall together that are all kind of in the same mode. It had to do with the idea of how different people in my life were not necessarily literally disappearing from being around, but they were slipping into these different areas. It was a struggle for all of them, including myself, be it getting older, getting married, having kids. Be it mental illness, be it running away, and any of these things where people are kind of struggling with their lives.
It was this idea of fighting against disappearing and losing who you once were, and trying to figure out how to be a new person, and hold on to some of things you loved in your life, and move on to new things that you love in your life. Some of the disappearing is darker and more dangerous and a little more tragic than others on the album, but that's where it came from.
"Disappearer 1" seems darker than some of the later songs.
Definitely. "Disappearer 1" is one that I'd been playing around with quite a bit. It's hard to describe, but that one has a lot to do with me and having a kid that has had some struggles. It's also about fears of mine and becoming a dad and trying to balance that with the life I used to have and how much it changes and feeling like I was disappearing -- those types of things.
The life you used to have has to go on the backburner, and you don't know for how long.
Right. And you don't know if you can ever get it back. And it happens like that. You don't think it's going to, but then the day things change, they change without much time to adjust or figure out how to balance it out before it happens. I have a brother-in-law who's kind of dropped off the radar. He ran away. He's been in and out of juvenile facilities, and he's just kind of roaming the streets, and we don't hear from him for months and months, and he's fighting that. That's what the song "Hunter/Hunted" is about. So there's that aspect of it, and then "The White of Your Eye."
Certain friends, we're starting to get older, we're 34, 35 years old, and some are stuck in this world that they've been in so long, and you know they want to get out, and they're kind of diving into a little bit of the darker side of that world, and I see them disappearing a bit compared to who they were. It was different versions of it, but it all kind of fell into that word "disappear," and that's how all those songs came to be. The only one that doesn't fit is "Barcelona," an older song where the vibe of the song fit musically with all the others.
DW: If there's one I pushed you to play, it's that one. You gave me, like, forty songs to listen to, and I said, "Let's do that one!"
On your Facebook page, you list Townes Van Zandt as one of your influences. As a kind of folk, kind of country artist, he wrote haunted music. Even when he was gritty, he had a lot of atmosphere.
SM: Yeah, absolutely. Major influence. The first time I got into him, I watched that movie Be Here to Love Me. It's a great documentary. I had known about him, but I never really pursued him much. I watched that documentary, and it just blew me away what he did in his life.
Obviously he had some mental illness of his own. The way he cut ties like that is kind of tragic. The songs are so painful. They're dark and deep. He's got some lighter ones, but "Waiting Around to Die," we used to cover in Blue Million and really stuck to for a long time. I just love that song and the idea in that song.
In that movie, there's that kind of famous bit where an interview asks him, "Why are your songs depressing?" And Townes responds with something like, "Life is sad. Don't you think?" And of course, also on his songs, "Well, many of my songs, they aren't sad; they're hopeless."
SM: Yeah, yeah. There's another part of the movie he's talking about doing all these crazy things when he was young and how his mom forced him to do electro shock therapy to try to treat him. One of those incidents that happened when he was younger, he was drunk when he was at a party, he was on this balcony a few stories up and hanging off of it. He said, "I let go because I wanted to know what it would feel like if I fall." He landed and went to the hospital. The guy was an interesting man.
Did you consciously weave together the folk sound and the space rock vibe for this album?
SM: No, not at all. We were on [Radio] 1190, and Danny described it pretty well: He was saying that some of the songs come out, and they're folky in nature, and there's this other stuff that's more progressive and heavy. There's no conscious effort to do either, which is what I like about Rowboat because I can write, and it will work. Whatever comes out is what we'll work with instead of trying to force a sound.
Did you feel that pressure in Blue Million?
At the end. It felt like we were loud, and heavier and spacey, and I had to write a song like that. Then I lost track of the fact that all those songs I had written for the band were written on an acoustic guitar and folky at the start. You lose that at times. Like Danny mentioned, I sent forty or fifty songs to him, and we only picked "Barcelona." And all these new songs just happened right away. That's what's nice about this band. There's not a lot of pressure to write. I'm more into it because it feels more natural.
Do you feel that with what you're writing now, you write natural melodies and structures that dictate what the song sounds like, and you can add things to it or change it, whereas, before, you had a weird sound and you write around that sound, say, from the way a guitar sounds through a pedal?
Definitely. Or like, "This is an aggressive riff. This might work." But with this band, I can just play simple. Playing in this song has given me the confidence to know that the simplest songs I write are the ones that end up being the best because everyone does such great texturing to it that they come to life.
By themselves, they're basic. Those songs work well live, too. "In the Pines" is so slow and minimal, but when we play it live, it's so dark and people always mention that one after the show, "Oh, 'In the Pines,' that's messed up." That's a great thing. So it's given me confidence that those songs work and audiences react to them.
DW: "Hunter/Hunted" and a new one "The Arrow" could be Blue Million songs. But the majority of the songs on the record could not be Blue Million songs. As somebody that writes songs, too, you always want to have a project where you can do three or four different things, and you want to have one thing that you hope represents all your interests and abilities as a songwriter. It's fun to go through these songs with you and try to, sonically, tie them together, so there's not two opposite things going on.
It sounds like a very cohesive collection of songs. An album rather than a hodgepodge.
SM: That's definitely what we were going for. As the songs were coming together and felt locked in, as Danny said, the music tied them together; they started coming together quickly. It takes me a long time to write. Blue Million put out an album in 2008 or something like that, and then spun our wheels for a while, and then wrote a couple of songs here and there over those years. That's kind of how I write. They come and go. It sucks when they're not there, but when they come, they come together.
With Blue Million it was Of Building Walls because it was about structures being around and building metaphorical walls around yourself and this one was Of Disappearing because they all came in one theme. I'm learning that's kind of how it is, how I write. No sense in fighting it.
DW: For me, the more I push a project to be defined in what it is, the less I'm going to write for it. If I have a definitive path, that just slaughters creativity, and the next thing you know, you can't write a song to save your life for your band because you have this pre-meditated idea of what it has to be -- which is the exact opposite of what writing should be about.
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