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December 2, 2008

Potter pontificates on Pete Townshend, Pat Leahy, and playing Chicago

Hailing from Vermont, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals have earned high praise from all the right people: their idols (like Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal), their contemporaries (recent tourmates The Black Crowes and Dave Mathews Band), and fans from the many scenes that the band is able to reach. Founded as a jazz ensemble, the quartet fits comfortably into blues, rock, and jam-band styles. In this phone interview, frontwoman Grace Potter talks about living on the road, playing in Chicago, and donating smashed guitars for Barack Obama.

Grace Potter: Hey, is Anjali there?

Anjali Verghis: Hey, Grace. Do you mind if I record this? This article is for the University of Chicago's paper and serves as a preview for your Chicago show in December. How are you?

GP: I’m very well; I just got me some good old coffee, and I’m feeling better already.

AV: Well, an interview is probably the last thing you want to do then…

GP: No, no, I’m good. Well, actually, I already did an interview today, but then went right back to bed. And now I’m back up!

AV: Just a couple of background questions first. How'd you get into the Hammond and singing? And was guitar something that you picked up after forming the band?

GP: The singing was always there. I think, as a kid, I was pretty determined to sing as loud and shrill as possible. That’s been part of me since I was born, just being loud and generally obnoxious! But the piano was the instrument I picked up before the Hammond -- not very well, because I don’t read music and I never took any lessons, but I did a lot of it by ear, and I, of course, learned how to play exactly wrong. I have the worst hand placement ever, and I play with what they call “pancake hands,” I guess. But I persisted and insisted on becoming a better keyboard player, and one of the things I thought would be a good way to grow would be to try different keyboards. I started growing by playing Wurlitzers and Rhodes. The band actually suggested that I find myself a B3; they said, “You’re so loud. Why don’t you just play a keyboard that matches your bravado?” So I did, and for my birthday, they surprised me and got me a little mini 1971 Portable which isn’t a B3, but still is better than nothing. I learned to absolutely love it, and being able to manipulate tones, almost like a guitar, is really exciting for me. I continue to grow, and have a great respect for anyone who tries to pick up that instrument, because it’s kind of like flying an airplane. I started playing guitar because I wanted to grow as a songwriter. I was not, and nor am I still, a very good guitar player, but was proficient enough at the chords to write songs: Simpler chord changes but more of a focus on lyrical potency. That’s what got me into the guitar to begin with; that, and just because I didn’t want to be stuck in the keyboard world all the time!

AV: Rocking out?

GP: Yeah, I love rocking out in front and reconnecting with the band in a different location. It’s cool to get to look in everyone’s eyes, and it’s really a mobile thing. I get my Pete Townshend moment every show.

AV: You guys are constantly on tour, so I thought I'd ask you a couple of questions in that vein. First of all, where are you currently?

GP: Right now we’re somewhere in the mountains in Santa Fe; I didn’t even know there were mountains in Santa Fe, but there are. We’re chugging along, trying to get to the next venue – I don’t even know its name. It was one of those extra stops that we made; it wasn’t originally on our tour. But when the tour started selling well, this is one of the extra dates we added because, you know, we’re in a bus and we’ve got a driver willing to go all night because he’s crazy!

AV: Outside of your hometown in VT, do you have a favorite city or venue to play?

GP: Honestly not just saying this because we’re playing in Chicago, but I love Chicago. Chicago is such a music city; it’s the home of a certain type of blues that just embedded itself into my brain as a very important part of our type of music. That, and the fact they filmed High Fidelity there, because I just love that movie. But also I like the Sierras, San Francisco, and we always try to spend a few days in Austin.

AV: What's it like playing in front of different audiences? Just this year alone, you've played as an opening act, a headliner on your own tour, and as part of a festival lineup. Do you prepare differently?

GP: Yeah definitely, with the Black Crowes it was great, because they gave us a long time. It wasn’t just 25 minutes, and get the fuck offstage. You really have to perfectly craft each set list. Like for the Black Crowes, their fans are Crowes fans. They’re not there for us. You have to try to hold their attention when you’re opening for someone. It’s different when you’re headlining.

AV: How do you and the other band members avoid burn-out or tedium? You're around each other all the time, traveling all the time...yet you're known for the power of your live shows. How do you still bring so much energy to each performance?

GP: It’s because we sleep all day and then just wake up for the show!

We’re like tiger cubs, sometimes we cuddle, sometimes we fight, sometimes we’re like “get the fuck away from me!” We’re not nearly at the stage where we get our own hotel rooms. We usually share 1 hotel room, and last night, we were all stuck there watching GI Jane. There’s a familial quality that really gets us through.

AV: What do you and the band do with your time off? Are you guys practicing/writing songs? Playing in other projects – I know the other guys do Blues and Lasers? Avoiding music?

GP: Scott [Tournet, harmonica/guitar], Matt [Burr, drums], and Bryan [Dondero, bass] are real musicians’ musicians. They are constantly playing, and Blues and Lasers takes up a lot of their time. So when we’re off, they’re always practicing or something. I’m a little different. When I’m off, lately, I’ve been writing music, and I do it in a really conscious way. Like I sit at my computer with my rhyming dictionary. I don’t have cool little notebooks or anything. I actually got the idea from Nick Cave. I heard that he rents an office, in an investment firm or something, and just goes there to write his songs every day. He writes songs in a cubicle! Anyway, I thought I’d try something similar.

AV: Speaking of other projects, you were asked to score/act in an episode of One Tree Hill. Is this something (especially the scoring) you might want to do more of?

GP: Absolutely. It’s cool because so many people work on the different parts to get it so good. So then when you come in, you want to positively add to that work. Scoring is a pressure and a challenge that I love.

AV: I noticed that you played an Obama benefit in Vermont. Being that Obama lives and teaches a few blocks away from us, I thought other students might wonder how you got involved in his campaign.

GP: You know, we had all given our money to the campaign, not more than $25 each because we don’t have a lot of money, but we were all really excited about it. The benefit was planned months ahead, and there were a lot of celebrities there like Bernie Sanders, Luis Guzman, and we were only going to be home for three days, so they actually pushed [the benefit] back for us. I was really honored.

The benefit was cool because we didn’t give our money; we actually donated the first guitar that I ever smashed on stage – Pete Townshend style – for auction.

This guy who bought the guitar came up on stage, cut his check, and said, “I’ve already got a lot of Grace Potter & The Nocturnals’ memorabilia. Put it back, and let someone else get it.” And it was great, because the bidding started again, and it was really cool, not because of my dumb guitar, but just the spirit of generosity in the room.

And it was really cool because Sen. Pat Leahy introduced us via satellite, and said all these things about us, and our song, “Ah Mary.” I thought it was so awesome, and I was surprised he knew so much about us. I was like, “Does he know where I live?!” I was very honored.

AV: And what were you and the guys doing on Election Night?

GP: We were actually in St. Louis, which was exciting because it’s a swing state. We were at the zoo, it was our day off and they have a beautiful zoo, but we made sure that we’d back in time to watch. Kind of funny to be out in the van in the parking lot of a Comfort Inn, watching like hawks. Then our tour manager and tour coordinator, when it became clear that things were looking good for him, surprised us with champagne. It was a great night.

AV: I've always preferred to actually go to a music shop and buy an album, rather then download individual tracks or even a CD online. I noticed that you made a comment about the sanctity of the album as a full body of work being lost in this era of single mp3 downloads. Do you try to design your albums so that the individual songs add up to some type of theme?

GP: Yeah, absolutely! I hate when you can tell there’s a lack of continuity on an album, that some songs were just put on there because they’d sell more on iTunes, or because they had some extra stuff lying around, or whatever. You can make the other stuff, the iTunes singles, etc, but when you make an album, make an album! I really like the word you used, sanctity, because if we don’t make a complete album, then what’s going to happen to that format?

AV: So it’s a conscious process?

GP: It’s definitely a conscious process. You can tell the soul of a band if they can make an album. I guess it’s OK if people buy our songs individually on iTunes, but I want them to mean something together.

AV: Finally, what are plans for the new album?

GP: We’re planning on starting it in New Year…we get off tour in January, and then we’ll start recording. We don’t know where we’re going to record it yet.

AV: Has the process started?

GP: I’ve got older stuff, but I don’t want to use it until I’ve got a bed of 5 or 6 new songs and then see if [the older material] fits. We’ve got some new stuff, and we’re definitely playing around with it at soundchecks, but it’s more of a private ride than the last album where we road-tested every song.

AV: Well, that's all my questions. Big thanks to you and the guys for making great music, and thanks to you for taking questions.

GP: Right on! Thanks. Take care, and have a great day.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals play Martyrs' on December 12 (8 PM doors, $15, 21+ only, Blues and Lasers opens).