Rock ‘n roll’s biggest rising stars Rival Sons are in the midst of a very busy summer. Following the release of their fourth album Great Western Valkyrie last month, Rival Sons hit the road, stopping by New York City for two sold-out shows before traveling north for a few dates in Canada. July and August are spotted with festival appearances for the band in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and their native United States, to name a few, but if any group of musicians is familiar with a heavy touring schedule, it’s Rival Sons. On the first day of Rival Sons’ NYC tour leg in late June, we checked in with guitarist Scott Holiday to discuss the band’s musical progression on Great Western Valkyrie and their hopes for the future.
Your new album Great Western Valkyrie was released earlier this month. How are your audiences reacting to the new material?
They’re freaking out. That’s good. A lot of the sets we’re front-loading with a lot from the new record. We’re not really giving them a chance to remember the old stuff, we’re just launching right into the new stuff and seeing how it works. I think it’s been pretty positively received, from the fans and critics alike – both live and on the record.
The new album reminded me a bit of 2011’s Pressure & Time. The opening riff of “Electric Man” in particular seemed to recall the power behind the driving riff of “Pressure and Time,” which served as my introduction to Rival Sons three years ago.
Huh, yeah. I like that. I like that very much. When we finished this record, we’d done about 20 songs. We had ventured way, way outside, and there was also a group of songs that were very much Rival Sons, very much our rock ‘n roll thing. It’s not that we’re forcing that or we have to do that – it’s just like that, and it feels like us and it translates very well live and on record.
In sequencing the record, we all amazingly had a very similar sequence when we stepped away, but for me, the idea was…this record goes so far outside to another area, and it might be foreign to a lot of our fans. I wanted to open this record up in very familiar territory, to remind people. A lot of people probably will discover our band on this record – we’re still at that point. So we wanted to open the record this way and then slowly start to turn the corner.
If you buy it on vinyl, it’s very much set up like that. Side A is this very familiar rock ‘n roll territory: “Yep, that’s Rival Sons. I know this band.” But right when you flip Side A to Side B: “Oh. But this is actually a bit different.” You get “Good Things,” and then we come right back to “Open My Eyes.” Then “Rich and the Poor,” that’s very, very different from a lot of stuff we’ve done. So we start to really turn the corner, slowly but surely on Side B. Then you go to Side C, the final side – because it’s actually a three-sided vinyl. Side C has “Belle Starr,” “Where I’ve Been” and “Destination on Course,” which totally goes off into some interesting territory. It’s set up to string you out off into space, slowly but surely. [Laughs] We try to keep the listener with us, but also turn some new corners, you know?
Especially with “Destination on Course.” What was the writing and recording process like for that track?
The song is my own. It’s something I wrote maybe 12 years ago. I just never recorded or even shared it with anybody, really; except close friends and my wife. I kind of kept it put away. On this record, I decided I wanted to show the guys. It felt like it was time for that song, and it would fit in with what we’re doing right now. I showed it to everybody, had to sit there and play it and sing it. I’m singing in front of my great singer, and he’s going to do a much better job, and here I am giving it my best shot. They ended up really liking it, so that was great.
I gave all the lyrics to our singer, and we went over melodies and how it went. I actually had a lot of ideas. Since I’ve had this song for so long, I knew how I wanted it to sound, and I had all the solo parts worked out; I had that ending worked out, believe it or not. Tentatively – just the loop. It’s all pretty live and improvised, but I knew that was how the song ended. I had recorded it previously, and it moved exactly the same way. The only things we added on this recording were the operatic pieces: these beautiful, big operatic pieces that we wrote into the song. So yeah, that’s it. We recorded it pretty quickly; in a few days the whole song was done, and then Jay took some passes on it. My take on the song vocally was probably much more like Rick Wright – very English sounding, very British, very psychedelic. It’s just wonderful what Jay came up with. Very much like a jazz song, like a Nina Simone or something much broader than I could have ever accomplished. It was really gratifying to watch it come together.
Isn’t it unusual for you to bring a song into the studio? I’ve heard you write most material during your studio lockdown.
We usually write it when we all get in there. This was an unusual thing. For every album, I’ll have a couple things I’ll bring in, and Jay will do the same. But we really restrain ourselves to avoid doing that, because either of us could just write a record. I could surely sit down and write a whole bunch of songs and say, “Let’s do all my songs!” And Jay is certainly capable of writing a bunch of songs and making a Jay Buchanan record. But we restrain ourselves, and that’s why we write in the studio as well: so we can make sure we pass the hat and really get everybody’s personality in. That’s what really makes a Rival Sons record. But Jay brought songs on this record: he brought things in that he wrote while we were there that were pretty complete, things like “Rich and the Poor” and “Good Things.” My parts weren’t written in those songs, but the vocals and the parts were fairly written. So we colored it and added a lot of Rival Sons personality to it. And on this album I brought “Destination on Course,” and that’s really it for the completed songs. For everything else I brought parts and stuff, things that we could all work and pass around to make it very collective.
While you were in the studio working on Great Western Valkyrie, you put together a short fan video to demonstrate to listeners what it was like to be Rival Sons during your recording “lockdown.” How vital is this separation to the band’s creative processes?
It’s just what it is. We’re working frenetically and quicker than the average band of this day and age, so it’s mandatory. When we get in there, we’re not partying, we’re not meandering, we’re not pussyfooting around. We’re working. So the minute we get in there every day, it’s time to make a song. Or two, or three. And we’re finishing them. We’re not like, “All right, we got a good drum sound today. See you tomorrow, guys!” That’s not what’s going on. We’re finishing songs: writing them, finishing them, recording them, mixing them, done. “Okay, what time is it now? One in the morning? Okay, time to go – because we’ve got to do this again tomorrow.” We’re working really quickly, so we have to lock it down. When people come over, everyone’s quite affable and sociable, so we just hangout and not work. If anyone’s coming over, we know we have to block that out as a workday and make it a hangout day. [Laughs] So it’s quite important for us to lock down the studio.
I have to ask about the album title. Why does the name of this particular Norse mythological creature make its way onto Great Western Valkyrie?
She is the Norse goddess who chooses who lives and dies in battle. And why it’s titled that? Oh, I’ll never tell. You’ll have to find out why all those great albums are titled what they’re titled – like, why Beggar’s Banquet? Why Physical Graffiti? There are so many of them. I think it’s ambiguous. There should be some level of ambiguity – it allows us to interpret for ourselves.
If I think about Houses of the Holy and how that makes me feel, that is for me very colorful, and I’ve actually included a lot of my own memories and my own heart into that title. It has become very personal to me because I have no idea why they called it that, or referenced that, or what that even is. But I know it means something to me, and I like it. I think I could divulge what our own title means to me, or to Jay, or to [Michael] Miley, or whatever – anyone could tell you that. But it would take away from what our fans are thinking.
“Torture” and “Wild Animal” return on Great Western Valkyrie as live tracks. Why were these selected for inclusion on the record?
Technically, we didn’t include them on the record at all. In this day and age, nobody actually allows you to just make a record; all of these outlets put you over the barrel. Basically, if you’re a little band like us, you’ve got to do it. You have to release extra material to be included on the roster. We have plenty of extra material we could use, but by no means, way, shape or form are the songs intended to be included on the statement that is Great Western Valkyrie. We’re just giving an extra couple pieces of candy, I guess.
I didn’t want to include songs that weren’t included in the session. We added songs from the session that weren’t intended for the record that were B-sides, and then we were going through extra material, and those just seemed like something cool people would want and would enjoy. We’re moving very quickly, so we don’t have a lot of time to sift through extra material. I had just been working on a live film from Gothenburg, Sweden that we released for Palladia. We released the Live from Gothenburg, Sweden video from 2012, and since I had just been working on it and mixing it, it was ready; it was an easy choice.
Through your work with Rival Sons and with past projects, what has been the key to your progression as a guitarist?
I think the key to progression is playing live quite a bit. I’m always looking for the next corner to do something different sonically. It’s getting tougher and tougher five records in; I can only imagine people who are 10 records in. I guess you probably just end up relying on the same old tricks. But on this record, I turned a whole bunch of different sonic corners, as well as some songwriting turns that I think are really important. We certainly have done that on this record. I’ve done that on this record, and I’m trying to constantly up the game on the craft of the solo. I don’t need the most perfect solo in the world. I like something very abstract and angular on one hand, and on the other hand I like something very crafted. Trying to find that balance, something very outside, while at the same time eluding the something very inside on the track. So I’ve been working on that song by song, record by record. Playing live for the past five years at a very constant rate, you really learn to listen to people, when not to play, and how you can make your part much more important by laying out and returning in the right spot. Listening is a big lesson over the years; it helps me develop what I’m doing and how I do it.
What are your hopes for the future of the band?
We all have delusions of grandeur – it’s the indicative nature of a musician, whether you’re a rock ‘n roll musician or a pop musician. We would love for it to go through the roof, become the craziest thing ever, play Shea Stadiums and Wembleys every night. It’d be fun. It is really fun, actually. More than the blood thirst for money, the money-hungry feeling, we all share something. I know I feel very privileged and very humbled and thankful. Every night, my job is to play music for people who bought tickets and for the last six months have just been waiting and listening to the band, investing themselves and focusing all this positive energy until we get to town. This is their big night: the night of their week, the night of their month, the night of their year, I don’t know, the night of their life – we hear it all. And this is my job, night after night. It’s different people with the same sentiment. I can’t think of any other jobs that are like that. I don’t take it for granted.
If we can grow it and know that there are many more people every night who have that sentiment, and grow it to the level of nightly Wembleys…I don’t know, I feel like I’d just explode. I’d pay money for that. If people want to give us money for that, that’s amazing. I would be quite happy to spend a fortune and just live that life. I think the goal is to grow it so we can make that kind of love and joy happen on a nightly basis. Artistically, hopefully we can just keep making records that are honest to ourselves and honest with each other, instead of some watered-down bullshit. If we can keep it real with ourselves, keep it real with each other, stay inspired and keep pushing on that positive direction and keep growing, that’s my goal. Everything else will spring from that.
I can only imagine how it must feel to take the stage each night at venues packed with fans. It must be an incredible feeling.
I think there are people who really understand it for the right reasons and people who really don’t get it, but it’s really humbling, night after night. The larger the venues have gotten, the more humbling it’s gotten for me and my friends, the guys I play with. I just feel smaller, and smaller, and smaller the bigger the venue gets. I think there are probably people out there who feel like pounding their chest; they feel like, “Yeah! I’m getting bigger and bigger and bigger!” For some reason, and I can’t exactly understand it, to be honest, I keep getting a smaller and smaller feeling. It feels real good. I want to shrink all the way down to the size of an ant! [Laughs] It gets really confusing and beautiful, at the same time – the role that you’re playing, inside all this beautiful, warm energy.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Not so much. We all make sure we’re together. We all put it in, say a little something, take the stage. Nothing too crazy. I think pre-show rituals are for cheerleaders. I’m a grown-ass man. [Laughs]
There’s one question I try to ask everyone I speak with. Is there a musical memory that stands out to you from all the time you’ve spent onstage, in the studio, or before your guitar playing days, when you were just a kid?
Are you kidding me? I’m a musician! I get those every week. I have so many in my life. I was raised around musical people, and people who love or appreciate rock ‘n roll. I have so many.
I remember distinctly being about…gosh I don’t know. Eleven years old, maybe. I went on these elaborate trips with my family. We’d go to these amazing places, all these different canyons and deserts and mountains, astronomy trips…we were always doing crazy stuff. We went out to this one real far-out place; my stepdad worked at a college, and we went out with these geology students. There was all this white rock – it was almost like being out on the moon, in the middle of nowhere. So trippy.
I was only about 11 years old, and I had my Walkman with a cassette – old school, you know. I had acquired this tape: The Rolling Stones, Through the Past, Darkly, a compilation of their ‘60s era; the Brian Jones era Stones, mostly. It was a lot of “2000 Light Years from Home,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Dandelion,” all those Brian Jones tunes, the psychedelic era. That was a really powerful musical memory for me, because it was in my headphones so I didn’t share it with anyone. I was just walking through this geological rock site. It was like being on the moon. I was going on these solo walks listening to this thing, and it really brainwashed me, to be honest. I think it just freaked me out – these songs, this era of the Stones. It’s a really powerful musical memory. When I hear those songs, I think of that time. It’s very much like a brainwashing psychedelic thing, like an acid flashback, almost. A couple of those songs I hear, and I think back, “Oh my God!” I feel like I’m 11 years old, walking through this geological site again. It’s a really trippy psychedelic feeling.
But I’ve had so many. Being up in the mountains listening to “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond” as a kid while the full moon rises over a mountain…it was really far out.
Are there any messages you’d like to pass along to our Blues Rock Review readers?
I would like to thank everyone who has been following us, if you are following us. And if you’re not following us…why don’t you follow us? I would like to say thank you, though. We’re doing our best.
Interview by Meghan Roos.