Interview with Dan Nigro of As Tall As Lions: Overthinking It

Bands approach music in different ways. Certain rock acts go into the studio for 10 days every 18 months with three chords in 20 different configurations and come out ready to jump in a van and tour the result across the world. Others labor over the process to their wits’ end in a constant state of self-criticism that threatens to undercut their creative desires altogether.

Long Island’s As Tall As Lions aren’t the week-and-a-half types, though they’ve tried it (and disliked it). Taking over a year to write and record You Can’t Take It With You, the follow up to their 2006 self-titled release through Triple Crown Records, the quartet of Dan Nigro, Saen Fitzgerald, Brian Fortune and Cliff Sarcona took great pains to visit and revisit material. The pains were perhaps too great; they went through almost a half-dozen signed on producers (ignoring all the ones they merely considered) as they were so protective of their work.

And it’s a work Nigro still sees as evolving, even since its August release. He talked at length about the moodiness, nervousness and pressures of writing the so-called “sophomore record” (even though this is their third proper full-length) on the eve of a holiday show capping off a year that saw them play the U.S. with Mute Math and sell out shows on a U.K. tour.

Now that you’ve had some time away from the writing and recording of You Can’t Take It With You, have your feelings on it changed?

I think with any album that you record, you kind of see it clearer later on. I still think the album’s starting to show its colors. It’s still early on, even though I guess it’s been out for three months or so. There are things about it that I like more than I did when we finished it, and there are things that I like less. I feel like it’s still evolving into what it’s going to be. And since we’ve been playing shows every day since we’ve been done with the record, we still are figuring out things. Certain songs, when we were done, we were like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know about this one.’ And then we try it in sound check two months later and we say, ‘Hey, this feels really good.’ You see a different light. And songs you were really excited about, it’s like ‘I don’t know about this thing anymore.’

You lose perspective on it while you’re playing.

You definitely lose a lot of perspective. It’s a record that we were in the thick of for so long, I know there were a couple of different times while we were writing the record where I said, ‘I don’t know anything about this record anymore.’ (laughs). ‘I can’t tell if any of this is good.’ You feel like you’re completely lost.

But there’s always moments of clarity while doing it that bring everything else into the light. It’s an interesting process. It’s always growing, and you get done with every record and every EP and you say, ‘We’re totally going to do it differently this time. We’re totally going to figure it out.’ And every time that you step into the next project of the band, you’re starting from scratch again. Nothing from the past makes any sense; it’s completely new again. Even though you do learn from your mistakes and you think you’re bringing something new to the table, with every record, there are always these unforeseen obstacles that show up that you never in a million years would have thought would be there.

How difficult is it for you to write new material?

It’s not the writing of songs itself that is a problem for us in any way. I feel like if we were asked to go into the studio today and make another record and were given a week to do it, we could do it. And we would hand in 10 or 15 songs and they would be finished and maybe some of them would be better than stuff that we’ve ever done.

When you’re given a looser time frame, bands tend to really procrastinate with that. I think in my mind, with our self-titled, we spent seven months writing it, and we all felt pretty happy with it when we were done. Obviously, everyone has things that they’re unhappy with, but [as] a general consensus, we were happy and our label was happy with the finished product. And I think with that in mind, that we took a long time and we really thought it out, in my mind, that was the way we should do the next one because it worked well. We should obviously not write a similar record, but the style that we wrote where we would let things sit for a while and come back to it later and seeing the song’s true colors made a lot of sense.

But everybody in the band had different opinions on that, and there was a lot of pushing and pulling in trying to figure out a new sound. Even though we felt comfortable with the writing style of the self-titled, when we wrote stuff that was similar to the self-titled, we all felt generally bored with it and it felt contrived at times. We knew we had to push ourselves in a new direction to keep things exciting and keep ourselves interested in what we’re doing.

That proved to be really difficult in itself. Trying to write things that were different and impressing each other but making them sound natural and uncontrived. When we were doing something different, making sure that it felt convincing. It was a tough journey for us because things kept on changing. It wasn’t that we weren’t writing enough material, it was we were having trouble writing material that all four of us were really excited and felt confident about. There were probably like 10 or 15 songs that maybe two people were really amped on and the other two were like, ‘I don’t like this at all. I’m not doing it.’ (laughs).