Rival Sons: Back in the Woods

Few bands in rock ‘n’ roll exhibit talent and class quite like Rival Sons. The hard-rock quartet from Long Beach, California have been perfecting their craft since their start in 2009, and their latest release, Feral Roots, is an album they are most proud of—and for good reason. It hits hard with confident swagger, but still maintains a sonic delicacy, that which the band has tirelessly honed over the course of six LPs.

Recently, AQ had the chance to talk with lead singer Jay Buchanan about the making of Feral Roots, as well as the band’s early success in Europe and being signed to Earache Records—a metal label where the band wasn’t exactly sure they fit in, and the praise the band has received over the last decade from within the artist community.

Rival Sons latest release is Feral Roots, and it’s the band’s sixth studio album. What can you share with us about the making of the album?

Well, it was a pretty involved record, comparatively.

In what way?

The depth of the record is very different in the sense that we gave ourselves longer to write it. Whereas typically, we’d go into the studio with no material, and just write feverously for three weeks or so, and record the songs as we go—which has proven to be very good for us, and it’s been healthy just because of the nature of who the band is collectively. You know, it’s given us the opportunity to capture that creative flashpoint, and to document it. But with this record, we booked three sessions of about five to six days each, and in between the sessions, we’d give ourselves a couple of months off. So, that really allowed for more introspection and reflection on the statement we wanted to make.

The word “feral” describes a wild or untamed tamed state, especially that of an animal after escape from captivity. Is the title Feral Roots a personal reference to the band’s own roots, or perhaps something thematic within the songs?

Well, I think for me, specifically, I’m from the mountains, and I grew up out in the sticks… like, ‘two miles back on a dirt road’-style.

Where was that?

In the mountains of Southern California in my hometown of Wrightwood. But I live out in Tennessee now, and I was finally able to move my family out into the woods. So, having that return to form that I had been waiting for my entire adult life, I think absolutely informed my narrative in all of the lyrics and a lot of the things we were trying to explore thematically and musically. I think that Feral Roots was very much about a return to form, to base nature…. It was really just looking at the elements of the music that we create and looking to amplify those things instead of cluttering them. That title track exemplifies that artistic sensibility.

Rival Sons originates from Long Beach, California, but I think—and please tell me if you feel differently—the group’s popularity really first took off across the U.K., as well as throughout the rest of Europe, before gradually building up steam in the States with each subsequent record. Would that be fair to say?

I believe that would be very accurate, yes.

Was that maybe indirectly related to being signed to Earache Records for a lot of years?

Absolutely! I think it’s actually a direct result of that. When we signed with Earache Records— they’re out of Nottingham, England, and their assets and reach was based in the grindcore and definitely the metal community. That wasn’t something that we were fluent in, in any way. It was very foreign to us. When we signed on to Earache—this tiny little metal label, which actually had a pretty good reach—and we started touring over there, their strongest suit was in the U.K. and throughout Europe. So, with publicity over there, and getting into their community, that was our first foray…. You know, like, on our very first U.K./European tour, we were playing support for Judas Priest! I mean, we’re a straight up rock ‘n’ roll band.

But you were well received, though.

We were very well-received, thankfully. We didn’t know how things were going to go when this was presented to us. Initially, even with Earache Records knocking on our door, we kind of took it as a joke. I mean, we didn’t know what to think. But, in understanding the reason that Earache wanted to sign us, we had a direct lineage to the music that they had been championing for so many years. I mean, you look at a band like Judas Priest, and you look at their first record… well, it’s a lot more rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues based.

I totally agree. That earlier stage contrasts with their later years as a full-on metal outfit.

Well, these are the things that you consider…. That the template for the onset of a band is going to be rock ‘n’ roll, because everybody loves it, but then you get this collection of people—Judas Priest being a great example—who get in there and they begin to cultivate their own sound and convey their own style. Very much like the first Rush record, right? That’s pretty much a straight-up bar band style, because that’s how bands tend to cut their teeth, by playing something relatable. And as they grow together, individually and collectively, they naturally find their own rhythm and identity. Rival Sons is very much in the same camp, in that way.

The band has typically drawn comparisons to the hard rock bands of the ‘60s, and I certainly think you can hear that—there’s traces of Zeppelin, Mountain, Love, even the Sonics, to a degree.

Absolutely. We knew that we were going to play rhythm and blues based rock ‘n’ roll. We tried to make an all-star band with the four of us together, and I think it took a little bit before we began to be genuine. There is a refinement process and a growing process, where there really isn’t a shortcut. You have to come to it honestly, and through experience. It comes from trial and error—not that there’s much error going on. You just have to lock in your shows. You have to make your records. In the beginning , just as it is now, we understood that content and songwriting was going to be the great vehicle to showcase what the band was capable of. The songwriting is one of the things that sets the band apart, aside from our live shows.

While arranging the details for this interview, I was truly hoping I’d be chatting with you, Jay, because I first got into Rival Sons in 2012 through an interview with Myles Kennedy of Slash’s band. He said you were his favorite new band, and he made a point to praise your vocals, specifically. In fact, he said you reminded him of his all-time favorite vocalist, Jeff Buckley. Like, wow—what a comparison! As a new group coming up, when you hear such amazing praise from fellow artists, what’s your reaction?

Well, first of all, thank you Myles! Myles is a good friend. The industry and the rock ‘n’ roll artistic world needs more people like him, because he is such a kind and affable person. Anytime you can be compared to somebody that has such mastery over their voice, such as Jeff Buckley, I take that as a very high compliment. There are many great vocalists in the world, and that’s obviously a high compliment coming from Myles, because he’s incredible. He’s approaching it from a different angle than I am, but we talk a lot about our mutual admiration for each other, and each other’s approach. It’s really trippy when you have the good fortune to sit with another vocalist because the voice is such a personal representation of a person. There’s no external tool. There’s no effects pedals. You’re not using different sticks, or a different guitar—it’s just you. So, I love speaking with vocalists who are so passionate, and someone like Myles and other vocalists that I get to speak with, they take it very seriously.

Personally, I think you are the best new singer in rock ‘n’ roll right now. But, it’s funny—while there’s certainly some very capable singers out there, the vocals almost seem like an after-thought these days. You don’t really see a lot of singers anymore who have the range and dynamics of someone like Ronnie James Dio or Chris Cornell, for example. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think that is?

Well, I’ll preface what I’m about to say with: everyone should sing. Because when you sing, you’re going to feel good. And everyone can sing. Now, doing it professionally, or being in a band, different people are going to approach it different ways—and there are a lot of vocalists that just aren’t good. They may be good front men or front women, and they may be really great entertainers—because that’s important, too. But people who are going to approach the craft very intently and respectfully, well, that’s different, and there’s only going to be so many people that stand out. The same thing goes for guitarists and drummers… musicians, in general. The ones that stand out do so because their personal aptitude for the art somehow met up with the art being available to them. So, you never know how it’s going to go. But, the entertainment factor… somebody wearing the right clothes, or making the right moves…. there are so many people out there, where, that’s really all they look for. They don’t care about ability, they don’t care about lyrics, or any of the other things that, for me, are the highest currency and of the utmost substance. But, what can you say just because some people don’t appreciate those things? That’s just the way it is. There’s no guff when it comes to any of that because some people just like what they like. I mean, some people go to McDonalds, and for them, that’s the maxim of what a hamburger is supposed to be. For other people, they demand much more. But, it takes all kinds of people, and I think music is for everyone.

Be sure to catch Rival Sons at Union Transfer in Philadelphia on April 17, and at Brooklyn Steel on April 21!

Feral Roots is available now everywhere!

Main photo: Robby Klein