Making a Setlist is a series where we talk about the mechanics of live music with our favorite artists.
Bryan John Appleby is one of those rare artists who seems comfortable in his own skin. The California transplant lives in Seattle where he occasionally drums, writes snippets of unfinished songs, and looks forward to the open road. The Narrow Valley, Appleby’s 15-track “grand gesture of an album,” was released more than two years ago, but as Appleby tells Behind the Setlist, “I’m not feeling bound to an album cycle or any industry expectation.”
Don’t let his easygoing spirit fool you, Appleby is as hardworking as they come. The part-time drummer has built a successful and steady career as a singer/songwriter since 2009. His debut LP Fire on the Vine was released to critical acclaim in 2011, earning him favor from both Bandcamp and Spotify, as well as Seattle’s KEXP. He eventually landed an opening slot on the Head and the Heart’s national tour.
In late 2015, Appleby released his follow-up The Narrow Valley. According to his website, the album deals with “the sun-bleached landscape of his youth” and is “musically tied to the maximalist West Coast pop traditions of outsider California composers like Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson.”
In other words, Appleby is a thoughtful songwriter who’s not afraid to take his time, but not afraid to jump in the car either. His short stint in the Northwest begins today, and in the fall he’ll head out again with Seattle’s Tomten. In our latest Making a Setlist series, I asked Appleby about today’s Seattle sound, how his last album stands the test of time, and more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start here: How have you been?
I’ve been pretty good. Last year, I got to play drums on a few tours for the first time. That’s my teenage dream and my friend Garrett from the band Prism Tats called me up off the bench. We played a bunch of shows in California, which is always dreamy.
And now you’re transitioning back from the drum throne to the microphone. What inspired this short Northwest tour? New music?
This little Northwest run is an attempt to get myself to complete some of the many, many new song ideas I have floating around. I probably have about half a thousand voice memos averaging 19 seconds in length, but no [completed] songs in the last few years to show for all those little ideas.
I don’t feel bad about it, though. I don’t have a sense of urgency in a way that turns my songs into products and me into a production line. I’m not feeling bound to an album cycle or any industry expectation. It’s a good feeling. Just steady, patient creation. And these days, I either go east two states or south two states. California is in the fall, so I picked Washington, Idaho and Montana for the spring. I love those drives.
What’s the state of the Seattle indie music scene? From an outside perspective, it seems like things are quieting down.
I make myself more of an outsider than I should be, so my finger isn’t exactly on the pulse. I’m not sure if it’s calmed down totally. Probably from an music industry perspective, yeah. These days, there isn’t a central scene with a monolithic sound that is cresting into a giant, exciting wave of shows, albums and fans. But having lost that singularity, it might be healthier. There is a plurality of voices sprouting all over the city with artwork that doesn’t match each other. I think everyone is creating without the pressure of the sound, and therefore it’s sort of a choose your own adventure. No one massive beast, but thousands of tiny creatures.
But also, in a totally other way, things have calmed down. And by calmed down, I mean the city—with all its agenda to court the wealthy—continues to allow residents without money or resources to be steamrolled by development and progress. The story of gentrification, which is really just an update on settler colonialism, is ripping apart communities. There are communities being hit a lot harder by this, but artistic communities are on the chopping block as well. Artists fleeing the unlivable prices, or getting jobs pumping out plugs for Microsoft instead of their own creative work, is just one small aspect of that story. That definitely has a slowing effect on creative communities.
It’s been a couple years since The Narrow Valley was released. How do you feel about the record now that you’ve had time to reflect on it?
I’m very proud of it. I feel great about the lyrics and the musicality of it. Definitely wish for changes, but I’m glad overall. I don’t love how much money I spent on it. Still paying it off. I won’t be making an album like that again for a while, if ever. I was massively privileged to make such a grand gesture of an album, to investigate all my largest, most lush ideas. But I need to transition into a more sustainable approach to album making, which means smaller scale and more low-fi/DIY or whatever. That record also took about nine months to make. Next time, I want to do it in a few weeks. But as for the work itself, I’m so proud of it. I think the metaphors really will age well, and my niece really likes it. So do my nephews. That’s pretty cool.
With 15 tracks, is there a deep cut from Valley that you feel deserved more attention than it received?
I have a special place in my heart for the story on “Looking Down at You.” I don’t even know if the story makes sense if you aren’t me. It’s not autobiographical, but I have layered so many personal, familial elements in there that it’s special to me. It’s a parent/child song. It has got a feeling that I feel towards my own folks, and that maybe they feel about their’s.
“High Above the Blue” is a beautiful song. Calling it a ‘50s tune might be reductive, but not entirely inaccurate. What inspired it? Did you experiment with different genres and styles, or did it just come out naturally?
I’d be fine calling it a ’50s tune. Musically, it’s all Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and Roy Orbison, as well as Sam Cooke. There is a part of me that just wants to be some nameless bar crooner working nightly in a velvety, smokey club. Maybe I should become a karaoke MC.
With this song, and the record in general, I wasn’t picking up new influences to try out. I’ve always loved songs like these. I listened to oldies as a kid in my mom’s station wagon on the way to school. Some of those more nostalgic sounding moments were waiting for me to catch up musically. Songs like that are deceptive. They sound simple but are often very sophisticated. You would have heard more of that sooner, but I hadn’t learned how to copy those songs until The Narrow Valley. My first few records are folkier because that’s the stuff I like that’s easiest to imitate. But Brian Wilson? Randy Newman? Nina Simone? Those levels are harder to unlock!
“Contanoan Bones” has so many fun layers to it. Is it a challenge to perform?
I’ve never played it with a band and walked away feeling totally satisfied. That happens on the record a few times. It’s not the band’s fault. I knew it wasn’t a live album when we were making it, unless I can take a string quartet and a vibraphone to every show. Solo, [the song] is easier, because I have to change it so much. It becomes its own thing.
How do you build your setlists?
Often when solo, I’ll just write down 10 songs and pick the order as I go, making sure the last song is a place that is comfortable for everyone. I do like leaving the room on a solid, “breathe out” sort of moment. When I have a band, I don’t know. I’m not a great band leader, and the constraints of planning every move ahead of time feel less and less compelling to me. I’m not great at improvising with other people. But dynamically, I don’t play one that sounds like another right after each other.
What’s your favorite song to play right now?
My favorite to play right now is “Shoepac’s Daughter.” It’s so soft to sing. I don’t feel compelled to belt out any part of it. It’s just nice on my voice. But all my songs are slippery for me. Every one of them can feel like the best song in the set, the best performance, and then the next night it’s the worst. They all shuffle, and trick me and don’t cooperate, and then surprise. That one worked beautifully! It’s annoying. I’d rather have them feel good all the time.
What does the rest of 2018 look like? New material? More touring?
Yes and yes. I’m touring in September for three weeks with Tomten. I’ll be playing drums for them during their set, and then they will act as my backing band for mine. We will be in Washington, Idaho, Utah, California and Oregon. This year is a good year for writing songs. I’m doing it now. I’m really, really excited to get some tunes ready for the band, new tunes that are a little looser. It’s already been a creative year compared to last year. There is a good energy in it, personally.
MAR 8 — Humble Burger, Moscow, ID
MAR 9 — The Bartlett, Spokane, WA
MAR 10 — Rialto Bozeman, Bozeman, MT
APR 6 — STE Michelle Wine Estates, Paterson, WA