By Ian Bremner
Liam Kazar’s debut album, Due North is the type of modern rock n roll that you can’t help but enjoy. It’s got a little something for everyone. It’s a fun, goofy and groovy affair that switches gears on you at the perfect moments.
Songs like Old Enough For You would fit nicely on a playlist with the Talking Heads or 80’s David Bowie. Tunes like Frank Bacon and No Time For Eternity fit more along the lines with the 90’s alt-country era Bob Dylan. Kazar has a style that would fit into decade. All of the songs on Due North sound as if they were legitimately fun to create, so it was particularily fun to chat with him about it. The record is a wonderful blend of modern rock that sounds classic. A few months back, we had the chance to connect with Liam and talk Due North.
Ian Bremner: Due North feels so fully formed, complex and layered, which feels like an impressive feat for a debut. Is Due North exactly what you had dreamt up?
Liam Kazar: It is. It really is. It took a long time to figure out what I wanted it to sound like. It took me about a year to essentially pick the palette to what we were going to use. The producer, James Elkington helped me with it. Once we had what we thought, “oh, this is definitely it,” it made the whole process easier. We then just followed that line all the way through to its natural conclusion. It kept going until we had a complete record.
IB: This record has a lot of different sounds, but it all feels very cohesive. Was there a theme or concept behind it? What sort of energy were you channeling?
LK: There were a few motifs. One being, trying to use the synthesizer and pedal steel guitar as the colorful instruments on the record, as opposed to horns and strings or lots and lots of electric guitars. There’s still plenty of those, but I wanted to leave space for the synthesizers and pedal steel to fill out the spaces. That was one thing we stuck to early on, the thought of how to get those two to be friends with each other. Then lyrically, the main theme for me is dealing with being present in one’s life. Recognizing that time is fleeting in nature and appreciating where you’re at.
IB: I won’t speak for everyone, but I think many of us have had a lot of those same thoughts in recent years. Albums have really helped. As an “album guy,” I love the flow and sequencing of this record. Is there a reason the first three songs are a bit more punchy than the rest? How much time goes into thinking about that?
LK: The sequence of the record was put together by a friend, Sam Evian. I mixed it at his place in New York and he, similar to James Elkington, just got it. He got what we were trying to do. I showed him the early demos a few years ago and he was like, “yeah, I totally get this.” There was one time, I showed him a really rough mix where I didn’t really try that hard. There was no reverb on the vocals or anything. I was saying, “yeah, I don’t know how I’m gonna handle reverb. I sorta like the dryness.” He was like, “oh, yeah we gotta preserve the vibe and reverb will ruin this whole thing.” I thought, “oh, wow I had not even thought of that.” At that point, I knew he was the one to mix the record. I actually would not have put the record together in that way, but he was so clear-headed about the way to introduce me to people. I figured if that was the way he is relating to the record, then I trust him.
IB: So much good music has been recorded at Sam Evian’s spot in upstate New York. How did you get connected with him, and what sort of vibe has he created there?
LK: Just meeting people on the road. The bass player in Sam’s band is a guy named Brian Betancourt and I did a tour with him like 8 years ago. Staying in touch with people on the road until the point where you become friends. I’ve stayed with Sam and his partner Hannah a few times in New York and they’ve stayed with me in Chicago. They’re just the best people.
IB: Speaking of folks on the road. You’ve collaborated with artists all over the genre-spectrum, Jeff Tweedy, Chance the Rapper, Steve Gunn, but this is your first proper record. How did you arrive at this being the time to release your first solo album?
LK: Well, I didn’t have any gigs…
I mean, really, that’s pretty much how it started. I didn’t have any gigs and that’s pretty much what I do. You get nervous the phone is never going to ring again. That’s a practical answer, but it’s kind of true. That said, I had also been working on it for 4 years, so when the gigs did start up again, it kind of took me a while. I’ve always written songs and I’ve always wanted to take that aspect to the next level. I like playing in other peoples bands, it was a chance for me to focus on the songwriting for a while.
IB: Speaking of gigs, it sounds like you created your own. I saw Kevin Morby had said something about you hosting porch concerts from your balcony in Kansas City last summer. That sounds like a nice organic, artistic gathering. How did those come about?
LK: My partner works a lot… she works 6 days a week and Sundays are her one day off. She has a lot of energy so one Sunday she tasked me with doing something fun and interesting. I wore this huge jumpsuit she had bought me and I took my guitar to the porch and told her to invite her friends over and I’ll play music. She was like “ok.. well done.” I ended up doing that maybe 5 more times. Morby and Katie [Crutchfield] came by one time. They were cool. I would play as many songs as I could remember for 2 hours or so. I’d play any old thing I could think of, Motown tunes, whatever. By the end of it, people knew what songs I could play so they’d call a few out. It was a lot of fun. I had about 50 tunes in the tank.
IB: I am assuming that’s how the Mare Records [Woodsist subsidiary label run by Kevin Morby] opportunity came about?
LK: According to him [Morby], after one of those porch concerts is when he decided he wanted to put it out on Mare records. So the story goes. It was totally him. He reached out to Woodsist and said, “I want to do this,” which was amazing. I am super grateful to him for doing that. It helped me get the whole thing over the finish line.
IB: I recently read Jeff Tweedy’s book, How to Write One Song, and even as a non-songwriter, I got a lot of creative ideas and jumpstarting techniques from it. Knowing your connection, but it doesn’t even have to relate to him specifically, do you have any go-to tricks you use when you’re trying to enter a songwriting zone?
LK: Well, I am definitely not always in that zone. I’d say the most obvious trick I can think of for getting into a zone for songwriting is just sitting down, with a guitar, and just start playing other people’s songs. I am not singing, but just paying attention to how the chords move with each other. Then I will separate the melody from the rhythm of the original song and just start slowly picking my way through it. That can help get into a songwriting zone. That’s probably where I would start to get the ball rolling. But a song can get started in so many ways. Title first has happened for me. Melody first has happened. There’s a song No Time For Eternity on my record that started with a melody. Sometimes I’ll go to a set of lyrics that have no music to them and just start reading them and pull out some snippets. Learning from what you know is a good way to go.
IB: How disciplined are you in that? I hear of some folks who set aside 30 minutes every day to write, or exercise, or read or whatever. Are you a daily routine person, or is it just whenever lightning strikes?
LK: I have a bit of a way of going about it but it’s not a daily thing. I don’t really subscribe to daily routines. My life just isn’t really set up that way. It’s more like a weekly thing. I run this ghost kitchen catering business called Isfahan, where I cook food and deliver it to people, cater events and cook private meals. When I’m doing that, that’s all I’m doing. My brain is filled with that. I can’t think about music or even begin to think about anything else like writing a song. It’s more about sprinting vs. a marathon. I’ll focus on Isfahan for a while, then I’ll do writing for a little while. Then I’ll have some gigs where I need to practice material for the band. It’s a different kind of discipline. I am sure everyone has seen those “daily routine of Pablo Picasso” articles or whatever, but my life is not set up like that at the moment… maybe at some point.
It’s sort of like touring, where you have one big show that allows you to hit the road and then you can build a tour off of that. Isfahan is similar and we have some fun things coming up, but right now I am very much in a music mode.
Due North is out now on Mare Records. Buy/Listen