Interview: Sean Watkins of Fiction Family

Fiction Family
Sean Watkins and Jon Foreman of Fiction Family

The songwriting process for Fiction Family's first record didn't follow standard procedure, and that's probably one of the reasons why it's such a fun and fascinating album. When Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek and Jon Foreman of Switchfoot decided to write music together, they knew they'd have to do much of their songwriting while one (or both) of them was on tour. So they established something of an electronic pen pal system for writing the music and getting each other's feedback. Along with that, they established some ground rules: 1) no tuning of vocal tracks, 2) no amp simulators, 3) no shlepping of gear back and forth, 4) no pussyfooting around each others musical feelings and 5) no crap.

Thus they began a collaboration that would have been technologically impossible 20 years ago, while making sure they maintained an organic sound. The result is Fiction Family's self-titled debut, which was released on Jan. 20. Last Friday, LAist spoke with Watkins to learn more about the new record, surfing, Guitar Hero and Fiction Family's gig at Largo at the Coronet this Saturday night.

LAist: Were there any rules you initially set for yourselves that you ended up breaking?

Sean Watkins: The only rule we broke was the "no double tracking" rule. It's too cool of a sound to rule out altogether.

In most of the articles I've read about Fiction Family, it says that you met Jon Foreman backstage during a music festival in San Diego. However, a couple writers have said that you met in high school. Do you guys really go that far back?

The high school thing is misinformation. But yeah, we met during a music festival in San Diego. After we met, we talked about collaborating since we live close to each other. We didn't follow up for a while just because we were each so busy, but then we ran into each other at a coffee shop, made some plans and this time we followed through with it.

Getting into the new album a bit, I love the crazy sounds at the end of "Please Don't Call It Love" and there seems to be a bit of it at the end of "We Ride" as well. What did you use for that? It reminded me of that frequency gadget that's on top of the Largo piano.

Yeah, I guess it does kinda sound like that. Well, the end of "Please Don't Call It Love" is just me in my garage with my pump organ and electric guitar with a spring reverb and bass. And then the end of "We Ride" is sort of a box that has filters and echoes—you just twist knobs and it makes it sound dismantled. All those sounds are from the recording, though, so nothing's synthesized. It's just taking sounds from the actual track and twisting them around.

In one of the songs it sounded like you're playing a sitar, and I couldn't figure out if it was an actual sitar or if you were just taking a guitar and doing some crazy stuff to it.

That's on "Throw It Away," and it's actually just a crazy buzz that happened that made it sound like a sitar, but it's not.

You've performed "Not Sure" a number of times at Largo over the last year or two. What made it such a perfect fit for this album rather than one of your solo projects?

It just came around at the right time. I played it for Jon and he really liked it. Usually this kind of thing just ends up being whatever songs you're working on at the time.

You've mentioned in previous interviews that in writing the songs for this album, you'd each start a song, then send it to the other for input. What did Jon's input add to your music, and what do you think you brought to his?

Well, we have a lot in common when it comes to the music we listen to, but there's also a lot that we're individually into that the other's not aware of, and so some ideas came out of that. Somebody else is always going to do something to the song that you wouldn't have ever thought to do. That's the beauty of a collaboration.

What software did you use to record as you were on the road and sending files back and forth?

Pro Tools. Sometimes it'd be GarageBand here and there for a demo, but it was mostly Pro Tools.

Given that this album was really three years in the making with all the sending the files back and forth, how did you know when a song was done?

You can kind of just tell it's good. A lot of them sat 95 percent done for a long time and then at the very end, right when we realized it was going to be a real record, we finished things off and polished them up. Having a timeline helped us out a lot and we shored up what needed to be done. But along the way there was a lot of tinkering.

You and Jon play nearly all the instruments on the record—you alone play bass, piano, steel guitar, baritone uke, mandolin, 12-string and more. Did you decide learn any new instruments during this process?

I didn't, but there are times when you get an instrument you're not familiar with and you just sort of figure it out. When you're alone in the studio, you can figure stuff out. I'm not a very good piano player, but if I have time, I can figure out how to play.

Fiction Family on Tour
Fiction Family Touring Band
With all these instruments, do you ever do any looping during live shows?

I don't. For the tour, we have a bass player and drummer. It's actually a really cool band.

And one of them, drummer Aaron Redfield, played on one of the songs from the record, right?

Yeah, he played on "I'm Not Sure." Our bass player's name is Tyler Chester and we'll probably be recording with him on the next record.

The music video for the first single, "When She's Near," looks like it was a blast to film. How many days did the filming take?

Just one. The director had a genius idea to incorporate his actual move into the video. So the move that's happening in the video with the furniture and such is actually him moving the rest of his stuff. It was really funny.

You must still have tape residue on your clothes after what you went through.

I know! Yeah, there was a lot of tape.

Now that you and Jon have been on tour for a bit, have you written any songs on the road or have you become more used to the pen pal system?

We haven't written anything new on the road but we've been working on some songs we've already written for the next record. So there's no new writing, but we've been working on stuff.

When you and Jon originally started out, you were calling yourselves "The Real SeanJon." What led to the name change?

I think our publicist sort of nixed that right off the bat. Or our lawyers. (laughs)

Does the name Fiction Family have multiple meanings? There seems to be a theme of family throughout your musical career—performing with your sister in Nickel Creek, your Largo Family and so forth. Plus there's that line in "Please Don't Call It Love" about "drinking fiction."

Yeah, Jon made up the title and it's basically the idea that a band is a family of sorts, and we both come from family bands, but he and I are not related. So it just sounded right.

I noticed that your songs are published under the name "Perfect Left." What's the story behind that name?

I actually came up with that a long time ago. It's a surfing term. There are basic kinds of waves—left and right—and depending on which way you stand, you like going one way or the other. A perfect left is just a term for a certain kind of wave.

I was just following in the tradition of lame publishing titles. It's kind of a contest to see who can come up with the most stupid publishing title. I think Jon Foreman's is "Publishing Schmublishing." (laughs)

So do you still surf?

I've been really busy, but I get in the water when I can. I love it. A friend and I have rented a place on the beach in San Diego and I surf when I'm in town.

Speaking of your free time, I heard a rumor that you love video games. Is that true? It seems like you might have quite an advantage being a world-renowned guitar picker and all.

That's interesting. I've never really been that much into video games, but I do play Wurdle and Scrabble all the time on my iPhone.

Have you ever played Guitar Hero?

I've dabbled—I've played it a couple times. The thing about Guitar Hero is that it's nothing like playing guitar. Actual musicians often have a hard time playing it because it's so counterintuitive to what you know as a musician.

Fiction Family
Sean Watkins and Jon Foreman of Fiction Family
It looks like the last stop on the current Fiction Family tour will be Largo at the Coronet this Saturday. What's your favorite part about the new Largo?

Well, when comparing it to the old one, it's apples and oranges, but I just think it's better all around. I love the fact that now it's like a creative compound. It's a great place to hang out after a show, too. Plus the theater just makes so much more possible, and the history of that place is amazing.

Have you played the Little Room already?

Yeah, the Thursday night Watkins Family Hour residency that Sara and I have is basically three Thursdays a month in the Little Room and then one Thursday a month in the big room. The big room show is more of a variety-ish show—sort of like a small West Coast version of the Grand Ole Opry or a radio show.

When did you first start playing at Largo?

It must have been back in 2000 or 2001. Basically, we met [Largo owner] Mark Flanagan through Glen Phillips. I'd just met Glen and he was doing a solo show. He asked if I wanted to open with a solo acoustic set. Chris Thile was in town staying with us and so I said, "Why don't we do just a little band show?" So Sara, Chris and I did a show, and that's where the relationship with Largo started. Then we met Jon Brion and he's often invited us to play with him. It's always so much fun.

Your sister Sara makes an appearance on Fiction Family's debut record, and I know her solo album will be coming out very soon. Do you make an appearance on it?

Yeah, I played on most of the tracks on her record. Her record is SO good. I love it.

Since you do spend so much time in Los Angeles, what are your favorite restaurants and other places to hang out in LA?

Restaurant wise—I know everyone probably loves it—but I love Mozza. It's sort of my default place to go. I also love Hungry Cat, an oyster bar near my house. As far as bars, it has to be the Fox & Hounds in Studio City. It's really laid back and my friends and I sometimes go there to play darts.

For coffee, Intelligentsia and LA Mill in Silver Lake are great. It was such an amazing thing to discover those two places. I had been a fan of Intelligentsia when they were only in Chicago and I'd stop there every time we toured in that area. So to find out there was one a few miles from my house was mind-blowing. And that cheese store [The CheeseStore of Silver Lake] next to Intelligentsia is awesome, too.

Another place I really love is the Trails Cafe in Griffith Park. It's really cool—it's a little outdoor cafe right next to where a bunch of the trails start. It's very un-LA out in the trees and it's great.

Do you split your time between LA and San Diego, or do you just drive up to LA a lot?

I sort of split my time, yeah. I rent a place with a bunch of my friends—my sister included—in Hollywood, so I'm there half the time. And I go down to San Diego a lot because I have friends and family down there, and it's just nice to get away. So I definitely go back and forth.

I know you have another project in the works called WPA. Would you mind telling me a little more about that?

WPA (Works Progress Administration) is a band that's sort of based around a bunch of our Largo friends. It's Sara Watkins, Glen Phillips, Benmont Tench, Luke Bulla, Greg Leisz, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher. It's an eight-piece band and we've made a record that'll probably be released in late summer. It's really song-oriented, American folk-rock sort of stuff with a bit of country thrown in.

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Sean!

Don't miss Fiction Family at Largo at the Coronet this Saturday, Feb. 7, at 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.largo-la.com or call (310) 855-0350.

Photos by Andy Barron and from Fiction Family's myspace page