Interview: Glen Phillips of Works Progress Administration (WPA)
Works Progress Administration: (Back row L-R) Greg Leisz, Sean Watkins, Pete Thomas, Luke Bulla, Benmont Tench (Front row L-R) Glen Phillips, Sara Watkins
If you want to see the epitome of collaboration, you need look no further than the band Works Progress Administration (WPA). This new folk-pop supergroup, named after FDR's New Deal agency, was born out of many Largo at the Coronet shows and impromptu post-show jam sessions. Over the last year, it has evolved into an "expandable collective" of musicians who can individually and collectively make your jaw drop with their skill and improvisation.
Anchored by Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek) and Luke Bulla (Lyle Lovett), the band also includes Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher (Elvis Costello and the Imposters), Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, Bill Frisell) and Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers).
LAist spoke with Phillips a few days ago to learn about the band's new self-titled album, the benefits of a tight-knit musical community, and WPA's upcoming gig at Largo on Oct. 5.
LAist: You've often talked about using the studio as an instrument. What was the most surprising thing you discovered in the studio when you recorded WPA's first album?
Glen Phillips: Although I've done that in the past, this album was specifically about not using the studio as an instrument. This one was about capturing the live performances as honestly as we could. Jim Scott, who engineered and mixed the record, is just amazingly quick and proficient. You hear his records and you think it's this incredibly pristine thing, but he's so good that he just throws up the mics and it immediately sounds like a record. So in this case it was very much centered on just getting a compelling performance.
WPA - "Always Have My Love"
I can't believe you recorded this record in just five days! Were all eight of you playing your instruments and laying down vocals at the same time?
Yeah, all eight of us performed live. I think we re-recorded two lead vocals, and the only overdub was harmony vocals. The rest of it was all on the floor.
"Always Have My Love" is the perfect song to open the album. Was that the sequencing choice from the beginning?
Pretty much. It seemed like a great up-tempo way to start the record. It introduces the band really well—making it clear what we sound like right off the bat.
WPA's core group of Sean Watkins, Luke Bulla and Glen Phillips
"A Wedding or a Wake" is another song that does a great job of introducing the sound of the band and highlighting certain instruments. Did you write the song with that in mind?We ended up with a couple versions of it. If you switch it to 3/4, it works well as kind of a Tom Waits dirge. But especially considering the backgrounds of Sean Watkins, Sara Watkins and Luke Bulla, it was great to have something in there that was a straight-up bluegrassy hoedown. That song is the first take, too!
There's a picture in the WPA CD packaging where you're all sitting in someone's house, playing your instruments. Was that how you came up with the instrumentation—jamming in one room?
Yeah, we did three days of rehearsals and that photograph is a panorama of what it looked like, though that photo makes the room look larger than it is. It's the living room at the house Sean and Sara rent in LA. They have their Watkins Family Hour show every Thursday they're in town, and for the musicians, it usually ends with a jam session at their place after the show.
We did our rehearsing there and everything just came together. This is a group of people who pretty automatically know how to listen and make their parts fit in. That's why I don't think it would have worked as an overdub situation, because with that many people, everyone has to be actively listening and paying attention to what everybody else is doing.
It sounds like there was even some room for improvisation…
Yeah, and people like Benmont Tench and Greg Leisz are at such a level as players that I think they prefer recording live. They enjoy it when they don't totally know what they're doing ahead of time—there's still a little bit of exploration, so they have to be really active.
If we'd known the songs any better, I think it would have sounded somewhat stilted, but because everybody was having to figure it out, it came out well. It was probably hardest for me because I've been doing solo acoustic tours for so long. I'm used to really banging on the guitar a lot and trying to fill a ton of space. For me, this record was a matter of actively learning not to do that!
WPA - "Cry for You"
You wrote "Cry for You" with Luke Bulla. What was the songwriting process like?
Writing that with Luke was fantastic. He had this song idea and we got together and he played it for me. We just kind of e-mailed it back and forth and kept adding parts and hashing it out. It's a cool way to write.
Speaking of electronic music, I love that you've produced a free live EP to go along with the main WPA CD.
Thanks. I've been doing a lot of stuff recently through a company called Bandcamp which is—amazingly—still a free service. It's a really cool site and they've made it really easy for musicians to stick stuff up there. You can make the music free to download, set a price, or let the customer set the price, and the funds go straight to PayPal. It's wonderful to sell a record online and get an e-mail that says, "You just sold a record!" and actually make $10 and not have to wait six months for it.
It's been interesting starting a new band in this era of cheap media and easy recording. Toad had probably two shows videotaped ever, and WPA has already had two shows filmed. It's amazing. My brother and I recorded the Largo show from earlier this year, and got to mix a couple of those down, so there it is.
Poster for "Good As Ever"
Where did you get the idea for the artwork you put together for each song in the CD booklet? They look so much like classic posters from the 30s and 40s.Those posters are all from the original WPA period. There's a beautiful archive in the online Library of Congress—just hundreds and hundreds of these gorgeous posters. They were all commissioned for the government, so they're all public domain.
One day I just started screwing around on my computer and throwing different graphics on and seeing which ones would work. Then I had someone who actually knew what they were doing make the fonts right and pretty them up. It was a lot of fun to go through it. Once we got the band name, it was a cool thing to realize we had this artistic aesthetic that already existed that we could really tap into, and expand and improvise on.
Might you ever sell prints of the artwork?
We've talked about possibly doing a calendar since there are 12 songs, so that would be perfect for 12 months. But if we're going to do it, we probably need to do it soon!
Well, nerve healing is a slow process and there aren't any shortcuts to it because it's wiring. Until the wire reaches the other end, it's still not hooked up. I still can't use my pinkie finger and that side of my hand is completely numb. But I used to have a lot of weird random nerve pain and that's pretty much gone away, which is great.
I've learned how to play a guitar again—with three fingers and somewhat limited movement. It's actually been really good. Prior to the injury, I had been thinking a lot about wanting new challenges. I also wanted to have a reason to work more with other people, so I got exactly what I asked for.
I saw you play a co-bill show with Jonatha Brooke earlier this year and couldn't tell you had any problems playing the guitar.
It felt really good when I could finally do shows and not have to tell everybody and explain the whole situation. It's a bit of a bummer because it's going to take a year or two until I really know how much is going to regenerate. But I can still make music and I have great people to do it with. It could be a whole lot worse.
I think it's brilliant that you've created a band that includes musicians who have proven themselves to be helpful in a medical emergency.
Yeah, when I passed out, Sean was the guy who held my arm above my head so I'd stop bleeding!
That Largo group is a really tight-knit family. What do you love most about the venue?
The best part about Largo is Flanny [Largo owner Mark Flanagan]. He is such an incredible advocate for the artists who play there. He has an amazing loyalty. When Toad the Wet Sprocket broke up, I was feeling really discarded and depressed. He welcomed me, and I discovered this whole community of musicians. I think it saved me from going deeper down the rabbit hole, by just providing this pool of sanity and support.
It's this sanctuary and it's artistically at such a high level. It's full of people who are so in love with music, and are so generous with themselves. For instance, Benmont is always looking for new songs for Sara to sing. It's like a side hobby of his—finding music he wants to hear Sara's voice on.
In addition to the work you've been doing with WPA, are you planning to release a solo album anytime soon?
Yeah, I need to start writing; I've been just really busy. We ended up doing a self-release on the WPA project, and I'm now just getting the chance to hand off some of that responsibility. The joy of a self-released album is you can do whatever you want, but the problem with it is, if you don't have a lot of money to pay people, you just do things yourself. So there are a lot of jobs that I know I don't do well, but I can teach myself to do as well as the person I could afford to hire. Does that make sense? (laughs)
So there's just been very little creative downtime to just digest and think about what I want to do next. I think I have a week off in October, but that'll be busy, too. My wife has been working on setting up a free-standing birth center in Santa Barbara and she's in a very similar busy state—though for greater causes—so I just need to get home and take care of plumbing problems and help with the laundry!
You still manage to fit so much into your schedule! I've also enjoyed your other collaborations, such as your "geek disco" music with Remote Tree Children. What were some of your influences for that?
That was a lot of fun. That album has a World of Warcraft gold farming disco song and stuff like that. And I'm kind of obsessed with This American Life and Radio Lab on NPR. At least two songs on that record are straight out of stuff I got from Radio Lab.
"Chimera" was one song, although the character in their story was female. But I love the idea of a completely symbiotic pair of fraternal twins who join at a very early point in utero. But instead of becoming conjoined twins, they organically just decide that one set of DNA will grow certain parts of the body and vice-versa. So you'll have one person who is actually two people with no redundant parts, which is just awesome.
Works Progress Administration
I know our time is coming to a close, but I was wondering if you could give us a preview of this Monday's show at Largo.Sure! Well, as you know, WPA is an "expandable collective." Given each of our touring schedules, the logistics of everybody being able to make it to every concert would be near impossible. So we have this core of three singer/songwriters and we expand and contract as needed and just change it up day to day.
There will probably be eight of us at the Largo show. I think we'll have Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing) on bass since Davey Faragher can't make it. I'm not yet sure if Pete Thomas will be there, but if he's not, we'll have Don Heffington (Bob Dylan). It's going to be a fun night.
What are your favorite places to visit when you come to LA?
There is something about the coffee at King's Road that makes me really happy. And Benmont took us to a great macrobiotic vegan quasi-Japanese place called Inaka. But my favorite thing to do in LA is just catch up with friends. And again, as far as favorite places go, it doesn't get better than Largo!
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Glen!
To learn more about Glen Phillips, his solo albums and other projects, visit www.glenphillips.com.WPA's debut album is out now, and it's safe to say their Oct. 5 show at Largo at the Coronet will make your ears very happy. Tickets may be purchased at the door on the night of the concert, or by calling (310) 855-0350. Learn more about WPA at www.WPAmusic.com.