Tomorrow, the Seattle band Great Grandpa release their new album, Four Of Arrows, one of the most surprising – and impressive – documents of artistic evolution you’ll find in indie guitar rock this year.
Four years ago, Great Grandpa stepped out with a scrappy five-track EP – led by an opening track titled Cheeto Lust – that garnered them favourable comparisons to Speedy Ortiz. Their 2017 debut album, Plastic Cough, expanded their audience with its slacker basement jams and grungy tones – but it would be the album’s quieter, more earnest side, exemplified in songs All Things Must Behave / Eternal Friend and Faithful, that foreshadowed their future.
For Four Of Arrows, Great Grandpa challenged themselves to think out of the basement-band box and expand their sonic palette. With the help of producer Mike Vernon Davis, they gave the acoustic guitar – the instrument all but one of the tracks were written on – pride of place on the album, and added vocoder, strings and piano. The result is a moving, melodic collection of folk-inflected rock and pop songs that are at once deeply felt and painstakingly realised.
Guitar.com spoke to guitarist and songwriter Pat Goodwin about his songwriting process, his background in more technical music, and how Great Grandpa aimed to do less, not more, on Four Of Arrows.
Why did Great Grandpa decide to take a new artistic direction for this record?
I think [Four Of Arrows] is probably more of a reflection of our true tastes. In the beginning we picked a style that was easy to do in a live setting. And of course, we were inspired by the things we were listening to at that time. I think we very quickly realised as a band that we wanted to have a greater variety [of sounds] and not be limited so much to that one paradigm, but also explore more of our lifelong musical tastes.
Great Grandpa originally started almost like a side project. It wasn’t meant to be taken super seriously, but then it became our main thing… The EP really started out as a side project. At that point, I was still doing the band [Postmadonna] I had been in long before Great Grandpa started. I think [the EP] set the tone, and the expectation we felt was, “Oh, this is what we have to do now for the LP” – taking what we did on the EP and making a full-length version of that. We honestly made that LP pretty much right after becoming a band. The EP was literally made in the first eight weeks of being a band.
So the LP [Plastic Cough] was actually the first thing we made as a group, really collaboratively. We just felt like, “This is how we operate, we don’t feel comfortable yet doing anything outside of this paradigm. We’re a band that practices in the basement with a garage rock instrumentation sort of setup, that’s it.” We really wanted to be a band that played live, and it’s so much easier to make music that translates live when you play it to record in the exact same formation as when you played in the basement. I think that was the way we felt like we had to do it.
We had no idea how to put on a good live show that involved other instrumentation or arrangement. That’s something we’ve actually been figuring out now with the new record. It’s been a good challenge, but at the same time it seemed daunting to us, or almost not an option.
So was there a particular moment where you or your bandmates decided Great Grandpa should be something more?
I don’t think I can point to a specific moment for that change… It took a long time, we didn’t try to write or practise any new material for, I would say, at least a year or so after Plastic Cough was done. So somewhere maybe in that space, when the earliest thoughts started stirring of what would the next thing be. I think it sort of happened organically, like “Let’s do something different, let’s push ourselves”.
For myself, I just sort of felt: We now have this platform. It was suddenly like “Oh wow, we have more time, we have the budget, we can do what we want to do”. I think having that flexibility and that freedom opened up all these doors, and we can really make whatever we want. I imagine it came from having the opportunity to make something with resources that we’ve never had before, and what can we do with that…
The songs were written over the course of maybe a year and a half or so, or even longer. I think some of the earlier stuff that was written was more along the lines of our older stuff. I think we probably grew more ambitious over the course of that. Some of the things that were written last are probably the most distinct and the most ambitious, sonically.
You wrote a couple of demos first before fleshing them out with bassist/vocalist Carrie Goodwin. How was that process like? Were you writing with a guitar?
Every song except for Endling, which is the piano piece, was written on acoustic guitar first. That’s pretty much how everything started. I think there’s something about acoustic that just feels timeless. I have a tiny travel guitar that I brought when Carrie and I did some travelling, and wrote some songs on that.
I love the acoustic guitar, I love feeling the vibrations of the wood. I love the richness of the tone and the register that an acoustic guitar is in. I think it’s the same reason why people think that cello is such a beautiful instrument: It occupies that specific frequency range that is very much aligned with the prime registers of our hearing and the human voice. It’s not too high and shrill, and not so low that we can’t hear all the harmonic content. It’s in that perfect register. It’s fresh and flexible to write on. You can voice a lot of interesting chords, and also have rhythmic aspects – the fluidity that’s missing from a more string, compositional instrument like a piano.
That’s the heart of all the songs: start on the acoustic. We wanted to keep a lot of that on the record, because the earliest foundation and spirit is that acoustic base.
What song on Four Of Arrows was the most difficult to get right?
I would say one song that we struggled with in pre-production that changed very radically in the final version was Digger. At first, Mike the producer started pursuing this big, post-rock sound: The drums had reverb on them; everything was sounding very epic. I think post-rock is the best way I can kind of describe it. It was like a very big sound, and it was very slow as well. I kept feeling like something was wrong, like “this isn’t sounding right”, but I couldn’t figure what it was. And we were sitting at the console and all of a sudden I was like, “Wait a second, can we take all the reverb off the drums?”
And then we did, and then instantly it unlocked something. I was like, “Okay, I think I know what’s wrong. I think we need to make this song much more humble, it needs to feel simple and organic”. That’s when we changed the tempo. We went back to the original demo that I made, and we realised it was a lot faster. So, we sped it up, and made the drums really dry, and started layering the acoustic stuff like the piano and the acoustic guitar.
I played Mike a couple of songs. I think I showed him some Big Thief stuff, and some (Sandy) Alex G songs which have a much more intimate and organic, acoustic sort of bedroom-y vibe. This was more of the spirit of this song, not this epic, grandiose post-rock thing with all these like huge spaces. That song does get loud, but I think it took a while for us to unlock the heart of it. I do love that song, and that’s definitely one of my favourites on the record.
You’ve just finished playing a few shows. What are your live rigs like now?
We changed things up because we’re playing all these new songs. So we’ve been trying to do some more like complex live stuff: [drummer] Cam [LaFlam] got a Roland SPD drum pad. We’ve been triggering some recorded stuff from the record, like when we play Mono No Aware, we have some programmed synths then other percussion. We’re doing a lot more acoustic guitar, and we’ve done some piano live now. But at its core, we’re still playing relatively the same instruments: electric guitar, bass, drums.
For this last tour, I was just playing one electric guitar, a Fender Supersonic, and I’m playing that through a Fender broad reverb. All Fender all the time [laughs]. And then two acoustic guitars: One is a Martin cutaway, and then the other an Epiphone cutaway. I have a couple of pedals, nothing crazy. I have an OCD for clean overdrive, and JHS Morning Glory for my heavier drive. And then I have a Caroline Météore reverb pedal. And that’s pretty much it. It’s pretty minimalistic.
I read somewhere that you and Cam, the drummer of Great Grandpa, come from more musically niche backgrounds, like math rock and experimental rock. What kind of music did you come up playing, exactly?
In high school, I played in pop rock bands, and was more into, I don’t know, The Beatles and Queen, classic rock, Elton John, Billy Joel. I was the oldest kid in the family and so most of my musical tastes were determined by what my parents listen to, which is a lot of classic rock, singer-songwriter stuff like Americana, alternative, pop-country.
Then when I got to college, I started meeting kids who exposed me to a ton of music and started really falling in love with a lot more experimental, progressive rock and started playing in bands like that. And that’s when I met Cam. Cameron and I were both playing in different bands but were really good friends… Guitarist Dylan Hanwright also played in a math rock, emo band. And that’s actually how we met we met him, because he was going to play a show with my other bands, and then I was like, “I’m starting this other thing. Do you want to play guitar?”
In my early 20s, some of my favourite bands were Tera Melos and Mars Volta and a lot more technical music: I was really into classical, jazz. I got into music as a nerdy endeavour. But I also love accessible music. I love storytelling, I love pop music. I think the universality of that is very special.
As I’ve gotten older, I tried to blend my desire to hear things that are unique or compositionally interesting with, you know, pop music. It’s obviously easy for pop music to become stale and repetitive, because you’re dipping into the same tropes and the same chord progressions and structures over and over again. But I’m trying to bring some of that uniqueness, spark and novelty that’s what’s so exciting, and what drew me to some of those genres in the first place.
I still listen to more technical or like, challenging music, but as I get older to me it feels like if a band pursues that, it has to be secondary to the emotion, the storytelling and the melody. I think the bands that I love, even that I loved back then, are bands that functioned under that paradigm… There’s a lot of technical music that does lack that human heart, and it comes from a place of thinking as opposed to feeling. So, I’ve always been interested in that space where the thinking and the feeling meet in the middle somewhere.
Do your backgrounds in more technical music inform the way you think about Great Grandpa songs? Do you actually see that influence playing out in the studio?
It’s funny, because in some ways, this album is the least technical, from a traditional, prog-rock or I don’t know, jazz or classical [perspective]. It’s the least ‘flexing’, musically, of any of our stuff. But I do think like experiences playing more technical music definitely informs that stuff.
This is something we worked with our producer a lot on: trying to tamper our desires to overdo stuff. I remember several times Cam would be doing some technical, crazy stuff on the drums that was very much in line with how we would do something in the past. And Mike would be like, “Hey, let’s dumb this down, really basic, let’s get to the fundamentals”. I think in a lot of ways we approached a lot of stuff like that: doing things that are simple, but doing them well and with a wisdom, I guess.
I think people who are really proficient musicians, as they get older and mature, a lot of them show their ability through doing simple things really well and with a lot of style and grace, as opposed to just pure flexing: “Look how many notes I can play at the same time!” That’s the more tacky way of being virtuosic… I think a lot of times people think of that as a way to showcase your musicianship. But I think some of the best musicians don’t necessarily have to play the most technical music: they’ll play something that’s simpler, but they’ll do it with a lot of feel, and show skill and knowledge in that way.
So, I think part of it was having none of our parts have a ton of flair, but doing them really gracefully and well. And then also having more subtle musical things, like little key changes, mode changes, time signature stuff: we just tried to let the music inform it as opposed to consciously choosing to do that. I don’t think we made any decisions for alternate time signatures or modulation or anything like that. I don’t think there was a single time in the record where we thought, “let’s do something weird here, let’s make this in five instead of four”.
It always came organically from serving the song. That was part of the language that Mike, the producer, would often use: “Is this serving the song?” And I think that translates to: does this help the emotion or the melody, or the spiritual core of the song in any way? Or is this just something we’re doing for the sake of doing it?