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Ancient River interview with James Barreto

Ancient River is the brainchild of James Barreto, grown out of the swamplands of Gainesville, Florida. They have done extensive touring across the states and beyond, including two appearances at Austin Psych Fest and playing last year’s Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia, plus dates throughout London which was working with Bad Vibrations. They released a nice bag of albums and as James told us Neil Young is his major influence and we can really hear the tasty Young's riffs through their music. Ancient River are one of the most creative bands in their genre.

You were part of the band called The Ohm and out of this band Ancient River was born. Tell us more about the beginning of the band and maybe if there is any concept behind it?

Yeah, The Ohm was a band that came out of recordings my friend Steve Giacomelli and I were making at the time. We focused on psychedelic rock, noise, freaky sounds, repetition and we had a kick ass cover of Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Ax Eugene”. We were kids, it was 1999/2000. Zach Veltheim played bass in The Ohm and a few years later Ancient River began. I wanted to establish early on the many sounds that I wanted to dive deeper into and create an ongoing body of work that could flow and all tie in together conceptually. I just knew that I did not want us to have one sound or style and beat that to hell. By establishing this early on I figured I could do anything from that point and not have to worry about the band changing sounds, because it had already been done. Just let it flow like a river. The name came from Neil Young’s song “Thrasher”.

Where the eagle glides ascending
There’s an ancient river bending
Down the timeless gorge of changes
Where sleeplessness awaits
I searched out my companions,
Who were lost in crystal canyons
When the aimless blade of science
Slashed the pearly gates.

Where are you all originally from?

I am so grateful to have worked with so many musicians in the USA and UK so there would be a huge list to go through, but the drummer Alex Cordova and I are American with Latino backgrounds. My family had residence in Chicago at the time of my birth, however I was born in Yemen. After that it was back to Chicago then I lived in Africa for bit before coming back to the USA. My Dad is Colombian and my mother was from Cuba. I’ve since resided in Florida and Texas. Alex's family is originally from Puerto Rico. His family has moved around a bit also and he has family in Detroit and Florida.

Were your households very musical growing up?  Were your parents or any of your relatives musicians or very involved/interested in music?

There was always music going on in my house. My dad is a fan of stuff like James Brown, jazz and spanish guitar. My mom loved the Beatles and The Beach Boys along with classical music and Latin music. She was a professional ballerina and later started her own dance company,  teaching the lessons, doing the choreography, and designing the costumes for the performances.

Alex’s father is a lifelong musician and passed on many musical talents to him, his dad even played with Ray Barreto, whom I may or may not be related to, ha. Alex's grandfather and uncle are also musicians, so he comes from a very musical family. It shows because he is one of the if not the most talented musicians I have ever worked with, he's a natural.

In 2010 you released two albums. First one was "Under The Sun" and a bit later "O.D.D.S." Would you like to tell us a bit about recording and producing first two releases?

Those are the 2nd and 3rd recordings we did. The first recording never got released, its called “Before Dawn” and it was done in 2008/2009. Its dark spacey psych rock, but it got left behind because we felt the new songs were stronger, looking back I’m really proud of “Before Dawn” and its a lot like the sounds we have coming out now, so I’m thinking of making it available soon to go along with our upcoming release in 2014.

“Under The Sun” is the first installment of our Americana trilogy, it was effortless and was recorded at my studio in no time at all. “O.D.D.S.” is a collection of songs that kind of represents the many sounds Ancient River is capable of, everything from garage, psych, shoegaze and Americana. I now have a back catalog of unreleased tracks that could be put together in a similar fashion, so there could be an “O.D.D.S. Volume 2” in the near future. This was also recorded in my studio over time using all the different recording and mixing techniques I’ve learned along the way. I am a big fan of using what might be a lesser sounding take instead of a perfectly recorded take that doesn’t have the weird magic to it. I have used demo's in the past for the album cut because sometimes the first couple of times you ever play the song it has that initial magic to it, you can clearly hear the inspiration in the song before it gets overworked or thought about too much. However some songs do benefit from repeated plays and working them out a bit. The more we go into “pro” studios the more I realize I’m a fan of room mics, imperfection, happy accidents and mixing on home stereo speakers.

How would you describe your local music scene? Do you see yourself as part of the scene?

It weird, at times I feel like I’m part of the scene. At other times I feel like a total outsider. The thing is with a college town is that its very transient, so you’ll see a group of people coming to every show and then they graduate college and move away. Then that group of people gets replaced by a new group. This process repeats itself over and over. Before I moved to Gainesville it seemed like there was a pretty strong alternative rock scene. Then I showed up right when the Pop Punk thing took over in Gainesville. For the most part we just do our own thing and concentrate on playing out of town.

Any local musicians you would like to recommend us?

Sure, over the years my favorite local artists to name a few have been Two Finger Suicide, Cygnet Committee, Dasi (Now known as Prince Rama), Driver, Feather and Hammer, Kathleen Kennedy and the very talented and prolific James Lantz aka MC Jimmy James. He does everything from folk to hip-hop and creates comic books. He’s been at it now for about 20 years and he doesn’t look like he’s slowing down any time soon. Also the nearby Jacksonville scene has been very good to us. Jimmy and Infintesmal Records and his band Memphibians always give us a good reason to get out of town and make the 1 hour trip up the Jacksonville.

How did you two guys meet?

I think the universe really helped me with this. We were looking for a new bass player and trying people out. I rang him up and then he researched the band a bit and listened to the recordings. He came in on an October evening and picked up the bass and didn't say much, all he said was that he was very "Intuitive". I was like "perfect!" I love playing with musicians that you don't have to sit around with and talk too much, just get on with it. The more telepathic the process is the better! Alex came in and clicked from the start, now he plays the drums, which was his first instrument growing up. 

Being very active you produced two more of your albums in 2011; "Polaroid" and "Songs from North America". The latter is an interesting mixture of dreamy psychedelia with americana music. What can you tell us about your songwriting process?  Is it more of a collaborative effort?

Yeah it can be very collaborative. Really I like to use all sorts of methods. Most of the time an idea starts on guitar and we take it from there. The past few years I’ve been getting better at approaching a song idea as a concept in my head. I gather all the rock tricks, hooks, and sounds I’ve ever heard and then put something together in my head that I would be into playing. At first I wasn’t as good at doing that without having a guitar in my hand, but now I’m getting to the point were I can close my eyes and see the song without having an instrument. I put it all together in my head and then by the time I get on the instrument its all there, even most of the words. All I have to do at that point is get on guitar and move my fingers around a little bit and its done. I like that process because its very convenient when I’m on the buses in London or on a long commute. Then theres this other process I’ve been into lately where we don’t play, we just have the amps warming up and humming and we sit outside on the porch and start talking about crazy things like the news or characters we’ve recently meet. I work myself into a manic hyper type state and throw in some jumps or push ups, something to get the blood really going, then when it feels just right we quickly go in the room and I press record and just make something up on the spot and what comes out is something that I wouldn’t have been able to plan ahead of time. It’s so much fun that way! Once the album is coming together I'll start to arrange the tracks running order at which time it can become apparent that there needs to be a certain song thrown in here or there to complete the album. I'm a huge fan of albums and the way the songs flow together. I do understand how we are currently in a time where a single and video is perhaps the way to go and the album is a lost art form, but I don't know who came up with that, I like albums.

Can you tell us about your major musical influences?

For me its always been Pink Floyd and Neil Young. I learned to play guitar along to Floyd records and I’m always trying to touch on that 1968/1969 Pink Floyd vibe. “The Man and the Journey” era Floyd. For the most part I’ve always loved the British rock bands, but influences most relevant to the band would be Spiritualized, Mercury Rev, My Bloody Valentine, The Soft Machine, Teenage Fanclub, The Stooges, Sonic Youth, grunge and brit pop I think in general we are fans of all types of music. We spin everything from jazz, funk, blues, hip hop. As far as more contemporary bands Dead Meadow hands down. Those guys are my heros! I also love The Brian Jonestown Massacre and really admire Anton Newcombe’s work ethic. Music needs more self-made mavericks like him out there. On the road we listen to almost everything we can. Jimi Hendrix is probably my favorite driving music. We also find ourselves reaching for comedy albums a lot. Louis CK, Hannibal Buress, Patton Oswald and Marc Maron always bring the laughs. Its healthy to laugh, the road can be tough and its good to never take yourself too seriously.

I heard you have your own little studio. Are all the albums recorded there? What equipment do you use? I heard you are still keen to 4-track tape recorder.

It’s a home studio with 4 track, reel to reel and Apple Logic.  I like to mix and match all the mediums according to what direction the song has. I did a stint in a studio a while back that was built by Mark Penski who worked with Frank Zappa. After that I started recording bands out of my own studio to help pay the bills, it was fun. Then when Ancient River started I backed off it a bit because spending 12 hours a day with a band and then trying to write and record your own project can be a bit much and I would never want to produce a band unless I’m rested and 100% into it. It’s not fair to the band or to myself. I love using a 4-track because with a couple of nicely placed condenser microphones one can get some great sounds, especially with drums. I love how you just sit back and the drums already sound compressed and mixed raw off the tape. I've always held strong to the idea that if the band sounds good and well balanced live in a room then the recordings need little help in post production. I much rather have great sounding gear and drums played well than spending time trying to make it sound great later. I also like to commit to effects during the recording process. For me the less options later the better when recording. I love simplicity.

Your latest two albums are "Let It Live" and "On The Other Side", which is personally my favorite. I really like the sound and we can hear Neil Young was a major influence on you. Would you like to tell us more about "On The Other Side"?

Sure, thats when Alex joined the band and I was looking to do something to follow up ‘Under The Sun’ and “Songs from North America” you know in that Americana style. We had a new member and it’s a great way to bring everything back home before heading back into outer space where things get darker, louder and unpredictable. Those types of rock n' roll albums help keep me grounded and they are less about effects and gear and more about trying to do solid writing. The track "On The Other Side" is one that I feel very strongly about. We had lost a few along the way at that point and sadly there was a bit of death and darkness surrounding the band at that time. I just wanted to say what I wanted to say without being too direct and naming names. Talking about it right now makes my heart feel heavy. However the music itself is not very dark or depressing, its not meant to be. I remember tracking that album up till about 6 in the morning then jumping straight onto a plane at 7. It was mixed and mastered it London. I think it would be cool to do another one down the road maybe in 2015. Get back to the roots with fender amps and acoustic guitars and record it somewhere like California or Tennessee.

Where did you released your music? Do you have your own label, or?

Everything we have done has been self-released with the exception of the Polaroid EP which was put out by Mark Mckenzie and Music Excavation. We were playing a pub in Gainesville and they called him up to check us out. He put us in a studio and put out our Ep. I’m forever grateful for that. With the other albums our long time friend Jeffery Lancaster has helped put them out and on iTunes and all that. I would not have been able to do any of these records if it weren't for him. He has always believed in me and wants others to hear the music. Jeff also does our live visuals at the gigs, so I really think of him as an extended member of the band. I've always thought we have been a very lucky band in many ways, just been lucky to have good people around us. Longtime driver/roadie Warren Graham even helped us put out "Let It Live". It's nice to have the freedom to do the records the way we want to, I suppose if a label came along and offered to work with us in a similar fashion without wanting to change our sound or slow our output we would be keen to do that.

Do Ancient River have any music that we haven’t talked about?

Ha, yes. I hold songs back for all sorts of reasons. I have a playlist on my computer of unreleased music, last I checked it was somewhere around 10 hours of unreleased material.

You played at Austin Psych Festival and you were also in London. How did you like the Austin Psych Festival? Where else have you been and maybe what are some future plans as far as touring goes?

We love the Austin Psych Fest. Its always a great time, we’ve played it twice and its been amazing watching it grow from clubs to festival grounds. I met my fiancĂ© there and we’ve made lifelong friends there, always good vibes.
Liverpool Psych Fest was amazing! We can’t wait to play it again. On the horizon we have more U.S. dates including our first venture to the west coast along with more UK dates and our first European tour. We are also gearing up to do Australia in 2015, but Australia is going to be really special for a certain reason I can’t unveil yet.

Do you have funny or interesting stories from live shows you’d like to share with our readers?

Ha, actually a lot of the adventures and stories come from getting to and from the gigs. We are really fortunate to play gigs were the audience is attentive, engaged and polite. Really cool people to share our music with in a nice atmosphere. One story that our drummer Alex likes to talk about is a gig we were doing and in the middle of a song we went into this improvised bit about the George Zimmerman/Trevon Martin case. I guess it was something we were really feeling at the time and its such a polarizing issue in the states regarding guns and the self-defense/stand your ground law. Alex really liked that moment as did I. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but it included some of Zimmerman's statements incorporated into the song on the spot. That kind of stuff is fun because its relevant and in the moment. That guy should be in prison for shooting that unarmed kid and that’s all I’m really going to say about that.

You must pay a lot of attention to your cover artwork, which is really interesting. Do you have someone to do all the covers and logo's for T-shirts or do you do it by yourself?

It's become very collaborative. I used to do all the artwork, but in the last year White Vintage Vinyl has been doing the artwork, videos, website and photography, this is actually my fiancé' Nakia Matthewson's design company. She is very talented and her artwork really fits the vibe of what we are doing. It's nice to work with her and see how she expresses herself in the artwork. I love having someone inspired by the music to create images for it.

What are your future plans? Are you working on something new?

Yes we have been working on the new album, which is dark and very psychedelic. We've been taking our time on this one and I feel its going to be the greatest thing we've done up to this point. I feel like the music and total presentation on this album is going to be very tight and it will be a relief when its all done just in time for our tour dates.

Well, thank you very much for taking your time. Is there anything I missed and you would like to share? Perhaps a message to It's Psychedelic Baby readers and to your fans worldwide?

Yes, thanks guys! Thank you for bringing attention to the music that we all love so much, it really enriches our lives. To the readers and the listeners thanks for giving us a chance to take you to another place, wherever that may be. Keep believing and keep dreaming, the best is yet to come! Peace.

Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2013
© Copyright

1 comment:

warren...... peace said...

watching James play live is phenomenal, he is a master of the guitar, his ear is keen and his sound is mean, after the first time I heard them I was hooked..... today I started the day with "on the other side" and finished the last 45 minutes of a long drive with "Polaroid"
it was a good day.... peace love and ancient river