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Interview: John Strickland of Lullwater

Georgia’s Lullwater have crafted a solid ethic based on passion, integrity, and persistence. Hailing from Athens, the alternative rock collective spent a decade in various permutations through constant jam sessions, and especially their live run spanning hundreds of shows. Such experience would translate competently within their self-titled debut album, as well as their follow-up, Revival, each earning the band widespread exposure. Currently, the band prepares for the release of their third album, Voodoo – arguably their strongest work to date – due out this winter.

I caught up with Lullwater’s lead vocalist, John Strickland, to discuss the development of his musicianship, the tenacity within the band’s drive, and assessing their present success.

ME: Just from reading about you guys and listening, I can tell you’re clearly passionate about incorporating grunge into your music. When you were growing up, when did grunge enter the picture?

John: For me, it was in early adolescence. I remember being 12 years old and hearing Pearl Jam’s Ten for the first time; my head exploded! And then it all kind of went on from there. I’d say that from focusing on the Seattle sound in general, I went all in and also picked up on Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Candlebox and stuff like that. Coincidentally, that paralleled with the time I started playing guitar and writing my own music.

ME: Athens also has had a lot of alternative rock through the years. You’ve got guys like REM, Vic Chesnutt, Lovetractor, B52s… Had you become aware of them at some point in time?

John: That actually came a little later. I’m originally from a small town in South Georgia called Waycross, and then moved to Athens for college in my late teens to early 20s. The Athens scene did impact us a little bit, though, when we first started being a band. We were really influenced by a band called Drive-By Truckers; they were a big band for us. I don’t think I was strongly influenced by something like REM, but I know our drummer’s a huge Widespread Panic fan, and he grew up in Savannah. I also loved a band called Dead Confederate, but more so when they released Wrecking Ball back in 2008. Those were really the two bands from Athens that influenced me.

ME: Since you’d mentioned Lullwater, at what point did the band come about?

John: Lullwater started around 2007 or 2008. I joined the band because our former drummer needed a bass player and singer. It’s funny because we were doing three-hour cover shows for our college gigs, playing songs like “Wonderwall” and “Last Dance with Mary Jane” (laughs)! All of our shows were college bars, and then we just got tired of it after a while. The money was great for college kids paying rent; we’d have enough money in about a week of playing several shows. But when we became more serious with original music, that’s when we went through member changes, and figured out what we wanted to do.

ME: What can you tell me about your growth as musicians, from your self-titled album to Voodoo?

John: For the self-titled, we worked on it in Seattle with producer Jonathan Plum at London Bridge Studios, and had to let go of our former drummer at that point. On the record, we actually have Davey Brozowski, who’s also involved with Modest Mouse and The Shins. I’d say it’s a process, man. It’s pretty cool to look back on it and recognize what we’d accomplished, but also the types of styles we went through. I think Revival ended up being a little heavier than the first one, but on Voodoo, we took it to the next level.

We have a new guitar player, Daniel Binnie, who’s been with us a year and a half, and we’d matured a lot. Working with Jakob Herrmann and Jesse Davis, it’s a bigger sound this time around. We added strings, a horn section, keys – we got heavier! I wouldn’t necessarily say we’ve become more aggressive as well, but between these three records, we’ve grown as a whole.

ME: With Daniel now in the band, what is it about his musicianship that really resonates with you?

John: Dan and I played in another band back in that 2008 to ’10 era. He definitely adds a lot of technicality, and he’s also a great writer. The new record has several songs that he composed the music for, which bring a whole new dynamic to the band. He’s just a great guitar player! He’s a shredder, you know? I think Dan brings a lot of attitude and power to the music that we wouldn’t otherwise have had.

ME: You’ve been with a consistent sound for a while, but once you have new blood entering the fold, you’re able to noticeably evolve.

John: Absolutely! Yeah, man. It’s crazy to think about. The rhythm section has stayed the same. Joe [Wilson] and Ray [Beatty] have been with us for six, seven years now, along with my own rhythms and vocals. It’s the classic Lullwater rhythm section. But when you add a guy with that power, it’s cool man! I love the new record – how it’s played, produced, and engineered – and it all comes together so well.

ME: Recently, you guys put out a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Release.” Aside from your already being a huge fan of their music, how did the idea initially come about?

John: It’s funny because we’d actually covered “Release” about three years ago while on tour. We’d had it buried for a while; it was just part of the archives. So, we came through Seattle to London Bridge Studios. Justin Davis was there at the time, and we had three days off. Once Jonathan Plum came to us, he was like, “Hey, if you guys wanna go in and record some music, that’d be cool with us.” And, of course, we jumped at that.

We essentially recorded “Release” in the same studio that Pearl Jam originally did for Ten. Being a Pearl Jam fan, that was a huge Wayne’s World moment for me (laughs)! After we recorded it, like I’d mentioned, we sat on it for a while and didn’t know what to do with it. Last year, we decided to put it out, but we’d also been on tour with Candlebox. Kevin Martin, and Dan Krusen, who drummed on Ten, played with us for maybe eight or nine shows. It was crazy (laughs)!

ME: It seems like the music video was the perfect complement to it, especially seeing those AV meters and the tape machine – very grunge, man.

John: Yeah, dude! At the beginning when we did our first record, we were like, “Let’s do it all on tape; let’s make it real.” The new record’s more produced and polished, but at the time, we wanted to make the sound analog just like the grunge guys did it.

ME: Another highlight of your journey involves touring with Candlebox, and becoming close with Kevin Martin, who is essentially one of your heroes! Can you tell me a bit about meeting him?

John: Yeah! Our manager had set that all up, and I remember getting the call that we’d be out with Candlebox for five weeks on their Disappearing in Airports tour. When we showed up, all the guys were super hospitable. He was just like, “Hey guys, how’s it going,” while I was that 12-year-old kid on the inside, pissing his pants (laughs)! Looking back, we’d toured with them three or four times now since then. Kevin managed us for a little bit, and we’d gotten really close with him, Brian Quinn, Adam [Kury], Island [Styles] and Krusen.

Now we see it as just a natural thing. They’ve done so much for us and put us on the road for a total of eight weeks or more over the years. It’s been really cool to form that friendship and bond with those guys. They’re rockstars! They’re Candlebox, you know? Initially, Lullwater would be in a trailer van with bunks in the back – handmade – just all cramped in, but Candlebox would have us in this massive bus! They’re the nicest guys in the world, and don’t have that rockstar ego mentality like a lot of bands at their level. We’re very appreciative of those guys for helping us out.

ME: They have the Seattle scene mentality – close knit and familial in a way.

John: Yeah, they have that for sure, man! And there’s one thing that Kevin told us that he sticks by – and I’ll never forget this. He says, “You know, guys, we know how hard it is to struggle; we were an up-and-coming band once.” He was saying that, back in the early 90s, they toured with Rush. A couple weeks into that tour, Geddy Lee says, “Hey guys, you’re a really good band, and we want to help you out as much as we can.” Rush leased them a bus for the rest of the tour, just out of heart. Kevin was so blown away by that gesture, to the point where he made that his thing. He said, “I want to help up-and-coming bands as much as I can throughout my career.” And he’s known for that; he’s one of those guys who brings the opener out on stage, wears their t-shirts, and really promotes that band. Rush did that for them, and it’s pretty cool that he’s still doing that all these years later.

ME: In general, are you surprised that Lullwater’s chemistry has remained strong to this day?

John: Yeah, I’d say a little bit. With anything that’s worth something to you, you have to roll with the punches, and grow both as a band and individually. We’ve always been very driven to tour, put out music, and work as hard as we can. It’s something to look back at and say, “Okay, we’ve struggled, but we’ve all accomplished a lot, too.”

ME: You’d mentioned channeling that kid inside, and it seems like, especially now, those dreams have come true! If you had an encouraging message for your younger self, what would you tell him?

John: I think I would say that it’s going to be tough, rough, and really hard. You’re going to lose relationships, money, love – you’re going to lose a lot of things. But you’re also going to gain so much more than you can imagine. I think I should have told myself as a kid, “Stay away from being girl crazy, and just keep practicing.” (Laughs), most 16-year-old boys just want a girlfriend. I would tell him, “You’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna play music, tour with bands that you idolize, and keep going.”

I wish I would’ve just cut the fat, you know – cut all the bullshit. I mean, I’m glad that Lullwater has done what it’s done, but also, it’s taken us a long time. We’re still not totally where we’d want to be, and I don’t think we’ll ever get to that point. But I would also say to cut down on three, four years of cover gigs (laughs)! I guess it’s all in the process.

ME: Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?

John: Thank you all for standing behind us and sticking with us through these years, and get ready for the new record! I think this record is great; it sounds big and a lot more polished. I know that back then, we used that raw, tape-based sound, but I hope they like the new record, and will support it as much as we do!

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About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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