‘Folk tunes transforming into something much larger’ An interview with the Dive Poets
The Dive Poets are reminiscent of a line in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel “Lolita.” The sentence revolves around the pitiful antagonist Humbert Humbert’s love for the nymphet Dolores Haze.
Humbert, in the gorgeous pen strokes he uses to explain his questionable actions from jail, states his love for Dolly was so intense that he anointed himself with his obsession — thereby skewing his reality, and becoming trapped by complacency.
The Dive Poets tap Nabokov (and Hemingway) to articulate their makings of bittersweet music. Guitarist and singer Eric Sargent didn’t choose the above-mentioned quote to explain the Dive Poets music. If he had, it would indicate the St. Louis band is unable to separate itself from its aesthetics and the genre that categorizes its music.
Instead, the Dive Poets are a self-aware entity with a penchant for Americana-lit jams that jingle and jangle merrily over somber lyrics. In an interview with KDHX where guitarist Karl Eggers, bassist Jeff York and the bookish Sargent communicated via separate email interviews, the band reiterated its goal is not to obfuscate the bad times by clouding them with optimism (American folk music’s omnipresent characteristic). Instead, the sextet (three of whom — Anna Drexelius, Renato Durante and Christian Schaeffer, host of 88.1 KDHX’s Collector’s Edition — were not interviewed) remains aware of alt-country qualities the Poets have imbibed since starting out in 2008.
In preparation for this week’s Thursday at the Intersection concert series, Eggers, York and Sargent wrote about the recording process, Americana’s knack for pillowing melancholy subjects with happy tunes, and adding Schaeffer on keys.
Blair Stiles: How’s the new record coming? “Some Great War” is quite a tease.
Karl Eggers: This record has been a bit of a journey. At times we’ve been incredibly productive, other times we have traveled through the desert of inactivity. I think once it’s finished we will be happy with the destination.
Jeff York: Our goal is to have it released by mid-to late fall and a record release show in December.
How was working with Sawhorse Studios? Who is the producer (meaning “main man”) behind “Some Great War”?
Jeff: Working at Sawhorse is just a fantastic experience. Jason [McEntire] is The Man. We get along great with him and he has an excellent way of making “you might want to try that again” sound more like the most supportive suggestion you’ve ever heard than “stop being a head case and learn how to play your instrument.” Sawhorse feels like home every time we go in there. I just want to hang out there. That being said, the songs don’t really change much when we are in there. He does a good job of getting the best performances out of us and making it sound legit.
Are you planning to finish your debut LP with Sawhorse Studios?
Karl: That’s the plan. I think we might record one of the remaining tunes at Native Sound Studios with Kit Hamon.
What keeps you motivated while you record?
Eric Sargent: The idea of these songs as simple folk tunes transforming into something much larger and grandiose is always a motivator. Seeing things come to fruition, I think, for me, is the ultimate goal. And although there have been some tough nights in the studio, I think our general outlook is quite positive and we tend to have more fun doing what we do than anything else. The PBRs also help.
As I was listening to your second EP, “The Good and the Light,” a peculiar thing happened. In the case of “I Still Miss Louise,” a song about the things that remind you of someone (and make ya miss ‘em), the content is sad, but music is up-tempo and feels optimistic. Did you enter into the album making process with the idea to combine sad happenings with uplifting music?
Eric: That song actually began many years ago in a basement studio where I was recording these songs as demos. I had some time scheduled, but the song wasn’t completely written as of yet; and I remember scrawling the lyrics of the last verse on a pizza delivery receipt minutes before heading off to the basement. We [the producer and I] had this wild idea to make it more of a train-beat song and he concocted all these elaborate microphone techniques; one of which included placing a mic in a nearby empty wash machine to capture the echo of the snare. It was truly ridiculous and genius. I’m not sure I’ve heard a better snare sound from a room mic to this day. But, as the band and the song progressed over the years, so did the “feel” of that song away from a sappy country standard to more of the rockin’ version we have now.
Jeff: Part of the dichotomy you mention is the push and pull of all of us contributing our musical thoughts and bringing our differing musical tastes and backgrounds to the songs. Some of us are singer-songwriter fans and others are more fans of the rocking, so when the melancholy meets the velocity, these things happen.
Would you say that dichotomy is a trait of Americana?
Jeff: I do think it is the nature of Americana/alt-country.
Can we anticipate the same kind of bittersweetness from the new LP?
Karl: I think that’s a fair assessment, but only because Eric has a habit of writing songs with a lot of lyrical depth and cloaking them in countrified pleasantries.
Jeff: It kind of comes naturally to Sarge and the rest of us.
Eric: I often think of Nabokov’s line from Lolita: “Oh let me be mawkish for the nonce.” I personally love the sentimental; there is beauty in sadness and to quote another literary giant, Hemingway: “We must be true to our hurt as a scientist.” And I think country/Americana music lends itself to the cliché (if you will) of pain and suffering.
What defines the Americana genre for the Dive Poets?
Jeff: A healthy respect for both rock ‘n’ roll’s heritage and old-school country’s history and influences — the combination of folk traditions and a desire to push the boundaries of a fairly well-defined genre. I tend to think of us as more of a “rock” band that touches on many of the flavors and varieties within the “rock” genre. Our new album is going to have some songs that would be a stretch to call Americana.
Would you describe your brand of Americana as patriotic?
Eric: I’ve never thought of this band as patriotic except when we covered John Cougar a few years back at AUCMW. Although the writing for our NEXT project is about 80% finished under the working title: “Midnight in Middle America.” For this project, I am trying to make sense of my parent’s divorce after 30+ years of marriage, along with capturing the essence of family life and labor for myself and of those around me. I also spent a great deal of time with a good friend of mine driving around small towns in Illinois, studying the locale, and drinking many cheap beers in corner bars.
And now for a total non sequitur, your press sheet. It’s one of the most charming I’ve seen. Karl Eggers designed the poster for “Some Great War”; did Karl design your press sheet as well? Is it nice to have a guitarist that doubles as a graphic designer?
Karl: I definitely pressed the charming button on my design robot when it designed the press sheet. In all seriousness we have saved a fair amount of money by having me do the design work, and it’s usually fun stuff like posters and CD designs.
Jeff: Karl is a freaking genius. I absolutely love having an in-house graphic designer. It allows for a consistent aesthetic and is cheap!
Eric: Every time he designs something for the band, I say: “This is my favorite so far.” And it changes every time, because he’s always improving.
How have things been since Christian Schaeffer came into the mix?
Eric: As if we weren’t “clowns” enough in this band, we go and recruit Christian who adds just another humorous element to the whole. I personally love his sense of humor and lighthearted attitude. In many ways, when things get tricky, I look for him to lighten the mood. And he’s a hell of a keyboard player, which also adds another dynamic to these tunes.
How did you become involved in KDHX’s Thursdays at the Intersection series?
Jeff: We saw a “TBD” date and asked if we could do it. We’ve done a few KDHX tribute nights before, for R.E.M., Townes Van Zandt and Uncle Tupelo, so it’s nice to work with the station again.
What can we expect from your performance on the 19th? Your twitter says it’s “#gonnabesweet.”
Karl: We have been fortunate to play some of the KDHX tribute shows in the past, so look for some choice covers from those shows to be sprinkled into our set. We will also play some of our newer tunes and generally promote an atmosphere of good times and pleasant company with our fellow citizens.
The Dive Poets perform at Thursdays at the Intersection in Strauss Park — presented by 88.1 KDHX, Grand Center and PNC Arts Alive — on Thursday, July 19.