You never know what isolation will do to a person. Does it destroy you? Or does it give you clarity? In the case of INTO IT. OVER IT.’s Evan Weiss, it’s produced a new collection of songs that skip over expectations. The Chicago singer/songwriter has always been fond of beatnik concepts — i.e. 2009’s 52 Weeks and 2011’s Twelve Towns — but for his third album, he spent some time away from the noises of everyday life using a secluded cabin in Craftsbury, VT to create a project that truly breathes.
In this case, Standards is arguably a masterpiece as it will surely break your heart or at least find a way to transport you to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on a starry night. With its release being imminent, we recently caught up with Evan to talk about his Cast Away-esque journey to creating the record — highlighting the influences, the production, and the evil yet adorable cross stitch that completes it all.
What kind of toll does recording for 13 hours a day take on your body? Do you just go into “creative mode” and forget about food and water?
Well, we weren’t recording for 13 hours a day because everyone wouldn’t let me. But we were definitely writing for 13 hours a day which is a totally separate vibe. Writing is a little more loose, trying different ideas and seeing what they do, but recording destroys me (laughs). We were doing it from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and I didn’t know who I was or where I was anymore. At some point during the process, I felt like I was even unsure that what we were making was cool, like I had completely given up and I needed John to be the controls. I was having a nervous breakdown and he helped by making everything okay.
Were there any ups and downs with recording in an all-analog studio?
Well, everything on the record is mostly a complete take. The drums are all complete takes as every drum thing you hear on a track is just one that was recorded from start to finish. Another big thing was John didn’t need any cues in the later section of the process. It’s insane that he can know so far in advance how everything is supposed to sound. It was really next level.
It was a completely new experience for me and since it was a new experience, I had a really hard time feeling like I could contribute to how things were being done. That really helped because usually I’d be very hands-on and very controlling about how things should go, but not having that option helped me to just ease back and work. Actually, I’m unsure if I could do another record any other way because it made the whole process way more fun. I know I just told you I was losing my mind, but it was actually a really, really fun descent into hell (laughs).
What did your time away from the concrete and the noises of the city teach you?
It taught me that’s where I want to be when I’m at the point where I’m ready to retire (laughs). I mean it was just me for the first week and then the two of us for the remainder of the month.
Were you so happy to see Josh [Sparks] when he showed up?
Oh my God, yeah, like you wouldn’t believe. There’s only so much you can do alone but at the same time I was like thank God I have someone to talk to. I felt like Tom Hanks in Cast Away — Josh was my fucking volleyball. But by the end of the month, we didn’t want to leave; we were loving the process and how much fun it was to play music every night and not think about work, and just focus on what we were gonna make as food… responsibilities aside, it was really special.
Did any of those experiences manifest themselves in this record?
Oh yeah. I mean, sonically, the last record sounded really tight and constricted because we wrote it in Chicago and recorded it in Chicago, and I didn’t really get a perspective on what was here. But for this record, we wrote it in Vermont and recorded in San Francisco, and I feel like you can really feel the openness of these songs which was way more intentional this time around.
Who cross-stitched the album art?
My friend did it — she has a website called Tinycup Needleworks. She was a Chicago-based artist but she currently lives in Cleveland. She’s friends with Josh and started hanging out in our friend circle as she worked a block away at this little cafe and I became a huge fan of her work. She does this really awesome kind of macabre art but the juxtaposition of the art is kind of cute and the image is kind of evil, so I got such a big kick out of it. When we first became friends, I talked to her about doing a series of cross-stitches where there would be one for each song on the new record.
The idea was to develop 12 pieces that represented various ways human beings would kill themselves — like doing things they get a pleasure out of, like smoking, drugs, drinking, gambling, sex… you know, a series of addictions that, in turn, are actually destroying them. We had this huge list and she basically came up with 12 pieces that add a sense of balance to the songs and they’re beautiful. When you open up the whole layout, there’s one for each song and you can slide them into the cover and look at them through the hoop. It’s this big thing and it came out exactly how I wanted it to. She did a great job.
Well, the artwork for Standards feels oddly satisfying to look at. Is the visual identity of your work important to you?
Yeah, absolutely. Generally, if you look at the art for almost any of our records, it’s something that’s very personal to me. I would like to think each album has a pretty intentional feel to it art-wise. I never understood why bands wouldn’t treat that with the same level of respect because that’s the first thing people see — people don’t look at your record and hear the songs right away. Like why would you skip out on the part everyone sees first?
In particular, the song “Your Lasting Image” reminded me a bit of Death Cab For Cutie. What would you say influenced the progression of your songwriting on this album?
Well, it’s funny because what influenced what the songwriting has become now was me learning to not think about what I was writing anymore. On the last record, I thought too hard about it and I was really struggling to write some stuff that found me going outside my comfort zone and trying to expand on what I could play as a guitarist. Like moving on from, “I have to write a song that sounds like this” and “I have to write another song that sounds like this”. This time I was like, “I’m gonna write some stuff and if I like it, then cool, but if I hate it, then who cares?”. That really helped expand the sound of where the music was headed and where I am as a musician now versus where I was on the last record.
I’ve learned a lot through the years so I think the progression was natural. It’s funny you mention that song in particular because the influences were a little more direct. It was probably the easiest one to write as it came from a little riff I was jamming during a soundcheck for a live show and the loop was an idea I had after watching old Russian satellite sound videos on YouTube (laughs). It sort of created a visual thing I wanted to do. I told John I wanted to make people feel like they’re laying down in the Grand Canyon, and that’s something he helped me figure out.
Another band once told me one of the biggest lessons they learned from working with a new producer is that “It’s about the notes you don’t play — trying to deliver things with a single vocal take instead of stacking 20 layers”. In your case, what was it like working with John Vanderslice, who isn’t exactly known to work with artists within your genre?
Well, there’s a song on the record called “Old Lace & Ivory” and we recorded a demo version of that for a Polyvinyl 7-inch two years ago. I didn’t think I was going to re-record it but I really love that song and I didn’t think it got the release that it deserved and I thought I could do better. So eventually I had to record it again and once I recorded the main timeline, I was like, “Okay, now it’s time to do all the other stuff”. But when John heard it, he told me, “It doesn’t need all the other stuff”.
So here I am and I’m like, “It needs this thing, it needs that other thing I wanted, and it needs that drum beat…”, and he was like, “Who cares? We’ve seen you play this on the guitar and it sounds really good”. I was like having a crisis because I was thinking about what people were going to think if there’s no drumline (laughs). But yeah… John really made me realize that I didn’t need to hide behind layers to make the stuff that I was doing sound good.
What led you to work with him in the first place?
Well, when we were trying to figure out who was going to work on the record, we started having a few conversations with people. A few of them got pretty serious but one of them wasn’t available and they said we should work with John Vanderslice because we would be a perfect fit for him. Then we talked to another person, who I couldn’t afford, and they said the same thing — “You should work with John Vanderslice, I think it would be really good for you”. I hadn’t really thought about him and I definitely didn’t know what I was doing so I thought I’d give him a call. We got on the phone and immediately after being on there for a couple of minutes, I was just like, “This dude’s the guy“.
We totally clicked and he knew what my frame of reference was, and he wanted to do it… which is just such a huge thing because I’d rather record with anyone who wants to make an album than with someone who doesn’t. Like having been someone who produces records, if I say I really want to work on an album then that means I really do want to work on it. So that was huge. He reassured me that I would be very comfortable and he was right. He really does a great job at making people, who may be uncomfortable, process things in a way that makes them feel more comfortable. Thanks to him, I feel as if that’s a little feather in my cap that will help me continue to do that.
How do you know when what you’ve created is ready to meet the world?
I don’t (laughs). I mean, in regards to the mixing process for our new record — when you’re mixing tape, it’s just a performance. Every single mix is different and if there’s one thing you don’t like, you kind of just have to be like, “Okay, well we have to do the whole song again”. Eventually you just start splitting hairs because the performances are pretty much the same. So you can’t get married to anything and you can’t get too particular about anything.
Some songs didn’t come out the way I wanted them to, but again, would they be any better? That’s not saying they’re terrible, it’s just like, “Yeah, that was a good performance so let’s keep that take”. It’s the same with playing guitars or playing drums — you can tell which takes are a valiant effort (laughs).
How do you stay true to yourself as a human being who is always changing and as an artist who is continually making new music?
As long as I can keep doing exactly what I want, that’s me staying true to myself. I’ve never had to make apologies or bend what I want to do for anybody except myself. If there was ever anyone who was putting limitations on me or telling me I had to do certain things, it was only me. So as long as I can keep doing that, I’m totally fine and I’ll be completely proud of everything I do.