Interview: The Bottom Dollars

Imagine an excellent and wonderfully strange mix of blues, hard rock, and alternative rock. Add a grooving rhythm, lyrical battles initiated by the devil, and hard-hitting vocals.  And you’ve got “Devil’s Night,” the new promotional single off the Bottom Dollars’ upcoming debut LP, Meet Me in Cognito.  This single is just a fragment of Meet Me, which is set to be released on Feb. 25.

The upcoming full-length album builds on the sounds and vibes of the band’s previous records, the 2012 EP, Good News, Everyone!, and its predecessor, The Halcyon Days. Meet Me is at once entertaining and deeply introspective, combining edgy rock tunes with country-tinged ballads.  Pancakes and Whiskey spoke with Brian Cherchiglia, vocalist and guitarist, and Evan Berg, drummer, of the five-piece, Brooklyn-based band about their sound, recording Meet Me in Cognito, and live performances mean to them.

P&W: Tell me a bit about the band’s history. When did the band form?

Brian (vocals, guitar):  Well, we’ve been around for a few years and we’ve been through a few incarnations as bands do in their gestation periods.  The four of us—Evan, Shappy, Chris and myself—have been actively performing and touring for the better part of about two years now, and we’ve been recording with Owen (multi-instrumentalist) since we cut Good News, Everyone! So it’s really a thrill to have him part of the live performance.

P&W: When did you guys start to hone in on your sound? Songs like “Fall Into Arms” sound like a real balance between hard rock and alternative rock? “Jameson,” on the other hand, is a gospel-infused rocker? In short, you guys have a really groovy, dynamic sound—tell me more about that.  

Evan (drums, vocals): We as a group have been honing our sound since day one [and] pretty much [have] been evolving it ever since.  We’ve always drawn from a wide range of influences—a lot that you would expect to a whole lot you wouldn’t.  One of the fun things about this band is that we all bring in different styles, throw them all together, and try to let the best elements come out naturally. For a song like “Fall Into Arms,” we inadvertently took a lot of unsolicited advice from My Morning Jacket along with an early Springsteen-style epicness, with a bit of an Arcade Fire vibe for the bridge with the falsetto.  But with a song like “Jameson” we really tapped into our collective love of all things old soul like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha. We’re all over the map and we’ve never been the kind of group who’s afraid to try anything with our arrangements.  

P&W: What are some of your influences, ranging from local bands in Brooklyn to legendary musicians in pop culture?

Brian:  I love these questions.  They really expose us for how transparently we adore our peers.

Evan:  Right?  There’s this mantra (coined by our buddy illSpokinn) we kind of live by: “Our favorite artists are our friends,” and that’s really a truism.

Brian:  Yeah, it really is.  The Hollows, The Nuclears…

Evan:  The London Souls, Turkuaz, Raccoon Fighter…

Brian:  It’s kind of embarrassing.  I don’t think any of these guys enjoy our music as much as we enjoy theirs [Laughs].

Evan: On the legendary tip, my favorite band of all time is The Clash.  They truly embody my entire approach to music.

Brian:  Yeah, we really love The Clash, and Bruce [Springsteen].  I’m a huge fan of Tom Waits and TV on the Radio.  We’re also totally nuts about hip hop.  I listen to ‘Midnight Marauders’ (A Tribe Called Quest) almost weekly.

Evan:   Outkast.  You wouldn’t guess it by listening to our stuff, but they’re one of my biggest inspirations.

Brian:  Definitely.  They’re one of those bands that took a step outside their genre, and we really try to let that be our directive: to never really be one thing and hip hop strangely personifies that most to me.  It’s an amalgamation of genres in the first place.  So, really…commercialism aside, hip hop can technically expand upon every genre.

P&W: What is the songwriting process like for you guys?

Brian:  It’s pretty simple.  I spend most of my time writing, and whenever something comes out of the sieve that’s exceptional I’ll send a demo to Evan and if he’s into it we’ll bring the tune to the rest of the boys at rehearsal.  I write the lyrics and the chordal structure and then we arrange it into a full tune with the whole band.  It’s pretty fascinating, because we rarely have a tune we don’t finish.

P&W: Tell me about recording the new record and debut LP, Meet Me In Cognito. What can fans expect from this new record—both in terms of the music and lyrics?

Brian:  This was a really special project for us.  For one, the recording process was incredibly comfortable.  We recorded all of our basics live, and we did the tracking with Owen’s new mobile recording rig, which is absolutely beautiful—a real gear-head’s wet dream).  Working with John Siket [who has also produced for Sonic Youth, Phish, The Replacements, Yo La Tengo] was an actual dream come true.  I mean, he is an absolute master when it comes to mixing and he did an exceptional job.  Meet Me in Cognito is something we’re tremendously proud of.

Evan:  Siket is someone we’d only dreamed about working with.  The man is responsible for some of the greatest albums ever.  So getting to hear [and] watch him take our raw sound and make it into something infinitely more cohesive was unreal.  That and what Siket specifically did to my drum sound is more than I ever could’ve wished for.

Brian:  Yeah, he really made the difference, which was important as we really took a bit of a departure from what we’ve established in our last recordings.

Evan:  It’s a much more spacious sound in general.  When we went to work on this project we really embraced the idea of adding space, making every note and every hit more meaningful and [we] really worked on adding subtleties to the music.

Brian:  Yeah, the utilization of space was super important.  I’d really had enough of sounding typical.  That’s the last thing we’d ever want to be, and letting the compositions breathe was quintessential to letting the arrangements differ. On the lyrical side, these songs come from one headspace, but at different periods in time.  I was in a pretty dark place a little over a year ago and my normal route of composing stories fell kind of second-banana to a need to compose therapeutically.  I feel [and] felt that being a bit more vulnerable and open about myself makes us sound more honest overall.  It’s less of a “Hey, picture this!” and more of a general apology.  Some of the songs were written upwards of six years ago, when I was more “laissez-faire” and much more naive and trusting with the way I saw the world…so compiled, it’s really a rite-de-passage.  At first, that was a lot to handle.  Listening to the record was a bit painful, but by the end its completion was a bit of an indicator that it all subsided.

P&W: Your latest single off the LP, “Devil’s Night,” seems a very fitting single to promote your record (the end of the track is amazing). How did that song take shape?

Brian:  Well thanks! About two years ago, I was involved in what I call “advanced lyric sharing” with a friend of mine and a wonderful songwriter, Fiona Silver.  I was living in Greenpoint in a converted metal factory, and I’d been wanting to write something about an existential crisis. But that’s not the easiest thing to do without actually going through one yourself.  She hit me up with a song at about 3 in the morning, and I thought it was brilliant. I put my spliff down, grabbed my guitar and started chugging along this E minor bar chord for like two minutes until I really felt sinister and really felt a bit off.  And honestly, once I was in that world, I just started writing the lyrics.  I’d never really written anything like that before, and I had no idea what I was writing when I wrote it.  I just kind of let myself possess myself, and all of a sudden there’s this four page narrative about a guy watching a fight between God and The Devil.  It scared the shit out of me, but luckily it fit really nicely over a minor one-four-five and within ten minutes, there was “Devil’s Night.”

P&W:     Tell me a bit about your live performances. I checked out some of your SoundCloud pieces, and really enjoyed hearing Sam Cooke and (especially) Clash covers.

Brian:  Funny you mention the SoundCloud.  Before that became a big website, we put our B-sides and live tracks there to do something different with the million social media avenues every music industry so-and-so says you have to utilize.  Those lo-fi covers are just a way of showing respect to musicians we admire.  The live collabs with The Nuclears and the Potash Twin—that comes from our “Mega-Band” portion of the show, which is a whole other story altogether…

Evan: So “Mega-Banding” is something we took from the more classic bands we love, such as The Band [and] The Allman Brothers Bands. The bands that would  constantly bring their friends up to jam on tunes they all love.  Basically we figured, “Why can’t we do the same thing?”  And so we did.  We’ve covered everyone from The Clash, Bowie, The Band, and the Rolling Stones. We busted out Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me,” specifically the Live at the Harlem Square Club 1963 version, with The Hollows at Brooklyn Bowl this past June. It’s as fun as it gets.

Brian:  It’s particularly cool because you see newer guys embracing that whole thing now.  This past summer we saw Wilco & MMJ bring out Garth Hudson from The Band and Mega-Band it on “Chest Fever” and “Long Black Veil” [songs from the Band’s catalogue] and then rock “California Stars” and it was surreal.  I met Jeff Tweedy earlier that afternoon, and that whole day revitalized my love for live music.

Evan: The Bottom Dollars: “Live” is something we are constantly re-tooling and always excited about.  To us, the live show is pretty much everything.

Brian:  The main event.

Evan:  Recently we’ve been putting a lot of effort on “jamming” more on stage.

Brian:  Yeah, somehow “jamming” became uncool in Brooklyn.   And we think monotony is pretty uncool, frankly.  Jamming is really what lets an audience see how well you control your own songs.

Evan:  Bringing more spontaneity to our set, something new every time…being predictable isn’t something we’ve really been into.

Brian:  I mean, if working with (John) Siket taught us anything, it’s that Phish are actually just as incredible as they’re hyped up to be.  There really is something to be said about seamlessly intertwining a thirty-year catalog over a tour and never doing the same show twice, and part of what allows that vehicle to function is opening each song up for improvisation.  I mean, you don’t have to be a “jam band” to jam.  Thin Lizzy and the MC5 tore up some pretty epic jams back in the day.

P&W: How do you guys create set-lists for shows?

Brian:  It’s very symbiotic.  We try to make sure the show’s exciting both on and off the stage.

Evan:  We come up with our set-lists in a very roundtable sort of way.  The only thing we really try to avoid is having repeats.  If we play a song in one city, we won’t play that song until at least 3 or 4 cities later.  The other thing we strive for is a solid flow.  We want the audience to feel like they’ve been on a rollercoaster by the end of the show.

Brian:  Is it weird that we cite Cedar Point as an influence on our live shows?

Evan: Not even a little bit.  That place is just as important as any band out there.

Brian:  Cedar Point: the ‘Live at the Fillmore East of amusement parks.”

P&W:      Well, then, what can fans expect about your upcoming release party at Mercury Lounge?

Evan:  Fans can expect a lot from the Meet Me in Cognito Release Party at Mercury Lounge.  We’ll be rocking with our good buddies The Hollows, so you know the night will start off with a bang.

Brian:  We’ll be performing Meet Me In Cognito in full, so for those who’ve been hitting every NYC show over the years…they’ll actually have a completely new palate of material.

Evan:  And us being us, there will naturally be a “Mega-Band” involving the boys from The Hollows, the Potash Twins on horns along with a few other special guests.  One of the best parts about being a band in this town is the amount of insanely talented friends you make through being out and active.

Brian:  I couldn’t agree more.  It’s a privilege being a part of any artistic community, and ours is a very unique one.   Last year, we did this really sick version of “Gimme Shelter” with The Nuclears and members of our old hip hop group, Deathrow Tull, [which] still gives me chills.  Sold the joint out, the place was electric.  I think we can bring that same fire this year.

Evan: I have all the faith that this show will be even more of a party then our last.

Brian:  Oh, absolutely.  This is the show you don’t want to miss, especially for our New York family.  We’ll be out on tour in support of Meet Me In Cognito for the next two months, so this is the chance to see us before the second half of the year.

P&W:   And what about the tour?

Evan: We’re all beyond excited about this tour.  This is our first time going out there with a full LP to support, so the game has changed a bit.  We’re hitting more markets than we have in the past, pushing ourselves a little harder this time to make more of an impact.

Brian:  Yeah, we’re taking a bit of a rag-and-bone, door-to-door salesmen route.  A lot of the time, when routing your own tours, you want to be as direct as possible to minimize the overhead cost of the operation. But the “Meet Me In CogniTOUR” is more about presence and, like Evan said,  impact than it is about just being out there.  We’ll be spanning the entire United States; we’re spending the entire week at SXSW…

Evan:  As always we’re beyond stoked for SXSW.  It’s the best party of the year.   A ton of our friends are there playing & hosting showcases. It’s always a blast. After SXSW, we’ll be cutting across to Cali, heading up and then back across the Great White North.

Brian:  Yep, and the entire tour will be available to download (show-by-show) via our new high-resolution download platform in collaboration with Viking Sound ProductionsLiveDollarswhich is really exciting.  There are like 30 shows, so that’s a ton of new content for people to sink their teeth into.

The Bottom Dollars will kick off their tour this Saturday, at Mercury Lounge.

Interview by Pam Segura 

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