Releasing The Darkness: An Interview With Tombstones In Their Eyes
On their upcoming Nothing Here EP Los Angeles quartet Tombstones In Their Eyes play shadowy Rock’n’Roll taking you to some dark places yet shining a hopeful light on life and creating a path to enlightenment. Their evocative songs are dense and layered with crunchy guitars and far-off yet powerful vocals, grabbing the listener by the heart while moving the body. I spoke with singer/guitarist John Treanor about why he makes music and this is what he had to say.
I enjoy dark and heavy yet hopeful and cathartic music. What does the creation of Tombstones In Their Eyes music do for you?
The music is a way to get the darkness out, and I have quite a bit of darkness in me, haha. Life is tough and tougher when you are full of fear, self doubt and anxiety. Making music and singing is one of the few times when I feel total relief from the bad feelings. I also happen to like dark, cathartic music, so that’s what I tend to fall towards when writing lyrics, even when I’m feeling pretty good.
When did the band start and how has the sound evolved/focused?
The band was started when I reconnected with James Cooper, a friend from childhood, after not seeing him for 20 plus years. We fell right back into a close friendship and we decided to start making music together, even though he lives in NYC and I live in LA. We would share Garageband songs via Dropbox and the band evolved from that. He has very good musical instincts and ideas and helps guide me through the process of making the songs and demos. At some point I decided to make it a real band in Los Angeles, so enlisted a couple of friends to help me record some of the songs in a real studio. The first record was really all over the place and we hadn’t quite found our sound yet. But on the second record, the Bad Clouds EP, the Tombstones sound started to come together and has continued to evolve since then.
What bands and people in your life gave you the strength to make the band a reality? Who are your supporters and what has been the feedback?
I already mentioned James in the previous question – this band would not exist without him. My wife Karin has also been supportive, allowing me to set up a recording studio in our basement and encouraging me to play. Another key player in the Tombstones story is Paul Roessler, who we have recorded most of our songs with. The first record was done at another studio, but when it came time to mix I ended up at Kitten Robot, Paul’s studio. We hit it off and he really seemed to get what we were doing. We work really well together and he has been key in the evolution of the band and our sound.
We have received a lot of good feedback from strangers, which to me, means the most. When someone who doesn’t know you finds your music and enjoys it enough to let you know, that means a lot.
The bands that sort of gave me the strength to make this a reality are the ones that I was listening to during a very dark period right after the beginning of the band, a period that lasted almost two years. I was listening to a lot of early Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dandy Warhols, Built To Spill, Sun Dial, Guitaro (a great unknown band from the early 2000’s), Black Angels, The Great Northwest, Electric Wizard, Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Company, Woods and I could go on. But those are some of the main ones that got me through and inspired me to make music.
You’re from Los Angeles. How does Tombstones fit into the music scene here? What are some of the venues you’ve performed in and who are some of the bands that you’ve played with?
We have only played two shows since we started. One was at a cool art commune downtown and the other was at a bowling alley in Eagle Rock. For a long time, it was kind of just a recording project, but now that we have a solid lineup we are looking to begin doing live shows again.
Where have you toured in California and the States and outside the country and where is a favorite venue or city? Where would you like to play?
No tours for this band yet. I did some touring in my youth as the road manager for a friend’s band and got to get the craziness out of my system. It was super fun, for the most part. I would like to get back to Europe to play there, it seems that we would probably go over better there.
What is a lyric that encapsulates the thoughts you want to express with the band? What other lyricists do you love and why?
I think the lyrics to I Can’t See the Light are pretty much what I want to say, even though there are only two lines and they don’t totally make sense:
“I can’t see the light when I get down
I can’t see in the dark and I’m living in pain”
As far as other lyricists go, I’m not sure that I can answer that. Although some lyrics really get me, I’m more about the song and the sound of the words, as opposed to dissecting what they’re actually about. That may sound stupid, and obviously there are great lyricists out there that I could list, but I sometimes prefer pretty opaque lyrics. On the other hand, I’m always hearing great lines and thinking about stealing them, haha, although I never end up doing it.
As a musician, what other guitar, bass and drum players do you enjoy?
I’m a song guy, so if someone plays to serve the song, I’m into it. I’ll hear great bass lines or drummers and not remember the player. The last great drummer I saw was (Chris Ulsh) the drummer for Power Trip, a metal/hardcore/thrash band that are one of my latest favorites.
What pedals or combinations of effects and tunings do you gravitate towards and why? What are some of the instruments (makes, models) you use to make the Tombstones sound your own?
I love fuzz pedals, so have a lot of them and keep buying more. I also really like delay and reverb and the occasional dirty wah sound. Most songs are going to have fuzz, delay and reverb on my guitar, and Josh also uses those as well. Almost all of our songs now are written in D standard tuning, which is just one whole step down from the regular E tuning. I ran out of songs to write in E, so switched there and really liked the slightly darker, doomier sound. I have been at times a rabid collector of guitars, amps and pedals, but have mellowed out, thankfully. My two main guitars now are an early 70’s Gibson ES-335 and a newer Gretsch Tennessee Rose (which is pretty much a copy of the old Gretsch Tennessean – I used to have a 1964 Tennessean, but sadly traded it away at one point). The good thing about the newer Gretsch is better pickups and it stays in tune longer.
Please tell us about the members of Tombstones. What do they bring to the band and how do your personalities gel or diverge? What have you learned from them as people and musicians?
Stephen Striegel – drummer/percussion. He is an excellent musician, a Berklee graduate, even. Amazing that he would play with me! Stephen and I met when I hired him to play on the Bad Clouds EP from an add on Craigslist. That session went super smoothly, so I brought him back for the Fear EP when our short-lived second drummer left the band. I believe it was after that EP that he told me that he wanted to be in the band. Such a great guy and really makes us sound better.
Josh Drew – guitar/vocals. Josh has been a friend for a long time, so was one of the first people that I turned to when I decided to make the Sleep Forever recordings. He played bass on that record and sang, as well. He also played bass and sang on the Bad Clouds EP. Then we switched him to guitar, as he is a great guitar player, as well, and already knew the vibe. I figured it would be easier to find a bass player than a guitar player. Josh is a much better musician than I am. He fits in perfectly and has begun contributing songs as well.
Mike Mason – bass. Mike is also a great musician. We brought him in sometime after Bad Clouds, so he is on everything after that. Mike is also an excellent guitar player and a gearhead, so we have lots to talk about. Super easy to work with and impeccable playing.
You have worked with producer and musician Paul Roessler since your first release. What does he bring to the Tombstones sound and has he given you any advice or told you stories of his working with Nina Hagen, Mike Watt, TSOL or Dead Kennedys and his other projects?
I mentioned Paul above, but really he is probably almost our fifth member, at this point. He just gets what we do and is super supportive, but not afraid to voice his opinion during the recording process. I love working with him. I think he fills that role for a number of bands that visit his studio. He has great stories and knows pretty much everyone in the LA scene starting from the late 70’s when he was in The Screamers, friends with The Germs, etc. etc. He’s had a very interesting life! It was amazing to realize that he was on that first Dead Kennedys record, as that one was pretty important in both James and I’s lives back in our youth.
Your releases all include interesting artwork. Where do you find this art and is this a hobby of yours? Are you also a painter? What other forms of creativity do you appreciate?
When I started releasing the demos on Soundcloud early on, I started gravitating towards old paintings of ships in storms and this became a theme. I used a couple of those for the first two releases and then decided that it would be fun to have some great artists do some pieces for the covers, while still incorporating the ship theme. I generally found the artists by looking at posters and artwork from other bands I like and was led to great artists like Darren Grealish (Fear EP), Trevor Tipton (Shutting Down single) and Robin Gnista (Nothing Here EP).
Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolis. What places do you like to visit that inspire you or just have a good vibe, good food, good drink?
I’m really fond of the part of town I live in now – Glassell Park. Before that I lived in Silverlake, Echo Park, downtown, Hollywood, Venice and Santa Monica, so I’ve been around. These days I spend a lot of time in my Glassell Park neighborhood and the areas around it like Eagle Rock and Pasadena. I like it over here because there’s less traffic, less aggressive drivers. A very relaxed vibe over here, and everything I need is close and easy to get to.
Tombstones In Their Eyes’ latest EP Nothing Here is available on Bandcamp.