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"The Royal Arctic Institute is a band that has the utmost respect for the music they play. That sentiment can be heard throughout their catalog and rendition of “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas on the recently released compilation album This Ain’t Your Mama and Papa’s Holiday Music: A Compilation of Holiday Favorites for the Weirdo in Your Life.
“I think Catharsis is a good sequel, says Leon. “If we look at the first record as submerging ourselves into a hot bath, we can look at this record as pulling the plug on that bath and letting the water drain while you are still in the tub.”
In this follow-up interview with The Royal Arctic Institute nearly exactly a year later, we have John Leon (Guitars), David Motamed (Bass), and Lyle Hysen (Drums) giving us the scoop on the band’s current goings-on, gear, new music, and the aforementioned Christmas compilation album. February marks the one-year anniversary of their previous release, From Catnip to Coma, and the sequel, From Coma to Catharsis.
RAI, welcome back to VWMusic for another chat with us; it’s been nearly a year since we last had you guys with us. How has the past year treated you?
JL: Hey! It’s great to be back with you! This year, all and all, has been pretty great. We have remained pretty active in the wake of From Catnap To Coma. We played a bunch of fun shows and went on a tour of the East Coast, and we wrote and recorded the newest record, From Coma To Catharsis. We have been busy! COVID restrictions are finally lifting or at least making it easier for musicians and fans alike to be out and about. How does it feel to be out there making music regularly again?
LH: It is great, but it doesn’t feel so great. The threat of covid weighs over every show. We had to cancel Maine last year due to David getting covid during our run last Feb, and it feels like that can happen again. We don’t go that far out there, so we can re-schedule, but for the upcoming Feb. tour, we hit a few places that I don’t wanna have to postpone. Last time we had you, you were getting ready to release From Catnap to Coma; how do you feel the album has done over the year?
JL: Overall, it has been received really well. People seem to enjoy it. We have been really blessed to get to talk to a lot of different people about it. It got some pretty wonderful reviews. I think that I can speak for all of us and say that we are really proud of the record. It came together magically and felt really good from the beginning of the whole process. So it has been a fun ride.
Now you’re getting ready for the release of the sequel exactly a year later, From Coma to Catharsis, can you take us through the process of going from the previous album to this one?
JL: These two records are really different. The tunes for Catnap To Coma were pretty much completely fleshed out and finalized before making the record. This current batch of tunes were still sketches for the most part. So we were forced to really step our game up. I think it was a great motivator. The main similarity between the two records is that the process of deconstructing and reconfiguring all the tunes as a band effort was still very much at the forefront of the writing process. Each person would bring in a piece of music they had written, sketches, full pieces, etc. Then we tear that apart and reconstruct the piece until it is ours.
You still have the same five-piece lineup for Catharsis. Is it safe to say your inspiration for your music is “everything,” as you previously put it? What can we expect to hear from Catharsis, seeing it’s a sequel to Coma?
JL: I would certainly say that our inspiration is still “everything.” All five of us listen to such a wide array of music, and we all bring different flavors to the mix. Regarding the connection between the two records, I think Catharsis is a good sequel. If we look at the first record as submerging ourselves into a hot bath, we can look at this record as pulling the plug on that bath and letting the water drain while you are still in the tub. Ha ha ha.
Can you take us through the recording process for this album? To my understanding, it’s pretty “raw” with minimal editing.
JL: Absolutely. This record was done exactly the same way as the last. We went in and recorded everything live. James set up mics, set levels, got the sounds he wanted, and then we just played. There are minimal overdubs that Lynn and I did in our home studios. But they are minimal. I recorded some pedal steel tracks that ended up on a few of the tunes. But the idea was the same. James set things up so that it was easy for us to come in and play. Working with him is so relaxing and positive. He brings great energy into the room.
You’ve recently had Lynn Wright join full-time as your current guitarist, and he’s moving to Berlin, correct? Are you going to play as a 4-piece or have a fill-in when Lynn isn’t available?
JL: Lynn moved to Berlin literally two days after we finished tracking! Lynn is a powerful musical force, so he is missed. But he is coming to join us on our tour in February. It’s pretty much impossible to have a fill-in for Lynn. What he does is so unique that it would just frustrate everyone to try to have someone else do it. We have played several shows since Lynn left as a four-piece. And it has worked. It will make the writing process and live shows differently, but such is life. Playing as a four-piece really allows our keyboardist Carl Baggaley to shine. He and I have both had to step our game up.
LH: Lynn will always be a part of TRAI in one way or another, but yeah, he won’t get to play some shows at Pino’s. Musically it also opens up the possibility of bringing in some different instruments – wait till you hear our new clarinet jams!
Tell me about This Ain’t Your Mama and Papa’s Holiday Music: A Compilation of Holiday Favorites for the Weirdo in Your Life. Did you enjoy covering the iconic Peanuts Christmas songs? LH: Well, we don’t do a lot of covers, so why not go big? I wanted to do a Hanukkah song, but the pickings are slim, but I got my wish by adding the Klezmer section at the end.
DM: A Charlie Brown Christmas is hands-down the greatest children’s Christmas special ever made. It’s got everything – pathos, humor, questions of morality, and one of the greatest comic characters ever, Lucy Van Pelt. It’s that in 1965 Charles Schulz and the show’s writers were so critical of the commercialization of the holiday. While the religious overtones can be a bit much at times, in the end, the message of goodwill and friendship always resonates. A Christmas show without Santa or a talking snowman? Yes, please. It’s a privilege to pay tribute to both Charlie (Schulz and Brown) and Vince.
Was it difficult following in the footsteps of Vince Guaraldi? DM: I cannot play jazz. I never have been able and never will be able. But, in our humble way, we hope to honor the great Vince Guaraldi with a sincere effort to capture a feeling he and his band so effortlessly evoked.
What else can you tell us about this album? It’s got a dreamy, alternative sound that truly isn’t your mama and papa’s music!
LH: The label that released this album, Island House, has been doing some exciting stuff, so when Mike from Seawind Of Battery told me that this was happening, I wrote them right away and was happy to hear we could be included. As long as this record prevents another playing of “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney, I consider it a success!
One thing that I love about this album is that all proceeds go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which is a fantastic cause. Can you explain what this charity means to you and what you hope to come of this collaboration?
LH: I think the label picked the charity for personal reasons, but, of course, we are happy to donate what little pennies we can to this cause. Are you guys still using the same setup and equipment, or have you added anything we’ll hear on Catharsis in the past year?
DM: I believe this is the first time I’ve recorded without using a Fender. This current batch of songs was done using a Gretsch Junior Jet bass directly into an Ampeg BA210. Lifelong Ampeg fan, first-time Gretsch user. Fantastic bass – vintage sound and looks, and one of the few basses I’m aware of that come in pink as a factory color.
JL: I used a Fender Princeton amp and a Rust Stratocaster (built by Matt Brewster of 30th Street Guitars in Manhattan). But I am constantly obsessing over gear. I reconfigure my pedal board constantly. Recently I watched a YouTube video about guitarists letting their equipment get in the way of their playing. And it really sort of hit me in the stomach. So, I tore my pedalboard apart and made a small one with the bare minimum pedals needed to play a show. I have managed to pair it down to five pedals. And my new year’s resolution is to stick to that. We’ll see how long that lasts.