october 2009

WPA in full (from left): Davey Faragher, Sean Watkins, Glen Phillips, Pete Thomas, Luke Bulla, Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins. Seated in front in Glen Phillips.

‘There Is Dignity In Work’
Glen Phillips and Luke Bulla articulate the ethos of WPA, the finest new band in the land, and explain how the musical collective gains strength in numbers, be they large or small

By David McGee

On August 19, Joe’s Pub in downtown Manhattan was packed full, and had the feel of an event long before the musicians stepped onstage. The place really was buzzing, and when the eight members of the Works Progress Administration assumed their positions on the tiny stage, the three-deep crowd standing at the bar pressed forward every so slightly (because that’s all they could do—space is tight back there), as if drawn magnetically towards the bandstand. There’s true star power in the room: Sean and Sara Watkins, late of multi-platinum Nickel Creek (with their partner Chris Thile in the audience); Glen Phillips, late of the multi-platinum Toad the Wet Sprocket, the clean-cut visual focal point commanding the center mic; Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers on piano. This is a knowledgeable audience that likely knows as well that Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello’s Imposters is on drums, but might not recognize the outstanding pedal steel player Greg Leisz, because he’s been only a name on a bunch of outstanding albums as opposed to a member of any high-profile band; and on bass is Sebastian Steinberg, of Soul Coughing, filling in for another of Costello’s Imposters, Davey Faragher, who appears on the group’s eponymous debut album.

WPA, ‘Always Have My Love,’ Joe’s Pub, Aug. 19, 2009

It’s the fifth show on the WPA tour, but the sound is that of a seasoned, smart and driven band. Phillips announces that Sara can’t make every show, since she has to promote her own solo album, so she’s given a few extra numbers, much to the audience’s delight, who cheer wildly for her after every beautifully constructed fiddle solo and even more so when she waylays the room with the mournful, hymn-like opening to Tench’s stunning, “The Price,” which closes the WPA album: “What a wreck we’ve made of our sweet life/what a sorrow and a shame/to reject a gift from God above/to throw it down and walk away…” she sings tenderly as Tench plays stately piano right out of the church and Liesz adds the subtle cry of pedal steel to the plaintive soundscape. Early in the set sideburned fiddler Luke Bulla gets his first turn in the spotlight in the noir-ish, foreboding, bittersweet kiss-off, the bluesy “Cry For You,” a song he co-wrote with Glen Phillips. He ratchets up the intensity his vocal as he systematically works his way through the song, riveting the crowd with the drama of his emotional reading, as one sarcastic rhetorical question piles upon another and the music builds behind him but never rises much from a funeral dirge. He would have another eye opening solo turn later, on his own paean to lost love, “Remember Well,” his voice brittle and warm all at once, a combination of choirboy and saloon crooner, in a performance unfolding at a deliberate pace as he explores the subtle but roiling emotions of his lyrics. Sara takes another lead vocal on an appropriately dreamy cover of Ray Davies’ “I Go To Sleep” that is mysterious, haunted, dark, all vocal and pedal steel moans of unrequited yearning punctuated by the song’s aggressive, aggrieved chorus (“I was wrong, I will cry/I will love you till the day I die…”) bursting out of the languor with startling anguish. She takes another lead on John Hartford’s “High Silver Day,” in a rambling, shambling arrangement featuring Tench and Sean Watkins squaring off in an applause-inducing piano-guitar sparring match that finds them developing and restating each other’s themes at a fairly lightning pace. If it seems like a coming out party for Sara, it’s also a good night for Glen Phillips, who anchors the stage and takes his own share of vocals—six of the album’s 12 songs are his—singing with sturdy conviction and playing solid electric guitar, but also directing the set’s ebb and flow with an easy confidence. All in all, it’s a moment when new music arrived on the Joe’s Pub stage, and it really did sound fresh and original in its dazzling and dizzying seamless mesh of country, bluegrass, pop and rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities coupled to original songs of striking emotional depth from not one, not two, but three songwriters who have plumbed depths of adult experience with a sophistication befitting far older (and more deeply scarred) writers. At the end, following an encore, it was easy to tell what a profound impact the band had made on the crowd: no one wanted to leave, even after the lights went up.


The Work Begins

It may well be that the only people surprised by WPA’s tour de force showcase at Joe’s Pub that warm August night were the members of WPA itself. Not for lack of any confidence in their ability to pull off such a feat, mind you, but rather owing to the quickened pace of their evolution as a band—they’re still coming to grips with actually being a band, after jamming with each other in different configurations for years at the L.A. club Largo and, in the case of the Watkinses and Glen Phillips, as a recording entity (which included the Watkinses’ Nickel Creek mate, Chris Thile) known as Mutual Admiration Society. The dramatis personae may be known entities all to roots and traditional rock fans, but until this past February WPA—the very name WPA—existed only as the acronym of an ambitious economic recovery plan put in place in the midst of the Great Depression by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, until this group of musicians, after initially being announced as The Scrolls, adopted it as their collective monicker upon completing an album together and deciding it was worth trying to take the endeavor to another level.

WPA, ‘A Wedding Or a Wake,’ Joe’s Pub, Aug. 19, 2009

To backtrack, the union of Phillips and the Watkins siblings amounts to the genesis of WPA in not only bringing them together, but also brought them into contact with the other key member of the core band, Luke Bulla. Ground zero for all this interaction was on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles at Largo, where owner Mark Flanagan personally books all the musicians and comics and insists on absolute silence from his audiences while the performers are working. (Largo recently moved from its long-time Fairfax address to a space inside the Coronet Theater on La Cienega Boulevard.) “Flaney,” as Phillips calls him, has created a scene that encourages artist interaction, as the Largo has become a de facto hangout for local and touring artists to kick back and enjoy a low-pressure night of listening to and/or jamming with the featured attractions.

“You’re able to go there and experiment, you’re able to go there and try anything you want,” Phillips says. “You’re able to treat it as your personal laboratory. After Toad broke up I was playing there all the time. I was pretty depressed and feeling like nobody really cared about what I was doing on my own. And I could come in there and Flaney was just so supportive, there was a community of musicians there. Everybody goes out to see each other play, and sits in with each other. Sean and Sara have had a show there for eight years now. Whenever they’re in town they do the Watkins Family Hour. Their house band ended up having, you know, Benmont Tench, who came by one night, heard ‘em play, started sitting in with them, and he’s basically a regular whenever he’s able; Greg Leisz always sits in with them. You’ll go there on a night to see the Watkins Family Hour and Dave Rawlings will come up—I mean it’s an amazing group of musicians, and everybody goes over to Sean and Sara’s to jam for a few more hours after the show. It’s the idea that music is not in a lot of hermetically sealed packages. In the rock world there’s a lot more of that—everybody kind of keeps to their own kingdom, maybe less so now, but more in the past. They built up this amazing community there, where people hang out and sing songs all night. It’s a pretty great environment.”

“I’ve known Sean and Sara and Chris for years and years, back to the early ‘90s,” Luke adds. “So when Sean and Sara started doing the Watkins Family Hour out there, they had me come out several times over the last six, eight years. I’ve been playing Largo with them and getting to meet Benmont, Pete Thomas, play more with Glen. It’s been really great.”

A friend put Sean, Sara and Glen in touch with each other in late 1999, shortly after Nickel Creek had completed work on but prior to the release of its Alison Krauss-produced debut album. Sean and Sara opened for Phillips one night at Largo “and ended up sitting in with me for most of my show, without rehearsal. We just really hit it off.” They got a tour together  (with Thile aboard), and with that came a desire to record, so on a week off they settled into Phillips’s garage studio with producer Ethan Johns and cut the first and to date only Mutual Admiration Society album, which was not released until 2004 on Sugar Hill, home to Nickel Creek. It proved an interesting confluence of Nickel Creek and Phillips’s former band, Toad the Wet Sprocket. Phillips originals comprise the bulk of the material, and he sings lead on most of the songs, with Watkins, Watkins and Thile essentially serving as his backing band. Advancing a sturdy, youthful but world-weary tenor, Phillips sounds as rustic as Norman Blake, whose voice his most resembles—it's not classically pretty, but when the angelic voices of Thile and the Watkinses rise in silky harmony with his edgier tone, as on the elliptical album opener, "Comes a Time," the blend is striking. As a writer, Phillips is at best ambivalent about relationships, and in his most extreme moments is rather despairing of same ("Sake Of the World" is at once a brutal and beautiful kiss-off song), but the music supporting his lyrics tends toward the tender, ethereal side-again, an intriguing juxtaposition that begs repeat listenings and ups the scintillation ante considerably. Its introspective moments echo the austere soundscape of the first NC album, whereas its uptempo moments, such as the album closing "Think About Your Troubles," find Brecht-Weill meeting the Hot Club of France, figuratively speaking, and suggest the adventurous pop and bluegrass genre-bending Nickel Creek would advance on its second Krauss-produced album, This Side. But its overall impact is one of quiet meditation, solitude, introspection and yearning. (One of its cover songs is “Trouble,” by Grant-Lee Phillips, another Largo regular.)

WPA, ‘Remember Well,’ Joe’s Pub, Aug. 19, 2009

“It was similar in the ‘let’s make a record and worry about the details later’ kind of experience, which is a lot of what this WPA project was,” Phillips says of the MAS experience. “We always intended on doing more, and the years have kind of gone by, Nickel Creek was going to go on hiatus. We’d done a tour with Grant Lee Phillips and Luke and had so much fun we were immediately talking about doing another record and making a Mutual Admiration Society Part 2 that would have its own vibe and a little more velocity to it—a less sleepy album that would be a lot of fun to play live. At least as far as us having worked together and knowing we liked the experience, that’s the biggest part of the connection between Mutual Admiration Society and WPA—a lot of collaborating over the years.”

WPA, then, was gestating for some time, without ever being a formal configuration. Bulla identifies the flash points for the idea that became WPA as, first, the MAS tour, and a later Phillips solo show that found the personnel for what would become WPA all together on stage and later embarking on a West Coast tour billed as Various and Sundry.

“It was sort of right then, touring and thinking about the whole thing, that the idea of making a record came up and everything fell into place,” Bulla recalls. “Sean had met Jim Scott and Jim Scott offered to help, invited us to come into the studio. After making the record we really decided we wanted to do more with it and had to come up with a band name and all that stuff.”

Supplementing the core band of Sean, Sara, Glen and Luke is one of the most distinctive keyboardists in rock history, Benmont Tench, perhaps better known for his contributions as a member of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, but a man with quite an impressive resume of album credits working with other artists; a rhythm section drawn from Elvis Costello’s Imposters in drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher; and on pedal steel, Greg Leisz, sideman par excellence whose credits range from work with the adventurous, unclassifiable guitarist Bill Frissell to alt-rock darlings Wilco to country queen Emmylou Harris and on and on—a veritable Hall of Fame of artists crossing all  manner of stylistic boundaries (his only previous band affiliation was in the late ‘70s, as a member of the unlamented Funky Kings, a group assembled by Arista Records chief Clive Davis in an ill-considered brainstorm to challenge the Eagles).

WPA, ‘Not Sure,’ Joe’s Pub, Aug. 19, 2009

Jim Scott, a producer/engineer who has fashioned a dazzling track record working mostly with bands (he did, however, win his first Grammy for Best Engineered Album for Sting’s solo debut, Dream Of the Blue Turtles), came with a reputation as a disciplined, no-nonsense, low-key taskmaster in the studio who had a knack for delivering records that faithfully represented each band’s or artist’s signature sound. Bulla and Phillips agree that Scott got the best out of WPA, and fairly painlessly. Chatting prior to the Joe's Pub set, Sean Watkins responded to a compliment about the album with, "That had a lot to do with Jim Scott."

“He was such a great guy to work with,” Bulla says. “The record was recorded pretty much live in five days, and Jim had the space, everything was set and ready to go, we just came in there and were able to play as a band, just play the songs. He wasn’t overbearing, he wasn’t overly involved, he had everything set and knew what to take care of and when. It was really great getting to work with him.”

“He really just creates a very comfortable environment,” Phillips says. “He’s good enough at his job that he’s not precious about anything. He has that real confidence where he’s not telling you about his microphone chain—there’s nothing technical. He’s never pulling that out. You walk in and he wants it to sound good. He really puts everybody at ease and has a great ear as well for when we’re on and when we’re not. That’s a big part of it. It was produced by the band, but as far as having a really good instinct about what the take was, he was really on, made good, simple notes and kept everything moving forward.”

“Moving forward” is an apt description of the final result. WPA always seems to be aggressively pushing ahead, the music driving, the vocals intense, urgent. Country, bluegrass and rock influences are all over it, sometimes in the same song. Phillips’s “Good As Ever” has the marching stomp of an early Elvis Costello classic, complete with Steve Nieve-like piano fills from Tench and a dry, furious vocal by Phillips. The album opening “Always Have My Love,” another Phillips original, kicks things off with a rolling, effervescent country flavor, its soaring, upbeat music at odds with the lyrics chronicling both a love affair’s sad demise and the singer’s enduring affection; later the same template provides the album’s hoedown moment with the brisk, steel-drenched workout, “A Wedding Or a Wake,” as Phillips ponders the dark side of a seemingly happy event; in Sean Watkins’s “Paralyzed,” upbeat despite its explicit suggestions of lives decayed by soul-numbing routine (“perfect empty hours/fade out of another wasted life/worship at the screen all night/eat what you are fed/well you might as well be paralyzed/as you stumble off to bed”) as a synth line flits eerily through the track and Leisz adds evocative pedal steel fills; amidst the soothing, cascading harmonies and cool honky tonk-inflected piano runs by Tench in “Already Gone,” Sean laments the loss of a paramour who can’t be lured back by his promises to be more attentive; in his lone solo songwriting credit (he co-wrote the eerie, droning “Cry For You” with Phillips), Bulla (who serves notice on the disc of being able to develop into a first-rate writer himself, as well as being a smart singer in tune with the dramatic arc of his stories, as evidenced by his nuanced readings) employs his high, near-falsetto cry to maximum dramatic effect on "Remember Well," one of the album’s most beautiful and most heartbreaking moments chronicling post-breakup emotional wreckage—“we wear our blues for all to see,” he sings in a piercing, fragile tone, “what happens when they go? Are they healed or are they bleeding slow?” The gentle, swirling country soundscape behind him, marked by winsome, lonely fiddle lines, enhances the desolate milieu Bulla describes in words. For a band whose name is inextricably linked to politics, only one of its songs broaches topicality. Phillips’s “Rise Up,” austere and conflicted as a cabaret ballad in its delicate mix of piano, guitar and fiddle, makes reference to “all manner of lies to justify our wars” and also remarks, “there’s nothing so sacred that we won’t buy,” while returning to a refrain suggesting the populace needs to be more activist oriented (“We will not wake ever/unless we rise up early”), its sentiments somewhat echoing Sean’s in “Paralyzed” in suggesting the narcotic effect of unchecked consumerism.

WPA, ‘Rise Up,’ Joe’s Pub, Aug. 19, 2009

A couple of observations arise from experiencing this music live and on record. The most immediate is the seamless integration of multiple musical influences to create WPA’s group sound. These artists come from divergent backgrounds, yet they mesh musically in a seamless way that sounds fresh and whole. That’s not an easy thing to do.

“I wonder if part of it is that there was an effortlessness with which it came together in this context,” Phillips muses. “I think it’s something about allowing everybody to play to his or her individual strengths. The song is catholic; you could play it in any mode, you could trip up the beats differently, you could produce it in any way. There’s a color to it; obviously with two fiddles and pedal steel, your first thoughts will be, Oh, it’s country, it’s Americana; but I think if we came into it consciously and talked about how we wanted it to sound, it might have wound up seeming artificial. But the only manifesto we had was that we needed to play what we did live and there wasn’t going to be any artifice. There wasn’t going to be any overdubs, nobody could sing harmony with themselves, nobody was going to double an instrument or do anything that wasn’t what you were going to hear in a room. I’m really happy with how it worked, but it’s probably because we didn’t try to define it that it ended up being that way.”

However, a close study of the lyrics gives rise to the unavoidable conclusion that these young fellows have not had a easy time of it in their youth, especially when it come to romance. Were they aware that their material was cutting close to the bone of so many unfortunate relationships and dyspeptic views of society at large?

“Well,” Glen begins, hesitantly, “Luke’s song ‘Remember Well,’ it’s sad but it’s nice.”

Indeed—he contributes some of the most elegant lyrics on the album, beautiful, but sad. As Phillips continues his thought, a salient truth emerges, at least as it concerns his half-dozen contributions.

“I had kind of a crash a couple of years ago, and those were some of the best songs for me that I had saved from out of that for this project as we were talking about it over the years. I don’t write as many songs when I’m happy. It’s where I work my problems out. I think it’s actually a lot harder to write joyful songs; it’s something I would like to do a lot more of. Actually, in many ways it takes a steadier hand to write out of joy. Even on my solo records there’s a lot of joyful songs, but usually the perspective is from the pit of despair looking up, thinking how nice it would be to get to where the light’s coming from. But you know there was some drama. I hope these songs are not a complete downer (laughs). Once again I kind of hope they’re leaning towards some feeling of hope and some feeling of resolution. I guess I don’t have a good answer for that. I was realizing the same thing, too, a couple of months ago and thought, These are kind of heavy!”


The Work Continues

Once finished recording, the band had multiple issues to resolve. Getting the music done was easy; the hard part was getting it out to the public and figuring out how to take the whole show on the road. As per the latter, it was obvious the logistics of hauling the entire eight-person contingent around the country were daunting in the extreme, not only from a cost standpoint, but also because of the various musicians’ other commitments: Benmont Tench, for instance, was all set to go on the road with WPA when Tom Petty called to begin work on his new album. Sara Watkins is out promoting her self-titled, John Paul Jones-produced debut solo album (on which she is accompanied by, among others, Tench, Pete Thomas, brother Sean and Chris Thile). This matter of a large touring group proved most problematic when the album was being shopped to major labels, all of which blinked when getting down to the brass tacks of computing the cost—and likely return on investment—of mounting such a spectacle across the land. In the end, the band decided to self-release the album and deal with its own internal politics rather than those of an established label, no matter the difficulty of replicating the infrastructure the latter could provide.

Phillips: "People would get very interested, they would love the music, they’d love the story and then they’d realize the reality of putting the band on the road—what could we do? How could we sell it? It actually taught us a lot. We walked in smiling with this record and we hadn’t thought about those things. So basically a lot of people loved the music and wanted to be involved and then it was, 'Whoa, eight people. How are you…?' and they would drop out. There were indie situations we could have gotten into where it would have been a little bit of infrastructure and a little bit of support, but having to give up a whole lot to do that. We’ll see how it comes out. It may have been an unwise decision, it may have been the best decision we’ve ever made.”

WPA, ‘Already Gone,’ Joe’s Pub, Aug. 19, 2009

In fact, how many shows will feature the full WPA lineup remains an unsettled question. Most will likely feature the core trio of Bulla, Watkins and Phillips, with the lineup expanding according to others’ schedules and the money factor. Bulla and Phillps admit they’ve considered pulling together “regional rhythm sections” to join them when they come into a specific town (including Luke’s sister, Jenny Ann, who is joining WPA in Seattle). “We’d like to keep it new and different as it moves around,” says Philips, “but we want to make sure we have as solid a core as we possibly can at our smallest shows.”

Illustrating what he calls the “intense and perplexing problem” of logistics, Phillips outlines the schedule for the evening of the day this interview is being conducted in Nashville, during the American Music Convention. It goes thusly: “We’re playing at 11 o’clock at the Cannery, at the Americana Music Festival, and Sara is playing a show earlier in the evening, and Sean is playing with Sara. Jerry Douglas is playing earlier in the evening and Luke is playing with Jerry. Buddy Miller is playing earlier in the evening, and Greg is going out to play with Buddy. And then we’re all going to get together at the Cannery.”


The Faith Endures

Back in January, Billboard broke news about the band’s upcoming debut, saying the group was calling itself The Scrolls. Changing to WPA was a good move, but the name cannot be separated from its meaning in American history, especially given the current economic climate when calls have gone up for a new Works Progress Administration to be instituted right now. While not admitting to any political motive for choosing a familiar, totemic acronym, Phillips does see a connection with the original WPA and its musical counterpart.

WPA, ‘Good As Ever,’ Joe’s Pub, Aug. 19, 2009

“It came out of a community and a whole bunch of people,” he explains. “There’s a lot of external expectations about how musicians should operate, what you should do when you get together, rules you should follow, I don’t know, some kind of conventional wisdom as opposed to actually following your muse and your passion. This was a really authentic group of friends doing something for the love of it and doing something for the common good. As far as a hope in trusting the people around you, there’s a big value in looking outside yourself and looking to a larger community. That idea of work through dignity, that a group of people is really able to do something for itself that’s lasting and meaningful and worthwhile. And it’s a work in progress. It’s this unmanageable beast of a project where we recorded this record, then we realized we needed a name, then we went through two and a half management situations, talked to some various record companies and realized we needed to do an indie release, then realized we needed to redefine the band as a trio that kind of expands to any other number of people due to the logistics and expense of going out on the road. It was impossible. So there’s the work in progress as well as the Works Progress Administration. It’s gonna be really interesting doing the next album and figuring out what we are. Even in getting people to listen to it, there’s been this question of going out on the road with a rotating cast. We started getting a lot of 'Is Sara there?' No, Sara has to work on her album. 'Is Benmont…?'

“As wonderful as it is that there’s this group of people, it needs to be about the songs, first and foremost. If people want to come out, they need to want to hear the music we’re going to be playing. And while the story of the community and all that is great, we very quickly realized that managing the message was going to be really, really important. And that we had to make people want to be there whether or not we had our star power along.”

Phillips laughs at his “star power” comment—and waits to see if the world laughs with him. Work is only beginning, progress is measured in increments, but faith endures.

WPA, ‘I Go To Sleep,’ Joe’s Pub, Aug. 19, 2009

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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