Interview

“Build Shit Right”: A Lost Interview with Water Liars

**Two years ago, I interviewed one of my favorite bands, Water Liars, for the now defunct Oxford-based magazine Kitty Snacks. I wound up using some of the conversation in a profile of the band I published at Lent Mag later that year, but I was always bummed that no one had seen the whole thing. I'm including the interview below in its entirety. It was conducted before bassist GR Robinson joined the band. My hope is that it also illuminates the two great records that have come since, s/t from Water Liars and Andrew Bryant's This is the Life. ** 

Water Liars consists of songwriter, vocalist, guitarist Justin (Pete) Kinkel-Schuster and drummer, producer, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bryant. Their second release, Wyoming, is about people all alone in the wind. It’s an honest record, unsentimental and heartbreaking, a throaty yowl from the dark trenches of fucking up and trying to get by. I talked to the band in Water Valley, MS, at Bryant’s house two days after Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.) died. Molina was all I could think about and the conversation turned pretty quickly to how much his work had mattered to all of us.

After shutting off the recorder, we listened to Josephine. Bryant talked about how he was going to get William Schaff’s cover art from Magnolia Electric Co. tattooed on his chest. We also talked about beer popsicles and trees (Bryant works for his father as a sawmill man). Penthouse was about to come out with a review of Wyoming and Kinkel-Schuster feared that the album would only get half-a-chub (we assumed, not knowing Penthouse’s review policies, that they used a boner ranking system). If I reviewed records for Penthouse, I’ll tell you what: I’d given Wyoming all the chubs.     

William Boyle: Can you talk about Jason Molina’s influence on you?

Pete Kinkel-Schuster: I can’t think of anyone who has influenced me more. He wrote about writing and playing music as real choices with consequences. A lot of people don’t necessarily get to the point where they think about it that way. But it is a real choice and a struggle, and he wrote about it in a way that I don’t think anybody else ever did or has. That’s been extremely influential to me, because I know that trying to balance making music or art you believe in with trying to live a normal life is not something that’s easy to do. It’s hard to see that if you’re honest about it, maybe it doesn’t even matter. 

Andrew Bryant: The first time I heard the Magnolia Electric Co. record, I was just floored. At that point I’d never even heard anything like that. I’d heard a couple of Songs: Ohia tracks that were just acoustic. A couple of my friends said, “I don’t like that. It sounds just like Neil Young.” I was like, “Fuck you. Fuck Neil Young.” I don’t ever wanna hear that shit again. 

When I listen to Molina, I hear the sounds of machines and towns and conversations going on. Somehow all that shit’s in the songs. I don’t even know what that means or what I’m trying to describe, but that’s the kind of stuff I hear when I listen to it. That’s what I gravitate to it most about. And the fucking drum sounds are killer. If you’re gonna say there’s one thing that influenced what I do now, it has to be the drum sounds. Because I play a lot like that guy does. My favorite style of drumming is on their records. I definitely model what I do after that. I mean, I don’t try to do what they do, but that’s just the way I like to play. It’s just got that kind of ‘90s sound to it. Maybe also mixed with shit I heard my dad listening to in the car when I was a kid, which was probably ‘70s music. It’s kind of a mix of that. It’s got that low floor tom. It sounds like it’s about to pop. And the steadiness of it. It’s like a steady working man. It doesn’t get excited about anything. It doesn’t have a lot to say. It just keeps moving.

PK-S: The thing to me about his writing and about those records is that always he cares so much about building. He’s building all of these songs and he cares about building it and building it right. That, to me, that’s all I’m trying to do. I’m trying to build shit right. And that fucking song, “Just Be Simple,” those are words to try to live by and to try to make music by. Just try to always remember to build shit right. Do it as simply and as well as you can.

AB: It’s almost like he’s putting to words all the shit that’s in your head. It’s what you always wanted to write and say—

PK-S: That’s really the bottom line.

It wasn’t even stuff that was in my head a lot of the time. It was just feelings that I had.

AB: I think that’s why you connect to him so much. Something special about the guy, that’s for sure.

PK-S: The other thing that surprised me when I heard it — because to me he’s so large in my perception of music, he’s this incredibly iconic, important person to me — and then I’m reading this obituary on Billboard.com and in the last paragraph they say his best-selling record was What Comes After the Blues and it sold 13,000 copies. My jaw hit the fucking floor. How is that possible? I only got to see him live one time, on the Josephine tour. I was living in St. Louis at the time, and I had to work or something, and I didn’t get to buy a ticket beforehand, and I was like, “Man it’s gonna be sold out. There’s no way I’m gonna get in.” I was running late. I showed up and there’s maybe fucking forty people there and I couldn’t believe it. At that point in their career. I just didn’t get it. I don’t get it. It was really fucking sad to me.

I saw them on that tour too. At the Hi Tone [in Memphis]. Couldn’t have been more than twenty or thirty people there. I couldn’t believe it.

AB: What year was that?

2009.

PK-S: Late summer 2009.

AB: Did you see them earlier than that?

I saw them five or six times in New York and Philly. And I saw them one other time in Memphis. 2008, I think.

AB: I think that’s the one I played with them. Maybe earlier.

When you’re writing the songs, is there a direct influence on a line-by-line level? I’ve been listening to nothing but Molina and Wyoming for the last few weeks, and I feel like you have some of the same concerns as Molina. There’s a lot of distance on Wyoming.

PK-S: That’s the thing that I love so much about his stuff. He writes in those big terms in such a way that’s also incredibly specific. And that’s the thing that I’m always trying to do. To get at the bigger things by being specific. I’ve studied his stuff for so long that it’s gotta be buried pretty deep in there.

And the place stuff.

PK-S: In a lot of ways, it would be fair to say that I’ve tried as much as I can—both consciously and unconsciously—to model myself more or less along the lines of what Molina always tried to do in terms of structure. You’ll probably find a lot of the same kind of themes in there, too.

AB: Your stuff’s a little more narrative than his sometimes. That’s the only difference. I don’t think I could ever write completely unnarrative songs the way Molina did. How can you do that? He was a fucking ninja master.

PK-S: It’s always these wise proclamations that come down from the mountain.

Even the songs that feel like they start to have a narrative dip away from it.

AB: You ever read his lyrics? On What Comes After the Blues, there are a lot of quotations. It’s people talking back and forth. Call and response stuff. 

PK-S: On that record, I feel like there’s a lot of dialogue.

AB: That’s the closest thing to a narrative that you get, some of these dialogue bounces that he does.

PK-S: To me, there are stories in there.

AB: He’s a master at it.

And the mythology of his world ...

PK-S: It’s whole and complete. It’s basically a [Frank] Stanford-sized world.

I can’t even look at the moon without thinking of Molina.

AB: I named my dog Moon. Molina says moon probably two hundred times in his songs. He’ll do these things where he’s talking to it and he’s trying to put it somewhere or it’s trying to put him somewhere. That’s what fascinates me. He’s obsessed with the moon. It’s such a beautiful word.

PK-S: If I really sat down and thought about it, I would probably be ashamed at how much I really try to emulate what he does. But if I’m gonna have someone that I’m trying to get to, I’m glad that it’s him. The thing about it is he speaks about trying to make art that is completely foolish and destroys everything and I can’t think of anyone else that talks about it in that honest and unapologetic of a way. He never apologizes for choosing to follow that no matter what, and I think that’s extremely rare. I admire him so much and to think about following your muse so adamantly like he did and writing about it and being so committed to it and yet what does it get you? I want there to be a better ending for that, you know? Does it really always have to be that way if that’s what you choose? Because it seems like it kind of does.

I’ve got other questions about influences. You recommended Terry McDonnell’s Wyoming: The Lost Poems, and I read it and really liked it. I was wondering how that or Frank Stanford’s work or whatever, how that stuff figured its way into the making of this record.

PK-S: Aside from the title, I don’t think either of those things figured in—

AB: I read that Terry McDonnell book. I don’t think he took very much.

PK-S: I don’t think they influenced it directly so much as they’re both just pretty prominent in the galaxy of shit that was spinning around at the time. All of the books that are important to me probably squeeze themselves in to greater or lesser degrees.

Knowing that you like Willy Vlautin, I was thinking about his stuff, too. There’s so much Wyoming in his work. And then there’s Dog Day Afternoon. Pacino asks Cazale what country he wants to escape to and Cazale says, “Wyoming.” There’s this mythological Wyoming out there. I feel like Wyoming means something ...

AB: You ever been to Wyoming?

Never. That’s the thing. In Barry Gifford’s book Wyoming, there’s not a scene set in Wyoming. And in Vlautin’s books it’s always about getting to Wyoming. Nobody’s ever really in Wyoming for more than a little while. Even in those Terry McDonnell poems, it’s more about the promise of Wyoming.

PK-S: I think you got it right there. To me Wyoming is ...

AB: Nowhere.

PK-S: ... Wyoming hopefully represents something larger or represents a place inside of me or whoever. It’s less of a specific place and more of a strange American place that you want to get to but don’t really ever.

AB: It’s not a place of ultimate retreat or something? When you get ready to quit it all, you go to Wyoming? Only time I’ve ever been to Wyoming was just driving through. We weren’t playing a show. We just drove through and stayed in Wyoming and didn’t do shit.

PK-S: There’s definitely just something about it.

AB: It’s another one of those beautiful words, too.

PK-S: And it is a beautiful word. If I ever had a child, I’d name her or him Wyoming.

AB: Wyoming Moon. That’s a good combination of words. 

Molina should’ve gotten around to writing that one.

PK-S: I’ll do it for him.

In Barry Gifford’s book, it’s a mother and son talking. They don’t ever go to Wyoming. They’re driving around the South and the Midwest. He talks about wanting to move to Wyoming and have a dog and she says, “Everybody needs Wyoming.” I like that feeling and I like that line informing the album.

PK-S: I hope that it gets at some other space, some sort of ultimate or final place.

How do you move between writing songs and writing poems?

AB: When I write a song, I have a guitar in my lap. I don’t write song lyrics down in a notebook and come back and try to sing them — I think Pete does that. I never do that. I write a song based on my melody and my tempo that frames my wording. When I write poems or stories, I just sit down and write and rewrite. Same shit that everyone else does. I think trying to write a lot of poetry and stories kind of fucked up my songwriting. So I’m trying to get out of the poetry/prose game. I get a better feeling from writing a song.

PK-S: Writing songs is definitely different from writing anything else. I write songs a lot more often than I write poems. Poems, I sort of have to make myself write and I don’t do it very often. Writing songs, for me, is kind of a sporadic thing and it mostly just comes down to waiting for whatever thing to strike, whether it’s a line or two lines or a particular chord change or riff.

AB: I think we write songs completely opposite of each other. He’ll come up with a guitar part and play that shit over and over, trying to think of something to go with it. I would never do that.

PK-S: It’s weird because sometimes I’ll just be sitting there and something will come to me and it’ll come out in five or ten minutes. And sometimes I’ll have a guitar part or a line that doesn’t work for a long time and I’ll just pound away at it and play it almost mindlessly—

AB: I’m like, “Pete, you’ve done beat that horse to fucking death.”

PK-S: It doesn’t happen often but once in a while something like that hangs around for what I can only take as a reason because it’ll end up being something cool. Something that ends up being worth working on for us. That doesn’t happen often, but it happens often enough that I still do it.

AB: You gotta hang up that one part.

PK-S: There’s a couple of things that I’ve been doing lately that are about to get the boot.

AB: Want me to shoot that horse?

PK-S: I figure it’s already shot. 

AB: I write most of my songs in fifteen minutes or less.

PK-S: Generally, if something is gonna be worth sticking around, the majority of it will come out pretty quickly.

AB: The main reason I don’t write that many songs anymore is just because I’m so busy. I work. I’m doing shit with this band. I come home, I spend some time with my kid, I watch TV, do stuff with the wife. But I swear to God if everybody left this house for a week and I was here with my own thoughts, shit would be on. But that’s just what it takes for me. I look back and that’s the only difference. I used to have tons of time. When I wasn’t working full-time, I’d have whole days off. And when I didn’t have a kid, I had shitloads of time. When he was in daycare and my wife was gone all day, I’d have these whole days where I’d wake up and be outside. Even when I’m alone and watching TV, I’m always thinking about something. I need to be a recluse to write. When I’m writing a song, I feel like it’s there and it needs to come out. It’s like I’m vomiting. It’s like you’ve got all this stuff that comes into your brain, all this stuff that’s bothering you, you’ve gotta shit that out.

PK-S: That’s probably the best way of describing writing I’ve ever heard.

AB: I’ve got a poem I wrote about my process of writing. The first line is something like: “I write my poems like I pour my coffee down the sink.” You’re just always dumping out this shit that’s no good to you. It’s lying around and you’ve got to get rid of it. I feel like I’m in this constant state of rebirthing myself. I don’t know if it’s my Bapist roots. Writing a good song is like taking a shower. That shit makes me feel better than anything else in the world. I’ll feel like a new man and then the next day I’m down again. All that shit’s the same to me—writing a song and feeling good about it, taking a shower and feeling good about it, taking a shit and feeling good about it. I just wish my songs didn’t stink as bad as my turds. Put that in your literary magazine.