Forging New Territory with Robby Gira and Trouble in the Wind
Southern California has a long history of sweet harmonies and honky tonk instrumentation. The reactionary Bakersfield sound gave rise to 50’s icons and 60’s counter-culture. In the fallout, came yacht rock, a posthumous title given to the unapologetically smooth California sound of the 70’s. Blue-eyed soul has maintained a foothold on the west coast since the Beach Boys and today, the unabashedly Californian musicians of Trouble in the Wind champion the candor of Bakersfield while embracing the kind of breezy melodies that are fit to sail.
Lead singer and principle songwriter Robby Gira and I got together in Carlsbad, CA to discuss the latest Music Award win, the new album Hammer On, and the decade-long history of Trouble in the Wind.
You won the 2018 San Diego Music Awards Artist of the Year and Best Americana Album of the Year for Pineapple Moon, what did that mean to you?
It was very humbling and gratifying at the same time. Just being nominated and being in the company of the other nominees was very humbling and then to get the award was pretty overwhelming.
Trouble in the Wind is coming up on a decade, which is incredible. The last few years have had a lot of accomplishments, Lefty (2017) also won Americana Album of The Year.
We were really able to capture the full sound of the band on Lefty. It is really important for us to be in an environment where we are comfortable. It is really important when it comes to the delicacy of how we want the songs to go. And that is right when things with Keith (Haman) really started to coalesce, the current sound was really strongly-developed around that time.
“Then we went on tour and he didn’t have the correct stamp on his passport and unfortunately, he was deported.”
How has Trouble in the Wind weathered a full decade?
I’ve been making music with Trevor Mulvey for over a decade, since like high school. So that sort of set the arch, and then people left and people joined. When Kyle joined the band, out of respect for the other people that had left, we decided to change the name to Trouble in the Wind. Kyle (Merritt) was a friend of my brother’s in high school and Kyle asked to join the band after he recorded us at MiraCosta for his school project and him bringing all those instruments and knowledge of orchestration and melody really started to shape what we were trying to do.
We picked up a percussionist on Craigslist named Hugo Mercado Diaz who was a Mexican citizen that crossed the border every three months to play music in San Diego and crossed back to get his stamp. So that shaped the music differently. Then we went on tour and he didn’t have the correct stamp on his passport and unfortunately, he was deported.
Your percussionist was deported mid-tour?
On the border of Mexico and Arizona or New Mexico and Texas. We had to finish the tour without him and we were really worried for him, he was a really sweet guy.
Is that where Larry Doran came in?
A local guy I’ve known for a long time in the community, he worked at Spin Records and played in a rock and roll band - he offered or maybe we reached out to him to fill in for a couple shows and it felt so natural that things just progressed from there and eventually he joined the band.
Keith Haman moved to New York for several years and his wife danced in our band as a burlesque dancer for a short period of time, so she was in the band before he was. When he got back from New York I started asking if he would be interested. Things went so naturally we had to do it, we had to. That’s how the band came together.
So you’ve endured your share of haphazard adversity to find the right lineup.
It’s crazy, when you look at the scope of it, it is pretty wild. You can’t plan that stuff.
“I look around more, I see the power of what they can accomplish and I just want to be part of it.”
(Laughing) Did the songwriting process change with the lineup?
I definitely started realizing how much I could use the other guys, as far as giving them more work to do. Keith and Kyle are incredible instrumentalists. When I bring a song to the guys I can give them a loose thing and we all figure it out together, organically. Keith is such a great vocalist, and harmonizes naturally with Larry, they were born to sing together. That certainly changed the process.
Trust seems to be one of the hardest things for songwriters to learn.
Maybe I went through a period where ego-wise, maybe I wanted to be up at the front belting them out and getting all the attention (laughing) but I’m older now, I look around more, I see the power of what they can accomplish and I just want to be part of it.
How do you see the progression from Lefty to Pineapple Moon?
Pineapple Moon is a meditation on how I move forward through things. The first song, Old Fashioned World is about how I try to look to the future, look at my life and try to balance things. There is also some fun songs like Psychedelic Larwolf about when sometimes a man needs to let loose and let the inner beast out, rock out and howl at the moon, if you will.
And the progression from Pineapple Moon to Hammer On?
Hammer On is basically the ethos of the band. The album is a tribute to continuing to follow our dream of making music. It is dedicated to the other artists and musicians we know who continue to put out great material. That’s what inspired me, cause when I listen to it, that’s what it sounds like to me, forging new territory.
There is a lot of energy emanating from the group vocals and interplay on Hammer On that really gives it a live feeling.
Definitely, I think to be a strong and powerful band it isn’t just about how loud you turn up your instruments, it’s how you use the instruments. There is just a strength there that we have been building for years and we’re finally just learning how to harness it. It brings a texture, beauty and community to the songs that we haven’t had until now.
“I think to be a strong and powerful band it isn’t just about how loud you turn up your instruments, it’s how you use the instruments.”
Was there a conscious effort to explore new melodic structure from Pineapple Moon?
Pineapple Moon is what happens when Kyle and I have the free time to go up into the attic, lay down tracks and then build upon them. On Hammer On, I spent a serious amount of time working on the songs and the structures. I’ve never been very good at that you know - adding bridges, instrumentals or key changes. I wanted to take the time to really build the songs.
Are you writing all the songs?
Hammer On is the first album where we feature a song by Keith. We play more songs in our sets that he’s written, but it’s all really about what he wants to do because his songs are amazing and they fit right in with what we do. So that is a new texture that we are exploring. I always like to have Larry sing at least one on the record, but this one I also started trying to use the strength of all of us singing together as much as possible.
Hammer On feels like a real progression. Was striking a balance between diversity and pop-sensibility difficult?
If we keep doing the same thing then we aren’t going to like it anymore. A big part of what we do is the enthusiasm to surprise ourselves. We have to take risks and get out of our comfort zones. It’s probably the most important thing for us as far as growth is concerned. As long as we recognize that and try to develop then I will always be confident in the strength of what we do.
Do you have a signing off sale’s pitch for the album?
Why not listen to a rock and roll band? (laughing)
(Laughing) Yeah, why not? So what’s next for Trouble in the Wind?
We’ll be hitting the road in promotion for the album. We have a lot going on. We’ve been sitting on this album for like two years, forcing ourselves not to play it so it's fresh for the audience. It’s going to be really exciting to get out on the road and just let these songs breathe.
Hammer On is now available from In Your Neighborhood Music.
(Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length.)