“Everything Finds Its Place”: Tommy and the High Pilots Discuss Their New Album “Only Human”

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

An interview with Tommy Cantillon about Tommy and the High Pilots’ 2013 release, “Only Human”

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Formed in Santa Barbara in 2008, Tommy and the High Pilots crafted a fresh blend of pop rock with their full-length debut Everynight (2009, Redbird Records). Four years later, the band is back with their second full length, Only Human, due May 28 from Red Bird Records. Not that the band has been idle. In addition to extensive touring, Tommy Cantillon (vocals/guitar), Michael Cantillon, (guitar/keyboards), Steven Libby (bass), and Matt Palermo (drums) have issued two EPs in the interim: 2010’s American Riviera and 2011’s Sawhorse Sessions. Even so, there’s a palpable excitement in the leadup to Only Human‘s release, an energy befitting the album’s uptempo pop rock. We caught Tommy Cantillon on a brief break between the conclusion of a tour and the album’s release (and another tour on the horizon).

Tommy stresses that the band’s schedule has kept them busy: “We’ve just been recording and touring kind of on repeat. Just getting in the van and making a go of it.” That creates a strange working dynamic for the group, constantly ping-ponging from the stage to the studio — a continual shift in contexts that is both jarring and rewarding. Tommy notes the ways in which these two contexts inform one another: “Certainly there were new songs that we were trying out live. For example, we were playing ‘Devil to Pay’ live for about a year, which certainly helped to get it onto the record. The benefit there is that we have privilege of kind of knowing that it’s going to work. Some songs are born in the studio, which allows you to play around with different instruments and techniques. But then you don’t have that luxury of testing the material on stage.”

Although only their second full length, Only Human builds into the group’s young but growing body of work. Tommy and the High Pilots are keenly aware of how the pieces of this growing discography fit into the larger whole. “I think if you look [at our releases] from day one in chronological order — to me, it makes sense. You never want to repeat what you last did. We don’t intentionally depart from something, but there’s been two years of stories and touring and traveling — everything finds its place. Musically we’re always interested in finding new sounds, new instruments, et cetera — it’s a continuous pursuit. So I think that in creating this album, we’re not consciously departing from or repeating our past work, we’re just always trying to move forward and give the songs the attention that they deserve.”

In advance of the album, the group has issued “Outta My Head” as the lead single, for which they’ve also just finished a music video. While an obvious choice given the song’s standout quality, it was actually a last minute decision to have “Outta My Head” be the public’s first taste of Only Human. “We knew that we were making a video, but we kept going back and forth between ‘Devil to Pay’ and ‘Outta My Head.’ We were heading on tour and had to finish the video before we left. So about two days before we leaving town, we decided to go with ‘Outta My Head.’ It’s a very immediate song, and that’s an old Beatles trick to start with the chorus, to get the hook out front. If nothing else, you won’t be able to get it out of your head. So it just seemed like the right choice, especially given the song’s immediacy.”

“For the video, we worked with Matt Odom. We’d done photo shoots with him before, and we brushed the surface of working on a video with him. Those two songs were talked about [“Devil to Pay” and “Outta My Head”], and we all kind of drew up treatments on our own. There was some junk thrown out there for sure, but with the two day timeframe we had, Matt’s line was ‘you know what, you guys just have to trust me here. I have a cool idea, and it’s going to work.’ So we met on the set, he hired all of the dancers, and we just kind of went crazy. We left for the tour, and he spent something like three days straight just editing the thing. If you look there are a number of segments of that video that are just quick, single shots. He asked us to trust him and we did — he’s a very creative man.”

Even beyond Tommy, Matt, Steven, and Michael, Only Human is very much the product of close collaboration. No less than three separate producers had a hand in shaping its sound. “We did half the record with Matt Wallace in LA. He’s worked with a number of artists like Faith No More, the Replacements, Train, Maroon 5. He’s very seasoned, brilliant, organic, and down to earth. His knowledge of music is all across the board, and you really trust his ideas and his input. That outside sort of unbiased opinion is very important to the creative process. We also worked in St Louis with Jason McEntire, whose whole philosophy is trial and error, just try everything and anything. So when for example we’re in the control room listening to Matt trying out new things on the drums, there’s that moment where we just look at each other and light up — Jason’s very much about that moment of discovery, the magic in that moment. We also worked on a few songs with Mark McClusky in Chicago, who recorded our American Riviera EP. He’s formally studied songwriting and has degrees in music theory, whereas we [the band] aren’t classically trained at all. We’re sort of instinctual and go with the gut. With his side and our side, you get something pretty cool. I think that our fear early on was that working with three producers would go against the album being a cohesive whole, but Matt [Wallace], Jason, and Mark are special in different ways, and the dynamic between everyone just worked out really well.”

The production team was especially insightful in overcoming one of the most glaring challenges that the High Pilots faced in recording Only Human: not developing and treating new songs, but rather how to approach recording and arranging songs that had been in the band’s live repertoire for some time. “‘Young and Hungry,’ for example. I probably started writing that song two years ago. When something’s around that long, you lose quite a bit of perspective. We got it to a place where everyone lit up in the studio where everyone said ‘yeah, that’s right , that’s it.’ ‘Here in My Hands,’ and ‘Painted Cave’ were others that posed similar challenges. This is one area where it really helps to bring in a producer, because they’re only hearing the song for the first time, and they’re giving you their immediate reaction. It just helps tremendously to bounce off of the producer for these songs that had already gone through so many versions, and that we’d been playing for so long.”

https://i2.wp.com/groundsounds.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/tommyhighpilots2.jpg?resize=250%2C250Looking at the album as a whole, Only Human doesn’t have an overt theme or concept, yet there is a kind of unity among the songs. “I feel like with Only Human, after looking at the bunch of songs you have and the ten that landed on the record, you realize after the fact that they kind of tie together. Overall it’s kind of the steam of the opening track ‘Get Up;’ It’s about everybody makes mistakes, everybody and their mother makes mistakes. You can’t sit around and feel miserable and regretting them, you’ve got to just get out there and live. The album’s kind of a pep talk, if you will. That kind of pep talk or motivation is what we want to get across.”

With the LP wrapped, the High Pilots are taking a few weeks to catch their collective breath before heading back out on the road to support Only Human. The tour will take them across North America for the latter half of the summer. Despite having just returned from a stint on the road, Tommy and the High Pilots are looking forward to heading back out. “We’re very pumped on the fact that the record will have been out for 6-8 weeks at that point. I’m excited to get out and see people’s reactions, seeing fans singing along. We were testing out a lot of these songs on this last run, but the audience was just hearing them for the first time, just taking it in. I’m very excited that they’ll have heard it for a few months. And we’re going to Canada for the first time, so we’re really excited about that.”

While a number of the songs on Only Human have already had some stage time, Tommy points out that the stage and studio each have their own unique challenges and strengths. “In the studio you have the freedom to add a bit more production, more texture. We’re always interested in something exciting, sonically speaking. When we play live, it’s the four of us, so one of the tough things is that we don’t have three extra musicians on stage to fill out everything. On the other hand, the energy that we put out live hopefully makes it not matter, because you’re seeing and hearing it in a new light. We never get complaints from the crowd as far as ‘oh i didn’t hear this instrument or that instrument.’ It’s presented in a new way on stage. You never want to hear exactly what you hear on the record, because at that point you might as well just listen to the record. But live you have to be in that moment; in the studio you have to find that moment, on the stage you have to live it. There’s something created in having an audience and a band together that you don’t get in the studio or you don’t get in just putting on headphones and listening the record.”

Looking ahead to that live dynamic that Tommy and the High Pilots will be forging this summer, a full announcement and itinerary for the tour will come from the band on June 4th (stay tuned to their Twitter and Facebook pages for updates, as well as thehighpilots.com). Until then, Only Human is in stores and online May 28th. Recalling his earlier comments regarding the differences between stage and studio, Tommy simply suggests to take a listen to the LP; “If you like what you hear, come and see it live — we think you’ll like it even more.”