The Popdose Interview: Thad Cockrell of Leagues
When describing Leagues music, I make an unfair comparison: “It’s like Maroon 5 without the douchebaggery.” At first I thought it was a disservice to the band. But maybe not. When I repeated it to lead singer Thad Cockrell, he said, “Don’t give me too much credit, because I can be a complete douche.” (he’s joking, of course)
Thad Cockrell has released an album with Caitlin Cary in addition to three solo records. Jeremy Lutito (drums) and Tyler Burkum (guitar) have played in and with a laundry list of well known artists. They’re all fine and talented musicians in there own right, but something worked when the three of them found the studio together.
They opted to not use Pro Tools on this record and put it straight to tape. Upon hearing the record on vinyl (I bought my copy via PledgeMusic), it’s clear they made a wise decision. The harmonies, drums, guitars, bass; they all just jump out at you. You can’t help but pay attention to Leagues.
We talked to lead singer Cockrell as he was literally packing up vinyl copies of the album.
You went from being a singer-songwriter with an Americana vibe to this indie-rock with a dance beat sound. Was it a simple flip of a switch? What caused you to go from a more introspective and quieter sound to this more in your face sort of music?
Well, the interesting thing about Leagues is all three of us, we’re song people, right? So…all of us listen to absolutely everything. But the things that we listen to are…we’re more compelled to like, what is a great song. And, for me growing up…Let me give you a snapshot which would make perfect sense to you. So, it would to an outsider, be completely understandable.
It’s like, wow, that there is a big switch, right? But when I was fifteen, I would push my truck out the driveway as to not wake up my parents, you know, and when I got further away from the house, I would start that truck up and I would drive down the road. And I would listen to country music like Alabama, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, all this stuff. And I would drive downtown and I would meet my friends at a club and we would go clubbing till about two in the morning. So we we’re dancing and it was like me and a couple of my friends. And at the end of the night you know, we’d say “I’ll see you in the morning at school” and I would drive back home listening to the Cure.
At no point did I find that weird, and if you were to ask Tyler, he had a very similar scenario of listening to absolutely everything. As did Jeremy and so as artists go, I think what’s informed our art is as an artist, it’s really important to stop and listen and try to fill in the gaps. You pay attention to what’s going on and you try to fill in the gaps of what…what is not being sung. What songs do we need to hear. Like the things that connect us from across, you know, the ocean. And there is a lot of this new seriousness. And I feel like we all need music to make us feel good. Why does rock and roll have to become such a bummer?
So we all just kind of felt that, but we got that more just from being quiet and just listening for what we thought…what we thought needed to be heard. And so, one of the things that we did is, if it didn’t grab us instantly and if it didn’t make us want to dance and if it didn’t make us feel good, it doesn’t mean that we didn’t like it, we just knew that that’s not what we we’re doing. Hopefully it’ll do that for the people that listen to the record and it’s very pop — you know, these songs are very pop songs, and I think normally the idea is, if it’s a pop song and used to be a throwaway lyric and I just felt like, well maybe we can do a Jedi mind trick. Like really tough, strong and then actually really say something so, if they stick around for eight or nine listens, then it finally sinks in. Like “Oh, these guys are actually trying to say something.” So, that’s kind of the idea.
The first thing that caught me, “Haunted,” has these building guitars that they hit you, and then all of a sudden it gets real quiet again. And it kind of forces you to pay attention, but by the third or fourth time, I’m hearing the lyrics and I’m really starting to dig into them. Is that something you’re attuned to? That people might catch the music first and get the lyrics second? Or are you hoping that they’re going to gravitate towards your lyrics right away?
Oh no, no, no, no. Nobody…I mean, one of the things I learned very early on is that it’s very rare that people listen to what you have to say. They just do not, and I think that’s when singer/ songwriters can take themselves way too seriously. The lyrics are there so that if at any point, somebody wants to listen and is into that, there is actually going to be something there, but — you and I and every person alive, we feel music before we hear it, right? And so that’s our first handshake, is how does it make you feel. Whether I like it or not, that’s just how it’s going to go down. It doesn’t bother me at all that they might not listen to the lyrics at first. I mean, I know I really enjoy lyrics, but I’m probably in the minority. I’m guessing that you do too, and we’re probably the minority.
Absolutely. I heard the EP and thought, they’ve got to have some major labels coming after them and willing to give them some type of cash to help promote and make a full length and go out and do it. But you guys opted to go the Pledge route and so…
We actually made the record long ago — I mean, the record has been done for eight months, and the PledgeMusic thing just started two months ago.
Were you out shopping the record to labels? Did you just not find the right sort of deal, or…
No, we had people approach us. One of the things that we’re looking for is partnerships. And, a lot of times when labels approach you at the beginning, it isn’t a partnership. It’s “Hey, this is the way this relationship is going to look, and you can take it or leave it.” And anytime on any relationship — even, like, dating — any time that happens, as soon as you say yes to that, you have instantly put an expiration date on that relationship. The short-term gain won’t outweigh the long-term pain of whatever it is that you had to take.
So our thought is let’s just move forward with friends and people that believed in us, who just kept metaphorically putting gas in the tank for us to keep making this record. And it’s been an absolutely incredible story to be a part of. We want it to be music-driven; we don’t want it to be press-driven or money-driven.
We’ve really taken it on the chin on the front end, but our hope is the music’s right; it isn’t just meant for critics. We would love for everybody to get this. Sometimes critics can listen with a cynical ear and in sometimes they’ll write about music that they want to be famous instead of music that they think people would just love. Our thought was, “Let’s keep moving it ahead on our own and seeing what happens.” Kind of the idea of, we don’t want to be entitled and say hey, “If you do this, then we’ll do this.” Let’s just take the initiative, let’s make it happen and if we do that, I think people will really get involved. Because you know what? There’s three guys in the band and it’s Tyler, Jeremy and myself and the fourth member is the pleasure of the audience. And we really take that to heart.
Have you guys been overwhelmed by the reaction to PledgeMusic?
Yes — and not just Pledge, but things are really taking off on radio, and we we’re blown away by that. I mean, it’s what we hoped for; you can plan and hope all day, and at the end of the day, other people have to believe in this to keep moving forward. So when it does, it’s just so incredibly…we’re really grateful, and it’s humbling. I mean, we have been overwhelmed the entire time. We’re surrounded by a really great team — it’s not like just us putting the record out. If we had a label, we’d say, “Okay, well, we want to keep this team intact.” It’s working on different things, so we feel like we’re really in good hands.
You had the four-song EP that you were selling at the shows when you were on tour with Matt Kearney, and then a tour with Jars of Clay. Do you think it’s their sort of diehard audience that has helped grow your audience naturally?
No, not really. I’m telling you, though — it was invaluable. We became a band in front of a thousand-plus people using this crazy idea of “Let’s go out and see if this kind of music works.” For that to work in front of complete strangers…I mean, when you’re opening up for a band, you think that it’s a friendly environment but actually there’s a good bit of animosity. It’s like you’re imposing a conversation on them that they did not sign up for.
And with your music, you want people to move…
…and people hardly ever move to an opening act.
No! They never do. So when that starts happening, what it does is it encourages us — we’re onto something, let’s keep moving forward. And, you know, we really did. Up until that point, I’ve always played shows behind the guitar and as you saw, I didn’t gave a guitar on me. I might end up playing guitar in like one or two songs; it was scary for me, I’m like “What the hell am I doing?” It really helped us. It was only like four shows and that was out in front of hardly anybody but we had a new bass player that…Tyler, the guitar player, his cousin Phil started playing with us. And so, you know we needed to go out and play some shows with him to be ready you know. So…
Now was it was it difficult to sort of turn on that switch? “I’m not a singer/songwriter, I’m a frontman.”
There is a huge difference.
Have you become more comfortable in that role?
Yeah, you know, it was really scary. I feel like it’s my job to almost be the most uncool person in the room so that everybody has like the free pass to do the same. We don’t want people to be aware of themselves while they’re there, and so what that means is that I can’t be aware of myself. So, it’s like any time I’m up there performing and I go in…I’m like “Stop, it’s not about you. Get out of your head.” That’s scary stuff. So it took me a bit to get comfortable with it.
You were used to writing songs for the most part, by yourself. You put out a couple solo records. Now you’ve got Tyler and Jeremy in the room with you as you’re writing these songs. Was it more encouraging or less encouraging to sort of fend off ideas and go “Hey, I’ve got ideas for lyrics here”? Or is this something where Tyler or Jeremy writes some parts and then you add some vocals to it? How did the writing process go?
Well what’s crazy is the process was completely new. So it’s like you’re doing something that you swore you knew how to do. You’re doing it, and because I wanted the process to be new, it felt like I didn’t know how to write songs again. So that was…I think that’s one of the reasons that I think it captured all of our imaginations — we didn’t know how to do it. We’d never done it before, and on some levels, it was like the most rebellious thing that we could do.
Just to go and do it — go to a remote studio in the middle of Wisconsin…
Well, to start a band and actually dream big and not be like, let’s just do it for like a couple people and our friends. But actually really dream big about it, it kind of seems ridiculous and silly.
We tried to be in the room all at the same time when songs were written but sometimes, you know, I write most of the lyrics. And what’s great is, I’ll have alternate lines and I’ll bounce stuff off of Tyler and Jeremy. But my strength would be melody and lyrics and they’re good enough at that to where it overlaps a little, but not enough where we’re on the same page. What Jeremy does is, he’s really incredibly good at it. He’s not just a drummer, I mean, he’s a musician and so he plays lots of different things and he programs things. And then Tyler is the same way — he played bass and guitar and he has great keyboard ideas. So we’re all kind of on standing on different bases and we just kind of help each other out when it’s needed. But it looked really different and there’s a lot of fun.
Back to the PledgeMusic question. The album is going to have ten songs. You had two additional songs, “Ribbons” and “She Kissed Me,” that easily could have been on that album. Did you really just want to save two songs to give people who donated to the campaign instead of just putting all twelve songs on?
No, we liked those songs. We just didn’t feel like they fit on the record, and we really liked the idea of a short record. There are certain records that are eight, nine, ten songs long, and I know that tenth song as well as I know the first. But you know what, if those songs…if we really felt like they measured up in the same way and could have been on that record, I think we would have. We just kind of let the record talk to us and all three of us just thought that those weren’t for the album. And so we had those and we wanted to tell the people that got on board early how much we appreciate their support, so we gave them two extra songs.
On the new album, you re-recorded “Haunted,” “Magic,” and “Mind Games” from the EP. What’s the mindset behind re-recording those songs? Was there hesitation in the sense you didn’t want to mess with them since people knew and liked them already?
Well, we released them on the EP and in the grand scheme of things, nobody had heard those songs, but we really believe in them. If we could have rewritten any one of those three, we would have, and we would have put them on the record. So we thought, “Let’s not give up on these songs. Let’s give them a chance to be heard.”
But you know, when we made that first EP it was so, it was so piecemeal — it was so fragmented, how we did that recording process. We just thought we could do it better and we needed to actually get it up the stuff on the rest of the record. You know, like “Spotlight” and “You Belong Here,” it didn’t…it just needed to get….
A kick in the pants?
It needed a kick in the pants, yeah. And you know, the bass player that was in the band at the time had left, and Tyler had some different ideas for that. And so we just thought, “Let’s go back in and re-record.” And I’d sung the songs so many times that I kind of wrapped my mind around the emotion a little bit better.
Now as far as the songwriting process goes, are you more of a storyteller? Are they personal lyrics? Is there a mix, is it a balance, and how does that really kind of flush its way out?
You know, I think it’s a mix and I think hopefully there is enough narrative in there for people to connect their own stories in and make them theirs. Some of it’s from me and some of it’s from listening to friends and watching them go through stuff and process things. My hope is that in the lyrics, that there is something universally appealing or that people can connect to, no matter where you’re at. I would say it’s a balance.
The debut full-length from Leagues, You Belong Here, is available everywhere January 29th via Bufalotone Records. You can currently stream the entire record over at the MTV Hive. The band’s Daytrotter session goes live on January 29th.