Great Northern is an LA based band consisting of members Solon Bixler and Rachel Stolte who have seen their song “Home” off their atmospheric and melodic debut “Trading Twilight for Daylight” appear in the movie 21 and in a Nissan Murano commercial that aired during Super Bowl XLIII. The following is an interview with Stolte.
How did the band come about?
It came about almost six year ago now. Solon and I were friends for a long time and we had also talked about collaborating. We were both involved with other projects, but we finally ran into each other one night—actually at an Elliot Smith show. He said, “Hey I have all these demos I have been working on. Do you want to put some piano on them?” I said, “Yeah.” It was perfecting timing. I took them home and loved all of them. That’s how the first record started. We went back and forth on a four track recording our parts. Then we went to the studio. We had access to the studio for free for almost a year. That’s how “ Trading Twilight for Daylight” came about.
How did you get the free studio time? That’s actually really cool.
I look back on that and I’m like wow we did not know how lucky we were because we literally just went in there everyday and recorded and tried stuff and experimented and learned how to actually record on the board. Solon actually helped build this studio called The Ship that’s in Los Angeles, but now this other guy runs it most of the time. That’s a place we had access to because he was a co-founder of it. No other bands were in their at the time. We were just able to go in there. No one else was scheduled and money wasn’t an issue. We could just go in there and be creative. It’s kind of like the first record—I don’t think it’ll ever be like that again.
You don’t think you could reproduce that sound now that you have more time constraints?
It’s weird. I think everything happens for a reason. That was kind of the germination of the band, of the sound. We also didn’t even know what our sound would be. We have a really similar taste in music and we’re both really strong-minded about what we want. We just went in there and experimented. When you have time on your side it’s a definite luxury. When you have no expectation of what the outcome is going to be, there’s no rules or judgments so creativity flows. It’s interesting because on the second record we now have time constraints and money constraints and worked with a producer on what we both feel is much more our sound. It’s almost like evolving and maturing and growing up while working with constraints. It was actually almost better than having a lot of time because we were more focused. We weren’t just like “whatever happens happens.” We were like “this has to happen.”
What are the advantages of having both a male and female vocalist?
Less vocally and more male/female perspective because on this record we actually switch it up a lot vocally. It’s so much different than the first one so we’re hoping people will still like this one [laughs]. We sang a lot in unison on the first one and this one is a lot different vocally. I think just having the male and female perspective is awesome for music because you get a definite balance, maybe even beyond male/female it’s just two human beings that each come from a different life and have different perspectives and can compliment each other through song. You have an objective opinion in a way. If I come up with something and he hears it or if he comes up with something and I hear it, our ability to work together on that. I think we’ve worked really hard to make it easier. It’s not always easy. Collaborating is cool because there could be something I might have never thought of and he would and vice versa.
When you are writing do you come together and say “Hey I have this idea. What do you think?” Or do you sit down knowing that you have to write a specific part?
What’s weird is that I think the song dictates the creative process on each track. We both individually work very differently. I need the mood set. It needs to be dark. It needs to be a very certain time of day. I’m much more a slave to my mood. Solon will just go in there and do it. He doesn’t need all that atmosphere; he’ll just focus and work. The song and the mood the music creates dictates what comes out of us creatively. Sometimes I am more vocally driven and word driven, like lyrically driven. Other times I’m much more like “this drumming has to be right here and right here.” And the Same with Solon. Depending on the song and what either of us decide to project on it.
I’m the same way. I’m definitely a mood person when it comes to art and things like that.
That’s why I think it’s great being in a band. The mood is set; it’s dark and everyone’s drinking cocktails. The music sets the mood instantly for the audience and the people on stage. I think my whole life music has affected my mood. I’ll be driving in the car and hear something if I’m upset it can totally shift my mood and I can feel like there’s hope and everything is ok and connected to something bigger. Or vice versa, if I’m feeling really good and hear a sad song. It’s crazy how music can do that. It’s the one kind of universal language. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or where you’re at in your life, it can stop you right in your tracks.
What’s it like seeing your song “Home” in the movie 21 and in the Nissan Murano commercial during the Super Bowl?
It’s funny. I think the music industry is shifting and changing a lot. The bottom line is, anyway you can stay afloat and keep yourself able to have space and time to create and write and make your art better. Those commercials and movies are a vehicle to help us continue. We choose things as long as our integrity is kept. A lot of people look at it as selling out, but we don’t really have a choice at this point. You don’t really make money from signing to a label or selling records. The artist doesn’t see money until a long time after everyone sees money. It’s kind of a way to continue to be able to create your art and not lose your apartment.
That’s a really good point. I think that’s a point a lot of people miss. That’s an interesting perspective you have because you guys are a band that has had some success and people think the second you appear in a movie or on a show you’re living in a house and driving a Bentley, but really you’re just barely eating.
We just got our check and that movie came out like a year ago. It was really exciting though we actually watched the Super Bowl so we could see the commercial. It’s cool it’s like a weird form of validation. It’s not one you’re looking for when you’re making music, but it warrants something else out there besides just being created in the studio.
I am very jealous. I really want to write a song that will appear in a movie. I think it’d be so cool to watch a movie and hear my song.
Totally. We love movies. I feel like half of the inspiration comes from other art forms. You see a movie that changes your life and it inspires you to want to be a better artist. Being able to get your song in a movie is super cool.
Did you see the movie in theaters and experience that way and gauge people’s reactions to your song in the movie?
Yeah we live in Los Feliz and we went around the corner to this theatre called the Vista which is like this super old movie theatre which is awesome. They actually have live bands play there now. It has velvet curtains and looks kind of out of the Cleopatra era. It was exciting at the very end when the credits rolled to see our names. We were like “Oh my god that’s our name.” It was exciting. I think if people tell you they weren’t excited by it, it’s like how can you not be excited by it?
Wha are your tours and shows like?
We were on tour for the first record off and on for a year and a half. We went across the US and Canada I think four times. Touring is the best because it’s bringing the songs to life each night for a different audience. That’s the best way to connect with people. The funny thing about recording is that you write these songs and they are in their beginning state and then you record them and they become permanent on the record. Then you go on tour for a year and the songs evolve so much just form spontaneous moments live each night. It’s almost like it should be backwards. You should play them for a year and then record them.
That’s a very good point.
You don’t really have that luxury. Already practicing these new songs, because we’re getting ready to go out to South by Southwest and on a mini tour, before that to Portland and Seattle and San Francisco, the songs are evolving even after just two weeks of practice. It’s like “Oh, we should have done this on the record or this on the record.” I guess at some point you have to let the song be and that’s why the live experience is that much more special. It’s a new experience for the people watching.
Are you open to playing new interpretations of your songs live or do you try to keep them as close to the sound on the record as possible?
We try to make it sound as much like the record as possible. It’s always like, as fans of music, when you see a band live you want to hear that song, but it’s cool when it’s live because you never know what’s going to happen and a mistake could turn into a really cool moment. We’re not glued to making it sound exactly like the record. We try to make it sound as much like the record as we can. Once the song is alive every night let’s see what happens. Maybe sing it a little different or there might be an interlude that shifts the mood of the song and it’s played a little quicker. We’re open to it. The mood of the audience affects the way you play live.
Just as an opinion from you, as a musician and a fan of music, do you want hear the artist play the song with a different mood or idea, or keep it close to the original?
I feel like it has maybe changed a little bit the more I have been immersed in playing music on a daily basis. As a fan of music I want to hear it like it is on the record, but as a musician I am like “how rad is that that they shifted it like that.” The Grammy’s were horrendous, but there were some cool moments. Did you watch?
I did, I watched them. I was kind of disappointed this year. I expected bigger things I think than what I saw. They paraded a lot of names out there, but they didn’t really deliver.
I thought that Radiohead was good of course, I love them. I actually saw them for the first time live this summer. I was blown away at how much better they sound live than they did on the record. Their record already sounds good. It was an experience that was amazing. Then when I saw them on the Grammy’s I thought it was really cool that they had the whole USC band behind.
That was probably my favorite performance of the Grammy’s.
I don’t know if I answered your question, but I think as a musician it’s really cool to see Thom Yorke do something totally out of the box like that. He always surprises. Seeing their show, they play a lot of songs exactly like the record, but they also play a lot of songs where they don’t. It was actually really satisfying to have both.
I don’t want to take anything away from your band, but obviously Great Northern isn’t a name as recognized as Radiohead. Do you think that gives you more license to play with your songs? More than a very recognized band would have?
If you own what you’re doing on stage and you believe in it with your heart and soul people will respond. It doesn’t really matter as much about the execution. I think it’s an exchange of energy. Whether the venue is super small or very big. We’ve run the gamut, we’ve gone up to about 5,000 seat venue and we’ve been in a 50 seat venue. It’s never a question of what will allow us to experiment. I think it’s more about what each night dictates itself. You can feel if people are open to things or if they aren’t. If you pay attention to that and stay true to really believing what you do up there and meaning what you’re doing. People always respond because they can tell when you’re just going through the motions. The sound can be practically perfect, but boring.
Has there been any music released recently that you’re really into?
Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” is amazing. There’s this band called The Dead Snares which I really like right now. I’ve been listening to them a lot. I really like the MGMT record I know that wasn’t this year, though. It’s like a timeless, amazing record that really I don’t ever get sick of which is crazy because I usually get sick of things.
I feel like MGMT kind of snuck up on everyone. We may have differing perspectives considering you’re in a bigger market, you guys may have known about it before we did, but they played on the radio here and next thing I know they are everywhere.
All the groundwork in between is what nobody sees and then suddenly they’re huge. They snuck up on me too for sure. Everyone talked about them for so long and I finally got the chance to listen and I thought it sounded like it’s from a different time period, but at the same it’s very modern.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Third Eye Blind and music from the 90s that I heard growing up kind of trying to get the nostalgic feeling of being 10. Are there records like that for you?
Yeah definitely. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the music or the age that you hear it because you’re so impressionable. It’s such an important time in your life when you’re soaking everything in. There are some bands that I listened to back then and I think “Ooohhh that one doesn’t really hold up.” Then there’s other ones that stand the test of time. It’s funny to see 15 and 15 year old kids still listening to Led Zepplin. They may not be your favorite band, but they do something that’s never been done before.
Considering that you and Solon are a couple, how does that affect your music?
I think it definitely does. At the end of the day we’re just two artists just trying to find a way to compromise. We started writing music together before we were together as a couple. We’ve always had that music connection that is kind of bigger than anything else that is happening. I think it’s better than doing it the other way around. It’s definitely a hard thing that we signed up for, but with the end product we’re always are amazed at what we’ve done.
What can expect on the new record?
It’s a lot more guitar driven. I’m doing a lot more singing on my own instead of the two of us singing together, we’re only doing that on one song. We’re trading off vocals. I’ll sing and he’ll sing other songs. It’s a little more focused and more aggressive. It’s a little more intense. After touring for a year and a half, we listened to a lot of bands in the van, bands that sound like the energy is coming out of the speaker. Our first record was really pretty sounding, but there was no intensity or urgency or energy that could come of even a really shitty speaker in a car. Live recording really captured that energy. That’s what we tried to do on this record. We didn’t really have that in mind on the first record. We we’re just like “Oh my god, we’re making a record.”
Will you be touring to support the new record?
We’re up for a bunch of tours right now. We’re just waiting to see what pans out. We’re probably going to be touring a lot.
Great Northern Interview