The Great American Novel

As part of the release of Digcast VIII, the second installment to focus on NYC music, I’ll be posting on each band in the podcast over the next few weeks.

Follow the link above to listen to Layne, JR, Devin, and Aiden discuss “American Weekend,” and several things they love about New York City.

The Great American Novel is a young six piece band of Layne Montgomery, JR Atkins, Devin Calderin, Aiden Shepard, Zac Coe, and Peter Kilpin. They released their most recent album Kissing in June, and I really dig it. They have incredible instincts for big hooks, the lyrics are clever and personal, and it’s just a lot of fun, all of which translates into a great live show. I’ve seen the band once and I can’t wait to see them again. Their music is made for an energetic, communal experience.
Layne is the primary songwriter, mostly spinning tales of the joys and pains of dating and love. As one might expect with a name like The Great American Novel, there is a strong literary element, whether it is tracing the evolution of a relationship by discussing a multitude of authors on “All The Sad Young Literary Men,” or using the “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” story of Raymond Carver as a jumping off point in the track named after him. Kissing is largely girl-obsessed and does not hesitate to share any detail, no matter how embarrassing. The lyrics have an immediacy that makes their emotions obvious and a level of detail that makes them relatable. Maybe you haven’t tried to woo someone with promises of a Mad Men marathon and homemade mac and cheese, like on “Are You Sure You Don’t Wannna Hang Out?”, but everyone has ideals about what they’d really want to do with that special someone.

This is not the work of just one man, though, and everyone I spoke with in the band stressed their collaborative nature. The other members all add integral pieces to the finished songs, giving them a variety of shadings – “Sleeping Alone” has some really cool keyboard and guitar lines, and the harmonies of “Does This Train Stop At 57th Street” are awesome, to name just two examples. All of it comes together stunningly well into songs that could best be described as great rock and roll, but there are plenty of interesting textures that suggest a range of influences spanning many years and styles within that. There are arena rock moments straight out of Bruce Springsteen and choruses of power pop and lyrical content that remind of Weezer.
This is a great album. It’s the work of a young group of friends trying to navigate the tricky world of┬áthe early 20s: a crazy time of challenges, confusion, and excitement, especially when it comes to meeting women and figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. All of that shines through Kissing. The best things about it are its undaunted exuberance and its musical prowess, a combination that suggests this band is only beginning to tap into its potential. Can’t wait to hear what they’ll do next, but I’m going to enjoy this record for quite awhile. You can buy it on bandcamp for any price. Follow this link to like the band on Facebook.
As of this writing, The Great American Novel has a show this week at Muchmore’s on Thursday (October 11th). There are several other bands on the bill, it’s free, and music starts at 9:00. More info here.
I met Layne, JR, Devin, and Aiden at Cafe Grumpy and it was a fun interview. The guys clearly have a strong bond and great sense of humor. Interesting tangents included riffing on reggae (going from Peter Tosh to Daniel Tosh having an album), creating the idea of a standing interview, hassling each other about failures with crushes, or their ideal show guest list (Emma Stone and Jim Rash – which is pretty much the best answer ever). They also talked about their music, shows, and a lot more. Check it out below.
TWD – Why don’t you tell me a little bit about how you guys came together as a band?
Layne – I started the band like 2 years ago. It was kind of a loose collective around me and my producer, my friend Oliver, who also plays in the band Ghost Pal, who are amazing. It was basically the two of us, then a bunch of my friends whenever we played shows. Then JR saw us once and was like “Your songs are good but your band’s awful” and then kind of forced himself into the band and brought Devin along. Then Aiden showed up, too.
JR – Aiden was my idea too, man.
L – And Peter, who’s not with us today.
JR – Fuck Peter.
L – He’s dead. But yeah, so that pretty much became the band. We’ve been playing for almost a year now. It was November, our first show. [This was taped in July]
Devin – Yeah, we’ve been doing a lot of stuff. We’ve been playing a lot of gigs. We played a gig last night…was it last night?
Aiden – No, it was two nights ago.
D – We played a gig two nights ago in Hoboken and it was kind of a dive gig.
L – We were received very well by the Hoboken biker crowd.
JR – The twelve of them.
D – I bet that one girl liked Spin Doctors.
JR – You gave her your number on a sticker.
TWD – Really? Premade stickers with your number on them?
A – No, although we haven’t done that yet.
JR – We’re working on action figures.
TWD – I listened to your album Kissing and I think it’s really good.
L – Thank you.
TWD – It sounds like it would be really fun to see you guys live because of the energy of the music.
L – We try and bring the party rock. I feel like the live experience is an extension of your personality that you can’t really do in real life. You have to embrace that rock and roll craziness.
D – I mean if we played trying to sound exactly how we sound on the album, it wouldn’t be the same because every show has a different vibe, a different crowd feeling. We really just try and be at the same level as people. We grow as they grow. By the end of every show we usually have people dancing, sweating.
JR – It always starts kind of cold but then gets really good by the end. It’s always weird at first, but then everyone’s with us.
D – It’s like when you first meet somebody and you say the wrong thing to them.
A – Once the restraining order’s been lifted…
D – Yeah, once they check you out, what you’re doing, how you’re performing, it’s like “Damn, I’m having a good time talking to you, even if we had a bad start.”
A – Metaphors by Devin.
L – That’s because Devin starts off meeting people by insulting their family.
TWD – That usually means it’s got to get better from there right? Nowhere to go but up.
D – It’s like a roller coaster. You get pulled up to the top.
TWD – Your name is Great American Novel and there a lot of references to books on your album, especially “All the Sad Young Literary Men,” name dropping a lot of authors. I think that’s really cool. I like to read, I like references. I think it doesn’t seem forced, it seems very natural. I’m wondering if you would like to talk a little more about books.
JR – Me and Devin will go have a cigarette if you’re talking about books. Just kidding.
L – I think we’re all pretty avid readers.
JR – I read a lot of Vulture articles.
L – We’re definitely the type of band that…
JR – Reads half of a Slate article.
A – Get about a paragraph in.
D – Anything more than five pages is too much.
L – I work in a bookstore in Rockefeller Center. I read a lot and it definitely influences how I write. I feel like I can’t write good lyrics of my own, I steal them from books sometimes and sort of go from there. It’s not the best way to write but it gets it done. And then girls are like “You read a lot,” and I’m like “Yes.”
A – And then they leave.
JR – That’s the end of the conversation.
D – Remember that one time that girl saw that book you were reading and stopped you? Oh wait, that didn’t happen.
L – I was legitimately trying to remember that occasion.
TWD – So the opening line of that song “It all started when she told me she liked Kurt Vonnegut,” no one said that to you?
L – Well, that part is true, that was based on a real relationship. Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author ever and my last serious relationship, which a chunk of this record is about, she was a big Vonnegut fan too.
TWD – The very first track, “Sleeping Alone,” one thing that stuck out to me was the line about how you love to love but you’re scared to get hurt. I feel like that concept of wanting something but being afraid to go after it is very powerful, whether in a romantic sense or a creative sense as well. I was wondering if you wanted to speak more about that in your lives.
L – I think that describes my whole life, more or less. I want to do things but I’m scared of failure. I’m very cautious with every move I make.
TWD – But you are doing things. You made an album. Did you find there’s something that helps you push yourself?
L – Beer. As dumb as that sounds, sometimes I don’t do things without a kick in the ass. Which can also come from these guys, my parents, Oliver. He calms me. He has the same anxieties as I do.
D – Don’t we all have the same anxieties and fear of rejection?
L – On a more direct level that refers to the fact that I haven’t gone on dates in awhile since the aforementioned lady. And that I don’t want to because they lead to bad things sometimes.
TWD – Isn’t better to find out for sure than assume? I mean, I go through all that too, that’s why I related to that lyric. Jumping to “Does This Train Stop at 57th Street?,” the concept of aging and wondering if you’re past your prime, if you’re getting too old…
L – If I peaked in high school?
JR – Heavily influenced by John Mayer.
D – Who as we all know, is well past his prime.
A – John, if you’re listening we’re sorry.
L – This is the beginning of our John Mayer feud. Peter would be upset.
JR – I think everyone in here hates us.
TWD – Anyway, that concept, it’s funny because I didn’t realize you were only college age. Why do you think you’ve peaked already?
L – I dropped out of college and when I wrote that song I also lost my job – which I got back a month later – and I was just sitting around and people were doing things. My parents were super supportive but I thought maybe they were like “What the fuck?” It’s really easy to sit on your ass.
D – Especially with Assassin’s Creed.
L – I was just worried about doing that.
TWD – The nice thing is you’re still young and you’re very talented. I’m sure there are more peaks ahead.
A – I worry about getting older all the time. As it is, I have a receding hairline. My teeth aren’t getting straighter, my back is certainly not getting straighter. At the rate I’m going, by the time I’m 30, I’m going to look real rough.
TWD – Maybe you need to write a song on the next album.
A – I can’t write any songs.
TWD – Well then never mind.
A – I will not write any songs for Great American Novel. It’s on tape.
JR – Can’t go against anything on tape.
D – It’s officale.
TWD – I think the song “I Want You” not that it’s specific to that song, but that’s one of the ones, the emotional aspect is very direct. It just comes right out, “I want you,” which you do a lot on this album, it’s very sincere. There’s definitely a good chunk of music that’s like that, I don’t know if you listen to Best Coast at all, but she’s like the prime example lately.
L – Yeah, really direct and simple.
A – I was going to say “Call Me Maybe”
TWD – But that’s not really direct with the maybe in there.
A – But we know what she’s really saying. We can dig deeper into the hidden metaphor. I’d call her back. What does she want to do?
L – Get pie.
A – Only if it’s strawberry rhubarb. I’m not going to settle for anything less.
JR – I think that’s something that’s defining and different from our culture is that art is more self-aware than stuff has been in the past. I feel like Layne’s lyrics are, with the age we grew up with, computers, sharing, that’s all we know to do is talk about ourselves. I think that before, people were trying to make statements about humanity, like protest songs, that’s so far away from anything we’re trying to talk about. We’re just trying to meet girls.
A – That’s a spoiler.
JR – I know it’s stupid, but we aren’t trying to say anything other than stuff about ourselves.
TWD – No, I think that’s fine. To bear those feelings isn’t easy. Do you ever feel self-conscious about it?
JR – He used to make us leave the room when he was recording vocals.
L – I did.
JR – Not anymore, but when we first started recording, he’d be like “Uh…can you guys leave?”
L – Yeah. One of the things I realize is I’m really bad at keeping at secrets and I’m very good at talking about myself and over sharing. So why not just pursue that? You know, if I’m going to talk about that sort of stuff in real life.
TWD – I think people relate to that. Most of the stuff you’ve written about, everyone’s gone through at some point or another. I like Weezer a lot, that was a big reason why. When you hear “El Scorcho” for the first time at that age, and you’re thinking about that stuff, it’s so powerful.
L – I love Weezer. I think that’s my favorite song of all time. It’s so good. It’s everything I want to do in one song.
D – When you’re young and you listen to music and you haven’t played it, that innocence is so magical. Playing an album and being so entranced in a different way, being able to understand a perspective…I think what we do isn’t like that at all. Or is it?
TWD – You guys watch a lot of TV?
L – Yeah.
TWD – What are you into?
L – Community, mostly.
TWD – Great show.
JR – Louie.
D – Breaking Bad.
L – Workaholics.
TWD – Oh, don’t talk about Breaking Bad. I’m watching it now, trying to get caught up.
D – That show’s so good. It’s weird, watching it, makes you so on edge. Like going to the pizza place, thinking “Oh shit,” who’s that around the corner?
L – It’s a good time for TV.
JR – Did you see that show Brand X with Russell Brand? It’s so horrible. He says like nothing.
A – Really? That’s surprising because he’s known for his depth.
TWD – Ok, so you each get to pick the solo project for the other one. Devin, what would Aiden’s solo project be called, and what genre?
D – It’s lounge music and it’s called Don’t Do Me Like That, Cat.
TWD – Aiden, you take JR.
A – JR’s is a world music record called Djembes for Two.
TWD – Ok, JR take Layne.
JR – I think that Layne would do spoken word over noise, like guitar noise that he only makes with his feet on the guitar, he wouldn’t touch it with his fingers. It would be called Lana Del Layne.
L – I actually did something like that once.
JR – I’m not surprised.
L – I recorded myself reading the first chapter of The Great Gatsby over guitar feedback. I sent it to my friend Gideon and he uses it to make fun of me sometimes.
TWD – And you get to do Devin’s.
L – Me and Oliver were talking about this and we picture Devin fronting a Steely Dan cover band and that’s going to be called Devin, Don’t Lose That Number.
TWD – Which is of those is most likely to happen?
A – The Steely Dan cover band.
JR – I’ve already written half of Djembes for Two.
L – He’s recording that at Mama Coco’s next week.
TWD – Those sound good. I mean, stick with Great American Novel for a little while, you guys have something good going. But something good to fall back on I suppose. Talking about the musical aspect, what made you come to the sound you have, if anything? Was it your vision? You said you started the band, but how much of it is collaborative?
L – I think JR and Devin especially helped me realize the vision. When it comes down to me and my demos, the straightforward guitar pop essence is there but then their skill takes it to the next level.
JR – We’ll add melody and stuff. He usually gives us the song like 60%. A song like “American Weekend,” almost all the guitar stuff was there, I might have written the chorus.
L – You wrote the coolest guitar part.
JR – But like in other songs, there can be more. Devin writes all his own parts.
L – Yeah, because I can’t play any piano. Every once in awhile I’ll put a cheesy piano part in the demo just to note there should be a piano part there and Devin does it. But the sound was pretty much there. Every band I’ve been in, if I’m writing the songs, has been kind of Weezer-y, kind of Strokes-y. Cause that’s what I grew up listening to, so it’s always going to be in there in some way. Even if in my mind “I’m going to write a synth pop song,” it’ll still have Strokes overtones or Velvet Underground overtones.
D – I try and add in a little Springsteen, real energetic. Elvis Costello.
TWD – I get that vibe more than the Strokes.
L – Yeah, it’s more pronounced because they’re on this record.
JR – I bring kind of a twangy, country sound a little bit. My family is from the South.
L – And I think that’s what expands on this being just a normal rock record. And Aiden plays in metal bands.
A – I was doing metal for about ten years, pretty much nothing but that. But I’m far enough removed from it now that it’s a good memory.
L – It’ll be interesting the more and more we play with each other how that will affect the records. Kissing would be a different record now and it was only made 3 months ago.
JR – We just did a four piece show in Hoboken and it sounded really good. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice having everyone else, but it was good to hear it sustained with us four.
D – We have a good bond.
JR – Heavily influenced by Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello and Wilco.
L – I also like that it’s one of the first bands I’ve been in that it’s us against the world. We hang out a lot, we talk about our band at parties instead of talking to people.
A – We put our music on at parties. Everyone needs to hear it.
L – I don’t know if our friends are tired of hearing us talking about it.
A – Probably. That’s one of my favorite things about being in the Great American Novel, is the fact that people like it. Here’s a little anecdote for you about playing in a metal band. When you do something like that and you ask someone to come to one of those shows, their initial response is “Yeah, I’ll be there” and they’re gung ho about it and then you show up, and you’re like “Oh, that person or 50 people are not only not here, but they have all the excuses as to why they weren’t there.” It’s not accessible, it’s not fun. With stuff like this, not only do people come to shows, but if they see you, they tell us they like it. All these compliments are nice to hear, and I didn’t even record anything on that album.
TWD – That’s got to be thrilling.
L – The response has been crazy. It makes me extremely paranoid about how we follow that up. Even though maybe 1,000 people have heard. I have these delusions of grandeur that everyone’s going to be waiting with baited breath for album number 3.
D – Oh they will be. When it comes, they’ll be like “Shit, man, this is your third album. Look at this.”
A – The reviews will be about one sentence long. “Shit, man…third album.”
D – “Shit, man, what can I say?”
TWD – So if we could pick like a pop culture thing and assign each of you to that, like for example, if you picked the X-Men, who would be which one? Or the Ninja Turtles or the Beatles or Community cast members?
L – Oh this is good. Community? Well I’m Abed obviously.
A – Can I be Annie?
L – Aiden is Annie.
JR – I don’t think Aiden is Annie…
A – It’s not a question. I just want to be Annie.
L – Devin is Pierce.
D – No, I’m Starburns.
L – JR is Jeff. A Winger speech to bring it home.
JR – Really? I’ll take it.
L – No wait, Aiden is Troy. (In Troy voice) “I like metal, but also I don’t.”
A – Just to set the record straight, I do really like it but I just don’t play it anymore.
L – Aiden is one of the most musically eclectic people I know. He’ll sing along to the radio, from Katy Perry to the Beatles to Metallica.
JR – I think we should do that again.
TWD – Who are the remaining members?
L – Peter is Britta.
JR – That’s exactly what I was thinking.
L – Oliver is the Dean.
A – Oh my god.
TWD – You want to do another?
L – Avengers?
JR – Aiden would obviously be Hawkeye.
D – Cause he wasn’t in it in the beginning, but he was there at the end.
A – And didn’t do anything.
L – After I saw it, all my friends said I was similar to Bruce Banner. Not as the Hulk.
D – He’s got the build.
L – Like I’ve got the same nervousness that Bruce Banner has in the movie.
JR – Then when you’re drunk, you’re sloppy, like that time you spilled beer all over me.
L – The Drunk Hulk.
A – Are you Thor, JR?
D – I think JR’s more of an Iron Man.
JR – Yeah, he’s got the drinking problem.
L – And he’s sassy.
JR – Devin’s Thor cause he’s from another planet.
L – And we have no idea what’s going on in his head.
JR – Peter is…
A – Captain America.
JR – Totally.
L – He’s the wholesome one of the band. Oliver is Nick Fury. He’s the head.
JR – We should do it with characters from the Colin Farrell SWAT.
L – What about the Colin Farrell movie Phone Booth?