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Fighting Darkness, Bringing Light: The Return of Rival Sons

Monday, 05 June 2023 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Pamela Littky

After a four year gap that felt like an age, the only thing that could be better than one new album from Rival Sons would be, you guessed it, a pair of stunning new offerings courtesy of the Californian quartet. Forged in the uncertain fires of the pandemic, ‘Darkfighter’ and ‘Lightbringer’ are, quite simply, epic. Delivering fearless personal storytelling and thrilling sonic dynamism, the band have more than made good on their desire to craft “a larger artistic statement”.

In order to sculpt what might become the group’s defining works, which are being released as two separate offerings, with ‘Darkfighter’ arriving in June and ‘Lightbringer’ later this year, the foursome leaned further into the approach that worked wonders on 2019’s ‘Feral Roots.’

Prior to that Grammy-nominated effort, the Long Beach gang had always written and recorded in double quick time on the studio floor, set on capturing the raw energy and immediacy of rock ‘n’ roll in all its primal glory. That method undoubtedly reaped rich rewards, yet it also made us wonder what might happen if they took a little more time. The answer came in resounding fashion on ‘Feral Roots’. 

As a result of such a successful turn into slightly more polished territory, they decided to veer even further down the path of judicious refinement when they began making what would become these new records. And then, out of the blue, Covid subsequently turned their plan into a much longer, but ultimately very rewarding, artistic journey than anticipated.

Informed by the complex trauma of such a critical period in human history, and featuring some of frontman Jay Buchanan’s most eloquent and moving poetry, the band have melded vintage rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, soul, Americana, blues and folk into a pair of retro-modern gems that could see their dream of headlining arenas become reality. We caught up with Buchanan, who’s much more cool and chatty than his brooding image sometimes suggests, to discuss their pandemic albums and the events that fuelled the songs’ resonant lyrics.

You’ve said that by the end of making these records the material, and where you were as a band, was very different to when you began and it was something of a revelatory process for you. Can you talk me through what factors shaped that progression?

The first way to address that question is to just go back in a time machine to about a year and a half ago and look at where you were. And look at the state of the world and your social life. Look at all of the fear and isolation you were enduring. It was a lot to experience and cause for introspection. So many things changed. We had a virus that came careening into the cultural lodge and people getting sick and dying in such a way that they couldn’t say goodbye to their loved ones in the hospital. 

We then had the politicising of a virus, of isolation, of masks, of a vaccine. Amid that, in Minneapolis, we had the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer and the politicising of that. And from there you had the election and families arguing over the dinner table because these divisional lines, these divisive topics, were constantly careening into people’s lives. I like to say it’s a cultural mitosis, where the cell is being divided in two and then it’s being divided in two and then divided again. 

The process of living through this while trying to make a record, while trying to take care of my family, having another baby, moving my family from Tennessee up to California, while losing three of my best friends within six months of each other, there was a lot to wrestle with emotionally and existentially. So we would go into the studio for, maybe two weeks, and then suddenly have to wait a couple of months. We had a refractory period where Scott [Holiday, guitar] and I would keep writing and sending ideas back and forth. There was so much going on and no end to an almost crippling inertia constantly happening. There was always more to say. 

With regards reinventing your approach on these albums, you’ve said it ‘expanded the Rival Sons universe. It’s now much larger and the branches that weren’t working on the initial tree have been pruned off.’ Can you highlight what you meant by that sense of growth?

There’s a certain amount of convention that’s been cast aside. Take a song like Darkside. For all its heavy subject matter, the melody is a long form melody. It does not repeat itself. Same thing as the melody in Horses Breath. It’s a long form melody. And it’s the same thing as the melody that’s in Rapture, it doesn’t repeat itself. Those types of melodies that don’t fold back over as a cadence, that’s where I’m at artistically and melodically.

The melody’s there to tell a story, along with the lyrics, and then you put them in harmony with each other so one depends on another. That’s the type of writing and the expression that I’m concerned with these days. The typical rhythm of blues cadence doesn’t do that. I’ve written enough of those songs and don’t feel that more of that needs to be out in the world. It’s sort of a missionary position of creative writing; it will get the job done but it doesn’t thrill me at all.     

Why was Mirrors the right song to kick off the two records and set the thematic tone for the spiritual and existential journey you take us on? 

Mirrors was ultimately chosen because of, sonically, what it encompasses. Creating this long introduction, having an acoustic breakdown, and then a screaming chorus about smashing mirrors to see beyond the eye. During the pre chorus the lyrics sum up much of the thesis here. It says, ‘I lost my sight so slowly, I didn’t know that I was going blind.’ It’s that whole thing of putting the frog in the pot of water.

They turn the heat up a little bit more and it doesn’t realise it’s being cooked. The reclamation in it, the understanding of what’s going on, Mirrors tips the whole thing off in such a way that it’s indicative of what follows. There has been loss, there has been a disorientation, and recognises this is something that can be dealt with. So much of the record, subsequently, addresses these topics.      

In the past, it apparently terrified you to write your lyrics on the floor from scratch due to how quickly you needed to deliver the goods. Given this record is centred around such an unprecedented confluence of life changing events, it sounds like you wouldn’t have been able to do that justice by writing lyrics on the fly and needed time to process everything in a way your previous method wouldn’t have allowed.

There’s truth to that statement and, if we had written things in such a way, if I had forced myself to write on the floor, which I did and a little made it onto the record, there could have been some great truth, personally, to what I’d written. But then I would be putting myself into a position to go back, make artistic sense and philosophise ipso facto and that would just feel like it’s reframing chaos as if it were a conscious effort. When you expel things that way all you’re doing is vomiting up all of this emotional exhaustion and it’s fragmented. To place importance, or any intellectual significance to it, takes a great deal of reframing and I don’t know that that’s ever an honest way to go about it. When you go back and buy into your own supposed mythology, when it comes to creation, I don’t know if that’s the truth. I don’t choose to live that way.   

‘Darkfighter’ closes with Darkside, a song about addiction that was born from an awful loss in your own life. Was that placed at the end almost as a cautionary tale to say that, when you lose sight of your true essence and identity and let the darkness win, this is what can happen?

We considered making Darkside the first song on the album and it certainly would have been a great opener because, the way the riff kicks in, it’s probably the darkest, heaviest riff I’ve ever heard Scott write. But to close the album with Darkside, even though it was difficult to do, was ultimately the authentic, honest approach. All of these things we had to endure over the last couple of years, and what I had to endure, what the atmosphere burned off of me as I re-entered, these are real things. And sometimes a life gets snuffed out and sometimes a tragedy is just a tragedy. You can’t look at it and say ‘there’s a silver lining’. Everyday, all around the world, there is trauma happening and people just have to live with things that happen. 

And Darkside, I couldn’t begin to know how to reconcile with some of the aspects of what that song is about, losing people in such terrible ways and knowing there’s no answer…it just is. So that low drone that you hear at the end of the song, that’s the darkness prevailing. Which is very very unlike me. It defies everything I profess in my life, to end an album with a statement where the darkness has the final say. But it was an important part at the end of that chapter because ‘Lightbringer’ will illuminate something completely different. We wanted to give people a refractory period of a few months, where they live with the way it ended, and then they’ll get the next instalment in the collection and things will change.

The opening track on ‘Lightbringer’ is called Darkfighter and, I believe, it’s a song that took you a number of years to finish.

This song was very important to me and it’s completely unlike anything Rival Sons has ever done. So when I brought it to Scott, I wanted to see how he felt about it, and he wrote some parts on it. Then the gestation period ended up being much longer than we’d planned. It took time for it to fully form and, for this record, I worked and worked and worked on what I knew we had. Then I brought it back to Scott, we worked on it some more, and then the band went in and recorded it. It doesn’t sound like anything we’ve ever done and I’m looking forward to playing it live.

I’d like to finish by asking about your personal journey. Prior to him approaching you, your drummer Mike Miley told Scott you’d never join the band and were in the process of relaunching yourself as a solo artist. At that point it was to be wondered whether you’d last the distance in a group or would yearn to return to your intended singer songwriter career. But, over a decade later, here you are. So what’s kept you creatively satisfied within the Rival Sons construct? 

Who…told you I was creatively satisfied?

Are you?

No, I don’t think I am creatively satisfied. I think Rival Sons just became a gang, a family, and I could look to my right and left, see my brothers, and know everyone is finding something. Sometimes, each one of us, we’ll be on stage for very different reasons and we may be creating music and have a different reason for that. But I see Rival Sons as a very unique band within the genre and if we hadn’t grown, I would have been out a long time ago. The band keeps evolving and I see courage, especially with the last two records, in our creative approach. And with the ‘Lightbringer’ and ‘Darkfighter’ collection we’re pushing our own boundaries within the genre. I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel by any stretch, or doing much that hasn’t been done before. We’re grabbing from our resources and arranging it in a way that is very unique to us within the genre. 

But what has kept me with Rival Sons, and in the rock ‘n’ roll game, is trying to reinvent, chisel away and shape what I think a person in my circumstance has the possibility of doing. When I first came to England I remember, from all of these publications, people just wanted to regurgitate antiquated rock ‘n’ roll fantasies, the whole Dionysian nature of rock stardom, and that’s what turned me off rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. I liked it when I was a teenager but by the time I got into my late teens, and got into philosophy and everything, the amount of posturing inherent to rock music was an absolute turn off. It just seemed like a bunch of clowns. But there’s such a great energy in rock music that, once we got in there, and I would talk to these people who were preoccupied with projecting all of their unrequited rock fantasies on to what we were trying to do, I saw that as an opportunity to reject those things and attempt to carve out an authentic life within that gutter. There is a valuable juxtaposition, somewhere in there, that edified me and I started to really like that I could survive...and here I am.   

Rival Sons' 'Darkfighter' is out now on Low Country Sound/Atlantic.

Rival Sons Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri October 13 2023 - LONDON Roundhouse
Sat October 14 2023 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE NX
Mon October 16 2023 - GLASGOW Barrowland
Tue October 17 2023 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy Birmingham
Wed October 18 2023 - MANCHESTER Manchester Academy
Fri October 20 2023 - CAMBRIDGE Corn Exchange
Sat October 21 2023 - BRISTOL O2 Academy Bristol
Sun October 22 2023 - SOUTHAMPTON O2 Guildhall Southampton

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