Interview: The Plains
Q & A with Aaron Semer
Interview by Matt Ashworth
Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair. Every time we think we’ve got a handle on the majority of the talented individuals releasing good music here in Seattle, another one pops up and bites us in the collective ass, leaving us wondering how they slipped beneath our powerful radar.
The latest band to chew on our music-loving fannies is The Plains, a three-piece that performs the witty and energetic songs written by Seattle resident Aaron Semer.
Having released one of the best Northwest rock albums of 2003, we invited Aaron and the boys to play our first Chop Suey showcase of 2004. In preview of the show, which will also feature Mayor West and Graig Markel, we chatted with Aaron about some stuff.
NadaMucho.com: How the hell are you?
Aaron Semer: I’m great. I’m in Ohio right now, which is where I grew up. My brother, who is in the Army and has been in Kuwait for about the last year, is home on Holiday leave. Unfortunately, he has to go back over there in about a week and risk his life again for this worthless war. But for now, we’re all just really happy to see him.
NM: Sort of makes our little show coming up seem a lot less important. Wish him our best. Then humor us with a quick overview of all things The Plains. Who’s involved, what are you all about, and why should anyone care about you guys?
AS: The Plains is a project I started about three years ago. I was recording on my 4-track and circulating those demos around wherever I could. Eventually, I found two guys who were willing to do what I say, which is hard to find in musicians. One is a long-time friend from Ohio, Jonballs Kilian. He had moved to Seattle and wanted to start drumming in a band out here, so I jumped on him. The other is Josh Atkins, who I met at an Idaho (the band) show at Graceland because he was hitting on a friend of mine. He wound up joining the band but never really dating my friend. I should also note that I was already in the process of recording what became On Earth as it is in Heaven, our first album, when I met those guys. So they were learning the songs at the same time that I was recording them – I played almost everything on the album.
Why should anyone care about the Plains? I guess the best answer I can give is because we’re not attempting to pigeonhole ourselves into any one niche group. I just want to write good, timeless songs that a lot of people can relate too. And I think a lot of people have, which is the best I could hope for.
NM: You put out a great record this year. What’s that like?
AS: I’m glad you think it’s great. It’s certainly not the first album I’ve done, but it is the one I stand behind the most, and it’s also the first time I’ve really stepped into the realm of national promotion because I believed in the album so much. It feels great though, to answer your question directly. It’s not like the album has garnered mass attention, but from the reviews and responses I have gotten, they’ve all been really positive. To me, there’s nothing that makes me feel better than knowing that there are people out there really getting into something I created.
NM: How’d you get hooked up with Mike over at Global Seepej? Will you work with the label again?
AS: Mike was instrumental in getting the Plains off the ground. He heard my demos through a mutual friend and offered to put the album out. That motivated me to get off my ass and into the studio. It was only the third album Global Seepej put out, but Mike really stood behind it, and he and I promoted it together. Mike was actually a second guitarist in the Plains for about six months too, but now he has his own band, At the Spine, who are touring like maniacs and doing really well.
NM: How much did you guys tour in support of the album? What kind of reception did you get?
AS: We only toured the west coast for one month. The reception was great, but it’s hard the first time out – you just can’t draw the crowds. The best shows are when you play with another band that has a big draw in that area. We had some shows where there were like, three people, and some others that were really cool. I’ve definitely found that for a small band just starting out, the best shows are in small towns. In big cities, you’re just another faceless nobody unless you’re surrounded by hype. But if you take the time to go to the smaller towns, they think you’re hot shit because not many bands go there. I’d say our best shows on tour were in Fallon, Nevada, and Bend, Oregon. We also had a great show in Oakland.
NM: Like many Seattle bands, it seems like The Plains have gotten inconsistent reactions from Seattle media and taste-makers. Talk about that a little bit, would ya?
AS: Every review we’ve gotten in Seattle has been really positive, actually. It’s just that some papers really liked us, and others ignored us completely. We got a lot of love from the Stranger (who would’ve thought?!), Tablet, Three Imaginary Girls, and The Seattle Gay News. The other papers just ignored us. I’m not really sure why though. I used the same promotion techniques with all of them. Lately though, we haven’t been getting much press at all, but I think that mostly has to do with the fact that we don’t have a new album out. But you guys are doing this article, and the Seattle Gay News is running a feature in February, so that’s great.
NM: Happy to give you some virtual ink, it’s much deserved. I was happy to see that you voted for Missy Elliot alongside Calexico and The Shins in our year-end poll. Talk about your influences and about how much it sucks when indie hipster losers don’t appreciate good pop and hip-hop.
AS: Well, I never break down music by categories. I like what I like. I actually work with runaway teens for a living, and they listen to 93.3 The KUBE all day. I think most of it is shit, but there’s also some really great, innovative stuff on there like Missy Elliot, some of The Neptunes’ production, and Kelis. People need to realize that sometimes, god only knows how, good music sneaks through into the mainstream. I really believe that Missy and Timbaland are doing far more to push music and culture forward than a lot of indie bands. I’m also a total junkie for great beats. I’m really influenced by a lot of very rhythmic bands, like the Talking Heads, for example.
NM: Fair enough. On that same ballot you voted for American Splendor. How fuckin’ great was that movie? While you’re at it, give us a quick list of Semer’s “must sees.”
AS: I loved American Splendor! I felt that it really borrowed a lot from Ghost World, which I also love, but it didn’t copy it. I’m really excited to see the new Errol Morris documentary, The Fog of War. He’s definitely my favorite documentary film maker. I get really sick of this recent trend in documentaries where the film maker is making fun of their subjects. Errol Morris never feels that way to me. I’ll give you two must-see films: The Grapes of Wrath and The Ice Storm.
NM: Speaking of Ice Storm, you ever been to a key party?
AS: Sorry Matt, I don’t “swing.”
NM: Bummer, man, ’cause as a rock star I bet you could pull some hot tail! Speaking, then, of visual media, I understand you guys made a good old fashioned music video. How’d that come about? Does it feature scantily-clad young vixens feeding you grapes as you lounge up against your Bentley by any chance?
AS: Yeah, nothing but rented Bentleys and self-deprecating women. Actually, the video came about because of this Japanese exchange student at UW named Shigeo. He just totally flipped out over the Plains. He came to every show and brought all of his Japanese friends. It was great. He’s back in Japan now, spreading the Plains gospel to all his pals over there. But anyway, he really wanted to direct a video for the song “At a Party,” and he got his friend Kevin involved who had a super-8. We threw a huge party at my house and just filmed it all. We had spotlights in the front yard shining in the windows. I can’t believe none of the neighbors called the cops. The video turned out to be hilarious; there are shots of us playing real instruments, fake instruments, and then other people posing as The Plains. Everyone is drunk, there’s a dog running around, and people are just dancing and having a good time. But then it also has this creepy side to it because it’s shot on super-8, which always feels creepy to me. The video is on the website to download, we transferred it to digital.
NM: I hesitate to use this word, as it’s so often used incorrectly, but it seems you have a strong sense of irony in your writing. Especially on “Bomb in my Hand.” “At a Party” also seems kinda snotty and tongue in cheek. Is the song meant as a stab at the sort of brainless and vacuous party culture, or is it meant to celebrate getting drunk and stoned and listening to rock music? Where does that style and sense of humor come from? That’s a lot of questions in this one question. How many questions do you think I can ask at one time? Ten? Fifty? One hundred?
AS: Ha! I guess irony just naturally finds its way into my songs because my sense of humor is very ironic. There is some irony in “Bomb in my Hand,” but that verse about being crushed by the garbage man is actually true. A friend of mine from high school got really drunk one night and crawled into a dumpster. The next morning the dumpster was dumped into a garbage truck and crushed, and he was killed. It was really tragic. But that’s the kind of thing that most people hear as ironic – except for the people who knew the guy it’s about. As for “At a Party,” I call that my teenage party song because I was really trying to capture that pure teen innocence of just getting totally ripped for the sake of getting ripped. It’s meant to be fun, ironic, and serious all at the same time. I certainly think there’s nothing wrong with getting brainless and wasted from time to time – I think it’s natural. But doing that all the time, in like a “party” culture, that’s just stupid. But most of us have been there at some point in our lives nonetheless.
NM: So what’s next for the band? Do you have another radio, press, or touring push scheduled for On Earth as it is in Heaven? Or are you headed back in to the studio? Will you record again as The Plains?
AS: Back into the studio! I actually just recorded a new song a couple weeks ago for an upcoming indie film being produced in Seattle called Hush. That song will also make it onto the next album. I hope to really get to work after the New Year. The next album is going to be a combination of some full band tracks, and some where I’ve played everything, so I’m excited about that collaboration. It’s also branching out into some new areas. I think my songwriting has gotten a lot more complex, and more rhythmic. I’m ultimately hoping to pull something off that is a combination of Shudder to Think and Neil Young – Americana meets complex structures. I guess I’ll find out soon if I’m capable of that.
NM: Sounds adventurous. Anything else for the good of the order?
AS: Umm… be sure to vote in ’04, and not for Bush.
NadaMucho.com Presents: Mayor West / The Plains / Graig Markel
January 8, 2004
Chop Suey. $6.