Finger Eleven — a tight unit comprised of Scott Anderson (vocals), James Black (guitar), Rick Jackett (guitar) and Sean Anderson (bass)–have spent the past two decades rising to incredible heights and rocking audiences around the globe. When they decided to start writing the follow-up to their 2010 album ‘Life Turns Electric,’ the band members all agreed they wanted to do something different. Since their formation in high school in 1990 (as Rainbow Butt Monkeys), they had released seven full-length albums – including the 2007 Juno Award winning ‘Them Vs. You Vs. Me,’ which featured the smash hit single “Paralyzer” — and experimented with a variety of styles such as hard rock, classic rock, heavy blues and textural pop. So, over a two-and-a-half year period, they decided to try a bit of everything over a multitude of writing sessions. As the members pored through the material they had written, they agreed that the best songs, the ones that rang truest and were the most natural, were the more aggressive ones. So, instead of spit-polishing the mixes and layering the tunes with heart-rending guitar arpeggios and keys, they toughened up, building muscular walls of riffs and performing with a forcefulness and energy reminiscent of their earliest days. The music soul searching paid off and resulted in their sixth studio album, and first in five years, appropriately titled ‘Five Crooked Lines.’
In addition to capturing a primal, authentic feel, ‘Five Crooked Lines’ incorporates the band’s earliest influences and recontextualizes them in an explosive modern framework. “Absolute Truth” features a turbulent rhythm that tumbles through a vortex of quasi-psychedelic guitars, “Blackout Song” is a feast of fuzzy, wailing riffs, four-to-the-floor beats and euphoric hooks and the title track exits the gate with crashing symbols, a buzzing passage and a counter-melody that keeps the music pumping. From one song to the next, there are no compromises, no concessions and nothing tailor-crafted to suit any outside demands. There’s even a seven-minute song, “Come On, Oblivion,” a transcendent ebb-and-flow mélange of trippy acoustic and electric instrumentation that’s as reminiscent of early The Verve as it is of Pink Floyd.
When all the songs were ready, the band headed down to a home studio in West Nashville where producer Dave Cobb (Rival Sons, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell) helped them narrow the bounty of songs they had written down to 12 and record them at break neck speed. Upon arriving in Music City, Finger Eleven knew they needed their record to capture the old-school atmospheres of some of their favorite classic rock records. Secondly, they needed a drummer. “Instead of finding someone to come down to Nashville with us, we figured we could get a killer drummer there,” explains Jackett. “I mean, Nashville is home to some of the best session players. Dave called up Chris Powell, and within the first three hours of the first day it was happening. We knew right away that his drumming would elevate the entire record.”
Finger Eleven , Cobb and Powell took the studio by storm and recorded “Five Crooked Lines” in 11 days and mixed in an additional four. The result is a authentically raw, emotional powerful and adrenaline fueled rock record which serves as the band’s most captivating work to date! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with guitarist James Black to discuss his musical roots, evolution as an artist, the creation of Finger Eleven’s ‘Five Crooked Lines’ and much more!
It goes without saying music plays a huge role in your life. What drew you to it initially?
I started really young. I was 7 years old when I started to play guitar. As a kid, it was a skill that I was taught but I didn’t really have any musical taste. I kind of gave up guitar for awhile. Then I heard the beginning of “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” That guitar line was what prompted me to pull my guitar out of the closet, plug it in and say, “Oh, OK. That thing I learned how to do exists in this music I am starting to fall in love with.” Prior to that, I guess I didn’t have a context for it. I guess I was too young. In a lot of ways, I can attribute “Sweet Child ‘O Mine” to making that connection.
After you make that connection, what musicians play a role in shaping the artist we see today?
George Harrison, David Gilmour, John Frusciante, Dave Navarro and Slash all had a big impact on me, along with a lot of others. I also have to say my friends made a big impression on me. It just so happens a lot of my friends are in the band with me now. We were all friends at the time where you are forming your musical identity. I think we all played a part in exposure to new things. In the weirdest way our friendships have always been based around music.
When did it become clear a career in music was something you wanted to pursue?
It is hard to say. I think we had a feeling that it was something we could do. We were pretty good and seemed to be pleasing the audiences in our town, which was pretty cool at the time. We were all set to go to University and go off and do our thing when we got a record deal from a radio contest. That sort of allowed us to make this decision. We had the opportunity of a career in music presented to us right as we were graduating high school. We thought, “We would be pretty stupid not to do this.” In some ways, it was almost chosen for us in a sense. I can’t imagine, if I would have gone to University for marketing, that I would have ended up somewhere that made me happy.
Finger Eleven has been together for two decades and this new album, “Five Crooked Lines,” is a testament to your longevity. What are some of the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
I think the biggest challenge, so far, has been staying together but moving forward at the same time. Part way through the writing of this record, we realized that our solidarity as a group was, in some ways, interfering with our creativity. That is what prompted us to part ways with our drummer who had been in the band for a long time. We had been staying together for solidarity’s sake but hadn’t been making any music together. If we continued on down that road, we would have stayed together but our band would have died. I think that was the biggest challenge. The objective of the band was to be creative, make music and thrive. It isn’t about being a fun boy’s club for old school friends, even though it happens to be that. I think we all know that if it went away, too much of our lives would be missing. We can’t treat it like it is some sort of vacation spot. That is a weird thing to come to realize after a long time. As far as keeping it all together, our romance about the music is the driving force. This new record doesn’t feel like just another record we made because we are still together. “Five Crooked Lines” has so much purpose and drive behind it because we took the time to stop and think about what we all wanted to say. We decided to do that instead of just being complacent. Here were are two decades into our career and I feel like a kid telling you, “Yeah! You have to check out this new record! It’s awesome!” I really think it turned out amazing and we aren’t just phoning it in like we could be because we have been at it for so long.
Did you have goals or areas you wanted to explore musically when you started creating the music for this album?
Yeah. I think a big part of it was making this album sound like the music we are looking to listen to. In the time we took between records, I made a record of my own, a solo project. In that process, I learned a lot about how the sound of something isn’t necessarily incidental. In a band, you surrender to the chemistry of the group and let the sound be what it is but with a solo thing there is no group, so all of a sudden you can explore. It was similar with this new record because we knew we wouldn’t be settled until we got to that sound. You can’t fake something, listen to it a hundred times and eventually have it start to sound what you want it to sound like. You have to get it at the source and it takes time to find that. I think part of our frustrations as a band over the years has been that our heart and our ears listen to a different sort of music than what our records sound like, so sometimes we have this misconception where people think we are one thing but we are actually another. They have every reason to think that way because our record sounds outside the genre of what we are really about. This time we wanted to make sure the record sounded like something that if we heard it, we would say, “Oh my God! What is this?!” We wanted to focus on the picture that it paints of outside ears. By that I mean, there is not going to be an explanation and they aren’t going to meet us to explain the music. This is it, so let’s make it represent us perfectly, so that was a new agenda for us. We have always wanted to do our best and used that as our motivator. However, sometimes we knew we had to do something else.
How difficult of a process was it to capture the sound you were hearing in your head and heart? Did the songwriting process change from the way you approached it in the past?
We were talking about this on the bus the other day — the term Occam’s Razor. It is the principle that the most obvious solution is likely to be the solution. What we found was that a lot of the greatest rock records were made very quickly in the studio, sometimes huddled around one microphone. The trick this time was to make something very raw and spontaneous like the old records we love. To do that, we had to make it very fast, very raw and spontaneously. That is something you can’t fake. That was a big thing. The recording schedule was really short. When we go to Nashville to work with our producer, Dave Cobb, he kept us on our toes. We knew what we were doing with our instruments but I think our flaw, as we explained to him when we met him, was overdoing it. For example, I can do lots of harmonies, so I tend to do lots of harmonies. The doing of the harmonies is very fulfilling but, a year after the record is out, I might think, “Oh, the record sounds a little too poppy.” His job was to hold us to our agenda, which was to keep it raw, keep it simple, keep it breathing and keep it very rough.
They say you take away something from every album you create. What did you take away from the making of “Five Crooked Lines” that will carry forward to future projects?
For sure! Something I started to discover on my “Moon Boot Cocoon” record was the power of the bass. As a guitar player, I want to think the guitar is the driving force behind the song and maybe that was because I didn’t know any better. I could play the bass as an instrument but I had never really thought about what a bass does for a song. As I mentioned, we had parted ways with our drummer and the bass and drums are very connected. Taking my new knowledge of bass and moving it into Finger Eleven was massive. That is what altered a big part of the writing process at the halfway point of writing this record. I definitely discovered the power of the bass and what it adds to the overall feeling of the song and its tone. Even more importantly, I think I took away a greater self-confidence. A lot of that spontaneity in the studio is just trusting your gut to say, “OK! We got it! Let’s move on!” That takes a self-confidence that maybe we weren’t used to because we had the chance to do a hundred takes in the studio. I definitely took that away from the process.
Did you have any reservations about stepping out and creating your solo record, “Moon Boot Cocoon?”
I wanted to be able to do something that was entirely un-debated. The original goal was to make something that didn’t have anyone else’s opinions involved and see what that is. If you spend your whole life in a collaboration, you wonder what the hell it is you are in the picture! When I started it, I needed a producer, so I connected with this guy, Tino, who is an incredible producer. He was the perfect guy for me. I learned a lot about producing because he was holding me to my word. When we first started working together I was very clear about what I wanted to do with this opportunity outside of the band, what it needed to be and what it represented for me. His duty, aside from having a marvelous way with sonics, was to remind me of what I had set out to do. I really wanted to make something that was more than a guy with an acoustic guitar playing songs that the band he was in didn’t like. [laughs] I wanted it to be a full, proper artistic thing, not necessarily a side project but a window into the things I am into. I think it was the first time in my life that I had a musical satisfaction of that level and part of it was probably because there was no one else to lean on or hide behind. In some of the most honest moments of the recording, you are confronted with the fact that if it doesn’t sound the way you want it to, there is no one else to blame. It was healthy for me for sure! Then, of course, I hear it and I learn exactly what it is I bring to the Finger Eleven equation. I think it was definitely a successful experiment and I definitely want to carry on down that road in the future.
With that said, where do you see yourself headed musically with Finger Eleven at this point?
“Five Crooked Lines” is a very driven record. It is very raw and adrenaline based. It is rumbly, big and fuzzy. It doesn’t have the cleaner elements we have dabbled in over the past few records. I think this new sound is where we are headed for the next little while. We were talking earlier about the sound of the band. When we are out here touring, watching other bands and seeing what’s out there, there is a space or hole out there. It is a space we hope to fill a high energy, in your face kind of thing that’s not trying to be subtle. I think that is it for the next year or two. We will be tinkering away on new music the whole time, as well.
You are very involved with the artwork for Finger Eleven’s albums. What can you tell us about the process and tying all the elements together?
Sometimes it is a difficult process! The artwork for “Them vs. You vs. Me” was difficult for sure. Sometimes when you pick a title for an album there is a clear picture that goes with it. This time the title is “Five Crooked Lines.” In the song of the same name, the lyrics speak of how these squiggly, fumbly little lines arranged properly make a star. A star is one of the most glorious things that can be in the universe. Those lines can be a mangled heap or a glorious star depending on the way fortune and luck play out and how you arrange them. The concept started with the question, “Should we put a star on the cover of the album?” I went from there and started to explore different concepts. My first thought was if we could show a star being made by a titan God with a star shaped hammer and I built from there. I got to work with some really great fantasy artists, specifically a guy named Matt Stawicki. He had worked on Magic Cards, D&D and Pathfinder stuff in the past, really awesome stuff. What I have learned through the years is that if the concept that I want isn’t something I can do as an artist myself, I get the fortune of collaborating with amazing people. The album art for “Five Crooked Lines” turned out amazingly!
You have seen many changes in the music industry over the course of your career. What excites you about what you are seeing and experiencing today?
The technological side of it is very interesting. I am walking around with an entire library of music in my pocket that is instantly available, not just my collection but things I have never heard before. That excites me but I also get overwhelmed by the choices sometimes. It is kind of like the Netflix phenomena where you can spend an hour looking through stuff and never watch a single thing! With that aspect of it, I worry about the ADD aspect of it and because there is so much of it, how does anything resonate with people? When I was younger, I used to save up and buy a CD or two a week. With those two CDs, you obsessed about it so much because you couldn’t afford to buy all the albums you wanted. That allowed you to become a real fan and wear the philosophy of the music. I think that happens less these days because there are so many other things to listen to immediately afterward and it’s not like you just spent your last 12 bucks on a CD so you have to live with it. There were times you would take a risk and buy a CD based on the cover and it would turn out to be a real dog. That was your buy for the week. It would be disappointing but you would still give it a good shot! You might listen to it 10 times and say, “Oh well. This isn’t for me but I gave it a shot.” I think at the expense of everything immediately available to you, you lose a little bit of that selective, warm embrace kind of feeling you used to have with your favorite records. I think one of the scariest parts of it all is the way the listening experience is evolving. If someone never has the experience of listening to music a certain way, then they can’t lament it and expect for it to come back because it was never here for this generation. That is a strange thing to confront in yourself being from a different generation of music listeners. At the same time, the really awesome, classic records still rise to the top no matter what the format. That is so encouraging! It doesn’t matter if it is vinyl, CD, swizzle stick or super cosmic binary overload, the Beatles are still going to be the most awesome thing because the music transcends the medium.
What is the biggest lesson that can be learned from the story of Finger Eleven?
Wow! There have been a few. Early on, the lesson we learned was not to be so trusting. I don’t mean that in a jaded way. When you are young and eager to have a career in music, you are willing to sign anything because it is the life you want. As you spend a few years in it you can easily think, “Man, I should have thought about that a little more and thought about what it would be like down the line.” Some of the record deals you just say yes to because you don’t know if it will even last. That is one thing, as you are young and being approached by people, be very aware of the things that are being offered. When you borrow money to make music from any entity, they inevitably have something to say with how it turns out. Be wary of that! The other thing is to make as much music and as many songs as possible and continually listen to it like you are not in the band. That is the test! Once your ego is put aside and it still pleases you as a music fan, I think you are on to something! You get a rush out of it that is a self-sustaining buzz! It is pretty awesome!
Thanks so much for your time today, James! I appreciate the look inside your world and wish you continued success!
Thank you, Jason! Thanks for support!
‘Five Crooked Lines’ is available now via iTunes: iTunes and Amazon! Check their official social media outlets for the latest news and tour dates! Check out James Black’s official Website at www.jamesblack.ca.