Rival Sons: Head Down With Their Eyes On The Prize

Rival Sons dip in the well of classic bands like The Stones and Jimi Hendrix, but, at the same time, they also are influenced by new music. While the result sounds classic, as Holiday states in the interview below, that is a name for older bands and Rival Sons are a new band who just happen to play rock and roll.

Rival Sons were named the Breakthrough Artist of the Year by Classic Rock Magazine in 2012. The band, while thrilled to win, has been around for four years, cranking out hard rockin’ blues rock and staying true to both their musical vision and to themselves.

The band’s new album, Head Down, hit #1 on the UK Rock chart and the first single, “Keep on Swinging” has been featured on USA Today’s Playlist column.

Classic Rock Revisited caught up with the band’s guitarist, Scott Holiday, to discuss what makes the band tick, their new album and how they use the digital age to their advantage.

Jeb: Congratulations on the “Breakthrough Artist Award” from Classic Rock magazine.  How does it feel to be finally breaking through after all of these years? 

Scott: Yeah, the old four year overnight success. It's killer to have people appreciate and dig what we would be doing regardless of all the praise. We're working hard, but having fun and all the energy surrounding the Sons just makes it that much more inspiring to keep it alive and come up with the next record.

Jeb: I read where you wrote and recorded the new album in less than three weeks. Most bands take ten times that long. Â What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of working that fast?

Scott: These days it seems to me that rock and roll is overproduced, overwritten and just over thought, which is not rock and roll at all. We decided to do it the way we've been doing it, to instill a more raw, off the cuff, feeling into the recordings.

We don't write together until we're in the studio, mic’d up and ready to record. What you end up getting is usually one of the first takes of us, not only recording the song, but actually even ever playing the song together. There's even a few first takes on Head Down, meaning the first time we ever played the song together.

The raw, unadulterated, visceral energy is the plus side. The obvious down side would be the record suffering a lack of creativity, unrefined recording quality, or bad songs. It is fun and thorough to spend more time getting microscopic about everything during the recording, but I don't think its right for this kind of rock and roll, or this band, not yet anyway. 

Jeb: Talk about the first single “Keep on Swinging.” 

Scott: That one started out as a very bluesy type of thing when I played it alone; the main riff, mostly. It was very straight ahead and had an almost Delta Blues vibe. I was very conscious that I would tighten it up and fuzz it out. Jay had the idea on the verses, which changed the mood to a much more of a rock and roll thing. As soon as we glued those parts together, the rest fell together quite naturally. It was all conceived, written and recorded inside of about three hours. 

Jeb: One of my favorites is “Wild Animal” what was the inspiration?

Scott: That was mostly inspired by the ‘60's beat/garage vibe. Specifically, we took a bit of inspiration from a group called The Monks, initially. As soon as we started playing it, it took on other nuances and bits that come natural to everyone. The guitar solo is definitely its own moment separate to the rest of the song. This song has a lot to do with the space in the music and minimalism, or simplicity. 

Jeb: “Manifest Destiny” is an epic track. Â 

Scott: The main riff is something I came up with between takes on another song, or maybe even between recording different songs. Dave Cobb, our producer, heard me play it and said "That's amazing! What is that? I've got the tape rolling. We new to work on that song.” I was literally just thumbing about different ideas, but that's how that goes in our process.

The rest came together when the band took a break and Dave and I put the other parts together. He jumped on the drums and I showed him the other bits I was thinking would work. Some subtle inspiration came from a record I was listening to in Nashville by a group called Spooky Tooth, who are a really cool slightly obscure band.

I have Spooky Two on vinyl; it's fantastic. Glyn Johns produced it. It is just a massively cool record. I told the guys I wanted to put a "musical conversation" type section in the middle; a bit of a free-form inspirational guitar freak-out, not so much a guitar solo, but more of an emotional story, or movement between the three of us with the guitar out front. What is on the record is the first take all the way through. 

Jeb: You guys have had songs in commercials before you had albums. How did you manage to do that?

Scott: Sometimes people find us and ask to use songs, other times it’s The Suits, our business peeps. We're quite fortunate to have a great bunch of folks that work with us in several territories that are totally excited and motivated to help us including management, publicists, publishing administrators and labels. And then, just friends you meet along the way. I guess it comes from the whole network. God bless it! 

Jeb: In this day and age, most new music is corporate crapola. What do you bring to the table that is different?   

Scott: Well, it's not "corporate crapola" [laughter]! It's the music we want to make and perform.  It's really up to the listeners to distinguish exactly what we bring to the table that's different. We are merely doing what we do, to the best of our abilities. All I can say about it is this: We're being genuine and honest with the music we make. We take the MUSIC very seriously, without taking OURSELVES too seriously.

When bands get too heavy with themselves and their statement, or give themselves too much self importance it just feels a bit pretentious. We definitely want to avoid that, but at the same time, we want to deliver a strong statement. It's a balance. I would hope we're delivering something that feels individual and special, while reflecting what we love in equal measure like all the music and artists that have influenced me. The magic in any group comes out in the interplay of the individuals and I think we have something great and different to offer there. 

Jeb: How does the creative process work in Rival Sons? Â 

Scott: Traditionally, I would write songs on my own and present them to the other guys, as Jay would do. With this group, we took a different approach. We don't share material, or do too much writing on our own, at all. Rather we wait until we are all in the studio, mic’d up and ready to record.

We'll talk about things we're individually into and would like to accomplish with the record, then I, or Jay, will present ideas to the guys. These are loose ideas, like a main riff into a change and we will all write and put the song together.

We usually finish a song a day. I will write bits at home and during the sessions, as will Jay, as the record takes shape, but we do 85-90% of the real writing on the spot in the studio while recording. This keeps the recording fresh and raw. You are always getting between one and four takes that end up being the final take.

As mentioned earlier, there's a few first takes on this record that are the first time we played the song together. It definitely makes it fun to come back and listen to it for us, especially after touring on the record. Songs take on a whole new lived in quality and we have preserved the moment of conception on record. 

Jeb: Talk about the bands that influenced you and the mark they have made on your music. Â 

Scott: So many bands...so much music. Recently, I've been really into acts like The Standells, The Barbarians, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Blues Magoos, Chocolate Watchband and The Monks, who share close ties with the classics that are simply undeniable. The acts that will never leave my personal play list are The Kinks, The Stones, The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Small Faces, Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, ZZ Top, The Jeff Beck Group, The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Traffic and Pink Floyd. There are many more from this era alone.

Some of the more obscure bands I've been chomping on have been The Flamin’ Groovies, Captain Beefheart, Spooky Tooth, The Creation, and The Flower Travellin' Band. There's always some Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, or Earl Hooker on my turntable.

There are tons of new bands too, namely The Greenhornes, Jack White and all his respective work, Dungen, The Amazing, Ulysses, The Sheepdogs, The Mars Volta, The Black Keys, Graveyard, Soundtrack of our Lives, The Guild and more. Â 

The mark all these guys have on my band? Well, the forefathers have cut a path and shown us the way and begun a tradition and lit the flame. The new bands are the keepers of the flame and keep us inspired and enlivened. 

Jeb: You are building momentum and have even played major gigs with the likes of AC/DC and you played at Donnington.  What do you have to do in order to keep that momentum going and how do you stay focused?  

Scott: We simply just keep doing it. We make a new record every year and the shows are getting bigger. We're getting more and more recognition and all of that keeps the momentum going. Not to mention we have a great team of people who work with us to keep things pushing ahead full steam.

We've been really focused since the inception of this band. I can't exactly pinpoint why, maybe its necessity. The reality is that this is the only way we will make any mark, or a living, or the way we keep our families alive. Anyway, we love making records, writing songs, and playing live and that makes the focus part easier, and the momentum part, too. 

Jeb: Do you have the goal of being the band that can bring back real music to the masses? Â 

Scott: No, we are a group of guys doing what we love to do. We want to do it, and make a living at it; that's it. Visions of grandeur are normal, but to lead with that would be terrible, on so many levels. Plus, there's tons of great real music being made by tons fantastic bands out there, just see my list of new bands from the previous question.

We just want to be honest with our music, ourselves and our audience; no matter what that means: A proverbial roundhouse kick to the face, a comforting hug, or a big kiss on the lips. What does that even mean? Somehow, it makes sense to me.  

Jeb: I understand you hate the “Classic Rock” label and here I am called Classic Rock Revisited. By that I mean that this music has a past, a present AND a future.  I hope that clears it up and you don’t hate us for our name! 

Scott: No, not at all [laughter]. I just don’t exactly get the term on my band. I mean, I get it, but don't feel it's appropriate. "Classic Rock" is a term for music that is actually classic...’50's, ‘60's, ‘70's etc. We are a NEW band. What we do is rock and roll. Blues, soul, folk, garage, psychedelia, I dunno, a bunch of stuff, an amalgamation that we're content to just call rock and roll.

Jeb: Established bands have a hard time fitting into the digital musical world.  You seem to be thriving in it.  What have you learned concerning marketing yourself in a download society that other bands could learn from?  

Scott: This digital era is not our enemy. This time will absolutely be remembered as a renaissance era. More music is being made than ever and is more readily available than ever. The major labels that have guarded the gates to musical visibility have been disarmed and many are hanging by a thread. This has given a lot of power back to the common person. You can record a song in your bedroom, put it on YouTube and get a million hits in a week. You can put it on iTunes, or whatever, and sell a boatload of music and become famous without any of the corporate major label bullshit even near it. Â 

We are, of course, making waaaay less money than we could have 15 to 20 years ago, which is a bummer, but I think the industry and the art needs a changing of the guards, a reconstruction of things to happen in this business. It's healthy. Besides, we're a rock n roll band and if we are gonna make any real money, it’s gonna be through touring and T-shirts. We like to keep the blood on our hands.  

Jeb: I find it cool that a hardcore metal label signed you guys.  Why did you go with someone whose expertise is not your kind of music?  Did they just see something in you that others did not pick up on?  

Scott: We weren't even looking for a label when they contacted us. We were doing it a different way. I thought they were kidding, like making a joke- "Let’s sign this blues rock band," said the Death Metal Label.

They persisted, though, so we met with them and heard their ideas and what they thought of our band. We checked out their track record, which was great and they offered us a great/fair deal, so we gave it a go.

It sounded kind of cool to us to be the black sheep on a Death Metal label. And they've done a great job. I mean, there's not a lot of money there, so we have to self fund all our touring and work on very, very small budgets for recording and videos and all that, but we've made it work and they have done a good job with their resources.

Jeb: How do you balance the fun of the rock lifestyle with the needed workaholic work ethic needed to make it to the big time? Â 

Scott: Our job is a steady run of Saturday nights! That said, we all have our act together; nobody is going too big. When we tour it's a lot of work. We do TV, or radio spots, in the mornings and afternoons, then do interviews back at the venue, then comes soundcheck and more interviews and then the show. There's no way we could go off the rails as we're running and maintaining a business here! That said, it's a fun business that supplies a few perks.

Jeb: Agree or disagree: Some people take music too seriously.     

Scott: Absolutely agree. Agree or disagree: That shit comes off very pretentious? 

Jeb: Before we go I want to know the meaning behind the name of the band. Â 

Scott: It has a lot to do with unicorns and wizards and rainbows. It's basically really magical and mysterious [laughter].

It was actually taken from the combination of two names we had considered. I'll leave those out here, but when I combined the names to make Rival Sons, I immediately Googled it thinking SOMEBODY must have used that term or phrase. Nope, all that popped up was a bunch of political and religious stuff. It had very current things happening with “Sadam Hussein's rival sons" and a very old connotation with things like "Cain and Abel" or the "Pandavas.” I loved that. Plus, the initial feeling was a fight, or a conflict, in this phrase, a struggle, which I loved.

It's like rock and roll, there SHOULD be a little fight in there. Also, as band members, besides being inherently supportive, we're quite competitive with one another, which is a playful take on the name.