Interview by Holly Day
U.S. Maple is a great band to see on a blind date. Either the girl/boy you take will ditch you half-way through the night because they think you're totally psychotic, or you'll both click so completely with the arrhythm of the night that you'll be stuck together forever. It's a crazy kind of litmus test, but I guarantee you, it works-it would have worked for my husband and me, except that when we first saw them play, we were way past that tender stage of trying to frighten one another away.
But for the rest of you out there looking for true love, this is the place to find it. Especially now, with U.S. Maple touring for their newest release and first collection of love songs, "Purple On Time." There's even a cover of Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" on the album, turned into the sort of haunting, twisted love song a stalker might leave on a victim's answering machine. I spoke to lead singer Al Johnson about the new record and what makes this band tick.
Cosmik: How did this new album come together?
Al: Well, as with U.S. Maple, although I think the album is revolving, we're not very prolific, so we throw so much material away that it takes us nearly two years to put a record together. So that aside, the way we write is that any one of us will come with an idea, and we just sort of build on the idea. Sometimes they're not even musical notions, you know? We'll just talk about an idea or a situation. It could be something that we'd all seen together, and then we'll try to play that scene. Typically, that's how we build most of the material for our records, but there's no real formula. A lot of times, somebody'll come in with an idea - Tod'll come in with an idea, and we'll just work off of that.
This record, I think, above the others-the thing about this record is that this band's been sort of chasing this idea of nailing the song down for a couple of years, and we've gotten better at writing songs, and that's something that's been important to us; writing songs, and not just parts. And I think we've put some extra effort - I don't know, it just seems to me that the song is more significant on this record than the others, although I do think they've been progressing towards that.
Cosmik: What does Purple On Time mean?
Al: Purple On Time. Purple, to me, anyway, is just an emotional color, and "on time" is... The thing about U.S. Maple is that we've never been really on time with putting records out, or really in step with the record industry as a whole, so it's sort of a spoof on that. As if we were able to; some bands have to sort of deliver product on a regular basis, and U.S. Maple is just the antithesis of that.
Cosmik: SO how is Drag City to worth with?
Al: Drag City's great. You know, they're a great business, and they're all really good people. You know, people we've worked with in the past, they... When you're out on the road for as much as we are, it's reassuring knowing there are people back at home doing their job and promoting the record, or that there's just somebody there answering the phone and taking care of business, because if you try to do both, you're eventually going to fail at one of those.
Cosmik: It seems to me that this seems to be an album of love songs, or at least love seems to be a thread that runs through it?
Al: Yeah. Did somebody tell you that?
Al: Well, that's strange, because I was going to say that when you were asking me about the record, but yeah, when we were talking about doing this record, we were talking about making a love record, a record with love songs in it. Nobody's really picked up on it, though, so we've all kind of clammed up. Actually, it's really strange, because you're the only one who's nailed that, and I don't know how, but yeah, that's essentially what the record is. And, you know, purple being an emotional color, and then "on time" can be taken as sort of a love/sexual thing, almost. But that's exactly what it is.
Cosmik: Has Bob Dylan heard your cover of "Lay Lady Lay"?
Al: I don't know if he has. I imagine he will. I don't know if he'll complain or not. I always thought that "Lay Lady Lay" was one of his more eccentric songs, and when I was growing up, I remember hearing it on the radio quite a bit, on AM radio. It's not a clunker, but it's, I think, a bit misogynist, and you know, for us to tackle "Lay Lady Lay" is like us trying to play the French National Anthem. I mean, it's so far from where we're really at that I thought it would be something for us to really take on and try to do. If it hadn't turned out so well, I don't think we would have included it.
Cosmik: With patriotism at an all-time high, are you seeing people come to your shows because they're attracted to the band's name?
Al: No, not at all. I am seeing a lot more people in general at shows. Exponentially, our audience has multiplied. I'm not sure why that is, because for the first couple of years, like I said, it's always been tough for us, and we've sort of always been a black sheep. When you see this band live, the show is different every single time. It just can't be done the same way twice. We generally get up there, and it ends up being like a 45-50-minute rescue mission. A lot of times, we're just trying to rescue the songs, and rescue the set, and there'll be a lot of communication between the band members on stage, because we're all trying to stay on the same page, and we're trying to pull this thing out of what could be falling over into a ravine. So that part of it has always been a part of this band, and a lot of people, even if they don't really like the band, I think a lot of people will stay just to see what happens. Do you know what I mean? But I have noticed that there are a lot more people coming in to see us, and maybe people are sort of catching up to us. For the reasons as to why they come out, I don't know. But there are definitely more people coming. I'm not sure why it is, but I'm happy for it.
Cosmik: How has your acting experience impacted your music?
Al: I think, for me, that I've always been more of an actor or performer than a singer, so that almost comes before me coming up there and singing. So its always been a big part of my life, for the last ten years. It really helps, because, you know, I feel that I'm essentially... I'm trying to be these characters in the songs, I'm trying to be the sort of visual reference for what we're trying to get across, and I think if I wasn't, it'd be a lot harder to digest. But yeah, that's probably what I do next.