Describing the group Listener, a few years ago, would have involved discussing two guys, a guitar, a macbook, and a washing machine; an explanation that would turn the head of even the most avante-guard fans of music. Listener has now evolved into a full fledged rock and roll power trio with vocalist Dan Smith playing bass and brass, guitarist Christin Nelson behind the monstrous musical arrangements, and drummer Kris Rochelle pounding the skins as if the ghost of John Bonham haunted his dreams. With thought provoking stage banter, music that keeps your mind busy, and words that quickly take hold of your heart, Listener is a near perfect balance of what words and music are supposed to be.
Listener began in 2007 when Dan Smith wrote a series of songs about a traveling knife salesman who was struggling through some of life's hardships. These were songs of the heart, intended to be heard by everyone who could gain something from them and were released as part of Smith's solo project, on a hip hop/poetry album called Ozark Empire. The outcome of the project was less than what Smith had hoped for. Smith had been working on what he called "Talk Music," a genre consisting of radical poetry and more traditional folk/rock music. He had a vision but had not found the right pieces to make that vision a reality. And in 2007 Smith approached his good friend Christin Nelson about starting a new project. Nelson ended up being the perfect choice and they quickly began taking the songs from Ozark Empire and reworking them into a new album. This album was titled Return to Struggleville, and marks the first studio release of the band Listener. (It was later remastered and re-released in 2009 with two additional songs.)
Armed with raw songs about life and a vision to share this music with everyone, Smith and Nelson began to tour and grow as a duo. Playing shows every night and anywhere they could, concert goers witnessed Smith yelling and sweating through songs, sometimes "cancelling" the show, while Nelson vigorously beat an old hollowed out washing machine with a taped up axe handle. Each show culminated with "Ozark Empire or a Snake Oil Salesman Comes to Your Town" (http://youtu.be/QyTejjdHejs). The duo became accustomed to being on the road spending every day together, and subsequently they went from being musical accomplices to best friends. As they grew together in life and on stage they started to experiment with the songs more and more as a team, and the music started to flourish.
2008-2009 was essentially one constant tour for Smith and Nelson, so they began writing and recording the next Listener album, Wooden Heart, on the road. Smith had been performing some of the lyrics to Wooden Heart as spoken word poems, but the words quickly became well crafted songs once Nelson began adding music. The process of writing together was still fairly new to them but they had found an interesting approach to making the songs come together. Often they would sketch out on notebook paper a sort of blueprint to the song, Smith would note the lyrics and how the song was supposed to feel at certain points using a blend of analogies, and Nelson would translate and create music that matched these ideas. After the music was written and rough versions recorded, they would tweak the songs, practice, and often record them on the road in someone's basement or another random place. This process brought pieces of the road life with them, and they used these unique opportunities to their advantage. For example, they recorded the crowd murmuring for the beginning of House on Fire, while at a music festival right before they played the song for the first time. This method also gave them plenty of practice so that the recording process was easier and the ideas behind the songs had reached their full potential. The songs continued to grow and they continued to do more with them musically. Wooden Heart was clearly more of a studio album, as the songs were layered with more arrangements than the duo could perform live, and had largely progressed from the simpler folk/americana sound ofReturn to Struggleville. Musically, each song seemed to correctly frame Smith's lyrics and the album finally took shape after a year long recording process.
Wooden Heart was officially released to the public in July 2010. Wooden Heart, like Return to Struggleville, was a concept album. Smith discovered that many of the real life people and feelings he was experiencing and writing about seemed to relate to the characters and struggles in the popular children's tale The Never-Ending Story. The Never-Ending Story was the allegorical framework for Wooden Heart, each song having an alternate title that corresponded with characters, places, and things from the story. Some songs seemed to relate more than others, and had more obvious references to The Never-Ending Story like: "Falling in Love with Glaciers," "Failing is not just for Failures," "Seatbelt Hands," "These Hands Weren't Made for Us," and "Save Up your Hopes Friends." Other songs had a more subtle approach or came from a different direction altogether, "You Have Never Lived Because you Have Never Died," was a poem written about an intense dream Dan had, while the title track "Wooden Heart" was written about a daydream he experienced while at a music festival. Listening to Wooden Heart from beginning to end was like listening to a Never Ending Story-musical that had been scripted by Dan Smith and Christin Nelson. The album was quickly a fan favorite that created many opportunities for Listener to share their songs with more people and to make new friends and memories around the world.
After plenty of touring in North America and Europe, Nelson began working on some new music for Listener, and by the end of the year in 2011 Smith and Nelson began work on an entire new album. Nelson took a new approach to this album musically and started writing more powerful music, looking for a bigger and heavier sound. As he and Smith continued working on the album in early 2012, they realized that they had become limited to how much two men could do and decided they were going to need a drummer. Being the drummer for Listener would never, and could never, be an easy job. It is not a job you can apply for and is not as simple as auditioning. (If you were thinking about applying as an oboe player, keyboardist, DJ, or triangle player, you should probably go ahead and let that dream go.) The complications of finding a drummer for a band like this are numerous. You have to find someone that is not only a good drummer but that you can ride in a van with for over 250 days a year and not kill each other. They must be someone who has the same heart and desires as the rest of the band and they need to be able to grow a really great mustache. They found the perfect fit in Nelson's long time friend Kris Rochelle. "They're was never any auditions for Kris. Dan and I knew that in character, spirit, work ethic, and commitment, Kris was our new drummer," Nelson said. "He was out of school, experienced, and he didn't just play drums, he wrote music." They began working on the new album together as a band. They played the songs together, wrote the words together, orchestrated the music together, and the sound of Listener started to change and grow.
Having a full band began to immediately impact the group, and they wanted to get the new songs out as fast as they could. In the summer of 2012 they began touring and playing some of these songs, and even slated to release them as an EP in the Fall. Feeling like they were rushing it, they decided to change the release date and to make efforts to perfect the album and make it bigger. They doubled down their efforts musically and lyrically, and began to really focus on the songs. After months of writing together, and a lot of practice, the new 3 piece went to the Music Box in Tustin, California and recorded with Jon O'Brien (Young the Giant, Moostache). For Return to Struggleville and Wooden Heart, Smith and Nelson had done a lot of their own recordings, but after talking with Jon and hearing some of his recordings, the band decided that Jon should produce the album. After a week in the studio, Listener emerged not with an EP, but a new full length, Time is a Machine.
Time is a Machine is officially the third studio album from Listener. The work is not your typical album with a couple singles and lots of filler, but follows the Listener format of making something that is best listened to from beginning to end in its entirety. The music is huge and powerful, a driven rock and roll sound coupled with the ambient experimental post-rock that you hear on songs like Save Up your Hopes Friends. The first track Eyes to the Ground for Change was released on May 28, 2013 and has a surf-rock sound throughout that eases you into the rest of the album. The music is powerfully layered, and Smith's lyrics are not focused after any one particular concept but cover a variety of topics. Smith deliberates strong poems about our human emotional tendencies dealing with our hopes, hurts, and fears. The content on TIAM is more layered and deeper than the first two albums, and gives the listeners the opportunity to grow into the album. On first listen, some parts will really stick, but the more you listen the more the rest of the album starts to wrap around your thought process. TIAM is a band effort. You can see it in each drum beat, every guitar riff, and lyric.
If your best friend was a band, who would they be? I think they might be something like Listener. Because Listener is a band made of best friends, who have experienced the best and worst of times, and have survived on songs. No one knows you like they do and no other band can describe how you feel like they can. They have captured just the right words and just the right sounds and pinned on them all of our deepest emotions, our greatest fears, our toughest challenges, and our unbridled hopes. This is a group that sticks close to your heart no matter where you go, who you're with, or how you feel. When you put in a Listener album every song is like an old friend and every moment enjoyable.