Intervjuer Nyheter

Rival Sons – Light and Shade

Grammy nominated Rival Sons release their new album “Darkfighter” in June 2023, followed by “Lightbringer” a few months later. We sat down with frontman Jay Buchanan at Warner’s Oslo office to discuss the deeply personal “Darkfighter” record. During its making Jay lost a childhood friend and questioned whether he even wanted to make rock music any more.

Text & live photography: Anne-Marie Forker
Photo: Pamela Littky

– Congratulations on the new album. I noticed there was no song called “Darkfighter”. What is behind the album title?
– When the second record comes out in the fall, it will be a puzzle piece that will help things make sense. “Darkfighter” will be the call, and “Lightbringer” will be the response. It’s not the whole story. You are going to have to put those two albums together.
– Had you always intended for there to be two albums?
– No. It would be really easy for me to sit here and say we completely masterminded the whole thing, we conceptualised this. It was a very organic, instinctual process to keep writing songs. During the pandemic, 2020-22 we worked on this record, before partitioning the collection into two records. So much was going on emotionally and in our country, and worldwide. I know a lot of people died, but even aside from that in the United States there were other things going on. I know all of our dirty laundry was aired all over the world, and I know everyone could see the United States just losing its god damn mind. There was continually just more and more to write about. It’s like being sick and every time you think you are done vomiting you have to run back to the restroom because there’s more. It was like that, just needing to write more and more.
– So you had so much material, it had to be two albums.
– It would be too much as one record, too much of a statement and would do a disservice to the actual songs that are on there. It would make the collection too dense and taxing. Splitting things up, and splitting the narrative was the clear and right thing to do. The dark side first, coming out in June, and then a refractory period of a couple of months for people to sit with that, and then the next instalment will come and they will be able to draw the lines between them.

– I like the order of dark first and then light later…
– That’s not to say “Lightbringer” is like the Wizard of Oz and suddenly turns into colour. It’s also very heavy. These are heavy, existential topics dealt with in both records. It’s still very Flannery O’Connor. It’s eloquent and beautiful but also dark.
– “Darkfighter” is not all dark either, it has transcendent moments, particularly “Rapture”. What’s behind that track?
– “Rapture” is one of my favourite tracks. I went through a lot on this record, and so I forced myself to write and just be as honest as I could. It’s not that I haven’t been honest before, I always try to be, but I think that I’ve gotten sideswiped by the expectations of the genre and I just don’t give a fuck anymore.  There came a point where I questioned whether I wanted to do this. “Is this what I wanna do? I’m a songwriter!” Do I want to make rock music? I look at so much of rock music, and the rock charts, and I don’t like any of it. Is that who we are? Is that who I am?  I don’t want to do that. I talked with the band and my partner Scott and we have to do it in a different way. We never fit in. We never have. We don’t fit in next to these other rock bands. I feel that Rival Sons is a little bit of an outlier in the rock scene. I knew things had to be approached in a very different way.  For “Rapture”, Scott had sent me the guitar parts for the verses and the main riff, so then I quickly I got to work and wrote that chorus pretty quickly. At that point I was ready to walk. I was feeling frustrated with the parameters and walls of the genre. “Rapture” was a middle finger, where I was going to write this sweet, mellow chorus in the middle of it. Light and shade. The idea of that song and the lyrics was really about burning away where you have been in order to get to where you are going and accepting that metamorphosis and giving it recognition. All of these aches and pains and the growth of you busting out of a cage. I don’t just mean the cage of the genre, I mean identity. The identity of being stuck at home.  I say that like it’s a bad thing. I am always on the go. I have always lived a life of a Fed Ex package. Finally just being home and taking stock and spending more time with my wife and kids is so healthy. But the introspection of it all, has it been working for me? I don’t think it has. Coming off the field and taking a couple of breaths before going back out, I need to reassess my game. “Rapture” was the pinnacle of that questioning and saying “No. It changes, right now, and I will only write this way”. I will only write about the things that I must write about. I just don’t care any more. I don’t care what happens. There’s many other songs on this album and Lightbringer where I’m writing about the things I have to write about. Whatever the fuck happens, it’s going to put me and the band where it needs to be, and for myself artistically I have to reconcile with this. “Rapture” was letting those floodgates open. It’s a really special song. I feel good when I sing it, like I’m eating my mother’s cooking or something!
– You mentioned identity. There’s a theme of identity on several tracks, especially “Mirrors”, and “Bright Lights”. Can you talk about what aspects of identity each of those songs refers to?
– The songs are different pieces of a similar threadline. “Mirrors” kicks off the album talking about when a person loses their vision. My brother had no idea that he needed glasses and was telling me things were fuzzy. He thought that was just how things looked. Then one day he put on someone else’s glasses and was like “OH MY GOD!”
– Haha, I know that feeling!
– “I lost my sight so slowly, I didn’t know that I was going blind….Smashing the mirrors to see beyond the eye”….it’s not just the eye.  You go blind from an introspective lens and you don’t realise you’ve lost sight of yourself. Especially going through the things a lot of us did in the pandemic, which raised a lot of existential questions. The other parts of that song, you’re looking for virtue, but you are preoccupied with survival.  There’s a protagonist, who needs to find their way on the album. There’s an arc to the story. “Nobody Wants to Die” is then a raucous “Balls to the Wall”, mortality, it’s all in there.

– The relentless “Nobody Wants to Die” is a force of nature.  I read that it refers to Roald Dahl books. How?
– It doesn’t! I think I was talking in conversation about how we take ourselves so seriously, fear death so much and chicken scratch for our mortality. When I used to work in a mortuary I used to bury people all day and oversee the funerals and caskets being lowered into the ground and meet with the priest. I would go the houses and pick up the bodies, and all these refrigerators with dead bodies. Just dead, naked people, that used to be alive. We all go to the same hole in the ground. Make no mistake, everybody gets their own cross. It isn’t just Jesus Christ. Everybody. Everybody gets their own cross. Looking at people when they are acting like they are outside of that, everyone knows they aren’t. It’s an obvious equalizer. And when you look at cultures that don’t fear death it has a different tune. The way Roald Dahl in his children’s stories, through illustration and words, deals with adults when they get too serious or angry – they sound so absurd, because it’s from a kid’s point of view. Why would you be so serious or self-important? Adults just seem ridiculous.
– Speaking of not taking yourselves too seriously I loved your acting skills on show in the video, especially Todd! 
– “Acting skills” – that’s a stretch!
– The casting of you as the preacher was inspired! Todd was particularly good.
– Over-the-top Todd. I remember when we were filming I was thinking “Christ, just calm down a little bit” and then going back and seeing it and thinking “Wow, it really translates and looks great on screen”. Those videos were fun.
– Where was it filmed and who conceived the idea?
– In the dessert. Scott and I began writing the “Nobody Wants to Die” video and our buddy Éli [Sokhn] came in to direct and help us shape things. We had the “Rapture” video, which I wrote and produced, and had a director come in. We tried to write one for “Bird in the Hand” but it kept being too complicated or expensive, so the director Kurt Kubicek came in and put a treatment together and said “Here’s how we’ll do it”. He was instrumental.

– What do the colours in the “Rapture” video represent?

– It’s the emotional upheaval of young adulthood. This flood of emotion and the pain of growing up through your adolescence and staring down the future at that age, is a very daunting thing. I see it again with my children. The pain of high school.  The main story is this kid going to deliver a message to a killer, doing a grown up’s job. He has this uncertainty and nervous uncertainty.
– The last song, “Darkside”, there are parts of it where your voice and Scott’s guitar sound like they are having a conversation. You asking the questions, and Scott responding. Does it feel that way when you write together?
– I wrote that song, and it was a conversation I was having. I was talking with my best friend, from childhood. He was a very dependable, trustworthy family man and a good person. He developed a secret drug habit that only he knew about. He had an injury and was prescribed a bunch of pain pills and in order to keep working he needed more pain pills, and then he turned to the black market and by the time I found out about it, it was a secret hell that he was going through. That’s the lyrics “Something’s driving you out of your mind, Pretty soon you’re going to get to where you are going. Something is keeping you awake at night. You are losing focus when you need to count your flock.” That’s the whole secrecy aspect of addiction like that. By the time I found out about it he was starting to go down the tubes. He lost his family, his wife, he was an addict. That was written at a time when, for the first time in our lives ever, I couldn’t get a hold of him. He wasn’t answering my calls. I got him into rehab and all of that. When you love an addict, any time you get a text message or a call you breathe a sigh of relief – “They are alive”, but at the same time you have panic that someone is calling you. It was very difficult for me when I couldn’t get a hold of him. When the addiction takes over that person is no longer there, and that’s where those lyrics come from: “There are no promises to keep, now that you’ve gone to the Darkside.” When you love an addict like that and you see their circumstance, even though they are alive, you are already mourning, because the person that you loved and trusted is not there anymore. The addiction is there. That’s what that song is about. It was very difficult for me. He passed.
– I’m so sorry.
– I appreciate that. He passed in 2021. Scott is an intimate friend, and I sent this song to him. He said it needed a riff.  He knows that story and has dealt with it with people in his life and also knew my friend. He writes the heaviest, darkest riff I have ever heard him write. It was just perfect, because that riff is the dark side. When that song finishes, the last thing you hear is that low hum, the dark side prevailing. That is certainly not something I usually write, I am an optimist and wouldn’t usually leave the listener that way. I believe in the Hippocratic Oath of an artist. I don’t say that other artists should feel that way, but I do. Knowing that we have “Lightbringer” coming is why “Darkside” ends that way.
– It’s the first chapter.
– Yeah, the first chapter. My wife says “Darkfighter” is really good but it’s real heavy! She calls it Rival Sons’ Cormac McCarthy album
– All the Pretty Horses …
– Yeah! His stuff is really beautiful but dark. It’s like that.
– So that low hum is how we are left until the fall…
– And like I said, it’s not like “Lightbringer” is like a healing balloon. It just deals with things in a different way. It continues to discuss the human condition and existential elements that you try to work through.
– Songs take varying lengths of time to complete, of course. Which was the hardest one to finish, and which was the easiest?
– “Darkside” was written fairly quickly. It was just an emotional response. It just came, and I sat down and wrote it. It was me working out these feelings that maybe I wouldn’t face or discuss. “Horse’s Breath” was the same. I have moved my family to Tennessee because we were having a baby and then back to California. It was taxing for me because my wife was very pregnant and had a rough pregnancy, but everything worked out. I wasn’t able to earn any income. I was selling a large property in Tennessee but couldn’t afford to hire people to trim the trees and the foliage and get the house ready to go on the market. I had to do all of that myself, while writing at night, while taking care of my wife. It was a really exhausting period, and then I had to find where we were going to live in California, and get everyone out there during the pandemic. She had just had our son, so I couldn’t put them on a plane, because I couldn’t risk infection. I rented an RV with a trailer and made our way across the country. A couple of days later, the house was very quiet, and I could hear the rain coming down, making a rhythm. I was sitting there after working all day with a glass of whisky, taking stock, but I felt everything was going to be alright. Where am I? Am I okay? Everything is okay. So I got this idea and I grabbed the guitar and I had to be quiet because of the baby. So I took the guitar to the bathroom downstairs and opened the window, and wrote the chorus and the verses right then, and the song “Horse’s Breath”. I’m not exactly sure how it will end or how it’s going, but the end is still too far away to see.  I called it “Horse’s Breath” because the rhythm of the song sounded like being on the back of a horse running – running towards or running from something.

– You’re coming back to Norway in July for a couple of festivals, including Bukta in Tromso. Speaking of light and dark – have you experienced the midnight sun yet, as you’ll be here in time for that?
– Oh yes, we have been out there and it’s a beautiful festival, on the fjord, gorgeous.

Originally published in Norway Rock Magazine #2/2023