Intervjuer Nyheter

Rival Sons – Rebirth and Rejuvenation

Rival Sons followed up the release of their “Darkfighter” album in the same year with another record, “Lightbringer”.  We took a trip to Cambridge, England, on album release day to chat with frontman Jay Buchanan about making the record, how the cover artist created a response to AI, and how much the band f***ing love Norway.

Rival Sons followed up the release of their “Darkfighter” album in the same year with another record, “Lightbringer”.  We took a trip to Cambridge, England, on album release day to chat with frontman Jay Buchanan about making the record, how the cover artist created a response to AI, and how much the band f***ing love Norway.

Text and photography: Anne-Marie Forker

I saw you in Tromsø this summer when you played in the land of the midnight sun, but you weren’t doing a European tour, you just popped across the Atlantic for two Norwegian festivals. Is Norway special to you?

Yes, Norway is special. From our first European tour we made our way up to Norway and we played Blå [in Oslo]. It was the culture and the midnight sun – we were really taken with it. There was something very romantic about the entire thing. We ended up developing so many relationships and becoming close with so many Norwegians that are to this day very close friends. I think that starting out at Blå – I mean, this is just Oslo – there have been so many fantastic festivals that we have played – but speaking specifically to Oslo, playing Blå and then coming back and playing Rockefeller –

That’s a huge jump. So you skipped John Dee? There’s a venue between those two sizes that artists often play called John Dee, but it’s smaller.

I don’t think so – listen, if we’re starting to do the folklore, I’m gonna say we made the jump, but maybe we didn’t [laughs]. I recall coming back and making Norway a priority. It was a priority for the entire band, and the record sales and the reception by the Norwegians was very evident. For a band just starting out anywhere, when you’re far away from home, when you get a warm reception, you don’t forget it – it stays with you. It’s a very special thing to be welcomed that way, because as a touring band, it’s like a gang – it’s us against the whole world – so any time a band can go somewhere and be appreciated for what they’re doing, it means the fucking world, and Norway was that, Norway was like that very quickly. And it’s not just the Norwegian audience, it’s the team, it’s our agent and label people and close friends over there that helped spread the word. So, we fucking love Norway.

Yeah, your concert there sold out very quickly, in November. That’s good to hear.

Yeah, we came up from Rockefeller and then went into Sentrum Scene. What a beautiful venue! I remember playing at Rockefeller and seeing some pop artist had sold out Sentrum Scene and we all looked over there, our mouths watering, “God, we want to get to Sentrum Scene”.

The fact that you’ve had two albums named ‘Darkfighter’ and ‘Lightbringer’ with a break in between reminded me of the quote that Leonard Cohen sings – “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”

[Jay sings the Leonard Cohen lyric]

[Laughs] Figuratively speaking, there’s kind of a crack between these two albums – of about four months – why?

It’s understood widely that we are rapidly spinning toward binge consumption, as a world culture. We consume everything quickly now. We want the songs we want, on our phone, we want them when we want them – we want them now – and we’re used to the immediate gratification, and that’s just… I can’t say that that’s negative or positive, that’s just the way things are. I want to get on Amazon and I want to order things – I want it fucking now! I want it to come to my house right now and I want the music, I don’t want to wait. That’s just the speed things are going, that’s just the velocity. Storytelling needs to work in a different way. To force our audience into a four month refractory period, and force them to appreciate, force them into a position where they have that four months to just digest “Darkfighter”, because it was a large statement – “Darkfighter” was a very heavy record, very big compared to anything we had done before – and we wanted  that album to live on its own, and at the same time, instead of making one large record, we just didn’t have any interest in doing that. “Darkfighter” would be the twin brother to “Lightbringer” – double X chromosomes – whereas “Lightbringer” has more rebirth and has more tenderness in a way and so that would be the X/Y chromosome. We wanted to very specifically force a refractory period in the space in between the two albums so that when “Lightbringer” came, today, so it could be judged on its own merit. Also, at the same time, “Lightbringer” helps to provide context for the “Darkfighter” in a very meaningful way instead of just releasing them very quickly. If you ask people, they’ll always say “I want it now, give it to me now”. But for us, we specifically wanted to release it that way, and I’m really glad that we did, and I’m very thankful – it didn’t make thing easy for our management, it made things difficult for our management, it made things difficult for our label and all of our partners all over the world, because it was very unconventional. We were forced into the position with our marketing and all of our budgets, we had to make two albums work on one album’s budget.

So, you faced obstacles?

We faced many obstacles, and our team, the management, our label, everyone involved, we forced them into a position where they had to be very creative. Our European and UK publicist, Talita, we made things very difficult for her too. Everyone had to really check their resources and think outside the box, and I’m very thankful for all of the hard work that everybody did, because Scott and I knew that we wanted to go about things this way and we knew it was unconventional. But why not be unconventional? This is our ninth record – we can do what we want to do. We don’t take our position for granted or the lifestyle for granted. Today I’m releasing another record. As a musician, I’m in a fraction, not even in the one percentile of musicians in the world that get to do this, that get to go into the studio and have the support of so many people. I’m over here in Cambridge right now, we’re going to throw a big party tonight and we’re all going to celebrate this new record that dropped.


This is a big deal, this moment. Most musicians don’t get to make records, they don’t get to play these shows, they aren’t afforded an opportunity to live with their life completely tethered to the artistry of self-expression. So, I think that there was a strong tone, as we were making these records and figuring out how to go about things , but it was in the writing as well and in the production of these records, that I knew I needed to approach things completely differently than I ever had. I was at my wits’ end, thinking – okay, I’m very exhausted by the genre and the parameters of rock music, because, on a world-wide scale, so much of this genre is relegated to novelty and attitude, and rock has definitely earned that, rock has earned that bad name. I look at what is so popular in rock music – and there are some phenomenal bands out there – but the phenomenal bands aren’t the ones making headlines.

And selling out stadiums.

Yeah, it’s these other ones. So, looking at rock and feeling so frustrated – well if we’re going to be treated by the world rock community as a foster child and not get the recognition, then we don’t have to play into the hands of the genre. We can do exactly what we want. We can make the songs we need to make. And we’re a rock band, there’s no doubt about that, but let’s push the parameters of our own vocabulary.  And we did that. There came a point in the recording where we said, if we can’t do it that way, we’re not going to do it. If we’re not going to completely rewrite the script, and push ourselves out into the scary woods, creatively, we don’t deserve wat we’re being given, we don’t deserve to be doing this. We need to really challenge ourselves, it’s what all of our heroes did. I think that there was a strong tone of conquest in making this record, and I think because of that there was a lot of uncertainty. We were going through the pandemic, and everything just going sideways in the United States through 2020, the election year. It was terrible, you know?  Any time Donald Trump shows up, things get weird, and 2020 got really weird. We were going through a very peculiar time, and also artistically taking all these chances while going through that, and I think it put us through a lot – I know it – it put the band through a lot and it put our producer Dave Cobb… thank you, Dave, we love Dave so much, I’m just so thankful for his belief in us, for all these years, going through these records – I know that we definitely tested the limits of his patience. I just very thankful for him sticking with us, you know.

Did he see doing two albums in a year as a challenge? Had he done that before?

Oh, yes!

Did he have to do it all together?

Well, no. You see, it’s like this. We made a large collection and we didn’t know it was going to be two records. It was just that artistically, I knew I needed to say more than I had said, and even when we just had eight songs, Cobb would say “Ah, no, you’ve got a record, this record’s fantastic. You’re done, you have a record.” And me having to go back [makes knocking sound] “Dave….? It’s me, Jay, we need more studio time.” “I told you, you already have a record, what are you talking about?” And then we would have to book more studio time in.

With the one budget.

Yeah. And going through all of that, and then going back and needing another session. “I wrote two more songs, I really need this.” It was a lot, it was a lot – Management having to push the label – it was a lot, it was a lot. But, I think that the final two tracks that were finished with the writing was “Darkfighter”, the first song on “Lightbringer”, at nine minutes, I had worked on for about three years before I showed it to Scott. All the classical and nylon guitar motifs and then I showed to Scott. He loved it right away and he wrote some parts on it too and we had talked about what we wanted that song to be. This was during the writing for “Feral Roots”. I knew that I wasn’t ready to finish writing that song, so that it just stayed on the burner, and when it came time to make this record, Scott and I knew “Oh yeah, we need to record that song”.

That song – it starts with a dissonant riff, and I wondered if that was the first thing you wrote and then built the rest of the song around that?

Yes, that was the first thing I wrote. Originally, it was going to be an instrumental, a classical piece, with full orchestration and that. I had always heard the oboes and the woodwind, the contrabassoon playing that [hums opening motif] with the oboe [whistles introductory vocal line].

You can really tell – you were saying about pushing yourselves, you can tell from the opening minute that’s what you were doing.

It definitely demands a lot of the listener. So what we did was, I finally put the vocal arrangement and the lyrics, put everything together and the bought it back to Scott and he loved it. And then we said there’s just going to be a long improvisational jam in between the two bookends of the song. And so, when you listen to that huge acoustic solo section and everything that’s in the middle of that song, that’s all on the floor, that’s all improvisation. I was right there, playing, and Scott was right there. He was playing a guitar that was just made for me, it’s my number one guitar, and he was beating into that thing so hard and I was looking over, going “Dude, be careful” but he was choking the notes out of that guitar like a fucking gangster and it was beautiful. So he’s doing that and Miley is playing the drums and it was just, like “there we go” and we tracked it live. Of course we had overdubs and different layers to the song, always, but the meat of the song, the heart of the song, was all just recorded like that.  So, there was that, in the last session, there was that song and – poor Cobb, he was going like “You really…. after all of these tracks, you really need to record a nine-minute song? With all of these different parts?”

So, you still brought that quite late in the process?

No. I had been working on that thing, writing that thing for a long time. It was a very complex song to put together, and then. So, there was that, and the other song in the last session, the last song that the band recorded, was “Mosaic”, and those are the bookends to this record, that’s the first and the last song of this record. When I was talking about how there was so much in these two years’ writing, so much life happening, the pandemic happening, a bunch of deaths, people really close to me, it was just brutal – where it’s like you don’t even know how to grieve any more. You get like that and somehow, in your emotions, you just nail the door shut, it’s like you don’t know what to about that, so I just wrote. I remember we were on the “Pressure and Time” tour in 2021 in October, it was a brutal tour, I had just gotten COVID, and I had to stay in a hotel for ten days and we were losing our asses financially, and the whole band got COVID. We were being crippled financially, but we still wanted to stay on the road, and my first show back. Once I had quarantined, I flew up to just outside of…. I can’t remember – it was just outside of Pennsylvania, we stayed there and that night I woke up in the middle of the night, I was just laying there, I didn’t have my guitar or anything, and I just wrote the melody, the chords and the lyrics, I just wrote the song just laying in bed, and it felt like a gift. It came so quickly, and I grabbed the guitar, and I was like “wow, I’m even singing in the correct key, song is in the key of E” and I played this and I knew then – “Oh, now I can stop writing.” That’s all I knew to say. Mosaic – Now I’m done. All of this terror and all of this pain, and it’s done. The fever broke and now I’m done.

It just came to you and it was done so quickly.

Yeah, it was insane. And then I showed to Scott and immediately Scott writes that opening guitar measure, that’s like a perfect motif for this. That song came in and I just knew. Sometimes songs come like that, and when they do, boy I’m thankful because you can really labour over songs, like “Darkfighter”, I worked my arse off for all of that, and then bringing it to Scott and he’s playing the music. Writing lyrics and melodies is just a very different thing, there’s a lot of……  I don’t know, the voice for those things comes from a different spot. Cause I play instruments, but the voice for that, wherever that antenna is that picks that stuff up, is really different, for me it is.

Do you usually need to have an instrument on you to write a song, because you were saying that one just came to you?

No, I don’t. Let me find something here…. [plays original recording of Mosaic from hotel room on his phone] That’s how it came, just like that.

That’s beautiful. Amazing.

I’m just sitting in bed, going “what?!”

And you knew that would be the final piece of the jigsaw?

Yeah, I just knew.  “Oh!”, the fever broke and the clouds opened up on some very, very difficult years. Because there were other songs, like “Before the Fire”. I wrote “Before the Fire” on a resonator guitar, a Recording King resonator guitar, that Recording King had given to me, and they were kind enough to high-string it in Nashville tuning, so it’s a different configuration of the strings. That song, again, that’s a really serious, a really heavy song, they way it illustrates where you were, where you were before everything was just burned away – All of the attachments and everything and the house just sets on fire and it’s all gone. So, there’s the tragedy of it all being gone, but there’s the …

…Chance for rebirth?

…the rebirth and rejuvenation. Like, bringing that in, that’s a heavy song, and that “Darkside” was monolithically heavy on “Darkfighter”, one of the heaviest songs we’ve ever written.

It’s a very different ending to “Mosaic” on this record.

Yeah, yeah, exactly! Leaving you with “Darkside” – certainly not my style. That’s not Rival Sons’ style, to do that, to leave you on such a negative note, a cliffhanger, but we knew we were doing it this way, so we had to leave it, where you definitely get a sense that the protagonist, who is me, that the dark-fighter lost. You definitely have that feeling on “Darkfighter”, where it’s like – oh, I guess things didn’t work out for that guy. Going from “Horses’ Breath” into “Darkside” – looks like he’s having a tough time. But then everything changes when you get the “Darkfighter” track that is on “Lightbringer”, you definitely get the sense like, oh! It’s like in Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf falls down and then he re-emerges as Gandalf the White, because he was Gandalf the Grey. This is definitely like once everything has burned away, and I felt like I was broken, in such a way, I was able to piece myself back together stronger and happier.

So the lyric “The broken pieces fit together”, that’s about the protagonist, yourself?

Yes, certainly.

I wondered if “Mosaic” was inspired in part by the division in the United States?  It sounds like it might be more personal than that.

I don’t know.  All I know is that it all came to me. I don’t know what the inspiration for that was. I just know that my antenna picked something up and I had to write it. For me, it’s about the common struggle. Of course, it’s about me. O can only write about me. I can only write about the experiences and feelings that I have. And when I write about somebody else, no matter what I do, I’m still going to write through my lens, about what they’re going through or what they are doing.  “Mosaic” is definitely just a sense of gratitude in how, even though it is broken, if you just zoom out a little, you have to cost-average all of these experiences, you have to zoom out, back away from it and see what it really is, because if you just see these cracks or you just see these things, you can end up thinking everything is ugly, everything is difficult, or that people are shit. Like all of these things, I wanted just to back away, and the lines disappear and you can see the image, you can see the form.

Another track – “Sweet Life” – why did you choose that as the first single?

We weren’t really sure about what we were going to do in terms of singles, or what. Here’s what we knew “Sweet Life” was one everybody liked. Everyone loves “Mosaic”, but there are songs like – you were saying you like “Before the Fire” – that song’s not for everybody, that’s a serious track. Or a nine-minute opus, that’s not going to be for everybody.

I thought you weren’t going to play “Before the Fire” but I walked into the soundcheck and you were playing it!

Yeah. Or “Redemption”, that’s not going to be for everybody, that’s like an Americana song.  We knew that “Sweet Life” meant we would play the music for our families, for our kids, management, label, that was a common thread, yeah, everybody loves “Sweet Life”. It’s a straight-up-the-middle, kick-up-the-arse rock song.

It reminds me of a 1960’s dance hall.

Yeah! It’s funny. That song came about because, I was writing all this different material, and Cobb – I was living in Tennessee and we have dinner every week, our families are really tight – he was telling me “Look, I want you to write a song like –” and he played me some Animals track, because he knows I’m a huge fan of the Animals. All of our early stuff, “Pressure and Time”, all of those songs, it’s all like Walker Brothers…

Ah, Scott Walker is my number one artist of all time.

…Ah, I’m crazy for Scott Walker, and Cobb knows that, but he knows how to nudge me. Immediately, when he gives me a task – he knows me really well – when Cobb gives me a task, it’s always like “Oh yeah, you want me to do that? Fuck you, I’m going to do it so well…” and when I turned it back into him, he was like “Damn!” and he loved it, thought it was fantastic, and then I showed it to the band, the chorus and the hooks, and then I showed it to Scott and he brought in that riff for it [hums the riff] and of course the band amped it up more! All of the melodies are the same, the parts are the same, but when I wrote it, it was more of a brooding garage rock song, and those guys, the band just poured petrol on it and lit it on fire. That’s Rival Sons style!

Fantastic. I wanted to ask you about the covers for both albums. I know it is supposed to be the same, with the tiger, but they are very different, both by Martin Wittfooth. What was the inspiration behind those? I know you’ve worked with him before, on “Feral Roots”.

Oh, you have no idea how different those covers are! Yeah… why not. So, the idea was, we knew that we love Martin, he’s a really good friend. He did “Feral Roots”, he did “Hollow Bones” before that. I just get along really well with him. He’s a master in his genre, he’s a big deal, a big deal worldwide. His art is on the cover of art magazines, you know. He’s a serious guy. So – you’ll understand my trepidation in just a moment – this was back in late 2021, we were just made privy to this AI art, this bot, spitting out art, you know, Midjourney, DALL-E, hearing about the outcry from the art community, crying “Foul!” about all this, and then as soon as I went and look up some of the art, immediately I felt sick. I felt ill. “Oh no!”. My wife is an artist and a writer, everything from pencil, charcoal, my ex-wife is an artist, all my friends are artists and painters, my brother is a painter, and I’m looking at this, and I don’t like the way this makes me feel.  There’s some really incredible art happening, and it’s all AI.

You knew it was AI before you looked at it?

Yeah, yeah, I knew it was AI, and I’m looking at it, going like “That’s thought-provoking! Oh, fuck!” and as you know now, the whole arts community was in an uproar. We saw that, and we thought “okay, well, this part of the future, and this is very provocative”, and we thought, “we need to run in that direction.” Because it instils something. It makes me… I’m still conflicted, and I’m not conflicted at all, I thought “Fuck this! What?!” I looked at it and I felt like…. You know, for us, as artists, we see AI, and it’s like you feel like you’re in the indigenous culture watching Colombus’s ships come into the shore, looking at them….

That’s a very good analogy. As a photographer, I’ve looked at some of the stuff and felt the same.

Yeah! But we thought, “Well, we can’t just do it.  We can’t just make AI art.” So then we called up Martin, and said “Martin, what do you think about all this AI stuff?” and he said “It’s pretty trippy. As an artist, I just see it as another tool. I’m a painter. It’s also crazy.” And we said “Listen, we’ve got an idea – we want you, a master painter, to make a cover through AI for the first album. We want to put the master in the machine.” That’s the only legitimate way to do it – he’s a master of his genre. So, to have an artist who… a painter paints and it inspires words, it inspires discussion. To take the painting away and to have to use words, to be reduced into words for word prompts in order to paint, is a crazy thing, but we wanted to have a master go in and make this AI, and then paint a response.

Oh, wow.

So, together, the two albums are supposed to be art installations. They are not just albums, this is a larger art installation on a larger dialogue. We don’t talk about it because there are law suits, we were told never talk about. But I want to talk about it.

That’s incredible – a response to AI.

Yeah. And so “Lightbringer” is hand-painted. For “Darkfighter”, we had nothing to do with however he came about, what he typed in for a word prompt. In order for it to maintain its legitimacy and authenticity, we couldn’t have any part in it, we couldn’t tell him “We’re kind of looking for…” No, no, no. Just, you do that, you turn it in to us. You’re the artist, you turn it in to us. And same thing with his painting – you do it, you make your response. Darkfighter is very cold looking, you have this tiger emerging into this green light. It’s very strange, it’s a strange colour scheme, it doesn’t look like anything we’ve done. But it’s part of – it’s one bookend to a larger installation, so for “Darkfighter” and “Lightbringer” it’s not just the music, it’s the art. This was supposed to be a large, four-month long installation.

As a photographer, I’m overwhelmed by the idea of responding to AI.

Yeah. But he did. For me, this “Lightbringer”, that painting that he made, is just incredible.

Has he given you the original?

No! I can’t afford the original. He’s an artist and he needs to be able to sell the original and somebody’s going to buy it if they haven’t already.

Sure!  Then, just lastly I wanted to know what does 2024 have in store for you?

I don’t know, I don’t know. Just more touring. For me personally, I’ve got a whole bunch of projects.

Have you got any solo projects going on?

For my Holy Spirits band, I’m working on a record for them. I have an electronic project with my buddy from the Bloody Beetroots, Bob. We’re very close, we have a real heavy project called “The Obstacle” we’re trying to finish that record, and then I have a couple of bands I want to produce. And then, I also have an Italian band, I’ve got this album of theirs I’m trying to get finished, that I produced. They’re really great.

I didn’t know you did production as well.

Yeah. But for Rival Sons, we’re working on a documentary, that’s been the last eight years in the making, and that’s being edited and put together right now. So we’ll be coming out with a movie. And it’s a long form film.

Are you planning a cinema release?

I don’t know. We’ll see what we can put together. So, we’ve got that film, and we’re talking about a live record and possibly an acoustic album. Our fans have been begging for an acoustic record forever.

I know you’ve done like a semi pressed acoustic tour with Scott.  Would this be all four of you this time?

Yes, all four of us. And maybe some additional player, but something very different. We may do that. In terms of writing another record, honestly, and I’m sure Scott feels this way too, these records were such a harrowing experience, I still feel kind of battered, and I think that I some things emotionally to work through that took place in the making of these records, some of the heaviness, like I was talking about nailing the door shut, I think I need to get that door open.

So the music helped a bit but not entirely?

Yeah, I need to process some things and figure out where I need to go next artistically and I know that Scott and I worked our arses off on putting this record together. We it was definitely a lot of work.

Well, it was definitely worth it from my point of view.

So, he and I are probably mildly traumatised. But at the same time, it brought us closer together.

I know it’s not much consolation if you’re feeling that way, but to me it was worth it. It’s such a piece of art.

Yeah! Oh! Don’t get me wrong. It’s always worth it. I’m an artist, it’s always worth it. My job is to catalogue the contents of my heart. That’s what I’m supposed to do, so that hopefully somebody out there might listen to it and just feel a little bit less alone. I have art, I have the art and it loves me and I love it, and even after all of these years, all of these songs I have written, and all of the shows that I played, for me and art, the sex is still red hot. We have a fiery relationship, it’s never gone cold.  You know what I mean? I’m not indifferent to those things, I still…. Art is still a complete mystery. And so, I feel incredibly fortunate. I need to purge myself of my things, and to be part of the larger fabric of humanity. It’s a real special spot to occupy. It’s a really beautiful thing, so I’m thankful for it. Life can be difficult and shit’s going to happen.