THE APACHE RELAY
- November 2014 -
HAVE A BEER WITH THE APACHE RELAY
Michael Ford Jr. was a music business major when he met The Apache Relay in a Belmont University dorm. They were already deep into a rootsy, Americana sound, and before long the band was backing up Ford around campus, and soon everywhere else. Ford Jr. dropped out of college, and the group -- which at the time included Mike Harris (guitar, vocals), Brett Moore (keys, guitar, mandolin), Kellen Wenrich (fiddle, keys) -- gigged relentlessly behind their 2009 debut 1988 and 2011’s breakthrough American Nomad. Midway through their touring in support of American Nomad, Ford, Jr.’s brother joined the band rounding out the group’s line up and sound. While touring in support of the album, The Apache Relay found themselves opening for Mumford & Sons and hitting such festivals as Bonnaroo, Newport Folk Festival, Firefly Music Festival and Voodoo Music Experience, among others.
We caught up with the guys over some PBRs in the greenroom at The Metro, where we learned about Kellen’s sleepwalking habit, the band’s favorite tracks from the new record and their connection to the Chicago Bulls' theme song.
The Gig: The Wild Feathers, The Apache Relay and Desert Noises // The Metro // Nov. 7, 2014
Drinks of Choice: Michael Ford Jr. (Schlafly Pumpkin Ale); Mike Harris (Cheerwine: cherry flavored soft drink); Brett Moore (agua); Kellen Wenrich (Margarita); Ben Ford (Hot Toddy: Bulleit bourbon, tea and lemon); Steve Smith (Bulleit bourbon with one ice cube).
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: I read an interview from the Nashville-based site So Common. So Rare, and you guys mentioned your van breaking down, in addition to other issues on the road. Have you had any worthy stories from this tour that you’d like to share?
Michael Ford Jr.: I believe Kellen has some hands-on experience with this one … I don’t remember where we were…
Kellen Wenrich: I went to go get in the van and I literally just pulled the handle off the door. It just broke right off. It was really minor in the grand scheme of things, but for about two weeks we had to kind of climb through one door to unlock the other.
Kristen: Was it an old van?
Kellen Wenrich: No, it was brand new.
Kristen: Impressive. There are some really big muscles in this band.
Michael Ford Jr.: We’re very physically fit.
Miranda from A Beer with the Band: What is the band vibe in the van? Do you play music, are you all on your headphones, do you sleep…?
Ben Ford: Lately we've been playing this game called Heads Up. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.
Miranda: Yeah, dude.
Ben Ford: There’s a whole lot of that happening lately. It makes time pass pretty quickly. But it’s a big bummer if you’re driving.
Michael Ford Jr.: There’s a lot of shouting. It’s either that or Monopoly Deal. It’s like the card version of Monopoly.
Kristen: Who has the worst bad habits of all of you?
Mike Harris: I snore a lot.
Ben Ford: That's not a habit. That’s like an illness.
Kristen: Have you considered the strips on the nose?
Mike Harris: Yeah, doesn’t work.
Kellen Wenrich: Speaking of bad habits… I’ve had a pretty bad history of sleepwalking.
Michael Ford Jr.: Oh, yeah.
Kellen Wenrich: We were in Cleveland, and at about four in the morning, our old tour manager gets a knock on the door from the receptionist at the hotel who has a really thick German accent. He's just banging on the door and Eric – our tour manager at the time – gets up. He doesn’t know what’s going on. He opens the door, and the attendant was like, "Your friend, he can't sleep here. He can’t be out in the hall. He can't sleep out here." At some point during the night I had gotten up and slept walked into the hallway in just my boxers. The door locked behind me, and my guess is I was trying to get back in and couldn’t, so I just curled up on the ground in front of the hotel room.
Kristen: How much alcohol was involved in this situation?
Kellen Wenrich: Probably a decent amount.
Miranda: Okay, so it was combination of sleepwalking and intoxication.
Kellen Wenrich: It was definitely sleepwalking. I had definitely fallen asleep.
Kristen: Have you seen the movie Stepbrothers?
Ben Ford: Oh yeah.
Kristen: Did you put pillows in the oven while sleepwalking?
Kellen Wenrich: At least not to my knowledge.
Kristen: When it gets to that point, you should seek help.
Steve Smith: I have a question. Do you have any recollection of what happened when you wake up?
Kellen Wenrich: Oh, no. And this has happened elsewhere, too. The day after it happened, Eric asked me, "Hey, bud, uh, do you know what happened last night?" And I was like, "Oh, I mean, I had some beers and stuff. Why?" He said, "Nah, you fell asleep in the hallway."
Kristen: That is classic. Any other bad habits that you can think of?
Michael Ford Jr: Bad eating habits. It's really hard to eat well on the road. It's almost impossible.
Miranda: What's your go-to chain restaurant when you’re traveling?
Mike Harris: Jimmy John's.
Michael Ford Jr.: Jimmy John's and Chipotle for sure.
Ben Ford: That pleases everybody.
Michael Ford Jr.: If we go to a restaurant, Mexican is really good for the band.
Miranda: Is there a city you guys always get excited to eat in when you’re passing through on tour?
Michael Ford Jr.: We love Austin. Torchy’s Tacos is so good.
Ben Ford: New Orleans has awesome food, too.
Michael Ford Jr.: And I mean, honestly, every time we’re on the west coast we’re stoked about the food there.
Ben Ford: Yeah, L.A. is good.
Kristen: You’re all currently based in Nashville. Why Nashville over L.A., New York or Chicago?
Brett Moore: Well, we all went to school there – at Belmont – and we have a nice community there with friends and bands. And it’s cheaper than all the aforementioned places.
Ben Ford: Yeah, it’s central, too. It’s easy to tour from.
Kristen: Good reasons. I went to Nashville last year. I was in the 12South area. I got back and was like, “I need to find a job in Nashville.” You guys have played here in Chicago in the winter, right? So you know how fucking miserable it gets?
Kellen Wenrich: Yeah, we played that place that I love that has the corner stage – The Empty Bottle, I think?
Michael Ford Jr.: Yeah, The Empty Bottle. It’s where we played with Hey Marseilles.
Ben Ford: We've also played Chicago a ton of times and haven’t repeated the same venue once.
Kristen: That's a good thing.
Michael Ford Jr.: Yeah, it’s a great thing.
Miranda: What’s your favorite venue that you’ve played here?
Mike Harris: I mean, The Metro is pretty awesome …
Michael Ford Jr.: We also really liked Park West. It was so fun.
Kellen Wenrich: The Bear’s Stadium – Soldier Field – was alright.
Miranda: I heard it’s really small.
Ben Ford: Yeah, you have to turn a lot of fans away
Kristen: You guys dropped a record in 2011 – American Nomad – and released a self-titled album in April of 2014. What was the creative process like with those two records? Did you feel like there was some sort of growth that happened from one to the next?
Michael Ford Jr.: Yeah, with the record that came out in 2011, we were all a lot younger. I remember writing a majority of those songs when I was 20- or 21-years-old. We made this new album when we were 24 or 25. I think the growth in life from your early 20s even to mid-20s is massive. You're literally going from a college era into the real world. I think there was a maturity that came along with making this recent album. In terms of the process, this newer album was more intentional – not that the record we put out in 2011 wasn’t – but we had three months to work on it, so we were able to really explore all our options. We were able to mess with different production styles and really take our time, versus record that we put out in 2011, where we just went in there and banged out some live takes, which later kind of became the record. They both do their own thing, but I think this record is something that we got to spend a lot more time with, and I think the production reveals that.
Kristen: Were there any surprises with this record – any songs that you weren’t expecting to come out the way they did, in either a good or bad way?
Michael Ford Jr.: All of them.
Kristen: Why? Do you think the length of time spent on the record allowed for more surprises?
Ben Ford: We had a pretty general idea of the vibe we were going for right before we went into the studio, but we didn’t really have any expectations or idea of how it would go, or how the producer worked.
Miranda: Where did you record and with whom?
Brett Moore: We recorded with a guy named Kevin Augunas ata studio called Fairfax, which is in Van Nuys, California, just north of L.A. Like all producers, he had a distinct personality and recording and producing style, and most everything kind of was reborn in a way. We had song ideas, song skeletons, songs that were in almost a totally different – not style, but feel – that were flip-flopped into different things. It was a pretty open-ended process and we went into the studio with the attitude of, “Let’s just do the best we can and be open-minded.” And we ended up with what we ended up with. Which is great.
Kristen: Favorite song that came out of that record. What would it be?
Michael Ford Jr.: We were just talking about this in the van yesterday. Everybody has their own. For me, I would say that I was really stoked with the way that the song "Terrible Feeling" turned out. I saw a lot of changes throughout the recording process and I just remember getting the first mix back on that song and being like, "Wow, I'm really excited about how this turned out." I was kind of unsure of it for a while during the recording process, but the end result was amazing.
Kristen: Why were you unsure?
Michael Ford Jr.: Well, we'd rewritten it, we'd changed things up and we went out on a limb with it. It ended up being drastically different from the original. We recorded a ton of stuff onto that track, different strings and guitar parts, and it made the process of this record especially creative because there were so many layers to the tracks. And then regarding the mixing process, parts had to be chosen to either be highlighted or omitted. I thought what was highlighted in this track – in “Terrible Feeling” – was really beneficial to the song and the way it turned out.
Mike Harris: I really liked tracking "Don't Leave Me Now." I got to play favorite guitar of all time on that track.
Kristen: What guitar was that?
Mike Harris: The studio we recorded at had a spectacular guitar collection. And that one was a '59 Les Paul, which was priceless – the pinnacle of electric guitars. I had a lot of fun tracking that. I really liked the way it turned out.
Brett Moore: For me, it’s the song “Good as Gold.” It probably went through about twelve lyrical revisions with Michael and Ben, and that’s one of the songs that I was talking about that went through a complete transformation. It was a different song by the end. I was probably the only person who wasn’t into the old version of the song, and then I ended up being one of the only people who was into the new version.
Kristen: I was going to ask, when those situations come up where you're talking about changing certain parts of the song, for the most part, do you guys agree when those changes are going to be made?
Brett Moore: It depends. That was also a song that was a classic “yes”/ “no” song. As in, “Yes, I love this!” and by 3 p.m. you’re like, “No, I hate this song.” I’m specifically talking about the producer Kevin. He was like, “This is brilliant!” and by the end of the day, “This sucks!” It was really funny. But that’s kind of his job to steer the ship.
Kristen: I feel like it’s like that with anything creative. When you're so close to something, it can be hard to distance yourself. You could be working on something that's really great for an entire day, and by the end you're so sick of it, you don't even want to hear it or look at it anymore.
Brett Moore: That’s also how the entire album was. By the end of the process …
Kristen: ...And then you tour, and you play those songs every day.
Brett Moore: Yeah, it took me a while to come back around. The songs – now that we’re playing them live – we’re injecting ourselves into them more and more – even more than we did in the studio.
Kristen: Well, and you have the audience, too, that's being receptive and giving you feedback.
Miranda: Yeah, and you can play it differently every night, even if it's just in an unnoticeable way.
Kellen Wenrich: Yeah, definitely. I think my favorite was "Valley of the Fevers” because I was really lackluster about it at the start. There was one day towards the end of recording that we took a break, and I remember going out for food and being like, “The song finally fits!” Then we added strings to it. And when the record eventually came out, I kind of fell out of love with it again. For whatever reason, I think playing it live made me want to re-listen to it on the record. Playing it live gave it new life, so to speak.
Ben Ford: My favorite track on the record is actually a ballad that Michael wrote called "Forest for the Trees." We don't play it live – or we haven’t yet – but I actually really like it because it’s the most untouched, unaltered song on the record. It was towards the end of recording, and we needed one or two more songs. Michael went in and did the guitar and vocals at the same time. It’s really fascinating … the way the guitar is played is really percussive and rhythmic. I really like that aspect of it. Michael pretty much mixed it as well. That was just the one song that was his to do whatever he wanted with it, and that set it apart for me from the rest of the record. It was untouched and sort of this virgin tune that hadn’t been altered. I think it’s a refreshing change on the record.
Kristen: I have to ask: Is Katie from “Katie Queen of Tennessee” a real person?
Michael Ford Jr.: You'd have to ask Jonathan Rice that. He was the co-writer on that one.
Kellen Wenrich: I remember him debating the title of the song and saying, “Yeah, I think there’s probably a lot of pretty girls in the south named Katie.” And I was like, "Yes, you're right, there are."
Kristen: That video won “Best Video of the Year” on behalf of Nashville Scene magazine.
Michael Ford Jr.: Yeah, we were really humbled by that. That was a fun process and director Hayley Young came up with the concept. It was really unique and interesting. That was the goal with the video and with the content of this record. We’re not trying to settle for anything mundane. We’re really trying to push the envelope with anything we create – videos, songs, basically anything we put out. Haley did a great job with that.
Kristen: What is the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you guys have done in the past year? Kellen’s is sleepwalking, we've already got that down.
Michael Ford Jr.: When I’m home there is nothing rock-‘n’-roll about my life. I do laundry a lot.
Brett Moore: We’re always on time.
Miranda: Yeah, that’s not very rock-‘n’-roll.
Ben Ford: There's nothing rock star about being punctual.
Kristen: Who's the guy in the band that would be late if it weren't for the rest of you?
[Kellen raises his hand]
Kristen: For some reason, I could have guessed that one. I don’t mean that in an offensive way. I’m late a lot, too.
Ben Ford: We were leaving for tour one time, and Kellen had just moved. We didn’t know where his new house was. Had no idea, and we couldn’t get a hold of him.
Michael Ford Jr.: Yeah, and he had just moved in, so we had no idea where it was.
Kristen: Was his phone off?
Michael Ford Jr.: Eh … He's a hard sleeper.
Kristen: Yeah, you guys finally made it to his new house, but when you got there he wasn’t there because he slept walk somewhere down the street.
Michael Ford Jr.: We eventually found him.
Kristen: What is the best advice that you've ever received?
Kellen Wenrich: I remember talking to this other fiddle player in Nashville at a country gig; he was about 10 years older than me. He was just an acquaintance, but he knew that I was in this band. We were chatting, just small talk. But one thing he said really resonated with me. He said, “The biggest thing in whatever you do is perseverance. There’s so much talent out there and people are so much better than you or I or anybody, that if everything was based solely on talent, we would never make it. The people who make it are the ones who persevere.” He was talking broadly in terms of whatever it is that you’re pursuing. But that’s something I try to remember when we’re fucking rolling into a hotel at 3 a.m. and you’re just sick and tired of it.
Kristen: Yeah, when you’re exhausted on the road and wondering what you’re doing. What keeps you guys going aside from the music?
Kellen Wenrich: Self-medication.
Kellen Wenrich: Having a sense of humor and making things lighthearted is important, and not thinking in terms of doom and gloom. You can’t say, “This is it. If there’s only 100 and not 150 people at the Metro, it’s over!” It’s definitely about laughing your way through everything. We’ve played shows to zero people and shows to hundreds of people. Keeping a good attitude the whole time and realizing that ultimately, we’re drinking free beer and playing guitar…It’s awesome.
Ben Ford: A good example was on this tour when we played a room that was way too big for us. It wasn’t with The Wild Feathers or Desert Noises – it was a fill-in date – and our front-of-house sound guy, Andy Putnam, had the bright idea that in this way-too-big room with only 30 or 40 people in it, we should walk out to a song by The Alan Parsons Project – the Chicago Bulls theme song – their walk-out music. It was hilarious.
Kristen: It probably pumped you guys up though.
Ben Ford: Yeah, totally. And the crowd dug it.
Miranda: What about you, Michael. Any other good advice?
Michael Ford Jr.: Yeah, this is super basic, but when I first seriously started writing songs when I was probably 18 or 19, I had a friend tell me, "You know what, just keep writing, keep trying to get better at your craft, keep trying to hone it." And even though that's extremely basic, I told myself I was just going to keep doing it and keep trying to get better. At the end of the day, it is a craft and you can improve if you want to.
Kristen: I think that's a common misconception – that people who are creative don't have to try to make things; that it just comes out of them. And I think that's so untrue. You have to treat it like a full-time job.
Michael Ford Jr.: Yeah, you have to put yourself in the position to be inspired. You have to show up. And maybe five times in a row nobody comes out, and the sixth time you have a show and you say to yourself, “This is amazing.” There end up being a lot more good days than bad.