“This is it, this is it,” exclaims Grace Potter, lead singer and undeniable leader of a band she once described to me as “sort of a rock ‘n’ roll record collection from the late ’60s, early ’70s.” Their second full-length drops August 7 on Disney subsidiary Hollywood Records, and the Nocturnals national touring profile continues to grow by leaps and bounds. There’s a powerful sense that this little rock & roll combo from Vermont with a badass vocalist is about to break big. But, inside this crazy potential-celebrity bubble lays a quartet of levelheaded, talented musicians far more interested in a lifelong career akin to their idols Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt and Led Zeppelin than anything a moment on the charts can provide.
“Everybody, especially when you’re in a band and tour for a living, is always trying to find that place they’re getting to, but we figured out a long time ago, on the road traveling around, that’s not the point,” Potter says. “Getting to the destination usually sucks. It’s not just the journey that matters, LIFE matters. It’s not just about goals.”
The touring life isn’t for everyone. A lot is left behind at home, if one can even maintain one with the nomadic existence of a working band. However, for some like the Nocturnals – Potter (vocals, keys, guitar), Scott Tournet (guitar), Bryan Dondero (bass) and Matt Burr (drums) – stages are clearly their lifeblood. In the past four years, Potter and co. have logged thousands of miles, playing every club, festival and county fair that’ll have them, slowly building a rep as one of the most reliable, enjoyable rock acts currently working the boards.
“It ain’t easy but what’re you gonna do? I can’t hold down a straight job,” chuckles Scott Tournet. “It’s been the dream and the goal for so long, especially for me, so whenever I catch myself whining about elements of the road I tell myself, ‘Shut up and think about your friends sitting around in Burlington, Vermont dreaming of doing what you’re doing.’ There’s so many good musicians that don’t get the chance [I have] so I try to keep it in perspective as much as possible.”
One thing’s clear about Potter and her boys is they love other musicians. You’ll always find them side-stage grinning at their peers or gawking at the headliners like the rest of us. Refreshingly, they’ve maintained the spirit of fans despite shaking a living out of music the past few years.
“If you really want to get into the craftsmanship and art of music you gotta geek out on it! We’re total geeks,” offers Tournet. “There’s certain artists that can get away with [not being fans], like at this point Neil Young probably doesn’t listen to other people’s music barely at all. It makes sense for certain singer-songwriter types but for the most part you gotta listen, read and be into it.”
This Is Somewhere
“That’s totally what we were going for! I hated the new Wilco record [Sky Blue Sky] when I first heard it but now it’s thrown me for a total loop,” explains Potter. “The whole thing about putting out a record is you shouldn’t like it all on the first listen, and if you do then you’ll probably start not liking it as much pretty fast. The biggest challenge in putting out a record like [This Is Somewhere] is being prepared for everybody to take a while to digest it. It’s not a blow-you-away first listen record. It’s a slow burn, and that’s kind of what our music has become. It’s taken five years to get a sound, and that sound is still changing.”
“Then having to open for Trey Anastasio and having a 30-minute slot or even 15 minutes to prove yourself, what do you do to really make an impact? You go nuts. That’s what we started to do. We just freaked out – banging on the cymbals and Grace is screaming and I’m getting feedback. Looking back on our live tapes a couple months after we got off the road, before we went into the studio, and we thought, ‘Some of this doesn’t sound good.’ It was a blast performing it, and we love it so much. I got to do 10-minute guitar solos! Of course I’m happy about that, but this is an album and we thought about albums with 12-minute songs that we like and there weren’t many, really just live Neil Young or live Richard Thompson. Being honest, there’s a little piece of me that’s sorry we didn’t get into more of the filth and fury. We did just cut a fuckin’ cool, really ballsy song Grace came up with. It’s a kind of ‘When The Levee Breaks’ meets the White Stripes with Grace squawking on top of it.”
This Is Somewhere‘s cover is a shot of a group of people grappling a rope, and even before you know the story behind it there’s a vague similarity to the classic picture of American soldiers planting a flag on Iwo Jima.
“The five people in the photo are just desperately struggling to get to something bigger,” says Potter. “The backstory on that photo is my dad took it in 1976 during the Bicentennial. There was this guy, Lenny Silverfein, who was all about showing the size of your cock by doing something big [laughs]. He wanted to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by hoisting the largest American flag in the world. They were going to hoist it up on the Triboro Bridge for the 4th of July Bicentennial celebration. Two days before that they did a practice run and stopped traffic miles and miles away. They got it up and then the wind picked up. A couple of bridge engineers were on-site who said, ‘If this wind gets any faster this bridge is going to fall over. You have to take the flag down.’ At that point, the wind was suctioning it to the bridge, so they had to take people up on pulleys to cut it. The flag was literally torn into about 30 parts so they could let each piece billow away. They had to completely ruin this flag. It was just so poignant. That image [on the cover] is those guys hustling to keep a guy who’s up there with a knife from falling off.”
Welcome To The Machine
Despite this vinyl-era vibe, it’s not hard to imagine “Apologies” or “Falling Or Flying” being used in a montage in a Winona Ryder movie. It’s something Tournet in particular is especially concerned about.
“In rock & roll you still need to say ‘Fuck You’ sometimes. If you don’t say it then by the time your music comes out the other side it sounds like everything else. We all battled a lot to avoid that,” Tournet says. “The thing about becoming a successful, popular band these days is so many people want to do it there’s all these schemes – marketing schemes, MySpace, label publicity. We’re sniffing around that world now, and we’re trying to maintain our integrity. What you get for it is industry people saying you’re difficult to work with. It’s very similar to being a politician. If you get to the place of being the Dave Matthews Band, or whoever you want to be, you’re expected to do these shitty things like songs on crappy commercials. It’s really hard to keep your integrity and get big.”
“We’ve been fighting with that one for years. It’s a tricky thing, and it’s still sometimes a touchy issue, but Grace is so damn cool about it,” Tournet offers. “She really wants us to be a band, and announces us like 20 times – sometimes too much – on stage. So, I feel bad when I get frustrated with something because it hurts her a lot. Even without Hollywood [Records], local people do this stuff to us. We were on Vermont Public Television recently to help [during a pledge drive]. I was born and raised in Vermont but we were just ‘the guys’ behind Grace. When we’re in the van together it’s so much fun, and there’s not that kind of energy. We all have our voices. It’s pretty democratic, but when we get outside of our little world it’s funny what people try to put on you.”
“It’s not really a label thing. We’ve been fighting this battle since the beginning,” adds Potter. “[Hollywood] has been really supportive of the band angle. There’s times when the label would fly me out separately without the band. That stuff freaks me out. But, I think they’ve learned their lesson because the meltdown occurs from the inside out. Our band is such a core, and there’s such a molten center to it that they’ve figured out they can’t play that card with us. It’s not a Gwen Stefani scenario.”
“If this was an all-girl band, even if I was the lead singer, every girl would be in every photo. I hate girl bands, fucking hate ’em! It’s always some novelty thing that’s not gonna last. So, I’m really glad that’s not the case and I just happen to be a chick who’s the lead singer but I could just as easily be the bass player,” Potter says.
When my appreciation of her earthiness is pointed out, Potter eagerly responds, “Good [laughs]. I’m so glad you picked up on that lyric! That illustration of sexuality isn’t me pushing it. I’m not Hilary Duff going from sweet Christian girl to a fake, processed rock star that’s sexually free. I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been blunt and I liked the opportunity to put that into a song. Sometimes you just have to get right to it – big, long hoses [laughs]!”
Strange as it seems, Americans are still largely pretty freaked out and embarrassed about sexual matters, at least in their public exclamations.
There’s a danger Potter’s natural sexuality could be used to market and define the band to the exclusion of their music.
“I’m not going to be sexy forever but I want to play music forever,” says Potter. “It’s important for me to not take it so far that I can’t ever come back from it. When I’m 45 and still vamping around in a three-inch skirt, well, that just isn’t gonna work. I’m trying to be realistic and I’m also trying to embrace now for what it is. I’m gonna get some spider veins on my legs at some point so I gotta work it while I got it.”
Free as she is, I sternly admonish Potter against appearing topless in a thong in a Maxim pictorial.
Faced with disbelief at the idea of Tournet in a boa, Potter replies, “Oh he’d look hot! He’s been on a macrobiotic diet so he can work it out.”
The whole band seems wary of pitfalls. They understand that it’s show-by-show, night-by-night, record-by-record, that a group truly builds an audience and earns their respect for a lifetime.
“You gotta keep earning it, and you gotta keep earning it when you get to the top. That’s why we change our setlist every night and why we don’t have the same t-shirt available the next time you come to a show,” Potter says. “We’re mixing it up, fucking shit up, doing it completely different than the way we’re told it’s supposed to be done. And trust me, our record label knows it and our fans know it, too. There’s a genuineness to what we do that I hope never becomes a product or a machine or too well oiled. I like our rust.”
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