The leader of the Josh Abbott Band talks with Pollstar about the group’s “Front Row Seat” concept album and how it mirrors his own life in depicting a relationship from beginning to end.
Front Row Seat is a challenging album that demands one’s complete attention. Broken up into five acts, the record is a musical journey through love’s many stages and is one of those rare recordings that takes the listener deeper into the story with each spin.
Abbott also gave us a behind-the-curtain view of the many factors involved in running a band, saying that he’s always approaches it “as a business.” His account of all the financial aspects of proper band care and maintenance is sound advice for anyone who has ever considered launching their own group.
Is the Josh Abbott Band a band in every sense of the word in that members share revenues equally or is it more of a singer-with-backing-musicians arrangement?
It’s more of the former than the latter, but it might be some sort of a hybrid. When we first started out, there were four fraternity brothers, me and three others. We couldn’t come up with a cool name. There’s so much pressure in coming up with your band name. That’s your identity for the next however many years. We just couldn’t decide on one.
But we saw bands like Randy Rogers Band, Zac Brown Band and Eli Young Band, and we just thought, “Well, it kind of works for them, maybe it will work for us,” and we rolled with it. In hindsight, I think it would have been nice to be Josh Abbott & The Pallbearers. “The Pallbearers” was actually the name we almost went with [but] we thought it would be a little dark.
Only one of those guys is left, now. The fiddle player [Preston Wait] – he joined in 2008, as did the drummer [Edward Villanueva]. It’s always had a band feel. The guys are not equal revenue shareholders, if you want to use proper business language. They do each own a minority percentage of the company. So it is a band. These guys, they’re on salaries, but they also have bonuses and they own a percentage of the profits. They’re on the album. They’re the guys we tour together. Often, it comes with the territory of being … what’s the word for bands like ours … eponymous? It comes with the territory that naturally I’m going to be the face of it, the guy people interview and talk to, but it really is a band. We just hired a keyboard player [David Fralin] eight months ago to be the final piece of our band. But he recorded on the [new] album with us and we’ve known him for years. The guys who were in before him, joined in 2010. This band has been around for a while.
When starting out, did you ever think music could be so business-oriented?
From the beginning I strived to run our band like a business. That’s just how my brain operates. … We get so captured up in music, the feelings behind it, the art of it, writing and all that. But at the end of the day it’s also business. You’re a company that’s creating a product that you would like to get into the hands of consumers. And those consumers identifty themselves within a certain demographic. You hope that through the marketing of your product, you’re able to drive those consumers to other revenue streams such as merchandise and ticket sales. We pay taxes and we offer health insurance to our employees. At the end of the day you have overhead, loans and debt and all sorts of fancy terms associated with business. I think any band that doesn’t run their company like a business is probably suffering from it. I think it’s the intelligent thing to do. I always approached it as a business.
But unlike companies that can just crank up production to match consumer demand, you’re writing songs and creating music, something that hardly lends itself to production line techniques.
It’s definitely a unique situation, a unique business field. I’m not trying to ruin the charming parts of music. The best parts are when you’re in the studio, writing, feeling out a song, this piece of art that you’re proud of.
A lot of people are very either left-brain or right-brain, they’re either artistic or business-minded. Perhaps I’m in the middle of both, which might mean I’m not good at either one. But maybe I understand both sides. I think that’s one thing we’ve always been able to do – balance out the artistic side in what we want to accomplish as a band with the business side. I believe both of those have grown over the years as well, which is really transparent when you listen to our new album compared to our earlier work. I think you finally hear the band that’s grown up and realized who they want to be.
What did you major in while in college?
I majored in communication studies and political science. I got my Masters in communication studies as well. I did a lot of political rhetoric papers and studies, specifically in the field of persuasion. That’s my background.
Front Row Seat was released in November. Now that you’ve had a few months to see fans’ reactions and hear it much more as an album than as a work in progress, what do you think are the highlights of the album?
When I listen to this album even still, what inspires me and indefinitely shines out to me. … is the sonic progression that takes place from front to back. … It’s a story of this guy and girl who go to college, fall in love and get married, divorced and go their separate ways. … In the beginning you hear this very fiddle-heavy sound that we wanted to be indicative of our early years as a band and that Texas country sound that we identified with so early on. As the album progresses to the middle acts, especially those love songs and the ballads, there’s such a contemporary radio feel to them while not being overly poppy. We’re not trying to overstep our bounds into the pop world but still have some sort of commercial appeal. When you get to the backend, there’s this darkness and this alternative indie vibe that suddenly shifts with the sound. You hear elements of the songs that you didn’t hear before, in terms of maybe a low-end register of the piano or the baritone may be taking a little darker approach. … Perhaps in the lyrics themselves, just definitely shifting from being happy in love to being distraught and alone. I think that that to me stands out. I fully believe in the storytelling ability of this record. The amount of people who have listened to it from front to back and have told us, “I get it. I’ve listened to it and you guys have crafted a story that really evolves.” So I think the story itself definitely intrigues people. One emphasis that we really approached on this album, for me in particular, was I wanted the banjo to be a prevalent part of this album. It’s always been in our albums; it’s always been a front piece. But I really wanted to go the extra mile, which is why you hear the banjo turned up in the mix in some parts where, traditionally, it might be lowered, such as in the chorus where all of your instrumentation is. … You have a lot competing with that, the sonic level of where the banjo sits, but we turned it up in the mix because it was so important to me.
When you’re talking about individual tracks, what stands out to me, I personally love “Amnesia” and the intro we that did with that and “A Loss Of Memory.” I think it’s truly artistic and creative and inspires me in a new direction, possibly, for our band. … We put so much thought into that song and crafting it in the studio, in that intro and how it would set up the song.
“Anonymity” is probably one of my favorite songs on the record and it’s a song that I hope critics and fans alike listen to our album and say, “There’s a lot of growth here. This isn’t the same guy who started writing songs in college and putting them out.” That’s definitely your goal as a songwriter, to always get better.
I’m in my mid-thirties now and I’m not the same guy who started writing songs in college and putting them on the early records. I just feel like I’ve grown a lot.
Is this the kind of album that you needed to get out and experience life a bit before writing?
I believe so. The storyline of this album, the narrative, is something that parallels my own personal story. While it’s not 100 percent accurate in terms of representing what happened with me and my ex-wife, it does still tell a majority of the story in terms of how it flowed. Obviously, you have to have those life experiences. Sometimes you have to go to a dark place to be inspired to write those types of songs. Definitely I was there, and still am. I’m not [going] to write right now because the focus is on this album. I don’t want to write anything too early because I’m not 100 percent sure of the direction of our next album. Once I am, I’ll know how to write for it.
I think there are those life experiences, and just getting better. Everybody that has a job … is probably so much better at it than 10, 20 years ago. I think it’s part of everybody in the work-field. Once you gain experience, you continue to get better.
In a world where people have multiple entertainment options, especially when it comes to music – buying CDs, listening to a streaming services, buying individual tracks online and maybe just listening to two or three songs within a larger playlist – is it tougher to get a concept album across to people than it was 10 years ago?
I definitely think the concept album is risky because we’ve become increasingly an A.D.D. generation. I find whenever I want to show someone a YouTube video, if it’s over three minutes, they’re like, “Arghhh…” No one wants to give their attention to something for a long time. So in doing this record, I almost think the way we broke up the album into acts and sections, stages of this relationship, that shaping of the album and the organization and classifying of the groupings, I think actually helped us with this.
If we had just released a concept album, sort of speaking in terms of, “OK. Listen from front to back because the story changes and evolves,” I don’t think everyone would do that. But I believe by dividing it up into five sections … that these are five different acts and they represent something different. It encouraged people to listen to it as if they were listening to five EPs. Once they delve into a section of the album, they’re like, “I’m going to listen to the next few songs because I gotta hear what this is about.” I think that helped us a lot. In general, especially for country music, I just think [with] a concept album it’s harder, these days, to come across people who will listen to it. But that might be me speaking very unfairly out of context. I wasn’t an active listening audience member in the 1980s when Willie Nelson was putting out albums like Phases and Stages. Maybe it’s always been hard on fans in terms of understanding a concept album and listening to it front to back. It does seem more common in worlds that are more alternative and more of a listener-based audience. Obviously fans of Pink Floyd and The Flaming Lips, and even nowadays with bands like Alt J. Ray LaMontagne, it looks like his next record coming out soon with My Morning Jacket seems to be a concept album in terms of sonically flowing from one track to the next. I think [the concept album] is becoming less and less of something you’ll see in country music. Who knows? I don’t know if we’ll ever do another one because I don’t want people thinking we’re trying too hard and that’s our thing. I think, for the story we wanted to tell on this album with the collection of songs, it made the most sense to really group them in a way that tells the story.
How are you presenting the new album on stage?
We’ve been playing about half of the record live. We play all the songs from “Act 1” because they’re just so fun and upbeat and are great for live audiences in terms of what we do. The duet with Carly Pearce which is now our new single going out nationally, it’s something we obviously play when she comes out on the road with us here and there. When she’s not with us, sometimes we’ll play it in the encore and I’ll just sing it by myself. There will come a day when we’ll just have to learn how to do the song [with] just me singing it. Fortunately, the lyrics lend itself to that. It’s not like two people having a conversation. I can sing the song live and it still works. It’s just as good without the duet partner.
In terms of the back half of the album where it gets real dark, artistic and suc, we try to reserve those songs for more of your listening crowd …. like a theatre or House Of Blues where everyone is really listening. When we play some festival or where everyone has been drinking since 2 p.m., those loud bar crowds, you just can’t play songs like “Anonymity.” It’s just not the appropriate setting, unfortunately, and those songs mean a lot. It’s not pandering as much as it is an audience analysis. You just have to say, “This is an audience that will appreciate this type of song” and “This is an audience that will appreciate that type of song.” Fortunately, in our collection of work, we have songs that fit both.
We’ve been kind of slow to introduce [the new music]. I’m a fan of music, also. Whenever you go and see an artist that you’ve loved for years, you want to hear some new stuff, but you want to hear the old stuff, too. That’s the way it works in music.
I remember when I saw Paul McCartney. There was a really funny moment in the show when he started playing a new song, then stopped and said, “How come the applause comes out when I’m playing the old stuff?” And the audience just cracked up. And I thought, “If Paul McCartney has this problem, it’s OK that we have this problem, too.” The biggest of the big have this problem. People want to hear the old shit. Garth Brooks, he said the same thing at his concerts. He said, “We got some new songs to play for you, but don’t worry. I know y’all came here to hear the old shit,” and the audience laughed. They’re right. There’s definitely a delicate approach in terms of the live show and not trying to cram too much new music down your fans’ throats.
What was the first song written for the album?
Well, technically, the first song written for the album, if you look at the date, it would be “Autumn.” That was written in 2010. However, when you start looking at the concept of doing this album from this storyline approach, I definitely think things started to take shape with “Ghosts.”
When you wrote “Autumn,” did you know it would be part of a larger piece?
Absolutely not. It was just a song. A lot of these songs, of 16 tracks, five are outside cuts. “Autumn” was written in 2010. Six of these songs on here were not necessarily songs written for a concept album. … When I started writing, and realized the direction for this album, that’s when I started writing songs like “Ghosts,” “This Isn’t Easy,” “Anonymity,” and stuff on the back end of the record. Then, my goal was just look through the other songs I’d written during the last couple of years and see which ones fit the storyline. I had written songs like “While I’m Young” and “Live It While You Got It” that were so expressive of an early era in my life and thought those would be a great way to kick off the album and say, “This section is all about the time when the story started. I went off to college, was flirtin’ around, playing at the Blue Light, working as a waiter, skinny dipping at my university’s fountain.”
The next time that we ever approach a concept record, I want to write the entire record current, so it’s not so spaced apart in terms of the writing. We were able to find the puzzle shape we wanted for the record and then it was just the process of finding the right pieces to fit in that puzzle.
Has songwriting become easier or harder through the years?
That’s interesting because it’s easier in that I’m better at it [after] doing it for how many years. I understand what it takes to craft a song that’s something that I’m proud of. However, I think the bar raises so much with that. It harder because you’re questioning yourself on songs that might have worked for you four years ago but now … you feel you’re better than that. It’s almost a little bit of both. … Artists always kind of struggle with growing as a songwriter and challenging yourself.
Are you your own toughest critic?
Absolutely. I say that but there’s probably some people out there who are very hard on me.
What advice could you give a young musician, perhaps someone like yourself, who is now a college freshman considering a music career?
First of all, write your own songs because it doesn’t hurt to be continually writing. … Listen more and speak less, which is a lesson I had to learn the hard way. I think I said some things as a young guy that were ignorant, even though I didn’t know they were naïve at the time. That’s the point of being naïve, right?
Another thing is to respect all artists, despite whether or not you respect their art. At the end of the day it’s such a subjective field. Everyone is inspired by something different and there’s room at the table for everyone. What you may consider poppy, someone else considers fun. What you may consider depressing and dark, someone else might consider cathartic. I think that you should just respect other artists because they do what you do, even though you all do it differently. Just be grateful for that, because if everyone did it the same, there wouldn’t be a place for you.
I think, just between those things, that’s good advice for artists. When you start getting into this thing and everyone is coming at you with different ideas and thoughts, it’s so great to listen and let it soak in, make decisions slowly and, again, writing your own songs should be an emphasis for every artist. Otherwise you’re just a karaoke singer.
Anybody can go and get 10-12 songs that they didn’t write and record an album with them. I’m not knocking those people because that would defeat what I’m saying in terms of respecting artists and art. I’m saying, as an artist, part of your job is to express yourself. Lyrically, I think, is a great way to do that.
The Josh Abbott Band’s touring schedule:
Feb. 25 – Fayetteville, Ar., George’s Majestic Lounge
Feb. 26 – Sioux City, Iowa, Anthem At Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
Feb. 27 – Norman, Okla., Riverwind Casino
March 4 – Navasota, Texas, Downtown Navasota
March 5 – Austin, Texas, The Expo Center
March 10 – Columbus, Ohio, The Bluestone
March 11 – Chicago, Ill., Joe’s Bar
March 12 – Rootstown, Ohio, Dusty Armadillo
March 16 – Concan, Texas, House Pasture Cattle Co. (Rio Frio Fest)
March 17 – Austin, Texas, The Expo Center (Rodeo Austin)
March 18 – Wichita Falls, Texas, Denim & Diamonds
April 15 – Royse City, Texas, Southern Junction
April 22 – Stephenville, Texas, Melody Mountain Ranch (Larry Joe Taylor's Texas Music Festival)
April 29 – Little Rock, Ark., Revolution Music Room
May 14 – Midland, Texas, Crude Fest Grounds (Crude Fest)
June 18 – Concan, Texas, House Pasture Cattle Co.
June 24 – Manhattan, Kan., Tuttle Creek State Park (Kicker Country Stampede)
July 3 – Boerne, TX The Roundup Beer Garden And Food Park
July 21 – Yerington, Nev., Lyon County Fairgrounds (A Night in the Country)
For more information, please visit the Josh Abbott Band’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and YouTube channel.