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Lo-Pan Interview with Jesse Bartz: “As long as it’s emotionally connecting to us, it’s good music.”

It happens rarely these days that there’s an album I can’t put down, but since I first heard the tracks that would become Lo-Pan‘s Small Stone Records debut, Salvador, that’s basically been the case. Of all the records I’ve managed to hear this year (and as we border on June, it’s been a few), Salvador has been a constant — anticipated since the issue of the remixed version of Sasquanaut, its predecessor and no letdown whatsoever from that album’s level of excellence. With Salvador, the Columbus, Ohio, four-piece thrust themselves into the upper echelon of next-gen American stoner rock.

The songs on Salvador — named for the artist Dali, as referenced in the Alexander von Wieding album art — are immediate and affecting. Tracks like “Bleeding Out,” “Deciduous,” “Bird of Prey” and “Struck Match” stay with you even after a first listen, and only grow in appeal with time. The soulfully delivered vocals of Jeff Martin make epics out of what in most hands would become mundane, and the riffs of guitarist Brian Fristoe fuzz out in markedly stoner fashion but have a distinguished sense about them, as though taking the best of what made Fu Manchu‘s earlier work so vibrant and unabashed and giving it a self-aware touch of progress. I could listen to the bridge of “Seed” (just before the solo after three minutes) every day for breakfast and still come out of it wanting more.

If you’ve heard the record, you know the part I’m talking about, where Jesse “JBartz” Bartz (not much of a mystery where the nickname came from) cut to half-time under Fristoe‘s intricate riffing, bassist Skot Thompson‘s running lines and Martin‘s formidable sass. It’s just one highlight moment among many on Salvador, and they come on in forms as varied and diverse as the music itself, which maintains its energy despite tempo and any sonic shift — seven-minute closer “Solo” being no comedown from “Generations” before it. With a vinyl release impending, there’s little doubt that Salvador will emerge from 2011 among the year’s best albums.

Lo-Pan have already taken to the road to support Salvador, which saw its official CD release this past Tuesday, May 24 (you can find a live review here), and it was mostly touring that was covered in my telephonular conversation with Bartz. In a scene where most everyone has day jobs and most acts rarely get on the road with the kind of ravenousness Lo-Pan have, it seemed the thing to talk about. Our chat was brief, at least by the standards of some of the features around here, but Bartz offered plenty of insight on Lo-Pan‘s writing and touring ethic, plans for European touring and much more.

The complete Q&A transcription is after the jump. Please enjoy.

When did you actually write the album? It doesn’t seem like you were ever off the road long enough to do it.

In reality, the time between the recording of Sasquanaut and the recording of Salvador was probably two and a half years, three years almost. Something like that. When we initially recorded Sasquanaut, it was October or November of ’08. We put it out in February of ’09, and so we had it out for like a year when we started talking to Scott from Small Stone, and then the last November, we went up to Boston and recorded the new one. I think we had three or four extra songs, but we had almost all that material except for one or two of them written probably even before last summer. We only wrote one or two more during last summer while we were on the road and stuff. And that’s when we really started hitting the road hard and stuff, was the beginning of last year, or right after Sasquanaut took off for us.

Was there something in particular that led to you guys really becoming a touring band?

I think all of us in general have the same desire to do music at a full-time basis, and we kind of all got really motivated at the same time. The momentum was picking up really good for us.

How does the songwriting process go?

For us, mostly lots of jamming. Me and Fristoe and me and Skot get together and we jam out ideas, and those two get together sometimes, work through ideas, put more and more ideas together and stuff and come up with a rough draft and record that, and Jeff does his vocal things. We tweak it here and there. We play it out a few times too before we’re actually totally done with it. Like I said, there was probably three or four other songs that we had written for the Salvador album that we just didn’t feel really had the energy or what we wanted live.

You ended up with a lot of really upbeat, really energetic songs on Salvador.

I guess that was a little bit of a conscious effort. We just write for our own appeal and our own opinions, and it just all came together that that was the material, those were the songs that we chose for this album. I think it worked out though. Pretty good. We’re definitely really happy with it, but we’re also happy with writing in different veins, a little bit more slower tempos and stuff like that too.

Going forward, you’d want to include more of that kind of thing?

Slower tempos? Yeah. We try not to set any standards on what we would do. It’s just if it feels right to us, we’re comfortable playing it and stuff. We definitely would write in different veins and different moods and stuff. As long as it’s emotionally connecting to us, it’s good music. That’s what we write for.

How was the time at Mad Oak?

We did one full week there, and then [Benny Grotto] did a bit of mixing afterwards. It was awesome. Benny is one of the greatest engineers that we’ve worked it. It made it really, really easy for us. It was really comfortable, really good time, all the way around.

Have you gotten a sense of reaction to the record, people getting it from Small Stone, iTunes?

At our live shows, not really so much. We’ve only had it in our possession for a little bit, and our CD release still isn’t until May. More in a digital sense or in a listening sense, a lot of people have gotten back and commenting, I’ve heard the iTunes or have ordered it online and stuff and been able to get it. But not so much at shows. It has definitely been good for us to be able to play the material and be more familiar with it. It seems like more people are starting to become familiar with the material. For the most part [the reviews] have all been positive. We’re definitely gaining a lot of momentum in that sense. It seems like there’s a good bit of a community that’s embracing us.

Were you actually at Mad Oak for the remixing of Sasquanaut?

No. Benny got our tapes and remixed it. We actually had to go back and re-record one of the songs for it. “Wade Garrett,” the last song on the album, it’s a little bit different than the originals, the first pressing that we did alone. We couldn’t find the original tapes for that song, since it’s been so long, we didn’t have a tape long enough or space enough on a tape to put it, so we put it on one of the studio tapes, and when we went back to get those tapes and stuff, that tape was not around anymore (laughs). Kind of sucks, but we were really fortunate to hook up with Adam here in Columbus, and were able to go record to tape again and just send all of that to Benny and he did an awesome job, again. Sonically, there’s definitely a difference. Benny is a master, man. He’s really, really good. There’s a lot of people that have said they also like the original versions and stuff – and it was a little bit dirtier and a little rougher and stuff – and make no mistake, our intention with getting the original out there was to record onto tape as cheap as possible and get it out there as much as possible. When we first were moving those records, we were selling them at anything we could get out of them. Five, 10 dollars. Whatever we could get in the night, we were just trying to move as many CDs as possible. It was a DIY, gung-ho effort from the beginning, in that sense. And now that Small Stone got involved, it changed the feel as far as the professionals we’re able to contact in that sense too.

Plus you build a reputation from being on the road so much too. That’s got to help as well.

Absolutely. Good friends both of you and I, John Wilkes Booth. We actually played with Benny and Motherboar at Club Europa, and Wormsmeat played. That was our first time actually getting to Brooklyn, and we had a chance to sit with Benny and the other dudes in Motherboar, and just hang out at the bar and stuff. Things came around full circle in that sense, it was really cool. But it was because we were out on the road and making those network connections.

And it changes you as a player. A band is never as tight as they are on the road.

Salvador, I would say 70 percent of the stuff on Salvador is based around us touring and around us traveling, and moving and in constant motion – the 22 hours a day of absolute madness to be able to perform for an hour, then kind of calm down and relax for an hour (laughs). It gets to a mundane point sometimes, not that I would trade it for anything. I love it. We’re just getting started at it. We’re starting to get really hungry for it.

How was SXSW for you guys?

It was really good. Really good for us. It was our first time getting down there and playing and stuff. It was cool for us. We were at a good advantage in that we play out pretty regular, so we had a good tour going down there and a good tour going back. It was great for us. We had a really good time, got to meet a lot of the bands that are also on Small StoneDixie Witch and Suplecs. They were really good guys and it was great to play with those guys. We’re actually headed back to Austin first week in June to do the Liquid Sludge Fest. Backwoods Payback aren’t coming with us. They’re headed back out on the road in June with our good friends in Admiral Browning. Mike [Cummings, vocals/guitar in Backwoods Payback] is back out on the road again and we’re really happy for those dudes. They’re like brothers and a sister to us.

Last time you came through New York was with them.

We’ve played there a couple times with them, at the Ace of Clubs, I think. Wasn’t that the Acme Downstairs at one point too?

Yeah, it was the Acme Underground.

Yeah. I was in there before, but we hadn’t played there. We played there a couple times [at Ace of Clubs]. I thought it was a pretty cool club. It was claustrophobic (laughs). I don’t know about how the exits work in that place or anything like that, but it was definitely a fun time. We always had a fun time there, and it was good crowds, great P.A. and stuff.

What’s planned for after this tour? Are you guys going to Europe at all?

We’re hoping to, in the fall. That’s the plan at this point. We’d like to get a week in over there in the fall sometime, and hopefully hook up with some people that are already established over there. We’re already writing again.

And do you have a timeframe on when you’ll start writing again, or is it just all touring for a while?

We’ve written a little bit since we were in the studio. We stay pretty constant with that, but it’s mostly touring. As far as that goes, we usually project out when we can take breaks from touring, and that’s generally when we get together and do a little bit more concentration on just writing and stuff, but I don’t see us letting up from touring for a little while. I would say definitely over a year from right now. We’re already planning on at least doing SXSW again next year and trying to get out there and do at least two or three more national tours next year too.

And you’ve got the Small Stone showcase in Philly in September?

Yes, we are definitely planning on doing that, and trying to do the one he’s gonna do in Chicago too, as far as I know. I think we’re going to try and hook up with Suplecs and do some touring between the two. We’ve been talking with Suplecs and Throttlerod and Freedom Hawk – all great bands, highly recommended if anybody wants to contact those guys, they’re really, really good bands to be on the road with and stuff – and if we get the opportunity, we’d love to try and do that too.

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