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Interview: Christian Glakas (Merciful Heavens)

9 November 2021

Photo by Cristian Sigler

Christian Glakas will admit that he’s not trying to follow any trends on his new EP, For Now, released under the Merciful Heavens name. Growing up on classic rock and phenomenal guitar players, Glakas has done time with bands that felt “in the moment,” particularly The Good Looks, a garage rock band from Austin, Texas formed in 2000. While that led to moderate success and cool stage-sharing opportunities, it ultimately wasn’t satisfying so Glakas embarked on what has been a recurring regeneration, first by giving up guitars for piano, then moving to something acoustic-based, continuing to a folk-rock duo, The Light Upstairs, with vocalist Emily McLeod and, most recently, settling on something akin to Neil Young’s Americana-based sound.

With the urging of former The Good Looks bandmate Matt Drenik (Lions, Battleme), Glakas learned to record and mix his own music during the pandemic and, while the For Now EP is currently available on streaming services such as Bandcamp and Spotify, Drenik’s label, Get Loud, will release the vinyl some time in early 2022.

During our nearly two-hour conversation, Glakas shared how, during one of his regeneration periods, he happened upon an Open Mic night at the Cactus Café and was amazed at the talent in the room. He describes the event as finding his tribe and, during our conversation, I felt like Glakas and I were part of the same tribe, we both are in the same general age range, had similar life experiences and love to talk about music.

Here’s a portion of that conversation.

I started interviewing bands in 1991 when I was in college. I have never made a living doing it but I just enjoy talking with so many talented people.

CHRISTIAN: Your story in journalism sounds an awful lot like my story in music. I started playing guitar in 1991 when I was 12 or 13 and I’ve done it in a lot of different ways over the years. I’ve made a little bit of money here and there but never like “support myself” kind of money but I’ve always loved doing it and I can’t not do it.

Growing up, I was influenced to listen to whatever MTV was serving up which meant a lot of ’80s hair metal. Seeing Nirvana live early on the Nevermind tour, as clichĂ© as it sounds, was life changing.

CHRISTIAN: I was in 8th grade when that came out. I had kind of been paying attention to music, I had certainly been listening to a lot of music since I was in 3rd or 4th great. I got one of those cheesy little tape recorders, mine was red, that had a handle. It was like the size of a shoebox and you put a cassette in and it had one speaker and the speaker was beveled out. That’s when I started taping my brother’s tapes. I had a Bon Jovi tape and got way into the Stones when I was a tiny, little kid. I really didn’t listen to anything other than the Stones and the classic rock stuff of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin when I was first starting to play guitar. And then Nevermind came out. In a way, I hadn’t really gotten used to anything else that was happening at that time. I was listening to so much older stuff that Nirvana was kind of the start of me paying attention. I wasn’t listening to the Pet Shop Boys, I wasn’t listening to Def Leppard very much. I wasn’t in to anything that was about to die.

Nirvana and Pearl Jam, right when they got big, I was walking around the mall in Virginia – I grew up in Maryland – but I was at this mall in Virginia with my cousin and I recognized the bass player from Pearl Jam. He was walking around with his girlfriend. They were in town for a concert and he signed my shirt. He was so cool. It’s so funny because I was 12 or 13 and he was basically a grown up in my mind. But he was like 19 at the time or 20. He was a kid. That was where my whole contemporary music world started. It started with that grunge thing that hit right then.

During those times, you could go to a used record store and pick up a used or promo copy of a CD for cheap. I’d go buy $10 worth of used CDs, go home with 3 or 4 things that were new to me, all cheaper than if I bought one brand new CD. It was a great way to discover new music.

CHRISTIAN: You’re taking me back now! Where I grew up in Maryland, there were a couple of real nice book and record/tape shops. In the early ’90s, compact discs ruled the world so you could buy records or tapes for nothing. My parents still had a turntable and I had my cassette deck in my room so I would just go buy the tapes and records that were used. It would be like a buck for Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Catch a Fire or $.99 for Led Zeppelin IV on vinyl. Nobody wanted them. If I found something I liked, I’d get obsessed with it, especially at that time because I was trying to learn the guitar. We all have our strengths and weaknesses in different realms of life but one thing I’m good at in music is I have a good ear. I can sit down and, if I’ve heard a song on the radio a handful of times, I can sit down and usually figure out the chord changes as long as it’s not like Paul McCartney or a Stevie Wonder song with a bunch of key changes. I would get an old Led Zeppelin record and listen to it for months and work out the guitar parts the best I could. That kept me from doing super broad exploration of different kinds of music. I would just go very deep on the same album or the same song for months.

How do you, as an artist, cut through the clutter of there being so many bands and get people to listen to your stuff? And, how do you as a music fan discover new music?

CHRISTIAN: I perceive those to be two totally different questions. How do you get anyone’s attention in this day and age? The short answer is, man, I do not know. I certainly haven’t been very good at it in my life in the last 20 years of playing in bands. Matt and I were in a band, 15 years ago, we played for a couple of years together. We complimented each other very, very well. Matt’s very social, he was tending bar at the time, he was hanging with everyone at the bar and Matt would just tell everybody who came into the bar, “You have to come see our band, this Friday night. This is where we’re playing, you should come.” Matt’s hanging out with everyone and everyone loves him. I was in my early 20s. I would work, I’d play music, we’d have band practice and I would come home and hang out with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and usually go to bed kind of early. I wouldn’t meet a zillion people at the bar. The only way I’ve ever been successful in getting anyone’s attention is to just do the things that I do and to keep doing it and to try to be consistent. That is difficult for me. I feel like I’ve started over many times in my life, in a lot of different ways, both within music and between music and other things. Now, I’ve been doing it long enough, I can see some similarities in my own work, across the different bands I’ve been in. And I can see areas where it’s like, “Okay, I’ve totally ping ponged between genres over this ten year period.” Like, I sold all my electric guitars and amps and I bought an Archtop acoustic guitar. It’s happened enough times now where I can kind of see the trend line in the middle of all those zig zags. I’ve crossed through those areas where doing something different every few years, a lot of those things have sort of made peace with one another and now the music sounds like it’s been influenced by these different pitstops I’ve made over the years.

That’s fair. While it’s great that AC/DC has found a formula that they’ve stuck with for 40 years, it’s entirely fair that your music may evolve, take turns, change as you move on through life. The things that influenced you when you were starting likely don’t influence you 20 years later.

CHRISTIAN: For me, a lot of the first 10 or 12 years, my journey down here in Austin music, I take things super personally. I take things super hard. Matt and I played in this band that was high energy, garage rock, some of that disco-punk kind of stuff that was happening in the early 2000s. But, mainly, we were into The Clash and MC5 and the Stones with a little bit of Radio 4 or Gang of Four kind of stuff thrown in. It was all about the live show.

Growing up, musically speaking, in Austin, everything is about the show. You’ve got to win people over at the show. You have to get on the right bill. You have to open for the right band. You have to play at the right club. Recording was almost an afterthought. It was like, “How are we going to get a good show? Well, we need to have a release show. Okay, so let’s record an EP.” Recording was just a means to an end to help create the great show. If you get a great show, you can do a tour. If you do a tour, you can come back and get into SXSW and have a better show and a better tour. After 2 or 3 years of doing that, I bought a piano from the classified paper for almost nothing, I started writing songs in a different way. I was real bent out of shape about a bunch of things that had happened in the context of the band. I got into different kinds of music. All of a sudden I got really into a band like And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead and Sparklehorse and Radiohead. I was like, “I’m out of here. I’m not playing this monkey rock any more. I’m not jumping up and down.”

If you play a couple hundred shows, and the only thing anyone ever tells you is, “Oh man, the energy is great,” that’s cool but did anyone like the songs? We did have a good band and we did have good energy. We opened up for The Black Keys and we opened up for The Riverboat Gamblers. We had a thing and it was cool but I was ready for something different.

When I pivoted to a bigger emphasis on songwriting and lyrics, I willfully rejected everything from my previous band. Then I did that again after another three years. I was depleted after trying to get another band up and running. I recorded a whole record and I didn’t like how it sounded so I deleted the files. It was not healthy. It was not good for me. After a year, I needed something different. I went to night classes at UT [University of Texas] and I spent the next few years learning Arabic. I lived in the Middle East for a while and worked for a non-profit and came back and worked with refugees. I never stepped all the way away from music, I put out three albums while I was working office jobs and doing Arabic stuff. Eventually I ended up at UT helping run the Arabic program there.

A friend of mine, she was the only person in, at that time, my most recent band who would always show up at practice, the two of us started a duo. It was a him/her kind of folk duo. We were super into Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. All I wanted then was to get back to my guitar playing and not jump around, not do the anthemic indie stuff. It was another one of those, “I’m not going to write mopey songs on piano anymore. I’m going to get back to getting better at the guitar. I’m going to help Emily get her songs into the world. I’m going to be a normal person. I’m going to work in an office and I’m going to become a dad and I’m not going to let this music thing ruin my life.” I had been doing it in this toxic way, where it felt like it was ruining my life. I didn’t always know who I was or what I was doing. The songwriting was the only thread that might have a chance of tying things together. With the recent musical regeneration that happened about 5 years ago, I kind of stopped giving all of my past musical self the middle finger. I stopped being so hard on my past self. They were all great experiences, in their own way.

It’s funny that you’ve mentioned Matt a few times as he’s the one who turned me onto your music.

CHRISTIAN: That reminds me of the answer that I would like to succinctly give you the answer to how do you get anyone’s attention and how do you get into music? I’ll tell you what, I mentioned earlier that I’ve never gotten into lots and lots of different kinds of music, but I go really deep into the stuff I’m into. I only get into bands when somebody hands me something or sends me a link and says, “You have to listen to this.” In 1998, I remember I was in college and one my best friends, he was more of a searcher of music, he sat me down and said, “You have to listen to this record, you’re going to love it.” It was Wilco’s Being There. I was like, “This is pretty cool.” And the next day, I was like, “This is really cool.” And the next week, it was my favorite record. Around that time, I met my wife and she got me into Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. I still really believe in the power of referrals, friends being like, “I love this song. Here, you should listen to this, you’ll like it.”

If I keep doing the thing that I do, that I love doing, and if I believe in myself enough to still be doing it at this age, which is kind of insane, then maybe I’ll be lucky enough to have somebody like Matt believe in it too. We’ve been through the ringer as friends. We’ve been best friends, we’ve been arch enemies. We’ve been friends again and now we’re tighten than ever. At first, when I got back into spending a lot of time on music, he was coming out of Battleme and was like, [sarcastically] “Good for you, Christian. That’s great.” After a couple of years, I kept sending him the songs that I was recording, he was like, “These are actually pretty cool. Send me the next ones you do.” When I started sending him the demos for this album, he was like, “I want to put this out on my record label.” The same way he reached out to you, you’re more likely to listen to it than the 30 emails you get every single day from publicists.

I think that we’re lucky to live in a world where there’s viral sensations but I’m never going to be a viral sensation. I’m not going to be a sensation of any sort. But, I like the idea that if I have these songs that are meaningful enough to me that I still feel motivated and propelled to record them and bring them into the world the way I feel they need to be heard, if there are people that like them enough to listen and tell their friends about them, that’s magical to me. That’s how I get into music.

For Now fits comfortably alongside albums by Neil Young, Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs.

CHRISTIAN: All three of those references are worthy of a whole conversation about their bands and how I discovered them, how they came into my orbit. It’s interesting to hear what music you create reminds people of. Certainly not with those three artists but a lot of times people will, if they tell me my music reminds them of something, they’ll almost apologize in advance for the reference, whatever it is. I’m like, “If you listen to a song that I made and you say anything other than ‘You know what this sounds like? This sounds like my step-brother’s song that he recorded at home and it sounded like shit and nobody liked it,’ that wouldn’t make me feel too good.” Any other reference is like, “Oh, it sounds like a real band that made a real record that somebody liked? That’s a compliment.”

Since the album came out, Neil Young is a reference that I’ve gotten a number of times that means the world to me. I mean, I love Neil Young, I’ve loved Neil Young for a long time, it’s not that he hasn’t been a huge influence on me. I’m so stuck inside my own little bubble. If I took mushrooms and got outside of my bubble, maybe it wouldn’t have surprised me so much. Somebody can compare me to Neil Young all day long, that sounds awesome. I feel like I spent a whole year playing After the Gold Rush on the piano just to learn how to play.

What means the most to me about the Neil Young reference is the idea that – it seems like an antiquated notion now but in order to get any traction, it seems like the conventional wisdom is that you have to be really niche. You have to do this one thing and be unique and be different and have that sound. I think it has more to do with the production than it has to do with the songwriting. I feel like Neil Young can sit on a stool and do it by himself with an acoustic guitar, he can turn his amp up to 10 and have it blaring with distortion and rock a place down with 10,000 people with a really ass-kicking loud band. That was always the template for me. Whether it was John Lennon or Springsteen or Neil Young or Jeff Tweedy or Thom Yorke, to be able to have a really great band and put on a great rock show and to be able to sit on a stool or sit on the ground, be by yourself, and play the same song and let the song live in different ways, that is something I aspire to.

Did you play all the instruments on the new record?

CHRISTIAN: On some of the songs, I played everything. On three songs, we tracked drums and bass before the pandemic hit so there is live drums and bass played by the guys who were in my band for a couple of years leading up to the pandemic. I was working with overdubs when the pandemic hit. I was working on one song where I was doing everything from scratch, with drum machines and samples and bizarre rhythm sounds. I stole a bunch of beads from my daughter and got a stick and was sticking the stick into the beads to make a snare drum sound. That was the song “Where the Rising Sun Will Find You.”

After we did the drums and bass and before the pandemic hit, I pulled my friend Emily, from the folk duo I was in, to do some of the harmonies on some of the songs. I thought that really helped. They’re not super high in the mix but they add a lot where she sings. She sings on maybe 3 songs.

Did you intentionally decide on doing an EP rather than a full length or did you just want to get whatever you had done and out into the world?

CHRISTIAN: We started this project three months before the pandemic started. I was playing in a 3-piece rock band and looking at putting the music out myself. It started with the idea of doing four songs and put those out as another EP because I had done one EP and released it in 2019. But the process changed so many times when the pandemic hit and then I decided to mix it myself. Originally, Matt was going to mix it. When the pandemic hit, he was like, “You should learn how to mix your own songs. I’d be happy to mix for you but you should learn how to do this because you’ll make it exactly the way you want and it’s good for you to learn how to do it.” I was kind of terrified but once I starting learning, I got way into it.

When Matt offered to put For Now out on Get Loud, and other folks came into the conversation, originally I thought it would be cool to release one song a month for four months and then all four will go on an EP up on Spotify. But when the pandemic hit, I was like, “There’s no rush to put it out.” And I was getting into the groove on recording and mixing and I had a pile of other songs that I could have recorded, I guess. As much as I was excited to keep recording, I was getting worn out because it was taking so long. I was thinking that I’d like to give it two more songs to give it more weight, there’s one song that I really wanted to be on the EP because it fit with the other songs. The last song, the instrumental [“Fluid Days”], was something I was messing around with. It was kind of pretty, it was kind of cool. It wasn’t thematically important to the rest of the songs but it was lighter.

I didn’t want to put out a 10-song record because, in a lot of ways, as old as I am and as many times as I’ve started over in my life, I’m starting over again. I’m not Dinosaur Jr. I do not expect hundreds of thousands to be like, “You know who I want to listen to 10 consecutive songs by? Merciful Heavens.” I feel like I’ll be excited if people want to give this a listen. If they do, hopefully 6 songs is a nice “getting to know you” amount of music. And it’s enough to fill up both sides of a vinyl record, which I’m really excited about. It’s 13 minutes per side, that’s a digestible portion of music, especially if the songs are 4-to-5-minutes long most of the time. I think it works well as in both the six-song online format and in the Side A and Side B vinyl format. Both of those are enough to be substantial without being too much.