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Interview: Riley Downing (The Deslondes)

8 July 2022

Sometimes things have a way of working out. After releasing – and touring on – the 2017 release Hurry Home, The Deslondes went on hiatus which allowed a few of the members, Sam Doores and Riley Downing, to release solo albums. With the band’s status very much up in the air, John James Tourville went to work as a studio musician, playing on releases by Jack Klatt, Megan Palmer and Ian Noe while also observing recording techniques. During the pandemic, it was Tourville who reached out to the other members of The Deslondes and spear-headed a reunion.

Ways and Means is The Deslondes third full-length album for New West Records and finds the band taking a few steps beyond their comfort zone. It’s the first album to feature a full drum kit, there are horns and strings, and, throughout, some studio experimentation that make this the most-realized Deslondes album to date. Each of the band’s main songwriters get the chance to sing on the songs they wrote (Doores sings on 5 songs, Downing and Dan Cutler on 4 each) giving the album a unique flavor.

Riley Downing checked in from the road, some place he’s very comfortable being, to talk about getting back together with his friends to record a new album.

It’s kind of ironic that you’re celebrating the release of the new Deslondes album by playing a show on the last night of your solo tour. Does the band usually get together and go out for drinks, or have dinner, or do something to celebrate?

RILEY: Well, it’s been a few years since we’ve had an album release but I imagine when we do get together, we will do something. We’re all going to meet up in Athens, Georgia and rehearse before we go hit the road. Celebrating will probably be in order.

These days, most of album release days are probably spent tweeting and Instagraming and getting the word out. Is that a shared responsibility among the members of the band or is there one person who handles all the social media for The Deslondes?

RILEY: A few of the guys do. Some of them still haven’t caught up with technology so they get away with not having to do that.

I’ve never been in a band, never released an album. But, as a writer for the Big Takeover print magazine, I have had the thrill of seeing the magazine in a store. I have even bought copies of the magazine, hoping somebody will ask me about it so I can say, “Oh, yeah, I have some stuff printed in this issue. Want to see?” Do you do the same thing at record stores? Ever look for anything you’ve played on and then take it up to the counter and be like, “See this guy on the back cover? That’s me”?

RILEY: I don’t do that but I know what you mean. I’m mostly looking for 45s and 78s at record stores. I do know Big Takeover. When I was young, I used to buy Maximum RocknRoll and all those different magazines like CMJ and Uncut, just for the CD compilations that came with them. My old man still reads those magazines and actually has a subscription to Big Takeover. He wrote to Jack Rabid and Jack sent him something back. My dad’s like the ideal customer for Big Takeover. He will sit there and literally look up every band, even if it takes him months and months. I always imagine that when you put out a magazine like Big Takeover, that’s how you would imagine somebody out there is going to look at it.

Given the state of the world the last couple of years, did you guys have to make any any sort of adjustments for writing and recording this record?

RILEY: It all started with JJ [John James Tourville]. He kind of became a session musician during the pandemic and none of us were really doing music. We just had time to finally get back in there. He had been working on so many different projects in the studio. He saw how everything was being done and said, “We’re not getting any younger. Might as well just go do this.” He talked us all into it and I’m glad he did.

Was that really the spark to get The Deslondes back together? Did you think the band was just taking a break, on hiatus, or when you went your separate ways in 2017, did it feel like the band was done?

We just had time to finally get back in there. And he had been working on so many. different projects in the studio. You kind of. learn everything was being done and said, you know, you know, we’re not getting any younger. Might as well just go through this. Yeah, And, uh, then he talked us all into it, and I’m glad he did.

RILEY: I kind of always hoped we’d get back together. But, two of the guys had a lot of family obligations and stuff and, you know, life moves on, everybody was doing different things. We had spent so much time together and so much of our lives together that I think we all felt that it would be a shame not to get back together, just do what we do which is put all the songs on the table, make a record, and then, hit the road.

Even though you’ve been doing this with these guys for at least a decade, is there still times when somebody will bring something when you’re writing, rehearsing, recording that you’ll go, “Oh shit, where did THAT come from?” Like, do they still surprise you with their talents?

RILEY: Yeah, that was kind of what happened with Sam’s song “Five Year Plan.” We’d all been playing and it was the end of the night and he just started showing me and JJ the song he was working on. He was like, “What do you guys think of this?” We were like, “You need to finish that song!” That stuff definitely still happens.

That’s one of the videos that you released before the album came out. And, it’s the second in a three-video series. Was that idea something you guys came up or was it the idea of the director to shoot all three videos in the same location and all in one continuous shot?

RILEY: We’d all always worked with Josh [Shoemaker] but I had done a couple of videos when my solo record came out. We just got on the phone and talked about it and were trying to figure out the best way to get enough for videos for everybody who sang a song on the album within a certain amount of time. That’s why we filmed three videos in one day. We were like, “Why not? If we can make it happen, let’s do it.” And we did. It was a long day.

Probably a lot of sitting around for the parts you weren’t in.

RILEY: Yeah, just waiting on things to happen. I had to be thrown in the pool a few times during the shoot. You can tell that our get togethers are a little different now than when we were younger. There’s a lot more kids running around and the kids were just waiting on me to fall in the pool like I was in a dunk tank or something.

Where were the videos shot?

RILEY: In New Orleans at a friend of ours house. It’s called the Babe Mansion because it’s all run by women.

You mentioned you always work with Josh on videos and, I believe, you’ve recorded all your albums, including your solo one, at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville.

RILEY: The first show we ever played in Nashville, Andrija [Tokic] was the sound guy. Once you get to know him, he never does that or has time so it was almost fate that he did our sound that night. He told us about his little home studio. We went and checked it out and, at the same time, he had just recorded the Alabama Shakes record and was playing it in the bar. It hadn’t even come out yet. We were enjoying it and we went up and asked him, “Who is this band that we’re listening to?” and he was like, “It’s this band I just recorded. I’ve got a studio. You should come check it out. That’s just who we’ve been recording with ever since. Andrija is basically the sixth member of the band but he doesn’t have to go on tour.

You’ve done a lot of touring. Given the fact that touring was shut down for almost two years, did it give you any pause to go back on the road? Had you started getting used to being a homebody?

RILEY: I spent 11 months on the road last year and looks like I’m going to do the same this year. I was definitely getting used to being at home. It was nice to just be home for a while but I honestly just kept working because I was out in the country so it’s not like I really had anybody I needed to hide from. I was able to move around and work outside and stuff. It was different getting back into it and I totally understand peoples hesitation to come back out and get going again. It’s been slowly getting easier and easier and I think we’re just happy to be back out here again.

You wear a lot of Kansas City Royals hats and your home is in Missouri. Are you a Royals fan or do you wear the hats to show home town pride?

RILEY: I am partial to them. That’s my go to. It’s home town pride and just being able to find people from your city. When you get to the airport, and you’re all waiting at the same exit, you know who actually lives in that city because you’re all wearing the same hat.

When I listen to the song “Standing Still,” I can close my eyes and imagine the peace and tranquility of floating in the sky. It’s sort of like that moment when you’re on a plane where the captain says, “We’ve reached cruising altitude. Sit back and enjoy the ride.” But then about halfway into the song, there’s a little bit of turbulence. There’s some strings and some different vocals. Was that the way the song was written or did you bring the song to the band and somebody had the idea to add some stuff to it?

RILEY: It’s funny, I wrote that one … I don’t want to get too political but when I wrote that one, it looked like Trump was going to win again. I was kind of sick to my stomach and had to take my mind off the world. It was just stream of consciousness. I was standing outside, looked up, and saw a plane and I saw everything I was describing in the song. I just wrote it all down and recorded it, sent it to the boys. I thought I was going to have to rewrite it, because I was just joking around on some of it, and they were like, “Don’t change a thing.” It stayed exactly the way it came out. We had fun with that one, as far as being in the studio goes. There’s some hidden little jokes in there that you have to listen for.

I’m wondering about another song you wrote, “South Dakota Wild One.” Is that autobiographical or were you just picking out words that sounded good?

RILEY: It is autobiographical and just kind of nostalgic, stuff that you didn’t really think about while it was happening but later, when you finally have time in your life to reflect on it, it’s kind of the stuff I like to write about. I lived up in South Dakota when I was young for a year or two and there was a lady who was kind of the matriarch of all of us traveling folks that ended up there for the short period of time that we did. She passed away and I never really got to say goodbye or thank her so that was my way of doing that.

Does bringing in other people to perform on the record, like Margo Price, bring an energy to the band?

RILEY: Normally, it was just us, we didn’t bring outside musicians in. But, the story with Andrija is so unique. Honestly, Margo was just a backup singer that was on call for Andrija when we first met her way back in the day when we were in The Tumbleweeds. So it just felt appropriate to invite her into sing on one. Billy Contrares is just a genius with the strings. He makes it sound like there’s a whole orchestra but it’s actually just him and four fiddles or violins and he just layers them. We’re all a fan of having a string section. Any musician given the opportunity to have that is going to be excited to allow that to happen.

Are there any artists you’re listening to these days?

RILEY: I really didn’t listen to a lot of modern music until I had to accept that I’m a modern artist myself. I’ve been checking out more and more stuff. The best way I find stuff is when buddies recommend stuff. JJ, being a session musician, just listening to what he’s been working on. Over the last year I really enjoyed Valerie June’s new record, her songwriting style and voice. Also love the new Ian Noe record, that one really grew on me. JJ played on that and Andrija recorded that as well. That last song, “Road May Flood / It’s a Heartache,” I’ve listened to that an unhealthy amount of times.

Tonight is the last night of your solo tour. You’ve got a week off and then July dates with The Deslondes. You’re also out most of September and October, right?

RILEY: Yeah and I have some solo stuff sprinkled in between. I’m headed out to play Pickathon right after this Deslondes tour. I’m turning into Chuck Berry where I’m borrowing different bands to back me up. Right now I’m ending a tour with a band from Atlanta called Nikki & The Phantom Callers. We’ve had a good time out here. It’s kind of out of survival. It’s the only way I can actually even do it but it makes it fun and everything is always a little different.

This album got everybody back together. Is this a “let’s see how things go with the album and tour before we decide if we’re going to keep going” or is this the start of the next chapter in The Deslondes book?

RILEY: I think that we’ll always be getting together and doing what we can when we can. Obviously, some of the guys have family obligations and we can’t keep them on the road forever. We all have spent so much of lives together at this point, getting close to half of our lives together, that it really feels like time hasn’t passed at all even though it has. I think the end game is to just do this until we’re old and we can have sword fights with our canes.

Is there a backlog of songs that didn’t make it on the record? Could you go into the studio tomorrow and have a good amount of songs for a follow-up album?

RILEY: I wish Cameron [Snyder] would have gotten one on this record. He’s probably the best singer in the whole band but he’s definitely there harmonizing with all of us. Unfortunately he didn’t do a lead song on this record but maybe on the next one.

I think we all enjoy the process of writing in general that even when we weren’t doing this, when music wasn’t on the table, it’s still something we all enjoy doing and sharing with each other. I know there’s two songs that Dan wrote last week that I haven’t even listened to yet that he sent me. Everybody is always trying to write the next song, bounce it off each other, and get some positive reinforcement. We all do that for each other.