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Photo by Scott Chernis
The nomadic lifestyle of being a traveling musician isn’t for everyone. That’s something that Rose’s Pawn Shop founder Paul Givant recognizes and acknowledges on “The Lonely One,” featured on the band’s newest release, Punch-Drunk Life. When it comes to settling down and planting roots, Givant sings, “Well maybe I ain’t built that way.”
With roots in bluegrass music, Rose’s Pawn Shop emerged from the L.A. scene in 2006 and while touring consistently in a pre-pandemic world, releasing recorded music wasn’t a top priority for the band. On a consistent four-year release cycle up through 2014’s critically-acclaimed Gravity Well, due to a variety of reasons – from band members leaving to a global pandemic – Rose’s Pawn Shop’s fourth album just recently emerged. Spanning a variety of genres while remaining true to the band’s original mission statement, Punch-Drunk Life may very well turn listeners into bluegrass fans without them even knowing it.
My introduction to Rose’s Pawn Shop came via Soda Gardocki, a punk-rock guitarist for the ‘90s band Wax who shifted into the folk world sometime in the early 2000s. That was the jumping off point for a discussion with Givant who talks about those times as well where he thinks Rose’s Pawn Shop fits among other artists, why it took so long for a new album to be released, what it was like growing up in L.A., and the celebrity encounters he’s had.
I first became familiar with Rose’s Pawn Shop through some connection you had with former Wax guitarist Soda Gardocki.
PAUL: We became friends with Soda through the L.A. music scene. He had his band at the time, Soda and His Million Piece Band. Right around the time our first record was coming out, we were about to go tour on it. His band was kind of breaking up, so Soda was doing more solo stuff. We ended up being his backing band. He went out with us for our first tour ever. He was a little more seasoned and experienced on the road at the time. There was kind of a mutual beneficiary thing. He had connections and showed us the ropes of independent touring and, in exchange, we were his backing band. He would open up for Rose’s Pawn Shop and then we would play our set.
Did you play on one of his records?
PAUL: I didn’t but people who were in Rose’s Pawn Shop at the time did play on a few of his releases after the Million Piece Band. I think they were going under Soda and the Pawn Shop Three. I don’t know how much of that stuff got released but there’s definitely some members of our band that would play on his recordings. Our original fiddle player, Sea Bass (Sebastian St. John), played with him and Derek O’ Brien, our bass player back then, also played on some of Soda’s stuff.
I’m not terribly familiar with bluegrass music and I don’t often reach for it, but I’ve been really enjoying Punch-Drunk Life. I wouldn’t call you a straight up bluegrass band, I hear country and Americana elements in your sound as well.
PAUL: We definitely hold bluegrass as one of the biggest influences in our music but any time we have ever played a more traditional bluegrass festival, we’ve been frowned upon. We played a really cool festival called the Huck Finn Jubilee, it’s a bluegrass festival in Southern California, and almost all the bands are pretty traditional and jam grass with no drums or electric instruments. We were the one band weirdly on the bill that had electric guitars and drums. People were into it, we were well received, but there’s always a small contingent in a bluegrass crowd who are more traditional and you can see that they have they’re arms folded and thinking, “This ain’t bluegrass. What the hell is this?”
Do you tend to only play bluegrass festivals?
PAUL: It’s a mix. More generally, I’d say we fall under that blanket term of Americana and Americana is a mix of bluegrass and country and rock and roots music and folk. I think what Rose’s Pawn Shop is doing is all that stuff in a blender. We have the banjo and the fiddle and the stand-up bass and acoustic guitar but then we have electric guitar and, on this new record in particular, the electric guitar is pretty prominent. And then we have the full drums, it’s not like a washboard, with a great, heavy hitting rock drummer, Matt Lesser, who plays on the record. Bluegrass is there, country is there, but it also has the rock elements and the folk. A lot of my songwriting influences are not bluegrass. I’m a huge Elliott Smith fan and Paul Simon. People like that have had an impact on my songwriting. They’re certainly not bluegrass. But, conversely, Gillian Welch is another huge influence for me and she comes out of that old-time music background.
Does the success of Billy Strings help out a band like Rose’s Pawn Shop?
PAUL: We’re definitely adjacent to that. Billy Strings is in that thing they call jam grass, it’s like bluegrass with jam elements. We do dip our toes in playing different types of festivals. We’ve found ourselves on all sorts of festival bills from bluegrass bills to more jam-band-oriented bills, even though we don’t really have much jam element to what we do. And then we find ourselves on folk bills. We play full-on big rock festivals like Riot Fest in Chicago. I think, because of what we do, it does have it’s foot in all these different genres that it lends itself to. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I grew up, in high school, with Fishbone being my favorite band. They are all over the place – from ska to reggae to punk to metal. I always thought that was thrilling and cool. I wouldn’t say we’re as genre-bending as Fishbone but I think I’m comfortable pulling from multiple genres at once and putting it all together.
Fishbone, to me, has always been one of the most underrated bands. They never really got their full due. I’m glad they’re still doing it and have had a measure of success but they deserve so much more than they got. A lot of bands that were super influenced by them got much bigger, like No Doubt and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
You’re not releasing new music every year – there’s space between releases. Is Punch-Drunk Life a product of the pandemic and not being able to go out and play shows or did you have a plan to work on new music in 2019 or 2020?
PAUL: It is a product of the pandemic. We were starting to work on it before the pandemic, we were getting together. I had written a lot of the songs that made the record before the pandemic and we were starting to do pre-production. I remember the last few weeks before quarantine, we were getting together and the virus was already out. We were meeting at my place and wearing masks and still trying to work on these tracks. Some of the stuff that we had worked on made it to the record. The bigger story is that we had a decent measure of success from our last record, Gravity Well, that came out in 2014. We toured on that record for two years pretty hard. We had some good things happen, grew our fan base, and played some big shows but it hit a point where members who had been with the band for a while just couldn’t tour as heavily or be as available for the band due to kids being born and other understandable things. It just took a little while for the band to figure out, “How do we work with that? Maybe we have subs for a while and then maybe these members will be available for the big stuff.” It was a lot of experimenting with how we continue to work as a band when there are some members like myself and Stephen Andrews, the bass player, who were like, “Let’s go.” We were wanting to keep the wheels rolling but there were others who just couldn’t. We just had to make changes. That took a while for us to get our head around how to do that. That’s what slowed it down.
I had also written a bunch of songs that I thought were going to be the new Rose’s Pawn Shop record in 2016 and it ended up turning into a solo record for me because it kind of didn’t fit what Rose’s had been doing before. So, all these different factors created a big gap, a gap bigger than I would have preferred. Because of that, we did lose some momentum and I think we’re in a building it back up space right now. People are aware of the band, they’re like, “Oh yeah, Rose’s Pawn Shop.” And we’re having to remind them about us.
I’ve talked to some artists who found some silver linings due to the pandemic. Some spent a lot of time building up a catalog of music. Some took a look at how they had been touring in the past and started thinking of new ways to tour in the future. Some taught themselves how to record their own music. Did you find there to be any silver linings?
PAUL: Almost everything you listed was true for us. It was a good time to write. I have a backlog of songs, more than we could have put on this record. We could probably fill up a couple more records. We already were adjusting our touring strategy before the pandemic, trying to do more targeted dates. It’s grueling to go out for weeks where you might have 3 good shows and then there are other ones that are not great and you’re just losing money. We found a way to be more strategic in our touring and more targeted and going out for short, impactful dates and then coming home and then going out again. We learned a lot about how to make touring more manageable for us.
The beginning part of recording this record was all remote. We did eventually get in the same room and do a lot of it in the studio once it was a little bit more safer to do so. But, it was a learning process and we were able to flesh out a lot of songs just from being at home and sending stuff back and forth. That was necessity but also a learning experience and a cool way to do things.
I still feel like the music industry hasn’t recovered, just like a lot of things haven’t recovered from the pandemic and it’s still weird and a little bit harder to find shows and stuff like that. But, I think there was a silver lining overall.
Are you the sole songwriter in Rose’s Pawn Shop?
PAUL: I’m pretty much the main songwriter for the band. The way it works with us is it’s usually me writing a song solo and then bringing it to the group and we work together to flesh them out. The band helps me with a lot of the melodic lines and arrangements and so forth. But, I’m the primary songwriter.
I think you answered this, but do you write songs knowing the strengths of the band members and then deliver something that is pretty close to being done and having the band members add their parts or is it more of bringing in a sketch and seeing where the band members might take it?
PAUL: We’re more collaborative, less Billy Corgan. I’ll have chord structures and melodies and lyrics and arrangements. But, they often can change as the band gets together. Suggestions are made, “Let’s try it this way.” All of a sudden, there’s a different chord in that place or, instead of going back to the pre-chorus, we’re going right into the chorus. Things like that can change with collaboration with band members.
You are a pretty illustrative songwriter and storyteller. When you write lyrics, are they intentional and with a purpose or are they sometimes stream of consciousness where, after you’ve recorded, you don’t recall where the words came from?
PAUL: I would say it’s 80% intentional. Most of the time I’m writing from real experiences and emotions. A lot of what is referenced on the record, especially when it’s place names, are places we’ve been and experiences we’ve had. Sometimes I do dabble in the more impressionist style of songwriting, where words just have a feeling and I don’t know exactly what they mean. There’s a lot less of that on this new record. There’s a little bit. There’s a song called “High Lonesome” which has a little bit more of that impressionist kind of thing going on. The majority of the songs on this record are very intentional and based on personal experiences.
Within your lyrics, are there any Easter eggs? Anything that family or friends might recognize but the average listener wouldn’t? When you talk about place names, there’s a reference to New Mexico in the lyrics.
PAUL: For sure. On the song “Ghost Town,” on the second verse there’s a lyric that goes, “I could disappear to a place I know that’s deep in the hills of New Mexico.” That’s referencing a little town called Madrid. It’s a little town that hidden up in the hills. It’s like an abandoned mining town that’s now turned into an almost-hippie artist community. If you’re from New Mexico, you might know about it but it’s not a place most people know. It’s a really cool place and, for years, we played up there at a place called the Mineshaft Tavern. It’s this cool destination place to play. That’s one example.
There’s a song “Better Now” where I talk a little bit about Alaska. Maybe more people would know about that. We started touring up in Alaska in 2018. It’s become a weird and unique tour circuit for us. We go up there like once a year and we’ve made great relationships. We’ve built a fan base up there and it’s a circuit that a lot of bands don’t do. In that song, I reference those tours.
I’m not sure if this was meant to be extremely relatable, but the first lyric on the album is “Hey, the glory days never felt so far from here” in the song “Old Time Pugilist.” I think that could apply to the last couple of years for everybody. Was that written about the situation the world finds itself in or is about something more focused and it just happens to be super relatable?
PAUL: I wasn’t specifically thinking about the pandemic when I wrote that. That was one of the pre-pandemic songs but, for me, that was referencing what we were speaking about earlier. Rose’s had gone through a period where momentum seemed to be in an upward motion for the band. We were having a lot of great opportunities and playing big shows. And then we just had that petering effect after 2016 and we were just trying to figure out which direction the band was going. Not everybody was on the same page and we did a downward trajectory career wise. That song really is about realizing that we’re not quite where we used to be but I have still have something to say. I think of it like a Rocky Balboa song. It’s a prize fighter that still has something in the tank and wants to prove it to himself. That’s where that song is coming from. That opening lyrics, I see how it also points to what a lot of people have been going through. Where are we now? We’re pretty far away from where we thought we were going to be just a few years before.
The other song I focused on was “The Lonely One.” Would you say that’s a reflection on your whole career or is it more about recent feelings you’ve had? You sing about others buying houses while you’re buying a guitar. Is that something that’s always been present in your mind, watching your friends take different paths than you have?
PAUL: There’s a lot of that personal reflection for me I chose an artist life, in a way. I have friends who chose differently. Financially, for a lot of them, things are a lot easier. A lot of that song is about choosing that kind of life and the affects it has on relationships and how, if you’re a touring musician, it can make relationships difficult. Sometimes you have support for those choices, sometimes you don’t. I have a lot of friends whose partners couldn’t put up with it.
I have a very supportive partner. I’m very lucky. The parts of the song that are referencing the relationship not working out because of this person choosing to life a gypsy lifestyle, those don’t directly apply to me but they apply to a lot of people around me that have had that experience. And, the lyrics are also about looking at the things I sacrificed for living an artist life.
When you’re not touring, is your social circle full of musicians or do you have friends who have made a variety of different career choices?
PAUL: I have a lot of artist friends, but I also have a lot of friends that I’ve had since high school. We’ve always been a close-knit group and we all do different things. Some work in tech, some work in the medical field. Just random things. I have a mix, I would say it’s close to 50/50 with half of my time hanging out with musicians and artists and the other half hanging out with friends I’ve hard forever and have maintained a friendship.
Are you an L.A. proper guy, live in the city? Or have you lived on the outskirts, outside of what people normally think of as L.A.?
PAUL: I grew up in L.A. county, more in the outskirts. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and on the very edge of that. There were mountains and hiking trails. The part of the valley I lived in was famous for ranches. There were horse trails and stuff. It’s still L.A. but it had more rural aspects to it.
Then I later moved to Simi Valley which is the next suburb over and it’s kind of the same thing. It has a little more of a midwestern vibe to it even though it’s right next to L.A. It’s a quieter, bedroom community. I left for college, I went to San Francisco for college and when I came back, I moved back to L.A. and have lived in L.A. proper, in the Silverlake and Hollywood areas. My experience of the valley as a kid was a little more removed, it was the quieter part of the city but as an adult I’ve experienced more of the city.
I have to ask, since you live in L.A., any crazy, random celebrity sightings or encounters?
PAUL: Honestly, it’s so many. It’s just how it is in L.A. I worked for a while at a jazz club when I was in town and not touring and Nick Cage would come in all the time. It’s funny because people would sometimes tell me I looked like Nick Cage. I remember saying to him once, “You know, sometimes people tell me that I kind of look like you.” He looked at me and was like, “I see the family resemblance,” real Nick Cage like.
When I was a kid, I was at a gas station and Tupac pulled up and bought cigarettes right in front of me. If you’re going out in L.A., you’re just running into celebrities, it’s part of the deal.
Kenny from Goon told me how he worked at a coffee shop that Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine would sometimes frequent.
PAUL: I’ve seen Zack so many times when I’m shopping. I’ll be shopping right next to him because we live in the same neighborhood. Right before the pandemic, I was in a supermarket with him and he was filling up his cart, just like everyone else was. I wanted to say, “Are we going to be okay, Zack de la Rocha?” But I didn’t say that.
I try not to make a big deal out of it unless I happen to be an actual fan. I might say something. One time, years ago, I worked at a book store and Robin Williams came in. I said, “I’m a huge fan of your work,” but often times I don’t acknowledge it because most times they want to be left alone.
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