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Interview: Tombstones in Their Eyes

30 May 2023

Photo by Karin Johansson

John Treanor is proud of the fact that Tombstones in Their Eyes has a unique sound. Some have called it shoegaze while others have called it psych rock. It’s neither. It’s both. The band’s third full-length, Sea of Sorrow, is a syrupy ride through a lava lamp where time moves slowly with a fuzzy warmth. On the surface, the album title may indicate a depressing listen, though Treanor’s lyrics – often based on the good and bad of real life – shine with moments of hope, of making it through to another day.

With a few dogs in his lap and clamoring for attention, Treanor joined me on a Zoom call to talk about the album, the band’s label, and reveal the music that has inspired him throughout his recording career.

The album was released on a Tuesday, which is when albums used to be released. Was that intentional?

JOHN: I had no say in the matter. I don’t know how they decided that, but I was fine with it. I just wanted to get it out. It’s been ready for a long time. The vinyl, we didn’t get for a while, but the record itself has been done for quite a while.

Was it difficult to sit on it for so long?

JOHN: Yeah, because I write a lot. I’m very prolific, and I already have, like, 30 more songs ready.

Is there anything you learned during the process of this album that you would change the next time?

JOHN: That’s the thing about being on a label. You kind of have to go with the flow as far as their release schedule. I mean, really, I could release another album tomorrow. I have to get it mastered but we have a lot of songs and I’m going to try to get the next one started. I don’t know if it’ll come out this year, though, but hopefully early next year.

Is it important to you to have something physical to release or would you be willing to put up a record tomorrow digitally if the label was cool with it?

JOHN: I would. There’s been a lot of talk at the label about that, and at one point they were like, “No, we don’t want to do that.” They wanted to release everything simultaneously. But I’m going to talk to them again about it. I don’t see the point in waiting. It’s not like we sell a ton of vinyl at this point. That may change.

You’re on Kitten Robot Records. Because it’s not a huge label, does it feel like a family? Do you know the other bands on the label?

JOHN: Yeah. The backstory is that Josie Cotton, who’s been around for a long time, she had a hit back in the ‘80s, she has a studio called Kitten Robot Studios, and that’s where we record with our favorite producer, Paul Roessler. That’s been in existence for a while. She owns it so that she can record there and other people can record there. So we’re part of that family already. And then when she started a label, it was a natural sort of fit, and Paul recommended us for the label, and they accepted us, and that was great.

Do you have to be involved in the business side at all?

JOHN: Yeah. I still pretty much pay for a lot of the things. I kind of like that in a way, because I have more control, and they’re not like a big label with money, and there’s no money in the industry anymore anyways. In a lot of ways, it’s still fairly self financed, but they do have publicity, and it’s just nice to have someone else putting out your stuff.

Have you had one of those “Big in Japan”-type situations? Do your records tend to sell well in some place you wouldn’t expect?

JOHN: Not really in the U.S. but I think we do better in Europe. They’re more receptive to the psych rock stuff.

Would you say this album is a Covid baby?

JOHN: No, because I write most of the demos in my basement so there was a certain period of time where Covid kind of messed with the recording process because I take them all into the studio and then we add drums and bass and tweak the guitars or add vocals. It was harder to get into the studio for a while but that really didn’t stop me. We have a 30-song backlog and we have had that for a couple of years so we released an EP just to get some songs out there. Then, this record came from sort of the cream of the crop from the songs that we had. I’m still going into the studio and now it’s easier to get in and do stuff. But, I would say the only influence that Covid had was that it added to the chaos and anxiety and depression.

The album title is Sea of Sorrow and there are titles like “Trapped,” “The Bitter Ones,” “Numb” and “Dead Inside.” It’s not exactly the most cheerful album released this year.

JOHN: Somebody called it the “anti-feelgood hit of the summer.” And then another review came out today that said there’s definitely some hope in the album. That’s the thing with us, it’s never just “poor me.” It’s real stuff. And I use it as a form of therapy, to a certain extent. I get those feelings out. And, in doing that, that’s where the hope is, that I’m connecting with other people. I’m doing something creative to get those feelings out and I think there are feelings that most people can relate to.

I saw a great quote from Nick Cave where he said he could listen to sad songs all day long. It’s pop songs that make him want to slit his wrist. I kind of fall into that camp. Somebody forwarded me a thing where he’s talking about addiction and creativity and he’s basically saying, because people say, “I’m more creative when I’m on drugs,” that that’s ridiculous. I found that to be the case.

You’ve been through addiction and have come through the other side. When you were taking drugs, did you feel like you were more creative?

JOHN: No. My history is that I got clean and sober and when I was 27-years-old, stayed that way for a long time, and then I relapsed. And in that relapse period, I maybe wrote one or two songs that were okay, and one of them is on this record. It’s called “Numb.” That was written while I was loaded. But since coming back, I’ve written like 20 songs in the last couple of months. I’m way more creative, not on drugs. You think that sometimes that “I’ll be loosened up and I’ll be able to express my innermost self,” but it’s like not really like that. You mostly just can’t find the energy. You just want to veg or whatever.

From either personal experience or things you’d heard, what drugs pair well with the new record? Not that we’re condoning taking drugs while listening, of course.

JOHN: Well, I wrote “Numb” when I was on klonopin and a mild opiate. Mostly my relapse involved pills this time. So I guess I have to say downers to answer your question.

The three songs that I’m really gravitating to on Sea of Sorrow are “Trapped,” “Hey Man” and “Numb.” You mentioned that “Numb” was written a little while ago. What about the other two? Are those newer songs?

JOHN: No, those are probably even older than “Numb.” They’ve been around around for a while. “Trapped” is probably the oldest, then “Hey Man” next. “Hey Man” was a weird one. I don’t know how I came up with that one. We always do a song like “Trapped” on our records. We have one called “I’m Not Living in Pain” that’s similar where they’re just sort of juggernauts where I just sing the same thing over and over. I don’t know why I do that, but it just happens. “Hey Man” is pretty different.

James Cooper is your songwriting partner. How did that relationship start?

JOHN: We were friends from like 13 to 18. Our moms are both from Finland, so we met through that connection. And I went on a punk tour with him when I was 18. He was playing bass in his band called Battalion of Saints. After I turned 18, I went back to L.A. to go to college. He went off and did his thing and what he did was play with them and then he sort of dropped off and played with the band called the Meatmen. He came back to L.A. and he played with kind of a hair metal band called Rock City Angels. We didn’t talk for a long time. Then, I was having lunch with his sister like 10 years ago and James and I reconnected. We became best friends. That’s how Tombstones in Their Eyes started. He lives in New York City so we trade projects via Garage Band.

When you started playing music, it wasn’t the style you’re doing now. Did you start off playing punk rock?

JOHN: Yeah, I was a punk rock kid. I was 15 in 1980 and that’s when I got into punk rock. I spent a few years doing that. It just expanded my mind because back then punk rock wasn’t necessarily just hardcore punk. I was into stuff like The Gun Club and The Cramps, and then I got into the underground independent rock scene, like the Butthole Surfers and, later on, the Spaceman 3 and Pussy Galore, who I was a huge fan of. There’s always been a vibrant scene and I would say I was informed by punk rock but there’s been so much more since. I feel bad for the people that are stuck in that time period.

Was there a particular moment with a particular band, or a particular show, or a particular song that sort of set you on the direction you’re on now?

JOHN: I would have to say it goes back to that first day where I bought the Germs record and the second Devo record and put them on, and that just changed my world and that led me to where I am now.

Is there a decade of music that you find yourself going back to? Something that feels like comfort food?

JOHN: It’s hard to decide, from the ’80s to the ’90 because in the ’90s I discovered the Brian Jonestown Massacre and they were a big influence. The ’80s, I really liked a lot of the stuff, the punk rock and stuff like The Gun Club and The Cramps. I still listen to Pussy Galore all the time. So, maybe the ’80s.

While I’d probably also pick the ’80s or ’90s, there is so much good music that I didn’t hear from the ’70s that I feel like I discover really good music from that decade all the time. It’s new to me.

JOHN: I would agree with that too. I got into music pretty young. My dad took me to see The Rolling Stones in 1975 and I was into The Beach Boys and Elton John’s early stuff. And KISS and Aerosmith. I mean, Aerosmith ruled in the 70s, not like they are now, for sure. If you listen to that live bootleg album, that’s fucking great. “Train Kept A Rolling” is something I keep going back to.

Was there ever a point in your pre-Tombstone in Their Eyes days, back when you were playing in other bands, where you felt like were on the verge of making it?

JOHN: Not really, except I was in one band called The Boxing Lesson in the early 2000s. I don’t know how to describe them – indie rock, kind of post-rock, but still rock. We were doing good. We were at the point where the cool clubs were calling us to do shows, opening for bands like Lambchop, who we opened for at the Knitting Factory because they contacted us. But then our singer got into crack and kind of ruined it.

Are there any artists that people wouldn’t expect you to like but that you’d defend to your death?

JOHN: I guess I’d have to go with Elton John. Because of what he’s become, people don’t appreciate stuff like Goodbye Yellowbrick Road or Funeral for a Friend. And there’s another one, The Tubes. The live version of “White Punks on Dope,” God, that’s just so magical.

I’m not a big pop fan, so I don’t have any of that but there are some things like that that maybe people wouldn’t consider cool that I love. I did like Mötley Crüe back in the day, and their first few records are great, I thought. And Ted Nugent. I liked Ted Nugent as a 12-year-old or 13-year-old, but that’s not something I’m going back to.

Are there other bands in L.A. doing what you’re doing? Are you part of a scene?

JOHN: Not really. I wish that was the case. I see lineups in other cities where there are five different cool bands. Maybe there’s that kind of scene going on in L.A. I don’t know. Because I’m older, I don’t go out to shows that much. But I guess I would notice because I follow a lot of the bands I like. I’ve tried to compile lists maybe of bands that I’d like to play with and it’s actually been kind of hard to pilot.

You’re playing an album release show. What are the other bands you’re playing with?

JOHN: It’s actually a Kitten Robot Show. So, Kira, who used to be in Black Flag and is our producer Paul Rossler’s sister, is playing. She’s more jazzy and weird. Then we play with CrowJane, she’s more out there, gothy kind of stuff. It’s a varied lineup.

Is more touring in the plans?

JOHN: We don’t play out a lot. We haven’t toured. That may change but I would probably want to tour Europe but that’s a money-losing proposition. I’d have to save up. I still have a friend that books bands in Europe. We were going to do a tour with a band called Chrome, who’ve been around forever and Farflung, who share members, so that would have been cool but then Covid hit.