“Have you guys ever heard the Killers?”
While this line would usually come off as some sort of sarcastic banter to an audience of rock fans, Rocky Votolato asks the question with full sincerity. Gathered in front of a few dozen of his most devoted fans in a Ballard basement space on a mild evening last September, the Seattle singer-songwriter explains how disillusioned and musically lost he’d been over the prior few years. One of the things that helped turn things around, he explains, was when his musician brother Cody (the Blood Brothers, My Goodness) introduced him to the Killers’ superb Americana rock record Sam’s Town and they listened to it on repeat while on tour. Rocky goes VH1 Storytellers on the audience and gives context to new songs they’re about to hear for the first time. With the help of producer Chris Walla, who sits quietly at the back of the room, these songs will soon become Hospital Handshakes, Votolato’s eighth studio LP and his best since 2006’s near perfect Makers.
A month later, Rocky, Walla, and Cody spend a rain-drenched October day in the cozy confines of the former Death Cab for Cutie member’s Hall of Justice recording studio. They’re a few days into the two-week process of recording Hospital Handshakes and a positive creative spirit fills the room. Things are effervescently loose. As Walla reorganizes tape and cables after a productive day of instrumental tracking, the trio’s conversation drifts to gushing about amazing concerts they saw in the '90s at defunct Seattle venue DV8 (Radiohead, Oasis, Fugazi, and that Smashing Pumpkins show where a bunch of clowns rushed the stage). But this upbeat atmosphere stands in stark contrast with the darkness and doubt that overwhelmed Rocky in the proceeding years.
“I had finally kind of given up,” says Votolato. “Over a year had gone by and I realized I hadn’t written a song. And that was the first time that had happened since I was 13 years old. I was pushing it, forcing it, and it just wasn’t coming. I finally reached the point where the well had kind of dried up. I had just decided, ‘Well, I just don’t have anything more to offer musically.’”
Two years ago, Votolato had essentially quit the music business. Even before the release of his 2012 self-produced and Kickstarter-funded album Television of Saints, he was mentally struggling with the creative process. The critic in his own mind had completely blocked his writing process, and he was “kind of going crazy.” Frustrated by the lack of forward artistic momentum, he turned away from the music business and tried a string of real jobs: bookstore employee, software company worker, but nothing clicked. Votolato found himself trapped in an ironic conundrum: He couldn’t write music, but music was the only way he could deal with the problem of not being able to write music.
“The music’s always been there for me to work things out,” says Votolato. “It’s there as a creative outlet, of course, but it’s a place to work things out and to heal. And I see the therapeutic way it can help other people deal with the same kind of things that I deal with.”
Votolato’s own healing came gradually, but persistent pushes by his wife, Cody (with a slight unbeknownst assist from the Killers), and other family and friends helped him rediscover his voice. The dry well became a flowing fountain, and Hospital Handshakes came cascading out of the spout.
“It was just a real painful time of transition, but I’m so happy that it finally flipped over and I started writing again,” says Votolato. “I’ve been writing like crazy, and that hasn’t stopped, which has been really wonderful.”
Hospital Handshakes marks the second time Walla has produced a Votolato record after previously teaming up for 2003’s Suicide Medicine. Still, Votolato—who asked Walla to produce the new album via voicemail—revels in the working relationship. At one point when his producer is fiddling with cables, Rocky drops his head, points at Walla, and whispers, “He’s a genius! I’m not even joking,” with a level of pure glee one would expect from a kid with Transatlaticism lyrics tattooed on their skin.
Perhaps Votolato’s favorite aspect of the recording process comes via his return to analog tape recording after 10 years working in the modern digital recording realm. It simplifies the process for him. He beams when recalling how he was unable to hear a take from earlier in the day because they’d already recorded over it. “In computer land, you have to sit there and think about it,” says Votolato. “But instead of feeling like I had lost something, it was like I’m free. It puts you back in the moment instead of opening you up to a world of criticism, which the computer does.” There was no more fretting over the search for unattainably perfect takes. That’s not to say that anything is haphazard about Walla’s recording process. Quite the contrary. Walla and Cody spend well over an hour swapping effects pedals, twisting amp knobs, and switching six-strings trying to find the perfect guitar tone for the album’s title track. It’s about honing things to a point where the guys can feel at ease about it.
The enthusiasm for the old-school tape-recording process eventually leads to the following patter:
Chris: “Working on tape is just so easy. The stuff just happens, and it’s done. You don’t have to look at it and decide what colors you want tracks to be or little shit like that.”
Rocky: “You don’t get option overload.”
Cody: “You never hit Apple + S or Apple + Z” [the essential quick save and undo command in digital recording].
The first striking thing about Hospital Handshakes is the fullness of the album’s rock sound. With the help of Cody, bassist Eric Corson (the Long Winters), Andy Lum (My Goodness) on drums, and aux instrumentation from Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens), it ventures further from the folky vibe that has colored many of Votolato’s records. Songs like “The Hereafter” and “A New Song” also feature a tinge of aggression that’s hasn’t been present in his music since Suicide Medicine. The lyrical honesty and sincerity that’s long been Votolato’s calling card still shines through as he tackles the demons that threw up mental blocks and almost made him abandon music making.
“A lot of this album is about trauma and dealing with trauma,” says Votolato. “I just opened up again and realized the things I had been dealing with and thought I had kind of dealt with: severe depression, anxiety, super self-critical attitudes, self-hatred, and all kinds of guilt. These deep issues that we all carry to a certain degree throughout life, but were severe for me and I thought I had kind of closed the door on. I thought, ‘Oh, I have all that under control,’ and then I realized, ‘No, I don’t have it under control at all. It has me under control.’”
Over the course of Hospital Handshakes’ 11 tracks, Votolato audibly sizes that control back. The once-dominant doubts have left his voice on the album’s opening track (“Boxcutter”) as he as he repeatedly sings the refrain “Trust that everything’s happening is perfect.” Votolato’s given up battling himself, but he’s not given up.
Rocky Votolato: Hosptial Handshakes Release Show
Apr 24 at 8, Fremont Abbey, $15–$18