Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Chris Staples

The Seattle singer-songwriter discusses his new Barsuk album 'Golden Age' and playing a release show on a steamship.

By Seth Sommerfeld August 16, 2016

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Chris Staples enters his own Golden Age.

There's often a sort of scrappy edge associated with the do it yourself approach to carving out a music career. Chris Staples employed a more tender touch. (Which fits his musical style, after all.) The soft-spoken singer-songwriter recorded and originally released his superb album 2012 American Soft all on his own, but eventually it caught the attention of Seattle's own Barsuk Records, which signed Staples and rereleased the LP on its label in 2014. On August 19, Staples follows up American Soft with the release his new album, Golden Age. With label support and the help of some friends this time around, Golden Age finds Staples expanding his musical scope and instrumental palate while still maintaining his the comforting embrace of his lyrical delivery. (NPR currently hosts a stream the record for those that want an early taste.)

Rather than celebrating Golden Age's release by playing a typical concert, Staples will take to the waters on August 30 and play a show aboard the Steamship Virginia V (general admission tickets are already sold out). For the easily seasick and those that didn't already snag a ticket for that show, Staples will also hit the Tractor Tavern stage on October 8 as the opening act for Rocky Votolato's Makers 10 Year Anniversary Tour. (Update: Staples and Votolato will also play a free in-store at Easy Street Records this Saturday, August 20.)

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Staples about the collaborative nature of Golden Age, the process of finding a concert-worthy boat, and coked up library music.

What are your favorite aspects about Golden Age?

I typically record most of my records myself, but on Golden Age I got to have several friends come and play on certain songs. So I had my friend Ings come and sing a duet with me. I got this guy Andrew Joslyn to record some string arrangements for a song. My friend Daniel Walker got to play some accordion and piano on a song. Stephen Baldock played bass on some tracks, and Mike Freeman played tenor sax. So I collaborative effort was kind of a new thing which was really fun.

I’m really excited about this record coming out just because there’s a variety of tunes. Kind of goes to some unexpected places. These songs are really fun to play live. I’ve got a really solid band this year. All these guys are like music educated, they all majored in music in college. So I feel like I’m the worst musician in my own band, pretty much. [Laughs]

How did American Soft end up getting picked up by Barsuk after you initially self-released it?

I did a Kickstarter in 2011, and recorded the record my myself and put it out. It was out for a little while and my friend Michael [Lerner] from Telekinesis had a copy of the record. He gave a copy of it to Matthew Caws] from Nada Surf, and then they passed it to Josh [Rosenfeld] at Barsuk and kept telling him to listen to it. It kind of took a while. Then I started to talk to Barsuk for a pretty long time, and it just sort of snowballed from there.

How did your approach when making a record change for Golden Age?

It was a pretty compact period of time. I kind of set aside three months to write and record all of the songs. I was a little bit nervous about creating that much material in such a short period of time. But it actually turned out really good, and I think it kept me from second guessing a lot of stuff. I just wrote and recorded in a more immediate sort of spirit.

How does your writing differ with that quicker process?

I think American Soft was a really super personal album, so there was a lot of autobiographical stuff. This album I felt a lot freer to explore ideas or stories that aren’t necessarily personal. There are a lot of fictional songs on the album, which is a bit different for me. It felt like I didn’t have a lot of direction from the label, I could just do whatever. I didn’t have producer. So I just felt like there was a lot freedom for it to be whatever it wanted to be.

How did the idea for the ship album release show come about?

A long time ago, some friends of mine who lived in like Santa Monica, and there was this boat out there that would do shows, and I always thought that was such a cool idea. About a year ago, I started looking around at boats that you could charter in Seattle. There aren’t that many that have capacity over 50, but there’re a handful.

I was really impressed with the Virginia V and the story of the boat. It’s almost 100 years old, and it has been through these different sort of lifetimes. The boat was sort of dilapidated and was probably going to be decommissioned in the ‘90s, but this foundation of people came together to pull it out of the water and they spend $6.5 million refinishing it. It’s just a gorgeous boat.

When I was looking at it online I was just like, “This will never happen. This will never work. I can’t afford this.” But one of my good buddies, Jason Frazier, he worked a non-profit for a long time, so I was just like, “Hey Jason, you should call these people and just act like you’re my manager or something and just kind of get the conversation going.” So we started talking to the foundation and they were really cool, and really helpful, and really excited about the idea of using the boat this way, because typically it’s for weddings and private corporate events.

It wasn’t really intentional, but the album is called Golden Age, and the release show’s on this old boat. I didn’t really make that connection till it was underway, so it wasn’t very intentionally thematic or whatever.

How has Seattle influenced your music?

Well, there’s so much music happening here, so many great players, and so many different bands are touring through here. I moved here in 2005, and I’ve kind of gone away at certain times, but I feel like my musical tastes have expanded a lot since being here.

When I first moved here in 2005, I got a library card and was able to check out like a 100 CDs at a time from the library. [Laughs] So that really helped me kind of have a wider range of influences.

Any particular standouts from the library period?

I don’t know if it really turned into an actually music influence for me, but there’s some early Quincy Jones big bang stuff that was really cool. There’s this Tito Puente album called Night Beat, and it’s pretty mathy, aggressive, kind of coked up sounding music. I was surprised by the energy of that record.

Clearly you’ve taken that element. If there’s one way to describe a Chris Staples record, it’s “coked up.”

[Laughs] Absolutely. I’m glad you’re using your ears.

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