We continue with the conclusion of our two-part interview with frontman Matt Browning of Roanoke, Virginia-based alt-country/roots rock group The Floorboards. Still seated in a booth at The Community Inn within Roanoke’s Grandin Court neighborhood, there is Browning, myself, and our mutual friend Wes Lawrence. The latter half of the night is now approaching a crescendo of bar chatter and Lawrence’s growing list of questions for Browning.
To see what you may have missed, click here for Part One of our interview.
Bonham: [to Browning] Is there any difference to your shows, in terms of the festival atmosphere compared to an indoor venue, like a bar or a club?
Browning: Certainly. We try to bring our ‘A-game’ every time. There are differences in simply the time of day. [Laughing] Playing in daylight is an entirely different feeling than playing in a bar at 11:30 at night. Sometimes we all kinda get scared and talk about it, cause we’re like, ‘Do you feel more comfortable in a bar at 11:30? We gotta get outta that habit!’ Because we do it so much, that’s normally the venue for us, is a bar at 11:30 at night. It feels like a comfortable blanket, or something. [Laughing] So when we get out in other places, it’s really cool to get out of that blanket, because it gives us an entirely different perspective. And festivals, especially, because we’ve always seen festivals as ‘our people’. Every festival we’ve ever played at, we’ve been thrilled to be a part of it, and the people that are gonna come, we think they’ll like us. Not in a bragging way or anything like that, it’s like, ‘I think we can win these people over’. And we love to bring our A-game to festivals. We played with Toad the Wet Sprocket recently at Harvester in Rocky Mount [Virginia], which is a large sit-down venue – it’s like the largest sit-down venue we’ve ever played – and we normally don’t play venues where we sit down and listen. It’s actually kind of refreshing to play a venue where people sit down and listen because some of the slower songs can get some attention, and to me, writing the words and telling the story, some of the slower songs, I think need some attention they might not get in other places. In that instance…I forget the guy’s name from Toad the Wet Sprocket…Phillips…Glen Phillips…Glen Phillips, while they were playing, gave us a shoutout, ‘so talk about a band that brings a club-level energy to a sit down room, give it up for The Floorboards.’
Lawrence: It’s been put up, too, ‘cause there’s been an article, I think, The Roanoke Times, or someone else did that…
Browning: It made us feel really good, you know…it was cool he took his time to give a shoutout to the opening band, and he was talking about how a lot of times, club owners send them opening bands, and they’re like, ‘I don’t think this is gonna work.’ But when they heard about The Floorboards they were like, ‘Yeah, we like that. It’d be cool to play a show with those guys,’ and that made our hearts warm. In the same realm, we wrote our setlist for FloydFest last night, and in the process of writing our setlist, we can’t let the people sit down. We might give them one to think about, but we don’t want to let them sit down. We want to bring our A-game, we want them to be dancing, we want them to have as much fun as possible while they’re seeing us.
Lawrence raises his shotglass. Browning and I join in, clinking the glasses.
Lawrence: Here’s to Toad…
Shots are downed and the glasses return to the table.
Lawrence: So that’s Jim Beam’s version of Fireball.
Browning: That’s interesting.
Bonham: Thank you, Wes…
Browning: I actually like that better than real Fireball. [Laughing]
Lawrence: That’s why I ordered it…
Bonham: What are the benefits – and challenges – of a band coming out of a city like Roanoke?
So the largest challenge in being in any band, is that it’s like having five wives. [Lawrence and Browning laughing] Imagine your best friends, and pick three or four of them, and doing everything you did every weekend with them, but it was planned three or four months in advance. [Laughing] It can be…it can be daunting. We all know this is what we want to do, and we’re ridiculously used to being with each other, like it’s your girlfriend or your wife. We spend a lot of time in a van, we share hotel rooms…we, you know…we spend a lot of time with each other. There’s one shower, we have to decide if you’re not gonna shower, if you’re gonna use no-rinse shampoo, or if you’re gonna wait for five other dudes to shower. [Laughing] Just the logistics of it, is kind of the first challenge. As far as being from Roanoke, we love it here, and we love the idea of Southwest Virginia and the New River Valley, and the people here. We love being a part of what’s going on, whether that’s small, medium, large, growing or not. We just love it. We love the people here, and it feels like home, and the biggest thing is, I think, when we go out, we kind of represent home. And it would be very hard to do that if your homebase was somewhere else. We see a lot of bands from Nashville and Asheville and L.A. and Brooklyn, and not hating on those bands at all, but we’re from here, and we’re actually from here. I dunno, it gives us a little more insight on what we’re talking about and where we’re from. I think it can be a challenge because Roanoke’s not a giant city with a happening scene, but Roanoke is a great-sized city with a really awesome scene with great people. Representing the opportunity – I dunno if we’re representing those people or the city – but the opportunity to go out from Roanoke, and it’s a cool place, and if you haven’t heard of it, you should go there. It’s cool to us, and with the internet, it doesn’t really matter where you’re from. You can get yourself in front of anybody, at any time. It’s a little harder to get in front of some ‘magic person’ at a venue, but we have really great stuff here…FloydFest is right down the road, lots of amazing things happening right here. We’re on the I-81 Corridor, we’re halfway between New York and Nashville…we can get anywhere we need to be in the van.
Bonham: At this early stage for the band, talk about the balance between the band and families, as well as your side projects as the group keeps working.
Browning: The band is our – in a way, it’s all of our babies. I have a day job, and I work between 40 and 50 hours a week there, and the band is still what I’m thinking about all the time. My wife is going to Vanderbilt to get a PhD. and she drives down there every other weekend. She has a day job, too. Now we don’t have any kids, so that makes it a little bit easier to accomplish our own thing. We’re kinda in a ‘get shit done’ mode [Lawrence laughs] and it makes it easier for our relationship. She’s amazing. She has always been the biggest supporter of me, and I try my damnedest to be the biggest supporter of her. I think the other guys have very similar situations. Bob is a grandpa, and he has really great and supportive family. He gets to hang out with his grandkids during the week, and we try to get home on Sundays in time for them to grill out and hang out. It’s kind of an interesting thing. A little bit of all ends of spectrums in life, represented in the band. When we’re together, we’re just dudes that play music. So, like anything that has a schedule and takes your time, and you have to plan three to four months in advance. It can be taxing and daunting, but I wouldn’t pick a different group of dudes to do it with. It’s really cool when we get together and get in the van. It’s band time, it’s work time. And I say work time, but it’s so much different than working at work, you know. It’s a very open headspace – we’re riding in the van and what CD’s are we gonna listen to next? Are we gonna listen to Gentle Giant prog stuff from the late 70’s, are we gonna listen to Sam Cooke? I mean, there’s no telling.
Bonham: I listened to Sam Cooke last night.
Browning: There you go. [Laughing] It’s just fun being with the guys. That doesn’t go without its challenges.
Lawrence: You have one of each, though, don’t you? You have a grandpa…Jake has…What does Jake have?
Browning: Jake has a two-year old and a seven-year-old.
Lawrence: Okay, and you’re married…
Browning: Married with no kids. Chris is a bachelor with a girlfriend. Chris lives by himself and builds amps and cars in his kitchen.
Browning: And George…is just George.
Lawrence: George is king.
Browning: George is George, man. He’s hanging out. He’s the king of Blacksburg.
Lawrence: That’s cool, ‘cause you have—
Browning: We have a little bit from all realms of life represented in The Floorboards.
Lawrence: And that’s kinda what makes that mix perfect.
Browning: It is…and there’s always conversations in the…I keep saying the van because we spend most of our time in the van.
Lawrence: It’s your house—
Browning: [Laughing] You know, the stuff we talk about in the van, it ranges from changing diapers to…[Lawrence breaks out in laughter]
Lawrence: Picking up girls…
Browning: You know, picking up girls, the first time you ever picked up a guitar…to ‘my car smells like this, what do you think is…’ [Lawrence laughs]
Browning: ‘My left front tire has got a wobble to it,’ or [Laughing] ‘My wife wants me home at three o’clock tomorrow…’ [Lawrence continues laughing] ‘You assholes better wake up.’
Bonham: Awesome…So tell us about the new album.
Browning: Yeah, so we started on the new album. We’re out at Summit Sound in Eagle Rock, Virginia – a really beautiful place, and we’re extremely lucky, it’s Jake Dempsey’s studio that he’s just started. The entire upstairs in this house, he completely turned into a studio and really great sounding rooms, really amazing atmosphere. We’re kinda torn between wanting to drink beer all day and hang out on the river, and actually getting things done, which is bad for us, ‘cause we’re not that…we’re driven, we want to do things, but as far as like, if the option is drinking beer and hanging out on the river, or buckling down and figuring out what to put down for the rest of eternity, [Laughing] a lot of times we’ll choose drinking beer on the river. We’ve been in the studio for two weekends now, and we’ve come up with some really cool stuff – different ideas with what we were currently playing – which is a really interesting part of being in the studio. You can listen back to it. I think it’s gonna be good. I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but the collaboration that’s happening in the studio, and having the time; I think the biggest thing with this one is we want to take our time and not linger on it forever, but be done with it when it’s done. The first album, we needed people to know what we were all about. We needed people to hear our music, we needed something they could take home. This one, we want to make a sophomore release in the total term of the sophomore release. We want to move it up, we want to step it up, and we want to make it what it is. Like I said before, we’re trying to make everything very organic. Everyone in the same room, at the same time—
Our waitress stops at our table and picks up the empties.
Waitress: You guys okay?
Waitress: You need anything?
Browning: Doing good…[To Bonham] And, no click tracks. Very organic tempo, keep everything together…if it’s not together, we start over. That sorta thing. I think it’s gonna be a good one. We’ve been playing some of these songs out on the road for a little while. Some of them we’ve been saving up for people to hear when we let the album out. But it’s really been a good process so far, and I can’t wait to keep working on it.
Wes motions for the recorder.
Bonham: Wes? [Handing the recorder to Lawrence]
Lawrence: No, don’t let me go…[Looks at list of interview questions] You still going into these?
Bonham: Ah, we can…
Lawrence: I can jump back into things…You want to hit stop or just keep it rolling?
Bonham: Just keep rolling.
Lawrence: Okay…the big thing…is this a Matt Browning interview or a Floorboards interview?
Bonham: Both. I’ll market it as a Floorboards interview. [Lawrence laughs]
Browning: But all The Floorboards interviews are Matt Browning interviews. [Laughing]
Browning: Unfortunately for the other guys.
Lawrence: The big question I’ve always wanted to ask—
Browning: I let them read them, and I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ [Lawrence laughs]
Bonham: I’m just gonna let this go as a large feature, like what I’d do for American Songwriter, it’s going to be a big piece…to spread the word.
Lawrence: [to Browning] The bigger part of this is [Bonham] gets to go home, put this on his headphones and laugh his ass off at you and I bullshitting the entire time.
Browning: That’s all right. I record band practices. [Laughing]
Bonham: The banter’s going in…
Browning: Oh, I understand—
Lawrence: So here’s…[to Browning] let Wes interview you for a second. [To Bonham, taking the recorder] Do I need to hold this shit up like a microphone?
Bonham: Yes! [Laughing]
With recorder now in hand, again Wes Lawrence the friend becomes Wes Lawrence the fan, and gets down to asking Browning questions that seemed to have been weighing on his mind for quite some time.
Lawrence: [To Browning] So my biggest question to you is you had songs like I hinted to earlier, that you wrote in high school, and have been songs that everywhere you played, no matter what bands you’re in. We want to hear these songs. ‘Devil’s Cadillac’…whatever it is, there’s multiple ones out there, that I’ve heard you play in three different things. I’ve also seen it recorded in different bands. How does it feel to watch a song which you wrote in a certain atmosphere, and then all of a sudden, change bands you’re in, to the point you’re at now?
Browning: So for me, the song always felt the same. When I wrote the song, it’s really cool to see the song grow with different people, and I think those songs that you’re taking about, have always been growing. You know, I’m able to take things from the first band and the second band, and some people may not thing that it’s a great thing that I play these songs with different bands, but they are my songs, they’re my babies – they come with me where I go.
Lawrence: But does it make you feel you’ve grown?
Browning: I certainly feel like I’ve grown with those songs. But to me, when I think about the first time I played ‘Devil’s Cadillac’, on the couch…to me, when I play that song, I think about that song, it feels the same. I mean, it’s probably how you’re parents tell you, if you had siblings, how they love you both exactly the same. Even though your sibling might be a shithead. [Laughing] So, this is my thing, and it was my idea, and it certainly grew, and I love to see other people’s takes on it and what other people add to it – and I’m not saying it was perfect for me the first time I came up with it, either – it was just…when you—
Lawrence: You got to watch [your music] grow—
Browning: I got to watch it grow and I got to see it flesh out. The funny thing is, when you create something like that, you hear so much more in your head, then what you can actually convey to other people. I may just be playing an A-minor chord, [Laughing] but I’m hearing all this other stuff. And I’m assuming a lot of times everyone else hears that, too. I’m like, ‘Oh, wait, they can’t; that’s all in my head.’ [Laughing] So hearing other people’s takes on the melody and adding in other fills and solos and things there, and the tempo of the song even. ‘How quickly should we play this song? Should we slow it down? Where should the dynamics be?’ That to me, just feels like when you wake up…brush your teeth and comb your hair. It might be the same way, or it might not be [Laughing] – but are you really worried where you parted your hair?
Lawrence: That’s well done…well done. So on top of that, though, so when you change it throughout the bands, was it always something that you wanted to see, or did other people start playing it differently and then you clicked in and went [snapping fingers] ‘You know what? Let’s go in that direction’?
Browning: So normally, the way I feel about this – very similar to the way I feel about everything – is that everyone should have a say, and everyone should be given a chance to have a say. It doesn’t always mean your say is going to align with everyone else’s. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the way that the group wants to go. And it doesn’t mean that I’m support the answer, but everyone should have an opportunity to give their opinion, to play their part, to…have an idea. I see the band as a…you know, not democratic in the way that we think of government, but democratic in the way that we think of everyone has an option, and everyone has a say. The band in that way. It takes multiple people to be in a band. It’s no one person. I stand slightly more up front than these guys, but I still have no idea what to say to the crowd. I’m the frontman ‘cause I sing…it takes all five of us to do what we’re doing.
Lawrence: So you jumped right into my next question. [To Browning] You make me sound awesome, Matt. I appreciate it. As this band progresses itself, what’s the comfort level now going into this new album, of letting them create things and you being a part of it?
Browning: That’s a really good question. Recently in the studio, the guys came up with a song, led the song, and they all played it. I’ve never heard this song before – ever – and we laid it down on tape. I recorded it on my cell phone, because I needed to hear it so I could write some words for it. That’s the first time that’s ever happened. I’m not gonna say it wasn’t daunting and overwhelming for me, but it’s kinda like, ‘Well, shit, I don’t even know…I gotta listen and see what the chords are even are to this song, so I can sit down with a guitar and figure out what I want to say. And that has always been – in other bands and all throughout my life…when other people came up with the driving idea of a song, especially if it had a guitar riff. It was harder for me to write the words. I’ve found, in the growing process of being in a band, that a lot of that is my…I don’t know the right word, but I’ll call it ‘shyness’…I don’t want to step on their toes of what they were thinking for their song. And the great thing about the guys that I’m playing with, is that I can sit down and say, ‘You came up with this riff – what do you think about this?’ We did that last night in practice with a certain song. I wrote the words, Chris ended up coming up with the guitar part, and that kind of morphed from I’d written the melody and chords, and Chris changed it just slightly to make it more rock & roll, more guitar-friendly, more crowd-friendly…just a real Stones-y crowd pleaser. And in that process and practice last night, I was like, ‘What do you think if I play harmonica right here?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, try it out. Let’s see.’ And we tried it out, and they were like, ‘That’s what needs to go there.’ And if I was sitting home alone, thinking about what four other dudes think about me doing ‘X’, it’d be a lot easier for me to distrust myself. The good thing is being in the room with them, like, ‘I know this harmonica part’s not gonna be perfect, ‘cause this is the first time I’ve thought about it doing this together, but let’s try it out.’
Bonham: [To Lawrence] Wes?
Browning: This is getting weird, Wes. [Laughing]
Lawrence: All I can do is compliment him on that. [To Bonham] You can go ahead, Matt.
Bonham: I’m good.
Lawrence: You’re done?
Browning: [To Lawrence] He’s got all kinds of shit to write about. We’ve been talking for an hour!
By now, everyone at the table is laughing hysterically.
Bonham: I’ve gotta transcribe all of this, Wes! Forty-five minutes of talk.
Lawrence: Is this supposed to be a book?
Browning: Normally, my interviews with people last about…six minutes. [Laughing]
Bonham: [To Browning] Matt, thanks man. [shakes Browning’s hand] Wes…thank you too.
Lawrence: [To Bonham] Remember that last part, because you’ve got a good story right there.
For more on The Floorboards, check out their website and iTunes. The group is currently working on their new album while touring the Southeast well into the winter months, very likely to a town near you.