2014 was good to New Orleans-based band Cardinal Sons.
After winning the 2013 Mountain Stage NewsSong contest grand prize, the band trucked off to Asheville, N.C. to record with famed guitarist and producer Charlie Sexton. The product of those sessions–The Echo Choir EP–came out in July and shows the two-year-old band demonstrating considerable poise and pop savvy. As the band gears up for their latest tour, Cardinal Sons’ frontman John Shirley sat down with INVADE to discuss the business of an indie rock band in 2015, their relationship to New Orleans, and why he thinks their best music is yet to come.
INVADE: First off, congratulations on your new EP and winning the NewsSong contest.
John: [laughs] You don’t need to mention that.
Did you have all five songs written before the contest?
The contest was kind of an odd, fortunate thing that happened to us. We just played the songs that were on our first EP. We knew we’d be recording in March, so we tried to write and demo songs before then to prepare – so yeah, all five on our new EP came about since the contest.
Why “The Echo Choir EP”? Why “Cardinal Sons”? What’s in a name?
The Echo Choir came about because the studio is called Echo Mountain Studios and I kinda like the sound of echo, but also I kind of like the idea of us looking like a choir. We put harmonies in a lot of our songs – and the studio itself is an old converted church – so I kind of liked the idea of us posing as the “Echo Mountain Choir.”
Cardinal Sons as the band name wasn’t my idea; it was Joe’s idea. And I’ve never been in love with it, probably because it wasn’t my idea [laughs]. But he liked it and Dave liked it and we wanted to reference the fact that we were brothers. The cardinal was actually our elementary school mascot.
A lot of people who are in bands describe it like being in a relationship, where falling out of a band is almost like breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend – and then there’s that old adage about how you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. With that in mind, what’s it like going into business with your family?
It’s probably a lot easier because I don’t think we could ever actually “break up,” break up. We could totally not play together anymore, but I don’t know if we could break up, because we’re brothers. In some ways, I think it’s easier; in some ways, it’s harder. We’re definitely very open about our own opinions. In most bands, there’s one kind of dominant personality that writes the songs and kinda runs shit. In our band, it’s not like that at all. It’s very democratic. Everyone has their hand in everything and everyone is super open. If someone’s sucking, you call them out! It’s not as polite – which may also come out because we’re brothers. In a way, I think saying things that need to be said may be harder when you’re just bandmates.
We’re best friends, me and my two brothers, so we can be open and mess with each other – but feelings are also taken into account. I think that’s a good thing because everything’s for the greater good.
Do you guys have day jobs? If so, what are they?
I do. Joe is going to school right now but he’s a composer for film and TV, while Dave teaches drums at Guitar Center and just gigs. I actually work at NOLA.com/the Times-Picayune on the marketing team.
You guys are from Mississippi but you’ve indicated in prior interviews that you’ve made New Orleans home and have no intentions to leave any time soon. What is it about the city and our scene that makes it special? Do you think it’s shaped your sound and songwriting at all?
In a lot of ways, I’m absolutely in love with the city and all of the things to do. It’s not only a great place to live, it’s also a great place to hang out. Like last night, I had no plans and ended up having an amazing night going down to Frenchmen and doing a bunch of bullshit. The music scene in particular is a great thing about the city, especially the indie rock scene. It’s blossoming. It’s in a weird stage – I could talk forever about the weirdness of the indie rock scene in New Orleans right now – ’cause like, five years ago, there were a lot of bands that were coming up that were doing really, really well, but for whatever reason they’re not really around anymore.
The way that the city influences us is that in New Orleans you kinda need to be making people move. You need to make people dance. You can’t sit there and play morbid, slow music, because I don’t think people would respond well to it. Observing the response people have to upbeat, danceable music is what influences a lot of what we play.
Not too many ballads in your repertoire.
No! Exactly. We strive to keep the energy up the whole time. That’s something you have to work hard for and I think in other cities – like I’ve been to shows where people just kind of stand there and bop – but people here just want to dance. They want to have a good time.
That’s why if you see us live, it’s very much an upbeat experience. I think that helps us when we play other cities.
You recently retweeted Dan Wineman talking about the “evolution of music sales”:
What are the economics of an up-and-coming band in 2015? Is it all about grinding out shows, or does revenue from places like Bandcamp and iTunes contribute significantly?
As is the case with a lot of bands anywhere, sales from your recordings aren’t gonna do anything – it’s gonna be a fraction of what you do. The real money is in playing shows. The bands that play a lot and play big shows are probably doing okay, but then if you’re getting bigger shows you typically have an agent who’s taking a bigger cut. As far as finances are concerned, getting into music right now is a horrible idea. It’s the stupidest thing in the world. But it’s one of these things that you just do – and you get by.
Do you think we’re in an era where being signed to a label is more or less important than it used to be?
Oh, it’s not important at all, so much so that I think there are companies now that are basically providing what a label would provide without actually signing bands. It’s like a management contract and they get the distribution out there. It kind of flips a label on its head in that you actually pay this company to do what a label might have done back in the day. You got your PR, your agent, your management company or whatever, and the fractions come back to the band.
It’s all about playing shows, man. That’s where you make your money. I think most bands would tell you that. It’s all about getting out there and playing, which is kinda rough because you gotta keep momentum going, you gotta keep playing. You gotta get out there and play some new cities. You gotta keep rolling with it.
And it looks like you have some momentum right now.
I feel like we have momentum, but we’re taking it somewhat easy through spring 2015. After that, hopefully we’ll get back into the studio immediately. I want to do a full-length album soon.
Currently, I’m working on songs that I truly believe will take us to the next level. I’ve never had that feeling before. Even for the latest EP, it was like, you know, going in there and hoping it’d turn out the way we wanted it to – but now it’s kind of a different thing where I’m like, these are gonna be great. I just know it.
You’re making a mixtape that showcases New Orleans for a good friend in another city. What do you put on it?
We didn’t make a mixtape about traditional New Orleans music – there’s no brass, because people can already get that, and no Dr. John, either. My favorite band in New Orleans is Native America. They’re awesome. I wish we were as good as Native America. They’re so fucking good, their song-writing is so top-notch. That band number one, Caddywhompus number two…
They’re kind of the old guard, in a way.
Yeah, they seem to be the ‘been around a while kind of punk band’ that just continuously kills. And they’re actually coming out with a new record soon.
Number three, Brass Bed: they’re not a New Orleans band, but they come down fairly regularly from Lafayette. Great band.
Favorite venue to play at?
Definitely One Eyed Jacks. Our good friend Jonathan Parish runs sound there and I think the sound of that place is better than any other place in the city.
Hm … well, I guess it’s actually tied for me between One Eyed Jack’s and Gasa Gasa. It’s a smaller room, but they do their shit so right and I love that place. I love the vibe they put out.
Photo credit: Crawford Morgan Photography
Will we ever hear another track like “MONSTA” (a rough and tumble whiskey-soaked dirge that’s a huge departure from the clean pop of their other releases)? Which is to say, will we ever hear Cardinal Sons’ inner Screamin’ Jay Hawkins again?
We just … we killed a lot of whiskey before recording that [laughs]. I haven’t really written anything like that but it’s very much a blues song. Being from Mississippi, you kind of – at least in our case – grow up playing a lot of blues. I basically learned how to play guitar playing the blues. It’s a fun song to play and kind of comes naturally, but I haven’t really written anything like that since then. But I like playing shit like that. It’s fun as hell to play live. That’s typically our closer.
You know we’re done when we play MONSTA.
I haven’t gotten to see you guys play live yet, I’m sorry to say.
I’m actually glad to hear that you were interested based off our recordings because I think our live show is exponentially better than our recordings. That’s just me being honest. I think we’re a really good live band, but we’re still figuring out our recording. I think our next recording will be really good, but to this point, I think we’ve just excelled at being a really great live band. That’s where I think we’ve made fans. Our live show demonstrates who we want to be.