Interview with The Leftovers: By Tyler Sonic

Sep 05, 2010

The Leftovers may be the most authentic pop band in the world right now. That’s not to say that the world necessarily knows this, but few bands woven so extensively into the pop punk subculture throw their arms as tightly and successfully around the ideal of the polished two-to-three minute pop song as The Leftovers. That’s also not to say that they don’t fit into the DIY, get-in-the-van, sacrifice much/gain little lifestyle befitting so many bands in their circle. Understanding why The Leftovers are the way they are, takes an understanding of where they originated and where they stand right now.

Crooning singer/bassist Kurt Baker constantly extols the virtues of partying both on and off stage, making him a Jew-fro’d Andrew W.K. for the pop punk generation. Mild-mannered yet rock-solid drummer Adam Woronoff, who is rarely seen in public without his Red Sox cap on, holds it down perfectly (and most often dance-ably) for Baker and guitarists Andrew Rice and Matt Anderson. Rice, the band’s co-founder with Baker, sings lead occasionally but focuses mainly on generating some of the catchiest riffs captured on vinyl since the era when this band’s pop idols wandered the earth. Anderson, who has expanded the trio into a quartet, matches Rice’s riffage and rarely misses the chance to dive into the crowd, further breaking down the virtually non-existent barrier between The Leftovers and their growing legions of fans on both sides of the pond.

They all grew up in Portland, Maine, a peaceful city of 60,000 that Ben Weasel (the reason I discovered this band) described as “the last great secret of the East Coast.” They continue to write and tour both at home and abroad, despite drummer Woronoff transplanting to the West Coast for a job and the outspoken Baker taking on his own solo work international soon. Their music comes across as unapologetically poppy and straightforward on record, yet cranked in the live setting. When you think about it, that was essentially what made so many people fall in love with power pop and punk when they were new phenomena. Most of The Leftovers songs, a majority of which Baker enthusiastically penned, honestly recall a time when both music and life were a lot simpler. I got to catch up with the band about their current status and their thoughts on everything we take for granted about the “pop” in pop punk as we ventured into Baltimore’s red light district to find beer one Saturday afternoon.

Kurt Baker : Bass / Vocals
Andrew Rice: Guitar / Backup Vocals
Matt Anderson: Guitar / Backup Vocals
Adam Woronoff: Drums

Tyler: I usually start with superficial-type questions and then get into the deeper stuff.
Kurt: Ooh, like National Public Radio, huh?
Andrew: You won’t get very deep with us.
Tyler: In one of the videos you posted on your site last year, you guys were at the Native American Museum in DC, and Adam’s name was on the wall there? How did that happen?
Adam: Well, my family is Native American. My mother is full-blooded. She’s half Lakota Sioux and half Laguna Pueblo. I was actually born in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Although, I’ve lived in New England most of my life, I was born out there. Half my family’s still out there. My mom donated some money for that museum to be built, and they put all of our families’ names on these bricks.
Tyler: That’s pretty cool. Your whole name’s carved there?
Adam: My name’s on there. I’m immortalized in brick! These guys? [Points around at his band mates] They’re not immortalized. And it’s actually a pretty cool museum. We enjoyed checking it out. It seemed like a pretty good representation of…
Kurt: It was free.
Tyler: Yeah, the Smithsonian museums are pretty wonderful like that.
Adam: Yeah. Have you been there?
Tyler: I have. Whenever someone comes to visit me in DC, we’ll inevitably wind up at some of the museums. It’s usually one of the less crowded ones. Not because it’s not one of the better ones, but people usually wind up at the Air and Space, or the Natural History… you know how it is.
Adam: Yeah, we’re down on the tier, but they paid for some of my college, so that was pretty cool.
Tyler: I just thought it was funny because the video was just you reading off your name and not really explaining anything. I guessed you were a member of the Pequots or Algonquins or something.
Matt: Oh yeah! They were both in Maine, I think.
Tyler: So, you all grew up in Maine, and you started the band about how many years ago?
Andrew: Seven? Eight?Our first show was in November of 2002, shortly after we started playing together.
Tyler: How old were you at the time?
Kurt: I was about fourteen.
Andrew: I was fifteen.
Adam: I wasn’t even in the band at the time. I was listening to Nirvana in my room, crying.
Tyler: Wow.
Kurt: Yeah, when we started off we had a different drummer. It was me and Andrew, but we were only a band for about a year before we got Adam. Then we played for a couple years before Matt joined up. He was our roadie for a while. He did a bunch of roadie-ing for us with our U.S. stuff, and then we went to Europe.
Matt: I started in The Leftovers mailroom, you could say.
Andrew: He worked his way up to “Executive Vice Guitar Player”
Tyler: That’s what it says on his business card? So, I wanted to ask you guys about Maine…
Tyler: I was lucky enough to spend a summer up there a few years ago, and it’s one of my favorite places in the world now.
Kurt: Oh man, it’s the only place to be in the summer! I think that people who read Razorcake are smart enough to know that Maine is a hidden treasure, so come on up and party with us, but don’t tell everyone, because it is a special place, where magic happens.
Tyler: As far as it being a special place, it seems like it was always pretty isolated.
Adam: Oh, it completely is. No one ever comes there for tours, except for the best bands, like the Jetty Boys, and I think the Menzingers are coming up…
Matt: We’re trying to get more bands to come to Maine.
Andrew: People just don’t think of it. It is kind of out of the way.
Adam: A lot of bands just stop at Boston on their tours and that’s the destination. Then they go back.
Andrew: Where are you going to go after Maine. Canada? That just doesn’t work!
Tyler: Was there just one place that did all the DIY shows in Portland when you guys were coming up?
Kurt: Where we started out was this place called The Well. It was run by the Salvation Army. We would just hang out in the parking lot. Drink beers and vanilla Cokes and stuff. I would start setting up shows there, just because it was such an accessible place. We would go to see shows before we were seriously playing in any bands, so we all met each other through that. Adam was at the first Leftovers show at The Well, and so was Matt. That was a centralized place for a lot of kids in Portland. There was actually a pretty good punk rock scene at the time. It’s non-existent right now, but we lucked out. By the time The Well closed, we had been playing long enough to be playing in other clubs, too. A lot of really cool venues started doing shows on Sundays, so we would do all-ages shows there. I really don’t think we would have known each other or have become a band if it wasn’t for places like that to go when we were that age.
Tyler: Did you or other bands in Maine have to go to Boston a lot to break any ground?
Kurt: It was really hard for us to break into Boston.We got our start outside of Maine, really, playing in New York City more than Boston. Boston is really tough to break into.
Adam: There’s also a much bigger pop punk scene in New York more than anywhere in New England.
Kurt:New York was the first place we got any real recognition outside of New England. We would do weekends in New York to play with bands like the Steinways and the Slaughterhouse Four.
Andrew: The Unlovables and the Ergs! too.
Kurt: Yeah, that’s how we really got out. I mean, before that we would play with a few pop punk bands in New England like the Guts, but the New York shows were really how we got started touring. We had a record out, Party Tonigh,t that was what we thought we really wanted to do sonically.
Tyler: How old were you when you put that out?
Andrew: Weren’t we all about eighteen?
Kurt: Yeah, I think we’d just graduated high school.
Kurt:Party Tonight was the record that first got us recognition in the pop punk scene. Cheapskate Records put it out. It was just a bedroom label. We actually recorded it in our basement practice space. We got our first tour in England through that. At this point in 2006, we met up with Johnny Rally—who heard Party Tonight—and Ben Weasel.
Tyler: I was about to ask you about Ben Weasel. How did he wind up producing On the Move?
Kurt: Right after we met Johnny Rally, we did our first 7” with Rally Records, which was a brand new label at the time, and we were really proud of it. Every new release we were putting out, we felt like it sounded more like us coming into our own, because we had started out so young. We always knew what we wanted to create, genre-wise, but it was hard for us to get to that point. Anyway, Rally had this contact with Ben Weasel, and he heard it and started writing about it online. When we were in high school, Screeching Weasel was one of our favorite bands, along with the Queers. And we had that connection to the Queers because they were from Portsmouth, NH, which was right down the road from us. The Guts, too, had all played with Joe Queer at one point.
Tyler: Was that how Joe Queer picked you up as his drummer for a little while?
Adam: Yeah. Geoff Useless from the Guts was playing bass, and Rick from the Guts was their drummer, but he bailed at the last minute on a tour. Geoff told Joe about me and I was like, “Yeah! I’ll do it!” Then I learned a million Queers songs, and then we just went for it. I’ve been playing with him ever since. It’s been good!
Tyler: One thing I wanted to ask about, concerning The Leftovers music, with the exception of a couple of lyrics on “On the Move,” like talking about smoking pot while listening to Motley Crüe (“Mind Off You”), most of The Leftovers songs make you feel like you’ve heard them before, a long time ago. They could be oldies covers.
Kurt: For me, song-writing-wise, the early ‘60s and ‘60s pop is the best kind of music. Punk rock is cool, too, in that sense, because you can really play from so many influences, and it can have this intensity and this drive that a lot of pop songs can’t have. But we all listened to oldies growing up and nobody hates a classic song from the ‘60s. I mean, I don’t like that one that’s like “Dooowntownn…”
Tyler: Aw, you don’t like Petula Clark?
Kurt: I think she’s fucking funny. I’d rather listen to Dusty Springfield than Petula Clark.
Tyler: Dusty Springfield was the greatest.
Kurt: That’s the thing. Those pop songs were the greatest. I mean, we all love the early Beatles sound. It just “works.” We all got a lot from the Queers as a punk band because they love the Beach Boys. We want to incorporate that, too. We’ve always had that urgency and that energy. Our guitars are loud, so we try to make something out of it. We’ve always loved the classical sense of a standard ‘60s pop tune and trying to make a punk rock song a true rock’n’roll song.
Tyler: You’ve done shows where you’ve performed mostly ‘50s and ‘60s covers, too, right?
Kurt: Yeah, that was actually a really good way for us to break into the Boston scene because it’s a town full of college kids who love to dance. We wound up doing that a couple of times, and we would sneak in originals, but we also tried to mix in shows on the basement circuit in Allston (in West Boston). ‘60s music is still probably the biggest influence on us. What’s just as important, too, is how much we all love the Ramones, because the Ramones were the exact same way.
Andrew: Yeah, I think the songwriting was more in the ‘60s style, but the playing style was just as important. I simply love watching Johnny Ramone play the guitar. The downstroking, the energy, it was all so in-your-face.
Matt: There’s a difference between onstage and recording, too. Because in recording, we try to incorporate all of the ‘60s guitar parts…
Andrew: Twelve-string and stuff like that.
Matt: Yeah, but when we play, it’s just balls to the wall, in your face.
Kurt:Eager to Please had a way bigger pop influence on it than our earlier stuff because we were working with a different producer. On the Move, with Ben Weasel we had a much bigger say in how we wanted to do it. Eager to Please was our first time working with a full-time record producer/engineer. And he had us work out the songs to a greater extent that we had never done before, which was cool, and we’re psyched that we did that.
Tyler: Your records definitely go for a higher fidelity sound than a lot of the bands on this circuit. They really do sound like they’re ready for the radio. Do you agree with that?
Kurt: I’ve thought about it a lot. Thinking about a lot of the stuff we grew up listening to, between the ‘60s stuff and the early-‘90s pop punk, none of it really had a lot of money put into it. There’s not that much money being put into the records that we’re making, either. But a lot of people who are going for the “oldies” sound try to recreate it sonically, and we’ve always been adamant about making our recordings sound modern. I guess that’s just the best way of taking the classic two-and-a-half minute pop song and presenting it in a new way.
Tyler: Just like the Ramones.
Kurt: Exactly.
Tyler: Have you guys gotten much backlash from others in the pop punk circles, or punks in general?
Kurt: I don’t know, man. I don’t really care what anyone fuckin’ thinks. I remember talking about that with Andrew when we were working on Eager to Please, thinking that some people were probably going to hate this, but we’re fine with that, If a fan wants to hear an Eager to Please song with the intensity that we used to have on records, that’s how we play them live. It’s just a different experience.
Tyler: I might be completely off-base in saying this, but in regards to your touring in the U.K. with Bowling For Soup last year, it seems like Bowling For Soup haven’t been in touch with the punk scene for a while…
Adam: Well, they’re definitely more mainstream than anything.
Tyler: How did that tour happen, anyway?
Andrew: It was Jared (Reddick, Bowling For Soup’s singer/guitarist) who asked us. He actually runs Crappy Records, which is an imprint off Oglio. He just asked us to open up, and we were obviously psyched about it. We were playing for one or two thousand people every night, so it was crazy.
Kurt: It was our first bus tour.
Adam: It was a different crowd than we’ve ever played to.
Andrew: Yeah, they were all about thirteen or fourteen.
Adam: A much more mainstream crowd that listens to the radio.
Andrew: Always a good experience over in the UK.
Matt: I drank a lot of whiskey.
Kurt: The first time we went to England in 2006, it was just a very small, DIY kind of thing. We had some really good shows. We hung out with the Zatopeks and met some really good people, but the Bowling For Soup tour was something totally different. They are a very mainstream band over there, and they do really well.
Tyler: They’re mainstream over here, too. After working as a camp counselor in Maine with ten year olds, I never wanted to hear the song “1985” again.
Kurt: True, but their U.K. impact was huge, too. We were playing to people every night who had never heard us before, and it usually just clicked. You know, everyone loved hearing a good pop song. We knew it was our biggest chance yet, and we wanted to make the best impression possible.
Tyler: Kurt, it seemed like you were behind those at-least-one-a-day tour videos you were posting on YouTube around that time.
Adam: Oh yeah! He’s got the Flip video camera.
Tyler: Do you think that helped connect the Leftovers to more fans that easily?
Adam: The time when I think it affected everything the most was when we were in England with Bowling For Soup, because I guess it was just easier to connect with British fans virally, if you will. They were a lot more responsive in terms of leaving comments. You post one thing while touring the U.K. and they would leave a hundred comments! We would post something from the Bowling For Soup tour, and people would leave comments like “Oh we saw you. You’re so hot!” and they would all be, like, fourteen-year-old girls.
Tyler: So of course you hit that, right? [Laughter] The age of consent is lower over there...
Matt: Nice! Kurt is all set, then!
Kurt: One thing about England was that people seem to really truly appreciate live music over there. They’ll usually be a lot more excited and open to a band they haven’t necessarily heard of, and you don’t get that quite as much in America.
Tyler: You’re going back to England for your solo gigs, right? For that matter, what led to the creation of Kurt Baker: Solo Artist as that stands now?
Kurt: Well, right now, The Leftovers are in different locations, so it’s just to stay active and because I’ve always wanted to do a record of power pop covers that I liked.
Tyler: Just like Danny Vapid did with The Methadones, right.
Kurt: I love that record. 21st Century Power Pop Riot is, I think, one of the Methadones’ best records. I started talking with the guy who produced the last Leftovers record, Linus of Hollywood. Just from a songwriters’ perspective, I wanted to start doing new stuff and working with different writers and collaborating more. Just to try something new and maybe learn from it, because the majority of The Leftovers songs are written by me. Where The Leftovers were as a band, we were taking some time off, which gave me that window of opportunity for this. So, I flew out to L.A. and worked with the same guys who produced the Eager to Please album. Linus of Hollywood played guitar, and Adam Marcello, who is the drummer for Katy Perry, is a session drummer, too. He played all the drums. It was awesome working with them; it came out really good. It’s an EP of covers by Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Blondie, the Knack...
Tyler: Will you be balancing that with The Leftovers for the next couple of years?
Kurt: Yeah, I think The Leftovers have a lot of stuff to do, too, but right now we just have to focus on getting it together and planningThe drive is definitely there and we’re all still into it, we just need to see what happens right now. We had a really great 2009, but in the meantime, I’m up to this, too. Anything I do as a solo artist goes in hand with The Leftovers. If you come to one of my solo shows, you may hear some Leftovers songs and some new songs and covers, but if you come to a Leftovers show, which will be happening, you’re going to get a whole new experience, because we keep experimenting as a band.
 Tyler: By the way, Adam, how are you enjoying living in L.A.? How is the band dealing with that, given that you’re 3,000 miles away?
Adam: I think with the technology today, and certain flights, it’s not unthinkable to think that a band could live on separate coasts and still function for records and tours. I mean, we don’t play every day or do nearly as many local shows, but it still could definitely work. I like L.A. I think that if the whole band was out there, we’d do pretty well. I think we’re more of a West Coast band than anything, with the melodies and the chords. A lot of the stuff that we’re most influenced by? It’s all California music. I think that being a band for so long, all coming up through high school, then we all went away to college created a big enough challenge. I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, for audio engineering. Now, I work for audio in post-production for TV shows. I took out a lot of loans, and now I need to start paying them off. And as you know, punk rock doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. I went out there to start on this career path, but I would still love to play music full time if I could. This is my favorite thing to do in the world: play music, tour, and all that stuff. I think we can still make that happen, especially since I can do my job on the road a lot, with my laptop. It’s very conducive to this lifestyle.
Tyler: It’s awesome that you have a job that lets you do that.
Andrew: And I think we’re all on the same page. I think we can make it work. That’s sweet that nowadays it’s possible.
Adam: And we’d all agree that this is our favorite thing to do. I mean, we all have our own things. Kurt’s got the solo album coming out and a couple other bands getting off the ground, but we can all agree that The Leftovers is our favorite thing to do.