Andrew North talks songwriting, new albums, Phish, rural music, and more in wide-ranging interview

Andrew recently sat down with James Bledsoe of the SLUCast to talk songwriting, influences, making music in a rural town, and more. Here’s a lightly edited transcript:

James: So right now we've got Andrew North from New Hampshire coming up. I know a lot of my viewers are from Alabama, so you're not familiar with him but you'll be interested in his story and also interested in his music. He's got a real cool feel to his groove that we don't really get around here in Alabama. So check him out. Andrew North and the Rangers on Spotify and iTunes and he's also on the SLUCast playlist on Spotify. 

Andrew: Thanks for having me!

J: Really really big fan of The Lost City album. Very big fan. 

A: I appreciate it.  

J: Obviously I'm in Alabama, you're in New Hampshire. So a lot of people here might not know who you are as well as in New Hampshire. They definitely don't know who I am. Well, people here don't even know who I am. So what, for the people here in Alabama - we'll be going international starting this weekend - for those who will be seeing this video either now or later on,  what is your backstory, like what was your inspiration in getting into music?

A: Yeah my kind of origin story. Well let's see. I've played piano my whole life, starting in third grade or something like that, and you know, like everybody, my parents made me take lessons and it actually stuck for me. And I was in bands growing up and through high school and college and I was in a band in college called The Woodshed and we were serious enough that we gave it a go after college for a couple of years. And life kind of happens and that band ended up breaking up.  

I always figured I would have another music project or would fall in with another band or something like that. And I just kind of kept living my life, working day jobs and stuff like that, and didn't...nothing ever really came together. So about 10 years went by and, you know, I had my first kid and I'm sitting there and I'm like "wow I really miss music! I need to keep doing this."

And so it was a few years ago I decided it was time to really make something happen. And that's kind of what I've been trying to do. I started playing solo and playing open mics around town where I live in New Hampshire, and through that I now have a band together and we're playing a lot we're having so much fun. So it's it's really cool and it's fun to... it's completely changed my life to come back to it. I didn't even realize how much I missed it.  It's the best. 

J: You mentioned The Woodshed. I did a little little bit of research on, I think it was the song story for Back in the Shed. You were saying about a guy you used to play with in Woodshed named Jeff. And you were trying to write a similar style around the way he used to write. Now tell me more about The Woodshed, like I know you said you started in college? 

A: Yeah, so we were a college band. You know kind of standard, a little bit too self-indulgent, a little bit "jam-bandy". We would play pretty long, not always to the full enjoyment of the audience. We we have a couple of different styles of songs. My style tends to be a little more composed, usually have lyrics, you know stuff like that. Jeff is just a phenomenal guitarist. He lives out in Oregon now, but he would write these just really cool gnarly, weird funky tunes where there was always something just really strange about them. And they're usually instrumental and usually have space to open up for some solo sections and things like that. And I always loved it and I didn't ever really write songs like that. So I very deliberately tried to sit down and write my own, which is Back in the Shed, referring to The Woodshed. And I got Jeff's seal of approval on that one. So he liked it. 

J: I also read that you said you did, how many takes? When you were in the studio and you finally used the last take of that song?

A: I think we only put in a couple of days in the studio for Lost City. It was me and Pete Casselman, who plays drums and he was the drummer for The Woodshed. We put in, I want to say, two studio days and that tune took up probably half of one of those days. We did it six or seven times and sometimes, you know, it goes very, it's not structured much at all. It has like a little structured piece of the beginning and then it kind of opens up. And so some of the takes were just like a little flat. Some of them nothing really happened. Some of them were kind of cool but not really good to release or anything. The last one went off the rails, but in a really good way and I'm really glad we caught it. It came out really cool. It's one of my favorite tracks on there. 

J: Definitely. I love that song. I can't remember if there was another one I play on that Spotify playlist but definitely Back in the Shed is on the playlist. Actually I've got that on my workout music too. I've been trying to exercise a little bit more. It's got that good groove, motivates me to move. You know it's got a very good groove. What is what is the New Hampshire music scene like? For those of us who have never been to New Hampshire.  

A: Ha! That's been one of the most interesting things for me about coming back to music. With the Woodshedd, we were going in  Burlington, Vermont, and that's a college town, great music town. I think it's become kind of a tour stop for bands from all over the country. If you come to the northeast, a lot of folks stop in Burlington. New Hampshire is kind of the opposite. 

We have some good theaters and we do get some good acts passing through. Where I live, in Concord New Hampshire, it's sort of a notoriously sleepy town. It's the state capital and it's sort of, you know, there's folks in the downtown on the weekdays, and not so much in the evenings and weekends. But it's gotten a lot better, and it's been getting better at the same time as I've been trying to get my band going. So it's been really fun to kind of watch, over the couple of years we've been doing it, a few more people come out, then a few more people are coming out and seeing, like, that there's stuff happening at night here. I don't deserve any credit for that, there's a lot of great bands around here, covering tons of different styles, which is really cool to see and it's great to see in towns that aren't known for music or anything.  We've got a guy who does sort of one-man-band experimental electronic. He's got all these drum machines and analog synthesizers and he does some really cool stuff. And you know we have a lot of straight rock bands. We have some soul and funk bands, and some really good horn bands. So there's  kind of a scene coming together and it's really fun to be a part of that. In Burlington I always felt thoroughly outclassed by the volume of talent that we were up against up there. So there's kind of a small pond factor that's kind of nice, and it's just the nicest people. Coming back to music and connecting with people in that way is so cool, whether it's other musicians or people who come out to see us play and stuff. It just makes my day, and it's a way that you don't connect with people, necessarily, in the 9 to 5 and in regular life. So it's so important.

J: Who would you say would be your top three piano players?  

A: Top three piano players, oh man. There's a lot... 

I went on a serious Ben Folds kick right around the same time I was getting back into music and writing a lot. It's stuff I'd never checked out much before. My wife and I combined our iTunes libraries way back in the day, and there was, you know, this big section of Ben Folds, and I was like "you know I'm not sure this is really for me." I didn't really check it out, but then I started getting into it and I was like "You know this guy is pretty good. He kinda knows what he's doing!" And so I kind of went off the deep end on that and he's an incredible player and a great songwriter. That's something I was really trying to do for a while, was to go from my sort of home base of songwriting where songs end up being five to seven minutes long, if I'm left to my own devices, and that's too long. So sort of recognizing the craft of writing a really good three minute song. I'm still not quite there, I can write a pretty good four minute song, three minutes is hard, man. That kind of planted that seed, like you know, I want that discipline, I want to be able to do that. So that's a big one. 

Otherwise I really like the New Orleans guys. Dr. John, who passed recently, is one of my favorites. And you know I don't pretend to have moves like that, but I'm always trying. And you know, Professor Longhair and that New Orleans style is so cool, and super energetic, and just so impressive. As somebody who plays and tries to keep up, it's kind of mind blowing. 

And then, I would say John Medeski has been a big influence on me for a very long time. I fell in love with John Scofield's A Go Go album. Instrumental, funky as anything, and that album's been in the back of my brain for a really long time. Then I got into Medeski Martin and Wood in college not realizing it was the same guys, and I put it all together. Yeah I'm always watching what John Medeski does and he does this thing where he's just like throwing his hands at the piano and it just looks like "this" (hands flailing) and it sounds incredible, and I can't do anything like that and it's so cool! 

It's always important, I think, to keep your sights on the folks who you will never catch up to. It's so inspiring.

J: Going back to what you said earlier about songwriting, it's interesting that said you have a hard time writing three minute songs. I have a hard time writing anything over three minutes. To get like a five minute song that doesn't sound like just a huge jam session. I fail miserably. \

A: Yeah I think I think I've come to terms with the fact that I'm an anomaly on a lot of this stuff, and I'll write a song and I'll have a couple verses a couple of choruses and I say "this isn't enough..." I need some kind of instrumental break, and then a composed section that's like "boo boo boo boo boo boo" - something weird in there.  Lost City's probably one of the most normal things I've ever put together, which, I'm not sure how normal it is, but by my standards it is, at least.  

Most of those songs came out of that period where I was trying to be very disciplined, and I tried to be like "OK maybe you don't need that extra composed section." So I tend to, again, if left to my own devices and I'm just sort of writing purely for myself, they tend to go a little long and not because... I'm not a big fan of the open ended jam session for the most part either, I think that you can get yourself into trouble with that stuff. But I like to write composed sections that kind of flow one into the other and use a couple of different color palette rather than just writing a straight rock song that has one feel all the way through. And that kind of style is creeping back into the new stuff. We're working on a newer album that's going to probably be a few more of those five to seven minute songs.

J: There's nothing wrong with that. Do you have an album title yet?

A: For the new one? Nothing, nothing yet. I always had ideas for this second Woodshed album, that was gonna be called "Tyrannosaurus". It was going to have all this hard rock stuff. I ended up writing that song, it's on YouTube somewhere. It is a very strange song, called Tyrannosaurus. I don't think that's going to make it onto this album. I've always wanted to put out an album called Tyrannosaurus. I still might do it. I don't think that's this one coming up. I tend to put the album together and then figure out the track order and title way at the end. 

J: Maybe like a bonus track, or a single like a standalone single EP type thing. 

Andrew: Yeah, that may happen. I've got a ton of material, and you know, it takes so much time and energy to, and organization, to pull it all together and get it recorded well enough. So I'm kind of in that place right now where it's time to take a look at everything that's in front of you, pull it together properly, and package it and put it out there, which is a skill set I'm still developing. 

J: Now this new album is going to be you and the drummer? Or a different drummer? Or is it going to be the full Rangers?

A: Yeah it's gonna be the Rangers, which is the band I have in New Hampshire. Pete the drummer lives up in Vermont and I've got some material set aside because I'd love to do another album with him. He just had a new baby a couple of months ago, so we haven't been able to really work on things. So that's something we probably won't get going for another year or so, I would guess. 

The Rangers are a quartet we have here in New Hampshire. The drummer is named Dale Grant. Chip Spangler is the bassist, so we play as a trio sometimes and then we have a great saxophone player named Rob O'Brien. So we have, I think it's like 14 songs, we're starting to record and I think we're just gonna kind of multi-track on our own and then probably go in studio to do a couple of passes with some things we can't necessarily do our own and get the mix and master done and all that. So I was shooting for the fall and now I'm shooting for the spring, so we'll see what actually ends up happening. You know, life is messy.  

J: I think you posted on your page not too long ago where a magazine called you "as New Hampshire as clam chowder", and I enjoyed that title very much. 

A: I know, I've never been compared to clam chowder before, that was a new one for me! 

J: I love that title. I see you post tons a lot of videos on YouTube and I've watched several of them. I love it. I love your style. Obviously your singing, your songwriting. For those who don't know you, How would you describe your style? 

Andrew: Yeah, this is a dreaded question for every musician... My elevator pitch, because I've learned a lot about music marketing and how to do this stuff, you know, so I've been using the tagline of "like Phish meets Ben Folds" which is trying to grab... Well, I'm a lifelong Phish fan, I go to a Phish show at least once a year and it's, you know, that was one of my formative music experiences was getting deep into Phish and saying "oh wait, you can do this?" And that kind of changed the course of my life a little bit. So I always have some of that but you always have to bring your own flavor to it, or reach to other places. So the Ben Folds piece comes from what I was just talking about. Trying to find that discipline, like how do you write a really good song? And Phish is not necessarily known for doing that. And so it's trying to put those two pieces together, and it can be a little wacky, it can have these you know weird composed sections or sort of "musiciany music" that's a little bit technical but also really trying to keep ahold of that piece that's concentrated songwriting, connecting with people emotionally, trying to say something with you with your music regardless of what it ends up being. I usually don't actually know what it is until the song is done. 

So I think that tag line works well. It's really hard to distill it down stylistically. I always say we're a rock band. I guess we're probably not what most people envision when they think of a rock band, but I think of it as rock music and we don't have any guitars or anything! So it's... It is what it is. 

J: So for everybody watching, where can they find you on all your social media and stuff like that? 

A: andrewnorthrocks.com - We keep that up to date. It's got links to the YouTube videos and the YouTube channel, Facebook/andrewnorthrocks, Instagram @andrewnorthrocks. Thank you so much for having me on!

Andrew Grosvenor