Democracy in Action | Irving

We’re having a good time, and you’re having a good time, but the human experience is sometimes a little bit shitty. 

 

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March 2006 was a pretty good month for democracy, from people en masse protesting the sales of U.S. ports (and actually succeeding!) to the citizens of a small Vermont town declaring their intent to impeach a president. In April, a quintet that’s grown famous for their democratic approach to songwriting hopes to continue to do the Constitution proud.

“First off, I like the fact that we’re famous for something,” jokes Steven Scott, guitarist and one of five singer-songwriters in the Los Angeles indie rock band Irving. Originally formed in 1997 to perform at the opening of a local art gallery, the band has grabbed attention for sharing the writing and singing duties among all five of its members: Scott, bassist Alex Church, guitarist Brian Canning, drummer Brent Turner, and keyboardist Aaron Burrows, who joined the band in 2002 after the departure of founding member Shana Levy. The band’s actual songwriting process isn’t quite the compartmentalized, every-man-for-himself style employed by multiple writer bands from the Beatles to Sloan, nor is it free-for-all jam sessions in which the band collaborates in real time.

“It always is different because there’s five of us,” Scott explains, “so however it works for that particular song is how it works… Sometimes, somebody makes up a song, and they bring it in to us and say, ‘I made this song, check it out,’ and it’s done. Other times, let’s say I come up with a chord progression and I’ll call Brian and say, ‘It’s a melody and it goes like [hums]’…whatever. And then, he’ll call me back and say, ‘Hey, does it sound like this at all,’ and then do something. And then, we’ll get together and work on it, write some lyrics for it, and somebody comes up with something else. I mean, we’ve kind of done it every single way.

“The only way we haven’t done it yet,” he continues, “and we’ll probably do it some time in the future, I assume, is kind of…we don’t really jam.”

The band’s collaborative nature is on full display on Death in the Garden, Blood on the Flowers, their sophomore album. Their debut, 2002’s Good Morning Beautiful, was an often sunny-sounding pop record, bringing comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel and their compatriots in the Elephant 6 collective. Death on the surface seems to be a more somber album, but Scott is quick to refute this interpretation.

“On this one we were, consciously or subconsciously, a little more obvious,” he notes. “But if you look at every one of the songs besides ‘L-O-V-E’ on the first record, they’re sad songs, whether they sound happy or not. It’s one of those things, that, if you look at the words, it’s always been kind of melancholy. It sounds fun, and we’re having a good time and you’re having a good time, but the human experience is sometimes a little bit shitty.”

Burrows’ keyboards have a distinctly ’80s sound and amplify the gloomy vibe. On first listen, one might be tempted to compare the band to the reigning kings of synth-rock, the Killers, but that reading falls apart on closer inspection. More morose than glamorous, Irving are the Cure to the Killers’ Duran Duran. Nowhere is this comparison more apt than on “Jen, Nothing Matters to Me,” an epic that sounds ripped from Robert Smith’s songbook, circa 1987.

Not just a retread of the Reagan years, the fivesome pulls in a wide variety of rock-based influences, both from 1980s indie rock and their 1960s forebears, a flourish of Gang of Four’s angular guitars here, a bit of Strokes-style Velvet Undergound worship there. When asked for the members’ mutual favorites, Scott offers a laundry list. “We all love the Beatles and the Velvet Underground and Syd Barrett–era Pink Floyd, and Syd Barrett’s solo stuff, and early Kinks, and the Zombies. And we all love Morrissey and the Smiths and the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees and Depeche Mode. And we all love everything: the Replacements and Yo La Tengo, and Sonic Youth and Nirvana. And we all love Pavement. We all love the good stuff really,” he concludes, proudly.

Far from all doom and gloom, Irving has thrown its fair share of rockers onto Death, including the garage rockin’ barnstormer “Situation” and the bass-driven title track—a much sunnier-sounding song than its title would suggest, and the closest the band gets to the Elephant 6 pop of their debut. Variety was a primary concern in the studio for the band. “We wrote like 75 songs for this record,” says Scott, “and we probably four-tracked like 45 or 50, though we recorded like 20. It’s a matter of—they’re all good, really, even the not-so-good ones are only not so good ’cause we’re like, ‘We already have a song that sounds like that, and I think this one might be a little bit better.’ Or we already have this kind of song, a song that fills this little void right there. There weren’t really any shit songs.”

What’s to be done with all of those excess songs? That’s still up in the air, but Scott has some ideas. “We had an idea of doing a 100-song record. We had to up the ante on old Stephin Merritt there. Screw him—69. I’ll fuckin’ do a 100!” he laughs. “And we also talked about doing a collection of EPs called The Seasons, where we do Fall and Winter and Spring and Summer, and do a bonus one, Autumn, or something. If we made some money and had our own recording studio, we’d be that band that just constantly releases EP, and singles, and records. Unfortunately, that stuff costs money right now and we have to tour to make any money. So, we can’t just sit back and record all the time. The technology I guess is there, but we haven’t bought it yet.”

Scott is easygoing and a bit of a chatterbox (only a tenth of our lengthy interview could fit into this article; click to the next page to read the rest), but when asked what his goals for the end of the year are, he’s remarkably succinct. “In all honesty, I want to be in Japan. In November. That’s final,” he states. “By the end of the year, we’ll be going to CMJ and touring and then it gets too cold to drive around and play in, like, freaking Milwaukee and Toronto. There’s just no way are five California boys going to survive a Canadian winter. It’s not going to happen.”

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The Complete Irving Interview

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PLAYBACK: First question, one of the things Irving is famous for is that songwriting is shared equally among all five of the band members. What’s the process of forming the songs like, in that context?

Steven Scott: First off, I like the fact that we’re famous for something. [both laugh]…Um, but I forgot, what was the question? How do we do what?

What’s the songwriting process like when you have five people sharing the duties?

It kind of varies a bunch of different ways. Sometimes, somebody makes up a song, and it’s really great, and they four track it, and they bring it in to us and say ‘I made this song, check it out,’ and it’s done. And it’s like, everything is pretty much done, except for the bassline or drum parts or something like that, but the song: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge…whatever, you know? Sometimes that happens, words and everything.

Other times, let’s say I come up with a chord progression and I’ll call Brian [Canning, guitarist] and say ‘it’s a melody and it goes like [hums]’…whatever. And then, he’ll call me back and say ‘hey, does it sound like this at all?’ and then do something. And then, we’ll get together and work on it, write some lyrics for it, and bring it in, and somebody comes up with something else.

I mean, we’ve kind of done it every single way. The only way we haven’t done it yet, and we’ll probably do it some time in the future, I assume, is kind of… we don’t really jam. Like, ‘oh let’s just do a jam,’ and then someone goes, ‘this is cool, and let’s make a song out of it.’ We haven’t really done that very much. It usually starts with somebody making up something on their own, like sitting on their bed with an acoustic guitar and just kind of making something up. And then usually what happens, you start collaborating with someone in the group, or a couple people sometimes even, or you just straight up four track it, right there and then. And kind of just, make up some keyboard parts, ‘oh cool,’ or sing a hook, you know, [sings,] whatever, that kind of thing. And then the keyboardist, Aaron [Burrows], might try to figure it out on keyboard, change it up, or do something different. So, we kind of just demo stuff out to each other a lot, and then work on it in the studio. So, that’s kind of how we do it.

Although, we’ve done it every way. "L-O-V-E" from Good Morning, Beautiful was done in ten minutes, words and all. It was completely done. The same with "Lovely Just Like Her" on the new record, Death in the Garden, Blood on the Flowers. "Crumbling Mountain Tops" on Good Morning, Beautiful, that was done in like five minutes, it always is different because there’s five of us, so however it works for that particular song is how it works. So, it’s always different. The formula, we do whatever makes it go. Sometimes we don’t even know, we find a good chord progression and a good melody and some words, and it’s pretty much like, ‘alright, let’s put a quick track up and just start doing the song.’ And we just start layering stuff on top of it, and then putting it all up, and then start stripping it away and stop taking stuff out when it sounds good.

What a very long answer. [laughs]

It’s gonna be like that. And the thing is, the coffee hasn’t even kicked in…Edit me however you want, and then make me sound like an idiot or a genius, so it’ s up to you now [laughs.]

Don’t worry, you’ll sound like a genius, ‘cause that makes me look good too…Now with five separate songwriters in the band, are there a lot of different bands and musical points of view that you guys share in common? Or any bands that say one person really likes and everybody else hates, or anything like that?

Well, the only one I would say, Aaron, noticeably doesn’t actually have an {ode?} that he’s written quite yet, although he writes some good ones. He is into Yes and Rush, and Styx, and stuff like that. I mean, not really, but he really does like them. So we jokingly, I don’t even know, I think he is joking maybe. Everybody else, we’ve all got the same taste in music. We all agree that Neutral Milk Hotel and Belle & Sebastian, and Yo La Tengo and Pavement, are probably the greatest, kind of contemporary, from the mid-90s on, musicians or groups or what have you. And Alex [Church, bass] might say that Pavement is the best, and I might say that Neutral Milk Hotel is the best, Brian might say Belle & Sebastian is the best, but they’re all in our top five. We all share the same – we all love The Beatles and the Velvet Underground and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and Syd Barrett solo stuff, and early Kinks, and the Zombies. And we all love Morrissey and The Smiths and The Cure and, you know, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Depeche Mode. And we all love everything: The Replacements and Yo La Tengo, and Sonic Youth and Nirvana. And we all love Pavement. We all love the good stuff really, so it’s just a matter of – I mean, everyone has their own favorites, but I don’t think there is – and we’re all best friends too. I’ve known Brian since elementary school…and Brent [Turner, drums] and Aaron have known each other since elementary school, so we all kind of just grew up together. Although we didn’t meet those two guys until later. We all kind of have the same pace, we have these parallel lives, and so everyone’s got the same musical taste and so it works out really good. There’s rarely a song that I’m like, ‘what the fuck are they thinking on that one?’ It’s always just, ‘Oh yeah.’

We wrote like 75 songs for this record, and we probably four tracked like 45 or 50, though we recorded like 20. It’s a matter of – they’re all good, really, even the not-so-good ones are not-so-good ‘cause we’re like, ‘we already have a song that sounds like that, and I think this one might be a little bit better.’ Or we already have this kind of song, a song that fills this little void right there. There wasn’t really any shit songs. So, we get lucky, we all have the same influences.

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What do you plan on doing with all the excess songs from this recording?

Alex is all done with his side project, and me and Brian have a side project, and Brent and Aaron, too. We’ll probably all end up being in each other’s side projects, but we have one called The Afternoon, and some of the songs will end up there. And some of them will just not be done. A lot of the songs are from and some of them were just castoffs, and some of them were just never meant to be recorded, so whatever, let ‘em go. You don’t want to do too much stuff that’s in the past, because then you’re not really moving forward. So what we do is, keep those songs, and who knows, maybe they’ll show up on a different record. You know, we weren’t there at the time, but maybe in a year from now when we’re doing our next record, it’s like ‘oh, remember that song that you did, I’ve been thinking about that one a lot,’ you know.

That happened in the process of this recording. We actually turned down a few of the songs early on then towards the end, like ‘you know what song I’ve had in my head? You remember that song you did last year, you know [blah, blah, blah, blah,] let’s put it on again, what do you guys think?, let’s actually do this. I don’t know why we didn’t think it was great to begin with, but it stuck with me,’ you know? We just leave stuff, and I don’t know, we see what happens. Maybe we’ll all have a writing block next year and can’t think of anything, we’ll just release a record of all the stuff we passed up from this one, who knows.

You could always record five solo albums and put them out on the same day, like Kiss did that one time.

That would rule actually. We had an idea of doing a 100 song record. We had to up the ante on old Stephin Merritt there. Screw him- 69, I’ll fuckin’ do a 100! And we also talked about doing a collection of EP’s, called "The Seasons," where we do Fall and Winter and Spring and Summer, and do a bonus one, Autumn, or something. If we made some money and had our own recording studio, we’d be that band that just constantly releases EP’s, and singles, and records. Unfortunately, that stuff costs money right now and we have to tour to make any money. So, we can’t just sit back and record all the time. The technology I guess is there, but we haven’t bought it yet. [laughs.]

From what I’ve read about you guys, you’re involved in kind of a local collective called ‘The Ship,’ is that right? That often gets compared to the ‘Elephant Six,’ which since you mentioned Neutral Milk Hotel earlier I assume you’re a big fan of. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?

No, not really. I guess any time someone says anything about a collective, then people want to compare it to something that’s established. But I have no idea. I don’t know what their situation was like. You know, I like Neutral Milk Hotel a lot, and I think Olivia Tremor Control is pretty good, and I think Apples in Stereo is pretty good, and Of Montreal is good, too. I don’t really know what their situation is like, I mean, apparently they all played on each other’s records and stuff, in which case, it’s kind of the case. I mean, we always play with each other. I mean, we all kind of started our groups: Earlimart, the Silversun Pickups, Pine Marten, you know, we all started playing around the same time, so we kind of just bonded over going to each other’s shows. And we just started playing together a lot, and having barbecues a lot, and having like Thanksgiving dinners and going to each other’s birthday parties, and going to each other’s parties, and sleeping on each other’s floors, and doing whatever.

But to be honest, I don’t really know what theirs was like. Ours is more just like a group of friends that other people started referring to us as "the urban crowd" or "the Earlimart crowd." So we had this whole collective, so we just decided to name it ‘The Ship.’ Earlimart had a little recording studio in their home, just like a little, tiny, A-DAT recording system that they called ‘the Ship,’ so people want to call us something, let’s call it ‘The Ship.’ So we didn’t form a collective, we are just – a big group of friends started to form, and since other people wanted to talk about it, we just decided to call it a collective. If you go to {Glycel?} Park here…we share rehearsal space with – it’s us and Silversun Pickups and Let’s Go Sailing and Sea Wolf. And next door is a guy named Manny, and he has a recording studio. And next door to that one is this guy, Dave {Trumphew?}, who has recorded all of us, and mixed all of us, and mastered all of us, and has recorded Patrick Park and OK Go. And next to that, is now what’s called ‘The Ship’ Recording Studio, and that’s where Earlimart, and the Great Northern, and Pine Marten practice and record. And they’ve all recorded there, we recorded Good Morning, Beautiful. And this is all five, old warehouses that used to be knitting factories, like back in the day, sweatshops or whatever, and they just were abandoned. And we went in and rented them out, and just build our own little bases there. There’s rehearsal space that somebody else built behind there now, and it’s kind of a little rock block now, it’s kind of funny. Everyone’s moved in and started playing rock, and it’s in a total Mexican neighborhood. All the Mexican guys are all cool about it, it’s fun.

So, I have no idea what their gig was. Ours was just kind of a group of friends that record each other’s music, and listens to each other’s music, and supports each other at live shows. We just hang out on the weekend. Ours was sort of friends first, I don’t know if maybe, they got a lot of publicity though. They were like the famous collective, ours is more just…they’re just our friends. I refer to it more as friends than a collective. It’s there, people write magazine articles about it and stuff.

We’ll be adding another one to that list too.

That’s fine. I mean, honestly, I guess it’s something to talk about. All the bands are good. Silversun’s starting to finally get some coverage, and Earlimart took off, well sort of. Whatever, whatever, whatever, whatever. Whatever works. Those guys are great, and it goes even beyond the bands. I mean, there’s a clothing company called Matrushka, and they’re kind of part of ‘The Ship.’ And there’s a few artists, Mel {Kadell?} I’d consider her part of ‘The Ship,’ and there’s a bunch of different stuff going on.

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Going back to your records. Contrasting the two of them, Good Morning, Beautiful has an upbeat sounding title and a lot of upbeat, up-tempo sounding songs on it, and was compared to Beach Boys and The Beatles and Belle & Sebastian. And yet the new album has a very dark title, and a lot of darker sounding songs, Cure-style keyboards, and a lot of mentions of death in the lyrics. What brought about the change between the two?

Well, this one we were, consciously or subconsciously, maybe just in the titles, a little more obvious. But if you look at every one of the songs, besides "L-O-V-E" on the first record, they’re sad songs, whether they sound happy or not. I mean, we go down from "Crumbling Mountain Tops," which is fuckin’ brutal. And then the second song is, I am just lying about sleeping with random people, and how can you live with yourself. And then "L-O-V-E," okay that one admittedly is fairly happy, but then "Sleepy Inside," about people that are wasting their worlds away being retarded and stupid Americans. And then there’s "Did I Ever Tell You I’m in Love with Your Girlfriend," sad, not sad, but kind of eerie. And then, "Holiday," sad.

It’s one of those things, that, if you look at the words, it’s always been this kind of melancholy. It sounds fun, and we’re having a good time and you’re having a good time, but the human experience is sometimes a little bit shitty. What it is, it’s kind of more like, I don’t know…melancholy, I don’t know any other word for it. Like, it’s just the way that we see things. It’s not always super happy and super bouncy and super pretty, but when you’re playing music, it’s just sort of fun to play it that way.

When you’re narrating the objective of the song, when you’re trying to paint that picture, we just all tend to use more negative connotations, and kind of weirder imagery to do that, because that’s the writers we like, those are the movies we like, that’s the music we like. So we just gravitate towards it. It sounds happy, because we’re having a good time doing it. Just like filmmakers, they’re not crying the whole time they’re making these sad movies. They’re having a good time showing you this vision they have. So, this record, we decided on the title, and we thought it sounded dark. I don’t think it sounds bad or anything like that, it’s just – "Sleepy Inside" could’ve been the title of Good Morning, Beautiful, and I kind of liked the idea. Good Morning, Beautiful, that came from a little sticker that was on the mirror of the house that we moved into, when we first moved to LA. And you opened the door and there was this little sticker that said "Good Morning, Beautiful," and we thought that was really cool. Wake up in the morning and it’s like ‘oh, good morning, beautiful,’ and I thought it was really funny that somebody, probably some sad sack of shit, probably put that on there. We thought that was really funny that that was there. And so, it was out first record, and we thought that was an aptly named first record.

Death on the Garden, Blood on the Flowers, I think that’s really pretty and really interesting, and we decided to not hold back any of the song titles. I mean, our music, the lyrics are still always really subtle, but with the titles of things, we want to let people know. We got so many reviews like ‘happy, sunny, shiny pop from California, pop form Irving.’ It’s like, ‘yeah, I guess, but…’ It’s really kind of negative, you know. Perfect example, it’s more Zombies than it is Beach Boys, in that, you know that song, [sings: "Good morning to you, I hope you’re feeling better, baby."] That’s a Zombies song that’s really happy sounding, except for he’s talking about his friend getting out of jail. You know what I mean, it’s like a perfect example of that kind of thing.

This record, I don’t think sounds very sad. I think it sounds kind of the same, we wanted to make it sound really of fun and kind of dance-y and good times, and yet still have that thing that we love to do which is to have that little twist of language, like ‘I think they’re talking about something really fucked up here.’I think we just chose a title that would be harder to mistake, not be more obvious, but something that would be a little bit harder to mistake it for something it’s not, which would be just overly joyous, bubble gum pop.

With the cover art for the two records: your first one had a horse happily running on a hill, while on the new one he’s buried under ground…

That, and all by himself. It’s cute and he’s happily running around. He’s standing there all by himself until you get to the back, because he keeps going, you keep going, and then he finally has a little bird friend on the back. We were trying to be – we just really missed on the first album, because it was supposed to feel really lonely and really stark. And the original artwork for it is really big, we had to shrink it down to size to get it on CD, but if you look at the original it’s probably five or six feet by five or six feet, it’s big. So, it really kind of has this stark quality, and we wanted it to look kind of cute, but in a way of being kind of all by himself. It’s so weird, he’s just kind of sitting there all lonely on this hill. So we created, in the pages on the inside, with all the lyrics and everything, that he just keeps kind of going and going, and it’s this weird kind of moonscape. There’s like one tree, far away, and on the back there’s a bird. That’s kind of what our intention was, and I guess when you shrink it down and put it on a CD, it just kind of loses its starkness. [But] that was our intention.

For the second one, was a different artist, Max Miceli, and he did, him and the director were going to do the video for us, I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but he started showing us some images that he was playing around with for using for the video. And we were just like ‘holy shit, this is awesome.’ And he drew his version of that horse, ‘cause in the video, a horse picks us up and takes us…you know, whatever. We just thought that was so awesome. We told him the concepts for the record and we gave him a copy of it, and let him go, and I think it’s awesome ‘cause on the front there’s a horse, and on the back there’s a bird. It’s just like the first record, but it’s like—they’re dead. Which is really cool ‘cause it totally works with the title. I just think it’s fuckin’ awesome, and the back, that one bird is dead, but there’s another one, which is the recycling nature of the whole title, I feel like, has a tone of, there’s something – ‘recyclable’ is not word, but I’m just going to say it.

I don’t know, there’s something about Death in the Garden, Blood on the Flowers that I think of as pretty and renewing and kind of recycled. Like, you know, gardens and death is kind of bad, but it’s also kind of pretty. When something dies somewhere, something else grows out of it, and that kind of thing. I just think the artist nailed it. He just ruled. He totally got it. I kind of talked to him, I didn’t say any of these things really, I was just kind of like ‘people mistake us a lot for being blah, blah, blah, and I just think that this record isn’t much different from the last one, I just think that people might get it more, because of certain little choices we’ve made, and we want the artwork to reflect that.’ He just showed it, and we were like ‘holy shit, good work, dude. Do you write music? Do you want to like join our band?’ [laughs] It was awesome. So yeah, it seems to be making statements that we weren’t intending to make, but it just worked out really well.

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How do you think being a band coming up in Los Angeles affected your music? Do you think you would’ve sounded completely different if you would’ve come together in a different environment?

It’s hard to say, three of us are from the Bay Area, so we actually get mistaken for being a San Francisco band, almost always, which kind of helps in a way, because we do really well in San Francisco. A lot of people think we’re from there. But, I don’t really know. If we would’ve come together in Portland, would we sound different? Probably. But, probably not too much different…Anyway, maybe not, if we had all happened to be together. If we all, for some reason, happened to be in Chicago or whatever, I don’t know, because we would have definitely had the same musical influences.

There’s certain times when you’re starting to play out, and the bands that you, not even support, but open for, like the first three or whatever, and you’re kind of excited, because you’re like ‘The Beachwood Sparks, they’re pretty good, and we’re gonna open for them.’ It’s like ‘oh cool, those guys are rad. Oh, but they’re kinda fake and they’re kinda silly,’ or whatever. It’s kinda like, ‘Hey, Brett, remember that harmony, you should totally do that Beachwood Sparks harmony’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, totally.’ But I mean, if we would have been in Chicago, we would have fallen in love with the Fruit Bats. I bet we would have done it quite similarly.

Although it’s hard to say. Growing up, we were such California boys. Pavement to me is a very California music, very much so. I don’t even know that many people outside of California that even like Pavement. Very very very California music. Our music is very very California music. If we would have formed outside of LA, within California, we’d probably still be California-sounding. I have no clue. Maybe we would have sounded like a California band living in Tallahassee. [laughs]

Hm, alright. I got one last question and then I’ll let you get back to your coffee. Where do you expect Irving to be by the end of 2006?

Japan. Hopefully. My record, I think it just came out in Japan. I think it’s coming out a little bit before the other ones. But I’ve been doing some Japanese interviews and stuff like that. I really want to go there. It’s one of the things that growing up you always kind of ‘I’ll get to Europe some day’ and I’ve been to Europe and ‘I’ll travel the United Sates someday’ with or without a band. You always assume that someday you’re going to drive around and see the whole country. And someday you’ll end up in Europe and some day you’ll go to Hawaii and someday you’ll end up in Mexico. But Japan, yea, that’d be really cool to go to Asia. But I don’t know if I’ll ever go. I don’t know if I could save up enough money to ever go to Japan maybe I’d go to Europe or whatever. So that’s a big goal of mine.

In all honesty I want to be in Japan. In November. That’s final. By the end of the year we’ll be going to CMJ and touring and then it’s gets too cold to drive around and play in, like, freaking Milwaukee and Toronto. There’s just no way are five California boys going to survive a Canadian winter. It’s not going to happen. More than likely we will be either at home basking in the glory of a number one record, working our asses off in Japan…

With any luck you’ll be mastering Irving Live at Budokan right?

Exactly. Hopefully playing some big huge festival in Japan, on the top of Mount Fuji. Yeah, you know everyone does live in Japan because the fucking crowds are insane.

 

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