weworemasks.com interview: as tall as lions (october 30, 2009)

all photos courtesy of tu-anh pham.

i’m not sure if many of you are aware of the fact that all three of the bears are the biggest fans of this band. especially after our sxsw run-in with dan nigro [vocals, lead guitar], where he was nothing but pleasant. the band came through houston and we couldn’t pass up on catching up with them again. it’s funny, because i had only planned on this interview being brief and just another reason to re-familiarize us with the ATAL camp, but guitarist saen fitzgerald and bassist julio tavarez were very good to us and ended up running this thing up to nearly 30 minutes.

this isn’t including the free beer or offering us some of their food, but the mere fact that the two are open to any and all questions. it also helps when members of a band could be so articulate and talented, and maintain a humble attitude for potentially obnoxious bloggers. much love to sunbear who helped me transcribe half of this beast.

brace yourself folks, this is gonna be a long one. hit the jump for the interview.


all photos courtesy of tu-anh pham.

Roshan Bhatt, weworemasks: For the record, state your name and position in the band.

Saen Fitzgerald, As Tall as Lions: For the record, my name is Saen and I play guitar.

Julio Tavarez, As Tall as Lions: Julio, and I play bass.

WWM: How’s the tour going with Mute Math so far?

SF: It’s going really good so far, but recently, we got a little bit of the wind knocked out of our sails. Our lead singer Daniel [Nigro] is falling a little bit sick with vocal nodules, something singers get after a while. It’s kind of like blisters – but on your vocal cords. So without taking steroids,he just sounds like [hoarsens voice] Tom Waits the entire time, and that doesn’t work too much for our band. He’s a bit more of a falsetto character. So we had to wind up doing these instrumental improv-type sets.

WWM: Is this the first night doing that?

JT: Actually, it’s our fourth time.

SF: Yeah. The good thing about it is that Duncan – our trumpet player, Cliff – our drummer, Julio and myself play in an instrumental side project that is pretty much improv music.

WWM: So that’s what we just heard tonight?

SF: Yeah.

WWM: What’s [the project] called?

SF: Well we’re kind of in between names, but right now we’re known as “Jack-Eating Man-Rabbit,” which is a joke from this show “Hey Dude.” Which used to come on Nickelodeon.

WWM: Hey Dude!

SF: “Watch out for that killer cacti and that jack-eating man-rabbit!,” though it’s actually the other way around. But we’ve resorted back to that in that we’re facing this problem where it’s either “quit the tour” or “make lemonade” and make shit happen you know? Turn that shit into good smelling shit. So that’s what we’ve been up to right now, but Dan’s recovering and he’ll end up playing some of the bigger shows left on this tour. As far as what we’ve got lined up, we’re just gonna play it by ear.

WWM: Mute Math has a huge following that I was unaware of but he (sunbear) was telling me the line for the show was around the block and they had sold out 2 nights in a row at one of houston’s larger venues prior to even having a record out. But that has to be good for you guys being a small, upcoming band as far as the draw they have, playing to huge crowds. How has the reception been?

SF: Yeah, they really have been. It’s been one of those things where some cities are better than others, like we’ll think we’re playing a good show, then we look out to the crowd and it’s just dumbstruck-ness. Even though Mute Math has a big fan base, it’s also Mute Math’s fan base, who are there to see them. But a lot of the compliments we get on this tour are, “Oh I’ve never heard an opening band that was actually good,” and that’s a good compliment. So we say “thank you very much.” Those are the kind of people that we have to prove ourselves to, but honestly we like it that way. We like to get up there with nobody having expectations. We get the fresh ears of the crowd.

JT: One of the main reasons we’re doing this tour was because of new fans. We do have our own fanbase and some fans are coming out wanting to see us. But for us, the exciting part is playing to people who have never even heard of our band. Like Saen said some people say “I’ve never heard of your band” and they’re walking away with our record in their hands. So for us it’s about getting new people on board with what it is that we do.

WWM: How’d you guys actually hook up on this tour?

SF: Our MO in the past has been touring with bands that we don’t really fit with. So when we got this tour it was like “Hallelujah, this will be a great tour for us.” As far as how we got it, we heard that Mute Math wanted to headline a tour and like any profession it’s not what you know – but who you know. So we have mutual friends and we told them we were interested and they just asked us to join the tour. Simple as that.

WWM: I spoke to Dan at SXSW, and you guys had just finished up the album and switched producers and all that. After all that drama, how does it feel to finally have the album out?

SF: It is the best fucking feeling in the entire world. Being in a band is like being in a very heavy relationship, but you’re in it with five other people. So getting into the aspect of recording a record, there’s a lot of stress, lots of drama. Especially with us and the producers we went through.

JT: It was a very emotional experience making [this] record. Everyone’s just as passionate as you are, and everyone wants their say. And you gotta compromise and respect everyone’s choices. There’s a lot of butting heads, but there’s also a lot of really beautiful things that can happen. When we were finally done with the record, I was so happy that I could move on and celebrate the album, [and play it] live. But in a non-negative way, I was really glad to be done with the record. You might make a record that is a snapshot of where you are at the time and say “Cool, let’s take this on the road,” but the next day it’s a different thing. It’s not always easy trying to recreate moments but we always look forward to the next one.

all photos courtesy of tu-anh pham.

WWM: This is a little fan-boyish of me, but the self-titled album is one of my favorite albums of all time. So naturally, when I heard that you were recording a followup, I felt that the you might be facing a lot of pressure to create a product that could stand up to the caliber previous album. Did you feel that pressure?

SF: Well we released an EP in between albums [Into the Flood], and we worked with the same producer of the self titled album, Mike Watts. That EP for us was in the midst of writing the last record, and release-wise, would be the first thing that people were gonna hear from us in a while. Mike he was telling me during pre-production, “A lot of people loved the last album, this next one has to be great.” And I remember thinking that I don’t subscribe to that train of thought. It’s a weird selfish thing being in a musician because you start making music to please yourself, and write music you wanna listen to. Hopefully your musical taste is on par with a general audience. So writing the album was just writing music that we’d want to listen to. There was no conscious thought, for me, about anyone who had liked our band before.

JT: It’s a self indulgent undertaking. I feel that a lot of people think of the word “self indulgent” or “selfish” as something negative. Well we have nothing to prove to anybody but ourselves and the people we play with. Yes, we have fans and I do want them to be happy. We’d be nothing without them. But at the end of the day, the music I make has to make me happy.

We’ve made that record already, so now we want to do the exact opposite. I think the self-titled album is a great record for our band at that time, and we were all very happy with it. But time goes on, you listen to new music, meet a girl, move somewhere, whatever. It changes your perspective of who you are, therefore when it comes to the music, why would you want to hold yourself back from evolving?

If that was the case, I’d go and get a desk job. For us, we wanted to keep it fresh and interesting for the band. We had a batch of completely different unrelated songs. At the time, it’s cool because it’s something different, but then you have managers and producers who wonder how you’d do pull it off. So it just came to a point where it was like “Fuck that,” and we just needed to go in a certain direction or nobody would be happy.

WWM: So, do you feel like you lived up to that pressure, right?

JT: To be honest, and I’m just talking for myself. There was no pressure. The only pressure was how it would be for me and my bandmates. I can understand the pressure and how a band would feel that from their fans. Me personally, I’m a selfish dude. I gotta make sure I’m happy. We had a great team of people. Our label wasn’t pressuring us to get this shit done. They gave us the freedom and we thoroughly took that freedom and did whatever we wanted to do. We just hoped for the best.

WWM: A lot of the new material plays with new sounds such as auxiliary percussion, vocal effects and stuff like that. Was that something you planned to do or something that came [spontaneously] in the studio.

SF: It was a little bit of both, really.

JT: We planned to go out of our way.

WWM: I mean, just taking the beginning of the record. A song like “Circles,” just starts with those drum hits.

SF: That part came about very organically. The funny part about “Circles” was that it’s the first song on the record, but it was the last song we wrote. We weren’t even thinking. It just kinda happened. We thought the record was already done at that point.

JT: It was like “Well, we can’t write another song.” We had like 50 ideas going on and somehow it became this magical moment straight out of a movie. This seriously came together to the point where I can’t even remember writing the song, and now it’s on the album. [Laughs]

SF: Maybe that’s how it should be. And that’s the biggest difference between this one and the last one. With the last record, here was a lot of deliberation and talk about what kind of record we wanted to make. This one, not so much. It was more like “Let’s see what happens,” “Let’s see what we want to do,” and it was organic in that sense.

JT: On top of it, the last record was a lot of collaborating. This was very individual. Sean wrote a bunch of songs, I wrote a bunch of songs and Dan wrote a bunch of songs. Everyone played their own shit on all of their own demos. We can play each other’s instruments, so it’s like “Oh, I wrote this song, you guys like it?” Then we’d teach each other the parts and go from there. Saen sings on the record, I sing two songs on the record and Dan does his thing. You know, it was all very much so on our own separate terms. That’s not a bad thing either, it just took us to different areas. And if we wrote this album together, there’s a good chance that we would’ve written a record very similar to the last record. Because we didn’t, that’s what pushed the envelope as far as the new sound.

all photos courtesy of tu-anh pham.

WWM: Going back to what you said about singing on the record. I thought it was really cool, but at first, I didn’t even realize that the two of you sang. It didn’t click. When I saw the liner notes, I was just like “Shit, that’s cool.” Which reminds me of the first time I saw you. I can’t remember who you opened for – it might’ve been The Receiving End of Sirens [in the same venue]. Your self-titled hadn’t dropped yet, but I remember at the time how similar I thought your voices were live, so that’s probably why I didn’t even notice.

SF: Right, right. It’s funny just for us because it’s so obvious to us.

JT: It’s totally understandable that somebody wouldn’t know that I sang on the record. That’s cool with me, because I was the kid who got my CD, opened the liner notes just to see what everyone was doing. I think that’s exciting for fans.

WWM: Yeah, and you even had a breakdown of who played what instruments, which was really cool.

JT: Yeah, that’s what I mean. That’s cause we would like to see that. I would love to see all the little things and if it were one of my favorite groups, it would make me just feel like “I love this song,” just knowing that the dude banging sticks in the background is the same guy who’s singing. So for us, everything comes from what we like and things that have inspired us in the past. We’re trying to give that to people.

WWM: The new album, in my opinion, has a much less polished production aspect than your self-titled. To me, that was more reflective of what you do live, was that intentional?

Both: Yes!

SF: When we first started to record the album, we tried to do the entire thing live.

WWM: Well, that’d be tough as shit.

SF: [Laughs]

WWM: Well, I mean there’s always so much going on.

SF: Nothing with the musicianship. We just weren’t getting along with our producer at the time. Not to talk smack or anything, but the guy who was engineering the record – we felt wasn’t on par with what we wanted our record to sound like. So we had to fire him and find a new guy really quick. We found a great guy who ended up doing the rest of the album. Noah Shain. His live room was probably the size of this room here. [ed note: 12×12, rough estimates]

JT: Yeah, if you cut this piece out here. [ed note: about 3 feet]

SF: So it was physically impossible to record it live.

JT: Although, Cliff and I tracked all the drums and bass live. I sat next to him. There was a couch and I just put my leg up and played it, and we did it live. With the exceptions of a few songs with the programming, but we tried to get a lot of done that way to get that feel like you said.

SF: It was a compromise. Since we couldn’t do the entire thing live, we tried to make it sound a little more gritty. Less polished.

WWM: I wanted to talk about your EP [Into the Flood] for a minute. The last time I saw you guys, you didn’t play anything off of it and I haven’t seen it popping up on any recent setlists, is there a reason? Do you guys not like it?

SF: I mean, we do play “Breakers” and the title track, “Into the Flood,” those are usually the ones we throw in on the headline shows. The other songs [laughs] are just us fiddling around when we were trying to write this record. So we never tried to learn em.

JT: Uh, we don’t even know how to play em. [Laughs]

SF: I kinda remember “505” – your song. And we did my song, “Blacked Out,” for a couple shows.

JT: We quickly found out what songs the crowds like. I mean, if the crowd’s bored, then it definitely affects you.

WWM: And it’s so short!

JT: Yeah, I know. We had like 2 and a half weeks to write and record this thing and almost every single song on that is just a demo version. We had these songs and were just like “Let’s throw it together.” It was very quick and the reason we did it, was because we wanted to challenge ourselves. We over analyze everything we do. We would take forever to write an album. Every little noise and every little sound has to be right. Especially when you have five or six very talented people in their own right and could go off and do their own thing. You have all these people together in one group, it’s bound to take forever. For us, we decided to try and pull it off. We weren’t 100% satisfied with how it came out, because we would’ve loved to spend 3 more weeks on it and get it done. But it’s over and now I listen to it, and the songs are short because of the circumstances. Because it’s unlike us to have a record like that. To look back on it, I still think it’s a cool little piece of music.

all photos courtesy of tu-anh pham.

WWM: Well I wanted to talk about the DVD, that came packaged with the deluxe edition of You Can’t Take it With You.

SF: Sure.

WWM: Any plans for a proper DVD release where you could showcase some new material?

JT: We’re toying around with that idea now. Hopefully in January, we want to take a band trip to Costa Rica and film a band DVD kinda acoustic thing, us playing songs off the new album, old songs and covers maybe in the mountains and stuff.

WWM [Both]: Oh, it’s like that Music in High Places thing!

SF: Music in High Places?

WWM: They would take a band out of their element like the episode with Deftones in Hawaii.

SF: Oh, well there you go. So perfect, pretty much exactly that. We’re a little too late to the gun, I guess.

JT: Come January, we hope to do that. February, we hope to go to Europe and tour there, and then somewhere between those, we’ll do a headline tour. I’m thinking we can film it all and put it out at the end.

WWM: That would be incredible. It could be a whole tour documentary thing.

JT: Yeah, we’d have all those tours and a “where we’ve been” for the last year type thing. That’s what I would like, if it doesn’t work out, then Costa Rica will still be awesome.

WWM: Who would you wanna take out on a headline venture?

JT: We’re not in that situation where we cna just pick our favorite bands or whatever. There’s always something like – we gotta bring a brand that draws people so we can have a big magnificent thing. There’s this band Afuche [ed note: I have no clue how to spell this, and Google did not yield results, so someone please help! thanks to reader Matt] from Brooklyn. Dan’s cousin plays drums in it. They’re all instrumental and they play really good music. We would love to bring them out. There’s a band, The Snake The Cross The Crown,.

WWM: They’re broken up, though.

SF: [Laughs]

JT: Well here’s the thing. They’re a bunch of dudes that don’t know how fucking good they are. They just decide they’re not gonna make records anymore or whatever…blablabla. I thought their last album was phenomenal.

WWM: Cotton Teeth, right?

JT: Yeah, Cotton Teeth.

SF: We took them on our headline tour last time we toured. That was before Cotton Teeth, though.

WWM: Dan even mentioned this in March during SXSW. That’s pretty funny.

SF: Yeah, that’s definitely our little project. There’s also a great band from Canada called Simcoe Street Mob. They’re really great too.

JT: That’d be a fun one.

SF: It’s tough. We just wanna take our friends, but we’ll see what happens. Whoever we’d take out will be awesome though.

WWM: Cool man, that’ll wrap it up. Did you wanna add anything to the readers of weworemasks?

SF: Um, nothing really. Thanks for reading the first interview in the first place and um –

JT: Listen to Elvis Costello.

i strongly urge you to support any and everything this band does.

peace and love,
grizzly and sunbear.


  1. germs

    Good band, but they need to reevaluate how they go about making music. They talk as if the EP is garbage but it is infinitely better than the new LP. Considering they spent 2 and a half weeks writing and recording it, and then taking a few years to write the LP– tells me they should stick to the former.

  2. weworemasks

    kinda harsh, but to each his own. i wouldn’t say infinitely better. most of the songs on the LP > EP. but i will say i like “blacked out” and “we’re the ones…” more than any song on the LP.


  3. Matt

    Also, as to the comments above. I also got a similar vibe from them when we talked about the EP. I think the EP was great so when I heard the overall nonchalant attitude towards it, I was a little surprised. As much as I worship the Self-Titled, I think they are at their best off-the-cuff i.e. the EP and moments on the new album.

  4. germs

    Hmm, yes I probably was being too harsh. In terms of musical quality or whatever I guess there is nothing wrong with the new cd. It is listenable. But in terms of enjoyment compared to the self titled and EP, it doesn’t even come close. I know they put a lot of time into it too, which is why I think they should try to be more, as Matt above me put it, off-the-cuff.

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