“The Best Ever Rock & Roll Band Out Of West City Applebee’s”
It was the spring of 2009, my band had pretty much stopped playing shows and, just two years removed from graduating college, I was aimlessly working as a cook at Applebee’s in West City. Most mornings I drove to work hoping that something mildly-cataclysmic would happen so that I wouldn’t have to go in that day. I wasn’t in a good headspace. Once I safely arrived there though, it was usually okay, especially if I worked a shift with Josh or Brady, two of my best friends.
While doing the necessary prep-work of dicing onions, slicing tomatoes, boiling fettuccini, frying chips, etc, the three of us passed the time by playing pointless trivia games like seeing who could name the most Tom Hanks moviesor the most X-Men charactersor the most obscure bands from the 90’s.Later in the afternoon, after the lunch rush died down, sometimes we collectively daydreamed about starting a band together.
Honestly, I didn’t take the band talk too seriously. It was just fun idle chatter. There’s something pure about just coming up with potential band names, nailing down specific albums for influences, assigning instruments to absent friends, going on and on until tour rider demands are finalized. So many bands/projects never make it past this point and that’s okay.
Still day after day, the band talk intensified. Josh would rattle off influences like Ray Charles, the Black Keys, Manchester Orchestra. He’d say this new band would be a collective of our musician friends with a rotating cast of guitarists, drummers, bassists, whatever. He’d come in singing snippets of songs that would go on to become “Oh, Mercy” and “Witches.” It was obvious Josh had a clear vision for this and was serious about seeing it through. I just nodded along as I made another quesadilla burger, hoping that this band would become a thing, but unsure if it ever would. At that point, I figured I was done with music for the rest of my life. There wasn’t any point in trying. I even said as much to Josh, but he never failed to include me in the plans for the new band. I remained noncommittal until Josh brought in an early demo of his new song, “Blood on the Church Floor.”
“Okay, I’m in,” I told him after the song ended.
Within a couple of years, all three of us left our job at Applebee’s, the band relocated to Nashville, we played a ton of shows, released a couple of EPs, and recorded a full length album. It was more than I ever thought I’d do with music and it all came because Josh wouldn’t let me not be a part of it.
Ten years later and Ravenhill has relocated to Dallas where Josh and others run their independent record label, Honey Gold Records. Last year, Ravenhill released their new album, Midnight Gold. They’re not planning to slow down anytime soon.
Over the last few weeks, Josh and I caught up via email where we talked about the old days, what’s ahead for Ravenhill, and okay, yeah, maybe I vindicated myself on an old band argument from six years ago.
Our conversation follows:
Dane wrote on April 23rd at 7:15pm:
Man, spring time always makes me miss the days of riding in the van together from one show to another. I miss the gas station stops, the hunt for regional dining spots, the jockeying for the best seat in the van, the playlists and rock outs. I miss searching on the dial for Coast to Coast AM and driver chooses the music so if it's too loud too bad (sometimes I don't miss that as much). I even miss the awful gas station Wendy's right outside Nashville that always made my stomach hurt but we continued to stop there anyway. Most importantly though, I miss the inside jokes, the late night conversations, and how even the most tense situation could be dispelled with laughter.
So I guess what I want to know is, as you and Brady (plus other dudes I don't know as well) are loading in the van this summer to hit the road for some shows, does it still feel as magical as I remember it? I know it wasn't always, and clearly nostalgia has added a rose-tint to some of this, but dang, I really did love those times even as they were happening. Is there a show or tour this summer that you're super excited for?
Joshua replied on April 23rd at 9:38pm:
It’s funny that it’s still exciting. Every show I get ready to leave for comes with the memories of each chapter, which consists of the different members of RAVENHILL. I get misty eyed when I think about every band that trail-blazed these same roads before we were even born & how we’re all linked. These roads connect us to Johnny Cash, the Foo Fighters, even The Beatles. We all had cracked windshields we struggled to see through when the rain was trying to drown us. We all played to an empty room or looked out over a sea of hands with X’s on them. We all bet on ourselves & some of us win but most of us lose.
I love that every show still gives me hope, even when it seems hopeless. I can’t imagine not playing in a band. I have never had a moment that I truly hated while on the road. I love the tour life & the people I’ve shared a van bench with.
There are a handful of shows I’m really excited about coming up.
We are trying to do a big show in Southern Illinois on the last weekend of June for the BUZZ AT THE BURG.
A week later we are playing Audiofeed Festival in Champaign Illinois, which is always a blast.
Other than those two, we should be hitting up the west coast in the fall and New York in the summer.
Dane replied on April 24th at 11:28am:
That's awesome. I miss that feeling. I really do. Though the older I get, the more I realllllyyyyyy love being comfortable so maybe I'm not cut out for trying to sleep in a van rumbling down the highway with no A/C and only two windows open (because that's all that could open) during the blazing hot summer, trying to block out the sun with a t-shirt over my eyes. That may be where we differ, because even back then, there were a handful of times where I truly hated being on the road with a fiery passion. Sometimes I turned that burning hatred on you all. Mostly just in my mind though, because hey, I'm a nice (coughs: super passive-aggressive) guy.
One of the many things I loved about being in a band with you is how many ideas you always had for new projects, new songs, new albums, artwork, merch, everything. For example, just tell me how many voice recording you have in your phone right now for new Ravenhill songs?
And then, you guys have your own studio set up, right? How does the recording process work nowadays and are there any plans for a new Ravenhill EP or album this year?
Joshua replied on April 24th at 12:11pm:
Well, I started to count and thought I’d stop at January 2018. I currently have 132 voice memos filled with ideas for new songs, melodies or riffs dating back to the beginning of last year. Funny enough I still have ideas in an email folder dating back to 2012 that I refer to also. It’s weird when a past version of yourself had an idea or thought & you revisit it years later. If you’re growing as an individual or a creative, you should be different from the person that originally wrote that. I love finding that gold in my past. I love dissecting who I used to be.
Though, I should add that sometimes I listen back & think, “How did I think that was anything worth exploring?” or sometimes it’s, “ I was a much better writer then, because I was less in my head & more open.”
I have a solo ep under the name “JOSHUA CLIFTON & The BLACKBIRDS” coming out soon. Which I am very lucky to have a couple of studios here in the DALLAS-FORT WORTH that I get to work out of. As for RAVENHILL, we should be hitting the studio next month. I also have several ideas I am working on for the next couple of RAVENHILL eps that is being called the DEAD POETS CLUB.
Dane replied on April 25th at 3:17pm:
None of that surprises me at all. Anymore, I write maybe one or two songs a year. They start as lyric notes on my phone and then if I come up with something I like enough, I'll try to put music to it. That doesn't happen as much as it used to though.
You mentioned working out of a couple of studios and you just started a record label last year, right? How does that work? Is it just you or is there a group of you behind it? How do you go about finding bands to work with?
Joshua wrote back on April 29th at 6:54pm:
To be honest, I learned a lot from being on our old label Slospeak Records. When I lived in Nashville, my friends and I always talked about a community of friends putting out music together. When we parted ways with Slospeak and moved to Dallas, RAVENHILL was trying to figure out how we wanted to release music. After meeting a few great musicians & producers here in Dallas, we decided to start HONEY GOLD RECORDS. We released our latest album, MIDNIGHT GOLD through our own label.
Soon, a few other bands reached out to us and they seemed like a good fit. We are young and learning, but so are the artists we’re working with. We’re less of a label and more of a community of friends helping each other put out the best art out there. If a bands vision matches ours, it’s a no brainer. I’ll reach out to artists all the time and if they seem inspired and want to run, I want to put gas in that tank.
Dane replied on May 2nd at 10:01am:
Growing up being on a label meant so much to us, or at least it did to me. I remember like playing shows with whatever band, say phhppptttt IDK like Damiera, or it didn't matter who they were, but when they walked into the venue, it was like "Oh, those guys are signed with Equal Vision!" Like it was this honor badge to show that you were a "real" band. It took me a long time to realize that's what I wanted more than anything, some feeling of legitimacy, of making it.
At first it was, "Okay, real bands are signed to labels so we need to get on one of those." Then when that didn’t seem possible it was "Okay, when I do a tour, that's when I'll feel like a real musician," then it became, "Okay, when we're playing that stage that's when it will feel real" and so on and on, it was like trying to hold onto sand because it kept eluding me regardless of what we did.
And eventually, I realized those are all the wrong reasons to do anything. Though, yeah, I'm still doing this in some form now too, but rather than go into a whole existential thing, how about I turn that question back to you: Do you still feel these same motivators? Are they there at all? At the end of the day, what's pushing you to do what you do?
Joshua replied on May 2nd at 11:13am:
I totally get what you are saying & what you were going through. We were looking for love & validation anywhere we could find it, but that also may be just being young & figuring out who we are.
I remember us talking to other labels & those not working out for one reason or another, thinking “Well, we’ll never get that validation. My friends back home are getting REAL jobs and I still look like a child chasing a dream.”
So finally signing to Slospeak was a big deal to us. I signed that contract & everything changed...Six-figure income, exclusive party invites, everything I ever wanted made possible through the wave of a record executives hand, just kidding. Funny thing is, that’s what we grew up thinking we wanted and maybe for a small few that was the reality & reward of signing to a record label.
Truthfully, when we signed, we gained a family. When we signed, Slospeak had a great team to help us with the things we weren’t good at. Just because you can hold a tune & make some noise people like doesn’t mean you know how to put together a one sheet, how to get your band on a tour, your song on a TV Show or the radio. Slospeak were now in our corner. That changed me or at the very least reinforced my desire to build relationships & empower people instead of trying to make a buck.
I’ve said in the past, I think I’m a bad businessman because the point of business is to make as much money and I’m not worried about that. I’d rather see someone I invested in become a step closer to the artist I know they can be. I think that gave me the validation I desired, I just needed Davy and the others at Slospeak to care. That empowered RAVENHILL.
That’s how I get through a lot of the disappointments now. I think about a quote you said once to us or at least me, we had just got done playing a huge show for maybe a couple hundred people, I just remembered it was a high, high point and you said, “that’ll be our fuel for the next couple months.” Now we can break it down even more but for the most part you’re saying we might have some disappointments ahead but this will get us through. High moments are fuel for those moments whenever we feel like we’re playing to just the sound guy, which there are definitely plenty of those nights.
Don’t get me wrong when someone else believes in me or RAVENHILL that has some stature whether that’s a manager, venue, a movie star, or bigger band, whatever, I still get really excited & it adds to that validation. But in the times where I feel like they didn’t express the right amount of excitement towards our art, I get real punk rock about it. It’s probably a defense mechanism I have but it’s how I can justify continuing to chase down a dream.
Now, my perception of success is different, all those things you & I have mentioned: playing shows, going on tour, playing festivals & signing to a record label; some people have more drive, more talent & still never get to check some of those boxes off. If I can feel like I’m using my voice to encourage, to live, to love people, to make a difference in situations that need me to speak up or take a stand & push myself & the way I do art. To believe in myself & the people around me that I can still do this like no one else can or has in the past.
Dane wrote back on May 7th at 11:52am:
That sounds right and I think that's the best way to go about things. We’ve talked about all of that a lot over the last ten years or so, but it’s still so nice to be reminded of them.
Back in the day, I remember your son, London, loving Ravenhill so much. Coleman and Jon were his favorites (not that I was bothered by that). I'm just curious what Ravenhill means to your & Megan's boys as they get older? Do you explain to them what certain songs are about? As a father, is there anything that you hope they learn from your passion in Ravenhill?
Joshua replied on May 8th at 12:42pm:
I’ve been real lucky. I have a wife that believes in me & what RAVENHILL does. All that love & support transfers to our sons London, Judah, & Houston. Those 3 kids love music & love RAVENHILL. I have kind of a selfish dream but I think it would be real cool if one day I focused on another band & my sons would carry on the RAVENHILL name. They could write their own songs & rewrite any past songs.
Ultimately, I will encourage them to blaze their own path & chase their own dream whether that’s a different genre or completely outside of the music industry. I just hope they look at the mysteries & challenges in life, push themselves & become the best version of themselves they can be, leading with love, humility, & respect for everyone. That’s how I see our band. A vessel to push forward & challenge the old ways that are outdated while respecting that I don’t always know the answer either.
I’ve talked at different lengths about these things to London mostly because he is the oldest but the greatest thing I’ll ever give this world are these three boys. Just wait world, this isn’t just a biased, proud father talking, these kids are different & I believe they will be very impactful in this world. They know the power of a kind word & a listening ear, they understand that there is evil in the world & they talk all the time about fighting that evil. They’re little punk rock superheroes.
Dane finally wrote back on May 15th at 9:46am:
That sounds like a dream come true. I remember us talking about that same thing years ago. I always imagined our kids running around in the grass as we played Cornerstone or something. Of course, Cornerstone doesn't exist any more but that image is still there in my head. The videos you posted recently of Judah and London rocking out with the School of Rock were absolutely amazing. It's obvious that your and Megan's love of music has rubbed off on them.
This is my last question and it's a two-parter:
First, what's the most important lesson you've learned in your years of playing music?
And second, I want to run through an entirely fictional equation for band sleeping arrangements and you tell me what you think is correct and why:
So Bandmate A has driven ten straight hours all night from Sioux Falls, SD while Bandmate B has slept (albeit in the awful, cramped bench seat). To takeover for Bandmate A, Bandmate C is getting up from the luxurious, spacious bench seat to drive the remaining two hours home at which point Bandmate B will have to drive 3 hours to his home apart from the rest of the band.
My question to you is: who should get the good bench seat now that it's empty, Bandmate A who has stayed up driving like a freaking champ for ten straight hours while the rest of the band slept or Bandmate B who will have had 12 total hours to sleep (albeit in a super cramped bench seat) before he has to drive the remaining 3 hours to his home apart from the rest of the band?
There is only one right answer. This is an entirely fictional scenario.
Joshua replied on May 20th at 11:55am:
I still believe we will be playing shows and our kids running around. Family is so important & that even includes family that isn’t blood. I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years, some the hard way, but the best part has always been the people. Who we surround ourselves with & those who choose to spend their money & time to come to shows. I’m so freakin grateful for every single person that’s spent a single second or dime on RAVENHILL or Joshua Clifton. We are an undeserving, flawed group that knows it & we are cool with being the scrappy band that turns a few heads & makes some noise on occasion.
Okay so until reading this, I forgot of this purely hypothetical situation you are proposing & I forget what side I took & which hypothetical person I am/was in this scenario, but Bandmate A should get the comfy bench seat. Bandmate B is the only other clear contender & they are driving. The answer seems pretty clear, my biggest fear is that time has changed my stance & I argued the other side of this a few years earlier.
You can keep up with Josh and Ravenhill via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can also check out Ravenhill’s latest album, Midnight Gold on AppleMusic, Spotify, or whatever your preferred digital music service may be.
Don’t you dare forget The Man With One Red Shoe, Josh never did.
This was a pretty close contest, but I’m pretty sure I won most of these.
Dang. Josh definitely won this one every time. I think the only game Brady ever won consistently was the one where we’d try to untie the other’s apron. Or the game with who could get their screen filled up the fastest and get their orders out the slowest, Brady probably won that one the most too (JK- I was the worst cook of the three of us).