Interview: Jared Palomar of Augustana

Hard work and (not so) divine intervention propel Augustana to mainstream acclaimThe morning before my scheduled interview with North County folk pop chartbusters Augustana, I get a polite but rather urgent call from the band’s ebullient publicist. The band needs to push the interview up, she tells me, as they’ve been offered a last minute spot on the Today Show. I gladly accommodate—having your interview rescheduled because the band’s singer is heaving Schlitz Ice into a bar toilet is one thing, but getting bumped up so they can pal around with Al Roker on national television is another. When I finally get bassist/vocalist Jared Palomar on the phone, the band are just hours from a flight that will take them to New York City to perform their hit single “Boston” for the show’s estimated 6.2 million viewers.

“We’ve met Matt Lauer before, when we did Letterman, and he was a really nice guy. Al Roker seems like a character, I’m not sure what to think about him,” he chuckles. Palomar then mistakes their cohost Anne Curry for vicious right-wing pundit Anne Coulter: “Anne Coulter’s kind of crazy, too. I used to read a lot of her columns, but now I don’t know.”

If Palomar is a little confused, it may have something to do with the band’s dizzying schedule. In addition to the Today Show, they’re in the midst of a national tour with the Goo Goo Dolls (to be interrupted again by a flight to Burbank to appear on Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show) before their own headlining stint through the South and Southwest. Speaking from Detroit, Palomar, vocalist/pianist/guitarist Dan Layus, drummer Justin South, lead guitarist Chris Sachtleben, and keyboardist John Vincent have been recording demos in a friend’s studio.

Palomar’s voice is friendly and familiar, though his tone bespeaks some fatigue, as if he hasn’t quite had a chance to catch his breath in months. Their first full length, All the Stars and Boulevards, has just been certified gold, and over the next few months, the band will be taking their Counting Crowes-meets-Coldplay brand of alternative folk rock on its second headlining tour. Their sound is full of swelling choruses and the kind of personal yet open-ended lyrics that listeners from teens to the stay-at-home moms have found appealing.

Success, however, wasn’t preordained. Augustana’s rise from beginnings at a conservative Christian college to being the type of band that rubs elbows with major network television stars is a story that takes place over two time zones, two years of performing in relative obscurity, and the not-so-divine providence of one Garden State filmmaker. It’s also a story of one of the longest incubating hit singles in history.

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Access. It’s what separates the big dogs from the little dogs in journalism.

Access means that when you call, they listen. When you contact their publicist, the make pains to find out what works for your schedule. And, above all, it means that there is someone on the band’s team that is making you a priority for the band. Access is the big reason I think it’s a mistake for local publications to invest most of their energy covering national and touring acts. SPIN, Rolling Stone, AP, etc., can afford to send professional writers on assignment with bands. They can spend days or weeks working on a story, getting close enough to the band to develop a rapport with the members. Almost Famous was dramatized, sure, but it wasn’t complete bullshit.

In my limited experience, the best interviews aren’t necessarily with the biggest bands. They’re with the bands that have time to talk, that make your interview a priority. Once I was in the room or on the phone, it was my job to ask probing questions and make them feel comfortable in their answers. When bands have a reason to prioritize your time together, the reader wins.

Augustana is a great example. They were going huge guns last year, playing all the nighttime and daytime talk shows, and their publicist would give me–representing a magazine in their own hometown that was going to run a 2000-word feature–twenty minutes. With the bass player. The interview was fine, and to his credit, Jared Palomar gave me more time than that, but the point is that local publications–unless they’re LA Weekly or Village Voice, or maybe the Chicago Reader, or syndicated like the Onion’s AV Club–won’t get much more access than that. That’s from a local band, who by all accounts are nice guys, who were in the middle of taping for CBS this Morning, thinking about jackassing around with Al Roker and gearing up for ANOTHER twenty minute phoner with someone in Twin Falls, Idaho. And this is Augustana–a bigger band, but not exactly the Stones.

Contrast that with my experience interviewing Grand Ole Party. True, fewer people in San Diego, to say nothing of the world, care about them. But all three met me at Cream in University Heights. We talked for an hour, our conversation ranging from college to Snoop Dogg to Otis Redding. We talked about playing for Slash from Guns and Roses. I won’t say that they don’t offer up that kind of stuff to any writer, and I won’t say that a year from now they might not care at all about 1000 words in a publication like Citybeat, but I will say that much of what makes music journalism compelling (at least in my opinion) is about establishing enough of a rapport with the artist to break through the talking points and get to the person. Because, and maybe this is just me, that’s what reading about musicians is all about. People already know, from the music, what the musician would like to put forth for public consumption. They want something more personal than that.

Covering the national music scene means making a conscious decision to target artists who are less interested in making you a priority. Moreover, if our only litmus tests as journalists is to write about what the majority of people care about, why not say fuck it all and do a weekly review of American Idol? Why not publish gossip about Paris Hilton? I thought the reason that most of us got in to journalism was because we felt that there were stories that should be told, that need to be told, that otherwise wouldn’t be told if we weren’t telling them. It certainly isn’t for the pay.

Even if we decide that our job is to mirror tastes and give the reader what they want, shouldn’t we presume that the readers of an alternative culture and arts weekly are looking for something a little less mundane in their music coverage? The concept of comparative advantage is important here. Local weeklies can’t compete with big glossies for the attention of the big artists, but those magazines don’t have the time or the space to dedicate to anything more than a cursory look to bands that aren’t played on radio or capable of selling out SOMA. Locally-focused press can can develop coverage of a scene and beat the big boys by playing a different game: kicking ass on issues of local import, nodding to the big acts when they come through, and, in general cultivating a sense of place. Those are my thoughts. And I’ve seen how all this works from the perspective of a journalist, an artist, and someone who spends a lot of time talking to friends who do publicity, radio promotion, and A&R.

Oh, and to San Diego’s musicians: do something interesting. I, and others like me, sound like jackasses when we stick up for coverage of a local music scene that’s moribund and stagnant. The only time anyone thinks local coverage is masturbatory is when the smoke that we fan outward is wildly disproportionate to the fire that the musicians are generating. There are good writers in this town that are waiting for you to do something worthy of coverage. Go on tour. Punch out David Yow the next time he’s in town (actually, don’t do that–he’ll kill you and he’s a personal hero to probably everyone who will be in spitting distance). Make a youtube documentary about harassing 91X’s DJs at the supermarket. Hell, I don’t know.

Be bold, and we shall sing your praises and chronicle your rise to glory. Or, failing that, chronicle your rolling around in broken glass at the Alibi.