Joel P. West And The Tree Ring Perform In Studio
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Playing outdoor summer festivals is a great opportunity for a band. But it can also be a challenge. Local band Joel P. West and the Tree Ring are just back from performing at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee. They brought their acoustic Americana music to a real grass roots audience. They'll tell us about the festival, their experience, just how hot is was, and what's coming up next for the band. But first, some music. Let’s start off with a performance. This is Joel P. West and the Tree Ring with “Haida.”
(audio of Joel P. West and the Tree Ring performing “Haida”)
CAVANAUGH: That’s Joel P. West and the Tree Ring with “Haida.” Thank you so much for that. I want to introduce all of you before we start to talk. Joel P. West is on guitar and vocals. Joel, good morning.
JOEL P. WEST (Musician): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Kelly Bennett is on violin. Hi, Kelly.
KELLY BENNETT (Musician): Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Douglas Welcome plays double bass for the band. Hi, Doug.
DOUGLAS WELCOME (Musician): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Darla Hawn is on drums and vocals. Hi, Darla.
DARLA HAWN (Musician): Hi.
CAVANAUGH: And Destin Cretton plays the glockenspiel occasionally with the band. Destin, welcome.
DESTIN CRETTON (Musician): Oh, hi.
CAVANAUGH: He’s not playing glockenspiel right now. He’s actually recording this on video. Joel, this is a new song. “Haida” is a new song for you and the band. What inspired it?
WEST: This song is in the same vein as what most of this new record is being written about, which has a lot to do with just seeing ourselves as another piece of nature and not really necessarily being superior. I think I get kind of a wrong perception living in a city of being in control and feeling like you can kind of decide what factors around you but I think it’s good to be in the wilderness here and there to remember that we’re pretty small things, you know, in the scheme of the whole earth and so it’s this – this song is just kind of recognizing that it’s really – what can I really ask of this earth that’s – you know, I’m very much not in control of things, and so that’s – that’s what the song’s about and a lot of these new songs, and the name is actually a kind of a working title. Actually, Kelly just decided that it’s not but Kelly can maybe tell you what the – where the name comes from.
BENNETT: Well, I’m really pushing for this title because when we first started working on this song, when Joel brought the first ideas for this song and we were starting to work on them, the beat, that sparse beat at the beginning that Darla plays, really reminded me a lot of the Haida dancers that I used to see growing up in British Columbia, which – and Haida is our first nation in Canada. And knowing more conceptually about the song, it actually fits even better because a lot of the instruments that Haida dancers and singers use are created out of pieces of wood and animal hides and different things that they would use sort of holistically to make music from, other things that they were using for, you know, homes and boxes and food, and they really look at a lot of things holistically. So I think that is the name of the song.
CAVANAUGH: I think it’s the name of the song, too.
WEST: Well, I guess it’s official.
CAVANAUGH: Now you guys are just back from playing the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee. And talk about kind of going into the wilderness and getting out of the city and being out of control…
BENNETT: Yeah, no kidding.
CAVANAUGH: …that might characterize it a little bit.
WEST: Not much to say.
CAVANAUGH: The lineup in Bonnaroo included Stevie Wonder and Conan O’Brien. Joel, let me start with you. Give listeners a sense of how big and sprawling this festival is.
WEST: Well, it’s not – it’s all centered around – The main festival’s in what’s called Centeroo and then there’s camping all around, circling all around it. And one day I actually ventured out and walked to the edge and it took probably about 45 minutes to walk to the edge of the camping. So you can kind of picture walking for 45 minutes straight in any direction and there being just tents and tents and tents and just tons of people, about, I think, 100,000 or something. So it was – you can’t get anywhere where there’s not a pretty large mass of bodies, and I say bodies because many of them were unclothed or close to it. And so it’s, you know, it’s really – they have these huge balloons that they light up that are all over the campgrounds and if they didn’t have those to be able to refer to from the ground, you – I really don’t think anybody could find their way home. They had a hard enough time as it was. So it’s pretty massive.
CAVANAUGH: How did you get tapped to play there?
WEST: Well, we were picked to play as part of a promotion that Ford is doing with the new – a new car that they’re launching called the Fiesta. So they put on a show that we did up at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla at the end of April and that was something that a whole bunch of people in different cities did with Ford’s money as a kind of this grassroots promotion of their new vehicle. So from the different bands that played across the country for this promotion, they picked a couple of them to come to Bonnaroo and we were one of those, along with one from Detroit and one from Houston.
CAVANAUGH: I see, so, Kelly, I hear that your arrival there was a bit of a shock for you at Bonnaroo?
BENNETT: Well, I had been actually in another place where there are a lot of humans, Las Vegas, for the two days prior to that and ended up flying into Nashville at about midnight and getting out to Manchester, where the festival was, about 2:00 a.m. Getting out of the vehicle with, you know, everything that I had with me and my violin, and cell phone reception was not great, and just basically encountering this giant mass of people in the middle of the night, super hot, humidity, and then just trying to walk into the center. Like Joel said, it takes a long time to kind of get anywhere. So I was trying to, with a little bit of limited cell reception, kind of get in there. So there were a lot of people walking around, milling around, and still a lot of music going on really all night. I don’t think 2:00 a.m. meant anything to anyone other than maybe me. But, yeah, there were a lot of people in various stages of undress and duress, it seemed. There were a lot of people weirdly emotional. I think Saturday night of a big festival like that you’re kind of getting to the end of your rope in terms of not having proper shower or bathroom facilities for a couple of days and you’re…
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that’s amazing to me that people, you know, really enjoy going to festivals like this where it seems like, you know, it taxes everything in you just to make it through the weekend.
BENNETT: You’re really pushing yourself to the max, absolutely.
CAVANAUGH: Doug, what was it like for you?
WELCOME: It was extreme. It was a weekend of extremes. A lot of heat, a hundred degrees, a lot of humidity. I think – We were talking about the distance that people hike in from their campsites to get to Centeroo, and you could really see that in a lot of the patrons that where there. They were there for the day, for the whole night, probably going to wake up the next morning in the Centeroo area and then just keep listening to music. It was a pretty wild time.
CAVANAUGH: We’re talking hot, humid, Tennessee. What about the bugs?
WELCOME: Ahh, the bugs weren’t too bad. It was too hot.
WEST: I think from – I think that all wildlife just got as far away from it as they could. I saw one – we saw one firefly and we were like, oh, cool, we’re going to see some fireflies.
BENNETT: That was the first firefly I ever saw.
WEST: The first and last because there really weren’t any others.
WEST: I think – I didn’t see any other wildlife, even bugs. I got a couple bites but, luckily, those weren’t too bad.
CAVANAUGH: Darla, what was the highlight of the Bonnaroo weekend for you?
HAWN: Well, everyone I talk to about it knows that Daryl Hall playing with Chromeo on Friday night was – it didn’t just make my Bonnaroo experience but it made my whole year, I think, thus far. Top three shows I’ve ever seen, I think. It was – I love to dance and I don’t like much of like the club scene and when the concerts that I go see don’t really call for a lot of like free dancing, but Daryl Hall did, he called for a lot of it. So…
CAVANAUGH: There’s a video that your band made about this whole experience and you’re there in the airport trying to explain what it meant to you, and words fail.
HAWN: They really do. And I’m so glad that we got some of it on tape to kind of express, you know, all of that when I – when I can’t speak about it.
CAVANAUGH: So, Joel, how did your actual performance go?
WEST: The performance, we actually did two, and they both went really well. Ford put on – We played in Ford’s sponsored tent and they actually turned this tent into – they wanted it to feel like a garage so they had kind of old relics on the wall, like an American flag and some old posters, they had some old TVs going and an arcade game, and it actually had a really intimate vibe to it, and it really didn’t feel too much different from playing at the Casbah or even maybe somewhere more mellow. Not a lot of people are sitting down, and they also had air-conditioning in there so a lot of people were just coming to hang out and cool off. So other than a little bit of bleed from – I mean, if you play outdoor at a festival, if you’re not the loudest band, you’re going to be hearing the loudest band that’s playing at that time. So that was a little bit challenging but, otherwise, we had a great time. And I think it was actually kind of – because our music is a lot more low key than a lot of the stuff that was there, I think it was kind of a restful place for a lot of people. I don’t know that everybody in the Fiesta tent was conscious when we played, at least the second set, because it was the last day there was just a lot of people looking pretty sorry in those last hours, but, no, the performance went great and they hosted us well and the sound was good, so, overall, it was – that alone definitely made it worth the trip and it was really fun.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I’m glad you survived the Bonnaroo experience and I’m glad you’re here to tell us about it. We have to take a short break and when we return, we’re going to hear a lot more music from Joel P. West and the Tree Ring. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. With me in studio is Joel P. West and the Tree Ring. They’re going to play another song for us. Here is “Dreams Where I Am Sleeping.”
(audio of Joel P. West and the Tree Ring performing “Dreams Where I Am Sleeping”)
CAVANAUGH: That’s Joel P. West and the Tree Ring performing “Dreams Where I Am Sleeping.” And
Joel P. West and the Tree Ring is composed of Joel P. West, Kelly Bennett, Douglas Welcome, Darla Hawn and Destin Cretton. Joel, that song will be on a new 7-inch the band’s putting out?
WEST: That’s true, yeah, and it should be available online on joelpwest.com about next week. We did a split single with a band from Portland called Norman, so, yeah, that’ll be on vinyl I think next week.
CAVANAUGH: And I believe you shot a video for this song that was filmed at the Grape Street dog park?
WEST: We did. That’s about a block from my house and Destin actually filmed that video. He’s a filmmaker as well as a glockenspielist…
CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Thank you for that.
WEST: …so that’s a – that’s one of our – That’s kind of a cool spot. We’ve been living in a house for about three years that’s right there and it’s a really cool community in South Park there. Every – You know, I really see the same people every day kind of around and the dog park’s just kind of a funny meeting place. Most people go there at the same time each day and basically just talk about their dogs and watch their dogs play with each other. So, yeah, we just walked down there one afternoon and set up and had really an amazing day, just a really cool, fun community day down there.
CAVANAUGH: And Darla, I’m looking at your drum set, you just took your drums to the park, was that easy?
HAWN: Yeah, I mean I had help. Everyone – I think it caught people off guard that were just bringing their dogs to the park because they were like what is she bringing drums here for? I think they were kind of started a buzz, you know, when we started hauling in our – well, especially Doug’s bass.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, sure.
HAWN: It’s also huge so…
CAVANAUGH: How did the dogs react?
HAWN: They loved it. I mean…
BENNETT: It’s hard to tell if they loved the music or if they just love life.
BENNETT: And love running around after each other. But there were some sniffing, curious dogs all around our instruments and stuff so…
WEST: Yeah, and the funny thing is, if you try and film anything in public, people unless you have a hidden camera, people are going to react and act differently or kind of avoid it. But dogs don’t really care. They…
CAVANAUGH: This is true.
WEST: You know, we had, you know, while we were playing, they were just running through right in between us. There was a dog hiding under Darla’s drums for awhile. There was a couple of dogs relieving themselves in the area. So…
WELCOME: I think one peed on my bass case.
WEST: Yeah, he did.
CAVANAUGH: You’ll always remember it.
WEST: Well, we left it by a tree. We didn’t…
WELCOME: Yeah, we didn’t…
WEST: That was our fault.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Joel, you recorded for a long time as a solo act under the name Joel P. West. How did you and the Tree Ring get together?
WEST: Well, it’s just kind of been a, you know, one thing leading to another type of thing. I started playing acoustic guitar in college because I’d had like a louder rock ‘n roll band in high school and just had – needed as an outlet to play songs and record them and give them to my friends and play for them, then they’d have me play at something. And eventually I was playing in bigger things and I needed some extra people to play with me and so I’ve played with a number of people over the past few years and made two records just kind of with friends and whoever I could get. At some point I started playing with Kelly, and we have played with a few other people but at some point, about, I think about two years ago, we got a little more serious. Like what could this sound like? And what – where do we want to take it? And kind of recruited both Darla and Doug to come and just try it out. And it’s just been – you know, I – We asked them more as musicians than anything, and now we’re, you know, I think they’re some of my best friends now, so it’s just kind of worked out. And I think once we started playing together, we realized, man, this is – we have a really good thing going on here and it’s just – You know, half of having a band is just being able to stand each other and…
WEST: …enjoy each other’s company, which we do. You know, at rehearsal we usually play for about 10% of the time and the rest is just kind of a hang out and catch up sort of therapy session. So…
CAVANAUGH: I gotta ask you, where does the name Tree Ring come from? I know, Kelly, you were saying that people don’t understand it. They say ‘three ring.’ They just don’t – sometimes they don’t get it.
BENNETT: Well, I don’t know that I know the official reason why we’re the Tree Ring but we do all love trees. A lot of our instruments have either wooden elements or are entirely constructed from wood. I mean, the violin is pretty much all wood except for a little bit of catgut and some horse hair. So, in terms of being – and a lot of us are from – or three of us are from either B.C. or the northwest. So we’re looking, all the time, for chances to be in the trees, I think, and that’s a big piece of it.
CAVANAUGH: How do you collaborate? I mean, you know, you say that, you know, you’re best friends now and your rehearsals are really fun times but, you know, when it gets down to it, who decides, you know, how do you make that collaborative decision about what you’re going to play and where a song is going to go?
WEST: Well, I think, for me, I’ve been – When I made the last two records, I had every part built for whoever was going to come in and play it and then we just, you know, they would just play what I had for them. And I realized when I was making Dust Jacket, the last record that I did, that it’s pretty dumb for me to write violin parts for a violinist who’s been playing since she was a little kid. And so we – I kind of started opening up the reins a little bit. And I think at this point now, I’m less of the songwriter and more of a director and I bring – rather than writing a song completely out in my head or at home, I bring kind of the basic structure and basic ideas and then we just kind of let it gel together. And I think I’m kind of directing but it’s been pretty open, and I don’t want to be writing the parts for everybody else because they are total masters of their instruments and they have great voices on their own and so that’s really become the focus, is to try and make every song sit in a place where people enjoy what they’re playing and are playing something that really brings out their talent and their voice.
CAVANAUGH: Now I understand, Joel, that you have also been working as a teacher by day for the last three years but not anymore. Tell us about this new development.
WEST: Well, I’ve been teaching up at Kearny High School for three years, full time, teaching digital media up there, and it’s been great. I really, really love the experience I’ve had there. And I just – I’ve been working on music a bunch and it’s kind of come, especially with this band, that there’s some opportunities in front of us that we would love to take and this last year, I took all of my sick days to go and do music stuff. And it’s not a great way to run a classroom and it’s also just not feasible for, you know, next year we’re looking at already more time doing that. So yesterday was my last day and it was bittersweet. I’m excited about the next, you know, the next kind of phase. I’m a little scared. But it’s been a great job and it’s something that I’m looking at – or try to figure out a way to do that and this. But as far as full time goes, I’m having to take a step out.
CAVANAUGH: Well, that’s exciting, though.
WEST: It is…
WEST: So I’m choosing hunger over, you know, in order to do these things but it’s – I think I’m – it’s just – it’s time to at least see what’s out there. But teaching has been a really – I think it’s actually been a really cool balance of being a creative person and then working really socially and, you know, more of – it’s – I mean, you’re basically just a mentor all day with these students, students who have much less fortunate situations to grow up in than I did. And that’s been great and I think it’s really shaped me and it’s been fun to kind of work on my stuff and then give back in the classroom and kind of do that balance. I’m definitely planning on being involved with the school next year and I’ll be subbing and I’m still helping with some things. Our school wrote a grant to do this small academy that I’ll be working with still next year and so, yeah, it’s exciting and I’m thankful to have – to be – to have it be a tough decision to leave teaching fulltime but we’re really excited about being able to finally say yes to some opportunities where I’ve gotten in the habit of saying no to almost everything because, like, oh, I work fulltime or we don’t have – You know, it’s – we don’t have the – we can’t take a week off or those sorts of thing…
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
WEST: …so it is exciting to sort of jump out and see what might be out there.
CAVANAUGH: Will you guys play for us again?
WEST: Yeah, absolutely.
CAVANAUGH: I’m going to have to – I need some help on this title, though. “28th and Northeast Davis?”
WEST: That’s right.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, all right. This is Joel P. West and the Tree Ring playing “28th and Northeast Davis.”
(audio of Joel P. West and the Tree Ring performing “28th and Northeast Davis”)
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. That’s Joel P. West and the Tree Ring playing “28th and Northeast Davis” here on These Days on KPBS. Now I want to find out what the rest of the band is up to. And, Kelly, let’s start with you but I kind of know already. I’ve interviewed you before. What is this other life you have?
BENNETT: I’m a staff writer for voiceofsandiego.org and I cover the housing market and the job market and surviving in San Diego. So, yeah, I know you well. I’ve been here a few times to talk about usually bleaker subjects than making music and going festivals. But, yeah, a lot of times talking about the economy and that kind of thing, so…
CAVANAUGH: Right, I mean, you know, being a reporter, as the reporters here at KPBS would tell you, is pretty much a fulltime job and a half. So how do you find time to be in this band?
BENNETT: That’s a question that I don’t know the answer to so if anybody knows, I’d love some solutions. No, I – I’ve enjoyed a lot, the chance to do both and to find things in both of my lives that can kind of inspire and influence the other. So it’s a nice thing when you’re writing about somewhat bleak topics like foreclosure and job losses and that kind of thing to, within that realm, find reasons for people to kind of reach out to each other and be in community, and that’s, I think, one of the biggest themes that we find in our music that is cool as well, not just within the actual lyrics of the songs but in just the makeup of our band, being friends, and also playing a lot of times for friends. One of the things I hope to do in my reporting and in my blog is to connect people with other people who live here in this place, in San Diego, and help them find answers from each other. So in my mind, though I’ve kept them pretty separate for a long time, these two pieces of my life go together pretty well.
CAVANAUGH: And, Doug, what about you? Do you have a day job at all?
WELCOME: Yeah. Being a fulltime musician is kind of trying to piece everything together so I teach a lot, have a lot of private students that I’m teaching guitar, piano, trying to be really creative about it. There’s some families that actually come together and I teach some family classes, which is really cool. So they just want to come together and make music, which is really what I’m trying to make my life about and in every aspect have it relate back to making music somehow. So…
CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. And, Darla, are you a fulltime musician?
HAWN: Just about. And then I work at a boutique in La Jolla also but music almost full time.
CAVANAUGH: Joel, I want to know and I know our listeners want to know, when are you guys performing next in San Diego?
WEST: Well, we’re actually on a little bit of a break because we are working towards the new record that we’ll be recording in the fall. We all have some summer travels. Doug’s getting married to – Exciting.
WELCOME: Thank you.
WEST: So for the time being, we are – we don’t have much booked. We’re going to be playing on July 21st at the Lux Institute in Encinitas but it’s less of a formal show and more of just kind of we’re going to be – we’ll be part of the evening. So we are expecting to have some bigger dates this fall but for the time being, we’re just writing, working towards a new record that we’ll be recording end of August, early September is the plan.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you all for being here and playing for us. Joel and Kelly, Douglas, Darla, Destin, thank you so much for being here. And will you play something for us as we go out?
CAVANAUGH: What will that be?
WEST: This is a song called “What’s Supposed to Be”…
WEST: …from Dust Jacket.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you.
(audio of Joel P. West and the Tree Ring performing the song “What’s Supposed to Be” from the album Dust Jacket)