“I found myself in the rehearsal room, learning the same songs, hearing the same jarring guitars, and it was a moment of like, I don’t think this is even what I want to hear anymore.” As John Eatherly discusses below, unpacking the process of his previous group, Public Access TV, helped him recharge his creativity and discover a new way of working that he’s since put into action having recently struck out solo under his own name with a brilliantly nuanced debut EP – The Tales of No Return: Volume 1 – under his belt.
This time, he’s doing the opposite of everything he’s done before – he’s releasing as he goes, working with a more minimal template, and is open to letting people in on the process itself. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be honest and happen naturally. The EP is an experimental stream of consciousness born in a world of cinematic instrumentals and brought to life in a Manhattan basement with friend and collaborator Max Kamins. Here, John’s found a freedom that bands don’t always allow and the result is an infectious capsule of his artistry and the ‘weirdness’ that makes it so.
Clementine Zawadzki: You wrote and demoed Public Access TV’s output, so why did it feel necessary to take on a solo project?
John Eatherly: It was a necessity, really. It wasn’t like some big event happened for me to decide I’m going to do it on my own, but it felt like the band was becoming more trouble than it was worth. I don’t mean it to sound that shitty, but the guitar player had put in his notice – and it’s all cool, he’s my brother, we live on the same block together and we’ll always be tight – but that kind of started a domino effect. I thought I had to get one new guy, but then someone else in the band left, and I kind of felt like he left me hanging. I was like, “Right, I’m going to use this as an excuse to put together a whole new band,” and then I found myself in the rehearsal room, learning the same songs, hearing the same jarring guitars, and it was a moment of like, I don’t think this is even what I want to hear anymore.
CZ: Did you know what you were looking for going into this solo effort?
JE: PATV was special and that specific group of people was functioning, but also very dysfunctional. I don’t like it when bands keep the name and then completely change up the whole thing, even coming from the perspective of someone who made the records alone anyway. I was just thinking I’d get totally weird with it. I wanted to play drums and sing and have keyboards and maybe another guy on tracks, but at the same time I didn’t want to rely on other people so heavily. With the PATV albums, each song was a precious thing and I’d try to pack as many darts as I could throw. I feel this EP is all over the place, but that’s what I love about it. It’s a display of drastically different expressions and jumps from one place to another, rather than something that’s steady and similar the whole away through.
CZ: It sounds like it was creatively quite freeing for you to not be confined to any pre-conceived ideas about your sound or your audience. To suddenly have these walls lifted…
JE: It was so nice. That was really getting to me, because it was at the point that even if PATV would’ve appeared to be less nostalgic or 70s than it was, something like making a video and seeing a drum kit and two guitars started feeling claustrophobic. It’s not like I’m walking around listening to The Clash or something. I just can’t, it’s like I’m traumatised. It’s just not what I listen to anymore and I think, now more than ever, I want to be more aware of what’s going on. Listening to contemporary music and deciphering what I like and don’t like about things, rather than having a safety net. Like knowing I could listen to a Tom Petty record forever because I love it already. You end up being stuck in the past and I don’t want that.
“I wanted to be transparent, because who I am is broad and weird, rather than trying to paint a picture and keep up with something that isn’t always going to feel natural.”
CZ: The focus gradually shifted from making music to managing how that was going to be possible in the first place?
JE: I think nowadays, especially for a band, it’s harder than ever to keep going. When I see a band that has stayed together as long as they have, I’m like, “That’s awesome. That’s sick,” because I know how hard it can be. It’s like, “How do I keep these people happy?” or they’re feeling like I don’t have anything to offer them, it’s like I don’t have any money and I’m following you around. I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to do that. I don’t think I would want to do that. I did that, I’ve been on the other side of that, and at a certain point you need to switch your head to feeling like you’re on an adult path. To be chasing someone who’s after something unattainable is like following a maniac. I’m the maniac in that scenario.
CZ: If you’ve always had this ‘weird’ side to your personality, where did these ideas go during PATV?
JE: There’s definitely shit that would’ve been really out of place in PATV. This [solo project] just feels like an umbrella. I didn’t want to make a new band or have a weird name or have some alter ego or alias like ‘John Blah Blah Blah’, because even that feels dated to me. I wanted to be transparent, because who I am is broad and weird, rather than trying to paint a picture and keep up with something that isn’t always going to feel natural. I wanted it to be easy on myself and be the weirdo that I am. I’ve always been making demos; at least from the time I got a 4-track when I was a teenager. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted PATV to be in the beginning, but then those songs kept turning into other things. I’ve never put out something that I feel weird about, but I have made songs that I feel weird about. I don’t know if what I’m doing right now is even the most marketable thing, but I just don’t care.
CZ: Your debut EP Tales of No Return: Volume 1 feels like a pretty self-explanatory title, but as you’ve outlined, the songs are really eclectic. What was the linchpin to bring it all together?
JE: It kind of went in phases, so initially we [with Max Kamins] were listening to a lot of Air, because that felt like an interesting way to make something feel more modern, but that shifted to listening to soundtrack music. I remember Posture was like a mix between a Ricky Nelson ‘50s sad song – like tragic Hollywood – but [Tyler, the Creator’s] Igor had just come out and the first song Igor’s Theme has that really big synthesiser sound and low bass. The thing with Air is it’s layered and dense, and I liked how ‘now’ music has so few things happening, so that became the central idea I suppose. I wanted to create something like the guitar from Cavatina in The Deer Hunter movie, which is sad in a way that’s easy to understand, like in a Disney movie. Sometimes I don’t want to listen to anything with vocals, and it was warm outside and I was riding my bike all around the city listening to all these Michael Rother records, and Neu! was krautrock and cool, but his solo records are actually really pretty and not very edgy at all. It’s that, but mixed with all the 80s stuff Max and I love, like John Carpenter, Hans Zimmer – those big, in-your-face sounds.
I think Certified Quality (Lucky Too) is the most PATV just done a little differently. It just happened really naturally, I played it and then we edited it. It was just capturing a good energy and not trying to overthink it. I don’t want to be one of those people that gets caught up being like, “I spent all this money on renting out a studio and spent two years making this record,” it’s like who cares? It sounds fun for you, but it sounds like a waste of time and money. I just want to get with the programme and not be too precious.
CZ: You mentioned soundtracks a few times. Do you have some kind of picture or arc in your mind when creating these tracks, particularly the instrumentals?
JE: I probably watch more movies than music I listen to, so I’ve always come at music from a ‘hearing it in the scene’ kind of angle, which is funny because I’ve always found making music videos excruciating. You would think it would be easier. Certified Quality is the oldest (by a couple of months) and that’s uplifting and a message to somebody to take it easy and not be hard on yourself. It was mixed in with the complications of being in a relationship that was kind of going south and that’s where Take It Out on Me and Posture come from theme-wise. It’s therapeutic. I don’t want to only be making mopey music, so I want to always have an uplifting element where, if someone relates to it, they feel better.
CZ: You’ve said how with this current project you don’t want to be too precious or overthink it – how does that lend itself to the process?
JE: My friend Max and I have been working together for a year, but we’ve known each other for a long time. He was the bass player in The Virgins. We always got along and had the same tastes, so it was a natural decision to work with him. My goal is to make something special and good, and he just objectively knows if something is corny or bad. It’s not the kind of project where we’re on someone else’s time, and you go to the studio for a week and fuck around and get nothing done. It might feel like we’ve done nothing, but we’ve done about ten things and one of those things will be useful somewhere along the line.
“I feel this EP is all over the place, but that’s what I love about it. It’s a display of drastically different expressions and jumps from one place to another, rather than something that’s steady and similar the whole away through.”
CZ: You find music videos difficult, so how did you approach something like Burnout for instance (feat. Kaia Gerber)?
JE: It was a really fun excuse to make a video with my friends, like Jonah [Freud] and Johann [Rashid]. Jonah did a bunch of videos for PATV and he’s one of my best friends and we’ll always do stuff together. I didn’t want to wait until I had some broad picture of how I thought everything should be and then start putting videos out. I wanted to do stuff as it happens. The concept was just to make it surreal and 80s, like a dark Michael Douglas thriller. It’s realising that it’s ok if people see the steps of what’s happening and something comes out that isn’t completely cohesive. Also, All My Love was a video my friend made in Toronto and I like that because it’s got a screensaver quality to it. I’d rather a video look beautiful and mesmerising, because it helps you listen to the song too.
CZ: Does touring enter into this ‘no method to the madness’ plan? Do you know how playing live is going to work yet?
JE: Touring just seems like more of a business to me than something creative, so I’m a lot more objective about it than playing live. I didn’t always feel that way, but when I was playing drums in other bands I was probably coasting a little and just doing my thing. I know I want it to be impactful, not just a person at a computer singing. I’m used to things having energy and I don’t feel like I’m playing by any rulebook now, so we’ll see.
John Eatherly’s debut EP The Tales of No Return: Volume 1 is out now.
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