Meet: Ancient River talk to us about ‘Keeper Of The Dawn’

With the release of their sixth album, ‘Keeper Of The Dawn’, and appearances all over the globe,  it’s fair to say that Florida duo Ancient River are one of the main stalwarts of the current psych scene. Their vast kaleidoscope of sound has it’s roots in the swampy blues of the American South, but over the years it’s grown to reflect elements of shoegaze, americana, and of course psychedelia.

Latest offering,’Keeper Of The Dawn’ is a monumental album, one of those long players that easily succeeds in whisking you away and rather than manipulate, it accentuates your thoughts to take your far, far away – which of course is the both what we require and what the band intend.

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We recently caught up with founder member and singer/songwriter James Barreto to find out more about the album, and a bit more about the band. Meet James…

BM: Hi, James – can you tell us a bit about the new album? Is there a theme to it etc?
JAMES: Our new album is titled Keeper of the Dawn. We worked on the main theme for a couple of years. I just wanted to do something dark, but beautiful. I had just been spending a lot of time in London. I would return from London to Gainesville, Florida and we would track some stuff, then either develop it or scratch it. At the time we were working on other material besides the Keeper of the Dawn stuff. It was all written, recorded and mixed between London and Gainesville, mostly at my home studio. I find that it’s always fun to have themes musically or lyrically connecting the songs, however I like keeping things lyrically just vague enough so the listener can create their
own connections.

Ancient River Vinyl

BM: The artwork for the album is pretty cool – everything from the cover work to the actual vinyl…
JAMES:The cover of the album was chosen from a piece by my photographer friend Marcus Tanner. I had known of this piece with the Polaroids and the skulls for a few years. I felt that it would serve as a great album cover, I asked him and he was keen. My very talented wife Nakia Matthewson designed the rest of the album it came out looking better than I’d imagined. We’ve gotten just as many compliments on the design of the album as the music, I’m very lucky to be surrounded by such talented people.

BM: What kind of things influenced your writing on the album?
JAMES: We have the challenge of whatever we record being pulled off live as a two piece. Something we always keep in mind. I’ll have some ideas and then I’ll bring them into the room with Alex Cordova on drums. We go from there, sometimes we will make something on the spot record it and see if we want to develop it more.
I like collaborating with artists who don’t need a lot of explaining or direction, just more of a general intuitive feel thing. Alex is very great at that. I’m not a huge fan of creating full songs all by myself to a click track and using auto tune. It may come out perfect that way, but I’m inspired by tiny imperfections and working with other people. I love getting in a room and flushing out ideas and collaborating with other people. The album was very much influenced by my love of Pink Floyd, David Axelrod and old school horror movie soundtracks. I kind of wanted to make an an album that mixed those influences together, could be played on its own or thought of as a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist yet.

BM: Thinking about influences – which bands would you say have influenced you the most?
JAMES: We love all genres of music. I always say that Ancient River’s largest influences would have to be Pink Floyd, Neil Young and Black Sabbath. Then it kind of branches off from there to bands like Spiritualized, Mercury Rev and My Bloody Valentine. That should usually give someone an idea of what sounds we like to make. Also for me influence is not just about the music, but sometimes the way a band or artist goes handling their branding and business practices. Not many artists are as influential to me in this arena as Frank Zappa. He was really ahead of his time in many ways, but how he managed to do his own thing the way he wanted is a source of guidance and inspiration for me, especially being an independent artist in the year 2015.

BM: Did any of those influences help when choosing the band name?
JAMES: The name Ancient River comes from the Neil Young song “Thrasher”. It just stood out to me one day listening to it, I wanted to have a name that would represent a band that mixes up genres, changes from album to album and has longevity.


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BM: Were you influenced by music as a child? Was there much music around the place when you were growing up?
JAMES: Alex and I both grew up in musical households. My mother was a professional ballerina and lover of music. She had her Beatles and Beach Boys records, but also a lot of Latin and classical music, she loved all kinds of music from around the world. My dad is more of a James Brown and jazz fan.

Alex comes from a very musical family. His dad is a touring musician and music is deep in his family’s history and tradition. I think we both have similar influences and bonded very quickly over everything from Hendrix to hip hop. We both have older siblings who helped expose us to many sounds early on before being old enough to go record hunting.

In addition to that MTV used to play music. I remember thinking Yo MTV Raps! was the coolest show on the planet, more so than head-bangers ball.

BM: You mentioned earlier that your influences are not just about music – care to expand on that?
JAMES: In the end I think influences can come from all types of sources. I love cinema and also find inspiration and influence from traveling to distant lands. Seeing something new is always influential in the types of themes or music I choose to make. Human emotions can many times be the strongest influence to me as far as making music. Whether your feeling a certain way or not, the fact that you have felt those emotions and can recall or try to recall that feeling is what I’m going for a lot of times when I pick up a guitar. Emotions are something everyone can relate to not matter what language.

BM: You’ve been around a while now, and got more than a fair amount of experience – any advice or words of wisdom for new bands just starting out?
JAMES: Yeah, I’m learning something new all the time, but the long tours have taught me so much about the other side of things besides the music.
To a band starting out I would stress developing your own sound before pushing it too hard. Theres a lot of bands out there especially when you’re out on the road seeing three bands a night across the country. You see fast who’s an artist and who’s just copying someone who copied someone else.
I don’t understand what the rush is for some bands to brand themselves and quickly put up some songs and promote them or even start a kick-starter or go fund me. When you get out there you see how many bands are really out there trying to do the same thing. So finding your sound that’s unique is important.
But hey what do I know? And some people are just in bands for a good time so.
Another thing I would tell a new band is to count your blessings. Always count your blessings no matter how small and give thanks.

BM: What’s the best thing about been in Ancient River?
JAMES:The best thing about being in Ancient River is the freedom musically. Theres not a song idea that we say “Thats cool, but we cant do that because it doesn’t sound like Ancient River”. Luckily we established our range of sounds early on, so it leaves us with a great deal of freedom from being boxed in to one style or sound.

BM: And the worst?
JAMES: The worst thing is not having a current home base right now. We were based out of Gainesville early on, but now we are spread out in London and Austin, Texas. It confuses people sometimes understanding exactly where we are from. 

BM: If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?
JAMES: If I wasn’t in Ancient River I would be doing graphic design, but I actually studied design in college and use it all the time. So if not, maybe I would be in sociology, psychology or a film maker of some sort.

BM: You’ve got quite an extensive back catalogue now, which song means the most to you? Why?
JAMES: I would have to say the title track from “On the Other Side” is one of my favorites. I love the sound on that track and the lyrics mean a lot to me. It was written and recorded during a big change for me and after some good ones had left us too soon.

BM: Which songs do you like playing the best?
JAMES: Live I enjoy playing the newest material the most. The freshest material is always the most fun to play for me. We just got done with a three month American tour.

BM: Talking of playing live, you’ve toured extensively over the years. What’s your favourite tour story?
JAMES:Definitely being stuck in Amarillo, Texas.
We had been on tour for about 3 months and only had a couple of shows left. We showed up played the show and the next day our vehicle broke down heading out of town.
We were stuck in a Motel 6 for three days and after finding out the the engine was done we had to figure a way out of town with the gear. It proved to be too expensive to rent and cheaper to buy something. We bought an old Ford Econoline from an old Texan in overalls and eating corn on the cob with the promise that it would get us back to Gainesville, but not much further.
We bought it in good faith, packed up the gear and hit the road. Then as we passed the city limits of Amarillo we blew out a front tire. We didn’t have a spare and didn’t know what to do. Dusk was setting in and we just kind of idled down the highway trying to figure out what to do. Before we could come up with any plan we came up on a small family run tire shop. We pulled in and without words they jacked up the van and changed the tire for almost no charge.
We were very lucky finally. We drove ourselves and the gearback to Gainesville. The van made it! Just like the man who sold it to us promised it would, be yeah it broke down the next day in Gainesville and got scraped for parts.
I guess overall we’ve been pretty lucky out on the road, That tour taught us a few important things. However, Amarillo really taught us that theres always a way, just keep pushing.

BM: Can you remember your first gig
JAMES:Yes, my first gig was in Gainesville at the Common Grounds. I was in a psych rock band called The Ohm. I remember being a bit nervous, but felt good to be getting up there with 3 friends. I think if I had to do a gig alone it would have been terrifying. We got up there and blasted through the set and it felt good. Of course we recorded it, but I haven’t listened to it in a long time.

BM: Do you have a favourite gig?
JAMES: I think my favorite gig to date has been our Gainesville gig from the most recent tour. It was our first gig there since not living there anymore. It felt so good to be back in town and see so many familiar faces after being on the road for a month or so. Alex’s mom was there! It was awesome.

BM: What about the worst?
JAMES:The worst gig I can remember was a Seattle gig from a while ago. The sound guy was in a bad mood and refused to take the direct input off one of my amps. I asked him several times with no success. We played the whole show with this large hum from the direct input coming through the monitors. It sucked.

BM: You’ve just played the Reverence Festival in Valada Portugal, The Psychedelic Revolution Fest inToulouse, France, and tonight you play La Mecanique Ondulatoire in Paris. Do you have any UK shows coming up?
JAMES: Yes –
Rough Trade Records (Nottingham, United Kingdom) September 10th
The Shacklewell Arms (London, England) September 13th.

BM: For anyone who hasn’t seen you and is thinking of going along, how would you describe your live set?
JAMES:Ancient River’s live show is currently a collection of many moods. Walls of sound blending in and out of compositions.
We try to take breaks for stage banter as little as possible, mostly just to thank the crowd. There’s usually some type of visual projection going on, if theres not we have a hand modified Opti 250 projector that we set up ourselves on the road to help add some sort of visual excitement to the performance.

BM: Compared to a lot of your bands, your output is quite prolific – any plans for any more releases soon?
JAMES: This year we are going to finish these shows and we are working on a new album that we are going to really take our time with. We actually have an album aside from that one thats done, It’s kind of like that album we released in 2010 called O.D.D.S. It full of random tracks that haven’t been released yet. Theres some very psychedelic stuff on there. I’d like to release it as we are finishing up our new album.

BM: And finally – You are very much a part of the current psych scene which seems to be growing from strength to strength, year on year – yet it’s still largely ignored by the mainstream. Why do you think this? And do you think it matters?
JAMES: Yeah, the mainstream sucks! The mainstream just wants to sell the most bland, digestible, least common denominator music to people who aren’t interested in searching for music on their own. So no, it doesn’t matter.

KEEPER OF THE DAWN by ANCIENT RIVER is out now via Summer Moon

Catch ANCIENT RIVER at the following live dates:

Rough Trade Records (Nottingham, United Kingdom) September 10th
The Shacklewell Arms (London, England) September 13th.


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