SPURRING ONWARD: AN INTERVIEW WITH RUN DOWNHILL’S T.J. TROY

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By Ellen Fleischer

Run Downhill is an indy country ensemble with a sound that blends classic country with modern indy rock, folk, and world music. Based out of LA, the band features Adam Levy, Nate LaPointe, Ken Lasaine, Tom Moose, and T.J. Troy. Run Downhill positions their work outside of a traditional music context, combining it with the world of comic art and graphic novels in the form of “Song Comics”. This month, we sit down with T.J. Troy, to discuss the band, the Song Comic form, and a few other projects.

Downhill2IM: Who is Run Downhill?

TJT: The best place to begin our discussion is to briefly explain the project: Run Downhill is a band that cross-contextualizes our music with comic art and narrative. Each song works in conjunction with a chapter from an ongoing comic story. Our current storyline is called SPURS.

In the early 1870s, the small Western farming town of Kilbourn experiences traumatic upheaval as a new railroad spur to town nears completion. A series of inexplicable deaths has the town on edge, while residents point an accusing finger back at the railroad company. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure quietly returns to push his fantastic scheme one step closer to completion.

Run Downhill is T.J. Troy—songwriter/producer/drummer/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist; Nate LaPointe —pedal steel/electric and acoustic guitar/background vocals; Adam Levy—bass/background vocals; Tom Moose—acoustic guitar/mandolin/violin/background vocals; Ken Lasaine—baritone guitar.

There are several additional members of the larger creative team: Chris McFann—illustrator/artist; Quinn Salazar—illustrator/artist; Scott Angle—illustrator/artist; Eddie Young—video editor; Scott Manzo —audio mix/mastering engineer; Juli Emmel—live show co-producer/programmer/guest artist.

IM: What can you share with us about your backgrounds? Where do you all come from? How did you get together?

Downhill1TJT: The story of Run Downhill begins in 2009: I had been writing a great deal of material for an instrumental chamber music group, the Freshly Squeezed Music Ensemble (FSME), found myself creating repertoire that didn’t exactly suit the group, and shelved it for a later date. The later date arrived in mid-2011, when I decided to record that material for inclusion within a music licensing catalog. I enlisted the help of my fellow studio professionals here in Los Angeles to make a six-song EP entitled “Giants;” as that music was coming together so nicely, I asked the players to play some local gigs, and from there we began working more in and around Los Angeles. We are all freelance music professionals, either folks I knew from my time at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts, where I did my Master’s degree in Percussion Performance), or from my years of playing freelance gigs around town.

I grew up in North Central Washington State, among the apple and cherry orchards of the Wenatchee Valley. Nate is from Laramie, WY; Tom grew up in Germany, but has lived in California for more than a decade; Adam was born in Kentucky, but grew up in New York, and Ken is a Los Angeles native. In terms of vibe, we’re a West Coast band.

As that first EP was nearing completion, I enlisted Scott Angle to create the covers; in our discussions, I told him the story of our name, Run Downhill. He was so moved by that story, he immediately asked, “Can I draw that?” When that image arrived two weeks later, I had an instantaneous flash of insight, a veritable Big Bang, and an entire world burst into being in my mind, complete with its own mythology. I never had such an epiphany before; I was compelled to tell these stories, and the best way to tell them was with music and visual narrative combined.

Hence, the move towards comic book art and narrative was a natural one. I’m a lifelong reader of comic books, and a published author of prose and poetry, and I’ve always looked for opportunities to bring these two worlds together. With this project, I decided to create that opportunity myself and steer it in the direction I felt was most appropriate. Self-publishing was the best and most available solution.

IM: Where have you performed?

Downhill3TJT: We play mostly at dedicated music venues and art galleries, places where people want to sit down and listen to music. We have played at a variety of bars/honkytonks/clubs, etc., but we’ve found most success in self-producing our shows at venues where we can control the environment. One major component of our live shows is our Song Comic projections (which I’ll discuss in greater detail later); we edit the comic book artwork together into motion comics, which are projected while the band performs live. This creates an all-sensory immersive environment—the audience watches the visual imagery, reads dialogue bubbles, and listens to the music playing live. This deep immersion is the mainstay of the project itself, as our goal is to create enriching, holistic, “real-life” media experiences.

IM: Who (or what) would you consider to be formative influences on your sound?

TJT: I’ve always called this project ‘Johnny Cash meets Tortoise’. That’s still pretty much on the nose these days, as I’m always bringing the music back to what I know, which is classic country music, and indy- and post-rock sounds of the mid and late 90s. Other influences include North Indian and Middle Eastern classical music (two distinctly different styles, but I’m very active as a play in both of those worlds), and other American folk/pop styles. As a writer, I’m very inspired by Haruki Murakami’s magical realism, Grant Morrison’s metafiction, and Jeff Lemire’s beautiful writer/artist stylings.

I grew up listening to the Oak Ridge Boys, Van Halen, the Statler Brothers, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond, and early 1920s/30s Dixieland jazz. My parents’ record collection included titles from Umm Koulthum and Ravi Shankar, right next to ABBA and Itzhak Perlman. I’m the youngest of six kids, and we all played growing up, so music was constantly in the home, always somebody practicing, always somebody listening.

And then I read. I read almost anything I could get my hands on (still do), and the comic book bug hit me when I was three or four years old, very young. Most people associate comic books with what I would call ‘Superhero comic books,’ but there are so many subgenres and styles of comic book narrative: detective stories, war stories, romance stories, stories for the young and the old, and on and on. Run Downhill is essentially a Western ghost story.

I’ve had many people ask me, “Why country music?” For me, country music refers to an approach, an ideal, or value, as much as it refers to a sound. Most contemporary country music from Nashville is really another form of pop music and it serves its purpose well, but that’s not what I’m referring to here. Traditional country music has always evoked a set of values that are quite dear to me. It is straightforward and honest and very difficult to hide within. As a musician that values another musician’s ability to play and sing, I can relate.

Country music also speaks to the reality of loss as well as any other form of music, and that’s a lot of what I write about here. It’s in my blood and bones, as much as anything else could be.

IM: Run Downhill blends its music with comic art and graphic novels, something you’ve dubbed “Song Comics”. What exactly is a Song Comic?

Downhill4TJT: Let me begin answering this question by defining Run Downhill as being ‘object oriented’. It is about the physical construct of the comic book and the album (whether it is CD, vinyl, or otherwise). The effect of holding a physical comic book in your hands, physically turning the pages, actually interacting with the object itself, is the cornerstone of the user experience, and we take great care in developing the physical products, from the cards and stickers to the comics/albums themselves. Our online content, while it has great value and potential to reach a broader audience, is not intended to replace this experience, but simply augment it.

Our music is shared with our audience across three separate platforms: traditional media formats, including CDs/mp3 audio and printed comic books; our live performances, which include our comic narratives projected alongside our live music; and lastly, the Song Comic, which is essentially a music video with embedded text, released in a sequential order, and our most potent online offering.

The Song Comic format is the true amalgamation of the individual elements of Run Downhill’s creative outpouring: we edit the internal artwork of the comic book as a motion comic video, bringing the illustrations to life like a puppeteer breathes life into a marionette. The Song Comics are edited in such a way as to guide the viewer through the same path a reader would take through a given page, adding some light animation where it would enhance the story, then set alongside our studio recordings. These are not animated cartoons, but rather something closer to Balinese shadow puppetry: the flat, two-dimensional figures moving against the backdrop will (hopefully) remind viewers of Ken Burns’ animations/documentaries, where still images are panned in and out to create the illusion of motion.

I do not consider our music to be the ‘soundtrack’ or ‘score’ to our comic books: film/television scores function in a very programmatic manner, being completely subservient and reactionary to the visual imagery. Our Song Comic format is designed to maintain the autonomy of both elements, comic and song, and bring them together to create a third and distinct media experience. You can (and should!) listen to the music away from the comics and read the comics away from the songs. But the Song Comic gives the viewer the opportunity to do both simultaneously. Plus, it gives our audience a chance to interact with our content using their phones and tablets, and folks seem to like that part of the project.

IM: Could you outline the creation process? How do you make one? And roughly how long does it take you?

Downhill5TJT: Nine out of ten times, I begin with a song. I write songs regularly and when I land on a good one, I usually have a good idea as to how a song can be used inside a given narrative structure.

I should offer a quick aside: at this point, I have a very clear vision of how the current narrative in our SPURS storyline will play out. I know where the story will take us, and in order to properly support that narrative structure, I often need to compose songs specifically for a scene.

But most often, because I’m so heavily steeped in the writing of the music and stories simultaneously, my songs tend to come out in good service of the narrative I’m working with. If a song doesn’t fit where I am in the narrative, I save it for something else. As of now, I’ve compiled close to 50 songs that are “Run Downhill” songs, but my current narrative only employs about 26 of those songs. The others can either be placed with other stories later in the continuity, or they can be shared simply as the songs they are.

By the time I get a song into a good working order, I move to a demo stage. I record everything in my own project studio, which is absolutely wonderful and, at this point, essential to this project’s sustainability, as it allows me to keep my overhead low. I take great care in creating these demos, as they become the de facto arrangement and final version of the song. I do not share the songs with anyone until this process is completed. I play all the instruments, sing all the parts, etc. Thereafter, I create a written chart and the chart and demos are placed in the hands of the musicians.

We rehearse the tune for as long as we need to. As rehearsals progress, I then turn to the writing of the comic story: the stories are pretty much “written” in my head, in that I know the relative shape of the plot(s), and merely need to tell the story in the way that best suits a) the song; b) the surrounding stories (chapters) in the comic book; c) the integrity of the characters who play the stories out; and d) a flow within live performance, as these comic stories will eventually be projected next to our live music.

At this point begins the scripting process, and here I work as fast as I can to put the story into some sort of logical shape and then edit mercilessly. I burn down the excess fat until we’re left with the barebones minimum of what’s needed to tell the story.

The comic script is an important piece of this process. As I am not an artist, and therefore cannot render the artwork myself, my task is to create instructions for a visual artist to follow. Naturally, any artist will put his/her own personal stamp on any story they draw, and I’ve been blessed with having really great artist contributors. It’s similar to how one guitar player would interpret a particular part, versus how another might interpret it. It’s all part of the fun of working with really great artists and musicians.

A professional comic artist can generally render one page per day. If we’re really on top of our game, we can get a ten-page script drawn in about two weeks. But, because life takes over, and jobs and children and spouses all require our love and attention, it generally takes a little longer. We factor that into our workflow and we’ve become quite efficient at getting this done according to the schedule we create for ourselves.

I would like also to emphasize that this process takes as long as it needs. In fact, more than one person has observed that the single definitive trait of my music is that it takes its time. As a composer/writer/creator, with any of the roles I play, I take my time, unwilling to rush anything until the idea is fully gestated. This is slow cooking at its finest. That being said, when something is done, fully cooked, the process moves with great speed: our new album, though it took many years to compile the songs, and months of pre-planning to execute the sessions, was recorded/mixed/mastered in six weeks, which is no time at all. I can move pretty quick when I need to…

IM: Your two most recent albums have used the Song Comic format. Would you share some of these comic stories with our readers? What are they about? What inspired you to write them?

Downhill6TJT: Our Second EP, entitled “Kilbourn” (the name of the fictitious town that our stories take place in) was an experiment in this concept. This was a live studio album. We set up the band here at the Kilbourn House (my studio) and did the entire album in one day, all live takes, no overdubs. I brought in a three-person camera crew to film it. As we edited that footage together, we interspersed comic panels into the video from a story I wrote called “The Carousel Couple,” essentially Issue #0 of the Kilbourn Saga. So, as you watch/listen to that album, you also read the story that triggered all the action thus far in comics. In this story, the annual Town Harvest Dance turns to tragedy, as two young lovers who can’t quite get it together are gunned down in an act of needless violence.

Our next album, SPURS #1, is where the Song Comic format began in earnest. I commissioned artist Quinn Salazar to render four chapters of the story into comic form. We recorded the music in December 2013, and the stories were one at a time. We released each Song Comic in the first half of 2014 at our (then) monthly show in downtown Los Angeles. We released the collected album and comic in September 2014; it ended being 48 pages (which is big for a comic book), plus a 6-song EP.

The story begins with a mining accident. Two miners are trapped underground after a blast goes wrong. Unhurt, they explore while waiting for rescue efforts to reach them and discover a strange, glowing stream. One of the men touches the water and immediately catches fire. After leaving a grim prophecy for his partner to deliver to the townsfolk, he burns to ashes. News of the mysterious fire reaches the townsfolk, who can only watch helplessly as it claims more victims. From this, an orphan boy named Simon Rooster survives unscathed, and attracts the attention of local mystic, John Castlerock.

What inspired me to write these stories? Life. I wanted to tell the stories of real heroes, individuals who embrace hardship as part of the larger tapestry of life and view loss as an opportunity to grow as bigger and better people. I am particularly concerned with fresh water access, both for private and commercial use, as well as larger notions of human sustainability on our planet. Alongside that, I wanted to write stories for the disenfranchised. Listen to the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black;” I pretty much feel the same way.

IM: What kind of feedback have you received?

TJT: The feedback we’ve received has been enormously positive: each and all of the reviewers we’ve connected with have given SPURS #1 big thumbs up, and fans at shows have been equally blown away, especially when we perform with the projections. The main feedback we receive is that viewing the live show with projections is a lot like watching a silent movie: there are the visuals, interspersed lines of dialogue (speech bubbles), and musical accompaniment moving alongside.

We are conditioned by this point to abide by a certain protocol when we go to the movies: when the lights go down, you stop talking and focus on the screen. This is a little different when you are watching at home: you can pause, rewind, watch a scene again, and thus the experience is more user-controlled. But the rituals surrounding the movie theater experience are well-rehearsed, codified, and accepted by the audience.

I observe a similar protocol at our shows when the projections are involved: we structure our shows to begin with some music from the band without the projections and then, at a certain point in the set, the lights dim and the Song Comic portion of the program begins. From my perch behind the drum set, I observe the audience’s total absorption into the film. The band virtually disappears, all focus is centered on the images and the text bubbles. What we’ve heard from audiences is that this is a very exciting format to watch a film, or in this case, a comic book.

IM: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way? How did you resolve them? (Or how are you resolving them?)

TJT: That spins off of the previous question. Our audience is thoroughly immersed in our process and our concept, but because we are only a few songs/chapters into the story, people are still sorting out who’s who and what’s what. It’s a lot to ask of the audience in a live setting, as there is an enormous amount of information presented. Most comic books, especially superhero and related genres, move extraordinarily fast through their plots, even in a single issue. I chose to deliberately move slowly, and by nature of music meeting image, I chose to keep my settings relatively stable within any given song.

Another fun challenge for me, as a writer and composer, was to tell the story with a larger emphasis on visual narrative, as opposed to dialogue/written narrative. This mainly came after we released the Kilbourn EP: audiences complained that there were too many words to read too quickly. So, part of my learning curve was to adjust the amount of dialogue, and give more space for the images to tell the story. The solution was to slow the pace down, and to narrate with an extraordinarily terse language, something I still spend a great deal of time navigating.

Lastly, I will say the largest issue I face with the project is that of sustainability. My goal is to be able to release one “issue” per month, each issue being two Song Comic chapters, equal to two songs and about 20 pages per issue. In the past two years since I began developing this format, I’ve produced six Song Comics, approximately 72 pages of artwork, 32 minutes of projections, and the songs that accompany them, and the only reason for that is the budgeting. We’ve had one successful crowdfunding campaign that I ran in mid-2014, but aside from that, the expense has come out of pocket.

In the long run, if that’s the only issue I encounter, then it’s barely enough to bat an eye at. As it stands, the development of works is a bit slower than I would like, but it feels quite good to have complete ownership over my own destiny. And, I’ve considered this time to be my “beta testing” period, so I can work out the kinks in the process, find what works and what doesn’t, and continue better equipped to share these songs and stories more effectively.

IM: How are you handling the publicity and promotion end?

TJT: This, too, spins out from your earlier question. I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to promotion. I still believe that the most effective way to promote and publicize creative projects is by word of mouth. Getting out in front of people, playing shows, talking about the project, that’s the only real tried and true method of growing a fan base; everything else is quite speculative. The internet/social media have not been kind to us yet, we’ve not seen the type of engagement that I would have hoped for, but at the same time, our creative team is all working professionals, and simply doesn’t take the time to engage social media to exploit it for what it has to offer, and in order for social media to ‘work’ for you, it must be engaged.

There is a very common misconception among creators (and booking agents), and I see it happen a lot with musicians: the attitude of ‘If you build it, they will come’ is simply incorrect. I think there are many who believe the internet is a place where once you build it, people will either come to it or they won’t, and that that particular level of engagement is enough to quantify success or failure. (Look at the booking practices of most music venues: if you don’t have enough ‘likes,’ you don’t get booked.) To me, when social media engagement becomes a value judgment of “good” or “bad” music and art, that’s a problem.

It is essential for the independent artist to accept that, along with being a creator, an innovator, or a performer, one must also be a salesman. And that can often be a bitter pill for many artists to swallow, especially when there is an attitude that working to sell your musical/artistic product constitutes ‘selling out,’ or makes you appear selfish. (Look at Taylor Swift’s open letter to Apple, demanding appropriate royalties for using her music during Apple Music’s introductory period.) Too many people stand on the broken premise of “I don’t promote myself; I let my work speak for me.” However noble that may be, it is not included in the recipe for success in today’s industry.

The internet changed a great number of things, especially music commerce, but above all, it just made us lazy. I think when we put too much emphasis on connecting via electronic means, we lose our ability to connect person-to-person, and that’s a real tragedy, especially for younger generations. People don’t support ‘projects’ or ‘concepts;’ people support people.

IM: What advice would you give someone just starting out, either in music or in comics today?

TJT: Be completely honest in all interactions with all people; do not tell lies.

Remember: no fear, no jealousy.

Stay true to your vision, be willing to take criticisms to heart and learn from them, but ignore those that do not serve you.

Learn to differentiate between art and craft. Hold your artistic values up as high as you can, do not compromise them, but always be in a constant state of renewal when it comes to the craft. Practice your instrument; practice writing songs; practice writing comics; practice your sales pitch. Do not take the attitude of “I’m very talented, and talent is worth more than effort.” Remember, at the top end of the ladder are the most talented people in the world, and the only thing that distinguishes one from the other is their work ethic. Please, take this to heart, friends.

Become comfortable with who you are and take ownership of all success and failure. Handle success with grace and humility, but do not deny it, and take ownership of your failures and shortcomings without allowing them to define you.

Lastly, it’s all about networking, but instead of going out and trying to meet the “right” people, take great pleasure in meeting everybody. This is the single greatest part about comic conventions: it’s the greatest way to meet new fans and share ideas and experiences with them, and everybody, everywhere, has something wonderful to share. Make that sharing a big part of your life, and not only will your career benefit, your soul will benefit as well.

You have a new comic coming out soon with two Song Comic chapters. Can you give us some hints about what to expect?

TJT: Yes! The upcoming album is called Midnight Road Trip and includes SPURS #2.1—Preview. Basically, there are seven songs on the record and two of them are Song Comics. They are Chapters 7 and 8 respectively. This is a little out of order, as SPURS #1 ended at Chapter 4, but I chose these two chapters, as you don’t need the entire backstory in order to enjoy these tales.

The other songs on the record are some very old ones (one track, “Kickin’ it,” was penned back in 2002, I believe), and some very new ones (“Name Your Price” was penned in March of this year). They don’t necessarily have a comic component (although one song, “I Beg Your Pardon,” will appear as Chapter 9 in the upcoming SPURS #2 book), but are some of our favorite songs to play live, and audiences have been asking for recorded versions, so here you go!

In terms of the stories, we start to see what the main source of conflict is all about: we meet a young man with horrible rage issues and witness his floundering attempts at defending a woman’s honor, and through the eyes of a naïve sheriff’s deputy, we interview a murder suspect.

IM: What else is currently on your horizon?

TJT: I’m pretty much booked solid until Christmas. In September, we have a month full of different pre-release events before the official release date on September 27. September 12 and 13, we will be at the Long Beach Comic Con, selling pre-release copies of the book, meeting folks, and participating in some of the panel discussions (if you’ve never been to a comic convention, check one out soon!), and similarly on September 19 and 20, we will be at the Rose City Comic Con in Portland, OR. September 21, I’ll be playing a solo set at Hattie’s Hat in Seattle, and more shows both in Portland/Seattle area and Long Beach are soon to be announced.

After that, I start work on an experimental opera called Hopscotch that takes place in various locations across Los Angeles: the audience rides in a limo to a site, gets out of the car and watches a scene, and then rides on to the next scene somewhere else in the city. It’s environmental by design, with a fragmented, non-linear narrative, and that’s always fun to witness. It’s a great role they have for me. I’m looking forward to it.

December, the current plan is solo percussion concerts in China for 2–3 weeks, although those plans have not been confirmed. Aside from all that, it’s my regular schedule of performing, teaching, and creating more Run Downhill materials! We are also looking for potential publishing/distribution partners, so hopefully, by that point in the year, we’ll have some traction on that end.

IM: Is there anything you’d like to share that we haven’t yet touched on?

TJT: First off, Thank You Ellen! This has been tons of fun!

The last thought I have for readers is a veritable call to arms. The fans are those truly in charge of the direction that the music/entertainment industry will take, and that in itself is a great responsibility. If you desire quality art/music/entertainment, then pursue it and take part in the communities that support it. Go to live events, listen to new music, read new comics, and invest time in learning more about what’s out there. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover.

And, most importantly, when you do discover something, take a moment to sound off on it, both in social media circles, and publicly among friends and like-minded people. As a creator, I love to share my work with fans, and love it even more when the fans share with their friends.

IM: Finally, how can people keep up with you and your work?

TJT: Please visit:

http://rundownhillmusic.com, the official Run Downhill website. Stop by for updates regularly!

http://tjtroy.com, the official T.J. Troy website, is currently being reconstructed, so thanks for your patience.

YouTube: rundownhillmusic

Facebook: rundownhill

Twitter: @run_downhill

For local Los Angeles comics fans, check out our books at Golden Apple Comics in Hollywood, and also find our albums at Amoeba Records, as well as at various comic/record shops around town.

You can always order comics directly from us at our online store, located on our website.

Upcoming concerts:

Run Downhill:

September 1—Indie Music Collective, Atwater Village, Los Angeles, CA.

September 21—Hattie’s Hat, Seattle, WA.

September 27— Album/Book Release concert, Pasadena Conservatory of Music, Pasadena, CA.

T.J. Troy:

Hopscotch— Saturdays and Sundays throughout October and November, all across Los Angeles. Check out The Industry’s website: http://theindustryla.org/top.php

And, please, drop me a line to say hello! We want to start including fan letters in our comics, so if you have a thought or question or just a shout out, write me and chances are they will end up in a book!

 

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Learn more about our interviewer at: Ellen Fleischer

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