Interview: Jesse Teer – The Senators
Jesse Teer from The Senators (review) speaks about the historic roots of the band and some of the struggles that come from independently producing your own music. He describes his favorite place to play in Phoenix and what it is like being in a band with his brother.
The Senators is an interesting band name, how did this name come about?
I am definitely a history nerd. One of our early song concepts dealt with the pre-Civil War feud between U.S. Senators Brooks and Sumner. I guess the name got thrown out there and it kind of stuck. I think its simple but still a bit iconic, and it fits the project well.
How did The Senators form as a band? How long have you guys played together?
The project began back in 2008-09 with a lot of long distance back and forth between Rooster and myself. He was living out in Memphis at the time. As we kept sending concepts back and forth, the songs began to draw more heavily from the elements of Memphis Rock n Roll and American Roots music. When Rooster came back to Phoenix, we put together the material we’d collected and some newer songs and by December of 2010 we were able to focus on recording an EP. It quickly turned into the full-length album Harsher Than Whiskey/Sweeter Than Wine. We started bringing in some local Arizona talent that we knew to record some parts for the album, and we started playing out in June this year. I’m lucky to be surrounded by some really good musical talent.
Were there bands before The Senators?
(laughs) Yeah. I think every artist has an embarrassing project or two circa when they were learning to write and compose. That stuff is likely floating around somewhere on the web, but its probably not worth tracking down. As far as the band goes, I think it is interesting in that we were all classically trained growing up. We really didn’t all play in your typical garage bands, but were mostly playing in orchestras, jazz bands, etc. Band nerds all of us.
Can you remember the first song you ever sang/performed?
Yes. When we were really young, I remember getting all of our brothers together with cardboard-cutout instruments and “performing” what must have been a great rendition of “Heard It Through the Grapevine” for our parents. Wish I had that on tape.
What about the first song you ever wrote? Do you still play that song today?
For our listener’s sake, I refrain from playing it. It started writing back when I was 15 and angsty. The first Senators song that I wrote was “Sea and Its Floor”, which I still think is one of the stronger songs on our first album. We use that one to open up our set.
What would you say has been the biggest obstacle for The Senators?
Trying to go the completely independent route can be challenging. Since we have decided to do all of our production, all of our promotion, and all the other business pieces like licensing, it can sometimes feel like we are learning as we go. We are in a great spot that as a really young band we are getting a lot of good national exposure and play. It keeps us on our toes. I really like aspect of the project.
If you had to describe The Senators music in three words what would they be?
Rooted, not revival.
Would you say there is a specific theme that your songs cover? If so,
what are they?
Harsher was not constructed as a concept album, per se, but I hear from a lot of our listeners that they definitely identify some common threads: some biblical and historical references. Those are powerful images on their own, but I don’t dwell on that stuff as the subject, just use those images to paint a more specific picture. I’m usually writing on things that are much more personal.
How is it being a in a band with your brother? Is it all brotherly love?
I secretly wonder if the rest of the band thinks we’re gonna end up in some really bad Oasis-esque situation. But all kidding aside, its great. It’s a rare thing to have someone who can be completely unfiltered and honest who will tell me something really sucks when it does. We are both pretty opinionated, so it can get a little heated. At the end of the day I know the friction leads to an even better product… we don’t let each other get away with anything that’s not great, and we haven’t resorted to blows yet.
Is anyone else in your family besides your brother and you musically gifted?
Yes. Our mother was an amazing pianist, but she developed a disability that kept her from following that dream. I remember falling asleep to her playing Chopin when I was young. Instead, she turned out to be an equally amazing doctor. Growing up, she got us into music at a young age, me with with piano and cello mostly. Without her influence I wouldn’t be where I am today.
What is the most memorial venue you have ever played at?
Up to this point, I have to say the Rhythm Room in Phoenix. It is one of those venues with a lot of grit and history. A lot of famous blues players have gigged there over the years, and you can feel a certain soul within the building. It definitely has some attitude. Hopefully, if you ask me next year I’ll be saying the Ryman. Fingers crossed.
Every band has musical inspiration, what bands would you say motivates you the most as a musician?
I think motivate is the right word. I don’t ever really try to emulate anyone or a particular style. As a group, we definitely have musical heroes that influence us and make us want to be better writers and performer. Cash is the kind of guy you listen to and are just flat out astounded. He did it for decades and decades. Even at the end with ‘Hurt’ he won over a whole new generation. I have great respect for Ben Gibbard as a lyricist. On rotation right now I have Van Morrison, Old Crow Medicine Show, Calexico, Civil Wars, Frightened Rabbit. I really like what the Lumineers are doing. Great songwriting is always motivating.
Can you describe your process for creating music?
I devote a lot of time to the craft. Lots of late nights with an acoustic and a notebook. But when it comes to a good song, it usually comes out all at once, and fast at that. On the flipside, it is great to be able to take concepts to Rooster, who is pretty honest in sizing them up. He also has some great stuff he is working on too for the next album.
You mentioned next album, so what exactly is next for The Senators?
If I can brag on one thing we do well, its that we are constantly writing new material – and it is sounding fantastic. We just recently released an EP of early production tracks from our next album (the Cross of Gold – EP). Those three tracks are now available on iTunes. Harsher was a lot of fun and I am proud of it as our first product, but I’m even more excited to see where the next album will take us. As a group we have found ourselves and our identity through the process of the first album, and I think I’ve grown up some as a writer since. So far the working title is Battle Hymns.
As far as touring goes: we are in a really strange and wonderful place in that we are receiving national play and exposure without the grind-it-out touring that it often takes to get there. We can be a little more selective about which road swings we are planning, and we are especially looking forward to hitting the festival circuit in the coming year. With as strong as we feel about the new material, about half of our live set is now new material and half tracks from Harsher.