All Chips On This Bet: Van William Goes It Alone On 'Countries'

Milly McMahon 20 February 2018

Photo: Silvia Grav Van William’s bandmates are downstairs making breakfast when he rolls out of bed on a Wednesday morning. “We all eat together and then start jamming and just work on the arrangements for a bit,” he explains.

A veteran of alt-country band Port O’Brien and noisy indie-rockers WATERS, Van recently returned with his first solo LP, ‘Countries’, and will soon hit the UK to open for the harmony-heavy country pop duo First Aid Kit.  

The record pays homage to the end of a long term relationship, which ended painfully but then gave rise to a profound, autobiographical compendium. Reminiscing and re-imagining the highs of infatuation and the lows of desperation, failure and rejection, it is a wonderfully honest account of true love.

Written largely at his parents’ cabin in the Sequoia National Forest and recorded in Stinson Beach, a couple of hours north of San Francisco, part of the record’s heart is also in Alaska, where Van spent summers while his father worked as a commercial salmon fisherman. His old man’s retirement casts a shadow over his writing here, with a place and lifestyle that felt like home suddenly snuffed out.

Featuring contributions from First Aid Kit's Klara and Johanna Söderberg, along with Dawes drummer Griffin Goldsmith, POP ETC bassist Chris Chu and keyboardist Tam Visher, ‘Countries’ already feels like a timeless album, pushing Van back towards warm, expansive acoustic writing. We caught up with him to talk it over.

The songs on this album were written in the midst of a period of big life changes, including a break-up and your father’s retirement. How did these two things feel interlinked?

Both events took me by surprise, and both span me the fuck out completely. I thought I had experienced heartbreak, but turns out I really hadn't. This time it was all real. And that shit stings like a bumble bee doused in rubbing alcohol. My dad's retirement from fishing, and thus the end of my connection to Alaska, was equally hard, albeit in more subtle ways. It's hard to describe, but it felt remarkably similar to another heartbreak all over again.

How has your dad shaped you approach to making music and how has his retirement affected you?

Nobody in my family is musical, but my father introduced me to some of the most important music in my life. He was the one who first showed me Neil Young, who remains my number one musical hero. He also dragged me to a local cinema to watch Stop Making Sense when I was I was 14, and it took me years to appreciate what that experience did for my brain. In terms of his retirement, I always assumed I would continue the fishing legacy if music fizzled out. But now, that option is long-gone. It's an impossible industry to buy into unless there's a smooth transition.

Does Alaska feel like a spiritually important place to you?

Absolutely. It's so completely separated from the rest of the world. I'm always forced to reconnect with the deepest layer of what I'm experiencing. It's an incredible way to shed layers of distraction and focus on the core issues buzzing around my brain.

Had you always hoped to make a solo album? What felt right about this specific moment with regards to releasing this LP?

It’s never been a stated goal or anything I've really thought about. It kinda just happened. I started writing these songs, and they sounded different than my band WATERS, so it was pretty obvious I needed to start something new. I almost went with another band name, but it's impossible to think of a good one, so I went with my first and middle names.

How changed as a musician do you feel now that you have this personal body of work under your own name?

I really feel like everything came together for me on this record. If Port O'Brien was all vibe, little structure and WATERS was more focused on pop writing and craft, this project is a combination of both worlds.

Will your focus now be on solo material or equally shared between band work and your own writing?

This is the only focus for now. I'm all in. All my chips on this bet. As always.

What were some of the standout memories from the time spent writing and recording?

When the record first started coming into focus, it was like being in love. I was fucked up. I would stay up literally all night, smoking, and working on demos, obsessing over every single nook and cranny of the songs. Days would be spent in the clouds, just imagining what it would be like if I actually did something with them.

Did the process of re-living moments of pain and separation from your break up put you in greater touch with yourself?

Absolutely. It’s this process that forces you to confront a lot of stuff that you might otherwise put aside for a while. It was tough at times, but at the end of the day, essential to getting past it all.

Did the LP spark regret or allow greater compassion?

I think it made me appreciate and contextualise the past relationship as an entity that wasn't a failure just because it ended. I learned so much from my previous partner and all of those years, and there's nothing that can take that away.

Where did you debut your live solo show? What can we expect from the UK tour?

The first couple shows were here in L.A.. I have a community of musician friends here, so it’s been so easy to put together an incredible live band. For the UK trip, we'll be doing it as a power trio, which I'm really excited about. I put a lot of sweat and blood into the live show. My roots are in punk rock, and I try to make that energy pervasive throughout my set.

'Countries' is out now on Fantasy Records.

Van William Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat February 24 2018 - GLASGOW O2 Academy Glasgow*
Mon February 26 2018 - MANCHESTER Albert Hall*
Tue February 27 2018 - MANCHESTER Albert Hall*
Thu March 01 2018 - LONDON Roundhouse*
Fri March 02 2018 - LONDON Roundhouse*
Sat March 03 2018 - LONDON Omeara

* with First Aid Kit

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