Halfnoise: Zac Farro on New Zealand, Life, and Inspiration Behind Volcano CroweDecember 2nd, 2014 by Drew Bartlett
Photo by Gabby Mooney
On September 30th, Halfnoise released their first full-length album, “Volcano Crowe”. We sat down with Zac Farro of Halfnoise to talk for the first time since the album release about New Zealand, life, inspirations, and touring on Volcano Crowe.
So, why’d you choose New Zealand to record this?
I went to New Zealand two years ago and played a festival over there because of my friend, Rowan. I toured with him in my previous band on Warped Tour. He was from New Zealand and he was selling CDs for other bands and we just struck up this friendship and started hanging out everyday. So, one year he came here he asked my brother Josh and his wife, my little brother Jonathan, and I if we’d go to New Zealand. So, we ended up taking a trip. It was amazing and I was like man, I gotta come back. Then when I started Halfnoise, Rowan was like “Man, there’s this really cool festivals. You should come do some shows.” and I went over there and did it, which was awesome, and I was like “Man, I’m about to do a full-length album, this would be such a cool place to record it”. I was a little nervous to be away from home for so long. I’d toured, but I’d never really lived someplace else. This was the first time that I wasn’t coming back to Nashville. It was kinda freaky. The friends and the relationships and the people I met there and the surrounding nature, the way of life…everything was just such a perfect change for me and for Halfnoise and for writing.
What was the recording experience like?
We did three weeks at three different houses. Each week was dedicated to a different location. The first week was at Ohakune at a friends winter resort. There was a bunch of rooms and people would go snowboarding. We’d set up in the living room and then go up Mount Ruapehu which is the largest active volcano in New Zealand. Then the next week was at Rowan’s parent’s house. It was on the coast of Auckland. So it was a really beautiful beach. Yet it was a little bit chilly, so a little bit of the winter still, but I was still wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, so it wasn’t that cold. Then the third place was in this beach town called Funanaki 4 hours north. It was like we did winter, spring, and summer all in like three weeks. It was so crazy because even different songs on the album have different seasons to them. It was just like the coolest recording experience I’ve ever had. I was fully alive and present with my music. Whatever I wrote I was psyched on and pumped about it. I wasn’t trying to be something I wasn’t and I just I came up with what I came up with. It was such an amazing, amazing time. It was life-changing. After touring for 7 years of my life then taking a few years when I was like 20. I was always around older people so I had this maturity as far as business but then there was this lack of personal maturity because I’m still young. So I went there and I had the freedom to try something you’ve always wanted to do. To express yourself and be yourself. So this album is a complete representation of that. Being free and expressing myself, enjoying music for the first time in years.
So, that was the life changing part you were talking about? Just being able to be a new person?
Yeah, totally! I think everything I was talking about. Even just being at one place, recording an instrument and looking at outside at the beach and these massive rocks and mountains in New Zealand and just going “Where am I? This is so beautiful.” That’s life changing in itself. One hour in New Zealand at a beach or a crazy mountain range, it’s breathtaking.
There’s that and then there’s relationships I made that had life-changing conversations, adventures we’d do, fun times we’d have. Everything was just a perfect mixture of the best experience of all time, you know? And the record was almost like an after thought at some point because we’d go and work so hard but we’d only work like 5 days out of a week. So we really tracked the album in 15 days. Which is not a lot at all. Vocals, keys, everything. And we took the weekends off, man. We’d just hang with friends and disconnect from it. And then Sunday or Monday we’d drive to the next place. We’d have to take a break from it so we could come back fresh the next week. That was the coolest thing, man. There was no pressure and no rush. It was so enjoyable and it was our own pace and it wasn’t pressured. And there wasn’t any label saying “you gotta have this smash hit”.
So, my expectations for this album have already been met. By making it in New Zealand and having this life-changing experience. People are like “What do you hope to do with this album?” and I’m like “Man, I don’t know what to tell you because I haven’t really thought about it”. I’m so content with it. I’d love it to do well and people to embrace and be on board with the new sound and stuff but as far as expectations and goals, I don’t need anymore because the experience itself was so monumental. So everything that I get is all gain. I’m just thankful. It’s not make or breaking my life. We’re supposed to enjoy what we’re doing. We’re supposed to be present with what we’re doing. Not above what we’re doing. Not better than it. The crazy thing is that when I put the music out, it had such an awesome response. Even old band-mates were tweeting about it like “this is really cool” and there was a buzz from it. And when I left my old band, people were like ‘why’d you leave?’, because that was a big part of my life, you know? And so for me to put this album out and there’s hardly any bad comments or feedback, I’m so thankful.
Obviously your self-titled EP was the first music you released to the public, but this was your first full-length album. Which of the two were you more excited to release?
Definitely this one, man. I mean they were both special to me for different reasons. The first one was the first step into my own creation. I’ve never really been a writer in any bands I’ve been in. I’ve kinda just been the drummer, which is awesome, I like that as well but writing and recording and kind of creating and building a sound of your own is something so cool. I layer things on top of each other and I’m like “what do I wanna add next?”. It’s kind of just an empty canvas. I felt for this first time when I released the EP like my own artists in a way. So that’s why that was special.
[“Volcano Crowe”], I totally believed in so much because it was such an experience for me. I was so excited about it probably way more than the EP because the songs have developed, too. I’ve learned what I like to write. I’ve learned where I like to take the songs. I kinda trust myself now. I’m just all around more confident and excited. There’s nothing like having a full album, too. It feels more solidified or something. The EP you’re like “Oh, it’s only 5 songs”. No one cares, but you still have to talk it up. This one I’m just like “Yo man, listen to this. I did it in New Zealand”. I just had so much fun making it and really loved all the songs. I’d say this was one was probably more exciting. And I hope it always is like that. I’m already writing. I love writing all the time so I can’t wait for the next one. I love that experience. That’s what was life changing, too. I learned how to get excited about recording, about creating.
Why do you believe in this album so much?
I feel like with the new music I’m writing, there has to be that element of reality to it for people to believe in it. I feel like music today is people just throwing it up online, and that’s cool, too. But a lot of times people can just see through that stuff. If they know that the person that’s making that really believes in it, then they’ll catch on, you know? A perfect example is Bon Iver. He could’ve just been any other indie acoustic guitar writer but yet people believed in him and then he’s become this awesome artist. I think people want that realness and that raw belief. Even if it’s a struggle, you can tell they backed their music. I guess that’s what I really try to tell myself. Do I believe in this? Because I’m the one who’s gonna be playing this every night. I was talking with my friend, Zach Lind, from Jimmy Eat World and he was giving me this advice saying that “You need to love the music you’re making now. You be proud of it because label guys, managers, all these people are gonna come in and out of your life and you’re gonna be the one stuck with your music at the end of the day. Fifty years down the road you’re like “Hey kids this is what I made and I’m so proud of it” instead of “Well, they kinda made me do it”.
Is there a song in particular that you’re most proud of?
Um, I would probably have to say “Mountain”. The single that I first released. Probably because I’ve listened to it the most. I just hadn’t written a song like that where it was all structured out. The funny thing about that song is that I was writing on this wind organ thing that Rowan’s dad had down in the basement. I took all these XLRs from the third floor of the house, wrapped them all the way down the staircase, and the thing was flat. So it was out of tune. So I was all disappointed. But I went upstairs after what felt like half a morning trying to get this thing to work and then within an hour I finished “Mountain”. I had written the whole song, words and everything and I was like “holy crap this is awesome!”. So there was something special about it. It’s a really personal song for me as well.
What makes “Mountain” so personal for you?
A lot of songs go back to past issues of mine whether it’s family related or relationship related. [“Mountain”] refers to one special time in my life where I was really low but trying to figure it out. I find that with the struggle of things I kinda find a way out. Through writing and music, it’s kind of my therapy in a way. It’s kind of me releasing these thoughts of that hard time, but I’m at the end of it now and I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Not all of them are like that. The song “Coast” is just about this trip being so awesome and the trip changing my life. There’s also songs that are about my parents splitting up and that was really hard on me and there was nothing I could control about that. It effected a lot of the areas of my life. There was positives and negatives, but I hope at the end of the day that singing it or writing it or getting it out there can kind of help bring you back to a good place of hopefulness and stuff.
Photo by Gabby Mooney
What’s the process like in writing a song for Halfnoise? Do you just play around with some noises and build off of that? Or is there more of a structure to it? Is it just like trial and error?
Yeah, a lot of times. My producer, Daniel James, is a genius when it comes to that stuff. So, if I have a raw skeleton to a song, he just adds color on it. Like “Mountain”, for instance, was one of the more finished songs. When Dan got there, we just finished it. I needed help finishing the chorus part, and I had so much of it there. I map everything out because I record as I go. I work in Logic and I’ll put a keyboard part down or a guitar line or even a drum beat, sometimes. Like that song “Hurricane Love”, I just played that drum beat and wrote a song over that. I’ve never done that. Just writing to drums is really hard. You’re kinda like “What the heck do I even do?”, you know? So it was kind of a little bit of everything. We’d redo the drums, redo the guitar properly, then be like “what do we wanna add on this?”. So it’s like the writing, then the structure, then the coloring, and the fun of it. Like one day there was a Volcano sirens going off and [Daniel] just ran outside with his iPhone and recorded it and that’s the siren sound before “Hurricane Love”. So it was like where we were recording. We have tracks of rain and birds in the album along with native instruments from the Māori people. Then there’s things like harp, where Rowan’s sister played harp and we asked her to play and taught her the part. It was kind of demo’d out on a keyboard and she’d add more stuff or replace it with a real instrument. So it’s a little bit different every time. With more of a rock song like “Hurricane Love”, it was kind of guitar, bass, drums, you’d map it out already.
And you did all the instruments on it?
Daniel and I did. I’m playing a lot more guitar now on the newer stuff I’m doing. But he would do a lot of the guitars on that album. I wrote a lot of them but he’s a guitar player so he recorded a lot of them. Then I did all the drums, all the percussion, all the vocals, the key parts. We’d take turns when we had an idea and play it. We had this little op-1 analog synthesizer to bring cool sounds in there. So we kind of all did it all together. Then we have my friend Ben in Nashville who plays violin, we sent him the tracks. Then we have Alice who plays harp. Different friends, like my friend Michelle, sang background vocals. So we kind of just brought different people in. But mainly Daniel and I did everything.
As far singing or vocals, when did you start doing it and did it come natural to you?
Well man, it was weird. I never thought I would sing ever. I just started having fun. I got GarageBand when I got an Apple. I thought this would be so cool if I could make songs like Radiohead or something, you know? Or Coldplay haha. And then I’d start singing things. Then Daniel was like “do you want to do this EP? I want to get into the door of producing more.” At first I was like “Sure I’d love to do that but I don’t know if I can sing.” and he was like “dude, I’ll totally help you”. So the confidence kind of came there. And then, dude, the first show I did, I never sang in front of anyone and we were playing this full show in Philadelphia with the Paper Route guys. I was like “Well, either I’m gonna choke and freak out or I’ll do fine”. I ended up doing fine. From then I just felt kinda confident. It keeps getting better.
Do you feel like you’ve overcome that fear of singing in front of people or do you have to face that before each show?
No man, I totally just get excited to play. Sometimes, like tomorrow I’m like “man, I haven’t played in like eight months”. I played a festival in New Zealand then came back here and I’ve been having friends from New Zealand come into town and trying to release my album. So I haven’t really done any shows. Once I do a few shows, and after a few songs, it’s just fun. Sometimes songs are just hard to sing live. And then we’re headlining tomorrow so it’s a lot to sing after you haven’t been singing for a while.
Are you planning on doing any more touring with this album?
Well, I really hope to, man. That’s the plan. I’m gonna go to New Zealand at the end of December and stay there for a few weeks, play a festival there. Do a couple shows there, hopefully some shows in Australia, and then there’s some talk with my manager about going over to Europe. Hopefully do a tour here. But that’s all tentative. It could all happen, a few of them could happen, maybe none of them.
Is there any talk of what bands you might tour with if you end up touring?
There’s no talk of that yet. I would love to tour with bands like Local Natives. I have my dream tours like The National or bands I listen to everyday. But I’m also happy to tour with my friends Paper Route, they’re such awesome guys. I’m really easy going. Just to play shows is fun. Like the show coming up, I don’t know any of the bands that are playing.
So, on your last album you gave most credit to Jesus. How much of your music is inspired by your relationship with God and in life in general? What does that relationship look like?
Yeah man, I think for each person it’s different. Faith is such a personal thing. Most of the time it’s very outward, sometimes it’s very inward. And with music, it’s kind of just whatever season I’m in there, I just write about that. My faith is a huge part of my life and so it’s inevitable to come out in things. So Halfnoise is, and I could get a lot of guff for this, is not my main focus. My main focus is to write the best music I can and be the best dude to everyone and be friendly. I’m not dissing on Christian music at all, but I feel like when you put the label “Christian Band” on you, it limits you to the people you can talk to and the people you can meet. So with music, if it helps you it helps you, if you just listen to it for fun that’s great, too. I kinda wanna just have it out there for people to interpret for themselves but for me it is really personal and a really big part of my life. A lot of songs are attributed to that and a lot of songs are a part of my personal life. I feel like if people knew you were a faith-based artist and you wrote a song that wasn’t about it, people would be like “this song’s not about it?”. So there’s so many restrictions. I feel like for me it’s just a better way to be like this is a part of me but also music can be its own thing. I don’t think everything has to be attributed to that outwardly. My approach is a little different: relationships and the way I interact with people and the way I live, rather than the way I tell people how to live. I think thanking God on my album is a big part of me, but I wouldn’t go sign to a Christian label or anything. I’m more focused on being a really good person to people rather than trying to change the world with my music.