Besides the musical performance, how does a band make their show a fully felt dialogue of emotions instead of just an average rock concert? And if a band did create that environment, how would you respond to a concert of conversation?
When I saw their YouTube video (above) I knew we had to have Minnesota-based indie-folk band We Are the Willows tell us the details behind it. I could tell that there was something going on in that video but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
The video captures them playing “Isabel’s Song” at Forward Music Festival last September. The performance struck me as daring, fresh and exciting. Why? Well, the songs on their full-length debut album A Collection of Sounds and Something Like the Plague are delicate, sweet and have an almost childlike feel to them.
But as the story of the album unfolds you quickly realize that, along with the sense of simplicity and innocence flowing through the tracks, there’s also a depth and an emotional rawness that beckons a deeper commitment by the listener, especially when lead singer, guitarist Peter Miller opens up and sings in his “counter-tenor” croon.
So when I saw them start their performance in the middle of the crowd, I wondered why they choose to take such a big chance with a new audience.
I Also Wondered…
What was the interaction like between the band and the audience during the performance? Did it feel awkward? Or did the band’s dynamics fit perfectly for the moment?
Did the band draw upon any of their favorite concerts they’ve experienced as fans to make the performance work? Did the band look to the crowd’s non-verbal response to adjust the songs on the fly?
Peter Miller answers those questions in this Q&A and he also tells us how a Dirty Projectors concert inspired his performance approach; and how he aims to make a We Are the Willows live show “a concert of conversation.”
The Power of the Little Things Continues
We Are the Willows are also label mates to Bon Iver who we’ve featured on Live Fix before via our exploration of the Little Things. So Peter took the time to tell us what “Little Things” he sees during concerts as an artist and a fan, too.
Q & A with Peter Miller
LF: What do you love the most about performing live? What do you think brings fans and the band closer together?
PM: One of my favorite things about playing live is the conversation that ends up happening between the folks listening and myself. This can be a literal conversation between songs, which is usually really fun and makes way for lots of silliness, but the sort of conversation that seems the most meaningful or special is the conversation that happens between a listener and the songs I’m playing. I think that I write songs to say something that couldn’t be said any other way and when a listener understands that, when they understand what the song intends to communicate, it’s very special. This phenomenon achieves what normal conversation often times cannot; real, heart-felt connection between two people.
As an artist, what “Little Things” do you look for during a show for real-time insight or inspiration?
Hmmmm, one thing that I do, and I’m sure lots of people do, is look at people’s faces and make eye contact with people. I guess it’s a sort of gauge for how the show is going. If someone looks bored out of their gourde I might try and make a silly joke between songs or play some faster songs.
But one little thing that makes playing super special is when I can tell that someone is really enjoying the songs. Getting a smile from someone means a ton and makes me happy to be playing music.
As a fan, what “Little Things” have you noticed during some of your favorite concerts?
I love it when you can really tell that a band is having a great time playing music. I’ve been to shows where you can tell the folks playing are not enjoying themselves and for some reason it takes away from the show. Now, I realize that these people are actual human beings that have good and bad days, so I don’t mean to be insensitive, but when a band is having a killer time, one is more inclined to have a killer time as well.
I saw the Dirty Projectors last November and it was super obvious that David Longstreth was having the time of his life. He was smiling from ear to ear, giving band members huge high fives, mid-song, and jumpin’ around like a maniac. It was awesome.
I don’t know what it is exactly, but I just love seeing people loving what they are doing.
When you started playing “Isabel’s Song” in the middle of the crowd and we eventually see the bigger picture at the end of the video. But what was it like for you as a band to create a mood, or to take the crowd on an unexpected emotional journey? Why did you decide to play in midst of the crowd like you did?
Well, when we first arrived at the Overture Center in Madison, WI, after loading in, we noticed that the opening in the ceiling reached all the way to the domed ceiling some 3 or 4 floors up. Naturally, we started yelling absurdities and making fart sounds and listened to how far they would reach. Everything sounded so huge and each sound reverberated through out the whole place. We sang a few lines from a song and found that it sounded incredible in this space. That’s when we decided we’d open the set in that spot.
What we didn’t expect was that this deviation from the norm, that is, playing in the audience, really captured people. It was incredible to realize that when a band plays on a stage there can be a wall between the audience and performer. Playing in the crowd really helped us to traverse that wall and hopefully helped people come back over it to listen to us when we played the rest of our set.
What was your first live concert like as an artist and what did you learn from it?
I can’t really remember my first concert as far as my first band ever, but I do remember that the first time I played as We Are The Willows I had a miserable time. I was in a rock n’ roll band at the time and playing these quiet songs felt so different, not only to perform but in regards to what they demanded of a listener. It’s easier for a listener to tune out some dummy with an acoustic guitar than a whole band with super loud electric instruments. I think I realized that I needed to engage with people more and attempt to draw people in to the songs.
Can describe your mental approach and the chemistry of the band when you all play live together?
We are a band that has disasters happening all the time. There is always something going wrong with our equipment, the venues equipment, etc. In light of this fact, we have become a band that can play our jams in almost any circumstance. If the venue’s sound system goes out we have no problem unplugging all our gear, re-arranging our songs and set list, and playing completely unplugged. I think our approach to playing live is to create a meaningful and fun experience for ourselves and hopefully for the listeners as well.
What live performances by your favorite artists have inspired your live performance?
I’ve been really taken by bands that are good at engaging with the audience and have a good time playing music. The band Megafaun is really good at that. Those guys really create a fun time when they play and that’s really inspiring.
What is something unique about your live performance that fans might not realize or be aware of?
Something that is really evident, but always amazes me is that Karin plays 5 or 6 different instruments during our set. She’s super awesome. Also, we have a robot foot pedal (a midi controller) named Jeffery. He triggers all the beats and samples.
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