Folk band Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery has been more than strategic in developing its brand as a band. After a year and a half of touring, the band moved to Indy and now enjoy being a frequent performer at the Hi-Fi. Hours before his most recent Hi-Fi show, PATTERN talked with frontman Joshua Powell to discuss the hardcore scene, his love of Indy, and staying true to his character.
Aubrey Smith: The group started out as a college band. Since then, you’ve released three albums and toured over 40 states. How has your sound matured since its fruition?
Joshua Powell: The first record, as is the case for most bands, becomes essentially pre-collected ten years worth of material. The first time you make an album, you start from your life. That’s why a lot of bands have brilliant first records.
Our first record was a mess. It was like recording 13 different bands over the course of 10 songs. It was ridiculous. As we decided to hone in, our record went really folk. Pretty soon after that, we saw there was not enough flexibility for freedom. We were always caught in between being worried that people would think we didn’t know who we were musically and the artistic flexibility and freedom to make the sounds we wanted to hear.
So the last record was a little bit more experimental and psychedelic. We learned how to incorporate influences from outside of just one genre without diluting it to the point of being amorphous.
AS: How do you use your influences from your hardcore scene past to transition into a softer sound for your project?
JP: It was never anything conscious. Never in my life have I said [in a low voice] ‘we really need to bring a slice of metal to this.’ There’s an inordinately high amount of people who are into indie, americana, and folk today that were into metalcore in high school. They were into emo in middle school and then all followed this same sonic diaspora into the more melancholy.
One of our shirts that we have is designed by a local illustrator, Daniel Jewett. It’s a scholar bent over a table with all these skeleton demons around him. It’s dripping blood, and it’s the least folk thing you’ve ever seen in your life. But we did it on purpose to say, ‘hey we know you guys used to listen to this stuff.’ I was in a metalcore band as a kid, and we had amazing energy. It was so much fun, but it was also formulaic music that didn’t mean anything to me.
What I loved about growing up with punk and hardcore is the people running around, hanging off rafters, and screaming and sweating on each other. But I walk this strange line. Too often you see singer-songwriters standing there, stoically playing their acoustic guitar. We do living room shows, and I love it because I can see all the layers of text, subtext, content references, and lyrics.
But I love to scream into the microphone and throw my guitar around too. When the people are feeding you the energy, you want to give it back. I’m now writing the music that I want to make. That cycle, that exchange, comes from that punk scene.
AS: Definitely. Are you excited for the old school punk bands that are making their way to Indy this spring and summer?
JP: I saw a lineup at the Emerson recently that was like Hawthorne Heights, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Whitechapel. I was like ‘what year is this?!’
AS: It’s totally a trend right now.
JP: What I’m more excited about than that is… I have a friend who asked if I had heard the new album from a band from high school. I was like ‘oh my God, they are still making records?’ He’s like, ‘dude, none of these guys stopped making records. You grew out of the emo scene. They kept cranking out the records.’
AS: That’s their home.
JP: There’s this whole new wave of bands right now that are also recreating those sounds. I’ve heard of Knuckle Puck. It sounds like blink-182 but is being made now. And there’s a band called Knocked Loose that’s hardcore as nuts and super cool but in a throwback-y way. They’re a brand new band, so it’s like everything cycles. It’s a fun season right now for those of us who are nostalgic for those all ages club shows of ‘x-ing’ our hands when we were kids. Studded belts. Swooping our hair. All that.
AS: Hah! Memories. Are you happy to be over the initial hump of defining your sound, or do you miss the days when some ideas were yet to be as concrete?
JP: It’s almost frustrating. People have so many genres. They’re like ‘ugh, genres are so arbitrary. I hate labels.’ I’m like ‘no they’re helpful.’ Even though this is what our sound is now, I can never have somebody ask what type of band and respond ‘psychedelic folk-rock.’ There’s a lot of layers to that tag. I know where our sound is going. I don’t really care what people are going to call it.
AS: I have a side question. What shampoo do you use?
JP: It’s called White Rain. You can get it for a dollar at Big Lots.
AS: That’s fantastic. And it’s treating you well! Great mane.
JP: Well thank you very much!
AS: You tour a lot in the midwest. What draws you back to continue to perform here?
JP: For one, I love the midwest. I love the prevailing spirit, the landscape, the ethos, the people. It’s very different from where I grew up. Folks here have a sense of ownership, which is very inspiring for me. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, as a full-time budget traveler, we hit about 15 major music markets any given Friday night. Any direction that we drive, Indy is right in the middle. It’s affordable to live here, and there’s a great scene to work from as a homebase.
We play in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus in one weekend and then Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Jackson in another. Take a weekend and do Louisville and Nashville. I love Colorado, but if you live in Denver, you can only play in Denver. And it’s 12 hours to the next major city. Same thing with if you’re in Portland. Sure you can play in Seattle, but it’s not as conveniently hung.
And we’re seeing paradigmatic social shift in the midwest. It’s cities like Columbus and Indianapolis that are experiencing their own rejuvenation of young people who are piecemealing their incomes rather than going after some corporate troff. It’s interesting to see these formerly burnt out cities have new energy and entrepreneurial adventures and all sorts of exciting art.
AS: Since you grew up in Florida, you might not know that back in the day, Fort Wayne was huge into the hardcore scene.
JP: Oh! Wow!
AS: Yeah, that was the place to go if you were in the Indiana/Ohio area and had a metal or hardcore band. It’s so random because it’s a small town like Muncie and Anderson. I know you recorded in Anderson.
JP: Yeah, recorded in Anderson. We cut our teeth playing in Muncie. We played our first bar show that we could get into when we were still all 19 years old.
AS: Was it Be Here Now?
JP: Yeah! I played at Be Here Now probably over a dozen times. I’ll always go back to it. You graduate the ranks of venues. First you play at the sh*tty coffee shop, then you play the sh*tty dive bar, then you get to the good dive bar, then you eventually get to the Hi-Fi. Muncie is obviously a smaller town, but at Be Here Now, I was like ‘I’ll play here forever.’
AS: It has good people.
JP: Whitney and his team really care about the music. They’re in it for the right reasons.
AS: Have you played at the Hi-Fi since its expansion?
JP: We were the first band to play the stage. That was a really big honor to be asked because I’m not from here, but I moved here very intentionally. I felt like I’ve been adopted by the folks of Indianapolis. And we love the Hi-Fi; it’s our favorite spot to play. We’ve had this show booked for five months, but when they asked us two weeks in advance, I was like ‘oh, umm… We were not planning on playing anything, but I guess we can get it together!’ They said we were going to be the soft opening. I was like ‘Hell yeah!’
AS: That’s such an honor!
JP: It really was because the other band had some guys that used to be in Margot (and the Nuclear So and So’s). I’m friends with Tad who works at the HI-Fi, and I was like, ‘thanks for the plug man.’ He said the owner asked for us. We’re all like ‘yeah! We’re in! We’re in the club!’
AS: I remember Josh Baker talking about how proud he was to have played a part in graduating Margot.
JP: Those guys have a special place in the history of the city. They’re the last indie band to graduate from being regional band to national band, as far as I know. You see it happening in other cities, but we haven’t graduated a band in a while. So our band is trying to grab that spot. [laughs]
AS: You’re definitely on your way. What are your thoughts on the venue’s new look and and the overall purpose of the expansion?
JP: What was special about the smaller version of the Hi-Fi was that it served as a great mid-sized venue that bands could graduate to after they had maxed out playing smaller dive bars. When as a band you could bring in around 100-150 people but didn’t want to yet take a gamble on trying to buy out the Vogue, you’d go to the Hi-Fi. It was a place where NPR buzz bands like Strand of Oaks or Lydia Loveless came through to play. And a band like mine could have a really nice place to do a new CD release. So I had mixed feelings about the expansion at first, worried that up and coming bands would no longer have a great venue to play locally. Still it appears that the expansion came at the right time because now there’s Musical Family Tree, Square Cat Vinyl, and Pioneer. I don’t think any of these venues were up and running even six months ago if I’m not mistaken and now it seems like new spaces are opening up all the time. I can hardly keep track!
I also keep a running list of all the bands I find in Indianapolis so that when friends come through from other towns I can give them a resource. Every time I think my list is complete, I’ll see a bill with six bands from Indianapolis and I’ve never heard of any of them! [laughs]
AS: You toured a year and a half straight without ever going back to a homebase. Can you reflect on some personal growth that took place as a result?
JP: That year and a half was really transformative for me. I was just coming out of my senior year of college and trying to figure out what being an adult on my own looked like. I was combining that with a hard breakup, first time in counseling, depression, anxiety, borderline alcoholism… all of those nice things in a little songwriter-y storm.
So I went straight from the incubator of college as a fresh twenty two year old to being on the road like a gypsy. Take a guy who’s prone to anxiety and over-drinking and say ‘hey, tour the country for a year and a half,’ it’s not a super healthy transition. Thankfully, I had my brother and really faithful friends that worked with me through all that time.
Figuring out what the mantle of responsibility looks like is really interesting. Realizing the importance of well-being, priorities, and personal responsibility; the fact that your actions affect other people. I’m not saying that I came out of the year and a half of touring as a shiny new person.
Frankly, the transition off of pure road life into a mixture of road and home life has been where I’ve achieved healthy equilibrium in my adulthood. Moving to Indy has helped me establish some healthy routines.
AS: Many of your lyrics are written with an overwhelming amount of vulnerability. How do you let go and speak your heart regardless of what your friends and family might think upon listening?
JP: [laughs] There’s the idea that there’s no intimacy without vulnerability. When you think about the songs that have the most visceral impact on you, they’re less tapping your toe to it and more of having that ‘damn, I felt that.’ You know? ‘That person really said what I felt.’
It’s strange to sell your art under your name because there’s a very blurry line between the product of Joshua Powell and the Great Train Robbery and the person of Joshua Powell and the Great Train Robbery. So much of what I’m selling, and any these songs, is like ‘this is me! These are my ideas! These are my stories!’ Not everyone likes me. [laughs]
AS: Which is pretty standard for being an artist. Impossible to appease everybody, right?
JP: Right, but it is hard. I think of Michael Scott in The Office where he says, ‘Do I need to be liked? No. I want to be liked. I like to be liked. I have to be liked. It’s not a need, like my need to be praised.’ I’m the type of person that if I know that somebody has a problem with me, I will not sleep. I will go out of my way no matter what it takes. ‘How did I offend you?! Let’s make peace!’ But I’ve turned a corner recently, holding myself to the same standard and not compartmentalizing my character anymore – being the same person on stage or at my parents’ home or at my own home.
AS: That’s tough to do. I have yet to master that.
JP: For sure! It’s true. For me, it’s about practicing being quick to listen and slow to speak. Practicing meekness. My mom is the type of person who knows everything about everything and thinks you should hear it immediately. That’s how I’ve always been. Now, it’s more about practicing meekness and listening.
AS: What books or podcasts are you currently reading or listening to that are aiding you in your creative process?
JP: I’m on some Philip K. Dick for the first time right now. He’s a science fiction writer. I’ve also been on this huge kick of trying to read non-American, non white dudes like Milan Kundera and Junot Díaz. As far as podcasts I’m totally backed up because I was home for two and a half months, and I’m never home that long. When I travel, I’m always listening to 12 at a time. I love most of the things from Gimlet Media like “Start Up” and “Reply All”. I recently found a podcast where every episode is just a lyrical analysis of different Kanye West songs. Stoked about that.
AS: Can you really analyze his lyrics from an objective viewpoint?
JP: I don’t want to be the guy who talks about Kanye in every interview, but I am that person now who can’t stop talking about Kanye. I’m just so fascinated by him and really think that there’s so much depth to his work and so much art that gets blurred by the entertainment in half of what he does. I’m fascinated by somebody having that much power and creativity at the same time and what they do with that responsibility. He’s fascinating to watch.