Swear I'm not Paul: Interview: Glen Phillips of Works Progress Administration

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Interview: Glen Phillips of Works Progress Administration

he Works Progress Administration is not quite a supergroup (well it, is but...), instead they claim that it's an expandable collective, centred around Glen Phillips of solo and Toad the Wet Sprocket fame, Sean Watkins from Nickel Creek, and Luke Bulla who was a member of Lyle Lovett's large band. The WPA also features many other performers, including Sara Watkins (fiddle), Benmont Tench (piano), Greg Leisz (pedal steel), Pete Thomas (drums), and Davey Faragher (bass). The self-titled album also features some of the best album art/liner notes I have ever seen. Here is what frontman Glen Phillips had to say about his latest project.

It seems Americans have a fascination with FDR and his programs, Jason Isbell/Drive-By Truckers have 'Thank God for the TVA', and you've named yourself after the Works Progress Administration, why do you think this is? Has Obama's presidency invigorated Newer Deal thought, or is there a more personal reason behind the name?
I think people appreciate the idea of a nation seeing itself as a great community, as opposed to a collection of consumers. The US has confused democracy with unfettered capitalism over the last few decades. The New Deal was based on the idea that our individual labors had worth and dignity, and that our spirit and creativity mattered more than our incomes and possessions. I know that's a fairly basic concept in the rest of the world, but it's become revolutionary in America. I think Obama was voted in with great hopes for a return to those values, but I'm not sure how much change we'll really get. It would be an amazing step for us to get just get back to where we were under Clinton, but that's not quite the same as moving ahead.

When working in a collaboration like this, how do you decide who does what? Take the album for example, how was it decided what songs would appear on it? And when playing live, who orders the setlist? Is it arranged so everyone gets a turn?
Song selection was surprisingly democratic. The writers (Sean, Luke and I) brought in songs we thought would work for the project. We worked on the ones everyone favored. If someone thought something wasn't up to snuff it was shelved. There weren't any hurt feelings in the process. Ideas for covers would come from anybody who had a suggestion.
The three of us all chip in for set lists.

Is it easier to record an album without record company pressure? How does it differ from the usual process?
It's great recording without a company (aside from the lack of funds)- the musicians just choose the best songs and get them the way they want. Then again, I haven't been on a label for a long time, so for me, it's pretty standard. Back with my old band, Sony allowed us to do what we wanted. I didn't realize how unusual that was until later. The idea of signing a writer to a contract and then not trusting them to do good work is bizarre to me. Not that there aren't talented A&R people with good ideas and taste. I just trust musicians more to know what they're doing. We produced this as a group, and managed to put the record together with just 3 days of rehearsal and 5 days of recording. We re-recorded a couple lead vocals and overdubbed some harmonies, but what you're hearing is 99% what came out of us live.

Many of you have had solo careers alongside being in a band, has that helped you all bring something different to this record?
I suppose...I think the group's breadth experience has shown us all that there's no one way to do things, and that we can trust our instincts to lead us where we need to go. The focus is always on the song itself - nobody was concerned about how big their piece of the pie was, so people worked more to create space instead of filling it up. If everyone was showboating, it would be cacophony with eight people wailing away. By always keeping the song in focus, we were able to lay back and keep things from getting too dense.

And how is this record different than the Mutual Admiration Society album that some of the members made a few years back?
First of, Chris Thile isn't a part of it. MAS was Nickel Creek plus me, while this is a completely different monster. With WPA there were eight people with equal power in the studio, multiple lead singers, many more instrumental textures. There's also a lot more energy - MAS was a beautiful record, but a little sleepy. WPA drives a lot harder.

There's some cover tunes on the album, how did these come about?
Some of the covers had been played at Watkins Family Hour shows for a while, others we just picked up along the way.

Who are your main influences on the album?
Each other. The songs cover a lot of ground stylistically, and by sticking to the attitude of being individually minimal but large as an ensemble we fell into our own sound pretty quickly. There's influences from XTC to Hank Williams, Dylan to Radiohead. We're pretty omnivorous.

Do you feel that the WPA is a one-off, or should we expect future albums and tours after this one?
We'd like to do more records. The next one will likely have a slightly different lineup. We've been touring as a five piece, due to a combination of logistics and finances, and have been having a blast. We'll see how things evolve. This has been a real labor of love, and we'd like to keep it going. We'll all be getting back to other projects, but I think there's more to come.

You can find out more about WPA, as well as download their album here:

Stream the album here:

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