Artist Interview: Scott Ayotte of Born Without Bones
Posted: by The Editor
Every Born Without Bones record has a distinct personality. When Scott Ayotte began writing for his first LP under that name, his talents manifested as a dark pop-punk record somewhere between The Wonder Years, Jimmy Eat World, and Third Eye Blind. The band took a moodier turn on the follow up Baby, and dove into even darker, grungier territory on 2017’s Young at the Bend. And now, on their fourth album, the Worcester, MA, group has seen the light. Dancer embraces a ‘70s-inspired power pop sound while retaining the grit that’s come to define the band throughout their many iterations. We caught up with Ayotte to discuss what’s gone in the five years since their last LP, their newfound sunniness, and where they might go next.
Dancer‘s been out about a month. How’s the reception been for you coming back both after a few years of unofficial hiatus and after quarantine?
Really positive! I really enjoy the negative ones, but there’s not a lot. What I do see is funny. People just go, “Mid!” or “Boring!” and I really appreciate that blunt honesty. I was really on the releasing-music side of things for the first seven, eight years of the band. I was really tapped into how we were doing, how many records we sold, all of it. Now there’s some mystery because Pure Noise does that. I think now it’s harder to get your music heard. I find myself everyday asking how I can get more ears on this. I never thought about it before. I guess I was touring and young and I thought we were this DIY band. When Baby came out, day of, I emailed all these places, NPR, Alt Press. Day of! I had no idea how to do this. Now there’s all these new things–social media, which is tough, and there’s all this new music all the time. When you pay attention, it feels like there’s a new rollout every single day. It’s hard to stand out when everyone’s trying. I’m doing all these things I probably did when I was first starting. I post on message boards. There’s a thread for us on Chorus.fm! I try to really engage with our fans. I try to get people to come see us, buy our shit, all of it. It’s surprising sometimes what works and doesn’t. I’m not a good video editor, but I put out one I think is the best I ever did. It’s shit on TikTok, but then the ones I post on there with no effort do great. Strategies feel counterintuitive. There’s just so much nuance. You never know what’s gonna work.
That’s sorta how things ended up going with the song “Baby,” too, right?
Yeah, it’s almost a meme song now. It was so deeply personal, and so special to me. There are still times I ask why I even put that out. It’s like ripping out the ugliest page of your diary to be like, “Everybody, look!” Every few fucking years that song comes back in some negative way. It pays for our practice space, but at the same time it is just deeply embarrassing.
You’d talked in a few interviews about getting a bit burnt out on the band, and I think you said part of that was the reception to Young at the Bend. It’s interesting to me, then, that the first thing you did since that album was put out the rerecorded EP Pictures of the Sun. Did revisiting those songs spark a new appreciation for that material, or did that EP come out of already having gained that?
I think the EP was already an idea even before Pure Noise got involved. I think the song “Baby” specifically is the one that started it. When we recorded it for Baby, we’d never even played it live. I don’t even know how many times the other guys had heard it before we recorded it. It was important to me, but I didn’t think it would be a single or anything. It was just gonna be the long melancholy closer. Then people started wanting to hear it, so we came up with the full band version we always play, and we always wanted to record that. Dominoes kept falling. We did “Falling Asleep” like that, a song from the first record where I did everything. All those ideas just started tumbling, and when we signed with Pure Noise, we sent them demos–”Dancer” and “Fistful of Bees”–but we said we needed to write more before we did an album. That reimagined EP idea felt like a good way to reintroduce the band. We weren’t quite ready for a full record.
When Young at the Bend came out, you said that was the first record you wrote collaboratively. Was Dancer the same way?
Yeah. I already had most of Baby written when I recorded Say Hello. At the time I was really obsessed with recording documentaries, Nirvana lore. A bunch of people were talking about how live recording was the shit. Then Young at the Bend was more about letting the other guys in and taking their ideas more seriously. Dancer was the same deal. Now I think it’s a more healthy mix. I don’t feel shitty bringing a full song to the band, but before I kinda did. There was a painful growing phase there. There’s songs on here though that I demoed myself and brought to the guys, and then there’s songs that John or Jim came up with. They’re not the kinda guys who bring up a full song to the table–it’s usually an A and a B part, and sometimes a lyrical thing. That’s cool, and I can speak about this with The Hotelier as well. Writing in that band was difficult. A lot of people probably don’t wanna say, “Hey Christian, sing these words.” He’s a great lyricist. But I find when you’re trying to get a musical idea across without a lyrical or melodic context, it’s tough. Any riff can sound derivative. But when you put something unique–the words you’re saying or the way you say them–that’s when I think your idea is unique and can be conveyed to others. This record, there’s a couple songs that didn’t make it that the other guys brought, these cool lyrical ideas I just couldn’t finish. I think the secret sauce here is the mix, though–songs everyone brings, songs that get cut, songs I write myself.
This is not the same lineup as the last record, right?
No, but it’s just the drummer situation. Drummers are tough for this band. We put them through the wringer in this band. Sam Checkoway has been playing with us for a while now, but he’s probably our fifth or sixth. I was, initially, but I can’t play everything. My friend Kevin did for a while, and he’s in an amazing thrash band called High Command. They’re about to play a couple shows with Sunn O)))–they’re on Southern Lord. Listen to them with the knowledge that he was in Born Without Bones. Pat Murphy drummed for us, Baby and Young at the Bend, and even a couple of songs on Say Hello. He’s in a great hardcore band, Mountain Man. They run the whole spectrum of heavy music. The only thing that changed was Sam coming in and writing, but even with this record I was demoing the drums a lot, so I had an idea of how it’d go. I got on the drums the other day and tried to play “Fistful of Bees.” He can play anything. I was like, “Damn! I can’t play this!”
I feel like Dancer is your brightest-sounding record. I know before it dropped I heard people talking about The Beach Boys and Elvis Costello as comparison points. It feels like it’s very distinct in your catalog, especially coming after Pictures of the Sun and with a new lineup. Would you consider this a sort of new start for Born Without Bones?
I don’t know if I’d necessarily say that. I’m not saying we’re Of Montreal or later Beatles where every album’s different, but each has a vibe, and I think Dancer doesn’t try to cap off the past, but there’s some conscious sonic decisions. We always write a few heavy songs, but this time I didn’t wanna do that. For one, it took a toll on my voice on tour. I feel like my skills are better served singing and not screaming. I still do, sure, but less. And I really felt like there were great songs we left off–think of a theme park. We left off some small rides in favor of big, showy attractions. I felt like this was more about what hit, what was good, what had nice elements, what fit well together to tell some kind of story. It’s very mom-friendly.
It feels like this is a much more restrained record in an impressive way. A song like “Heart at Home,” which does build and build, never really goes for the easy out where it’s got like a big heavy ending. There’s a lot of moments on Dancer where it feels like you could go for an easy emotional release of just yelling but instead you pull things back.
Yeah, and songs like “Rough Terrain (Reprise)” and “Stone” off Baby are what you’re describing. It’s this mellow thing that builds and has this crazy loud ending. We know that trick really well. This time it wasn’t about that. It was about resolve–in a good way. And I think the lyrics reflect that too. It’s about soothing the pain, not living in it. It’s what people say about if you read books or listen to music. People who listen to music tend to be depressed because they wallow in their feelings and people who read do it to escape.
I feel like that comes through clearly lyrically too. “Get Out,” which is probably my favorite song on the album, is a much more introspective and insightful take on a breakup song than might be the easy option.
“Get Out” is probably the best, or my favorite, on the album. We took minimal footage while we recorded, but he filmed me while we we were talking, and we both said we didn’t think “Get Out” was gonna make it. We recorded eleven songs and it was always gonna be ten songs. “Bother You” was gonna get cut too. I think that’s my weakest song, lyrically–it’s sorta cheesy. But we were happy with the recording. It came glued together and we didn’t think we could cut anything. We almost cut “Don’t Speak,” too. That song we dogged on so, so much. We felt like we’d already written that song. It came out really good, though, and as soon as we got the masters, we each sent it out to a few people, and all our friends loved “Don’t Speak.” It goes to show that the artist doesn’t always know what the fuck is going on.
How did you arrange the tracklist? Was it done to tell a particular story, or did you just fit by the way the songs sounded together?
I kinda am guilty of following–I don’t know who coined it, maybe Jimmy Iovine–that thing where you frontload the hitters. It’s not loading side B with stinkers, but with songs that really get to it. Side A hits on the big themes, and side B says, “Let’s talk about it.” It’s just my nature to come up with a storyline for everything we do. I’ve got one in my head, and it isn’t chronological, but it’s got a story with a couple characters. You can write your own fanfic if you’d like.
I wanted to ask about “Lurkin” too, which I think is the big curveball on the record. Where’d that song come from?
Jim, our bass player, had the first couple chords to the song and I really liked it. We’re all jazz fans–I was in jazz band in school, and Kind of Blue was the first CD I ever bought. Jazz has always been there in some way. It’s a curveball, sure, but I think songs like “Stone” can hear those jazzy elements. A few other songs on Baby had that they didn’t make the cut. The reimagined version of “I Was in Love,” too, has some jazzier elements. It’s always peppered in, sometimes subtler. It was originally much more of a rock riff. It reminded me of Rooney or something, like California tambourine-on-the-chorus vibes. Jim pulled out a bossa drum loop on YouTube and built off that. I was worried going into the record that it wouldn’t fit other people’s tastes, that it might seem like elevator music. I expressed that to Mike Sapone and I think he shines a lot on that song as producer. The demo sounds like your dad’s jazz records. Mike was like, “Let’s pan two drum tracks left and right. Let’s get 3D sounding tones.” It’s one of my favorites on the record! I think we got creatively bit by some of the COVID stay-home thing, but it was cool about writing a song about not going out because you’re scared of who you’ll see. “Get Out” is a general volatile relationship song, but “Lurkin” feels like a bumper sticker.
What sorts of things have you been listening to lately?
I really like Sore Thumb, that Oso Oso record. I’m sure all our buds had something nice to say but it’s special. If you know how it came to be, it’s very sad, awful. It’s just a beautiful thing for a guy like Jade, who’s been doing this forever and is a songwriting genius even on a raw record, makes these more refined records and then sounds like demos. That’s what it was, but it reminds me of that rawness he had when he was younger. It’s cool to see a band who’s established themselves putting out such a raw record. That’s not what we did! We went to a nice studio with an established producer. He’s still trying things out, and it’s so genuine. Curveball–Jack Johnson put out an album this year that Blake Mills produced. I like Blake Mills a lot–he’s played guitar with Lucinda Williams, produced with Jay-Z. He’s got a ridiculous catalog. He did the latest Jack Johnson, and it’s really chill–obviously–but I feel like every other Jack Johnson record comes with sandals, and this doesn’t. It comes with slippers instead. I think the new 1975 is fun. I’ve always kinda liked them, but a few lyrics really stood out. All my friends put out great records this year– Prince Daddy, Just Friends, Arm’s Length.
That Arm’s Length record, oh man.
It’s crazy. I like that it’s got Hotelier elements. It’s so cool to see that. Having been there back then, hearing influence manifest for real? It’s so cool. Oh, the new Alex G record has some stuff I love. “Miracles”? Oh, yeah. I don’t think it came out this year, but Frog. He has a song called “You Know I’m Down.” It’s from a 2019 album Count Bateman but I think that’s my song of the year. I guess 2022 song would be “Part of the Band” by The 1975. I was obsessed with it. Oh, “Taj Mahal” by Toro y Moi, too. I’ve been a fan of his forever. Genius. He doesn’t stop.
If Jack Johnson comes with sandals, what’s Dancer come with?
A corny corduroy desert jacket, some boots. It’s desert garb that says, “I’m tough now.”
If there’s anything else you wanna say, feel free.
Come to our shows. I’m trying to get as many people out as possible. It starts at The Saint in Asbury on December 8. We’re gonna hit the east coast and the midwest. Come out.
Dancer is out now on Pure Noise.
Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison
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