Anthony Green Talks Creativity, Sobriety, and the Making of ‘Pixie Queen’

The vocalist and songwriter says his best performances occur when he "emotionally crumbles under the weight of a song that is really heavy"

anthony green interview

Photo by Andrew Swartz

Anthony Green is the prolific musician who has brought his boundless voice to countless projects including Circa Survive, Saosin, and many more. This Friday, Anthony will release his spellbinding fourth solo album, Pixie Queen. The record, which Anthony describes as a ‘campfire album,’ will be released via producer Will Yip’s label, Memory Music.

Culture Creature founder Dan Redding sat down with Anthony at the singer’s recent Highline Ballroom show in New York. The interview starts with a discussion of Dan and Anthony’s shared hometown of Doylestown, PA, and also includes Anthony’s thoughts on fatherhood, upcoming projects, his collaboration with Will Yip (which can be “like two people standing in front of a canvas making brushstrokes”), and much more.

Dan Redding: I’m actually from Doylestown–

Anthony Green: No way! I love Doylestown. I have a lot of pride from Doylestown.

Me too! I wonder if we saw some of the same shows growing up. I think you know the band The Idea Men?

Nooo – you didn’t just say that, did you? I love The Idea Men, dude. Them and James Love Jackson, Five Stars for Failure…  I worshipped The Idea Men. Justin – I worshipped him. I listened to a lot of music and was drawn in by music, but that guy got in my face when he played. It made me feel this thing – he was really upset. [laughs] I loved it.

I saw one performance of theirs – I still don’t know much about The Idea Men, because they were very mysterious to me – but this one performance, he was throwing himself into the crowd, and onto the floor, wrapped in the mic chord. I was blown away.

It was scary. As a kid, I was equally terrified and turned on by that shit. I would go to those shows by myself. That’s how I made friends – I would show up and when I’d see a bunch of people talking, I’d just hang out near them. [laughs]

Were there other experiences or shows that formed the kind of performer that you became?

Guys like Justin from The Idea Men really opened my eyes. I grew up listening to Metallica and Nirvana…. I saw At the Drive-In when I was fifteen at the First Unitarian Church…. They went on, and it was actually scary, and it was amazing. Things like that just spoke to the part of me that wanted to give in to the surrender of that: it doesn’t really matter if you look silly, it matters if you’re connecting with the music.

I want to talk about collaborating with Will Yip. Can you give me a specific example of putting a song together with him, from Pixie Queen?

A lot of the songs, I came in with ideas, some of them were full songs, others were just parts – melodies, lyrics. I sat down with him and we talked about it and tried things out. With the song ‘A Reason to Stay,’ I had this one idea and trashed it. That morning I was like ‘Let’s just write another song.’ … So I started playing [part of the song], and we started humming together, and he would hum, and we’d go back and forth. Almost like two people standing in front of a canvas making brushstrokes. It got built up by little tiny brushstrokes, from both of us. Before you knew it, I didn’t know which ones were his and which ones were mine. That’s what so beautiful about working with a guy like Will Yip: everything is based on feeling. It’s just like, does this feel right? Maybe it’s atonal – it’s possible that the notes are rubbing together the wrong way – but it feels right.

A lot of producers I’ve worked with, I’m not sure what they’re thinking. I’m not sure if their motive is to give the label something that they think they paid for, or whatever. But since we’ve started doing records on our own for smaller budgets, with Will, having more control over it – everything is like, ‘Dude, this feels so good.’ We get to a point where we’re high-fiving – we just go until we get to that point, and we’re like ‘Oh my god that’s so sick!’ When that happens on a song that you write in the studio, that’s where the magic is.

“Intoxicated songwriting is like trying to find your way through your house in the pitch black. Being sober is like being able to see everything.”

According to your bio, ‘East Coast Winters’ was the last song that you wrote on heroin. What is the difference between sober songwriting and intoxicated songwriting?

For me, intoxicated songwriting is like trying to find your way through your house in the pitch black. Being sober is like being able to see everything. Not just right in front of you, but three-sixty. Everything. Things start coming to me when I’m writing that I don’t even realize at the time. I’ll be sitting there with my phone voice memo recorder open and I’ll sing something, just babbling, and then the next thing will be a line or word that moves me in the way that you want music to move you in order to let you know that you’ve arrived in this spot where you can keep moving forward. You know? That moment is the best thing ever. For me, it’s so difficult for that to happen when I’m fucked up.

That song – I don’t know how that song happened. It happened in Baltimore. I was so sad that day.

That’s a really powerful description that you just gave, of having the lights on. Was that sort of a revelation, when you turned the lights on?

Dude, for years, I thought that there was something in my youth that I once had, and that I had lost. I had completely agreed to that decision, like, ‘Yep, it’s gone. I had something, I killed it, because I’m getting older, this is just what happens.’

Meaning clarity?

Clarity. When I was a kid, I went into the studio, and I would hear melodies in my head, and I’d start making up words. Then I’d sit down with the words, and I’d be like, ‘Holy shit, this is telling a story that I actually need to tell right now.’ I wasn’t cognitively thinking about it – it just happened because I wasn’t overthinking it.

For years I was like, I can’t really do that anymore, I need to take the song home and dissect it, I need to second-guess it, I need to get paranoid about it, I need to get panicked about it. That doesn’t happen to me anymore. I go into the studio with nothing sometimes. A lot of times I go in there and I just play the studio. Some of the songs on Pixie Queen, I sat down and started playing one part of the song, and it just came together. It’s all about feeling, you don’t have to impress anybody.

The thing that’s cool about this now for me – not even just being sober, but just being where I’m at in my career – I know if I feel a certain feeling about something I’m doing, I know that the little community of Safe Camp people are gonna feel it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a country song or a hip hop song. I know they’re going to feel it, because they’ve told me over and over again: you do this sincerely, from your heart, and we’ll always be there. I know it.

That’s beautiful, and seriously, congratulations on your sobriety.

Thank you.

You’re being so honest with me right now, and your music is so honest, and you’re always very honest in interviews. Was that scary when you first started being so honest with your audience?

I think it’s scarier having a lie. It would be scarier for me to be holding back something. I don’t like that feeling of, ‘There’s something I could say, but I shouldn’t.’ For me, art has always been about saying what you need to say about personal things. Biggie Smalls said you should write what you know. I write about what I know. The best show I have is watching me emotionally crumble under the weight of a song that is really heavy.

What is one musical skill that you don’t have that you wish you did?

I wish I was better at [guitar] picking. I can really only pick in a strummy, waltz-y pattern…. I want to get better at picking and playing the guitar in time signatures. Everything I do has this campfire waltz to it, which I really embraced on this album.

Your new album has a lyric that goes something like, ‘How do you teach something that you weren’t taught?’ What’s an example of something you weren’t taught that you had to teach your sons?

Acceptance. My parents were great. They were just like everyone’s parents. I don’t want to say anything that would upset them. But I had a very difficult time with patience and with accepting things. I think watching my parents and their reactions to things is where I learned everything. My boys – if something changes on them, they get upset. It happens to me too – if I’m in the studio, I want things my way too sometimes. But I never really learned how to accept that things were gonna be bad. Things aren’t always gonna feel good. And when they feel bad, instead of looking at is bad, learning from it. My parents never taught me that. I didn’t know how to deal with things going wrong. I didn’t know how to deal with feeling embarrassed, or feeling bad. So I ate lots of food. Or I drank. Or I took some pills, or I smoked something. And that made me feel good – easy. I didn’t have to process anything. I didn’t have to confront any emotions or truths of the world. So I went down this path for a really long time of being able to control my feelings very easily with other things.

I want my boys to realize that literally no matter what happens in their life, that they can handle it. No matter how gut-wrenchingly brutal it is, that they are strong, they can handle it.

What is the one quality that you’ve seen in your boys that reminds you most of yourself?

There’s so much. They’re so much like me, it’s almost scary to me. They’re so carefree. I’ve definitely lost this carefree thing, but they’re cool to be naked all the time, they’re taking their penises out, they’re naked in the library. I’m like, ‘Don’t do that!’ But then two weeks later, I’m on my tour bus chasing people, naked.

They’re very fearless with people. They can walk up to somebody and shake their hand and not be shy. I was always like that. I never really got intimidated by situations. I intimidated situations.

Green says that working with producer Will Yip can be “like two people standing in front of a canvas making brushstrokes”

What album have you listened to more than any other album?

All time, it would probably be The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths. That was one of the first tapes I ever got on my Walkman that my cousin gave me. I was just obsessed with it. I’d never really heard anything like that, and I thought Morrissey’s voice was so strange at first. Probably In Utero is second….

Right now, I’ve been listening to Julien Baker’s record Sprained Ankle over and over. Her voice has something in it that’s telling the truth.

Another band I wanted to ask about is Sunny Day Real Estate; you and Jeremy Enigk both have unique voices that might not be similar, but–

They’re high.

They’re both unique, and high. I was also reminded of Jeremy’s album Return of the Frog Queen when I was listening to Pixie Queen.

That’s one of my favorite albums.

It’s a beautiful record. Then, of course, Sunny Day Real Estate and Circa Survive put out a split single together. What’s your relationship with the music of Sunny Day Real Estate or Jeremy Enigk?

One of the first tapes that everybody ever made me – a mix tape a girl made me – had ‘In Circles’ on it. I fell in love with Sunny Day Real Estate. Nobody sounded like that to me. Still, nobody sounds like that.

I witnessed Jeremy Enigk doing solo albums and The Fire Theft, and I’ve always admired his career. I’ve always admired that he can do more than one thing…. I literally was raised on bands like Sunny Day. They were my favorite band for a really long time. I wish they would put out new music. Their legacy as being a band that started a lot of this – that’s very true for me. Plus, his voice made me feel more comfortable with my voice. Having a dude out there doing that with a high, weird voice – I thought, ‘I have a high, weird voice, I guess there’s a place for me here.’

Are there any other projects or ideas you’re looking forward to on the horizon –or something you’ve always wanted to try?

I’d love to do a funk band. I love funk music, R&B, James Brown. If I was able to make something that could be a mixture of James Brown and the Doors, I would love to do something like that. Will Yip and I are working on this project that’s kind of like Queens of the Stone Age, it has a lot of funk in it. It’s called Sun Eaters. I’m not really supposed to talk about it! [laughs] But I’m so excited about it. There’s some songs that sound like Queens, and some songs that sound Arctic Monkeys-ish. We’re just having fun.

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