Friendly Savages Talk Bow Ties, Guilty Pleasures and Josh Ritter

Friendly Savages by James Besser

I interviewed Austin-based Friendly Savages in an empty church where they were recording a series of Kickstarter reward videos. 3/4 of the band, John McDonald (lead vocals, guitar), Josh Coulter (guitar, mandolin), and Malcolm White (banjo, mandolin) sat down with me to discuss everything from their debut album O, Joshua!, to bow-ties, to ‘friendly savages’ in the wild.

Sound Dessert: Tell me about this Kickstarter project you were working on?
John: We launched the Kickstarter last October. We were planning for the debut album and set our goal at $10,000. We raised that within a week, it was insane, and we had set it for a month duration.

Josh: It was sweet monetarily that we could go in and work with that budget on the album, and also to feel a swath of community support behind us too, knowing that we have all these people behind us who are excited to hear the album.

One of the rewards we promised was if you gave $100 you’d get to choose a song and we would do a cover for you, record it and give you the video, so this afternoon we recorded 12 songs or so.

SD: Were there any surprises with recording your debut album O, Joshua!?
Malcolm: We were pretty packed for time. We recorded 16 tracks in five or six days. We did a lot of preparing from the front end but there was still a lot of anxiety and tension because we had so few days to actually be recording, but it was a lot of fun and something we’re definitely excited to get back into.

John: The songs we played for so long and prepared for, in an afternoon could change. When you’re in there working on these songs, in the moment you realize, “Oh wow, what if we added a glockenspiel here, or have a harpist come in there”.

Josh. Another thing that changed it up was that we recorded everything analog, it was all on tape. We love the sound that comes out of that, but if you mess up there’s no overriding, there’s no erasing that note.

SD: What’s the inspiration behind the album title, O, Joshua!?
Malcolm: We went back and forth on a lot of different titles. In the last song on the album “Asteroid J-30”, an asteroid is coming and Josh Ritter unites the world in a chorus of laws to send the asteroid elsewhere. As we tried to orchestrate the album into some kind of loose narrative structure, we felt like that last song really was an image for the entire album. There’s a way that you can listen to the album in which the protagonist for the last song, is the character throughout all the songs before. I thought that would be an interesting approach and it puts the focus of the album on characters and people, which is something we think is really meaningful.

SD: It’s Josh Ritter the singer? Or a fabled Josh Ritter?
FS: It’s both.
John: The album isn’t actually named after Josh Ritter.
Malcolm: The actual Josh Ritter is the character in the song.

Josh: That keyed off the thought of having a connecting character. Looking at that last song and piecing together this narrative. What is this journey that he goes through? And trying to bring our humanity and own experience into what’s going on. “Asteroid J-30” is loosely based on the biblical story of Jericho (who’s leader is Joshua) so there’s dual Joshua meanings.

SD: John, you work at Google, is there anything you’ve learned from working there that’s come in handy with the band?
John: What I do at Google is sales. I’m not a salesperson, that’s not my background or anything, but from the job I’ve learned the craft of being proud of your product, be it Google, or, if you’re in a band, your music. I think that a lot of bands struggle – we definitely struggle with this – to promote yourself. Like, “hey check out our CD” because it feels very pushy, and we’re all kind of naturally chill, humble people so that was difficult, but I think Google and doing sales has taught me that people want things, people want products, people want music, so it’s okay for us to be proud of something we have and push it and say, “hey go check out our album” or “hey, go check out our show coming up this week”, for me that’s been something I’ve tried to apply.

SD: What artists are a dirty pleasure that you listen to?

John: I love JoJo. I listen to JoJo all the time. That’s definitely in my closet, that’s one of the skeletons that I have.
Josh: I have whole CD’s of guilty pleasures.
John: I have one of Josh’s guilty pleasure CD’s in my car right now, for a road trip. It’s fantastic. It’s got like Blink 182, Sugar-Ray, Fastball..
Josh: My number 1 guilty pleasure is probably the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.

“The Escape” Knot By Tiffa


SD: How did the bow tie collaboration with Knot by Tiffa come about?
Malcolm: There’s a blogging fashion community that she’s a part of and though a collaboration we did with a different band we kind of got exposed and plugged into that community when our album came out. She approached us about doing some knots – I say that like I know a whole lot about bow ties – and we talked with her about songs we wanted to do, what the song meant to us, and in the end she gave us different templates and we ended up voting on it.
Josh: It was a lot of fun, we all have some good looking bow ties now.
John: We saw something the other day where she’s about to release her second Friendly Savages themed bow-tie, based off of “Trouble With Home”. It’s super cool looking. It’s got birds on it, it’s awesome
Josh: Put a bird on it
John: She’s really talented

SD: What’s the first time you remember feeling transfixed by music?
Malcolm: I don’t know if this is the first time but the first one I really remember was at the Kerrville Folk Festival when I was in high school. I went there with a friend and his dad. It’s outside at this natural amphitheater with a lot of people and songwriters that really care about music. They played at dusk when the sun was setting at a time of year where it’s really nice to be outside and it was just a beautiful time.

Josh: Mine’s way less cool than that. I just remember specifically the Death Cab For Cutie album, Transatlanticism and being in high school and feeling like I connected with every song, and that was an example for me, of the ability for music to move you to places emotionally that you wouldn’t necessarily go to in the normal course of the day, or not even necessarily feel, and now you’re connecting with the musicians, the music, whatever it is, and it moves you to a place that you weren’t before.

John: For me, that I can remember, was when I was in high school. I used to love Nickel Creek – I still do, they’re incredible. Chris Thile is one of my idols. I went to this really, really packed uncomfortable place, it may have been Greune hall or something like that, but they started playing a couple songs that are my all time favorites and I just remember being mesmerized. Immediately when I got home, I had no money really as a little kid, but I used everything I had and I bought a mandolin. I still don’t know how to play it, but I was so moved that I had to buy this instrument that he used to make this beautiful music. That was when I really started loving folk and bluegrass was from them and that specific show.

SD: What was the inspiration behind “The Hold Of The Lord On My Sparrow”?
Malcolm: It’s more or less about someone who’s love has died, whether it’s a girlfriend or a wife, and coming to terms with it. This is a person who believes God is in control, and is trying to figure out how the death of someone who didn’t deserve to die would ever figure into that, if that’s something that he can even understand. So it’s about dealing with the loss of her, and dealing with regrets and how he spent his limited time with her.

SD: Which creatures in the wild do you consider to be friendly savages?
Malcolm: A raccoon, or a fox or something.
John: I’m trying to think of animals that will gleefully wound you. I think a hyena because they laugh but they will be killing you too.
Malcolm: Hippos.
Josh: Hippos are good, they kill a ton of people.
Malcolm: They’re just rampant.

Photo credit: James Besser


  • Reply January 10, 2015

    James Besser

    Can you give me credit on your blog to my photo? Just a photo credit and link to web. Thank you!

    • Reply January 11, 2015


      Hey James,

      My apologies for that, credit has been added. Thank you!

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