Oceanside, CA natives The Drowning Men love the sea and sun and their Americana rock is perfect for a 4th of July cookout. Influenced by singer songwriters such as Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, sea chanties and the bands eclectic taste, The Drowning Men deliver a unique, vibrant sound.
Like true seafarer’s The Drowning Men have left home to embark on a grand journey – a cross-country tour with River City Extension, and promoting their sophomore release All of the Unknown out July 17th on Borstal Beat Records. On the new album lead vocalist Nato Bardeen’s sophisticated songwriting focuses on “unique moments of feeling” spanning themes of love, life and self discovery.
Before their show at First Avenue in Minneapolis last week, Nato Bardeen took time to speak with me about the new album, life on the road and what he gets up to when he’s not playing music. Big thanks to Nato for the interview!
SoundDessert: In what ways does the new album, All of the Unknown differ from the bands previous release The Beheading of the Songbird?
Nato Bardeen: When I look back at it, I think it’s a little more mature in the writing. There’s more choruses, and this is the first album where we’ve worked with a producer. It’s definitely different but in the same vein, for sure.
It was a different experience recording the album: we were in a big studio and had a lot of time to work on the songs. I was writing while touring, but it wasn’t rushed. I was able to sit down and go over things, work on things, change things around. When it came down to going into the studio, we’d been playing the songs for a long time and knew them from beginning to end and just when in there and busted them out live.
SD: How was it working with producer Billy Mohler (Smashing Pumpkins, Macy Gray, Awolnation)?
NB: Oh he’s a gem. He’s so rad. He’s got great knowledge and he taught me a lot. I’ve never been a fan of the chorus in my songwriting, but on this album I really focused in on it. I wanted to figure out how to write choruses. He helped me find that.
SD: I read you write music first and pen lyrics second, but wanted to experiment with writing lyrics and then music. What was the writing process like on All of the Unknown?
NB: It’s the same. I write the music first and then hum a melody forever. It takes me a while to finish the lyrics. I keep threatening myself that I want to do it the other way but I haven’t been able to pull it off yet. I usually don’t finish my lyrics until pretty close to recording time when I have to sing. I work better under that pressure. That’s the way it’s always been for me.
SD: The Drowning Men is signed to Flogging Molly’s label, Borstal Beat Records. How does it feel to be the first (and only) band signed to their label?
NB: It’s a new adventure for them and us and we’re very happy to be with a label that knows us, and knows what we sound like live. We’re jazzed to be the first band they signed, that’s really cool.
They are a band first and label second, so they are very artist friendly for sure. They let us do anything we want. They trust us. It’s really cool.
SD: One of my favorites songs on All Of The Unknown is “Smile”. The line “I just want to smile” is a simple message but really poignant. What were you experiencing when you wrote the song?
NB: “Smile” is one of the few songs that I really lyrically put myself where I’m at right now. I’m on the road, I’m broke, there’s a lot of stress, lot of sacrifice for what I’m doing. But I’m doing what I love. Like anybody, I just want to smile, I just want to be happy. Partly what it comes down to is being happy no matter where you’re at. Being in the moment. It’s the best thing ever. That’s what I was thinking about when I wrote the song.
SD: Is the album title, All of the Unknown, meant to have a more auspicious or ominous tone?
NB: Whoever listens to the music, it’s whatever they think it is. The title came from a B-side lyric of mine where I say, “I’ve come to rid my home, from all of the unknown.” It was actually James Smith (guitar, vocals) who said, “Dude we should call the album All of the Unknown” as we were throwing out title ideas. I thought it was perfect.
SD: What are some ‘unknown’s’ you/the band have wrestled with?
NB: Guessing the future. For me personally, you can always try to guess, but the future’s unwritten. You can always wonder what it’s going to be like but you’ll never really know. I just don’t know where it’s going. I’m excited about it though. It’s like there’s a big door that’s open with all of the unknowns and I’m just trying to walk toward it.
SD: Are their certain things in life that were once unknown to you that you’ve since made realizations about?
NB: There’s plenty. Being scared of things and then realizing it’s just fear that’s keeping me awake at night. That’s all it is. I could go on for days talking about all the unknown things. But that realization…
SD: Where did the concept for the album art come from?
NB: It’s about always keeping your mind wondering. James hit up the art department on the cover. He loves going to the zoo with his boy and the idea was his thing. Our artist came up with this collage and we just loved it. He did a killer job. So always wonder, always guess, don’t take life too seriously. That’s what the whole goal of our title is.
SD: The band name was inspired by a Nick Cave book and a Leonard Cohen poem. What book? What is it about these two works in particular that resonated with you?
NB: Nick Cave wrote a book titled And the Ass Saw the Angel. At the time we were looking for a band name, I was reading the book. I could have sworn he wrote something about the drowning men in it and that just sparked me. A week later I talked to the boys and suggested the name.
It also reminded me of the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne” where he mentions the drowning men too. “Suzanne” is one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs and everyone liked it. It just fit us. I like the visual of someone reaching out the last bit of hope. That’s where I feel our music is, and we’ve all lived by the ocean our whole lives. We’re beach boys.
SD: What influences draw you to the water the most?
NB: I’ve always been fascinated with the sea in general, even if I didn’t live by it, I feel like I would love it. That big deep blue. It’s so unknown. We’re not supposed to be out there, we’re supposed to be walking on the land, not swimming in the ocean, but we do it anyway. It’s a whole other world out there. I’ve also always loved sea chanties and piratey stuff, we’re by the beach, we grew up with it, it just comes out naturally.
SD: I know Gabe Messer (keys, vocals) has a Pabst tattoo on his toes – between the band how many tattoos do you have total?
NB: Gosh, I don’t know. Probably Gabe has the most, then James, then me and I think Rory Dolan (percussion) and Todd Eisenkerch (bass, vocals) have the least amount. I can’t even count ’em, but as for me, I think I have close to 20.
SD: What was the first tattoo you ever got?
NB: In high school I got ‘Nato’ right on my forearm.
SD: What’s the most recent tattoo you’ve gotten?
NB: I got my last one about three years ago and it’s on my sternum. It’s a bird perched on a branch right in the center of my chest, a cute little guy singing a song.
SD: We know Gabe loves Pabst – what else do you all love?
NB: We all love beer for sure. Some of us love whiskey more. Honestly, I love playing music and learning different instruments. That’s my big hobby.
I love doing scrimshaw, where you carve into bone. Whalers used to do it and it’s one of my hobbies when I’m home. My buddy gave me a game and the pieces of it were made of bone. So I’ve been taking the pieces from this game, I don’t know what kind of bone it is, but i take it, cut it and make a little necklace piece. I get my magnifying glass and go to town. It’s fun.
I love to read as well. I do a lot of reading in the van when we’re driving.
SD: What books have you read recently?
NB: I almost finished One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I had about thirty pages left and then I left it at a club, so I gotta pick it up again and finish it. Before that I read The World According to Garp by John Irving. It’s an awesome book. I also read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, hes my favorite.
SD: The band is currently on tour with River City Extension – what’s been the craziest moment of the tour so far?
NB: Gosh, every night there’s something crazy going on. Life on the road, that’s pretty crazy itself. You show up, drive, show up, play a bar, drink or you don’t drink, goof off, play music, stay in hotels. There’s always drinking involved and usually by the end of the night someone’s ready to kill you around town.
SD: What’s been your favorite stop on the tour so far?
NB: I’ve always loved Seattle. Playing there was really fun. I like the Northwest. Austin was cool, we played down at Stubbs. I’m stoked about tonight too. We’re playing Fist Avenue in MN, Prince used to play there a lot.
SD: Everyone in the band has facial hair, who spends the most time grooming?
NB: None of us groom them. I guess I would have to because I have a small piece mustache, mine is actually sculpted a little, but everyone else let’s them go.
SD: What’s been the band’s proudest moment thus far?
NB: The last year and a half touring for us. We’ve been a local band for a long time, playing the California area and we were happy playing there. We didn’t think about touring out too much and then we decided to go for it and all of sudden we’re on the road, we got signed, a lot of different things have happened and it’s exciting. The last year and a half have been really exciting for the band.