On The Road With Finger Eleven

Finger Eleven vocalist Scott Anderson gives Pollstar the lowdown on what went into writing and recording the band’s new album, which was released today. 

Five Crooked Lines marks the alternative rock band’s first album in five years. The group recorded the LP in Nashville with producer Dave Cobb, striving for a more raw quality rather than the slicker approach Finger Eleven had taken with past albums.    

Along with Anderson, the band features guitarist Rick Jackett, guitarist James Black and bassist Sean Anderson. Drummer Steve Morella has been joining the band on the road and Chris Powell played drums on Five Crooked Lines.

Pollstar chatted with Anderson earlier this month while Finger Eleven was hanging out backstage before a show in Stroudsburg, Pa. The frontman talked about working with Cobb, his surprise at the success of the single “Wolves And Doors,” and a few of his favorite tracks.

Finger Eleven wraps up its tour supporting Three Days Grace with a July 31 gig in Sioux City, Iowa. After that the band has a run of headline dates in the U.S. and Canada in August.

Photo: Dustin Rabin
Rick Jackett, Scott Anderson, James Black, Sean Anderson 

How’s the tour been going so far?

It’s been going great. The Three Days Grace tour has been going on for about two weeks and it feels like a bit of a reunion. We haven’t seen them for a few years but they’ve always been incredibly kind to us. So when they offered us the tour, I was expecting the tour to be really fun and really easy as far as politics and backstage ridiculousness goes. It’s such a good group. More importantly, their fans have been responsive to us. Everything seems to be going great. I should really knock on some wood soon. … Everything is just too perfect. It’s wonderful. We played with Peter Frampton and Shinedown the other day at this huge festival. And that was great. I mean, that’s never going to happen again so I’m glad we did that.

That sounds like fun.

Oh man. I couldn’t believe how good Peter Frampton sounded. It was amazing. He even made kicking over a beach ball and falling seem cool. … That’s like live stage craft, where you turn a really terrible moment into something cool.

Finger Eleven has toured with Three Days Grace before?

We had. We go way back with them. A few of their members … before they were Three Days Grace, they would come out and see our concerts. It’s kind of nice that they even thought to take us out on this leg of their tour. It’s fantastic. … And I mean, the band is just so happy to be out because it’s been a little too long and we’re a band that likes to play live. It’s time. The record’s done, it’s time to get out there. … It’s time to get our road legs back.

And you guys have some of your own headline dates coming up too.

Yes, we do. Those will be fun. Yeah, because it’s fun to play with somebody else’s audience but it’s much more gratifying to [play for your own fans]. I mean, it’s more difficult but there’s much more gratification there.

After all these years do you still get nervous going up on stage?

Yeah, I assume now that’s never going to go away. After doing this for longer than I could remember, that’s just a part of the ritual almost. You know, you warm up for an hour and you drink your tea. Oh yeah, those are the butterflies. The trick is to not think about it, but that’s impossible. The trick is to relax, but that’s impossible. I’ve been getting better at it. I will say. I was on stage at that Peter Frampton show and there were maybe 15,000 people. It was a big show. I remember standing on stage going, man, just do your trick. Just relax. Sing like you’re in rehearsal. Remember you’re on a giant stage, perform, but also (laughs) relax. You’ve got to sort of balance those two things. So it’s great. I get nervous maybe if my voice isn’t working properly. And I get mostly nervous if God forbid, there’s somebody I know in the audience. Aw, man! That throws your game off. I’d rather play to strangers than sort of pretend to be a rockstar.

If you have friends and family coming out, would you rather them not tell you they’re going to be at the show?

I would love that. But don’t tell my Dad. My dad will be in the front row, wearing a brand new concert shirt with a big smile. And it’s like, Aw, man, how can I get mad at that? (laughs) It definitely throws me off my game but hey, Dad, thanks for your support, man.

You said you drink tea and warm up. Do you have any other rituals before a show?

Any singer will probably know a few things. Throat Coat tea and Ginger Aid. You throw a whole pile of those bags in boiling water and you drink that constantly. Like I’ll be drinking that after this interview up until the show. Just little sips all day. A ton of water all day. And then you slowly, almost unconsciously you start humming and get your voice working.  And then about an hour out, an hour before the show, you put music on, you maybe kind of sing along, you do some scales, you annoy everybody else on the bus by doing that. And then it’s time to go.

Photo: Scott Legato / RockStarProPhotography.com
Rock On The Range, Crew Stadium, Columbus, OH

The new album comes out July 31. Congratulations on the upcoming release.

Thank you. You know what, I woke up and on the front table of the bus was three copies of the records. So this is the first time we’re seeing the physical form. What a wonderful way to wake up. Better than Christmas. Yeah, it was fantastic.

Even though so many people just go digital with their music, I still like getting a physical copy of an album and being able to look at the artwork.

The amount of time that [guitarist] James put into all the artwork, he’s got to be so happy with the way everything turned out. I shot a few emails here and there trying to conjure up some visuals ideas. It took so long, so much time and energy to get that project together. I’m glad it’s finally in our hands. It’s gratifying. But you’re right – it’s the digital age. Who cares? (laughs).

Hey, I still like to support my local record store.

The band feels the exact same way. Our favorite records are full records, not just a handful of singles. It felt like, let’s make a rock record, like the ones we fell in love with. That seems like a cool approach.

What is James’ role with the album artwork?

Well, James has usually been the lead designer for most of the albums. Conceptually and then sometimes actual artwork. This time James worked with an artist outside of the band and they collaborated on what they wanted to do. Jay let the artist do their thing but [said], “This is what we’re thinking.” … James is very, very hands-on and he always has been. He’s more artistically minded, in more than a few ways. When it comes to the visual arts, he’s got something. … He had a bunch of early interviews and he went back to bed but I’m hoping he’s really, really happy with the way it turned out because I know the [rest of the] band is.

The band wanted to do something different with this release. Can you expand on that?

I think the first thing you’ll notice is there’s a bit more of a raw quality to the recording. With past Finger Eleven recordings I think we went for absolute perfection. Not that we got it, but that’s the sound we were going for. A slicker, more clinical approach. Like let’s get everything absolutely perfect. This time we did not shoot for that. And that was thanks to well, mostly [producer] Dave Cobb’s attitude. We went down to Nashville to record with Dave Cobb and he told us before we got down there, he said, “I’m not a big fan of pre-production. I think it’s fucking boring.” (laughs)

Telling it how it is.

I’m making it sound like he was standoffish. He wasn’t. He was just like, “Yeah, man. Let’s just get in the studio. Like let’s just do it.” That worried me only because we had, I think, a grand total of 13 or 14 days to record and mix the entire thing. Now Dave Cobb’s been able to turn around a record in three or four days. So he works at this wonderfully blistering pace. And it makes the studio fun and there’s not even time to get stressed. You just do it. There’s no time to sit around and go, “Oh, we don’t have any time!” You just have to keep going. (laughs) So our secret weapon was we had these demos that we’d been working on for years and we borrowed a lot of guitar tones from those tracks and even some vocals. so it was a fantastic mix of let’s get some awesome recordings down here but also let’s not waste five days to try to recreate what one of the guys did three years ago in this perfect environment. You’ll notice we sound a little bit more spontaneous, a little bit more like our live sound. I think fans of Finger Eleven enjoy what we sound like live first and the record second. And I hope this album … balances it out a little bit (laughs).

I bet fans will appreciate that live, raw sound.

Even just from the vocals I did down in Nashville, you’ll typically go into an isolation booth and Dave’s like, “Why don’t you just hang out in the control room with me? … There’s just so much more energy. There’s a bigger connection. I can actually see you.” I would do a take and he’d go, “All right. Give me more. Give me more.” … It was just much more of a visceral trust exercise, I guess. [I initially thought], “Look I just met this guy a couple days ago, I mean, I know he’s cool. But now I’ve got to sing and perform and trust him.” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, man, all the old ‘70s artists they all sang in the control room with the speakers blaring. We can do it like that. It’s not a problem. It will come out cooler.” And so I trusted that and I think he’s right.

“Wolves And Doors” is getting a lot of airplay on radio right now. How did you choose that as the album’s first single?

Well, full disclosure, when we were in Nashville, the band and Dave, we never once focused [on[ that song. … Nobody considered it in any kind of, that it could be any kind of single contender. We just approached it like, “OK, let’s make it as great a track as it can be.” And really, there wasn’t too much more thought put into it. So when we finished the record, the label was freaking out over this one song, “Wolves And Doors.” And I had a list of like four or five others. When I put on my (laughs) radio A&R hat … “Wolves and Doors” wasn’t even in the top five for me. But we didn’t want to ignore this overwhelming positive reaction to this song. And I still think it was a lot of pressure to put on that song. I think it’s decent and I’m happy that there’s been the response that it’s gotten. I just wouldn’t have guessed that. But I guess that’s what makes me the artist and not the business person (laughs). … In Canada it’s going crazy and then it’s slowly doing very well in America. I’m very grateful, I suppose, but I also hope that we get a few more shots. … We’ve got more for you to hear.

What are some of the songs that really stood out to you?

Well, I mean, for me, I like “Criminal.” I got the same feeling from “Criminal,” when I was writing it I got this stupid, little boy smile like when I wrote “Paralyzer.” It came very quickly and I was kind of possessed by the music and then in a day or two I had the idea finished. Nobody cares, nobody seems to care about that song and that’s OK (laughs).

Hey, the fans haven’t heard it yet.

Exactly. Let the fans speak.

“Blackout Song” is very interesting because for while the record for the most part is pretty hard, there aren’t any ballads or anything, “Blackout Song” has kind of a friendly attitude and it’s about essentially having a good time and missing your friends and hoping your friends can join you for that good time. I mean it’s really, that’s really all it’s about. Trying to capture that feeling of “Aw, I don’t want this good time to end.” … We demoed that song, I want to say five or six times. And it always came out sounding too friendly. It sounded like we were trying too hard. And we almost bailed on it. We almost had to give up on it because the tone wasn’t matching the rest of the material and it was too pretty.

Dave Cobb had this really great idea. We said, “Hey, we have this song that we can’t crack. You gotta help us.” One of the first things he did was he bent all of the chords. He made the guys bend the chords to this crazy extreme, in this extreme fashion and made the song sound like it was drunk. It was so great. And then automatically we added some really trashy drums and the tone shifted perfectly. You know, it still kept what was great about the song but it was like, “How do you get a very simple song, how does a rock band deliver that. Without thinking about it too much, Dave Cobb turned it into something way cooler than we did or could have. We had our shot (laughs). That song’s been around for a while so I’m glad that song made the record. So I would hope that people get to hear that song.

Photo: Owen Sweeney / OwenSweeneyPhoto.com
MMR-B-Q 2011, Susquehanna Bank Center, Camden, N.J.

That’s cool you worked with Dave Cobb on the song because it sounds like there were some good bones there.  

Well, that’s how every day started in the studio. He knew the material but it had been a couple months [since] we agreed to do the project and finally got down to Nashville.  And he’s a busy guy. He’s very, very busy like most successful producers. But he would start his day, he’d come down and be like, “Well, OK, what do you guys want to work on?” And we’d have a short list so he’d call up the songs we’d given him on his iPod, which made us all cringe because of course (laughs) you know that’s how everybody listens to music, I know, I get it, but you know you work so hard on the tones of things and try to get it right and then boom, he calls it up on the iPod. And a good producer can hear through the phone; I mean, I know this. So he hears, he would flip through these demos and he would just go, “Oh, that riff’s awesome, Oh that lyric’s really good. What’s this one?” We’d be like, “Oh, that’s ‘Not Going To Be Afraid.’” He’s like, “OK, let’s work on that today.” That’s how every day started and it was exciting.

And every single day, by the middle of the day we had a structure and we had the drums down and then we’d put some guitars and some vocals on it. The song “Not Going To Be Afraid,” that’s kind of a neat emotional song that I wrote I guess last year. We didn’t have a label; we were going through a personal change with our drummer. And we hadn’t had a record in a couple of years. Things felt really different in a bad way. (laughs) Things felt like, “Oh, there’s actual change going on here. I like it when it’s business as usual. This is kind of a scary frontier.” And so of course there’s nothing else to do but try to write about, try to figure out how you’re feeling. Try to exercise that anxiety. And that’s where that song sort of presented itself. So I’m happy that I kind of caught that moment. I think it’s a neat, big. It has this sort of anthemic feel to it. I think on this record. You know we’ve always gone for big songs. We’ve never shied away from that. We want. We would love these songs to sound good in an arena but I guess first we’ve got to make them sound good in a club. So you know, I suppose those three songs. “God of Speed” is one of my favorites but I can’t imagine that will ever get on the radio but who knows.

You parted ways with your drummer in 2013. So who’s on the road with the band right now?

His name is Steve Morella and he’s been working out fantastic. He’s been our only replacement since we’ve had to replace anyone. So we’ve been playing live gigs for quite a while and rehearsing for quite some time. And he’s great. This is the first time we’ve been on the road with him so the last few weeks or so have been a bit of a test. And he fits in just fine.  

Chris Powell played drums on the new album. How did that come about? 

Chris Powell is Dave Cobb’s long-term collaborator. They’ve been making records for over 10 years. And so he did Dave a favor and played our session. And I mean, to listen to those guys, “Wow, Holy fuck. That was awesome.” He’s a monster drummer. He’s so great. Chris would throw out a bunch of patterns and Dave would say, “No, stop being so busy. You know what I want.” (laughs) And first of all, Chris would internalize any sond we’d throw at him within an afternoon and then come up with a few different ideas. And then Dave would have his own version of how to achieve the best drum track. And Chris was just that good. He’s amazing. I think he added so much energy to those drums and we were really, really happy with how it all turned out. But what a strange feeling to go down to Nashville without a drummer and just hope everything works out. Oh man. Crazy.

With “Not Going To Be Afraid” and all the changes going on, did you find writing about that anxiety helped you?

Yeah, I mean, that’s all I can do, right? I can either just sit around and think about all the things I can’t control or I can try to create something. It was that simple. That chorus just turned into a bit of a mantra. And it kind of fit right into a song. … It has a bit of an emotional charge to it and I think some Finger Eleven songs have that. And I hope fans respond to that song and I hope maybe it makes them feel a little bit better if they’re going through some sort of situation that they can’t control.

Photo: Dustin Rabin

Upcoming dates for Finger Eleven:

July 31 – Sioux City, Iowa, Battery Park At Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (appearing with Three Days Grace)            
Aug. 3 – Cleveland, Ohio, Agora Ballroom
Aug. 4 – Buffalo, N.Y., Buffalo Iron Works
Aug. 5 – Manchester, N.H., Jewel Nightclub

Aug. 7 – Saint Pierre, France, Rock N Rhym Festival Grounds (Rock N’ Rhum)
Aug. 8 – Halifax, Nova Scotia, Marquee Club          
Aug. 10 – Moncton, New Brunswick, The Molson Canadian Centre
Aug. 12 – South Burlington, Vt., Higher Ground
Aug. 13 – Ottawa, Ontario, Mavericks
Aug. 14 – Mount Brydges, Ontario (Lions Park)
Oct. 9 – Fort Wayne, Ind., Piere’s Entertainment Center

For more information please visit FingerEleven.com.