Words by Tommy Johnson
Adam McIIwee laid out his plans on what was to come this year during our phone conversation. He explained a lot of time would be spent devoted to his band’s self-titled EP dropped in June via Dark Medicine. McIIwee continued to explain that he was piecing together his solo album and other projects with other artists. “I’m in the middle of writing four albums,” he said. “I over-committed a few months ago and was wondering how I would possibly get it all done. But it worked out pretty well.”
Nearly three years ago, McIIwee, Dennis Mishko, and Pat Brier reconvened after their time with Tigers Jaw had come to the close. The reunion, according to McIIwee, was just to come together and do some jamming. What happened out of those sessions was a reawakening of the trio’s desire to create music together. Forming Pay For Pain, the ensemble teamed with Matt Schimelfenig (Three Man Cannon, Gladie, Queen Jesus) to record their EP. Each track advances the influences from their previous efforts, all while maintaining their vision of looking ahead: jangly-yet-brooding guitars and mysterious melodies.
Off Shelf: When you are writing, what is the process that goes with determining if it is a Pay For Pain song, your solo stuff, or if its for another project of yours?
Adam McIIwee: At first, I had no vision or, um, my solo album effort. So I was just like playing around recording instrumentals to see if I could figure out what direction I wanted to head. Once I figured that out for my solo album, I realized that a lot of the songs that I wrote I liked, but probably wouldn’t fit but would work within the context of Pay For Pain.
Pay For Pain is pretty easy… it’s not like working in Ableton or something like that, where like you have a million sounds you can choose. The way I have them demo it out in Ableton sounds way different than what they’ll actually sound like when they make the record.
OS: You and the guys didn’t have much of a plan when you got together. When did it become clear that all of you had something here?
AM: Right around this time last year, we started practicing more frequently and wanted to record. Once we had the date for recording, we were forced to get our act together. That pushed us, like in the direction of like, let’s get pretty serious about this and let’s have a plan before we go into recording. So we’re not just wasting a bunch of time trying to figure out what we’re going to sound like, you know? That could have happened.
OS: I read that you took some time off writing and playing music after Tigers Jaw disbanded. Were you waiting for Mishko and Brier to get Pay For Pain to kick-off?
AM: I was still doing solo stuff. I would release the music as I recorded it. I didn’t have any plans or ideas. I just enjoyed the freedom to write, record, and record a song in an afternoon and then have it up by that night. I knew that like the sound that I wanted wasn’t fully there yet, I figured I kept pumping out stuff.
See what stuck and working traction with people. I also had a handful of written music only out of necessity, where I was like getting booked for acoustic shows and stuff like that. A lot of that stuff ended up becoming Pay For Pain songs or songs that we practiced that didn’t make the record.
OS: I love hearing that when you start a project or going into something, you’re saying that you didn’t have much of an idea. I feel like that’s so liberating. You’re open to anything and everything.
AM: Yeah. I’ll tell you what, it was stressful because I usually know exactly what I want to do.
OS: I could see that. However, to have the freedom to experiment and create something different? That kind of control outweighs being stressed.
AM: Yeah, it works. I recorded one song, and I was like, okay, I think that can be an anchor. From there, it was such a relief to be able to push on with that vision for the record. Had I not spent so much time figuring out what it would sound like and playing around with, you know, different sounds and different ideas for the album and listening to music might not directly influence the sound of the record.
OS: What were you listening to during the writing duration of the Pay For Pain album?
AM: A lot of Beatles solo records, which was something that I never delve into much past. I listened to Paul McCartney’s first three albums; I never listened to much Lennon solo stuff till then, maybe one Harrison album. I was also listening to a lot of leaded guitar music to try to find some natural sound. I wanted to have in the back of my head something to concentrate on intensely for like a few weeks and then forgot about it. Then, you know, it’ll come back naturally in their creative process. That’s how I found that stuff works.
OS: Did the chemistry between the band come naturally, or did it take some work to get back to where it was?
AM: I think the most significant change was that with Tiger’s Jaw, it was mostly myself and Ben [Walsh] driving the songwriting. The roles we’re a little bit different now. We just needed a little bit of time to figure out how to approach this band. Everyone is bringing songs to the table and everyone has a vision for the band, not just two of the five people doing it. When it came to playing, it was very natural. We all know how each other play. We know what cues to give each other, you know?! There are little things… Pat knows how I play guitar so he knows how to play the drums around that so I can play off of him. Dennis has a unique style of bass playing we knew going into this project. With Dennis on bass, we’re naturally going to have this sort of rhythm sound that was pretty easy.
OS: What was the experience like being in the studio?
AM: I think we booked about six days of studio time, and I’m almost positive that we got the live band takes on the first day. That just like opened it way up to overdubbing guitars, percussion, and stuff like that. The vocal stuff…we didn’t get a chance to work on in practice much but we were able to get our harmony down in the moment.
OS: The cover of the EP is a beautiful pic of a dense fog overtaking a forest area. Where was the shot taken?
AM: Thanks. I took that picture on tour, uh, on a solo or in Washington state in early 2019. If you saw the back of the record, the bottom half of the picture is the base of a mountain. I have like a million photos of that that are overcast day, nature shot.
OS: Do you feel that the time away in many ways helped everyone find themselves musically?
AM: Yeah. I think it helped a lot. Pat formed his band in between leaving Tiger’s Jaw and starting Pay For Pain and that band is so good. They’re called Clean Jesus. The records he was making with them were so inspiring even if I hadn’t known Pat and played with him for so many years before, that is someone that I would want to play in a band with. He just showed such maturity and the way he wrote songs and the way he was recording, and that was a big thing where Tiger’s Jaw had an unremarkable approach to recording where it was structured and typical. We would go to whatever studio that our friends were going to at the time and do everything track by track.
It just felt so organic going into this band. We would allow ourselves the freedom of recording in a live setting, allow ourselves to experiment, and more have more fun in the studio. I just knew that when the band started that this was going to be a fun part.