Rowboat's Sam McNitt and Danny White on how this band is different from Blue Million Miles
Tom Murphy Sam McNitt and Danny White of Rowboat
Rowboat started out as the more acoustic and folk-oriented solo project of Sam McNitt, then the singer and lyricist of Blue Million Miles. With that band, McNitt learned to transform acoustic songs into heady, often aggressive space rock, but his words always seemed to come from a place of refined emotional sensitivity, even as he expressed pain, frustration, disappointment and triumph over all of it with a rivetingly emotional delivery.
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McNitt brings that quality to Rowboat, even though the sound is very different from Blue Million Miles with rich and more spacious atmospherics. In addition to McNitt, Rowboat is made up of guitarist Danny White, drummer Johnny Lundock and bassist Matthew Till. The band's latest album, Of Disappearing, may be McNitt's strongest songwriting to date. We recently spoke with McNitt and guitarist Danny White about how the two came to work together, the themes of the album and Townes Van Zandt.
Westword: You've been writing Rowboat songs since before Blue Million Miles?
Sam McNitt: I've been doing Rowboat songs and albums since I've been playing music, so it predates Blue Million. But I never really did anything with it. It was more a folky songwriting outlet. I did that for five or six years and played a few shows like when Blue Million was taking a little break, and I'd throw together random people in the band. It was always different people playing different things, and it would be either fun or devastating. You know, no practice until two days before the show, and Hey, let's get this guy to play the piano on this one: "You've never played the bass, but you're my friend. Just learn this part."
Was it still essentially a solo project?
SM: It was. I struggled to write for Blue Million. The songs came a little bit less frequently. In the meantime, I was writing all these other songs that, in my mind, were, "These can't work in this band. I'm not even going to try them." It eventually got to the point where we were just not really even practicing and just hanging out with one another. So we [Blue Million Miles] called it a day.
Danny [White] and Johnny [Lundock] were having a little party here, and people were playing, and I decided to play some songs solo, and Danny asked if I'd mind if he jumped up on stage and play. All these songs worked so well with what he does on guitar, so we decided to try something out. If I had called it day, musically, I would have felt really disappointed in myself if I didn't give Rowboat a true try with a full, steady band and realized songs. So that's kind of how it came to be. It was mostly just me and Danny that first last year, and Johnny jumped on, and we tracked down a bassist once we booked that Gathering of the Clouds show.
How did you two meet?
Danny White: Basically, through Johnny. I've known Johnny forever, and Blue Million had picked him up as a drummer. I was living in New York, and when I came back, I got back into the scene. I was out there, and I don't think I was quite ready for being in New York City, so coming back here in May of 2009 and being active in music was more accessible thing for me, immediately.
I also wanted to be around my nieces. I paid a thousand dollars for rent in Chinatown, and the logistics of living and trying to get out and meet people and play was a little overwhelming for me. I had a friend here, and I flew back and did a two week tour with him to Chicago. When I moved back, we started a band, and that didn't work out, and I met Mike Perfetti through him, and I started playing in Sunder. That's when I really started going into stuff, and this came along the following year.
SM: Danny played bass in Blue Million when Ethan [Ward] moved, very briefly. We played two shows, at the Meadowlark and the UMS. We were on the tail end of things at that point. I love Jeff [Shapiro] as a guitar player, but when it comes to Rowboat style of music, Danny's the best guitar player I've played with. I think he has this unique sound you don't hear from other guitar players in Denver. It's just the texturizing of the songs.
I write super simple when it comes to these kinds of songs, and I always push people to keep it as simple as possible and find what works quickly and not over-thinking it. Danny does a great job of playing so subtly but so right. Just the right note at the right time. It's that idea of leaving space in the song, which is what these songs are all about. The volume swells he does remind me of this score to Twin Peaks or something like that -- this dark, drone-y swell that comes out.
DW: I've been lucky to come across some pedals, mainly through Jeff -- not directly, but he's turned me on to certain websites, and I wouldn't have otherwise had access to this cool, boutique stuff. I bought my current amp directly from him that he got from a website -- a Dr. Z amp. It's a cool, kind of copy of a Fender Black Face 1X12.
SM: Jeff is the gear guy. He's the guy to go to for advice on what to get. If you're not into it on your own, which I am not at all, and I think, "God, I need a new pedal or I need a new amp, but I only want to spend eight hundred dollars," I can always go to Jeff with that kind of stuff. He just likes reading about that stuff and playing through it. I miss seeing him play and hearing his guitars because he always had energy to him.
He's a maniac -- brilliant but a maniac that still manages to sound good.
SM: That's a good description of him. He was a good balance to my statue-like, unable-to-move-while-playing [style].
DW: When you're not playing and singing, it's easier to get nuts.
Are you playing acoustic or electric for this band, Sam?
SM: Electric. They're all written on acoustic, and we started playing them acoustic. Then we both realized, "I like this vibe but I want a little more energy out of it or a little more control over the tone." There's still elements of Blue Million Miles in it, but we definitely wanted to build the energy, even though the songs are slower and quieter sometimes.
The album is called Of Disappearing, and that phrase appears on more than one song. What is the significance of that motif?
When I have a surge of songwriting, it's typically within the same theme and different songs fall together that are all kind of in the same mode. It had to do with the idea of how different people in my life were not necessarily literally disappearing from being around, but they were slipping into these different areas. It was a struggle for all of them, including myself, be it getting older, getting married, having kids. Be it mental illness, be it running away, and any of these things where people are kind of struggling with their lives.
It was this idea of fighting against disappearing and losing who you once were, and trying to figure out how to be a new person, and hold on to some of things you loved in your life, and move on to new things that you love in your life. Some of the disappearing is darker and more dangerous and a little more tragic than others on the album, but that's where it came from.
"Disappearer 1" seems darker than some of the later songs.
Definitely. "Disappearer 1" is one that I'd been playing around with quite a bit. It's hard to describe, but that one has a lot to do with me and having a kid that has had some struggles. It's also about fears of mine and becoming a dad and trying to balance that with the life I used to have and how much it changes and feeling like I was disappearing -- those types of things.
The life you used to have has to go on the backburner, and you don't know for how long.
Right. And you don't know if you can ever get it back. And it happens like that. You don't think it's going to, but then the day things change, they change without much time to adjust or figure out how to balance it out before it happens. I have a brother-in-law who's kind of dropped off the radar. He ran away. He's been in and out of juvenile facilities, and he's just kind of roaming the streets, and we don't hear from him for months and months, and he's fighting that. That's what the song "Hunter/Hunted" is about. So there's that aspect of it, and then "The White of Your Eye."
Certain friends, we're starting to get older, we're 34, 35 years old, and some are stuck in this world that they've been in so long, and you know they want to get out, and they're kind of diving into a little bit of the darker side of that world, and I see them disappearing a bit compared to who they were. It was different versions of it, but it all kind of fell into that word "disappear," and that's how all those songs came to be. The only one that doesn't fit is "Barcelona," an older song where the vibe of the song fit musically with all the others.
DW: If there's one I pushed you to play, it's that one. You gave me, like, forty songs to listen to, and I said, "Let's do that one!"