Oklahoma City native Graham Colton has a long history with Birmingham, a city he considers a “second home.” As the Graham Colton Band, his release Drive saw heavy rotation on earlier incarnations of what evolved into Birmingham Mountain Radio, like 107.7 The X and Live 100.5. Now, he’s found a new sound with The Lonely Ones, with some help from fellow Oklahoman and Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne.
Colton brings his new band to the WorkPlay Theatre on Sunday, March 2 in support of the January release, and talked over the phone about his evolving music, his friendship with Coyne and his favorite American bands.
Weld: It’s been a while since you’ve been to town, right?
Graham Colton: Yeah, I think the last time I was there was a little over a year ago. I did an acoustic show at WorkPlay. That was one of the last shows before I made kind of the creative shift and started work on the last record.
Weld: And I wanted to talk about that a lot, because the shift is apparent. What distinguishes the Graham Colton that released last month’s The Lonely Ones from the Graham Colton Band that released Drive?
GC: In a weird kind of way, it reminds me of that record a bunch. Even though it’s sonically different, the way I wrote those songs on Drive was very similar to the way I wrote the songs with Lonely Ones. It’s kind of — even though I consider myself a singer and songwriter, both albums were made kind of anti-singer/songwriter — in the traditional sense. Both records were made as a band, kind of in the room using the instrumentation in the room. My other records were pretty much driven by me and my acoustic guitar.
Weld: Do you still play material from Drive in the live set?
GC: The funny part is, ironically, this tour is predominantly a few songs off of Drive and mostly new stuff. There really isn’t a whole lot of in-between. I guess it was fitting that those songs feel kind of appropriate — the stuff off of Drive just fit better alongside this new stuff. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve got the energy of the band again or if, those songs, we kind of reinterpret them a little bit alongside the new stuff, but they’ve been a blast to play. Hopefully it holds up.
Weld: What’s the current lineup like? Does it resemble the old band or did you start completely over?
GC: I did start completely over, just in that they’re all Oklahoma guys. Most of the guys in the band are the guys from my own backyard that helped me make the record. It’s a similar lineup in that it’s five-piece, but it’s heavily reliant on keyboards and synthesizers this time around. Which was really fun, because that was the biggest writing tool that I used for this album. I didn’t write any of the songs on guitar. The guitars came afterwards.
Weld: How has recording changed for you since you left Universal and went out and did your own thing?
GC: I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some, oh, growing pains, when I was officially let go by Universal. I think there was a part of me, you could almost hear it a little bit, that maybe I was trying to continue to resurrect some of the success while on the label — saying that, “Well, this worked for me in the past, I need to do it again. But bigger.”
I think this record, especially the recording of the record was really the first time since, probably, Drive that I just felt creatively freed up, just really allowed myself to look totally forward and celebrate the fact that I was independent, when maybe some stuff in the past, I still felt a little chained to my previous work, good or bad.
Weld: It seems like it was natural, but I think it this is the first time you guys have worked together despite both being from Oklahoma City — why did it take so long to collaborate with Wayne Coyne and how did that collaboration happen?
GC: I think it was just life. My wife and his wife — unfortunately, now ex-wife — are very close, and I’ve known Wayne for, I guess, five years now. We saw each other in town. I was always a Lips fan, [but] I can’t say that I knew the entire catalog. I didn’t really grow up listening to them; they were never really a huge influence on my music.
But as I grew and started hanging out with Wayne — and not only Wayne but Steven Drozd, too, who is also in the band and has become a really close friend — I don’t know, man. I don’t know if it was turning 30 or having a daughter or moving back home. Wayne is crazy in all the good ways, and we really started listening to music together and hanging out, and I used him as a big sounding board early on. I was fascinated with the way they made records and the way they wrote songs and how they sort of existed in the studio. It didn’t resemble anything I had ever done. It was so inspiring to watch. I tried a lot of those same moves.
Wayne loaned me a bunch of keyboards and I had Steven Drozd play on almost every song. It was a big creative shot in the arm.
Weld: Were Steven and Wayne an active part of recording The Lonely Ones?
GC: Steven much more in the actual recording of the record, but Wayne was absolutely early on the biggest sounding board. He was, for better or worse, such a great person to bounce stuff off of. This was the first record that I’ve really spent a lot of time visualizing what I wanted it to sound like. It’s a big thing that I’ve never really done in the past: “What’s the sound gonna be?”
As a songwriter, I was always worried about finding the songs first and then finding the sound later. Well, we did it backwards this time — we wanted to find the sound, and Wayne was a big proponent of that. He told me to drop the guitar. He was like, “Dude, you’re not gonna get there. You’re not going to make the record you want and grow if you don’t make yourself uncomfortable in the creative process.”
So there were many nights where we just listened to music until three in the morning. It sounds crazy, but it was a huge part of making the album.
Weld: I suppose you’re about 20 years younger than Wayne — what is their place in Oklahoma City lore? When you’re a kid, are you raised on that or is Oklahoma City bigger than that?
GC: The city is bigger than that, but I think that they are so community-oriented and involved in things that are larger than music, I think everybody knows who Wayne is, especially, and kind of how they are involved as Oklahoma City natives. That’s been cool because they could have moved away a long time ago, and they’ve chosen to remain and be active and supportive. So, yeah, I think it’s fair to say that they are heroes. For sure.
Weld: And you still live in the community, too, correct?
GC: Absolutely. I moved back a while ago. That was a big part — I never made a record in Oklahoma. I always felt like I had to leave. So this was the first time.
Weld: You’ve toured with a lot of really massive names — names like Dave Matthews Band and Kelly Clarkson and countless others. Which headliner throughout that time made the greatest effort to support your career?
GC: There’s two. Better Than Ezra was the biggest supporter early on. Kevin [Griffin, Better Than Ezra lead singer] and I have written a lot of songs together and we’ve become true, true friends. And Counting Crows, absolutely. Both of those bands — I would be nowhere without those bands.
Weld: You mentioned Better Than Ezra — when will hear from them again? It’s been a few years since “Paper Empire…”
GC: Soon! I’ve heard the record!
Weld: Oh, it’s done?
GC: Yeah! It’s really good, and I think you’ll be surprised. Similar to my record, they’ve taken a lot of chances and it’s really fun. Tony Hoffer produced the record — he’s produced the Kooks and Belle & Sebastian. They’re in another exciting time. I think you look at what bands like Train has been able to do, and Counting Crows are still going strong. I think a band like Better Than Ezra can do absolutely that. But I’m really thrilled that they are taking a little bit of a left turn creatively.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
GC: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. … I think, all time, this is tough, because you’re never going to get it right. I think I have to — hang on, this is very important that I get this right. … You gotta go — I think Pearl Jam is in there. And I have two more?
Weld: Two more.
GC: Are you gonna be mad at me if I say Fleetwood Mac?
Weld: It’s one of the debatable ones because it’s half and half, but I’m fine with that.
GC: I know. For me, I gotta go Fleetwood Mac. I’m gonna make so many people mad. Because I’m not a huge hard rock fan, so I’m not going to go down that road and be a poseur. You know, I’m gonna say, R.E.M.
Weld: That’s my all-time favorite band. Great choice.
Graham Colton will play WorkPlay on March 2. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., with the show set to begin at 8 p.m. Cumulus will open, and tickets are available for $12. For more information, call (205) 879-4773.