Tombstones In Their Eyes: adrift in a broken world

Shipwreck in Ireland

Record: Maybe Someday (2020)

Ever in a mind you can take it all, I said
You can gamble and you know you’ll fall, I said
It’s all you get and you never know, I said
I’m gonna take you on my soul

from the song “I Believe,” onMaybe SomedaySomewhere Cold Records (2020)
Tombstones In Their Eyes band photo
Tombstones In Their Eyes (photo by Cathryn Farnsworth, used by permission)

If Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a band (in 1834), and if he had an electric guitar (in 1834), he’d probably sound a lot like the Los Angeles-based Tombstones In Their Eyes. You think I’ve gone too far? Play any track from the Tombstones current record, “Maybe Someday” (Somewherecold Records, 2020), play it loud, then read even part of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Or, try “Kubla Khan” (if you need something more auditory and more dreamlike).

It’s all there: the mystery of the human heart, the pulse and the timeless ache, and in the case of the Tombstones, set against the weight of a giant wall of sound. Every era has its poets and forms, in the moment and for the ages. Some play Gretsch guitars.

Crossing the sea of sound that mixes their lyrical longing in language and soaring guitars, with a heavy post-punk revival & psychedelic emotional drive, Tombstones In Their Eyes rises from the same lineage as bands such as The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Editors, And Also the Trees, and Interpol. Finding Tombstones is like discovering a lost, overlooked treasure. The past five years has seen this band develop (through the singular vision, songwriting, and direction of John Treanor) while producing two full-length LPs, three EPs, and a handful of standout demos and SoundCloud singles into a journeyman studio band of allies, songwriters, and live performers. What they’ve created is timeless.

Someday Maybe LP artwork

But… time stopped with the COVID-19 pandemic. Tombstones In Their Eyes, having just released their new record in January, assembled themselves into a full touring band, started rehearsals, and braced themselves for launch. Then, the band had to hit the pause button. Los Angeles County hovers around 10th on the list of counties in the U.S. hit hardest by the pandemic. Treanor, of course, for the safety of his band and fans, shut down his tour.

However, Treanor’s songwriting continues toward the next full-length LP. He’s also back in the studio remastering the previously released EPs, and the one official single, from the Tombstones back catalog, into a new double record (initially as digital and CD, but looking to vinyl as well) for release later this summer (also on Somewherecold Records). (The Palace will be writing more about these remarkable records and songs.)

For now, we took the opportunity to grab a quick interview with Treanor, and talk about, well, everything: history, crisis, music, and the endless spirit-replenishing qualities of songwriting (alone or with others), and sharing music in our broken world. Music is always better when it’s shared. These are days that come once a century, culturally adrift as we are, when to share anything good with another human being is a tremendous victory for the soul. We have to grab what we can — when we can.

Tombstones In Their Eyes playing live 2020
Tombstones In Their Eyes (photo by Deb Frazin, used by permission)

The interview

There’s no denying that this is a moment of crisis in America. I feel like we should start there. America has a rich tradition of art in times of crisis, especially music, going back to the Civil War, the Abolitionist Movement, to Women’s Suffrage, the Labor Movement, World War I, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and so on. Do you think creating art helps you cope with the anxiety of these times?

John Treanor:
Creating art, making music, writing songs, for me, it’s not just an escape — I don’t want to say escape — but it helps me tamp down the anxiety and depression. It’s one of the joys I have in my life, you know. And in this time period, especially the last four years — I stopped watching TV news four years ago, prior to the election, because I found it was unhealthy for me.

And for the three years following the election, with this crazy psychopath in charge of our country, it’s been pretty traumatic — all leading up to a pandemic! So not only are we in the middle of a pandemic, now we have protests and violent crackdowns on peaceful protestors. I do read the news online, certain news sources that I trust, so I see a lot of stuff.

It’s uplifting in some ways because people are making a change. I think in the Civil Rights Movement, a lot of good came out of it — there was a lot of rioting all over the country in the 1960s — but a lot of good change came out of that. That’s the silver lining.

The dark cloud is the political administration we have in charge of the country. Specifically, the… orange freak — I don’t even want to say his name. We have a person who doesn’t seem to have any empathy, any compassion, really any human feelings so far that I’ve seen — besides malice and greed. He’s like an angry child.

So that’s the part that’s hard for me to deal with — to watch it and to read about it. So, my band, and my music, is not political. It’s more introspective. I prefer — in fact, for a long time, and this might be bad — I’m not an activist, I’m not out there protesting. But I do what I can to support the movements that are going on today.

One thing that’s been important to me for a long time is animal rights. We have a lot of animals — I have four dogs and four cats. I try to support animal rights organizations and things like that. That’s what I’ve chosen to focus on. But right now, it’s hard not to focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s what’s going on right now. I’m really proud that our country is standing up to this wannabe dictator.

So, like I said, for a fairly non-political person, which hopefully isn’t a cop-out, I think change is going to come out of this. And I’m really proud of the people who are out in the streets right now. I do what I can to donate time and money to these organizations, to help people get out of jail, things like that.

What I do in my day job is I’m an IT consultant and a lot of my clients are left-leaning law firms. One in particular is a civil-rights law firm. I’m sure they’ll be helping a lot of people. And I’ll do what I can to assist them with what they need to do.

Sinking ship in stormy sea

Everyone has to choose what he or she can do in the storm. We can’t all be activists. When I was preparing to speak with you, I was thinking about the Freedom Riders in 1961. They took music with them to help them stay mentally prepared, to stay focused on what they were doing, which was very dangerous: challenging segregation in Southern states that were defying federal law. Does music, and do musicians, have a role to play in these bigger conflicts today?

JT:
I think music definitely has a place in these times. There are some really great protest songs already written that are being brought up again. “Fuck tha Police” [by N.W.A.] is one of them. And I know that other people are probably writing more songs now to point out the struggle. Or to assist in the struggle. Yeah, I think music can definitely be a part of this.

GP:
I was remembering Rage Against the Machine sometimes would hang the American flag upside down over one of their amps on stage as a protest. There are times when bands can connect in the moment with their fans for greater meaning, although we don’t have the live shows right now.

JT:
Yeah, and there’s Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In the Name” protest song with the line “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” That’s apropos for the moment. Yeah, it’s a crazy point in history. There are two distinct sides — you can have a bunch of guys with assault rifles storm a city building and have nothing happen to them — then you can have peaceful protestors in the street who are getting clubbed and Maced and teargassed. It’s just nuts.

GP:
There’s almost the perfect metaphor for our times running throughout the album art on almost all of your records, that being the image of a lonely ship, sometimes being tossed in dark and threatening seas. Mariners battling overwhelming, raging elements and, perhaps, their own demons — not that far away from our stormy days now.

JT:
That came about a long time ago. Originally, when I first started posting demos to SoundCloud, I would use images I found powerful. Then I stumbled across the ship in the stormy sea thing, and I fell in love with it because a lot of the early stuff was written during a period when I was going through a lot of mental-health issues — depression, anxiety, pretty bad times. And that’s how life felt, you know. Like a ship in a stormy sea.

And really, if I go back further, even back to when I was a teenager, I’ve always felt that life is hard. So, it still holds true, for me. I found it to be a theme that does fit our music because our music is written from that kind of perspective. It’s not happy music, in general.

John Treanor of Tombstones In Their Eyes band
John Treanor (photo by Deb Frazin, used by permission)

I came to your music by chance, by searching for cool new music late at night. I know very little about your history as a band, and you as a songwriter. Clearly, you’re all journeyman players with a mature sound and style. Can you tell me a little bit about your passage into music? And your band?

JT:
It goes back — I’m a little older. I’ve been around the music scene since I was a 15-year-old punk rocker. That’s really when my musical journey started. It started before that when my dad took me to see The Rolling Stones in 1975 at age 10. Maybe even before that because my dad was a band manager for a period of time. He managed groups like The Byrds and The Monkees, and Hugh Masakela. So, he was always into music. He really liked Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, stuff like that. So, I started off with that kind of influence. Then I got into things on my own.

Eventually, punk rock really opened the door to a lot of different kinds of music, because at that time punk rock wasn’t stratified into things like hardcore. It was everything from The Cramps, The Gun Club, even The Blasters were playing with punk bands. And it just went on from there.

You know, the 1980s were considered a bad time in music by many people, but there were a lot of great bands in the underground. So I went on to tour with one of these bands, we did a bunch of tours, and I got some rock & roll road experience out of that.

Then I started playing my own stuff shortly after. I was in a bunch of bands — the Sawdust Caesars, we released one single with In The Red Records in the 1990s — then Spiral Arms, Satellyte, The Boxing Lesson, and Violet Hex. I wrote songs, but they weren’t really mature. When I look back now, I don’t like them as much. But I played in bands consistently up until — I’m going to say until 2005 — that’s when I got tired of it. I took a break for about five years.

So, this is where Tombstones starts. I had a friend who I’ve known since I was about 12 years old, who I hadn’t been in contact with since I was 18. We had both gone on our own Rock & Roll, drug, booze — whatever — journeys, and came out on the other side. His sister reintroduced us. He lives in New York. I live in Los Angeles. And we decided we were going to write some songs together.

At the time, we were using GarageBand. It was great. The first couple of songs weren’t so great, but I would open up GarageBand, put in a drum track, just a metronome-type thing, and write a song. The next morning, I would wake up and he would have put real drums on it, and maybe something else — so we started doing it that way, through Dropbox and GarageBand.

Eventually, we got to the point where there were so many demos that I decided we needed to record them in a real studio. So, I got a couple of friends, Josh Drew and Sam Sherwood — Sam was on drums and Josh was on bass — and we went into a studio and we recorded “Sleep Forever.”

The studio we went into was a local studio. We didn’t mix it there because it was taking the engineer too long to get me the mixes, so we decided to find another place. This is where we found our nirvana. Someone mentioned this guy, Paul Roessler, and they said he had a studio [Kitten Robot Studios], so we took this stuff over to him. At this point, he’s really a member of our band, besides being our producer. I mean, he’s become an element I don’t want to live without.

So that was the “Sleep Forever” record,” which I’m not as proud of as I am of all the following releases because we didn’t know what we were doing yet, and we hadn’t defined our sound. So, like, half of it is stuff that fits in with our new stuff, and half of if — should, maybe — belong to a different band — good rock songs but not really Tombstones songs.

We kept working with Paul Roessler, and the next release is called “Bad Clouds.” By that time Sam [Sherwood] had left and I hired a drummer, a Berklee graduate, Stephen Striegel. I hired him off of Craigslist. And we did the record with just him, me, and Josh [Drew] on bass. And it came out great! It’s just an EP, and that started a string of EPs, and the “Shutting Down” single. Then, we got another bass player, Mike Mason, and Josh moved to guitar, all so we could play live shows as a four-piece band. During this time, Stephen said he loved the music and asked to join the band rather than continue as a hired gun. He was gladly brought into the fold as a full member.

We continued to work with Paul [Roessler], we continued to refine the sound, and with every album cover I would seek out a different great psychedelic artist to do the artwork. My only caveat was that it had to have a ship in a storm on the cover. They’re not all totally in storms, but they had to have a ship. That approach goes on to this day. Luckily, no one else has stolen it yet.

So then — we just released “Maybe Someday,” with the same group. But things are changing a little now. Mike Mason is moving out of town and is sort of out of the picture. And Josh is maybe going off to do his own thing. So, with the new record we’re working on right now it’s mainly myself, our drummer, Stephen Striegel, our producer, Paul Roessler, and my friend, James Cooper, in New York. That’s all we need.

The corona virus has made it so we can’t play live, so I don’t need all these people right now. I don’t need to worry about that. So, it’s a good time to sort of shrink up and make this new record. We’re already four songs in and it’s going well.

Tombstones In Their Eyes (photo by Cathryn Farnsworth, used by permission)

When I read comments from others about your band, they describe your work on a wide spectrum, everything from a kind of “stoner rock” to “shoegaze.” I find myself thinking more along the lines of bands like And Also the Trees, the Editors, even Interpol, more of a kind of post-punk space, with soaring romantic guitar riffs and deeply personal, introspective lyrics. At the risk of offending you, can you share with me some of your inspirations, other bands who inspire you?

JT:
I would say, one of the biggest has been The Brian Jonestown Massacre. I could never be the kind of musical dictator that Anton Newcombe is. But my dream is to have his kind of band. Like, where I have three guitars, a keyboard player, bass player, and a drummer. That would be the dream for the live thing because we do a lot of layering, and it would be really wonderful to get that in a live show. Yeah, that’s one band. Other bands that meant a lot to me through the years would be the Butthole Surfers, Pussy Galore, and Spacemen 3, you know.

So yeah, we get lumped into certain genres a little bit, like shoegaze and psych rock, but we’re not wearing Beatle boots or dressing like it’s 1966. I appreciate bands that have the time and energy to make that happen, but I’ve never been much of a fashion plate. I don’t mind something like “psych-gaze,” or something like that. A mixture of the two because we do have some of those qualities.

Ultimately, I see it as music that’s bigger than that. Because it’s our sound. I’m not ripping off anybody. Look, I’ve got to backtrack on that. There’s no way any musician can say that, I guess, because we’re all the sum of our musical backgrounds. We heard things and it comes out, you know. I just wrote a song, to me, that’s very Velvet Underground. It is what it is.

So, I’d have to say The Brian Jonestown Massacre is one of the bigger bands that I’d put down as an influence. And The Dandy Warhols were a big band for me in the beginning. I listened to their first couple or records a lot. And I’m a big fan of the Screaming Trees. There’s a lot that goes into the melting pot.

GP:
You’re now on a new cool record label, Somewherecold Records. Will this be your new home for your next record? And you’re now distributed by The Business, here in Anacortes! Do you feel like you’ve found a home?

JT:
Yeah, I do. Jason Lamoreaux is really easy to work with. It was weird for me, in the beginning, because I was so used to self-releasing and having complete control over everything. So, it was strange to not have that control entirely. But to feel like someone else is on your side, it’s a good feeling! So yeah, the next release will be on Somewhere Cold.

I told Jason in the beginning, let’s raise each other up. I thought maybe we could help the label, raise its visibility, and they could help us raise our visibility. The purpose for me is not money. The purpose for me — of doing this — is sort of for self-therapy, and to have people out there, strangers, connect with the music.

GP:
You’re working on a new record now. You mentioned you have four new songs already. Can you tell me more about that project, and how things are going?

JT:
Yeah, we did four songs very quickly. I think it’s going to be a shorter record. We’ll probably do four more songs so it can sit on vinyl. So, it will be eight or nine songs, total. I can see that happening by September, maybe.

And also, before that, we’re going to release something else. What we’re doing is a compilation of all of our EPs and the single, and about four or five songs from the first record, that do fit in with our aesthetic now. We’re also going to remix, and even add stuff to those songs. Like I said, we didn’t know what we were doing in the beginning. Now we have a real system down. We know what the Tombstones thing is.

We’ll take those songs I wasn’t happy with and revamp them. That will be one side of the record — it will be a double record. Hopefully, that’s going to come out in a month or two. A lot of that material didn’t get much attention because people don’t pay attention to EPs and singles, which is weird in this digital world we live in. But they just don’t get the same kind of attention. And I feel like our catalog is really strong. I want people to hear it.

I’m excited about it because, like I said, the songs we’re choosing are, I think, great songs. So now I get to go back into the studio and see what we can add to give those older songs a little bit more power.

Tombstones In Their Eyes band photo
Tombstones In Their Eyes (photo by Cathryn Farnsworth, used by permission)

photo credits (where not otherwise credited)

“ruined ship” / by Peter Krocka on Shutterstock
“gas station” (footer) / by Kaytoo on Shutterstock

Old gas station.