Q&A with Happy Abandon

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Jake Waits (percussionist), Justin Ellis (bassist) and Peter Vance (vocalist/guitarist). Photo courtesy of Shannon Kelly Photography.

Jake Waits, Justin Ellis and Peter Vance are no strangers to the Chapel Hill area. As UNC graduates, this eclectic trio produces soothing vocals, emotional lyrics and stellar shows that are suitable for all music enthusiasts. Described as Orchestral Indie Rock, Happy Abandon incorporates the backgrounds of three differing musicians to combine into one harmonious group. Inspired by artists such as Bon Iver, Jeff Buckley and Andrew Bird, Happy Abandon’s uniqueness stems from their theatrical backgrounds combined with their string and vocal arrangements. The trio met in college, but played in separate bands when they were students. About two years ago, after their old bands called it quits, Happy Abandon was born. In a recent interview, we were able to find out a little bit more about the band, their aspirations and their new album, “Facepaint.”

Happy Abandon will be headlining a show at The Pinhook in Durham, NC on Friday, November, 17. For more information on the band and to purchase tickets, visit happyabandonmusic.com.

What does Happy Abandon mean and where did it come from?

Jake: Happy Abandon is a state of being. It is pure and in-the-moment.

Peter: A friend of mine who knew I was struggling with the band name read me a sentence from the book, 1Q84. It said something along the lines of “the dog looked at his owner in a state of happy abandon.” I thought it was a very calming image, and an idea that could be interpreted in multiple equally fascinating ways –  after months of possible names, Jake and I finally settled on Happy Abandon.

How has your music evolved since you first began playing together?

Justin: When the band first started we were definitely more of a “rock” band, but we spent the latter part of our career refining and embellishing the daresay “slower” songs, and really focusing on adding harmonies, arranging string parts and exaggerating the dynamics and drama of our music.

Peter: I’ve been writing songs for as long as I can remember. Very little has changed when I first started. When Jake and I first began hashing out these songs, I really tried escaping my comfort zone and embracing distortion, noise, pushing myself to see what I can accomplish vocally, etc. With that in mind, Happy Abandon from the beginning was an evolution from the types of sounds I was previously inclined to produce. I put away the emotional singer-songwriter solo folk stuff, and started to embrace the loud emotions, the anger and passion, and push myself musically like we all push ourselves emotionally.

Who are your musical icons/influencers?

Jake: Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Mars Volta, Sigur Ros/Jonsi, Bon Iver and Radical Face.

Justin: The Who, Alt-J, Radiohead, Queen and Jeff Buckley.

Peter: Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird and Conor Oberst.

What has been your biggest challenge as a band?

Jake: If we’re being candid, it’s not having a Bojangles to get a Cajun filet biscuit from.

Justin: A big challenge for us on the road is pacing ourselves in terms of how much we try to cram in every day. Playing in crazy places like London, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, or Seattle, can be very tempting to try and see all the sights and play a show, but that can be a recipe for exhaustion.

Peter: I admire Jake and Justin for their ability to travel with me. I feel like I can be an emotional mess, but I suppose that comes with the territory.

What advice do you have for people who want to form their own bands?

Justin: For me, it’s a twofold philosophy of just doing it – writing songs, booking shows, renting a van, – and also understanding that who you are in a band with is more important than the kind of music you play. For a band to really work, you have to play with people you connect and interact with. We all come from very different musical backgrounds and we share few “favorite” bands, but I think that’s what makes us unique.

Peter: Be kind, be open, push yourself constantly, but don’t discourage yourself.

What inspires you the most?

Justin: When we tour, we’ve been lucky to meet people who want to help us out whether that be by giving us a show, a meal or a place to sleep for the night. My faith in humanity is restored every time a small act of kindness comes our way, and I do all I can to spread that kindness to other bands when they come through our neck of the woods.  It’s just a big worldwide community of artists supporting each other – and that’s what inspires me more than pretty much anything.

Peter: The internal conflicts that are unique, but relatable.

What’s something you wish more people knew about you?

Justin: I think something that is neat about the three of us and our recording partner, Alex, is that we all studied theater at one point – I think it explains many aspects of the band’s sound and approach to creating. We love dynamics, harmonies and making our stage shows more theatrical with props, lights, etc. We also eat A LOT of pho, poutine and Taco Bell on tour.

Last but certainly not least, tell us about your new album, Facepaint.

Peter: I’ve never been more proud of anything. The songs come from a very sincere place. And though I did not originally consider how the songs necessarily related to each other, the more I played them, the more I realized how connected and significant they are to each other. They were written over a significant amount of time, but throughout that time I was struggling a lot with loss, and the different ways loss manifests itself. I am proud of the songs individually, but what they are capable of accomplishing together as an album is beyond what I expected.

Justin: In almost every other band I’ve been in, it’s always been about releasing your first album as soon as possible and then playing it live everywhere. What I love about “Facepaint” is that we waited to make sure the songs were exactly how we wanted them to be. In many ways it feels like a time capsule of everything we’ve done over the last two years. I remember where we played each song on that record live for the first time, I remember learning them, the tours that inspired and shaped the songs and all the people we’ve met along the way.

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Lindsay McConnell

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