LA's greatest "could have been" band reunite with a knockout new release and live show to follow. We get the scoop from frontman Bill See.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda. 25 years ago Divine Weeks were one of those near miss bands. Compared to major-leaguers like U2, REM and Pearl Jam, their name was tossed around as one of those critically acclaimed “next big things;” but a few releases later, as is the way with so many press darlings, they went their separate ways before becoming a household name.
Fast forward to present day where the band surprise by delivering an intoxicating new album, “See Those Landing Lights,” reminding us why they were so rightly adored in the past. From the radiant opening tones of euphoric lead track “Here’s My Heart and Soul,” the LA-based quartet show they’ve spent their absence from the music biz finding out just how to take hold of listeners’ spirits and never let go. Thankfully, there are far worse fates than experiencing ascension at their collective hands. We chatted to frontman Bill See to hear more about the band’s triumphant return.
Rocker: So, get us up to speed. How long has it been since the last Divine Weeks album? Am I right in hearing track “Dreamers of the Day” off your new record about the band’s history?
Bill: The last Divine Weeks record came out in 1991, the same day as “Nevermind.” I remember a guy at our label was a good friend of Nirvana’s manager and he told him, “Yeah, we’re real excited about the new Divine Weeks record. I bet it’s going to do better than yours.” And the guys laughs and says, “Oh you have no idea what’s coming.” I always thought that was a very funny story. Anyway, what happened was, we were friends before we were a band, and we’re still friends now. But we wouldn’t have stayed friends had we kept the band alive past about 1992 or so. I guess you could say we chose the friendship. We were never really all that big, to be frank. We were just a really good live band that were never in the studio at the right time. And yes, “Dreamers of the Day” off the new record is kind of the “Ballad of Divine Weeks,” about heading into the hinterlands looking for converts in our old maroon Ford Econoline van. But the key line of that song is “…but I wouldn’t go back, not with the fire that’s in me now.”
Rocker: I know you wrote a book about your experiences touring with Divine Weeks in the ’90s. Did the process of writing about your experience help you in process that chapter of your time in music industry? I know you also did a few sort of reunion-ish shows with Raj for the book release parties. Did that plant the seed of reunion?
Bill: Yes, very much so. Writing “33 Days” and doing the book tour with Raj started the healing process and bringing Raj and I together to write again. In fact, you could say “See Those Landing Lights” is the musical sequel to “33 Days.”
Rocker: Having known you for a bit, I know that the reformation is not something you’ve taken lightly. So what made you decide to go for it?
Bill: The short answer is David Bowie died right before we went into the studio. Up to that point, we still weren’t entirely sure we were going to call this Divine Weeks. But to learn that after Bowie had been given a terminal diagnosis, he went into a creative frenzy so that he left as much work behind as possible was just a lovely and inspiring parting message: carpe diem, seize the day, don’t waste another second not painting your masterpiece. That and watching his video for “Lazarus” just stopped me dead in my tracks, and that’s what got us out of our own heads and gave us the kind of permission we needed to open up the door again.
But yeah, you’re right, I don’t take this lightly. I mean, it’s not that I summarily dismiss bands that reunite. Not at all. But I do question their motives, and I just think sometimes bands act like they’re doing the world a favor by simply showing up so that they can be adored. I’m sorry, that’s just not good enough. Personally, I think bands that come back owe a duty to their fans – and to themselves – to show they have something to prove. To play like their lives are on the line. And when that happens, that’s the greatest thing to witness. I was a huge Replacements fan but even I got sick to death of their self-sabotage. So, when they came back last year I was dubious, but I decided to go, and damned if they didn’t go out there and play like they wanted to make amends with old fans like me who always looked like fools dragging all the Doubting Thomases to their shows, promising transcendence only to see a complete dumpster fire. I was floored. Anyway, we do have something to prove. We always did and we still do. Our hearts are still on our sleeves, and we’re playing like our hair’s on fire.
Rocker: How long did the new album take to record and how was it done? How did recording and songwriting now compare to your experience when you were younger?
Bill: Very proud of the fact that we tracked the whole record in one day. Minimal overdubs, and then took our time mixing it. So about 100 hours of studio time, but the bare bones is just one really good day in the studio. I remember reading liner notes on a Rage Against the Machine record that said, “All sounds by guitars, bass, drums and vocals.” We took that as a challenge and stuck to it. No trips up our own arses, no glockenspiels, no loops or oboes. I mean, I’ve done all that, and I love records done like that, but for us, this was a very concerted effort to try and express as much as possible while playing as little as possible. And that was in line with the minimalism and no frills approach to the songwriting. Every Sunday morning, Raj and I would sit down face to face on his living room floor, and he would just play the first thing in his head, and I would just scat over it making sounds to fit the music – actual words to come later. Very organic approach and evolution to all the songs.
Rocker: You have hinted to me there is a story to the sequencing of the record, want to share?
Bill: We fully acknowledge we’re dating ourselves here, but yes, it’s sequenced like it’s vinyl with a nod to the art of sequencing found on classic old LPs. The rise and fall from an opening track to the way a record ebbs and flows until a concluding majestic final song. But not just musically but lyrically, there’s a running narrative if anyone wants to dive in and follow. It’s a snapshot of our lives in the here and now. Kind of about stripping away all the behaviors and faulty survival tools a lot of us tend to adopt that keeps us from becoming, or recapturing, our best selves. So, it’s a series of a-ha moments realizing you have to unlearn and let go of a litany of things like the need for a soul mate or a savior in a partner, the God narrative, living through your kid, letting go of nostalgia, stuff like that. Until you are left with only your core essence which is what that last recitation is at the end of “Big Sky” that closes the record.
Rocker: I found the track “Built My Life Around You” of interest because I interpret it as being about the transformative power of being a parent and unconditional love. Since our readership is at the age where many also experience this, so I am wondering if you could go deeper into the thoughts behind the song?
Bill: Yeah, I wrote the words on the plane ride back from dropping my daughter off to start college in New York. I mean, it’s all there in the song. “You reached up and took my hand, and you told me who I am.” It’s a humbling and transformative moment to be called “Daddy.” It’s a true story: “Well, you freed me, you redeemed me, so I could be the father that I never had.” The unique and redemptive powers of being a father. But then, not everyone accepts the challenge, do they? Anyway, the real point of the song is you find our most noble self doing this job called parent. But at some point, no matter how much it might hurt, you’ve got to let them go and make sure when they take that last glance back that they see you’re going to be OK so they can fly weightless and not dragged down by guilt.
Rocker: When I went back and listened your tracks from the 90s, including hits like “I Found Out” I connected to what I would call the ecstatic nature of Divine Weeks’ music. I remember a quote from Bono that always struck me, saying something to the effect of that the one thing people can’t forgive in rock music is faith / spirituality. It struck me as true, and also as peculiar because listening to rock music or going to a concert I feel can be a sort of mystical experience itself. I’m wondering if you yourself find a connection to the Divine through music / Divine Weeks?
Bill: Oh boy. Well, I’ve had a long complicated and stormy relationship with God which was actually at an all-time low before we started writing this record. All I can really say is there’s no other medium in my life where I feel connected and still deeply in touch with the spirits than when I’m making music, and particularly when I’m on stage. So, it must be said. I can’t be so arrogant to think I am solely responsible for something magical just appearing like when some of the songs came to Raj and I on this new record. “Big Sky” was like that. We were genuinely spooked by how fully formed it came to us. But then, this whole record is such a deep dive into the spiritual depths. The song “Blind Kind of Love” goes to the very outer nether regions questioning God’s existence only to be back to back with an outright gospel song in “Someday (By & By)”.
I just feel like there’s enough darkness in the world, and we just want to try and light up the darkness and share some joyful and triumph music. Like I said earlier, we are a live band. That is our wheelhouse and our domain. And this is the first record we’ve made that truly captures us at our best. So, everything has come together at the right time, and it’s going to be a celebration, a deep, intense, cathartic release. We believe in what we’re doing, but we’ve never said we’re better than anyone. We just subscribe to what Joe Strummer always said, “We’re not better. We try harder.” That’s always been our modus operandi.
Rocker: Your reunion show is this week. Tell me what fans can expect and how you’re feeling about it. Do you have any idea of what the future holds for you and the band?
Bill: It’s really hard for me to think past Saturday’s show right now. I mean, we are filming it so that will see the light of day at some point. Also, our bass player Steve Soto had a horrific accident right after we recorded the record, so he won’t be with us Saturday. I could see playing again so that he’s up there with us. Sitting here right now, it’s hard to believe that after Saturday that would be it, but we’ll see. On a personal basis, for me, knowing the last two projects I’ve done, my book and this Divine Weeks record have been the best things I’ve done – this late in the game – means a lot to me. And on one hand, that should tell me to keep going. Then again, what more could I ask? Everything is in its right place. What I do know is Raj and I will make music together forever because it’s meant to be. Just depends whether we share it with the world. As Raj and I keep saying, we’re playing with house money now. Nice huh?
Divine Weeks play Cafe Fais Do-Do in Los Angeles, Saturday, May 21st. Admission is FREE! Show info HERE