A Conversation with Bonfire Falls
We recently did an interview with one of our favorite up and coming bands Bonfire Falls. They are quickly becoming some of our favorite people too. There was so much content I will not delay you any longer than need be. However I would like to take a moment to say this conversation you are about to read has made an enormous impact on my life. It reached me at a personal level I was not anticipating, as their willingness to be vulnerable and honest created an environment where I believe lasting relationships were built and missions were reaffirmed. Set list: So tell us, how did all this get started?
Stephen Lyons: In 2005 I released my first solo album and was living in Philly, looking for a violinist and that’s when Erikka and I originally engaged and talked about working together… she was living in Philadelphia enrolled at Temple University. We’d see each other once in a blue moon. Then the next thing I know she was in the production of Once the Musical.
At this point I had decided to make another go of it and head back to New York. Within a month I went to one of the best open mic spots in New York City, it’s called The Inspired Word. I met Ryan McCurdy coming offstage after an incredible performance. It blew my mind. It was the first time he had ever played Coastal Town, and he is walking towards the back and I see his jacket. It says Once the Musical. So I’m like hey! I know somebody in that show, and he’s like really? Who? And I say Erikka Walsh. And he says I know her! And things started snowballing from there.
Set list: What with getting together, all three at the same time like?
Ryan McCurdy: My version is exactly like Stephens except I had already come up with the name bonfire falls. I knew it needed violin, serious vocals, and be multi-instrumental driven. I had already talked to Erikka about it and she was interested in being a part of whatever it may become. But when Stephen came into the picture it really clicked.
Erikka wasn’t immediately in the full-time performance group, but Stephen and I were constant. There were other members that had come and gone in the meantime. The only reason for that was, with all my talk about wanting violin involved, I hadn’t written any actual violent parts. When we cobbled together three songs originally that we really wanted strings for we had Erikka join us, and the moment that happened we were like okay that’s what we’ re after.
It took us about another year and a half to find the root of what that sound was, and that is what Lifetime represents.
Set list: The violin definitely brings another dimension to your music. Since you brought it up one, of the reasons we started following you is because of how intriguing your name is, where did Bonfire Falls come from?
Ryan McCurdy: I came up with the name from a childhood memory. I grew up in Atlanta Georgia in the 80s and they used to burn leaves there every year. I don’t think they’re able to do it any longer. I can remember mid-September, there was always a day where everyone’s leaves were burning in the yard. And when you were on your bike there was a different smell and the world felt different.
One of the older people in my community told me it was a bonfire fall, because to them fall started on that day. When I think of it I can hear an expressive violin line. So initially I thought I would call it bonfire fall but as my friend pointed out you have to make it plural so everyone wants to come back for more.
Erikka Walsh: As it turns out there was a point in time Yosemite National Park would build a bonfire and it would get pushed off Glacier Point into the valley, literally a fire fall. It had been until the 60s and they were probably like, we probably shouldn’t have this giant fire and push it off a very, very, large mountain, doesn’t seem like a great idea anymore.
Set list: That was in Yosemite?
Erikka Walsh: Yeah, if you pull up Yosemite fire fall you’ll get a little bit of information on it. Actually the back cover of our album on the hard copy is the only photo they have of the fire fall.
Set list: That is a really cool story, I’m looking forward to seeing that album cover. So hearing about the nostalgia behind the name of your band, are their similar experiences or feelings behind the other songs on this E.P?
Ryan McCurdy: Yeah, so titles are one of my favorite things in the world and I have five or ten at any given moment waiting to be attached to something, but until we released this EP I had never really felt like I had found the right home for a name.
Stephen and I have very similar styles but go different directions lyrically. You guys had wrote that our album sounded unified in your review, which is great because it’s half written by Stephen and half written by me. But what makes all five songs work is Erica’s contribution. We were never interested in having a big string section because when the violin is allowed to breathe, it can serve the purpose of a guitar or any other instrument. Often times it feels like its getting wasted in a lot of pop music in the string section being drowned out. Our major focus when recording the EP was to get that sound to push through.
Set list: When you said letting it breathe I think that’s a very apt description because a lot of times in these top 40 songs it does sound like its suffocating when they force string sections into their music.
Ryan McCurdy: What’s funny is in rehearsal my keyboard has a strings feature and when I play it, just to be obnoxious; they all sound like that processed pop that we’re used to hearing.
Set list: Funny but true I’m sure. Moving forward, when did you realize your talents, and what made you decide to pursue them?
Erikka Walsh: “Back in the day” (she says as an old lady) I was six years old and I told my mom I want to play the piano and that’s the way it’s going to be. She said fuck you, you’re going to be a lawyer. She didn’t actually say fuck you; she said go back to your math homework, no music. So I pushed her for a year and I figured it out on my own enough, to the point where she had to get me lessons. And that was my life until high school when I got into theater. I applied to colleges with theater and music and I got into both. I ended up quitting music for the better part of 5 to 6 years. I came back because of this band called Groove Lily that made a musical. But this musical was for the band. One of the parts required acting and playing the violin. Finding someone capable of that was difficult in the Boston area and it led to me being cast in a professional show. In the months following that I was cast Once the Musical.
Stephen: For me there was a very specific moment when I knew I wanted to sing. It came in 1986. I remember very vividly I was listening to the radio it was Casey Kasem's top 100. Through the speakers of my double deck cassette boom box came a writhing hundred and twenty-five beat per minute drum beat. Then this unbelievable singer by the name of Morten Harket, singing Take on Me and it literally change my life. I know that sounds little crazy but when I heard his voice there was instantaneous recognition of oh my God how does a man do that? I had never heard a man sing that high, and thought, I want to do that. Through that band, Aha, which is one of the most underrated bands of all time, I knew I wanted to become a singer.
They are an exceptional band but what I fell in love with was their sense of melody. They weren’t just a traditional rock band, they had elements of classical singing with a pop mindset. So that really pulled me into their work. In high school I started learning guitar, then in college I went to school for theater but long story short I went back to my first love which was music and song writing. For me Bonfire Falls is the culmination of finding that voice as a writer and as a singer and I’ve found kindred spirits in that same vein.
Ryan McCurdy: That’s a good one isn’t it?
Set list: Definitely good stuff, ironically when we first came across your path, your cover of Take on Me was one of the first things we listen to. We were hooked from that point forward.
Ryan McCurdy: I have a quick addendum. My grandfather was a very gifted jazz organist with no training. Never performed, barely ever performed in front of the family, but I think he realized the music gene skipped a generation. So he took me under his wing.
When he died, I had shut that door in my life for a while. When a person who communicates that love and joy to you goes, then so too, does the thing that they brought.
It wasn’t until college that I realized the ability to play the piano could help a very tall, very skinny, nerd boy get dates. So that’s literally why I started again. Then somewhere between 22 and 25 I started taking it more seriously. I started picking up about an instrument a year since then.
Erikka Walsh: Ryan plays the sitar… Just so you know.
Ryan McCurdy: Yes I can (laughs). I have the greatest respect for classic European musicians because some of the eastern Indian stuff and even some of the French instruments from less than 150 years ago are so hard to play, just even physically. It’s a very American thing to just have perfected the guitar, everyone has a party trick. Then you look at these 12 string behemoths from India and think wow that takes so much focus.
Set list: Does the relationship you had with your grandfather and the music you played together show up in any of your work today?
Ryan McCurdy: Oh absolutely and I’d say when I’m really clicked in, songwriting he’s walking me through it. What’s amazing is we had such a short amount of time together and he did something that I don’t think any other professional teacher would do. And that is as a 10-year-old he started me on the circle of fifths. He taught me how theory works at a ground level. I was very resistant of course, but he was very good at conveying the excitement of it opposed to the minutia. Coastal town, the song I played when Stephen and I met, is a complete circle; of the circle of fifths. I wrote that for him. He’s everywhere in my music… When it’s working…
When my dad, who’s dad it was, listened to lifetime for the first time, he said “pop would’ve been proud of me”
Erikka Walsh: Ryan you’re going to make me cry.
Set list: Yeah, we’re going to need to get some tissues in here. Diving in specifically what was the motivation or the experience for writing Alaska?
Ryan McCurdy: Alaska actually predated bonfire falls. There is the most dashboard confessional, EMO version of it out there ha-ha. But the story behind it is I entered into a relationship with someone I thought was not in another relationship. She had a particular obsession with eating at a specific diner in upper Manhattan. We would always sit at this one table in the very back, and she called it Alaska. She was a fan of theater, and in one of her favorites two people stayed in a cabin in Alaska. It was at the table that she had told me she hadn’t left her boyfriend and that she was never going to love me, because she still loved him. When she got up and walked away, I remember thinking it was exactly 30 steps to the door. When she walked through it, that was the last time I had seen her.
Alaska to me is about being mislead in a love environment.
Set list: That is fascinating and while I’m sorry for your heart break, selfishly I’d like to send your ex girlfriend a thank you note considering she is responsible for this incredible song.
Ryan McCurdy: I think she’s married now.
Set list: Well when you send us that raw uncut version of the song just go ahead and attach her address so we can send her a care package or something compliments of Set list.
Ryan McCurdy: While you’re listening just imagine me playing my piano, alone in my empty apartment.
Set list: This is the true or false segment, were you wearing eye makeup during this phase?
Ryan McCurdy: Oh there was eye makeup.
Set list: Moving on reluctantly, How would you classify your sound?
Erikka Walsh: I never really considered classifying what we do; in fact I have a really hard time explaining it to people. It’s kind of like U2 but I play violin sooooooo…
Set list: I’m glad you cleared that up. You can’t be classified; you’re your own unique thing.
Erikka Walsh: No, I mean like help me. Ryan, help me.
Set list: Ha-ha you’ve got it.
Ryan McCurdy: There were a couple things we wrote down, like rock, but looking at it, it didn’t feel right and we’re definitely not folk. So I think it was Stephen who first mentioned Indie, and that was exactly the right term. We were also self producing the album, which was hard but we wanted it to exist, and that felt like a very independent gesture to make.
Set list: Well said. So Stephen, compared to your past as a solo artist, how was making Lifetime with this group different?
Stephen Lyons: It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, truly. I spent so many years trying to do everything myself. I had formed a 5 piece band in the past with my good friend in Philly. But it became overwhelming, the sound became very big.
Really what I wanted was to strip it down, and when I moved to New York and got together with these guys, I could tell right away from the atmosphere in the room when we would create together and explore songs together; that I didn’t have to work as hard. That’s a big shift going from a solo artist into a band.
One of the great examples of that is every time we would sing Victoria it became so much of a bigger song than it ever used to be. That’s because of what Ryan and Erikka are able to do. It’s an incredible feeling. A beautiful thing that happens when we create, is that one person may have an idea, and when you don’t rush to judgment and you allow the moment to breathe, letting the ideas germinate, there becomes a natural evolution out of that process. That’s one of the things I love about being in this band.
Ryan McCurdy: Piggybacking off of what Stephen said, a lot of that you haven’t been able to experience yet because Lifetime was about the band coming together. Now that we are actually in the woodshop making everything new there will be a lot of things you haven’t heard on this album that we look forward to sharing with you in the future. A lot more Erikka and a lot of really fun stuff… I dare to say theatrical…
Erikka Walsh: Oh it’s theatrical.
Set list: Now that we are looking forward to.
Ryan McCurdy: Yeah, and really Stephen being so game to sing the guts out of Lifetime, his confidence and resilience behind the microphone was really a gift to me. It also gave me the confidence to not only sing my own material but the things we made together. Him being the lead vocals of Lifetime was an enormous gift. I’m looking forward to what it sounds like when three voices are truly sharing time and not fighting over supremacy.
With Stephen and I having this same confident curiosity and optimism about the world no matter how crushing the reality of the situation is, Erikka can take that optimism and help us refine it into actual story telling.
Set list: It sounds like there is a lot of chemistry between the 3 of you, is that something that came naturally or did you have to work to find that kind of synergy?
Erikka Walsh: That was pretty natural I would say. Half of the reason I wasn’t fully involved right away was because I was working on Once, and it had a pretty restricting schedule. So I told them just write me out something and I’ll get it done for you, it won’t be a problem. What was cool was even though we had never worked together in a creative setting before, right away, and correct me if I’m wrong Ryan, but we had a pretty good communication base. Nothing was ever to confusing, we were able to add or take away things and just work through it to create.
Ryan McCurdy: Right, and there were other members early on, and of the own will, moved in a different direction. And that’s reflective of the three people that remain. We are the three people who communicate the best. It’s not random or any coincidence.
Set list: Is there anything in the works right now?
Erikka Walsh: OH YEAHHH
Ryan McCurdy: We have enough material to play all originals in our sets right now, which is very nice. But we have one song in the hopper that I would say is completely crafted just by the three of us. It’s called Kid Gloves; it’s got Erikka on lead vocals with Stephen and me backing her up, and its fire. It is a great song and I haven’t talked to the guys about this yet… but I’m so excited about this, I think I want to release it as a single.
Erikka: Oh my God… I did not know that.
Set list: Surprise! There it is.
Ryan McCurdy: Yeah I think in-between now and the next album. But we definitely have enough to do an L.P, the next question becomes when the right person will come along to help us put out ten songs because doing five about broke us. Hopefully our constant live presence and P.C helps us turn that corner.
Set list: Is there any story behind your potentially new single, Kid Gloves?
Ryan McCurdy: Well it was really all three of us, Stephen wrote the bridge, and Erikka took a vague idea I had and really refined the hell out of it. The meaning was very clear but the execution was vague. Basically I threw my hands up one day when I was walking through New York City and thought if half of the people I can see in my field of vision right now, wanted things to be just a little bit better and they made some actual meaningful changes, that’s enough to start the next revolutions.
I am so amazed at the power of people to protest peacefully. We live in an era where violent protest is always a possibility and when human beings are able to say I want to change things but I don’t want to hurt anyone to change my own life, that is huge to me. So the song is about trying to make ourselves better before we try to fix everyone else.
Set list: We couldn’t agree more, and that leads me to the last question I’d like to ask you. As you know, having a message in your work, opposed to just being sound is important to us, so what I’d like to know is, why is what you’re doing important?
Stephen Lyons: I love that question. Exactly what you guys are doing at Set list is facilitating and building community, and that is an underappreciated concept in this country. The arts, music, dance, and theatre, these are the pillars of society. They strengthen our belief systems and create communities.
The beautiful writing that you guys have, I really enjoy following. I read your story about Memphis, which is one of the most important music cities in the world and it has created a really special community. It was a well spring of American music, where gospel and R&B and blues met. All of these complicated cultural elements met in the language of music. And that’s what you guys are doing and I’m so grateful for your review and the work you’re doing, because we are at a unique period in our history. A time when we are putting a focus on the arts. Creating engaged and intelligent conversation, because you’re sharing it from the heart. That’s the transformative power of music.
There is so much anger and frustration in this country, and we understand it, but we have to start looking to each other, beyond the lenses of social media. We need to look through the lens of value systems. When you value somebody else, and the lens in which they look through, you are in a sense honoring their dignity. That’s what will help facilitate a more peaceful society but music and culture are instrumental in that.
Ryan McCurdy: My answer is shorter, Stephens kicked ass.
Well, my life’s ambition is to tell stories and I’m lucky to have found two people that value it at as high a level as I do. I feel like music as an art form deserves to have stories told within it and we are in a moment, in the cultural conversation in America where stories have been distilled to sound bites. I refuse to write sound bites. If we are incredibly honest with our desire to tell meaningful stories it will give us the platform we are looking for. To do anything other than that, in search of fame would be regressive. That’s why when creating a song the words that’s too long, that’s too weird, that’s too ambitious, never come up. We never reality check our storytelling and that’s why what we’re doing is important.
Erikka Walsh: What can I add to that? I mean come on. I’m just going to play violin over here… But honestly whenever I think about why I do what I do, I’m reminded of the people who say theater is dying. They say nobody goes to the theater; nobody goes to live shows anymore. I think they’ve been saying that since the Greek civilization. It’s been a dying art form from the day it was born and it remains today, so obviously we need it for a reason.
That’s my two cents damn it.
Visit their site and download Lifetime here.