AMERICA: Harmony Rock At Its Purest

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Through the evocative mind-movie, “A Horse With No Name,” to the lush Beatles-esque appeal of “Sister Golden Hair,” America have embroidered their own impressionistic spin on the music landscape for over four decades. Friends since high school, founding members Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek joined musical forces in 1970 and America was born.Through the evocative mind-movie, “A Horse With No Name,” to the lush Beatles-esque appeal of “Sister Golden Hair,” America have embroidered their own impressionistic spin on the music landscape for over four decades. Friends since high school, founding members Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek joined musical forces in 1970 and America was born.

The band would go on to enjoy tremendous chart success throughout the ‘70s with a string of immaculately crafted hits-“Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “I Need You,” “Lonely People,” “Sandman ” and “Sister Golden Hair,” to name but a few-that seamlessly fused pop, folk, rock and country elements into heir own delicious slice of Americana. Their songs embody all the great elements of songwriting: arresting and memorable melodies, impressionistic and thought provoking lyrical themes, impassioned lead vocals and those trademark soaring harmonies. Spinning such seminal America releases as America, Homecoming, Holiday, Hearts and Hideaway, one continues to marvel at the flawless craftsmanship behind their most beloved hits and unheralded but equally vital key album cuts.

In 2006, America’s legacy grows. Their trademark sound remains timeless and continues to be celebrated by fans around the globe. “I think that the ingredients of the America sound are the basic fundamentals that translate internationally,” explains Beckley. “The Italians are huge fans of dance music, but they also love a ballad. They’re romantic at heart. It’s the same in the Far East. A lot of times in these countries, we see people singing along, and they don’t really know what the words mean. Music is truly the international language.”

“We’ve grown up in a world of show biz, seen styles change, seen technology change,” Bunnell muses. “But basically Gerry and I have stayed very much the same. We still have those standards in songwriting that we were hoping to establish. We’ve lived pretty full lives and managed to hold on to some sanity, although the world seems crazier every day.”

Here & Now, their first new studio album in many years, celebrates America past and present. The new CD retains all the quintessential touchstones of America’s sound yet is burnished with a winning modern sensibility, thanks to the intervention of producers (and dyed in the wool America fans) Adam Schelsinger of Fountains Of Wayne fame and former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha. As the album title attests, Here & Now does just that, balancing strong new compositions penned by Beckley and Bunnell alongside material by Schlesinger, My Morning Jacket, Nada Surf and Maplewood. Recorded live at XM Studios, disc two is loaded with sparkling renditions of many of the group’s most enduring hits, all found on the band’s multi-platinum release, History.

Tell us why you chose Adam Schelsinger and James Iha to co-produce the new record.

Beckley: One of the main attractions was their initial love of the America sound. We have intentionally tried to keep that as the main focus. We’re not trying to emulate or go backwards but the initial ingredients have always remained common to us, which were an abundance of acoustic instruments sounds, a lot of vocal harmony and interesting melodies and lyrics in the forefront. There wasn’t any talk about wrapping this in something for the new millennium and bring you up to date. If anything, it was, “Let’s go back to those sounds of the first few albums.” Adam and I have a mutual admiration. We worked for a year and half, almost two years, going back and forth talking and sending songs back and forth getting his comments. That really was the genesis of this whole project. At one point, I said, “Where do you think we take this from here?” Adam said, “I think we ought to cut a couple of things and see how it goes.” We felt that if I was gonna come to New York to cut a couple of things that we should do one of mine and one of his. We picked “Work to Do” as a very strong example of a good Fountains Of Wayne type of song. It has very strong pop elements and a great lyric. We were trying to make that link with our two bands, and “Work to Do” is a good example of that.

Unlike most America records, which are self-contained in terms of songwriting, on the new CD you have provided your own interpretations of songs by Nada Surf and My Morning Jacket.

Beckley: This album wasn’t going to be a project where we picked a ton of outside material; we wanted it to really be mostly self penned stuff. But we felt that there was gonna be room for some carefully selected songs. “Always Love” was a very strong song. In Nada Surf’s version it was quite a bit heavy. I thought the song was strong enough on its own that it didn’t have to have the power chords. [We thought that] if we brought it back and substituted some of that with vocal harmonies and acoustic guitars, it would be equally as strong and probably a bit more signature America.  Bunnell: “Indian Summer” is by this young band called Maplewood. It’s a very apropos choice for a cover song in conjunction with our sound because it lends itself very much to our vocal harmonies, and the imagery in the lyric is very visual. It kind of has a “Ventura Highway” vibe. It’s always different for me to sing someone else’s song and interpret their lyrics. But this song was similar to one that I’d write. It was very descriptive of an Indian summer. I added two more lines to the third verse, “reflections on the sea” and “fireflies on the lawn.”
Beckley: I’ve been a fan of My Morning Jacket for quite a while. “Golden” is a beautiful song that we felt we could really do justice to and I hope that’s the case. We were very fortunate to be able to find in them people that were fans of ours. Jim James, who wrote it, and the group’s drummer, Patrick Callahan, came in and played on it.

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  1. Greatly under rated and misunderstood band of our time. Isn’t that what usually happens to great Artists?

    I have aspirations to “take on” the shallow reviewers of Rollingstone magazine regarding this band. It’s going to take a few years of research: analyzing the music (+ the thoughtful arrangements); analyzing the lyrics and so on.

    A Ph.D thesis on the band … America?
    Yep!

    And …why?
    Because the band deserves BETTER!

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