Cornerstone 2000: An Interview with Havalina
This interview was conducted by Nolan Shigley and Tricia Krull at Cornerstone 2000. If there was ever a band that we here at Opus wish would make it big, it’d probably be Havalina Rail Co. Every year at Cornerstone, it seems like we catch wind of their trials with vehicles, funds, personnel changes. But every year, they still put on one of the best shows the fest has to offer. Their curious blend of jazz, lounge, country, western, Latin, spy, and swing music seems weird on paper, we know. But if you see them live, and watch the crowd’s reaction, you know it works. Which is why we can’t fathom why they haven’t gone further than they have.
After reading this interview, you’ll probably get the feeling that Matt Wignall (Havalina’s frontman) is a little fed up with his circumstances. But it’s a real testament to the band they keep on keeping on, delivering one great Cornerstone performance after another. Always waiting, it seems, for that lucky break that’s just out of reach. Here’s hoping they catch up to it real soon.
Nolan: One of the questions I was going to ask you is, what happened with former members and what about the new members of Havalina?
Matt: We had two people leave, Jeff and Lori. They were kind of like, especially Jeff was kind of one of the original lineup people. But he went to grad school for chemistry and UC Santa Cruz and Lori was his wife. So they both went there. And actually, then I got Mercedes and Dave to take their places. And Eric, our violin player, he’s a drummer also, so he just moved to drums ’cause Jeff was the drummer. And then Mercedes came in as lead guitar and vocals. And then we brought Dave in, so we lost two [and] brought in two. Kind of complicated, with the switching and whatnot, but Dave came in and took the violin’s place as the new lead instrument, you know, like, the organ.
Nolan: Now, where’d you know all of these people from?
Matt: Um, I didn’t really know Dave or Mercedes. It was just, like, the second I thought it was a possibility that Jeff and Lori were leaving, when he had gotten accepted to grad school, I was just like, “I’d better start getting my ducks in line because I don’t want to skip a beat and have to cancel shows for 6 months.” So I told Eric — he was playing violin at the time — start learning all the songs. And it was nice, ’cause he’s already been in the band for a long time and he knows the songs and it was just learning different parts. So he did that and then I just started asking around.
I wanted a girl that played an instrument, which can sometimes be amazingly hard to come by. And so, I was just looking everywhere, asking everybody anytime we’d play anywhere, I would just ask if anybody knew a girl who played instruments. And, eventually somebody said “Oh, I know this girl” and, as it happens, she lives almost within walking distance from my house, and she’s played cello for, like 12 years, and she plays guitar really well, so it worked out really, really good.
And then I was asking around for somebody that could play organ, or something like that, and… you know, it’s kind of funny. If I’d found her first, I might not have gotten Dave on the organ. But, I got Dave first to come in and play organ and that was really, really cool.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed , but each album, we change the lead instrument as the sound of what we’re doing as a theme changes. Like, for “Diamond In The Fish”, it was saxophone so it was a little more jazzy. [On] “Russian Lullabies”, it was the violin. On America, I don’t know what it was, it was a bunch of stuff. And the stuff we’re doing now, I think it works really well with the organ.
Dave and Mercedes are awesome. Jeff and Lori were great, but I like the people in the band and I get along with everybody more than I ever have before. I think the talent level is up at a really nice level. Everybody’s really good at what they do and I think that’s really key.
Nolan: What about the new stuff? I heard a lot of it last night, like a lot of the Latin stuff. I enjoyed that a lot. Is that what a lot of the next album is going to consist of?
Matt: [There will] be some kind of hybrid Latin stuff on there. It’s going to be called “Space, Love, and Bullfighting” and it kind of weaves in and out of Latin themes, combined with pop music, and… I don’t quite know how to explain it. Usually, we try to do something kind of unique to ourselves, and so it’s always a little hard to explain to somebody what we’re doing. But, it’ll be a little bit of Latin, but it’s not going to be like Santana or something like that.
Nolan: What about the spacey stuff? You had a little electronic stuff going on last night.
Matt: Yeah, that’s Dave on the organ. He plays [a] farfisa organ, which is a really cool 60’s vintage Italian organ. That’s got a lot of cool, lame, wavey sounds on it which works really well with stuff like that. So it’s just pop music with some weird stuff in it… Latin backbeats and percussion.
Tricia: You’ve come so far through so many musical styles, you’ve got so many different influences in there, what do you want to do in the future? Do you have other hopes? Do you want to get on the popular radio? What are your ideas for what you want to do next?
Matt: I’ve kidded around a little bit and said that our next album is our sellout album, [but] I don’t think we could really do that, you know. But you look at a band like The Cure, and [songs like] “Lovecats” or “Close To Me”, and you could stick “Lovecats” on a Havalina album and it wouldn’t sound out of place. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that having a hit single can really be the difference between… like, we’ve been in this band 8 years and all I’ve got is debt to show for it.
I obviously don’t do it for the money, but it would be really, really cool to be able to break even or make a little bit of money one year. Especially as I’m getting older and I don’t have a college degree because I’ve spent all of my time playing in the band. So, it’s a really weird place to be in.
But as far as the songs and the music is concerned, we’re not doing too much of the country stuff. “Russian Lullabies” didn’t have any country on it or anything. In some ways, when you do the country, you get pigeonholed because somebody hears one song and thinks [we’re] a country band. On our first Tooth & Nail album, you could swing dance to the first song, so we’re a “swing” band, but if you listen to the rest of the album, there are maybe 1 or 2 songs where, if you’re really hard-pressed, you could get a swing dancing going.
But I think we’re actually trying to do, we’re being a lot more conscious of songwriting. I should put it that way. Because we’re not thinking “Oh, we need a hit, we need to sell out.” But if you listen to “Abbey Road” by The Beatles, it’s just like, the songs have so much musical integrity, yet they’re really good straight ahead pop songs also. And, we’ve been doing this long enough I think we have what it takes to write songs that have some kind of commercial appeal and yet still maintain all of our integrity. So I’m trying to balance that a little bit, and I think that’s just maturing as songwriter. Maybe it’s immaturing. Maybe we were already mature when we were being all scatterbrained…
Nolan: I always thought “Twilight Time” was, when I first started getting into Christian music about 5 years ago, that came along that was a really big song on all of the comps and stuff like that.
Matt: Yeah, not quite like “Lovecats.”
Nolan: About yourself… I’m a huge Elvis fan and I remember you telling me about a picture on your website and I looked that up. You got married by Elvis, correct?
Matt: Actually, I got married at the Graceland wedding chapel and Elvis is not an officiant or a pastor, so Elvis gives the bride away and plays “Love Me Tender” while you exchange your vows. And then there’s a pastor or an officiant that marries you.
Nolan: Was that in Vegas?
Matt: Yeah, in Vegas.
Nolan: What is your favorite Elvis song?
Matt: Probably, “It’s Now Or Never.”
Nolan: Yeah, I sang that at my sister’s wedding.
Matt: I like the early stuff, but I also like a lot of the later stuff because it’s very musical. If you listen to “It’s Now Or Never” or “Surrender”, it’s got these little Latin elements and it’s just really cool music to listen to.
Nolan: I was at an Elvis celebration at a casino in Iowa and I got to meet DJ Fontana, and Elvis’ best man at his wedding, Joe Esposito, that was pretty cool…
Any touring for the album?
Matt: We’re doing a lot of touring this summer. We don’t have a new album or new anything, except for the “Scorn Series” t-shirts. We’re just touring with what we have, which is not much. Our distributor didn’t get us the “Russian Lullabies” CDs that we asked for. When that record comes out, we’ll tour. We pretty much tour the same time every year. A little bit during Christmas on the West Coast and then during the summertime we go east. I keep thinking there’s no way Cornerstone’s going to book us again, there’s no way Purple Door’s going to book us again and then we get booked again. I would be stoked if they kept up next year.
Nolan: Oh, you’re a main attraction, definitely.
Tricia: Yeah, that tent was packed last night. I mean, just packed. It was a good show.
Nolan: I’m sure you get a huge reception every year at Cornerstone. What’s it like, because I know a lot of Christian bands, well, that’s the bad thing about Christian music, it’s not well-known or even sometimes accepted, so when you’re touring you’re playing at smaller churches. And then you come to Cornerstone and play something like this…
Matt: Well, we actually try to play the least amount of churches we can. I’ll answer that question first and go onto the other thing. Cornerstone is great. It’s like your Super Bowl of concerts or something. Right now, we have to finish paying off our car. We have credit card debts and stuff like that. And one weekend at Cornerstone and everything is paid off and we’re ready to go.
It really is great and it’s really cool. It’s weird to see so many people like what we do because a lot of times I think, especially me more than anyone because I’m the principle songwriter in the band, you can get in this mode where you think “Okay, our time is pretty much spent. We’ve been doing this 8 years. Our first record came out along with Wish For Eden, Unashamed, and stuff like that. It’s just like we’ve been doing this for too long.”
And then you come here and you see people really interested in what you’re doing and they really, sincerely like our music and they want to know when our new record is going to come out and everything. That’s really amazing to me. Every band that’s out there thinks what they do is cool or they wouldn’t be doing it. I think what I’m doing is good, but there’s the whole thing of “does anybody else?” It’s easy to get stuck in that rut when you’re just playing local bars and there’s 5 people there.
Nolan: So what keeps you going then? What is the good driving factor?
Matt: It’s an addiction? I don’t know… we like it, we all love it. Everybody in the band, we’re like family. We’ve been together for longer than most American marriages. We’ve been through so much. We’ve seized 4 engines on the road, we’ve lost the transmission, we’ve broken down probably as many times as all of the other bands here put together. And we just keep going on. I think it just… that whole sense of adventure. It’s like, on the road, or something. You’re just out there…
Nolan: How’s Jackson-Rubio doing? I know you guys are the head of it.
Matt: I run it, that’s my label. I own it. It’s really bad.
Nolan: You have great bands on it. Maybe that’s why.
Matt: There are issues like, “Russian Lullabies” shipped out about 7000 records. There’s like, in the warehouse, where [our distributor] keeps old stuff, there’s like 40 of them left. And we manufactured like 9000 of them, 9500 of them. So it’s like all of those records are gone. We put out America, which is not elitist, black and white, “art” music. It’s just a little bit more accessible, and they shipped out 2000 of them. [For] the Halo Friendlies, they gave me a PO for 9500 units and they shipped out 1500 – 2000 of them, and I just had to eat all the rest of those units. It’s kind of a drag to have had that happen, so that’s why I’m at a point where I’m starting to look for a label and I just don’t know if I can keep putting out stuff myself.
I was doing really good. If they’d keep shipping out reasonable amounts of music and get behind projects, then yeah, it’d be great. With Blaster [The Rocketman], I put that record out, and they shipped out 900 units of Blaster. That was their initial ship. I don’t know if you guys have ever been to Cornerstone, but Blaster, does that seem like a band you’d ship out 900 of? You should be shipping out 7000 of them.
I think that the bands of my label sell, and are capable of selling. Soul-Junk went to Five Minute Walk. Five Minute Walk’s considered a big label by Christian standards. Brainwashed Projects went to Squint. Obviously, I think I’ve signed good bands. Why would Squint want a band that I signed?
So that’s where I just look at it and just go… I personally don’t think that “I have good bands, therefore the label does bad.” It should be, “I have good bands, therefore the label does average.” We get by because they’re not putting out crap. I think that if… I’d been with… a solid distributor, it would be very different today.
That’s been a real struggle, both spiritually and financially for me in the past year. Everything I do… I get a new air conditioner in the van and we get to Nevada, turn on the AC, we’re all comfortable — we haven’t had AC for 2 years, we haven’t been able to afford to replace the one that broke in Louisiana on our way to Florida in July — and 15 minutes the air compressor pump just burns out. It’s really weird to sit there and watch your label get run into the ground, the air compressor pump, the seized engines…
I’ve been doing too much griping lately, I’m in “gripe mode.” I am super-stoked. We sold a lot of CDs today. America released last year, and I think we’ve sold more in one day this year than we did last year. So that’s really cool.
Nolan: What are a lot of the other bands on Jackson-Rubio doing?
Matt: Merbabies are still together. They practice at my house. I have an analog studio there. The Merbabies are still together in a way. It’s mostly just Chris, he’s the band, and he’s working with other musicians right now. Thee Spivies are still, we have a finished record with them but I don’t have any money to put it out so we’re just kind of in limbo. I have a finished Rose Blossom Punch record, which I’m just sitting on. It’s their last record ever and it was done a year ago and that’s when things started to go bad and I just don’t have money to put it out. Like I said, Soul-Junk went to Five Minute Walk. The Wednesdays are around, they’re just touring a lot. Blast broke up.
Nolan: Yeah, I heard about that. Did they just do that recently?
Matt: Yeah. So it’s kind of weird. I feel a lot of personal, I feel guilt in a way. I don’t think it’s my fault, but had I had a better distributor… things would be different.
Nolan: Well, you obviously signed quality bands. Every one of those bands you named got huge crowds here. I remember 2 years ago, Thee Spivies were here and had a huge crowd. You guys always have a huge crowd. Blaster packed the tent every year. Definitely not the choice of bands, I would say.
Matt: Yeah, and that’s why the only bad element I can see is [the distributor]. And talk to anybody whose ever been on them… go ask any label that’s worked with them and find one label that’s happy.
Nolan: Anything else you want to talk about today?
Matt: I was going to say, the whole Christian band thing… I’ve kind of come to the point where I don’t really see the band or the label as straight Christian. A band is an inanimate object. We all live in one world together, there’s Christians and non-Christians that live in the world. In a lot of ways, I’d like to see, if you want to get Christian music, you go to Tower Records and buy Christian music. If you want to buy a Christian book, you go to Barnes & Noble and buy a Christian book. I’m not sure how I feel about the elitism in the Christian world… Christian bookstores where you get Christian stuff.
Nolan: What do you usually listen to? What are you listening to currently?
Matt: Lately, I’ve been really, really into Credence. I love Neil Young, really really like Neil Young a lot. I like the new Built To Spill album, I was kind of digging on that. I listen to stuff that isn’t necessarily what I’m doing because then it helps me be more uninfluenced or unbiased about music. You hear a lot of punk bands that are like “I like the way the guy from Green Day sings” and so everyone sings with that weird British accent.