The hypnotic music of Tombstones In Their Eyes has traces of desert rock, shoegaze, psychedelia, and they bring it all together into a dense, fuzzed-out, yet hook-driven sound. They’ve just released a new album, “Looking For A Light,” which is their first for Josie Cotton’s Kitten Robot Records. Tombstones In Their Eyes began when childhood friends John Treanor and James Cooper reconnected and decided to create music together. With Treanor based in LA and Cooper in NYC, the duo collaborates long distance on demos which Treanor then fleshes out in the studio with a group of local musicians. Rounding out the band is Stephen Striegel (drums, percussion), Josh Drew (bass, guitar), Paul Boutin (guitar, bass).
For “Quarantine Blues,” the first single off the album, Tombstones In Their Eyes worked with a team including, labelmate Heather Galipo (CrowJane) on a highly creative stop-motion video.
In a phone interview, Treanor discussed the new album as well as the history and creative process of Tombstones In Their Eyes.
Could you talk about how Tombstones In Their Eyes came together? Did you initially have a clear sense as to what you wanted to accomplish?
John Treanor: James and I had been friends since we were about 13 to 18, and then we both went our separate ways into the rock & roll lifestyle and scenes and whatever. Years and years later, I had run into his sister, and she said, ‘why don’t you contact James?’ So I did, and we became instant best friends again. He suggested we try to start writing some songs together. So we used Garage Band and Dropbox to share the files. It started off with not such great songs, and we didn’t have a direction. But as the songs got better, we compiled a lot of demos. And that’s the point where I decided to gather up some local friends and record them in a studio.
The first record I consider very patchy in terms of style. Some of the songs don’t really fit with where we ended up going. We started to develop a style or a sound or theme, what have you, shortly after that first record. The songs really had to do with a sort of depression I was going through. So there was a lot of darkness, and writing became a catharsis or therapy for me. I got a lot of that stuff out that way, and thematically that kind of colored what we did, at least in those few years.
What was your musical background like prior to this project?
John Treanor: I had been playing in various bands. When James and I first were hanging out, up until 18, we started a band together and wrote a few songs. And then I sort of went off into drug land, hanging out in the music scene. I was still a part of the scene. In fact, I managed a friend’s band through a couple of US tours and a couple of European tours. But my life sort of was falling apart, and I never could keep a band or start a band or even really play guitar because I was so devoted to the drugs. It wasn’t until I cleaned up that I started playing constantly. At that point, in 92 or 93, I started a band, and I started another band, and kind of went on from there.
But the songs I wrote were not anything that I thought were that good; it wasn’t like I thought ‘these are great.’ And so I wrote a lot of crappy songs but kept on going. I took a break when I got married. So I had about three or four years off playing music. I just got tired of band practice and all that kind of stuff. And then that’s when I met James.
Last year you released a collection of your previously released music, as well as one of demos. What made you put those out at that point in time?
John Treanor: Because of Covid it was an off year. And I’ve always wanted to start releasing some of the demos. When we record, James and I do these demos, and sometimes they have a quality that just doesn’t translate into the studio. You lose a little something. We didn’t print a lot of them. They’re just for the real fans of the band. And then the collection LP was a compilation of all of our material. I’d always wanted to do that as well, because a lot of the stuff we released was on EPs and singles and never reached the vinyl stage. So I wanted to get all that on vinyl and in one place.
What was it like revisiting old material for the collection? Did it have an impact on the making of the new album?
John Treanor: The first part of the question is that it was great to revisit it because a few of the songs, especially the song “Fear,” we felt we had not gotten correct. So we really went over that song and remixed it and it came out to have that kind of eerie feeling that we wanted, but we felt was lost on the original recording. And a few other songs from the first record, we felt needed some changes and even re-sang a song. So it was a chance to spruce them up a little bit to sort of more match where we are now. As far as that spilling over into the new record, it really didn’t affect anything as far as that goes.
Did Covid-19 have an impact on the making of “Looking For A Light”?
John Treanor: So, the first song, “Quarantine Blues” was written about a month into Covid. I hadn’t been writing for a while and as I started to write, these songs started to come out, and they were different. Songwriting is weird. Sometimes people say it comes from the sky or whatever. I sit down and I write a lot of songs; not all of them are good, but occasionally it’s just that flash of ‘Where did this come from? This is great!’ And then the part where COVID did affect it… it didn’t really affect the demo process much at all, because that’s me in my home studio, and that’s James in New York in quarantine and we get them together that way. So, no COVID effect, but it was recording them when there was an effect. I wrote “Quarantine Blues” in like March or April of last year, and we didn’t get into a studio for a couple of months because of COVID. And even then, it was very scary and a ‘Should we be doing this?’ type of thing. And then it got worse in LA, so we had to wait a few months before we could get the next batch of songs recorded. In the end, we ended up with 13 songs, which was great because we were able to cull it down to what we thought were the eight best songs.
Are there any ways that you feel the music changed or evolved from the initial demos to what we hear on the final album?
John Treanor: It doesn’t change that much. I write pretty fast, and then James sometimes will take it and completely strip it down or chop it up, or whatever he does. He always adds drums, because I just play along to a simple Logic drum kit. Sometimes it’s amazing what’ll happen, you’ll write a song, and the next morning you wake up, and it’s completely different. It’s a pretty fun process. But as far as the other guys… we try to keep it pretty true to the demo, because by the time it gets to a demo that I’m happy with, I want it to stay in that sort of emotional area.
Shows haven’t been happening due to Covid, but do Tombstones In Their Eyes generally play live?
John Treanor: We haven’t done as much as we’d like to. We finally, before COVID hit, played a show for our last record. That was like 7th March. And then that’s when everything locked down here, the next day actually. It sucked, because we had just gotten ready. I’d learned the songs. I have to learn the songs, because I write so much that I forget them. And so I learned all the songs, we had the band going, and that was it. That was not good because we really are more of a studio project, and we probably won’t play out as much as bands do. But we do want to play out and make it an event. Maybe play once or twice, a quarter, or something like that instead of every weekend or whatever.
What is your songwriting process generally like?
John Treanor: The way I write songs is I start Logic and put in a drumbeat. Logic has all kinds of drumbeats you can choose from. So I’ll pick one, and I’ll pick a BPM. Then I play rhythm guitar over it. Then, the next step will usually be to sing a vocal track, stream of consciousness-style, over that. Usually, I will end up liking most of it, and I’ll tweak it a little bit, so it sounds decent. I don’t try to get it perfect, as it’s a demo. I don’t spend hours and hours on vocals. Then, I write on the other elements, bass and guitars and things like that, and then it goes to James, and he will often tell me whether or not that song is worth pursuing at all. We have a great relationship because in music there’s a lot of ego involved and it’s easy to get offended, but with James and I there’s none of that. It’s like, if he tells me, ‘Hey, this isn’t really worthwhile,’ usually I will go with that. There’s been a few times where I’ve gone ahead anyways because a song resonated so much with me, and I eventually brought him around. He’ll have ideas on maybe things to add or structures, things like that. It’s a great process we have.