Baltimore’s The Bridge has built a substantial fanbase over the past few years with their soulful roots rock sound, engaging live shows, and solid songwriting. On their just-released new album National Bohemian, the band worked with producer/musician Steve Berlin (Los Lobos); the result is their best record to date. American Noise got the chance to chat with frontman Cris Jacobs about process behind the record, and where the band’s sound is headed.
American Noise: You worked with the fantastic Steve Berlin on this new record. How did you first hook up with him?
Cris Jacobs: As a band, we discussed that we were interested in finding a producer for this next record we’d never worked with before. We’re huge fans of Steve’s work as a player and producer, so he was the first person that came to mind. We said, “Let’s seek him out, and then go down the list from there.” We got in touch with him and he was interested enough to come check us out; we happened to be coming though his town—Portland, Oregon—playing a show, and he liked it. The rest is history.
AN: What was your experience like in the studio with him?
CJ: He was amazing, pro all the way. More than that, we got along on a personal level, which I think was a huge key to the success of the whole thing. He really had a way of putting everyone at ease and I think he did what a producer is supposed to do: bring out the best in everybody, [which he did] through attitude and power of suggestion, and the overall vibe he created. Not to mention the fact that he’s an extremely gifted, intuitive and creative musician and music mind. He had so many great ideas and challenged us in so many ways. I can’t say enough good things about him.
AN: The two of you co-wrote “Sanctuary” on National Bohemian. How did that come up?
CJ: He was very hands on in the arrangement process of all the songs. In the beginning he asked Kenny [Liner, The Bridge’s other songwriter] and I to send in any demos and partially-written songs that we had. We sent him a bunch and he pared it down to the ones he wanted to develop, and he was very forward with suggestions and ideas. With “Sanctuary,” the song that starts the album, I had the first part written—some verses and melody—and we were sitting in the studio wondering where it was gonna go from there, and he sat down at the keyboard and took an idea that I had as a possible second part [to the song] and morphed it into this other part. He took another song of mine and rearranged some chord changes. He’s a very talented song arranger with a great knack for what makes a good song arrangement.
AN: You and Kenny split the songwriting duties for The Bridge. How do you guys work up the songs? Does it mostly rest with the songwriter, or do you show it to the band and you all collaborate?
CJ: I would say that we’re very open to the band’s suggestion, but if at the end of the day the songwriter feels strongly about something, we usually defer to that. Kenny and I are both very open with suggestions, especially during this process with Steve; at the beginning of the process we were like “All right guys, let’s just keep an open mind.” Everybody had ideas and suggestions, and neither of us are too ego-driven to the point where we’re not willing to make a song better due to what somebody else says.
AN: No divas in The Bridge?
CJ: Catch us after a couple weeks on the road and any given one of us will be a diva (laughs).
AN: What’s the songwriting process like for you personally?
CJ: It can vary from song to song, I wish I had it down to a science, but in a way, songwriting is still a mystery to me. I haven’t figured out how to do it every time I want to do it. Sometimes it starts with a melody or I’ll sit down and try to sing a melody out, play a couple chord progressions and sing some nonsensical lyrics with the melody. Sometimes it starts with some music, and sometimes it just comes out. “Long Way to Climb,” I think I wrote that in about an hour one afternoon. Certain songs are more collaborative; I’ll bounce ideas off Kenny and he does the same with me, and we just work it out. I wish I had a system, but it comes when it comes and doesn’t when it doesn’t.
AN: On your songs on National Bohemian, I hear a lot of Muscle Shoals sounding stuff. What artists or records are influential to you as a musician?
CJ: I love all that stuff, definitely. I listened to so much music growing up; both of my parents were huge music fans. They were listening to The Grateful Dead, Little Feat, the Neville Brothers, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, and all that stuff. As I developed and started playing guitar, I started getting in to a lot of American roots music: bluegrass, blues, soul, Muscle Shoals, Stax Records, and that kind of stuff. Honestly, I’ve never discriminated. Certain things I like more than others, but music is all over the place and that’s what I love about it. I can listen to anything.
AN: I think “Colorado Motel” is my favorite song on the new album. Tell me a little bit about the story behind it.
CJ: That song was a hybrid of a bunch of different stories. For one thing, there’s something about the altitude of Colorado that makes it so I can’t sleep when I’m there. I remember being up all night, like, three nights in a row in a hotel in Colorado, and those words started popping into my head and I jotted them down. Then some other things happened with two other friends of mine in the Colorado area—there were actually more words and more verses to the song that needed to get pared down to make it a better song. It was a combination of three different accounts of people in Colorado. I’m sorry that doesn’t give a lot of information; I’m not too good at explaining my songs; I always find it doesn’t do it justice if I try to talk about it.
AN: You guys have stayed in Baltimore when many other bands would have headed to Los Angeles or New York. What appeals to you about the city’s music scene?
CJ: It’s where we grew up, and it’s home. We’re very close to our families and friends, and that’s what’s kept us here. Plus, as we’ve started as a band and developed as a band, the Baltimore fanbase has really kept us going. They always come out and support us; they’ve always been passionate about the band. We love Baltimore; it doesn’t necessarily get the credit that bigger cities get, but there’s just as much culture here as anywhere else. It’s a melting pot of rural and urban, blue collar, white collar…it’s a good place.
AN: Compared to your previous records, how does National Bohemian fit?
CJ: To me, it’s like a culmination of all the work we’ve done. It marks, to me, the opening of a door to the next phase. Working with Steve was really great because he didn’t necessarily know too much about the band before we started working with him. As a matter of fact, the first time we met him, I said “Here’s some copies of the records we’ve made” and he said “Oh, that’s cool, but I’m more interested in the new stuff you’re writing.” He gave it a listen, but he wasn’t excited to go home and study it, you know? So when we presented him with a lot of new songs, I [submitted] songs that I had written years ago that I had no intention of bringing to The Bridge to sing with Kenny, because The Bridge had developed into what it was and there were certain songs that we didn’t think fit, but those were the songs that got chosen for the record. It woke us up to the idea that we can keep evolving and keep being as true and honest to our music as we wanna be, regardless of any preconceptions of what we think the band is or what people expect from us. That was a real liberating thing. I think from here on, we’ve taken that as “Okay, the canvas is wide open. Let’s keep evolving and creating new music.” I think this record is the first step in that.