Tombstones In Their Eyes’ John Treanor Talks Building An Old And Modern Sound For ‘Sea Of Sorrow’

The multi-genre band Tombstones in Their Eyes (TITE) have just released their third full-length album, Sea of Sorrow, via Kitten Robot Records, a label founded by Josie Cotton. The band, which has been releasing since 2016, has developed a sound that’s becoming instantly recognizable as a blend of disparate elements ranging from Shoegaze to Psych-Rock and Electronic music. But the outcome is also built on lead singer and songwriter John Treanor’s writing methods, which draw on stream-of-consciousness lyrics and high productivity in demos, which he selects from for TITE’s studio albums.

Other artists featured on the record include Stephen Striegel, Courtney Davies, Larry Salzman, Nic Nifoussi, James Cooper, and “probably Paul Roessler” who is Kitten Robot’s Producer. This is a partly different cast of characters then you’ll find at a TITE live show, and the songs themselves may take on somewhat different forms as each musician is encouraged to bring their own input to live interpretations.

Treanor’s tendency to zero in on elements and textures from modern life do take a somewhat darker turn than one might expect from the at times fairly soothing sounds of a TITE song, but by often building on repetition Treanor creates an aural world that encourages contemplation where the audience might find their own ways of reconciling disparate elements.

I spoke with John Treanor about Sea of Sorrow and its place in the developing identity of Tombstones in the Their Eyes.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I’m familiar with the work of some of the other Kitten Robot artists and with Paul Roessler’s work as a songwriter and Producer, so it’s great for me to see your work in that context, too.

John Treanor: Paul got a good performance out of me and the band. He’s almost part of the band, really.

HMS: I saw somewhere on the credits for this album, “And probably Paul.”

JT: [Laughs] Yes, it’s hard to keep track. Especially on the vocals when we’re layering so much on there.

HMS: How many records have you done with Paul?

JT: We’ve done a bunch of EPs with him, some singles, but album-wise this is the third full album. He kind of mixed our first album, too. It goes back to 2016.

HMS: That means that he was around when you were trying to figure out what you wanted sound-wise from Tombstones in Their Eyes, and what kind of music you wanted to create.

JT: Yes. I found Paul through word of mouth when we were mixing our first record, but we did when we worked on the next thing, which was the Bad Cloud EP. We started to really hone in then and Paul was a big part of that. It’s progressed. It’s the first time that I’ve been in a band where I can see the progression from release to release.

HMS: One of the reasons that I asked about sound is because I do think TITE’s music is unique. I haven’t encountered a lot of music that has all these different qualities, particularly the ones I see on this album. It made me wonder how it came about, making music that’s really not in any particular lane.

JT: We don’t really fit into any specific category, but we can also fit into quite a few. We get called a Shoegaze band, a Psych-Rock band, a Rock ‘n Roll band, which is kind of what I think we are, just with a lot of influences. I’ve been into music for a long time, so it’s a compilation of all the things I’ve heard and been influenced by, but also within the limits of my abilities. I’m a self-taught guitar-player and singer. I’ve taken some lessons, but I’ve never really made much progress, except with singing, where I’ve progressed from doing it. Playing what I can play lends itself to our sound. This is also the first band that I’ve been in where I actually really like what I’m writing and can see it getting better.

HMS: I like a lot of bands from the 60s and 70s and listen to a lot of that, and I can see those influences everywhere in the world. I’m sure that’s part of your tradition, too, but I appreciate the fact that you seem to take that forward, because even though this music isn’t Electronic music per se, you show an awareness of all that’s happened in recent decades. It feels like this album is in conversation with pretty recent developments in music.

JT: It’s a distillation of a lot of different stuff. That’s kind of what this record is, the cream of the crop of what sounds good to me. At one point, we had over 30 songs almost done. These are the songs that spoke to me the most, so that’s the only concept for this record. But I agree, it’s not of one specific time. It’s old and modern at the same time. We’re not trying to fit an era or a genre. It’s just what I like.

HMS: How similar are live performances to the recorded versions that you do?

JT: Pretty different. I’ve expanded the band to three guitars, including me, and we have a bass player who does vocals, another vocal, and drums. We have keys on the record, but not in the band. So live music is a souped-up version of the record, with a wall of fuzz. We can’t replicate everything, and I don’t ask the musicians to do that. Some of the musicians have played on the record, or not, and I just let them do their thing.

HMS: Do audiences encounter new songs before they hear the studio versions at all?

JT: I actually put up the demos on SoundCloud, and you never know which songs will get picked for the next record. They also won’t sound like the demos when they are recorded, so I don’t feel like I’m showing my hand, so to speak.

HMS: That’s amazing. Some artists are getting more used to sharing stripped down versions live online in videos, but plenty of people want total secrecy in the creative process before the final reveal. I can see how putting the demo in a public space might make it feel a little more real, a form of achievement.

JT: Definitely. I’m really impatient. Once I get something I really like, I want it out in the world. That’s just become a habit and a tradition. I’m going to keep doing it. I can tell how many people have listened to, liked, or reposted some songs. I don’t care that much about that, since if I like the songs, I put them out. Maybe if a song does well, it influences me a little bit.

HMS: Could you describe what elements go into a demo that makes it the beginning of a song for you?

JT: I have a similar process for all song demos. They usually take two to four hours, and usually they are done in one day. Sometimes James [Cooper] will work a little on some stuff in New York, and he’s a night owl, so it may take a little longer to come together. Usually I’ll record a rhythm guitar track over a steady drum-beat, which I’ll put in Logic. If I like it, I will sing vocals and put bass on it. Usually the vocals are done in a stream-of-consciousness style.

That’s really drawn from inside, since I don’t usually formulate ideas before I start singing. There have been occasions where I’ve used every single word, and not changed anything. There’s a song on the new record called “Hope” that I wrote on July 4th, and I did it in one pass, even though it has a lot of words. That’s fun. It’s a kind of dark song, but like a lot of our dark songs, there’s always hope involved. That’s what people have told me, at least, and that’s important, because I don’t want to just be a downer.

HMS: Well, it’s kind of a fine line, isn’t it? Because sometimes just commenting on the reality of modern life and the emotional states that it creates can be helpful, even if it’s dark. That can be a release for everybody.

JT: I agree. I’ve been told that it helps people. I’ve been told that some of the things I’m singing about can touch other people. They are not unique emotions.

HMS: If I look at the last album, called A Higher Place, and this album, called Sea of Sorrow, there does seem to be some contrast there. The song “A Higher Place” is actually remarkably upbeat, but I don’t think that’s representative of what you usually do. It seems to encourage the human spirit to rise.

JT: It is upbeat! That was a weird one for us, different from the norm. I like repetition sometimes, but that was one that James Cooper tweaked a lot, with a lot of production. He recorded some parts, too.

HMS: Is “Sea of Sorrow” a quote from somewhere? It reminds me of that phrase “vale of tears”, that life is a vale of tears.

JT: Well, if you look at our album covers, every single one has a ship, and usually, I try to make it in a storm. It’s sort of a metaphor for my life, at least. Almost every single one, including singles, has that image. So the phrase came naturally. I don’t know if it came somewhere else, though it could have. It sounded cool and fit in with the theme. I try not to get too nautical, but for us, with our band name, it was good. “Tombstones in our eyes” is taken from a Hoyt Axton song called “The Pusher”, made famous by Steppenwolf in the film Easy Rider. It’s got the lyric, “People walking around with tombstones in their eyes.” I just liked the imagery, but on the other hand, maybe it makes people think we’re a Doom Rock band. It’s been ten years now, and so I’m not going to change it.

HMS: I think the videos do a lot for suggesting what the band’s aesthetic is, too, like for “Numb”, which is sort of psychedelic but realistic in making connections between our modern state and pharmaceutical companies. That one also repeats a lot and doesn’t have a traditional song-structure.

JT: Lyrically, some songs have a lot of words, and some have many. Lyrically, “Numb” doesn’t have many, but it gets emotions across. It does what it’s supposed to do as far as giving you a snapshot of some powerful stuff.

HMS: I like that the song is not about calling out a particular company or saying that people should not be taking medication, but it’s saying, “This is the human condition. Why does it exist in this way?”

JT: What you’ve said is exactly right. I’ve started to make more videos myself since I don’t tend to care if we are in the videos. People use Youtube to listen to music a lot, so I’ve been getting better at using Adobe Premier Pro to make videos myself. It takes a lot of time but I enjoy it. I’m a creative person and they are getting better.

HMS: The one for “Numb” is themed a bit. I think it really does the trick.

JT: I thought it was a little dark, when I looked at it retrospect, but it conveyed the feelings of the songs, so I like it.

HMS: “Heart” has an interesting animated video that’s very moody and detailed.

JT: That was done by Ruby Ray, who does fractal animation. She’s a friend of Paul’s who was a photographer in the early Punk days of San Francisco. It’s a cool one and goes well with the song.

HMS: The song “Heart” seems to have two elements. One is the idea and line that repeats, “Always look to your heart before you leap.” Then there’s the more dangerous or compelling element that’s referred to in pills and drugs. Maybe there’s a tension or contrast between those elements, or maybe they go together.

JT: It’s difficult to say, and you’re right, those are disparate elements. That goes down to my songwriting process where sometimes I’ll get something off-the-cuff, and this song is one of them. I just like it even though, maybe, they don’t totally fit together.

HMS: Sometimes raising questions in a song can be interesting and answering questions in a song is, I think, far less interesting.

JT: I agree. This one definitely has a lot of questions. The verses focus more on the darkness and the choruses are, as you said, maybe where the hope is, or a more positive sort of feeling.

HMS: It kind of reminds me of the duality in Twin Peaks music, like even in the more recent Roadhouse stuff in the series. There are gentler, softer elements, along with the darker ones.

JT: That’s sort of my thing, too.

HMS: I think this music is less pretty, though, less ornamental. I saw some quotes about “No One To Blame”, now that I’ve mentioned duality, that relate. That song stood out to me because I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about opposites. Sometimes taking the wrong approach to opposites can cause a lot of problems in the world. Going too far in either direction or trying to deny the other side exists.

JT: Yes, I agree. I wrote some quotes about that song after looking at it. Once again, it comes down to my songwriting process where I throw stuff out there. But I did tweak that one a bit, in terms of the verses, and I dropped out a whole portion of each verse to shorten the song. I chose the ones I liked the best. It keeps repeating the part about being two different people, and that’s really true for me. There’s the dark and the light, the secret and the not secret. That’s something that I liked about it, that it fit those ideas together.

HMS: It may seem like a downer to admit that you are more than one person, really, but from my observation, the biggest arguments in relationships come from people feeling that they don’t really know each other. If people could acknowledge that we are essentially more than one person, it might help.

JT: That’s a really good way of putting it. I’m pretty open. Even if stuff just kind of comes out of the subconscious, sometimes it still really fits, and that song really fits together.

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