[Cover photo credit to Jessica Kaminski at The Refinery Photo Studio]
Milwaukee-based Folk Rock duo Listening Party released their new album Been a Long Time Comin’ right on the cusp of autumn, delivering appropriately mellow and reflective moods while reminding us all to keep engaging with the changing of seasons in the world and in our lives. It was the group’s first album in several years, punctuated not only by covid, but also by a change-up in reforming from a trio to a duo and re-thinking their songwriting and performances based on the new configuration. Weston Mueller and Jacob Wood have emerged with a bolder outlook, now able to play multiple instruments at the same time and also willing and able to convert their songs into various iterations that allow for an expanded or reduced line-up.
The album itself has a very full sound that shows no shortage of musical or lyrical ideas and the songs are written from a space that many audiences will find relatable, moving into supposed adulthood of ones thirties and finding out that there are no easy answers to being such a fully-fledged adult. From relationships breaking down and finding one’s own resiliency to considering the things that don’t seem to change, but should, Been a Long Time Comin’ suggests the real world weight we often carry but also finds that tone of possibility. It suggests the perspective of the quizzical but undefeated and sets up further life explorations in search of what answers may be found.
I spoke with both Weston Mueller and Jacob Wood about the relationship between their songwriting and their live shows, what they had to come to grips with to make the new album, and writing a love song when it feels like the furthest thing from one’s mind.
Hannah Means-Shannon: When it comes to this music, was it normal for you that you’ve been playing it out for a while. Do you normally road test it?
Weston Mueller: Yes, definitely.
Jacob Wood: For sure. As far as the new music goes, too, we’re usually just so excited to be writing it that we can’t wait long to perform it. Even before the final iteration of the song is done, we’ll be playing it live, seeing how it works, seeing how the crowd reacts to it, then we’ll chisel and craft it from there.
Weston: It’s the joke of “What’s your favorite song?” It’s always the most recent one we’ve written. That’s the answer. Whatever’s new is fun for us.
HMS: I can understand that because a newly written song probably feels the most directly tied to your current life. Probably that resonates with you at that time.
Weston: Yes, it’s much more topical in that moment and you can directly write to that. There are also still hopes and dreams for that song. Whether it’s half-way done or mostly done, it’s a thrill to see peoples’ faces.
HMS: As an outsider, to me that sounds really terrifying, though. You must be thrill seekers!
Jacob: [Laughs] We’ll set up an audience, too, by telling them, “This is a song that’s not finished yet.” But we are just so excited to play it.
HMS: Are there are any songs on this album that you feel changed pretty drastically between early stages and what they are now?
Jacob: I can’t think of a particular one because by the time we get to the sitting down and recording aspect, they are pretty set in stone. “Reckless” is the oldest song that went on the record. That one is about four or five years old. But even so, not a lot changed about it after the first few months. We were happy with it.
HMS: Does this group of songs represent a group that you chose out of others from this period of writing, or were these all written towards the album, with none left out?
Weston: These are pretty much the chosen ones because this was over a four or five year period here, and we had written about 30 songs. We chose these 11. We still probably play live four or five of those songs, but there are at least 10 more that we don’t really play anymore. They fall by the wayside in an organic way. The vibe from the album allowed us to stick within some general themes that we were going for and these songs all fit within them. These were the ones that we were most proud of so they made the cut.
HMS: I do feel like there are some commonalities among the songs that bring them together. What do you think the recurring themes or ideas are among these songs?
Weston: A big part of the story of our past few years has been, obviously, the covid thing that everyone else was going through. We had to overcome the fact that our career was pretty reliant on getting together in the community. Tied into that was the parting of ways with a long-term bandmate. There was a lot of questioning, and we were feeling desperation, loss, and a sense of unknowing. Those may not come up directly in the songs, but were more of a feeling. There’s a lot of talk about unsuccessful relationships, so there’s that angle to the album, of trying to find love, and not being able to find it, and all the silly things that happen in between.
The song “Same Old Problems” is a pretty direct reference to us having to deal with some very personal things in the band and deciding what we were going to do. Dealing with life issues as we came into our 30s was part of it, where relationships are suddenly more serious, and jobs are more serious, and everything feels like it has different levels to it. Things can’t be taken so lightly, but we also put our own spin on it in the music, since at the end of the day, you have to be able to laugh at it. All these things that can seem so serious need a jovial perspective. The song “3 Eggs” is like that, looking at how silly some of those arguments in life can be.
HMS: That’s a great introduction to the album. I had picked up on a couple of those things and heard some of this in a few places. I appreciate the fact that you take on heavier ideas, even though you bring in some humor, too. You express frustration and ups and downs with the troubling aspects of life. There’s a realism there.
Weston: Yes. I think a big theme of it is redemption, too. These things are all going to happen in life, but we’ll all get there together. We’ll all make the best of it. I think that sums up our album and overall attitude in the past few years.
HMS: I appreciate that you accept some things about life in order to look for the next step, the better outcome. I know that you made a change in the band, and that sort of thing is very hard. Was there a day where you two, together, went to write songs and move forward. How did you get started again after that difficult time?
Jacob: That first session, sitting down and writing, focused on all the music that we’d already played and figuring out how we could execute that as two people rather than three. It was more of a rewriting phase and a restructuring phase. That phase opened us up to new ideas, and new writing techniques. It brought a different way of thinking about things. At first, it was just survival. How do we play shows with just the two of us?
Weston: We still had shows booked. We had to decide whether to cancel. We felt some doubt, also because we were during covid. We wondered if people would still want to have us, and if we’d still be able to present the songs in a way that we were proud of. But it was a matter of putting ourselves out there again and being vulnerable. It was a matter of being willing to fail a little at first and then getting to a place where we could feel confident. From here on out, we know that we love what we do and we’re confident in what we’re doing again. The world chipped at our confidence for a second, but we picked ourselves up and kept going. Now, we’re adding more musicians now that we’ve gotten our foundation solid. It’s leading to good things.
HMS: It makes sense that you had to figure out that you could do it yourselves no matter what, and then after that, it was a more secure thing to add other people. I noticed that you’ve been performing with other players lately.
Jacob: It’s that adage that you can’t make someone else happy before you make yourself happy.
HMS: I’ve seen a live video of you playing, and see you each playing two instruments and doing vocals on top, so you figured all that out. But did that change your songwriting at all? Did you find yourself thinking differently about how songs should be built?
Weston: As for myself, it did affect me. I was thinking a little differently about filling space in terms of what I was doing. It started off as going in a direction where we were using more tools in our toolbox, but it ended up as a new approach to songs altogether. We did that for a good year or more, and we’ll still sometimes do those shows with just Jacob and me, but it’s really rewarding now to add more musicians and be able to play the songs differently.
We’re learning so many variations for the songs, but it has made us think outside the box and realize that these songs don’t have to only be played in one way. Now we don’t have to play four things at once as much!
HMS: When I listen to this album, it has a big sound. It’s not at all limited by thinking in terms of a duo. I talk to a lot of people who perform solo, but go for a much bigger sound in the studio.
Jacob: I do solo shows occasionally, and I have to figure out my solo set, working out new iterations of the songs. But for the album, it pretty much just Weston and myself, and then a really good friend of ours, Mark, stepped in to play bass. We did it at Axis Studios with Vinny Millevolte, and he was a great swiss army knife for helping us figure things out. That was the first time we’d worked with him, and hopefully not the last.
HMS: He’s got a really interesting space, from what I can see in the video that you’ve released. It’s a church, right? How did you hear about it?
Jacob: We heard about it through some musician friends who had worked with Vinny in the past. We looked him up and saw the church, which we thought was interesting. The recording space was inside the chapel, which is still a working church, but only on weekends. So we recorded on weekdays. Once we toured it, we were all about taking on this new style of recording. The acoustics were definitely enhanced by the open space of the church. It was also a cool and inspiring environment. That’s a factor on the album.
HMS: How do you typically put your music and your lyrics together? Do you write them separately or at the same time in a more focused way?
Weston: That’ll change on a song-by-song basis. Sometimes a melody with lyrics already attached to it will pop up. Then we’ll just throw some chords to it. Or it might be just a melody and we wonder how to put some fun words to it. It changes depending on what the seed was of the song. Regardless of that, once you have an idea of a lyric for it, it’s a matter of getting that first little verse, that first little chorus, that satisfying thing that sounds good. Then you start to craft your story. There’s not a formula to it, it’s where ever the wind takes you.
HMS: For a lot of people, there’s a bit of a mood they are chasing. Each of these songs has a specific mood. One of the songs that feels accepting and has some positivity to it is “Buck Moon”. It acknowledges a lot of changeableness in life but holds onto determination to keep going. It has a lot of energy to it.
Jacob: That one is a little different. We went to a wedding to play for a friend of ours, and she wanted us to play while she was walking down the aisle, which was a big honor. She wanted us to play some cover songs, but I made the joke, “What about one of our songs?” And she came back with the joking comment, “But all your songs are sad!” So I said that wasn’t okay, and for the next couple months, it was on my mind.
We have a friend who’s a supporter and books us a lot, and he was talking about going back to a town where he used to live and feeling that vibe of everything has changed and yet everything feels the same. It feels so familiar but still so different. I really liked that concept, and combined that with the fact that I had to write a love song. We combined those two themes for that song, which may be where a little bit of contradiction comes from. We wanted it to be upbeat. The other joke about that one is that I was definitely not in love while writing that song, so we had a lot of fun with it.
HMS: The whole thing with the moon made me think of the patterns and the rhythms of human life, too. I like some of the humorous lyrics in there, like about acting like we all know what to do as adults, when we don’t.
Weston: [Laughs] We act like we have all the answers until it all comes down to looking at yourself in the mirror. We all try to be tough and walk through the world with thick skin. But at the base of it, we’re all pretty fragile.
HMS: This all goes in with the theme of things you discover in your 30s. You begin to realize that no one knows what they are doing!
Jacob: Totally! You used to think people in their 30s were really adults. You start questioning everything.