Smalltown Poets Interview Pt. 2:
Christmas Time Again!
Smalltown Poets is back with their second Christmas album, Christmas Time Again, which releases on Nov. 25. The title track “Christmas Time Again” is the first single, and you can listen to a streaming version here. You can also pre-order the album at iTunes here. The band will be playing a few Christmas dates — click here for details.
I had the opportunity to speak over the phone with the guitar player, Kevin Breuner, about the new Christmas album. In Part 1, published last week, we talked about what it was like to return to the studio — the whole band playing in the same room — for the first time in 16 years, what motivated them to do a second Christmas album, and whether or not they will be releasing more music in the future.
In Part 2 below, we dive into the details of this new Christmas album, including some of the highlights like “Good King Wenceslas” (in which Kevin tells the amazing true story behind the song), how they did the first modern band recording in history of a Renaissance Christmas song called “Patapas,” and how something he recorded with his iPhone ended up on the album.
Kevin also shares how they came up with the band name “Smalltown Poets,” which includes a fun reference to the movie Braveheart (for all you William Wallace fans out there):
I love the way the album begins and ends with very meditative instrumental tracks — just great bookends to the whole — and it’s just an interesting collection of Christmas songs. What was your process like for picking songs and narrowing them down to the 14 tracks on the album?
That was an interesting process. Basically, Danny, our keyboard player, has become quite the arranger. And he basically had a running list of songs. Some of them were a few that we weren’t able to do for the first Christmas record. So he had this running list that he and Michael had kind of been hammering on and just basically trying to put arrangements to them. Then he sent them out to the rest of the guys, and Danny and I were really working closely on hammering out parts for guitars. Once you have the drums and the basic structure of the song and everybody knows what’s supposed to happen, it really becomes a battle between the keyboards and the guitars and how the direction of the song is going to go. So, he and I were working pretty closely for weeks on tracking guitar ideas and filling in more keyboards and kind of fine-tuning the direction of the song. So we did a lot of that leading up to the studio time.
But one of my favorite tracks on the record is our version of “Good King Wencesclas.” It’s a Christmas Carol that a lot of people have seen the name, they don’t know how to pronounce it, [laughs] and definitely don’t know how to spell it. But the interesting thing about that one is, to me, how it came together. I hadn’t heard anything on that one yet, and then Danny says, “I’m working on an arrangement for ‘Good King Wenceslas.'” And I’m [thinking], “I don’t even know how that song goes or what it’s about.” I know it’s considered a Christmas song.
But I had been working on some more ideas for just general Smalltown Poets records — like I said [in Part 1 of this interview] we’re trying to start doing some more original stuff — so I had this guitar part idea that I was working on, and I was actually at church rehearsing with our worship team. And I was playing this part, and the drummer was playing a beat that goes with it, and I didn’t want to forget it, so I recorded it to my iPhone. And then I sent that idea to Danny, and he actually took that exact recording from my iPhone and turned it into a loop that is the backbone of that song. My church meets at an old movie theater in downtown Vancouver, Washington, so it has this very nice reverb and just is this really cool sound. So when you listen to “Good King Wenceslas” the guitar part and drum loop that’s on the left side of the stereo field is a recording from my iPhone, and it just becomes a foundation for the entire song.
I love little nuances like that on albums. And in this day and age people can grab stuff anywhere using their phones, and it ends up on albums. Amazing.And that one was fun too because, like I said, a lot of people don’t even know what the song is about. Musically that song might possibly be one of the moodiest songs we’ve ever recorded. There might be a couple others, but it really fits in with the vibe of that song, which is about a king and his page on this journey to go pay alms to the poor. And it’s snowy, and the snow’s deep, and the page wants to give up, and the king says to follow in his footsteps and they’ll make it. So that’s what the whole song’s about. And it’s a nice, moving story, and I think the musical arrangement really paints a good picture to go along with it.
It really is emotional. And this album has some fun stuff, like you said, but it has some really intense, epic sounding stuff. You mentioned picking out older, lesser known songs. Did you have to do a lot of research to find these?
Some of them are songs we still wanted to do, but other ones, I think, “Good King Wenceslas” went through that process where it’s, “Hey, there’s this song that we’ve heard of. You get your book of Christmas carols, and it’s in there. You’re never going to sing it at church. [laughs] You’re never going to sing it caroling down the street. But what is this song?” And that one was kind of interesting. I did a little research on it, and finding that whole story, it’s just, it’s a very cool story that I think really plays into Christmas.
But there’s another one that became a total surprise favorite. In my mind, it was probably, as we were looking at all the song ideas for the record, I think there was like 20 potential cuts — and some of them were more transition or just fun cover songs — but there was this one on the list called “Patapan.” And the first time I heard it I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. How are we even going to make this work?” [laughs] “I don’t get this. I don’t want to do this.” And it just sounded weird to me. But the interesting thing was that it was a carol from the Renaissance Era. The first verse is really the only lyrics in the song. The chorus was a new chorus that Danny and Michael wrote. And it was one of those where recording that particular song — I did all the guitars at home — it was one I really struggled with because it was like, “How do I take this song that I’m hearing in a very stripped-down, pre-production way that honestly sounded a little bit campy at the time? How do I make this work?” And I felt like I really poured a lot of myself into that one.
And then when they added the vocals and the real drums and bass, it really came out. I think it’s a moment where we took something and made it our own but also made it something that’s bigger than we expected. And the other interesting thing about that particular song is that there isn’t a modern rendition of that song anywhere, so it’s the only [version]. And I’ve looked online, there’s an instrumental version. Mannheim Steamroller did one, but their take on it is really more Renaissance-inspired; it’s not a modern band recording version of this song. And so when I figured that out, I thought, man, that’s really cool. This song is something that we’re helping to resurrect and give it new life, and I think, like I said, it was kind of a band favorite. In the album reviews that we’ve had show up already, people have really keyed off that song as being a special point on that record, so that’s been really cool.
You mentioned earlier about leading worship at church. Have you guys been pretty active in ministry and local church stuff over the years when you haven’t been doing Smalltown Poets?
This is something I’ve been curious about since my high school days — but why did you pick the name “Smalltown Poets?”
The band started in a small town in South Georgia called Tifton. That’s where Michael and Danny met in a creative writing class. They also knew Byron from school and, I believe, from church. Those three started several bands that pre-date Smalltown Poets. And one of those bands was kind of coming to an end, and they were trying to decide whether to keep doing music and what direction to go. And that’s around the time they added Miguel and myself, and it was kind of like, okay if this is something we’re going to make a real serious effort and try and take to the next level, and [then] the name Smalltown Poets came out. I believe Michael was really into the Braveheart soundtrack at that time. There’s a quote, I think it’s on the soundtrack that says something like “they fought like warrior poets.”
Right! Wow. Yeah, I was obsessed with that soundtrack too! James Horner’s score is amazing on it.
So yeah I think he pulled out Warrior Poets, but it didn’t really fit our music, and the idea of Smalltown Poets came up. It’s interesting because the previous iteration of the band was called Villanel, which is also a name for a, I believe it’s a French word for a small town.
But it’s also a form of poetry too.
Right, that’s a poem structure. Very cool.
Yeah, so there was no — I don’t believe that was intentional to drop that — but I know that the Braveheart thing, thinking warrior poets, but that doesn’t quite work. [laughs]
Yeah, sounds more like metal. [laughs]
So they were going back to their story of being from a small town and meeting at a creative writing class, and the idea of Smalltown Poets came up. And it’s worked, it’s been a name that I think has represented us well, and people have always been intrigued by it.
“Christmas Time Again” will be available in stores Nov. 25. You can pre-order it on iTunes here.