10 Years Later: Cody Votolato Discusses ‘Burn, Piano Island, Burn’

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Nostalgia has pretty much overtaken the internet in 2013. From comeback albums, to films, television, and even Tamagotchi, people seem more obsessed than ever with the (relatively) recent past. We thought for a long time about launching a column that celebrated this mutual adoration for days gone by, but in the end decided such a feature would take away from how important certain events and works of art truly are to our community. So instead of bringing to light every notable item to hits the decade mark this year, we’ve decided to highlight only a select few, and today’s pick just so happens to be an album that changed the lives of nearly every person who currently writes for this website.

Released in March 2003, The Blood Brothers’ Burn, Piano Island, Burn continues to be a one-of-a-kind album. It marked the first major label effort of the Seattle punk outfit, and for many served as an introduction to a punk underground that valued how well one group could create and control musical chaos over catchy hooks and memorable melodies. Today this beloved release turns 10-years-old, and to mark the occasion we caught up with guitarist Cody Votolato to reflect on the early days of the band, the creation of the album, the likeliness of a reunion, and the impact their music continues to have to this day.

UTG: Hello, Cody. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. How are you?

CV: I’m great. It’s a beautiful day in Seattle and I’m finally wrapping up moving into a new place.

UTG: Burn, Piano Island, Burn turns 10-years-old on March 4. You have releases already beyond that age mark, but this record is arguably the one that exposed The Blood Brothers to the world. I want to dig into that time a bit, but let’s start simple: How do you feel about the record hitting the decade mark?

CV: I think it’s cool, actually. It’s really cool to have been involved in something so long ago that has, hopefully, held its weight. Something that someone is actually interested in talking about ten years later is kind of amazing. So, you know, in terms of longevity I think it’s really cool. I don’t feel like “fuck, I’m so old,” because we were so young when we made that record. I mean, I still don’t feel old. [laughs]

UTG: It’s one of those things where you don’t notice the time because you’re “in the moment.”

CV: Yeah, it kind of doesn’t feel like it has been that long. If I think very specifically then yeah, it was a long time ago, but the general feeling about it doesn’t feel that long ago. I think I was 18 when we were writing that record and recording it.

UTG: For people unfamiliar with your history in the band, can you take us back to how you first join the group, and what life was like for the band as you entered the 21st century?

CV: I’m originally from Texas, but I moved to the Seattle area when I was 10. There was a really cool music venue called The Redmond Firehouse that was basically a teen center that would have bands play. My first show there was Jawbreaker in sixth grade, and it was this really cool hub for young people to go see live music and get involved in punk rock. My brother, Rocky, was really into music and introduced me to all that, and I just started going to shows at that place.

By the time I was fifteen there were only a handful of other kids my age that were going to the kind of punk rock shows that I was going to, and it just turned out to be the other dudes who ended up being in The Blood Brothers. So we all got into the same music and eventually wanted to start a punk band. We accidentally saw the Murder City Devils play the weekend of their first show and were like, “Holy shit, this is awesome.” So we subsequently got into their older bands, like Death Wish Kids or Area 51, and decided that was the kind of music that we wanted to play. [Before that] we were playing in spazzy punk bands that were heavier on the spaz than punk, but then we got into those bands and thought, “Let’s be The Blood Brothers and play really dirty punk rock,” and that’s kind of how it all began. It was really cool, you know, but it was just something that we did. We would practice every day after school in Johnny’s parents’ garage. We would throw our guitars around and smash them [laughs]. I think we really cut our teeth for a live show without realizing it when we were practicing as kids because there was just so must energy involved in it, and that kind of became the live show, only amplified.

From there it was a pretty natural succession. It was like, “Okay, what is our biggest goal in the world?” And we decided, “To do a 7″ with Hopscotch, that would be the coolest thing ever.” And then that happened. And then we did a record with them (This Adultery Is Ripe).

We were going to break up because the band was kind of a side project to what we were all doing, but then we did a tour in the Summertime and Justin from Three One G called us and asked us to do a record with them. We were excited because we really liked that label, so we made another record. Then, in the time it took to make that record, Ross Robinson heard This Adultery Is Ripe, and that is kind of how we got introduced to the whole major label world.

UTG: There were two albums before Burn, Piano Island, Burn, but this was your first on a major label. You recorded in Los Angeles between April and June 2002 with Ross Robinson. What do you remember about the creation of the album?

CV: It was crazy because we were really reluctant to work with him, and really, the whole major label world. We were snotty punk kids and we didn’t care. I don’t think the idea of playing music for a career was a reality that ever crossed our minds. We all went to school, played in bands for fun, and worked at Taco Del Mar. If you had pulled me aside then and said “You’re going to end up playing in this band for the next 10 years,” I would have told you that you were crazy. So, you know, it just wasn’t something we were really pursuing.

Then Ross Robinson approached us about working together and initially we thought “No way.” I mean, this guy recorded all these bands we didn’t really like, and the major label world seemed really weird. We were young. Also, at this point we had recorded March On Electric Children, but it hadn’t been released yet. So when all this went down we had an album completed, but he was really persistent and we figured we would at least meet with him. He had done an At The Drive-In album, which I really loved, and we felt like they came from a background similar to ours.

So we meet and Ross turns out to be super cool. We begin warming up to the idea of working with him on another album and then all of sudden it was like, “Okay, you guys [The Blood Brothers] can be in a band and quit your jobs, or you can keep you jobs and stay in school.” And really, that was kind of the selling point for us. Like, if we didn’t follow through on this we would probably spend our lives asking why we didn’t try. It was this crazy thing happening to a band we had been in since we were 15 and people wanted to support it and get it out there, so we thought, “fuck it, why not?”

Looking back now I realize how much went into it. I didn’t realize the scope of things. March was finished before we wrote and recorded Burn, Piano Island, Burn, but still unreleased. Then we wrote and recorded Burn before March was able to be released. So we had two finished albums that nobody had heard. What was cool though is that our label, Artist Direct, put us on the road for March and kept us on the road up to and following the release of Burn. We spent two years straight touring as a result, and I think that really made the difference for us. It’s really rare that a band has two completed albums ready to go, and it allowed us to always be in people’s faces. It was a whirlwind.

UTG: Some fans may not know that in addition to contributing your guitar work, you are also credited for creating the artwork on Burn, Piano Island, Burn. Can you tell us a little about what gave you the idea behind the design?

CV: We needed to do artwork and I had no idea how to use PhotoShop. My friend, Yaeger Rosenberg, did and I called him up to help me work on the design. We met up and took the bus to the university bookstore to buy a ton of graphic art books that we later cut up at his parents’ house. That lead to us conceptualizing the whole “cut & paste” look, and the crazy colors came a bit later. We spent weeks and weeks on that artwork, and it’s something I’m still super proud of. I think it’s pretty cool and that it still looks cool today….it’s exciting to be able to look back not think that it looks lame or dated.

I do think the vinyl release(s) had colors that were a bit faded, which was a bit of a disappointment since vinyls are so cool, but that is just me being nit-picky [laughs].

UTG: It’s easy to look back a decade later and say this album was the one that “broke” The Blood Brothers, but do you believe that to be the case? Aside from the involvement of a big name label, would you contribute anything specific to the new level of success that followed the album’s release?

CV: I think it’s definitely the album where we had the most press and toured the heaviest. We laid a lot of groundwork with Three One G, and that offered us the opportunity to set up Burn‘s release in a really cool way due to the touring and promotion of March that lead into it. It was more of a succession than a sudden change, but it was clear that the release of that album garnered a lot more attention. We were everywhere, and we were always on the road going somewhere else, and that combination, coupled with the spectacle of our live show that people would either love or hate, made it hard ignore us.

UTG: In the years that have passed since the group parted ways in 2007, a lot has changed. You’ve all grown and gone on to pursue new creative avenues, but do you think a time will ever come when The Blood Brothers are together again?

CV: Honestly, I think everything is possible, but I do not think it’s something that is totally likely in the near future. It comes up every once in while, with people asking us if we plan to return, or offers come in reunite, but it never seems to be the right time. Everyone has other stuff going on, but I think that it is something that could eventually happen. I’m not sure how much older we could get and still do it though [laughs]. An older version of Blood Brothers? I’m not sure that would be any good. Anything is possible though.

UTG: Speaking of those projects, what is the latest with Jaguar Love? Johnny tweeted last year that a new album was in the works, but there have been very few updates.

CV: There is another record that is finished, but he [Johnny] has not had time to sing on it. I wrote and recorded an entire new Jaguar Love album at the end of 2011, I think. It’s super cool. It’s a thrash record that was written in a week with a drummer and bassist. Johnny and I haven’t been playing together because he started a family, which made touring hard, and one day we decided to just make an album. Just because we release an album doesn’t mean we have to tour on it or anything, but there are fans out there, and it sounded fun to make a thrash album. So it is out there and will be completed one day. I don’t know what we will do with it, probably give it away or something, but it will get out there eventually. It’d be fun to do some shows with this record, but we’ll see how things go.

UTG: Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us about this album. Before we go, where can folks go to keep up with your current projects?

CV: I joined Cold Cave at the end of last year. We did a tour, but there hasn’t been much going on this year. I’m sure there will be a record at some point that I hopefully will have some involvement with, but nothing on that yet.

Tomorrow I’m going to practice with my brother (Rocky) for his upcoming European tour. He does really well over there, and I’m headed back with him in May.

Beyond that, I have a few projects that I am working on in the conceptual stage, so it’s not really time to talk about those or try and explain them. They’re super cool, but nothing is at the point yet where it is time to start speaking about them in a specific way. I’m kind of waiting for the right time to do that, but when it happens I will definitely let you know.

Written by: James Shotwell

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