Ari Herstand on Looping, Gay Rights, and Living Room Concerts
Ari Herstand puts a new twist on the singer songwriter aesthetic by playing keyboard, guitar, singing, and beatboxing all at once. He makes all sorts of interesting videos chronicling his songwriting, teaching fans how to play his music, and performing covers of his favorite artists.
Herstand is scheduled to perform at Modified Arts tomorrow, Saturday, August 6. We recently caught up with him to discuss looping, gay rights, and living room concerts.
Up On The Sun: What inspired you to start writing music?
Ari Herstand: I've always been very musical throughout my life. I have been very attracted to music of all kinds. I've been playing piano as long as I can remember. I think I wrote my first song on piano when I was 5. I don't actually remember when I started playing piano, there's a photo of me at 1 year when I was standing on a piano bench kinda clunking away, so I think it was right around that time.
Throughout my life I've been picking up different instruments: trumpet for band class, guitar for high school. I've been writing songs just on piano up until high school, then I picked up guitar and joined a band. That's when I really started actively writing. The band I was in was more of a ska funk project, so I was writing those kind of songs, which is quite different from what I write now. My freshman year of college is when I actively started writing much more heavily for my solo project. It was a more natural way of expressing myself through music than how I wrote in high school for the ska band. That had a very distinct style and distinct boundaries, whereas when I got to college and I wasn't around my bandmates from high school, I had all this new inspiration coming at me and all these new experiences. That's when I really started capturing that through song.
UOTS: Quite the jump from a ska band.
AH: Quite the jump, but I do still incorporate a bit of trumpet in my shows. If you listen closely, you can hear some of my earlier ska influences and New Orleans style brass band influences and that kinda stuff. I still maintain those roots.
UOTS: Do you use a loop pedal to play multiple instruments at once?
AH: Yes, I use a loop pedal that all my instruments and microphones are plugged into, and so it's all live recording live looping on stage.
UOTS: Is that something you originally set out to do?
AH: I was at an open mic and saw someone looping. [They] laid down the guitar foundation and soloed on top of it. I'd never seen that technology before. I thought I could do a lot more with it, so I went to the music store and asked if they had anything that allowed me to live loop and they showed me a loop station. I took it home and locked myself in a room for a month and performed a show shortly after. I looped just one song at that show. I remember seeing the audience's jaws collectively drop. I'm like, "Alright I think I'm on to something here.
Since then, I've definitely grown tremendously with my looping and obviously [my] songwriting. I've added instruments and upgraded my pedal, it's more or less a defining element of what I do. I don't think anyone would talk about my live show and not mention the looping because I think it's a very unique definitive element of my show. Very confusing if you've never seen it before.
UOTS: I had to see the video of you going back and forth for it all to make sense. You've done a bunch of covers. Is it difficult to adapt the works of female musicians like Alanis Morissette and Adele?
AH: The Adele one is more recent. I love the entire record, but I thought that song especially is one of the stand out songs, so I thought it would be fun to do my own rendition of it. The Alanis song, I don't even think I can play it. I haven't played it in years, someone captured it at my concert years ago. I figured we were all more or less around the same age and group around the time Jagged Little Pill was giant, so I figured everyone would get into that, so that was a fun little song.
I like to do a different cover for each tour, kind of have one cover that's something new. I don't like to play many covers. I will never, ever do the cover gig again, ever. I despise cover bands. When I was first starting out, I did a couple 3-4 hour cover gigs where basically I was on stage with a music stand playing covers for drunk people for four hours. It's soul killing, I could never do that again, I'd rather work at Starbucks again than do that.
I take requests, but I only know two covers right now. They most likely have to be Ari Herstand songs if you request a song.
"Wonderwall" has been a fan favorite cover that I've done, I released that on my live album. I still have that in my back pocket if someone requests it at a show and really wants me to do it.
This Adele song I just put up a couple weeks ago. I think that's going to be the one I'm going to tour with for this tour.
UOTS: So no "Freebird" for you, huh?
AH: No, oh God no. I immediately find security and those people get ejected from the concert.
UOTS: What was your experience like writing the song and making the video for "Do Ask Do Tell"?
AH: Gay rights is definitely an issue that I am very passionate about. I'm straight, but I'm a big ally. I don't like really getting too political, politics are very divisive. I'm very socially active and aware and very informed I'd say, but I don't feel comfortable really getting political in that realm. There are certain issues that are important enough to me that I feel I can use my music to help spread a message. Basically, this message was a message of love.
I had a song on my first album that I recorded when I was 19, way back when, that was a lot more angry. It dealt with gay rights also, but looking back at that, I don't feel that was the best way to approach this issue. When I wrote this song, I wanted to approach it from a place of love, because honestly when it comes down to it, that's what it's all about. It's difficult to combat love and stand on the opposing side of love. I wanted to write a song that was meaningful but is not necessarily going to smack you in the face with this message.
The chorus is universal. The video I made in the back of a van on this past tour when I was on tour with Ron [Pope] and the guys. I posted on Facebook and Twitter and I sent an email out to any gay couples that have photos of them and their significant other, especially wedding photos. The majority of those for the video are fan submitted, then there's a few I grabbed from people who took photos at rallies and just random photos I found on Google. It's gotten a really great response.
UOTS: You're very active in social media. You hold contests and ask fans to request cover songs. What have been some of the more bizarre requests, and what has your overall experience been like?
AH: It's interesting, this time for music. There is so much interaction and musicians are so accessible these days, especially independent ones who don't have a team running their social media outlets. It's all me behind every tweet and every Facebook post, there's no one else pulling the strings. I get a lot of weird messages, a lot of sweet ones.
It's fun to see in my news stream sometimes when people start talking about me and don't realize I can see the whole thread. Watching the whole comment stream go back and forth like "oh I love the song, the lyrics are great and brilliant" and the next person's like "the lyrics suck." "what are you talking about, this line is great!" "it doesn't do it for me" and that goes on for 40 comments, sometimes I like to play with them and I'll "like" the comment that says the lyrics suck, and they get really embarrassed about it and sometimes they'll delete their post. It's fun to have this very personal interaction. I tell everyone, please "like" my Facebook page, but if you want to take it to another level, we can be Facebook friends, but beware, as much as you think you might stalk me on Facebook, it comes back at you tenfold. I browse Facebook just like everyone else, if something comes up in my news stream, I'm right there clicking through photos, so watch out.
UOTS: You moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. How's California been treating you?
AH: I absolutely love it out here. I spent my first winter away from the Midwest, which was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. When I'm online looking at my friends in Minneapolis, they're saying its negative 20 outside and there's six feet of snow, and I'm in shorts walking down the street.
The main reason why I moved out to LA aside from the weather was to co-write with other singer songwriters. I was amazed at how much talent there is in the singer songwriter community out here. I wanted to be amongst it, I wanted to challenge myself as a writer and a performer, and really be amongst a talented community to co-write with and really develop as an artist. The Hotel Café community is fantastic, it's a venue out here, a lot of the best singer songwriters play The Hotel Café. It's a smaller club, but it's notorious. They do Hotel Café tours...Sara Bareilles, Joshua Radin, all these people grew up with The Hotel Café and started their music there. It's been a really nice community.
UOTS: You've opened for a variety of artists including Ben Folds, Cake, and Matt Nathanson. What have been some of the most memorable shows?
AH: The Ben Folds show is definitely one of the most memorable ones. It was the biggest crowd I've ever played in front of, I think there was 3200 people there. I was the opener, I played a full 45-minute set and everyone was really into it, I got them singing along. I've been trying Ben Folds ever since to get me back on the road with him. I think our fans go well with each other and our music is close enough where people can really get into both of our styles. That was fantastic, I love that show.
I've performed just about 500 shows to date as my solo project since august of '05. That was really a fantastic show.
I really enjoy sometimes playing the smaller rooms where I can get really intimate with the crowd. Sometimes I even prefer the smaller rooms over the large venues. They're different experiences. I started doing some living room concerts actually. I basically just bring my keyboard in, I set up in your living room and I do the first half of the concert completely unplugged and acoustic, then we take a little break and have snacks or whatever, then I plug into the amp with my loop pedal and the whole system, then do the second set basically my looping show.
I always try to switch it up, I've done some of the giant arena shows with some of the bigger artists, I've done the club thing this last tour with Ron [Pope], smaller rock clubs, the bigger venues, then I've done living rooms and colleges, which is a whole different thing. I feel I switch it up enough for me so I can get all these different performing experiences. You have to make sure to keep things fresh. I remember talking to Ben Folds' bassist at the show, and he didn't really seem thrilled about it, "oh another college show. It's the same thing every night." I'm like, "there's 3200 people screaming for you, I don't understand how that's getting old, I don't get it, I live for that," but you know, at any stage I can see it can become monotonous, and that's something that I'm really going to be conscious about avoiding and not getting burned out on any one form of performing.
Honestly, I love the opening slots. I have such a unique show that people get into me from my first song and I feel that that's something I can use to my benefit, being an opening act for some of these artists that are not like everyone else. Some people roll their eyes when they hear that there's an opener, but when I get up on stage and whip out a trumpet and start beatboxing, they're like, "whoa, this is really different." Most of the opening slots I have, I make sure to grab everyone in the room and make sure everyone's really having a good time and enjoying it.