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Exclusive: Interview With Indie-Rock Brooklyn Band Great Caesar About New Track “Leaving You”

Photo by Makena Granger.
Photo by Makena Granger.

With a name that suggests big and bold things, Brooklyn-based six-piece collective Great Caesar are, indeed, nothing less than grand. Moving from Connecticut to New York City and already making their way through different line-ups in the past few years, the members of the indie-rock group have already been through a lot of changes, a theme that continues with their music. On their upcoming EP, Jackson’s Big Sky, releasing March 25th, Great Caesar tackle heavy subjects–love, conflict, and equality–by providing a one-of-a-kind sound for each one and letting each track tell a different story.

On “Leaving You”, a track off the new record, the band performs a high-energy anthem full of catchy hooks, in-your-face rhythms, and subtle harmonies. Loaded with thick percussion and wild enthusiasm, the track has Great Caesar in their element being their cool, comfortable, and creative selves. Read Elmore’s quick Q&A with frontman John-Michael Parker about the band’s upcoming record and their songwriting inspiration below and watch Great Caesar perform “Leaving You” at Le Poisson Rouge back in December:

Elmore Magazine:What is the music scene like in Brooklyn compared to the music scene back home in Connecticut?

John-Michael Parker of Great Caesar: We were so young when we were in the CT music scene (back in high school), so it’s hard to compare! When Great Caesar (formerly Great Caesar & the GoGetters) started playing, we got on a lot of ska bills at places like Webster Theater in Hartford and this place called the Empress Ballroom in Danbury that’s no longer around, and of course our hometown venue, The Madison Arts Barn! As our sound developed and we wanted to sort of push ourselves outside of that scene, we decided to drop the ska sound (and the second half of our name), and that’s about when we started centering ourselves in New York. There are so many bands that play NYC (local folks and all the big acts that come through) that it’s an amazing source of inspiration — but can also be frustrating if you let yourself get caught up in looking at everyone else’s success.

EM: A few of the tracks on your upcoming EP release, Jackson’s Big Sky, were influenced by a performance you did for a visit at the Marion Correctional Institution. Can you talk a little about that experience?

JMP: We were touring out to Chicago and realized we’d be driving right by Marion, where I’d been a guest at TEDxMarionCorrectional earlier that year. We’d met some amazing folks there (guys on the inside and folks who have dedicated their lives to working at Marion) and were able to set up a show for the band. We had no idea what to expect, and ended up having an extraordinary experience — I don’t think we’ve ever played for a more grateful or giving audience, and everyone in the band was reminded of the power in sharing music that comes from your soul. So, it stuck with us, and when we were working on new music a few months later, people we’d met and stories we’d heard made their way into our songs.

EM: Jackson’s Big Sky was produced by Ryan Hadlock who produced records for The Lumineers and Vance Joy. How did that collaboration come about?

JMP: We met Ryan at SXSW last year — where I’m writing from now — so it was just about a year ago. Our lawyer, Kevin Eskowitz (who was one of the first Great Caesar champions), helped us get in touch with him, and I guess he dug the show and thought he could work with our sound. We knew him from his work with The Lumineers, and that was about when “Riptide” was starting to play all the time, so it was exciting.

EM: What’s the story behind “Leaving You”? How does it differ from your other tracks?

JMP: “Leaving You” is the oldest song on this EP — it came from a writing retreat I did two years ago, and has gone through many different iterations in the live show before we chose the arrangement for the record. During that retreat we were thinking a lot about legacy, and about the tension between living for the moment and living to create something that can survive beyond yourself — whether that’s something like music and art, or a family. The idea at the time was to write a “concept album” that told the story of a man in his med-twenties who was feeling stuck at home and needed to go off and see the world, and “Leaving You” was the first song, the one where he tells his lover that he needs to go off on his own for a while, but that he’ll be back. While we never saw the full project through, a few of the songs stuck, and “Leaving You” is the one that’s still with us today. A few months ago a friend told me that the song really resonated with her because her partner was moving across the country — and that it made her think about the resilience that takes and the hope that underlies it (and is required to make it work).

EM: How has your music evolved over the years since forming the band in high school? Are you experimenting with new sounds, inspiration, etc?

JMP: We went through a lot of sounds in high school and college — ska, acoustic rock, emo — as we honed in on something that was most true to all of us. In the past year or two we’ve had some new folks join the band — Niki Morrissette on vocals and Tom Stephens on drums — so our sound has changed a bit to welcome them. I’d like to think that our music is always evolving and that we’re always experimenting. I’d say the biggest change recently has been having Niki play synth — with the whole new world of sounds that opens up. I think in the next year we’ll find a way to incorporate electronic sounds into our music, which is of course a change that’s been happening across much of contemporary music for a long time now, but hasn’t worked its way into Great Caesar. I think we really pride ourselves on making powerful music with our acoustic instruments (guitars and horns and percussion and voices), but of course there is so much opportunity and inspiration to be found in electronic sounds… I guess we’re now growing into a place where we can try and make something of that.

Elmore Magazine: You’re a pretty big band of six members… what do each of you offer to the music and the experience in general?

John-Michael Parker of Great Caesar: Four of us have been playing together for almost a decade — me, Adam (bass), Tom Sikes (trumpet), Mike (guitar) — though if you come to the show you’ll see that Niki and Tom fit seamlessly into this unit. I think over the course of a show we’re looking to one another to lead the energy at different moments (whether that’s the drum or guitar solo, the epic trumpet line, or a powerful verse or bridge), and in that way, everyone offers the presence and showmanship that it takes to carry a song. On the writing side, everyone gets in and wraps their hands (and heads) around a song and makes their part perfect for their instrument. And in life, because we’ve been friends for so long, we’ve all got our roles but we also know that we can call on each other for anything. So while we divide the work behind the scenes among us between social media, booking, promotion, tour logistics, and all of that stuff, I think we all wear many hats and do a bit of everything. Being a big band is important to our music because it allows us to make a variety of sounds and to harness a lot of energy on stage; but overall, I think it’s important to the Great Caesar ethos because we want to be making music that stirs people, that’s rousing and anthemic but also tender and nuanced, and having the group of us, the band, helps us find a space where we can do that together.

Connect with the band on Facebook and their website.

–Savannah Davanzo

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