Richmond-based band offer 12 holiday songs wrapped in shiny tinsel and dry wit
The holidays are a time of merriment, frothy eggnog and great reflection. Led by singer-songwriter Justin Black, Americana outfit Saw Black & the Toys delight in all three in heavy doses with a new album called Christmas in the Background – sometimes magical and other times quite forlorn.
What began as a challenge in songcraft, while also having a chuckle or two, turned into a revelatory process. “Ultimately, it became a big reminder about the importance of having fun with music and not taking things too seriously,” Black tells R&R Globe over a recent phone call. “That’s a metaphor for what Christmas is supposed to be, which is a reunion of people you care about – and a reminder that even if your life is not ideal at the moment that you do have people that care for you and who are reaching out to try to make your life better and let you know you’re loved. In a big way, this record ended up reigniting my own outlook on making art and music. I definitely believe in Santa more than ever.”
That childlike wonder is peppered in heartwarming flakes across the album’s 12 songs, which mix new originals with abbreviated versions of haunting classics. Black’s penchant for askew compositions and punny imagery casts a charming glow, and along with co-writers Andrew Murry (formerly of Recluse Raccoon) and Pete Curry (Crystal Pistol, FM Skyline), he sets about constructing a statement piece on loneliness, finding joy in unlikely places and the oppressive nature of time.
Out this Friday (December 6), Christmas in the Background (vinyl pre-order here) scuffs up the usual holiday polish with a grainy, tilt-a-whirl wobble. “This whole record was made with massive limitations, which are what make it unique and really good. We did what we could with what we had,” says Black.
During a summer trip on the James River, weaving its way through the Appalachians, Black and Murray popped a few beers and struck up a conversation about Black’s forthcoming music-making plans.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do next,” says Black. “I told Andrew about this dream my pedal steel player, neighbor and landlord Curtis had about me in this Christmas music video. I was like, ‘I don’t know, man. Curtis had this dream. I think we should do a Christmas song.’”
Murray had been toying with a song called “Christmas in San Francisco,” and the two immediately began fleshing it out. “We went back to his house, and that night, we wrote that song and ‘Once a Year.’ Then, we thought, ‘Oh, maybe we should do a 7-inch or something,’” he recalls. “We got together the following night, and we wrote two more. I said, ‘Well, this could be an EP, I guess, but what if we wrote a Christmas album?’”
Black then set a firm deadline: to finish the record by the end of July. “Somehow, we did it,” he laughs.
Perhaps it was a sign from Santa himself, or some other divine power, but during the album process, Black emphatically swears to more than a few weird coincidences. He explains, “Andrew and I would meet at some of the classic Richmond bars to have a beer and talk about what we had to do that next week. Three separate occasions, in the middle of summer, there were Christmas movies on the TVs in these bars. It was so weird.”
“Then, I remember when we were going to make the record, and for some reason, it was cold. I was in CVS buying a disposable camera or something. The lady in front of me had a Christmas sweater on. She looked at the cashier and said, ‘It’s so cold outside, you’d think it would snow,’” he continues. “I remember going back to the van and saying, ‘Not even kidding, a lady had a Christmas sweater on, and she just said one of our lyrics…’ [laughs] There were all these coincidences where it was like, ‘Santa is straight-up watching us right now.’”
RNR Globe is honored to premiere Saw Black & the Toys’ new holiday-themed set Christmas in the Background below. Black discusses other essential songs in an exclusive chat, as well.
When did the mixing of classic holiday cheer and isolation start to become a theme of the music?
I think in some ways this record was a big learning experience, even though I’ve already written two full-lengths. With this one, we got to embrace nostalgia in referencing other songs. We definitely didn’t rip anything off. I think there’s very few other things you could compare this to. We were listening to a lot of Christmas songs in the summer, which gave us the ability to look at the Christmas themes more objectively. When we were writing the songs, we thought, “Well, what does this song mean? What purpose does this serve?”
“Christmas in the Background” is about being isolated and feeling this juxtaposition with your real life and the holidays. Each song holds a different meaning or theme. It got to the point where it was like, “Well, we need a rock song,” and that’s how we did, “I Know What I Want.” Then, we were like, “What a better way to end the record than with a New Year’s song or a post-Christmas song.” As we started to lay it out, this was even after we’d recorded a lot of it, we were like, “Wow, there is a way to sequence these songs that makes sense with progression of the holiday.” “Christmas in the Background” and a lot of side one is on Christmas Eve, and then, side two starts to talk more about Christmas Day. At the end, you have Boxing Day, which is the day after Christmas, the Canadian holiday, and then the outro of the record being “Auld Lang Syne.” Without too much planning, it ended up working out that we had this narrative.
What led to the inclusion of abbreviated carols throughout the record?
I love interludes. I wanted to harken back to the old traditional Christmas songs. A lot of those songs were written in the 1700s and 1800s and before the commercialization of Christmas. Not only are they free to use because they’re in public domain, but also, they represent this free massive capitalist version of Christmas. I felt like they could stand in as almost like a chorus – in Shakespeare, there’s a chorus that will chime in and talk about where the story is or what’s going on outside of the characters. I wanted the carols to function as a chorus in some way. If you’re listening to the record, it’ll pop out and serve as reminders that this is a Christmas album and get you even more in the mood of Christmas. They also reference the narrative a little bit.
AUDIO: Christmas music from the 15th-18th Centuries
Speaking of interludes, you have a proper one called “Mini-Bike.” What’s the meaning behind this piece?
Originally, I was going to do a spoken word over that. I was going to tell this story my dad always tells. He asked for a mini bike for Christmas one year. He was in his room and looked out his window on Christmas Eve. He saw his father and drunk uncle trying to get the mini bike up the back steps of the house. They dropped the mini bike. Next morning, he went down for Christmas, and the mini bike was just all beat up and unrideable. There was a note that read, “Santa’s going to find you a replacement.” [laughs] It was a classic Christmas tragedy. I was going to tell that story.
Then, I kept trying it, and it just wasn’t as interesting as what I felt was a good instrumental song [on its own]. We were in the studio mixing it, and I was like, “Yeah, this one is called ‘Mini Bike.’ I wonder if we could get a little bit of a mini bike or dirt bike sound in the beginning of the song.” Adrian Olsen [mixer] put it in the front of the song, and we all were laughing hysterically. He was like, “What if we just put it under the whole thing?” He put the dirt bike noise in the whole song, and it’s this really cheerful, funny instrumental. It gives you a break in the song cycle, and it’s a good moment to have a conversation with somebody.
“Christmas in San Francisco” has some of the record’s most interesting lyrics – namely “Never been this stoned around grandma before.” Later, you make note that she’s then popping some xanax to get through the holidays. How did such imagery begin for you?
Andrew had the opening line, “There’s magic in the air and stardust everywhere. It’s so cold but we don’t expect snow.” That’s classic San Francisco and exactly what it’s like there now. We had to think about the most San Francisco things. It’s the most stereotypical idea of San Francisco that we have on the East Coast. Andrew’s brother lives there, so he has spent Christmas in San Francisco.
So, we had stardust, legal weed, grandma from the East Coast who’s visiting, an uncle who hasn’t come out as gay and kisses his partner. We go through the neighborhoods of the mission and touch on a bunch of the neighborhoods with the poets. We end it with grandma being, “Oh god.” It’s that point of her popping xanax with her wine because she’s kind of overwhelmed by everything. The lyrics in this song are some of my favorite. They are really honest and really funny.
In “Christmas Dream,” you sing, “My friends keep telling me / That Santa’s not real, and reindeer are fake / But who else came, who else came down the chimney.” What was the journey in writing this song?
One of us had a couple lines. I remember a revelatory moment where it was like, “Oh, this is a song about a kid that is at the age where some of their friends are telling them Santa’s not real.” They’re having this existential crisis because they’re faced with the concept of “have my parents been lying to me this whole time” and “are they still lying to me.” There’s this maniacal refrain of “but who else came down the chimney?” It’s this classic moment of a kid justifying it. “Santa’s gotta be real because somebody came down the chimney.”
I thought the line “Santa’s not real and reindeer are fake” was hilarious, and it’s a slight reference to the whole “fake news” bullshit that this idiot president keeps saying. I feel like Trump would be the type of person who’d be like, “Yeah, well, reindeer aren’t real. They’re made up just like Santa Claus.” In fact, reindeer are absolutely real animals. I thought it was a funny reference in talking about the truth and lying. I could totally see some asshole kid going, “Santa’s not real and reindeer are fake, and your parents have been lying to you.”
“Your Parents’ Haus” is, perhaps, the album’s weirdest moment, musically.
Andrew had originally written some lyrics to this song that I didn’t really like. So, I wanted to go in and hash out this song a little bit better. When it came down to it, we thought, “This is should be a duet kind of song.” It definitely has that classic country feel. But also, we were wondering, “Is it a guy-girl duet?” Then, we were talking, “What would ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ be like in 2019?” We didn’t want to have this classic gender roles of guy-girl, and her being coy and him being a little too pushy.
“What’s the situation that would be relevant to Christmas but a funny thing to talk about now?” We came up with this idea where the guy is staying at his girl or boyfriend’s parents’ house, and they can’t stay in the same room. That’s a typical thing when you’re not married, and the girl/boy’s parents would be like, “Oh, you can’t stay in the same room!” We thought it was a hilarious story to set up where the guy is like “Baby, let me stay in your room!” And she/he’s like, “You know, I’m definitely in the mood, but it’s my parents’ house and you can’t stay in my room!” That was the concept of the song.
Then we had to figure out who we could get for it. Our original idea was to have a guy and a girl. We had a studio set up in my mom’s garage, but it was 45 minutes away from the city. It was too much to ask somebody to drive out here and record on this song that might not even make it on the record because it’s so ridiculous. I said, “I’ll do the typical, deep country dude voice by slowing down the tape. Andrew, you sing the girl part as a stand in, and I’ll speed up the tape.”
We ended up thinking it was so damn funny hearing this ultra macho country guy who’s smoked like a 100 cigarettes and then hearing this androgynous voice. It’s poking fun at the whole classic binary thing of “Ok, I’m going to sing the guy part and then this pretty lady is going to sing the girl part.” At this point in the record, I think it’s good to be surprised by something. I think it works as an artistic statement, as well as a fun listening experience.
What led to recording a post-Christmas song called “Boxing Day”?
Andrew wrote this one. At that point, almost all of the record was finished. I texted Andrew, “Hey, I think we need a rock song and a sententimenal closing song.” He popped out “I Know What I Want,” which is the rock one, and then this one. Immediately, I was like, “Holy shit! This song is beautiful.” It’s such a good sentiment and last full song on the record. What I love about it is… it’s the day after Christmas and six more days until New Year’s Eve. Boxing Day is a holiday in Canada, and all the kids in America don’t know what it means. Basically, all they know is that Christmas has come and gone, and it’s about to be a new year.
I love that it sets that sentiment up so well – of the quiet after Christmas and all the kids are bummed. They’re all looking back and being like, “Oh, wow, this past year was a great year, and I love you and couldn’t have had this great year without you.” The final verse is “here’s to another year!” I love the line, “It’s just the passing of time / If you’ve got love in your heart, then everything will be just fine.” I think that’s the perfect way to close the record. It’s a very good final word.
Since the album deals with heavy doses of nostalgia, what are some of your favorite holiday memories or traditions?
As a kid, I always loved Christmas. I had really good Christmases. My parents got divorced when I was 10, so I always had two Christmases. [laughs] That was weird at first but ended up being really fun, because you got to open up double gifts. If you were tired of one parent, you could always go to the other. At the same time, I’ve definitely had years that were not great. Sometimes, if you’re depressed or when life isn’t where you want it to be, the holidays can be the opposite of what they’re supposed to be. You’re supposed to be happy, in the moment and enjoying being with your family, but ultimately, you’re like, “But my life outside of this is not what I want.” So, it’s hard to just relax.