It's not every day you interview one of your favorite bands from your late teens. Add to that the fact that The National Lights called it quits more than a decade ago, and the notion seems nearly fantastical. Yet, get back together they did, to offer the gorgeous new EP that is Whom the Sea Will Keep. Culled from old sketches of songs to form something new, the brief record is a special moment that nearly never happened. I could go on as to their history, and the origins of these new songs, but the band does so far better in their own words.

For such an exciting chat, things began in a low key manner, with Sonya Cotton, responsible for the band's memorable harmonies, dialing in first. We chatted about having linked up via email years ago after a CDBaby purchase while we waited for Jacob Berns, the band's lyricist, and Chris Kiehne, their primary musician, to join in. Once we were all on the line, we dived right in. Read on below.

Editor's Note: Due to the particularly lengthy nature of this extended dialogue, this piece has been divided into two parts. Tune back in soon for Part Two!


So. For fans that have followed since your original album, this project returning will feel quite special. How did it feel for you all, resuming something once thought long ended?

Jacob: I don't think I saw it as over. It'd been put on hold, I'll let Chris, you know, give his take, but I think within the last year or so, we put our differences aside, and it had just been lingering, and it felt like ti needed to just get wrapped up. We were both ready to kind of move on, you know?

Chris: I think you can go back even further than that. It's not on the EP, but I remember the first song that Jacob wrote for what would become this project was written [pauses] you know, 10 years ago. Before Dead Will Walk, Dear had even come out. I remember you [Jacob] walking around the apartment playing it. So it's definitely, there was sort of like 5 years where, you know, Jacob was working...I guess it was part of the time where Jacob was working alone, before it became a collective project again.

Ok, so, jumping around, but you guys kind of led into this for me. I remember way back when, I would actually be checking The National Lights website for updates on this project. The album, or EP, name is the same, if memory serves.

Jacob: Yep, yeah, same title.

I was always checking, hoping, 'Oh man, are they gonna do album #2. So, considering that you've held on the project for so long, has any of the material written when it was first conceived survived, or are they songs we're hearing things that spring from the ashes?

Jacob: No, actually, all 5 of the tracks that made this EP were originally part of that. They were all part of it. Originally it was going to be a full-length, I think, in my mind anyway. I'd written probably 10 to 12 songs for it. I don't even know if Chris has heard all of those, I had demos.

Chris: Yeah, I remember some of them. That's pretty fucked up, man, I haven't even heard all of the songs! [Laughs] We might have to get on that post-interview. There are just some character motivation issues, gaps that could have been filled in for me.

Jacob: Well, I think you leave that, submerged under the water. [Both laugh] So, yeah, those 5, I think that originally, at least I'd thought, even as it started getting pared back a little bit, and some of the songs fell off, and realized that it was actually gonna be shorter than a full length album, I really want to share some of the other songs, that were earmarked to be on this, but as it came down to the end, with Chris wrapping up the recording, it really seemed like these 5 came into focus. The others just didn't seem like...they didn't quite fit anymore. We need an opportunity to get those at there at some point, if there's interest in that. But I think the result is...I'm happy with these 5 songs.

So you've somewhat already answered this, but how exactly did you decide to pare it down from an LP to an EP? Was it purely the stronger songs?

Jacob: Yeah...and please, guys, jump in here. But partly I think it was the songs that were stronger, the ones that kind of fit well with one another. Then there was also just the basic logistics issue as well, where we were on opposite coasts now, and Sonya is in Utah, and we're all kind of dispersed. Getting together to record would have been very difficult, re-recording tracks, and doing this all by email, would have been a bit of a challenge. So there was that to consider. I think, if you give it enough distance, you can start looking at it a little bit more objectively. And some of the songs that I thought were really strong, or were really amused with some sort of cleverness, then I could see that maybe they weren't truly so strong or so clever, or exactly what I was really going for. Yeah. Time really provides that perspective, and 10 years certainly allows you a lot of that.

So were you guys at all in the studio together, or was this entirely a Postal Service type affair?

Chris: No studio time, no shared time. I mean Jacob and I haven't seen each other in person...[trails off], what would that be? 2008? Maybe over 10 years actually.

Jacob: 12 years?

Chris: Crazy. *Jesus.* So, yeah, no shared studio time. All correspondence.

Is it kind of a bizarre feeling? To come back together as a group without, well, coming back together?

Chris: Well, I think it's great. Hi, Sonya, how are you doing?

Sonya: Hi guys! How are you doing? I'm...I'm a little bit sick. So I might be quiet, my voice is lower than normal.

Same here, team sick.

Sonya: Oh, I'm sorry. Yeah! No fun.

So have you seen either of them more recently than they've seen each other?

Sonya: Yeah, I think I saw...the last two times I hung out with Chris, I was six month pregnant, both times. [Laughs] This past year, and two years before that. I have not seen Jacob for, I guess, gosh, a really long time. I long secretly for a reunion release show, but I haven't put that out there yet. I have no idea if there's any chance that will possibly happen, but I think that'd be super fun!

You guys gotta tour.

Chris: We should do it in Greenland or something.

Jacob: Switzerland?

Sonya: I think either of those locations.

Chris: I was thinking about this when I was working on Sonya's last record. We were making music together from like 18 to 22. And although Jacob and I have definitely been in bands apart before that, so much of, for me at least, so much of everything that I learned about being in band, about writing songs, those were really formative years, where the language was developed. To get back into that language with the two people that I functionally developed into record making vocabulary, vernacular, whatever, ti was pretty easy for me.

Sonya: Yeah, I relate to that. It's interesting to think 'why was that?' Why was that quite so easy? And yeah it probably has to do with what a formative time it was for all of us, yeah.

Chris: It was also, I will say, you know, Jacob, not to air your dirty laundry or whatever, but when we made Dead Will Walk, Dear, Jacob and I in particular at the time were real...perfectionists. We wanted to get everything perfect, and we didn't have the technology at the time to splice stuff together, so it's one thing to do this remotely. But when we were recording Dead Will Walk, and someone would be recording in the other room, like Jacob would be recording a guitar part, and you'd suddenly hear an agonizing scream, because you'd make it 2 minutes and 22 seconds into a 2 minute and 30 second take...and, you know, at 21, that was a real emotional struggle for us together. This time we could suffer in solitude.

So you led into this for me, not to go too far into it, but how did things originally kind of come apart?

Chris: So who wants to take this one? [Sonya laughs]

Jacob: I'll start, I guess. In college, it seemed, I don't know, it felt like there was a lot of pressure that we placed upon ourselves to get things just right. I think part of that was releasing a "first album". I think we'd all recorded songs before, and released songs before, but for me anyway, I was in a band in high school, and Chris was, too, we'd burn CDs and give them out to people, but this felt like the first one. We had put a lot of pressure to get it right. And Chris is being very generous. I think I am probably the most anal, and I certainly was then, about getting things just so. I really did believe in what we were doing together, and the collaboration, and all that, and I wanted to put the best foot forward. All that said, we were in college, and it still felt very...coming together felt really effortless in a lot of ways. It made a lot of sense. In my mind, college confused that in a lot of ways. Post-college you start figuring things out, so I think that, this is only one piece of it, but we all had different plans, right? I had always intended on going to grad school, and did that, I never intended to move all the way to the West Coast, that was a total surprise. Certainly did not intend to stay here for almost 10 years, but, but that was part of it. I'll say one more thing, I don't wanna monopolize the time here, but we did spend al oto f time together, and I think spending a lot time together, there's a lot of good that comes with that, and a lot of kind of, well, bad that can come from that. Frustrations become amplified, we were spending a *lot* of time together through that recording process, and then lived together, briefly, in Philadelphia as we were preparing for this tour that we were going on. Sonya, Chris, feel free to jump in, but I...think that spending all that time together it took a bit of a toll. I certainly wasn't the easiest person to work with through that, those things add up. I think it was, we were in St. Petersburg, and we played a show, and it just didn't click. It didn't go well. I think that was kind of the point at which the past fractured...I can't imagine that we would have...there's something nice in thinking about if we'd stay together all these intervening years, but we were able to move in our directions. I certainly think living together in that little apartment wasn't going to be a tenable situation anyway.

Chris: Yeah, we were in college. We were very significant parts of each other's lives already. Sonia and I had a relationship, friends with Jacob, we were all playing instruments together, we were all already very intensively involved in each other's lives. That was in college, and fast forward, and we're 22, and none of us really had any idea what we wanted to do with our lives, and there were 3 months we were pretty much the only 3 people each other saw. Like Jacob said, it could have gone a different way...but it didn't. It was just an intense window of time. I personally felt like I had no idea what I was going to be doing, I don't know if Sonya or Jacob had any more clarity at the moment. Whatever it had been, it was a tumultuous, tempestuous time.

Sonya: Yeah, I'd always say...I really agree with the point that, in a time from college to post-college, it's difficult in a lot of ways. I remember feeling really disoriented, and that time of life was really challenging. Like my entire life from the time that I have memories you're put in school, and then suddenly you're not, you're in the world. I think we were all navigating that moment together, in this sort of pressure cooker situation, all living together, trying to go on a tour. So, yeah, the cards were kind of stacked. Then, another thing I've reflected on over the years, interpersonal communication, interpersonal conflict, is not something that we're taught. Or, at least, in my culture growing up. It's something you have to learn trial by fire, and I think we're surely all better dealers with conflict and communicators now in our 30s than we were in our early 20s. If all of those things were to play out exactly the same way now, being who we are now, with the life experiences we've had, it would go differently, but that's maturity level we had at the time, that's how it all went.

Chris: I think maybe the root of...I know this is a not helpful way to explain why a band broke up, but I think we were incompatible problem solvers. We couldn't handle conflict at the time.

[I relate a story of the album bridging cultures while traveling on Jeju Island, Korea]

Sonya: Awwww.

Chris: That is the most wholesome story regarding that record I possibly imagine. I can't... That record was conceived with cheap, cheap, cheap gin and cheap orange juice and watching unnameable 80's slasher movies. So if something like that came out of that record I feel...great.

Jacob: Thank you for sharing that. That's a pretty incredible story.

Chris: Look we're all like 36, 34, 35, none of us are...rolling in musically financed...funds. The three of us have just reached the point where we feel a lot of gratitude that someone could have a relationship with a record we were involved with [Sonya: *Yeah.*] like the relationships we had with records in the time we were fell in love with each other, with music, that serious personal relationship with a record. So that's an incredible thing. I forget which track is this, but I saw in some bar I think, and there was a movie on the television, called Angus, and the third scene, I remember this so vividly, the love song they played, that's one of my earliest memories of Jacob.

Sonya: *What?*

Chris: It's just this scene with powerful emotional connections to the song, and it's one of the first things I remember about from my friendship with Jacob is talking about those things.

Dead Will Walk is certainly one of those records for me.

Chris: What's your favorite song?

That's a brutal question.

Jacob: Putting you on the spot, man.

Chris: [jokingly] 'Name one song.' [Laughs]

It might be a standard answer, but 'Swimming in the Swamp', and the way it leads into 'Killing Swallows', they're just the perfect one, two punch as a closing salvo.

Chris: 'Swimming in the Swamp' came together really...if I remember correctly it was the last one to come together.

Jacob: It was, that and 'Killing Swallows', that's really telling. I think it wasn't too long after that where we started getting focused on ocean narratives, and these people living in a boat, alone, going around the world. These romantic type notions about the ocean. It wasn't too long after that I was fixated on that, so those songs, are much more closely related to the songs on the EP than maybe even the others songs from Dead Will Walk, Dear.

I can see that, but I always felt the line on the last track, 'You'll hate me when this is over,' I believe, played into the rest of the LP. So, on that, I feel like your songs tend to tap into this almost fantastical...perhaps not so much fantastical, but certainly deeply romantic notion. Take the EP, as you said, the ocean, and this whole 'I'm in a whale ship' concept and Dead Will Walk dealing with young love and murder, these grand romantic ideas, but you use them to tap into something deeply personal and "real". I suppose there's not really a question in there. [Laughs]

Chris: Well, I appreciate it.

Jacob: I tend to get fixated on these things, and learning about them, even when I'll have a drink of choice, that will be *my* drink for an extended period of time. I'll focus on something and kind of see it through. It's really hard to...even as you're so focused on that thing, it's hard to divorce from the rest of what's going on from it. It's kind of weird to think about the songwriting process in this kind of retrospective way, but starting from these points of fixation and working into things that you know more about, using that as the entry point into exploring something a little bit more familiar. I can see that, for sure.

So when did you guys first start recording again?

Chris: Jacob recorded the basic tracks in Virginia, right?

Jacob: Yep, yep, that was a while ago. 2008 or 09.

Chris: And that would have been just the vocals, guitar, and banjo, and I guess you had done some stuff on ukulele, as well. If I remember it loosely, Jacob recorded these basic tracks, and he and I had less conversations about what he was doing. At the time The National Lights was just going to become the name that Jacob recorded under, and there was no idea that Sonya and I would be involved. And I'm not sure quite what happened, Sonya might have been moving schools, but it became more clear that there was no immediate plan for the future, and I was moving back to Baltimore, so I was like, 'whatev, ya know, I'll take a swing.' And then Sonya, I guess, owed us both favors or something. [laughs]

Sonya: Wait, what?

Chris: I don't know. (laughs) But at first it was just Jacob.

I didn't realize that these songs themselves were from so long ago - I had assumed you were simply revisiting the concept. So, how did it feel to kind of reclaim these ideas from a time gone by?

Jacob: Well, I think...these are the same songs in the sense that the lyrics haven't changed, the chord progressions haven't changed, but I went back and I listened to some of the iterations of this EP from the last five years, and I'm not sure when the last time that you Chris, or you Sonya, have heard these, but they feel completely different in many ways, totally different songs. (Sonya: yeah.) I'm really grateful that there was this amount of time. It's too bad that it took this long for us all to get on the phone together and be talking about this, because this too feels very effortless, but I think that 10 years was totally essential to getting the songs to this point, so, while they were written and much of it was, some of it anyway, was recorded a decade ago, almost, they still feel really kind of new, and very present for me. It doesn't feel like what we ended up with is wrapping up these loose ends from so long ago. A lot of it feels very current, a lot of the ideas that Chris and I were exchanging via email, those are new ideas, that happened, in some cases, just in the final month or so before we finally put a bow on this EP. I'm curious how Chris and Sonya feel about it, coming in after hearing some of these tracks so long ago, but that's kinda my take on it.

Sonya: Can I go next? Because I actually will have to go, sadly. I have a little baby. I remember that...I'd seen Chris consistently over the years, I remember being in your apartment and you playing some of Jacob's songs for me, and even that was maybe 7 years ago, and I remember thinking, "Wow, I'm really glad Jake is making music and that you guys are collaborating", but I wasn't overly blown over the way I was when you played these current mixes. I don't know the specific process of how the songs changed from then until when I jumped in late in the game, but they had just evolved into feeling like, um, so transporting and gorgeous, and I just couldn't wait to be a part of it, I was so excited. I am really, really happy with how it's turned out. So, yeah. I hear what Jacob's saying, it seems like this time was needed to get the album to the place where it is.

Chris: Yeah, I mean, we didn't have Sonya's harmonies on it, and what's a National Lights or Chris Kiehne record without those? We didn't have those until this past summer, I think. But, yeah, those add so much to it, and Jacob and I hadn't thought about that ina while, but we had these versions, where it was an almost finished EP, as early as 4 or 5 years ago, and almost all those parts were scrapped and redone or rearranged.

Sonya: Oh. It's been a pleasure talking to you guys, sorry to bow out early! Bye Jacob, bye Chris, bye Chase!

Chris: See ya, buddy.

And then there were two. So, where did the inspiration for these songs come from. Are any of you into sailing at all?

Jacob: Well, obviously some of these characters were real people. Joshua Slocum was the first person to sail alone around the world. And he wrote this really beautiful log of his journey and published it as Sailing Alone Around the World, and it's definitely worth picking up. That was one of the main things that I was reading at the time. Listening to shanties, reading a lot of good, and some really bad, poetry about the ocean. And really just kind of reading whatever I could get my hands down. I've pared down my nautical library at this point, but it had ballooned at the time to being ridiculous, so a lot of my writing was inspired by what I was reading at the time. The Whaleship Essex - I really like that song, it's probably my favorite on the EP, and it almost got cut.

Chris: I think, again, that's one of those that came together at the last minute. I'm eager to admit now it's one of my favorites as well, but it was one of those just wasn't making sense for, well, years. Then, all of sudden, it just locked in, over a weekend.

Jacob: Yeah, that came together real quickly, for sure. Or, not quickly. [both laugh] But I remember the last few emails we exchanged about that song, it just lasted an afternoon, and a few hours later you'd sent over the first 30 seconds of the song with a whole new piano track over it, and it soon as I heard that swell at the beginning, and before it came in, I realized that that had been better than what I'd been waiting to hear and trying to describe. I don't know, it was exactly hoping for without knowing what I was wanting.

Chris: That was a song that started out very different. I remember some of the language in the emails I was using, I was literally saying, "I will give it *one* last try and then we gotta drop it." And then with the piano thinking, 'Ok, this was the try that needed to happen.'

So how much, if anything, is autobiographical?

Jacob: Well, I think that it's impossible to divorce yourself entirely from the writing, and I think it'd be unwise to do that. You need to bring actual experiences and emotions to what you're working on. And I haven't written - or, I haven't *finished* a song, in a long time, but I'm constantly writing. So I think that while I love boats, and I've been on boats a couple of times, but I'm terrified of the ocean. The expanse of it is terrifying, right? And the solitude, I was trying to write about this a little bit, as I was writing about a couple of these songs for their premieres, buti t doesn't matter how many people you're with when you're on a boat looking out over the ocean. You could be surrounded by all your family and friends, a ton of people behind you, but you're still looking out over the railing towards the ocean and the horizon, and there's a solitude you feel, that I feel, anyway, the vastness of it makes you feel so small, and so alone in those moments. Those are the moments that are ripe for introspection, gaining perspective, looking at yourself or at experiences in different ways, so I'm kind of talking around a little bit, but I think there are common themes that emerge that weren't written into it with them in mind, but albums and stories are all stronger for having themes naturally as opposed to writing them onto the song or story, like wedging them in there, those themes, regret, uncertainty, these things that are connected to that perspective that the ocean kind of affords. Certainly I have my fair share of regrets, we've talked about a few of them today, you really can't divorce yourself from it. In a sense there's autobiography in each of these songs, even if I'm writing looking at Joshua Slocum's life, the writer is still in the writing. There's still truth I guess with a capital T, or however you wanna put it, that's there, but yeah, I'm not killing whales. I'm a vegetarian. [chuckles]

Do you see the EP as kind of an open-ended narrative, or do you think the characters reach a conclusion?

Jacob: What do you think, Chris?

Chris: That's interesting. I actually don't really see this EP as being a single narrator, in the sense that I do still hear Dead Will Walk, Dear when I hear it. I do still the impression of a narrator, but I get different narratives. Still, exactly as Jacob was talking about, they have this sort of shared emotional landscape that surges through them. That's not surprising as Jacob has been working primarily in fiction for the past decade. But, yes, interconnected landscapes, but not so much a shared narrative. There's this sense of resolution in so far as you're looking at an emotional narrative, but not so much, for me, thinking of a narrator going on a particular close-circuited venture, ya know?

Jacob: Yeah, I agree. These songs feel much more distinct from one another than Dead Will Walk, Dear. There's much more's almost just thematic, vs. Dead which is interconnected and feels like specific characters and narrative. Each of these songs have their own worlds and stories. They're certainly not all resolved.

As a listener I'm surprised to hear you say, Chris, that you find this record to be connected to Dead Will Walk, they feel so distinct, with that record having a particular emotional journey.

Chris: Purely out of genuine curiosity, what do you get from Dead Will Walk?

Loss. There's plenty going on, but an overall sense of young love leading to aching loss.

Chris: I don't want to speak for Jacob, but at the time we were so lost in our songwriting, our methods were so locked in and in sync at that time, Jacob was writing Dead Will Walk, I was working on my own zombie record, even Sonya was working on a slightly less conceptual thing, um, certainly, as Jacob was saying earlier, the end goal at the time was to use inherited or stolen horror movie archetypal narratives to try and find some core emotional threads that run through them. So, yeah, that certainly would mean that the record was successful if it what's taken away from it is the ideological or emotional response...some of the reviews at the time that kind of missed what we'd hoped for were really, really exclusively locked in on the serial murder narrative, which isn't even prominently there, it's only hinted at. We were talking earlier about being 21 and 22, and how things could have gone differently, and just starting out as kids, the reviews could really destabilize you.

I remember - I wasn't a writer at the time, just a reader - but I remember some reviews feeling like they didn't bother peering beneath the very surface, and it really bothered me. Again, for what it's worth, those of us who found the album and spent time with it truly found something.

Jacob: And that's worth a lot. Again, at the time, we were living together, and you could just walk across the hall and knock on someone's door and start working through lyrics and ideas, that was the big idea, thinking about people listening and somehow finding something, whether it was grace or hope or some sort of connection.

I remember, Chris, Pray for Daylight, is that your record you were referring to?

Chris: Yep, that's the one I pretty much wrote concurrently with Dead Will Walk, and we were recording a Sonya record, and my record, and Jacob's record, pretty much all together, and when we did that your, we were kind of touring - it was a different era, with the band name - but we were touring pretty much as a variety show, insofar as we were playing all our songs. A National Lights set, a Chris Kiehne set, and then kind of it all mixed together as a big jumble. Backtracking a bit, but actually, with Dead Will Walk we dodged a bullet - almost right after we'd finished putting it together, everything from my project and that project were stored on my external, and 3 or 4 months after we finished Dead Will Walk, it just kind of tanked. If it had happened prior to us putting it out, we would have just lost it, as I did with about 1/2 of Pray for Daylight. Dead Will Walk, Dear narrowly missed a catastrophic expulsion from the universe.

Well, I'm sure we're all glad that didn't happen! Back to the current EP: with 'Whaleship Essex', there's the line, I believe, that he's going out for "ocean lore" and glory and the like. He's leaving love behind, which is arguably the crux of the song, so do you find what he's doing to be worthwhile, or just his ego?

Jacob: This could be a really long one. [Dry laugh] 'Whaleship Essex' is, too, a true story, this incident of this whale capsizing the boat as in the song, that actually did happen, and that was prior to Herman Melville writing Moby Dick, and there's been evidence that he's read some of the survivor's accounts of the event. Then there's the novel, and the Ron Howard film that tells the story. I've lost the title, but it's by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Chris: That's gonna bother me, I'm gonna look it up real quick. In the Heart of the Sea!

Jacob: That's it! Well, this song has a lot less of the CGI, ya know. So, for that, I think, the line you're talking about, the lore, in my mind anyway, has two totally different meanings depending on which chorus you're listening to. That initial chorus is much more hopeful, it is an adventure, going out there, with young men, some on their 1st voyage, part of this economy and community that existed, I believe, in the Nantucket area, and there's this adventure and lore they're pursuing, then, of course, between that first chorus and the second, they are attacked by the whale, they're 200, 250, or maybe even more out from any sight of land, and they're left stranded there, and forced to do these things, where you think, 'What would you do to survive?' And you find the answer to that question, and this is a rather extreme circumstance, and this lore is completely different from the romantic pursuit of glory and camaraderie, and all of those things that come with going out on this whaling voyage. So, those two meanings, I think, totally change.


Check back soon for the rest of the conversation!