Perhaps this is a fairly unconventional manner of starting an interview, but, as a writer, I would like to take a moment to apologize to readers for the following interview. Nashville natives Scott Tyler and Mallory Graham of folk duo The Rough and Tumble are two of the most genuine, personable individuals to ever grace No Country with an interview, but the truth is that the written word simply cannot convey the warmth and charm the two exude. The two have an infectious habit of finishing each other’s sentences and thoughts, which inevitably creates a feeling of warmth in the conversation and tone of voice that needs to be heard firsthand. Unfortunately, this interview was conducted in the crowded back room of Fido’s Coffee Shop and not in the controlled environment of a recording studio, making necessary this written transcription. Read ahead to discover one of Nashville’s rising folk acts thoughts on Talk like a Pirate Day, using turn signals (or the lack thereof), and how they defined their image as artists and creators.
On a lighter note, readers can hear their voices by checking out their video for “Not Polite”, which is embedded just below the jump. Alternatively, navigate your web browsers their official website or their Bandcamp page to listen to all of their newest releases, including the tracks from their Holiday Awareness campaign. Hint: their Bandcamp has a few free tunes up for all you frugal folks.
NO COUNTRY FOR NEW NASHVILLE: It’s our understanding that the two of you just returned from a string of out town shows. Would you care to tell us how that went?
SCOTT TYLER: It was great. We had a couple college shows, and we performed in Oklahoma City for the first time, which as far west as we’ve gotten.
MALLORY GRAHAM: We played with Samantha Crain, which was great. I got so sick we had to cancel our first show, though.
ST: We felt a little bad, but not as bad as if…
MG: …we had actually played that show. My fever actually broke on stage during a show at a college in Louisville, KY. Plus I was having to drink hot water since my throat hurt and I was on stage.
NO COUNTRY: We’re really sorry to hear that. Hopefully you’re doing well now. Backtracking a little bit, you mentioned that you played Oklahoma City, which is as far west as you’ve been. We understand you have an October tour that will bring you all the way out to California, what’s that going to be like?
MG: We’re really excited. I’ve never driven across the country before. Actually, I probably won’t. Scott will probably do all the driving. [laughs]. But no, I think it’s the same as breaking into new territory. We were really freaked out last year when we went up to New England; it was new territory for the band. It felt like probably the scariest thing we’ve done. But then when we got there and played, we made some fans, and it was great. Every time we break into a new territory, we might not always get to play the biggest shows, but it’s rewarding.
ST: At this point, a lot of the places we go to we aren’t connected with any bands that locals would have heard of. So at a certain point we kind of start to wonder, how do you interest people?
MG: I think we’ve found the answer is just to keep showing up, which is what we’ve been doing.
ST: Exactly. By the second or third time people seem to think they’ve heard of us even if they haven’t. Or at least that’s how it’s worked out for us.
NO COUNTRY: That’s certainly an admirable strategy. Between playing all these shows, are you guys working on any new material or just promoting what you’ve already created?
ST: Absolutely. At the beginning of 2013, we embarked on this really lofty goal..
MG: …that also turned into a commitment, since we told a lot of people about it before we started. So then we felt like we had to do it…
ST: …it’s called the Rough and Tumble Holiday Awareness Campaign, in which we write, record, and digitally release…
MG: …two songs a month for the entirety of 2013.
ST: The songs are based around specific holidays. Other than Christmas and Thanksgiving. We’re sick of those. [laughs].
MG: Two weeks ago we finished writing all of the songs, finally. So we have 24 songs ready to release. We’re actually going in for some emergency recording soon though, as one of the songs we just wrote works much better for Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19th) than the one we originally had planned. You can’t help what you write.
ST: That’s kind of been the way we’ve approached these songs. Like we write them and find a holiday that they fit. Though for some of them, like Valentine’s Day and New Years, we intentionally sat down to write a Valentine’s or a New Year’s song. So those were the exceptions.
NO COUNTRY: So this Holiday Awareness Campaign, it’s just one of many campaigns you guys have going. What are some of those, and how are they going?
ST: Besides the Holiday Awareness Campaign, we also have the Internet Awareness Campaign, which is us taking pictures of our audience holding up a sign.
MG: We then post those to our Facebook, making people aware of the internet. Well, I guess making them aware of our specific slice of the internet.
ST: We also have the Save the United Postal Service campaign, which is a really legitimate campaign. The Postal Service is not doing so well, and need all the help they can get.
MG: So we have Rough and Tumble postcards for that, which I guess is really just a service for the Postal Service.
ST: The idea is that someone will get a postcard that says “I saw the Rough and Tumble. They were really great. Here’s where you can go to download some music.” And we pay for the postage.
We also have the Don’t Take Down Your Christmas Lights campaign, which started a year ago when Mallory electrocuted herself on some christmas lights.
MG: Okay, okay. Scott likes to say it like that but the reality is that Scott kept stepping on Christmas lights and not informing me they were broken, so when I set up the merch table, my hand clamped down on some Christmas lights.
ST: We printed up some t-shirts with Christmas lights on them and also our name. So the idea is that people would not take their Christmas lights down and always wear the T-shirt, that just so happens to be a Rough and Tumble shirt.
MG: It’s a safer, not electrical way of hanging up your Christmas lights. We also have the I Always Use My Turn Signal campaign, which was one of first campaigns but still the latest to develop.
ST: We’re going to print up bumper stickers that we place on people’s bumpers when we think they are either bad drivers or actively don’t use their turn signals.
MG: Right, so when they see the sticker, they think about the fact that their bumper says they always use their turn signal, so then they feel obligated to use their turn signal. It’s kind of piggy backing on the Keep a Folk Band Alive on the Road campaign…
ST:…which is really the entire campaign. That’s all of the campaigns summed up. [laughs].
MG: These started out one time while we were on stage playfully bantering. Somehow the idea came up that we should do a campaign, and we just went with it. It was during election year, so we might have gotten a little excited.
ST: I’m not even sure how these songs would be released as traditional albums if we weren’t campaigning. It was a huge dare for us, especially the Holiday Awareness Campaign.
MG: Both Scott and I are people who love creating for the sake of creating, but we also need an outlet to show people what we’ve created. So the Holiday Awareness Campaign has been a huge test to see if we can write 24 songs that are actually releasable. It also ended up being a very fun project.
NO COUNTRY: It’s such a unique approach to getting your name out there. Have you found people respond positively to these campaigns?
ST: People listen to the songs, I think [laughs]. It shows in our statistics that people are listening to the songs.
MG: There’s a few people that have gotten really on board with the Holiday Awareness campaign. But I think it’ll really get exciting at the end of this year, when we have all of the songs in a single, packaged format. We already have our 3 previous EPs in packaged format, but the songs we’re playing now are the Holiday songs, and you can’t walk home from one of our shows with the full set yet.
ST: We’re also thinking about packaging them as calendars, with all sorts of holiday themed extras. So the real campaigning starts in 2014, when we actually can start selling these to people while we work on our next project.
NO COUNTRY: In a complete different vein, we love your lyricism and writing, even for things as simple as the descriptions on your website. Who does those and how do they get created?
MG: Yes [laughs]. Sometimes we’ll write it together in the same room, and other times one of us will work on something and the other will go in and help later on. It’s pretty much 50/50.
ST: It’s the weirdest thing. I don’t think we had similar writing styles before we started the Rough and Tumble, but as soon as we started writing for the Rough and Tumble, we found this common language.
MG: We’re of the same brain [laughs]. I’m not sure if I would go quite that far.
NO COUNTRY: Having heard your music and having met you two, part of the reason we think you’ve been experiencing success is because you’re both verbose, intelligent people. Have you found that people have engaged with your music in a different way than maybe some of the less intellectual bands on the market?
MG: Yeah, actually. I just got a text from my Aunt Tammy, who I haven’t seen in almost two decades. I’ve only ever met her once. But anyways, this text she sent said “You guys have the most intense lyrics. I finally got around to listening to you for the first time.” She really took hold of this, even though we only met once before. Sure it’s family, but that was the first thing she responded with when she finally heard what we’re doing.
We’ve also cowrote with this guy, who actually contacted us at first because he wanted a murder ballet, but not just any murder ballet. He contacted us cause he wanted something more substantial and thoughtful. I think for a lot of people, after they’ve gotten past the first layer of quirk and folk, the next thing they connect with is the lyrics. And they connect with it in ways that are often totally different than what we intended to write. People regularly approach me asking me if I had a hard time with my dad or mom, or whatever, and the reality is that they’re just projecting their own hard times on to our music.
ST: Yeah and that happens even when the songs have nothing to do with that.
MG: Exactly. I think that’s one of my favorite things about our songs: people tend to find what they need, and not necessarily what we wrote.
ST: It definitely makes for a more collaborative listen. It’s a lot of fun to see these lyrics change their meaning entirely based simply on who’s listening to them at the moment.
NO COUNTRY: We think that’s a huge part of the reason why you guys have found the success you have; allowing the listeners to find themselves in the music rather than forcing your specific message across is something few bands do anymore. How do you go about writing songs in that manner?
ST: I think the premise we’ve been operating under is that the more specific the lyric, the more universal it actually is. The more detailed and personal a lyric is, within reason, the more people actually see a real person and can imagine that room or person or whatever we’re writing about.
MG: It’s because we describe these specific days that sound so particular at first, but most people have actually experienced a day like that.
ST: Another tactic we’ve used is that less is more. We leave things out sometimes.
NO COUNTRY: You guys seem to position yourself as a smaller, down to earth artists. You’re definitely your everyday musicians, which puts you in a unique position to connect with your audience through those specific examples. We don’t wish this upon you by any means, but have you ever thought about the possibility that as The Rough and Tumble gains momentum, you guys might start to lose that touch?
ST: I think I’ve been a little bit afraid of that. I think it comes down being afraid that I might get bored of what we’re doing.
MG: Yeah, I have been afraid that things might get rote. But it goes in cycles, no feeling is forever. We have played songs I feel no attachment to whatsoever, but then two months later when we play the song again for the first time, it’s kind of nostalgic. That then translates to our performance. I think a huge part of being a performer and a musician is, well, performing. Maybe I don’t feel an attachment to a certain song at this particular moment, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to perform it that way. The more you act like you love a song, the more in love with that song you eventually become. That also applies to people: the more we try to love the people we’re playing too, the more in love we’ll be with the people we play to.
ST: Absolutely. That I think is really what every musician is trying to do with writing and performing songs. We’re all just trying to open up and enjoy what we’re doing and find ways to love the little details more. I think the fear of becoming rote is actually just the fear of not loving and not feeling as much as you used to.
NO COUNTRY: This is going to sound a lot harsher than we mean to, but that almost sounds like you’re employing a “fake it till you make it” approach for certain aspects of it. Have you ever felt like that’s how you guys became the Rough and Tumble, or was is that image something you innately found yourself in?
MG: I think we actually found ourselves in it, and then worked to take off the rougher edges. The whole “fake it till you make it” thing does sound harsh, but I think it’s a real thing. I think it’s what you do with friends and family. You don’t always want to be around the same person all the time, but you act like you do. You know deep down you love this person. I think being able to “fake it till you make it” is a really important part of being human and doing what you love.
ST: I mean obviously there’s limits. You still need a large degree of sincerity to be successful. As the Rough and Tumble, things came together really naturally. We’ve been writing together for years, but just on each other’s solo stuff. Mallory was a rock and roller and I was doing the singer songwriter thing. But when we came together and started writing as the Rough and Tumble, it just started to flow. We would bring each other songs and discuss whether or not they were Rough and Tumble songs.
MG: We know; innately we just knew which songs were Rough and Tumble songs and which weren’t. We actually made a set of rules for our band, and one of the main rules was no idea is a bad idea and you have to try it till you can’t. We made that because we had both been hurt in writing situations in the past. So when one of us wrote a song, we would try it until it either worked or was incredibly obvious we couldn’t keep going with that song. There was never the opportunity for someone to say right off the bat whether a song was a Rough and Tumble song or not. I think by not allowing any idea to be a bad idea, at least initially, that helped to define who we were as the Rough and Tumble.
ST: Hopefully that idea that no idea is a bad idea will also help the Rough and Tumble maintain some consistency, even if we change as writers. I think it allows us to be both in control and out of control of the ideas that captivate us.
NO COUNTRY: Have you found that as you’ve spent more time writing as the Rough and Tumble, you’ve honed in your writing and have less songs that are ultimately decided not to fit as a Rough and Tumble song?
MG: I feel like it’s very natural when we write now. There have been very few things that we still flat out reject as not Rough and Tumble.
ST: We’re each, to varying degrees, thinking creatively and enjoying using words in other situations, but now we kind of know what would work and what doesn’t.
MG: Exactly. If I write a really circusy song, I’m not going to bring it to the Rough and Tumble, just like if Scott writes something that sounds like Tom Petty, he’s not going to try and pass it as a Rough and Tumble song. It’s not that we haven’t tried; it just doesn’t happen [laughs].
NO COUNTRY: How exactly have you guys changed as writers and defined yourself since the start of the Rough and Tumble?
MG: I think we’re a little more ragged, right [laughs]? I think it’s a little less naive, and it’s a lot more focused now. I think in the beginning, we aren’t exactly sure we were writing about as much, so we were just casting out these lines in songs that we loved the feel of and focused a lot on songwriting, like if a line is more of a chorus or a hook. Now we focus much less on the mechanics of songwriting and instead just use what naturally comes out; our lyrics are becoming more focused since we know better what we’re writing about when we write it.
ST: The songs are also just pouring out more freely than they used to. In the beginning there used to be writing sessions were we felt like we never wanted to write another song again, but that hasn’t really happened much recently.
MG: I was actually thinking about that the other day. I believe we’ve reached the point that Scott and I could go into a room for awhile and walk out with a song if we wanted. That’s the craziest idea to me, and it wasn’t something present in the very beginning. But now we’re a lot more confident in our writing and with each other, and I think that shows up a lot in the songs. They aren’t quite as timid.
NO COUNTRY: On the more technical side of songwriting, do you guys tend to write lyrics or harmonies first, or is it simply random?
MG: I have no idea which happens first [laughs]. They’ve been coming at exactly the same time, it’s really weird. We’ve written in a lot of different ways though.
ST: Recently, we’ve just been sitting down, and songs have just been coming out incredibly naturally.
NO COUNTRY: It’s been a real pleasure talking to you guys. Do you have any final messages for fans and readers?
MG: We really love our mothers.
ST: We do, it comes up in a lot of our songs. [laughs].
While this stellar folk duo has not announced any upcoming Nashville dates, you can catch them all across the country in their upcoming tour of the west. Of course, we at No Country will be sure to let you know the next time the Rough and Tumble play around town. In the meantime, check out some music via their Bandcamp.