7th Annual Yule Benefit: Interview with Grand Hallway

photo by Kyle Johnson

photo by Kyle Johnson

On Saturday, December 12, KEXP presents the 7th annual Yule Benefit with a great lineup including two bands from Portland and two from Seattle: representing the Rose City, The Thermals and the ghostly The Builders and The Butchers, and hometown heroes The Cave Singers and Grand Hallway.

The Seattle Symphony better watch out because 8-piece indie orchestral band Grand Hallway may just steal their stringed spotlight. Made up of members of some of KEXP’s favorites like The Maldives and Voyager One, singer/songwriter Tomo Nakayama (formerly of Asahi and Jen Wood Trio) is the mastermind behind the group’s soaring melodies and passion-filled lyrics (think romantic orchestral experience without the snooty attitude or lavish dinner attire). With two releases and several full-blown U.S. and Japanese tours, playing alongside musicians like Shearwater, Damien Jurado and Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes) to name a few, Grand Hallway is finally coming out of the shadows and showing this city just what they’re made of – beautiful, heart-felt music. Their West coast tour for new album Promenade will kick off in December, ending with their Yule Benefit performance before they set off for Japan. I had the chance to catch Nakayama in the midst of Grand Hallway’s transitory period between completing Promenade and hitting the road.

How’s the release of Promenade going so far? Any surprising reactions?

So far it’s been overwhelmingly positive. We believed in the record obviously, but I was still surprised by how fully it’s been embraced by people, locally and beyond. KEXP’s been incredibly supportive, which we are grateful for. Also, one of our songs made it on Amazon’s list of songs of the year, which was a complete shock. It’s funny, when you’re a little band like us, every bit of recognition feels like a huge triumph. It’s definitely been a learning process, self-releasing the record and handling all aspects of distribution, promotion, etc. It’s a lot of work, but it’s really satisfying to know that at the end of the day, we’re completely responsible for our success or failure.

How are you feeling about your upcoming December tour? Are you guys taking a different direction from your last tour? Do you have any collective objectives?

We’ve got some great shows booked with some of our favorite bands, and we got a new van so hopefully it’ll hold up in the weather. We’re excited to visit cities like Salt Lake City and Tucson that we’ve never played before, and look forward to the prospect of spending some time in the sun. And of course the Yule Benefit! That’s going to be a perfect homecoming.

Going back to the past, what were your first few shows like? Was it complete chaos trying to juggle eight musicians on stage, or did it flow naturally (I’m assuming there’s always been 8 members, but correct me if I’m wrong)?

We originally started as a trio of piano, drums, and upright bass. It was more of a jazz-combo setup than a rock band. And the band just kind of grew naturally over the years as our sound evolved. Different friends came and went until we settled on this current lineup. It can be kind of chaotic at times, juggling everyone’s schedules, but it definitely keeps us motivated to make good use of the time we have together.

How did you go about finding your band mates? I know the current lineup has only been together for about a year or so, but who came to whom and how were the positions filled?

I’ve known Jeramy, Alina, and Joel from our days playing in Asahi, and Chris and Kevin from playing with the Maldives and Widower. Jaclyn saw us early on at a show at the Sunset and offered to play violin. Then, when I decided to switch from piano to guitar, we asked Shenandoah to join the band, and she was kind of the missing piece that completed the puzzle. We started with Promenade. This lineup feels really solid, and I’m convinced we have the right person for each role.

Could you ever see yourself doing a solo gig or does your heart lie in playing with a large band?

I still play solo from time to time and enjoy it, especially when I’m testing out new songs. There is a certain freedom that comes with playing solo, more risks you can take. But really, there’s really nothing that compares to the feeling of playing music with a bunch of other people.

What do you do in your downtime when you’re not playing or making music?

Chris just started the Ballard Football League which we’ve been really into lately. It’s supposed to be two-hand touch, but somehow people always end up on the ground. The sight of a bunch of out-of-shape hippies running around in a field tackling each other is pretty awesome. I’m surprised by how many musicians in town are also stone cold jocks.

There’s no doubt that all of your lyrics are very sincere and meaningful—a sort of reflection on both your personal experiences and those of humankind as a whole. That being said, what is your song writing process like? Do you follow a pretty set routine?

It seems to go in a specific cycle, starting with inspiration, followed by over-thinking and self-doubt, followed eventually by giving up, at which point the song will decide to present itself out of nowhere. The songwriting itself comes pretty easily, but all the days in between can be excruciating. Sometimes a song will come in 10 minutes, and other times it can take months. “Raindrops”, for instance, I wrote and rewrote the song for about six months, but it wasn’t until the day we recorded it in the studio that it felt complete. It took that long to live out the subject and to figure out what it was I wanted to say. “Blessed Be, Honey Bee”, on the other hand, came while I was sweeping the floor at the movie theater where I work. I started humming along to the rhythm of the broom, and by the time I stopped to write down the words, it was finished.

What is the one thing you wish you would have known early on in your career?

That the only way to learn anything is to do it yourself.

What song do you feel most inspired by onstage?

A lot of it depends on the mood of the room, the reaction of the audience, and/or the energy of the band at any given time. It’s hard to single out a song, but “Sirens” and “Seward Park” are definitely two of my favorites that we’ve done as a band.

If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?

Very bored.

Promenade is all about your first instrument – guitar – whereas Yes Is The Answer was all about the piano for you, which I read you learned during the process of writing the album. Do you plan to switch it up for the next album and tackle a new instrument?

The foundation of a memorable song, for me at least, is always going to be melody and lyrics. I wrote most of the songs for Promenade in my head, mostly during walks outside, and the instrumentation kind of came after the fact. I don’t know what the next album will sound like yet, but the focus will always be on the song itself. Playing with the Seattle Rock Orchestra this fall really opened my eyes to new possibilities in arrangements, and I’ve been listening to a lot of minimalist stuff like Steve Reich and Erik Satie lately, so maybe that will be evident in the next batch of songs.

What is your overall goal with Grand Hallway? What do you want people to take away from your music?

Our goal is to make each new song better than the last, and to keep alive the concept of a cohesive album, regardless of the format in which it’s released. People can take away what they want from the music, but above all I hope it inspires them to do what they love in their lives.

Make sure to catch Grand Hallway at the Yule Benefit on Saturday, December 12 at Nuemos before they head to Japan. Tickets are on sale now at Moe Bar, select QFC stores, and Rudy’s Barbershops for $20 advanced and $22 day-of-show. Tickets are also available with a service charge at Ticketswest.com. The event is 21 and over, and doors open at 8 p.m.

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