An Interview with Marcus Eaton
by Jackson Truax
In the Spring of 2014, David Crosby released his first solo album in twenty-two years. With that album and subsequent tour, he quietly introduced the world to the singing, songwriting, and guitar playing of Marcus Eaton. As I typed the word “quietly,” I realized how karmically appropriate a descriptor it was for the musical relationship of these two musicians. At the turn of the Seventies, Crosby helped usher in an entire era of “Wooden Music,” and his mid-seventies have seen him returning to solo and duo acoustic settings, playing old and new songs that feel progressively contemplative and jazz influenced, even by his standards. In the studio and on the ensuing tour, Eaton and Crosby each continued to bring out the other’s best instincts, with Eaton making sure a strong acoustic, classical guitar influence was always felt, and Crosby’s musical structure placed Eaton’s signature style of classical-leaning acoustic guitar music again a more jazz-influenced backdrop. Both in the album and on the road, they also seemed to push each other to make music that felt quieter, subtler, and more, as Eaton would put it, “articulate.”
With Crosby currently devoting time to other line-ups and projects, Eaton has had time to release his sixth album, “Versions of the Truth,” and tour throughout Italy and Germany, both countries where Eaton has found great enthusiasm and audiences for this music. The album is already available worldwide via http://marcuseaton.bandcamp.com, and the music video for the lead single “Up and Over” is on YouTube. When I first heard “Versions of the Truth,” I was taken by it being such a musically and emotionally expansive, lush, and efficacious soundscape. The nuanced, classical guitar sound is absolutely present, as are so many sounds and feelings I wasn’t expecting to be explored, especially so thoughtfully and so richly. I immediately knew I wanted to talk with Eaton about crafting the album, and was thrilled that we were able to sit down recently for over an hour at M Street Coffee in Sherman Oaks.
Edited slightly for length and clarity, here’s what Eaton shared with me in our expansive interview about making a record with David Crosby, releasing music in the digital age, why his music connects strongly with European audiences, and producing “Versions of the Truth” and the new music video “Up and Over.”
Jackson Truax: If people want to learn all about how you came to work with David Crosby, there’s a great video of you talking about that on your website. But more specifically, do you know how he put that group of musicians together, and how he knew that they would gel as an ensemble?
Marcus Eaton: When we worked on the album, it was just me, and James [Raymond] and Crosby… So it was a really interesting situation. Because once the songs started developing, he had the other band members from CSN at his disposal. Kevin [McCormick], the bassist, he loves his playing… Steve DiStanislao, was playing with CSN. And then obviously Shane [Fontayne] was playing with them, too. So he had the background players, and then us. So that’s what it was, the core was me, and James, and Crosby. And those three guys that completed the sound.
JT: It’s not always the case that the A-list session band that played on the album is conveniently able to pick up and go on the road. Did that happen easily? Or was getting the tour with these prolific, busy, musicians together to tour a big logistical challenge?
Eaton: I wasn’t really involved in that. But, no. I don’t think it was difficult. I think those guys were stoked about it. Because everyone played on the album. I think Shane probably played the least on the album. But he co-wrote one of the songs. “Set That Baggage Down.”
JT: There were three lead guitar players in that band, you and Shane Fontayne, and of course Croz. Was it easy to figure out where all three of you fit in in the broader gestalt of the band? Or did the three of you do a lot of work arranging and figuring out parts?
Eaton: I thought it was going to be difficult, actually. But it wasn’t. Because Shane pretty much stuck to the electric the whole time. Which is a whole different instrument range. For me, I played all of the acoustic on the “Croz” album. So you’ll notice, during the first set, [Croz] didn’t really play. Because those were parts that I played. Not that he couldn’t play some of them. But some of them were just things [Croz] and I wrote together. So I covered all of the acoustic parts. Because I have a whole different style. But the other thing is, I sang all the backgrounds on [the album]. So, really, my other main contribution was singing. So, actually, it wasn’t really that hard to find a place at all. I thought it was going to be, but it wasn’t. Shane was super fun. He’s so cool. Shane is a really great guy. But he’s also a really great musician. He listens. He always leaves space.
JT: People were following that tour in a number of ways, ranging from attending multi-night engagements around the country to flying literally across continents to see it. The main thing people were saying was what a vibrant organism the band was, evolving in various ways each night. What was the experience, of being a part of that show that’s surprising the audience each night with how different and how open to metamorphosis the music was?
Eaton: I guess in a way, the proof is in the pudding… I think, personally, that it developed and got better throughout the tour. We didn’t get to have that much rehearsal. So the first show that we played was a great show. But I wanted to play more. I wanted to play “out” more. But I was pretty shy about going to where I really wanted to go. And, thankfully, Kevin [said], “Hey, man, on ‘Déjà vu,’ take your time. Just go. Do your thing.” Once that happened, it just opened the door… If we ever did that again, it would get better and better.
JT: Kevin McCormick has played prolifically with the guys in CSN and was playing with Jackson Browne for over a decade before that. Personally and musically, was there anything specific he brought to the mix as such as veteran of playing this kind of music, especially live?
Eaton: If you work with musicians that aren’t as great, because I’ve done that, you end up focusing on things that don’t matter. In other words, “Oh, hey, you’re missing this,” or “You’re missing the beat…” Getting in with [Crosby’s] guys, you just go into it. You just play through the songs. And then, “Bam.” They’re there already. And then you refine the details. It’s, “Oh, hey, let’s take the dynamics here…” You get to focus on what’s actually important. So with Kevin and those guys, they’re super pro… You just go there. I just kind of fell into the group. You go in and just play. And say, “Okay, now we can work on the important things.” And that’s working with great musicians.
JT: Listening through “Versions of the Truth,” “Flying Through the Fire” jumps out as one of the standout songs. Although they’re not superficially similar, there is a vibe that’s reminiscent of “Find a Heart” from the “Croz” album. Do see a through line? Or was “Find a Heart” a place of place of superlative expression for you on the “Croz” album?
Eaton: “Find a Heart” is the song that I brought in. I worked on it. That was my idea. That’s why it’s so weird. Because a lot of my stuff has varying time signatures… All of my stuff is very syncopated and it’s all very percussive. So “Find a Heart,” really, it’s a signature guitar piece. It’s something that I would typically write. “Flying Through the Fire,” it’s a similar thing. Super syncopated. The vocals lie in at a really interesting spot. “Find a Heart” goes from six to five…which is awesome. But the cool part is, it’s not like you notice that stuff. Certain listeners probably notice more than others. When you can do it seamlessly, that’s the main thing.
JT: “Versions of the Truth” is your sixth album, and you’ve been spending most of this year promoting it around the world. As a working musician, how do you navigate what gigs to take recording or touring with other musicians, and when to devote your time to your own music?
Eaton: The Crosby thing was a one-time thing. It was a unique experience. There was no beginning and no end to it. It started. I didn’t really even expect it to happen. It just turned into this really great gift. Just a really amazing experience… But I’ve never been out there looking for another gig. Because I have so much to do with my own music. I have things that I want to say. I just need to be out playing my stuff… There’s a chance I might put a band together in the future. To play this album the way it is. But right now I’m playing solo. I’ve played solo for a really long time. It’s a really great format for me. Because it allows people to hear the actual songwriting. When I’ve played with bands, the drums cover up a lot of the articulation in my guitar parts. Really, it has to be the right band. But it also has to be right mix in the room. It has to be somebody with a really, really great sensibility for the music. Who really wants to be behind what I’m doing… I want to reach people at a heart level. They can interpret and take whatever they want from the music… But you want them to feel something in their hearts.
JT: Have you had to reinterpret or rearrange the songs on the album at all to play solo gigs?
Eaton: Yes. Sometimes you do. The thing for me, is that usually when I finish a song, it’s almost always just guitar and vocals. And then I produce it from there. So a lot of the changes happen when I’m recording it. [I’ll say], “This should be on electric.” Then if it’s on electric, it’s more of a full-band song. Because I don’t typically play “solo electric.” It’s a totally different instrument. Acoustic is a full-range instrument. You have bass-mids-highs. It occupies this frequency range that’s totally different than an electric. You can make an electric occupy that range. But generally, electric is a high-mid-range instrument. So it’s meant to be played with other instruments. You can do anything. There are no rules. But I prefer to play acoustic, solo. The album is really interesting because my music is actually pretty hard to produce, when it comes down to it. It’s hard to know exactly what to do. A lot of the time, the songs do work better solo. Because it’s really about getting the idea across. When I first played it for Crosby, he said, “Man, you should just do a solo album. You shouldn’t have any other instruments on there. When I produced Joni Mitchell’s [first] album, the trick was keeping everyone off of there.” [I thought] “That’s a good point.” So I toyed with the idea of just doing it. But then I thought, “Well, I can do everything. I can do some solo songs. I can do some songs with strings.” Because each song tells you what it needs. Then there are songs that are obviously rock songs. Like “The Sting,” which just goes huge. This was the first album that I recorded by myself. Me and my friend Kitch Membery did it in my living room. It was just an amazing experience all the way around. Because I’m really, really proud of what we were able to accomplish with very, very minimal gear, just the two of us. The drums and the piano were the only things that were recorded in a different studio. Everything else was done in my living room. I’m really proud of that. Because it sounds really great… Better than albums that I’ve recorded in studios. It’s awesome. And to have that at my disposal is a really nice feeling. I’ve always been backlogged with songs. Because I’ve never been able to afford to go into the studio every time I write a song… Now that I have the option of doing that, it’s really helping me.
JT: The rare genius of the album is that it’s so musically diverse, ranging from numerous classical guitar influences all the way through a lot of synth-pop influences in the presentation of the vocals. And all of the sounds and influences really feel deeply explored, with the album serving all of these different musical muses while still feeling very much a cohesive whole. Did you spend any time thinking about the artistic statement you were making or the sound you were going for? Or did you explore the sounds as they revealed themselves to you and figured they would ultimately resonate?
Eaton: That just comes from experience. Because I’ve been doing it long enough now that I have these really weird influences, and very varied influences. So I know how to put an album together and make it work. And a song. The main thing is the song. The cool part was, we had so long to work on it. We took a couple of years… There were a couple of songs that didn’t end up on there. They didn’t really fit the album. There was one that was this really rock piece. It sounds like something from my previous album. It was really badass, too. It’s called, “Own Worst Enemy.” I love that song. But it just didn’t fit in the sequence… It was fully done and produced… I ended up pulling it off. Because it just didn’t fit the theme of the rest of the album. The rest of the album just felt like this really nice, intimate thing. It didn’t go all the way rock. It goes rock, but not [too much]. You have to have, obviously, a sensibility about the full album. And it is a piece. It is a full album. Meant to be listened to in the sequence it’s in. But each song is unique. It’s hard. Because someone says, “What kind of music do you play? Send me a song.” [I’m thinking] “Well, I can send you a song. But it only represents that song. Everything is different.” But now, I think people are more used to that.
JT: If I had to pick a song, it would probably be, “I Will Be Your Shade” because it’s so immaculately produced. Using that as an example, how did you find the sound that you were going for, and then manifest getting it on the record?
Eaton: I finished the song and I did a demo of it first. That’s generally what I do. I almost always start with acoustic guitar and vocals. Because that’s the heart of the song. Then I [say], “How do you tell the story here?” And I tried a few different experiments… I went to this drummer friend of mine Erik Eldenius, he’s really responsible for helping me with this album. And really getting these drums sounds the way that they need to be… I’ve always had a drummer that’s been basically hyperactive. I love drums. So I’ve always enjoyed them… Erik is this incredible drummer. He’s friends with Jeff Young. Jeff Young is the keyboard player for Jackson Browne… Jeff, that’s who I’m touring with… He turned me onto Erik. Erik had said, “Let’s get together and play.” Erik is just a tremendous musician… He plays piano. He sings. He plays guitar. And he gets songs. So when he and I got together and we played some stuff, I [said], “Dude, this has a cool sound…” I’m really clean, with my acoustic and my vocal. I wanted to create a separate palate. So I wanted to have the background stuff to be really dark and kind of gritty… Because it’s like a painting. You paint the dark background. And if you put something light on top of it, it really creates more depth… So as soon as I found Erik, and he laid down the drums and showed me what he would do for “I Will Be Your Shade,” it was…a revelation. So then we did everything together, he and I. We worked on the drums. We arranged those drum parts. He went in and just killed it. He did all of those drum parts in a day, basically, for the whole album. “Up and Over” was the last song he recorded. He did that at his house… That’s part of the palate of the whole album, is his drumming. So I have to really give him a lot of credit there. Because that was the sound that I wanted to create as soon as I heard him play.
JT: One of the compelling dichotomies that runs throughout the album is that it feels layered and it feels produced. But at the same time, it always feels so human and so embracing and so warm. When you were crafting the album, how did you manage to create such a rich and textured sound, yet make sure it always maintained a sense of feeling so handmade?
Eaton: I don’t like to rely on technology to create the goodness, basically. So everything that I do, either it’s sung that way or it’s not. I always get the performance. I don’t go in and use auto-correct or vocal-line or any of that stuff on my vocals… Because that’s what makes you unique and that’s what makes you human. You’ve got to leave these elements in there. But you also have to practice and do it right. So every thing I sing and every harmony on there is actually sung. It’s not corrected. It’s just getting the performance right. So we’d sit there and do it fifty times if it took that much. It didn’t, because I knew what I was going to do and I practiced it. But we worked our asses off just to get the right takes. And that’s what you do. If you really want to make an album that’s going to stand the test of time… When I’m making an album, I actually think about its longevity… I wouldn’t do something so weird that with subsequent listens it becomes a gimmick. We just wanted to get something and get it to sound great so that you want to listen to it more. That’s what the goal is, all the time. So all of the performances are real. They’re all real. All of the guitar parts. They’re just played that way. The vocals are just played that way. All of the harmonies and everything I did, which I put on there just as is… Live, I use a bunch of effects. I use all of these effects. I use swells. A swell is when you take the volume pedal and you play the chord. But you don’t hear the attack of the chord. And then you swell it in. It sounds just like a keyboard. And I put swell with delay. I’ve done this for years and years. I love that sound. It’s just so cool. As I’ve gotten more and more into effects, I’ve, on my albums said, “Okay, we need this synth stuff, so that my guitar parts come out even more.” If you hear an album that just has acoustic guitar, drums, bass, and vocal, there’s not really that much going on. The second you add a layer of keyboards to the background, or pads, it is incredible how the whole sonic landscape changes. And then you start hearing this depth to it. On my last album, which was called, “As If You Have Wings,” I’ve done it on all my albums, but I really took it to a different place on that album. I created, all of these, basically synth sounds with my acoustic guitar. Mostly acoustic. Some electric. I created, basically, what would be keyboard pads with my guitar in the background. So on this album, this is even further version of that. So on this album, I created sounds that sound like Hammond Organ. It doesn’t really have a definable sound. A lot of tape delays and stuff like that going on in the background. They create this really lush atmosphere. So the acoustic guitar, when it’s there, or the electric, whatever the lead instrument is, is sitting on top of this landscape.
JT: Is there a version of this that you’re able to do when you’re playing live and solo acoustic?
Eaton: I loop. I do a lot of looping… Using one guitar to do these effects is super cool. You have to see it live. I’ll loop a section of a guitar part, or a percussion part on the guitar. Then I’ll lay swell over the top. And I’ve got these delays. “Flying Through the Fire,” I have this really cool version that I do live. I loop the acoustic, and that’s the loop going through the whole thing. I loop the chorus. Then I play bass over the top on the acoustic. It’s really cool. It’s a really unique way to play. It’s fun… That sound [on the album], I’m completely capable of getting all of that live.
JT: One of the ways music lovers can buy the album is by paying $15 on Bandcamp. Is that your preferred method for fans to buy your music? What do you like about the platform, and how to do think it benefits working musicians?
Eaton: One thing I can say about Bandcamp, is that it’s just direct. It’s direct to me. Bandcamp takes a percentage. But it’s really tough for musicians already. You go to iTunes, and you can’t even determine the price of your album. Everything is ten dollars. And every song is one dollar… That’s what happening to authors, too… They’ve determined what your value is. I don’t think that’s really fair. And, not to mention, they’ve taken all of the disc drives off of their computers. So, for better or worse, they’re trying to drive all the traffic to their spot on iTunes. Well, in order for me to license to iTunes, I’d have to go through someone else. Because I can’t deal with them directly, usually, as an independent artist. You have to have a label to deal with them… It’s usually easier to go license through someone else, who also takes a percentage… By the time you’ve sold your song for a dollar, you’ve gotten fifty cents off of your song. So how can you sustain your career like that? You can’t. So I don’t know what the next platform is going to be. But it’s the same thing with Spotify. They don’t pay anything. If you look them up, they say, “We’ve paid this much to these artists.” And they’re complaining about it. Well, without artists, they wouldn’t have anything. So it’s really tough right now. Because even ASCAP, and all of the people that are advocates for artists, they’re not able to get actually Congress to really help. Youtube’s not paying a royalty. If they are, it’s definitely not one that’s fair. My Dad’s a songwriter. He wrote a hit song for the Carpenters. [“All You Get from Love is a Love Song.”] And he was getting, roughly, about, twenty-five cents every time it played. You have no idea how quickly that adds up, all over the world. That’s how we survived when I was a kid. So that’s what’s really an interesting question now, “How do we survive as musicians?” Bandcamp, I think is a really nice platform. I think there probably is going to be something even better. I’m actually using Wix on my website. And Wix doesn’t take any percentage. Nothing. And it’s better for me. It is. Because I need the money. I created the product. And it cost me a lot to create the album. It took a lot of time, dedication, and effort. And joy and love, too. But, it’s just an exchange. We’re just looking for an energetic exchange that makes sense… I will release the album on iTunes, eventually. You just want to create a way for people to get it however they’re going to get it. But I don’t want to get to the point where I’m [saying], “just go listen to the album for free.” Because I’m trying to build my career. And you have to sell some albums. But I also find that people really love to buy albums live. I’m leaving for Germany on Wednesday. I just got back from doing a two-month tour in Italy, which was amazing. That’s where I’m really finding the traction. European audiences are totally different. They love music… They’re very, very engaged. They just love listening. They love acoustic guitar in Italy, which is great. They love guitar in general. So that’s exciting. Germany’s going to be amazing. Because the audiences there are totally different. They’re really grounded people. They just love good music. So I’m excited. Because I’m finding a totally different audience there… I’m excited about this European thing that’s happening. I know it will spill back over here eventually. I’ll release the album here… That’s in the works. The main thing, this week, is that I’m releasing a video for “Up and Over.” That’s going to be super cool.
JT: Of all of the songs to potentially serve as your first video from the album, how did you come to pick, “Up and Over?”
Eaton: There were two choices for me… Okay, this is going to my first video… I [thought], “What can I do that’s going to be really appealing?…” I discussed it with Crosby a little bit, too. And he had some good insight about it, which was that he said, “‘Up and Over’ is your most commercial song. But the thing is, it just represents you more than anything else.” Which is true… It’s got two time signatures. It’s between four and six. Which you don’t notice. But it’s a really cool feel. It’s really groovy. It’s really syncopated. It’s got some unique vocals on there. It’s also “commercial,” let’s say. And Crosby is singing background, which is kind of cool, too. So all the way around, it just makes sense. And I love the track. It’s transcendent.
JT: David Crosby has a long history of making albums, including making “Croz” with you, that are basically entire albums of “album cuts.” Maybe the world has finally caught up with where he’s been for decades, in that now you can do that and there’s no need for a “single” to get radio play anymore. It’s more about giving people scrolling through Facebook something they’ll want to click on and hear as an introduction to an artist, or get as the “preview track” when they preorder the album. Does that effect these decisions at all, about the “single” or video from an album might be?
Eaton: That’s a good question. For me, it’s awesome, because it’s just me. I’m the one making the decisions. So I say what I want to do… That’s always going to be that way. Because I’m far enough along in my career that I’m not going to acquiesce. I mean, I get people’ s advice… But if I created it, and it’s on my album, I like it. Because I really love what I do. And each song I put a lot of effort into. So each song is special to me. I think that’s how you create a really good album… So with these types of discussions…there’s not one song that you can say, “Okay, this represents the entire album.” But that’s a good thing. Because it is eclectic. For me, it was a super easy decision. But I also have three or four other songs that I want to promote and do videos for. And I will. “Picture of Us,” which is a song about Italy and falling in love in Italy. It just all has all of these, amazing to me, visual elements. I’m going to do a video for it when I’m back in Italy. I have to. It’s so visual. I have a director there that I want to work with. And see if I can film that in October when I’m back there. Because that would just be so cool… “Better Way” is the other thing. And I really want to say that. Because “Better Way” is actually a song, really about politics, and about the world… That would be a great video, too, eventually… I have a lot of choices. But “Up and Over” was a really good one… The other thing about it [is that] I used to be a Falconer. I used to train Falcons… I was able to get these bird shots that I really wanted. There are actually two birds in the video. There’s a Golden Eagle and a Goshawk. I had this vision at the beginning… And we did it. So it’s super cool. The shots of these birds are amazing. So I’m stoked about that. Because that represents me. My last album has a falcon on the cover… I’m at this point where I feel like the true nature of who I am is finally, really emerging. I’m just trying to open the door for that to keep going… There are so many differently ways of accomplishing things now. I’m just barely scraping the surface of what I want to accomplish. Musically, this is my favorite album that I’ve made. The other part of it is that I didn’t have anyone involved that I didn’t really want there. It’s all about energy. Life is energy… It was just a really great experience.
JT: After the tour of Germany wraps up, what are your plans for the rest of year and into 2017?
Eaton: I want to do some stuff back here in the States, if I can. I would like to do an official release over here. We’ll see. I’m hoping this video really has a nice little following. And really gets a lot of headway and makes some waves. And then opens the door for me to do some more stuff. Ultimately, what I would really like is…a really nice opening slot for somebody that has a nice following. Because that would be a really nice introduction for me. Because, right now, that is the best way to get in front of people. If you’re starting out and you’re trying to go tour these clubs, nobody cares. I hate to say it. No one cares. Right now, people are just not tuned into music, especially here. In America…the only thing they really respond to is if you’re famous. And everybody that’s not really clued into music, they don’t know who any of these people are. They’re lucky to even know who Crosby is. They just don’t know. And things are going too quickly… So, point being, you just have to keep putting stuff out there. You really have to have a presence. So, for me to open for somebody would be the ultimate. To go out and tour clubs, and you’re trying to advertise the dates yourself, good luck. You can play everywhere from here to New York. And no one is ever going to see you. And they’re not going to hear you. You have to be in front of people every night. As many people as possible. That’s what I want. I’ve done so many opening shows for people throughout the years… I’d like to have a consistent, nice run with someone that’s really got a great following.
JT: The great thing about your setup is that you bring a full sound, but you’re also a guy with a guitar and some gizmos. So it would seem to me that would make you an optimal candidate to open for someone like David Crosby, Don Henley, Paul Simon, or Sting or bring out on tour as an opener.
Eaton: Absolutely. Because it’s really easy for them. They don’t really have to do anything. It’s a mic and two channels. And bam, we’re up.
JT: What’s the best way for people to keep up with you?
Eaton: Now, people are all going to Facebook. So when I put this video up, I’m promoting it through Facebook. Even Youtube, people are not responding to as much as Facebook. So people can go to my Facebook page. I have two pages. I have a personal page and a band page, either one. Then I have a website, marcuseaton.com. There’s some cool stuff there. I’m also on Instagram and Twitter. I love Instagram, actually… @mqeaton on Instagram. I’m always posting. I’ve got some really great photos from my travels and stuff. Now they have the video feature. It’s like Snapchat. It’s just a really cool way to tell your story… Because people want to interact with you. I love that stuff. I love looking at other people’s stuff when they’re doing that, “I’m on tour and here’s my amplifier!”