Los Angeles quartet The Henry Clay People, led by brothers Joey and Andy Siara, have cultivated a reputation for enthralling live shows. As the band prepares to release its second full-length, Twenty-Five for the Rest of Our Lives, on June 26th via TBD Records, Consequence of Sound‘s Len Comaratta caught up with Joey, the band’s vocalist and guitarist. Together, the two talked a little history with regards to the band’s namesake, the meaning behind the new album’s title, the sibling brawls with Andy, quartets in general, and the importance of education.
On a side note: If you’re in Chicago this Saturday night, The Henry Clay People are heading our summer soiree at The Cobra Lounge alongside White Mystery and Netherfriends. Don’t miss this face-melting bill. For more information, including a chance to win tickets, click here.
How are you doing today?
Good. How are you doing?
Doin’ pretty well. It’s gonna rain over here, but it’s expected.
Are you in Chicago or New York?
I am actually in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I’m not based out of the main offices, unfortunately.
That’s okay. Virginia’s a fine state [laughs].
Well, Henry Clay was born here.
Was he born in Virginia or born in Kentucky?
Henry Clay, Jr., his son, was born in Kentucky, but Henry Clay was born up near Ashland. My wife went to Henry Clay Elementary and lived on Henry Clay Road.
Wow. Wow, I’m like a West Coast Henry Clay poseur.
I’ve seen in interviews that you have a love of history, and you definitely support education. You’ve even commented how you feel education has fallen by the wayside. But Henry Clay itself, you said, came up randomly. How did you come up with Henry Clay as a name?
Basically, we had a list of ridiculous band names. All of them kind of had a little of a history bend, or a history play on words. Out of that list of ridiculous names, the band still couldn’t agree on anything, so, we rated what we thought of each of the names, and that was the highest rated of all the shitty band names. I wish it was a better story, but that’s kind of what it was. We were almost called The Forgotten Presidency of Chester A. Arthur. That would have been bad, too. I was ready to can the band name, but it just got to a point that we got a little bit past the point of no return with The Henry Clay People. It kind of is what it is, and I have to live with it, even though I don’t think, by any means, [that it's] the best band name.
It’s not a bad name, but I’ve definitely heard girls ask where Henry was.
The title of the album, Twenty-Five for the Rest of Our Lives, references, you’ve said, when you were 25, one of the best points in your life. That was four years ago, now. Considering the current and rising success of your band, do you still feel that 25 is as good as it can get?
Twenty-five was like the most pure and optimistic that the band ever was, because it was a point where, in our post-college, early 20s, we started the band. We started kind of doing this band just ‘cause it was fun, and it gave us something to do during the week. Tuesday or Wednesday night, going and playing a little bar in Long Beach was a way to have a social life besides just sitting at home watching TV. This band has never been a career-minded band. There was something pure and innocent about that time. And then, obviously, when things got better for the band and started happening, obviously, it’s a cool thing, it’s an opportunity. But, along with the higher stakes there are, I feel like, some compromises and sacrifices were made that maybe got away from what the pure, fun rock & roll intention that the band was. That’s why we decided to call this record that, because we wanted to get back to why we were doing this stuff in the first place.
The Kinks had Dave and Ray Davies, the Black Crowes had Chris and Rich Robinson, Oasis had the Gallagher brothers. And now we have Joey and Andy [Siara]. All known for their fighting. You said in an interview a few years ago that you two were trying to be better brothers. Earlier this year I saw a video up online from your tour last year of the two of you beating the hell out of each other backstage. Are these fights a thing of the past? Have you guys moved past that, or does that fuel the energy of the band?
[laughs] That fight, the fight that is online for people’s enjoyment, “The Winter Song”, that was the last fist fight we ever got in. That was on tour with The Drive-By Truckers. Honestly, that was the last fight we got in, because we realized that we both can and did hurt each other. I actually cracked one of his ribs, or bruised one of his ribs. He used to go on morning jogs every day, and he couldn’t run for a month because it hurt too much — and he knocked me in that fight. He gave me two big goose eggs on the back of my head. So, no matter what position I tried to sleep in, I had to sleep on this swollen part of my head, and that kept me kind of like an insomniac that whole tour. So, I think we kind of made this peace pact where we were, like, “Alright, we’re clearly mature enough to not break into fist fights; let’s not do that,” and we haven’t gotten into one since. And that’s been, knock on wood, almost two years. Now that we’re getting older, the punches hurt more and last longer.
Speaking of Drive-By Truckers, you’ve toured with some hard-rockin’ bands: the Truckers, Against Me!, Silversun Pickups. But your band also has that really crunchy, fuzzy feedback sound at times. Any thoughts of touring with garage rockers, like Ty Segall or White Fence?
Yeah, I would love to. I love Ty Segall. It’s interesting, because we’ve toured with kind of a bizarre cross section of bands, and I kind of feel like everybody’s trying to figure out where we fit. I understand that we could fit with a lot of different folks. My dream tour right now… I’m obsessed with the new Japandroids record, so getting to play with those guys. That’s kind of like, if I could tour with any of my peer bands right now, that’s the one I’d want to be on the road with right now. It’s cool because everybody in the band, we’re music fans first and foremost, so the opportunity to even flirt with the possibility of touring with some bands that you’re actually fans of is pretty sweet.
You guys are pretty big music fans. It’s obvious from some of the covers you’ve done like The Replacements, Op Ivy–done on the fly. You’ve covered Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. You’ve said that your dad wasn’t necessarily a musician, but he was a lover of music. Would you credit his influence as a big part of your music education?
Yeah, I mean, it’s funny; he was just a classic rock radio guy. He wasn’t like a die-hard music fan at all. Classic rock radio was just this kind of omnipresent force in my youth that seeped in. I remember, it’s funny, Andy, my little brother, almost never talked growing up. He was very, very quiet. And then, all of a sudden, one day, I don’t know how old he was… you have to imagine this quiet kid sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car. And then, one day, he just decided to start singing along to the radio. My parents were cracking up, shocked, that this little kid that they didn’t know knew that many words, all of a sudden knew every word to every song that popped up on the radio. I feel like that kind of shows the importance of just there being music at all times; it seeps in some way.
One of your first talent shows you won covering the Ramones, right?
“Blitzkrieg Bop”. That was my junior high talent show [laughs]. Actually, I took a day job last year teaching rock & roll education. So, basically, my job last year, I would go to elementary schools and I would organize a band of elementary school kids, and we would learn one song. They would, at the end of the session, cover it. We would have a concert for their parents and all the parents and all the different schools that participated. So, my band this year, I made them do “Blitzkrieg Bop”. They were awesome. And they were cool; they were like the coolest kids. I told them the last day, before we went up to the actual show… It’s cool, they had like a real venue in L.A. that let them set up. They had real amps, and the kids all dyed their hair and put fake tattoos on. I said, “When I was 11 years old, I covered this song at the high school talent show,” and the kids thought it was cool. This is a great song. And the kids picked their own band name, too. They called their band The Examples, which I thought was like such a badass punk band name for a bunch of fourth graders.
Did you want to pursue education before music became a priority?
Yeah, actually my family is… I mean, I have a very large extended family, and the percentage of teachers in that family, it’s just a high percentage of teachers. My grandpa, several of my uncles, my mom is in education. I was a history major in college, and my main jobs post-college were working in museums — actually writing curriculum for museum tours and actually giving museum tours. So, yeah, education has always been like the one thing I felt like, “Alright, I can do this, and I can do this well.” I would be happy to have a life teaching, and so when the music thing started to accidentally move and get bigger, I moved away from the education path that I was on.
You can always fall back on it, when you’re like 40 or 50 years old.
Right, right. I’ve thought about it… going back to school or going back to get my credentials to teach in a classroom. I’m not sure at this point; I’ve maybe moved away from that a little bit. It was definitely part of my blood growing up and that was also part of my plan. Apply to grad school, go and start teaching, and by the time I’m this age right now, I’m supposed to be teaching in a classroom. I am not.
You’ve mentioned DeLillo and Vonnegut as authors important to you, as well as Howard Zinn, in your advocacy of history. Does any of the literature you enjoy find its way into your music, or are those worlds pretty separate?
Early on in our band, I feel like the earliest incarnations of The Henry Clay People, whatever I was reading kind of turned into a song. In doing that, I also feel like I started getting… it started being less personal, and it started being about filtering these clearly superior minds like DeLillo and Zinn into crappy, two-minute, scrappy indie rock songs. And I kind of felt like, alright, there is something that I am not communicating well, so we started getting more, or at least I started getting more, autobiographical, and writing songs about things that I knew and experienced. I tried to let the masters of literature and writing, to leave them alone and let them have their thing, and then let me try to do my thing. Obviously, I read some things, and I just get floored by what I’m reading, and feel like, ah shit, I’ll never be able to come close to that, so part of me just feels like I know how to write a 2 ½-minute indie rock song. You know, songs about breaking up and songs about being poor, so I’m gonna stick to that.
Right on. If it works, stick with it. Don’t fix what’s not broke.You’ve said that you go through bass players like Spinal Tap does drummers. Why do you think that is?
It was all over Twitter and Facebook and stuff. I read it, and in it he had a joke about bass players I thought was really funny. Actually, I played a little solo gig yesterday, and I told the joke, and then somebody in the crowd was like, “Aw, man, that’s just mean.” But the joke was basically, “What do bass players use for birth control?” And the punchline is “their personalities.” Clearly some bass player was out in the crowd, “Aw, that’s mean.” But I had just read that from Lowry’s little, well not little, it’s very long, thing, and I thought it was hilarious.
Not saying that bass players all have weird personalities, but the hard part of our band is that, at the end of the day, you have two brothers, me and Andy, who, like it or not, will be brothers for the rest of our lives, and so there’s a closeness there. Our drummer, Eric, I’ve been in bands with since junior high, so there is a history there. I mean, I’ve known him longer than I’ve been alive, well, not longer than I’ve been alive, but for a really, really long time. So, bringing a new guy into the mix, bringing a bass player, they’re always going to be up against that kind of time and history. That’s the tough thing to deal with. Right now, we have a guy that is awesome. He’s a great fit, and I’m hoping that he stays in the band for rest of the history of the band.
So, how many are in the band right now, because there used to be four, back in the day, and then it went up to six.
We’ve decided that we’re sticking with four; four’s the magic number. Most of our favorite bands were four-pieces, and if you could do it with two guitars, bass, and drums, then I feel like that’s the simplest. It’s also the easiest to tour with. We’ve had keyboards come in and out, but the problem is that on tour we don’t have our own sound guy, so we usually use the house sound guy. And, in doing that, you bring in an extra instrument, you bring in keyboards, and the sound guy never really knows how important or unimportant the keys are. So, we’d always try and tell the sound guy, “Bury the keys; the guitar is the focus of the band, not the keys.” But inevitably we’d sound like a honky-tonk piano band a lot of times, because the sound guys would mix the piano way up in the mix, which is not really our thing. So, when our keyboard player moved to New York, we were like, “Alright, that’s that.”
Well, like we said, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. I’m going to quote one of your lyrics: “All the bands that we loved are selling out and breaking up.” From what I’ve gathered, looking at interviews and researching you guys, bands that were important to you, such as Op Ivy, Descendents… I believe I heard you mention once that The Replacements were your favorite band, and Green Day’s Dookie. Aside from Green Day, all those bands are long since gone, and they broke up well before they sold out. Is that a good thing to you? Do you think it’s better to break up than sell out? Nowadays selling out isn’t as bad of a thing as it used to be.
Right, the idea of what selling out even means has obviously changed. There’s something about all of those bands, kind of ending it before… This is actually something I’m truly conflicted on. Because I had this talk actually just yesterday about if The Replacements got back together and played Coachella, which seems to be the en vogue thing to do, to get your band back together and play Coachella, and I had to talk about how I respected Morrissey for saying, “I don’t care, the Smiths are not going to get back together. Screw all of you people for thinking that this is going to happen. I’ve declared my position, and I’m going to stick to it.” I think that there is something awesome about that, too.
However, this year I saw Refused, I saw Hot Snakes, and I saw Pulp. These are my favorite bands, and I was back to a high school version of myself, just excited to go to shows again because those bands got back together and killed it. They were just as amazing as I remember them being. So, I am conflicted on that, the whole breaking up and then staying broken up part of it. I don’t know if you consider it when a band gets back together like that, for them to be like if part of that is selling out, without deciding to openly say, “Yeah, we got back together for the cash.” In some ways, that is essentially selling out.
Part of me feels that way about the new P.I.L. album. It’s been 20 years since they’ve released an album, and I was just feeling, “Why did you need to release an album, much less under that name, when you could have easily used a different name?”
Right, right. I think a lot of people get to the point where they’re like, “Screw it. Let’s cash in.” Clearly, they’ve built up some cred, or they’ve built up a fan base that’s been simmering for awhile. It’s tough. I also have very little money to my name and part of it, I mean, most of the reason why I have very little money to my name is because I’ve given up taking any kind of regular job in order to do music, and that does make me sympathetic to people that, clearly I know, have very little money.
Well, speaking of that, I found it interesting when your brother was asked where someone could buy your music, and his initial answer was that you could “illegally” download it.
There’s part of our band that will probably never be successful because of things like that. We have no real money-making, business-minded… Our money-making intelligence is just kind of, like, non-existent. I told you, I wanted to be a teacher, so I’m clearly not that capitalist-minded of a person. We give out our CDs for free a lot of the time. If there’s a kid that looks like he’s interested, and he honestly looks like doesn’t have enough money to pay for a record, I have handed a kid a record many, many a time and said, “Here, I was like you. I was in your spot, digging through my pocket and realizing I had six dollars to buy a 10-dollar album.”
And the way the music world is working right now, absolutely, the landscape is changing; it has changed. Is it right? Should people just give out music for free? Should people download stuff illegally? No. It’s a force that at the same time I’d rather have people listening to our music. And part of me doesn’t feel like, and this is again back to the whole “we’re not career-minded”… The idea of people paying me for music is still… it still hasn’t sunk in that that is what is supposed to happen. It still feels like you’re paying me for a hobby, even though the hobby has become my lifestyle the last couple of years. So, when you find Henry Clay, The Henry Clay People, on the side of the street in little boxes, you’ll know it’s because of our ideas of giving records away.
You guys are out in L.A. You just need to find the right music supervisor and have him put your music into a film or commercial and boom, you’re off. But then, that goes toward the whole selling out.
I remember our old label came to us and said we have a music supervisor that’s going to work with us. He’s going to try and sync all of our… or try to get our band’s syncs in commercials and TV spots. They said, “Let us know if you guys have any restrictions, or anything you don’t want to be part of it before we say ‘have at it, carte blanche.’” So, Andy and I came up with a list of things that we would not support. At the time, it was ridiculous, and I’m sure that any person that saw this list would be, “Aw, yeah, well these guys are clearly not going to get anything.” We basically refused to do any commercials, anything that was selling something. And also, this was early on, maybe four years ago, so it had not really hit us that that is how bands make money. But we still have, to this day, never done a commercial for anything.
That’s another reason people distrust L.A. They’re like, “You guys are in proximity to Los Angeles, which is full of bands that will go out and play shows and have maybe four people there, but then they’ll get a $20,000 Grey’s Anatomy CD placement.” I think there’s a reason why people genuinely distrust L.A. bands, and I think it’s largely because of stuff like that. We’re a city that has a lot of factors in it. You see a band from L.A., and you wonder if this band is real people or if they’re just actors pretending to be an indie band.
Being from L.A. doesn’t make it any easier either. Just like being from New York doesn’t make it any easier. Now you’re a smaller fish in a bigger pond at some points.
Right, right. There’s definitely this stigma against L.A. bands that I hear people talk about, and being from here, I was born and raised in suburban L.A., in Orange County, the whole idea of L.A. as this industry magnet… I never understood it until I went away to college, and I came back, and I lived in L.A. and realized this is a city of transplants. This is a city largely full of people that come here for the entertainment industry, in some way, shape, or form, and that clearly has corrupting qualities. And for making music that is supposed to be independent, from your heart, from your soul, about who you are, it is fair to have people not exactly trust you when you come from this town. I think you have to earn that trust. That’s why I think it’s cool that the SMELL thing happened, and a band like No Age became as successful as they were. That’s like a movement; it’s a movement where you’d hear No Age and not be thinking that, Oh, these guys are actors pretending to be a punk band. You believe it; it’s sincere. That’s awesome.
If it makes you feel any better, I’ve found you to be one of the most sincere people I’ve ever talked to from L.A.
I appreciate that.
The city has not rubbed off on you.
[laughs] Good, good. I think it’s because when you belong, or when you find yourself in something, you either become part of it or you rally against. I love L.A; I think it’s a beautiful place. I think that I have found my niche here of like-minded people; I consider this my home. I have also seen the other side of things, and it’s made me feel like this is not the best place for the kind of music that we’re making, but this is also who I am, so it does inform part of us. Just yesterday I played with this band, like I said, I was playing this solo show, and there was this punk band from Chicago called the Downtown Struts, who are really awesome, really nice guys. They said I didn’t sound like I was from Los Angeles. I asked them what they meant by that, because I’m curious. What does this person from Chicago mean by an L.A. person? I think they had the same idea of what an L.A. band is supposed to sound like, or an L.A. person is supposed to sound like, and it’s essentially an actor.
I can understand why people would think that, but like you said, it is a little bit unfair to generalize.
It’s a huge city of, like, four million people. There’s everything here
Yeah, I grew up in San Diego in the 80s, before moving back east.
I like San Diego, too.
I love San Diego. Well, I don’t know how it is nowadays, but back when I was growing up, it was like the big city of L.A without the attitude of L.A.
Right, right. I moved to San Diego right after I graduated college. I lived down there for nine months.
Actually, I technically lived in Escondido, but I ended up staying in Point Loma most of the night. Escondido is not even really San Diego, but I was living with my girlfriend’s parents. I worked [in] downtown San Diego, on the Star of India, that old ship there, and I used to do field trips and tours there. That was like the best job. So, during the week I would stay with my buddies in Point Loma, Ocean Beach area, and then on the weekends, I would go back and be in Escondido.
My dad’s buried at Point Loma, and my mom moved from Rancho Bernardo up to Temecula a while back, but she’s looking at coming back down, but Escondido is right around there.
I spent a lot of time in Escondido.
But man, Escondido is a suck hole. I do not like that town.
Yeah, I wasn’t crazy about it either. I ended up finding this music store. This guy Brian had this hole-in-the-wall shop called Super Sound Music, and they would just get all sorts of weird, cool guitar pedals, and I would go there. I was living at my girlfriend’s parents’ house, and they were really nice to let me live there after I graduated college. It’s my ex-girlfriend now. I was one person out of six that were living in the house at the time, so it just felt like it was really crowded all the time, so I tried to make my existence very scarce. I’d go hang out at this music shop in Escondido and just play every guitar pedal I could possibly think of and just waste as much time as I could there before going home. I kind of feel like that actually sunk in to our music, too, because I would get all these little toys, knickknacks and stuff, and became obsessed with guitar sounds. And then I would inevitably give my brother any kind of hand-me-down guitar pedals that I would get there. I still have a lot of the stuff from then.
And that obviously contributed to what you guys sound like today.
It all trickles down somehow. It’s all part of it.