Making a Scene Talks with Ethan Anderson of Massy Ferguson!
For more than a dozen years, Massy Ferguson have proudly planted their boots on both sides of the country-rock divide, carving out their own brand of amplified Americana along the way. Based in Seattle, they’ve become international torchbearers of a sound that’s distinctly American, with a touring history that spans nine different countries. On their fifth album, Great Divides, they double down on their rock & roll roots, mixing bar-band twang with raw, guitar-driven bang. Gluing those sounds together is the songwriting partnership of bass-playing frontman Ethan Anderson and guitarist Adam Monda, whose songs spin stories of small-town adolescence, big-city adulthood, and the long miles of highway that stretch between.
Long before Massy Ferguson played their first show 2006, Anderson spent his childhood outside Seattle in the rural reaches of the Pacific Northwest. His parents were strictly religious, and he found himself at the local Pentecostal church almost every weekend, watching as his fellow congregants beat their Bibles and spoke in tongues. The spirit didn’t move him in quite the same way. In search of his own kind of clarity, Anderson turned to music: first to the country and folk artists whose songs reminded him of home, and later to the hard-edged rock bands who ruled the roost in Seattle, where he’d eventually relocate as an adult. Those two stylistic extremes — country and rock & roll — continue to rear their heads in his music.
Anderson’s past continues to rear its head, too, and its woven throughout the dark, moody music of Great Divides. Massy Ferguson’s records have always sounded cinematic, like a Springsteen-worthy portrayal of blue-collar life in America’s northwestern pocket. If Great Divides continues that tradition, it does so in montage-form, zooming into various scenes of Anderson’s life for four minutes at a time. The details are rich, the context is implied, and the writing is stunningly simple, like the literal minimalism of Anderson’s favorite authors: Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, Dennis Johnson, and Willie Vlautin. Songs like “Don’t Give Up On Your Friends” root themselves in his teenage years, delivering dual blasts of adolescent angst and anthemic, heartland-worthy hooks from the perspective of a boy who’s never left the county limits of his hometown. Meanwhile, “Can’t Remember” shines a light on Anderson as a 21 year-old Seattle newcomer, drunkenly talking to the cocktail waitress who’d later become his wife. By the time Great Divides reaches its eleventh track, Massy Ferguson brings everything full-circle with “Wolf Moon,” a song that finds Anderson — no longer an out-of-place teenager, but now an adult with a wife, two children, and perhaps Seattle’s roots-rock band — dispensing road-worn advice to his sons.
Made complete by contributions from bandmates Dave Goedde and Fred Slater, Great Divides shines its light on dark memories, pivotal moments, small details, and the wisdom gained by years of doing unwise things. Massy Ferguson recorded the album with Martin Feveyear, known for his work with artists like Kings of Leon and Brandi Carlile. Some of the tracking sessions took place at a studio in Seattle. Others were hosted by Feveyear at his home on Vashon Island. Looking to capture a sound that was raw and immediate, the band kept things loose, throwing together arrangements on the spot and finishing lyrics moments before recording them in the vocal booth. As a result, there’s an urgency to Great Divides, from its widescreen-worthy anthems to its mid-tempo highlights.
This is an album about a man’s attempt to understand the world around him, moving from the limited horizons of his childhood to the (slightly) clearer reality of his adulthood. It’s the punky, half-cocked confidence of college rock mixed with the hungover honesty of alt-country. In short, it’s Massy Ferguson — a band whose electric stomp sounds like the soundtrack to the American Everyman.