Stumpfest Interviews 2015: Billions and Billions Talk about Fathers, the Unknown, and Gratitude

Aaron Sharpsteen / May 5, 2015


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The final night of Stumpfest came too quickly, with another weekend of amazing music coming to an end. On the final night, after two successful interviews, I sat down with Justin and Neil of Billions and Billions to lob some deep questions at them and talk with them about their approach to music.

So these first three questions are from Muscle and Marrow. Are you familiar?

Neal (N): Yeah I know who they are. We have a side project called Raw. Whenever we get the urge to get together and do some improv, depending on who is available, that happens. Anyways we did that and Muscle and Marrow played that show. It was cool, they were heavy.

And so are their questions. The first question: How can you do anything knowing that you’re going to die someday?

Justin: I got that. I think that if you look at everything as being temporary, it gives you motivation to take advantages of opportunities. Acknowledgment that you’re going to die, at least for me, serves as something that makes me say “Ok, there’s a lot of shit I have to get done.”

So to follow that up, how constant is that motivation?

J: No, it’s not always constant, there are distractions, which is unfortunate. I’d actually like to be confronting that more often, but I find myself distracted sometimes with just basic aspects of everyday life. It should be constant.

N: If you can imagine that your death is following you around and its just waiting to tap you on the shoulder to take you away to the land of the dead, what better inspiration for living is there on this planet? There’s other great things, sex, pleasure, but the other side of it is, yeah, we’re gone eventually. Do it while you can. Nike got it. Just do it.

That’s funny. The second question is: What was your relationship with your father like?

J: Why dad is probably…that’s funny to bring that up right after the death question. My dad passed in 2009. Actually that was right when I decided to put this band together. He was the coolest dude I’ve ever met, he was my best friend. I think about him every day. He introduced me to the world of music. He had a weird relationship with his dad. I come from a Puerto Rican background, so sports, particularly baseball was a big part of his upbringing, and he was more into reading books and listening to records, and his dad kind of shamed him because of that. They had a rift between them. So when I expressed interest in music, my dad was really careful about it. He didn’t want me to feel like I should be doing it because he wanted me to, he wanted me to think of it as my own. It was cool, when I first started getting into music it was punk music, which he didn’t understand very much. He used to say it sounded like Irish fighting music. He didn’t get it. Eventually he got turned on to Black Flag and other stuff, he got it at some point. Over the years, he would give me the tools so that I could make up my own mind about what I liked and what I wanted to do, and then he would show me what he liked and what influenced him. There wasn’t really ever a strong authoritarian part. In that sense, some of the aspects he might have been shortsighted, there are ways I could have been disciplined better or made to do better in school, but he was hands off on that. But at the same time, one of the last things he said to me was that he was happy the way our relationship turned out. That he was proud of the things I had accomplished. He talked about his dad and the rift between them and he was happy we didn’t have that between us.

I’m sorry to hear he’s gone.

J: You know, its hard to say this, when you have a loss…its hard to say you feel positively about it and sound genuine, but I really do feel positive about it. Maybe that’s because I carry things from him all the time, there are things that I use in my life. I guess in some ways I feel his presence, but maybe that’s just me. It’s hard to make that feel known to other folks. People know you’ve lost someone and they say sorry, but it’s like, I didn’t lose him. He came, he did his thing while he was around, and I was glad to have known him. I hope someday I’ll get to hang out with him again.

What about you Neal?

N: I love my dad, he’s my biggest fan. Justin really summed it up. My dad turned me on to all sorts of things I wouldn’t have seen myself getting into. Interesting literature and music, there was always music playing in the house. The only thing I’ll really say about my dad, he’s one of the most interesting and fascinating people I’ve ever met. There’s a lot of people you find in your life that you don’t take for granted, necessarily, but you understand right away. They are kind of static, but my dad, I’m always learning something new about him, he continually renews this idea of who he is. It’s really great. He’s a great dad.

That’s good to hear. It’s time for the third question, which is also kind of morose: When is the last time you cried, and why?

N: The last time I cried, I was watching the movie Interstellar. I just felt very insignificant. I realized…its not something that hits you very often, how insignificant our lives can be, how ephemeral they are, how they just go. Our whole planet could get wiped out, we could wipe each other out, but, the thing that made me cry was the hope that was out there, I know that sounds cheesy, but the idea of life outside of this planet. I think that is a beautiful thing.

So it wasn’t a sad cry?

N: No, it was more of an overwhelming sense of joy and happiness with sadness as well, knowing that death will take us away. What about you?

J: To tell you the truth, I cry a little bit almost every day. I’m just kind of a sensitive person, I hold a lot of stuff in. The last time I had a big bawling session, it was St. Patrick’s day, it was actually here at Mississippi Studios. At work I had been turned down from a promotion, a job that I had applied for. The basic reasoning they gave me was that they thought I had to work on my PR skills, that no one in the company knew who I was, and I wasn’t really charismatic enough to take on a leadership role, and I’ve been there for almost 10 years. I sat on it for a day then got off work and went to that strip club, Dancing Bare, they had a special, I did like 6 Jamesons, washed them down with beer. My girlfriend kept calling me, she knew something was up, I texted her that I didn’t get the job. So I was here, bawling to her, and I told her I was going to go in and take a shit on top of the salad bar…


J…she talked me down, she was supportive and cool about it, she understood why I came and got lit. But later that same night, here, there was a show happening, and I heard some guitar going off in the background, and I didn’t know who it was. I looked into it and it said Lucas Nelson, I asked who that was and learned it was Willie Nelson’s son. I was like “I don’t know who Willie Nelson is, but who cares, this guy is good.” That music picked me up pretty quick, I dug it.

So those were the three questions from them.

N: Thanks. Those were really hard hitting questions.

For sure. They were not afraid to get deep.

J: If they were stupid I don’t think I would have known how to answer them.

Trust me, in the time that I’ve done this they have run the gamut. So for Billions and Billions, is there an over-arching philosophy that guides your decisions or aesthetic vision?

N: We started out…well, the name Billions and Billions is a reference to Carl Sagan, who was a pretty big influence on the band initially. He’s got a very humbling take on our place in the universe….

J: I think one guiding principle of the group is confronting the unknown straight on. When we started this band, we didn’t actually have a name. We started the band because two of the guys that I had close relationships with, I knew that I could play with without having to use words to explain what I wanted to do. We just said “Let’s get together and see what happens.” After one jam, we said “Let’s play a show.” So when that happened we got added to a show, and the organizer put a picture of Carl Sagan on the flyer. So we were like “Let’s call it that.” The main idea is that we didn’t know what the heck we were going to do. We just said “Let’s go play a show.” We still try to challenge ourselves, doing things that may be frightening. I like randomness, I like changing plans at the last minute, I like having plans and then fucking those plans up. For one thing its fun, but another thing is that it is a confrontation of fear. I think that is when some of the best stuff comes out of you, when you feel stressed and you don’t know what to do.

N: Exploration is also another concept. I think our music is generally an exploration of ourselves, and also of this idea that there is so much out there to get into. There’s so much sonic territory to cover that hasn’t been covered. While we sometimes fall into genres for people, I think we keep coming back to this idea that there are infinite ways to generate sound. Like Justin said, sometimes we’ll play a song completely differently at certain times. It’s this relationship between what we want to pull out of the cosmos and then also what is coming from us, what we are pushing out there. Nothing is off limits.

So going from the unknown to more of the known. I always try to ask about inter-band dynamics and the roles people play in certain situations. Sometimes that is contextualized within a tour situation, but just generally, are there stable roles?

J: I would say that Neil is mainly booking and communication lines. I’m more of a people person, I manage the personel. Meaning, sometimes it is very difficult to get a group of people to get along or to work together, and I think that part of my strength is listening and being diplomatic and understanding. So where Neil might take charge, I’ll say “Well, what do you guys want to do?”

N: I totally agree. I’m sort of the band mom in a way, I organize everything for the kids, and make sure lunches are packed and all that. And Justin is kind of the peacemaker of the band. We’ve had a lot of members with shifting roles, Justin and I are the only static members that have been in the band from the very beginning, but we have a long relationship that goes back to high school in California. We’ve been in a lot of bands together, so I think we naturally let each other do both sides of the band stuff. Justin’s really good with solving conflict. He’s good at seeing through them really well.

J: I’d like to think that when people play with me, that they are playing at their best. I feel like if someone is uncomfortable or they don’t feel good around the people they are with, that they will hold back. So I put an emphasis on getting the best out of it. If you are going to play with me, I want you to play better than you have with anyone else.

That’s funny, that reminds me of Whiplash. Have you seen that?

J: No.

It is about that idea, but one of the main characters uses hate tactics to push people.

J: Love works more than fear.

N: We are the total opposite. If there is something you could say about our band it is that we allow people to be as free as possible. I think that has been a really positive thing. A lot of people get into groups just to do their own thing. At a certain point, that might butt up against the idea that we have, but the point is to let people express themselves to the fullest. From there, to hash it out even more. It’s like those supergroups, like Les Claypool and Buckethead. They are all virtuosos, but coming together its not really a band. What’s really important is to have a solid group of people that are contributing, not just people playing songs.

The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

N: For sure. We’ve had a lot of different people in the band, with various levels of skills and abilities, but I think that’s been the challenging thing, to find people’s strengths. But once we’ve figured them out, it’s great, and we move in a new direction.

How did you end up playing Stumpfest?

N: We just got asked. I haven’t met Rynne yet, but she contacted us and asked us to play. We’ve been friends with a lot of bands that have played the fest before, I’d imagine she heard about us through them.

J: We played with Norska, Danava, Lecherous Gaze, Prizehog, so…

So you kind of make sense in the lineup.

N: And we’re all friends. Portland’s an insular scene, we are all doing things…maybe insular is the wrong word, we all just kind of know each other. The bands that are out there, playing shows, we all meet everyone eventually.

That’s cool. How has it been?

N: Great, I had a great time on stage.

J: This is one of the coolest experiences I’ve had at a music festival. Not to talk bad about anything else, this just feels like there is a lot of enthusiasm and support.

N: People are excited. I’ve played a lot of festivals that are very faceless, and you just get thrown into this cattle-shoot, and then you get your head chopped off. It’s just kind of monotonous, you are just part of this thing, you are a name on a bill. Here, people are truly stoked to see us play, and people are excited to hang out with friends.

I think that’s the vibe that they are going for, a family and friends atmosphere.

N: Definitely.

I don’t want anyone to miss the next band, and looking at the time I feel like we have room for one more question…but honestly I’m not sure what it is going to be. If you have anything on your minds that you want to tell me, this is a good time.

N: Closing statements?

Closing statements.

N: Can it be an argument of some sort?

It’s up to you. The goal is to not miss any music, I figure I will leave the floor open.

J: I just want to say that I appreciate you taking the time to ask us stuff. No one has really asked us anything like that, about stuff that I spend a lot of time on. Your friends and stuff come out and people tell you great job, but I don’t really get much straight up feedback. I don’t know if that’s just me, but I really would like to be more engaged in the process. I’m passionate about music.

Well, you’re welcome.

N: Yeah, thanks man. It’s really neat to think that somebody out there in the universe that we never met before is interested in our music. It always astonishes me when people from around the country hit us up about shows. We’ve turned down a lot of shows because we are all busy people, but anytime someone expresses interest, it really makes me happy. Makes me feel like it’s worth it. Going off what Justin says, you don’t get much genuine gratitude. I don’t know about you but there aren’t a lot of times where someone will come up and say “Hey man, I really like what you do, that was a really good job, thank you.” Or even just “Thank you for being alive.” That’s the thing about music, I think it speaks to people on a completely different level that people aren’t used to dealing with. It’s really neat.

To be 100% honest, I probably would have interviewed you anyways, but the main idea for me doing all the opening bands is from last year when Cat Jones suggested it to me. So I said “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” Basically if you would have been second on the bill I would have not asked you any questions.

(All laugh)

N: Well I’m glad we opened then. It’s funny, we talked about the idea that we didn’t “fit” on this bill. Given our style, we might have “fit” a little better on Thursday,

I can see that.

N: And maybe Prizehog would have fit better tonight. I was joking with them about switching places. But then we were like, “No, why would we do that? Let’s play to a different crowd of people.” I like that you are interested and that you look into the outliers, I saw what you wrote for the preview, about bands that maybe don’t get that much attention. Cause you know, Big Business has done a million interviews, and Yob. Not that they aren’t really interesting people and you shouldn’t talk to them. Just appreciate you giving us a chance to speak.

Thank you for talking with me.

And with that, three nights of great conversations came to a close. Check out Prizehog‘s interview here and Muscle and Marrow‘s interview here.

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