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The notion of musicians engaging in side projects has become increasingly acceptable in recent years. If it isn’t someone fulfilling a lifelong dream to moonlight as the lead singer of their favorite band not called Linkin Park (Hello, Stone Temple Pilots with Chester Bennington!), then it’s someone who plays in multiple projects in the hope that one of them will stick (insert any number of musicians here). But for Will Carpenter, who is known to some as the guitarist for the hip-hop rock project 7Lions, the genesis of his alternative rock side project Ships Have Sailed doesn’t follow either of these scripts.
“It kind of started by accident,” Carpenter says. “7Lions has a specific sound already carved out for us, but being a songwriter and musician with many different influences, I found myself over the course of that first year with the group with this set of songs that didn’t match up with 7Lions at all. But I couldn’t let go of them.”
So he started doing some pre-production, liked what he was hearing, came up with three songs, got them to a place where he was pleased with them, and then realized he almost had enough material for an EP. At that point, he started working more fully on what would become Ships Have Sailed’s debut EP, Someday, which was released last month. Writing the material for the EP was refreshing for Carpenter because the dynamic of this project differs wildly from that of 7Lions.
“With 7Lions it has to be more methodical because it’s a collaborative project, but for Ships, it’s more open-ended,” says Carpenter. “It varies from song to song. There have been songs that have written themselves in my head and I’ve had to scramble to try to get the idea notated somehow, remotely, because I’m not near a computer or a guitar or anything, so Voice Notes comes in very handy. But other times a melody or a chorus just starts somewhere, and you can take that nugget of an idea and build around it. It keeps things interesting.”
The same can be said for Someday, which features a little bit of just about everything. Ambient synth-heavy rock? Check (“Midnight”). Acoustic ditties? You bet (“Clouds”). The type of star-scraping pop-rock that mainstream radio is perpetually dying to get its hands on? Absolutely (“Bring You Down”). Toss in some straight ahead rock and roll (“Better Off”) and a swelling pop number that features a military-style drum beat, and it becomes clear that Carpenter was willing to broaden his musical horizons in order to achieve the desired results. Of course, the fact that he didn’t record the EP all at once since he still works with 7Lions adds to its complexity.
“The EP took about a year and a half to execute because it started very slowly and informally, so that process was just me in my project studio working on different stuff, figuring out what worked,” Carpenter says. “You could get an EP done in a couple months if that’s all you were working on at the time, but in the real world it’s difficult to just sequester yourself like that and be creative 100% of the time. You also tend to get tunnel vision when you do that and can end up with weird results – sometimes weird good, sometimes weird bad – so sometimes you get better results by not doing that.”
Getting great results from his songs not only means that Carpenter has to allow his material time to breathe while he works on other things, but it also requires Carpenter to know what gear serves him best on a given song. He isn’t married to one style of guitar, so the possibilities for exploration are seemingly endless. Having different guitars at his disposal certainly helps, as does having some other necessary tools.
“For Ships, I tend to play a Telecaster, especially live, but in the studio I like to layer that with a Les Paul, as well,” he says. “I’ll keep the Les Paul in the background just as a quiet double because there’s more low end on it, so it thickens things up even if you’re just mirroring the same part. But then live, I do favor the Telecaster. Right now, my live rig, I just play through an Egnater Tweaker amp. I have a pretty minimal effects board. I have a Bogner Ecstasy Red pedal, which is my distortion, and I have a TC Electronics delay pedal. Those are pretty much the only effects I use.”
And while Carpenter demonstrated serious initiative in getting this project off the ground by coming up with song ideas, recording several of them by himself as he was able to, and not giving up on the ideas as they came to him, there came a point where he realized that he could not do everything himself. He needed a producer with a fresh set of ears to help get his material to another level, so that’s when he turned to producer and fellow member of 7Lions, Morgan Taylor Reid.
“I took Morgan to lunch and picked his brain a bit,” he says. “I had this idea to make ‘Midnight’ more sinister, but my production skills weren’t such that I was confident enough to create that sound myself, so I brought in that idea, and Morgan and I finished writing it together and did all the production, including vocals in about a day. It was a really quick, smooth, pleasant process.”
After that, as time allowed, Carpenter used Reid to help him polish and create the rest of the EP, utilizing everything from Reid’s production skills to his talents as a vocal coach. It did not happen overnight, but Carpenter is pleased with the results and is looking forward to having others hear it.
“It was a bit of a hodgepodge as far as the recording process goes,” Carpenter admits, “but it turned into a pretty cohesive EP and I’m really happy with it.”
Follow on Twitter @ShipsHaveSailed
photos by Thomas Rihs Photography