Header Photo: Catie Laffoon
It wouldn’t be farfetched to imagine that the title of Saves The Day’s 1998 debut album, Can’t Slow Down, was inspired by Arun Bali. Bali, guitarist for the long-running New Jersey-based emo band, is one busy dude. He sat down with me at New York’s Terminal 5 in February for a gear geek-out session before a sound check with Craig Finn and the Uptown Controllers, with whom he’s been touring for the past few years. He’s putting together a new skate punk band, Dirt Wizard, with members of Bayside, Circa Survive and Dashboard Confessional, working on a solo project that he’ll be talking more about soon, along with a new Saves The Day record, and picking up commercial composition gigs in his ‘free time’ (if such a thing exists). And he still finds time to put together bands for tribute gigs to The Smiths and an EarthQuaker employee favorite, Devo. In this topsy turvy world we live in, Bali is just trying to contribute as much art to the world as possible, and from where I’m standing, it seems he’s doing a pretty solid job.
Anna Blumenthal: How’s the tour been going so far?
Arun Bali: It’s been great. Touring with Japandroids has been awesome - they’re really cool guys and a great band. We just love touring together.
AB: How did you hook up with Craig Finn?
Arun: We used to have the same manager. Craig and I hung out a few times, we’ve been on the same shows and I’m a Hold Steady fan, so when he was looking to put something together for a solo thing, I got asked if I wanted to do it and I was like, yeah, totally. We’ve done a few of these now, like three or four at this point.
AB: And so you’re part of the touring band but you didn’t play on the albums?
Arun: Yeah, he’s got some guys that he works with here in New York, so he’s made the last two with this same group of people. It’s cool to take what they’re doing and put our stamp on it and reinvent it and make it live-ready. It’s super fun. In Saves [The Day] there’s a lot more responsibilities I have, but in this it’s fun to just be a guitar player.
AB: What guitars and amps are you using on this tour?
Arun: The guitars and amps are all Fender. I have a ’62 reissue Jazzmaster and a ’64 reissue American vintage Tele. And then I’m playing a Super Reverb and a Twin Reverb.
AB: Is that the same rig you use for Saves The Day?
Arun: Basically. In Saves I’ll use two Super Reverbs but this time I’m using a Twin and a Super. It just depends. But usually it’s a combination of a couple Fender amps and usually Fender guitars.
AB: I read about some mods that you did to your Fender Twin. Are you pretty techy? I read that you had disconnected the normal channel and the vibrato…
Arun: I’m techy in the sense that I research the things that you can do to make amps cooler or different or better but I don’t do any of it. I’m not really a tinkerer, but I like talking to people who are tinkerers who are good with amps and circuits and all that. [I like] expressing certain things that I want and having talented people around who can pull it off. So with the Super Reverb, basically it’s a mod that Stevie Ray Vaughn’s old guitar tech used to do. If you’re on a Fender where you have the normal and the vibrato channel, even if you’re not using one of them, there’s still current that runs to it, so the idea was, disconnect the cable that goes to the normal channel and to the vibrato, cause I don’t use the tremolo on the amp, so basically it unloads it so it all goes to one so it breaks up quicker and it’s a little more gritty.
AB: What about your guitars? Do you leave them as is?
Arun: I change the pickups. Both of these guitars have Lindy Fralin pickups. On the Tele I added a Bigsby - it’s kind of my thing, I like whammy bars - and then I like gold pickguards so I usually pick finishes that look good with a gold anodized pickguard.
AB: Are you a Fender artist?
Arun: Yeah. I’d probably still play them even if I wasn’t. I grew up playing Fenders. I use Gibsons in the studio and there are some other really cool guitars, like Guild’s doing some cool shit now…it’s cool to see the community between guitar builders and pedal builders, and it seems like everyone’s fighting the same fight. All these people that work at pedal companies and guitar builders, they’re all friends, and being a gear nerd, that’s cool to see, that sense of community. It’s a kind of community within a community of musicians. Everyone that I meet are all musicians in their own right, so when you deal with people who understand that struggle of what we do, it just makes it easier.
AB: When did you start getting into pedals and what part do they play in your sound?
Arun: For years and years I just used a Tube Screamer and a Super Overdrive straight into a ’65 Twin, so I was never a huge pedal guy. In my early 20s I started getting more into Brit Pop and shoegaze, and I started to figure out ways to use effects in a more creative way, where it felt unique to me. So in my early to mid 20s, I started adding a delay, then I started seeing more of these boutique companies coming out, and started getting into more fuzzes and started to hear the difference between different transistors, and even different analog delay chips and stuff. I’ve always been kind of a tone hound, so I just went down a rabbit hole with it, and I’ve been going down it ever since. And right now is a super exciting time with all these builders doing unique takes on classic designs but also brand new stuff.
AB: Do you have any vintage pedals or mostly new pedals?
Arun: I have some old ones, like an old Ibanez analog delay and an old Memory Man and a Tube Screamer, but everything on my board is new. I just think the circuits are a little better, you can get things cleaner, so there’s more options. I was using the old green Tube Screamer for the longest time…
Arun: Yeah, the original one, and it’s still one of my favorite overdrives, but I’m using the Dunes on my board right now. I wanted to take out the midrange and have it be a clean boost and I can do that, or I can bring the lows in – it just depends. It’s nice to have options like that. Having been touring for so long, you’ll be in different rooms where you have different needs.
AB: What other pedals are on your board now?
Arun: There’s always some kind of Tube Screamer, some kind of analog delay and some kind of fuzz and usually a Fuzz Face. Now I have an Analog Man Sun Face and a Hoof Reaper. The Hoof Reaper is definitely a main stay, between the octave up and the Hoof and the Tone Reaper side of it, it all gets used. I love how much volume it has and how spitty it can be, and I have always loved that Octavia sound, and been waiting for a company to make a cool one with an octave and a fuzz. I was like, cool, there’s the Big Muff side and there’s the Tone Bender side, and there’s an octave up side - perfect! I have the Dunes on there right now and I have a Z. Vex Double Rock which is like two Box of Rocks in one basically, and that’s my ‘always-on’ pedal, it’s at the end of the chain, so it kind of acts as a cleaner amp so they’re just on the edge of breakup. There’s two delays, there’s a [Carolyn Guitar Company] Killobyte and a [Diamond] Memory Lane, and an Eventide H9, a Sweet Sound Mojo Vibe for Univibe stuff, and I control it with an expression pedal so I can do my best Hendrix rip off, and a POG.
AB: Is that what you use for Saves The Day too?
Arun: Yeah, it’s the same board. I might swap out a pedal here and there but usually it’s the same. I like the idea of having a board that serves all my needs. And I have a rule where the board has to be shoulder width.
AB: So it can’t get out of control?
Arun: Exactly. It’s like, I gotta fit it in this space. If I want a new pedal, then something’s gotta come off. Cause then you just have too many options. And it forces me to really get the most out of what I’m using. I typically don’t have a bunch of stuff on there where I’m gonna kick it on for one thing. The H9 covers a lot of it.
AB: Are you using more pedals in the studio?
Arun: Yeah. Tons. That’s a different thing altogether. It can be as wide as it wants to be. I’ve amassed a pretty good collection of EarthQuaker stuff at this point. I’m doing this stoner skate punk side project with one of the guys from Bayside, the guy from Circa Survive, and Dashboard Confessional. It’s called Dirt Wizard. I’m building a board for that. I think it’s just gonna be a Hoof and an Acapulco Gold and two other pedals - super simple and just brutal. When I tried the Acapulco Gold through my Super, I looked at my bass player, Rodrigo, and I was like, ‘Oh fuck yeah! That is burly!’ (laughs)
That cranked Sunn sound. It nails it. And you’ve gotta really put it in front of an amp where the tubes are pushing, but I really like that one a lot. I use the Night Wire a lot in the studio, that’s been getting a lot of use. I write music for commercials so that gets used a lot. For cool weird ethereal stuff, it’s such a neat tremolo.
AB: Are you working on songs yet for Dirt Wizard?
Arun: Yeah, there’s a couple of projects that I’m doing. I live in Nashville so I’m surrounded by a bunch of people and everyone’s like, ‘Let’s write songs!’ It’s just that kind of community. We’re also working on a new Saves The Day record this year. There’s not really a timetable for it yet, but we’re in the early planning stages of it, so that’ll be cool. So I’m doing that and I’m doing some of my own stuff, and then doing this skate punk band. I feel like the world needs as much art as it can get at this point. So I’m trying my best to contribute to it as well as I can.
AB: Do any of your bandmates live in Nashville or are you the only one?
Arun: I’m the only one. For Saves it works out fine. We just fly in and rehearse - it ends up being pretty easy. And everyone lives in different cities. It’s not a big deal. There are obviously advantages to being in the same city but everyone kind of goes and scatters and does their own thing, everyone has other projects they’re into, so it makes it cool when we do come back to do Saves stuff, that we’ve all done other stuff but we’re always excited to get back in the room together. We have to put a little more work into it to make it work, and it’s always more gratifying in the end.
AB: Is there any pedal you’d like to have that doesn’t exist yet, or is there a pedal you wish you had that you haven’t found yet?
Arun: That’s a good question. I guess I’ve never really thought about it. I kinda like just seeing what comes out of other people’s brains. I feel like a lot of things have been thought of. I’m pretty simple. I would just take a classic circuit and tweak it for my ears I guess. Whether it’s a Tube Screamer or a Fuzz Face or even an analog delay. I think if I was gonna do something it’d probably be something along those lines. I use the simpler designs and find ways of making it sound otherworldly I guess, but I feel like I wouldn’t have thought of the Space Spiral, but I love that that exists. I haven’t gone down that rabbit hole of trying to design stuff myself. I feel like there’s different avenues of being creative with music, and I choose my battles. But if an idea struck me I have enough friends in the business now where it’s like, ‘Hey, what do you think of this idea, you think you could do that?’
AB: How did you get involved with Black Iris Music [a collective of songwriters doing commercial composition]?
Arun: I used to be in a band called Eons with some guys in Richmond and the company was started by the singer of the band. I had joined Saves The Day and he was working on Black Iris a lot more, and then I started working on my composer chops and wanted to get into commercial writing, so they took me under their wing, and now I’ve been working for them for a couple years. Which is great to have something like that to go home to, and still get to do this stuff.
AB: It seems like a totally different way of working in music.
Arun: It’s nice to have different avenues. It helps with boredom, or if one thing’s slow you can pick up on the other. Everyone’s just trying to survive as a musician. I feel it’s worked out best to try to be versatile and have a few different avenues that I can explore.
AB: What’s the process when writing for TV or for commercials? Do they give you an assignment for a particular product?
Arun: Yeah, usually there’ll be a brief, like a creative call with the agency or the client, and they’ll sometimes have examples or we’ll help them put something together. Usually if I’m writing a video I’ll just watch it a bunch and I’ll find a pulse, I’ll find a tempo that works with the cuts. There’s a lot of trying to find the right tempo and the right progression and feel. It really depends on the ad. If it’s a 30 second thing, you’ll have the five second intro and the ten second build and then the transition and then the payoff and it’s like you’re like arranging a song within 30 seconds. It’s interesting - I get to write styles of music I would not get to normally. Where am I gonna write flamenco music? (laughs)
AB: I was watching some of the commercials on the site today. It’s such dramatic music for something like Velveeta. It’s funny cause you don’t really think about it when you watch commercials.
Arun: Yeah, a lot of times you’ll get stuff that’s kind of orchestral music and occasionally you get something like, ‘Write a metal song.’ I did one thing where the reference was a Bad Brains track, and I was like, ‘I got this!’ That’s right in my wheelhouse. It’s fun. It’s made me a better writer for sure, plucking these things from different styles of music cause I’m immersed - for two days I’m listening to nothing but like, meringue, or whatever it is.
AB: Is your process for composing for commercials and TV really different from writing for your bands?
Arun: Definitely. Writing for commercials or for other people, there’s way less pressure. I think I’m neurotic in a much different way, cause I don’t have time to second guess it. You’ll get a brief, like I could get one at noon today and I have to turn it around by 10am tomorrow. It’ll be that fast. When you’re writing your own stuff, you can take as much time as you want - you can labor over a chorus or a transition forever, so just learning how to peel yourself away and be like, this is either good or it sucks. With commercials you don’t really get the time, so a lot of time you’re just trusting your instincts and your gut.
AB: Are you at a point now where you kind of know what they want?
Arun: Yes and no. There’s always good and bad days when you’re trying to write stuff. There’s days where I’m like, ‘I can’t think of fucking anything right now,’ and then there are other days when you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I got this.’
AB: Does the music that you’re writing for commercial purposes feel less personal to you than the music you’re writing for your bands?
Arun: Yeah, it’s less personal, but it’s personal in terms of the craft. I mean, I take it personally, wanting to do a good job and write a good thing, but it’d be hard to have an emotional attachment to it, if I’m writing for Geico. It’s enjoyable though.
AB: In your bands, what’s your songwriting process like? Do you write by yourself?
Arun: In Saves, Chris [Conley] will come in with a melody or a riff and then we’ll flesh it out together, arrange it, put the meat on it, and then for the stuff that I’m doing, I’ll have a thing in my head or I’m just playing guitar or even practicing some routine thing - a lot of times if I’m in a rut I’ll just work on my chops or I’ll just practice or learn new chords and I’ll stumble upon something.
AB: At what point do the lyrics come in? Is it after you have the music?
Arun: In Saves, it depends. Sometimes Chris will have the lyrics already and other times he’ll just have a melody and then after the song is taking shape, he’ll take some time, and just start writing. But I don’t write lyrics in the other stuff I’m doing, so usually the music will come first and a top line melody.
AB: Are you writing in Dirt Wizard too?
Arun: I am, yeah. But it’s still pretty early, and everyone’s got other projects so it’s not as much of a priority. I’m working on a new thing personally, I just haven’t really talked about it a lot yet, I’m hesitant to say too much, but it’s gonna be cool, so I’ve been writing some jams. It’s kinda psychedelic, more like Tame Impala, Dead Weather - riffs and cool keyboard blips and bloops.
AB: Do you play keys too?
Arun: A little bit, yeah.
AB: I heard a rumor that you’re in a Devo tribute band.
Arun: A Devo tribute band!? (laughs) I’m a huge Devo fan, huge Devo fan, and I think it was in 2008, me and some friends in Detroit did a Halloween show where we did a tribute. That was super fun - it was one of the most fun shows I’ve ever played. Everyone went nuts. We played this small shitty bar in Detroit, and it was so much fun learning those songs. I played bass.
Recently I did a Smiths tribute band in Nashville with a couple guys from Bayside, the drummer from Braid, and a bass player from Street Dogs, and we did this Planned Parenthood benefit. It was called Louder Than Bombs We’re gonna probably do more shows. I’m way into the tribute band thing. We didn’t get all dressed up but we did for the Devo thing. We did a costume change, mid Jocko Homo. We had the painters’ jumpsuits with the hats and then Jocko Homo has this long bridge break down and we’d take those off and underneath we’d have the turtlenecks, the Whip It outfits (laughs). I love Devo.
Anna Blumenthal handles Sales and Artist Relations for EarthQuaker Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, plays guitar in Party Lights and bass in Sit N Spin, DJs 60s soul and R&B at various Brooklyn bars, and has seen Cheap Trick over 30 times.