Band Notes: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

Before their gig opening for Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw at FedEx Field this Sunday, the band’s frontwoman talks about recording songs for Tim Burton, breaking world records, and “rowdy” country fans.

By: Tanya Pai

Maybe we’re just suffering from “Call Me Maybe” overload, but sometimes all we want to listen to is a good old-fashioned badass-female-singer-fronted rock band. Thankfully there’s Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. The Vermont-based four-piece—lead singer Potter, drummer Matt Burr, and guitar/bass players Scott Tournet and Benny Yurco—put out sweeping, earthy tracks anchored by driving guitars and Potter’s distinctive voice, equal parts gritty and glam. The band’s fourth album, The Lion the Beast the Beat, came out in June and was co-produced by Jim Scott, who won a Grammy for his work on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication. The record also features three songs cowritten by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.

It’s somewhat surprising, given their sound and collaborators, that GPN are currently on tour with country superstars Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney (the latter of whom contributed vocals to a bonus track on GPN’s new album). The Brothers of the Sun tour stops by FedEx Field this Sunday, August 12. We caught up with Potter by phone last week to talk cooking for her bandmates, breaking world records with the Flaming Lips, and how she ended up touring with two of the biggest names in country music.

You’re playing in Kansas tonight. What do you do to get yourself pumped up for a show?

It’s a lot of stuff. My favorite thing is to listen to music and get riled up with the guys. We put on a DVD of Iggy Pop or Ray Charles or AC/DC . . . it’s amazing how you can revert back to your 14-year-old self when you’re listening to this stuff, and it doesn’t even occur to you that you’re about to go out and do the same thing. I also do my vocal warmups, and sometimes the guys come in and make fun of me.

How do you keep yourself amused on the road while you’re touring?

The guys just got the old-school Nintendo, from ’89! So they’re enjoying each other’s company. I can always lure people out by cooking. I just went and got some forbidden rice, this black rice that’s really pungent and nutty and lovely, and I have this really good induction hot plate, pots and pans, good stuff. Usually if I start cooking the guys will wander out of their cave.

Do they cook, too?

Matty actually makes a mean guac, and Scotty makes a killer salad. Everybody picks up slack in terms of who’s going to do the dishes.

Sounds like they’re sort of like your brothers.

They’re so my brothers! They’re so my family. We love spending time around each other. We had a sing-along the other night, and we thoroughly enjoyed wandering around singing a Tim McGraw song, just bombing the lyrics.

I heard a story involving you, the Flaming Lips, and a Guinness world record for most concerts played in a 24-hour period. Can you tell me about that?

I connected with Wayne [Coyne, lead singer of the Flaming Lips] last year at a festival, and we’d been communicating back and forth. I got asked to create a song for a Tim Burton movie, which was a really cool opportunity for me—it’s called “My Mechanical Friend,” and it’s for the new Frankenweenie movie coming out in October. So I was in a meeting with folks from VH1 for something completely separate, and I heard about the O Music awards, which are an online award show paying tribute to the most exciting music happening online. I heard the Flaming Lips were involved and were trying to break the world record for the most concerts played in 24 hours, and I was like, “I’m in. Who do I call?” I was so fascinated, and I love Wayne, so I wanted to be a part in any way possible. I jumped on the trail in Oxford, Mississippi, and we played in what I thought was the most beautiful theater: the Lyric Theatre. Then they jumped on a bus and hit eight cities in 24 hours, and broke the record. Jay-Z was the record holder before, but he had a jet.

So your name is going to be in the Guinness Book of World Records?

I hope so! It might just be the Lips, but maybe my name is mentioned. I traveled for a leg of the journey, and ended up playing cohost because Wayne wanted to take a nap. I got a lot of camera time; I covered 2 AM to 5 AM.

Must have taken a lot of Red Bull.

I don’t think I had any Red Bull, actually! We were drinking whiskey. Well, they were; I was drinking white wine.

You’re currently touring with country heavyweights Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw right now. I think of GPN as more as a rock band—how did this collaboration come together?

It’s all rooted in the day Kenny called me out of the blue. I’d never met him before, and he invited me to sing on this beautiful song called “You and Tequila.” I didn’t know a lot about him, he didn’t know a lot about me, but he’d heard a song I wrote when I was 19 called “Apologies,” and he felt the voice he heard on that track was what he wanted. And from that we forged a lifelong friendship—we’re kindred spirits in terms of the amount of energy we spend giving out to other people. We’re both kind of hyperactive people who really enjoy being onstage and performing, but we have very little in common musically. I’m so happy we came together, because on the tour I can see how universal music really is. We’re not a country act, we’ve never had one of our videos played on CMT or any of that, but we share this love of making people put their hands in the air and smile.

Have you found that the crowd differs with this tour versus your regular fans?

It’s drastically different. Our fans are—I hate to use the word demographic, but [our usual fans are] more college radio and people who are music-heads who spend their days and weeks in record shops scouring for that rare Kinks record. We attract all kinds; we really do have a broad audience. One of the things I’ve learned from being on this tour is how rowdy and loud the country crowd can be. It’s really fun. It kind makes us go back to square one. We worked hard to gain people’s enjoyment.

You performed at Coachella this year—how did you like it?

That’s a perfect example of how broad our genre-hopping goes—we went from Coachella to Kenny and Tim. There’s nothing more punk than that. My Coachella experience was full of . . . I had a lot of work to do, so I missed a bit of the Coachella experience, but because it was two weekends long, on the second weekend I got to enjoy it.

It’s so easy to get sucked into the backstage scene, to just hang out in VIP and get free drinks, but I had a good time wandering from tent to tent. I loved going to the smaller tents and the smaller stages, discovering new acts and enjoying the crowd experiences.

Your first album was self-produced, but for your latest, you worked with outside producers including Jim Scott. What’s the advantage of having that outside help?

I think collaborating is important because you can disappear up your own bellybutton if you go too deep. As a co-producer I put a lot of pressure on myself to make this record not just exceptional but boundary-pushing. I feel like these are songs we’re going to want to play over and over, since it’ll probably be another couple years before we put another one out again. Luckily I’m really proud of the result. Collaborations keep me centered. Jim Scott is so Zen—he never pushed, he never was that heavy-handed, “I’ve got the control” kind of producer, although it’s fun to have those too. Jim didn’t come in with any forceful vision; he leaned on me and relied on me to set the tone myself.

Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys also produced a track and cowrote a few of the songs on the new album.

That was an amazing collaboration. I really value the time I spent with him. Working with Dan was kind of an experiment, a side thing. I met him over the summer, and [a few months later] he called me and said, “I’ve got a couple days, does the band want to come and write?” We had no intention of it winding up on the record, but he helped us reconsider song structure and hooks and the style in which we’d be playing.

Do you have a favorite song off the new album?

It’s hard to answer because every song is my little baby; I don’t want to pick favorites. The title track was the most arduous experience—it was a labor of love, and it really took a lot out of me. In that same way you can hear it in the song. . . . It sets the tone for the album and the highest expectation I have for the listener. It takes you on a roller coaster. I knew I wanted that to be the opening track. I wanted people to understand that everything you thought you knew about the band has changed.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals open for Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw at FedEx Field on Sunday, August 12, at 4:30 PM. Tickets ($29.50 to $259.50) are available through Ticketmaster.