The Cactus Blossoms :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

On The Cactus Blossoms’ third album, One Day, brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum gently expand the parameters of their lonesome, harmony-laden sound. Recorded in the duo’s basement studio in Minneapolis, the album retains the golden-hued nostalgia of their previous efforts, built similarly on a foundation of Sun Studio-style rockabilly, folk, and country. But there’s a distinct ’70s flavor in the works as well, with electronic pianos and shuffling rhythms providing new angles on the band’s timeless approach. On the charming “Is It Over,” they strike classic AM gold; with “Hey Baby” they turn up the heat enough to simmer; and on “Everybody,” Jenny Lewis drops by to nearly steal the show with her brassy vocals. The brothers recently joined AD to discuss their roots, working with Lewis, and share a few stories from their time on the set of 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: A couple times a year, a song will grab me and I’ll listen over and over again. That’s definitely happened with “Is It Over.” I love the backstory to that one, this situation where a singer is facing down past glories and worried about fading away. What inspired the song? 

Jack Torrey: I think of it a few different ways. I just turned 40 and I’ve had some morbid thoughts like, “Well, it is time to hang it up?” But I think about people like Bob Dylan or Willie Nelson, who’ve been doing it forever. Or our friend Nick Lowe, who we’ve had the chance to tour with a bit, and he’s still doing so great.

AD: There’s a soft rock lilt to that one, a slight departure from the hillbilly or country sounds you’re associated with.

Page Burkum: We’ve always liked all kinds of music. Back when we were doing obscure country and western songs, we would always joke around to people and say “We’re gonna make an ELO song, or a Kraftwerk song, or a Todd Rundgren song.”

AD: If we were to go back in time, what was the first music that made you want to play? Are there teenage punk bands in your past?

Jack Torrey: As teenagers, we got a hold of the drums and bass and played stuff like Weezer and got into Air, Radiohead, Jason Faulkner, Suzanne Vega, The Cardigans…The tent poles. 

Page Burkum: We were just kind of messing around at that point. But then we got into a lot of old folk music neither of us had probably known existed at all; we didn’t grow up listening to 1920-40s folk music, but discovering that made me want to pick up a guitar. Those three chord songs have so much sincerity to them, which felt like a totally different thing than what we were doing before, just messing around in the garage or whatever. Jack started writing songs a lot after kind of being obsessed with Bob Dylan and folk stuff. 

AD: I wanted to ask you guys about working with Jenny Lewis on the song “Everybody.” I think she’s probably one of the smartest and funniest songwriters working today. Her stuff is deeply funny, but it’s also earnest, and so smart and sly. 

Jack Torrey: She always throws in another angle, and almost rhyme or strange turn of phrase.

AD: Were you guys fans of Rilo Kylie when that band came out, or did you get to know her music later? 

Jack Torry: I remember her band being big, and it was right up my alley. But that was around the time, we pretty much both unplugged our computers and went to the library and got every blues and folk record we could find in the Minneapolis library system. So I missed out on a bunch of stuff between 2005 and 2015. But I mean, that’s why I was so cool to just stumble onto her music and see the Rabbit Fur Coat 10 year anniversary tour, which was around the time we met her. But yeah, we collaborated remotely. I sent her a very bad voice memo. Just like this, “Hey, there’s this harmony, or whatever.” But she doesn’t need direction. And like she gets the nuance of what we’re doing is probably better than what we do.

AD: Like a lot of people, I learned of you guys from Twin Peaks: The Return. Similar to your records, David Lynch plays with the ‘50s and idealized notions of the American past. Were you fans of Twin Peaks before being involved? 

Jack Torrey: We had watched the show a couple years before that. When we recorded our album, You’re Dreaming, which “Mississippi,” the song we played at the Roadhouse is on, that was our first time using tremolo guitar. It was a natural progression for us, getting a baritone guitar with tremolo on it. We thought, “Ooh, this is kind of Twin Peaks-y.” We’d had a fiddle and stuff before, but this was a different vibe. And we joked, “Hey, maybe David Lynch will use this.” [Laughs] 

AD: What was your experience on set like? Did you interact with him? 

Page Burkum: He was directing. It just couldn’t have been more chill and friendly. It was just such a cool group of people. You know, we immediately had that sense of like, “Oh, man, everyone is happy to be here.” And they were like 100 days into shooting. It just made us feel really good. 

Jack Torrey: Being on set can be pretty nerve wracking. But we showed up and the stage was set up with backline amps and drums, and our drummer, Alex Hall was like, “Those are my drums.” The equipment on stage was exactly what we’d used. Lynch explained we’re gonna do two takes and said hello and everything. Originally, they were going to have an the emcee [JR Starr] announce every act, which didn’t end up being in the completed show.

But he came out with a spotlight and said, “Give a warm Roadhouse welcome to The Cactus Blossoms.” And Lynch, through the megaphone went, “Cut!” We’d just started, so it was kind of like, “Oh no, what’s wrong?” And he goes, “Is it Cactus Blossoms or The Cactus Blossoms?” And I said, it’s “The Cactus Blossoms,” and he said, “Got it! Roll.” And the song started over. It was such a minor thing, but it was actually important to us to get it right, and he wanted to get it right. That was such a minor thing, just a three letter word, but that was so cool. He stopped the operation to check in and make sure that right we were announced properly. Half of the venues that we’re playing for real wouldn’t ever care, but he cared.

AD: That’s so funny too, because in the finished show, the announcer does introduce Nine Inch Nails as “The Nine Inch Nails.” [Laughs] But there’s such a blend of nostalgia, terror, earnestness, humor, and strangeness in Twin Peaks. I’m a big fan of art that doesn’t telegraph to the listener or viewer exactly how they are supposed to receive it. 

Jack Torrey: Lynch definitely has a sense of humor.He also has a very developed style, and he’s still working in that playground he beheld and, and it’s because it’s what he does. But he’s no bullshit, right? And that’s where I think he’s sincere. He’s a sincere person who winks, nods, jokes, and terrifies. In the ‘90s, the idea of “postmodern” was around all the time. And I think it started to seem like, if you’re not bullshitting, you’re square. But I think you can be aware of it and still do your own thing. If you want to make a painting, even if you know it kind of sucks, it can be a true expression. You can’t let pretense stop you from creating. 

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