4 Way Street

Four Sidemen Meet At Pretzel Park

Interviewing Philadelphia's 4 Way Street is a similar experience to listening to their brilliant debut album, "Pretzel Park" (Sanctuary Records). Individually, they are insightful, talented and blessed with musical gifts that music journalists and fans alike thirst for every time they catch a live band for the first time, or some new tune on the radio or iPod. Put the combination together, and the experience is a unique and exciting mixture that reinforces the strengths of each and also presents something new that could only be born from their collaborative process.

The foursome, Ben Arnold (guitar, organ, vocals), Scott Bricklin (bass, vocals), Jim Boggia (guitar, vocals) and Joseph Parsons (guitar, vocals) each have successful solo careers that could warrant their own interview and an exploration of their music. Arnold has released several indie albums and was once signed to RuffHouse/Columbia Records. Bricklin has released albums on both A&M and Sire/Hybrid during the course of his career. Boggia recently released his first solo album, the latest step in a diverse career where he's performed or recorded with artists such as Juliana Hatfield and Jill Sobule. Parsons released his first album in the U.S. in 1995, and subsequently issued several albums in Europe that have built him a loyal fan base on the continent.

So they weren't necessarily looking for a new project when they found themselves on the same stage at an open mic night in 2000. By the end of the evening, their unconventional and spontaneous harmonies sparked a chemical reaction that continues to crystallize into something very special.

Soon after their unexpected on-stage meeting, they were invited to perform at a WXPN Singer-Songwriter Festival and the success there lead to a series of informal collaborations and follow-up performances. Their demo CD became incredibly popular with fans, and the unit started to take on a life of its own. A following started to evolve around the band, with each member's own fans joining an entirely new audience to convince everyone involved that this needed to be a more permanent project that sought to examine just how far they could push musical boundaries.

Chorus and Verse has been very fortunate to interview three members of the band about their solo efforts, how 4 Way Street came into being, and what are the expectations that they have for the future. Pay close attention to their individual personalities and how they complement and work off each other, and you'll get a good insight into how they interact on stage or in the studio. Then, get your hands on the CD and hear it on your stereo, and you'll be listening for a long time to come.

One of the most interesting aspects of 4 Way Street is that you each have successful solo careers that you're continuing to maintain. Do you see your solo and group work as complementing each other, or a means to do something different? When putting 4 Way Street together, was there any worry that your individual efforts would suffer?

Jim Boggia: When we put 4 Way Street together, there wasn't an idea that it would be an ongoing thing, so no one ever considered things like that at the time. I don't know if individual efforts have suffered. Things take longer because we're dividing our time. Sacrifices get made on both ends, collectively and individually. But, you also get things out of it that wouldn't be there if we didn't do 4 Way, so it's a trade-off. Similarly, I'm not sure that the two things compliment each other as much as expand each other. I use different skills in 4 Way Street than I do generally in solo shows: singing harmony [and] playing "lead" guitar aren't things that come up much in a solo show.

Honestly, I enjoy being the sideman more in 4 Way Street than being the front guy in 4 Way Street. I don't have much opportunity to do that kind of thing, which I used to do a lot, anymore. When we go off and do our solo things, I think it helps us keep our individual identities and hopefully as we change individually, we'll combine together in different ways in 4 Way Street and keep that fresh.

Joseph Parsons: I think from the very beginning it was that we have solo careers and efforts that made this project come alive be something special. We weren't leaning on 4 Way Street to further our own individual art. It has allowed us to be freer as "sidemen" instead of leaders. As it happens, it has taken on a serious life of its own. So, in terms of our solo careers, we are struggling a bit now with the time to dedicate to them. But, overall, there is a synergy which has grown to help it all. My career is mostly in Europe and the folks there are now interested in this project thus widening mine, as well as the others', exposure.

Ben Arnold: I definitely see all of my musical experiences co-existing and complementing the other. I see my career as not one singular thing but rounded out with many different experiences. In fact, I think it is selfish, narrow-minded and very limiting to consider only your own vision when it comes to art in general.

The band is also notable for its wonderful four-part harmony, which is a rare commodity in most mainstream music these days. Did your voices naturally complement each other, or have you had to work hard on making the harmony work?

Jim Boggia: Yeah, the voices were like that the first time we all sang together at an open mic one night. It was that thing that made us want to do a show together. I think there's something about the way our voices don't blend that is actually the really interesting thing.

Ben Arnold: This is the part that takes the least effort. The band exists because we were able to immediately recognize our ability to sing well and harmonize together while allowing each individual voice to shine in its own light.

Joseph Parsons: It couldn't have been more natural, thank God. From the first time we sang, we each gravitated towards a harmony or melody and, for the most part, we've stayed that way. We have definitely worked some harmonies out once we really started to hear what we were doing. I think that since we each have good ears, our intuition is usually the best. I've been involved with harmony singing since I was a kid, so for me it is very natural.

Is being able to sing harmony one of the best parts of being in a group together? Are there any other parts of being in a band that you enjoy and don't get to experience when on stage alone with a guitar?

Ben Arnold: For me, the best part of the experience is being able to have the job of "side man" to some of my very favorite artists and people. I have always had a band because I relish the communal experience of a band situation. I still, however, like to do the solo thing once in a while but it can be ... lonely.

Joseph Parsons: It is a great thing to sing harmony. Like building something with your hands. It is immediate and it either works or doesn't. Again, the "sideman" thing is pretty cool because I need not focus on anything else but what I'm doing. The constraints are only with improv. There is very little improv unless I am singing lead and, even then, I have to be cool. As we sing more, there is more freedom to go out there and try new things and that has been very cool as of late.

Jim Boggia: Oops, I guess I already answered that. But, yeah, the things you get to do in 4 Way Street that you don't get to do on a solo gig are the most enjoyable and ditto for the other way around, too. Things can change a lot faster in the solo context and be a bit more unscripted because it's just you up there. You don't get that as much in a group situation, so it's great to be able to get your fill of that in solo shows.

While harmony is an important part of your sound, different members of the group take lead vocal duties on different songs. How does a song develop within the band, and how is it determined who will be in front for a particular song?

Ben Arnold: For now, it is simply whoever wrote the song sings it. The songs which we collaborated on, we determined who sings what by whatever made sense to the mood of the moment or the key. We have yet to really define these things and that's a good thing as it would hopefully appear to be less formulaic.

Jim Boggia: When it's our individual songs it's easy: whoever wrote it, sings it. When it's something we've written together, I can't really remember how those came about, so it must have been a pretty organic process. I guess one of the added benefits of all of us continuing to do our own thing is that nobody feels like they have to fight for frontman time, or whatever you'd want to call it. Everybody knows they get a chance to shine, so that frees us up to make decisions like that, hopefully, on a musical level, as opposed to "ooo, let me sing."

Joseph Parsons: For the most part, when I bring a song to the band, I will sing lead. It is a song I have written and am attached to. There are a few songs where we each sing a verse ... and for those, there is the melody guy and the others building around him. We tend to have a vocal 'floater' on songs. He's the guy that strays from the 3rd or 5th or normal harmony/melody. And that, for me, is the most interesting spot.

On a song like "No Blood," where we all sing all the time, I'm the guy who harmonizes around the others. When we wrote "No Blood" together and recorded it, I took the song home to my studio and figured it out over a couple days. It was a hard one as, if you listen, it's a bit improvised from the lead vocal point of view. Where to add ascending or descending lines, octaves or a dissonant tension harmony was the challenge because the other guys had laid down their lines before I got to it. Like a kid calling "shotgun" as you run up to the car, I was last on it, thus I was "floater".

Let's start talking about the music on your debut album, "Pretzel Park". How were the tracks on the album written? Were any of the songs material that you had each written for yourselves and were developed for the band, or was everything written after you became a unit?

Joseph Parsons: Actually, the majority of the songs on the CD had been written before we got together. Some songs are on our previous recordings and some that were written had never been recorded at all. On one song, called "Shoot The Moon," I had written this with Ben a year or so before we got together. Then, when we became a band, we updated it and Jim and Scott added to it to finish it. So, it became a 4 Way Street song for the recording and live shows. After we delivered the record, the label asked us if we would write a song together and we did, we wrote two. We wrote "Change Gonna Come" and "No Blood".

Jim Boggia: The songs naturally broke out into a song a piece that we had previously recorded solo, an unrecorded song we'd each written and the three we all wrote together, which came at the end.

Ben Arnold: In fact, most of the album has previously-written songs which either appeared on other records of ours as individuals or were simply neglected and needed to find a life of their own, as in my song "Maze," which I wrote over five or six years ago and never had a place for it. Then, at the request of Sanctuary Records, we tried to experiment with some full-on collaboration, which proved itself well with immediate and gratifying results on songs such as "No Blood," which I had a pretty clear idea on beforehand but needed a lot of what we call "punching up," and "Shoot the Moon" which Joseph had started years ago and I wrote a bunch of lyrics for. It also revealed itself on the spot with some improvisation all the way up to recording.

Give us a little insight into your writing process. Since all of you have songwriting credits on the album, how do you determine which material will be used? Are the songs as we hear them on the CD similar to the original ideas that the songwriters had, or do the tunes tend to morph and change as you all give your input into them?

Joseph Parsons: My song "Ceremony" is pretty close to the original. The main difference is the harmony. That took it to another place all together. Also, what's really cool about re-recording an older song is that I could now add or subtract the things I never liked once I had released the original version. Add [a] word here, change a phrase there, a great luxury.

"Sister Moon" sounds completely different. It was originally recorded as a production track, 40 tracks or so. There were sitars, loops, Indian chants, a scary soundtrack under it, many kinds of partially audible vibe tracks. This version is a pure band track. And it gets to a new place in terms of energy and close in terms of the dimension.

Jim Boggia: I have one of those stock answers to the songwriting process question, but, instead, here's how it really works: Get fully-realized musical ideas, including chords, melody and large parts of the arrangement for about eight full songs, they appear like water after turning on a faucet. Write three lines of lyric. Wait. Get frustrated. Get depressed. Read a lot. Mope. Sit in my studio everyday and try to hear the damn words. Consider co-writers. Speculate that I may have written my last lyric. Have a day where it all comes together and I get a lyric finished. Try and figure out how that happened. Don't come up with any answers. Repeat. The stock answer is shorter.

Do you all enjoy writing with each other? Is there ever any tension in the creative process, or does the give-and-take of collaboration go very easily among everyone?

Jim Boggia: I think we were all initially reluctant to do it because we respect each other as writers to the point that it's both difficult to criticize something and not wanting to have your ideas criticized by writers whom you respect. I kinda think co-writing is weird anyway. Songs that are co-written often seem to have an abundance of craft and a paucity of substance. It always seems like one guy starts painting a portrait and gets the lips done and then hands the brush to another guy and says "here, you do the nose".

Ben Arnold: As we have done this only once, really, I can only comment on that experience. It was a very easy couple hours spent jamming around my kitchen table with an old reel-to-reel deck to document what we came up with. In a very short time, we had the bodies of two songs pretty well sewn together and maybe one more in the works. No fighting, no biting. Why do it if there were!?

Joseph Parsons: Our only experience was pretty damn cool. In a couple hours, we had two songs done. I was nervous going into it, but I think because we all know each other well and have respect for each others' songwriting, it couldn't have gone better. We felt no pressure, really. We could have said no to the label and what was on the original version would have been released. That said, we made this record two times before the deal with Sanctuary came along. It was strong. We dropped a song that is a beautiful song of Scott's. And then re-recorded a couple more and added the two new ones.

Let's turn to some of the good things happening with the band these days. First, you just came off a two-month tour that included several dates with The Proclaimers. How did the tour go, and how did the crowds react to the material off the CD? Did you find that fans were already familiar with the songs and singing along?

Jim Boggia: We've been on tour?

Joseph Parsons: The live show is a whole other beast. My feeling is that these are two different art forms. And we all love the live aspect of 4 Way Street. Some folks suggest that if you hear the band, you'll be a convert. I've seen it a few times where disbelievers became believers. We have such a good time playing, why not?

The touring has been going well. We're still mainly an unknown act in a lot of areas and that is what we are trying to change. So, we've been going up and down the east coast makin' friends. The Proclaimers shows were great and we sold a ton of CDs, so I think the audiences dug it.

Ben Arnold: The Proclaimers dates were, in my opinion, proof that this is a band that can work well and develop a solid live following. The audiences were extremely responsive and the reactions were there in CD sales for proof as well. We had people at every date who knew us and people that did not. Those who did were singing along with every song, not just a single. It was very cool to see. We signed a lot of CDs and met a lot of new people who were very supportive and psyched to see us.

Your song "Maze" was included on the TV show "Joan of Arcadia" recently. How did you find out the song would be used on the show, and was it a kick to be able to hear your music on television? Would you be interested in having your music used on TV shows and movies more in the future?

Ben Arnold: It was a nice surprise for me, but they say it's "who ya know not what..."

Our manager is friendly with a woman who is a music coordinator for the show. She had a CD for a long time and was looking for a way to use a song and that one just worked, I guess. I did watch it and was very glad that it was used to underpin a moment and not just randomly under a lot of dialogue.

Yes, it was a kick and I would most definitely like to get more music into programming. Hello, music coordinators! Are ya gettin' this?

Jim Boggia: I can't answer the part about finding out without causing a large hub-bub, and I'm committed to only engaging in small fracases at the moment. It was very nice seeing how they used it in the show. I like what Ben says about it cutting straight from our song into a scene with the high school marching band playing "Tusk." That was cool.

Joseph Parsons: We found out while we were sitting in a Taqueria in the Bronx after doing a live show at WFUV. A very surreal place to compound the good news. Soundtracks are a great thing for everybody. A few of our songs lend themselves to soundtracks because of the humanness of the song.

Do you recall the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio? Are you comfortable hearing playbacks of yourself and the sound of your own voice and music, or do you tend to pick out the little imperfections that no one else would possibly notice?

Ben Arnold: I've heard myself on tape for years. I prefer it to hearing myself speak. When you do vocals, particularly lead vocals, you kinda get trained to hear what works in the context of the song. Different note choices or cadences and you know how to pick the ones that are serving the song best or else you have to work with a producer who does the picking for you. I prefer to choose my own vocal takes, however.

Joseph Parsons: I was living in Monroe, Louisiana and the local college station there played my first recording, a cassette. It was awesome. When I first began recording I couldn't stand my voice. I grew to enjoy it when it was right. When it's wrong, it's oh, so wrong.

Three of your members have participated in the Writers In The Raw songwriters-in-the-round shows taking place in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Jim will be making it four on April 14th. Have you enjoyed being able to perform in the WITR format, and what have you thought about the concept?

Ben Arnold: I have played a load of "writer in the round" circle jerks and this really is one of the best ones ever. There is a very deep respect for the artist from the audience and from the people producing the show. I have always been a huge Bruce fan as well as a fan of the whole Asbury Park music scene in general, so it's very cool to be included and recognized with this community.

My show was the first one and I think they were a little nervous how it was all gonna work. I think it came off amazingly well and hope to do it again.

Joseph Parsons: Loved it and love the concept. It's a great show that combines the right elements. The folks running it are doing it for all the right reasons. I started a circle like it called the Manayunk Music Circle in the '90s and it was cool for a while, but grew stale as I went through everybody I could think of from the region. Had a great bunch of folks including Garrett Dutton (G Love) pass through. I didn't have access to the nationals these guys are attracting, so it is very cool and the potential is what they make of it. The challenge is not to peak too early or overstay your welcome.

Jim Boggia: I haven't played it yet, but I know all the guys dug it when they did it, so I'm looking forward to it. I generally like playing the "Songwriter Circle"-type things, they're usually very good for getting your music to new people. I have just one pet peeve: people who cheat. The deal is: come in, sit down with your guitar or at a piano and sing your songs. Do not bring up two-thirds of your band to accompany you. Do not bring up your cousin Eunice to sing harmony with you. Do interact with the other musicians on stage and keep things spontaneous. I guarantee you that no matter how scared you are by it, it will be better to let me and the other two songwriters onstage figure out the harmony parts to sing. Leave the flautist you absolutely have to have come up and play that solo stay at home. Um, sorry. That was a tad hostile.

You've actually become a popular act in Asbury Park and New York City, two scenes far away from your home base of Philadelphia. How does it feel to have your music become popular outside of your local scene, and have you found it challenging to expand your touring area?

Ben Arnold: Aside [from my answer to the last question], whenever your career is recognized outside of your region it is only a good thing. In the past few years I've been able to reach people far outside [our local area] via the Internet and, eventually, I will go to all these places in person.

Playing in a new place also makes the music fresh again. It's not the challenge of "how do I play this same song a little differently for the same people again?" It's more that I can really do the show as a brand new experience just because of the new faces and energies surrounding me.

Joseph Parsons: It's an amazing thing to go somewhere else and play music to folks who enjoy it. Especially for the Asbury Park and NYC scenes. In 1997, I got a record deal in Europe and have since been touring there consistently since. It has been the best performance experiences I've had yet. I'll do 30 shows in five or six weeks and I love it. I've put out three CD's on Blue Rose Records (Zomba-Rough Trade) there and have built up a fan base. The fans have been incredibly supportive as have the label and venues. I am also in another band based in Europe called Hardpan (with Todd Thibaud, Terry Lee Hale and Chris Burroughs) and we've put out two CDs. So traveling is a very good thing to like if you want to play live music.

Jim Boggia: It is always amazing when people make a conscious choice to seek you out to hear you play music. I suppose when you're out of your hometown it seems more magical, but it's really the same thing: they came out of their houses and made an effort to come listen to your music. It's particularly mysterious to me, because I'm basically a hermit. I'll stay at home and listen to "The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society" two million times before even thinking of going and hearing something. So, I'm especially grateful, because people are giving me a gift I don't bestow on others very often. That having been said, if you do see me at your show, I must really, really like your music.

Talk about home. How supportive has the Philadelphia scene been for the band, and do you feel that it can give you the opportunity to break out on a national level?

Joseph Parsons: Philly has been the city of brotherly love for us. They have embraced us from day one and haven't stopped. Our first record deal came from Philly label, Sliced Bread Records after a few shows. Breaking out nationally has already started from here and in towns like Asbury Park, Boston, Baltimore, Annapolis, Maryland and Arlington, Virginia. Whether we get radio play or tour in other parts of the country has to do with many other factors of which control of that lay in ours and many others. It's a fickle world to be sure, so we better love what we're doing, right?

Ben Arnold: There was this guy I worked with, I won't mention his name, but he said to me once when I was talking about getting out of Philly some more, he says: "you know, it's good to be a hometown hero, you should just be happy with that!" I took that as being totally offensive. Philly has been absolutely great to a kid who moved here out of nowhere land some years ago and made a name in a city of three-some-odd million people. I appreciate that support to the end but I want more from my life and I know I'm capable of it.

Jim Boggia: I can't really even find a way inside that question, so my answer's probably going to be outside of it. Philadelphia definitely has a music scene, but I don't necessarily think that I'm, or we're, a part of it. There's a strange philosophy held in some circles of Philly that the section of town you live in somehow equates to your merit as a musician. I've been around it for years but I still don't understand it. What I've seen personally is that I've been able to find a room that allows me to present music the way I want and I've found an audience that will passionately support it. But I don't think those fans are part of the scene, either. I'm not sure about the break-out opportunity part of the question. I sort of think that when you break out nationally, you're transcending the local thing. There are those instances when a whole bunch of music busts out of one city - Seattle [or] Manchester, England - but I think that's more the exception than the rule. In a sense, towards whatever end you try to make something that can appeal to people universally, not in a commercial way but in the sense of trying to create music that brings something to a lot of people's lives, I think anything that gives you too specific a local appeal probably loses its meaning as you move it to the next town.

Where are some of your favorite venues to perform in the city? Are there radio stations or other media that's been especially supportive?

Joseph Parsons: Our first show was at a venue we love called The Point in Bryn Mawr, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. I love the TLA downtown because the stage and sound system work well for us. We've played the Tin Angel and love the folks there. In the outer areas beside The Point, we've had great shows at the Appel Farm Festival in New Jersey and the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

Jim Boggia: The Point in Bryn Mawr, PA, just outside of Philadelphia, lets me come in and do whatever crazy thing I want to put onstage. I've done shows with up to 15 different instruments onstage which I've played into a looper and built up full arrangements, had tap dancers, been accompanied by player-pianos, broadcast radio from the stage to radios on people's tables in the audience. And that was just two different shows, and they're always cool with it. If I have to come in and start setting up 10 hours before the show, they're cool with it. If the sound check needs to take two hours, they're cool with it. Everybody has different experiences with different places, but for me, The Point is my home.

WXPN has been there for all of us individually and collectively. Way before anyone else.

Ben Arnold: WXPN is an invaluable station to not only the Philadelphia musician, but they have forged a national reputation all over the country in the last 10 years that is undeniably powerful and appreciative of the kind of music we do. We have several DJs at other local stations that would love to play us more but are more confined to formats and ratings, but that's just the way business is these days. You gotta love when they throw in a mention of us between U2 and Britney Spears tunes, though.

The Tin Angel, The Point, the local Clear Channel people, as well as our fave local spot, The Grape Street Pub, have all been very supportive to all of us over the years and continue to be.

What's the future of the band in the months ahead? Are there any other tours in the works, and do you anticipate 4 Way Street being a long-term project for everyone?

Ben Arnold: I would like to think this band can exist for a very long time if we allow it to. The labels are very fickle, though, and our ability to keep it national will depend on their commitment more so than ours. It's like sitting by the fireplace on cold night for me. You can't stay in front of it for too long 'cause you burn yourself. but you'll always want to keep coming back to it to warm up.

Jim Boggia: The most difficult [thing] about 4 Way has always been scheduling. We've all devoted an ever-increasing amount of time to 4 Way over the last three years and I'm sure we'll continue. What path that takes exactly is probably up to our record label. At some point, the promotion for this album will end and then I'd expect that we'll be taking a fairly reasonable chunk of time to concentrate more on solo stuff for a while. I know Ben has a great album that he's been sitting on for a while that I'm sure he'll set out to release and promote. I'm working on my next record and so is Joseph. Scott and Matt Muir, our drummer, have a studio together and have a list of artists banging on their door to produce them, including the rest of us in 4 Way Street, so I suspect there will be a period where 4 Way lays low. Don't know when that will be exactly, but whenever the label stops pushing the record. But, yeah, we do consider it a long-term project, truly long-term, so it'll start up again at some point when it seems like we've all gotten the solo jones out and we're itching to do another record.

Joseph Parsons: Ah, the future, know any good fortune tellers? Day at a time for the most part. We have a great management team and booking agency. They all believe in us and have a lot of energy to help spread the word. We've got quite a few shows on the books and we're looking at national tours to jump into.

We're each also involved in our next recording projects. We have most of May off and I'll be going to Europe to play bass on a friend's tour as I've been learning to play over the last few years and really want to focus on that with what time there is off from 4 Way Street. I think we all view this as a long term-project. It's more a question of what is a long term? Life is long ... so many hills to climb.

[ Website: www.4wayst.com ]

Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing. www.imprtech.com