Interview: Building Rome's Jon Heisserer

In my profile of Jason McEntire, I observed him and producer Steven Haigler working with Building Rome on its new album, Nightmare. The band's been around for many years, but has matured greatly beyond its early work, which was heavily indebted to Jimmy Eat World. I caught up with BR vocalist/songwriter Jon Heisserer to talk about the album, working with Haigler, what he likes about McEntire.

Interview: Building Rome's Jon Heisserer
Deborah Best

When did you first start working with Jason McEntire -- and how did you hear about him originally? I had originally asked him to mix our first album back in 2004. That fell through, but we ended up going to Sawhorse to do some demos throughout 2006 and 2007. I was a huge fan of his work with Ludo on Broken Bride, so that definitely influenced my decision to work with him. (Plus he bought us dinner!) During the summer of '07, my band sort of broke up and I was pretty bummed about it, so Jason hooked me up with his friend Ted Bruner, who had recently written with Katy Perry and Plain White T's. Ted and I hit it off and wrote two songs together for Nightmare. For one of the songs, "Streetlights," Jason, Ted and I sat down together and said to ourselves, "Let's write a song that you could hear in a strip club."

What made you decide to bring Steven Haigler to St. Louis to work at Jason's -- as opposed to you going somewhere else to work with him? I spent the better part of a year talking to different producers for the new Building Rome album, and Jason became involved in the process early on. When I made the final decision to go with Steven, we had to choose between going to VuDu Studios in New York or doing it here in St. Louis. Jason had expressed interest in being involved from the beginning and I already knew that we worked well together, so those factors plus being able to sleep in my own bed made the decision pretty easy. Cost was another factor -- a comparable studio in New York or LA would have cost us twice as much.

As a musician, what have you learned from Jason? Jason has definitely helped me learn to let go. I'm very compulsive, so I tend to do things, redo them, and then do them again if I don't feel like they're perfect. He's also got a good grasp of music theory, which is helpful with things like harmonies. Also, he played piano on the intro to our album.

What do you think that Sawhorse has to offer your music? Sawhorse has a pretty wide variety of instruments and recording equipment, so you can get just about whatever sound you want. Jason's very knowledgeable about the equipment and software in his studio, and about instruments in general. He's also pretty well-connected to the music scene in St. Louis, which saved us more than once during this last session. For instance, we went into the studio without a bassist, and he made a few phone calls and had Jeff Gallo, who was awesome, there in a few hours.

What I like about Jason is that he runs Sawhorse with a high degree of professionalism, which is refreshing after being in some other studios. Also, you don't leave the studio feeling like it was done half-assed, which is something I think every musician wants.

Interview: Building Rome's Jon Heisserer
Deborah Best

Nightmare is based loosely on Jacob's Ladder, correct? Describe the concept of the album more. Why did you choose this to write about? I actually saw Jacob's Ladder for the first time about halfway through the writing process. A friend suggested it because it was very similar to my album story, so I watched it and I was floored. It described visually what I felt like mentally. I was so inspired by the ending of Jacob's Ladder that I wrote the final song, "Bring Me Home," about it:

(From Jacob's Ladder) "Eckhart saw Hell too; he said: 'the only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you,' he said. 'They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and... and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.'"

Nightmare is and has always been a concept album. The story told on Nightmare is actually two-fold, depending on how the listener chooses to interpret it. Back in 2006-07, we as a band were having a lot of interpersonal issues and eventually ended up losing several members. During practices, we were having pointless arguments and not getting much done, and I would come home so stressed out that I couldn't sleep. After one particular stretch where I had been awake for days, I got a prescription for sleeping pills, which took away one set of problems but created another. Pretty quickly, the pills became a real issue. For a long time, I lived in a haze and it became very difficult to distinguish what was a dream and what actually happened.

The flip side of Nightmare is the fictional story. The album was originally based on a song I wrote called "Meet You In My Dreams," which was cut during pre-production. The song relates a dream the lead character has where he's talking to this particular girl - the one that got away. As you listen to more of the album, you realize the character is trying to reunite with this girl in his dreams, which is the only place he can talk to her, and is using sleeping pills to get to the place they meet. Eventually, those become more important to him than anything else, even her.

Nightmare basically tells the story of what I was going through at the time - it's filled with war, anger, sorrow, regret, addiction, and eventually coming to terms and letting it all go. I feel like this album takes the listener through the process of losing something or someone and all of the stages, whether that was my experience with losing people I called friends (my band members), or the fictional character coming to terms with losing the girl of his dreams.

The music seems a lot darker and more sophisticated than your previous efforts. To what do you attribute that? I think I'm in a different place in my life than with the first two releases, and that has definitely impacted my songwriting. Back when I wrote the first album, I was in high school and all of my songs were about girls (all different girls). For Nightmare, I realized I was tired of writing songs that told a three minute story with a happy ending. So, I went back to my roots and I wrote for me, and not what I thought people would like. My goal for this album was for me to be happy with it. I've realized that if you're truly happy with something that you create, usually other people see what you saw, and they are happy with it as well.

Are you self-releasing it, or looking for a label? We started our own record label, Election Day Records, and we're planning on releasing it ourselves at the moment. We decided going into this that we would not rely on getting someone else involved to make it work. It would be nice, though, to get some extra tour support and promotion. We're planning to shop it around, but we're not going to sit back and wait.