After 16 years together, Little Big Town feel like a whole new band.
The buoyant success of 2012’s “Pontoon” re-energized the four-member tribe, inspiring them to pack lighthearted melodies and tongue-in-cheek hooks into their sixth album, Pain Killer, and redefine their career in the process.
“This album is a lot of fun,” Jimi Westbrook says of the project that was released Tuesday (Oct. 21). “We wanted to have a good time with this.”
With that goal in mind, Pain Killer may have been the easiest album they’ve ever recorded.
Westbrook, wife Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet and Kimberly Schlapman would be forgiven for being just “work friends” after all this time, but they say their bond has only grown stronger. The quartet shared a major milestone Friday night when they were officially inducted as Grand Ole Opry members during a ceremony hosted by Opry veterans Little Jimmy Dickens and Vince Gill.
In a recent interview with CMT.com, Little Big Town’s members finished each other’s sentences and genuinely laughed at each other’s jokes. The friendship was a breath of fresh air, much like their latest Top 10 single, “Day Drinking,” and their brand new release, “Quit Breaking Up With Me.”
CMT.com: To me, “Day Drinking” felt like it came from the same universe as “Pontoon.” Was the whistling always a part of that song?
Sweet: It was always a part of the song.
Fairchild: The marching band, however, was not.
Westbrook: The whistling thing kind of happened by chance. We didn’t set out to write a song with whistles in it, but Karen was hoarse the day we were writing. We had been on the road doing a bunch of shows, and you get trashed. So a lot of times, if you’re writing and you can’t sing, you kind of whistle the tune.
Fairchild: Yeah, we were working on this thing on mandolin (hums the “Day Drinking” melody) and I was like, “That should be the chorus, not the verse. It’s so hooky. Let’s make it the chorus.” … I’m a horrible whistler, so I couldn’t even really do it, but when I finally got it out, they were like, “Oh, you’re whistling. That’s kinda cool.”
Is it just you whistling on the record, Karen?
Fairchild: Oh, no, no, no, no. It’s barely me whistling. It’s all of us, but it’s mainly Jimi and Kimberly, and I think our bass player jumped in, too. Phillip and I are in the background — hooo, hooo. The weakest link.
To go along with that, there are so many different sounds on this album that you used for hooks instead of just guitar, fiddle or steel. What do you think listeners will be the most surprised to hear?
Sweet: On “Stay All Night,” there’s this guitar, but it sounds like horns.
Fairchild: Most people think it’s tuba and trombone.
Schlapman: We also used our voices more as instruments.
Westbrook: One song, in particular, is “Silver and Gold,” and it ends the record. We sing almost like string lines.
Fairchild: People may not know that it’s our voices, but we’re making all the little chords.
Sweet: Was it the guitar on “Day Drinking” that [producer Jay Joyce] put a microphone in an aluminum trash can and taped it to the bottom?
Westbrook: Yeah! So you got this weird, electric, resonation thing.
Sweet: He’s like the Nikola Tesla of producers.
The album sounds vocally just like the LBT we’ve come to know and love, but I thought the fun level was way off the charts. Is that because of the success of “Pontoon”?
Sweet: We did like having a good time.
Westbrook: Because [“Pontoon”] was fun. You saw people get happy when they listened to it. And they would always tell you how happy it made them and that their families loved it. And that’s addictive. It’s like, “Let’s do that again!”
My favorite song is “Quit Breaking Up With Me.” It’s so full of sass. What was it like for you girls when you were recording that one?
Schlapman: It was so fun.
Is she drawing on some personal experience here, Jimi?
Schlapman: It sounds like it!
Fairchild: Well, sure. I’ve been there! Not necessarily with Jimi, but it’s easy to think about it, and it’s fun to sort of live in your girlfriend’s shoes. Just standing there like, “Oh, man, my girlfriend’s gonna love singing this song in her car to that guy who can’t make up his mind.”
I know you’ve been playing that one live. What has the reaction been like?
Sweet: People dancing, girls nudging their boyfriends. It’s kind of like “Little White Church” in that way.
Fairchild: Yeah, it is. Just a little more punk-rock version of that.
This group started way back in 1998. Was there ever a time when you thought the band had reached its peak?
Fairchild: Yeah. (laughs) I mean, I knew we didn’t creatively, but I wondered if we would get another chance because we had things not go the way they should go, business-wise, and you just don’t get afforded that many opportunities in the music business. So to reinvent or rebrand — I mean that sounds so business-y, but that’s what it comes down to when you kind of become damaged goods — that’s what happened really early on.
Now it seems insignificant, but at the time, it was very significant. I knew we had a ton to create and say and be a part of. I’m just happy that we did get the chance because a lot of artists don’t get the chance to evolve or make a mistake and get back up.