Speak Into My Good Eye

The Beauty of Collaborative Songwriting: An Interview with Standby

Mike Mehalick April 5, 2019 Features, Interviews No Comments

Standby

Being in a band usually takes a lot of patience. As you add new members, they bring new scheduling conflicts, new opinions, and new sensibilities. It’s a delicate dance to make sure that everyone is happy. The members of Connecticut alternative rock band Standby have found a way to make everyone happy. Their songs move from acoustic ballads to ambient dreamscapes without a moment’s notice. It’s that spontaneity that makes Standby’s songs engaging and energetic.

Standby’s newest record We Need More Mountains I is out on May 7th. Band members Garrett Rose, Brandon George, Phil Grabover, John Rumph, and Michael Mosca were kind enough to answer a few interview questions to explain their creative process.

“Librarians In Uproar” moves from this acoustic song into big, rock choruses. What was the writing process for that like? Was it originally intended to be just one or the other?

Rose: We’ve been writing music together for almost 10 years now and it’s taken a while to figure out the best process.

Rumph: Yeah, and different songs tend to be written differently.

Rose: This is the only song on the record where I wrote the shell of it on acoustic guitar, then Brandon wrote all the vocal parts, and then I arranged the rest of the band to fit tightly around his vocals. He’s a super dynamic singer, and we’re a super dynamic band, so it was fun to lean into all that when I wrote the other parts around him. There’s a demo that I still like listening to of when Brandon first sent me the scratch vocals over my acoustic guitar shell, and it’s real cool to hear what the song turned into from that.

George: And it all started with that one riff.

Rose: Yeah! And the other funny thing about this song is that it actually started with the section at the climax, which our drummer, John, wrote over 5 years ago. We liked it so much that we said, “how do we write a song where this is the climax?”

George: It had a couple of iterations, too, because when John first sent it to you, you went this really folksy, Sufjan kind of route, but John and I were like, “No, there’s gotta be shouting and smashing cymbals and gnarly guitars! We wanna lose our minds when we play this live!”

Rose: It ended up being one of the most satisfying songwriting moments where as soon as the drop happened, we all completely locked in and knew what we wanted to hear.

The music video is super awesome! Where did the idea for a shopping cart full of fortune cookies come from?

Bryan Sih (music video director, owner of 4:3 Collective): The idea for a shopping cart full of cookies came from a subconscious visual and Brandon’s lyrics- he captured what it was like to be in this pedantic mind that may hold the world at arm’s length through books. I clung onto this line in his lyrics, “all that Kafka and Kierkegaard “drits” away when you’re in the dark…” I love Kafka’s aphorisms and I’ve been wanting to see this image of a person buried in fortune cookies in a cart so we built the images of the music video from there.

The fortune cookies started to provide a tension similar to the one that the lyric’s narrator feels with language. With fortune cookies, we want to project onto them as having some magical power, and they often seem to offer timely advice, but they are also this mass-produced food item that makes words rather “cheap” and cannot replace lived experience and acquired wisdom.

George: Before he started writing concepts for the video we talked on the phone and Bryan and I pretty instantly came to the mutual conclusion that we wanted something that told a story separate from the one told in the song, but that still captured the themes and emotional arc. There’s this sense of the over-reliance on nostalgia and bucolic and suburban imagery in the song and album that Bryan managed to capture fantastically with this over-serious jaunt through the suburbs in a shopping cart filled with fortune cookies. And of course he hit the nail on the head with the fortune cookies wherein the main idea in Librarians is the concept of the narrator using pseudo-intellectualism and over-rationalizing to dance around the fact that they are, as revealed in the climax, absolutely terrified. Terrified of dying, terrified of their anxiety and depression, terrified of confronting the loss they’ve experienced. And this manifests in the video with that final crash of the cart and that last, resigned shot of me splayed out on the ground bleeding out of my elbows.?

What was the process like for recording We Need More Mountains I? Where was it recorded, how long did it take, etc?

Rose: The plan for the recording process was to encompass the feeling and energy of our live show, as opposed to getting a clean and pristine version of each song. With that in mind, we tried to capture everybody as they would be in a live environment. The vocals are super washy and have a ton of movement on them so that you can feel the energy of Brandon peaking out over the band, or laying back. The acoustic guitar never sounds unnaturally loud, but rather sits as it would in a live setting. Even the bass might’ve gotten a little bit of small reverb for some parts, because you’re never standing with your ear right up to the bass amp in reality. We tracked most of the album at home with some gear we’ve gotten over the years, but did drums at a non-profit recording studio I used to work at in Boston called, “The Record Co.”

Grabover: Garrett pretty much covered the bulk of it, but one interesting bit of trivia is that one microphone was used on nearly every track. It’s a used Neumann TLM 102 that has become one of our main workhorse microphones. It was a room mic when we recording drums, it was used on all the vocals and acoustic guitar, and it was on the guitar and bass amps. In fact, I think the only instruments it wasn’t used on were the winds on track two.

Five members is a lot of opinions and influences to draw from when writing new songs. How do you balance all of the voices, and make sure that everyone is happy? Is there a lot of compromise?

Rumph: Because we’ve been friends with each other for so long a lot of our influences and philosophies about music have been shared with the other members of the group. When a member presents a song or an idea for part of a song it’s unlikely that it’s something that the rest of us just won’t vibe with.

Rose: We pretty much talk in references to other bands and parts of songs we tried to capture.

Grabover: It’s true that it’s unlikely that anyone will bring anything in that no one vibes with, but that doesn’t mean the songs aren’t subject to change.

Rumph: Yeah, we’ll write songs individually and then look at them as a band and say, “Okay, what works? What doesn’t and how can we make it?”

Grabover: I know for me personally it can sometimes be difficult dealing with compromise in the songwriting process. Sometimes it’s easy to fall in love with the way a part sounds and to not want to see it change. I brought in one song for this record, which you’ll actually find on We Need More Mountains II. It was a song I’d been working on since maybe 2012 or so, and the original version is pretty different from the one that made to the record. At the end of the day though, it’s a better song for having been filtered through everyone’s opinions, and that’s really the beauty of collaborative songwriting.

George: Oh yeah, I wrote a song for the second album that was like, seven minutes long and had all of these ridiculous signature changes. They took one look at it and cut it down to three minutes. At first I was really apprehensive, but the less-is-more approach quickly made it my favorite song on part two.

Rumph: That stupid 9/8 part.

Brandon: You’ll see. One day I’ll get that in a song. Bet.

I saw in your most recent tour that you had a day off to drive from Richmond, VA to Tallahassee, FL. How brutal was that drive?

Rumph: The drive from Richmond to Tallahassee wasn’t as brutal as it could have been because we had family to stay with in Columbia, South Carolina so that long drive was broken up into two long-but-not-THAT-long drives. When we have long drives for shows, the fact that we’ve been friends for eight years means that we can keep each other entertained by talking about media we’ve been enjoying or joking around with silly hypotheticals.

Grabover: Like, “How many kangaroos would you need to take down a colossal squid?”

Rose: Oh god, please, not now.

What’s next for Standby

Rose: Our plans moving forward mostly consist of touring and promoting these songs while preparing for part two. We’re ridiculously happy with how the first record came out and we really want people to hear it. It has nothing to do with seeing critical acclaim, per say, but more just about the deep need to share what we’re creating, and I think that distinction is what’s gonna give us our energy on the road.

Look for We Need More Mountains I on May 7th, and listen to the rest of Standby’s discography here: https://standby-band.bandcamp.com

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About The Author

Mike is a graduate of the School Of Visual Arts with a BFA in Film & Video focused on screenwriting. His career stops have included editing positions at AOL, The Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed. He regularly contributes to a variety of outlets. Follow him @mmehalick

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