Friday, June 24, 2011

Interview with Max Stern of Signals Midwest

Signals Midwest are this awesome punk/indie band from up in Cleveland. They have a really awesome full length under their belt (Burn the Blueprints), and they have another one coming out in July. We got a chance to do an interview with guitarist/singer Max Stern over email, and here it is! We're also posting a song off the upcoming album at the bottom of this interview!

So how did Signals Midwest end up getting started? What's the full story?

I got into playing shows like a ton of high-school kids do: I played in a ska band.  We played our first real show at the Grog Shop in Cleveland in 2004 I think.  Delay headlined that show and it was my first introduction into the local punk scene and I loved it.  I had never seen anyone play that fast or that loud before! Anyway, that band lasted for about five or six years and I got a lot of good experience writing songs and playing shows, but we only put out one record and never played outside of Ohio.

In 2007 or 2008 I met a bunch more people like Matt Sanders from the Sidekicks, Andy Cook from Ghost Town Trio, the Two Hand Fools kids...just a lot of people who were playing/setting up shows.  Early in the summer of 2008 My friend Josh brought me to a show at the Soggy Dog House and that was my introduction to the house show community.

I took a trip to DC and on the way home I got a call from Sanders asking if I wanted to play guitar for the Sidekicks on their east coast tour a few weeks later and I jumped at the opportunity.  I knew all the songs already because I'm a huge music nerd, so two weeks later there I was in the back of a van sandwiched between a bucket seat and a guitar amp, loving every minute of it.  We did a two-week tour with Ghost Town Trio and it was the best time ever.  I was 18 years old.  We all traveled in the same van.  I saw some places that I'd never seen and met a lot of people that I'm still close with today.  That tour was essentially my introduction to the U.S. DIY punk community.

When I got home, a bunch of friends and I attended Berea Fest 3 later in July and it was a mind-blowing experience to see so many bands and people coming together (plus I got to see Get Bent...RIP!).  At that point I had a lot of songs floating around my head and knew I wanted to start a new band.  Loren, who had played in my old band, was also getting into local punk bands like No Target Audience and Echoes of Harpers Ferry, so he picked up the bass and we decided to try to start playing together.  This was September of 2008 and I think he started playing bass like a week before we started Signals Midwest.  Anyway, Loren met a girl at his college who was wearing a Lawrence Arms hoodie and she said it was her boyfriend's and that they had just moved to Cleveland.  He mentioned that we were looking for a drummer and that was how we met Steve which turned out to be the luckiest find ever.  We played our first show as Signals Midwest on November 29th, 2008 and that was that.  Jeff (formerly of Echoes of Harpers Ferry) joined on guitar last July and has totally changed our sound because he's awesome and there's a lot more you can do with two guitars than just one - plus he's a huge Star Wars nerd which gives me something other than music to talk about at practice, so it's a win-win.

You mentioned how adding a new guitarist changed your sound a lot, and one of my questions goes along with that. How would you say your sound as a band has changed between your last album Blueprints and your upcoming album?

When we wrote and recorded Burn the Blueprints, it was the first 11 songs that we were able to play as a band.  Some of them were written when I was really young, like 16 or 17 years old.  At that point it was still us just getting comfortable playing together.  I was really just discovering bands like Hot Water Music, Dillinger Four, The Lawrence Arms - all the punk rock staples that have birthed a million sound-alike bands.  Don't get me wrong, I love that style of music, but the genre is definitely over-saturated with dudes doing their best Chuck Ragan or Brendan Kelly impressions.  And I've definitely been as guilty of that as anybody else has at one point or another.

Anyway, as we started playing more shows and touring and seeing what other cities had to offer musically, the natural course of things was for our influences to expand.  One of my favorite bands is the RX Bandits and that influence definitely started to pop up a lot more.  I think you can see it a lot on songs like In Tensions (

We all started to get into bands that were doing things that deviated from the standard punk rock formula: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Bridge and Tunnel, Algernon Cadwallader, Braid, Bear vs. Shark - not necessarily bands that sounded anything like each other, but all bands who were using interesting musical ideas like more complex guitar parts, harmonized/overlapping song sections, tapping guitar parts, time signature and tempo changes, just generally breaking the straight 4/4 time barrier that dominates most of punk rock.  Having Jeff join on guitar has allowed us to experiment more as a band with all of that stuff and really in terms of doing things that are more interesting than power chords...though there's still plenty of those too.  I think Jeff joining the band fundamentally changed the way each of us approached our role and allowed us all to loosen up a bit more and try things musically that we would have never attempted as a trio.

That video is awesome! I seriously think you guys are moving in the best direction possible. Blueprints was great, but this song is definitely far more involved musically and feels ways more mature. So when you guys write songs, how does the process usually go? Is it like you writing guitar and lyrics, and then everyone adding their part and changing it up? 
Thank you so much!  Adam Wagner of Bad Racket Recording Studio was the one who orchestrated that video, and he's also the dude who recorded and engineered the new album.  He's always got his hands in a ton of different creative projects and is one of my favorite people to work with on pretty much anything.

The songwriting process was another thing that changed a lot when we became a 4-piece.  For Blueprints it was pretty much me going "Okay, the song starts this way, verse here, chorus here, bridge here..." and so on.  Nowadays it works a lot of different ways.  Usually when I'm writing stuff I'll get an idea somewhere really random and inconvenient, like at the grocery store or while I'm driving somewhere, and I'll text a line or two to myself and then transcribe it into my notebook when I get home.  From there I just sit with my guitar and a notebook and write music and lyrics simultaneously.  I've never been able to just write lyrics to an entire song and add music to it later - the process is almost always simultaneous for me.  So yeah, I get some general vocal and musical ideas going for each song and then I bring it to the band.

Lately my stuff has been getting really transmogrified by the other band members and songs go in directions that I never thought they would.  Steve is an incredible drummer but also plays guitar and bass so he is very good at fitting interesting rhythmic parts to songs in which I would use just a straight-ahead beat.  Loren really digs weird time signatures and syncopation and is very OCD about that stuff which makes me think about our songs in ways that I never would otherwise.  Jeff is awesome at writing guitar parts that work really well with the rest of the band and just has a really great ear for what fits where.

The songs we wrote for this record are much more the product of a band working together rather than a songwriter who gets people to play music he writes and I'm really proud of that.  A lot of bands I know just have a chief songwriter who writes everything and tells everyone else exactly what to play, and while there are definitely certain segments of songs in which I do that, everything has been a lot more collaborative overall and it's been very rewarding for the most part.  There are definitely times in which we clash over a part that has two potential directions, but usually what happens is that we end up going a third way that satisfies everybody.

I've always really liked the idea of a band working together to create something, rather than just one dude writing everything. It just feels like way more can happen with a song that way.  So what's Cleveland's punk scene like now anyway? Who are the better local bands? Do punk bands generally stop there a lot on tours?
The people who do live here are pretty damn resilient and intent on making cool shit happen rather than just complaining about the industrial decay and the crumbling infrastructure.  Cleveland as a city is making some big strides in the academic and medical worlds which is cool to see, so I am definitely of the disposition that exciting things are always happening in town.

I am continually impressed with the independent music scene in general here.  Tons of touring bands that come through are always so surprised about the punk scene and how vibrant and full of life it is.  We are lucky enough to be very good friends with most of the other local bands.  Some that come to mind are Worship This!, Two Hand Fools, Andy Cook & the Wanderloons, The Fucking Cops, Reverse the Curse, The Ground Is Lava, Annabel, Gunnerson, Setbacks, Ultra Ultra, Asinine, Bros!, Light Years, and I'm sure there are more I'm not thinking of.  Those bands are all from Cleveland or surrounding areas like Akron, Kent, Oberlin, Hiram, and also spread all around the city.

There are also a bunch of bands who started out here but moved down to Columbus like The Sidekicks, Delay, and American War.  Columbus is only two hours south of us so there are great bands like Tin Armor, Saintseneca and New Creases who come up to Cleveland fairly regularly.  There's a lot of interplay between the two towns, even stretching to places like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and Chicago.

Touring bands who come here are generally really stoked on what they find out about Cleveland.  Usually their preconceived notions of the town get smashed with in the first few hours of being here, which is awesome to see.  Since we often get skipped over to go to Detroit or Chicago or Pittsburgh, people are usually pretty receptive to the touring bands that do choose to play here.  Bomb the Music Industry! has gone from playing to 25 kids in a shitty college sports bar a few years back to damn near selling out whatever club they play here.  Algernon Cadwallader came last February and drew 80 people to a cold, dank basement on a Tuesday night or something.  We played with one of my current favorite bands, Joyce Manor from the Los Angeles area a few months back.  It was their first show ever in town and like 60 or 70 kids came out on a freezing cold weeknight.  We were hanging out later and they said something along the lines of, "Dude, we thought we were just basically going to have a public band practice at this show.  I can't believe how many people showed up!" and I just smiled like an idiot and was like "Well, yeah...we do it right in Cleveland."

Yeah, you get badly attended shows sometimes, but every city gets that.  Overall, this city definitely impresses me a lot more than it lets me down.

That's pretty awesome, I'd love to play up there sometime! What are your guys' plan for touring in the future?
In July, after the annual Berea Fest, we leave to do our first-ever west coast tour.  Out west to Washington, all the way down to Southern California and back through Colorado and Kansas.  It's like 22 shows in 24 days or something like that.  The longest tour we've ever done has been 9 or 10 days so we're pretty stoked to do something this big.  You can see all the tour dates up on our Tumblr site:  I'm updating it constantly so follow that shit!

Beyond that, we don't have any other touring plans, but I'm sure we'll do an east coast thing come wintertime.  We're all pretty close to being done with school so who knows what'll happen after that.  I'm definitely cool with staving off getting a real job for a few more years, but sadly that might not be a reality for me or anybody else.  We're all between 21 and 25 right now so we're just doing as much as possible while we still can.

That sounds pretty cool. Touring out west should be a lot of fun. So about the new album, where did you guys record it? What all went into the recording process?

Every other time I've made a record, it's just been the track-by-track approach.  This time we went into Bad Racket Studios, which is in a huge warehouse on the west side of Cleveland in a sort of industrial district of the city.  Instead of doing each track separately, we spent a few hours getting the tones of all the instruments right and then just played each song a few times until we got takes that we were satisfied with.  I think we did 8 songs the first day and 4 the next.  There is a bit of bleed on each instrumental track and obviously for some stuff we had to punch back in with certain instruments. We did vocals and overdubs separately, but the live approach for the basic guitar, bass and drum tracks worked incredibly well in terms of the energy from a live show translating into the recording environment.

It was my first time recording anything live and I'm a huge proponent of it now.  Adam (Wagner, engineer at Bad Racket) set up a few mics to pick up the sounds of the huge room we were all playing in so there's definitely a good sonic atmosphere rather than just instruments and silence.  You can hear scratches, feedback, occasional fuck-ups, amp noise and so on but it all still sounds really good and clear.

Vocals were a whole different story because admittedly I'm not a very good singer.  My friends play in bands like the Sidekicks and American War and Tin Armor and all of them are just so incredible vocally and they have these incredible ranges and harmonies, and I just wasn't born with that ability.  That being said, I am pretty stoked on how the vocals turned out.  My girlfriend was showing me vocal techniques while I was tracking stuff, like how you can push down with your hands and project upwards which lets you get more air in your lungs and hold notes out higher or longer.  It took a few sessions interspersed throughout March and April to get it right but I think we've reached a point where we're happy with it.  It's definitely my best vocal performance that I've ever tracked.  Steve and Loren tracked some backup vocals too, and there's a good amount of gang vocals that feature a lot of our friends.  We made it work somehow.

I think Adam is going to make a separate version of the record with all the takes I messed up on.  I'm thinking about secretly putting that version on MediaFire or something, but it'd probably backfire and people would start thinking that those were the actual versions and then the whole thing would just make us look ridiculous.

Ha, it would be pretty interesting to have an outtakes version released, though. Are you guys just releasing this yourself, or are you looking around for labels to support it right now? I think you guys could probably find someone willing to put it out on vinyl for you, which would be awesome.
We're releasing the full-length ourselves on CD and digitally, which will consist of 10 of the songs we recorded.  It'd be great if someone offered to put it out on vinyl, but I'm not expecting anything.  But hey, contact us at if you're interested!

The two other songs we did are going to be on a split 7" with our friends Shady Ave. from Clarion, PA.  It'll be our first-ever vinyl release and it's gonna be a split release between a bunch of people.  We're financing some of it ourselves, but there are also a few other people contributing.  My good friend Max Bulger runs a venue in Pittsburgh called 222 Ormsby, so part of it will be thanks to Ormsby Records which I guess is a label now.  There's this awesome kid, Scott Jones from Baltimore who runs a small label called Great Friends Records, and he's helping us with it as well which is so awesome.  Finally, Dan Rock of Lock & Key Record (Pittsburgh) is doing the packaging for us which is pretty rad.  So it's a five-way split release between the two bands, Ormsby Records, Great Friends Records, and Lock & Key.  It's the first time we've had any outside label support, which is huge.  It's basically a few of our friends and people who like our band all coming together to help us do it.

That's pretty awesome that you have people willing to help you guys put out a 7''. That's really cool! Is Signals Midwest something you think you could see yourself doing for a long time? 

I do think that we'll be playing for a while, but I'm not sure what "a while" constitutes.  A few years?  A decade?  I'm only 21 and am admittedly not that wise to the ways of the world, so I really have no idea.  I also can't speak for any of the other guys.  We're just doing this now because we love it - we're young and we can and it's fun as hell and it's our favorite thing to do.

In terms of new music and making stuff happen as a band: I'm hoping that this record reaches a wider audience than Blueprints did, and I think it will.  We're about to have the biggest summer we've ever had in terms of touring and sheer amount of ground we're going to cover and places we're going to see.  We've been invited to play some really great and momentous shows, like Stay Sweet Fest in Richmond, VA in April which was incredible.  We don't have any real label support and really not a big national following at all, but I do feel like word is slowly getting out, which is awesome to see.  I've already got four or five songs in the works for our next record, and I know Steve has been working on stuff too.  I think we're aiming to do a four- or five-song EP next which is something that most bands do before they put out a full-length, but I guess we've kinda done it backwards twice over.  We have a lot of things we would like to accomplish musically.  The best is yet to come, I feel.

There's a lyric from a new song we have called "The Quiet Persuader" which is "Is it so much to ask, to make a life out of this?" and I guess I can answer my own question with, "Yes, it is."  It is, but it shouldn't be.

We're all in school or working full time.  Some of us do both.  We all have other shit going on.  I definitely don't have any delusions of grandeur about making a life around our band.  It's a huge accomplishment for a band to just break even, but to actually be able to pay your rent and bills and have something to save after all of that?  At least for right now, that's a pipe dream.

Being a musician or any type of creative person is fucking hard to make a life around for most people I know, and it often gets pushed aside with age.  We're trying to do as much as possible now because, I mean, what other time is there?

What's the best case scenario for your band in your head? In terms of who you'd tour with, who you'd want to release a split with, what label you'd be affiliated with. Stuff that exists within the pipe dreams and whatnot. 

Good question.  I mean, the fact of the matter is that we're a small independent punk rock band with no label support, not much of a national following and separate lives outside of playing music together.  In order to truly become well-known and successful in this genre to the point where you don't have to book your own tours, put out your own records, pay for your own studio time and etc., you pretty much have to give your all and dedicate your life to it.  There are a few exceptions, but not many.

Realistically, I'd like to just keep playing and touring as much as we can, while we still can.  It's unbelievably fun and that's the bottom line.  As with any band of our stature, we'd love it if someone came along and helped us with record production/distro.  Some labels I love that are doing really great things for independent punk/indie music are ones like Topshelf, Count Your Lucky Stars, Run For Cover, No Idea, Protagonist, Tiny Engines, Paper & Plastick, Asian Man, Solidarity and a bunch of others of that nature that I'm forgetting to list now.  Being part of something like that would be fucking great, but I'm not crossing my fingers because you don't get anything unless you work incredibly for it and I don't think we're there yet.  Maybe once the new record comes out.  Who knows...

Bands I would want to tour with?  Oh man, so many.  I guess just bands that I've been listening to a lot lately like Bomb the Music Industry, Joyce Manor, Big Kids, Bridge & Tunnel, Run Forever, The Menzingers, Captain We're Sinking, Tigers Jaw, as well many of our friends who play in other bands in Ohio.  I'm sure if I asked the other dudes they'd come back with a million responses, but those are the ones off the top of my head.

It's crazy to see people that we've played shows with become so successful.  Some might think it's weird but I think it rules.  Seeing Bridge & Tunnel open up for the Gaslight Anthem at the House of Blues was pretty surreal - we played one of our first shows with them in a basement in Cleveland to like 25 people.  Having the Menzingers play a basement down the block from my apartment back in January signing with Epitaph a few months later is insane.  Some of my close friends play in The Sidekicks who are opening for Against Me! in a few weeks at the House of Blues here.  Things like that.  Bands that truly work hard, practice and tour their asses off, and never get pretentious or complain about deserving anything.  As long as you stay humble and hardworking I think that good things are bound to happen.

Menzingers definitely deserve to be signed to a big label like Epitaph. Whenever a band I love signs to an EpiFat label, I'm stoked because it means they'll be touring forever and I'll get to see them a lot. Is there any show or movie that everyone in your band just loves? Or is there a book or band that you all share love for?
Oh, man.  I'm not sure how to answer this.  I'll just tell you that Jeff has a Star Wars collection back home in Kansas that is worth thousands of dollars.  I saw it last summer and it was fucking amazing.

I don't know about any of the dudes' reading habits, but Jeff has "Don't Panic" tattooed on his leg.  I hope someone gets that reference.

Bands we all share love for?  The usual ones like Hot Water Music, Latterman, The Lawrence Arms - the (seemingly) universally popular punk bands I guess.  We all have diverse tastes but we overlap in those ares.  Not that I think our band sounds anything like those bands - I just think that's where we overlap the most in terms of stuff we all listen to consistently.

I've been wanting a Don't Panic tattoo for a while now, ha. I love Hitchhiker's Guide. I guess to wrap this thing up, what should we all know about the album? When's the release date? Do you guys have a title for it yet?
It's called Latitudes & Longitudes.  It's from a Henry David Thoreau quote:  "Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”  The album deals with distance in a bunch of different ways and from several perspectives, so we thought it was fitting.  I've talked about it a lot here already but I'm really stoked about it.  We'll be putting up preorders and a few songs on our Bandcamp site so stay tuned.  We're hoping to have it online and in CD form by July 15th which is the first day of Berea Fest, an awesome DIY music festival in Berea, OH.  It also works really well because it's a day before we start our summer tour out west.  We'll probably do an official release show sometime in August.

I'm pretty excited about the release, as should be everyone else! I've been wanting to go to Berea Fest, but haven't had the funds to yet! I usually only have enough extra to make it down to The Fest. I hope I can make it out the release show! Thanks for the interview, dude. Your band is awesome.
Thanks! I tend to ramble so thanks for putting up with it.  Hope to see you soon!

Look out for Signals Midwest's upcoming full length Latitudes & Longitudes, coming out this July! And check them out on their "This Is My Home, These Are My Homeboys" tour this summer (if they're coming to a venue near you). You can find the tour dates on their facebook page, and probably up on their tumblr page as well!

Here's an exclusive track off the new album!

Signals Midwest - The Quiet Persuader by idleandthebear

And you can hear another song on the Idle and the Bear Compilation.


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