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!
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.
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 (http://www.ohioauthority.com/
articles/arts/live-from-bad- racket-signals-midwest/page/2) .
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.
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 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.
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.
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.