For those who don’t know, The Stereo has released three albums and an EP on Fueled By Ramen Records. They have toured extensively and have built a loyal fan base all over the United States, Europe and Japan. Even though they have been at it since early 1999 creating honest rock music, they also have not had any kind of commercial success. In fact, a good number of knowledgeable indie rock fans have never heard of The Stereo.
The creative force behind The Stereo, Jamie Woolford, doesn’t seem to mind one bit. True to his convictions, he focuses his energy and attention on what matters most, the music. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Jamie about a number of things regarding the band, and he was gracious enough to give me 2 weeks worth of material. This week we’ll touch on his odyssey to create a band that suits his aspirations, and how that translated into a new album - Rewind + Record.
On the high turnover that has plagued the band, (Woolford is the only remaining original member):
We’re really laid back people, and I’ll be honest, people are really confused by our band. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of speculation. It started so different from everyone else, and we operate differently from everyone else. People just don’t know what to make of it. And I don’t really blame them. I don’t really appreciate the speculation when its negative.
Most bands start in a garage or whatever or in their parents basement, and they practice and they write these songs, and its some kind of upward struggle, and they gain attention, and eventually hit the road. And it’s a really nice and cute mom and pop story.
Our band started, like, we were going to make a record, just me and this other guy (Rory Phillips, formerly of the Impossibles, currently of Slowreader) and it kind of went so well that we got excited about it that we tried to turn it into a band. Well, we didn’t really want to do that originally, we just wanted to make a record. I mean, both Rory and I are both very similar type of people that when you put us together, we butt heads. We’re still friends, but we obviously we figured out that we couldn’t be in a band together, and we had to make some changes. Now we are still friends, and we can be friends but we had to figure out that we couldn’t be in that situation. So we had the growing pains that most bands have in their garage when they are trying to find the right bass player, or whoever, but most of ours were done in the public. We were putting our record out immediately and going on tour immediately, it was very strange, and everything that has happened to our band has been wildly speculated, but in reality, its just like my little voyage into forming a band in the worst possible way.
Now the 3 of us, me, BJ (Wuollet, drums), and Chris (Serafini, bass) feel like we are a solid unit and each of has equal weight as far as opinions and on what is happening, but each of has our own job, too. I write the music and do the web site, you know, the creative stuff. I do most of the driving, I do like 90% of the driving. Chris is the merch guy, he orders all of our stuff, and he is our main worrier, he’s like ripping his hair out and freaking out about something. BJ is our tour manager, he deals with a lot of that. We all can dip into each other’s area, and take over for anybody if something happens or if an opinion is needed we can all jump in, we all have a voice, but we all have our jobs. So its like this weird democracy. And a lot of people misinterpret it, make me out to be a crazy dictator, when its never really been like that. I have tried so hard to provide an environment for the people that I am working with that is all based on the music.
Its one of those things, and I am not trying to be mean. If you join a band with me, and you’re not in it for music, and you are in it for something else, you probably won’t be in the band with me really long. I don’t agree with playing music for other reasons than just to play music. Granted, music has taken me around the world a few times, and that’s very cool, but at the end of the day I’m not enjoying the music that I am writing and playing, then its just not worth it. None of that stuff (the perks) is that valuable where I would give up writing music that means something to me. And its just taken me a long time to get together with people that have the same spirit for music that I did. Unfortunately it took some making records and touring and finding out that stuff about people, we never had the chance to grow up in a garage, or in somebody’s basement, doing local shows. Our first show was on tour. I mean, our first show was the first show of a tour.
How have you managed with all that going on, to put out quality music that has progressively gotten better?
First of all, thank you, second of all, I am such a freak about making sure that we are doing something that is good, and while I appreciate your comment that the music is better every time, but I think that No Traffic, while the songs are good, but the recording and the performance lacks the spirit that I initially wanted.
We did Three Hundred, and we were like “Cool, this is totally brand new” and even though Rory and I were a good musical team, we had some personal issues that we couldn’t quite make it work, musically we were close to the same page, and I thought we were a good team. That record hit a chord with a lot of people, and I think that had to do with our teamwork, perhaps. I had a good time making that record, and I think the spirit of creativity really comes out in the recording.
At the end of the record, Divine, for example, is a seven-minute piano ballad. And it is kind of corny to me now, but at the time we were like, “yeah you know what, we can do this, if we want to do a seven-minute piano ballad, we can do a seven minute piano ballad” because it was just us two, we were both the songwriters in the band, and the fact that we were doing everything ourselves, nobody could tell us what we could and couldn’t do. It was a unique experience, it was kind of like making two solo albums at once. We each got, you know the songs Rory wrote, then he would kind of be the ‘captain of the ship’ of those songs, like “here’s what we’re going to do, blah blah blah”, and if I ended up doing just the drums on the song, than that was it, and vice versa, and it was cool, there was no rules, and I really enjoyed that environment where the music ran the show, not some sort of weird democracy that doesn’t in the end serve the music. And that’s kind of what happened after that, you know, we got a group of people together that and I don’t want to say bad things, but I think the environment in which we would write music and record music and would play music got away from “is this best for the music, is this best for the song” to “we’re a rock band, and I’m the drummer for the band and I want to play the drums on all the songs”, and that sort of thing. The environment to do something like ‘Divine’ was never there, not that I’d like to do a ‘Divine part 2’ or something like that, but If I wanted to do a song acoustically, it was somewhat frowned upon. The environment just wasn’t there. I am not trying to be mean about it, I know a lot of bands are in that kind of situation, and its not necessarily a bad situation, but for me it was. I kind of did this thing that was so free, then I was forced into a situation that was more “normal”, if you will. Where everyone is trying to contribute, and because everyone is so locked into what they want to do, that nobody wants to expand and the music suffers from it.
How did that translate to your new album?
A lot happened to the band, I kind of fired everybody. They had started their own band, and I wanted on and do my own thing, and I didn’t know if it was going to be The Stereo, and I decided to not give up on The Stereo, basically.
We go to do the new record, and the group of people that was involved this time, I made it very clear to them, if were going to be a band, it has to be like this, it has to be always about the music. The moment I knew it was going to be a good record was when I had written some demos and I took them to the band and I was playing them and BJ , our drummer, really liked the song ‘Too Little, Too Late’ and it had this really cool little drum brush part. He was really into that, and he was excited to play on that, and he worked with it for a while and he got back to me and he was like “you know what, I really like the way it is, but I am not doing to play on that part, I think you should keep the drum part as a sample” And that just blew me away.
His devotion to the music was such that he would actually be willing to give up playing on a track that he really likes just because the music would be better for it, in his opinion, and it just blew me away, that someone was so dedicated that they would give themselves to the music entirely, and it wasn’t about that we were recording, it was about that we were making music. He cared less about the project and more about the music. And to me, the spirit that I have always been trying to capture is in the new record, and we went through the whole record that way. Nobody cared if they didn’t play this, how much they had to do or how little they had to do, we weren’t so concerned, we just wanted to make the songs the best that they could be.
About the new album (Rewind And Record)…
I also think, that, its different from our previous record, its not too different that you don’t notice who it is. Its kind of all around the map stylistically. In the first half of the record you don’t get a repeat, in my mind, as far as what you’re listening to. Its kind of strange, but that’s kind of how my musical tastes are. None of us like to listen to the same stuff all the time. People ask about the theme of the record, if there is one, and the only thing that I can say is I think of is instead of an album, its more of like a radio station. Maybe like an alternative station, where its got like 13 different bands, in some kind of ‘rock block’ or something. But they’re all together in some kind of spirit, but they’ve all got the same singer, you know what I mean?
Are you planning on doing another album?
We are in a weird spot. We are kind of out of our contract with Fueled By Ramen (FBR), and we actually have a new manager, and we are trying to shop this record to a bigger label. To be honest with you, I don’t know what it’s sold, I think its done pretty well, but I don’t try to pay attention to that stuff. I prefer to think that everybody hates us. Then there is nothing to lose. If all of a sudden people are ‘you’re selling this many records’ then there’s pressure. I really trust my label, I do look at the figures and the sheets they send me, just to see if it adds up. I don’t pay attention to the figures, and if I do catch something, I just try to put it out of my mind. I have a rough idea of where we’re at, but I just prefer not to think about it. I don’t think we’ve done enough that there’s a whole huge audience of people out there that I think would be into this record, we’re trying to keep the record alive for a bit longer, to see if we can find a new home at a bigger label, and get this record into the hands of a lot more people. That would be great, but we’ll see. I am kind of content either way. I really like FBR, and if we have to end up doing another record with FBR, that’s fine with me. I love those guys, I love the label.
With the current state of popular music, and you talked about freewheeling and creativity, what do you think is wrong with popular music, and rock and roll?
…but you guys seem to have a huge untapped market of fans, I have never met anyone who has responded negatively to your music…
You’re not the first person to say that, and I am not trying to be cocky. A lot of people do tell us, “I can’t believe you’re not bigger, I can’t believe you’re not on the radio, everyone I know likes your band” or whatever. I don’t know, honestly, that’s not my job. I’m not here to worry about why we’re not popular or whatnot. And maybe that’s why we’re only concerned with making sure we have a good album. And from here on out, the way the last record wrapped up, I think we’re really excited about music and about our band in particular. You know the feeling when you put on a brand new pair of socks? Your foot just feels like it’s a brand new foot. And I know that doesn’t make any sense, but it just feels like we have an entirely new wardrobe. There are new possibilities, and even though we are friends from way back, everybody’s on the right page. Everybody’s on the same page, which happens to be the right page. We’re so happy right now and stoked to be playing music, we just want to continue to do that. If it takes off for us, than that’s really great, we’ve been doing this for a long, long time. If that could happen for us, then we’d be very excited to jump on it, and kind of “make our mark” so to speak. If not, well, I’ve still gotten to go to Japan and Europe a couple times, and done the States God knows how many times, and we’re trying to get to Australia, and if we can, we’d love to do that. And its all not on a major label, all with Fueled By Ramen, a small independent from Florida. We’re kind of a proactive band. We don’t let things happen to us, we kind of make them happen for us. We’ve done everything we really wanted to do. I really want to ride on a tour bus though.
Speaking of tour, what would be your ideal band to tour with, of any bands that are around right now?
There’s bands that I like, that I would just love to watch every night. I like Superdrag a lot, I think it would be fun to tour with that band. I’d love to pick that guy’s brain, just because he’s one of my favorite songwriters. I’d just love to talk to him and see what his take on music is, how he writes his songs. Its fun because I have had the chance to meet people in some bands I like, and whether I like them or not, I’m always curious to see people and how their process is and compare it to mine. And anyone who is a serious songwriter, we usually share our “tricks of the trade”, so to speak. And its fun, there’s certain people out there who I would love to pick their brain.
Supedrag, I wouldn’t mind touring with Piebald, I think Piebald is pretty great. I’ve never seen them, and I bet they are pretty good live. I really like Ultimate Fakebook, we always like touring with them. As long as we’re friends with whoever we go out with, or we could be friends, we don’t really care. Its good to play with bands that are really good live band, so they give you a run for your money. If they are playing before you, for example, you want them to be really good, so that it makes us work a little bit harder, so we’re good.
Kind of like setting the bar?
Exactly, I’ve always loved that. We toured with the Gadjits, and they are such a great live band. Every night we’d get up and we’d be like, “godammit, man”. We toured with Fakebook, and its just amazing. Its hard just to play with them, its like, what can you do? You know? Its like, we did this tonight, but then they get up there, and they just mopped the stage with us.
We try to have good live shows, I think we’re getting better. Our new guy, Phil (Trapp), does a lot of background vocals, which is more than what we’ve been used to, which is good for the current guys in the band. That’s a huge thing for us, we’re like, “wow, this guy can do some of these parts, and make the songs sound better”. We’re kind of a new buzz right now, just from that.
It kind of makes the songs feel fresh again. Some of these songs, like Devotion, or Ramona, or whatever we play off of Three Hundred, its like “Okay, I know this one”. I know people like them, and I still like them, I have no trouble playing them. But its kind of like “lets mix this up.”
You’ve probably played those songs a hundred thousand times….
Well, maybe not a hundred thousand, but it feels that way, for sure. Especially when you get a new person in the band, and we’ve had many, you know. We’ll play it at least a dozen times with them as they are learning it. So its like, not only the shows, but the amount of times I’ve had to play it in practice, its kind of frustrating. I don’t mind playing it live, but every time we bring in a new guitar player, we gotta play Devotion like 20 times, so the new guy can learn it. Its tough.
The new guy, he knows more songs than anyone. More than any other guitar player has. And we knew we were going to hit the road hard this year, so we were like, “You know what dude, you’re going to have to learn a lot of shit”. We want to be able to play almost everything off all of our records that we can. So we’re pretty close, he knows like 30-something songs. We’ve never had someone know that many songs. If we had to do a 30-song set, we probably could. Which wouldn’t be very good, about half of it would be good and the other half, not so good, we’d still be a little rusty.
What is your favorite song by The Stereo?
Well, it kind of changes from time to time, but I really like ‘Pay No Attention.’ There’s something about it. I think it’s a really good song, and it just makes sense to me. I just like the way it sounds, and I think it’s the best one that I’ve written. I really like ‘Turn Off Your TV’, ‘Too Little, Too Late’, I really like ‘Tell Your Football Dad No’.
I think 1994 is a jam and a half.
We’re now playing that one again. We played it a few times in Europe, on our first tour after the new album came out. We didn’t like it, we weren’t very good at it, so we stopped playing it. But people have been demanding it. So at the beginning of the year we kind of got together, when we were rehearsing with the new guy, we had him learn it, so we’re playing it again now. Hopefully, we’ll start getting better at it. Its still kind of rusty. It’s a very difficult song to play, I know it doesn’t sound like it would be, but it is.
You’re touring with The Belles right now, do you have any other bands lined up for future tours?
Not yet. We are kind of leaving our options open, we want to go out with a headliner. We’re really not that big, so we’re tired of doing headlining tours. We’d like to move up a little bit, a few rungs on the ladder, if you will.
We’re still very excited about what we’re doing. As long as we have that and we are still making good music, I don’t see why we can’t continue for a while.