Signals Midwest's newest album, Light On The Lake, is due out on October 22nd via Tiny Engines and they will be playing a couple shows later this month, including the Tiny Engines label showcase, prior to their shows at FEST. Frontman Maxwell Stern spoke with Punknews staff writer Adam Sever recently about vacationing in Israel, his 30 songs in 30 days project, Signals Midwest's latest album, Light on the Lake, and their plans for this year's FEST.
You started out this year on a high note with a three week trip to Israel, what motivated you to travel there and how was your overall experience?
That's an interesting question, a good first question. Honestly, I think Latitudes And Longitudes was a lot about distance and the effects of that but it was all contained with just being on tour and being in the States and stuff. I really wanted to go somewhere else that was completely foreign and that I didn't know anything about at all. And also, if you are born Jewish, you get a free trip, so I thought it was a pretty good excuse to go. There was a lot of stuff going on at home. I had just gone through a break up and moved home with my parents and didn't have a job and it just seemed like a good time to skip town for a month or so.
I was wondering if it was the free trip thing, cause I've heard of it before but Iâve never heard of anyone taking it.
It was pretty cool. You can sort of choose which one you want to do. There is a lot of pro-Israel ideology stuff they try to push on you, but I think I did a pretty good job of blocking that out and just enjoying the free trip. I was there for 10 days on the trip and then I branched off and stayed with a friend in Tel Aviv. That was the more fun part of the trip for me, where I could do whatever I wanted and walk around in this incredibly foreign place and not even so much be able to read the bus schedule. It was really great just to be completely out of your element and disconnected. It helped clear out my mind a lot.
Much of what we hear in the States about Israel comes from the news and itâs usually about fighting and war type stuff, did your travels through the country change your views on the country and its people?
Yeah it did. I feel like the view we get here is definitely pretty one-sided. I spent some time with a couple of soldiers over there actually. They were very quick to acknowledge there was a lot of wrong doing on both sides of this issue. They weren't just blind nationalists or anything like that. Everyone was much more understanding over there of the Israel/Palestine conflict than they are here honestly. It was actually really refreshing to see. I was really worried about going over there and just having a bunch of propaganda shit shoved down my throat. There was a little bit of that, but for the most part everyone I met was very cool, and very willing to talk about what was going on. It was really nice to see actually.
Did you get a chance to play any music or hand out any CDs of your stuff to locals while you were there?
Yeah I did. Will from Tiny Engines had forwarded me a link to this band called The Sweatshop Boys who are from Haifa, in Israel. I tried to get in touch with them and go see a punk show while I was over there, which didn't end up happening. It was happening the day after I flew home. I corresponded with them a little bit and I spent a little time walking around the city. I checked out a venue or two there and went to this pizza place/punk rock venue in Tel Aviv and they were playing The Flatliners when I walked in. That was awesome. It was just cool to still feel connected. It was pretty fun.
For you, do you approach going on vacation and going on tour differently, planning wise?
Oh yeah, completely. For vacation, I honestly try to plan as little as possible. When we go on tour, I'm making itineraries and planning out how long drives are going to take. You have the load in time, and the door time, and the show time, and then your set time, the promoterâs phone number, the venueâs phone number; I make binders full of information that I follow pretty rigorously. For traveling, on a personal level I try to just go with it and treat it completely differently and not be the organizer, not be the facilitator, just kind of be a dude.
Youâve done a couple tours already this year, but most notable is the one with label mates Dikembe. What was it like touring with them and how was the turnout in cities you hadnât been yet?
That tour was really really fun. We played mostly smaller cities. We played Chicago and Minneapolis, but we also had a really awesome show in the Quad Cities, on the Iowa/Illinois border. We had a really good time in Lansing, Michigan. It was great! I had only met Steven very very briefly at The Fest last year, he seemed like a really cool guy. We ended up getting along really really well pretty much instantly. They're four pretty quirky dudes and we are too and we just had a blast talking, playing basketball and watching Point Break with Keanu Reeves. We had a great time with them.
It was weird; we had never gone on tour with a band that we didn't really know on a personal level. We love Dikembe and when the offer came up for us to go on tour together, I was like "Fuck yeah, let's do this!" They are a bigger band than we are, which was cool because we've never really gone out with a band that was bigger than us. Most of it has just been by us. We would alternate who would play after each other every night. There were always kids, at least a couple, no matter if the show had 15 people…I think the biggest turn out on that tour was only like 70-80 people, but there were always people just losing their minds to Dikembe and I thought that was great to see. It was pretty awesome.
Youâll be playing the Tiny Engines Showcase later this month and then Fest a few days later, how excited are you about playing Fest again this year and are there any bands that youâre eager to see play?
Oh my god, so many! We had such a good time last year. None of us had ever been before, much less played, and it was really like a validating thing to go down there and be that well received and to have the venue at capacity when we played. I still go and look at those pictures from that set and I'm like, fuck man, that was incredible! That was the best show that we've had as a band. I'm hoping that this year comes close. We are playing opposite Dillinger Four, so I don't know about that.
As for bands I'm excited to see, I'm really excited to see Torche on Halloween, that's gonna be awesome. I'm very very excited to see Restorations, just because they are some of our best friends and we just love that band so much collectively. They are just a flawless live band; they're so good. On a personal level also, I'm really excited to see The Smith Street Band from Australia. My other band Meridian did a couple shows with them last year when they came over to the States for the first time and we got a long really really well and just communicated throughout this year while they've been back home. They are just one of my favorite bands and some of my favorite people. They are playing the huge venue at Fest and they're playing in the Theatre. They're doing this huge tour with Frank Turner and they're blowing up, but it is awesome to see. I'd say those three are my most anticipated ones.
You are also doing an acoustic show at Fest as well, will that be a mix of Signals Midwest and Meridian material or just Signals Midwest stuff?
I think I am just going to ask everybody who is there what I should play. It'll probably be a mixture. We are not touring down to Fest or anything. We are just making the trip. Three of us are driving the van down and our drummer is flying down and then flying back. He is still in school and he could only get a certain amount of time off. We are just trying to play as much as possible while we are down there, so this Meridian show is another way for me to sneak in an extra set before I have to go home and go back to work. If people show up to see it, I'm probably just going to ask them what they want to hear and if the turn out is a little thinner, I'll probably play more of the quieter acoustic material because I'm going to be burnt out from a week at Fest already. I like to mix it up a little bit, we'll see what happens.
You originally released Meridianâs Aging Truths for free on Bandcamp, how did you come to work with Youth Conspiracy records for the Meridian LP and are you doing your EP with them too?
Scott Heisel lives in Cleveland, saw Signals play a bunch of shows and started giving us a little bit of support on the internet and coming out to our shows, which was really cool. We got a little "AP&R" feature on Signals in Alternative Press which was really nice. So he'd been coming to see us for about a year or so and I had just put the Meridian record up online for a free download or donation and people really seemed to like it. He sent me a message online and was like "Hey man, this record is really good, good job!" I said "Thanks, I think I'm going to try to a Kickstarter or Indiegogo to try to fund a vinyl release." And then he was like "No, don't do that!" And I was like "Why not?" And he said "No no no, just let me put it out." I then was like "Oh, really, OK!"
It was totally just like I put it out for free online, and he heard it and wanted to release it on vinyl. It was really really simple. It's been great so far. It was just a small pressing and people have really seemed to take to it. It lets me get all of the pop tendencies that I have in terms of writing stuff out into the world and it is a really nice outlet to have. It sounds selfish, but I guess it's more something that is completely mine and I can do whatever I want with it. Signals is more of a more collaborative thing. Signals is my number one, don't get me wrong, but it is good to have something else because I am always writing songs and I always have more than what to do with. This is a nice way to get even more out into the world. I think they help each other. I have a pretty distinct way of writing songs I think, so if someone hears Meridian and they are doing some research, they might discover Signals and decide that they like that too and it could work the other way. I think that if you just put as much as you can out there, good things will happen.
Speaking of having more songs than to know what to do with, yesterday you released, The Harvest Month, through your other band Meridian, which is a collection of 30 songs you wrote and recorded everyday throughout September. Was this something you had planned in advance or something you just thought up the last week of August?
I saw that Michelle from Little Big League had done it in June and I thought it was really cool. That band is awesome and their record is really great. It was inspiring. It was maybe the last week of August that I saw her release that. I don't know her personally or anything like that, I just know her band and I thought it was a great idea. So I was like, you know what, I'm going to give it a try and I got really really into it for like the first week and then I was still pretty into it the second week. Then the third week was a total fucking struggle for me to just sit down and "Oh my God I have to make something right now." For the last week, it sort of fluctuated. I think out of the 30 songs, maybe there's seven to eight that I would say that are…I don't want to say really good because how are you going to tell anybody that your own songs are really good, but I really like about seven or eight of them. And then there is another five or six that I think are pretty solid and then there's 10 that are just like, okay this is a song that I would write and exist but no one would ever hear it, but because I'm doing this song a day thing, people are going to hear it. Then there is like three or four that are totally abysmal that I just had to put on there because that is what I wrote that day.
There wasn't any quality control or anything like that. There is no filter. With everything else I release, it has made it through a couple rounds of testing with band members and then it has made it through being recorded in the studio and being mixed and saying this really isn't that good. For this it was just, write a song, record it, put it on the Internet, don't ever think about it again. There was no real editing or changes made after the fact. Sometimes I'll come back to a song six months to a year later and finish it, and this forced me to put something out there. It was a fun exercise. Like I said, there are seven or eight songs that I really like that wouldn't have existed otherwise. I'm pretty happy with it.
Are some of the songs going to be on future Meridian releases or is this as far as they are going to go?
I would say a couple will be on future releases. We actually have another full-length record that is already pretty much done that will be out in early 2014. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with it. After that, I don't know. For Signals, all our schedules don't really line up, it's kind of hard for us to do stuff. It's easier to release Meridian stuff than it is Signals stuff, because Meridian is just me and whoever else I can convince to play. That first record, I played banjo, guitar, keyboards, percussion, vocals, like everything, and with Signals we all have a very defined role. I can release Meridian stuff a lot faster, I just need to convince someone to come in and play drums because I have no idea how to play drums.
You said about the songs that the "songs that were all recorded at different times of the day/night at various levels of inspiration, energy and sobriety." During this project did you find you wrote better under certain situations or levels of inebriation?
I found that I got two really good songs that I wrote after coming home from the bar and being very drunk and very sad, but for the most part, no. I'll go out and have a couple beers, but I'm actually not very good at holding my liquor at all. I would say that there is probably an inverse correlation between levels of drunkenness and quality of songs for the most part. I found that I got the best songs in the afternoon, where I had finished up work a little bit early, and I had a couple hours to kill and it was relaxing. Sometimes I would just be super busy all day and then be in bed and be like " Oh fuck, I forgot to write a song today" and I would coax myself out of bed and try to force something out. It all kind of happened differently. Occasionally I got really good ones out of forgetting to do it until the last minute and just like writing down the first thing that came and not really having time to self edit or anything. For the most part, if I planned out a certain time during the day where I was going to do it and devote an hour or two to working on something, that usually got the best results. It all varied. There is no real method to the madness. One of the songs I wrote in ten minutes and it's my favorite one on there. So I don't know, you tell me.
I've heard that a lot with other bands, that the songs that they write quickly in the studio while recording an album are usually their favorite ones. Maybe there is a connection there?
Yeah, there is like a moment of inspiration. The songs that are easiest to write are usually the best ones so, I don't know. There are songs that I've been working on for a year or two that I haven't done anything with because they aren't going anywhere. "308," the first song on the new Signals Midwest record, I wrote in like 15 minutes sitting on a porch one day and that was that. We played it through at practice two or three times and then it was just done and that was it. Whereas there are other songs on that record that had been floating around for like two years and gone through a bunch of different phases and edits and stuff like that, and I like the other one more. There is no real formula to it, I guess.
Speaking of Signals Midwestâs new album, Light On The Lake comes out later this month on Tiny Engines and one thing I love about their releases is they put so much thought into the artwork for the albums. Are there any cool features about the jacket for Light On The Lake?
Oh yeah! I'm really stoked about this actually! I do love the fact that Tiny Engines really focuses a lot on the packaging of stuff. I worked in graphic design and I've gotten to work with them on a couple other releases and it's cool to see how Will and Chuck operate and they'll get the final artwork and be like, "Okay, what if we did like this kind of printing treatment or what if we emboss this or foil stamp this." For Light On The Lake, we hired our friend Jeff Finley to do the artwork. He came up with this sort of little flame logo that is in the dead center of the record. The entire jacket is matte printed, kind of flat and a little rough, and the flame in the center is embossed shinny silver orange foil. Chuck sent me some photos of it the other day and it looks fucking awesome. I'm really excited for that.
You did the artwork for the State Lines album where they did the foil on it as well, didn't you?
I did the layout and type and stuff like that for it, but I didn't do the painting on the cover. A lot of times my job is to take a painting or a drawing or take elements from it, or take photos and position them correctly and artfully. Sometimes I'll make a full cover and layout. I guess it all kind of depends. I did that one and self-titled State Lines 7-inch as well. I did Little Big League's LP, the layout for that and then I do a lot of ads for them as well. I've done stuff for other labels too, pretty much whatever I can get my hands on.
Your previous album Latitudes And Longitudes had a lot of connecting lyrics throughout the songs, are they any connecting elements on Light On The Lake?
Yes, yeah there are. They are not as obvious as they were on Latitudes And Longitudes, because I feel like I couldn't get away with repeating the same chorus four times again. I think people would've been like "Oh, this again, it was cool the first time." It is a little bit more subtle. You kind of have to dig for it a little bit more, but I guess I will spell them out here if you want.
So let's see, there is a line at the end of "In The Pauses," which is track two, that comes back on track 12 and is then is added to. There is a cello melody on track two that comes back on track 10 repeated, but it is transposed so it sounds a little bit different, but it is the exact same melody. The intro riff on "St. Vincent Charity" is the riff that closes on track six and it all sort of blends together and there is repeated themes and they are all in the same key and weird tunings. There are a couple of other things. Maybe I'll let people dig for them, but those are the obvious ones that come to my head. I think it is really cool when a collection of songs plays as an album and not just as 12 songs that a band recorded. We definitely make a conscious effort to try to do that stuff and make it cohesive. I've always loved that about records. Like The Weakerthansâ records that do that. There are a lot of examples of it, but I really like that stuff and I guess people have dug it, so we'll probably stick with it for now.
You said in another interview that you wrote a 12 minute song for this album that you broke into three parts, which three songs make up the 12 minute one?
It is tracks four, five and six. It's closer to 11 minutes, I think, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. Those three songs are all in open C Sharp tuning, and I've never used an open tuning before, but it was something I experimented with on this record. It was really fun and we liked it so much that wrote a couple songs and it all kind of blended together. I really like transitions between songs and anything that makes it feel like more of a record and less of just like this song, and this song and this one. It was a very conscious effort on out part to try and stitch it all together. I would say that those three songs, "St. Vincent's Charity," "The Desert To Denver" and "An Echo, A Strain," those are my favorite songs on the record, just because I feel like they're much different than anything else we've done as a band and they are the ones that we worked the hardest on and had the most amount of revisions. There are just different guitar tones, effects and I feel like vocally, that's probably where my best performance on the record is and there is a lot of different dynamics. I'm very proud of those three songs. I think that once the record has been out for a while, we will probably end up playing them all together as part of our live set. Hopefully people dig it and are not bored for 11 minutes.
Was the process of writing and recording Light On The Lake different than your previous album Latitudes And Longitudes?
Where Signals is at as a band, we are all on totally different schedules and we pretty much just practice…we don't have a set practice time, we pretty much just practice when everyone is available. Sometimes it'll be three times in a week and sometimes we wont see each other for a month because everybody is really busy with school and work and stuff like that. It was written very sporadically throughout the end of 2011 and most of 2012. Recording it, we made it in the same studio. We had the same engineer as Latitudes And Longitudes, but we also had another co-engineer/producer guy named Toby Reif, who we had met on tour in Bellingham, Washington, and he just became a really good friend and he is an incredible musician. He flew out and helped us and got guitar tones and played a couple things on the record and helped with vocal ideas, melodies and arrangements. He was basically like the fifth member while we were in the studio. Having another creative force to help us out and keep us inspired was really cool. I would say that was a big difference. He also mixed the record. He really made it what it is. I don't think it would have been nearly the same or as good if Toby wasn't there.
Youâve said before that "Recording is a way to capture a particular moment in a bandâs life." What part of Signals Midwest did you capture with Light On The Lake?
Whew, that's a good question. Probably just a band figuring out who they want to be next. That's kind of a vague answer, but I think that is sort of true for most recordings. We are always in a constant phase of discovering new music and evolving as people. We had changed a lot between Latitudes And Longitudes and this. When we made Latitudes And Longitudes, we hadn't toured at all, we weren't making the record for a label or anything like that. We made this record knowing it was going to come out on Tiny Engines. Having toured a lot, knowing that we were going to do more, I think this is made with a lot more knowledge in mind about what it is to be in a band that tours and travels and is afforded really awesome opportunities to go and do things. It was made with a lot more knowledge and experience under our belts and hopefully it shows. There are still little things that I would change about it, there always will be, but I think it sounds as a whole, like a more confident record. I'm proud of it, I think it's the best thing we have so far. We'll see if other people think that. I'm just happy that it exists and that it is done and we can go have fun now.
Youâve been involved in playing music and in bands for the better part of your life, and when I look at the things you were doing compared to the things I was doing at that age, skateboarding and making zines. While those things are still fun to do, my interests have shifted as I aged and doing those things arenât as important any more. Have you been or do you think you will ever get to a point where you will want nothing to do with music and be happy to just let the guitar hang on the wall?
I really hope not, man. For me, making music kind of keeps me sane. If I have a tough day, I can come home and just play guitar and nerd out and work on something and make something that didn't exist before. I find immense value in that. Even it if sucks, it's a way for me to think, process things, and work out ideas. I even see it with Signals now. I just turned 24, but a couple of the guys are a few years older and there is definitely some real world pressure going on and I don't know when the next time we are going to tour is. I don't really know what the future holds at all, but I imagine that even when this is done, because I think that every band has a shelf life as sad as it is, I hope to do this for as long as possible. I think even when it's done, I will… I don't want to say that I will always be making things, because I really don't know, but every year since I've started playing music, since I was 11 years old, I've made more and more of it every year. I think that this year alone, in 2013, I wrote and recorded something like 50 or 60 songs. I only get deeper and deeper into it as I get older and I don't see that stopping any time soon. So no, I really hope that I do never hit that point. Music has given me all the happiness I know in the world. I've met so many of my best friends through playing and seen the most beautiful places I've ever seen while traveling and I wouldn't trade it for the world. I don't know why I would stop short of you know, starting a family or finding a job that I really love, but I really don't see any of those things happening anytime soon, so for now, I'm going to stick with this.