Sometimes when bands say they're going on hiatus, it really just means they're breaking up, but aren't ready to accept it. But, that was not the case with ska/pop punk band We Are The Union. After announcing a hiatus and two years of silence, it was back to the grindstone of being a full-time band. And not only will they be touring again, they're going into the studio to record an EP, with the hopes to do a full length soon afterwards. This time around though, it won't be the band we're used to: They've dropped their horn section. It's a little confusing, seeing as how the ska aspect was what set them apart from the over-saturated pop-punk scene, but as frontman Reed Michael Wolcott explains, they may actually be more ska then ever.
During their stop in Chicago, contributing editor Xan Mandell took some time to speak with Wolcott about becoming a band again and what the future holds for We Are The Union.
We haven't really heard much from We Are The Union, what's been going on?
We were on hiatus for about two years. We were in a spot where we felt like we were stagnating, and on top of that we couldn't find a horn a section. We were running into all these problems. We were having trouble finding the right personnel to keep everything going, so we walked away from it for a while. We needed some time to get away from it and all of those stresses, so we could realize that the reason we are doing this is because it's fun and it's supposed to be fun. That's where we've been. Then we started getting offers out of the blue. People asked us to play their festivals, Big D and The Kids At The Table wanted us to do these dates.
Who in the band made the decision to go on a hiatus?
So the band, officially, is just the four of us (Ricky Weber/guitar, Brandon Benson/bass, Jim Margle/drums). We've had a rotating horn lineup for the past few years, but it was a struggle for us to find someone who can meet all the criteria that we need: Get's along with everyone, plays to the level we need them to and is available on the schedule that we need. It's really difficult as a band that doesn't make a whole ton of money, it's hard to find people who are where we need a horn section to be. I think it's been nice to reflect on all that. The four of us remember what it's like to be in a band and have fun, and have it be about having good times with your friends and making music, and not have it be about the stresses of whose going to play horns on this tour, or who is going to handle business. Coming back together was very organic.
What was that process of coming back together like?
We had a meeting about taxes actually. I don't know if you remember, but we had some issues with the IRS. They said we hadn't filed properly for a tax year that we had filed for. At the end of the day what we ended up doing was Paper and Plastick let us put out two b-sides from our past record for donation. We got a CPA who called the IRS and told them that for the type of organization that we are, they're not supposed to charge us the types of fees they were trying to charge us. Anyways, after that all panned out, we got together and got burritos, which is the official We Are The Union food. While we were together, it just came up that we all missed playing the kind of music we play as We Are The Union. We've all been doing our own thing musically, but it wasn't exactly like We Are The Union. We left that meeting and were like, "Alright, I guess we should email Tony Weinbender from Fest and see if we can play. That was where it all started. Tony was on board. As soon as we announced it, like I said, offered started rolling in out of the blue.
And were all of those offers part of the solidification of We Are The Union becoming a "real" band again?
I think so, especially once we established that we felt like we could creatively go forward without having a horn section 100 percent of the time, it became a lot easier for us to be like, "Yeah, we can do that tour." Just the four of us can hop in a van and go, and not worry about anything. The past three years of We Are The Union's existence was, "Who is going to play horns on this tour? How are we going to teach them the horn parts?" It was always just an extra level of stress.
Why wasn't there a permanent horn section?
We just couldn't find somebody. It breaks down like this: For us, a horn player has to be amazing. We have a really high standard for ourselves and our live show. It is really important for us to put on an amazing live show to the best of our abilities, because in this day and age, there are a million bands, and it comes down to the little things that make people notice. If your band isn't good live, that's one reason for people to not pay attention. We really focus on that and take a lot of pride in rehearsing well and trying to put on the best live show that we can every night, so we have to find somebody who fits that and is willing to put in the work to do that. Then they also have to get along with everybody, and then, on top of that, they also have to be willing to do all of those things for very little money.
It was just difficult to find people. We find people who would work for two out of the three categories, but maybe they didn't get along with everybody as much as we'd hoped, or maybe we got along really well, but they weren't quite up to our performance standards. We were kind of just juggling through people, and ultimately at the end of it, we started compromising on those values and taking people out that we felt like, "we have to have a horn player on this tour," not like, "this is our best choice." The last guy who was playing horns with us is in grad school now, and so we kind of feel like both creatively and finding personnel where we think we can do what we set out to do, we should require ourselves to have horns. But, for special occasions, like Fest, we'll have a horn section. We've made a joke that we're pulling a Goldfinger. You know, that band was a ska band and it had horns initially. I mean, they kind of turned into a pop/punk band. We're still very much a ska band, even if we don't have horns. We have two guitars, we have plenty of melodic stuff.
Horns never really seemed like the main focus for you guys anyways… I always felt like you were a pop/punk band first, and then you had horns, and it was almost a "schtick."
I know what you mean. It was definitely secondary. The reason we had horns, and I don't want this to sound like our original trombone player, Matt, wasn't an integral part of the band, because he was, but the reason that we had horns was because that was the instrument he played, and we wanted him to be in the band, because he was a crucial component of the band. We really had horns so we could have something that he could contribute in a live setting as well. I don't mean that to sound like we were throwing him a bone or anything, it was more like, "How can we incorporate your voice into the band?"
What was he writing with you?
He wrote all the horn parts up to the second full length, but he also did a lot of chord structure work and things like that. He was really big into music theory and would chart things out. He and I would sit down and be like, "What of this is playable and what should we adapt to make poppier or heavier?" He was really alongside me with the songwriting from day one. He was really part of it at every level.
Could you say he was the brains of the band?
At the beginning the band was myself and him kind of running the show. Our original drummer was a big part of the songwriting as well. I don't know if I'd say he was the brains, but I would say that it was like, he was the left hemisphere and I was the right. I don't mean that to sound like no one else was contributing or didn't play an important role. I've always felt like the band has a leader, but it is no way a dictatorship. We've always tried really hard to make everybody feel like their voice is being heard musically, and they are able to contribute on the level they want to contribute on. In some cases it's "I like this song as it is," or in some cases it's "What if we change up the chord structure and the chorus," and stuff like that. We always try to come to the table with a structure and they everyone else adds their thing and suggests changes. That has definitely carried on even since Matt left the band.
On the idea of not moving forward with horns at all, even in the studio, was that due to not being able to find a stable section?
A little bit. There were a lot of reason we stopped being a band, but one of the biggest stresses was finding that horn section every tour and running around doing things last minute and compromising on our performance and things like that. We got a show offer and we were like, "Well, we want to do it, but who should play horns," and someone, I don't remember who, was like "We can try without horns," so the four of us got together and jammed. We tried picking a set-list that made sense, and we knew there were fan favorites that we had to do, so Rickey is taking a little bit more of a lead approach on those. There are a lot of songs where we worked the horn line to be a guitar line, so it isn't just like we're leaving a huge portion of the song empty, we tried to re-arrange it to make something new and interesting out of something people are used to. That is how it came about. We thought it worked well enough that we went ahead with it.
A song like, "I'm Like John Cusack," what does it sound like now? Is the horn section taken note for note and turned into a lead guitar part?
Rickey, Brandon and I sat down together. Rickey got an approximation of the horn part down, and he sat down with Brandon and I, and we found a compromise between his own style and what people are expecting from the song. It sounds pretty similar, it just sounds like it's being played from a guitar. He's expressing it in a way you'd expect from a guitar, but it's still basically the same notes. I know when RX Bandits play old songs now, they've actually written new parts that they play on keyboard or guitar, which is great for them, but for us, we're not as loose. We're more based in pop/punk so people really grasp on to those melodies, and we thought it was important to keep them as intact as we could. We're splitting the difference, letting Rickey have his own voice on the guitar, but keeping them as true to the old songs as we can.
Has been there the idea of doing a release to show people that change?
It's been talked about, but I think ultimately what we really want to do is show people that we're moving forward, and show people it isn't like we're dropping the horns and turning into an easycore pop/punk band. It's not like we're dropping the horns in an effort to sell more records. We are dropping the horns, because it's more important to us to be a band and to be able to make music together and express ourselves then it is to focus on that one aspect of our band. Like you said before, I don't want to say it wasn't necessary, because it was, but it wasn't the one sole focus. I don't think that's what people think of.
Yeah, like I mentioned earlier, It always felt like We Are The Union was a pop/punk band with horns.
Yeah, and it's funny, The newer material is more ska than anything we've ever done. We kind of felt like a lot of our fan base is made up of ska kids. We thought it was important to pay tribute to that, and to say, "just because we're dropping the horns doesn't mean we're not part of the ska community. We all grew up listening to ska. My first favorite band was the Suicide Machines. Ska has always been a very important part of my life and I know it's true for the other three guys as well… well maybe not Rickey. He's an '80s power metal guy. I think it's important to us to come out with new material and say, "here we are, we're still a ska band, we just don't have horns now."
I think in our scene there's a tendency to jump onto a trend. You saw that with pop/punk, you're seeing that with the emo revival thing. When you guys were doing the horn thing, did you ever feel like you were going to lead the way for the new generation of ska?
There were people around us who were saying that, but I was always like, "No, there's no way." In the back of my mind, would I have liked for that to happen? Of course, but I never felt like that was our place or our role.
Do you ever see ska coming back?
I would love it to. I think there are a lot of bands right now that are doing pretty cool stuff. Our buddies Survay Says! have been touring like crazy. I think it could. If there were ever a time, I think the next few years might be it.
If that were to happen, would you bring back the horns?
I don't think so necessarily. What we've said amongst ourselves and what we're going to say publicly going forward is, "We'll have horns when we can, and when it's something we're able to do or it's a special event, we'll have horns when we can." But, we're not requiring ourselves to do that, because it's more important to make music. Will we ever have horns again? Maybe. If someone comes along and meets the criteria we mentioned earlier, then we would love to have long-term horns again. It just isn't feasible at this point. Creatively, we've got so many other ways to express melody that it almost isn't necessary. I don't think people are going to listen to these songs and say, "Man, where are the horns?" There may be people that feel that way, but I think people are going to listen to it and go, "Ok, that makes sense."
So what does it sound like exactly?
We've always sort of cornered ourselves to playing everything like double-time beat. Our biggest influence in 2007 was Rehasher, which is an awesome band, and we still love them and listen to both those rRehasher records all the time in the van. But, we feel like we've done what we can do with double-time punk rock. We think we can make ska-punk music that is a little more diverse than what we've done in the past. I think we started to do that with the last record. There were some slower songs on there. That's the way that we're continuing. It's not mid-tempo pop/punk, but a lot of it is single time, and letting the song breath and do what it wants to do, which has been freeing in a way.
When did the new songwriting start?
Pretty much right after that meeting when we decided we were going to do stuff again. One of the first things we said was, "Maybe we should try writing songs again." We entered it with the attitude of, "I don't know if these songs are going to get released. If they get released, I don't know if we're going to go under the name We Are The Union." As the songs came together, it was like, "This sounds to us what We Are The Union sounds like in 2014." None of us felt like it was a weird jump, or we're putting out a record that's made up of samples and sounds like 2 Chainz. Fall Out Boy is sort of an example of that. It is still very much organic punk-oriented pop/punk, which has been our goal from the beginning. I think by allowing ourselves to be free of the chains to needing to play everything double time, we've been able to do what we've always wanted to do. I feel like I'm able do that as songwriter, and not feel restricted to a certain sound. Hopefully people will feel like it sounds like the same band, but a little bit more evolved.
Is there any idea of which record label you're going to put it out with?
It'll be Paper and Plastick.
When you went on hiatus, what was the conversation with them like?
I just sent Vinnie a text that said, "We're going on hiatus." His text back was just, "Bummer." One of the best things about Paper and Plastick is that it's almost like putting out your record D.I.Y, but you have this awesome support net to push things along and help you out financially to help you out with recording costs. You get a lot of freedom to do it yourself, but you also have a critical listener in Vinnie and his entire support network and PR. The way he has the label set up, it's cool. It's oriented to self-motivated bands.
We're headed into the studio after Fest. Ideally we'll have something out by the middle of 2015, which will be an EP, but we'll continue to write for a full length that'll come out late 2015/early 2016. We want to come back with a lot of new music, partially because of the fact that we won't have horns on the new songs. We want to come back with enough new material where we can play shows and not have it be weird. We're back with the caveat that we're all in school and have other stuff going on. We're not going to be touring eight months out of the year, but we'll be actively seeking opportunities, doing festivals and putting out new music.