Such Gold had to make some re-arrangements recently. Their longtime guitarist Skylar Sarkis left the band a little while back, and afterwards people were pretty sure Such Gold was over. But, that wasn't the case at all. In fact, they took it in stride and moved forward. Rather than searching for a replacement, they looked at what they already had inside the band and decided to have vocalist Ben Kontin take over as the second guitarist. Then they went quiet. For a second it seemed like Such Gold wasn't doing anything at all. The truth is they were working harder than ever on a new record that would, and now has, introduce us to the new Such Gold. While not exactly a departure, their latest record, The New Sidewalk, shows a band who've taken the core elements of their sound and had it grow with them as people, rather than grow with the changing trends. Some people weren't stoked on it, some people were more satisfied with Sidewalk than any other of Such Gold's previous releases.
When Such Gold stopped through Chicago, Punknews contributing editor Xan Mandell decided to treat guitarist Nate Derby and bassist Jon Markson to Korean BBQ to chat about the record. Their conversation over dinner hit various topics, and we got the inside story on why Skylar left and how awesome eating Pho will Bill Stevenson is. At this point, we're pretty sure the term Such Gold is really just their way of describing great food, "Man, those dumplings were Such Gold, they hit the spot." No word from the band if this is true or not though…
Jon, (Markson, Bass) this is your first record with the band right?
Jon Markson (Bass/Vocals): Yeah, I've known the band since they've started, but I've only been in it for half the time they've been together. It's interesting because I've been able to have both a first- and third-party perspective. Skylar (Sarkis, ex-guitar) actually sent me Misadventures before it came out, and asked me if I wanted to play in the band. I felt so lucky. I heard the record and it was just aligned so perfectly with what I think of aggressive guitar music.
Did you feel any pressure when you joined? Such Gold was really taking off around that time.
Markson: I wasn't worried about it. I'm confident in my playing. I was quiet for a while to get the vibe.
Nate Derby (guitar): At this point Ben (Kotin, Vocal/guitar) and I are the only two remaining original members.
In its own way, it seems like the change in members was a good thing. The progression between Misadventures and The New Sidewalk is an awesome example of how a band grows.
Markson: It's funny, there are a lot of bands that happened around the same time as Such Gold or a little after/before that we've toured with for years, and they've eclipsed us in terms of what is being hyped right now. That isn't because we fucked up, I think it's more so because the way we think about music and what comes out of the band is a little left of center, but we're still blessed… (laughs) Bless the lord Satan. We're still part of the same ecosystem of bands that is the punk scene and are able to contribute what we want to contribute to it.
When Skylar (Sarkis) left the band, I remember it became this controversial big thing…
Markson: I don't really think I noticed that if it did. It wasn't like a thing. I remember there were a bunch of people that were saying he quit in the middle of the show.
Markson: Yeah. It was a misunderstanding. Skylar is legitimately Nate, Ben and I's best friend. It was never weird. We did a Taking Meds tour maybe a couple weeks before the Wilhelm Scream tour, and he and Ben had already talked about it. He was like, "Oh, I'm not sure I can keep dong this. It's hard to be in a full-time touring band and make a gigantic transition in your life."
Derby: He needed to make a significant life choice that made sense for him. For us it was like, "Yo, do you man, do what you have to do, we'll sort it out." We did immediately.
Markson: It worked out super easily in our favor, because Ben wanted to play guitar. There was the question for a maybe like 55 seconds of if I was going move to guitar and someone else take over bass. But, Ben is a guitarist. It's kind of funny, everyone has always seen him as a singer and the hype man/singer guy. But in essence, he's a really amazing guitarist and as with the way he thinks about guitar. He had already played a bunch of shows on guitar in the past.
Derby: Yeah, in the past, I've had to say, "I can't do this tour for a couple of days," and it then Ben would pick up the guitar and it would be fine.
Your music is so technical and fast, so was there an initial anxiety of, "Will you be able to sing and play guitar, Ben?"
Derby: Not really.
Markson: The only anxiety was getting used to being a touring guitar player for him I think.
Derby: And getting used to having the responsibility and getting associated with the professionalism of having more than just the role of a singer/frontman. But, I think the increase in responsibility was a positive thing for Ben. He needed to take on more responsibility and he was able to so quickly.
What do you mean by more responsibility?
Markson: In the past, he wrote a lot of guitar stuff, so 50 percent of the guitar material is his work, but he's not playing the guitar, so that takes some of that spiritual payback of writing guitar parts away if you never get to play them.
Derby: Ben was just burnt out with just being the frontman. You could tell. Ben is the kind of dude you have to keep happy to make sure everyone is happy. He's not a curmudgeon, but if Ben's happy, then everyone is happy. He is the frontman/guitarist, and you gotta keep the lead singer happy. That's what is important.
Markson: I would be bummed if I was writing guitar parts but unable to play them.
Derby: He had such a stake in it and wasn't able to fully fulfill that. From day one in this band he wanted to play guitar, but we didn't need him to.
Was there ever of conversation about having three guitarists?
Markson: Never, because Ben isn't the kind of person to impose his will in that way. When the conversation came up it was like about what to do with Skylar leaving, and he said, "Yo, I finally get to play guitar." He is an incredible guitar player. We finally got to consolidate a little bit and do a little shake up. We toured like that for 7-8 months, then we had another shake up, which was Devin Bentley (ex-drums) leaving, and getting the new drummer really completely solidified there being a new vibe of how we can work together. At that point, we had to re-think how we worked together.
Derby: Every time that a member left and was replaced with somebody new, there was a shift in vibe. It was always a positive shift though. Not that we don't love those people that were in the band. But, there were reasons why people left, so every time it happened, it was an appropriate time for it to happen. Whenever a new person came into the band, it was always a positive change for the continuance of the band.
I think you can tell, especially looking at The New Sidewalk. It's an interesting record, because it sounds like a Such Gold record, but there is such a new vibe and maturity that is not found in most bands between only one record.
Markson: The way we got to work with each other for this full length was not necessarily groundbreaking or new, but because the lineup was so much in the pocket as to what people's roles were, we were able to do it a little differently and we also made a huge point to be super prepared for it. We worked on the songs for a while.
Derby: Months and months.
Derby: Ben wrote essentially the structure of the majority of the drums. Because we both live in Rochester, Ben and I would be in the practice space several days a week. I was playing guitar and Ben was one the drums. We'd record shitty demos and send them to Jon or Matt. So the drum parts came from that general basis, but then Matt would add the, "I'm a good drummer," aspect to it.
Markson: Then we pretty much recorded the entire record at my studio in Brooklyn, the whole thing through. This was the first time we were able to actually collaborate with Matt. We didn't get to write with him, but rather he festered over what we already did. So, because we were all together in that platform, we were able to get in touch with our parts. We were recording it part by part and getting used to how things were used to sound together and what everyone could do, but that happened pretty much over a month and a half period.
What did Bill (Stevenson, Producer at The Blasting Room) think of you bringing him the entire record recorded like that?
Markson: He was really excited.
Derby: He loved it, because the first few days were initially going to be pre-production, tempo mapping etc… But, we already had all that shit prepared, so he was so stoked. He pretty much said, "Well, alright, that saves a lot of time, you guys already did most of the work already."
Markson: We pretty much hung out with him and got the vibe, which is really important. It became incredibly stress free. So when it came down to it, at first he helped us clean up the scratch tracks and the tempos change pretty consistently throughout the record, so he refined that a little bit. We just got to hang with this guy whose work we respected a lot.
Derby: We sat down with Bill and talked about Black Flag. I mean come on! That alone was worth the cost of making a record with Bill. To be able to sit down at a table with him and eat Pho and talk about Black Flag, it's like who gets to do that?
When you chose to work with him, how much was it, "This is Bill Stevenson," vs "This is the Blasting Room?"
Derby: I don't know… I think it was more about the Blasting Room and the records that came out of there. Propoghandi and A Wilhelm Scream are the two names that come out of there that think about the most.
Markson: The punk music that we like together tends to be very heady, technical and aggressive guitar music. Those records tended to be done there. There is a lot of stress put on Bill Stevenson as being the main guy, but in reality everyone who works there is great. Jason Livermore is an incredible mixer and creative mind. Andrew Berlin and Chris Bebble are incredible. It was great to have them be a part of the process.
Derby: They're all equally important, but in different ways.
Markson: No one wears one hat. It's all very collaborative over there. We didn't prepare so much to try and floor them with our preparedness. It was more that we felt like we needed to do that, because we had a big task at hand and we didn't want to look like we were doing the wrong thing. We didn't want to embarrass ourselves.
Derby: We wanted it to be like, "It is appropriate for us to be here."
Since you came in with an entire pre-recorded album, what changes were made after he got it and you started recording the "actual" version?
Markson: Almost none. He heard what we had there and given the limited amount of time we had to get in touch with each other about it, everyone there helped get us through to the final recording. That in and of itself is a whole task. He was giving us accolades of how excited he was about the record. It was a little crazy.
Derby: It was a little bit of a "we're not worthy" situation.
Markson: But he also would be like, "this sounds great… We have a lot of work to do. Do you want more coffee… Do want more coffee? We have a lot of work…" (laughs)
Derby: People think of a producer as the guy who sits down and makes the record for you, but that isn't the case with Bill. He was just as important as everyone there, but he didn't have this overarching, grandiose role over the creation of the record. He had his job, Jason Livermore had his and Andrew and Chris did their thing. You don't pay for Bill, you pay for the whole Blasting Room crew.
Markson: But, he facilitates the whole thing. He's the keeper of the vibe.
But what exactly was that work?
Derby: Getting the perfect takes, finding tones.
Markson: A lot of work is just doing everything that is on the record. Everyone is recording their own takes for their own parts.
Derby: I kind of felt guilty, because since I only play guitar, I got a lot of my parts done quickly. But, Ben and Jon had been working for weeks. They did pre-production, then they did vocals, bass, guitars, vocals… They have double, if not triple the role I had. So once my parts were done it was like, "Well alright boys! I'm done here!"
Markson: He beat Skate 2 and 3 when he was done… And then sold a bunch of shit on eBay.
Derby: Yeah! I went to all the thrift stores, bought mad shit, then I listed it and catalogued it. I mean, I just had so much time. But, that's not to say I didn't bust my ass. I really did. I worked for months with Ben to get the record ready. Then, in the studio I did my shit as quickly as I could, and once I was done, I had like a week to dick around. But, you know, in all seriousness, being in the room for the mixing process I was able to have my input and say, "I think it needs a little more of this, or I think you can do that part better."
Did you re-do any parts while you were waiting.
Derby: Only a couple.
Markson: We did everything efficiently, but we were kind of running against the clock, because we needed to finish.
Derby: We were never behind, but it there was always the feeling of, "we have to keep moving," because if we did get behind, we'd be fucked.
Markson: Even though we weren't behind, we didn't have extra time.
Derby: We stayed on schedule, which was impressive. We only had three weeks, and while that may seem like a lot of time, it really isn't. If we went in there without all of that pre-production, it would have been a totally different experience. I assume we'll do the same exact thing with the next record we make.
Will you go to the Blasting Room next time?
Derby: We hope so.
But I imagine next time is a little ways away?
Derby: Sooner than that hopefully. I think the idea right now is that there were a lot of things that got in the way of us being able to release music between Misadventures and this record. The truth is we write and conceptualize quickly, so in an ideal world, we'd love to write more and hear more of our own shit out there.
Markson: We have a few songs that didn't make the record, because we didn't feel they were ready, so we have those, and Ben and I wrote a song the other day too.
When you were writing the new record and the flow of it started coming together, was there any trepidation when you realized it was going to be as different as it was?
Markson: We already sort of knew that was happening.
Derby: Months in advance…
Markson: It's not that we ever made a profound effort at saying, "We are going to do this as opposed to that." What's most important to us is to write a record that makes us stoked.
Derby: I think that is important. Since we've been a band, we've never said, "We're going to do this instead." Every song we've ever written has been the natural progression of how we want to write. Between two years a lot can happen. The kind of music I listen to is different, the kind of riffs I write are totally different, the tone I'm going for is different. If I made the same record for five years, I would've quit and thought, "this is fucking dumb."
Markson: This is also the first record we've written in the style; It used to be where people were bringing riffs and songs, and we'd chip at it a little together, but for this one everyone really brought their thing to the table of every song.
If Skylar was still in the band, how do you think the new record would've come out?
Markson: Skylar would've just written more lyrics. That was kind of his main job.
Derby: Misadventures is a lot of Skylar lyrics.
Who wrote the lyrics for this one?
Markson: Ben did. I wrote a few. He only had a few songs done lyrically before we started demoing. He wasn't sure exactly what to write about, and he had big shoes to fill, because lyrically, Misadventures was a really cool record. Ben has grown up a lot between then and now. The way he wrote lyrics was actually really funny. He ended up hanging at my place in Brooklyn for a few weeks in April. He would be sitting in my room watching a bunch of sci-fi movies, while I was working on other people's shit in my studio. He'd come down and be like, "What should I write lyrics about?" And I'd list off like 25 things, and he'd be like, "Nah… nah… How about that time we almost got sent to jail in Colorado?" Then he'd go upstairs. He's crazy, he's the kind of guy who will just stare at the ceiling with the TV on, then write lyrics and come down and be like, "I'm not sure if this is going to work, but I'm going to try it." With the song "Faced", you know how the second verse has the crazy high vocal part? He wasn't sitting in the room trying it by himself. He'd come down and be like, "I think I can do this… Let's see if it will work."
It's funny. "Faced" is one of biggest sonic departures for you guys, but it was also the first song you released, and there was a bunch of backlash for it.
Markson: It's totally cool. If you want to hear something, and you don't get want to want to hear, it's your license to dislike it. But, that's not going to stop us from writing what we want to write. We are in a lucky position to write music and know people are going to hear it.
Derby: There are 30 bands now that you can listen to who sound like the record we made six years ago. If you want to listen to those bands, that's cool, but the whole idea with this band we're always trying to move forward. Everything we've ever done was trying to write a better song and become better musicians. It's always been the main focus to challenge ourselves. When we wrote Misadventures, it was really hard for us to write and record. Then two years passed. We were touring a lot… playing guitar a lot… getting different influences. It's always been natural to progress the way we have. We're just getting better. This new shit isn't easy to play on stage. It's hard. We're not just getting on stage, closing our eyes and going through the motions. I'm up there working. I think I'm a good guitar player, but I'm not a shredder.
So, if you're not maturing, you feel like you're short of cheating yourself?
Derby: I've always said if you're not growing as a musician, then what's the point?