True to their evocative moniker, Brooklyn progressive noisemakers Family arrive not without their share of tumult and dysfunction. Led by founding guitarst/songwriter Steven Gordon and vocalist Kurtis Lee Applegate, the four-piece has already replaced 50 percent of their body ahead of the Oct. 30 release of their debut full-length, Portrait, self-released in the US and on Pelagic Records in Europe with cover art by Eric Diehl.
Guitarist Owen Burley and drummer Phil Sangiacomo, who both played on Portrait, have since had their respective roles in Family filled by Josh Lozano (also Cobalt, Man’s Gin) and Jody Smith, so while the album will no doubt give some sense of the direction they’re headed in, Family‘s sound is destined to be different the next time out. All the more interesting, then, to get an idea of what got the band started and the ideas behind the themes they’re working with on the debut. In a way, the moment has already passed, and that only makes it more awesome to wonder what might come next.
I’ll admit to some trepidation in sending out these questions to Gordon for this emailer. It’s one thing to interview a band and quite something else to interview someone who also writes about music. I felt a bit like Gordon, who scribes for MetalSucks under the pseudonym “Kip Wingerschmidt,” would probably know everything I wanted to ask before the sentences were even over. I’m not exactly trying to trick the dude up, but it puts a little more pressure on me to not make some gross grammatical mistake like, “Where is in your band?” or something like that. Maybe I’m being neurotic.
Either way, the record — some of which you can hear on the ReverbNation player that follows the Q&A — lives up to the band’s motto of “Family slays,” and has already earned some hearty endorsements from the likes of The Ocean‘s Robin Staps, who just so happens to be the brains behind Pelagic. Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:
A few years ago, I was working on music with a couple difficult guys but furthermore we were having a very hard time finding the right bassist. When that situation fell apart, I began to look for new collaborators and ironically met three solid bassists almost immediately, one of which was Kurt. I didn’t realize at first just how mighty his scream was, but once I heard that power it was apparent that there could be no going back. I had recently moved into a new rehearsal space, having been ousted by my neighbors from playing music in the loft space where I live, so I asked Kurt if he wanted to move his amp into the space and we started auditioning drummers.
Phil appeared pretty quickly thereafter. He immediately grasped all the complex time signature changes and frankly was hilarious and a joy to hang out with, but for some reason kept his chops under wraps initially in lieu of playing more simply, which gave us a bit of pause. So we were initially on the fence about whether it would work. Then he serendipitously cracked a cymbal that belonged to another drummer that we shared the practice space with and needed some time to make the money to pay for it. So we were stuck with the guy! And his amazing skills quickly showed themselves. Best accident ever.
We didn’t start gigging until after Owen joined the band and really rounded us out both personally and musically. That chance to have dual guitarmonies and counter parts helped develop the sound and brought my song structures to life in a more vibrant way. But unfortunately just before we started playing shows Phil decided to leave Family to focus on his other band, Grandfather. Thankfully Jody appeared almost immediately, through a recommendation from a singer/guitarist that both Kurt and I had both been in touch with but never met. Phil and Jody have such different styles that the sound shifted pretty dramatically right away and we began working on new tunes that fit Jody‘s feel a bit more. But overall it was a smooth and rapid transition, and there was no lag time.
A similar thing happened when Owen left the band. Literally the day after he told us, Josh (who we knew from having played with his band Fashion Week) sent me a text simply stating: “I play guitar.” I quickly responded “You sure do, buddy!” and we instantly had a replacement. Ironically he was the only person I thought of before he even sent me that text, so I guess it was meant to be.
Josh and I have only recently started collaborating on guitar parts for newer songs, and despite a natural fretboard kinship and similar work ethic we’re still finding the common musical ground. Josh himself claims to only listen to music from the ‘90s, and I’ve always felt like a lot of Family‘s style derives from classic rock influences, so there’s plenty of room to fill in the gaps between those varying elements. Furthermore Josh is very open to experimenting with different gear and sounds, which I look forward to exploring more together, especially in the studio. The next album will no doubt benefit from his and Jody‘s unique contributions and evolve our sound dramatically.
2. Is there a philosophy behind the band’s name? The word “family” is evocative of so many things, but what does it mean to you in terms of the band and in general, and how are you using the idea as relates to Portrait?
I was looking for a word that meant many different things and was open to wide interpretation, which was no easy feat — on top of it being extremely difficult to find something that fits and communicates the mood you are going for, most words are already taken as band names! I thought of “family” as an option before I even met Kurt, and tried to convince the guys I was playing with prior that we should use it, but the hesitation was always that it was perhaps too soft… In retrospect I realize now that maybe it was more the music we were working on at the time that was too soft, because given how the band sounds now I don’t see it as an issue whatsoever. If we were a jam band the name would be too on-the-nose but for a heavy group the contrast seems to sit well. Frankly, I enjoy that kind of juxtaposition of moods anyway, but obviously there are plenty of dark connotations to the word “family” as well as the sunny, togetherness aspects.
Naturally there is a family within every band, and we are no exception. We bond and bicker at times like brothers, and moreover do our best to bring forth a familial vibe to our audience. The goal is to bring people together through the music, and as a frontman Kurt always makes a concerted effort to communicate with the crowd. Despite the band’s personnel changes, we are still close with our former members and support their bands, and it seems perfectly normal to hang out with our old and new guitarists and drummers. We’re all still in it together.
There’s an obvious kinship between the words “family” and “portrait,” and for me it works on a couple different levels: on one hand, with our first album being anchored by the concept of a dysfunctional family that develops supernatural powers, the title is meant to suggest that we are offering a glimpse into the family members’ lives. From another perspective, this being our debut album, we hope it encapsulates the band’s message from the outset and offers a substantial portrait, if you will, of our sound. Having since changed our lineup, I see the first album as a time capsule of sorts that captures the combination of the initial round of players in the band, and we are all very proud of how it turned out.
3. How did you get hooked up with Robin Staps for the album release, and what does it mean to you to have someone like that interested in putting out your music in Europe? Will you guys tour over there to support the album?
Robin and I met briefly years ago outside the old Knitting Factory during a MetalSucks interview that Editor-in-Chief Vince Neilstein was leading — I may have asked a question or two, but doubt Robin even remembers me from that! Last Fall I was able to help put together a successful Brooklyn show for The Ocean with Family on the bill. That night he mentioned his label Pelagic and when we finished the album a massive email chain began between he and I to discuss all the details.
It is a huge honor to be working with Robin – his band has meant a lot to me over the years and it’s tremendously encouraging to have his stamp of approval. I believe we are the first American band to be signed to Pelagic so hopefully we can help spread the word in the States about what they are doing.
We would love to tour in Europe, so hopefully there will be an opportunity to do so in 2013.
4. Eric Diehl’s paintings seem to be commenting more on suburban or rural life, and with Family being from Brooklyn, how do the two relate for you? Both the front and back covers are kind of undercutting what looks superficially like a serene setting or scene. How did you come to select his works for the album and how do you think the art factors into the overall atmosphere of the record?
I came to Eric with a specific artwork concept in mind for an indoor family dinner scene with cosmic/supernatural elements added to it. But as we discussed the idea further, the more it seemed we’d be better off working with an outdoor, backyard-type setting. When the “family” concept evolved into two different paintings, Eric was essentially presenting two options for the cover artwork but I felt they worked quite well together and couldn’t imagine one or the other being the sole piece we would use. The way I see it is that the back cover painting is more of an abstract representation of the dysfunction and inner emotional turmoil that the family on the front cover is feeling. The rural house is the common thread that links the two paintings.
Suburbia was always the focus, in an effort to portray the nature of heartland Americana as much as possible. I get how that may sound ironic coming from a city-based band, but as much as I wouldn’t want the sound of our music to be pigeonholed into simply having an “urban” flavor I feel similarly about the artwork that represents us. There’s obviously infinite room for evolution in a band’s brand and design, and I for one hope our artwork takes many different forms as we progress.
5. There are so many different facets to Family’s sound. Do you hear anything in particular on Portrait that you know you’d like to develop further in the next round of songwriting? Is there one direction or another you have in mind for where you want to take the band?
Well in a way our sound has organically evolved automatically with the lineup changes, most specifically when we added Jody. As we all know a band is only as good as its drummer, but I also like to think any band is only as distinctive as its drummer as well. Thankfully we’ve had the chance to work with two very unique drummers that sound quite different from each other and that evolution will absolutely be noticeable and even highlighted on our next recording. Chops are one thing (and don’t get me wrong, both Phil and Jody have chops for days), but I’m talking more about style and feel, two elements that often take the backseat to backbone and flash in metal. So it’s exciting to think about already having a new version of our sound that still falls in line with the general vibe of the band. And going back into the studio this shift seems even more crucial than changes to the songwriting – case in point, some of the tunes that will appear on the next album predate Portrait, even…
Having said that, I always think there is room to get more brutal and more beautiful, and varied instrumentation can help open up the sound on recordings, so it’d be great to experiment with that. We are coloring the newer tunes with more complex structures as well as a bit more melody, both of which I think will give the sound a denser feel overall.
6. Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?
The main plan is to keep moving forward. We are about halfway done with the songs for the next album, and are hoping to go into the studio to record that early next year. It’d be great if some good tour offers came through and we were given the opportunity to spread our wings a bit more. But for now we’re just trying to spread the word and are looking forward to hearing people’s reactions of the album when it comes out. Despite all the work that’s been put into getting this project off the ground, I feel like it’s only just beginning…Brooklyn, Family, Family Portrait, New York, Pelagic Records