By Surpise interview
By Surprise have finally released Mountain Smashers, an album that perfectly blends mid-90’s emo and early indie rock influences...
For those who are unfamiliar with By Surprise, how did the band form?
Rob Wilcox - The band started in a very organic way. I was kicked out of a ska band in 2004 for various ska band reasons, none of which involved drugs, and was pretty down on my luck.
One day, while working at a Starbucks, some guy (Dan, our bassist) came in wearing one of our T-shirt designs. I soon realized that he liked a ton of awesome music, and we both shared a love for synthesizers. So we started jamming in his basement off and on for a year. He lived almost 45 minutes away from me at the time, so it didn't happen often. In the meantime, I was playing music on occasion with a friend from high school. He was younger than me, but was also in the only other punk rock band, so we both had a mutual respect for each other going into it.
All the while, I was becoming closer friends with Pat Gartland. I knew him from when he would go see my ska band play shows, and we connected over a love for Rancid and Less Than Jake. In late 2005, Pat and I both began going through breakups with our first girlfriends. There was a lot of bonding going on, and we both were writing our own separate songs for the first time. Collectively, we decided to try our luck at recording an EP of songs over the winter break. I was in college and messing around with recording for my film/radio major - so it all kinda fell into place at the right time. We needed to decide on a name for our little duo-project, and decided on naming ourselves after a song by a local band that we both loved - Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start.
We released an EP with four songs under the name "By Surprise" and soon decided we should try to make it a full band for fun. I knew a bassist, I knew a drummer, and I was friends with a guy who wrote pretty cool songs... so I got everyone together and we essentially started a band under this little moniker for our EP. We practiced in a sauna room that was build on as an addition to our friend Kyle's (then drummer of local band No Regrets) garage.. he liked us and was nice enough to rent the space out. We eventually had 6 songs and played our first show at the Bus Stop Music Cafe in Pitman, NJ with Devon Williams of Osker (an old band on Epitaph), Kid Charlamane, and Aspiga (our friend Kevin from No Regrets). That's the short story of how we started, I guess.
Mountain Smashers is the first full-length for By Surprise. What was it like writing and recording a full-length as opposed to EP’s or splits? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
Pat Gartland - The song writing methods didn’t change too much. A lot of the ideas or riffs I had kicking around for a while. It just took a lot more time. Rob living in North Jersey also slowed things down a lot since we couldn’t just pick a block of time to do the whole thing. We’re also not the most motivated band when it comes to output. It’s funny because most of these songs were written between 2008 and 2009. By the time we fleshed them out as full band and then finally recorded and mastered it, it's just coming out now.
What were some of the influences for the band while recording Mountain Smashers, both musical and otherwise?
Pat - I think we just really wanted it to be an album that would have still sound good on repeat listens. My favorite albums are never the ones that I love the first time I hear them. Hopefully there will be things you hear the second time around that you didn’t pick up on the first time. Its hard to say what any specific influences there were because there was such a large time frame between writing and recording the album. I’d probably say Up Up Down Down has always been a pretty big influence. They always used cool textures and arrangements. I wouldn’t say our sounds are too similar but some ideas were definitely pulled from them. I don’t think I could give enough credit to Dave Downham who produced the album. He co-runs Gradwell House Studio, and was instrumental in making Mountain Smashers. It's nice to have input from someone who genuinely cares how the finished product will sound.
If you had to describe the theme of the record what would it be? What sort of experiences went into creating it?
Pat - I’d say it was mostly cliché post-college blues; it’s kinda laughable now though. I graduated college and didn’t have a job for a while. My days mostly consisted of reading and hanging out with Devin at the coffee place he used to work at. When I finally did get a job it was still pretty awful. o most of the songs for me dealt with railing against or at least calling out certain things in life that seemed like bullshit. Well that was the plan.
"Fountain Splashers" was the intentionally cheesy awkward love song that didn’t fit in with the rest. It's like me calling myself out for being in love I guess.
Rob - The last track on the record is pretty much along the same lines. It was written while I was on a family vacation a week after a show we played in Massachusetts. Around the same time, my family was going through the same financial woes that impacted everyone when the economy began tanking, and gas prices were shooting up. I felt weird tacking it onto the end of the record, after you already heard nine songs written from one guy's point of view, but it ultimately helped give the record a sense of closure. The first track pretty much sets the lyrical tone for the entire album, and it was also the only one that Pat and I both worked on the lyrics together... I think Dan's song is about Ashlee Simpson.
Mountain Smashers is being released by Topshelf Records, one of my personal favorite labels and one that is gaining a strong following. How did you get in touch with them? How has your time with the label been so far?
Pat - Honestly when we started this whole thing, I wanted us to do everything ourselves. Rob said Topshelf wanted to put it out and I fought against it for a while. It had nothing to do with the label at all, I just thought it’d be cool if we were completely independent. Obviously, going with Topshelf was an awesome idea. They have their own built in community. There is a ton of people who have checked out the album just because Topshelf put it out. They also actually know what they are doing because they’ve done it before. Needless to say, it probably would still be on a hard drive in Rob’s car or something and not in people’s hands right now.
Mountain Smashers was mastered by Bob Weston, who has worked with bands like Archers of Loaf, Sebadoh, and Polvo to name a few. What was it like getting to work with Weston? How did the decision to work with him come about?
Rob - We originally had the idea of recording the album on our own.. that idea didn't last long and we began planning out what ultimately turned into a deeply involved recording process. We knew that we wanted a record that sounded "really good" and "legitimate", without sounding over polished/produced. When Dave told us he didn't want to master the album (in an effort to get another pair of ears on the record) we began to discuss who to give the record to. There were a couple names tossed around at first, that our friends had used for their records, but we decided that they wouldn't be a good fit simply by looking at their discographies. We then began talking about a guy who worked on Superchunk's new record, along with Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. His resume was really impressive, but ultimately he was way too expensive. Dave then suggested Bob Weston and it kind of hit us over the head that he would be perfect. Not only had he worked the bands you mentioned (some of our favorites), but he also worked on newer records that sounded REALLY good, like LCD Soundsytem and The Get Up Kids. I was lucky enough to have a good conversation with him over the phone shortly after the mastering was completed. I totally cold called him one day while I was at work and he was a cool guy. He told me he liked the record, and then told me how he was working on the Fugazi remasters for In On The Kill Taker - which at that point it kinda solidified that we made the right choice.
What do you think of the reception or anticipation of the record so far? It seems like you guys are getting a lot of attention prior to the release of the album and the stream seemed to go over pretty well.
Pat - It's been awesome thus far. Of course you can never expect everyone to like it but to be honest we weren’t that concerned with trying to please a large audience. We’re just a group of friends that likes playing together and will continue to do so because we enjoy it.
Rob - In the grand scheme of things, being in a band is a very silly way to express yourself. Especially in the internet age where social networking mixed with bored suburban musicians can turn you into the next big thing. Like pouring gas on a fire, a lot of hard working bands often get overlooked and burned, while others will reap the benefits. For us, we've never been a hard enough working band to really feel "established" in our scene of sorts. We've been around for a really long time (five years) and we like a turtle pace. With a label like Topshelf or Runner Up wanting to help us, it allows for people who are more connected to various scenes to help us in getting our name out there. Topshelf works very hard in terms of promotion, and hired Will Miller from Beartrap PR / Tiny Engines to help in these efforts as well. It's been a very rewarding process and we have Kevin, Seth, and Will to thank for all of their interest and dedication.
I saw that the band is recording a music video. What were your experiences with that, was this the band’s first video? What can you tell me about the concept?
Pat - It was a blast, Dave Dunn is awesome. He played drums for Up Up Down Down and now he plays drums for Ages (their new album is phenomenal), Moon Women and It Block. I also had him as a substitute teacher in high school so I’ve known him for a little while now. If there was any concept you’d have to ask him but I think it looks awesome. We just told him to do whatever he wanted - you should see his other video projects. I have no idea where his ideas come from but they are all pretty awesome. I think the video thing just gave us an excuse to hang out with him for a few hours.
What is the band’s favorite song to play live?
Pat - I’m sure it’s different for everyone. For me I’d say “Circuit Breaker” because after we recorded it and released the “478” ep I came up with a new guitar harmony part. It’s pretty minimal but it’s one of those things that can only be heard if you see us live.
Rob - I agree with Pat on this one. These days, I really like playing "So Long and Thanks For All The Sharkjaws".
What’s next for By Surprise, any big tours in the works?
Pat - I’d like to start writing new stuff. It feels like these songs are so old now. It’d be cool to do some 7” singles or EPs. Touring would be tough because of the job situations. We’ll see. Maybe if there is enough demand we’ll try and play some shows in states we’ve never been before.
By Surprise - "$600 Exorcism"
-- RICH DUNCAN