Middle Distance Runner: The Indoor Fireworks Interview
Few bands can successfully balance the very fine line between cheekiness and sincerity when it comes to their music. So when you stumble across one that actually gets it you feel vindicated, like there is hope that someone can drag the music industry out of it's dreadful state. D.C.'s Middle Distance Runner are just the group to take on this heady task. Spend some quality time with their debut album Plane In Flames and you'll see what I mean. Pop hooks, melancholic melodies, and sharp lyrics will propel this album to the forefront of your stereo. The guys were kind enough to answer some queries of mine recently and what you'll find is a young group not afraid to wear their influences on their sleeves. Or tell their drummer to lay off the salsa beats. For your reading (dis)pleasure:
Indoor Fireworks:Tell me a little about the local music scene in D.C. & how MDR fits into the picture. How has it influenced the band?
Steve Kilroy: Nothing in DC really sounds the same to me (ourselves included), so I don't really know how to describe the DC scene without talking about every band. For the same reason, it's hard to say how much we're "influenced" by other bands, at least musically. It's hard for me to even tell if we have a "scene", per se. I know we're friends with other bands and we enjoy each others' music, but there's really not a lot that's musically common between us, so I'll let someone else decide if we have a scene.
Jay Smith: There is a really cool Americana thing going on and that consists of some really exceptional bands that I think are going to do well for themselves, and a really cool electronic culture happening which seems to mostly be six degrees of separation from Thievery Cooperation. There is also a surprising amount of experimental noise stuff going on that you kind of have to search out. Most of the influence from the DC music scene, and I am speaking for myself, is from the critiquing that comes from other people that I respect from other bands. Also when you have people like Brian from Cedars and Chris from Soft Complex making such incredible guitar tones it really makes you step up to your game and not get too comfortable. I thought we had a corner on the ambient market until I met those guys. Telograph, too -- they just get better and better. I can't wait to hear what they are going to release with their new album.
Ian Glinka: It's better than the music scene in Pittsburgh, I'll tell you that much. I'm from Pittsburgh, and for as much as I hear people bitch and complain about the DC scene, most of them don't know how good they have it. It's not too small, but it's not too big either, and geographically, it's pretty well centered. Granted, it's not as "on the map" as New York, LA or Austin, but I like it for the same reasons I quit playing soccer once they started making us try-out for the team... it's probably a little easier to be noticed here than in the big three. It's fun and it makes for a comfortable home-base.
Allan Chappelear: The local music scene is great right now! There's this hot new band Middle Distance Runner. It has influenced me because their guitarist Allan Chappelear is amazing and really good at all kinds of stuff.
IF: MDR have a decidedly unique sound but yet still veer between straight up pop and alternative rock. Who are some of your influences and how have they played a hand in your songwriting?
SK: I think the straight up pop is more Erik's and my style. We grew up listening to and liking melodic stuff mostly. Personally, I always liked pop and folk; stuff that wasn't that instrumental, which makes sense, since I'm the singer. I pay a lot of attention to lyrics and vocal melodies. Blur played a big part in my musical adolescence, teaching me how to be cheeky and poppy but remain credible. They cover a lot of ground and keep their identity, which I like a lot. I'd like to always sound like myself, but make a lot of different noises. The trick is making it seamless in terms of your identity.
Erik Dean: I grew up listening to a lot of terrible classic rock and brit pop. I think I got the confidence to write songs after I had heard Graham Coxon's(Blur) solo album. At some point I got into folk music. Damon Albarn (Blur) writes amazing melodies...he's my favorite. Dance music has always influenced me too....by dance music I mean anything you can dance to....not necesarily C+C Music Factory, although, well, nevermind.
JS: I think we all kind of feel sort of the same but about different kinds of music. We all have shameless pop tendencies, but we also listen to some pretty out-there stuff. We don't want to be a band that plays one particular style of music just to fit in a niche. Case in point is "Naturally," probably our most pop-sounding song. I'm assuming Steve wrote that from a lot of his brit-rock/folk background. It was really too poppy for me at first and I struggled to come up with a part for that. I ended up playing that shimmery guitar part which is pretty much a mixture of Brian Eno, Jon Brion and Cocteau Twins, to give it as much color and interest as possible and try to keep it from sounding too straightforward. On the other side of the stage Allan is pulling out George Harrison sounds, more classic stuff, not only because he is influenced by that, but also because that's what the song needed for balance.
IF: You self produced your album Plane In Flames. How did that come about and what are your feelings about the final product?
SK: Erik did that and I think he did a bang-up job. That came about through lack of money and lack of trust in other people. I don't really trust anyone in the music industry to do anything for us without fucking it up or wasting a lot of money, so we do everything ourselves.
ED: We started off recording because we were in need of a demo cd. So we went into it thinking it was just gonna be a cheap demo to help us book shows. We'd planned on recording 3 songs....then we bumped it up to 5 songs...then someone thought we should keep recording more and the final project ended up sounding suprisingly good. It makes me excited to think how much better things could be if we had the luxury of time and money.
IG: I love it. I probably love it more than is socially acceptable. We got our first copies from the duplicator in May ... and it's December and I STILL listen to it more than I should. I think it's okay because I still kind of view myself as a fan of this band. I joined up with them last year and had already heard some of the songs before I was even in the band, so it's kind of a strange relationship. As for the recording of the album, 99% of the credit should go to our drummer, Erik. He pretty much recorded, produced, mixed, you-name-it on this album. We had the mastering done by a Berklee grad friend of mine back in Pittsburgh named Barak Shpiez who did a hell of a job and really rounded the whole thing out. But I can't stress how impressed I was with what Erik was able to do with a basement, some good microphones and a lot of Aspirin.
IF: Who taught you how to play your respective instruments?
SK: My mother taught me to play guitar. John Sessums and The Beatles played a large part as well. I taught myself to play piano and I'm still learning how to sing.
ED: I took some lessons on drums and learned a lot of useless fills and time-signatures. I learned everything else on my own.
JS: My dad got me started on The Beatles. I just kept going after that by myself with funding from my dad's pawnshop swindles to buy me gear.
IG: Well -- let me put it to you this way ... I'm the bass player in the band, and I don't own a bass or a bass amp. All the equipment is Erik's and to be honest, I don't really know what I'm doing. I'm a guitar player. Always have been and always thought I would be. But bass is kind of like a guitar. It's just bigger.
AC: Ehhh…..The internet?
IF: Best concert you've been to?
SK: Shit. Field Day Festival, Giants Stadium, June 7, 2003. Erik, my girlfriend, and I drove all the way up there to see a two-day festival that was condensed into a one-day stadium show due to poor planning. My girlfriend and I were on the rocks at the time, and the ride up to New York was a little tense. To make matters worse, she felt sick driving up and was near tears when we got in line. We realized that our tickets were stadium seating, and Erik's were field level, so we split up and began walking up to our seats. On our way there, she and I saw a crack in the guard rails, and I convinced her to make a dash with me for the field. We got through and ran up the field to where Erik was, about 30 feet from the stage. In a stadium packed tight with people, in the persistent drizzle, we stood for fourteen hours, stomping our feet and leaning on each other, growing more and more tired and disgruntled as we stood through torturous sets by Liz Phair and Underworld, among others. Finally, when Beck was supposed to come on, we instead got a festival official who told us that Beck had fallen on the way to the stage, hurt his hand, and would not be performing. On the verge of a breakdown, we relished the arrival of Blur, where Damon Albarn stepped out from under the canopy of stage lights to wet his leisure suit with us commoners. Then came The Beastie Boys, and halfway through their set the rain stopped. BB's set meandered and faltered, but never without humor, and never lost the now screaming audience. When they had finished, we stood shivering, a mass of tens of thousands of people, clapping in unison and warm only out of fatigue. I'm sure our bodies were shutting down at this point, dumping the last good endorphins into our blood to make our imminent demise more comfortable. And then, they arrived. Radiohead. Back-lit by vertical green lights, it was like they came to Earth to abduct us for two hours. My girlfriend, through the steady pogo of the waterlogged crowd, couldn't quite see the band. I let her stand on my feet to see, and she cried at the gesture. It was honestly one of the most important days of my life. When they left the stage for the last time, we shuffled out of the stadium, unable to bend our knees to walk up the stairs, and completely happy.
JS: Bring down the house show - Meatbeat Manifesto, old 9:30 Club (D.C.). Every single person in that place was moving. You couldn't help it. I have never seen an electronic band actually rock like that.
IG: Radiohead in Columbus Ohio back in 2001 .... I paid WAY TOO MUCH on ebay for my front row ticket, so even if it wasn't the best concert I'd ever been to, I'd still say it was. I got to see them fuck up the beginning of a song twice in a row and have to restart it from the top both times. Once you see RADIOHEAD fuck up on stage, it kind of puts things into perspective in a very unusually uplifting way.
AC: Tie between Sigur Ros and the Flaming Lips. Both at 9:30 club.
IF: Walk me through your songwriting process? Is it a band collaboration or more segregated?
SK: When I write a song, I like to get a complete idea down in a demo that I can show to the band. I hate working through songs in a group setting if I don't have the basic structure mapped out. It might be because I get too attached to songs, or it might be because I can't think with a lot of noise, or it might be both. Who knows.
ED: Sometimes I make home recordings of partial songs...usually just melodies and chords; sometimes rough ideas of lyrics. I email the demos to Steve. Fortunately he knows me really well and can usually interpret my babble and convert it to coherent lyrics. Other times Steve just laughs at my demos and plays a song that he's written, usually turning out better than mine. WE then pick some good ones and show them to the rest of the band. They are usually called "stupid" or "too Spanish sounding". We argue a bit and then eventually add more instruments. Fleshing out the songs in this band sometimes takes 2 days and other times it takes two years.
AC: Steve and Erik usual make demos separately. Then they pass them over to us for input. They are usually "too stupid" or "too Spanish" (respectively.) I may make suggestion or two to Steve. He goes "Hmmmm," and then I yell at Erik for playing Latin beats on all our songs. Ian laughs, Jay cries. Then we all do whatever we want and viola: you have an MDR song.
IF: If MDR could put together a dream tour, who would you play with?
ED: MDR would headline a tour with four supporting bands that only covered our songs. They would also be arrogant assholes.
IG: I would want Blur there. Steve would bring Jimmy Buffet or some other singer/songwriter asshole. Jay would bring Depeche Mode or some kind of goth industrial group with vampire ladies in it. Erik would call up the members of Menudo to regroup so they could all play fucking salsa beats together and Allan would definitely give David Lee Roth a ring.
AC: MDR supported by Van Halen and Prince. The ultimate babe getting tour. I bet steve says Bob Dylan. Ian will say Oasis. Jay will say the Cocteau twins or something. Erik will say Buena vista Social Club so he can play timbales like he does in his dreams.
SK: Radiohead, Blur, Super Furry Animals, Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Beck, Sigur Ros, Magnetic Fields, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Guitar Wolf, Wilco, Death By Sexy, The Hard Tomorrows, Oasis, etc. It's late and I'm really tired now so I'm going to stop even though there are a whole lot more. That concert question took a long time to answer. Anyway, goodnight, bowl of blog.
For your listening (dis)pleasure, songs off of Middle Distance Runner's debut album Plane In Flames:
Middle Distance Runner: Hooks
Middle Distance Runner: Naturally
Middle Distance Runner: Up In A Tree
Middle Distance Runner: The Madness