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Spartan Spotlight #6: Whit Fineberg of Fallow Land August 13, 2019

Spartan Profile is back with a member of our own family — Fallow Land’s guitarist/vocalist Whit Fineberg. In this exclusive interview, Whit discusses the origins of Fallow Land, the process of recording the band’s debut record Slow Down, Rockstar, and working with acclaimed producer Matt Bayles (Isis, Minus the Bear, Pearl Jam). Dig in and get a peek behind the curtain!

What should listeners know about Fallow Land — how did this project come to be?

Fallow Land began when I was living in Chicago and my mental health was at an all-time low. My first guitar teacher and close friend had just passed away, my ex-girlfriend (who I had moved to Chicago to be with) and I had just broken up, my band back home in Ann Arbor had broken up, and I was pursuing a degree in jazz guitar that kept me locked away in a practice room playing music I wasn’t particularly excited about. I began spending all of my free time recording a demos in my apartment on 410 S. Morgan St. (thus the name of the song from our first EP) and these became our first single and EP. Evan Veasey and I had gone to high school together, but were many years apart so our paths had never really crossed. Nonetheless, I knew he was a fantastic guitar player studying at the University of Michigan and we began discussing rebuilding my previous band, Bad Television, with him as the guitar player. As we began to play together more, it became clear that Evan was capable of playing significantly more complex music than what Bad Television was currently playing and more suited to the demos I had been working on lately. We joined together with two other local musicians got a few tunes performance ready and embarked on a two-week tour a month after we had formed.

What were you hoping to accomplish sonically with the record?

Sonically this record is driven by texture and rhythmic nuance. While Pinscher was very much guitar riff driven, The guitar work on Slow Down, Rockstar is often based around washy arpeggios drenched in reverb and chorus. The addition of Scott Kendall on bass and Evan Laybourn has also had a huge impact on the band sonically. Scott’s bass playing is a lot more sparse and subtle than what you’ve heard from Fallow Land in the past. While comfortable, gluing everything together harmonically and rhythmically Scott also searches empty musical pockets and fills them tastefully. Evan Laybourn drastically shaped this record in his ability to subtly imply complexity while never losing sight of the general groove and feel of each song. There are so many moments on this record that could start to feel monotonous if not for little flourishes Evan throws in to add new musical interest. I also became significantly more interested in vocal harmonies on this record. Something that was almost completely absent on Pinscher.

Were there central themes or ideas you are exploring on the record lyrically or musically?

A huge theme of this record is self-exploration. Pinscher was mostly about the end of a relationship. I really wanted to try to avoid writing as much about specific people on this record. Instead, I wanted to check in with myself after the events that occurred during the last record and the years that followed.

Tell us about the production process and working with Matt Bayles.

Working with Matt was incredible. He is someone who’s work we all admire. Oddly, we all dig different stuff that he’s done. Evan Laybourn and Scott are super into the Fall of Troy record he did. Evan Veasey and I really like the Foxing record. He’s just been a part of so many important records. He mixed Pinscher for us and we’d talked quite a bit during that process. When it came time to think about making a full-length I contacted him and was interested in working with us on pre-production, production, engineering, and mixing. He made plans to come up to Michigan to spend four days working through the songs with us prior to recording. I sent him all the demos and he came prepared to pick the songs apart. Most of the tunes he didn’t think were too far off, he mainly pointed our sections where we were being too heady and what we were trying to convey wasn’t coming across. There was one song in particular that he had us basically re-write. After making these changes we rigorously practiced for a month before driving to Seattle to record. We booked 12 days in of Stone Gossard’s (from Pearl Jam) recording studio and watched the songs start to evolve into what they are today. Matt was wonderful to work with. He pushed us hard and believed in our ability to produce. We all learned an incredible amount from working with him.

Were there specific musical influences you were trying to channel with this record?

After Pinscher, Evan Veasey and I had both begun listening to Dealer by Foxing a lot. That record definitely influenced us. Additionally, my interest in chorus was sparked by the wonderful records that Will Yip has been producing for Run For Cover Records like Hyperview by Title Fight. I’ve also recently really been getting into Peripheral Vision by Turnover (another Will Yip Produced Run For Cover) but I discovered that record after we finished making ours.

Talk about the process of synthesizing all of your own varied musical backgrounds and experiences.

We all come from a similar place musically. We all studied music in college and grew up listening to emo music and math rock. That being said we all kind of have our individual tastes within the band. Scott plays in a funk group, Evan Veasey plays in a jazz guitar trio, Evan Laybourn is really into Owen, and I’m really into shoegaze. Also, there is a big self-imposed age divide in the band. Scott is convinced he’s old enough to be Veasey and my dad and constantly makes comments like, “oh do you guys remember… oh never mind you’re too young.” We don’t really think it’s that big of a deal…

Tell me about the title of the record.

When we were recording with Matt, our drummer, Evan went out and bought a huge 12 pack of Dr. Pepper and was trying to shove it into the fridge at the recording studio. Matt walked out right as this was happening and said, “Woah, slow down rockstar!” This was kind of a funny comment about our choices as a band. We aren’t wild party animals, we are just four people who want to make music we are excited about. I think this record represents a dramatic shift for the band since Pinscher. Pinscher was all about being wild and living in the moment and partying. I’ve kind of taken a step back from that and am trying to live a healthier, more subdued life. This record kind of picks up where Pinscher left off and narrates that change in thought process. Also, with the addition of Evan and Scott, the dynamic of the band has really shifted to become something more mature and sustainable. It’s wonderful to be making music with three musicians who are serious and dedicated to their craft and not distracted by a bunch of nonsense.

Are there any specific songs or moments on the record that are especially meaningful or important to you?

For me the two most important songs are "The Things You Say" and "The Hope." "The Things You Say" is without a doubt the most emotionally challenging song I’ve ever attempted to write. A while ago I experienced an extreme breach of trust from someone who I considered to be a close friend. It really altered the course of my life. I tend to experience and cope with my emotions via songwriting. I knew I would inevitably eventually write about this experience, but every time I tried to write about it I hit a block. When I was finally ready to confront the experience, the song came together in a matter of hours. It was the fastest I’ve ever written and demoed a piece of music.

"The Hope" is the only optimistic song on this record. It’s about a wonderful person, who came into my life at a time when I was incredibly broken. Her love and support is constant and unrelenting.

Any upcoming tour plans?

We plan to regularly tour the midwest and parts of the east coast prior to the release of the record after which we hope to tour the US more broadly.

Talk a bit about Ann Arbor — has the city influenced the trajectory of the band in any way?

The Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area (I group these two areas because many artists who develop in Ann Arbor end up in Ypsi because Ann Arbor is so expensive), is full of unbelievably talented artists and musicians. I am actually surrounded by musicians of a much higher caliber in Ann Arbor than I ever was in Chicago. This was a big factor in my decision to move back to Ann Arbor. Ultimately the biggest thing that needs to develop in order for Ann Arbor to become a destination for bands is the infrastructure and the involvement of the community. There are not a ton of venues in town. There is really only one viable option for medium-sized touring bands. I also think that as a community Ann Arbor needs to become more invested in the arts. There are a lot of college students in Ann Arbor who would rather go to frat parties than shows. I believe the way to combat this is to start having shows earlier so students can go to shows and then attend parties afterwards.

Any particularly relevant or irrelevant thoughts on the state of the nation / world right now?

Don’t claim experiences that are not your own. Our country is incredibly polarized right now partially because of the slew of misinformation that our current president is so good at disseminating. When you speak for a group that you are not part of, you not only take away that group’s opportunity to represent themselves, you are putting ignorance out into the world. There is no way you can possibly understand what you are talking about when arguing about experiences that you haven’t had. Let marginalized groups lead the conversation of oppression and rather than jumping in right away… just listen.

Anything else we should know about?

Evan Laybourn wears almost exclusively Star Wars shirts. Evan Veasey is really into chiropractic videos (which we all think is weird). If Scott wasn’t a musician he would be a stand-up comedian. I’m a huge soccer fan and incredibly excited about the signing of Christian Pulisic to Chelsea and the USWNT fourth World Cup victory!

Thanks for stopping by! Check out Fallow Land’s debut record Slow Down, Rockstar here and if you're a vinyl fan, don’t miss out on the “Pool Party” variant; there are only a few copies left (get it here).

Spartan Spotlight #5: Dan Black, Landland June 25, 2019

The Spartan Profile series returns with an interview with Landland designer Dan Black, the creative force behind The Darling Fire’s haunting album artwork. Below Dan discusses sources of inspiration, the design process, and creating a narrative world within and across his artwork. Also featured is an exclusive playlist curated by Black — enjoy!

How did you, The Darling Fire and Spartan connect?

Jolie from The Darling Fire reached out and kinda explained what was going on and what they needed. I'm really bad at doing the follow-up "How'd you find out about Landland?" thing, so I don't think I ever really asked...I'd worked on art for The Pauses' newest LP about a year ago, and they're another Florida band that recorded with J. Robbins, so I suspect that there might have been some crossover somewhere in there and my name might've come up, but I actually don't know for sure, haha.

Can you talk about your career path as a designer? What led you to Landland and music-centric design projects?

I've been working with my friend Jes as Landland since 2007, mostly making posters for touring bands like Arcade Fire and Phish and all points between...before that, I had a brief period of working for Target as a graphic designer and doing screenprinting and poster design as an afterhours hobby. Eventually, the hobby overtook the day job, and we've just been steadily building out our screenprinting studio piece-by-piece and making a TON of work ever since. The first few posters we made were for our own bands and bands that our friends were in, and that slowly and gradually led us to working for bands we didn't know, and then larger and larger bands, and expanding that to film posters and all sorts of self-initiated work. There's a lot of record packaging design peppered in there, but the posters and other work like that usually keeps us too busy to do record packaging as often as I'd like.

Talk about the creative direction for the Dark Celebration artwork — what were you hoping to accomplish or communicate?

There was a lot of back and forth leading up to actually starting to design the art for the LP; I usually like to ask a lot of questions about which parts of my work a band is gravitating toward, or what they were looking at when they decided to get in touch with me. We talked a little bit about some past posters I'd made that gave a point of reference for the kind of illustration they were hoping for, and Jolie sent over a lot of materials to give me the general feel of the album. They were really on the ball with everything, so we were actually talking about what the album would look like before it was recorded. Jolie sent over a list of adjectives to give a sense of the mood, and then her lyrics of course. I don't really like to rely on lyrics directly, but it definitely helps to suss out the themes that run through an album and the kind of atmosphere they're hoping to create. Somewhere in all of that, there was some direction that maybe it should be dark and show some sort of forest fire scene. I sketched up an idea that included an old fire watchtower and an indirect hint at fire off in the distance, and we just pushed on from there.

How would you describe your creative process?

That back and forth I mentioned is a lot of how it starts...most of the work I do is for someone else's band or project, so it's important to get a feel for what works for what they're doing. The other side of that coin, is that I'm also always pretty conscious of developing a body of work that feels relatively cohesive and a visual vocabulary that's almost like world-building in a way; even though everything is dealt with on an individual basis, it's not crazy to imagine that the watchtower from the cover of this could exist just down the road from the abandoned amusement parks in some of my poster work, or the boarded-up gas station that shows up on a Jeremy Enigk poster. There's always a real push to satisfy the design needs of whatever I'm working on while also creating a thing that fits within the rest of my lexicon.

As far as the actual execution, I draw everything by hand; first sketching it out in pencil where I can obsess over perspective lines and compositional details, and then once all of that is pinned down, I'll usually transfer that layout onto a piece of clayboard where I can dig into all of the fine detail work. Clayboard enables me to fill dark areas with ink (like most traditional illustration), but also to carve out light areas and create white space where I've already laid ink down. It's a really versatile way for me to work, and opens up a whole realm of technical possibilities that I didn't have back when I mostly drew on paper. The illustration is definitely the most labor-intensive part of the whole process, so I really like to make sure that the groundwork is laid and everyone's on board with what I'm doing before I launch into that. After that's finished, I'll go through and add color where necessary...that usually happens digitally, but everything that you see that looks like illustration is all always done analog.

How does music inspire your design work?

When I'm working on posters for a specific band, I try to make a thing that isn't derivative of the visual communication they're already doing (album art, merchandise, nouns in their lyrics or song titles, etc), but rather a thing that could exist within the world they've created. It's a step removed, but not wildly disconnected, if that makes sense. Album art is a whole other thing, where I really want to communicate with the band and make sure we're hitting all the points we can as far as what they want. Moreso than a poster, album art lives with the band for a lot longer; it becomes a part of their permanent discography, and when it's done well, it can help shape a person's listening experience when they sit down to listen to the album. I'm a little bit old, so I really have a huge soft spot for the idea of getting an album, putting it on, and having nice packaging to pore over and dig into as an accompaniment of the music. Thinking about how a person is going to handle the jacket and all of the parts of the record, and how they move through the packaging is one of the most fun things about designing this sort of thing. Like, I used to sit there and just study the thanks lists in these things, and the bands they'd mention in there were like little clues as to what else might be cool out there. A cookie crumb trail of nerd shit to build a cool experience around an album. With the jacket for "Dark Celebration," one thing I wanted to try to do was create a path where people would be pulled in by the front cover, and then moving to the back would work as sorta zooming in to the charred wood and bits of the aftermath of the fire that's happening off in the distance. The idea of taking in an overall scene and then spending time with it to notice the details around you.

A lot of Landland’s work seems centered around animals and the natural world — any particular reason?

That's definitely more Jes's thing than mine...I think her narrative tendencies are bit stronger than mine are, or rather, I go a much more subdued route with a lot of my work, where most of the narrative is in the implication of past lives in these places I'm drawing. It's all little bits of evidence that people have been around at some point, but not really holding anyone's hand to spell out exactly what's going on or why they've left. Jes is much better at creating scenes where you're seeing action taking place...schools of fish moving past weird islands, or birds perched on ruins of whatever thing's all caved in by something that happened long ago. I think there's some amount of crossover between her world-building and mine, but a lot of that can be chalked up to the fact that we see everything the other one is working on all time, and part of why we're best buds and make sense working together is because we're attracted to a lot of similar imagery. I don't think I could do this stuff without her, or at least it wouldn't be nearly as fun or interesting.

What else inspires you as an artist / designer?

I try to build a lot of time in my life to travel a lot within the U.S., and am constantly wandering around in places where a lot of people don't usually go (or haven't in so many years), whether that's old logging roads up in the Pacific Northwest, or out in the old uranium mining territory in the canyons of Southern Utah. You end up in these places that used to have great utility to people, where they built towns and roads, and then completely left the whole thing to be swallowed up by nature and returned to the earth. It's really interesting to see the bits of evidence of the past and build vague narratives around it. I've also always looked at old signage and the way messaging works in specific environments...I've been into signs and old billboards and things like that since way before I could read—with almost an embarrassing level of obsession—and love integrating that interest into the work that I'm making for bands and things like that.

Who are some artists (musicians, visuals artists, writers, etc.) who you really admire? What about their work do you connect with?

Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie, for both his music and his visual/design work. It's all perfect. I share a studio with the Minnesota members of the Vacvvm (Aaron Horkey, Mike Sutfin, Brandon Holt & Mitch Putnam) and those guys are a constant inspiration...they push me to constantly try to step up my technical skills, and they're all great to be around. Ryan Duggan, Mike Mitchell, Aaron Draplin, Jeremy Enigk, Tim Kinsella, Owen Ashworth, Jay Ryan, Sonnenzimmer, Daniel Higgs, Marcel Dzama, David Shrigley, a million others. There's a bunch of people I look up to a lot, and a lot of them are friends, which I feel really lucky for. Tons of poster artists...there's an excellent community of people doing work that are constantly refreshing the medium, and it's cool to see that happening in real time.

What should people know about St. Paul, MN?

I'm actually still learning about St. Paul...I recently moved back here after about five years of living in Chicago, but when I was here before, I was mostly a Minneapolis person. There's kind of a big divide between the two places, or at least there was back then, where St. Paul was always sorta the sleepier and more residential city, and Minneapolis is where you go out and do things. This entire place is littered with references from The Hold Steady & Lifter Puller songs, which is kinda cute, but only important to probably a handful of people...super mundane landmarks like a specific Party City in a strip mall, and intersections that get name-checked as places where some desperate things happened that are actually just places where they put an Aldi or whatever. It's got a good mythology to it, and plenty of rock history. The day Prince died shut this entire place down and turned it into a metro-area-wide memorial dance party. The harsh winters scare everyone away, but it's secretly incredible here.

What else should folks know about you and Landland?

We're constantly working on things...so much poster work all the time, and art prints and weirdo little notebooks and pins and things. We've done a few collaborations with Field Notes, which was really some bucket list stuff to be involved with. I've also started a Landland record label as a sort of hobby thing to give myself more projects, haha...we've released a bunch of records by Slow Mass (an incredible post-hardcore band from Chicago that tours constantly), Chris Brokaw & Geoff Farina (from Codeine & Karate, respectively), Birthmark (Nate Kinsella of American Football), Tim Kinsella/Joan of Arc, and we're slowly getting ready to do vinyl reissues of all of Jes' band Best Friends Forever's discography, which I'm pretty psyched about. We use Instagram more than anything (we have separate accounts: @landlandcolportage & @_jseamans), but there's also a secret Facebook group that's kinda huge and a really good place to find out about our stuff as it's happening (search for "Landland Appreciation Society" on FB). We also travel around to SXSW and other music festivals, where we set up a booth and stand in front of the things we've made, talking about the things and selling them to people. The biggest takeaway is that we stay really busy, haha. I don't really know how to do it any other way.

Thanks for stopping by. Makes sure you check out Landland’s site to see more of Dan’s work (pick up a print or two while you’re there!), and buckle up for The Darling Fire’s debut record Dark Celebration, which is out everywhere now!

Spartan Spotlight #4: Ian Fursa, Video Director/Editor June 6, 2019

Hey folks, we’re back with Spartan Profile #4 — an exclusive interview with video director/editor Ian Fursa. Check out our interview with Ian below where he takes us behind-the-scenes of the production of The Darling Fire’s brand new music video “Saints in Masquerade.” Here at Spartan we are fired up about every piece of content we release into the world, but this video is something special — a dark and heavily stylized journey that perfectly captures the essence of the band. Please enjoy Ian’s thoughts below on inspiration, creating an 80’s aesthetic, nostalgia, and working with The Darling Fire.

What inspires you as a director?

Everything in life! I’m very into studying how metaphysical philosophy, psychology, and social psychology play into our art and daily lives. I think the most beautiful visuals and most powerful stories are just creative ways of showing what some deal with on a daily basis in a way that strikes that same emotion.

What were the central themes or ideas you were exploring with the video?

I’d say fear of change, how that can breed within some family dynamics, and how media plays into it. This video’s story was actually inspired by my girlfriend’s family. She is a first generation American, so there is a constant duality between traditional and modern ways of living in her home. I was actually really happy when I thought up the idea of using new versus old toys to symbolize the fight against change.

Visually, the video reflects such a specific time period — what elements were important in creating that aesthetic?

I think we really got lucky with locations on this project. Some scenes are almost solely lit by the neons and arcades that were on location. This really set the tone for the video on the first day. I tried to bring that same feel to the house scenes by always having this one teal spot light shining somewhere within the scene, but since that color of light wouldn’t normally be in a house setting, it gave us a more stylized look. That lighting mixed with our choices in props, I think tied everything together to give the video a more time specific aesthetic. 80’s baby!

Can you talk about the process of acquiring all the props and setting pieces?

I am really thankful to members of the band that put a lot of hard work into the masks and some other props we used. The masks were simple white masks that Jolie and Jeronimo took the time to paint and age based on the character that would wear it. The handheld video game was treated in a similar way too. Also, thankfully the owner of the house location was a vintage collector, so the process of dressing the house set was really picking and choosing what these surreal characters would actually have in their home, while also trying to keep to a certain color scheme and time period.

The use of lighting and projections is really striking throughout the video — can you talk about the feel you were trying to create with those elements?

Well, we knew from the beginning that we wanted it to have an “80’s vibe” with the look of neons and drastic light to dark contrast. Once we decided that we were going to go more surreal with how we told the story, it opened us up to the idea of using the projector to show the media broadcast being almost imprinted onto the parents through these bright beams of light. It became a really cinematic way of blocking the TV when you want someone's attention.

Are there certain music videos that have been especially influential in your directing career?

I’d say this video was very influenced visually by films like Blade Runner 2049, Poltergeist, ET, and Close Encounters. I do try to keep up with watching current and older music videos so there are definitely some that inspire me to this day. Just to list a couple that come to mind: Jon Hopkins - "Breathe This Air, Childish Gambino - "Sober," and Kendrick Lamar - "Humble."

Can you describe the process of collaborating with the band during the production?

I had a great time working with The Darling Fire on this. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a band that was as involved with the process as they were. Like I said earlier, Jolie and Jeronimo were such a big part of designing the props, finding locations, and just being on set with great ideas. This video wouldn’t be what it is without their help!

Are there any behind-the-scenes stories from the shoot that you’d like to share?

Ok, so the only thing I can think of is how the first filming day went! My plane landed the evening before so I hadn’t been to any of the locations before we went there to film. I really didn't think we would have been able to get all of the shots/angles we wanted for the band performance scenes with the time we had allotted at the arcade. So, morning of shoot day comes, with a lot of scheduling still up in the air, but after a fairly quick setup we got every one of the shots we wanted. Things just kept going smoothly and we were done hours before we had to be out of the location. Everyone kept talking about how it felt like time stood still for us. It really was nice and was an inspiring way to start the day.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you are particularly excited about?

Well I am pretty excited for the release of this video! Besides this though I have a few commercial projects I directed and two short films I did cinematography for that I am excited to see how they do! You’re just going to have to keep your eyes out for them.

What was your favorite arcade game growing up?

Honestly I didn’t really go to arcades growing up, but I can tell you that my favorite now is the Star Wars Battle Pod. I’ve always loved fast paced racing games and sports like go cart racing, BMX, and I even got really into building and racing drones for a bit. So, the Battle Pod seems to be one of the only games that can hold my attention for longer than a game or two.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned to Spartan Records for upcoming Spartan Profiles and updates on the The Darling Fire’s debut record Dark Celebration, available June 14th.

Spartan Spotlight #2: Mixologist Andrew Schools May 5, 2019

Spartan Records teamed up with mixologist Andrew Schools to create the label’s first original cocktail: El Espartano. Check out the recipe below, as well as an exclusive interview with the mixologist about the inspiration behind the drink, a featured artist playlist, and photos and videos documenting the creation of the drink. Stay thirsty, my friends.

El Espartano

1 1/2 oz reposado tequila
1 oz lime
3/4 oz blue Curacao
1/4 oz cointreau
1/2 oz of simple syrup
1 barspoon of St. Germaine

Add ice to shaker. Shake, rattle, and roll, then pour over crushed ice. Garnish with Black Sea Salt. Enjoy!

What’s in an El Espartano? What’s the process for creating the drink?

I am not sure how most people create cocktails, but for me with the El Espartano, I was focused on a few things: the color, the look of the drink, and the flavors. I wanted the color to represent Spartan with the blue and black. Living in North Carolina, I might have subconsciously made it a little bit Carolina blue. Once I decided on that, I wanted to find a good flavor profile for summer time, and what's a better summer drink than a good margarita? I started with reposado tequila because that's a personal favorite of mine, and then I added lime and Cointreau, which are the usual suspects for a margarita. After that, I wanted to get the color right, so I went with Blue Curaçao which really brought this concept to life. I sampled quite a few and decided the drink was still missing something. I added in a bar spoon of St. Germaine, and to me that's what really took it over the edge. I think the slight floral notes really enhanced the overall beverage. When garnishing, I have always loved black sea salt, so it seemed like the right choice — but you have to be careful with it because too much will overpower everything else. I was really pleased with the end result and overall balance. The only real problem is it goes down too quickly.

How are the qualities of Spartan Records represented in the El Espartano?

Spartan Records represents a label that is putting out music they are passionate about. It's not bound by genres and is a free-spirited. They also seem to put a lot of time and attention into the quality of the vinyl and the releases. I hope I’ve captured the label’s character and attention to detail in the drink; I think I hit the mark, but you'll have to be the judge.

Is this something that can be made at home, or does it require some knowledge of mixology?

I had the everyday home bartender in mind when I was making this. I didn't want to use hard to find ingredients. I wanted anyone who wanted to try it to be able to pick up everything at their local liquor store. Creating the drink does not require any real knowledge of mixology and can be enjoyed by just about anyone.

What led you to bartending / mixology?

I have always been into cocktails and craft beer for as long as I can remember. There is one event in particular that really put me on a course to learn more about mixology. I was visiting friends in Denver several years back, and on one of the days, we did a distillery tour at Leopold Brothers which really opened my mind to what's possible with distilling. That same day we took a drive up into the mountains to a little town called Silver Plume, specifically to a bar in an old corner store called Bread Bar For lack of a better word, it was a magical experience for me. The space was incredible, and the way they handcrafted cocktails was eye opening to me. I would just give the bartenders a spirit I liked, and they would come back with the most delicious things I've ever had, every time. I knew this was an outlet I wanted to pursue, and once I got home my learning experience started.

What is the most vivid memory you have attached to a specific drink?

There is a bar in Charlotte, NC called Dot Dot Dot and the bartender Stefan had a drink on his menu called a Truffled Whiskey Sour. It was a traditional whiskey sour with truffled egg whites. When I tasted that for the first time, I had two thoughts — this is what a whiskey sour should be, and this is how you elevate something. That was a benchmark drink for me, and I try to capture that in anything that I create.

How would you describe your artistic process in crafting original drinks?

My approach can happen in one of two ways -- I think about flavors and flavor combinations a lot. Some of my drinks come from me just thinking whether certain ingredients would play well together and then starting the trial and error process. Another way I can create is to try something somewhere and come up with an idea about how to riff or do it differently. However, most of the time I'll be doing something non-cocktail related and an idea will pop in my head.

How could you compare the creative process of crafting original cocktails with making music?

I really find the creative process for me with cocktails and music about the same. I work when I feel inspired and ideas just come to me. It's nice for me to have multiple outlets and different ways to express myself.

Where is mixology heading?

I think mixology is heading down a good path right now. A lot of places are putting an emphasis on local and homemade ingredients and getting away from premixed stuff. I think it's becoming more of a community all the time with the bartenders guild, and everyone seems to be pulling for each other.

When you are sitting at home on the couch, what are you drinking?

I have been on the biggest Manhattan kick lately and trying out lots of variations of that. I love how few ingredients it has, yet how it is packed with flavor and delicacies. It's also very boozy, which I am a fan of. I can also find myself sipping on a Miller High Life or Coors Banquet at times, as well. It's not always about the fancy drink.

What are your thoughts on the nation’s growing interest in home brewing and home distilling? Is this a good thing, or leave it to the pros?

I have mixed feelings on this, but more in the craft beer world than in distilling. I think craft beer is becoming oversaturated in some places, and instead of having a couple breweries doing really good stuff, you now how have to sort through a lot of mediocre beers to find diamonds in the rough. I think eventually that will even itself out through competition with the best breweries surviving. As far as distilling goes, I think we can see that market continue to grow, and it definitely has not reached its peak yet.

Anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your work?

I do this because I love it and that's the important thing. Pursue what you are passionate about, keep learning, never be satisfied, and enjoy the process. You can check out my cocktails on Instagram at @bwc_cocktails and my latest music project Old Faith here.

​Demons' Discourse #1: "Selling Out" April 26, 2019

Welcome to "Demons’ Discourse,” a new, episodic blog series featuring Zach Gehring from the band Demons.

In each installment of the series, Zach will share some thoughts on a topic related to the world of music and art. Readers will then be invited to respond via email to begin a dialogue on the topic. Select responses will be shared and discussed in future installments of the series. Zach will also share relevant media and an audio playlist inspired by the topic to create a fully immersive experience. The idea is provide a platform where artists and readers can push past the typical content that exists on band/label blogs and really dig into some substantive topics. The hope is that, as a result, some meaningful conversations will emerge.

So without further ado, let the discourse begin.

Demons’ Discourse #1 - “Selling Out

We’re music fans, and we’ve all been involved in discussions about music and the topic of selling out. To be sure, at this point, the conversation is perhaps tedious and tired. The notion of selling out is almost an anachronism. I would argue that it doesn’t apply in any descriptive or categorical way to this current era of the music industries or cultures. Digital media tools, and social media platforms have radically altered the playing field and opened up a proliferation of avenues through which musicians and bands can maintain creative and business autonomy. The reductive framing of “selling out” is no longer a productive litmus because so much of the labor is placed upon the artist.

That being said, I think that there’s a symbolic dimension of “selling out” that still maintains a cultural influence, albeit indirectly — it still functions as a pillar of underground music culture, a culture that Spartan Records, despite our ambitions, is ultimately rooted in. And to be sure, it functions in mainstream music culture as well. I’m interested in why the residue of “selling out” is still relevant (yes, I do believe it’s still relevant), and why its various forms still inform our interactions and exchanges.

When we talk about selling out, we reveal an underlying shared idealism — a shared belief and recognition that music is crucial to our understanding of how we see the world, and how we think the world should be. I’m not trying to say that music can change the world - that’s naive. What I’m saying is that for people like us, music stabilizes us in a problematically unstable world. When we talk about selling out, we aren’t talking about money or bullshit notions of authenticity or being “real” — we’re drawing from a map world we’re imagining or remembering, a world we were once a part of that has since been colonized by everything it was immune from and opposed to.

British sociomusicologist and rock critic Simon Frith wrote that our opinions about music and artists are “almost always entangled with social explanations.” When we talk about the music we love, and the ideal environment in which it should be experienced - we’re talking about more than music explicitly, we’re talking about more than the record label it was released on, the producer, the way it was recorded, etc. (which are just symbolic stand ins for something larger and more abstract). Rather, as Frith goes on to claim, we are talking about “a more inchoate feature of the music itself, a perceived quality of sincerity and commitment” that is “ related to the ways in which we judge people’s sincerity generally; it is a human as well as musical judgment.”

Ultimately, what we are talking about are the subjective, ethical, and cultural dimensions that drew us to music in the first place - and we impose those values on specific symbolic manifestations of music culture - the song, the artist, the rock club, the labor and revolutionary potential of creativity, the shared fabric that centers around art and rooted in community. It works differently for each of us - but we all understand. We all get it.

Selling out is a betrayal of rules. We don’t agree on the rules, but we understand that there are rules - and our conversations, the shows we go to, the music we listen to and create, the strong opinions we have - it all informs the culture and moves it forward.

Additional media:

Check out this interview where Simon Frith addresses the notion of authenticity in popular music.

Also, check out the first Demons’ Discourse playlist, titled "Selling Out Sounds Great" - a collection of songs that deal explicitly with notions of authenticity from different angles - sincere appeals (Mineral, Tom Petty), sarcastic takes (Jawbreaker, NOFX), resentful takes (Lagwagon), wise takes (The Clash), and attacks in the name of authenticity (The Vandals, Propagandhi).

Don’t forget to respond here to continue the dialogue on the topic of “Selling Out.” Again, select responses will be shared and discussed in the next installment of the series.

Thanks for reading!

Spartan Spotlight #1: Sophie McTear, Graphic Designer and Illustrator April 10, 2019

In anticipation of Surprises' debut release Natural Disaster, Spartan Records caught up with graphic designer / illustrator Sophie McTear to discuss the album’s stunning artwork. Below McTear walks us through the creative process, shares behind-the-scenes illustrations, discusses sources of inspiration, and even shares a playlist! Enjoy.

How did you, Brooks, and Spartan Records connect?

Spartan reached out to me on Halloween (spooky, awesome omen!) about a new record they were putting out. John, the owner and CEO of Spartan Records, told me he loved my illustrations and was working on releasing something with a band called SURPRISES. I was super interested, and from there our email creative process started to evolve!

How did the creative direction for the artwork evolve? Was there a defined vision going into the project or was it something that evolved organically?

John of Spartan and Brooks of SURPRISES had the perfect mix of a clear direction and vision they had in mind as well as the clear intention that they would like me to stay true to my style and my artistic vision. Personally, that balance helps me so much. Too much direction can become micromanagement, and not enough direction can be a bit daunting. I think that the direction that John and Brooks brought to the table helped me to evolve my idea and vision within my artistic style organically. We talked about a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” look, which really inspired my vision for the record cover art. It was so fun to add pinches of chaos, and little “Easter Eggs” that I’m hoping listeners enjoy.

How would you describe your creative process?

I think I tend to have spurts of creativity and motivation. I like working with a client’s vision, powering through a sketch, and working from there. I’m definitely more of a sprinter than a marathon-er, or whatever that old saying is. I like to start something and finish something, so breaking the process into tangible goals really helps me. It was really fun to work with Spartan Records and SURPRISES on not only the big picture of the artistic vision and direction they were aiming for for the album, but also working on lots of different components of the package! It was exciting to be able to work on single covers, buttons, interior layouts, and more. It really exercised my ability to work on different types of projects within one central vision. I honestly really love hearing feedback from people that I’m working with, especially when it comes to something so personal like an album (especially a debut album!). This is their baby, and I want my art to translate perfectly to their vision, as well as my own personal vision.

Did the “Natural Disaster” concept resonate with you in any way?

Definitely. I’m constantly panicking about the state of our climate, our planet, and my role within the universe! I thought it was fun to bring a bit of comedy into something so dark. I liked that about Brooks’ lyrics too. They made me laugh, but they made me think too!

How does music inspire your design work?

I think music inspires a lot of what I do. There’s not a day in memory that I haven’t listened to music. I’ve been playing music since I was six years old, so music has always been huge for me (I play violin, and now I also play synth and sing). When I got a bit older I started to get into the DIY scene, emo and punk, and a lot of that really got to me. I felt like I could really connect to it. Especially when I am creating something for a band or a musician, I am definitely inspired by the music itself. I take time to listen to the music while I’m creating, and I think that’s part of why the art for this album has really worked with both my vision, SURPRISES’ vision, and Spartan’s vision. (Oh, and by the way, I’ve had “Natural Disaster” stuck in my head all day. Thanks, Brooks!)

Talk about your style, specifically the hand drawn “doodle” aesthetic — is this something you’ve always done?

I think that my style is constantly redeveloping itself, sometimes because of external factors (i.e. when I bought myself an iPad Pro, my style completely changed! Previously I had only been illustrating using graphic shapes because the only tool I had was my laptop’s mousepad), and sometimes because of internal factors. Sometimes I just want to try something new! In the past sixth months or so I’ve really invested myself into my artwork and my personal business and I’m so glad that I have! I think even within that amount of time my style has evolved. As far as the doodle style goes, I’m not sure it’s something I always advertised, but I think that I’m embracing it more. I find that when I am more candid and a bit less polished, people seem to love the emotion that I can express. I think we can all relate to the silliness and simplicity that doodles offer. I was definitely a doodler in school growing up, so it’s funny to think that this college dropout is earning some money for the things I used to get scolded for growing up.

What else inspires you as an artist / designer?

I’m definitely inspired by color in general, creating palettes, seeing beautiful color combinations in my everyday life. I recently moved to Tucson, Arizona (well, almost two years ago), and I’m very inspired by the nature I’m surrounded by… the mountains, the sunsets, the monsoons. I’m also really inspired by the other amazing artists that live in this city, the great friends and relationships I’ve formed. I also love graphic novels and comics, specifically ones through more “indie” publishers like Image Comics or Dark Horse Comics. I also love horror movies, and I like to think that a lot of my art has a sort of whimsical, fun approach to it combined with some darker and sometimes creepy themes.

Do you have a favorite individual illustration within the artwork?

I am really proud of the illustration that I did of Brooks! I’m honestly just beginning to get into portraits of people, so I was very stoked about how the portrait of him came out. I loved the icy blue colors we were working with. Originally this actually wasn’t even on our radar, but after seeing a portrait I had drawn of an awesome drag performer online, John suggested I try illustrating Brooks. I’m so glad he suggested that because it was one of my favorite parts of the whole series. I also really enjoyed the entire record covers, front and back. I really liked the back of the cover because of the colors I was able to use (lots of purples, electric greens, and oranges). I also incorporated aliens and a demon, so that’s pretty damn cool.

Are there any other particular projects, past or present, that you are especially proud of?

Honestly this probably sounds cheesy, but I am so proud of this project! I feel like I know John and Brooks and I have literally only ever communicated with them via email and social media. I am really proud of this team for putting this altogether. It makes me really excited to see my work on the pieces that I’ve helped create, but also to see my handwriting on music videos and promotional pieces. (Should I make a font?! I’m thinking about it.) Personally, I’m also really proud of myself for putting my all into my freelance business and my online store especially because I’ve been battling with chronic sicknesses these past four months or so. I’ve been working on putting my artwork out there, especially in Tucson, and I’m really glad I have, because I have met so many amazingly talented artists, musicians, and people here.

What else should folks know about you?

I guess just that I am always happy to hear about new freelance projects, especially for other musicians, artists, and LGBTQ+ folks! I am available on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Dribbble, and email at sophiemctear@icloud.com. Talk to me about a project you’re excited about, or just like, your cats or something!