Full disclosure – I had the pleasure of bringing Signals Midwest to Cincinnati for the first time last summer, to play on the very same stage they’ll be playing with Indie/Emo legends Braid this July 10th. The Southgate House Revival Sanctuary was, all things considered, an incredibly suitable venue for the band, who were visibly, and audibly, enjoying themselves in a way that made me proud to have been a part of it all.
Here we are almost a year later, another full-length has been released – 2013’s superb Light On The Lake – a few big rounds of touring has taken place, with this summer and the rest of the year shaping up to be filled with watershed moments for both Max, Signals Midwest’s vocalist, and the band itself. Their first trip to Europe has been booked, and Max’s other project with his brother, called Meridian, is set to release their next album, which has been a year and a half in the making.
Max was kind enough to answer some questions about what he and the band have been up to, and what they’re looking forward to this summer and beyond. Be sure to catch them this July 10th at The Southgate House Revival opening for Braid, along with Pity Sex, for what’s sure to be another exciting moment to see a “small band on a big stage.” Thanks to Max for taking the time to answer my questions.
Since this is one of your first times in Cincinnati, can you talk a little about the band, what your sound is, where you come from musically?
We're four (sometimes five) friends who have been making loud, melodic, somewhat technical punk rock/indie rock for the last six years. Crazy to think it's been the better part of a decade now.
You have quite a few releases under your belt for a band so young – two full-length’s, a handful of splits. There’s obviously a lot of hustle and a strong work ethic that goes in to what you’re doing. Is that something you decided on early, as a conscious decision, or has it been a progression for you as the band has gained traction and recognition?
It's actually three full-lengths! We put out our first full-length called Burn The Blueprints in early 2009, less than a year after we formed the band. But it's not an accurate representation of what we do now - We recorded it as a three-piece, and I don't think any of those songs have been played live since 2011.
Yeah, a strong work ethic definitely factors into it, but it's mostly been a balancing act to balance band life and real life. None of us have ever really made a dime off of this band. Things have gotten easier as we've gone forward, like booking shows and putting out records, but it's been a complete labor of love. But is there a better reason to do anything?
Last fall you released your second full-length, Light on the Lake, to a lot of critical acclaim and accolades. It showed a great progression from your first record, Latitudes & Longitudes, and has allowed you the opportunity to head overseas for the first time as a band. Can you talk a little about what went in to making the record, how you shaped it to be what it became, and how you’re feeling about the response?
It was actually a pretty stressful time, at least for me, when we made that record. There was a lot of personal stuff going on, a lot of ups and downs, and I think it's pretty evident in the way it ebbs and flows. It's very all-over-the place - it has the slowest and fastest songs we've ever written. We recorded the entire thing in a week - I think we pulled like 8 straight 16-hour days. I have not-so-fond memories of all of us sitting at the mixing board at 4am, just trying to get the record done before our engineer had to fly home. It ended up getting dragged out a bit and our friend Toby (who's playing guitar with us this summer/fall, he's pretty much a 5th member at this point) ended up mixing it in Bellingham, WA where he lived at the time. It was this arduous process that spread across a couple different states and several time zones and took about a million different revisions to get to a place where we were happy.
There are things I love about it and things I wish we'd done differently. But that's the thing about doing any type of project-oriented work - everything is a learning experience. You learn about what works and what doesn't. I'm proud of what we created, but there are definitely things we'll do differently next time. Hopefully we're able to make it a bit of a lower-stress thing.
Max, you’re also a graphic designer by trade, working with quite a few up-and-coming younger bands as they release new material. You’ve also done most (if not all) of the work for both Signals Midwest and your solo project, Meridian. Can you talk a bit about your design work and how you manage to work on so much, yet still tour as much as you’ve been able to? How did you get started?
I got started doing graphic design by making flyers and Myspace graphics in middle school and high school. I was really influenced by skateboarding and there was such a huge visual component with all the skate magazines that were popular in the late '90s and early 2000s. That's when I first started noticing logos and began to understand graphic design as something more than just slapping a few words on top of a picture.
I work off of a laptop on tour. I try to space my client work out so that I work on the big projects when I'm home, and can do small updates and personal projects from the road. It doesn't always work that way and I've had my fair share of stressing out over shitty Starbucks wi-fi, but it's allowed me to travel and experience a great deal, which is my primary focus right now. Like I said, it's a balancing act. Most of the times I'm scraping by between tours, but it works one way or another!
A large part of the Signals stuff is collaborations between myself and our bassist Loren, who's a really great designer. His critical thinking skills are super impressive, and he's great at web design which I'm not well-versed in. We collaborate on a lot of stuff. Like, our band logo - the airplane - that was his idea, actually. I had the concept artwork for our record Latitudes and Longitudes, which had a wooden toy plane on the cover, and he had the idea to make a flat visual mark to include on the packaging in a couple places. We liked it a lot, and it quickly became the official unofficial band logo.
After this stop in Cincinnati – and a few other spots – the band is set to head to Europe for the first time. Obviously, the band is tremendously excited. Can you talk a bit about the tour and how it’s shaping up, what your expectations are, and what you hope this does for the band?
At the Fest in Gainesville last year, we met a really nice dude from Germany named Glenn Gilmann who has booked tours for a few of our friends' bands - Timeshares, Broadcaster, and Great Cynics to name a few. We'd been looking into going over for a long time and it just kind of made sense to go for it this year since we didn't do much US touring off of Light on The Lake because of school and work stuff. All the shows are booked, we've got a van, a driver, a backline - it's all set! I have no lofty expectations - it's definitely got a bit to do with furthering the band and growing an audience, but I think the larger reason we're doing it is because we want to go to play in a bunch of new places, meet new friends, try weird foods, climb things, take pictures and experience something new and special.
You seem to be touring and working just as hard with Meridian, with a late summer tour already scheduled, and a fall tour to follow Signals Midwest’s jaunt to across the pond. How do you manage to divide your time between the two? Do you ever feel yourself pulled in one direction more than the other? And there is a new Meridian release on the horizon, correct?
I think I'm just a dude that needs to constantly be working on stuff. There are times when Signals is slow because of one reason or another, which is fine - that's how life works when you're in a DIY punk band that's barely breaking even - so I'll use that time to work on Meridian stuff. I listen to a lot of different things and am very enamored with some quieter indie/acoustic-based stuff like The Mountain Goats, The Avett Brothers, The Weakerthans. Meridian lets me explore some of those sonic realms that wouldn't quite fit into Signals Midwest songs. But I don't really feel pulled more in one direction than another - I just like making music. Sometimes I'd rather be sweating through my clothes and screaming my lungs out - it's cathartic, sacred in a way. But sometimes it's nice to pull it back a bit and try to make something different.
Meridian has a new record called The Cathedral that's coming out on Youth Conspiracy Records in the fall. It's been about a year and a half in the making. It's different than anything else I've ever done and I can't wait to get it out.
You’ll be playing the Southgate House Revival with Braid on July 10, which seems like a big opportunity for the band – one of several you’ve had over the past couple of years. How did those shows come about? How are you feeling about them right now? (And on a personal note, it will be great to see you on the big stage again, this time with plenty more people to watch and listen).
I met Bob at the Fest last year through a mutual friend who set up a band-on-band interview for Alternative Press, which was cool, but a bit of a forced interaction. It's kind of weird when you meet someone you look up to and then your first-ever conversation is filmed! But I think we related to each other pretty well. Bob's soft-spoken, super-nice and very down-to-earth. Jeff (guitar) and I are huge Braid fans and we were geeking out pretty hard. I guess he must have liked our record, because Braid's management invited us out to do a few shows with them. Total dream come true. Biggest venues we've ever played. Can't wait.
It looks like the band has the rest of the year mapped out. Is there anything else in the works that you’d like to talk about? Is there anything else you’d like to add or mention?
It's all pretty vague right now, but we're starting to write new songs again and are hoping to shape them into a full length that will be out in 2015.
Thanks so much for your time! Can’t wait to have you back in Cincinnati!
Can't wait to come back! See you soon, man.