The Seething Coast storms Springfield’s shores with a pair of new releases
“I was born here but I can’t die here / And all my dreams, they all dried up a long time ago” – lyric from “Dignity” by The Seething Coast
Playing in a rock and roll band is never a casual proposition. Investments of time and money for rehearsal and equipment can be sizable, while financial rewards are often slow to arrive, if they appear at all. If your band writes and plays its own original songs, this can sometimes seem like an uphill battle, if not a quixotic, ultimately pointless endeavor. Why not just work up a set of crowd-pleasing cover songs and save yourself some aggravation?
“For a short while I did the cover band thing and that is a drag,” says veteran Springfield musician Damon Soper, drummer for punk-informed local combo The Seething Coast. “If you’re in a cover band, you’re only doing it for money.” While Soper and his bandmates aren’t exactly averse to making money, financial gain is far from The Seething Coast’s primary goal. Personal expression is closer to the mark. “It’s like a painter who paints in his basement,” says Soper. “It doesn’t do any good if the paintings don’t leave the basement – you wanna get ’em to an art show so people can give you feedback. The same goes for music.”
After slugging away on the local scene since early 2007, things are starting to come together for The Seething Coast (named after a song by indie rock stalwarts The Mountain Goats). The four-piece Springfield band is on the eve of simultaneously releasing two brand new records: Olympia, a six-song EP, was recorded and mixed earlier this year at Electrical Audio in Chicago, during a single all-day session with legendary independent sound engineer Steve Albini (Pixies, Nirvana, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page); in contrast, the full-length We Would Have Saved You If We Could is the result of several frustrating years of fits and starts, recorded in a series of Springfield-area studios.
Far from the cliché of the layabout rock musician, all four members of The Seething Coast are solid citizens with full-time jobs. Soper is a home mortgage underwriter and recently became engaged; singer and guitarist Jason Perry, a fiscal consultant, is married with one four-year-old son, another child on the way and two sons from a previous marriage; guitarist-vocalist Jay Vanselow has worked for the Department of Revenue for more than a decade and is soon leaving for a new position with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs; and bass player Sam West is owner of Wild West Land and Home, a lawn care and landscaping business. All four are united by a compulsive need to create music, and grew up in thrall to the independent DIY musical movement that first became prevalent throughout the country in the 1980s. (A very readable history of the movement can be found in Michael Azzerad’s 2001 nonfiction book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991.) It is an ethos wherein an embrace of community and artistic integrity are of primary importance, while “selling out” to financial interests is considered the ultimate sin.
The band’s four members have never been the types to muffle their riffs under the proverbial bushel basket. All of them have played in town in various combinations for years. Soper and TSC guitarist/vocalist Jay Vanselow had both been members of the band Abe Lincoln Continental for close to a decade starting in the late 1990s. ALC used to play gigs with eventual Seething Coast cofounder Jason Perry’s previous band, Resident Genius. Perry and Vanselow had originally met in 1999 when they were history majors at University of Illinois Springfield and first played music together when Jason recruited Jay to join Resident Genius upon ALC’s breakup. Resident Genius ceased to be in 2006, and Perry and Vanselow started The Seething Coast the following year, sharing singing, guitar-playing and songwriting duties.
In keeping with their shared academic focus, a passion for history and politics is a large part of what sets The Seething Coast’s subject matter apart from many punk-derived bands. Back in 2005, Resident Genius had released a collaborative music-plus-spoken-word recording with radical historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, while Perry’s song “Tinker’s Blues” which appears on Olympia, takes the landmark 1969 free speech case Tinker v. Des Moines, Iowa as its subject. Another new song is called “Russian Airport Lounge (for Edward Snowden),” which includes such lyrics as “I’m a stateless citizen / Living with the ghost of Thomas Paine,” inspired by a recent letter written on behalf of the fugitive by his father.
“What I like is, not all Jason’s songs are about girls and love and loss. There is a very intellectual component to his songwriting,” says Vanselow. “I’m probably more visceral in my songwriting and Jason’s stuff is maybe a little more thought out. His songs have also always been a bit poppier than mine.”
The admiration between the two is mutual. “Jay’s the real guitar player,” Perry insists. “He can play circles around me and I’m happy to admit that. He is versatile and very underrated, he’s a quick learner and plays all manner of styles.”
For his part, Damon Soper is one of the most sought-after musicians in the Springfield area, equally adept at drums, guitar and bass and possessing a truly impressive vocal range (“We used harmonies for the first time on the new record and that’s all because of Damon,” says Perry.) “I’ve kinda always beena utility guy over the years in town,” explains Soper. “For example, when MAG needed a bass player I was more than willing to play with those rascals, or when NIL8 needed a guitarist, I’m a big fan, so of course I’ll play with them.” When The Seething Coast required a drummer for a one-off sold-out 2011 Halloween concertin Chicago, where they had been invited to open up for a pair of highly regarded punk bands (Screeching Weasel and The Queers, for IT readers up on such things), Soper was more than happy to get behind the drum set to help out his former bandmate Vanselow.
Also initially recruited for that same Chicago show was bass player and singer-songwriter Sam West, another veteran of many Springfield indie bands. “It’s hard to top playing a sold-out show in Chicago opening for two of my favorite punk bands,” he says. West stayed on as TSC’s permanent bassist after that gig, but the very busy Soper moved on, if only temporarily. “Next thing I heard they had another drummer, so I figured that was the end of that,” he chuckles. (Drummer Eric Brawner joined The Seething Coast for a short time before Soper became their permanent drummer earlier this year.)
The Seething Coast had begun recording We Would Have Saved You at the now-defunct Red Room Recording studio in Williamsville way back in 2008. A combination of ongoing personnel issues, scheduling conflicts and general feet-dragging caused the sessions to break down fairly quickly. “I gave Jay a hard time,” says Soper, who had not yet even played with the band when recording began. “I told him, ‘because you guys stopped it’s gonna be another year before you get that done.’ When it dragged on for five years, I was like ‘I don’t know if you guys will ever finish it.’” For his part, Perry is circumspect. “A new president got elected, a couple comets passed overhead, lots happened during those years,” he deadpans with comic ruefulness.
They put the finishing touches on those sessions just this month, with the help of local musician and recording engineer Brandon Carnes, leader of Springfield power-pop band Big Storm, who runs a digital recording studio out of the basement of his home on South Seventh Street. The task set before Carnes, who Perry describes as “Phil Spector without the firearms and anger issues,” was not an easy one, at times somewhat akin to solving a sonic jigsaw puzzle. “By the time the recording got to me it was just kind of a collection of WAV [digital music] files,” explains Carnes, who worked on the project for two years. “My first step was archiving all the files. Each track was a different instrument so I had to match up where everything belonged since there were no time-stamps or anything.” While this may sound like a maddening, Sisyphean labor, Carnes apparently felt otherwise. “It was kind of a cool opportunity,” he says earnestly. “My job was to determine what was there, what was missing and what still needed to be finished. They really know what they’re doing and were really open to suggestions. It was just a fun process.”
Brandon Carnes and his digital home studio provided the band with an ideal combination of local convenience and can-do, technical savvy in order to finish the stalled We Would Have Saved You. The band’s next project, a trip to Chicago’s Electrical Audio to record Olympia, was something more akin to an indie rocker’s pilgrimage to Mecca. An almost bunker-like, multifloor recording compound, Electrical was founded and is run by Steve Albini, an iconic figure in modern rock music. Albini is world-renowned for his engineering work on such high-profile releases as Nirvana’s multi-platinum In Utero, the first LP by The Pixies, and 1998’s Walking Into Clarksdale by former Led Zeppelin members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Long notorious for his own abrasive, uncompromising music in bands such as Big Black and Shellac as well as outspoken and widely reported criticisms of the music industry, Albini is also revered in DIY circles for his fiercely independent work ethic and consummate command of old-school, analog recording techniques.
Most notably, Albini has made a point (and career) of keeping the prices for his studio and his personal recording services within the budget range of small-scale, workaday musicians who want to make killer-sounding records without breaking the bank. Enter The Seething Coast, who this past April recorded and mixed six songs in a single day at Electrical Audio with Albini himself manning the soundboard.
Following Brawner’s departure, the band again approached the reliable Damon Soper to play on the sessions, which led to his joining TSC full time. “When they said ‘Hey, we’ve got this recording we’re gonna do with Albini, would you be interested in going up there and knocking it out with us?’ I was like ‘heck yeah,’” remembers Soper. “I knew it would be a good experience for me.” The opportunity was made even more attractive by the band’s choice to record all new material at the session, allowing Soper to make his own creative mark behind the drum set, rather than simply recapitulate another player’s work.
Original drum parts were not the extent of Soper’s contribution to the recording. Up to this point, the majority of the band’s songs were written and sung by either Perry or Vanselow, but the six songs recorded in Chicago included one each by Soper and West, adding to an increasingly integrated group dynamic. Recent live appearances at Springfield venues such as Bar None and Black Sheep Café have revealed a Seething Coast truly growing into its identity. Sets which had previously been reliably solid and workmanlike are now far more playful and varied, with all four members taking turns on lead vocals and an ever-increasing stylistic palette on display, with raging punk-fueled rockers alternating with jangly pop and quieter, more introspective pieces.
“Damon not only brought those harmony vocals to the table, he really brought some discipline too,” says Perry. “We didn’t set out to have four singers. Now we’re almost like a punk rock Eagles,” he laughs. “I hate The Eagles!”
With two new releases on the horizon and a bourgeoning live show, this is an exciting time for The Seething Coast. However, it is important to keep things in perspective. The state of the music business – altered irrevocably by the advent of digital downloading and the attendant decline of both major and independent record labels – is such that even many established rock artists are finding it challenging to make ends meet. Also, it goes without saying that central Illinois is nobody’s idea of an alternative music hub.
The members of The Seething Coast have few illusions about their position or prospects. The guys are mostly in their early 40s – bass player Sam West is 28 – and full-time employment and family obligations put inevitable limitations on the time they can spend on their music. But for all that, The Seething Coast is clearly more than a “weekend warrior” hobby to them. Why not just join a bowling league or play poker to let off steam? Why go to the expense and inconvenience of playing in an original, and not very commercial, band – particularly in a limited market like Springfield?
“People in and around our community are just as deserving of original and varied artistic expression – regardless of medium – as someone in, say, Chicago or Seattle,” says Perry. “To hold a view other than that means you’re an arrogant prick. It’s a terrific time to be a part of the musical community in Springfield and I encourage anyone who is on the fence about becoming part of it to go ahead and join. The arts community in Springfield is brimming with supportive people.”
Vanselow takes a somewhat different view. “In Springfield, it’s tough for people to give you a chance,” he says. “There are so many talented bands here and they don’t get the time or attention or respect they should. I don’t really care about getting popular in Springfield anymore. If it happens that’s fine, but I would be happy playing more out of town, just getting our music to as many people as possible and hopefully they will enjoy it.”
“If I’m watching other local bands, it’s always inspiring,” says Soper. “I always feel like, dammit, I wanna get up there! If someone told me I had to stop and couldn’t play music here in town, I don’t even know what I would do.”
“In any event,” Perry says, “we don’t pretend to be all things to all people. There are plenty of cover bands in town to address those needs and most of them do it quite well. It just isn’t us. We let the songs dictate our journey. Always have. If you’re being true to the song and not forcing anything, it can lead to some interesting places.”
The band intends to make the most of the momentum evident in the flurry of new recordings, and having Albini’s recognizable name on Olympia may help them to land further higher-profile shows in larger markets. “We will make a concerted effort to let people know that these songs do exist,” says Perry, “but there is no master plan. None of us are very good salesmen or marketers at all, but we do what we can. The main thing is, you want to look back on the body of work and be happy with it.”
“Playing in town’s great if you like playing in front of friends and family,” says Sam West. “But I think more exciting stuff is definitely on the horizon. I don’t see us going anywhere but up.”
Scott Faingold is a contributor and blogger for IT as well as an active member of the Springfield music scene himself. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org .
To purchase music by The Seething Coast, visit http://seethingcoast.bandcamp.com/
The band will perform at Bar None on Aug. 2, at the Downhome Festival on Aug. 3 and at Black Sheep Café on Aug. 11.