Most bands navigate their way through their formative phase by following a tried and true formula: Form the group, write a few songs, play some shows, write some more songs, play some more shows. Then, when enough songs have been amassed, an album is recorded that, more often than not, is a fairly verbatim re-creation of those live shows.
Summerbirds in the Cellar is not most bands. When on-the-verge-of-something band Pilots v. Aeroplanes split up a few years ago, two members Brad Register and Curtis Brown decided their new project was going to be quite removed from the dense emo-rock they had become known for.
"Our sound has changed a lot from the very beginning. But even when we started, we knew we were going to try and do something different, which is why we changed the name of the band," says Brown, who plays bass and keyboards in Summerbirds.
"We constantly had different people in the band and we hadn't really settled on a sound," says guitarist Register of the early shifts in lineup that counted members of Denison Marrs and Motion Picture Massacre in its various incarnations.
While constantly changing rosters are somewhat typical for most nascent bands, such upheavals don't do much to alter a sonic blueprint (especially when so many bands have already decided exactly what five hot-sellers their group will sound exactly like). For Summerbirds, however, each arrival and departure provided a shift in dynamics, resulting in a sound that, several years later, is quite singular.
Bearing none of the easily recognizable signatures that plague most "local bands," Summerbirds places heavy emphasis on dynamics and mood, but compared to the forceful atmospheres of their former band, Summerbirds is practically elegiac. Dark drones and thick, unidentifiable sonic swirls embrace abstract melodies and impressionistic lyrics, forcing the listener to focus on a complete picture that's organic and wistful. Somber without being mopey and serious without being sterile, Summerbirds in the Cellar is psychedelic space-rock covered in dirt and rust.
That sound came together with the solidification of a lineup including drummer Tyson Bodiford, who started in the band playing bass. It's captured on the group's debut album, With the Hands of the Hunter It All Becomes Dead (released June 2 on L.A. indie label Slow January). Each of the 10 tracks blends seamlessly into the next, making for a cohesive listening experience that's long on mystery and short on cliché. The group's evocative approach to composition is emphasized by producer Andy LeMaster (of Now It's Overhead, with whom Register toured), who helped them get the most out of their two-week recording session.
Although we joke about the luxury of Queen holing up for six months in Montreux to write and record an album, much Summerbirds material is crafted out of similar methods. Certainly, the songs on With the Hands were written before entering the studio, but that didn't stop the songs from growing once the "record" button was pressed.
"There have been very few songs where I've just sat down with an acoustic guitar and shown Curtis how a song went," Register says.
"We're definitely not a jam band," laughs Brown. "But we come up with most of our songs by just playing small parts over and over again and seeing where they go."
"We have a lot of pieces of gear sitting around," Bodiford says, "so we'll pull them out sometimes and see how they fit into a song."
Of course, a new member has been added since the sessions Jade McNelis so it's unlikely that the current Summerbirds music will match the record when they play it live. According to the band, that's the point.
"Somebody once told us to worry first about making a good record and then figure out how to play it live later," says Brown. "Why not make a record that sounds totally different than our live show? I think it makes it more interesting."