For almost a decade local trend setters Secondary Modern have been blazing trails, kicking ass and taking name in my hometown of Carbondale. I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with the group’s lead singer David who works for the local record shop, Plaza Record, where I essentially have grew up. It’s the store where I got my very first piece of music, where I spend every Record Store Day, nearly every one of my free moments in town and also happens to be one of my favorite places in the world. The past few years I’ve spent a lot of time exploring minimalism and deconstruction in music so when I came across the group’s fourth, Self-Titled, album I was really intrigued by the musical exploration I heard. With their newest album, somewhat ironically titled New Colony, on the way I decided this was the optimal time to sit down and talk shop with David about Secondary Modern. Thankfully he took some time do deal with one of my massive interviews and we managed to get this done right around the release date for the new album! Don’t just read the article, make sure and listen to some brand-spanking-music at the link below as well…
Listen while you read: http://secondarymodern.bandcamp.com/
What’s the band’s lineup? Is this your original lineup or have there been some changes over time?
The current lineup, which has been together for over four years now, is myself on vocals, guitar, and keys; Danny Brown on vocals, drums, and guitar and Matt McGuire on vocals, bass, and guitar. We used to have a different bassist, who was also named Matt. He couldn't really tour and had a lot of other responsibilities, and he eventually just decided we should get someone else. So we did.
Are any of you in any other bands? I know its common practice here in town for people to be in several bands at one time. Have you released any material with anyone else? If so can you talk a little bit about that?
We have all been in a lot of different bands. Danny is the only one currently in another group. They're called Pigeon. They sound sort of like the Jesus Lizard, though to say things like that is so unfair. I do back up my friend William Feigns, but I wouldn't call that a band. We're more like his current enlisted troop. Matt records a lot of crazy soundtrack sounding stuff on his own. At times it's really disjointed and Malkmus-like, and then it can flow effortlessly into these extremely syncopated, Steve Reich moments.
Where are you all originally from?
Danny and I are from Marion, Illinois. We’re brothers. Matt is from Herrin, Illinois.
Was your house very musical growing up or were any of your parents/relatives musicians or extremely interested or involved in music?
Our house was very musical, yes. Our parents had a record collection, not one with Herb Alpert; 60’s stuff. Endlessly British, but then it would jump to this late 70’s and early 80’s American underground stuff. All that stuff you read about in books like Our Band Could Be Your Life. My dad played music as well and would record us doing whatever we would do. We thought everyone was in a band. It was tough to realize that not only was everyone not in a band, but most kids in the small-town Midwest grew up in houses where nobody really cared about music. It's a weird way to feel alienated and a pretty early age to feel that way; lobsters in hot water.
What was your first real exposure to music?
It can all be traced back to our parents, at least for Danny and me. Music was on at all times. Our dad was always playing. He ran a guitar shop. That's just how it was and it's all we cared about, except maybe for cartoons.
When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing your own music?
Almost immediately. We were so young when we started playing and we didn't know very many chords. It's not like I was going to learn how to play "She Loves You", though I probably did sing the melody while strumming a G chord a million times. I got a lot of mileage out of the G chord. I probably made up a hundred songs after I learned it. When I realized you could change chords I thought the possibilities were endless.
How would you describe the local scene here in town?
It's definitely interesting. There are a lot of bands and a lot of very talented musicians. Each group seems to be doing something very different from one another, which is really cool and makes for diverse shows almost every time. When we go on tour we generally see two or three bands that have similar things going on each night. That's not the case in Carbondale. We didn't appreciate how weird and sprawling our town's music scene is until we made touring a regular part of our lives.
Are you guys very involved with the local scene?
Of course. I'm always interested to check out new bands in town and, as I get older, am very interested to see younger musicians come into town for college or whatever they're here for. Setting up shows for bands we know from here or there also forces us to be aware of other bands. Gotta put a bill together, right? Nobody wants to see the same three bands play every show.
Has it played a large role in the sound, history or evolution on Secondary Modern?
Absolutely. We are extremely influenced by those around us. Most of our close friends are musicians. We sit around and listen to music. We discuss it. We all take away different things and apply it as we will, but there's something to be said for the dialogue. The same thing happens at our friends shows. It's natural for a musician to see his good friend do something incredible and wonder how that can be incorporated. We do it with records, films and books. Why wouldn't we take cues from our friends?
When and how did you all meet?
I'll bypass the brother aspect, that one’s obvious. We had known Matt vaguely from going to see his band when we were in high school. When our old bass player quit we had an entire tour booked. I saw Matt outside of a show and drunkenly stumbled up to him and asked if he'd go on tour with us. We didn't know each other very well, but he said yes without hesitation. Best move I ever made.
What led to the formation of Secondary Modern and when exactly was that?
Secondary Modern formed when Danny and I were in high school. We had done some recordings and then added a bassist and started to play shows. That was that.
What does the name Secondary Modern mean or refer to?
I'd like to be cool and say that I knew what a Secondary Modern school was when we named the band. I did not. We needed a name for a flyer. I was listening to Get Happy!! by Elvis Costello. It was a pretty quick decision and we are, perhaps, too lazy to change it.
There’s a lot going on in your music, who are some of your major musical influences? What about the band as a whole rather than individually?
Jesus, we could be here all day. The sixties pop stuff was a big deal to me and still is. What changed everything though was hearing guys like Tom Verlaine, who were playing guitar in a way that forced me to the edge of my seat. I was sixteen when I heard “Marquee Moon”. I clearly remember sitting on my bed by myself with my knees bouncing up and down uncontrollably, as if Tom and I were on a first date. It was so aggressive! So poetic! I decided I didn't care about Led Zeppelin anymore. That's just one in a potentially Iliad-sized book of stories like that. I have trouble speaking for the others. We're all into similar things, though we do have different leanings. It makes for somewhat insane collaborations.
Can you talk a little bit about Secondary Modern’s songwriting process? Is there a lot of jamming and messing around, ideas getting bounced around and exchanged or does someone come to the rest of the band with a riff or more polished idea and finish it out with the rest of you?
All of the above. We focus a lot on the idea of deconstruction. Regardless of how we get the tune together, whether it's from messing around or one of us bringing in a "finished" product, we pick the thing apart and lay all the bones and meat there on the floor. You've got to find the most interesting way to rebuild your dinosaur. Sometimes you throw away the arms and attach the teeth to the joints. That's not to say that it all sounds disjointed. It doesn't. That's not what we're going for. I just mean that every sound is put in a specific place for a reason, even if it initially ended up there as an accident.
Do you all enjoy getting into the studio and recording? I mean as a musician I think that we can all appreciate the end result of the labor, there’s nothing quite like holding an album in your hands knowing it’s your music and you made it. Getting into the studio and doing the recording though, that can be tough. How is it in the studio for you all?
We love it. It is every bit as fun as playing a show. It's just very different. You really get to know your songs in the studio. I'd make a record every month if I could.
Do you do a lot of preparatory work before you record rehearsing and getting things just the so-so or do you play things more by ear and let things change and evolve as you go along?
We usually play the songs on tour before we go in to record them. There's nothing worse than feeling like the album version of a song isn't executed as well as it can be. It's on tape! Shit! There's nothing we can do now!
Speaking of recording let’s talk about your back catalog a little bit. Your first album was 2005’s Secondary Modern EP. What are your memories of recording that material? Were you happy with how the recordings turned out? Who recorded that material? When and where was it recorded? What kind of equipment was used?
Wow, Roman. Memories? I was in high school. What I can remember is that Danny and I did some basic tracks on an 8-track ADAT machine and I obsessively overdubbed vocals, guitars and keyboards and mixed it myself direct to a CD burner; pretty bare bones. We made fifty copies, maybe. I recently set up my ADAT in my attic and found the multi-track tape. I laughed and laughed. "Oh, that Wilco record just came out and you're gonna do that now, eh?" A lot has changed in ten years.
How was the Secondary Modern EP originally released and distributed?
Distributed is a lofty word for a seventeen year old. We handed them out to our friends and family.
Later that same year you released A Finance Opera. Was the recording of that album handled in a similar fashion to the Secondary Modern EP material? How was A Finance Opera released and distributed? What does the name A Finance Opera mean?
We opened for a band we like a lot, fronted by a guy who is now a good friend, named John Krane. He offered to record us and we thought his record sounded amazing. We went to his house in Edwardsville and stayed the weekend. A lot more overdubs. Backwards guitar?! Whoa man, watch out! I think we even read a poem and mixed it in and out of a track, backwards of course. We thought that was pretty experimental. I don't mean to dismiss it. It is what it is and one day I'll be giddy beyond belief to hear it again, I'm sure. We self-released it, but the packaging was kind of nice and in color and we had it in the local record shops. By the time it came out we had gotten onto some bar show in Carbondale. People liked us right away, maybe because of the novelty of our ages, and it was a big confidence boost. I didn't have a lot of that at the time.
Two years later in 2007 you released Vanilla To An Englishman. Can you talk about the recording of that album? What are your memories? When and where was that material recorded? Who recorded it? What kind of equipment was used?
That one was done at a proper studio. Mike Lescelious recorded it at Misunderstudio. The biggest change was that I didn't live with my parents. The subject matter was different. Love songs were about real events. I can remember wanting to make an insane pop album and feeling like a dog let off the leash in this big studio. I was still only nineteen, but I remember thinking that we had to make an epic record and that it should be some kind of pop statement. I'm not sure if we did, but what a strange thing to think at such a young age, right? What the hell is a pop statement? When you're nineteen it's lots of overdubs in Pro Tools, I suppose.
How was Vanilla To An Englishman released and distributed? What does the name Vanilla To An Englishman mean or refer to?
It was similar to the Finance Opera record, in that we had it at shows and at Carbondale record shops. I can't tell you what Vanilla To An Englishman means because I don't really know.
You followed up Vanilla To An Englishman a year later in 2008 with Thin Cities. What does the name Thin Cities mean? How was it originally released and distributed?
Thin Cities is in reference to some of the sections of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. He's one of my favorite writers and I guess I saw some parallels between his words and my own world at the time. The record was self-released. We were still very firmly rooted in Carbondale at the time.
Can you talk about the recording of Thin Cities? When, where, who? What kind of equipment did you use?
It was recorded at Misunderstudio, the same as Vanilla For An Englishman. It's less flashy as I remember. We did it in Pro Tools as well, but the overdubs were less intense. Man, it's hard to remember all of this stuff.
Then there was 2010’s Vaudeville Ghosts. Can you tell us about the recording of Vaudeville Ghosts? When was that material recorded? Who recorded it? Where was it recorded? What kind of equipment was used during the recording process?
Now this I remember. This was the first record we made with Matt McGuire. All of the songs were written without a band in mind. You can tell. Danny calls it "the David record". I was unemployed and we were recording it ourselves in our old bass player's house. The problem with being the only one without a job is that I was there every day, eight hours, like a job. It is extremely layered and detailed. That was unhealthy and I was broke and unhealthy in more ways than I'd like to admit while making it. There are a lot of downers on it and not a lot of tunes we could really play out, which made touring afterward interesting. I think a lot of it held up, it just doesn't sound like a Secondary Modern record.
Who released that album? Was that a CD only release? Is Vaudeville Ghosts still in print?
It was a CD only self-release and is still in print. At that point though, we were starting to tour a fair amount. We always make a point to go to record stores and hustle our stuff and that album did sell quite well based on that alone.
What does the name Vaudeville Ghosts mean?
I had really bad insomnia at the time and was also always investing myself in some kind of weirdness, so to speak. One night I stayed up until sunrise drawing a mural on my bedroom door and at the bottom was a line of marching skeletons. A parade of skeletons in top hats surrounded by sixteenth notes and the words, "we are the ghosts of vaudeville! yes we are the vaudeville ghosts!" I should have taken that door when I moved.
You followed Vaudeville Ghosts up with 2012’s self-titled Secondary Modern. If I understand correctly that was your first release on vinyl. Did you approach the songwriting, composition or recording of that album very differently than your first album since it was going to be your first LP? Or did you even know that it was going to be pressed to vinyl from the start?
We didn't know it would be pressed to vinyl from the start we were just going to record and see where it went. Matt had moved to Idaho for a few months and came back to do a tour. The fact that he came back with only the band as a prospect was a big thing for us. We instantly became more collaborative. After the tour we scrapped our existing set and booked a big show a few months from then with the intention of playing an entirely new group of songs. We practiced several times a week and wrote what turned out to be that record. We learned a Soft Boys tune as well, just for the hell of it. It was all very different and the band felt fresh and new.
Can you tell us about the recording of Secondary Modern? When was that material recorded? Where was it recorded at? What kind of equipment was used to record that album? Who put it out and is it still in print?
That record was recorded in what used to be a post office in West Frankfort, Illinois by our friend David Allen. He used an 8-Track Tascam reel-to-reel. It was completely analog, very limited and very relaxed. When I hear it I miss that room. It sounds just like that old shack to me. I'm not a nostalgic guy, but I'll always look back fondly on that place. There was absolutely nothing to do but make records and David Allen is the kind of guy who makes you want to make records. He'll make whatever kind of record you want, but if you want to do something raw and weird he's your greatest ally. We put the record out on vinyl on our own dime. It was time. It's my favorite format. We landed a distribution deal with a company out of Chicago via a friend who used to work there. We sold out of the first pressing and pressed another on our own dime. It's been great to understand that although we might want others to do some of the ditch digging, we can get these things done ourselves and by using only money generated by the band. I know it's not cool to discuss money, but understanding your band's financial needs and realizing the ways to meet them is very important for any independent band.
Your newest album New Colony is out digitally now and the vinyl is due any day now. Can you tell us a little bit about New Colony. Did you approach this album in a very different fashion than previous albums? After three albums do you feel like you’ve learned a lot and are in a more comfortable place writing and recording an album?
We did this one with David Allen as well. We recorded it in an insane sort of mansion in the country; an upgrade in every sense. As far as the approach goes, it wasn't much different than the last LP. It’s gotten easy. We know what we're after and we embrace chaotic accidents, but it’s all still very live and raw with the exception of a few tunes. The biggest change is in the songwriting. The collaborations are much more effortless and our influences are getting harder to pick out. At least I think they are. I think New Colony sounds like us.
What does the name New Colony refer to? Is this album going to be self-released as well? Do you know when the vinyl will be available? In the meantime where is the digital version for anyone who can’t wait ha-ha!
New Colony is an idea, a kind of interpretation of the world around us or the world that we build around ourselves. There is a general theme of uneasiness that seems to tie the tracks together. A reaction to a world we couldn't help but notice and a longing for the one that we want. We have reacted to the day to day events in our world from the seats in our van over the course of the past year and we all have a pretty good idea of what New Colony means to us. I could go on and on, but I won't. The LP is being released in association with the record store I manage, Plaza Records. We've wanted to get into putting out records and this one seemed most logical as a starting point. We're working on a distribution deal right now, but you can currently order the LP from our online store in the meantime (http://secondarymodern.bigcartel.com) or the album is also available to stream and download for free at secondarymodern.bandcamp.com.
I know that Secondary Modern has appeared on a few compilations and stuff. What other music has Secondary Modern released that we haven’t talked?
The only compilation that we did an exclusive track for is the Skihouse Sampler #1. The track is available with a bunch of other unreleased stuff on our Bandcamp page under the album title, Loose Tracks.
Secondary Modern in fairly prolific so I don’t hesitate in asking apart from the new album if you have any other releases in the works or on the horizon?
We’ve already started playing a few new songs live. We have tons more in the works. Matt and Danny both have solo work they are going to release soon and I am in the process of recording a solo record in my attic as well.
Are there any plans to make any of your older out of print material available digitally or physically any time in the future?
Not currently. That's that question of nostalgia again. We'll see.
Where’s the best place for our U.S. readers to get a copy of your music?
The Big Cartel site listed above has physical copies of New Colony, Self-Titled and Vaudeville Ghosts.
With the absolutely ridiculous international postage rate increases what about our overseas and international readers?
Hopefully I can get some kind of overseas distribution deal for New Colony together. Releasing this LP through Plaza Records has helped immensely when it comes to generating interest with distributors. They are already familiar with us as a record store, so that helps. International distribution will be a bit trickier. The other snag is that I’m the one spearheading the whole Plaza as a label operation, so it is still essentially DIY and there are only so many hours in the day; anyone reading this want to distribute a record? Give me a call!
Does Secondary Modern have any goals that you are looking to accomplish in 2013?
Continue the cycle. We're touring soon. When we get back we'll probably finish up some recordings and then tour some more. Not a bad cycle to be stuck in if you ask me.
Where’s the best place for our readers to keep up with the latest news like upcoming shows and album releases at?
We have a blog www.secondarymodernmusic.blogspot.com
What do you have planned as far as touring goes for the rest of the year?
We're going to hit some of our favorite spots soon. November is about booked up. That gives us enough time to get promotions for the record going.
Who are some of your favorite acts that you’ve had a chance to share a bill with?
A couple of nights ago we played with Calvin Johnson of the Beat Happening. He is just wonderful and a great guy as well. It was a big deal to me. Some of my other favorites have been The Bad Doctors from Philadelphia and Kentucky Nightmare from Bloomington, Indiana.
In your dreams, who are you on tour with?
Wilco. At one point they were my favorite band. I can't quite say that anymore, but they have always done whatever they wanted and have covered a lot of musical ground. It's hard to believe they're as popular as they are. I might say Bob Dylan too, but I'd probably throw up every time I talked to him and his crowd would hate us.
I am pretty passionate about music collecting. I don’t do it because it’s trendy or because I hope my collection will be worth a lot of money in the future. I do it because I hold a deep reverence for the physical release. Having something to hold in your hands, to look at and feel. Liner notes to read, artwork to read, it all gives you a glimpse into the mind of the artist that made it. And for me at least, makes for a much more complete listening experience. Do you have any such connection with physical releases?
For sure. I’ve spent countless hours sitting on the floor looking at record jackets and reading liner notes. It is a fucking magical experience and it’s impossible to explain... But you already know that.
Do you have a preferred medium or release for your music? With all the various choices available to artists these days I’m always curious why people choose the certain methods that they do. What about when you are buying and listening to music?
Vinyl. It’s large and handsome. You can see a piece of diamond drag through a tiny little gutter and somehow, via the insanity that we call science, sound comes out of the attached speakers. It's like watching someone pull a quarter out of your ear.
You work at the local record shop, totally jealous by the way ha-ha, so you almost have to have a good collection of music. Can you tell us a little bit about your collection?
It is pretty vast. I go through phases as a listener and I buy accordingly. One thing I try to keep from doing is buying up crates of bullshit just to have it. That is hoarding. I listen to everything I have. I have a story for each one. Guys will come into the record store and tell me how many records they have and I have never understood why that’s impressive. Cool, man. That's a great number! A collection is incidental. It's the result of several encounters with individual albums. That said, semi-humble tendencies aside, I will say my record collection is pretty damn good.
As I said before I’m passionate about physical music and having something to hold in my hands. But I can’t take it all on the go with me all the time, so I must admit I do love my digital copies of albums. Be able to take my entire music collection with me wherever I go is still a little mind bending to me. Digital music itself is kind of a double edged sword though. On one hand it exposes people like me to a plethora of music that we probably wouldn’t otherwise ever have the opportunity to hear. On the other hand it’s dealing what seems like a killing blow to an already wounded and struggling music industry. As a musician and employee of a brick and mortar store what’s your opinion on digital music and distribution?
I have an old flyer from the 70’s made by the RIAA that I think is hilarious. It says "HOME TAPING IS KILLING MUSIC". Well, it didn't. Neither has file sharing or the digital market. What it has done is changed the market of physical music drastically. It has made us take a step back and evaluate what exactly it is that we like about physical products in the first place and what we desire them to be. Small labels have fared well in this "toxic" market. You can buy a Ty Segall LP from our store for $14.99. That is totally reasonable. We got it from the distributor Revolver USA for $9.00. They probably got it from Goner or in The Red for $6. There was a free download code inside. Everyone still made money. While Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue retails for between $25 and $30! That's Columbia Records at work. That's a big-box distributor like AEC at work. That is big business not adjusting to a new business model which tells us that physical music is dead unless it is this "niche" market of vinyl. They don't adjust. They fight it, like the RIAA flyer, and then they reluctantly join in, price gouging all the while. We sell our LPs for $12 and double our money. I have no problem telling you that because $12 is totally reasonable. In short, if you understand the business and play smart you will do just fine, you just might have to settle for the Kia while others drive a Corvette. Myself, I drive a giant red van.
I try to keep up with as much good music as I physically can, I know we live in the same town so it might sound funny but is there anyone here in town or the local area here that I should be listening to I might not heard of? New bands are popping up all the time, so quick it’s hard for me to keep track sometimes!
Ben Vaughn. He doesn't play out much, or really at all, but Matt just recorded a bunch of his songs. Keep your ear to the ground. They are the best. Favorite lyric: "After the river runs read with blood it always runs black with ink"... I'll keep you posted.
What about nationally and internationally?
To be honest, I'm in a pretty weird split phase right now that includes mostly Gene Clark related projects and the nastiest of the 60s/70s Krautrock stuff. The present is a bit far off of my radar at the moment.
Is there anything that I missed or that you’d just like to talk about?
If we couldn't get it in forty-even questions then it wasn't meant to be. Thank you, Roman.
(2005) Secondary Modern – A Finance Opera – CD – Self-Released
(2005) Secondary Modern – Secondary Modern EP – CD – Self-Released
(2007) Secondary Modern – Vanilla To An Englishman – CD – Self-Released
(2008) Secondary Modern – Thin Cities – CD – Self-Released
(2010) Secondary Modern – Vaudeville Ghosts – digital, CD – Self-Released
(2012) Secondary Modern – Secondary Modern – digital, 12” w/cd – Self-Released / distributed through Plaza Records
(2013) Secondary Modern – New Colony – digital, 12” – Plaza Records
Interview made by Roman Rathert/2013
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