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Acquaintances interview with Justin Sinkovich

I try not to tie myself down to geographic locations, scenes are great and all but rarely does one have enough output of such a high caliber that I don’t feel like I’m stuck in a rut missing out on stuff when I get locked into a certain time or place.  There are always exceptions though, and Chicago does not disappoint.  While not all of the members of Acquaintances may live in Chicago that’s where they do their recording, that’s where they released their album and that’s where I heard about them via the always keen ears over at Permanent Records Chicago.  At once restrained and melodic, and at the same time slightly unhinged and nihilistic, the harmonious vibes of Acquaintances self-titled debut album are both alluring and somehow unsettling.  The dark portrait the fuzzy guitars and slow driving melodies paint, are that of a band intent on doing their own thing, completely unfettered or restrained by their surroundings or influences.  It’s rare to hear a band that’s as much noise rock as they are a pop rock band with infectious melodies and rhythms, especially one who not only manages to pull it off, but who create something wholly unique and all their own.  Every time I listen to Acquaintances I feel like I’ve been transported back in time, a heavy billowing haze of smoke chocking my lungs as I push through a crowd of people to get a closer look at the band performing in some dive 80’s bar; jean and leather clad safety-pin pierced punks lurching about in ritualistic spasms all about me.  Distorted guitar is all I can hear, dim lights illuminating a small smoky stage that should contain the band, not that I would ever know that in the sweat drenched madness of the pit pulsating in front of me.  It’s the same kind of place you would have caught The Jesus And Mary Chain or Joy Division hanging out at and maybe it’s because of this world that their music evokes I was so excited to talk to the band.  Maybe it was the fact that the LP hasn’t left my turntables for more than a few days in the several months that I’ve owned it!  Either way I’ve managed to finagle another monster of an interview, this time with Acquaintances own Justin Sinkovich.  As always here’s a link to some music to enjoy while you read, and I will offer you one more piece of sage advice before I go: I highly recommend you smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em because you’re about to take a trip in more ways than one!

Listen while you read:

What’s the current lineup of the band?  Is this your original lineup or have there been any changes made over time?

Justin:  We are a pretty new band so the original lineup is still together which is:
Jered Gummere – Guitar, Vocals
Patrick Morris – Bass
Stephen Schmidt – Guitar, Vocals
Justin Sinkovich – Guitar, Organ, Vocals
Chris Wilson – Drums

These days more than ever it’s become common place for people to be in several bands simultaneously.  Are any of you in any other bands at this point?  Have you released any music with anyone else?  If so can you tell us a little bit about that?

Patrick and I also currently play in The Poison Arrows.  We took a break from that band to work on Acquaintances.  Patrick was previously in Don Caballero and The Northern Bushmen.  I was in a band called Atombombpocketknife and also Thumbnail.  I don’t think Steve is in another band at the moment but he was recently in Avenue Boulevard, Thumbnail with me, and prior to that, a great band called Chino Horde.  Chris plays with a lot of other bands currently, including being drummer for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, I can’t even keep track of all of the others, but he used to be in a band called Shake Ray Turbine when I met him.  Jered is in a bunch of bands as well, he plays in Bare Mutants who just released an album, and previously Jered played in a lot of bands including thePonys.

Where are you originally from?

I’m from Nashville and moved up to Chicago sixteen years ago with Steve, he’s from kind of all-over but I met him in Little Rock where he was in a bunch of bands.  Chris was playing in bands in Arkansas as well and that’s how the three of us met and this band formed.  Patrick grew up in Pittsburgh.  Jered, he’s from Bloomington Illinois and Chicago. 

Was your home very musical growing up?  Were your parents or any of your relatives musicians or extremely involved, interested in music?

Mine was for sure.  My Dad worked with lots of great songwriters, producers and musicians in Nashville while I was growing up and my step-mom wrote songs in Nashville for a living.  A few of my cousins are actually music teachers.

What was your first real exposure to music and when was that?

Mine was going to shows with my Dad for his work, mostly going to dive bars in Nashville and then going to basically the same neighborhood for punk shows when I was in high school.

When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing your own music and what brought that decision about?

I started taking guitar lessons when I was a kid and thought it was super boring even though my teacher tried to teach me popular rock songs by bands like Kiss and Bryan Adams.  I was into punk and hip-hop and just didn’t see the point.  When I was fourteen some friends who started a rock band needed a bass player.  Figuring out some weird original songs with a few other guys in a noisy cold garage was the best!  I was hooked from there and never stopped.

Where is the band located these days?

That’s a tricky question, because Jered, Pat and myself live in Chicago but Steve lives in Portland and Chris lives in Philadelphia, ha-ha.  We do all of our recording and rehearsing in Chicago though.

How would you describe the local music scene where you are at now?

Chicago is awesome.  The music scene is why I moved here in 1997 with local labels like Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, and Drag City being so influential to me and my bandmates.  There’s also an amazing new generation of younger bands that are rad like Twin Peaks, The Orwells, Secret Colours, Maps & Atlases, Russian Circles and Bloodiest just to name a few.  It’s a really big and supportive scene, and Acquaintances is influenced by older bands as well as newer ones.

Are you very involved in the local music scene?

Oh definitely, my company Epitonic has worked with all of the bands I just mentioned and many, many more by recording live sessions with them, releasing their records and/or managing them.  I also teach college at a big art school and there are tons of great musicians on campus playing live shows and releasing music.  Patrick and Jered are really involved here as well, and Steve was too until he moved to Portland recently.  Chris is super involved in the Philly scene.

Has the local scene played a large role in the sound, history or evolution of Acquaintances?

For sure, I’m constantly influenced by Chicago’s amazing musicians.  It’s a town synonymous with a more experimental underground community and aesthetic which is why I was drawn to it in the first place.  Chris, Steve and I were heavily involved in the Arkansas and Tennessee punk and indie scenes back in the 90’s, which is why Chris ended up playing in Acquaintances with us despite him living in Philly.

When and how did you all originally meet?

Steve and Chris were early contributors to a Little Rock, Arkansas punk label called File13.  I formed a band called Thumbnail with one of the founders of File 13 in college in Tennessee.  We later recruited Steve to move to Tennessee and join the band because we were touring and releasing records all the time.  Thumbnail toured a lot with Chris’s old File 13 band Shake Ray Turbine, so we’ve known each other for a long time.  I met Patrick later when Steve and I moved to Chicago.  He was living in Pittsburgh but touring through Chicago a lot in Don Caballero.  We all met Jered a few years ago while he was singing and playing guitar in the band The Ponys.

What lead to the formation of Acquaintances and when was that?

We formed a little over a year ago.  Chris came through town on tour with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, but neither of us had been playing as much music as usual.  We started talking about the old days of touring together, and decided we wanted to form a rock band in the sort of updated spirit of what we used to do touring and making records back in Tennessee and Arkansas.  Nothing really came of it because I was really busy at the time, but then Chris just went ahead and scheduled time to be in Chicago to work on some songs.  I asked Chris who else we should invite to play and he said definitely Steve and after we demoed a few songs, we decided Jered’s songwriting and guitar playing would sound awesome so we asked him to write some songs and he agreed.  Then I asked whom everyone wanted to play bass, and everyone knew Patrick and wanted him to do it.  I actually drove over to Patrick’s house after the rest of us had been working on some songs and flat out told him he had been recruited to play bass and handed him a CD-R with some demoes on it, ha-ha.

What does the name Acquaintances mean or refer to?

Unlike all of the other bands I’ve been in, this one’s name does have meaning.  The five of us literally live spread out across the entire US, and when we first started playing together we immediately started working on an album.  Everyone had met before, and many of us were close friends, but a couple of the guys didn’t know each other too well.  I started sending around rough mixes of songs as MP3’s with the name Acquaintances and everyone pretty immediately started referring to the band by that name without ever sitting down and talking about it.  And it’s stuck.

While we are talking about the history of the band can you take a moment and share who some of your major musical influences are with our readers?  Who have an extremely diverse sound and I’m curious to hear who some of the people you mention would be.  What about the band as a whole, rather than individual influences?

For me writing the first couple of songs, I first and foremost wanted to keep them relatively basic.  It’s not that the songs are simple, but the songs I contributed to the record are really natural.  I made sure to not really think too much about it and just start taping demos and finishing songs quickly based on the premise of making noisy rock songs.  Steve and Jered who started writing after I had sent them a couple of songs, seemed to have followed suit, and are very sincere in their own style.  I inherently write mathy jagged songs with a pop-type element vocally.  Steve and Jered have more soul and a darker mood with a very distinct personality stemming from slow moving deliberate, yet unexpected discordant changes.  At the root of it all, it’s music like the five of us have made throughout our career in a very pure form, but with five very distinct musical personalities contributing.  Honestly I think that we’ve each made enough music throughout our careers, this album is a nice culmination of what we’ve done before in its’ own new form.  I was definitely inspired by the other guys’ previous work.  I was also inspired not to do anything similar to Patrick and I’s other band, The Poison Arrows which is very heady and complex, just for the sake of doing something different like Chris and I originally talked about.

I love listening to music, I love talking about music, I love sharing good music.  The one thing that I do not love doing is labeling and classifying music, I’m awful at it and end up feeling more ashamed and dismayed at what I’ve written about a band than anything else.  Rather than me taking some akwaard stab and describing your sound to our readers who might not have heard you before how would you describe Acquaintances sound in your own words?

Indeed, it’s a slippery slope to compare yourself or other musicians to their peers or predecessors, and really there is no need due to the virtually endless supply of free streams and downloads out there.  But you can check out some of our previous and current bands like The Ponys, Don Caballero, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and Atombombpocketknife that we’ve been in, and that provides at least a starting point.  I don’t think we really sound like any of those bands, but the aesthetic is consistent and holds up.

Can you tell us a little bit about the songwriting process with Acquaintances?  Is there someone who comes to the rest of the band with a mostly finished riff or idea for a song to work out and compose with the rest of you or is there a lot of jamming and exchange of ideas going on in the practice space with you all?

Sure thing.  There are three songwriters, Jered, Steve, and myself; each of which wrote a few songs on the album.  We individually wrote songs on guitar complete with the arrangement.  I wrote the first couple of songs and sent just a guitar recording via MP3 to provide some initial direction.  Steve sent over a couple of similar guitar-only MP3’s soon after.  From there we started writing as we recorded.  Each of the guitarists would work with Chris on drums while I engineered everything at my house in my basement studio.  Each songwriter would write the arrangement on a dry erase board and go through the song a couple of times to refine the arrangement.  Then we would get the drums and main guitar recorded and add the vocals and rest of the music from there. 

Do you enjoy recording?  I know most musicians love the end result of getting into the studio, there’s not a whole lot in the world that can beat holding an album in your hands knowing that you made it and it’s yours.  Getting into the studio to record the material and release the album.  That can be a little bit tumultuous to say the least.  How is it for you all in the studio?

You make a great point.  Recording can be stressful and really take a band out of its natural element.  I made the decision about ten years ago to invest a little bit of money and a lot of time to move the recording process to my house.   We recorded this entire Acquaintances album in my basement and at our leisure.  We actually spent a lot of time in between songs listening to records, grilling outside, inviting wives and girlfriends to hang out, and just socializing.  Chris would stay at the house as we recorded as well.  We also spent a lot of time experimenting with different takes and mixes.  That’s the way a record should be created, with a casual and relaxed focus.   That’s not to say that professional studios are not vital to the process, and if you have the money to spend, they make a huge difference, I simply never have more than a few thousand dollars to make a record.  Patrick and I’s other band The Poison Arrows still record our albums’ basic tracks live at our favorite studio, Electrical Audio, which is an absolutely ideal place to engineer.  Then instead of belaboring the rest of the record working on the clock at Steve’s, we take the drum, bass, and basic guitar or keyboard track back to my house to complete.  That’s a nice compromise in sound quality versus creative freedom.  We considered doing the same thing for this Acquaintances album, but once we discussed what we thought the creative process should be like and decided we wanted a more raw sound, we made the entire thing for free with me recording and mixing it at home, although a great local mastering engineer Carl Saff did some surgery to master it.

Do you do a lot of preparatory work before you head into studio nailing down how everything is supposed to sound or is the recording experience more of an organic off-the-cuff one with room for change and variation during the process?

Yes and no.  The songwriters have the music and arrangement ready for the rest of the band, but then for seven of the eleven songs there were no demos sent out prior to recording, so no one even heard the songs until we started.  We took six days to record basic tracks, running through each song a couple of times and then recording.  Almost every song was recorded on the first or second take; although a couple took a few more tries.  As for the overdubs Steve and Jered definitely did all of their recording very quickly, both on vocals and guitar.  I spent a little more time because I could sit there late at night alone experimenting in my basement.  Patrick experimented with bass quite a bit as well as he works very improvisationally.

You released your debut album earlier this year the Self-Titled Acquaintances on clear vinyl with a bonus CD version of the album that comes housed with the vinyl.  Can you tell us a little bit about the recording of that first album?  When was that material recorded?  When was that and what kind of equipment was used?

We recorded the album over the course of a year leading up to its’ release in August of 2013.  I recorded the album in my basement on ProTools 10 with a Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 interface with one expensive Universal Audio tube pre amp and two really cheap Blue Tube tube pre amps.  I mic’ed the drums with two overhead small diaphragm Shure brand condenser mics, a D112 kick drum mic, a SM57 on the snare and one Audio Technica 4033 as a room mic for the drums out in front of the entire kit at knee level.  I used an SM57 and direct line for the bass guitar and mic’ed each guitar amp with a SM57 and that Audio Technica 4033.  Steve’s amp is a vintage Fender Super Reverb and he used a 60’s Fender Jazzmaster guitar.  I used my old Music Man 212 combo with a 2x12 Fender cabinet most of the time, and occasionally my vintage Marshall Super Lead amplifier with a 4x12 cabinet, and always with my 60’s Fender Jazzmaster.  Jered used my Music Man combo and a Gibson SG plus I think he used a Fender Telecaster for one song as well.  Patrick has a bass that’s all old parts pieced together he bought off of a friend and still uses his GK amplifier and Ampeg cabinet from when he was in Don Caballero.

Who put out the Acquaintances album?  Is that a limited release?  If so how many copies is it limited to?

We released the album through my company Epitonic’s label primarily.  We also released it by name through File 13, the label that inspired Chris, Steve, and myself to play together in Acquaintances.  For the first pressing there are only 600 clear vinyl records that include a CD, or it’s available digitally.  We made the physical copies very limited and very high quality.  We’ll see if we ever feel like we need to make more.

Does Acquaintances have any music that we haven’t talked about yet?

We’ve been writing some new demos and talking about new songs, so we’ll release some songs in the future, but are in no hurry to get started on that process with our record so recently released.

Where’s the best place for our U.S. readers to pick up copies of your music?

The easiest way to buy a copy of the digital or physical is through our web store at  Otherwise, local vinyl friendly stores around the country should have the LP available, our label is distributed throughout the US and rest of the world, although we’re relatively new so we’re not sure how many stores decided to carry it.  We’re also of course available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and the other major digital services.

What about our poor international and overseas readers with these completely annoying international postage rate increases?  I feel like while we’re exposed to more and more music these days it’s like a carrot on a stick for people who can’t afford twenty-five dollars in shipping for a single record these days and try to provide any options that I can for fans who want to purchase music that might not originate from their own country.

I sympathize, as the manager of the label I oversea shipping orders overseas and it’s more and more expensive for us.  We keep the shipping from the Bandcamp page as affordable as we can.  The label is distributed to stores throughout the world so make sure to ask the store to order it for you if it’s not there.  Otherwise a digital copy from our store or iTunes or Amazon would be the best option.  I recommend our store though because it’s cheaper and you can order CD quality version.

Are there any goals that Acquaintances is looking to accomplish in 2014?

Our album is officially being released in Europe on February 3rd.  We’re really excited about that.  We really haven’t played any shows yet, despite getting a lot of offers, so that’s the main goal for 2014, play shows and support the European release.  Otherwise we want to start working on new songs.

You have played with some seriously cool bands.  Who are some of your personal favorites that you’ve had a chance to share a bill with so far?

Acquaintances hasn’t played a show yet, but we’ve all played some awesome shows.  Some bands my other bands have played with that stand out are Battles, Unwound, Superdrag, June of 44, Man or Astroman?, Polvo, Modest Mouse, Shellac, Archers of Loaf, Mudhoney, The Rapture, Blonde Redhead, !!!, Antioch Arrow…  There are so many more quite honestly, and some of the lesser known bands and tours were my favorites.

In your dreams, who are you on tour with?

I will be thrilled when we finally tour with anyone whose music I like, but we typically play shows with our friends.  Bands and friends like Polvo, Man or Astroman?,  Bellini, Girls Against Boys and Unwound are releasing and re-releasing music and maybe playing shows again, those are the type bands I’d personally like to play with.  I don’t really have a big band that would validate me by taking us on tour; our community is my inspiration quite honestly.

With all of the various methods of release available to musicians today I’m always curious as to which mediums they prefer and why.  Do you have a preferred medium of release for your own music?  If so why?  What about when you are buying or listening to music?

I think our LP version being the limited edition high quality clear vinyl with nice packaging and a CD included is the ideal physical copy.   A CD will sound better than an MP3 download but you can still encode it to your computer.  Otherwise we make it convenient via iTunes, Spotify etcetera if people prefer.

Do you have a music collection at all?  If so can you tell us about it?

Yeah, all five of us have really big record collections, it’s kind of ridiculous.  Steve especially worked at record stores for so many years he has an enormous vinyl collection.  I have an entire small room of thousands of CD’s and vinyl records.  I also have a lot of recording gear, guitars, keyboards, and amps that I’ve collected since I was a kid. 

I’m an avid music collector.  I might not be rich and spend a million dollars a year on music but to say that I don’t go a little hungry a day or two a month pinching pennies for an album from one of my favorite bands or something new and cool I’ve discovered would be a bold faced lie.  There’s something about having physical music to hold in your hands, liner notes to read, artwork to look at.  They all serve for a brief glimpse inside the mind of the artists that created it and make for a more complete listening experience, at least for me.  Do you have any such connection with physically released music?

I scaled my CD and vinyl collection back over the past couple of years, and mostly listen to a digital library I have curated these days but I still buy my favorite albums on vinyl and my house’s living room is dedicated to a record player, keeping about twenty-five records there at a time, good speakers and no television.  That’s my sanctuary.

As I said before, I love physical music.  I love listening to it, I love looking at it but I don’t like lugging it around with me.  Even with CDs and cassettes I could never bring everything in the car with me that I might want during those long days in the car when I seem to listen to more music than just about any other time, so digital music has been a real boon to me.  It’s allowed me to take just about everything that I would ever want with me on the go.  When you team digital music with the internet it’s completely different beast.  The amount of music that it’s exposed me to is almost overwhelming bu on the other hand it also seems to be dealing a critical music to the music industry; at least as we know it now.  There’s always good and bad that comes with a situation but as a musician during the reign of the digital era what’s your opinion on digital music and distribution?

I’ve been a major proponent of digital music throughout my professional life.  My company Epitonic was one of the first independent music MP3 sites on the internet in 1999 and I was hired by Touch And Go Records to help transition the company into the digital era starting in 2004.  I now run Epitonic again and teach college courses related to digital’s effect on media.  Technology is awesome and inevitable, but there are a lot of negatives to go with the positives.  The positives are clearly instant, on demand, free, or cheap access along with the ability to create content for cheap or free.  The negatives are the inability to monetize free or cheap content and also the fact that anyone can create a song, video, photo, etcetera.  As much as that’s a positive democratization of content, it creates a lot of noise in a world where many artists are trying to make a very serious career and invested go of it and get lost in the shuffle.

If you can’t tell I’m passionate about my music.  Nothing beats listening to some good tunes besides maybe being able to share that experience with other people.  As such I spend a lot of time looking for the next new, great thing and a lot of the best tips that I get unsurprisingly come from cool musicians such as yourself.  Is there anyone from your local scene or area I might not have heard of that I should be listening to?

There are so many great Chicago bands right but I’d specifically recommend Bloodiest, Twin Peaks, The Drum, Secret Colours, Cross Record, Chandeliers, Santah, The Orwells, Serengeti and Pillars & Tongues.

What about nationally and internationally?

We feature new music all of the time on my site, there are tens of thousands of carefully curated free and legal MP3’s there, so I will leave it mostly at that, although I’m happy to see some of my friends bands from a few years ago re-releasing music and or touring, like Unwound, Come, Polvo and Girls Against Boys.  But I listen to so many new and amazing bands as well; again, Epitonic is a great resource.

Thanks so much for taking the time to get this thing done, I know it wasn’t short and wouldn’t have been very much fun after the third or fourth hour of wracking your brain for trivial facts to amuse others ha-ha!  God forbid, is there anything that I missed or that you’d just like to talk about?

This was really, really thorough so I think we’re good.  Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about Acquaintances in such depth, I hope that it inspired someone to listen to a song of ours and then go make a record of their own!

(2013)  Acquaintances – Acquaintances – digital, CD, 12” – Epitonic/File 13 Records

Interview made by Roman Rathert/2014
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