Made of shouts and melodies, Signals Midwest’s sophomore album Latitudes and Longitudes masterfully deconstructed distance with the reoccurring lines, “I was counting the miles / You were counting the days”; urgently on “In Tensions”, defiantly on “The Weight & the Waiting”. The Cleveland natives recently wrapped up a national tour with Dikembe, released a split with fellow WMC Fest performers Worship This!, and just finished recording their third album.
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Q&A: Maxwell Stern, vocals/guitar
When we last spoke before you entered the studio, you mentioned the new Signals album is “slower, darker, heavier” with feedback, harmonies, and weirder guitar tones. Does that hold true after you’ve finished recording? Can you tell us about recording this time around?
This was a much more involved process than L&L. We tracked 90 percent of that record in two days, completely live. This time, we still did guitars, bass and drums live over the first few days, but then spent another week doing overdubs and extra stuff. We played around with some pedals, different amps, had a few guest musicians come in - just tried a bunch of new things. I think it’s a natural continuation of what we were getting at with Latitudes, but we definitely threw some curveballs in there. There are some tracks that could have fit on the last record. There are a few really major-key poppy songs where I consciously tried to write big hooks, and also a few songs that are much slower and more atmospheric than anything we’ve ever done. Also, there’s a 12-minute song that we wrote and split up in to three parts, which I’m pretty psyched on. It’s 12 songs in 42 minutes. It’s a long record.
The recording process was a whirlwind. It was nine straight 16-hour days. Adam Wagner flew in from San Francisco to engineer it, and our friend Toby Reif flew in from Bellingham, WA to co-engineer and ended up singing and playing guitar on a couple songs. Dave Polster and Henri Rapp did some additional engineering too. I felt like we really had a team on our side this time, whereas the last one was just the four of us and Adam losing our minds in the studio for 48 hours straight. I ended up flying out to Bellingham and mixing the thing with Toby at his house, which was nice because it allowed me to hear and work with the songs in a different environment than we recorded them in. That was definitely helpful.
Oh yeah, funny story - the record almost got lost. Adam left his hard drive with all the session files on it in a cab in San Francisco the day he flew back home. If he hadn’t backed it up at the studio, we would have been completely screwed. Back up your files. Always.
Anyway, yeah - it’s done now. It’s called Light On The Lake. It’s coming out on Tiny Engines in the Fall. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done.
Latitudes & Longitudes had a big focus on distance as a theme. Did that carry over to the new album, especially with all the touring the band has been doing?
That definitely factors in to pretty much everything I write. I like records with themes, but I didn’t want to revisit the same thing twice. Latitudes had a lot to do with being away from home and the ones that you love, and the trappings and consequences of that. This one is a lot more about actually being home for a long period of time and watching everything that was constant in your life completely change. I lost a job, a home, a partner and a couple good friends in the time that we wrote and recorded this record. They were all pretty monumental losses. I’m still trying to process them, even now. To me, music has always been a perfect and cathartic outlet for that.
Speaking of touring, you just wrapped up your tour with Dikembe. How was the tour and are there any shows you’re looking forward to coming up this year?
Over the past two summers, we did huge full U.S. tours. We’d be gone for 30-something days and come back home completely worn out. We wanted to approach touring a little differently this summer, so we decided to split it up into smaller, more manageable segments. Dikembe was doing a full east coast/midwest/southeast tour and asked us to come along for some of the shows. They’re one of our favorite collective bands so we said “of course!” The shows were really fun, for the most part. We played in some new places like Minneapolis and the Quad Cities and were very well-received there, and also some of our favorite cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh. In some instances there were people that drove three to four hours just to see us, which was incredibly flattering.
Getting to know the Dikembe guys was awesome, too. We’d never toured with a band that was considerably more well-known than us before, so seeing the reactions that they got every night was great. We came into the tour barely knowing each other and left 10 days later as great friends. I wish we could have done the rest of the tour with them, but we’re hitting most of the same places with Run, Forever in July and August so it didn’t make sense to do it a month earlier as well. I miss those guys, though. Great band and great people. A rare breed.
You recently released a split with another band returning to WMC Fest this year, Worship This!, that also includes probably some of the best cover art all year. How did that split come about and can you tell us about recording it?
It was a really organic thing. We’ve all been friends for a few years and have played in other bands with each other. Rozco (Worship This! guitarist/vocalist) and Jeff (guitar in Signals) played together in a band called Echoes of Harpers Ferry a few years back, which is actually how we all know each other. Rozco also plays bass and guitar in Meridian with Steve (drums in Signals) and myself. We play a ton of shows together and Bob from Mayfly Records said he’d be interested in doing a split for two Cleveland-area locals, so it just made sense. We covered each others’ songs, which was really fun. I enjoyed taking an existing song and twisting it to sound more like our band while still retaining the original spirit. That’s definitely something I’d like to do more of in the future - taking an existing song and making it your own. We’ve been throwing around the idea of covering a Talking Heads or Neil Young song - something weird that people wouldn’t expect
Best album cover or gig poster you’ve seen recently?
I love the typeface that Nick Steinhardt created for the new Deafheaven album, Sunbather. So good.
Who are you most looking forward to hearing, seeing or experiencing at WMC Fest?
I can’t wait to see Braid. They’re one of my favorite bands. I played an acoustic show in a living room in Pittsburgh with Austin Lucas a few months back and he was incredible. That Des Ark song “FTW, YALL!!!” is incredible. The Sidekicks are a band that has probably influenced me more than any other local band in my lifetime, and watching them play and grow exponentially is really inspiring. I think it’s so cool that Bars of Gold is coming out - their old band Bear Vs. Shark is one of Signals Midwest’s biggest influences, and they don’t play a lot of shows so I think that’s pretty cool that they’re making the trip. And Ma Jolie. I love Ma Jolie.
Also, I’ve resigned myself to going to see some of the presentations this year. I’m always so busy watching bands that I forget that there’s this whole other part of the festival that has to do with something else I love (art/graphic design). Definitely gonna check out a few speakers as well.
What are your three tour essentials?
A ton of extra strings, since I beat the shit out of my guitars and need to change them every few days. I buy a 20-pack of Emergen-C before we leave and drink one every morning which it keeps me from getting sick on tour. Also Loren, Steve and Jeff are essentials because they make me laugh when I’m taking everything way too seriously, which is usually all of the time.
What is your favorite thing about Cleveland, being a Cleveland band or playing in Cleveland?
It’s easy to live here. It’s affordable, there’s a ton going on, it’s a half-day’s drive from Chicago and New York if you want to get a big-city vibe for a weekend, and it amazes me how much talent is packed into a town that so many people dismiss as dead or dying. I guess that’s what WMC Fest is about, right?