Big Enough for Almost Anything: Why You Need to Hear The Eastern Sea

Every once in a long while, I run across a band — generally, it seems, by accident — that totally and completely blows me away. They come seemingly out of nowhere, play like they’ve never done anything else in their lives, and create songs that are smart, poignant, and intriguing, all at the same time. They’re a band that makes me want to force their music on everybody I know, because I just can’t understand how the world at large can not already love something this amazing.

That’s the kind of band The Eastern Sea is, at least for me. I’d barely heard of them the first time I happened to see them live, so I was stunned when they cheerfully demolished the stage that night at Walter’s, taking over the evening so fully that hell, I can’t even remember who they were playing with. In my memory, they sound so huge and awesome that they fill the place to the point where it just doesn’t matter who the other bands were (um, sorry, other bands…).

So we’re clear, by the way, I don’t mean to say that the Sea is a particularly heavy or loud band; in fact, they’re very much a gentle, sweet-hearted, beautifully hopeful (and yet sometimes morose) indie-pop band, layering jangly guitars, subtle percussion, and grin-inducing melodies beneath singer/songwriter/guitarist Matt Hines‘ nicely understated, vaguely Ben Gibbard-ish voice. It’s just that their songs are so perfectly sculpted, so well-orchestrated and complete, that they fill the moment in which they’re played.

There’s absolutely nothing missing, nothing played wrong, nothing that sounds lame or tacked-on — everything is in its right place. When I first experienced the band, I turned to a friend and said the only thing I could think to say: “That was perfect. Absolutely freaking perfect.”

On their debut, self-titled EP, The Eastern Sea have a slightly different feel, more laidback and sleepy, but still incredible, with new little pieces unfolding at each listen. They’re a band that honestly needs to be heard, by everybody. And now, with their second EP being released this weekend, I’m looking forward to hearing the “new” Eastern Sea, with yet more finely-crafted songs drifting down out of the ether.

In preparation, we fired off some questions to Matt Hines, and he was kind enough to respond in detail, despite right now having to struggle with band logistical issues, a day job, the new EP, incipient health problems, and a host of other brain-crushing things. Here goes…

SCR: So, how’s the new album? I think when we talked at Summerfest a few months back, you’d just started working on it, right?
Matt: The new EP, which is what we’re releasing this coming month, EPII. Came out pretty nice. I’m happy with it, even though the songs on it are songs we have been playing for a long time; more on that later. The recording was a bit more streamlined — it still took forever — but it came out sounding professional and really moody, which is what I like. There is rock, there is dark pop, there is stoner metal, there [are] dance jams, and there is post-rock. All on the same record. I feel like that is our strength as a band, being able to keep the audience on their toes and feeling confident in our ability to reach anything on the emotional spectrum. At least, that’s my goal as a musician.

As far as prepping for a full-length, which is what we’re doing now, well, it’s going slowly. Partly because we’re really busy with a lot of things, partly because I have been having a hard time writing anything that I enjoy, and partly because it takes a long time just to work out the arrangements for one song. At the upcoming show at the Block Party, we are hoping to play three songs from a forthcoming LP, one of which we have spent about a month cranking out, and it is by far one of the best songs we have ever done. It is an extremely lengthy and complex song, though, so it’s taken up a large portion of our songwriting/arranging time.

And we are using a string and horn section, so I spend a lot of time working all that out. I’m doing two separate kinds of rehearsals a week just for this song — which is called “Santa Rosa,” by the way. One with guitar, bass, keys, and drums. And one with guitar, banjo, viola, violin, trumpet, and tenor sax.

“EPII”? What, you guys couldn’t come up with an actual name? And why are you having to do two separate rehearsals?
No, we aren’t creative enough for a new name. But on top of our complete lack of creativity, we wanted both of these EPs to be a pair. A completely separate set of work apart from anything else we will make in the future. And on top of it, it makes us feel like we released one record instead of two small ones. You’ll see it in the artwork. You’ll see it in the general arrangement. You’ll hear it in the dynamics of the songs. They are a kind of continuing song cycle. In many ways, this new EP is really a part two, so I decided to call it that.

And we are having to have separate rehearsals for a couple of reasons. First, it’s very hard to get everyone in the same room at the same time, because all nine people in the band right now have different schedules. Second, it is easier for me to run a rehearsal with four people than nine if we are working on churning our string section parts or something like that. The two separate parts of the band need separate attention in order for anything to work when they come together. That’s a basic explanation.

What did you think of Summerfest?
I had a really great time at Summerfest; people were really digging the atmosphere of a rock festival near downtown Houston. And I think Omar and the crew at FPH really did a good job for their first outing. Very cool setup, a few bumps here and there, and some weather concerns, but all in all, it turned out to be one of the funnest things I’ve ever been a part of in Houston.

The crowd seemed to go berserk for you guys — do you get that reaction often?
Do we get that reaction a lot in Houston? Yes, to an extent. That was probably one of the coolest and most energetic crowd reactions, partly because it was just so many people. So I can’t really compare, but we have had some pretty ridiculous shows with some crazy energy in the past. Hoping that this one coming up at Numbers will match it or exceed it. I have a lot of optimism.

Do we get that reaction a lot in our hometown, Austin? No, never. Well, maybe once or twice. We have had a few house parties that have had us and everyone else jumping and going crazy. Which doesn’t seem like us really, but it happens. We occasionally have the ability to be out of control.

Houston has always been a place for us that is really strange. Our roots are in that town, and we have a lot of friends who live there. And we have a lot of bands that we have grown to be close with, etc. To be frank, we were extremely lucky to start playing a lot of shows when the Houston indie-pop scene started to expand. We got kind of caught up in the whole thing, and people started seeing us as a very interesting, foreign type of product; in other words, we weren’t from their town, but we were a product of their town.

And we brought a type of music that was crafted in a way that I want to believe not many people are encountered with on a daily basis. Yes, we play pop, but it is a much more thoughtful pop than you would expect out of Austin. I think people got surprised. But the surprise has, thank God, worn off by now.

You don’t get crowds that into it up in Austin? That seems odd to me, because I really do think you guys are phenomenal — it’s weird that you have to head down here, a place that’s not known for being the greatest place to play live, and you get good, excited audiences.
Yeah, a lot of the people in Austin have been-there, done-that with almost everything, and it’s much harder to prove to someone in that kind of audience that you are worth spending time on. We have fans, but it’s less of a rowdy atmosphere. Simply put, we are a folk-pop band in Austin that plays pretty solid tunes, and in Houston, we’re a full-on rock band.

How is the band-house life going? Nobody’s tried to throttle anybody else over leaving leftover beans in a pot on the counter for a week or anything, I hope?
I can’t lie. We fight a lot. There is a lot of unsaid stuff that boils to the surface, and we are all learning how the others work. Of course, kitchen stuff, cleaning stuff, rehearsal schedule stuff makes things really hard, and a lot of the time it is unpleasant, but we are working really hard together to make communication and resolution to issues very clean and well-handled. So far we haven’t killed ourselves, so we’re okay.

Good to hear; I’m guessing you all still have day jobs on top of the house stuff and band stuff, right?
Oh, yeah, a few of us are still in school, so that’s cool. But Tomas and I both have full-time kinda things. Tomas works for Caritas, which is a group that works with the homeless/refugees and helps get people back on their feet and/or doing good things for the community. He also works for a day care in the afternoon; pretty awesome. And I work at P Terry’s, which is a cool In-N-Out-type burger stand place in Austin. Pretty tasty.

I remember being very impressed with what I heard of Alaska Is For Players — still got a couple of old tracks on the iPod — and I’d wondered what the heck happened to that band…
That’s a pretty fantastic question; I’m not really sure what happened to that band, either. That band started up in Oak Ridge, near The Woodlands, where I went to high school. It was a project with my best friend Chris Reichert and I, and it all started in about 2003, and we recorded a couple demos in our house and at this community center place. Then we played a lot of shows up in the Spring/Woodlands/Conroe area for awhile and made a name for ourselves, made fools of ourselves, then got in trouble a lot.

Then we recorded a full-length record that no one ever heard, called Long Distances, all the way out in Webster with a wonderful guy named Mike BBQ. 11 songs — I’ll send it to you sometime. It was a concept album… It was kinda trash, but a few people out there really like it, and they also think The Eastern Sea is a real waste of my talent because I should be playing post-emo screaming bullshit.

[laughs] Whatever, fuck Alaska Is For Players. The last things we recorded were a couple songs for a compilation for Ienjoy Records, which is probably what you have. That was a great compilation — Driver F, Carousel Shy, weebeasties! Rhinosaurus! Oh shit, that was great. Oh yeah, and I was the keyboardist for The Clints; that band was horrible. And now I play music with all of those people in other bands in Austin. That era of Houston music was not appreciated by Houston whatsoever. And the people in Houston now don’t know what it’s like for people to just not give a shit about what you do.

So we all went to Austin, and now many of the people from these bands are running the show in Austin. Carousel Shy is now The Brood, and they are fucking awesome. And Tomas, our bassist, played drums for Cshy. Driver F is still Driver F, but their guitarist Andy plays second guitar for our band; he’s my best friend. Weebeasties and Rhinosaurus turned into a lot of bands — A Giant Dog, one of the best bands in town, has members of weebeasties. Rhinosaurus’s singer, Zach, is our drummer. And Mammoth Grinder, one of the best thrash bands in the country, is Chris from Rhino and Brian from weebeasties. And I was the original bassist for Mammoth Grinder; I like to show that off.

By the way, I really appreciate you bringing up AIFP, just because that was something I was very adamant about for a long time then just let fall apart one day. I’ll give you an intimate history of the band later if you want. It’s really fun.

Well, I definitely get the thing about the bands that’re here now not knowing what it feels like to make music and have everybody give a big collective shrug; things have changed a ridiculous amount here in that respect, I think. It’s kind of awe-inspiring, really, that it’s shifted like that. Do you ever think about resurrecting AIFP for a reunion show or something? And just by the way, it’s absolutely hysterical to think of you playing in Mammoth Grinder. That’s awesome.
Well, the thing is, the kind of shrugging we experience in our transitions from Houston to Austin, while those trips are nothing like a national tour, give us the reality of being in front of audience who honestly don’t give a fuck who you are. That’s what you experience when you tour, and since we have never done a national tour, we are hoping that we are almost ready.

Can you talk a bit about how The Eastern Sea came together?
The Eastern Sea was just me for a while, right after the one and only Alaska Is For Players tour of Texas with Carousel Shy. I was so upset with how that band ended up, and I wanted to do something drastically different. So I bought a Mac laptop and started recording fairly pastoral songs in my bedroom and on a memo tape recorder up in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin. I wrote a lot of songs up there while I was vacationing. And I still do that every year.

In a lot of ways, now that you have me listening to Alaska Is For Players songs on my iTunes, The Eastern Sea took on a lot of the same songwriting qualities but just pushed them in a different direction. I wasn’t as concered with writing rock anthems, but I had a sense of these personal songs that needed to come out. And I was listening to a lot less of the Get Up Kids and Hey Mercedes and Jimmy Eat World and listening to more of The Mountain Goats and electronic shit.

I went to college and recorded about forty-plus songs in my dormroom and made some discs with that stuff. But no one ever heard it, and it was just me playing by myself for a long time. But I was happy and I was able to experiment at a capacity that I’m not allowed now. I’ll send you one of those discs too, if you want it. It’s actually alright. And pretty honest. That’s something I value in my music — honesty.

Then, after some thought, I invited Zach Duran to come play a few shows with me, doing some limited percussion things. And that worked out fantastically. And it expanded to be a full band in a few months, with the addition of Tomas and Jess, his girlfriend at the time. We were playing versions of the first EP at the time. At the very beginning. But since it took so long to record an EP, we ended up having to rely on those songs for a very long time. Even now, we still have to play those songs like they are new. Then after like two years, here we are, with too many people to fit on a stage and just a lot of craziness.

It’s funny that you write the songs while on vacation elsewhere, because while the songs are about all sorts of places, they still sound to me like they’re “Texan” songs, y’know?
Well, Texas is the second half of every setting I’ve ever imagined.

Why do you say, by the way, that you can’t really experiment now like you did before? Surely The Eastern Sea’s “big” enough to encompass all kinds of stuff, right?
The Eastern Sea is big enough to encompass almost anything, and that’s one of the biggest reasons why we love being in this band. We can do anything. Absolutely anything. But the problem is, in order to absolutely anything, you have to take a lot of time, and right now we play so many shows that we have to spend our time very wisely. We don’t have unlimited time and unlimited resources like I did when I had no plans to be playing shows and climbing some kind of futile ladder of pop music.

Whenever I try to talk about this issue, it seems like I’m complaining about the current band, when really, I really just want to complain about the ladder that bands are forced to climb because it’s lined in our cultural and social psychology. We are expected to be capitalists and fortune chasers and really pursue the “rock” life. But that’s not what I want; I want nothing to do with it, actually. But it’s just too tough to not get involved in the whole thing. I don’t want to have any expectations put on the band that I am a part of.

But if you want people to hear your music, there are automatically-placed expectations on everything you do. It’s a painful but realistic give-and-take that is involved with making all art. I could go on forever about this. I’ll save it for a more precise conversation on that specific topic, so I can choose my words better.

Who does the songwriting in The Eastern Sea? Is it a collaborative effort?
Well, as much as they would love it to be totally collaborative, it all starts with me bringing a pretty substantial song idea to the table. I write a good portion of a song before I bring it to the band. Then we sit there and hammer out the arrangements for a long time. It usually takes about a year for me to write a base of a song. Then it usually takes another six months to find an arrangement that we think has the potential for being amazing.

This is how I like to see it. I create a seed. Creating the seed out of nothing takes some work. It’s kind of a pain in the ass, because it’s a really personal process, and no one seed is alike. But then the band, including myself, spends a lot of time cultivating the seed and preparing it for harvest. That’s my pithy metaphor.

A year? That’s pretty far from what seems to be the usual paradigm these days — I have to say, as well, that you can really tell the songs have been “crafted” with a lot of attention and care. Do you really, truly focus on one song for a full year, or do you usually have multiple song ideas bouncing around in your head?
Well, by a year, I mean it takes about a year to gestate and come to fruition. I could be working on five or so songs at the same time in my head and with the band, but each one is going to take a long time to come to an end point where I, and the rest of the group, are comfortable with it.

And yes, it is not the paradigm these days. It is very difficult to work in today’s music business with the kind of philosophy I have about songwriting. It’s a long and slow process, a process which I respect because it’s necessary for what I want out of the entire experience, a process which not many others nowadays want to bother with. For good reason, I might add.

It almost seems like the songs on the first EP are organized in a sort of song-cycle, with the names all “The X” — was that the plan? Are they all meant to flow together somehow?
The whole naming convention just kinda came up out of nowhere one day, and the day has finally come where that song cycle is concluded. The second EP kind of ends the mental direction of the first two EPs.

All of these nine songs on the two EPs are meant to flow together in a pretty serious way, but a lot of it had to do with an undercurrent of my thoughts, concerns, and anxieties that came out on those songs. Being alone, madness, distrust, hope, entropy, tranquility. Lots of things. Lots of places I have been that I don’t find myself in now. The new LP will be in new places, where these two records never touched, which is a big part of their connection. I could answer this question better later if we talk in person.

Would you say the majority of your songs were “real,” based on real-life stories? Or are they all purely fictional?
As I touched on in my last question, many of the songs on our first two EPs come from deep emotions that I could relate to when I was first writing the songs. A lot of them are about places I’ve been, people I’ve met, strange circumstances I have found myself apart of. “The Snow” was a song people attached to quickly, partly because it was so transparently about me and my actual life. At least, I think that is true.

That song is about my girlfriend Caitlin. A girl I spent a lot of emotion and trouble on before I convinced her to love me. So in the end, most people don’t really get the end of “The Snow,” they just hear “you’re not dead” and think it’s over. But it’s not over; she is the love of my life now.

And more importantly, that song has rendered itself obsolete, not to the listener and those who have felt those emotions, but to my personal situation. I feel things along the lines of Jeff Tweedy, when he talks about once you write the song, it’s not yours anymore. So I feel no pain about the end of “The Snow” not being a tragedy. I have about six or seven songs that will be a conclusion to that song on the next record. And hell, those will end without a conclusion, and I will go on to express something else about those emotions, and so on and so on. That’s how you stay alive as an artist; you never set an end point, but when the end point comes for something, you don’t say “no” and reject it. You just start something else.

It’s funny, but not long after I heard the EP, I happened to be in London and ended up passing through the Holborn Tube station pretty regularly; is that where “This Is Holborn” gets its title?
Yes, “This Is Holborn” is about London, and specifically the Tube. I stayed at a hotel off of High Holborn, and that was what I heard every time I got off the train, that voice on the intercom, “This is Holborn, connection for Piccadilly Line. Please mind the gap.” London was maybe one of my favorite places to visit, and it made a pretty large impact on me. But I’m going to Berlin for this Christmas, so watch out!

Uh-oh — lots of songs about Berlin Hauptbahnhof? And by the way, I actually did end up listening to the song while riding the Tube back from that particular station to the west side of the city. Very cool.
Well, you’re not gonna get a song called “This Is the F Bahn,” but maybe something like that. That’s amazing that you could listen to that song there. That’s a huge compliment that you even thought to do that. I appreciate it, partly because I wish I had the chance to do that. I haven’t been back to the UK since, but maybe one day I’ll find myself over there and I can listen to it. That would be one of the rare times I get to relive a feeling that I once wrote about — it’s harder than it seems to accomplish a feat like that.

Is the new album aiming for something different from the first EP? Poppier, louder songs? A transition to death metal or jazz fusion? I hope it’s neither of the latter two, but you never know…
EPII is a bit more cleaned-up and professional-sounding. But overall, it doesn’t sound much different. The full-length album coming out in the near future will be a big stepping stone for some things I feel are the future of my music, along with the future of music itself. I know that sounds silly and overblown, but I’m chasing this type of expressionism in my music that I’ve been chasing for a long time, and this new song we are debuting at the FPH show will be the first step in my achieving some of my greater goals in songwriting and musical performance. The voicings, the timing, the mood, the attitude, the lyrical content. All of it has been pulled apart and searched with a fine tooth comb. The new EPII is more of a part two to the first EP, but the full-length will be something completely new and different. A new turning point for my career and life as a music lover.

Are you self-releasing the new album, like you did the EP?
Yes, the second EP is going to be self-released. We have no prospects for a record deal or anything like that. And we are not seeking prospects. There you go.

Not even thinking about ’em? I’m not talking Sony or anything, but I could easily see your music on, say, Merge Records, some pseudo-indie that’d let you do whatever the heck you wanted…
I mean, I could go on a pretty crazy diatribe about the current use for record labels, but I will hold myself back. All I have to say about that is most bands nowadays don’t need a label. Until we are selling enough records on our own to need some sort of representation and distribution nationwide, we will refrain. All anyone really needs nowadays is a booking agent and some sort of distribution campaign. But yes, it would definitely be an honor, though, to be a part of an institution like Merge or another label that has a collection of artists I respect and a track record for respecting those artists.

I love the cover you guys do live of The Mountain Goats’ “Going to Marrakech” — it fits perfectly and sounds like you actually wrote it, which is no mean feat with a John Darnielle song. Any hope of y’all ever doing “Going to Georgia”? While we’re at it, are there any other covers you do regularly?
Thanks for liking that cover; we love it, too. I am thinking about over time hitting some other Mountain Goats songs and making a collection of it. I’ve really wanted to do “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?” — that will probably be the next one.

We do other covers from time to time, including the National, “Mistaken for Strangers,” which is one of my favorite bands/songs of all time. We also had a really long period where we were throwing other people’s songs all over our songs because we got this gig to do every freshman orientation at St. Edward’s, and they were like, “hey, play some covers,” and we thought about it and said, “fuck that. Let’s just play our songs with other people’s songs inside.” So here’s a list of songs we stuffed in our songs:

    Sugar Ray – “Every Morning” (before “The Menu)
    The Strokes – “What ever happened? (After “The Menu”)
    The Strokes – “Is This It?,” The Toadies – “Tyler,” The Pixies – “Where Is My Mind?,” New Radicals – “You Only Get What You Give” (all together at the end of “Your House”)
    SemiSonic – “Closing Time,” Weezer – “Undone (The Sweater Song)” (in the middle of “The Night”)
    Coldplay – “Fix You” (at the end of “Marrakesh,” no less)

You get the idea. There are a lot more. They were packed sets.

Okay, now I’m confused — you were putting these songs in your songs? How the heck does that work?
Well, we figured out ways to play all these songs all in the same keys and worked them in through really careful and thorough transitioning. We were practicing more than we ever had before during that time. It was really tough, but super fun for all of us because we are huge ’90s music fans, and that was the bulk of what we were working with. I think we played a few shows in Houston where we played a few things in that style. It was pretty wild.

Since we talked briefly about it last time, here’s a bit of a leading question: what’s your take on the whole “Houston vs. Austin” rivalry? The real deal, or bullshit made up to fill up column inches in music mags?
Let’s get this straight: I like both cities immensely. I also despise both cities for their vanity and their mutual masturbation.

Most of the issue is Free Press Houston trying to get people to stay in Houston and be hip like them. The truth about people in power is they like to convince people who aren’t in power that they can achieve power by acting just like them. The same works with scenes and/or hip movements. Houston hipsters want people to want to be Houston hipsters. It’s strange how it works out.

Houston and Austin are not diametrically opposed; in fact, they owe each other for a lot of things. The hip kids in Austin would be nothing for their rich parents in Houston or Dallas. That brings up another topic. Houston should hate Dallas. Theres nothing wrong with that.

I’m totally down with hating Dallas.
Actually, my girlfriend is from Dallas, and if she reads this she’ll probably give me a hard time. But I don’t mind. END

Photos by J. Hart.

[The Eastern Sea is playing the Free Press Houston Westheimer Block Party/CD release show on Saturday, November 14th, at Numbers, along with about a billion other bands.]

Interview by . Interview posted Thursday, November 12th, 2009. Filed under Features, Interviews.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Big Enough for Almost Anything: Why You Need to Hear The Eastern Sea”

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Dance Down the Rain: Surviving Summerfest 2011, Day Two on June 20th, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    […] off before I realized who he was, I at least got to finally see Matt Hines’s dad, who read the interview I did with Matt back in 2009, following the first Summerfest and then, several months later and totally […]

Leave a Reply


H-Town Mixtape

Upcoming Shows

Categories

Archives

Recent Posts

Links

Our Sponsors