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The Stereo: It's Only Rock & Roll

sloppy questioning by Jeremy Hart

The Stereo pic #1 Sometimes, out of the blue, you stumble across something really cool with hardly a hint of what's in store. That's how it went when I picked up Three Hundred, the debut by a Minneapolis/Austin duo calling themselves The Stereo. I knew they'd played in town once, but really had no idea what they'd sound like -- it was all new to me, a wild gamble with my hard-earned "real job" dough. And after the CD finished, it stayed in the Discman for a good three weeks solid; I just couldn't get enough of it. Incredibly well-crafted pop songs, plenty of singalong choruses, and lots of roaring rock-god guitars...Three Hundred is pretty damn near to a perfect modern guitar-rock album, if you ask me. So, in the interests of opening the ears of "alternative"-listening zombies everywhere, I was determined to find out more about this musical blindside, and caught up with the band's guitarist/singer/songwriter, Jamie Woolford, out on the road one afternoon.

SCR: Where are you guys at right now?
Jamie: Um...I don't know...I think we're in Virginia or something. But I think we're at the end of Virginia. Hold on a second...[to bandmate] What state are we in? Oh, we're in Kentucky.

Y'know, I hadn't even realized, really, that you guys were former members of Animal Chin and the Impossibles.
Yeah. Well, actually, right now Rory's not even in the band anymore, okay...

What happened?
Uh...he had to be kicked out; I guess it's not the safest way to say it, politely, but that's basically what happened. He and I weren't getting along, and I was gonna quit, but it ended up being that I really wanted to stay in the band, because I really like the band a lot. It was kind of like a "me or him" point, and the band decided he should go.

Didn't the Impossibles get back together anyway?
Yeah, well, that's partially why. That's partially why they're back together, because he's not in this band.

Sorry to hear that...
It's alright; it's cool. I mean, we're super happy the way things are now, y'know what I mean? We just got the Impossibles record, ah, yesterday -- it's not out yet, but we have an advance copy of it -- and it's awesome. We like it, and we're happy for Rory, and we're obviously happy for ourselves, 'cause we've got our new guitar player, Eric, who's just blowin'... We're just thrilled to be back on the road and stuff.

With Rory not being in the band, how's that gonna affect the music? Weren't you guys kind of co-writers on the album?
Yeah, he wrote four songs on Three Hundred, so it's like...it basically means we can't play those songs. And that's fine; some of those songs we're like piano songs, and we can't do 'em anyway. We don't do some of that slow stuff live.
But, it really hasn't changed too much, y'know. Three Hundred was written...there were like only a few songs that we actually wrote together, whereas most of the stuff was written beforehand, before we even decided to do the band, like on our own. Like, some of the songs I wrote for Three Hundred were written when I was still in Animal Chin, and I never got around to showing 'em to the band, y'know what I mean? It's cool, now that we actually have a real "band," uh, I just kind of write the songs, or just like a general idea of the songs, y'know? Like the chords and the vocal part and stuff, and I bring it in, and we just kinda like put it together. I think now we're a far better writing machine than we were when it was me and Rory.

It's more of a band effort, I guess.
Yeah, yeah.

So, who all's in the band these days?
The guy on bass, his name is Jeremy Bergo, and uh, the drummer is Jeremy Tappero, and the other guitar player-slash-singer guy is Eric Hanson [Ed. Note: Eric has since left the band on friendly terms, and has been replaced by Ross Felrath]. Excuse me if my voice starts to sound wobbly -- I'm in the bunk right now, and we're on a bumpy road.
[laughs] That's okay. Hazards of traveling and all that.

I remember reading at some point that you guys were gonna have another album out soon.
Yeah, we just actually...it just got finished, it's like being pressed right now. It's an EP, called New Tokyo Is Calling; it's a four-song record, and we just finished recording it with J. Robbins, again. We're stoked about it. It's definitely the best stuff we've done.

Is it the same direction, I guess, as the last album?
Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I guess if I had to describe it...I guess it's probably less "Weezer-esque," and more just kind of... I dunno, it's more 'us', I guess, 'cause I think each song on the record is a little bit different than the one before it, but it's still pretty rockin'. It's a really rockin' record. It's not like we're not rocking, but it's not that kind of L.A. pop-keyboard thing, y'know. I think Rory -- I mean, I'm a really big fan of [Weezer], too, y'know, but I think Rory, a lot of his style was influenced by that band.

That was the first thing I thought of when I heard the album.
It's still really poppy, it's just...I dunno. It seems more like us, as opposed to, like, our first record seems a lot like other bands. Y'know what I mean? [Three Hundred] was our first record, and we were trying to find out what we're doing and find our sound. This is one step closer to that.

The Stereo pic #2 This is where you make it more your own, than just going with your influences, and that sort of thing.
Right, right. Well, before we didn't want sound exactly like some other band, and as a result of that thinking, the album is pretty diverse musically, y'know? We have like these punk rock songs, almost, and then we have like a fuckin' six-minute piano ballad. It pretty much goes all over the place. Granted, this album's only got four songs, but I think it's kind of got a fine-tuned scope on things; I think it sounds more like the way I imagine our band sounds. I think our next record is going to be pretty different from anything we've done before, too. We're gonna really try to not drop another version of what we've done.

Have you already started working on stuff for the next one?
Well, we have a lot of the songs written... I'm kinda like at this weird place where I don't really finish songs anymore? I just kind of write until I think if I show what I have to the band, they can finish it. Especially now that these guys are in the band, I'd like to include them in it, not only because for them it's funner, but for me I think the songs are just generally better with more input, y'know? At the same time, they're smart, and they know what should be played and what shouldn't be played; they understand the artistic vision of the original idea. It's a lot of trust on both parts, y'know.
But getting back to my point, I write the song until I get to that point where I think the band can finish the song for me. And so I have about fifty songs like that, where I've got these ideas that all we need to do is sit down and arrange them. Y'know, most of 'em need, like, is a lot of lyrics -- that's the one thing I'm always really slow on, is lyrics -- but I mean, I basically have...I guess let's call them "shells." I have about fifty "shells" for the next record, that could easily be turned into songs. We just need to sit down and glue everything together. So, we're just gonna wait and see, and we're going to try to probably do a little bit of drum programming on the next record; there's going to be a little more piano stuff, too. Uh...there'll probably be some keyboard stuff, y'know. I think we might eventually try to incorporate some of this stuff into our live show, too.

I thought I heard a little bit of electronic stuff on Three Hundred, but I wasn't sure. I mean, no drum machines or anything, but there were a couple of weird little electronic 'touches' in there.
We have these cool little effects, like a tone generator, stuff like that. Generally, it's a rock record, y'know, recorded by two guys. I know this is kind of harping on stuff you've heard billions of times, but I was curious what kind of reactions you guys got when you first started going out on the road and touring. I know you came through Houston at one point, and I remember seeing that you were playing with a bunch of ska-punk bands, and stuff like that, so I kind of had you guys pegged as a ska-punk band. I figured, well, that's probably what they're like...
No, we're nothing like that. Especially now, we're leaning more towards not being a punk band at all. We don't really play that fast, and that's not our energy... Well, maybe we have a little bit of punk energy when we play, y'know, we jump around all the time, and we try to incorporate crowd participation for it. But, I mean, mainly we just try to write pop songs that we'd like to play, and something we'd like to listen to.
As far as reactions go... The first tour we went out on, in all honesty, we weren't very good. We were brand-new, a brand-new band that was basically thrown together right before our first tour, which was like five weeks. And then we got a lot better really, really quickly because of that, but...it's just like, when you're new, you're new. No matter how good musicians you are -- y'know, everybody in the band is a great musician -- you're new. It just doesn't work like that. You gotta get out, and you have to play, and play, and play, until you start to feel how each other member of the band plays their set song. And you have to kind of go in with them; it takes a long time to learn how to do that.
So, I dunno. I think the response that we got from people was really good, considering that we were kinda sloppy. Now I think we're getting to the point where we're a real band. We've been touring a lot, and we're, like, at the end of three days here of a three-week tour, or a three-and-a-half-week tour, and then we have five days off, and then we go for another ten days, then we have two weeks off, and then we do two more weeks, and then we come back for a week and then we do four weeks, and then we come back and we do another week, and then we go into the studio.

And then we go to Europe, after the studio, for five weeks. We're really kinda like a machine right now.

That's a major schedule.
We're booked until December, y'know what I mean? We have plans until December; I'd better not say "booked."

I guess you guys don't have day jobs or anything, in that case?
That's the funny thing, 'cause two of the guys actually still do, and we're at that crossover point right now where they're like... They're really good jobs, and when we get back they're gonna want to work at 'em, y'know, as much as they can and save up money. It goes back to that we're still really new, we're not making that much money at shows; we're doing okay, but it's like this is the toughest part right now. It's that middle ground, before you get big where you're struggling to be able to make enough money to pay for your touring, and at the same time, if you don't tour, you're never going to get past that stage.
It's like...financially, it's the hardest time, but it's also one of the funnest times, 'cause everything's still new. Nobody knows who you are, and people are seeing you for the first time, and I think people are generally more accepting of that. They haven't heard of us, and then after they do see us, they come up and they say 'you guys are great,' y'know. I mean, nobody ever comes up and says 'you guys fuckin' suck.'

Going back to the Weezer comparison, that wasn't actually all I heard when I listened to that album. For some reason, it reminded me a lot of Elvis Costello...I don't know why, entirely.
Yes! I mean, I love Elvis Costello, he's one of my favorite artists ever. That's probably why. If I thought about it, I could probably pick parts of the album that were influenced directly by certain Elvis Costello albums. I can't think of 'em now...

Have you guys just been touring by yourselves?
Yeah, generally. We've done dates with Pollen, Ultimate Fakebook, uh, we just did some Hot Water Music and Elliott shows. Next week, after this first five-day break, we're going to do Less Than Jake. Um...Edna's Goldfish, Slow Gherkin...

Lots of ska bands.
Well, not really; three. Edna's Goldfish, Slow Gherkin, and Less Than Jake are your ska-punk bands -- the rest are pretty much rock bands.

I was just kind of surprised, because it seems like -- especially these days -- when you get a bunch of bands going around together, they all tend to be the same kind of music? Especially with ska bands, they tend to stick together.
Well, that's just 'cause nobody wants to play with ska bands, y'know what I mean? Ska just doesn't do anything in America anymore -- I've seen it, 'cause I used to be in a ska band. I remember the peak, when Animal Chin used to do really well, and now...at the end it was just horrible. I mean, I didn't really care; I just liked touring and writing songs. But it got to the point where me and the other guys were like, 'y'know, we've fuckin' played these songs like seven hundred, eight hundred times. Let's not play these songs ever again.' That basically just resulted in us not doing it anymore. Everybody wants to do something different.

Was it a pretty amicable deal, though?
Oh, yeah -- very, very. I mean, we're actually getting together at least five days to record some songs for the re-release of one our records that's out of print, so...

What I've heard [of Animal Chin] doesn't sound that different from what you guys are doing now.
No. I mean, basically it's...Animal Chin started out as this punk-ska band, and I kinda don't really think of it as a ska band. I dunno, when I think of ska music that I like, I think Operation Ivy, Fishbone, and like The Faction, stuff that I don't really consider to be not punk rock, y'know? Besides some of the bands I mentioned, I think it's terrible, so candy-like, kinda -- I was never into it. But those certain bands, they had something that was like...it's kind of like eighties hard-rock, y'know what I mean? They had that certain sound that I like. But I'd say that 99% of ska bands around right now don't play ska the way...I just think it sucks. I think they're terrible, terrible bands. I mean, I could probably name of five or ten bands that I think are good, that I think are good pop writers, just good bands, period, and they play ska, but I don't really think about it, know what I mean? It's good songs.
But I think there's so much clichéd crap in that whole music scene, and Animal Chin just kind of so bored of that stuff so fast that we started playing whatever we wanted, this weird hybrid of everything. We used to take The Cars, and Rick Springfield, and Selecter; we'd kinda punch it into this thing, y'know, really weird. And as we wrote more songs, we got better and better; now I think I kinda know better, to write songs that I like, what I think I sound like...I dunno, it's kinda hard to explain. It's just different, and I think my songwriting's better, so...that's all The Stereo is. Compared to Animal Chin, The Stereo is better songwriting, and it's more what I want to sound like.

It's more just sort of you, as opposed to...
Yeah. Like, in this band I feel like if I want to sit down and write a six-minute piano ballad and throw it on the end of my album, I can. Where in Animal Chin...we got a lot of beef for it in The Stereo, y'know, because people didn't understand. But that's why I wanted to do it, to set a tone, that The Stereo's just fuckin'...we're not like some "genre" band. We're not a ska-punk band, we're not a punk band, we're a rock and roll band.

It gives you more freedom to do what you want.
Yeah, and I don't care if kids are like "well, I fuckin' hate this song, they suck." It doesn't matter -- don't buy my record, don't listen to it, I don't care. I gave up on worrying about that a long time ago -- as long as I'm happy, and the band's happy. END


Photo #1 courtesy of Fueled By Ramen Records; Photo #2 by Jeremy Hart.

All contents © 2004 Space City Rock, unless otherwise credited.