ISSUE #43 / January 17, 2019
JC: Jake Chatfield
MN: Max Niemann
CCS: Not much is out there on you all yet. Can you give us a rundown on members and a bit of the origin of Family Vacation?
JC: It started about two years ago as my “solo” project. I made an album called Are We Criminals? that we’ve since disowned because it was really too low quality for even a bedroom rock band like ourselves. You could call it a cautionary tale of DIY and lo-fi ethos gone too far. Max and Bob were also on that album, but their roles were limited, so they shouldn’t be held accountable for it. The band first took real form when we started conceptualizing this album and then again when we enlisted Alex Niemann and Pete Cimbalo to fill out our live rhythm section.
CCS: Your new album America was self-released. Where did you record, and what was the process, because you captured a kind of intimate immediacy that makes you feel like we're in the room with you all?
JC: Yeah, the whole thing started from a really intimate place. Before it was America, it was still an album about discomfort and uncertainty and doubt. We would have these cigarette therapy sessions on Bobby’s back patio where we’d just talk about how we were feeling and try to figure out where we’re overlapping so we could know what kind of album we wanted to make. It wasn’t until later that we made the connection that America the country was also going through similar growing pains.
For the songwriting on my end, I treated America as a sequel to our now-disowned album Are We Criminals?. That album is about a person who’s accused of doing a shitty thing and he consequently invents three amorphous pseudonyms to potentially carry the blame. He didn’t do the thing he was accused of, but he tried to do it and was found guilty for it anyway. By the end he takes responsibility for it and does away with the aliases. So for me, America starts with a narrator who’s just looking himself in the mirror for the first time and realizing all of the other issues he has beyond that one mistake he spent all of Are We Criminals? ruminating over. You could try to read into how that applies to America the country too, but I won’t lay out my thoughts on that here.
“Foreign Shapes”, which is the last song on America, was the first song we did and we always knew it was the closing track, long before the album was even called America. So we had the goalposts set early on and, in my songwriting, I was just trying to bring the conclusion of Are We Criminals? to “Foreign Shapes” in a clean and sensical way. America isn’t a true concept album like its predecessor is, but I’ve been calling it a thematic album because we tried to give it a distinct setting and tried to stick to several specific themes throughout.
Most of the recording was done in Bobby’s basement in Libertyville, IL. I think that intimacy comes in part from how long we’ve known each other and have been playing together, but the album was doomed to be inherently nostalgic from the get-go since we were writing and recording it in our hometown after having moved away. When we were teenagers playing together, we were given the advice that an album is a time capsule so we very much were trying to make an “of the moment” album, but nostalgia can be tricky to keep at bay when you’re surrounded by so much shit that makes you nostalgic. I also think that we constantly felt that the moment was fleeting, like if we didn’t get those songs down right then and there they’d pass us by. Personally, I had an additional fear that someone else was going to do exactly what we were trying to do before we got the album out so that gave at least me a greater sense of urgency, too.
The other thing I’ll add that we did that I don’t think is common is that we were writing and recording at the same time. So we kind of had the opportunity to be responsive to how one song sounded on tape when we wrote the next song or had the next idea. Logistically that’s a nightmare of a way to make an album, but it definitely allowed us to have a more conversational relationship with the material.
MN: We definitely placed a fire under our own asses to make sure we saw this thing through to the end. We’d really never stopped recording demos and sharing songs with each other, but once we had formulated a sort of nebulous idea of the album’s trajectory there was definitely a sense of urgency to get the songs down. One of us would bring a bare-bones song structure or progression to the table and then we’d basically arrange and structure the songs out as we recorded them. It was really a pretty exciting process, we never quite knew where a song would end up.
That being said, that in-the-moment collaboration was the process for all of Jake’s songs, but only some of mine. There’s a few that I mostly did by myself. Any hiccups in the cohesiveness of the album probably comes from that fact. Even then though, I feel like the music all works together. The more pressing issue on my end was staying in line with the thematic groundwork we set in place. It seemed to just happen that we were all in similar places mentally when we started talking about the kind of record we wanted to make and the kind of feelings we wanted to convey. We’re all staring down the finish line of graduating college, a complete overhaul of the lives we’ve been living for the last few years. I wanted to tap into that liminal feeling of rootlessness and how it can be paralyzing while also bringing some personal clarity. There’s a line in the song “No Destination”, “I came to the crossroads and stood still as best I could”. When I wrote it, I meant it to be pretty self-condescending; here’s someone who knows he has to make some big alterations and decisions very soon, but he’s just going to waffle on the edge instead. But I’ve also begun to see that line, and really the whole narrative of the record itself, as something less entirely pessimistic. Like Jake said, this record is snapshot of a moment in our lives. We’re taking stock of where we stand. There’s melancholy looking back and anxiety looking forward, but we’re moving. We might not know exactly where, but that’s the whole big experiment, of this country, of our lives. I think that’s where the thematic focus and the actual formation of the album were really in sync. There was a nervous fervor underpinning the whole process that kept pushing us forward.
CCS: There's a ton of evident influences throughout your tunes but what are a few major acts that you look to for inspiration?
JC: Obviously have to start with Simon and Garfunkel since our album was largely inspired by their song aptly called “America”. Other than that, I was listening to a lot of Courtney Barnett, Craig Finn and other kind of mainstream indie acts. If I were going to throw in a wildcard that you might not guess was an influence, I’d say the Killers are a band I was frequenting throughout this. I also did some deliberate research listening of some older American music to try to incorporate that a little. Like for example, “It’s Growing (And I’m Feeding It)” was originally structurally inspired by “The Buzzard Lope” by Bessie Jones and for “A Man Without A Country” I was trying to draw on old Western movie soundtracks for that chorus lead guitar. But overall I’ve found that my songwriting is usually a larger reflection of what I was listening to like two years prior than what I’m actively listening to while writing.
MN: I feel that too. This record was a sort pouring out of things that we’d been mulling over throughout college. That being said though, we’ve always had a couple sort of fundamental influences. Pavement is the one that people seem to call us out for the most. We’ve always been pretty rooted in that 90s buzzy, guitar rock sound. We really wanted to expand beyond that guitar-bass-drums dynamic with America though. Personally, I was listening to a lot of Wilco while we were recording this stuff, Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel, especially. There’s such a cool blend of instrumentation on those records, just straight up rock with all sorts of other timbres and sounds. Pianos, strings, straight up noise. I think we wanted to approach the music of America with a similar mindset; that anything is fair game if it works with the song.
CCS: You're on hiatus from playing shows at the moment because you're not all in one place. How do you keep in touch while you're away from each other? Do you get together digitally?
JC: Yeah for sure. We talk almost everyday and are constantly bouncing ideas around. It’s usually texts or Snapchats or whatever, but if I’m particularly excited about something I’ll call Max or Bob. It’s like that even when we’re home honestly; I remember about a week before America dropped, Max sent me a wall of text because he thought I was too excited for our next album and wasn’t going to do shit to promote America. I guess he had a point since I’m hijacking this America promo interview to talk about that.
MN: Due time bud, due time. But yeah, being split up during the school year probably got to be one of the bigger challenges of this whole process, especially during mixing. There were plenty of nights I spent in the studio banging my head against the board because Jake wanted some part a little bit up in the mix, and then back down again. Most of that was really just him telling me to turn my leads down, though. But even this interview is an extension of this weird, separated correspondence we have to have with each other. Even if we wanted to, there’s no way to be micromanaging each other. We have to trust that the other guy is doing what has to be done on his end. But we also always have to be constantly checking in as we make moves, making sure we’re still on the same page with whatever we’re doing.
CCS: Any plans for future shows or any touring on your horizon?
JC: I’d rather just do the next album, but I get why shows could be more productive. So, no, no concrete plans as of now. I can fairly confidently say there’ll be something by this summer, though.
MN: We’ve talked about putting together a string of shows around the Midwest this summer, but at the very least we’ll be playing a show or two in and around Chicago.
CCS: There is a defunct band named Family Vacation out of Washington, any relation or did you know of them?
JC: We just want to get big enough that one of us have to sue the other.