The Family Crest – The Interview

From time to time, when I tire of the reclusion of my fortified bunker bemoaning the dehumanization of the arts, the glittery technocracy of contemporary popular music, the closing of the American mind, and the lack of a decent cup of coffee, it's nice to get outside and find some good folks actively taking care of the first three items, and fully capable of delivering on the fourth.

A couple of months ago I got an email from my dear friends Adam and Eve (their real names) about a house show they were putting on featuring The Family Crest, a San Francisco band that was spending virtually the entire month in Seattle. I'd heard one song of theirs before on a website and enjoyed it. I couldn't make the house party that night, but said I'd try to make their end-of-the-month gig at The Tractor Tavern.

At sometime between those two points I grew to really admire The Family Crest. Not just for their music, which is artful, confident and stirring, but also for how they're challenging the boundaries of what a grass-roots band can be. Which is easier than it sounds when your band has 260 members and counting.

I should probably explain that last part to nervous hoteliers: The Family Crest have six core members, fronted by songwriter Liam McCormick, with Laura Bergmann (flute/keys/vox), John Seeterlin (bass), Charlie Giesige (drums), Lucas Chen (cello) and Owen Sutter (violin). In addition to that, everyone in the world is a prospective member if they join The Extended Family, an idea that's as gutsy as it's benevolent.

The Extended Family is the Family Crest's standing, open invitation to musicians, singers, and at least one dancer I know of, to join the band onstage or in the studio. Musicians of all skill levels are welcome. After assessing your potential contribution, they will either let you perform according to your instincts or, if they see fit, actually arrange your part before you play it.

My astonishment over that last part is a little oversized, just because I know writing a bunch of notes between tiny lines isn't easy. But the real wonder of The Extended Family is that it's a legitimate, uncynical, breathing covenant between artist and partaker, one that generates new ideas and interpretations on both sides of the fourth wall.

After hearing The Family Crest's driving and assured new album, The Village, and wrapping my head around how much can be accomplished with the idea of The Extended Family, I knew I had to talk to them. Fortunately they were in town for a long time, playing at KEXP, a bunch of open mics around Ballard, even more house parties, and the Monorail. Bands like The Family Crest were exactly who I was talking about when I was ticked off at those bitter old dudes last spring. Besides putting on an impeccable live show that deserves to be seen on a wider scale, The Family Crest is rejuvenating the idea of community by finding everyone's internal communal artist. We should be encouraging this band's behavior, avidly and with great support.

We spoke on a January afternoon at A&E's house in Fremont, immediately after Liam had made me what was, coincidentally, a damn fine cup of coffee.

There will be a sequel to this piece regarding The Kenmore Incident. It didn't fit here. But for now, read on:

Let’s start off with some general timeline questions. So, what’s your general timeline?

Liam McCormick: The band actually started as a recording project. John and I were in a group, and we were planning on leaving and doing something else not music-related. We’d been in various groups about five years and decided we wanted something we were proud of. So we talked about it, and came up with some funding. We really wanted to incorporate a lot of musicians. We outsourced by Craigslist, ad placement. We just wanted to have people to make music on the record, for the sake of making music.

We didn’t expect the turnout to be as good as it was. We had a ton of people respond. That’s where the record started being made. We did all of it ourselves, we worked and produced it ourselves. Learned about microphones, all sorts of reverb techniques…

John Seeterlin: About halfway through that was when it was starting to become apparent that we should do this live. We thought “We can’t do this live! There’s all this string stuff!” We’d never played in bands with strings. But people said, “No, you should play this live.” We started convincing ourselves, “Yeah, we could do this!”

Liam: But again, we weren’t planning on being a band. The group that we call the Extended Family, which is all the artists that perform with us that aren’t part of the core six – those are the people who wanted to see what this could be like live. They wanted to watch it and be a part of it. So without that Extended Family of artists, we wouldn’t actually be a band.

John: A lot of the record was just trial and error.

Liam: Well, it’s funny: A lot of the recording process was really smooth. It was mixing the record that was really difficult. Trying to put an orchestra together and make it sound organic when it’s been recorded all over the place, that’s very difficult.

You have to find somebody that’s really patient and awesome sonically. We finally hooked up with a guy, Jay Pellici, who worked for Tiny Telephone, which is John Vanderslice’s studio. He’s a beast. He would take a day per song, which is better than I could imagine for most people. We went through a ton of different things, and he just killed it.

So it took about two years, and at that point the band had pretty much just formed. The band’s been around for about a year and a half. This incarnation’s been around for about – when’d you join, Charlie?

Charlie Giesige: Ahh, six months ago.

Liam: Charlie’s the latest member of the band. We had a bunch of people jumping in and out of the core membership. And we have people jumping in and out of the Extended Family all the time.

So back to the orchestral parts – the strings were all recorded in different locations?

Liam: The goal was to open the floor for musicians not to have to sit in a space all together. We’re working with other people’s schedules, and we want people to want to be a part of the project. So instead of saying, “Hey, let’s put together an orchestra and have you guys rehearse,” it was more, “let’s find this group and record them.”

It was very improvisational when it came to the actual process. The meat and potatoes were there. I came to Owen and said, “I have all these string parts – what needs to be changed?” I’d never written strings. It’s kind of a way for the musicians that we work with to have a little bit of input on what they liked to play, what they think is gonna sound the best.

It’s almost the reverse way of putting a band together. It’s like you’re building an entire musical form on its end.

Liam: Which is what makes it interesting. You don’t get bored. We have certain shows where it’s just the six of us, then we have a show where we throw in a violin, horn sections… Because of that format, you have to be willing to go with the punches. A lot of things will come up, and you’ll have to find people to replace it, the group will change. A lot of the time we’re doing composition for performances days before, if not the day of, shows. There’s that question of when you’re just meeting someone for the first time that’s going to play and carry a part of – I just have to put my faith in the fact that they’re going to make it work. There’s an energy there. There’s that nervousness of the first time you get on the stage with them.

This must take an incredible amount of time. You’re writing these parts every single time someone new joins up, it’s gotta be an arduous process.

Liam: And it’s changed over the last two years, too. One interesting thing about being in the group is that I think everyone has grown in one way or another as a musician by being in the band. My writing has grown exponentially just because I’m learning first-hand from people what they like to play -- what sounds interesting to a trombone player and how we write for that instrument. Because of that, it’s kind of slowly become a second nature thing where you’re just throwing colors at the board. And the goal also is to make it for the fans. Eventually we want to have a series of shows where every single show you can see something completely different.

John: Right now since we’re just starting out, we kind of have to play as the core six a lot more. But the goal is definitely to have at least one or two people every show, whether it’s for a song or for the entire set.

Liam: It’s kind of like looking at the format of the Grateful Dead, with the Deadheads who followed them around on tour. But imagine if you could do that, and every show you’re hearing a completely different orchestration of this.

If those Deadheads were actually talented. (Laughter)

Liam: But yeah, it makes it fun for us, and it makes it fun for the fans to see different things at every show.

Were there any members of the Extended Family that made a big impact on you?

Liam: Honestly, almost every time we do a show with an Extended Family member, it’s memorable. One of our best friends is a violinist who sits in with us. I remember the first time playing with her was fantastic.
There’s a guy on the record who’s probably one of the best trumpet players I’ve ever seen play live. He just has this – I don’t know. He gets music on that next level. I’ve been wanting to record with him. I went to college with him at the University of the Pacific, a conservatory. I’d wanted to play with him for years, and I kept asking him to do stuff and it just kept falling through. Both of us were just not doing the right project.

Finally I got him in. He was actually an original core member, and then he got accepted to Cal Arts. I remember when he came in and we did all of all the voiced instruments in this 150-year-old church in my hometown, to get the right tone. Mike Rocha’s his name. He just killed it. I just remember sitting there… that moment was pretty heavy.

John: Personally, I played in rock bands. Before this I was doing metal. I’d never been exposed to any classical elements like that. It was always two guitars, bass, and drums. I think there’s a lot of points in the recording, like the first time we got the strings in there…

Liam: That was heavy.

John: And we recorded in a garage, too. We just looked at each other, like… (laughter) Wow, this is actually happening! There’s a lot of moments like that, and when Mike came in was one of those moments.

Liam: I think the strings were really good. We’d heard the MIDI versions of the strings before – which is lovely. But the first time I heard it, it was weird. I’d never written anything, and we heard it and it’s totally interesting language change.

John: It’s also how it was interpreted too.

Liam: That’s what makes everything memorable, no matter what they’re playing. You can have a trumpet player or a violinist come in and play the same part, but their interpretation is how it’s different.

It makes The Village constantly surprising.

Liam: I think that’s just a part of the orchestrated way we do recordings, too. We have a lot of parts written.

John: We have songs that have never been finished for years, too.

Liam: I’m super-ADD. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz. So I think mixing those two things, you’re always hearing different things. A lot of producers are like, “No, we’re gonna cap it here.” But we just record everything. And we’re always like, “We’ll record that and we’ll probably remove it, but it sounds so good…”

John: “Let’s record it and put the kitchen sink on it, and we’ll throw it away if it doesn’t work.” But we don’t really throw away anything.

Liam: John’s whole thing with bass… John played guitar with me in a band before. And I thought, “Well, (The Family Crest) doesn’t really need two guitars.” He said, “Well, why don’t I try bass?”

So I found him a bass and he locked himself in his room for two weeks. He comes out and says, “I think I got it.” And we sat around and played and he had it like… I thought he’d be picking around, but he was totally like a bass player. I said, “Maybe you’re supposed to play bass.”

John: I think that’s when I realized I was supposed to play this, ‘cause I hadn’t really progressed in guitar too much. I kind of hit a wall. It was okay, but I wasn’t bringing anything interesting to the table.

Liam: We'd been doing these acoustic shows. He was like, “There’s no bottom end – why don’t I play an upright bass?” So he goes out and buys an upright, and he locks himself in his room for two weeks…

Laura Bergmann: No, it was a week. A week later we played live on the radio. And he nails it.

Liam: Yeah, he calls me up and says, “I think I can do it.” So he comes over. I go to play with him, and his pitch is pretty much better than all of ours. He’s dead on. He’s playing it. One of our good friends Matt, who does all of our media, plays upright. And Matt was like, “A week?”

John: The thing that’s funny is that I play the upright like an electric bass. So I look really funny. You’re supposed to play with your right hand a certain way. But I play it like an electric bass, so I look really weird.

Liam: But he also rocks out, too.

John: Yeah, like rockabilly style.

Wait a sec. This was one week?

John: More than that.

Liam: No, it was a week. It was actually six days. I remember ‘cause I wrote it down. That’s ridiculous.

Can you explain that process of teaching yourself an instrument in two weeks? There’s got to be a cash cow of instruction manual writing in your future.

John: Well, it was a lot online. Most things I’ve taught myself recently have all been done online. I kind of got a beginning thing from there. Playing electric bass I sort of did it myself – I looked up some tips. But I mainly just listened to stuff and tried to play it. My favorite bass line is “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. It’s such a cool bass line. So I tried to learn stuff like that. “Josie” by Steely Dan. Then for the upright I mainly took what I knew from electric and did that. So I’d play it completely wrong, but I seemed to be not too far out of tune. (laughs)

One thing that struck me when I listened to the record – forgive me if I’m making assumptions – it’s very European in a lot of ways.

Liam: That’s actually a really good observation. Most of the record was written on a trip to Europe. It’s this super-clichéd thing – I was having a hard time in a relationship. I went out to Europe with a friend. The city we hit was Paris. It was this weird moment of walking along the Seine. The way I write – as soon as an idea comes in I turn it into a song as fast as I can, and then kind of drop it. I’ll listen to it later. I was walking along hearing all this music, and I wrote “North.”

And then I heard “Romeo,” which I’d written a few years before. But in the context of walking along the Seine, it started playing itself out. So in a period of, like, six weeks – between Paris and Scandinavia and Italy and Ireland – the record sort of played itself out. So yeah, it was a very European-influenced record.

“Sell Yourself Lightly” sounds like it has some Middle East strains to it.

Liam: That’s a weird one! If you’ve ever driven through Norway, there’s literally nothing. From Seattle to – what’s the city over there? Bellevue. From here to Bellevue would probably take you a day in Norway, because you have go around fjords and over mountains. So there’s a lot of sitting time. I listened to all these hundreds of tracks that I’d written and picked some out. That song came on in Bergen, Norway, which doesn’t make any sense in context of what it is. It kind of played itself out as a mix of everything.

I had it pegged as a Spanish tune too.

Liam: You know what’s funny -- when we were forming the actual record, the woman who helped me with the French translation on the record is an old high school French teacher. When I was playing the music, we were talking about the cover of the record and what we wanted it to be. I found this image online of this house which I thought was really cool. A village house.

I brought it to her, and before I showed her the image, she was listening to “Sell Yourself Lightly,” and she said, “This sounds like” -- I can’t remember the name of it – it’s this little village in Spain where Russian immigrants and Middle Eastern people, way back when, formed this community. It’s a mix of Spanish architecture, Russian architecture, and mosques. If you listened to the music that comes out of there, it sounds exactly like that song. So I picked this image based on that song. It turns out that the house is from that village.

There’s a lot of coincidence that seems to happen with you guys.

Liam: There’s weird stuff that happens with this band in our Extended Family. We did a bar party at a really great venue, Bazaar Café, in San Francisco. The owner, Les, is this really great guy that’s a huge supporter of local music. He joined the Extended Family, along with 30 other people, for this bar party we did.

One of our good friends, Avi, who plays in a band down there, had been playing at Bazaar Café for years. He knew Les really well. So both of them have profiles on our website ‘cause they’re both in the band. Avi’s mother was looking through all the Extended Family and saw Les. She said, “This looks like Lester.” And Avi’s like, “What?”

It turns out that Les is her uncle who the family hadn’t seen for something like 30 years. He’d just disappeared and moved to San Francisco; they’d just lost touch. He’s Avi’s second cousin. He’d been playing at this venue all this time, and they’re related. They found each other through the Family.

So I’ve got a copy of The Village here, and listening to it in sequence – well, actually I’m not sure I’m listening in the right order because I didn’t get track numbers with the files…

Liam: It should open up with something that scares children, because it opens up really quiet…

Is it the French instrumental?

Laura: No, that’s the last one.

Liam: It’s the one that goes, “Don’t let him stand in our waaaaay…” (“Before Your Father Hears Us”)

John: It starts out really slow, then…

Liam: We thought of a sonic grenade. We didn’t use any compression specifically on that song because we wanted to get people to jump. Every time you have someone sitting it they always turn it up… then it’s “Don’t let him stand in our…” boom!

That’s the last song on my copy.

Laura: You’re listening to it backwards.

John: Yeah, it’s backwards. The last song is “Rue Philippe De Girard.”

Liam: Oh, wow. That would be a really interesting experience.

“Before Your Father Hears Us” … I can see it being an anthem for kids. I don’t mean that to sound insulting. There are so many ways you could have gone with it. When one sees the song title they might connote that it’s about teenage sexuality, but what you don’t want the father to hear are actually spoken words.

Laura: It’s a really personal album for Liam… super-personal. He never talks about it. He says, “Someday I’ll talk about it, when someone asks me about it.” (laughter)

Liam: Yeah, it’s a very personal record.

Would you say it’s autobiographical?

Liam: Oh yeah. Well, I mean… it’s interesting. LIke I said, the way I write… I’ll have an idea for a song and ninety percent of the time I’ll have no idea what it’s about. So I’ll set up a recording device as soon as I get an idea, and try as hard as I can in a few minutes to develop a chorus. And ninety percent of the time I barely change the lyrics, because I have this feeling of… if I write lyrics six months later, the context is really different, emotionally. It won’t really have the same effect. Which is why the lyrics are kind of to the point, but they’re also out there in some ways. So, yeah, I found out what the record was about as I listened to it.

It was kind of therapy to make the record. Like I said, I was in a relationship with a girl for about four and a half years, and it was coming to a close. It was one of those things where you really love someone, but you know that it’s done? How to come to terms with that. So listening to it as I went, it was giving me the strength to say, “Okay, I have to end this.” And then after the fact, the ability to understand why.

Do the songs mean the same to you now as they did then, or have they taken on a life of their own?

Liam: I think they do. It’s different to sing now. It’s not really… painful anymore? But yeah, it means the same thing. “North” means the same thing, that’s pretty self-explanatory. I’m walking along the Seine, walking around observing things, totally out of my skin. And there was this moment of realizing, “Okay… I can’t be with you anymore. I want to be the man that loves you forever but I can’t. I’m just not that person anymore.” That’s really a scary thing to realize when you’ve been with someone for so long, you know? That you’re not that guy.

One thing about the Extended Family that I was wondering… obviously with a personal album, it’s one thing to go into a studio and close yourself off and say, “Okay, I’m going to bleed all over the studio and leave it out there.” Like Joni Mitchell did with Blue. She had a really small group of musicians to convey her meanings to. But you guys have 260 people, and I’m wondering if they interpret your songs in a way that’s revelatory.

Liam: Yeah, and that’s what makes it interesting. People interpret lyrics differently and that changes their perception of it. Ari had never read the lyrics to “Upon Cobblestone Streets,” and she never realized how sad that song actually is if you break it down. When she got the record, she’d probably played ten shows with us. Then one day I sang something acoustically, and she was like, “Oh, that’s what you’re saying.” And it changed her performance. That’s what’s interesting, to see how the music itself changes with various interpretations.

Laura: The most interesting Extended Family members to watch when it comes to the lyrics are opera singers, because it’s part of their training to really understand and study lyrics. The visual aspect of their performance to them is just as important as the musical aspect. So it’s interesting to see what each opera singer does with each song.

And they often have to transcend the barrier of language to get their songs across.

Liam: We have the next few records written, we just haven’t begun the recording process yet. But one of the songs, I don’t sing on it – there’s just this girl singing opera. And that’s going to be interesting, because if it’s not done exactly right it won’t be as powerful.

John: That’s how we do it – like “Before Your Father Hears Us,” four different people recorded that. It was kind of like our version of Steely Dan’s Aja, where they brought different bands to record the song, and they went, “Nope. That’s not it.”

Liam: But when you listen to it, it has nothing to do with… we don’t toss somebody in there and say, “This is yours.” It has nothing to do with talent or skill at all, because every take we got was amazing. It’s just somebody’s going to have that thing that really makes it speak.

It’s a really confident album, as well. It’s not easy, especially with your setup and goals. But you don’t betray one bit of insecurity in how you guys play. Or maybe you just ignore it. (laughter)

Liam: At least for me, when I get up on stage, I don’t have to worry about if someone can carry themselves. I think for a lot of bands that’s the big thing – you get up on stage, is this going to hit on the right mark? I have a lot of confidence in everyone I play with, and that makes you a lot more fearless. You’re not thinking about anything but what you’re doing. I think that comes with the amount of practice we’ve all put in.

And I think that helps with the Extended Family as well, because they come into it and… it doesn’t really matter. It’s going to be amazing whatever happens, because it’s going to be that moment. That’s something you can’t really replace. Whatever you do, we’re going to love it. And having that outlook and confidence in not making anybody feel like they’re going to screw up – they’re not going to screw up. That’s the way we do things.

Laura: It’s also very not classical. (laughter) The majority of our Extended Family members are classical – at least half. It’s interesting to see this shift that happens, to see them perform classically – we all go to see their concerts – and then to see them do what they do. It’s a whole different dynamic.

Liam: The coolest thing is when you get people from different genres. When you get a jazz trumpet player up there that doesn’t partake in classical, and then you get a bunch of classical musicians. They’re coming from two different places. And there’s confidence in different areas. You kind of see that. When a jazz trumpet player gets up and they have a solo, we get to take more bars because we get to sit back and let them do it. And they just kill it, every time. But then when it comes to the sheet part of it, they’re like, “Wait… how exactly do you want this?”

Whereas classical musicians, a lot of them are uncomfortable with improvisation. They’ll play everything like it’s written and memorized. But we try to not make anyone uncomfortable.

I’d think you get a lot of people in there who like the chance to play against type.

Liam: Yeah. The other interesting thing is when you get somebody from the classical side, it’s like they’re playing extremely complex stuff most of the time, playing extremely fast, complex things. Very intricate. Then our stuff, compared to Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, it’s like – pfft! And then you have people who don’t really play that often, and they’re coming out and singing with us.

When we played Café Du Nord in San Francisco we had a 30-piece choir that we hid in the audience. Then when a song came on, suddenly the books popped up and everybody was surrounded by a choir. And half the people in choir – actually, a fourth of the people were trained opera singers. Another fourth were people that do pop music. But then we had a bunch of people who really hadn’t sung outside of their shower, publically. There’s this interesting vibe coming from different areas, in terms of nervousness and trusting each other.

Laura: It’s nice, though. It’s educational. Which is something we obviously think is very important, music education. For me it’s really great to see opera singers with music, explaining something to someone who’s never looked at music in their lives.

Liam: That’s another thing… I didn’t write this thinking, “I’m gonna make a record that’s classical music and indie music.” That’s not what I wanted to do. It just kind of happens that people kind of relate classical music to it. I think a lot of classical musicians who play with us learn a lot from the pop style players as well. ‘Cause they have to. How do you play this song without sounding really constricted? How to breathe in the right way for pop music. It’s a whole different ballgame. I think everyone that comes in takes something from it.

There’s this perception that the music business is unhealthy, but I think it’s the exact opposite right now. Artists are taking more of their own initiatives, handling their own marketing, everything a record company used to pay out millions to do. They’re taking charge of their own identity. And this is the most logical extension of that – you’re not just promoting yourselves, you’re actually taking an entire musical form and stretching it.

Liam: It’s more important for us to promote music than anything. And I agree with you when it comes to where the music industry’s gone. The only thing that I don’t want to give the music industry right now is that song-by-song basis. I’m a huge proponent of buying the hard copy. Vinyl’s great because it kind of forces you to listen to a record the way the artist wanted you to listen to it. But a CD is the next best thing. The hard thing right now is that someone listens to a song, and they’ll buy that song. I encourage anyone who likes any band’s music to buy a whole record and listen to it.

When I was in eighth grade, Third Eye Blind’s first record came out, and obviously I liked the hits. But my favorite songs from that record are not the hits. They’re the ones I found, like, two or three weeks later. That’s something that’s really lacking from the listener nowadays. I mean, it’s kind of coming back. Vinyl’s coming back, and hard copy purchasing is coming back to some extent.

In my generation, the album was the main unit of consumption. Right now it’s a lot like it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where the single was king. But I still think there are people who prefer to get a whole lot at once. The attention span is coming back.

Liam: I hope so, man. Well, the music industry’s looking good in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of really, really good musicians. I mean, right now – St. Vincent, Wilco. Andrew Bird? I mean, holy crap.

Now it seems like bands that would not have had that foothold on the charts in the ‘70s and ‘80s… I mean, Andrew Bird has a Top 10 album. It’s probably less important than it used to be, but still…

Liam: The internet has changed everything. There are so many bands at Coachella that I was so surprised to see… we can’t make it, but I’m excited for everyone who gets to see that show. They did a really good job with the lineup this year. It’s almost like looking at an under-the-radar magazine spread, which you wouldn’t expect to see in popular music.

You know that as a rock band you’re entitled to not be so generous, right? (laughter) You realize the business you’re in?

Liam: Yeah, but… Honestly, when we set out, I really want to play with everybody. My goal eventually would be to create moments for people that they can’t replicate. I’m joking around, but I’m dead serious when I say I want Marilyn Manson and Yo-Yo Ma playing with us at one concert. Both in the Family, both wearing our colors. Because you never, ever see that! A part of it is we like making music and we want to make music with everybody if we can.


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