Interview: Silent Lions

Toledo boys with a Detroit stronghold, Silent Lions made their blustery entrance with 2012’s The Parliaments, a bass-heavy collection of slink and swagger. After a rigorous year of touring, Dean Tartaglia and Matt Klein return with their follow-up EP, The Compartments, harnessing their affection for distorting the bluesy script of their hometown glory with feedback, fuzz, and bombast. We talk to Tartaglia and Klein about their time on the road and writing The Compartments.

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“We now had six months of touring under our belts and we’re ready to catch that energy of playing together.” — Matt Klein on The Compartments

Following The Parliaments, you just finished up your second EP The Compartments. You’ve said in a past interview it gave you a chance to bring out an experimental side with effects you haven’t used before. How was your approach to The Compartments different?

Matt: We finished writing the six songs on The Compartmentsas soon as we got off the road in the summer and then went straight to Detroit to record with Zach Shipps again. The difference to The Parliaments was we now had six months of touring under our belts and were ready to catch that energy of playing together. We recorded the basic tracks in the same room facing each other with the amps right there next us. Essentially our live setup, so there is a lot more bleed and mid range nastiness to the rhythm tracks this time. We also put more emphasis on the trying vocal effects like phasers and all kinds of reverb. There is a push to find the strengths and differences of both our voices, with mine often in ‘female backup singer’ role, which I thoroughly enjoy.

You formed in Toledo and have a notably strong fan base in Detroit. With a sound so rooted in bluesy rock and R&B, how does where you live influence your sound and how it connects with your audience?

Dean: I think there are two sides to that questions. Being from Toledo, or really Ohio at that, and being a duo will always draw Black Keys comparisons. I think our goal from the start has been to take a sound, like ‘Brothers’, very organic and soulful and take it to outer space, something you wouldn’t expect from a “Rustbelt” band. I think there are definitely some more “metropolitan” aspects to our sound — lots of modern, sonic experimentation, a la Flaming Lips — that excite or surprise our audience.

I played in a band from Detroit called The Sights for years before starting Silent Lions, so our Detroit base hasn’t been random by any means, rather something I’ve been working towards for years now. At this point, for how often we gig and record up there, it really feels like home to us. I think living in Toledo but having the support of the Detroit scene has helped to challenge our creativity and maybe even branch out to make music and hold ourselves to a level of professionalism that you wouldn’t expect from Toledo. Not to knock our home town specifically, it’s just that Detroit’s scene is so vast, unique, hardworking that we stay very inspired by it and it fuels our creativity in a way that only a major metropolitan music city can — and please don’t forget that. I know it’s not LA/NYC/Nashville, but Detroit is still one of the music capitols of the US.

You’ve been together a little more than a year and already have two strong EPs and an extensive tour history behind you, with a number of show dates ahead of you in 2014. Can you tell us a little more about your songwriting process in between all the days on the road?

Matt: It can definitely be hard to find time to come together for an extended writing session, so often we collect melodies, riffs, and hooks separately and bring half formed ideas to the practice room. We jam on those fresh ideas and record the rehearsals to edit and make sense of. The strongest parts come together right away, and then we find inspiration to add new sounds, and refine or rearrange what’s there. We can do this on the road or while at home planning the next tour.

What’s been your favorite material to play live?

Matt: It’s always our goal to make every song we play live equally fun and challenging. Most of the technical challenge falls to Dean, who is singing and playing bass while triggering numerous sampler parts and operating vocal effects on the fly. Where as my challenge is more of the physical one of keeping the intensity and tempo locked in while singing and not running out of oxygen!

If you could play one place – your dream gig — where would it be?

Dean: I think I’m lucky enough to have already played that gig; about a year and a half ago I played to a sold out crowd at Red Rocks Amphitheater just outside of Denver Colorado, and at the time it felt like a dream realized. The Beatles and Hendrix have played on that stage, U2 shot the video for “Sunday Bloody Sunday” there, truly a piece of rock and roll history.

This was a part of a world tour with The Sights supporting Tenacious D. That night was the pinnacle of my career at the time, and it helped me quickly realize that despite all my successes as a side man, I knew if I wasn’t going to be writing, performing, touring with my own group and my own songs that I wasn’t going to be totally satisfied with the process. Just weeks after that gig we recorded The Parliaments and I realized how truly lucky I was to have reached a pinnacle as high as Red Rocks so soon and at such a young age, and lucky to be starting over with more passion and enthusiasm than ever before. I think it’s a great lesson to learn, that not only is it possible to play your dream gig, but that once you get there it doesn’t have to be the end of the road.

Whenever the band gets together, what do you listen to that always seems to make its way back into rotation?

Dean: Matt and I have a strong affinity for hip-hop, and I think you can definitely hear that in our sound and how we arrange our songs. The Chronic and Doggystyle were in heavy rotation on our summer tour (DS is a damn near perfect record), along with The Roots early work and Check Your Head. Matt turned me on to DJ Shadow and Del the Funky Homosapien and I spun a lot of OFWGKTA this fall. Our instrumentation lends nicely to a hip-hop/soul sound, and I think that is very apparent on our new record. Bass with my left hand, often looped. Samples with my right hand, similar to a DJ/producer. Lots of vocal effects and delay. Sax when the bass is looped, similar to an old soul sampled horn line. And Matt not only lays down the groove, but backs me up with “female soul vox” — his full voice is much higher when he sings. We are always listening to new music, and taking the drive times between gigs to learn as much as we can.

What’s your dream collaboration?

Matt: Right now we are enjoying an amazing creative and working relationship with local Detroit musician/producer Zach Shipps. He’s our unofficial third member and studio guru. But I’m sure if Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips/Tame Impala), Geoff Barrow (Portishead), or Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio) were ever viable options we’d love have them push our sound somewhere new. We will certainly end up collaborating with hip hop artists soon, maybe someone also from Detroit: Black Milk? Danny Brown?

What’s your favorite thing about playing in Cleveland?

Matt: Our favorite part of playing Cleveland is that, second only to Detroit, it feels like Toledo’s musical sister city. Its exciting to be active in the scene here and play such historic venues. Dean and I have both made the short drive from home to see and play so many shows in Cleveland over the years. Thanks for making Silent Lions feel welcome.

Keep up with Silent Lions on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and stream their music on Bandcamp.