Brite Winter 2017 Artist Spotlight: Signals Midwest Age Gracefully

By Rachel Hunt / Photograph by Tommy Calderon

I’ve seen Signals Midwest play in about a hundred humid, musty basements-with-names; bodies pushed so close together that our sweat formed a lubricant for a few more people to squeeze their way in. From dive bars to festival stages, I’ve watched them play in a narrow, creaky-floored bike shop called Joy Machines one Brite Winter on W. 25th, so many voices singing along to “The Quiet Persuader” that the building shook. Yet in all the years that I’ve looked upon the same four faces, I’ve never seen them play here.

Gray wood grain panels line the walls of the finished basement in vocalist Max Stern’s parents’ house. Low pile carpeting and neutral sectional couches from the early 90’s shelve boxes of sorted band merchandise that Stern takes stock of before practice tonight, and his departure for Philadelphia.

“I’m really not moving for any particular reason. It’s purely because I’ve never lived anywhere else,” Stern shakes off the question. Maybe it’s nerves, or the fact he knows he’ll be back here in just a few short weeks, but until then the basement, which has served as Stern’s primary practice spot since he was fourteen, will remain quiet.

It’s hard to imagine a separate reality from the DIY shows, cheap beer, and porch hangs that Stern, bassist Loren Shumaker, guitarist Jeff Russell, and drummer Steve Gibson are associated with in my mind since their formation in 2008. After eight years, four albums, and several tours throughout North America, Europe, and Australia, (despite still practicing in his childhood home) the boys seem to be decidedly growing up. Work promotions, academic goals, and often challenging family commitments sit on the other, more mature, side of the coin.

“Real life is creeping in for sure,” considers Stern. “If anything, I think it makes it even more important to still have this as an outlet and stay connected to the way that we’ve had fun since we were kids. I think it’s a pretty crucial thing to hang onto as you get older.”

Their newest album At This Age was released in September via Tiny Engines, produced by Evan Weiss of Into It. Over It. The ten tracks are more complex than either Light on the Lake (2013) or Latitudes and Longitudes (2011) collections in instrumentation, innuendo, and delivery. The album establishes itself with intricate musicianship and a wider range of mood to create interest, instead of cashing in all of their chips on an LP full of pop-punk anthems.

“Our most recent recording experience really taught me to not get married to one specific idea, because you can try something live and play it a million times, but if you come up with something better in the studio then that’s what you should do,” Stern says of working with Weiss.

As someone who peppers his songs liberally with allusions to the Cleveland landscape (see “St. Vincent Charity”, “You’re Gonna Be Golden”, or “West Side Summer”), it’s bittersweet to think of Stern living anywhere else. Will the thrill of feeling in on some sort of joke soon be gone? It was the inclusiveness of the DIY community that made me listen to Signals Midwest in the first place; the elatedness of witnessing friends get to do something they’re passionate about that kept me hooked.

“I hope that there are younger people who come to Brite this year. There are a lot of really talented musicians who will be there and I’m just excited for them to see four goofballs bouncing around singing songs and having fun,” Stern says earnestly. “Hopefully that is inspiring to some of the younger kids who are thinking about starting bands and playing music.”

Maybe it’s time for a new generation of music lovers to latch on.

One thing that has come with age is a political agency no one in Signals Midwest had felt before, despite admiring bands like Bomb The Music Industry!Anti-Flag, and Against Me! during their formative years. “It’s probably a combination of us getting older and wanting to do more on our own, but also the world around us visibly needing more activism right now,” Shumaker says. “Even when we were kids, we did try to make a difference in our community by having a DIY community, but there’s other things you realize you can do too.”

On January 20th, Signals Midwest will play the first ever “Push Back” fundraiser and benefit concertat Mahall’s 20 Lanes, organized with Refugee Response, the LGBT Center of Cleveland, and Preterm in mind. “It’s a reminder that music can inspire and be a force for social change,” says Stern. “Or at least expose young people who aren’t thinking about anything but Snapchat and Instagram to bigger issues, and that’s an important power to wield.”

You can also see them for the first time at Brite Winter Festival in over three  years, on February 18th, 2017.

Watch Signals Midwest on YouTube