Interview: Signals Midwest

Recorded over two weeks in Cleveland, Signals Midwest unleashed Light On The Lake, the follow-up to their acclaimed sophomore album Latitudes & Longitudes, in the fall of 2013. Since then, they’ve been on the road non-stop, sharing stages with the likes of Kevin Devine and The Front Bottoms, and are in the midst of planning a European tour. We talk to Signals about writing and recording Lake, how their writing has shifted since Longitudes, and tales from the road.

Signals Midwest plays Joy Machine Bike Shop at 11 p.m. View the complete Brite Winter lineup and schedule here.

Select interviews will be printed in the Premium Guide Book along with CD samplers of  Brite artists given as a reward to Kickstarter backers. // Interview by Nikki Delamotte

“The quality of people we’ve been lucky enough to meet by playing in our little band is completely astonishing.” — Max Stern

On Light On The Lake, the follow-up to Latitudes & Longitudes, you played with pedals, different amps, and had a few guest musicians featured. Are there any particular parts of this album that really stood out as a departure or that the band was in general just really excited about how it came out? 

I think we’re all pretty thrilled with how the song “St. Vincent Charity” turned out. It’s in a weird tuning and most of it is pretty spacey and slow, but it still sounds like us. The first time we played through it together, we all kind of looked up from our instruments at each other and smiled and were like, “Okay, we’re on to something new here.” Getting our friends in Restorations to sing on it was the icing on the cake – we’ve become good friends over the years and look up to them a lot.

Would you say the the songwriting dynamics naturally shifted or developed between the band since the release of Latitudes

I don’t know if the songwriting dynamics shifted that much between this record and Latitudes, but the musical dynamics definitely did. We’re not afraid to give songs more space to build and swell and develop, and we don’t feel a need to play everything at breakneck speed anymore. I think the average speed of a Signals Midwest song decreases by 20 beats per minute or so every time we put a new LP out. Look out for a real bummer of a shoegaze record in 2015.

Speaking of recording, you’ve mentioned for Light On The Lake there was a 12-minute song you split into three parts. Can you give us some more details on how that trilogy ended up playing out throughout the album?

Writing a three-part song was a move very much influenced by the Weakerthans and Bomb the Music Industry! Bomb in particular would always bookend their records with similar musical themes or have multi-part songs — see the “King of Minneapolis” suite for reference — and I just thought that was great and made their albums sound really cohesive. We’d been experimenting with a bunch of riffs that I wrote in this weird open tuning and we were joking around about how crazy it’d be to just mash them all together into one big song. After a couple practices, it started to break into three separate parts that can each function individually on their own or as a full 12-minute block. Sometimes we’ll just play parts 1 and 2, sometimes just 2 and 3, sometimes 1 and 3, or maybe just one of them. I like doing the whole thing, though – recalling the intro riff from “St. Vincent” with the full band at the end of “An Echo, A Strain” is really fun. It feels like an accomplishment by the time we hit that last note.

You’ve been on a whirlwind of touring since the release of Light on the Lake. You’ll also be in Australia in the next few months. How has it been out on the road promoting the new album? 

I’m lucky that I work a job [freelance graphic design] that allows for a pretty busy touring schedule. Sometimes it’s a battle to get away, and it’s getting more difficult to do as we get older and deeper into the rest of our lives. Between Signals, Meridian and my solo stuff, I’ve pretty much accepted that I’m just going to live this weird transient lifestyle where I’m gone two weeks out of every month. It’s not forever, but it’s what makes me happy right now.

The response to the new record has been great and people are pretty accepting of the songs that are a bit of a departure for us. “In The Pauses” goes over really well — I love how dynamic that song is and how it has a million parts. The end of “An Echo, A Strain” is probably the most fun thing for me to play live right now. It’s just sludgy and heavy and huge and we get to pretend we’re Torche for about 45 seconds.

What’s been some of your favorite material to play live? Any favorite memories from the road over the past year? 

We toured with labelmates Dikembe and Run, Forever over the summer of 2013 and they were two really special tours. The quality of people we’ve been lucky enough to meet by playing in our little band is completely astonishing and very inspiring to me. The show we played in Montreal with Run, Forever over the summer was one of my favorites. Steve jumped off a rock into a lake earlier that day and sliced his leg up really bad. 14 stitches and one really intense border crossing later, we played a packed basement show in 95 degree weather in downtown Montreal. Everyone was out back drinking absinthe and speaking French. It was weird and great.

Latitudes & Longitudes had a running theme on distance and being on the road, while Light was more about finally coming home and seeing constants change – it shines through particularly on “Great Plains”. What period of time was Light written?

Yeah, that’s pretty much dead on. Light was written at a pretty transitional period in my life where most of the constants I had grown accustomed to over the past few years — jobs, relationships, living spaces — were changing. Lyrically, the whole record was just me taking stabs at processing and understanding those transitions. I guess I also tried to focus a little more on writing hooks and lines that would sound good as a chorus or with harmonies. I usually want to cram a million syllables into every line, so I tried to cut back on that a bit as well. I don’t know. I just kind of write what comes out — things I’ve actually lived. I’m not good at writing fictional songs. Maybe I should try — or at least start to self-edit more.

Since putting that record out, I’ve written another 40 or 50 songs. I did a little project with Meridian called “The Harvest Month” where I wrote one song every day for 30 days and put it online for free. I know the songs I’m coming up with now are different — maybe a bit more tempered and straightforward? I’m just trying out new styles of writing and content. We’ll see how it plays out.

Can you tell us a little about the cover art for Light On The Lake?

That was Jeff Finley from Go Media who put that together. We went through a bunch of iterations where the cover was from the perspective of a rowboat out in the middle of a body of water, but ended up scrapping it when Jeff came up with that little “flame” image. Chuck and Will from Tiny Engines are really into trying out different packaging ideas, so they had the idea of foil-stamping that little flame on the cover and matte printing the rest.

I guess the concept isn’t anything new – searching for a light in the dark. Trying to make sense of it all. Processing and understanding. That’s pretty much the lyrical impetus that I’ve operated on ever since we started this band.

Brite takes place every winter. What’s your favorite thing about winter? Favorite outdoor winter activity? Favorite winter memory?

I was a pretty active snowboarder for a while. Loren and I became friends because we did ski club in high school together. We’d ride the chairlift up and throw snowballs at people and trade off rapping Beastie Boys songs. We were jerks, but we were jerks together, and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Visit Signals Midwest on their official website, keep up with them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter.