Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Signals Midwest

Though he recently graduated from Cleveland State University, Max Stern feels a dramatic distance between his ambitions and those of his peers—that privileged handful eager to pounce on “reality,” the perilous landscape that their parents warned them about, and conquer it, if not tear it apart.

Stern isn't interested in this idealized transition into adulthood, though. Instead of storming headfirst into an anemic economy, he has decided to focus his time and attention on music, at least for a little while. “I'm much more interested in just doing this,” he says, referring to songwriting, living in the city, and avoiding the siren song of so-called security. “I'll regret that soon, but I don't right now.” And, as he and his band Signals Midwest prepare to go on the longest tour they've ever endeavored (“It's going to take us across pretty much every state west of Ohio,” he states), Stern is reminded of the physical distance that separates himself from those around him.

The concept of distance fascinates Stern, who devoted Signals Midwest's second record to a discussion of the subject; released in 2012 by Tiny Engines, Latitudes and Longitudes captures something more central to the twentysomething experience than the leap from graduation to “reality”—something more universal, more mature, more real.

The whole of Latitudes and Longitudes emerged when Signals Midwest wrote “In Tensions”, the record's first track, which was unlike anything the band had written before. The song is a menagerie comprised of many animals—the winding, foreboding lead snaking out from the silence; the back-and-forth between the band's fierce, unified bark and the sleazy snarl of Stern's guitar; the sudden stampede driven by Steve Gibson's galloping drums, guitars roaring and rearing in time—each transitioning seamlessly into one another, different parts of the same beast.

As the stampede settles, a string of flickering notes rises from the dust, introducing the first verse; strung across Jeff Russell's gobs of guitar, dangling above the enormous mumble of Loren Shumaker's bass, Stern states that writing this simple string was a breakthrough for Signals Midwest. “We hadn't really done anything like that before,” he says. “Later, there's a part where it transfers from four-four to six-eight time, and we had never really done any time signature switching. There are quiet parts in it too; it's a much more dynamic song than we were used to. [When we wrote 'In Tensions,'] we sort of looked at each and were like, 'Aw, I think we're onto something new here.'”

During the second verse, Stern roars, “I chased after you / but the tempo kept increasing and my lungs began to freeze. / And as the darkness spread / I heard a voice that said,” until it suddenly shatters; as Russell's fuzzy chord fizzles into the darkness, as Stern's chords are splayed into slower but similarly flickering notes, he howls, “'Quit wearing those holes in your shoes. / Things don't exist just because you want them to.'”

Here, the members of Signals Midwest have not merely challenged themselves as songwriters; Stern, who challenged himself to write from an perspective outside his own, has stretched himself as a lyricist as well. “I wrote that from the perspective of my grandmother about my grandfather's mental illness,” he explains. “Distance can be applied in a lot of different ways there, whether it's physical distance between people or emotional distance, between life or death.”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of “In Tensions” emerges after a final swell of cymbals and climbing, stacking chords: As he strums his melancholy acoustic, Stern bellows, “I was counting the miles, you were counting the days. / Ain't it strange that the numbers we wanted were moving in opposite ways?”

That little lyrical couplet was very representative of what I wanted to talk about as a whole,” Stern states. “I was traveling a lot, experiencing a lot of new places, and my friends were starting to move away and make their homes elsewhere. So many people in my life started to stretch themselves out to other places and other experiences, and it hit me pretty hard in a lot of different ways. That was just me trying to make sense of a lot of that.”

This melody, combined with this lyrical couplet—he calls it “the coda”—returns throughout Latitudes and Longitudes. It appears in the last measures of “Monarchs”, the record's second song, and during “The Quiet Persuader” on side B; both songs feature a speaker stuck without a cell phone signal and desperate to bridge the distance he and his love. It returns during an eruption of distortion-drenched chords and spraying cymbals in the middle “The Weight and the Waiting”, the album's last song addressed reluctantly to the dearly deceased; minutes later, the song towers into its swaying, horn-blasted climax before returning to the winding, foreboding lead from the record's first few seconds.

The coda applies to the different kinds of distance that Latitudes and Longitudes explores—including the physical, the psychological, and the emotional; between the present and past; and separating socially expectations from what's personally fulfilling. And the theme of distance isn't explored only during these four tracks; it spans the entire record as a complete piece of art.

Maybe this is why Stern seems so comfortable with the distance between his desires and the expectations of the college grad. And maybe this is why he seems comfortable with the idea of distance in general, which tends to scare the shit out of typical twentysomethings. Maybe it's because he's explored this idea with such depth and intimacy already.

But maybe Stern's comfort stems from his passion for playing music. “It's not being able to say that we opened for this band,” he concludes, “or we did this tour or we sold this many records, but because it's just so fun to play music with my friends.”

Then again, it's possible that Stern isn't as distant as he feels from his peers. Perhaps he, too, is pouncing on “reality,” the perilous landscape that his parents warned him about. For now, he'll slide that degree into his back pocket and use music to explore the real world—and maybe conquer it, if not tear it apart.

Stern recorded these songs from his parent’s house near Cleveland on a hot summer evening. Days later, Signals Midwest would leave for a tour that took them through the Midwest to the West Coast.

“The Quiet Persuader" appears on Signals Midwest's 2012 record titled Latitudes and Longitudes. At the time of its recording, “The Things That Keep Us Whole” was an unreleased song that Stern intended to appear on the next Signals Midwest record. “A Lover Sings" is a Billy Bragg cover; the song originally appeared on the 1984 album Brewing Up with Billy Bragg.

Visit the band's Bandcamp page for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Three for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2012. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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