Monday, June 10, 2013

By Surprise

By Surprise is a band that doesn't try too hard.

That's not to say that the band doesn't try at all. On the contrary, during the band's seven year existence, the members of By Surprise have been busy releasing a series of catchy, rambunctious records, including Criteria, the three-song follow-up to their first full-length Mountain Smashers. Instead, bassist Dan Saraceni believes it's best not to force success—that healthy bands take opportunities as they come, but don't overdo it. "We're really loose with how we go about things," he says. "We move at such a slow pace, and we've always been that way. Sometimes I want to go at a faster pace, but sometimes you need to let things come to you, just let things happen."

If By Surprise continues to just let things happen, he says, then he and his bandmates will achieve what they want from the band: fun.

One way that By Surprise lives this laid back philosophy is by choosing not to tour, opting instead to play locally and comparatively less often. Though this seemingly counterintuitive strategy is as much a choice as it is a necessity—guitarist Rob Wilcox lives in New York apart from the rest of the band, who have accepted additional commitments as they advance into adulthood—Saraceni says, when touring becomes a band's priority, it can sometimes tear the team apart. "A lot of bands try to tour a lot, and, in many ways, it burns them out," Saraceni says. "Sometimes when you go too far too fast, when you're burning a candle at both ends, it affects your band. 

"I was in a band for a long time that was stressful," he continues. "It was like a job. We were trying to tour all the time and it wasn't fun. Part of the reason why I left that band and really focused on By Surprise more is because it was fun; it was just my friends and I had a really good time playing it." 

Guitarist Pat Gartland argues that performing less often is a secret to By Surprise's success. "In terms of the Philly/South Jersey scene," he explains, "we're one of the oldest bands because of the fact that we rarely play shows. We live our lives, get together and jam and write songs, record and play shows." In other words, they make the band a part of their lives instead of revolving their lives around the band.

There are downsides to adopting such a philosophy. "People just assume that we don't play shows," says Saraceni. "So when people message us about booking, every email starts of the same: 'I don't know if you guys are a band or not, but we'd like you to play this show.'"

Released by Topshelf Records in early-2013, Criteria reveals a band that is not only active, but at the top of their game. Gartland's smooth voice sails across the record's title track, which alternates between folky, fidgety verses and choruses that are enormous, chaotic, and unsuspectingly catchy. On "Wear That Crown", Gartland's guitar jangles and Wilcox's chords smear across Devin Carr's stuttering hi-hat and popping snare while Saraceni's confident voice keeps its balance on the busy rhythms. Both songs are stylistically difficult to describe—melodic and memorable, the sort that might loop around one's head all day, but too noisy and nervous to be considered pop alone.

"I hate to use the term 'slacker rock' because you think of that early-90s alt-rock-grunge slacker mentality," Saraceni says. "In a way, it's almost like that, but it's not. We're kind of sloppy a lot of times. We just have fun and whatever happens happens."

"People have called us spaz rock or whatever," Gartland adds. "When we were first doing shows and there were taglines describing what kind of music we played, and someone called us spaz rock."

"The newest one is on a show coming up," Saraceni continues, "and the promoter on the flier described us as 'triumphant emo in the vein of Cap'n Jazz,' and I was like, 'What does triumphant emo mean?'"

Both Saraceni and Gartland agree that the EP's third track "Way to Be Tall" seems to capture By Surprise best. Teetering uneasily like a lumbering monster, the track is not only catchy in that same anxious way, but expresses the fun that's so central to the band. "My brother and I used to go to these Monday night volleyball pick up games," Gartland explains. "There are all of these guys in their fifties that take it so seriously—like, they used to play professionally—and get really picky if you don't play the way you're supposed to. So we were playing this other guy and I think my brother spiked it on him and this guy was like, 'Way to be tall!' like it was some insult. And he was like that every night." 

Lyrically, "Way to Be Tall" captures the complicated emotions that arise while playing volleyball against post-prime players with bad attitudes—and, they admit, expresss a silliness that makes their band more fun. After all, that is the reason why Saraceni and Gartland are playing music at all, let alone with each other. "That's the thing. We kind of made a decision that By Surprise is the four of us," Saraceni concludes. "If anyone didn't want to do it, we wouldn't replace them. Without sounding like we're selfish—like we won't let any outsiders in—I just don't see By Surprise being anybody but me, Pat, Rob, and Devin. Part of the philosophy we have is that we want it to be just us having fun being friends making music. And our sound really comes from that."

This is why the band doesn't want to try too hard—they don't want to dilute the fun with work—and also why they don't have to: By Surprise is already achieving their ultimate ends.

Saraceni and Gartland recorded these songs from Saraceni's parents' house in Cherry Hill, NJ on a sunny late-spring afternoon. Both played acoustic guitars, which was a slight departure from Saraceni's regular role as By Surprise's bass player.

"Criteria" and "Wear That Crown" appear on By Surprise's 2012 EP titled Criteria; "Right in the Kisser" is a special bonus track from that same EP. "Battle of Snowmeng Mountain Pt. II" was recorded by By Surprise for Arbor Christmas: Volume 12, a compilation that accompanies an annual Christmas show in honor of a deceased friend.

Visit the band's website for more music.

To download these tracks, click on the song titles and download them from the player at

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