Their ethereal melodies, thoughtful harmonies and absorbing instrumentation make the Soil & the Sun a band to contend with in an era of loudness and proudness. There’s something beautifully subtle yet complex about the way this septet creates sound, shifting time signatures mid-song with, for example, “Sundar Singh” sidestepping from a floating, melodic dream to a rhythmic, up-tempo reality. This genre-defying septet weaves in and out of styles, leaving their sound wide open and building a loyal fan base as a result. The Soil & the Sun seem more interested in chasing a song’s concept and enjoying all of the experiences along that journey than reaching any predetermined goal. I spoke with lead singer and guitarist Alex McGrath about the recording process for their third and most recent album Meridian, as well as their plans for 2015.
Smile Politely: The band is self-described as “Experiential Spiritual Orchestral Rock.” For those genre-happy listeners out there, that label defies more traditional definitions.
Alex McGrath: Yeah, the genre is sort of a hard question to answer, which is why we came up with our own. A lot of times we feel we’d rather not get locked into any specific style, so we kinda made our own really broad terms that still describes [our music]. And I think once people hear it or see it live it makes more sense to them.
SP: What is the band’s musical vision?
McGrath: Our musical vision would be really open to whatever direction the song feels like it wants to go. Letting it happen. Whatever idea pops up or whoever has a good idea, we go with it.
SP: The songwriting process for Meridian took on a more collaborative effort. What was that process like?
McGrath: Generally, I bring an idea to the band with usually the chord progression, song structure, melodies and some lyrics. Sometimes the ideas are more mapped out than others, but in this newest album, a lot of the songs were pretty bare when I brought them to the band. So, on the whole, the group had a lot more influence on where to take the songs.
I think that’s where the “experiential” part of that made up genre comes in. We want to feel like we’re free to let anything happen and experiment. But then I think there’s still an intangible thing that happens with this group of people making songs together. It’s always going to be some of our touch on it, even when we’re exploring different styles and genres.
SP: We’ve all heard the stories about bands battling individual egos and personalities, but you guys are all friends, you've known each other since before you formed the band. How do you maintain a balance?
McGrath: It’s definitely been a long learning process as how we best work together as a band, because that still happens, but we’ve learned to not take offense when we’re working a song and drilling ideas in. We’ve gotten to a place where we feel that we’re comfortable enough with each other, so someone can say, “Umm, I don’t really like it,” and we try something else. It’s about being as straightforward with each other as possible, but equally gentle. We’re still learning, little by little.
SP: What was it like working with producer Rick Fritz (Beach Boys, Peter Cetera) on Meridian?
McGrath: It was really cool working with Ritz. He’s a great guy. He’s become a friend, so that’s a plus. He’s not the kind of guy who tells you what to do, but he does know a lot about recording—just about everything there is to know. His opinion is really valuable to us, and he helped guide the process of our first time being in a studio.
SP: Your last two albums were self-produced, so how did this new experience in the studio go?
McGrath: It was really exciting and it definitely was more pressure. I think it’s just a different environment, so that changes it, but that’s not necessarily always a bad thing. We still had plenty of space to explore, which is really nice. A lot of bands don’t have that opportunity. We had a lot of time to see what fit.
And since it was our first time in the studio, it was a bit overwhelming. There were so many options available to us that we didn’t even know, or didn’t consider on the first two albums. We’re really excited to start thinking about the next album. I think we will have a better grasp of what to do in the studio.
SP: And Maps and Atlases’ drummer Chris Hainey joined in on the record?
McGrath: He played two songs on the album: “How Long” and “Leviathan.” It was really cool. It was the first time we had someone come in and collaborate like that. We just kind of gave him free range. He didn’t bring anything to the studio. There was a bunch of extra percussive stuff lying around and he assembled a little kit and just went nuts. And he’s so good. It was really an honor to have him, to see him just go for it.
SP: You released Meridian on vinyl, which is such a popular medium but also a very tricky one to deal with. Why did you want a vinyl record?
McGrath: We’re a small enough band and I think we’re artsy enough. Audiophiles are, you know, interested in getting vinyl instead of CDs. Vinyl’s making a comeback. We also had the thought that if you’re the kind of person interested in having a physical copy of the record with the art and lyrics sheet, those kinds of people are moving towards vinyl. And then on the other end there’s the digital world. We wanted to cover all our bases. I personally prefer vinyl. It’s something solid to hold in your hands.
SP: What significance does the album’s title Meridian hold?
McGrath: I was driving and the word kind of came up, and we looked into it and we liked the definition. As far as I know, there are three different definitions and all of them being — well, it’s not necessarily giving anything away, but we thought that the vibe was right. Especially the definition that ‘meridian’ is the climax of the day’s events. So that sort of alluded to some of the subject matter of the songs.
SP: What will 2015 bring for the band?
McGrath: Well, probably a lot of touring...hopefully. This year is the most we’ve ever toured and that’s what we wanted to do, so it feels really good to be doing that. Right now we’re looking forward to doing some new recording in the next album.
Catch the Soil & the Sun this Friday at Mike 'N Molly's with Tara Terra. Tickets $10 advance, $12 door.