The past six months have been pretty eventful for Santah. An excellent album (White Noise Bed), a packed CD release show, and collegiate diplomas. Fortunately, they aren’t calling it quits as a band, and have a new album and extensive touring in the works, which kicks off this week at New York’s CMJ Music Marathon, ad performance that would be a huge deal for any band — its already garnered them a mention in the influential Paste Magazine. I sat down with 4/5ths of the band this past weekend at the Esquire — guitarist/vocalist Stan McConnell, bassist Otto Stuparitz, keyboardist Tommy Trafton, and drummer Steve Plock (guitarist/vocalist Vivian McConnell was not present) — for a loose, informal conversation that touched on topics ranging from the band’s songwriting process to Taco Bell and the monetary net worth of Pitchfork.
(l-r: Plock, McConnell, Trafton, Stuparitz, McConnell)
Smile Politely: So you guys are doing two weeks on this tour, right?
Steve Plock: Pretty much yeah, it started last night.
Stan McConnell: We have a show tomorrow in Cincinnati, and then the next day in Youngstown, and then two days off to just get to New York.
Steve: And then five shows in six days…
Stan: Maybe more, maybe less…probably more.
Steve: Some blog appearances as well.
Steve: They’re actually doing a showcase, and we’re playing in that.
SP: How did CMJ wind up happening? Did you guys submit, or did they contact you?
Stan: Well, it was very sudden. We got picked up by the Nicodemus Agency, and up until August or September, Seth [Fein] wasn’t sure if he was gonna get a showcase. We had kinda heard through the grapevine from our booking agent — “[Seth] might have the showcase, he might not, but I was talking to him and it doesn’t look like you guys are gonna be able to get on it.” So I was pretty bummed because we really wanted to do CMJ last year too, but then I got a phone call and we were on it, and then that same day five minutes later, my friend who has a label on the east coast called me as well and said he wanted us on that.
Steve: Then we talked to Big Ugly Yellow Couch and got on that one, and then there’s this new management company from New York that we’ve been talking to, so they just booked us two shows while we’re there. I don’t think they’re billed as CMJ, but they’re during that same week.
Stan: Yeah, CMJ ends on Saturday, and then we have a show on Sunday at Mercury Lounge and then that Tuesday at Pianos. So talk about a mood swing, we did not think we were going to CMJ, we’ve graduated, we’re kind of trying to figure out how to shape the whole fall, how to structure the band and what to do. But then that happened and we just called everyone we knew, we called Carlye like “Hey, we’re gonna be there!” We’re in the process now of setting up some house parties and more blog appearances.
Steve: We’re just trying to make the most it, since we’ll be there for a whole week.
SP: We heard a rumor that you guys were considering taking the entire Spring off to tour. Is that actually the plan?
Otto Stuparitz: Pretty much, just hitting it really hard, as many good gigs as we can get in a row for as long as possible. It’s kind of hard to say we’re gonna tour all Spring because you’ve got to set it up, but it would be really sweet to be touring like two weeks out of the month.
Stan: By summer, by June, we wanna have almost all of the next full-length finished, so inbetween the new year and then, we wanna be touring for like a solid month with a few weekend runs and then mainly trying to record.
Steve: Also stuff like South By Southwest, just getting down there and doing as much as we can, and just the festival circuit in general.
Stan: We’re planning on hitting the jubilee festival in New Orleans, there’s a festival in Denton, Texas which is right around SXSW.
Otto: Yeah, it’s pretty sweet, we’re just working really hard, everyone sees that stuff’s happening, people are just staying behind us. It’s one of those things where you start getting a little bit of a push going, and then everyone wants to help you out. Hopefully CMJ will get us some friends there that wanna invite us back for a regular New York thing.
SP: Are there any acts you’re especially looking forward to catching at CMJ?
Otto: I haven’t really looked into it. It’s so overwhelming, there’s so many artists, and New York’s huge, we have a show every day.
Steve: And we have to park our van…
Stan: I’m just excited to be there, and playing pretty much every day that we’re there. I know I wanna see Dave Vandervelde and support him, there’s that Offline Festival, the Pitchfork thing? And My Morning Jacket’s doing their residency — I don’t know, we’re just excited to see New York. I think — Tommy, have you never been there?
Tommy Trafton: Yeah I’ve never been there, so I’m excited just to see it. I’m not gonna even play, I’ll just sightsee.
Stan: Yeah, we’re all a little worried about how we’re going to afford to stay alive out there. Hopefully our shows on the way out there, we’ll get some money, we just got some new t-shirts that are sweet.
Otto: We started a mini t-shirt drive, support our way out to New York, because we recently had to buy a new radiator for our van.
Smile Politely: Oh yeah? Talk to me about the van…
Stan: What can you say about Hap?
Otto: Hap Anthony Parker is an amazing van, a 1993 Dodge Ram.
Steve: Seats fifteen passengers…we took a few rows of seats out. It’s pretty spacious, the air conditioning works, hopefully the heat works. Electric windows, it came with a CD player….
Stan: We bought it with 90,000 miles, since we bought it in mid-June, we’ve put 10,000 miles on it — how many miles is it to New York? Gotta be like 800 or 900? If it lasted us to like 150,000 or 160,000 that’d be great. I have heard great things about those old Dodges, how long they last. Yeah, we’re thinking about — for Christmas — if we could each get a tire donated from our parents, ’cause we’ve got four parents between the five of us, and there are four tires.
Smile Politely: Have you been playing any new material live?
Otto: We just did yesterday!
Smile Politely: For the first time?
Otto: It depends, we have one song called “Springfield” that we’ve been playing sometimes. We played it at Canopy once, but then yesterday we played two other new ones live.
Steve: We have about eight new ones that are in the works.
Smile Politely: How many are you shooting for on the record?
Steve: I would like to have sixteen ideas.
Otto: Yeah, take sixteen things, chop off three that aren’t going anywhere, then you do it.
Stan: And I’d also like to have 10 or 11 of those as solid songs, and then five of the other ones are pieces or whatever. There’s a song on our last record called “Irish Wristwatch”, it ended up opening up the tracklist, I kinda had to beg these guys to get it on the record, or at least really make a plea. I asked them to look at it like less of a pop song and more a piece. I’d like to move more in that direction — I think our music has a certain amount of accessibility inherently, and I’d like to start experiment with form a bit more.
Santah – “Irish Wristwatch”
Smile Politely: Speaking of form, can you talk about the band goes about composing a song? Does one person bring a finished idea, or is it more of a collaborative process?
Stan: Well, I think the goal is for me to bring an idea that is as thought-out and complete as possible, and then for the band to rip it apart.
Otto: Change it to what makes sense for the song, like Steve will write a really cool drum part, so we’re like “we should feature the drums a little more on this” — so you put more space in the song and get to a point where it just changes the form a little bit. It’s really easy to do if you have a complete idea to begin with.
Stan: There’s certain songs that I write where I feel that the idea is so strong in my head, sometimes compromising it would just turn into watering it down, subjecting it to that kind of deconstruction. But I think that more often it’s the case where we write a song together. There’s kind of two styles, a song like “No Other Women”, it’s done, there it is. A song like “When I Couldn’t Move”, I’m not gonna compromise on what is a verse, what is a chorus. And then there’s other songs where we just wanna make something that sounds great. There are certain songs that I’m hyper-invested into lyrically, those are the ones I have a hard time budging out of
Steve: A lot of the time when we’re trying to figure out a song, we take the perspective of some random audience member in Peoria who’s gonna hear our song one time — it’s make or break. We put it all on the line for that person and keeping them hooked the whole time, which is good, but I think now, at least in experimenting with form, we’re just doing what we think’s cool. Not necessarily a conventional pop song, but it sort of is.
Stan: I don’t really care if we don’t have a chorus in a song, we’re definitely a pop band, so there’ll be hooks, but it’s not gonna be like “oh, this is the chorus.”
Otto: Well, it can be that, but only if it’s cool, if the song should be that way. It’s kinda cool right now since we’ve gotten kind of far along in songwriting. Compared to when we preparing for our last record, I feel like we’re a lot more ahead. We went in to White Noise Bed just not knowing what was gonna happen.
Santah – When I Couldn’t Move
Smile Politely: Are you looking at any labels for the next album?
Stan: Talk to us [after CMJ] in a week!. I think with any career, you’re gonna have a leg up every time you have a go at it. What’s been nice about White Noise Bed is that it has garnered some attention for us, we have been talking to labels about re-releasing White Noise Bed, about the prospect of the next record, etcetera, so bare minimum it’s helped us to proceed and grow, so that’s the leg up we have now from making the last record.
Steve: I don’t think any of us have reservations about waiting for a label or anything. I know that when I came out from White Noise Bed, from being in studio for like three months, I felt a lot smarter, I felt like a better musician, and that’s part of the reason I wanna go back in, just to do it all over again with a whole new batch of ideas. Also, maybe a label sees a band that has an EP that’s really great, versus a band with three self-released albums that are all pretty great, that has some effect.
Otto: In a way, it’s gotten us Nicodemus Agency’s attention, we’ve been able to grow so much just from having that record.
Smile Politely::Do you have any other upcoming shows aside from the CMJ swing?
Stan: Mike ‘N Molly’s October 30th, it’s gonna be awesome.
Steve: Empty Bottle on November 12th, that’ll be fun.
Stan: We’re also doing a week and a half long midwestern tour in December, I’ll try to do the route. I know we’re hitting Nashville, St. Louis, Iowa City, Des Moines, Indianapolis, we have a Daytrotter session November 23rd, but I don’t think it gets published for a few months.
Steve: Now we just need to figure out our Halloween costumes for Mike ‘N Molly’s. That’s more stressful than CMJ…
Santah performs October 21st – 26th in New York City at the CMJ Music Marathon, and on October 30th at Mike ‘N Molly’s in Champaign.