- August 2015 -


Family and Friends is a band whose name speaks volumes. They are a group of artists who are quite literally friends and family first — and musicians second. When you watch them interact with one another in a room, you want to be a part of it: the laughter, the chemistry, the mutual respect, the appreciation of differences and the celebration of similarities. And what that translates to on-stage is something special, something often missing in today’s indie folk/rock scene. Unlike other performances I’ve recently seen, in which there seems to be an invisible barrier drawn between the stage and the dance floor, Family and Friends’ live show reaches out, wraps you up and makes you feel like you’re kin. 

We sat down with Family and Friends before their August show at Schubas over a few beers. With a set of silverware as a faux microphone, the band covered important topics like sausage, cats, coloring books and the importance of calling your mom.


The Gig: Family and Friends with James & The Drifters // Schubas Tavern // August 22, 2015

Drink of Choice: Mike MacDonald (Guitar, Vocals), Palm Breeze; Melanie Marcano (Vocals), Whiskey+ Ginger Ale; Alejandro Rios (Percussion), Cuba Libre; Ryan Houchens (Percussion), LaCroix; JP McKenzie (Guitar), Hard Cider; Tuna (Bass), Ballast Point or Spotted Cow


Tuna: Who would like to start with the talking cutlery?

[Holds out paper napkin-wrapped silverware]

Kristen: Is this a normal thing? Do you have an object that you pass around during interviews?

Mike: This is a thing that we established.

Alejandro: Usually in the van it’s sausage.

Ryan: Yeah, just a sausage link.

Melanie: You think that they’re kidding. You should smell the van. We got these sausages…

Tuna: It’s just a sausage fest.

[Everyone laughs]

Melanie: We’ve met some really generous people out on the road and one of them gave us a lot of sausage. And we have it in our van.

Tuna: I feel like there should be a different way to phrase this…

Alejandro: She gave us the sausages.

Ryan: She had the sausage.

Melanie: They keep feeding us sausage!

Kristen: What city were you in where someone was like, "Hey, here's a whole bunch of sausage"?

Mike: It was my aunt actually. If we want to get technical…

JP: I wanted to say, Mike’s aunt stuffed Tuna with sausage…


Alejandro: He liked it.

Kristen: Your publicist told me that you guys had a sense of humor, so you’re proving her point.

Mike: She meant that this is going to be hard.


Kristen: So, Ryan…LaCroix as a drink of choice?

Ryan: You have to say it more French-sounding.

Melanie: They really want to get sponsored by LaCroix.

Ryan: Any flavor will do. I would bathe in it. I’m gonna bathe in it right before we go on-stage.

Kristen: LaCroix makes you feel fancy. I feel fancy just saying it.

JP: Ryan has been going around and if somebody says, “You want water?” he says, “Do you mean peasant water?”

Mike: Ryan took a picture at the store once with an entire display of LaCroix behind him. He sat in front of it. And the store clerk was actually really pissed off.

Kristen: That’s marketing!

Ryan: Actually, my TV stand at home is just made out of cases of LaCroix. Super convenient…

Kristen: Best interview I’ve ever done and we’re only five minutes in. Where did you guys travel from in order to play Chicago tonight?

Mike: We came from Cedarburg, Wisconsin.

Kristen: And that’s where the sausage came from. Got it.

Mike: You're keeping up; I like it. It was the greatest city/ night ever.

Kristen: What made it so great?

Alejandro: We were playing one of our songs – I was playing drums – and I looked down and looked up, and all of the sudden there were 50 little eight-year-old girls on-stage dancing. And I was like, “This is great.”

Ryan: I don’t know how they got up there.

Mike: Jandro, you’ve got to be careful what you say.

[Everyone laughs]

Melanie: I’m a sucker for children. What happened was... I don’t sing all the time, so sometimes I get to talk to different people while Mike sings. And this little girl asked if she could come up, and all of the sudden, 50 girls wanted to come up.

Kristen: She brought her crew.

Ryan: Squad.

Melanie: Hashtag #squad

Alejandro: Hashtag #squadgoals.

Melanie: And that’s it. That’s the story.

Kristen: Nice, so was the whole audience eight-year-olds or…?

Mike: It was an eight-and-under show.

Ryan: You had to show your report card at the door.

JP: And undergo a height test.

Kristen: I heard that's what you’re doing tonight — an eight-and-under show.

Alejandro: No, tonight is a nine-and-under.

Melanie: But really, last night was great because every age group was there. At one point I actually think I was holding a baby.

Tuna: You think?

Melanie: I think I held a baby. I held a baby and there were older people. That's the coolest thing...when you get to connect — especially that show — with every generation. People speak the language of music and dance and it was really great to just connect with everyone in that way.

Kristen: And it’s nice because it’s the end of the tour, so that’s kind of bittersweet to wrap up with a show so great. What would you say has been the best night of this leg of the tour?

Mike: It has to be last night, I’d say. It just killed everything. Every night has been great, but...

Tuna: It killed everything.

JP: Last night was just amazing. It was super enchanting. I can’t think of a better word for it. They were spoiling the crap out of us. We had our own Airstream from the '70s that they decked out. We shot a video in there and they stocked it with food and beer and gave us free meal tickets. And now we have a van full of sausage.

Ryan: It was nice, too, because all of the local places pitched in. They stocked a basket with local stuff…And there were cheese curds. I woke up in a pile of cheese curds. And I don’t know how I got there.


JP: Yeah, I mean it’s like Melanie said. Last night just encapsulates why we make music. Music is important in how it connects people.

Kristen: Was this show at a venue or was it a festival?

Mike: It was at Summer Sounds. They do it in Cedarburg every Friday through the summer. It's crazy because everyone comes out.

JP: That was the coolest thing to me. Who’s heard of Cedarburg, Wisconsin? But then half of the entire town comes out every Friday night just to hear music. And they don’t even necessarily know who is playing or don’t know the band.

Kristen: It's a community thing.

Ryan: Yeah, they come out and they dig into it. They were so receptive.

JP: And it's all volunteer-based, too. All the people who put it on are volunteers, which makes it so much more inviting. They're there because it's their passion. One of the guys I was talking to said, "One of my friends asked me, 'How do I get this started in my town'? I was like, 'Well, you just have a couple of volunteers come together and then you work on it for 15 years.'" They've been working on building that for 15 years and it’s just because they love it, which is really cool.

Alejandro: It was in a park on an outdoor stage, and before the show, we actually found out that they were tearing down the stage this winter. So we were the last show on that stage.

Ryan: That stage had been there for 50 years apparently.

Melanie: We hollered out right before the last song, "This is the last song that's going to be played on this entire stage.” It's just amazing how something as simple as a concrete block can unify thousands and thousands of people over the years. Just being a small part of what's already going on in Cedarburg was huge.

Ryan: So we ended with a Nickelback cover to really wrap things up.

[Everyone laughs]

Kristen: Speaking of Nickelback, do you want to talk recent music?

Mike: No, I’ll pass.

[Everyone laughs]

Kristen: Your EP, XOXO: how was the creative process of making it different from your first EP, Love You Mean It.

Mike: The first EP we had just assembled as a band, essentially. A lot of it was trying to figure out our writing process and how we were going to go about everything. A lot of it was bringing a song that was finished to the band and then we’d flesh it out from there, but it would be a finished song on the acoustic guitar. With XOXO, we definitely dug in a lot more of in the sense that we said, “Here’s an idea. How can we make this into a song?” It was a lot more of the collaborative writing process in that respect.

Alejandro: A lot of it came from us just being really comfortable together after the writing or recording process of Love You Mean It, and playing all those songs and just more and more becoming a band and becoming really a family, for lack of a better word. Being so comfortable together let us create a lot more fluidly. There were a lot of songs that ended up on XOXO that started as something completely different. There was an idea and we built on that idea and then trashed everything and started fresh with the past ideas in mind.

Kristen: With so many of you, how do you decide when something is ready to go or finished?

Ryan: I feel like it's actually never really finished. We try to set goals for ourselves and we try to meet them, so we'll say, "Okay, we're in the studio for two months. Let's get this to where we're happy with it." After that, a lot of times we'll change parts and play them differently live. Then we're like, “Hey, I wish we would've been able to come up with that before we recorded.

Mike: Both times in the studio it's gone a little bit longer than we planned on, but it's just because we keep listening and hearing new ideas. Eventually, we say, “We have to let this go.”

Tuna: I like how you said, “Yeah, we set goals for ourselves. We're in the studio for two months and then four months later we're like ‘Yeah, we're done.’”

[Everyone laughs]

Kristen: Where did you record XOXO? The same place you recorded Love You Mean It?  

Mike: No, we actually changed it up. We recorded with Dan Hannon, who works with bands like Manchester Orchestra. We went up to Echo Mountain in Asheville. It's an old church that has been converted into a recording studio.

Kristen: I interviewed another band recently recorded there: Good Old War. What's special about that studio? Why did you decide to go?

Mike: The studio itself was Dan's idea. He's recorded there before and he suggested it to us. At the time, for us, it was a little bit of a stretch budget-wise. We only did two days to get the drums. But a lot of what we've done as a band is… We'll have the opportunity to do something. We don't know if we'll ever get that opportunity again, so we try to take it and have the best time that we can while doing it. We went to this place and it really was magical.

Alejandro: The church is perfect for recording drums in and our music is heavily percussion-based. We really wanted to make sure we focused on doing everything we could…

Tuna: I thought you were going to say heavily church-based.

[Everyone laughs]

Alejandro: Yeah...heavily church-based, so we just went in there and recorded the sounds of the empty room. It was cool though because this was also the first time that we had started live tracking. We were all in the room together, and we were focusing on getting the percussion elements on it, but we were all playing together trying to capture that live spirit and energy. For me, working with Dan had always been a dream because Manchester Orchestra was one of my favorite bands. And since I was a kid, I wanted to record in a church. It was my lifetime goal and this popped up and it was like,  “Yeah, let's do this.”

Kristen: Let's talk touring. Aside from sausage in the van…

Tuna: That’s it. That’s the only thing we have in the van.


Kristen: What are everyone’s annoying habits on the road?

JP: Ryan chews really loud.

Melanie: Nobody sits with me. It’s true. Nobody sits in my chair. I just want to be a part of it. I just want to be a part of Family and Friends.

Kristen: C’mon, guys. Why don’t you sit with Melanie?

JP: Ryan sits alone.

Ryan: Yeah, and I’m not complaining

Kristen: What’s the set up like in the van? 

Tuna: We actually all drive separately.

[Everyone laughs]

Mike: There are three rows and Melanie hogs the second. And she smells a little bit like sausage.

Melanie: The truth is that I smell like patchouli.

Ryan: It’s a great van to kidnap eight-year-olds in. You know, sell ice cream out of…Something like that.

Melanie: True pet peeve, though. I wish we listened to more Beyoncé.

Kristen: Confessional. Has this been voiced before?

Alejandro: That has never been voiced and honestly I feel the exact same way.

JP: That’s what we’re all listening to in our headphones!

Kristen: Is that the vibe in the van? Are you all listening to your own stuff?

Ryan: We actually listen to each other's music a lot. We all have similar— but still a little bit different — tastes in music. Sometimes it's hard. I’ll put something on, or JP or Tuna will put something on or Mike will put something on…Or Melanie will put something on…

Kristen: Or sometimes I’ll put something on.

Tuna: Or he’ll put something on…

[Everyone laughs]

Ryan: So you’ll put something on and all of the sudden two people will put their headphones in, like "I’m not trying to hear that right now."

Melanie: It’s not even that. Sometimes I’m reading and you put on something totally outrageous and I think, “Explosions in the Sky is probably better.”

Kristen: Let’s talk about Athens. Is that where you’re all currently living?

Mike: Not all of us.

JP: We all were until a few months ago.

Kristen: Are you all spread out now?

Ryan: We’re all spread out in one house.


Melanie: I'm in the corner. They give me food sometimes.

Mike: Three of us are living together now in Athens and the other three are in Atlanta. So we’re spread out. What originally brought us to Athens was UGA.  We all went to school there, except for Melanie.

Kristen: And where did you come from?

Melanie: Good question, right? I was in Atlanta. I was there for a while. I lived in 27 different places, but I kind of moved around. Then I just got wrapped with these cats and here I am.

JP: I love cats. On the record, I love cats. Get this down: I love cats.


Kristen: It's on the record. And why have you guys stayed in that area?

Ryan: There are a lot of cats there. And JP loves cats. Four of us lived in an apartment together before we started the band.

Mike: No, honestly though, Athens for music is so amazing to be a part of that community. There's so much happening, especially with the university, but there's every sort of genre. It's super encouraging between different musicians and bands. It's a really cool place to be. Not even just for music but all the arts there. It's a really creative town. There’s a real sense of community there.

Kristen: If I were to go there and just visit, what's the number one thing you would recommend that I do?

Melanie: Get a Grand Slam at Arden’s Garden. It’s a juice place.  It's a shot of ginger, a shot of wheat grass, a shot of cranberry juice…

Ryan: There are better things to do than that.


Melanie: Well, I mean that’s the first thing that I do when I go to Athens. But he’s right. The spirit of Athens is just different than a lot of other cities.

Mike:  I say go to Georgia Theater. The rooftop at sunset. It’s beautiful.

Melanie: And there are actually two venues in it. There’s a rooftop venue and a large venue inside.

Kristen: I hear it’s a venue that Family and Friends sold out, actually.

Ryan: Are you calling us sellouts?


Kristen: Never. What’s the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you’ve done in the past week? I would say “in the past year,” but based on our conversation, it seems like you might have something more recent.

Ryan: If it's more than the past week, I have a story.

Tuna: Yeah, so I play in this band called Family and Friends…


Mike: That is not rock-‘n’-roll.

Tuna: Yeah, I guess just playing music overall…

Melanie: I have an adult coloring book that I do when we’re on the road. That's probably un-rock-‘n’-roll, but either way it was advertised as meditative. That's why I have my row. I put my feet up; I do my coloring book; I read The Catcher in the Rye. That’s maybe un-rock-‘n’-roll, but I don't care.

Kristen: There was an article in The New York Times about how coloring books are a new thing...

Alejandro: No, I've had one for like a year.


Melanie: He keeps asking if he can collaborate with me but we have different art styles.

JP: For our Kickstarter to get to record Love You Mean It, we had a poster as one of the rewards that we were going to color in. They were all hand-colored by the band. That was one of the reward levels. We had one of our friends design it. He gave us this poster that was the most intricate black-and-white poster ever.

Ryan: I'd get home from class and Jandro would have done four of them and they’d be beautiful.

Alejandro: And it took me all day.

Mike: One would take four hours. He was slaving over them.

Alejandro: Yeah, while you guys were in class.

Kristen: No one was making you color them, right?

Alejandro: I had to.

Mike: It was a Kickstarter reward.

Tuna: And we lost the key to the handcuffs so…


Kristen: Okay, anyone else? Un-rock-‘n’-roll.?

Tuna: I almost cried when I found out “Final Fantasy 7” is on your phone. I finally downloaded it. I am broke, and the first day of tour I found out I had zero dollars in my bank account. But then I got some money. I bartered some services, got my money ready and got it on my phone.

Ryan: I hate to say it, but I think I might have everyone topped. I have been designing an adventure for a tabletop role playing game. I’m trying to get my friends to play.

Kristen: What?

Melanie: It’s like Dungeons and Dragons, guys.

Ryan: I’ve got some dice in my pocket. It’s fine. It’s cool.

Kristen: So it’s a game then?

Ryan: Yeah, you essentially make up a world. And there are rules. You make a character, all that stuff, and then you just go into the world. And then I guide you through it. You talk through what's going on a lot, and then if you’re ever in a battle, you put down a hex grid and you like…

Melanie: Who would you be battling?

Ryan: Anything can be your character and you can battle other characters. This bottle cap could be you. And someone else could be five hexes a way, and you have to shoot past this obstacle.

[Everyone laughs]

Ryan: I don’t know why everyone’s laughing. I’m not even joking.

Tuna: No one’s ever explained Dungeons and Dragons to me, and now here we are playing on a Friday night.

Ryan: I’ve been working on this forever dude.

Melanie: He has. We were at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and he was like, "Does anyone have any paper?" So, I got him a notebook. And what does he use it for?

Ryan:  Creating a character.

Kristen: You can skip the show and we'll just do the Dungeons and Dragons thing. Anyone else?

JP: I travel with a pink blow dryer and that's not very rock-‘n’-roll.

Kristen: Is it travel-sized?

JP: No.

Kristen: Whoa, that’s a new level.

JP: Yeah. For Thanksgiving, I went with my girlfriend's family to the cabin and I left my old one there, so I bought a new one.

Melanie: The good thing is he's generous with it. He's like, "Hey, do you want to use my hairdryer?" I'm like, “Perfect!”

Mike: I'm actually starting to feel pretty rock-‘n’-roll.

Kristen: We'll get serious here for the last question. What is the best advice you've ever received?

Ryan: Bros before hos, right?

Mike: I’m glad we got that out of the way there.


Melanie: I'll go. I just think life is too short. You just never know when your last day is, so you just have to really celebrate the amazing blessings that you're given. You have to dance hard and you have to sing hard and you have to love really hard and really well because what is there left, really? That's my mantra: “Why the hell not?”

JP: My dad has a hard time expressing his feelings verbally, but he's an incredible writer. He has beautiful cursive handwriting, and every week throughout college, he wrote me a letter. He thinks he's really funny, and at the end of every single letter, he had his sign off. He wanted to keep them all “Ks” but it didn’t work that way because he wanted the last one to be “Call your mom.” So, the last one he signed off as “Count your blessings. Keep your faith. Call your mom.”

Melanie: That’s awesome.

JP: I think it’s a great message.

Kristen: And I love that he uses cursive. I’m a cursive writer.  

Tuna: I would want to be a cursive writer, but every time I write in cursive I'm like man, “That looks like shit. That looks really bad.”

Alejandro: Best advice I’ve ever received is enjoy yourself in everything you do. Sounds easy but sometimes you get caught up in the day-to-day stuff and you forget to just enjoy what you're doing. It's not about the destination; it's the journey, you know? That whole thing.

Kristen: Anyone else?

Mike: I'm thinking of that Conan O'Brien quote that's along the lines of, "Work really hard, be kind to people and eventually good things will happen." There's some truth in that, but I would also add, “Play hard.” It’s about putting everything you have in something and investing yourself in others. If you do that, there should be good karma on the way, I like to think.

Kristen: I feel like that's important in the music industry, too: the being kind part. There are sometimes people who are not so kind.

JP: Yeah. That's always the worst, but we've been really fortunate to have come across some really awesome people on our whole journey.

Melanie: The opposite of competition is celebration!

Tuna: I think the best advice I've ever gotten is, “The opposite of competition is celebration…”

Mike: I was going to say that. And, “Live, Laugh, Love!” Or “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls.”

[Everyone laughs]

Tuna: There's a Zen saying that says if you have this tiny piece of shit on the tip of your nose, you could walk into a garden and think, “This place smells like shit." I like that sentiment of cleansing yourself of your perception and be where you are and appreciate everything.

Kristen: Yeah, it's about perspective.

Tuna: Yeah. My grandmother used to say, “You take yourself wherever you go,” which is a lot more succinct way of saying that. Everything around you is only as perfect as you create.

Ryan: My favorite saying is, “Tuna, you have shit on your nose.”

[Everyone laughs]

JP: You can use my blow-dryer to clean it off.

Melanie: Will you go get it? I borrowed it; it's in my bag.

Kristen: Is there anything we didn't talk about that you want to cover?

Mike: JP, what was that thing that you really like?

JP: Cats. I like a lot of stuff, but cats first and foremost.

Ryan: Cats, sausages and eight-year-old girls. That’s all you need to take away from this interview.

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