NORTH BY NORTH
HAVE A BEER WITH NORTH BY NORTH
We had some beers with Nate and Kendra from Chicago-based North By North last week to discuss their forthcoming album Something Wicked, their show at Phantom Note Production's Phantom Phest and the release of "Soft Soul," the first single from their debut album.
Drinks of Choice: Unibroue’s La Fin Du Monde (Nate Girard, vocals/guitar); Allagash White (Kendra Blank, keyboard)
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: Tell me a little bit about North By North’s founding.
Nate: We had played in previous bands together up until about two years ago. We started wanting to take a different creative direction from the the last band we were in, so we split off from that and started North By North. Kendra and I are definitely the writing core with Dylan, our drummer, filling out the rhythm section live. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be here today.
Kristen: So, what would you say your sound entails?
Kendra: That’s one of the most difficult questions for us because we purposely try to write music that is not like anything you’ve heard before. We take bits and pieces from our favorite artists. At our most recent show someone likened us to a combination of Cold War Kids, Queens of the Stone Age and Wolfmother, and I feel like this is one of the most accurate descriptions of our sound to date.
Nate: Another factor in defining our sound is the power trio dynamic with the lack of a traditional bass guitar in favor of keyboards. A lot of people have said that they’re really surprised by how whole it sounds and how intense it is from just the three of us.. That’s definitely something that we pride ourselves on. We’ve experimented with bass and a second guitar, but it wasn’t necessary. I hate to call it a gimmick, but it definitely gets people to pay attention.
Kendra: Especially with me being a female in a band—and I play keyboard—the first question anyone asks when they learn I’m in a band is, “Do you sing?” Thankfully, or otherwise, I don’t because I can’t very well. I’m trying…
Kristen: I feel like that’s a common question, especially now that there are a lot of groups that have the girl/guy harmonies.
Nate: That does seem to be the case. When people first see us setting up, they’ll often assume it’s going to be a Mumford & Sons, folksy-duet centered band, and I’m glad to say that we don’t sound like that at all.
Kristen: Would you say some of those bands are some of your inspirations?
Kendra: Yeah, definitely. Most recently, I’ve been listening to the new Queens of the Stone Age album.
Nate: We’ve gotten compared to the Black Keys from some of the blues influence that creeps in, as well Jack White’s projects. I’m a huge fan of anything that Jack puts out. We’re getting more intricate, though, so it’s moving away from the garage rock, indie feel. The new songs are getting a little heavier with more progressive rock and fusion type influences.
Kendra: But there are definitely some elements of those bands in there for sure.
Kristen: You mentioned an album. Is that being released in the near future?
Nate: Our debut album, Something Wicked, is completely recorded, mixed and mastered—ready to go. Currently we’ve released a digital single, Soft Soul, with it’s B-side counterpart, Parts & Labor. We’re planning on releasing it through Bandcamp digitally at first, and then on a deluxe double vinyl for our release show. We’re hesitant to throw out any dates because we want to take our time and make sure everything happens. Basically, we’re looking at a November digital release and a February vinyl release show. But like I said, it’s totally tentative because we want to ensure it’s done right.
Kendra: This album is going to be 18 separate tracks, but we’re big fans of interludes and intros to songs. Basically it’s 15 complete songs with transitional tracks here and there. Also, a big goal of ours was to be as flexible as possible and so the plan is it to package and market the vinyl as two separate albums. This way we can sell them as the double album, or individually to get the cost down for people who are just hearing us for the first time.
Kristen: Did you record at a studio or did you do it all yourselves?
Kendra: We recorded at Minbal Studios in Humboldt park shortly after being introduced to our engineer, Don Bates. It was really cool because when we first started talks about the project, we were just going to do a four-song EP and that eventually led to a full blown album. By that point, we had already written five new songs beyond what we originally intended the album to be, and it was great because he was totally on board with getting all 15 songs done at once.
Kristen: Let’s talk creative process. When you sit down to write a song or even record, what is your process together as well as with your drummer?
Nate: Generally I’ll have an overall idea of a chord progression or the feel of a song. Then I go to Kendra and we bounce ideas off of each other using my framework. I ask her opinion and whether we should tweak it, brainstorm with her and then we come up with a fully formed song… We then take it to our drummer and dump it on him like, “Here ya go.”
Kendra: The last practice we met up with him and brought three new songs.
Nate: …That he had never heard before and he nailed them.
Kendra: His ability to jump right in is extremely helpful for us from a creative perspective. We’re pretty fortunate to be able to go in literally any direction we want and know that he’ll pick up on it...
Kristen: Do you have a favorite song to play?
Kendra: Before we finished this recording in its entirety and before we had everything to listen to, I definitely had favorite songs. But now going back and listening to the album, it’s really hard to pick a favorite….It changes. To play live, it’s the same thing. I don’t think I could pick a favorite. Obviously I like a song more if the crowd responds positively to it.
Nate: You always get into that. You feed off of it. I have a CD for you, too.
Kristen: I love CDs. I’m kind of old school like that.
Nate: It’s burned with handwritten Sharpie.
Kristen: I love it.
Kristen: Do you want to talk upcoming shows?
Nate: We’ve got Phantom Phest coming up. We’re excited about that. That will be a unique show in the fact that we’re going to be performing completely new material—Six brand new songs. We want to let people know that we’ve got the album coming and if you make it to this show, you’re going to hear what’s to come. I imagine once I put the album out we’ll be playing a lot more of the old stuff. I kind of wanted to have one chance to play all our newest material before we have to backtrack.
Kendra: We’re playing there on the Sunday night of the fest, October 27. The doors open at 5pm and the show starts at 6pm. It’s at Quenchers at Fullerton and Western. They also have La Fin Du Monde on tap.
Kristen: This is a really good opportunity to do it.
Nate: It also gives us an opportunity to crowd-source people’s reactions to the new songs, which will be cool.
Kristen: How did you get involved in Phantom Phest?
Nate: We’ve played at Quenchers multiple times. I actually interned for Sam. He’s a great guy. I’m so excited for him, too, because he just started booking at Beat Kitchen, Subterranean, which are pretty premiere venues I feel for local bands. That’s a big opportunity for him.
Kendra: The sound is awesome.
Nate: It’s just got a great vibe to it. Needless to say, we like playing there and our fans like coming to see us there. We’ve built up a good rapport with Sam.
Kristen: Have you played around the city at other venues?
Nate: The last show we played was September 13 at Subterranean, where we were fortunate enough to be direct support for Iamdynamite. They’re a duo originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their drummer moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and their guitarist still lives in Ann Arbor, so they’re doing a cross-country writing and touring deal, which is awesome. That was our last show and that was a great turnout. We had a couple people approach us thinking we were on tour with them.
Kendra: A small part of the reason why we chose “Soft Soul” as the single is because someone came up to us after that show and said, “Are you guys on the radio?” “I feel like I’ve heard that song (Soft Soul) on Q87.” I just hope that it’s not so different from the rest of our stuff that it’s the only song people will like…which I don’t think will be the case.
Nate: Yeah, we’re pretty good about quality control.
Kristen: And it sounds like you have enough material that there will be something to accommodate a variety of tastes.
Kendra: The material is definitely diverse, yet there’s still a cohesiveness there. Part of its cohesiveness is the fact that we’re kind of limited in our instrumentation. We don’t have a bassist, so right off the bat, we’re not going to sound like everyone else. I feel like Nate has an extremely iconic vocal quality, and so his vocals help to draw all the different songs together. We have our favorite tones that we like to use. All of those things already help as it is, but with our multi-step writing process, we also do have pretty good quality control.
Nate: I’ve always felt that by limiting the tools you have to write with, it forces you to be more creative with what you have. It teaches you to push beyond your perceived limitations and boundaries..
Kendra: I know that I would not be where I am if we had another member. There have been plenty of times where Nate will come to me with a new song and he’s like, “Okay, here’s the part that I want you to play,” and I’m like, “I could never play that!” And then we spend hours practicing and eventually I’m like, “Okay, this is really fun. What’s next?”
Kristen: That’s pretty awesome. I’m curious about the name of the band. Where did it come from?
Nate: The name came from a time when we were with a previous drummer. He was originally from Ohio, I was born and raised in Texas and Kendra had spent a good portion of her childhood in South Carolina. The way he described it was that it was migrational chance that we would all meet in Chicago—that somehow we would all end up here and be in this band together. North was only the direction we could travel in. It was a gravitational fate that brought us here.
Kendra: And when you hear our name, you have no idea what we sound like. We could be pretty much anything you can think of. We like the ambiguity of the name.
Kristen: What’s the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you’ve done in the past year? Nerdy, un-cool…
Nate: I’ve done so many. Recently, we took up playing tennis. We went out and bought tennis racquets and the six pack of balls and went out and did that for two months. We were really gung-ho about playing tennis.
Kendra: I thought about getting a tennis outfit. Maybe pick up a pair of skorts.
Kristen: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Kendra: I’m not sure someone specifically told me this, but it’s sort of come to me in the last couple of years. What really matters in life is doing what you love. And that’s going to be the most fulfilling and most important thing you can do..
Nate: ...And I would say from a an artistic standpoint, is to recognize the importance of the networking aspect and the personal connection aspect of music. A lot of bands don’t realize that you have to actually talk to people and make personal connections to further your career. It’s not as simple as get a show, get up on stage, play your song and people will adore you and follow you and buy your crap. You have to make friends in the business. I feel like in Chicago, I don’t see enough of that. If every single person who played in a Chicago band went to everybody else’s shows, we’d all be way better off in the long run. There are so many great bands and not enough camaraderie and I would like to see more of that in Chicago. There’s a lot of potential for that.