- November 2014 -
HAVE A BEER WITH QUINN TSAN
Hailing from Minneapolis, Minn., singer-songwriter Quinn Tsan began playing music in 2008 when she relocated to Chicago to sing back-up for musician Joe Pug. Classically trained in dance, though always having an affinity for music, Quinn quickly immersed herself in the local scene, going on to sing with Sarah Holtschlag, Rachele Eve, Johnny Lewis and Sima Cunningham, among others. Quinn’s Nov. 14, 2014, performance at Constellation celebrated the release of her debut EP, Good Winter, which is an impressive six-track compilation, showcasing her raw vocal and songwriting talents.
We caught up with Quinn and her band at Smallbar in Logan Square, where we discussed the process behind her debut EP, the band’s non-musical hobbies and plans for new jams in 2015.
The Gig: Quinn Tsan at Constellation // Nov. 14, 2014
Drinks of Choice: Maker’s Mark, neat (Quinn); Bulleit rye whiskey, neat (Tim); Gin and Tonic or a Bells Two Hearted Ale (Mike); Pilsners/lagers (Raul).
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: Quinn, you’re originally from Minneapolis. How did you get this Chicago-based band together?
Quinn: I suppose I met Raul, who is our drummer – but plays everything – about three years ago when I sang backup at a show with Rachele Eve. Mike and I met at a show that I did at The Firehouse about a year ago, when he asked me to open up for his other project Exit Ghost. Unfortunately, I was out of town, but we kept running into each other. And then I met Tim through Michael and our other friend Sima Cunningham.
Raul: I thought I met you in high school.
Quinn: No, I was not in high school. When I moved to Chicago I was absolutely not going to high school! [Laughs] I was eighteen, maybe, but…How long has it been since we’ve all been together?
Mike: It’s probably been about seven months.
Quinn: The first show Martyrs and that was in June. With this lineup. My brother played with us for a while, but we like Raul now.
Kristen: What’s your take on the Chicago music scene?
Mike: I’d say it’s kind of small in the grand scheme. It’s nichey, and you can find your way around. There are a lot of people doing a lot of different things. I’ve been in Chicago for about four years now, and I didn’t know anybody coming in here, so seeing it from that side, I’d say there’s a community. Inevitably there are a lot of people that play music, but there’s a solid community. It is a smaller, collaborative group of people, which I would consider a good thing.
Tim: I feel like it’s pretty nichey, too. I grew up here. Raul grew up here as well. I’ve been performing in bands since high school, since about 2004, and I’ve been through a lot of different scenes. Each time it has been a different pocket of music. There’s not a lot of overlapping genres.
Quinn: It’s sporadic and rare when I meet new musicians, but when I do, they at least know a handful other people that I’ve worked with before or know or have seen play. And it’s wide-ranging. We have friends in the rap scene, friends in the punk scene, friends in folk … It’s all over the place, but everyone seems to know each other.
Kristen: I feel like the punk scene is really big here, at least from what I’ve gathered.
Quinn: Yeah, in Minneapolis, too.
Kristen: Yeah, so you’re originally from there. What brought you to Chicago?
Quinn: I moved here mostly to move out of Minneapolis. I went from one really cold place to another really cold place. My brother was playing drums for Joe Pug around 2007, and they needed a female back-up singer. I had sang in musical theatre and everything growing up, but for whatever reason, my brother very casually invited me to audition. He also had a spare bedroom at the time, so it seemed like the right move. That was seven years ago. I sang with Joe for the first year or so I was here, and I was introduced to other musicians through that experience.
Kristen: What music do you have out as a group? What are you working on now?
Quinn: Collectively, we have nothing – yet!
Raul: We have this interview.
Quinn: Everybody has their own separate projects, but the release show was for the EP, which Michael was around for a lot of. His band Exit Ghost also played on a lot of it; Michael played on a lot of it. But we are going to do some recording next year.
Mike: Who knows what it’s going to be? The EP that came out was super collaborative. It was very much a whirlwind of different musicians. It was kind of like, “Do you want to play this?” “Do you want to play that?” And then, “Fuck it. Let’s bring it to the studio.” There were a lot of people passing through at the house we recorded, playing different parts. There were a lot of talented people, too. It worked really well, but it was also – for Quinn – like, “Here’s a song,” and then [throwing motion] idea, idea, idea, idea. Go!
Quinn: Yeah, there were a lot of people who had been pushing me to make my own record for a while.
Kristen: Was that hard?
Quinn: Yeah, it was nerve-racking, just because everyone there was so talented. And my only experience at that point was back-up singing and playing guitar. I had been performing my own music for less than six months.
Raul: I feel like you had all this secret experience, though.
Quinn: Secret? What’s the secret?
Raul: Growing up with your brother. He was in a band, so you kind of saw how being in a band works.
Quinn: Yeah, that’s true. There was a lot of observing in the years before. I sang with a lot of different groups before I started writing. I saw the process with other people. But when stuff is your own and people are like, “I like it. Let’s do it,” I was ready to let everybody put their hands in.
Kristen: Do you mean in terms of the writing?
Quinn: In terms of the production. I wrote all of the songs and I played guitar on all of them. But as far as the other instrumentation, we did this record in two weeks or less. It was really quick.
Mike: The mixing took a while, but the recording was quick.
Quinn: But the house that we recorded at is home to so many bands, so there were always just people there. At one point Chance the Rapper and his band showed up because they’re good friends with some people that were there. I was just happy to have really talented people around me and willing to offer themselves up for the record.
Kristen: That’s really cool. It’s kind of like a timestamp for that time in your life with all these various people involved. When you go to record the next EP, is your process going to be more streamlined?
Quinn: All of us have developed musically since we started playing together. We started off just picking songs from that EP, mirroring them and adjusting them. There’s a song “Bedrooms” that’s on the EP, which has evolved a little bit since the making of the record. And we also have a cello player and another vocalist. We’re talking about just going away and secluding ourselves in the woods for a while.
Kristen: So you’d have to leave Chicago to record…
Quinn: Any excuse to get out of the city for a couple of days. I think it will be much more streamlined in the sense of we know the songs really well and everybody here has a lot to offer. As fun as the last record was, I don’t think we’ll approach this one the same way.
Mike: I think it’s more coherent now with Raul and Tim. We’ve been doing shows together for a little bit now and it’s a good foundation.
Raul: Tim and I were sort of having a related conversation in the car on the way here.
Tim: We were just talking about having a group of people who actually have a chemistry that works well, and having a group of people who are all excited to work together. And not only that, but people who are really comfortable bouncing ideas back and forth, and that enjoy being with each other and hanging out.
Raul: You also said it’s really important to have someone in the band who doesn’t just want to play the part, but is also willing and excited to play the part well. You want to find the right way something works, and when you find people like that…
Quinn: It’s exciting.
Mike: It affects the music, too.
Kristen: Yeah, I was going to say, it probably shows through when you play.
Mike: Yeah, we’ve all listened to an album where you put it on and you’re like, “Cool, everyone’s doing their thing,” but there’s no substance or weight to it. Who knows if we have that or not, but…
Tim: I think we have the ingredients for it.
Quinn: I mean I’m going to live on your guys’ couch…
Quinn: Raul and Tim live together. When they moved in, I was over there a lot rehearsing. I started a joke that I was going to move in with them, get a key ... They think I’m joking. I didn’t tell you guys that my lease might be up in a few months…
Kristen: Are you looking for a place?
Quinn: I’m not, it’s just nice…Especially in the wintertime, it’s nice to have people around. I live alone. What better people to be with than the people you make music with. To just be shut up in the house with stew and instruments…
Raul: We have a whole basement now. It’s furnished.
Kristen: I live with three other people and I would like to live alone, but I also think that I would get super lonely really fast.
Quinn: You learn to take on a lot of hobbies.
Kristen: I’m super introverted, so I’m fine chilling in my room and shutting the door, but I worry if I lived alone I would just become a hermit.
Quinn: I get that. I think it’s time for me to start living with people again. My hobbies are getting out of control.
Kristen: What are your some of these hobbies?
Quinn: My most recent hobby is knife throwing.
Mike: No joke. I walked in one day and saw a knife and was like, “Holy shit, you did it.” She had the whole board set up.
Kristen: Are we talking kitchen knives or legitimate knives?
Quinn: No, throwing knives. I have a dozen. I tried doing it with a kitchen knife and a pocket knife and it didn’t work. It’s not the right weight. They were reasonably cheap and I was interested in it, and I was bored with my other hobbies, so…
Kristen: What were some previous hobbies?
Quinn: History. World War I and II, and I feel like I learned everything I needed to learn.
Kristen: Did you watch a bunch of history channel?
Quinn: Yeah, history channel, a lot of online podcasts, a lot of books. All kinds of fun stuff.
Kristen: What are the other band members’ hobbies?
Tim: Learning Spanish.
Quinn: And unicycling, too, Tim.
Quinn: Oh, and trumpet!
Tim: I stopped playing the trumpet because I started learning Spanish. And I can’t have my hobby be something musically related.
Mike: Yeah, you can’t exactly sit on the CTA and play your trumpet.
Kristen: I mean you could, but…
Mike: I work a lot. That’s pretty much all I do. But I juggle, I slackline…Slacklining is almost like tightrope walking – but it’s portable. You can put it up in between two trees.
Kristen: Can you walk the whole length?
Mike: Yeah, I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. I’m okay at it. And this has also been a year-and-a-half in the making, but handstands. I’ve been really trying to do handstands for a while.
Kristen: I did one at work the other day. I was feeling really tired and it rejuvenated me!
Raul: I just prefer being upside down.
Kristen: Is there a track on the EP that you’re most excited about?
Quinn: All of them are so different. After we mastered and came back and listened to it, we realized how different they all are. They all sound similar because it’s my voice and my songs, but I think I’m excited to pick the EP apart and keep moving forward with the songs. A few of the tracks we’ve never performed live, and the other day I found out one of Tim’s favorite songs on the record is one that we never play live. And now we’re going to play it. It’s “Oh! The Places We’ll See!” I’m personally really excited about “Bedrooms,” which is part of a suite and the third one is on the EP. The first two we developed completely separate from this EP, and it’s the last one. There’s a story to it, and it comes to an end with the third one.
<a href="http://quinntsan.bandcamp.com/album/good-winter">Good Winter by Quinn Tsan</a>
Kristen: So, you’ll continue playing the songs live as a band. Is your plan to continue to have the songs evolve, or to come up with completely fresh material?
Quinn: I think that we will keep some and there are so many more that are coming all the time. There are some songs that are definitely favorites. “Love of a Painter,” for example, which is one of the first songs I ever released. And a lot of friends really like it. So I think there are some like that that we’ll definitely keep, but there’s some new stuff we’re getting into, too.
Kristen: What is the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you’ve done in the past year?
Raul: Well, we need to clarify our terms here. What is rock-‘n’-roll to you?
Kristen: Rock-‘n’-roll is like, “Let’s smash TVs and drink a whole bunch and party!”
Mike: I’ve done so much uncool stuff in the past week…I’ve been so awkward.
Quinn: I know, my whole life…shit.
Kristen: You can do two if you want: the coolest thing and the least cool thing you’ve done recently.
Tim: The most exciting thing for me that’s happened outside of music in the past week was watching a TV series on Hulu called “Up to Speed.” It’s a history show narrated by a tour guide. But actually, what you should check out first is this documentary called The Cruise. You can rent it on iTunes for $4, and the documentary is all about this tour guide on a double-decker bus in New York. He’s totally eccentric and kind of crazy but also brilliant and kind of inspiring in this weird way. At least for me.
Kristen: I’ll check it out.
Mike: I work at Thalia Hall and we had someone playing recently – an acoustic pop singer. I stage manage at the venue, and I walked down to the greenroom to check in with her and her band. I walked in the door and they’re all in mid-yoga pose, stretched back, all five of them staring at a laptop on the table. They were in cobra pose. There was the most calming voice coming from the computer. They looked up, stopped and stared at me. I was like, “Uhhhh. Thirty minutes? Okay, bye.” They were in a totally Zen moment and I ruined it.
Raul: It’s like you’re intruding on someone’s ritual when they’re trying to get in the zone before they play.
Quinn: I got a hole in my favorite jeans, today. It took me three hours to patch it, and I didn’t even do a good job! It’s on the inner thigh, only about an inch big. My friend was with me and we watched The Return of the King and it literally took the entirety of the extended version for me to fix it. The entirety of the movie.
Kristen: Maybe the next hobby on your list should be sewing. That should be mine, too. I got a hole in my pants and I just threw them out. Didn’t even try.
Mike: Now that I think about it, we were on tour…and this relates to clothing. We were in Asheville at this gorgeous goat farm. It seemed rather secluded, but there was this house with a huge amount of land, and there was a wedding taking place. We were just off the side of it in another housing unit. We were getting ready for the gig and I had to change. I was like, “I’ll just change here by the car.” I looked around and there was nothing but goats…It was evening and dusk was happening, so I figured I was in a safe spot. I dropped trou, underwear and everything. I mean … I had to change. Everything went down. As soon as I dropped my underwear, around the corner comes this black, super clean Cadillac coming from the wedding. It rolls up. I was fully-naked like, “Uhhhh!” So, I pulled up my pants really quickly and they rolled up next to me and said, “Do you know how to get out of here?” I was like, “No, but sorry you just saw my…everything.”
Kristen: Hey, you had to change!But more importantly, how did you end up playing on a goat farm?
Quinn: My friend Johnny and I went on a trip together and met this woman who was studying at college in Asheville, and they have an agriculture college there. So, she lives in a little silver bullet on a goat farm. She takes care of the animals and tends to some plants.
Kristen: I love that.
Quinn: We had a good time.
Kristen: What is the first album you heard that made you say, “Oh my God, I love music”?
Raul: This is kind of down the grapevine, but a really good friend of mine read this study that I found interesting. Apparently, the music that you hear before the age of 26 has a very significant cerebral effect on you. Your brain is still forming and making all these connections and you’re growing as a person. So, music sets really firmly with memory from the ages of – I think – 15 and 26. It’s a sad fact, but the music that you hear then, you won’t’ experience any other music in the same way again. It almost makes you want to choose really carefully what you listen to.
Kristen: I’m 26, so I’m on the last year! That’s really interesting. What about you, Quinn? First influential album?
Quinn: My mom made us listen to a rotation of about six CDs in the car every day. One of them was Tracy Chapman. It was the song where she sings [sings], “Last night I heard the loud screaming voices behind the wall …” It’s a really fucked up song about domestic abuse. It’s an a capella song. I was about eight, and I had no idea what it was about at the time. But then there was the really popular Counting Crows CD, too. The one that’s yellow that has all the cursive on it. And then there was Joni Mitchell.
Raul: That year was really big. Alanis Morissette, Counting Crows, No Doubt …
Quinn: Oh my God. Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt.
Mike: I don’t know…for me, I listened to a lot of ‘90s music, but I also did a lot of punk-pop music. Brand New. That band was fucking awesome. I saw them so many times. Incubus…I was into them for a while.
Tim: I didn’t start playing music because of a song or an album that I heard, but I think shortly after I started playing bass and guitar, I got really into Deftones. This was around 2003 or 2004, and I think their self-titled album had just come out. Listening to them and seeing the influences and what came before them, and being able to observe that…And all the lyrical content and those skills. That was really appealing to me.
Raul: Do you remember in magazines there used to be – I think it was run by Columbia House – there used to be this perforated sheet where you could get 10 or 11 CDs for a penny? It was mostly in guitar magazines – Guitar World and magazines like that– and it was a total scam. Some 11-year-old chump (me) would pick out 11 albums, put the penny in the envelope and send it in. And then I would get all these CDs in a box and my parents would say, “Oh, Raul, you have mail. Weird because you’re a kid.” And then two months later they’d get this $120 bill and they’re like, “God damn it, Raul! What is this shit?”
Raul: So, I got the Columbia House thing and I filled out Michael Jackson, No Doubt … whatever was on the radio. I had liked music enough to fill the sheet out, but I finally got the box of CDs in the mail, and in this box was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Best Hits: Volume 2.” The first track off of it was the track “Scuttle Buttin,” which was just him blazing on the guitar. I had just picked up a guitar and I had no idea that you could do that. I just wanted to do that so bad. So, I put it on repeat, and I think that’s when my OCD set in.
Raul: But he made me want to play music and that’s when it started.
Kristen: Do your parents still bring up the $120 bill?
Raul: In other ways.
Kristen: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Mike: I lived in North Carolina for two years – my freshman and sophomore year of high school. I’m not religious, but I was living with my mom and I would get dragged to church occasionally. This happened right at the time when I was feeling like this wasn’t the place for me. I wanted to move back to Colorado, where I was from. The priest was discussing this and he said, “Do something for yourself. Take care of yourself first before you can take care of others.” Which has been a heavy translator since then.
Kristen: People say the opposite.
Quinn: Like on an airplane.
Kristen: Oh my God, I think about that all the time! I always get so pissed when they announce it on the airplane, but then I think about it, and I’m like, if you’re able to help yourself first…
Quinn: Then you can help more people.
Mike: It’s so true. It’s very true.
Quinn: Help yourself!
[Everyone high fives]
Tim: That’s a good one. My father used to tell me that all the time, and I agree, that’s probably the most valuable advice I ever received.
Kristen: I think part of is that you’re seen as selfish if you take care of yourself.
Quinn: In many different ways, if you’re not healthy and taking care of yourself, how are you going to have any capacity to help the people around you, or the people that are in relationships with you?
Raul: Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. It’s putting your desires in front of someone else’s needs that’s selfish. I think that’s the heart of it. It’s hard to think of a good piece of advice that I’ve been given, but I know one that I’ve heard is that if you feel comfortable, you should probably move on. And I think that’s a really hard one to follow for three reasons. One, if you’re feeling comfortable, that’s really great. Two, a lot of people strive to feel comfortable. And three, people don’t take change very lightly. Change allows you to grow as a person. You can apply that to music, too. If you’re working in a certain genre and you feel comfortable, it’s probably time to move onto something else.
Kristen: And it doesn’t mean you can’t go back.
Raul: Yeah, but you should always move forward because you should be wanting to grow as a human.
Kristen: I like that.
Quinn: The best advice I ever got, which I take about 50/50 is: “Don’t complain unless you have a solution.” I complain a lot.
Raul: Do you think there’s a difference between whining and complaining?
Raul: Okay, because I’d say it’s your right to complain, but you should never whine.
Raul: And I think that distinction is huge. Let’s say I have a complaint: “I think minimum wage should be higher.” That’s my complaint, but it raises awareness. It prompts a solution. But whining is like, “It’s too cold! My food is touching!”
Quinn: I hear that.
Kristen: Things that are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things? Is that what you’re hinting at?
Raul: Yeah, or that are selfish.
Kristen: Yeah, and if you don’t have a solution, then don’t whine about it.
Quinn: Yeah, never whine. I whine a lot, though.
Kristen: I whine, too. Mostly internally. What did we not cover that you guys want to talk about?
Mike: A song.