Genre(s): Indie Alternative Pop
Instrument(s): Bass Guitar, Guitar, Keyboard, Voice
Sandy from Indicator Indicator, originally from the band Quinzy, talks about the struggles of leaving one band and feeling the need to keep making music. He talks about the stresses of starting out and touring and talks about his decision to join the label Pipe and Hat. His was really interesting to listen to and I really enjoyed the way he understood each experience meant to him and what he took away from it all.
With me still not really used to meeting and interviewing band members, I was really nervous about meeting Sandy. I had heard great things about Indicator Indicator from a couple of my co-workers but hadn’t met them before the interview. I had volunteered at Sc Mira’s Album release on June 11 (which was an amazing show by the way) and got to see Indicator Indicator perform as one of the opening bands. They all had an excellent stage presence that really pumped the audience in a great way and the music was vivacious. You could really tell the crowd adored them.
Ashley: What started Indicator Indicator?
Sandy: Well, Quinzy was just starting to wind down a little bit. We spent a long time with Quinzy, doing the four-piece pop rock band thing, a little more mainstream. We spent a lot of years trucking away, swinging for the fences with labels, things like that, and it started to weigh us down a little bit. But we’re best friends - we didn’t want to stop, and so we just put it away for a little bit.
But I’ve got the sickness worse than anyone else, I think, so I just couldn’t stop. I write, and songs just kept coming. My first love, since I was 15 or 16, has been home recording. So I kind of wanted to get back to where I started, which was these home recording projects. Not even thinking about how you would play them live, or what the point of it was. Just to make music for the sake of making music. That’s what the first Indicator Indicator EP was. [It was] me playing at home on my computer, recording all of the instruments myself. A little labor of love.
Then it was nominated for a Western Canadian Music Award and things were going really well with it, and I wanted to take things further. But I wanted to do something different from a 4-piece rock band because I had just done that, and was a little bored with it.
So, I recruited a friend of mine, Matthew Harder, and we did it as a duet, striving to make as much noise as possible. We couldn’t quite play these rich pop tunes with just the two of us so we did a lot of digital vocal harmonies and looping and a bit of electronic sequencing. And things like that that were totally out of our comfort zone because we were just musicians, not necessarily technology-oriented people.
In fact, Matt is a folk player - blue grass, primarily - so we really pushed ourselves outside of our comfort zone. We spent a couple years doing the two piece thing, and did a little touring - it was really cool and fun. Then as the next recording started to happen, it was getting bigger with more live drums and real bass guitar, and I was starting to inch back to making it a band. I took this long circular route back to a 4-piece band! But this time we’re using a lot less traditional electric guitar, more synth, more fake instruments and other stuff like that. Just blending organic with inorganic.
What I love about pop is that it’s like a mockingbird. These birds are known to grab all the other bird songs they hear and blend them into their own collage. It doesn’t care about genres, it will just take what it wants out of everything. So, if you like a hi-hat tone from this hip-hop song, grab it. If you like heavy synth, use that. It doesn’t have a lot of parameters, and I like that.
Ashley: Where does the name come from?
Sandy: It was a song title for about 10 years. I like song titles; I have notebooks full of them. For some reason its kind of where I start a lot of the time. So I had this song title that I really liked - I had read about a bird called the greater African honeyguide, the genus is “indicator” and the species is “indicator”. It somehow knows where honeycombs are trapped in trees, but can’t get to them, so it co-evolved with nearby tribes of humans, and would lead them to where the trees were and where the combs were trapped. The humans would crack them open and they would all get to share the honey.
I though it was the coolest nature story, plus I loved it as a name, but I could never find a song that was really good enough for [it]. Then when I was starting this new project I was like “oh good, I’ve got the perfect name waiting in the wing.”
Ashley: What is a practice session like with the whole band?
Sandy: I get to play with a lot of guys who have a lot of band experience, so we don’t have much patience for watching each other practice anymore. There are high expectations that everyone knows what they are doing, and so more we’re just tweaking and selecting who is playing what part, and making more “production” decisions than actually “can you play this guitar line”.
I tend to think with production in mind as I write, and maybe 1 in 10 songs I could just play on an acoustic guitar and have it make sense. I guess I could write more of those types of songs, but that’s not really where I lean. I like parts; I like having a bass line that’s distinctive to the song. When there are all these moving parts in a song and there are only four of you to play them, it’s more about who is doing what at what time, and making sure we’re representing the song correctly. If someone were coming in [and listening to this] cold, would they be able to understand it?
So it’s more about a “producer” mindset than “instrumentalist”. I don’t want just a guitar player, or just a drummer. I want people who can do whatever. And so we’re just four producers trying to make something cool.
Ashley: So when you are writing music, do you think of every part? How do you bring that to the band?
Sandy: Usually I record it all and then say, “here’s what we’re playing.” Although this is the first recording that the other guys are really deeply involved. We’re getting ready to release a mini-LP, (it’s a little bigger than an EP, so I’m calling it a mini-LP), and one of the songs is called No Anthem, which is the first single, and I had it fully produced [to sound] kind of cool. But when I brought it to the band it just wasn’t working. So it got deconstructed and became something totally different and now it’s very much a band arrangement.
But for the most part they come fully fleshed, though. I did that a lot with Quinzy too. As soon as I get into a song, I can’t really let it rest until it’s finished in my head.
Ashley: I can’t produce music.
Sandy: You should try, it’s easy.
Ashley: I have tried, it’s too hard for me.
Sandy: The world we live in, every low-entry Macbook has Garage Band; which is an amazing recording tool and let’s you multi-track as much as you want. You can dick around, and no one needs to hear it. You just chisel away at it. Sometimes you can be recording something, a full song even and the only thing you like about it is this little guitar part, so then take that and build around it.
I think it’s a great tool and it’s obviously revolutionized music. People are making laptop rock. People are making full music all on their own and they don’t know how to play a single instrument. It’s lusher and more innovative than any 4-piece folk rock band you’ll ever here, again because they’ve got no parameters.
Ashley: I guess I can give it a shot. So who inspires your music?
Sandy: Bands that mess around a lot in the studio. And people who can write songs. But that’s almost beside the point. Too me, it’s how can they make it interesting, different, cool. Subvert what may be a great melody. I find that stuff inspiring, and I’m often scared that I’m maybe not pushing myself enough to do that.
But also, modern pop. I love modern pop. With Tegan and Sara, when they just jumped straight into top 40 synth-pop recently… I thought that was a really cool move. And I know they took a lot of slack for it; but I think their songs are just so beautiful and air-tight, so unnatural-sounding, but so moving. It cannot be recreated. It’s an art onto itself. It’s unnatural. It’s an impressionistic painting or something. All kinds of pop nowadays, the amount of creativity involved is just staggering, the amount of love these engineers and producers are putting into it. Put headphones on and it’s a magical world, it’s great. And pop never gets credit for it. It’s seen as disposable, and maybe it is. The songs don’t actually “mean” anything, but they are staggeringly beautiful. Like that new Selena Gomez song; I mean, who likes Selena Gomez? But that song is so good when it comes on the radio.
We can’t do that modern pop thing, quite. I don’t have the skills, but maybe I would if I could.
Ashley: You mentioned a little earlier that you start with songwriting titles, but what exactly is your songwriting process?
Sandy: Sometimes titles. More often than not I’m sitting at the piano. It’s almost always at a piano. Once in awhile I’ll try to come from a more production-based place. I’ll get a really nice feel or beat or something like that and just improvise over it. I usually have email drafts of lyrics all over the place and when one melody comes out I’ll sort through the lyrics and see if anything goes with that; in terms of feel, or if it actually fits with the melody.
So it’s pretty rare that I just sit at the piano and pop something out all at once. Maybe a verse melody comes along, then I think about other chorus melodies I have laying around, and see if they fit. Look around at the lyrics I have, or see if there is a title I want to start with, and it slowly comes together.
But it can happen suddenly once in awhile. Our new record starts with a waltz called Instant to Instant, and that feels like the last time I just sat down at piano and was like, “Oh, here’s a song. Oh, and the lyrics came too, how nice!”. I walked away that afternoon feeling all good about myself. But it’s usually a more painful process than that.
I try to be really ruthless with songs. My personal belief is that everyone can write melodies. Everyone can. When we’re whistling in the street, when we’re singing in the shower. People are creative. Every single person. I think the craft of it, or the hard part, is in he editing. Knowing what’s good and what is not, and being able to cobble it into something that both makes sense on first listen, and yet is not quite what people would expect.
Ashley: With Indicator Indicator, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
Sandy: Little moments. Like back when it was just Matthew and I doing a two-piece, when we were in Toronto for a little festival - it was our first time on the road, and we were still working out a lot of kinks. (Actually we never really got through all the kinks, we kind of just moved on). But it was particularly tricky in that first little go, to the point where two thirds of the shows were miserable. This piece of gear broke, I didn’t do this right, this looped sucked.
We had one of those shows, and it was a showcase where we were supposed to be judged, and it was a terrible show. I was like “Oh my god, I’m too old to have terrible shows like this.” We went home, had a beer and kind of licked our wounds because we actually had another show that night. We did eight or nine shows in six days, I think. So we had to pack everything up again and go do another show and THAT one we crushed. The idea that we just got right back up and put the first one in the rear view mirror, and then got a win. It’s those tiny moments that I love and will never get tired of. Because it should always be hard, it should always be SO hard so when you get those little victories it feels so good.
It’s a double edged sword, I’m always kind of proud of the product, but I’m never satisfied with it, I’m never really happy with it. I like the records that I’ve made, I like the recordings, I like the recordings Quinzy made. But I don’t listen to them, I would never listen to them, I would only hear the things I would want to change now. Similarly, I look back at shows and see the banter that I didn’t like, or the missed notes. So, the details are almost always painful, but there is a more general pride simply in that I get to be in a band. It’s the coolest thing in the world and I still love it.
I love it as a concept, but every actual moment of it seems frustrating and hard and soul-sucking [laughs]. But it’s who I am and I have to do it.
Ashley: What is you favorite song to perform?
Sandy: I think it’s the song called Back into the fire. It’s the last song on the first EP, and in retrospect it touches on the time that Quinzy was going for major label deals, and we got kind of close, but all around us we could just see that this model we were chasing was dying. That it doesn’t work anymore. It’s all going to be totally different soon so when it ended, it felt like I was escaping a burning building. But then I realized “Nope, I’m going back in. Here we go.”
It’s a simple song that just felt kind of pure coming out, and the feel of it works with the lyrical vibe. And I feel it every time we play it, almost every single time. It’s a slow, boring ballad and maybe we shouldn’t be doing it all the time, but I love it and it’s important to me. It’s one of those rare victories that I don’t always feel in songs.
Ashley: How do you deal with nerves before performing?
Sandy: [Points to beer] For the record, I just pointed to my beer. [laughs] No, I generally don’t get too nervous. What’s funny is that I’ll usually have nerves the day before. Or even the day of, but as soon as I’m setting up, that’s where the experience comes in. “Oh I’ve done this before, I’ve done this a million times. I know this.” This process of getting ready, strapping on your guitar, checking on your gear, tapping on your mic, it just puts you in this zone like, “I know how to do this”.
I used to have worse nerves, and you just have to barge through it. There is no easy way around it. Really, you should always have some nerves. If it’s just dead to you, that’s not a good thing. You have to feel some kind of apprehension that it’s not going to work, that you’re always on the knife’s edge, and you have to accept it for what it is. Yet, you need to realize that the stakes are not that high. I mean, you cannot play the worst rock and rock show ever played. You can’t. And what’s so important to you won’t be that important to the audience. That’s sort of sad and sort of cynical, but it’s the truth. All you can do it make them feel that this is as important as it is to you. The worse case scenario is not that they’re going to hate it, it’s that they’re not going to care. If you can kind of realize that without letting it take away your steam, you can put it in a proper context. I mean, this isn’t Doctors without Borders. It’s standing there trying to entertain people, and it’s been done a million times before you and will be done a million times after you. So just do you’re best.
That’s no answer for you at all, I’m sorry.
Or, I guess the answer is doing it again and again and again because you have to. That’s the only way.
Ashley: What is the most stressful thing about touring?
Sandy: Money. It’s expensive, and being away from home is hard. I have a two-year-old son and it’s not easy to be away and realize he’s growing up without you, and that life just goes on. I know a few musicians for who [touring is] their primary source of income, but it’s very rare. For the most part, even the most creatively successful musicians have another job somewhere. They have to. Which means you need to leave that behind when you tour, and if you have a family you need to leave them behind too. There’s just so much selfishness that it can feel pretty bad. So, when you come to a place and play for no one, you wonder “why am I leaving everyone for this?” Yet, if you want to be in a band you have to do it. It’s a sacrifice, but really it’s a selfish sacrifice. And if you think too much about it, that’s what makes it hard. So, you just need to not think so hard about it at the time, and be very careful in the touring that you choose to do, and make sure each trip is the right move. That it’s appropriate, and it’s worth the investments. You have to do it for a very good reason.
Ashley: How did you get signed to your label?
Sandy: When Indicator Indicator started, I knew I wanted to release as much as I could on my own. I’ve always liked the do-it-yourself approach. I’m a very hands-on kind of guy. I even ran our own promotion campaign for the first record because I wanted to see what it was like. And I just like learning and seeing all the different sides of the industry.
Anyway, I was really happy doing it all myself and seeing how far I could get, but cracks were starting to show and I was hitting some walls. I wasn’t doing a very good job over here, or the music was suffering over there. And there were just these walls you hit – some things you just can’t do on your own. It’s not a matter of will, it’s that you just can’t do it. I came to the realization that I should probably team up with someone to relieve some stress and get opportunities that I can’t get on my own.
So I reached out to Pipe & Hat just because I wanted someone local that I could talk with in person everyday if I wanted to, and I felt like they’re hungry. Like, they have these large ambitions so in a way I can unload that feeling a little bit. Let them feel the fire and hunger so I can focus a bit more on perfecting my own little world.
These guys seemed to fit the bill, so I reached out to them and we right away got along beautifully and formed a fast friendship. I’ve been really impressed with what they’ve done so far and the level of professionalism that they’ve brought. They’re challenging us to raise our game, and that pressure feels damn good.
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