San Francisco’s the Family Crest may be a bit unconventional, but the band members don’t fall short of living up to their name. The indie orchestral seven piece rocks as hard as they impress, and have evolved from a modest musical project to a movement that has seen over 200 extended family members sing along at their energetic shows and on records.
Their first EP, the Headwinds, through Portland’s Tender Loving Records, caught the attention of Spin, and their first full-length record, Beneath the Brine, is gaining momentum with the first single, “The World,” on heavy rotation in a TV commercial.
The Family Crest hosts its CD release party at the Great American Music Hall on February 13th. We caught up with singer/orchestrator Liam McCormick to talk about recording Beneath the Brine, signing to Tender Loving Empire, and the semantics of selling out.
How good does it feel to finally see the release of Beneath the Brine?
I’m stoked. It’s funny because the album wasn’t supposed to be an album. I’ve been working on this other album for a few years and we were all talking about what to release, so we decided on an EP and started putting it together.
It was about eight tracks and John, our bass player, was like “It’s basically an album, let’s just add a couple more songs.” It went extremely organically because it wasn’t this big planned-out thing and it was a free flowing writing process. It’s been done for a little under a year. We got picked up by a record label and have been sitting on it.
The song “William’s Dirge” has a 1920’s saloon feel, “The Water’s Fine” is a jazzy tune, and “the World” is more contemporary. Is this a conscious decision or is it more of reflection of the band’s influences?
The writing on Brine was different. When we were going out and playing shows people liked what we were doing, but they weren’t moving around too much. They were studying the band. I’d thought about how people are coming to the show for the experience, but not specifically to move around and have fun, and that’s a quintessential thing. Part of my thought process was deconstructing my writing and thinking what here is going to modernize the music without taking away the soul.
I realized the biggest part of it was the drums, so I focused on rhythmic patterns that focused on movement. The song, “Beneath the Brine” was written completely backwards, it started with a cello line and then came the guitar.
We’re all about making an album that people can play from start to finish. There’s an art that’s missing these days where people are focusing on singles.
You used some unorthodox recording methods on this album, recording in exotic places and cafes, and you’re known for fan involvement, accrediting an extended family of over 200 people. How did this idea evolve?
It’s funny because it started out as a recording project that turned into a band. It was originally supposed to be a CD that we were proud of that we could show our future children. When we were doing it, mainly because of cost, we built a portable studio and we couldn’t afford to record hundreds of people at $600 a day in a studio. As we progressed we realized we were getting good performances out of people because it was live, and not in the studio.
Studios are kind of sterile as opposed to a church with candles or a lively café, even if it’s if at the expense at one song per day. Our style is bit unorthodox because we go everywhere. For example, I promised our friend from Seattle who plays hand bells that she’d be on the record. We were getting toward the end and I remembered that promise so we drove to Seattle and recorded. It helps us connect with people on a more one on one level.
It probably also gives people an opportunity to feel a part of something, and live vicariously through the project.
I think the thing is most people are more musical than they think; they’re just shy and don’t know how to use their musicality. Giving them a soapbox is cool for us because there are so many people that started open mikes and bands because they got some confidence of being on a record.
Were you aware your first single, “The World,” was in a Carnival Cruise Commercial?
I was aware of the song being in an ad, but I hadn’t seen it. I don’t have cable, so my friends were calling me and saying they just heard us on a commercial. A great company called Zinc represents us, and they did what they do and it worked out great.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with exploring all avenues of income for a band. These days there’s a fine line between making money and “selling out.”
The general public has no idea how expensive it is being in a band. To the average person, I explain it like a cliff, you trudge up the cliff, and you get the edge and you’re either gonna fall off and die or you’ll live. When you start off in a band you’re working jobs and supporting yourself. It’s hard to have a job when you have a booking agent that might call you to do a tour in two weeks for a month. So people don’t think about the fact that being a band alone, when you get to that middle level of success, it means you’re broke. A tour in our bus getting across the states costs like $5,000 alone in gas.
So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking ads. There’s a big gap in between selling out and selling a song. The key is if you can afford not to sell out, and you sell out—that’s the pivotal point. If you’re already rich and you sell a song to McDonalds, that’s selling out. It’s more of a non-monetary thing, doing something against what you believe.
Great point. And so you kick off 2014 with your album release part at the Great American Music Hall. What’s next for the Family Crest?
It’s always been about getting on the road and touring as much as possible and getting to as many listeners as we can. I hope people respond well to the record; I think they will. The consistent goal is to play it 365 days a year, bring it the people and see what happens.