Some time ago Stairwell released their fine long player „Pacific standard time“ on Takehold Records. Takehold describes their sound as similar to bands as Gameface, The Get Up Kids or Saves the Day. In think all these bands play a similar, dynamic type of music, without sounding the same. And as I like this kind of music a lot I decided to do an interview with Stairwell…
Hey guys, do you have a short introduction to start this interview off with? What’s your job in Stairwell?
Zak: As far as introductions, my name is Zak, I play guitar and vocals. My job, well, I think I am supposed to be the friendly guy.
Tim: I play the drums.
Sean: Hello.... my name is Sean Stopnik... and I play in Stairwell. Let's see... I play guitar in the band.
I think most people might be familiar with your excellent "Pacific standard time" album (I like it a lot, it rocks!), but they might not know many things about the past of Stairwell. So could you please give me a short history of the band: How and when did it all get started, who was in the band at that time, have there been any line up changes so far etc.
Tim: Stairwell was kind of a side project for Sean and me way back when we started it in 1996. About two years ago, we decided to make it a serious, full time project. That’s when we brought in Zak, Jonathan, and Jonathan Deane (bass). About a year ago, Jonathan Deane stepped out to be with his wife and new son, Jonathan Jr, or as we call him, Jonny X. We brought in Aaron Wahlman, who we met on tour last summer in St. Louis. He moved out here to Huntington Beach with us, and that brings us up to date.
Sean: The band started about 5 years ago. Stairwell started off a 3-piece, with Tim Kowal (drums), Neil Samoy (original vocals and guitar), and Dan Kelba (original bass). I joined the band a year later, and we started playing alot of shows. About 6 months later, we brought in Kevin Chen to play violin and 3rd guitar. We recorded an album with this line-up for a small start-up label. We continued to play shows and even did 2 mini tours. In the summer of 1999, we went through some changes. Neil, Dan, and Kevin decided to pursue other things, so the band was left with only Tim and I (Sean). We quickly recruited Jonathan Caro (Vocals and Guitar), Zak Shultz (Vocals and Guitar), and Jonathan Deane (Bass). We started to work on new songs and signed a deal with Takehold Records. In the May 2000, we recorded a debut full length, “Pacific Standard Time”, and immediately left for our first national tour. When we returned from tour, Jon Deane quit in order to pursue family life, and we asked Aaron Wahlman to take his place. We continued to tour throughout the fall, and when returning home, we got to work on new songs. In June of 2001 we recorded our second full length CD entitled “The Sounds Of Change”. (We consider it our second album since the actual first album was with different members and a different sound.) Once again, we immediately went back on tour. Since the summer of 2000, we have played over 160 dates, in 38 states, travelling 42,000 miles, circling the US 5 times! We have been very busy. (Indeed! – Stefan)
Stairwell will supposedly release a new album in September. What can you tell me about that one? How will it be called, how many songs have you recorded for it, when was it recorded and who produced it?
Zak: Stairwell will be releasing a new album on Takehold Records, entitled "The Sounds of Change". It will be out September 6th, according to our good friend and label owner Chad Johnson. We are really proud of this new record. It was done in Plantation, FL, with James Wisner (238, Dashboard, Further Seems Forever, Vacant Andy's). We only had two weeks in June to record, so we squeezed on 9 very well done songs, that we hope everyone enjoys. We had a couple others including a "lady killer" acoustic song, but I guess that will have to wait for another day. That one was called, "My Dream". We couldn't be happier with the packaging also, which was done by Chris McCadden(sp). Just everything about this record, we wanted it to reflect what Stairwell was really about. I know many people thought Stairwell was all about lo-fi production, from listening to “Pacific Standard Time”, but we aren't. It has its own place. But for us, we love a well produced, full sounding record. It never happened that way with PST, because of time and money restraints, but finally, the new one does us some justice.
Tim: “The Sounds of Change” will be out in stores in September, and we are extremely excited about it. It’s very progressive and well rounded. We are very proud of the songs, and James Wisner is an amazing producer, and did wonders with the tones and overall production of the record. I expect James will become a big name in the recording industry before long… he has a great ear and an awesome sense of direction.
Sean: The new album is entitled “The Sounds of Change”. It was recorded in June of 2001, and was produced by James Paul Wisner (Further Seems Forever, Dashboard Confessional). There is 10 tracks on the CD. This CD is very different then the PST. The songs are more mature, more layered, and much more produced. The album as a whole is much more rock n' roll sounding, and more in the direction we are going. There are similarities to PST, but as a whole, very different. We are very happy with the way it turned out.
I heard you just came from a long Summer tour, so I guess the new record was finished before that tour? Did you play any new songs during that tour? And did you then think "Hey, we could have changed this and that while recording the album"?
Zak: Yeah, we just got home off of a 2 month long tour, and festival circuit. Word to the wise... stay away from summer tours! Actually we toured out to Florida to record the record, then toured around the country with Ghoti Hook for awhile, until Furnace Fest. After Furnace, in Alabama, we drove straight home to California.
As far as our set list on the road, we did stick with a bunch of old stuff, but we played about 3 or 4 new songs a night, so that’s not too bad. We didn't want to push too many new songs that people couldn't go listen to the next day. I think that when we recorded the album we pretty much got all of our ideas out and then some, with the help of James. He definitely had some great ideas, and we were able to play off him a lot, or just let him run with his own ideas. So by the time it came to playing the songs on the road, we were just hoping we could remember all the stuff we had put on the album. Now that we are home we will be practicing the new album and coming up with a new set.
Tim: We recorded the record in Florida. We toured for two weeks on our way out there, spent two weeks on the record, and then continued the tour. Of course you always have things that you would like to be different on the album, so yes, there are a few things that we would have liked to change. As a whole, though, we are extremely pleased with the record. We have been playing three or four songs from the record on tour, and seem to get a pretty positive response, so that is encouraging.
Sean: We did play new songs on this tour. At the beginning of the tour, we were on our way to the studio in FL., so we would alternate new songs, and try them out on different audiences. After we recorded, we continued our tour, but pretty much stuck to 3 new songs in our set. We still were promoting PST on this last tour, so we didn't want to not play the old ones, you know. We are so happy with the way that the new record sounds, so we don't want to change anything.
Would you say there are any major changes musically and lyrically on this album compared to the last one? If so, which ones?
Zak: Suffice to say, the last album will sound like chicken scratchings, compared to the new one. (Hehe – Stefan) The new one is so much more produced, and sounds so much bigger. I think there is a wider variety in the songs on the new album, some ups and downs, that PST didn't have. A lot of people got some stupid notion that the last album was "punk rock", don't ask me why, but this is very much a pop rock record. We are just those kinda guys, pop rock radio guys, that is. Most records we are into, are good solid rock records. Superdrag, Third Eye Blind, U2, Weezer (Yeah! – Stefan), AC/DC, Foo Fighters etc.
Tim: I would say the most important change is the move from a very raw, pop rock guitar driven sound to a more musical, texture-driven sound. There is still a good amount of catchy hooks to the songs, and I think they rock even more than PST. But the overall sound and arrangements are so much more involved and interesting, that I think it will appeal to a much wider audience.
Will there be a tour to promote the new record? Hopefully you will come over to Europe soon?
Zak: Right now we are just trying to survive coming home off of a low income tour. As we speak, I have no job and no car (And I thought I’d be the only one around without a car – Stefan), so there are some things I need to work on, as does all the guys, but yeah, we are on the lookout for some upcoming tours. We would like to get out in the Fall/Winter and Spring. We are just pushing and waiting for things to happen. We would love to do a Japanese tour sometime soon, and from what Brandtson told us about their European tour, we would also love to get to Europe. (I hope you do come over! – Stefan) So basically if there is any promoters that want to bring us out, please give us a call or email us, we are always on the lookout.
Tim: We all hope to come to Europe soon. We’ll see what doors open. We’re currently looking for new management. Until then, we tentatively have plans for touring again in late fall/early winter.
Sean: We don't specific dates scheduled yet for our next tour, but I'm sure we will be out again soon. As for Europe... we are really trying to work that out, but we haven't set up anything yet. We are looking for a booking company other there to book it. We really want to go over to Europe and Japan this next year.
This leads to my next question: You just came from a longer tour, and to promote a record you will have to do another one. So how do you like life on the road? How do you avoid fighting each other? I could imagine it's pretty hard at times when one is so close to the same guys for a longer period of time without having the chance of separating a bit or isn't this a problem for you?
Zak: Long tours, just suck. No getting around it. Home is always a good place. Even if you don't have a girlfriend or a job, or a car! But life on the road, is awesome too. All I have to do is live day to day. It’s a very interesting switch from home life. Yes it is hard at times, and you do need to get away, no doubt. But you have to adapt to each situation. Some tours go better than others, and therefore you seem to be in better spirits. This tour was very hard and very long, because of finances and many other reasons, but we still got to play to a lot of people, so it was well worth it. Stairwell work pretty hard on the road, we seem to have more purpose on the road. We need to work harder at home and that is something I hope we will start doing when the new record comes out.
Tim: We seem to get along alright, for the most part. There is a strange kind of economy within the band; there is always at least one person with a level head, no matter how bad things get, so there is never any real chaos or fighting. We are usually contented to belittle each other several times a day, to keep us numb. All in all, I would say we all enjoy touring. Sean and I have serious girlfriends who we hate to be away from, but aside from that, touring is definitely less stressful from my regular day job.
Sean: We all love being on tour. Tour is a lot of hard work, but it is also a lot of fun, so we try to always have a good time. This last tour was our longest, and toughest, 2 and 1/2 months, but we do a pretty good job at keeping each others space, and not screwing around... too much!
Your sound was described (also by your label Takehold) as a mixture out of Gameface, Saves the Day and the Get up Kids. Would you agree? What do you think about categories in general? Most bands I interviewed seem a bit reluctant to comparisons with other bands, but I think that somehow it is just easier to give kids an example how a band sounds like. What do you think?
Zak: Yeah, comparisons, are always tricky. I wouldn't call us a mix of those three bands, because I don't really listen to those bands that much. In fact, Jon, who writes most of the songs, doesn't listen to those three bands that much. We are far more into bands like Superdrag, Third Eye Blind, Letters To Cleo etc. But then again, we listen to a lot of strange stuff. Wide variety makes good rock records, so I am hoping that our music will more and more, be its own entity, but what can you do? Comparisons will always remain. That’s music.
Tim: I don’t mind giving comparisons. I don’t think any of us are so indignant to think that our music is unlike anything else. I would say that description is pretty accurate, in describing PST. The new album “The Sounds of Change”, is more like Superdrag, Foo Fighters, and Third Eye Blind, than anything else.
Sean: That description is a good one for the last album, but for the new one I would say we sound more like our own thing. You can hear our influences in it, such as Superdrag, Third Eye Blind, Jimmy Eat World, and still some Get Up Kids sound in there. We don't mind descriptions of our music, every band wants to think they are original and sound like nobody else, but every band sounds like someone! It is impossible to be truly original... everything has been done! (I’m really glad you think that way, because lots of bands seem to get pissed off when described to other bands. Often it’s hard to explain them that I’m not saying they’re copying other bands. Strange… - Stefan)
How would you then describe the sound of Stairwell? Please give a "description" of the band, its music and its lyrics.
Zak: Well Jon writes most of the music, and lyrics, and I write some lyrics. There is songs about the road, and the desire for home. The relationship songs, the love songs are always a favourite, because Jon and I are both single and romantics at heart. I think we are both dreamers, hoping for a better tomorrow and all that nonsense. I would definitely say we are fans of the movies that end well. But then on some days, we can't get enough sarcasm. So in the end, Stairwell, seems to be about happy endings, sarcasm, and the road going home. (Hey, I like this guy – Stefan)
Tim: Our overall sound we’d like to characterize as just catchy, fun and slightly interesting rock and roll. The lyrics are about life and relationships and frustrations about things and all that good stuff. Nothing too political, nothing too spiritual.
Sean: We are a Pop-Rock band. We sound like Pop Rock. Our lyrics are pretty much about whatever was on Jonathan's mind at the time.
I heard that some of you played in Bloodshed and Innermeans before Stairwell. Is that true? Who played in these bands, then? Did they break up or did you leave these bands while they are still around?
Zak: The last band I was in was called Dear Mr. Peterson, and we really only played around Southern California.
Sean: I played in Bloodshed and in Innermeans before Stairwell. Both bands pretty much broke up before I joined Stairwell.
I don't know these bands mentioned before, but I guess their sound was pretty different to Stairwell. So how come you are playing this sound now?
Zak: Well, I am guessing this is the same answer that you will get from Sean and Tim, but people grow older, and their tastes change. I know as kids you want to try everything, you want to experiment. I myself have been in a bunch of different types of bands, but through all that I always loved, good ol’ rock and roll. No matter what place I was in, no matter what music was big at the time, I always have love the rock. I think we have grown into this, or been steered in this direction.
Sean: Bloodshed and Innermeans were both Hardcore based bands... I was just tired of playing that kind of music, I wanted something different.
Bloodshed and Innermeans supposedly were on Tooth and Nail, so why isn't Stairwell as well on this label?
Zak: Long story, short, they didn't want us, we didn't go looking for them. There are many labels for many different types of bands, I don't think we felt, or they felt that Stairwell would fit at Tooth and Nail.
Sean: Stairwell has never had the intention of being on a Christian label such as Tooth and Nail.... we have always wanted to stay away from that scene. Takehold Records has and always will take care of us, and work for us.
I am ashamed, but I only know "Pacific standard time" (I repeat myself, it is great!), so what can you tell me about your previous releases? When was "Fifty years too late" recorded and was it different to the "Pacific..." album?
Zak: All I can tell you about the old stuff, is it is basically another band. We have 3 new members, including both our singers, Jon and I. So since Jon is now the principal songwriter, all the old stuff, before PST, is great and all, but well behind us now. We only play one of the old songs, “Don't Let it End” still to this day.
Tim: This was recorded as Stairwell’s original line up. The sound is much different, and was during an experimental and non-serious part of Stairwell history. We don’t like to really regard it as the same Stairwell. It was a different band, and a completely different sound. But if you want to know, that record’s influences are much more “emo”.
Sean: “Fifty Years too Late” was recorded in ‘98, and was with our old members. It was a very emo sounding record, on a very, very small label. It is something that was so different then what we are now, we don't even like talking about it. (I think I should get a hold of that one – Stefan)
What about the "Promotional EP"? The songs also appeared on "Pacific...", so was it just for promotional use as the title says or could kids buy it in stores?
Zak: Yeah that EP was meant to shop around, to get some interest in Stairwell flowing. We wanted to get new stuff out, so that people could hear the change in the direction, hear the difference between the two and start getting used to it. Hometown crowds here are pretty hard to please. When you have everything at your fingertips, why wouldn't you be?
Tim: It was only self released, and no more are available. You can probably download it off Napster or Audiogalaxy.com. It was just something to use before we had PST. It is three songs that were rerecorded for PST.
Sean: That was just a 3 song EP to send to labels when we were shopping for a label. It was sold at shows, but not that many were made.
Where do you live in the US? Do you like it there and what about your local scene, is it good in your opinion?
Zak: Well continuing on my last thought, home is harder for us, since we changed our style. Like I said before we need to work harder at home, and I think this new album will a good building block for us. We are from Huntington Beach, CA, but really we live all over Orange County. We love it here. I tell everyone I know that it rules. Everywhere we go, I tell them, their town sucks and ours rules. (Hehe – Stefan) I don't mean to sound rude, or mean....but seriously who wouldn't want to live here in perfect weather, with so much to do, and the ocean so close. (One more word to make me envy and I will stop this interview immediately – Stefan) I realize, to each his own, but I love living here and I have lived a lot of places in my life, so I am always talking up Huntington Beach. The scene is hard, because there are so many bands around here, and LA, and San Diego. I think it’s the same as New York, or Nashville. It’s hard to break in and be noticed. But I am hoping that will make us work that much harder.
Tim: We live in Huntington Beach CA. The more we tour, the more I realize how freaking awesome it is here. The weather is always nice, and people know how to drive! The scene is ok. Lots of cool bands come through.
Sean: We are from Huntington Beach, California. We love it here! (Yeah, I could figure that out from Zak’s answer – Stefan) Beautiful weather! The local scene is funny... sometimes its good... sometimes its bad! It seems to be getting better.
What was the reason for you to make music in the first place? When and why did you decide not only to listen to music, but also creating music on your own? Any band that had a major influence on you back in these days?
Zak: Music should come from the heart, first and foremost. Every good performer I see, every band I look up too, has 120% heart. They spell out their thoughts and feeling with every strum every melody, every hit. It’s universal. Sometimes no words are involved, sometimes the words correspond to the music, showing the same feeling, and thought. Sometimes, it’s complete chaos, like life is so many times. Who wouldn't want to strive to create something like that. Every time we play, I am trying to give everything I have inside, not through physical exertion, but through the pouring out of all that’s in my heart. I want people to feel what I am feeling.
I think I decided to create music when I first heard the old rock ballads of the 80's. It was at a time in high school, when I was "in love" with a girl, and I had all these feelings running through me, that these songs seem to spell out. (I know exactly what you mean – Stefan) I wanted to create something that would explain my feelings, just like they had. I know it’s cheesy (No – Stefan), but hey, I was 15. Then along came U2. My friend Chad and I watched “Rattle and Hum” every Saturday, for months, and I hung on every word, every note, every twitch. Wanna talk about true artists? Well look no further. U2 is it.
Tim: Music is one of those things that just makes sense. If you’ve been blessed with the ability to make music, as well as a strong love of music, then it would be utter foolishness to NOT do what we’re doing. If you’ve got a love for something, and are not pursuing it, then that’s a kind of spiritual suicide. Tons of bands have influenced us, I don’t even know where to begin.
Sean: Growing up my uncle was in a band, and my dad was there sound man. I would always go to the shows and roadie. I loved being part of the band, and music was so much fun to watch live. When I turned 15, I decided I wanted to learn guitar and play in a band. I would watch what my uncle's band would do, and try to do the same thing. I learned that a band is more then just making music, it's also a business. So I think that all those experiences when I was young helped me so much!
The Juliana Theory will release their next record on Epic, and also Saves the Day had an offer by a major label. What do you think about that? Lots of people think that bands shouldn't sign to a major label, what about you? Would you sign to a major if you were offered a deal?
Zak: I think its about time! We are really happy for Juliana Theory, we love those guys and support them in whatever they do. The people that think you shouldn’t sign to a major are probably those who have heard stories or have experienced majors, or something. No doubt there are differences between indies and majors. Many stereotypes are true. But in the end either way you go, it’s still the music industry and there will always be someone there to rip you off. You have to watch what you are doing and make smart decisions whichever way you go. Each band, is a different situation, with different needs. Would we sign to a major? Sure, if the deal was right. We are here to play music, but most of us do not live at home with Mom and Dad, so we know that there is a stomach to feed, and rent to pay. That’s life.
Tim: It depends on the deal. We would never sign a lousy contract just because it came from a big name. As for being an “indie” band or whatever, we don’t put any stake in that. Major labels want to put out records that have mass appeal, and we want to write music that has mass appeal, so we are in the same business. We could never write music that wasn’t us, so there is no issue of “selling out” for us. If we succeed, we will be making music we love, and millions of people would be rocking out to it. That’s the dream for us. So as far as we’re concerned, the whole indie dilemma doesn’t apply to us.
Sean: Well, we wouldn't turn it down. We are just trying to make music, put out CDs, tour, and get ahead. We would love to take that next step to a major label. We are very happy for Juliana Theory, they have worked very hard for it!
Are you satisfied with Takehold? Can they do everything for you that is important for you (tours, promotional work,...)? If Takehold wouldn't exist and you could choose a label to release your albums on, which label would you choose?
Tim: We love Takehold. It is a great label, run by a great guy. I just want to get to the point where we grow out of Takehold, and have to move on to a bigger pond, so to speak. Takehold wants the best for us, and when that means moving on from Takehold to another label, he will be behind that decision. But until then, we can’t say enough good things about Takehold.
Sean: Takehold has been awesome. They believed in us when nobody else did. I don't know what other label we would want to be on... there is a lot of good labels out there. Any label that is willing to support you and work hard for you is the label that we want to be on!
Ok, I guess that's it. Anything more to say?
Tim: Thanks Stefan!
Sean: Thank you so much for the interview. I hope I answered everything you wanted to know. Thanks again!