There’s a prismatic depth to the sounds of Modern Merchant, the Brooklyn-based indie-rock band who just dropped their second EP, Virtues, on Aug 29. With it, John Parson, Sydney Weiss, and Jesse Stanford deliver a record that revels in complexity rather than shying away from it; each of the four tracks showcase its own unique compositional maturity.
In the first single off Virtues, “Bucolic,” Stanford’s vocals splurge and fade against elegant guitar riffs, while melancholic soundscapes lift suddenly skyward, then fall back towards the beat. In contrast, “Twin Channel” rides on a sparse but powerful snare that conjures up a steady, echoing trance, and “Be That As It May” gets full-on danceable.
That breadth of style is an impressive accomplishment for musicians who have played together for decades, and this trio has only been around since 2013. BTR caught up with Parson and Stanford to chat about why making a record is strange as well as oxymoronic merchant musicians and the band’s fantasy house in the woods.
BreakThru Radio (BTR): So how did the band form?
John Parson (JP): Jesse and I met while playing a show five or six years ago when we were both in the music circuit up in the Hartford, Connecticut, area. Then when I moved to New York, I had the idea for this project, and once I got here, through a chance encounter, I met Sydney Weiss and auditioned her to play drums. We realized we wanted to put a full band together and I happened to know the perfect person to round it out. Through a lot of cajoling I convinced Jesse to move to New York and join the band.
BTR: You didn’t want to move?
Jesse Stanford (JS): I did but… when Modern Merchant first started to come together I knew I needed a change from a lot of things that were going on in Connecticut, but the real push was being asked to go on a little mini-tour out in Illinois. I hit the proverbial crossroads and it pushed me over the edge to move to New York and take music a lot more seriously. It was one of those kinds of moments.
BTR: You guys have talked in other interviews about the difficulties of living in New York as a musician, especially expense-wise, and that challenge is something a lot of artists can relate to. Do you feel like it’s the right place for you?
JP: For a very fleeting amount of time, you’re in love with this place and then you can immediately find many reasons to not be in love with this place, but I’ve found the best parts about New York are the extremes. The thing that reassures us most is that whenever we leave, either collectively or individually, we miss New York and all the people we know here and all the great things here. Yes, we toy with the idea of buying a house in the woods, but like, how productive would we actually be? We’d probably just go canoeing.
BTR: Which is fun, but doesn’t have much to do with music.
JS: Also, there are things that make this lifestyle difficult, like expenses, because as an artist we don’t get paid very much so we obviously have to find other ways to make money. I mean, we would love to be in the same room together playing music seven days a week; we can only imagine what kind of stuff we’d be able to do, but there’s only 24 hours in a day. We just can’t make that work. That’s frustrating and that’s where the fantasy of all living in the woods together comes from.
I will say, though, the one thing I romanticized about New York that is coming true is the connections we are making here. We’re meeting other really talented artists that run the gamut. There’s a lot of hungry artists who are eager to collaborate here, and that’s been really rewarding and something that you can’t find in a lot of other places.
BTR: How did you settle on the name Modern Merchant?
JP: Sydney and I were just throwing around words, back when it was just her and I playing in a little cubicle practice space. We both were looking at it very inconsequentially. Somehow we got the word merchant and thought it was funny because we’re not going to make any real money at this so it’s partly ironic and partly coming from the fact it doesn’t mean to mean anything. And then we’re just real suckers for alliteration. We toyed around with a lot of things but eventually we were like, “Oh what do these two words mean together? Nothing? Perfect.”
BTR: What are some of your major influences?
JP: As a drummer, Sydney has a classical background, but she’s a huge funk and soul and jazz person, and Jesse and I are a little bit more indie-rock influenced. Jesse is gonna rattle off some names for you to get some “cred.”
JS: Yeah let me just bring up my iTunes… No, no, I think we have a lot crossover with influences. Yo La Tengo and bands in that vein are a big influence for John, and I am a bit more versed in folk rock, but we also bring in some stuff that no one in the band listens to or even likes, and that’s where the interesting things happen. Like, I’m not a big jazz guy, but it’s cool when Sydney does something that is jazz-influenced over an indie-rock riff.
BTR: What’s your writing process like?
JP: When the band first started out, it was me writing everything and slowly teaching it to everybody and having them play on top of that. But now we’re finally in a place where we can write on the fly together. Jesse and I equally bring ideas to the table and we found, as you can hear in “Be That As It May” for example, one person will sing the first verse, one person will sing the chorus, and there’s a certain power in that. Especially if the person singing isn’t the person who wrote it. We’ve found that to be a pretty humbling and awesome feeling when you know the person in the band singing it is doing it better than you ever could, doing it more justice, it adds to the arsenal of our ability to write and work together.
BTR: Was there a lot of evolution between your first EP, For The Fields, and Virtues?
JS: Oh absolutely, part of it harks back to the writing process John just talked about. The last EP was John bringing his songs to the table, and that was the genesis of the band. John wanted the songs to be fleshed out and wanted a band to play them, so that’s what For The Fields was about. Since then our band has done nothing but evolve, and I think Virtues is a clear indication of that. All the songs were a lot more collaborative, they started as seedlings from both me and John. Plus we got to work with a better producer in a better studio–Dave Groener Jr. at Azimuth Studios, [a] really, really talented guy who allowed us to experiment and make something we’re really proud of.
BTR: On your blog you guys describe the experience of making a record as “strange,” can you elaborate on that?
JP: I don’t remember us saying that, but it sounds like something that we would say. I mean, it was a really, really long process. It was a year of off and on recording and mixing, and so it was strange in the sense that we kept going back to edit ourselves and make it bigger and better and weirder and noisier and all those things. If I listen to it now I’m kind of like, “Well this is the coolest thing we’ve ever done.” But I don’t remember how we did it [laughs].
It’s a little out-of-body for sure, just because it was such a long road and hard to see where things started from.
BTR: What was that recording process like?
JP: We knew Dave so we booked some sessions with him in the most legitimate, huge, Midtown Manhattan studio we’ve ever been in. We went into it and recorded everything live. Then he was also building his own studio in Bushwick and so we added all the layers and synth and mixing there. He was literally building while we were recording it, so it was like working in a construction space, which was kind of fun. I don’t know how much influence that had on us, but it’s nice to work around chaos because you have to organize yourself.
BTR: What are your plans for the future? Is a full-length coming our way?
JP: We did some touring in the past and reconfigured our goals, so we’re pretty dead set on staying in New York for a while. We were toying with the idea of recording a full-length album, but then we previewed three or four new songs at our record release show at Rough Trade, and completely unsolicited responses to those songs came back to each of us. When we had a little meeting afterwards, everybody brought these messages about a few of these songs. It’s kind of weird when your audience knows the title of a song and is singing along with it after hearing it only one time. We take it as a pretty powerful indicator that we should go record those songs as soon as possible.
So we’ll probably go back into the studio in the next couple months and mix that with a few shows. We’re also about to release another music video, for “Twin Channel,” in the next couple weeks. It’s a bit like: you get out of the studio, you mix it and master it and release it, play a couple shows, and head back in. We’ll never really take a vacation.