Starting off the week with an interview featuring Boston indie newcomers New Dakotas. You may have caught my feature on them a couple of weeks ago highlighting their lush and mellow sound that seems to be making a lasting impression on concertgoers in and around the area. Alasdair and Charles were nice enough to devote some time to sit down for an interview as we seek to find out more about the guys, how the outfit got started, what their primary musical influences are, their experiences recording their new EP, and where they see themselves moving forward. Here is the transcript from our chat:
Give us your names and roles in the band?
Charles: I’m Charles, I play keyboards in the band, and I’m one of the singers.
Alasdair: I’m Alasdair, I play drums, I also sing, and both of us write songs.
Let’s go back to the beginning of New Dakotas and how you both met, and when did the band form?
Charles: We used to be part of this band called Margarine, which we formed back in high school with two others, and we had that band for a few years, and it sort of dissolved after one of our members went far away for school, and out of the rubble came New Dakotas, where the two of us said, “hey, let’s just still be in a band, and have it be us two.”
Alasdair: He said it.
With musical influences, sometimes it’s difficult to both get on the same page, but what are your favorite artists or primary musical influences, and how do you manage to incorporate it into your sound?
Alasdair: To the first point you talked about, it is very difficult to get two people--any two people--on the same page, and a big reason that I think we work so well together is that we’ve been doing it for so long. We met four or so years ago, and I don’t think we liked nearly as much of the same music then, but then Charles showed me some of the music he liked, I showed him some of the stuff I liked, and gradually we converged to a point where we still have healthy amounts of disagreements, but we’re working toward a common goal. When Charles suggests a change to one of my songs, I don’t have to think, “is that just because he wants to make a different kind of song than I want?” I trust that we have the same end vision in mind; hopefully he feels the same way about me. So that’s been a really nice thing, the extent to which we’ve been able to shape each other and know that we see eye to eye about big-picture stuff. For musical influences, we like the Beatles, we like Bob Dylan, people who you shouldn’t even have to say, giants of the field, and without them the field wouldn’t exist. They’re huge influences. Who else?
Charles: People like the Beach Boys, I think. I’m really influenced by their production and unique sound, and the way that they write their melodies and harmonies I think really influences us. Who else?
Alasdair: I guess it would be termed “power pop” music? Big Star is a band that’s really cool, and a lot of bands that are able to do what I would consider a lot with a little. I think the Beach Boys do a lot with a lot.
Charles: Yeah, that’s very true.
Alasdair: The harmonic vocabulary, the production techniques, there’s so much going on there; I could never hope to create something like Pet Sounds. But there’s Big Star, there’s Neutral Milk Hotel, there’s...what other bands would you say are in that category of “a lot with a little?” Bird.bird, right?
Alasdair: They’re friends of ours. Anyway, there are these bands, and I hear their songs, I look at the melodies and the chords, and they’re not out-of-this-world complex, but they’re so good.
Alasdair: Yeah, Bob Dylan does a lot with a little too. The Beatles, a lot of the time, too. There’s cool creativity, but I wouldn’t say crazy sophistication, necessarily.
Charles: Early Beatles.
Alasdair: That stuff is saying, “you, too, can be great. You don’t have to have a Brian Wilson Einstein brain.”
Charles: I’m also influenced by some hip-hop stuff that’s happening now. I love Chance the Rapper, I like a lot of Drake, stuff like that, it’s really good.
Now, obviously, most bands have different approaches to doing songwriting. How does it usually work for you guys? Is it really a collaborative effort, or is it bringing individual ideas together and seeing how they mesh well together?
Charles: One person will have an idea for the basis, the barebones part of a song. We’ll send a voice memo on our iPhone over to the other person. “Hey, I just thought of this. What do you think?” They’ll make some suggestions, but usually, each person will take ownership over a song, and there’ll be a collaboration of editing and revising and finishing. Usually, the one who sings the song is the one who started it.
Alasdair: Voice memos are very important. Steve Jobs is a key shaper of our songwriting process.
Charles: It’s great; we just shoot them back and forth.
Alasdair: It’s so nice; I’m sure Lennon and McCartney wished they had something like that. They also had chauffeurs to drive them to each other’s houses, so I guess they were fine. In all our years of doing this together, I don’t think we’ve ever once sat down together with no ideas and said, “let’s generate a song.” Right?
Charles: Yeah, that’s true.
Alasdair: Usually, by the time one of Charles’s ideas gets to me or one of my ideas gets to him, there’s a chord progression for at least one section of the song, there’s a melody, there are some lyrics, even if they’re silly throwaway lyrics or unfinished lyrics, there’s something that the other partner will play a big role in refining, but it didn’t start with them.
With the Boston music scene changing so much over the last few years, with lots of different bands coming in and out, some venues closing and all sorts of things, what’s it like to be involved in the Boston music scene, and what were some challenges you faced along the way, and how’d you learn to overcome it, if it applies?
Alasdair: I don’t know what the Boston music scene is. We’ve never seen it. It’s elusive, honestly, for us. Maybe it’s less that it’s elusive and more just we’re bad at finding it. We have friends and roommates who are in bands, so we’ve got our friend group music scene.
Charles: We’ve gotten in the college band music scene.
Alasdair: Yeah, since we both go to college around here, that’s easy, but I don’t know if I’ve ever felt like I’m a part of the Boston music scene. I’ve probably done some shows with bands that are, and had some third-degree connections, maybe, but I’ve never really felt like we are part of the Boston music scene.
Let’s go behind the recording of your new self-titled EP. What was the entire process like for each of you guys?
Charles: All of the recording for the EP happened, basically, within the span of one week in the winter, but we had gone into those sessions with songs fully written, with the exception of one--”Warming Song”--and the songwriting happened over the first semester of the school year: voice-memo communication, and, obviously, in-person collaboration, as well. We went into the studio for one week, and hammered everything out.
Alasdair: When he says “the studio,” he means the third floor of my house, so don’t be too impressed. Every birthday, every Christmas since I’ve been eight years old, I’ve asked for a microphone, or an amp, or some piece of studio gear, so at this point I’ve accumulated a bunch, and we’ve done this together and developed a style. We know what we like; we know what we don’t like; we generally know how to get to what we like, and it’s fun and relaxed to have it be at one of our houses. You’re not on the clock, and there’s nobody else there.
Charles: It’s free.
Alasdair: And you don’t really have to worry about outside people messing it up. I’ve always imagined that it would be very stressful if it was not me calling the shots. It’s pretty important to us to be calling the shots on this stuff. I’ll make a mix, and I’ll send it to Charles, and Charles will say, “turn up the bass up.” I’ll say, “oh, really? You think so?” and he’ll say, “actually, just turn the bass up in the chorus.” We’ll really fine-tune and home in on what we want.
Charles: It’s a great thing.
Alasdair: Yeah. We try not to take too long. With Margarine, the projects would drag on for decades, but we were pretty intentional about recording in one week, and then mixing it all in the several weeks following, just because we want to get stuff out and have people hear it.
What’s your favorite song from the new effort, that really spoke out to you when you finished the recording process?
Charles: For me, that song is “Warming Song.” It’s a little bit of an outlier on the EP, where it’s more folk-centric and slower, but I really liked it. I liked the aura that it had, in terms of its production and the sounds in it. It had a cello, which was pretty cool, with lots of reverb on it.
Alasdair: Put reverb on anything, and it sounds good.
Charles: I was really pleased with how that turned out.
Alasdair: In case it sounds like I’m insulting the cello player--”we had to save his performance with reverb”--that’s not what I’m saying. He’s a virtuoso, but reverb is always amazing. For me, the track that defined the whole process was “Turn My Head Around,” the last one. With our old band, we were doing whatever we pleased stylistically, and we came up with stuff that we liked a lot, but it was fairly inaccessible compared to what we’re doing now. It was Charles who first had the idea that maybe we can merge the influences we love with something that people can dance to, or something that people can buy, at some distant point in the future; no one’s buying it yet. I was skeptical that that could work, and then Charles sent me a demo for “Turn My Head Around”--it was a song that started with him--and I started to see how it could fit together. That song was the North Star for how we were trying to write, I think.
You guys both go to school at Harvard and Tufts, is it easy or difficult to manage your school careers and your music?
Charles: It can get difficult. It’s nice to be close to each other, so the gigs are either at Harvard or Tufts, and it doesn’t take much time or traveling around. The schoolwork definitely often takes priority over things, so it’s a little tough to manage, but we do it well. We’re very active.
Alasdair: We played, I think, something around ten gigs last semester, and I think we’re gonna have played the same amount this semester, and we’ll play a ton more during the summer. It definitely is a challenge, and there are times when I think, “I wish I just didn’t have anything to do but this,” but I also love school, and I love my friends at school, and I’m pretty happy with the balance that we’ve got.
On a typical off-day, when you guys aren’t doing anything music-related, what can we find you both doing in your spare time that’s not music-related?
Alasdair: Charles likes to bowl a lot. He’s a professional.
Charles: Outside this band I do a cappella, but non music-related, I do a lot of computer programming; I study computer science and I like doing that stuff.
Alasdair: I do a fair amount of recording stuff for people who aren’t us. The bird.bird thing you reviewed--I produced that. I produce probably four or five projects that aren’t my own writing or me and Charles’s writing each year, and that’s a lot of fun. I’m a political science major at school, and that’s super interesting. I want to be a musician for a career, but I could see myself doing something political if it didn’t pan out. I like to argue with people, so often, my roommate will be sitting around, and I’ll say, “hey, what do you think about this?” and I’ll poke him until he disagrees with me, and then we’ll have a discussion. That’s fun.
Any upcoming shows happening that you’d like to promote?
Alasdair: April 22nd, Saturday, at the Democracy Center in Harvard Square.
Charles: Democracy Center. Be there.
Alasdair: Yeah, it’s gonna be this whole friend-group community we’ve got going. We’re headlining, the Water Cycle’s gonna be there.
Alasdair: And a band called Leonia Teaneck. I’m sort of confused about what they are; there’s one guy who I think is the leader of the band, who releases music under his own name, but he performs under his own name. The music under his own name is awesome; hopefully that’s what he’ll be playing, but this band has a different name. He’s great though, and his name is Fred Kelly.
Charles: What else? Harvard formals.
Alasdair: Yeah, if you’re a Harvard student you can come dress up nice and see us play “Stacy’s Mom.” Not the most thrilling work to do, but it’s fun to see people dancing. We’ve got a bunch booked for the summer. There’s one May 25th at Hennessy's Hooley House, we’re gonna be playing there. That and the Democracy Center are the two big ones in the immediately foreseeable future, but there’ll be lots more.
How has being in this band enriched or changed your life, and where do you see yourselves moving forward with this outlet?
Charles: This band, and recording music, making music in general, has really enriched my life, probably more than anything else I’ve done. Just the process of making music, producing an album or producing an EP, any sort of recording. The songs are like your babies; you make them and you try to make them as good as possible and be as new as possible, and I’ve been happy with every record we’ve done. I love listening to the stuff and it really is a huge part of my life and is my number one way of expression.
Alasdair: There’s nothing that makes me happier than creating something and liking it, and that is also a very special thing that I think you get out of a partnership. I’ve written alone, and I’ll get to the end of a song and go, “well, I think it’s good, but how do I really know?” And if my friend says it’s good, is he or she just being nice to me because it’s kind of hard to tell somebody that they did something bad? I’m not very good at doing that. When you’re writing with somebody else, and you show something to them and they have a positive opinion of it, or they add something to it that you objectively can see is good, that’s really cool. I don’t doubt myself nearly as much as I think I would alone.
Thanks once again to Alasdair and Charles for being so generous in setting aside some time to do this interview! It's great to hear perspective from these new up and coming bands, and see where their mindset is when it comes to putting together songs and setting forward their artistic and creative visions when they first formed. For more info on New Dakotas, please give them a 'Like' on Facebook right at this spot here and check out their brand new EP on Spotify conveniently located over here to take it for a spin.