Pivoting genres when you are known for having carved out a niche can be a daunting thing. It requires a leap of faith, diligent dedication to a new craft, and a healthy dose of not really caring what people are going to think. Luckily, for Stephen St. Germain and Aaron Chrietzberg, they poured the right combination of all of these into their new band, The Living Memories.
Previously known for their prolific contributions to the Youth Crew hardcore scene, the duo are charting new territory in the realm of jangle pop. 12-string acoustic guitars, dreamy electric guitar landscapes, and infectious vocal hooks are peppered delicately throughout the band’s six-song debut, Home Truths.
The first track of the record starts with a guitar ring out, snare hit, and then the beat is locked in with a crisp closed hi-hat and a bouncing bass line, setting the tone for "Hold Me Up to the Light." Right away, you know what you are getting. The shortest song on the record’s conjures familiar terrain akin to the early works of the The Smiths, harmonica break included.
The tempo of the record takes a slight dip with the second song, "Changing Time," while still maintaining an apparent bounce. Breaking out the aforementioned twelve string, the balance of acoustic guitar and electric guitar textures injects variety and provides space for the driving vocal melody to breathe and shine as singer Stephen St. Germain explores notes at the top of his range while juxtaposing the change of seasons to finding the time to accomplish one’s goals in life. The lyrics feel like a continuation of Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay, using nature as a strong visual focal point.
The record forges onward into a sinister direction, with the eerie melody of "Another Dream." Preceded by a simple foundation of acoustic guitar, the haunting guitar run leaves a psychedelic chill similar to the harpsichord line found in "Because" by The Beatles. Whether or not St. Germain-Chrietzberg were inspired by Lennon-McCartney, this song depicting the destiny of two souls certainly shares similarities worth mentioning and serves as the perfect segue to the halfway point of the record.
Following this, the record picks up to a running bounce with Track 4, "Home," which is a perfect representation of 1980s jangle pop, as it is packed with arpeggiated guitar chords.
The record closes out with two excellent final tracks, "Born on the Water" and "Valediction," which exist at opposite ends of the sonic spectrum. "Born on the Water" keeps a subdued beat led by sparse floor tom hits and tambourine and featuring the harmonica’s second and final appearance of the release. The song’s title is frequently repeated throughout, which provides direction amidst the wandering, spatial feeling created by the instruments.
"Valediction" is the swan song of Home Truths, closing out the record with strength. An imminent feeling of triumph seeps through as the structure of the song indicates familiarity to that of a punk song the pair of songwriters may have written in years past, which stands in contrast to the lyrical content, eschewing nostalgia and expressing the need to move on from things of the past. The lines “Shedding dead skin, a valediction” are sung after the final notes have been strummed as a soft declaration of the band’s intentions.
The Living Memories have provided us with an impressive debut that will surely be a delight for new listeners, as well as those familiar with the duo’s back catalog.
I spoke with Stephen St. Germain and Aaron Chrietzberg to get the story of The Living Memories and Home Truths:
How long has it been since the two of you collaborated on a release?
Aaron Chrietzberg: It has always felt like Stephen and I have been ready collaborators, ever since we started playing bands together in college. So for me, a lot of times it seems natural and uninterrupted. There’s been some gaps I would think from the outside but we’re always kind of brainstorming or creating something. It is just a natural part of our conversations and interactions and history. Whenever we get together ideas ensue!
Stephen St. Germain: It feels like since we met as teenagers we haven’t stopped working on music together in one form or another: sometimes writing together and playing in bands and sometimes supporting what each other is doing in other ways. The last music we released was in 2016 but since then we have spent much of our free time (which isn’t much!) writing music together.
Who came up with the idea from the band? Were you both on board from the beginning?
AC: The idea came about pretty organically. I had bought a 12 string Rickenbacker for my 41st birthday and just fell in love with it right away. I just started writing a storm of songs that batched together nicely. I sent them to Stephen and he was immediately interested and had ideas for lyrics and content.
SS: As soon as I heard some of what Aaron was writing, which eventually would become the songs “Home” and “Hold Me Up to the Light," it really unlocked something in me. The sound of the songs, of the 12-string specifically, seemed to perfectly match where my heart was at and the lyrics I wanted to sing.
As a newish father I was feeling the hopefulness of that journey, the bittersweetness of big changes and the fear that I couldn’t live up to what I wanted to give my children. I immediately knew these songs were a way to talk about some of these thoughts.
When writing these songs, did you feel like there was a template to follow or did you feel like you were entering uncharted territory?
AC: Over the years we had tried a few times at a different sound but it never fit enough to merit a band of its own. So, The Living Memories wasn't altogether something different for us but It was an interesting shift to embrace what we might have shelved in the past.
The 12-string is a little different, and it immediately had me writing in a new way. It isn’t the kind of guitar that you can shred on. But that was kind of the idea: riffs that have like 2-3 chord patterns (like punk) with Ramones style 8th notes on drums but played through with a bit more technique and jangle.
I recently read an interview with Johnny Marr talking about the Rickenbacker and its sound and how it plays naturally well with strums or arpeggios but not really aggressive chopping as much. He did point out that Guy from Fugazi was the only person he knew who could make it sound aggressive which I thought was cool to hear and think about because it's a true statement and those are two undeniable influences at two ends of the spectrum.
What made you want to do something so different musically for the two of you?
SS: As a young kid it was hard for me to conceive of how I could possibly play or write a song like the ones I loved. All the rock and folk that I grew up with resonated with me but also seemed out of reach.
The beauty of hardcore was I could have little or no musical experience and make songs that connected with people, which is such a powerful thing. That process made an enormous impression on me at a young age.
Over time, though, I just wanted a wider aperture for my expression: there are sentiments that are perfect for a 45-second, blazing fast song and there are others that need something more. I was looking for that something more.
AC: Around the time that we wrote these songs we were also both new fathers and spending a lot of time at home. Our lives were facing a bit inward that way rather than out towards whatever is going on in music and art. So we just used that as the muse to talk about our lives at present. So “Home” was a theme.
That said, when we wrote these the intent was focused around sound and sentiment. Part of the idea was to kind of write songs that capture the feeling but could also be played with just two friends and a guitar if need be.
Aaron, there are a lot of slower tempoed songs on this release. Is writing songs at this speed a challenge for you, considering the vast majority of your output is quick paced?
AC: I was always writing slow songs as well but in our previous bands that just didn’t typically fit the format as easily. But a lot of how I write depends on what guitar I pick up so If I am playing my Les Paul I tend to write something on the punk/hardcore spectrum. If I play the Rick or my acoustic I tend to write songs with a little more of a jangle rock or folk sound.
SS: I don’t think a lot of people realize just how wide of musical palette Aaron has. He is one of those people that will get into a band and just devour everything by them from instruments they used on a recording to unique nuanced stylistic characteristics no matter if it’s The Kinks or Slayer. He has always brought such a range of ideas to any recordings he has played on but for the longest time those ideas always got molded to fit a more specific hardcore style.
As mentioned already, this recording features a 12-string guitar on a couple of tracks, which is slightly different than what listeners of your music are used to hearing you play. Is this something that you’ve wanted to do for a band for a while?
AC: I have loved stuff like the Beatles, Byrds and the Kinks since being a child riding in the car with my mom. When I was in high school my punk friends weren’t just into hardcore, someone was always listening to The Smiths, REM, Lush, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Tom Petty, etc. That stuff was just as much backdrop to being a kid as hardcore and punk in our circle of friends. So, in some sense, it was overdue. I think at some point it was like “Hey, I can kind of play this stuff too!?” and figuring that out.
There was a lot I wanted to aim at in terms of balancing elements on this recording: I wanted a sound that had a bit of acoustic guitar, 12-string, and an electric track and of course bass and drums to fill it all out. I love that sort of sound in a lot of early Bowie, The Kinks, and Dion songs. But it was a challenge to mix these songs because it was easy for the electric guitar to bury the acoustic and I didn’t want to lose that nice rattle and warmth of the acoustic guitar.
Stephen, the best part of your dynamic as a front person is what you have to say and often times that takes precedence over how you say it. You’re primarily known for shouting. Was the opportunity to use melodic vocals something you were looking forward to?
SS: Certainly! Trying to sing with melody and writing harmonies really connected with the lyrics I was writing and my overall vibe and view as a person. I wanted to be able to express my doubt, love, fear or whatever else in these songs so singing in a differ way was absolutely essential. The human voice is such a beautiful instrument and I was ready to try something new for myself.
I knew I could carry a little tune in a certain range but I honestly wasn’t sure if I could meet my own standards. I spent hours down in my basement singing over home recordings and working on vocal exercises to help my voice sound as good as it could sound and to just gain confidence and comfortability with singing.
For so long I thought that you either could sing or couldn’t sing but I really think it’s more about finding your own voice. There are people, of course, who are born with amazing voices but the vast majority of us are not but can do so much with what we do have.
Let’s hear about these lyrics. I noticed there are a lot of lyrical motifs about the seasons. Was that intentional, or just something that comes through in your writing?
SS: I did not set out to have a seasonal thread running through the songs but certain ideas related to specific seasons and the changes of seasons real worked well for the ideas I was trying to convey. So many of these lyrics just came out of me and needed only minimal revisions, straight from the brain to the pen so to speak. These lyrics may seem different in comparison to what I have written for previous bands but I really look at it like two sides of the same coin.
The goal for me with lyrics has always been to communicate something that makes people feel or think. In my previous hardcore bands I tried to say the most I could in the coolest sounding way in the simplest terms possible so that the meaning and intention was clear. I think my thoughts about many topics were also a bit less ambiguous and more black and white than they are now.
But over time that formula just didn’t work for me. There were things that I was thinking, feeling and wanted to say that needed more space, that existed in uncertainty or were almost hard to put into words. While I have always read poetry and loved beautiful writing I also still really appreciate directness, I mean words like “friend” or phrases like “I love you” say it all and need nothing else. So, with The Living Memories, I gave myself the room to say what I needed in the way it needed to be said whether more metaphorical or more direct.
Tell me about your relationship with Chris Moore and when he became involved in The Living Memories.
AC: Chris is awesome! I can’t say enough good things about him. We met him at a show our bands played together in NYC around 2005. They had just started and were an unknown band to us, and they kicked ass and of course always brought so much energy live. I knew Chris was into a wide range of music and had a great ear for sound so I asked him if he’d be into working on some songs with us to help get things going.
It wasn’t until we started jamming together that I realized just how awesome of a drummer he is! He’s been super busy focusing on a number of other projects so we’ve recently been working with a new drummer.
SS: For this recording with Chris, we would all meet up at his place in DC jam in his home studio and then order food from Mandalay or City Lights of China and hang with him and his fiancee Josie (the amazing voice of Aertex). We ended up tracking drums at his place and then finishing the rest of the recording with Matt Redenbo at Developing Nations in Baltimore. The experience with Chris was one of the best I have had playing music.
What does the title of the record Home Truths mean?
AC: I kind of eluded to this earlier but the idea of “home” was very present in our creativity at the time we started writing these songs. However, it wasn’t creative in spite of being a parent, or at odds with being “grown up” at all. The feeling was more reflective like this is my life now and this is how I am creative within that and how I speak to that. So we were kind of going into that theme which is kind of where we were at and what we were feeling.
I guess there’s also this youthful tendency of wanting to escape one's life for “greater things” and “big adventures," and that makes sense when you are a kid. But I don’t really feel that way at this point in my life. Right now, I'm more interested in turning inwards and finding creativity and refinement at that level. So being at “home” in myself is more meaningful than any kind of conquest or big scheme. I think that's a more natural and mature approach for me.
SS: Just to add to what Aaron said I think all of the songs in this batch speak to ideas that are very close to us and personal and that feel very current: love for your partner that feels limitless, trying to make sense of change, how to embrace your past but not to be defined by it, etc.
To me, these feel like aspects of life that hold the wisdom to living where the path, or the trying, is the goal. In a sense, if I can see how truths such as patience, empathy, love or sacrifice manifest in my own life then I will change myself, my children and my world. So my view of Home Truths is narrow and focused but wide as well.
How has the reception to this batch of songs been?
AC: I’m not really certain how to answer that, to myself even. The intent on the songs was pretty simple and aimed at just writing and recording so we could capture that sound/sentiment for ourselves. I really don’t have any audience other than me and Stephen in mind. That said, we did hear some really good feedback from friends. People who knew we had always loved this sound got the influences right away. A few of our old hardcore friends were the most supportive really which surprised me!
SS: To piggyback off of what Aaron said, our intention was to write songs that we would want to hear and that could be played loud or around the house with our family. These aren’t folk songs in the classical sense but we view them, and this project, as very down home. Music that could be played in a variety of ways for the rest of our lives.
For myself too, I look at these songs and this project as both a sign post and marker for my children, family and friends that says “this is me and this is how I feel about you and myself”. We had no real expectation for any response. So the new people we have met and how we have reconnected with old friends has made the response to these songs absolutely wonderful!
What can we expect from The Living Memories in the near future? More new songs?
AC: We are currently working with a new drummer and batching a few songs to record in the fall. We’ve also been talking with a friend about releasing the EP as a 12-inch. But generally, we have been more focused on the creative side, writing and recording, than playing shows.
SS: I am sure anyone who has ever written a song can relate but when you have an awesome piece of music or lyrics that perfectly capture what you want to say it feels like this gift or lightning in a bottle that needs to be documented. We have so many songs already written that we are excited to record so that is our focus for now.
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