St. Phillips Escalator is on the verge of releasing their long-anticipated sophomore album, The Derelict Sound. What’s more – it’s coming out on vinyl on Record Store Day. NYS Music met up with members of the Rochester-based rock band at Record Archive. It was easy to spot guitarist/vocalist Ryan Moore, with his signature newsboy cap and long sideburns, chatting with drummer Zachary Koch in the Archive’s Backroom Lounge. Friends since childhood, Moore, Koch, and bassist Noel Wilfeard were just out of their teens when they recorded their debut album Endless Trip with the help of members of garage rock revivalists The Chesterfield Kings. The 2015 EP Elevation was highly praised, with the one criticism that it was too short and left a reviewer wanting more. Now they’re just about ready to deliver.
Paula Cummings: Tell me about your single “New Age.” Why did you choose this as your first release off the new album?
Ryan Moore: We have a heavier psychedelic sound to the other songs and this one was a little catchy. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album, I think.
Zachary Koch: We wrote it starting with the beat – it was an early Doors’ first record kind of beat – and based it around that with minor chords. It just came together. But the style definitely references them (The Doors).
PC: The single comes from the sessions for The Derelict Sound. How did you choose the album title?
ZK: We just sat down and had a talk one day when we were making some plans. We were really trying to think of what would represent the record. We’ve been together for years now and we reference music from different eras – modern and vintage – but it’s not understood by many people when they first hear it. It’s a derelict sound, an unused kind of overlooked sound… dusted.
PC: What was the writing process like compared to your previous works, the first album a decade ago and the EP two years ago?
ZK: As far as the way we write the songs, I don’t think it’s changed much since the beginning. Maybe somebody has a fully baked song or if it’s just a riff then we’ll work it out at practice.
RM: We usually know if a song works for our sound right away. We only just give it a couple tries with some because it’s like beating a dead horse with some. We’re like, “That would have been great but we know it wouldn’t work.”
ZK: We build on it together. It’s a collaborative process. Sometimes a single idea comes to the group and we know it works right away. We’ll get inspired with a song first and then play with it. We always had the power trio and blues thing happening, and on this we tried to bring it more into the psych genre.
RM: I would say this is a little bit darker.
ZK: The songs fit together well. We had 13 songs, but we cut it down to ten because some of them just didn’t fit that vision. They’re still good songs but just didn’t fit the feel we wanted for this one.
PC: How has your music matured over the years?
ZK: We have more life experience, so the content is different from our first record. We were just coming out of our teens. And now there’s more life experience. I have some political lyric writing. Ryan’s lived in New York and so has Noel, so we all have different life experience that go into the writing. I think the music process has been the same, but maybe back then it was a little unhinged, like “Let’s write and play” without having an idea first. It was fun. It’s always fun, but there’s more goal-setting. But the writing process, that’s the same. It’s always just fun at the heart of it all.
PC: You have this energy that comes across well in live shows. How did you try to capture that in the studio?
RM: The guy we collaborated with suggested we record it live. So what we did was we went to this place in Geneseo, Tempermental Recording. It’s this big old church and it’s really awesome. All of the tracks for the whole thing we recorded together. There wasn’t anybody separate.
ZK: That was the key. It was not just a live record, but the bass, drums, and guitar the core of it we played together because it’s the only way we could draw that energy. We tried before to record separately.
RM: It’s just not the same.
ZK: And allowing the big space… We need to play louder, so we don’t feel like we’re holding back. That space allowed us to be loud.
RM: Yeah, that was amazing. I think it was just one of the best experiences that we’ve had.
PC: That was my next question, how did the space enhance the acoustics?
RM: The guy who owns the church, he’s an insane collector, so it’s just full of guitars, and organs and pianos and drums and all those things are in the room, vibrating and making a sound as we’re recording, too. It’s really cool.
ZK: Even recording into the night that helped set the tone because it got dark in there.
PC: And in a space like that, you’re going to have a big, cavernous sound.
ZK: We used that to our advantage.
RM: And he had tons of cool gear that we were able to use. Echo on the vocals and vintage amps. But mostly we used our own stuff.
PC: Who did you work with, and how did they influence what you produced?
RM: Alex Patrick did the recording and the mixing. And when we were out of that studio Mike Brown (owner of Tempermental Recordings) hung out and gave us feedback.
ZK: He’s like-minded.
RM: We never met him before. We were renting the space from him, and he was just hanging out and interjecting. He came up with cool ideas.
ZK: Yeah, he’s really talented. He’s a guitarist and writer, so it was nice to get his perspective on things. It helped.
RM: Then Brian Moore mastered our tracks out at Red Booth Studios in Rochester.
ZK: Really helpful people, gifted. They have that patience I would never have to be able to engineer and mix. I just like playing.
RM: I just appreciate it so much.
PC: Which tracks are you most proud of and why?
RM: I really love “New Age.” I think that came out awesome.
ZK: I really like this track five. It’s called “Find My Way.” It closes out the first half of what will be the vinyl. And I think that it’s a different direction for us. It still fits, but in my mind it’s more of a modern song. It has a type of beat that’s different than what we’ve done. It’s this driving type of beat – you’ll see – but that’s one of my favorites from the record. Generally, a lot of our songs in the past have been four minutes. We get to solo a lot in this one.
RM: That song and the last song are kind of long, dark psychedelic songs. And I think the first song is one of my favorites, too, “Sleepy Silver Train Haze.” That’s just kind of a dark brooding psychedelic tune that feels a little sad.
PC: Is this your first vinyl? How does this fit the aesthetic of what you do and what you’re about?
RM: It fits perfectly.
ZK: It’s everything. We’ve collected, we were raised on it.
RM: We’re just huge record fans and I think it’s pained us to not have anything on vinyl yet. That’s one of the reasons why it took so long to come out. We were looking to find the right partner and in the end we did everything ourselves. We were going to wait as long as it took to make sure it was released on vinyl.
ZK: Vinyl gives the opportunity for the album artwork to shine. Ryan is an incredibly gifted graphic designer. He has a wonderful friend, a very generous friend, John Myers, who shot the cover for us and Ryan put it all together. That’s something that’s missing with a digital outlet. You can’t hold it and you can’t see the art that goes into it as well. But yeah, I play records every single day and to finally have one of our own is what we’ve always been going for. For our last EP Ryan and Noel were in NYC so we didn’t have as much time to get it all in line for vinyl.
PC: What are you listening to on vinyl?
ZK: We still listen to all formats. We just appreciate it the most and it sounds the best. But some of our favorite vinyl?
RM: My collection? I have some of my favorite old blues records like Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Blues Bakers. Cool rare blues records are some of my favorites. Then on top of that 13th Floor Elevators, The Seeds and some of the stuff that influences our band. It all sort of comes together.
ZK: And when I’m really sitting down and listening I really love to put on either Neil Young or The Byrds. I like listening to folk records on vinyl. I think it’s really befitting.
RM: We also started collecting some newer, modern psych bands on vinyl too. Morgan Delt, Black Angels. Anything that’s good sounds better on vinyl.
PC: Tell me about the album cover.
RM: We really had this idea that I really wanted this to be an out of focus picture of us, like a really blurry, just weird picture. I didn’t want just another portrait of the band. People either know us or they don’t, and I don’t care to have our mugs pegged on it.
ZK: And the photographer was able to do that without any special effects.
RM: We were just playing around. It was fun to go through a whole set of photos. We went picked the blurriest one that had a cool vibe. It’s got a cool grain and strange colors to it as well. And then I put just a small psychedelic treatment to it, kind of small off to the corner, kind of nondescript.
ZK: We never really had a set logo, and that little badge in the corner is kind-of new.
PC: You guys have been together half of your lives. What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to do this?
RM: I think it’s because we were friends first. I think we became friends in junior high.
ZK: I think it’s been an advantage.
RM: I think that us looking out for each other and keeping each other in mind…
ZK: Feeling comfortable enough to share what turns out to be a really terrible song or a great song, but not being afraid of what you’re bringing to the table.
RM: Respect for one another.
ZK: When we play, we’re just hanging out. So we get to hang out with each other as friends but also as a band. It’s beneficial.
RM: Sometimes it gets tough though when you have to get work done, and you just want to have a beer and catch up.
PC: So you mentioned that Ryan and Noel lived out in New York City for a bit and you had to make that work long-distance.
RM: Yeah, that was tough. We weren’t as active during that period. But it also opened up some different opportunities because I met a lot of people in New York and we were playing a lot of gigs in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
ZK: And then we could just stay at Ryan’s.
RM: Yeah, it was easier then than it is now because we had a home base.
ZK: And then we rented an hour studio to practice in New York.
RM: We were still playing shows actively, but I think creation was the harder thing to do.
ZK: We would send things online, but we couldn’t really test them out.
RM: That was obviously the hardest part…
ZK: The productivity in the studio.
RM: But something about us being together for so long, we could book a show in New York or Rochester, practice once – or not – and play the show and it still sounds good.
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