After Almost There’s Saturday night set at Starland Ballroom, the guys invited me into a dressing room I’ve always wanted hang out in, but have only had an outsider’s view looking in. We spoke about various topics including the bands new EP Silver Lake, the lead single “I Cried Wolf” and the upcoming music video for it, and and drummer Phill Serzan’s training under Chris Thatcher of Streetlight Manifesto.
I Suppose we should start from the beginning. I don’t know much about the formation of Almost There. I know Zach [Sicherman] and Ed [Soles] have been playing together for a while, and that Phill [Serzan] is the latest member. But how did you guys get together?
Ed Soles: I was playing in a band called RDX at the time, we weren’t much of a band but we played together. Then our bass player quit, right around the time Zach asked if we were looking for a bassist, so it just kind of happened.
Zach Sicherman: Yeah, I was in a class with our old drummer Dave, he was Ed’s drummer, and I had just left my old band, and I told that I played bass. We ended up jamming on a bunch of Blink – 182 and Green Day. They had a couple of originals, I learned those, so, yeah, four years in RDX with a couple of different drummers and then we broke up, and Almost There started in 2005.
We actually started Almost There because of Hurricane Katrina. Our friend’s band was doing a reunion show and they were putting together this big benefit show for it. They asked me to put together a band for it, so I got Eddie [Soles], one of the guys from my musical theater that I used to do a lot of singing with, we got a guy on bass, and another drumming. We had a great time and ended up doing a bunch of shows up at Rutgers and decided to keep on doing it. A couple of drummers and guitarists later we got Phill [Serzan] and Phill joining the band is really the start of Almost There as we know it.
Phill Serzan: Well thank you, that was very kind of you.
ZS: It’s legitimate though because as good as you may be, none of that matters if the rhythm section isn’t in sync. A good rhythm section can make mediocre band sound good. And having Phill rock solid behind us makes us more confident.
Your situation with that changing carousel of drummers kind of reminds me of what Nirvana went through before Kurt and Krist solidified that lineup. Is Phill going to act as your Dave Grohl and pull everything together?
ZS: I hope so.
PS: I’m here to stay, okay. Because I fucking love these guys you know? These are my brothers. And I feel like everything came together perfectly. I was a studio drummer for a record producer named Jesse Cannon and I was recording a couple of tracks for a few projects he was producing. But, I was looking for a steady gig, so I asked him, “Do you know any bands because I’m looking for one.” And he said “Almost There is recording with me and their drummer just left.” He quit the day before they were going into the studio!
ZS: It was four days before we were going into record and he left.
Why the hell did he leave?
ZS: I don’t really want to get into it. I’m a lot better friends with him now, not being in a band together. We have our professional differences in work styles and it’s much better, musically, working with Phil and Ed. We’re all on the same page and we get a lot of good work done in a short amount of time.
The last time I saw you guys play was at The Stone Pony at the Silver Lake release party and Zach addressed the issue that sometimes people scoff at the fact that this band plays a lot of cover songs. And I was wondering, what is your attachment to all of these songs and why do you play such a large amount of covers?
ZS: I see a lot of bands that try really hard to do a certain thing and at the end of the day the whole point of being in a band is to have fun and play music that enjoy playing. We grew up playing these songs, especially Ed and I, we’ve covered some of these songs going on 10 years, the old Blink-182 and stuff like that. You know, just because we’re an “original” band, it seems silly not to play songs just because we’re labeled as “original.” If I want to play a song, regardless of what it is, then I’m going to have fun playing it. And we’re not going to make everybody happy, but the more fun we’re having up on stage, I think that projects back on the audience too.
ES: Especially, if we play a song that somebody really likes, and maybe they’re not paying attention to us, or they like us a little bit, if they hear that song, it can flip a switch and they’ll be more generous in how they feel about you.
ZS: Yeah, they may not be listening to the set at all, and then the Weezer comes on, and they’re like “I LOVE THIS BAND!!!” And you’ve hooked them for the rest of the set. You gotta have fun with it and we play music we like. We’re not doing any of the new pop stuff just because it’s trendy you know? We’re not doing Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus. We try to keep to tasteful stuff that we love.
You’ve mentioned Blink-182, you played some Weezer tonight, and I know you played a little Sublime that night at the Pony, among others, are these bands influences on you?
ZC: I would say so. You know, Phil brings a totally different aspect of influences to this. He knows all these great drum parts and its unfortunate that Ed and I don’t have the vocal and musical parts to match. I was never really into Midtown, and when we were opening for Cobra Starship, we were practicing this Midtown song at Phil’s request, and we never played it that night, and we haven’t yet, but we’re working on getting it out there eventually.
Ed and I do the Weezer and Sublime and Blink because we’ve known that forever but that’s not all that we’ve learned from. The Police are great, but we’re not going to cover them because I’m not singing like Sting, and Ed’s not singing like Sting you know?
Speaking of having other influences, I was talking with Phill before and he told me that at Old Bridge High School he trained under the watchful eye of Streetlight Manifesto’s drummer Chris Thatcher. I was wondering if you could discuss that a little bit because Streetlight is my favorite band and I’m quite jealous of you.
PS: I think that way I play drums today is all credited to the way that he taught me in the drum line. A lot of people bash the high school marching band, but I wouldn’t be half the player that I am if it wasn’t for the way Thatcher taught me drum corp style. Hving the discipline and being able to have chops like that–
PS: Metronome! I know. I mean, if you’re a drummer, you have to be working. So, I feel that so much is due to the way that he taught me. He always comes into Guitar Center, he teaches many drum lines, he’s a DCI guy, Drum Corp International, and I just think that he’s a monster, and I’m so grateful that I was able to meet him. He taught me how to pay snare drum, and I apply everything that i learned.
Just one quick follow up on that. Is it really true that he made you guys run to a tree a mile away, pick a leaf off, and run it back to him if you messed up?
PS: Of course it is! He would make us do the funniest things. If we messed up one drum roll he’d be like “You see that tree about 500 feet away? Run to that one that’s 1000 feet away, grab a leaf, run it back to me, and then do 50 push ups.” All for messing up a drum roll. We learned real quick not to mess up. And now that’s just part of my routine, be solid always.
ES: We do that to Phill now if he messes up.
ZS: I‘ll say “Alright Phill, I know we’re practicing at my house, but, why don’t you run over to Eddie’s house, grab a leaf, and bring it back.”
So more than the sound and style of play you may have learned from these bands, what kind of messages and ideology did you take away from the music that shaped the musicians you’ve become, and the people you’ve grown into?
ES: That’s a good one.
ZS: I’ve taken a lot from Bradley Nowell and Sublime, and what I love is that you can listen to a song like “Paddle Out,” it’s a minute and twenty seconds of up-tempo Punk-Rock, and he’s singing balls to the wall, screaming his face off. And someone who’s never heard Sublime before will call it trashy and want to turn it off. But then they’ll bring it down, maybe play something acoustic, and Bradley will show what a great voice he’s got and what passion he has in his lyrics. And also, life is short. You’ve got to live it up and have a good time while you’re here because you might walk outside and get hit by a truck. You’ve got to make the best of it.
ES: A lot of what I take notice of from bands, like Sublime, is their different styles. And a lot of bands don’t do that at all, they have one sound and they go with it as long as they can until it becomes stale. I think that when we were younger and impressionable we did that too, a lot of young bands do that, but you have to try to make things as different as possible, switch things up stylistically. We all learn different things, we’ll jam out on some blues riffs and random things at practice because if you know a little bit of everything, it’s a good way to create something original.
PS: It really helps break the mold when you’re learning a lot of Swing, Blues, and Bossa Nova, and then you fuse it with Rock, then you have your own sound. You’re free to do whatever you want.
Let’s talk about your new EP Silver Lake now. I was texting Zach the other day and we started discussing favorite songs. He told me how he was hearing different opinions from different people. The first two tracks, “I Cried Wolf” and “Garbage Dump Or A Gold Mine” stood out to me, while he really enjoys “Turned To Stone.”
ES: It’s tough question because we listen to our music so much. One week I’ll love “Turned To Stone” and the next it’ll be “Garbage Dump…” And I think, in a sense, we’re all partial to what we do and what stands out for us. Songs that I’m singing on, I may be a little more partial too because, you know, we’re all narcissistic.
ES: And the same is true with Phill. When he has a crazy drum part he’s going to love that song.
PS: Exactly. That’s why I love “I Cried Wolf” so much. Because it’s like “Yeah! Drum intro! Listen to me right now!”
ZS: For me it has do with, week to week, how we perform the song live. For a while on “Garbage Dump…” there was a little less going on musically than the other two songs and it kind of felt little thin. But I’m starting to get a little more comfortable with one of my distortion pedals, we’re getting the levels a little bit better each time to make the choruses pop out more. And obviously, the more we sing them, the tighter we get. But you know, “Turned To Stone,” the bass riff, I love doing that too, but if I played it sloppy live, I’d always undershoot the fret by a quarter of a fret and get a little buzz, and it would just throw the whole thing off. So, i think the way we execute live determines which one I like the best.
“I Cried Wolf” by Almost There
Also, the other day, Zach, you mentioned the music video for “I Cried Wolf” you were planning to shoot. Is that happening, do you have it planned in terms of where you’ll shoot?
ES: It’s in the very early stages. We know who we’re shooting it with, my friend Tom Lew, and we have the idea for it, now it’s just a matter of scheduling.
ZS: We’ll probably be shooting along the Jersey Shore, from Asbury Park down to Stockton University where he goes to school, possibly even down to Atlantic City depending on, well, apparently we already have the model chosen. She’s somehow involved with Miss Universe. So hopefully it’ll all come out okay.
Have you settled on a theme of a video?
ZS: The song “I Cried Wolf” is kind of about wanting to convince someone of something and people being apathetic toward it. You want to make your mark but people aren’t moving it. So we wanted to work off that theme. I don’t want to go too far into it.
ES: You gotta wait.
Sticking with “I Cried Wolf,” I’ve been listening to it a lot over the past few weeks and it’s apparent that you wrote it in response to an event that took place or to a group you were none too pleased with. So, what happened?
ZS: Well, a few years ago we were playing for this contest, one of our first with Phil and we brought a lot of people out, had a great crowd, and we thought we killed it. We had a video of the show, we went home and watched it, and again, we thought we did a great job. A few days later, the results came out and we weren’t very pleased. I was like “Man, we’re trying so hard, we’re working, we’re practicing so many hours, we’re giving it our all,” and people were very unresponsive to it. So, it was partly in response to that. And also, we’d be playing, and I’d look out over the crowd, and they’d be standing there like statues. I thought to myself, “What happened to mosh-pits. Didn’t people used to dance at shows and have a good time?” Somebody’s gotta wake these people up! So that’s where the song came from.
Let me ask you this, many interviews I’ve read and a few people I’ve talked to don’t like to admit that contests and battles have helped them during their careers. How has winning The WRAT Band Search aided you, if at all?
ES: We could say the exact- opposite of that. Winning the WRAT Search, we got to ply at PNC [Bank Arts Center] in front of about 400 people, we got six weeks of airplay on 95.9, and we’ve gotten so many fans from it. Even if nobody has an tie to us at all, they tend to take us more seriously because we’ve been played on the WRAT, they’ll say “You guys must be more legitimate,” even though we’re not really doing anything differently.
ZS: I’ll expand on that. Since we’ve gotten play on the WRAT, we’ve been reached out to by other stations. We’re now on 106 Rock Radio down in Florida, we’re on a lot of college stations out in Pennsylvania, and it’s big, because we just finished a press kit and we’re going to start pitching to labels now too. The fact we can say we’ve won these contests, and played PNC, having that in our list of venues we’ve played is huge. And like Ed said, even if someone hasn’t heard the records, or seen a show, or heard us on the radio, they’ll take us more seriously because, unfortunately, image plays a big role in this sort of thing. Winning contests gets people talking and has definitely helped us a lot.
My little operation here focuses on local acts and on our New Jersey music community, and I like to discuss the state of the scene with the musicians. I’m looking at the scene that’s developed here in Jersey and it seems to be one of the stronger ones around. We’re putting out bands like The Gaslight Anthem, Titus Andronicus, Screaming Females–
ES: Bouncing Souls!
The Bouncing Souls, Streetlight Manifesto, these are bands that travel the world and have major followings. Do you think that our community, bands supporting bands, people supporting people, reinvesting back into the scene once they’ve made it, is that helping it thrive? Because it seems like us and Brooklyn are fighting for the top spot, and we’re putting out better acts.
ZS: Looking back, five, four, even three years ago, the concert attendance was down, it seemed slow. Coming out of high school and entering a scene like this, I don’t think I realized what a special thing it was to be a part of the Asbury Park music scene. At first we were, and a lot of new bands tend to be, a little seclusive, we weren’t friendly with a lot of other bands. Now, we’re friends with everyone, everybody pushes everybody, it’s a very tight-knit community of people trying to make it. We’ll see another band that we love, and it pushes us to do more, we all feed off each other. So, to have this many good bands come out of New Brunswick and Asbury Park, in all different genres too, you got Quincey Mumford doing the acoustic stuff, The Zodiac Complex does this Progressive-Metal, it’s not just another little Screamo-Emo band, you have people trying to push it, and hopefully, all of us can make a difference, and not just in the area.
Well put. I don’t want to keep you guys too much longer. I have two more questions. First, my readers and I are always looking for new music to get into. What are you listening to that we should be aware of?
ES: I’m listening to anything too new, at this point I’m trying to reach back. I’ve been listening to a lot of Jimmy Eat World, Bleed American, I’ve had that album on repeat. Paramore too. I’ve listened to a lot of Paramore. I also listen to Incubus pretty constantly. And also, going back to our narcissistic tendencies, I listen to Almost There pretty regularly.
PS: I listen to a lot of Circa Survive, Minus The Bear, and my favorite New Jersey band of all time Midtown. Save The World Lose The Girl, always.
ZS: I think Ed’s a jerk for stealing a lot of my answers but Jimmy Eat World’s Chase This Light. Bleed American is awesome and I went through a phase of destroying that, but Chase This Light is great. Deerhunter, Receiving End Of Sirens, Paramore, I just downloaded Paramore’s newest album and have been getting into that. The incubus discography, I go through that pretty regularly, a good two or three times a week. Brandon Boyd is one of my favorite front men and singers, he’s an artist, not trying to make commercial radio hits. I can’t get enough Incubus.
And finally, a lot of my readers are in bands, trying to get to the level of Almost There, trying to play Starland Ballroom, what advice can you leave them with?
ES: I would say the most important thing, before even trying to play a show, is to practice your ass off. Get as good as you can and as tight as you can before stepping on a stage. Even if you have to start out playing shitty venues, if you sound good, it will lead to bigger and better things. And I think most places are willing to give you a chance. I’ve seen plenty of bands that are terrible that have gotten a shot at The Stone Pony, so if you’re good it should be pretty easy to get there.
ZS: one thing we learned pretty late is to not overbook shows and also, not to shoot to high too early, because your comfort level on stage is huge. And videotape your shows so you can watch and perfect the product you’re trying to sell. Because even you bring 100 of your friends out to The Pony opening for bigger band, it’s hard to get an accurate read. Building a solid fan base and not friend base is important. And you build these fan bases a smaller places like The Saint and The Wonder Bar. You start small, build a fan base, and soon you won’t be bringing 100 friends, you’ll be brining 100 fans and have much better shows, and a better chance at playing better shows.
PS: I think you really need to know how to market yourself, in terms of online promotion and public relations, being able to talk to people about your music. You have to know your demographic because its very important to be able to market yourself correctly.
ZS: Exactly, and we’ve figured out that our demographic is 40 to 60-year old men with beards that like to eat cupcakes.
Thanks to Almost There for sitting down with me for as long as they did. I apologize to their friends and manager for delaying your departure. My bad.