Model Stranger Interview
By: Dennis M. Kelly
Photo by: Julia Ciaccio
DK: Thanks so much for taking the time with this interview today, especially with the fact that you’re busy working on new material. I greatly appreciate it!
Model Stranger: Of course! Thank you for taking the time to meet with us!
DK: What can you tell me about this new material? You’re mixing it now, right? What is it going to be called?
SF: We are actually working on old material and new material. We are in the process of creating some non-vocal mixes of our ‘Dreams & Bones’ record and demoing new music that will be on our next record. This new material is going to be a wee bit different than “Dreams & Bones” was. We are going to venture out from our current formula and play around with some different arrangements. This is a young project, no name yet.
KJ: Well, we’ve been running the new stuff through the mill and testing it out live to see how the reactions are ala Radiohead for In Rainbows. I feel like we’re always mixing no matter what! And we haven’t set a name for it. I think that’s just one of those things that kind of happens; ya know?
VJ: We are definitely focused more on bringing songs into their full potential. We are experimenting with our Stranger-side and looking to really allow the music to breathe.
DK: That is good. I love it when bands experiment and break out of their normal sound. The experiments may not always be entirely successful, but it is the attempts that help musicians grow. How long have you been working on this material prior to going into the studio?
SF: From April to April we have almost played 100 shows; we haven’t had much time to work consistently on anything. This material has been worked on in very short spurts since the Fall/Winter of 2010. We are going to settle down for a month or two and sink our teeth in and see if there is something sweet in there.
DK: Yeah, I know how that goes Stephen, pretty much everything I do with Chicago Music Guide is around everything else I do. It is exceedingly hard to find any time that I can fully devote to it for an extended amount of time. But, ya do what you can do and make it work the best ya can.
VJ: The thing is we are constantly working on material. We try to formulate divisions of songs by where they fit in within one-another. If we have some face-melting rock, we’ll file under “Rockers.” If we have some spacey-groove tunes, we’ll file under “strange,” slow piano tunes under “ballads,” and so-forth. This way we can have a back-catalog of material to weave music into and create complete pieces of art.
DK: It is good to bring a sense of order to the endless flow of creativity that can overwhelm a musician. Do whatever it takes to get the best results for you and if it works, all the better. Do you have one main songwriter? Or is it pretty much each of you that contributes to the songwriting process?
KJ: Yeah, Stephen is the main songwriter. He brings songs to the table that range from being completely finished to just a chorus. Then we’ll shoot ideas and grooves around and usually he’ll take the song “home” to give it its final means of life. That is…until we record it and then the arrangement starts which is a whole other ballgame.
SF: I think that writing songs is only 25% of the game. I mean it is the most important element but after that it doesn’t matter who writes. Although I generate a lot of the ideas and finish them – the end product that you see on stage and hear on record can be attributed a lot to Kevin and Vince’s input. The fact that they are a sounding board they unknowingly contribute in unspeakable ways.
DK: Well said Stephen! How many tracks are going to be on the album and what are some of the subjects that you’re writing about these days?
SF: We have more than enough music for a full length but depending on how we separate the tracks we may do a couple EPs. The subjects of these new songs are really focused on the dichotomies that exist with the speed of modern living. Some material is about our experiences on the road. I am personally just taking an adventure dissecting the extremes to find where the middle is… trying to find a balance.
DK: Wow, that is a pretty cool subject to write about. “The speed of modern living” Sounds like you could just about have an album title right there, if you ask me.
KJ: In the end the tracks we use end up being somewhat of a last minute decision. It depends on how the mixes go and if they flow and sound good as one album. There’s usually one or two that end up being throwaways because they don’t fit the album, recording doesn’t do the song justice, etc. Keeps it exciting!
DK: Those “throwaways” could always be put on a b-sides release or even made available digitally to those that would be interested in them too.
VJ: It’s a variable we are continuously altering and adjusting to see what can fit where. The subject matter of the songs also vary; however, a lot of the tunes revolve around the current effects of social networking in society, personal changes in our lives and how the various subject matter molds our future.
DK: I wonder if anyone is really looking at technology’s influence on society, be-it social media or even the technology that we dump and how our technological garbage ends up in other countries and destroying their health and lives. I think the past two decades have really jumped into warp speed and everyone’s expectations have changed as a result.
We no longer have patience to wait for any length of time now, fast, just isn’t fast enough now. Yeah, I can see how a band could have a double albums worth of material on that subject. I really very interested to hear what you put together when it all is completed. How much trial and error did it take for you guys to find the right guitars, drums and cymbals (a.k.a. equipment) to get the sounds you want?
SF: It’s been a slow process for us. Being an active live band we have been forced to create two set ups. Luckily our Engineer, David Martorana, has a lot of great gear that we are able to experiment with up front when we get into the studio. He is a great mentor and has been a huge help over the last few years.
KJ: I think no matter how many times you go into the studio and record there’s always a massive amount of trial and error because every song requires a different color and depth. I believe if you determine the colors you’re looking to capture prior to recording it will minimize the trial and error process.
DK: I saw some clips from last year of you guys in the studio recording “Dreams and Bones”, are you recording at the same studio?
SF: We haven’t picked out a studio yet. Just in the early stages of trimming the fat off of these songs. We will generally do most of the legwork in, ‘The Warehouse’, our makeshift studio and then we will go knock out the tracks somewhere else. We may return to the Chrome Attic. It was a great place.
KJ: Yes, both Chromatic Recording Studio and Fat Recording, where we did our overdubs for “Dreams & Bones” are wonderful atmospheres and we really enjoy working with/in both of them.
DK: Have you guys learned any tips or tricks to getting more of the sound you want in the studio, be-it with the instruments or studio equipment?
SF: We have learned quite a few tricks and tips to being productive and performing better in the studio but we are still developing our studio sound. Finding the right gear is a lot of it but having the right attitude and enjoying yourself in my opinion is just as important.
KJ: One main key that a lot of bands do not take into consideration is the whole garbage in garbage out concept. Your recording is only going to be as good as the equipment you have to work with. If your amps/drum kit/guitars are mediocre at best, well, then you’re going to be capturing mediocre tones thus resulting in way more work on the back end to even get it to sound close to being what you want.
DK: Being a band whose strength is based on live performance. How do you pull that sound/energy into the studio?
SF: Haven’t really completely figured it out. You can listen to Dreams & Bones, which was recorded live and then you can venture out to see us live on stage. Even though they are both live performances they are two totally different worlds. We are still scratching our heads on chasing that one down but are going to keep recording live until we find what we are looking for.
KJ: We track everything that we can live and all to tape. Analog is a dying breed but we are going to go ahead and continue to utilize it until it’s dead… which I hope never happens.
VJ: We haven’t. But still we record live. We get all of our core tracks done simultaneously; this way Kevin can feed off of my, Stephen can feed off the rhythm section and we can find our cohesive groove. WE are definitely an analog band living in a digital world. Everything must touch 2″ tape before touching the lips of the digital format.
DK: Are you perfectionists? When do you say “This is the best the song/album can be?”
KJ: I don’t think anyone is ever finished. Don Henley said it best regarding the Eagles recording and it was something along the lines of having to draw the line because with modern technology and the options available, an album will never really be complete in the artists’ eyes.
DK: I think I read that the electronic band Underworld’s latest album “Barking” was labeled more as a marker of where they were and did not profess that those recordings were 100% complete at the time of pressing.
SF: As a unit, we are unlearning to over think things. You can CHOKE up and over polish some really great stuff if you start letting state of the art run your state of the heart. We generally use deadlines, which are also dangerous, to keep us making decisions and moving forward. You just have to abandon it at some point and accept that is where you are at and move on.
DK: What a great way of putting it, “letting state of the art run your state of the heart”, I never heard it put quite that way before. Do you have an approximate idea on when this album will drop?
SF: Not really sure when. Since we haven’t decided what we are going to record we haven’t laid out a time table yet. I would anticipate between the Fall and Spring but don’t quote me… Is that possible in an interview? Something will be recorded and released fairly soon though, that I can promise!
DK: Excellent. Very glad to hear it!
KJ: No, we don’t want to rush it. Just let the whole process develop organically so that we have the best product possible and don’t have the “if we only had time for this” regrets.
DK: I respect that, as I am sure your fans do as well.
VJ: Hopefully around your birthday. When is that?
DK: LOL. That WOULD make a great birthday gift and fortunately, it would be a great gift for everyone to enjoy! You offer a very nice array of choices for people to buy your music, digital, CD and even vinyl. How much vinyl would you say you’re selling?
KJ: We only released a hand-numbered 7” of a track off of Dreams & Bones and it has an alternate version of another song off of the album on the B side. I find it’s interesting because there’s a niche for vinyl and it’s either hit or miss for sales when you’re touring.
SF: The Vinyl sales aren’t as high as the CD or Tee Shirt sales, but they aren’t completely slumping either. We sell somewhere around one vinyl for every six CDs we sell. I haven’t done the math recently.
DK: Well, come on Stephen, when I do an interview, I expect solid numbers, man…! LOL! Do you monitor your sales pretty often and find out where your best markets are and how to better reach/cater to them?
SF: It is easy to monitor digital sales these days with the various Trending Reports and Bandcamp Stats. We are able to see who is downloading our record, where and when that number gets overwhelmingly convincing, we use it as rational to construct a run of dates around it.
Our live shows we use an inventory list and we track everything we sell. If we sell a lot of merch in any city, we are almost always sure to visit or return, depending on which came first.
KJ: Yes, the internet and analytics are quite useful. Unfortunately a lot of bands don’t even know that this information is available to them.
DK: Well, I think a lot of bands might know about the analytics, but it may simply not be their cup of tea. But, at least one band member should monitor it, for sure. I know you have a street team sign up option on your site, is your team active and currently providing assistance?
KJ: Yes, we get people signing up for it at almost every show. They are constantly promoting us online and virally, putting up posters for us and even helping sell merch at shows. We do offer our Street Team members exclusive things since they help us so much (e.g. discount on merch, songs unavailable to the public, contests, etc.)
DK: Street teams are so important…
SF: Yeah. We did something over the fall that involved Street Teamers getting to pick a song for us to cover or pick a song for us to record alternately off of our record. The guy who was given the choice asked us to do an acoustic version of ‘Carousel’ off of “Dreams & Bones” which we did for him. It was a really fun and rewarding project.
DK: I think it would be interesting to hear you cover a Byrds or UFO song, actually. A lot of your sound seems rooted in that great vein of classic Rock and I think you would be able to do an awesome cover of something from their catalog of music.
You guys are pretty well connected to at least almost every social media outlet out there too, that is very good to see. How effective are all the digital connections vs. meeting your audiences at your shows? I mean, bands have been building followings from live performances without internet assistance for ages; I am just curious how it is working for you?
SF: There is no trade off. Live shows and face to face connections are stronger than any digital bond and it is why we are constantly touring. We use our live shows to make fans and our social media to stay in touch with them. Real connections come from experience. So in a nutshell touring has been the best way for us to build a following so far.
KJ: I read in an article not too long ago, putting “digital footprints” everywhere is only going to help people to stumble across your band and/or make it easier to find you. Digital connections are crucial these days.
DK: Interesting points and I have to say that I agree with both of them too. Speaking of live performances, you’ve got some coming up this month, in fact, two in one day, correct?
SF: That is correct. We have our first Chicago show in quite a long time. Unintentionally we have not played Chicago since Halloween. We are playing at the Beat Kitchen on April 16th. Later on in the month we are returning to Burlington on April 29th and playing Decatur and Macomb on April 30th.
KJ: We would play 3 shows a day if it was possible.
DK: That would, of course, be great! You’ve performed through Iowa and Colorado and various other locales in the Midwest. Have you guys hit up New York or California yet?
SF: We have made the trek to California in a previous project we were involved in, but there is really no reason for Model Stranger to tour the West Coast. There is less to compete with in a lot of the markets we tour through. We plan on hitting New York this Summer/Fall though. We have more interest coming from the East and are getting decent radio play in that out there. We want to see what all the fuss is about.
KJ: Martin Atkins wrote a book called Tour:Smart (http://www.toursmart.tstouring.com) out that gives great insight on the splitting the country in half and making the most of your travel between cities. After we read that it was hard to justify going back to the West coast. With gas prices now a days, it’s much easier to tour East because the distance between cities is significantly shorter.
DK: How do you guys manage your time on the road? Do you do any additional writing?
SF: We often are granted a lot of down time on tour because we generally route very manageable distances between dates. We try to have a loose itinerary to keep on schedule. We alternate drivers based off of what needs to be done. Time management is simple when you don’t have 6 to 8 hour drives to make.
As far as writing – We have an acoustic guitar we keep inside of the van and play around with ideas from time to time. If a song we are working on has traction on it we will toss around ideas on how to approach it verbally. I guess we do more producing of our songs on the road. We also tend to share a lot of music with each other that we are listening to.
KJ: We book, do social media tasks, graphic design, write, see local attractions, promote and have fun with it. There’s really not enough time in the day to ever get everything done though!
DK: Don’t I know it! What do you do when shows like the Iowa gig gets cancelled (episode 6 from your videos)? It’s a lot of miles to go for a cancellation like that.
SF: We have only done exactly what we did in that video. Surprisingly, it has only happened to us that one time. As a habit, we keep in touch with the venues we are playing all the way up until the show date to avoid confusion. That particular club had been phoned two days prior to us showing up. They were ‘REALLY excited to have us’. Unfortunately they never did us the courtesy of letting us know they were shut down the next morning. With the million lines of communication that can be used to reach a venue and a band, cancellations shouldn’t be that hard to communicate.
KJ: We are go getters by nature and where there’s a will there’s a way. If we get cancelled we will make the most of our night and do everything within our power to play a show, even if we aren’t getting paid. We can still sell merch and get our music out to new fans, which is far more productive than spending the night doing nothing because the show was cancelled.
DK: How would you rate the “Rock Star” life? Is it everything you’d hope it to be (so far)?
SF: HA HA HA. It is pretty high rated! I am grateful to be playing music as regularly as we are allowed to do. It is more than I could have ever imagined. It is more work than I could have ever imagined as well but I LOVE my life with Model Stranger. We have some of the best fans and it keeps getting better.
KJ: It has its ups and downs just like anything in life. It is a labor of love but clearly loved otherwise so many people would be doing it. I wouldn’t trade anything for the experiences we’ve had and stories to tell.
DK: Do you guys still have day jobs to fight for time with?
SF: We have yet to figure out how to support ourselves completely off music, so we occasionally have to solicit Vincent for extra money. At this point odd jobs are our friends.
KJ: We manage to find means of making ends meet by finding work whether it be steady or sporadic. As long as the bills get paid we can continue to pursue what we love…making music and getting it out to the public.
DK: Looking over your bio information, I saw that the band was under a different name from 2004-2008. Did you guys release anything then? Was there anyone else in the band at that time?
SF: We released 2 EPs and a Full Length record as Reverie. It was Kevin James and Stephen Francis with a different set of drummers.
KJ: It was time for a change and as soon as Vincent joined the band we made the switch. And for you internet junkies we also did it for SEO purposes because our previous band was impossible to find.
DK: Would you re-release any of that material now under Model Stranger’s name (or have you already done so?)
SF: We have no plans to use any more of that music. The bits of music that made it over at the onset were for means of covering longer sets live and ending up getting better and rewritten. I feel our best work is ahead of us so I am not looking any further into that catalogue.
KJ: We have carried along some of the songs and have also re-recorded and released some of it. But we’re all for moving forward and continuing to create new music and directions in which we’d like to take things.
DK: Understandable. Always look to the future! What is the musical background of the band? Have any of you had formal training?
SF: I took Opera lessons to strengthen my voice and used to teach before we started hitting the road so hard. I was self taught as a guitar player. I did take a theory class and a few piano classes in college. Mostly self taught.
KJ: I haven’t taken any training and actually started off playing the drums before finding my love for the four stringer. Vince was part of the drum core in high school.
DK: How did you guys meet up and decide to form Reverie and Model Stranger?
SF: Reverie was a teen project that was started when Kevin and I were in High School. We were originally a 5 piece band called Anodyne. We played sluggish hard rock/metal. When I attempted to become singer we dropped two members and renamed ourselves ‘Reverie’. We had two drummers over the course of that time. Model Stranger was formed because Kevin and I were ready to start over. We got really lucky finding Vincent so quick. He learned so much so fast and we really didn’t lose any time from the stage or the studio thanks to him.
DK: That is great, a lot of bands stall or even fall out waiting to find additional members or the right member. Is the original vision and principles for the band(s) still being maintained today?
SF: At the onset yes but in our first year we have already gelled into a different form which has a different vision. As one of our principals is to be who we are and not box ourselves in, I guess we have maintained by not maintaining… if that makes any sense at all.
DK: Yes, I get ya.
KJ: It started off as something fun to do and be a part of in high school and has continued to develop into a love that we all still thoroughly enjoy to this day. So I don’t necessarily think we thought it all the way through when the band started so I’d have to say they have changed, but that would be in the regard of developing and continuing to into something really positive.
DK: A natural progression, as it were. That is good! What are some of the long term goals you have for the band?
SF: We want to sustain ourselves enough to continue writing and releasing the best music we can. Extensive amounts of touring and writing stronger songs are on our short list of things to do. Long term goals are not something we discuss often. Just eating this elephant one bite at a time.
KJ: To be able to play music and share the love for it with everyone we possibly can. The whole get rich and big thing, I mean, who doesn’t want that, but if that’s the goal and sole purpose for someone to be playing music I think they need to re-evaluate what it is that they’re really looking for.
DK: Lets plug your shows this month again and what else can we expect from the band in the months to follow?
KJ: Our official homecoming to Chicago is Saturday, April 16th at The
Beat Kitchen (http://www.beatkitchen.com/calendar.htm)
with our good friends Ryan Powers and Mason’s Case. In the months to follow
you can expect to see us continuing to tour and we hope you will be seeing
us on several street festivals as well. We’ve taken some time away from
Chicago to build our fanbase throughout the Midwest and are going to be
focusing on coming back “home” if you will.
SF: Yeah… the next few months are kind of up in the air right now. We know we will be laying down the groundwork for our upcoming record and making plans for the rest of the year.
DK: Awesome! I would very much like to thank you for your time and now I’ll let you get back to mixing.. enjoy!
SF: Not a problem! Anytime. You guys keep doing what you’re doing as well! Cheers!
DK: Will do, Stephen!
KJ: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us and pick at our brains. We really do appreciate it!
DK: It is my pleasure, Kevin. Anything we can do to help get the talented musicians of Chicago some extra recognition that they deserve, we are so happy to do it.
If you’re a Chicago musician and want to be interviewed, you can reach us at email@example.com and hey go to Model Stranger’s website to get the very latest info on them at www.modelstranger.com.
Model Stranger Biography
Model Stranger has built its reputation primarily on its high energy live performances and the variety of its sonic influences. The epitome of a DIY band, Model Stranger has worked the Midwest scene very diligently with success over the last 5 years. Model Stranger has performed at famous Chicago clubs and festivals such as; The Metro, Congress Theater, Double Door, and Cubby Bear.
Model Stranger was a featured band in Chicago’s 2007 Mobfest, Co-headlined the 2009 I AM FEST, and played at the 2009, 2010 Taste of Chicago festival, and Taste of Lincoln Festival 2010. While gaining a dedicated following in Chicago, Model Stranger have remained arduous to the road over the years. Embarking on several self-booked and self-funded national tours the trio has begun to make a name for itself in the Midwest. Most recently in support of their new release “Dreams and Bones” Model Stranger completed an 18 show in 18 day tour stretching from Chicago to Denver and back.
Dubbed “rock n’ roll classicists” and “an eclectic synthesis of psychedelic grunge and classic rock” by Chicago press, Model Stranger’s sound has pleased rock and roll purists, indie rock fans, and casual listeners all the same.
The band has built its reputation primarily on its high energy live performances and the variety of its sonic influences of which fans have described as ranging from Tom Petty, David Bowie and The Beatles to Pearl Jam, Radiohead and Muse.
Their music has been /is spun on two of Chicago’s finest rock/alternative radio stations: WXRT and Q101.
While gaining a dedicated following in Chicago, Model Stranger have remained arduous to the road over the years playing over 80 dates outside of Chicago as far west as Colorado, east as Maryland and south as Arkansas. Embarking on several self-booked and self-funded semi-national tours in support of past releases, the trio has begun to make a name for itself in the Midwest.
During the recording of their brand new release “Dreams & Bones”, Model Stranger also had the privilege of playing live shows with popular national acts such as Our Lady Peace and Local H.
Taking a live performance driven approach into the studio to record “Dreams & Bones” like so many of the great classic rock bands of the 1970s, the band – made of singer/guitarist Stephen Francis, bassist Kevin James, and drummer Vincent Joseph – captures an energy and excitement in their music vacant in most indie rock releases today. While the record exhibits an intoxicating raw and authentic quality in part thanks to an analog recording process, the band utilizes their production skills and chops to deliver a record with a twist of modern finesse.
While the phrase “making a record” is usually used in a figurative manner these days in a digital world, Model Stranger is taking it literally. Following through on a record that began with an organic recording process, the band released select material on a limited edition hand numbered vinyl coinciding the release of their debut full length CD “Dreams and Bones”.