Savage Sister Interview
By: Dennis M. Kelly
DK: Thank you very much for taking the time with us today Michael, I greatly appreciate it!
MT: Thanks, Dennis. I really appreciate the spotlight given to our music with Chicago Music Guide!
DK: Anytime! I’ve been wanting to interview Savage Sister for a while now actually as your music has been inspiring me with what I do with Chicago Music Guide. It has always been a mutually beneficial thing (for me), you know. I have been listening to (and thoroughly enjoying) the preview of your latest EP Wild Sleep, which drops in 7 days. How are you all feeling about the album? Are you anxious about unveiling it for the world?
MT: I’m definitely a little anxious. My brain has gone into the “will people really like this as much? Am I actually a total fraud?” mode, which I think is a normal process for many artists. Actually, if you’re not thinking that, I don’t know if you really had that much invested in what you created. I will say, it is a bit easier this time, as it is an EP where some of the “album rules” don’t apply.
I’ve always thought of EP’s as not only a preview of what is to come, but a chance for bands to experiment a bit and see where certain ideas go. My Bloody Valentine’s EP’s are a good example. The song “Glider” makes sense as an MBV song, but it doesn’t necessarily fit with Loveless. All the songs on Loveless are of the same spirit, where as all the songs on the Glider EP don’t have a specific flow to them. They still sound awesome together, but each song is kind of self-contained. It’s a like a group of good friends hanging out. All strong individuals of their own character, but they get along well together.
DK: I’ve always had that same kind of thinking regarding EP’s too; that they should be more experimental and free formed than what people are used to from full length albums. So, what is the band up to while you wait for the release?
MT: We’re up to normal band stuff, sporadic recording of ideas, practicing and attempting to book shows. We’re a band that firmly believes in downtime for nurturing ideas and allowing time to live our lives outside of music. February is a downtime month – we are still practicing – but no shows.
DK: With this weather, I think a little downtime now is a good time, ya know? Too darn cold (for me) out there anyway. Now, I come from the vinyl record era when you not only take in the music, but really immerse yourself in the artwork of the album as well. The album art of Wild Sleep by Whitney Farrell is intriguing in that it looks like an inkblot or “Rorschach” test, made from a flamingo, yet still retains a soft, subtle mood that captures the essence of your music so well. Is there any correlation with the album art to the music?
MT: Haha, that’s a good question. The idea I initially gave to Whitney was to create a sort of collage with striking imagery that fit together, but the more I saw proofs, the more we agreed that pairing it down to something simpler made it stronger. I know that I always wanted flamingos in there. I have some weird spirit animal affinity to them. I think it’s because they are representative of both absurdity and beauty simultaneously. Our music is often about duality, so maybe that is why flamingos keep cropping up in my mind.
DK: You released the song, Champagne Panthers ahead of the release, what have the responses been on that great track?
MT: We’ve gotten some very nice responses from people around the internet. It seems like people are really digging into the huge dramatic atmosphere of it. I was a bit concerned about that before releasing it, but it definitely is in the same family of “Black Leggings” and “Long Distance Runner”. I’m really appreciative that most folks accept all of our different sides, rather than holding us accountable for sounding like one song over another.
It’s important for us to present a spectrum of emotions within an area that makes sense, that fits all together. There are so many interesting facets of shoegaze, dream pop, dreamwave, chillwave , ambient and darkwave. I don’t think we should be beholden to play just one.
DK: With all of your influences, do you find it difficult in any way to create music that sets yourselves apart yet holds true to those genres?
MT: This is a tricky question that I’m not sure has a definitive answer. I draw upon those influences but it has to be done in a way that I feel is authentic. It’s a very subconscious, foggy “feeling” where you allow the idea to speak back to you.
That’s how I work. I may create the spark, but the idea becomes it’s own thing that has a distinct voice. Which I guess is me as well, but sometimes I don’t recognize that. Most of the time, ideas I think up do not have a strong voice and I consider those failures. I trash them very quickly, haha. Your influences are a sum of your experiences and so engrained in you, so it’s a “you can’t have one without the other” situation.
In all honesty, I do think Savage Sister carves a small distinctive niche in the overall dreamscape of this spectrum of music. People have often remarked on how unlike other bands they’d consider our peers. They recognize the influences but also see something new and intriguing within us.
DK: You can include me as one of those people too, there is definitely a fresh spin on your music that keeps me (personally) wanting to hear more. Hopping back to 2012 when the band began, could you share with me how Savage Sister originated? I know you were originally a four piece with Nicholas Piontek, Jamie Kerry and Kate Gettinger on vocals, but, how did you meet, etc?
MT: Yeah, the band all started when Nick and I became fed up with doing nothing meaningful in our lives, essentially, haha. We have been friends since childhood and since we were around 14 years old, we wanted to do a band project of some kind. The problem was, we never had the confidence or focus to do it. We were young and unsure of ourselves. That’s something that I only recently overcame, and Savage Sister was the key to it.
We met Jamie through Craigslist. Got really lucky there, as Jamie is a super cool, one of a kind sort of lady. We all shared an energy and hit it off right away. Kate, I met through a mutual friend. Kate is an immensely interesting and talented girl, she and I had a good connection, which I think made for better performance in the band.
DK: What were the dynamics in the band before the split that September?
MT: Largely, it was me kind of setting the pace for everyone else, in terms of schedule management. Nick wanted to be right there with me at the helm, but he was dealing with other issues at the time that distracted him.
Jamie and Kate always went out of their way to match my pace despite extremely busy schedules. I guess I sort of became the navigator because I had the free time, the computer and the space for recording. Also, I am a fan of a fast and continued workflow over long bouts of doing nothing. Even today, I’m constantly working on music during Savage Sister downtime. For me, the “vacation” aspect is that I have no deadlines.
DK: Plus it helps that you have the vision and inspiration to see your goals through, that has a lot to do with it too. Had you always wanted to/planned to move to Chicago at some point? We’re glad to have you here in Chicago, by the way!!
MT: Thanks! Chicago has always been a special city to me. I initially moved here in 2004 for college. It took me a few years to be confident finding my way around it, but I eventually came to just love the vibrancy and constant activity inherent in it.
DK: Now how did you come to meet Chloe and Caitlin?
MT: Craigslist and Craigslist, haha. No fascinating meetings there, I just posted ads and we eventually found each other. The great thing about Chloe and Caitlin, how I knew they were correct for the project, is that they are just dyed-in-the-wool fans of dream pop, shoegaze and a few other genres that we share a huge love for. They’re also just good, genuine ladies and that’s extremely important to me. Perhaps the most important thing when choosing bandmates. Technical skill is honestly secondary.
DK: The vocal styling’s of Chloe and Kate are fairly similar, but how would you describe their vocals and how (if at all) their differences helped shape the music)?
MT: That was just incidental that they have a similar timbre. I actually had worked with a few other singers before Chloe, one with a Grimes-ish quality and another with a Tamaryn-ish quality. Obviously, Chloe’s vocals are neither baby girl nor smokey husk, haha. Chloe occupies a space of her own, where there is a richness and depth, but it is never overwhelming. It’s gentle and hazy, but also strong and present. I absolutely adore her voice.
DK: Kate and Chloe’s vocals are both great, I love them both for their own unique sounds that they embody. What kind of hardware and software do you use to produce your music?
MT: I use Sonar Cakewalk as my recording software and a Line 6 UX2 as an audio interface. I like to keep my workflow streamlined, so I use Abbey Road Drums 80s and Kore Player to generate drum machine, and FM8 as my bank of synth sounds. I use a Lexicon Pantheon plug-in that is able to generate all that luscious reverb. For bass parts I use a Squier Jaguar bass. Live, I use a Macbook to run my VSTs and a Korg MicroKey as my midi controller.
DK: That’s a pretty nice assortment of equipment there at your disposal!
MT: During the fall I put down my guitar because I got sick of the level of involvement needed to perfect tones that I wanted to hear. I guess I am impatient, haha.
MT: But now I enjoy myself much more at live shows and the workflow is much more intuitive. I love playing guitar, but it will most likely only manifest itself in other projects I potentially work on.
DK: Where does a song stem from for you and Savage Sister? Music first or lyric fragments that help shape the tone of the song?
MT: Always music first. In fact, lyrics are the last thing we work on for a song. It goes back to what I was saying about allowing the song to speak to you.
DK: Oh, ok. Very cool!
MT: For my personal process, it’s like I’m in a writer’s room, bouncing ideas off with the song, and we both agree what’s awful and what’s decent. It’s strange because the music comes naturally, but I tend to slave over lyrics.
DK: But that is OK, it just means you’re not as much of a wordsmith as you are a musician, nothing wrong with that.
You’ve actually had quite a few releases in two short years, which include a covers EP, a single and the Savage Sarah Sessions, featuring Sarah Downen (from Golden Curls) on vocals. How did this release come about?
MT: Sarah is the aforementioned Grimes-esque singer who was actually instrumental in helping me stay motivated in making the debut album. She allowed me to manifest some ideas and that bridged that gap until I met Chloe. Sarah would be an awesome addition to Savage Sister, but she’s in college in Missouri, so naturally, it wouldn’t work out.
DK: Was this just a one-time collaboration though? Or do you think you’d work with her again in the future?
MT: I still collaborate with her on projects. She was the one who made our recent teaser trailer for Wild Sleep. We might release a side project thing that’s strictly digital-based, but we’ll see how that goes.
DK: Speaking of collaborations, you also just released another collaboration last month between Savage Sister and Lykanthea (http://www.lykanthea.com).
Lykanthea vocalist, Lakshmi Ramgopal was also in the band Love and Radiation, so, it is interesting to see how each of you are interweaving in and through each other to make new and fascinating branches of music apart from your own (if that made any sense..lol) How did this collaboration come about? And what have the benefits for you and Savage Sister been in working with different people?
MT: Well, I met Lakshmi last summer when Love and Radiation was still performing. Musically and personally, there was a kinship. We both have strong personalities and know what we like to see happen in music projects. The idea to do a joint release came about around then. At the time, we were focused on playing out around the city for the first time and Lakshmi was planning for a trip to Europe in the fall. We began working on it while she was away and then delved into it when she came back.
DK: It is always so awesome to see those kinds of creative relationships develop!
MT: The benefits for me are always gaining perspective and learning what works best. I’ve tried to express this to people before, but everyone influences you, no matter how large or minimally, and new people in the mix means new influences. I don’t think I would have made “Diving”, for example, without Lakshmi in mind.
DK: How did you all come to realize that pairing the vocals Lakshmi and Chloe together would be a match made in musical Heaven?
MT: Hah! Well, Chloe and Lakshmi have very different timbres and singing styles. Chloe is a classically trained choral singer and Lakshmi has had intense training in Carnatic singing. Lakshmi also just has a higher register than Chloe. With that, you get a lot of textural differences that seem to mesh well together. It was a nice surprise for all of us that so many people love hearing both voices together.
DK: Do you expect to do any more collaborations with any other artists in the near future? If so, whom would you like to work with yet?
MT: I’m currently talking to a friend whose in a great local dream pop/indie rock band which may turn into a collaboration. I don’t want to say too much about that just yet. As for dream collaborations, I would love to work with Katie Stelmanis of Austra and Tamaryn.
DK: This album features the art of Daniel Tovar (www.aisthemata.net), how did you come to choose his work and this particular piece for the album?
MT: Daniel is an excellent visual artist and kindly spared time out of his schedule to supply us with artwork and the teaser video. Lakshmi suggested him and after seeing ideas he came up with, I was totally on board.
DK: How has the response been to this album compared to Savage Sister releases?
MT: Thanks to Lakshmi’s tireless PR skills, sundrowned has had a groovy ride across the blogosphere. It seems like everyday I see someone else post about it and almost always with pure, shining enthusiasm.
DK: That is awesome and deservedly so! Do you get very involved in the analytics of album sales and website traffic and things of that sort? Or follow what you can, when you can?
MT: Naturally, I keep track of sales and listens, stuff like that. I don’t get too deep into it. Haha, I’m not making projections or anything. It’s more just a curiosity to me. Honestly, I’m just grateful that people actually want to buy or listen to our music. That part is still a bit surreal to me!
DK: I can relate to what you’re talking about, from a different perspective of course though. Do you or the rest of Savage Sister get much time to interact much you’re your fans and friends on Facebook and other social networking sites?
MT: Chloe and Caitlin seem to constantly be telling friends and friends of friends about us. They both excel at the word-of-mouth thing. I’m basically in charge of the social networking. I try to engage the people who follow us often, to keep it fresh, to make the band a kind of “conceptual friend”.
The band is always super excited about dream pop, shoegaze and all the rest of it, so I love sharing new artists and old artists alike. I think it’s important to be able to be genuine with your audience, to treat them with respect and kindness, and to be invested in our commonality for dreamy music.
DK: I really like where you’re coming from on that and you are so right! One (of many) other interesting points about Savage Sister is your video promos that you’ve released, the most recent of which for the Wild Sleep EP that was created by Sarah Downen as we touched upon briefly before. Other promos have been produced by Aisthemata and Magicks. Have they proven helpful to you in promoting the shows and album releases?
MT: Yeah, teasers are fun and easy promotional tools that kind of say to your audience, “hey, we still exist and here’s a hint of what we’re doing”. It’s just a good, visualized halfway point to releasing something official.
DK: I’m a full believer in the use of multi-media, I don’t think there is too much else out there that grabs a persons attention any more than video and we use it for our purposes wherever we can too. Do you think you might want to do a video EP to coincide with some future release?
MT: I’ve been talking to my videographer friend about doing a kind of homage video for “Boundless Love” but we haven’t nailed anything down yet. I’d love to do more video work, but it’s expensive and definitely not a major priority for me.
DK: Well, if you do ever go that route, you know I’ll be watching it, for sure!
MT: Thanks Dennis!
DK: Getting back to your Wild Sleep EP, 3 of the 5 songs contain melodies that were co-written by you and Chloe. Have you started taking a different approach to your songwriting process these days?
MT: I think that was just a natural extension of Chloe and I working more comfortably together. I’ve always offered Chloe and Caitlin the opportunity to have creative input, but the confidence to do so has to come from within. Chloe and I figured out melodies together and she came up with ideas I wouldn’t have thought of that I think really make the melodies great. I’m glad she has come around to putting in her two cents.
DK: Yes, it would only enhance that great sound Savage Sister has already with their more direct creative input. Have you taken any different approaches in the making of this album than previous works?
MT: There is no guitar on this EP. As I said, I got tired of figuring out how to get what I wanted to hear on it. There’s no set thematic atmosphere for this EP, I just focused on making solid songs this time around.
DK: As you briefly mentioned before, your next shows are happening in March, March 14th at the Debonair Social Club and March 28th at Transistor Chicago. Will The Debonair show be considered an album release show or are you not going to do that kind of show this time around?
MT: Since it is an EP release and Debonair will be happening nearly a full month after, I don’t think we will make it officially a release show. I love the idea of release shows, but it never really came across my mind this time around. However, the Debonair show will be the first show where our Wild Sleep cassettes will be available to purchase!
DK: How have the live experiences been for the band and have the turnouts been good?
MT: Chicago is a tricky city with many divergent musical tastes, which means there is an ebb and flow. Most of our audience is international or outside Chicago, across the U.S. Our first gig was at the Empty Bottle (totally a realized dream for us), and there was a really good turnout, but it was mainly for Sister Crystals, who are fantastic and deserve the close, dedicated group of friends and fans that they have.
Since then, it’s about what you would expect from a band that’s relatively new. Not a huge turnout, but always a couple of dedicated folks, which is wonderful. Our biggest show was recently at Burlingon, where we performed with Lakshmi. Definitely our biggest audience so far, in large part thanks to Architecture, Lakshmi herself and Magicks.
DK: What other bands have you shared the stage with so far?
MT: We’ve been lucky enough to perform with a handful of extremely talented people, including Scott Cortez, who is a shoegaze hero of mine. We’ve played with the likes of TALsounds, Axons, Sister Crystals, Evasive Backflip, Nones, Vamos, Il Tandre Neu and Lore City. We’ll be playing with Rachael’s Surrender, Arch Visceral Parlor, Brittle Branches, Spaces of Disappearance and Videobug as March rolls around.
DK: Where would you like to see Savage Sister play this year?
MT: My dream is to play Schubas. I love the venue, but it requires draw factor. Maybe if it were an opener on a larger bill!
DK: That would be nice to see. Shifting gears now, what have been some of the toughest challenges you and the band has faced so far and how did you all manage to pull through them?
MT: Like I was saying earlier, Chicago has a lot of musical diversity and the three of us are not the most wheeling-dealing social creatures, always on the scene and seeing bands, etc. Caitlin and I are kind of respective homebodies, Chloe likes to go out, but her social circles are more academic than musical. So, it’s hard to build a homegrown audience that way. We have some great people here who love us, but I wouldn’t put it on them to come to all of our shows. The way we pull through, is just to keep on playing and getting those who are authentically interested to find us.
I’ve never been about drawing big numbers based on obligations through friendship or some kind of hype. I’m sure venues see it differently, but I’d rather have a small dedicated following then guilting people to like us or sledgehammering our way into a widely read city publication.
I want it to be organic, above all. There is still a bit of a business man in me with putting us out there through the internet, but that feels like a natural extension of what I want to be doing. Too many bands force their way into the spotlight and usually, they don’t have the music to match the exposure, in my opinion.
It’s not “wrong” to do it that way. In fact, tons of bands make great strides from that machine gun approach. That’s just not how I necessarily see things. I believe in the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. My job to make sure they know it’s there in the first place. We do all the normal band things of asking to play shows, seeing who is interested in playing with us, etc, but we do it at a level and pace that we our comfortable with.
DK: I share the same philosophy as you. Everyone of course has their own levels of success that they’d like to see themselves achieve, where does Savage Sister envision their success level to be at?
MT: Phew…that’s heavy question.
DK: Ha ha!
MT: I honestly haven’t thought too much about the end goal of the band. My primary aim since the beginning was just getting music out to people looking for atmosphere, calm, catharsis, romance, intrigue, etc. When I have thought about “where does this all go?” there tends to just be a blank white space. So, I guess our future is unwritten. I think the success for me, is the continual trickling of new fans and friends. As long as people are actively enjoying the music, then I feel like I’ve succeeded.
Naturally, it would be great to tour around and perhaps play a few notable festivals, but it’s all about finding time to do it.
DK: Do you think the market is strong enough, particularly in this genre to help you to attain your goals?
MT: As I said, I don’t approach music as a business or a financially sustainable profession. Shoegaze and dream pop have had a renaissance in the past four or so years, so with enough focus and hard work, you could at least attempt to get to a level where you are supported by your music. It’s totally possible and I’ve seen it happen to plenty of bands. However, that’s an ideal situation and it’s not easy or guaranteed to happen.
I’m not at that “just go for it” state of mind. Right now, I am happy to have my day job that allows me to work on my music without the stress of feeling like I have to play music just to be able to eat.
DK: What are some steps you think you will need to take in order to achieve your goals and what is the largest hurdle in keeping you from your goals?
MT: Since my goal is primarily to just reach new ears, the main hurdle, naturally, is the ocean of other bands that occupy a similar space as us across the world. You know, people only have so much time in their day to listen to music, so you’re not only vying for attention amidst other bands, but you’re also vying for the active attention of the listener, period.
The bright side is, while there are a ton of bands with the tools to promote themselves, there are ten-fold more people looking to listen to new, interesting music. The key is just finding those people who are your kindred spirits.
DK: Indeed! Back to your live shows, do you have any shows lined up after March as of yet?
MT: In April, we are attempting to make a few big moves in that regard. There are some bigger bands we may share a bill with, but I’d rather not say too much else about it at this point.
DK: What is on your agenda for the rest of 2014? And where are the best places for people to connect with you so they’ll receive your latest updates?
MT: 2014 will be a bigger year for us. There will be announcements about that around mid-March. We’ve also been talking about doing a tour over the summer. We’ll have to see how all of our schedules coincide!
DK: Well Michael, I really appreciate you taking the time for this interview today and I (for one) have been a big fan of the music Savage Sister has been putting out so I sincerely wish the absolute best for your Wild Sleep release; I hope it really strengthens your fan base while building more for the band. Thanks so much again!
MT: Thanks, Dennis! It was a pleasure!
Savage Sister is a kewl-bear dream pop/shoegaze/dreamwave band based in Chicago, made up of Michael Tenzer, Chloe Lundgren and Caitlin Klask.
Savage Sister began in 2012 as a four-piece out of St. Louis, headed up by guitarist Michael Tenzer and drummer Nicholas Piontek, with bassist Jamie Kerry and vocalist Kate Gettinger. They released “Legs” EP in August, with the single “Tiger Lamp” on it. This first iteration of the band split in September 2012.
Tenzer moved to Chicago in November that same year and slowly started to reimagine the band. It wasn’t until March 2013, that he met vocalist Chloe Lundgren. The two began working on songs for what would be their self-titled debut. Tenzer and Lundgren met bassist Caitlin Klask in May, adding her to the line-up. The trio released their self-titled debut in June 2013.
The three collaborated with Chicago-based artist Lykanthea on “sundrowned”, released in January of 2014.