Photo by Jess Hodge
The Sun Lions are not a household name, but they should be. The young band out of the Boston area, simply put, make powerfully melodic rock n' roll. Riding high off the release of their debut full-length, "Whatever's On Your Mind", singer-guitarist Pete Schluter reached out via e-mail to talk about the band's influences, working with hotshot producer Justin Pizzaferrato, and the importance of getting off your ass and getting out to experience live art.
You’re from the Boston area and have been playing around there for the past few years – how did the band come together?
Mike and I have been playing together in different incarnations since we were in high school. The Sun Lions as they are constituted now started writing original music back in 2009. We were living in Vermont and so broke we had to share a bedroom. That's when Mike picked up and woodshedded the bass, which he had never played before.
We eventually ended up back in Boston, where we recorded demos and played only one show until our other guitar player left the band to go back to VT. The show was at a place called Tavern at the End of the World and it was so loud bottles were falling off the bar and we got asked to turn down by the management about 50 times during the set. We would just go and pretend to touch the volume knobs on our amps but not really move them. We actually practice about a block from that spot now, so it all comes full circle.
After that, we weren't seriously playing much for a little, just living life as working stiffs until we got the itch again and started a Chuck Berry/early rock n' roll cover band called The Images. We played around Boston a lot until our drummer Kevin moved to New York and my brother Ben, who played guitar, went back to college. Ben and Kevin played on an LP of original music we recorded as The Images that was released in 2013 and served as the seed of what we sound like now.
Jeff, our current drummer, is a coworker of Mike's at a dog-walking business, and he had seen us play shows as The Images, so when our old drummer moved away he stepped up to the plate and filled in. His style is much more heavy and modern sounding than what we had before, so we quickly realized we should stop playing old covers and move towards our own sound.
We realized we had to change our name from The Images once we started gigging playing original music because it is literally impossible to do a google search of "The Images". Try it sometime! This is an example of a lame but practical reason to change a band name.
Jeff was actually the one who suggested that we change our name to The Sun Lions again, because he saw Mike wearing an old Sun Lions shirt at work and just assumed it was some cool band he had never heard of. We've been gigging as the Sun Lions again ever since.
Your full-length debut album, “Whatever’s On Your Mind”, just came out and it’s stellar! You worked with Justin Pizzoferrato at Sonelab recording it…how was that experience?
Thanks man! Recording with Justin was amazing, he is an awesome guy to work with. We've been lucky to work with some great engineers, and the one thing they all have in common is they know how to keep the session moving forward, without getting bogged down in the minutiae too much. You really have to pick and choose which battles are actually important to the essence of the record, and which are "six of one, half dozen of the other".
Since this was our first record, we wanted the arrangements to be very close to how you would hear things live. Everything you hear from the rhythm section and actually a lot of the guitar solos were recorded live, all three of us playing together in a room. Justin did a great job capturing our live sound, but making it "bigger" in a cool way. He's also just a genuinely nice dude and owns a lot of sweet vintage fuzz pedals, so he's cool in our book!
Your songs are really melodically well-developed. What is your songwriting process like?
Mike and I write all the songs (we're hoping Jeff will pull a Ringo someday and come up with his own "Octopus's Garden", but we're still waiting). Our process is that we usually write songs individually, and when they are mostly formed show them to each other. From there we will help to edit and arrange the other's songs, or suggest minor lyrical changes or things like that. Sometimes one of us will be searching for a good bridge and the other will have an idea lying around that works.
As far as writing the songs on an individual level, we have mostly similar approaches. We usually get the music or riffs first, with a snippet of lyrics on a line or two, then the melody suggests how the lyrics should come out. Since Mike plays bass he tends to write in a more riff-oriented style, whereas I'm usually thinking about chord progressions and melody.
As everyone always says, the best songs are the ones that come out almost as fast as you can play them. For instance, you write a three minute song in about ten. We have a few of those, which really are gifts from the cosmos when you can get 'em, but you'll have to guess which ones they are!
I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are forced to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particularly proud to have written or that is special to you?
It's hard to speak for the songs that I wrote myself, since you tend to easily lose perspective on how it sounds to others. If forced to make a "Sophie's Choice", I would say that "Ride" was a nice surprise, because we recorded a demo of it just before going into record with Justin and it kind of fell flat. We rearranged it in a major way just days before recording it for real, so I was a little nervous about how it would sound. But it came out better than I hoped.
With the songs on this record that Mike wrote, I'm partial to the song "Sammy". It's really three songs in one, and is just a lot of fun to play. Originally it had an intro riff that apparently sounded exactly like a Mumford and Sons song, but luckily Jeff is familiar with a lot of terrible music and caught it. We really dodged a bullet there.
Not to do too much “trainspotting”, but I hear shades of older bands like D-Generation, Samiam, and the Doughboys in your music. You also seem to share some similar sonic space with other, newer, “local” bands like California X and the Young Leaves. Who inspires you musically? What are some of the musical touchstones that informed your musical education or to which you keep going back?
It's funny you say that, because we are always being compared to bands we've never heard of and then end up checking out those bands and being like, "these guys rule!" It happened while we were recording with Justin, he compared us to a band called the Marked Men, who we had somehow not ever discovered. Now I really like them.
Those bands you listed are all cool, and I see similarities, but I wouldn't say they are really influences or that we listen to them that much. Although the first time we ever played in NYC we played with a band called Slonk Donkerson who compared us to the Doughboys, who again, we were not cool enough to know about yet.
I grew up a total Beatles freak and love classic power pop like that and Big Star, but I also love bands like Buffalo Tom, Pavement, and Polvo. So I'd say we tend to be compared to any band that brings high energy to songs that are at their core very melodic. I think it's the energy that gets us compared to a lot of punk bands, even though we would never categorize ourselves that way.
"Local" bands like California X, Pile, Ovlov (RIP), Kal Marks, Potty Mouth, Speedy Ortiz, Gymshorts, Rough Francis and others definitely inspire us to do more, since they are all very DIY in nature and prove that if you bust your ass, you can get your music out to people that really do give a damn.
You released “Whatever’s On Your Mind” as a name-your-price download through your Bandcamp page (https://thesunlions.bandcamp.com/), which would seem to facilitate as many people experiencing the music as possible. What are your thoughts on streaming and the “free” distribution of digital music for up-and-coming bands?
Since we are not on a label, we have the terrible, terrible freedom to pretty much do whatever we want. Our philosophy about downloaded music is that it has no value, in a monetary sense. Not to say it is worthless, as a matter of fact I listen to music online a lot to discover new bands. It just has no value, as in $. Once it's there online it's a struggle to force people to pay for it. So we've found that the best way to put downloadable music online is to put it there and let people pay what they want. That way a lot of people take it free, but others put in upwards of $20-40 sometimes.
Physical music is different and should always be paid for, because it's a real, tangible piece of art that also happens to cost bands a buttload to produce.
We always say that if you download our music, even free, we are thrilled about the fact that you care enough to do that. But the real way to keep the music community vibrant is to go to a show! If you download our music, or any band's for that matter, go pay to see them live and say hello, get to know them. Be a part of it. Buy their physical records or tapes or T shirts or whatever. Spread the word. Next time your friends are planning on an all-night Netflix session, drag 'em out into the real world and bring them to see that band you love who gave their music to you for free. It can all be a beautiful circle, we just have to be motivated.
What’s on tap for the band next?
Up next, we are planning on recording a handful of music videos over the summer, which we haven't done before. Then in mid-late August we are playing a string of shows all over New England and NYC with some cool bands for the release of our album on vinyl, which we also haven't done before (release on vinyl that is). In between we are going back to Sonelab to record a new 4 or 5 track EP. We also are sitting on a new single that is all done, and will be released sometime this summer. Onwards and upwards!