Not long ago I was turned on to a great Austin band called The Unbearables.I recently had the privilege of doing an email interview with lead singer/songwriter Marshall Escamilla and company.
Having 9 members playing instruments ranging from guitars and moog synthesizers to flutes/clarinets/trumpets, etc. this doesn't seem like a band that started like your typical garage act. How did you guys decide come together to form the band now known as The Unbearables?
Oddly enough, it actually did start as a typical garage act. My original idea for the band grew out of playing in all sorts of "experimental" bands that, to put it simply, weren't very good. At that point I was listening to the Mooney Suzuki and Weezer a lot, and one day I was driving home from practice and started singing this melody that could have served as a kind of fusion of those two bands. I thought to myself: "Gee, wouldn't it be great if I could be in a band that just did that?"
After a couple of years, though, that sort of thing got kinda boring. We did the Zombie thing, which in many ways was a test of our potential as songwriters and arrangers, and we enjoyed doing these grandiose, heavily arranged pop songs so much that it really made sense to have a bunch of people join the band so we could do this all the time. Then we started getting more experimental again--so I was right back where I started. I guess that's how it goes sometimes.
The Unbearables, as a name, is not the most welcoming for a first-time listener, how did the band settle on that name, and what significance does it have?
When I got the idea to form a garage-pop band that would be a cross of Weezer and the Mooney Suzuki, I was living with [organist] Ian LeClair in a duplex. We had just moved down from Maine, and neither of us had much direction in our lives at that time. I told him what I wanted to do, and he said, "If you form a rock band, I'll put on a bear suit and jump around on stage with you." That fit with the sort of fun, performance-based thing I was interested in at the time.
When [bassist] Harrison Speck, who was dating Ian's and my neighbor at the time, joined the band, he suggested "The Unbearables" as an appropriate name for a band with a full-time member in a bear suit, and we've been stuck with it ever since. That was six years ago.
We tried to change it a couple of times, but nobody could come up with anything better. So there you go.
You guys are probably most known for scoring the musical "Bitten: A Zombie Rock Odyssey" that was making waves down in Austin a couple of years ago. How did you guys get involved in that project?
When you go on tour, all kinds of really crazy things seem reasonable. Driving Chicago to Austin in one shot, or going to a town called Texarkana. Or staying in a studio apartment with seven other people in a tiny town in North Carolina, all while squirming away from the creepy, mildly retarded meth-head who keeps asking you uncomfortable questions.
Another of those things is a rock opera about zombies.
With the success/popularity the show received, do you guys see yourselves ever returning to the stage to score another musical?
No, probably not. At least not anytime soon. It was a lot of work, and I think in some ways it really distracted us from working on improving and promoting our music. I'm still very interested in the idea of writing music that tells a story, though--and that's something that, in some ways, at least, or current music does. I will probably always be interested in program music, if only because it makes it very easy to channel your songwriting. If you already have a theme or an idea for a song before you even start working, it really helps to get the process started.
The somewhat serious nature/emotions dealing with life and death, etc. that are portrayed in your latest trilogy of EP's is quite a departure from the campier nature of the Bitten songs. Was that a conscious effort to show off the band's versatility?
I wouldn't say so much that it was a conscious effort. But coming off the zombie stuff, I realized that one major flaw with it was its lack of seriousness. It was all sort of a joke, and to a certain extent I think that can work musically--that's the sort of thing that Tenacious D does quite well--but if people think you're joking, they tend not to take your music seriously. And a lot of the zombie stuff--at least, the music, taken independently of the lyrics--was really serious. So I decided that I wanted to explore that direction of song writing.
How does having 9+ members affect the songwriting process, i.e. is it easier, harder, are there more arguments?
In some ways it makes the process a lot more difficult. I tend to have a lot of difficulty finishing ideas--so I'll often come to the band with a half-finished idea and we get together and try to hammer it out into some kind of form. That can be really hard with 9 people, and we often try to do that process in a smaller group--either me and Harrison, or me, Harrison, and [drummer] Josh Crotchet, or me, Harrison, Josh, and [trumpet/saxophone/clarinetist] Amber Nepodal.
Where it makes it easier, though, is that oftentimes people will have ideas that I couldn't even conceive of. Amber and [flautist] Becky Thompson in particular come up with things on their instruments that are always infinitely better than anything I could write on my own. This is true of everyone--when people are really playing from their strengths and contributing freely to the band, I think we end up with a finished product that is a lot better than anything we would have if i just did it all myself. That's a really beautiful thing about working with so many people.
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of having so many band members?
The best advantage is how much more tolerable long drives are. Having that many extra people to talk greatly diminishes the "this person is driving me crazy factor."
The biggest disadvantage... that's a difficult question to answer. It's a lot harder to find good accommodations? I guess that kinda sucks. Everything else is awesome.
Being such an unconventional band, you guys have probably played in some pretty unconventional places. Other than the musical, what are some of the strangest/most unconventional places you've played?
It's typically the least conventional places we have played that tend to be the more fun, high energy shows. When you have a group this size, representing a community of creative types comes with the territory. When you get to place that creativity not only in your songs and arrangements but also the spaces you play in, it really can turn into something fantastic. We played with Mount Righteous at SPACE Art Studio in Dallas and with The Theater Fire at J&J's Pizza in Denton. I would consider those shows to probably be some of our best in 2008. When you're having a great time, you perform better as a person. The persona of a band often times means more to the audience than whether or not you're playing the best stage with top of the line sound and light show. And when your audience is having a great time, you know you are too!
Fairly or unfairly, you've been compared a lot to bands like Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens. What do you think of these comparisons, and other than these who are some bands you feel influence you?
I like those bands, and really have no problem with that comparison. Sufjan influenced me a lot over the past year; as well as a bunch of indie bands that can be described with the phrase "lush arrangements," like Midlake, Sigur Ros, Bjork, and also the Noise Revival locally. I think a lot of the reason why the Sufjan comparisons work so well, though, is that he and I are really influenced by the same people: Middle School Bands, Philip Glass, Claude Bolling, Rodgers and Hart, etc.
In the metroplex we have the aforementioned Spree and Mount Righteous, so we're pretty accustomed to bands with inflated numbers of members, but have you ever played anywhere where it didn't go over so well? i.e. what are some of the worst places you've played, and why?
The worst place I've ever played, personally, was a crappy club in rural New Hampshire where the owner gave us $300 to get off the stage and go home. That sucked.
If you could open for/tour with any band in the world, who would you choose and why?
Ummm... personally, I think I'd be most excited to tour with the Smoking Popes. I saw them play at Emo's recently, and it took me back to being a teenager in Chicago in the 90s. That was really an incredible experience.
Other than that, I would have to say the New Pornographers. I bumped into A.C. Newman during SXSW one year, and almost literally melted into a drooling fanboy. I walked up to him and practically stammered: "Ya..ya..you're, um, A.C. Newman, right?" He then proceeded to talk to me just like I was a friend of his, while I stood there, practically shivering with awe of his talent. If we toured together I think I'd be pinching myself non-stop.
The Unbearables will be in town this weekend playing with Mount Righteous among others, at the Chat Room Pub in Fort Worth. With tickets priced at just $5, you will no doubt get to see more musicians for less money than possibly ever in your life.
Top secret bonus mp3, "Lost and Forgotten," from "Intimacy vs Isolation," the soon to be released second installment in their trilogy of EP's dealing with the life cycle. You can pick up the first EP in the series this weekend in Fort Worth, or from iTunes.
MP3: The Unbearables - Lost and Forgotten