As we’re all aware, talent is rarely ever the primary factor in deciding which bands make it big and which don’t. The music industry is so mechanized that a lot of different elements come into play—image, timing, location, promotion, sheer luck, connections. Will there ever be another massive success story that champions both style and substance equally? It can be devastating to put all your energy into pursuing a dream only to fall short of your goals, especially when—as it pertains to the actual music—you’ve got the skills to compete with the best.
But what if mainstream success isn’t your main goal? All good musicians start out with a carnal love for what they do and what has come before them. But all too often, musicians lose their original inspirations in the sea of distractions that accompany a career in music—money, fame, attention; essentially, the stuff Behind The Musics are made of.
AM/FM are a two-piece from Philadelphia who stayed consistent in their vision—creating music that they wanted to hear, whether or not anyone else wanted to. A lot of bands claim to keep it real in such a fashion, but when push came to shove AM/FM stuck to their convictions and gave up music almost altogether, finding a gratifying life off the stage. Abandoning the experimental, wall-of-sound pop stylings that they nearly perfected in favor of a more “normal” life, Brian Sokel and Michael Parsell found that the benefits of success didn’t always compensate for the sacrifices. Now, with a renewed energy and motivation, they seem poised to pick up where they left off—on a glorious sun-bathed beach, exposing the soundtrack to Utopia. I tracked down Sokel with help from their label, Polyvinyl Records, and chatted via e-mail about the past, present, and future of AM/FM.
GLONO: First, it’s obviously important to know what you and Michael are up to now. AM/FM hasn’t released anything in four years—are you still working together, or at all?
Sokel: AM/FM has been quiet for a while now, obviously. The last release of ours was The Sky is the New Ground on Polyvinyl. Similar to how we recorded our first two LP’s, we worked on TSITNG at the same time as another 4-song E.P., Our Day, which was never released. This was sort of due to a couple of reasons—the main one being that the studio we were working in shut down as the folks moved out. This left us sort of floating for a while since our songs were wrapped up on computer hard drives here and there. We attempted to work in another space to complete the songs, but the environment just wasn’t the same. At the same time, I was sort of losing interest in live music at the time. AM/FM was never really meant to be a full time live band—more a record-oriented project. I had been in (previous band) Franklin for so many years and toured so much that I really didn’t desire that lifestyle anymore. However, as AM/FM began to produce albums, requests for a touring band made it more and more necessary and I’ll admit, attractive. Ultimately, that burned me out, it sort of stole from what I originally loved about the band in the first place. When the Our Day E.P. was sort of suspended for a while it turned into a longer hiatus than originally planned, more out of convenience to get away from what had sort of started to snowball.
Since then life, which has a way of getting in the way, happened and a lot of other interests came up that made not being in a full-time band for a while not all that bad. Mike was playing with other bands for a spell and I played with some friends for a bit, but AM/FM sort of sat on the shelf. It needed some space in my own head.
However, as of this typing, I just got off the phone with a friend who I am sitting down with in a couple of days to re-open Our Day to finally complete.
GLONO: Are you still under contract to Polyvinyl?
Sokel: They have always been so supportive and receptive to their bands that yes, technically we are under contract and when we have completed songs they will be the first to hear them. Matt (Artist Relations for Polyvinyl) has always understood and recognized that AM/FM was never a band in the natural sense of the word, more a unit that produced music that luckily for us he was receptive to and found worthwhile to release. However, AM/FM is a tricky thing…in this day and age it’s difficult to release music without a band 100% committed to being on the road 6 months a year to fully support it.
GLONO: How much work do you have left on Our Day? The beginnings of the E.P. are 4 years old, and you mention a lot of life things getting in the way of AM/FM between now and then. Has the change in your life perspective since then altered how you look at the E.P.? How different do you envision it being from what you set out to record in ’02?
Sokel: We’re in a nice position in that we have really no expectations of what the outcome will be. We sat around today thinking whether we should just continue and work towards a full album. I don’t know. It’s nice to have no real yes or no, just possibilities.
The E.P. as we left it a few years ago was probably 25% done—basic tracking on most songs and other junk throughout. We’ve started looking at the tracks and adding new instrumentation, voicing, etc.—basically taking what was there and salvaging whatever possible. The big surprise was that when we looked at the songs we were all sort of surprised by how fresh they sounded. They felt like a completely natural place to open the conversation. Sometimes looking back at older ideas has a wicked nature of seeming out-of-place and ugly. I was pleasantly surprised.
I think time has to have some sort of effect on the outcome of this project now. As I mentioned, living free of expectation is the best opportunity. I mean, similar to how we started Mike and I can look at the music from a fresh perspective of really not caring. Or maybe not caring isn’t the best explanation, but not being concerned with the outcome, just allowing it to be what it is. That was how we always wanted to use the band, as an unrestricted outlet of creativity. Time gives a fresh start to something that has a history that no longer matters.
GLONO: You mention the songs sounding fresh, which isn’t surprising because a lot of bands are finding some major success now experimenting with traditional pop. Has it been strange seeing this new pop scene emerging in mainstream America? Obviously the Elephant 6 guys have been doing the classic pop redux thing for a while now, and bands like your label-mate Saturday Looks Good To Me are modern yet sound classic, but you really played with and re-interpreted pop music in modern terms, to loosen up its tight standards and experiment more. How do you feel about the reaction AM/FM got?
Sokel: I think AM/FM was always lucky as far as response was concerned. We were always rewarded with positive reviews and really great press. It was odd because Mike and I had been playing in bands for years and we had had some success within the context of those bands, however, AM/FM seemed to be the first band that reviewed surprisingly well. That’s always a little odd because AM/FM was a creation of just two people who never saw it as anything serious. Any goal we reached or any offer that was made to us was accepted with a look of sheer shock on our face.
The popularity of music today being similar to a style we have always worked with really isn’t something I think about. It’s flattering to be thought of as a band that might have been a little ahead of the curve, but ultimately, you have to simply try and create something that makes you happy. I think AM/FM has been successful because it was never regimented by expectations. We could allow ourselves to create a song that sounded nothing like another one of our songs. Like some bands that develop over years and albums, we were always able to develop over songs. Our own interest in various styles of music allowed us to say, “Hey ya know what, I want to play a song that has 16 guitars on it, next I want to play a song that has a country/western sound.” It’s the limitlessness of the group that always gave us some sort of edge I think. Try not to think to hard and let it just speak for and of itself.
GLONO: What were you up to during AM/FM’s lapse? Was it a relief to be free of the commitment of the increasing demand placed on the band? Did you think you might be done with music for good?
Sokel: Well, I suppose I was up to lot of things. My old band Franklin re-united for a spell, about 6 months. We hadn’t played in a long time and we thought maybe it might be fun to go back to that idea again. We wrote about half a dozen songs and recorded a few of them. One appeared on a comp from here in Philly but ultimately we realized we were all far along separate paths. Mike and I worked on some AM/FM stuff and recorded a song as well for another comp from Philadelphia as well, it was a small release but it was great to get back to working on music with him.
I also played in a band called The Jai-Alai Savant for a short while and did some recording, so music never was completely out of the picture but the emphasis it played in my life changed. Rather than something that was all-consuming, it became something that I simply let happen whenever it might appear. I never thought music would be any sort of real career for me anyway so it wasn’t a great loss to not have the stress of thinking about getting on the right show, playing the right club, recording with the right person, being on the right label—these are things that bands rarely talk about and things that become apparent in certain lights. Being in a band, a performing band that writes music, records music, gets up and plays music…it’s an egotistically driven need. Your ego is never not in the way. Nine times out of 10 what you are doing is solely in regards to being more successful than you were last week. And on top of that the goal is to not be part of something, but to be THE something. That’s always sat awkwardly with me…the fact that you could never be a truly anonymous producer of music. I mean you could, you could be a studio musician or someone who sits at home and plays guitar for themselves, but that’s rarely the case isn’t it? On top of that I found that so many of my relationships were built on this idea of being a successful musician or being in a successful band. It gets creepy when you start to think of it, that ultimately it’s not so far removed from any competitive sport where our egos play a large role and we desire more and more attention. It gets to the point where we expect a certain reaction, not based on merit but what we think we are owed.
Musicians never talk about this, it’s always assumed the musician is some sort of alternate being to the pre-disposition of the human mind and really it’s just not so. I’ve met and interacted with musicians who are—and I myself have been—callous, shady, conniving, and worse for the goal of playing music. It was nice to be away from that. So, instead, I played guitar at home. I got a dog, bought a house and got a job that interested me.
I stopped being a person in a band and started being a person.
Be their friend at AM/FM’s MySpace. Polyvinyl hosts three AM/FM mp3s: “Gone In Three” off The Sky is the New Ground, “Virgins! Virgins!” off Getting Into Sinking, and “A Best Man (put my girlfriend on fire)” off Mutilate Us. Insound has “Time Flows Much More Slowly This Way.” Epitonic hosts a couple more mp3s.