Aloft In the Sundry's Jason Hernandez on the new album and his band's many lineup changes
Since forming in 2005, Aloft in the Sundry has gone through nine members. And while nearly every position in the band has changed hands at least once, founder and frontman Jason Hernandez has been the one constant, keeping the band soldiering on with the addition of new members, including the latest additions, drummer Adam Chiszar and second guitarist Andrew Lopez. In advance of the band's CD-release show this Friday at the Marquis, we caught up with Hernandez and guitarist John O'Kane and talked about the new album and more.
Tell me about making the new record.
Jason Hernandez: We started tracking a couple of days after my birthday. It was like April 18 of this year was the first tracking date. It took about three months to track it all out. We probably put in a few hundred hours' worth of recording. Jeff Kanan from Macy -- I think it's called Silo Sound Studios now -- contacted us.
He was coming home from California last year, almost a year ago, and he said, "I really dig your guys' shit, and I'm from Colorado, and if you want to track with me or whatever, I can hook it up. We were like, "We're going to go track it on our own, but we're going to take it to you to mix. Can you do that?" He was like, "Definitely."
So we went down there, and Jeff was awesome. He's got golden ears, but even more so, he doesn't bullshit you. He really helps trim the fat, and that's what we wanted to do, especially adding a second guitar now to the mix. We were a four-piece; now we're five. Having that second guitar squealing around, he helped place that.
Why did you guys decide to bring a second guitarist into the mix?
JH: It's hard to differentiate which one's lead and which one is rhythm. They always switch off. Andrew came in May 2010.
"Big" John O'Kane: Before we got Adam as our new drummer. It fits well because we did it to expand it. Like, sonically, we were thinking we wanted to have more options and more variety.
JH: So I'm not playing the piano to death. And on this record, there are actually a couple of tracks that do not start with just piano. We're trying to get away from that. If "Sundry" in the name is variety, we don't want to be a one-trick pony and just play, "Every song starts with a piano; it must be Aloft in the Sundry." We kind of added him because of that and because he's a cool dude and was friends with us. We had known him through Roy G. Biv. They're a clothing company on Colfax. We had run merch though there, and that's how we met him. He's from Iowa, originally. So he just fell in and started hanging out with us, drinking, smoking. "You play guitar, let's jam a little bit."
Adam is also a new addition from last record to this one. He played Kill Syndicate for a while. He was still playing during the first parts of our band. He kind of jumped ship to be in Aloft in the Sundry primarily. He was the craziest addition to learn how to play with because he's so metal that he shits chrome. That's how metal Adam is. It's good for him, because he had to come down a bit, because we're playing at 120 instead of 210. He thought it would be way easier. But in the studio, he found out that coming back down... It's harder to player slower than it is to play faster.
Did you guys approach this album any differently than the other records?
JH: We went self-produced. The last couple of records we did at the Blasting Room. No offense to the Blasting Room at all, but when went up there the third time, we found starting to use old library sounds, like Josh Freese's snare, for us.
JO: To speed up the process for local bands.
JH: And we were kind of turned off by that. But mostly we wanted to see if we could do it on our own. No producers. Just pick out -- we had about twelve songs we wanted to try. We ended up having nine on the record. We chose them because we like them, as selfish as that sounds. All the other records, we'd put songs on and be like, "This is going to be a hit. This one's cool. The crowd started singing this song or whatever." With this one, if those things happen, that's a bonus. We chose the songs that we wanted to play.
How does your new album differ from previous ones?
JH: Not just the addition of instruments, but I feel that we've all kind of come into our own, so to speak. We're more comfortable with each other. With this record, everybody lives together where we did this record. We feel that communication on the record is better, and in the studio, it was better. Because if -- we've said this before -- if you live with somebody, you really learn to communicate with them or you move the fuck out. I think that forced us to be more open with each other and more communicative.
Has it been a challenge with you guys all living together and playing together?
JO: It's been a while. Me, J. and Aren, our bass player, have lived together for almost three years. So the other two added in, it's always a challenge. Living with people when you're not in a band is a challenge. I'm just glad we all don't work together.
JH: The basement is like our spot. When we go down there, all the house issues -- if you've paid rent yet; "Your hair is clogging up the drain, that's gross"; You got your shavings in the sink"; "Fuck, what's up?" -- all that stays upstairs. When we come downstairs, we just play music.
JO: And even then, you get the fuck over yourself, you know? Everybody gets defensive about your shit, and you work through it and come to a consensus. It's no different than trying to write a song. We just try to keep it separate emotionally.
JH: When people get defensive, or when I get defensive, it's only because somebody is presenting me with issues that I already have with myself. It's like I'm irritated because I do that shit, and I can't get away with it when it's right in my face, presented by somebody else. Because of that, the record became less of like a defending of our position and more an assertion of who we believe we are.
Who do you guys believe you are now versus when the band started?
JH: It's a lot different. I'm the only original member since 2005. Not only have a lot of personalities changed throughout the band, but I was young when I started. The band took over for me in 2005, when I was twenty. Very much like, "I don't care if I sell records. I just want to make music and scream into a microphone. I don't give a fuck if anybody likes it or not." That's still part, but it's become more like 20 percent rather than 80 percent.
It's cool to be validated. It always satisfies your ego when people come up to you and go, "That was really good." If you're not trying to do something and you're just being something, you're always happier. It took a lot of dissension within the scene. There are a lot bands still that we harbor an ill relationship between. Not because we talk shit to them or they didn't respect us or whatever, but just because we -- or I -- didn't really know who I was yet. The best way to find out is to throw shit at people and see what they throw back at you.
With all the changes in the group, what's kept you going?
JH: I had my moments definitely last year. When you see nine people walk away from the band and from the belief -- where it's like everybody originally comes in -- the group is stronger than the individual, but then as individuals leave the group, it becomes weak. This time last year, we had a drummer named Joshua, and he went to the Photo Atlas. When he quit, I was like, "Fuck it, I'm done." I think what's kept me going, and what should keep everybody going, is just the overall passion for it.
I know that I'm able to scream and sing into the microphone and play piano forty hours a week. There's nothing else in my life that I can do that and not want to kill myself. When we're not in the band or whatever, I'll play steak houses and small places, just piano, just to make money. Just to keep myself afloat and to remember it isn't so much whether you're selling records or you're bringing 400 people into a show or whatever. If you're doing it because of who you are and what you like doing, the only thing that gets in the way of that is individual ego.
I'm not saying that all the other members that have left the band are egotistical pieces of shit. I'm not saying that. That's why I got this [lyric] that says, "We are diseased. We are mentally diseased." Everybody has these concepts of what they want to do or what they think is right or what they think is wrong or what's going to sell or what's not. It has nothing to do with being happy.
You said nine people have been through the band?
JH: Every position has changed as least three times, except for Adam. He's the first second guitarist. We've lost members from everything from alcoholism, clinical depression, bipolarity, cancer, just basic personality conflicts, money. It's crazy when people want to get paid and it's like, "We didn't make any fucking money." Your free drinks is how you got paid tonight."
How is chemistry now?
JH: I would say, knock on wood, that it's the best it's ever been. A lot of it's because we're able to identify the songs that we want to create. Maybe it's kind of a weird thing to say, but I do feel that everybody kind of believes in this, that the songs we write, we aren't really writing so much as we're like a conduit for songs that have already been there. People say what are you influenced by, and they're like, 'Oh, everything." That's kind of a cop-out, but it's kind of true, too.
You can't really write something completely new, but you can put your own spin on it. You're like a vent for what's coming through. When you start identifying with what's coming through and you start thinking, "These songs that I created," then you're fucked. But people come up and say, "You did awesome. The third song from the last was so fucking cool." All you can really say is, "Thank you. If you only knew that I really didn't write that song. It was already there. I just stumbled across it."
Tell me about some of the cuts on the album.
JH: Every song is like a statement. "Get Closer" is dedicated to everybody who is unable to live their life in the present. The whole point is that we're all going to die. That's the only thing you can count on. "Tell Me How to Answer" is just the feeling of "I don't know what you want me to say." When I'd get home, a few ex-girlfriends ago -- I'd get home late -- I'd be at the studio, and she'd say, "Why didn't you text me? Why didn't you call me?" "I was working." I could have been at the titty bar. "Tell me what to say, and I'll say it to you."
"Getting Late" is almost that feeling of being strung out, or you just can't sleep, or you just can't seem to shut your mind up. Where your mind is no longer a tool, but it becomes who you are. "Ships Have Sailed" I wrote for an ex-fiancé who was a victim of early-childhood molestation. The second verse is specifically for her, where it's kind of a narrative or imagery, so to speak.
The whole point is, "Your shit sucks. You lost. It doesn't mean someone else won." She was always very bitter towards her father and carries a lot of resentment. I kept telling her, "As long as you hold on to that, you'll never get over that, because you can't change what happened. Every time she would bring it up, she'd go into this victim reel, and it was hard for me to watch.
"Grandma's Song" is about my grandma, who passed away last February. We were very close although she lived 3,000 miles away. The funny thing about that is that I wrote the lyrics to it before she died. When I went to New York in March of 2010, they had a piano in the church, and I sang and played it. The recorded version didn't change at all. Instrumentation was added, but the structure and lyrics stayed the same.
The funny thing about that is that it says, "When you get where you're going, call me," and that's something that all mothers and grandmothers say. And my mom would say that to me, but I was saying it to her. And the funny thing is within 24 hours of her physical passing, before I went to funeral, A-Rod's phone, who lived directly downstairs from me, rang at like three o'clock in the morning with all zeros as a number. It was fucking weird. I have chills thinking about it right now. So I think she did call. That's something that, to me, was amazing. So that one had to make it on the record.
"Case of Push and Pull" is a self-narrative about me and my homeboy chilling and smoking weed one day at his apartment. And this magazine solicitor came to the door, and we were like, "Yeah, man. Come in and smoke with us. Here's some water. We'll buy a magazine or whatever. Needless to say, he took our money and the magazines never came. But we gave to him. And I remember thinking to myself, "That motherfucker." So that's his song. It's a story of, instead of having him come in, it's more a spider-and-the-fly analogy, where you stepped into the wrong house and took advantage of the wrong people.
"Supply and Demand" is about using automobiles and gasoline as a metaphor in relation to life, energy and wealth, about when you break down it plays on the homonym of "break" and "breaks." "Starboard" has to do with my struggles and everybody's struggles with addiction, specifically with cocaine. There were some times when the band was slowed down at the sake of my own lust for addiction. In fact, a bass player of ours did leave the band with a coke habit. When he left, he was my buddy that I'd blow lines with, so it kind of straightened me up, too. It's called "Starboard" because it's actually in the same key as "Portside" from two records ago. It's like an answer from one to the other.
And then there's "Avalon," which is based on an Arthurian tale of the way King Arthur died, but it was also inspired by this really hot chick named Avalon that worked at Wells Fargo. And when I worked at South Philly Cheesesteaks and took the deposit in, I would always wait in her line. One day she was like, "Meet Phoenix. She's the new girl." And she's drop-dead gorgeous, too. Those two together, I gotta write something about that. Those names are not very common.
I took it based on the very last battle between King Arthur and his brother, because Guinevere and Gwenhwyfach were the two bitches or whatever. Gwenhwyfach told King Arthur's brother that he fucked her or whatever. I don't know exactly. This is a quick paraphrase. The two battling armies meet each other on the field, and they meet each other in the center, while their armies are separated. They basically say, "What are we doing fighting over bitches?" Everybody knows that. Even 50 Cent knows you don't do that.
So then they call truce, and as they're walking back to each side, one of King Arthur's army pulls his sword to kill a snake on the ground. The other side sees the gleam of the steel, and they fight each other anyway. King Arthur is mortally wounded, and they take him to the Isle of Afal, which actually becomes Avalon, and that's where he dies. The beginning of the record is: "Do something because you're going to die." The end of the record is like: "But make it beautiful. Make it cool. Don't make it worthless." It's not really a concept album.
What's the story about the name of the band?
Words "aloft" and "sundry" are both found in the same chapter of Moby-Dick. I think it's chapter sixty. When I was reading it in 2005 for the first time, the band I was in dissolved, and I got an internship at a hip-hop studio. So I started writing my own songs. So I became Ahab, in a sense. I became just that one mindset. I had a ship, but I had no crew. And I was looking for somebody.
And I found that "aloft" and "sundry" -- and I didn't even know what "sundry" meant, I'll be honest -- I went and looked it up, and it's a synonym for variety or an assortment. He says, "Take the boom aloft. We're going to go to sundry ports" or whatever. And I thought "Aloft in the Sundry" is like high in the variety, you know? There's one commonality in human beings that I could find, through my philosophical research or whatever, is that everybody has a vice or likes to get high on something.
You can't say that everyone breathes air, because there are people on respiratory systems. Aloft in the Sundry was something, to me, was applicable to everyone. Even dogs, too. They like chewing on bones. So that's why I took it. I knew at the time it would be something that would catch on very fast. If I was smarter or more trying to make it, so to speak, I would have made it High on the Variety; that's what I would have called it. That way people don't have to go to a fucking dictionary to find out what that means.
Aloft in the Sundry it was, and I took it and I wrote something. It's the cover of our first record, and it just says: "Upon my list of disheveled duties, I'm awaiting approximate illumination, and there's no need to ask that's where you'll find me, aloft in the sundry" is the quote that I devised.
And as soon as I wrote Aloft in the Sundry down, I called this kid who I was planning on jamming with and I told him, "I got something: Aloft in the Sundry -- that's the band name." And he's like, "I'll think about it." I thought he'd be like, "Oh, sweet! Awesome!" But he came around, and a lot of people have come around on the name, while it does sound art-faggy or whatever.
Moby Dick, to me, I was in the part of the book, around chapter sixty, where he completely loses his mind. He takes his vice, his corncob pipe, the only thing that he has that he enjoys, and in his frustration he throws it away. He was at that point as a character willing to sacrifice even his own personal small enjoyment for the capture or achievement of this whale. And we all know how the book ends. He stabs the motherfucker in the eye, and they both go down to the bottom of the sea.
To me, I was like, I would sacrifice everything, and at that point in 2005, I quit smoking, even. I threw my pipe into the ocean. And I did quit smoking for the band, because I was not the lead vocalist in my other band. So I was like if I'm going to do this, I'm going to try to do this the best I can and get rid of distractions. So I fucking quit smoking. Tried to do the same thing that Ahab did with the same results. If the same results come through, good dude, because I'm not afraid of dying.
Do you still feel that same kind of affinity to Ahab?
I do. Crazy motherfucking captain. People always respected him. At the beginning of the book, they respected him based on fear; at the end, they respected him based on his own lack of fear. That's big shoes to fill, but fuck it. I see Ahab in myself. I have a little head/breast statue of Ahab next to my bed that I look at every morning and night. When we go on tour, I've always done the analogy with these guys that we are pirates. We are on a ship. When you disembark, when you get off the ship -- and the bus is your ship -- you better be back there when it's time to go. That metaphor and analogy of piracy, that open spirit, that open water, the unknown.
In the book, Ahab would never let the men get too down on themselves. That's not to say he was trying to make them all have monotony, but he kind of was like, "Which is more highest conflicting or more detrimental -- success or failure?" They would catch a huge whale, and everyone would be cheering, and he'd be in the back like, "Yeah, whatever." Then they wouldn't catch shit, and everyone would be depressed, and he'd kind of be smiling and in this weird mood because he understood the cycle of things.