What happens when a group of seven talented musician friends gather and start jamming together? While one might assume that egos would get involved and that the whole ordeal would end with a member storming out to start a solo career, The Family Crest proves that collaboration – and even inclusion of fans in the creative process – stirs creativity and allows for a fruitful blending of sounds. Bridging the gap between classical and rock, this orchestral indie band founded in 2008 has been performing all over the nation and are about to release their brand new EP, The Village. As interesting as the clever incorporation of classical music into modern musical genres (really, you just have to listen to these guys) is the story of how one guy’s project to create a unique sound ended up involving hundreds of individuals known as the “Extended Family.” By additionally blurring the lines between talent and audience, The Family Crest are a growing force to be reckoned with. That, and they’re a lot of fun! Check out their exclusive original video for Daily BR!NK before diving right into the interview.
Let’s start with the beginning: birth. More seriously, how did The Family Crest initially come about?
Liam: Initially, The Family Crest started as a recording project. The goal was to connect a large group of people through music. I love collaboration and I’ve always felt that making music with others forms a really unique bond. So, John and I called friends and asked if they or anyone they knew wanted to take part in the recording process, put up flyers on music campuses, and at one point I think we even placed ads on Craigslist. We ended up getting an overwhelming response and over a period of three months we traveled across Northern California to record all sorts of musicians in old churches, bars, living rooms and garages. As the record began to take shape, everyone we were working with (we call them “Extended Family” members) began asking when we would be playing live and how we envisioned it. If it wasn’t for the Extended Family and their support and enthusiasm, there would never have been a band. John and I ended up forming the core band out of Extended Family members that wanted to invest their lives in the project, and we were really fortunate to find people that not only love making music, but work extremely well together. After a few lineup changes we formed the group that’s playing today.
Your “mission statement” involves changing the way music is made — what void do you think that The Family Crest fills in the music industry?
Liam: First of all, I think I should clarify that we don’t think that we’re the only band out there attempting to change the music industry. When we say we want to change the way music is made, that statement doesn’t apply to a genre or aesthetic style (which is what most people usually think we’re referring to). Rather, we mean that we want to break down the barrier between audience and artist. We want people to get involved in the creative process with us, and feel like they are a part of what we do. When someone records with us, they’re not involving themselves with the seven of us, but also hundreds of other musicians. I believe music is something extremely powerful and most people out there never really get a chance to take part in making it. We want to allow people to do that.
Lucas: I feel that our greatest contribution to today’s music industry is in how we approach the blending of different genres. Generally speaking, we blur the gaps between classical and rock. Today many groups have sought out collaborations with classical artists and have had classical arrangements written to supplement their music to great effect. I believe the band takes this a step further and creates music that, from the very beginning, is at all times conscious of different musical styles, with the rock elements always complementary of the classical elements and vice versa. I want our band to be an example of how classical music can fit well with any other genre of music and that in no way should classical musicians feel constricted to one certain discipline or career.
Can each of you individually tell me how you got involved with The Family Crest, the role that you play within the band, and something interesting about you? (Does this sound awfully like an ice-breaker or what?)
Liam: I founded The Family Crest, and I compose all of the music, sing, play guitar and piano.
Laura: I met Liam and John through Owen. After discovering that I was a classical flutist, Liam asked me to record a few tracks. I originally worked only on the management side of things, and eventually joined the band as a member. I actually learned a bunch of instruments to join the band – piano, timpani, glockenspiel, and I had to get used to singing for someone other than myself in my car. I’m in the process of learning electric guitar, too.
Sarah: I met Owen at a music festival when I was 18, and reconnected with him on Facebook six years later. At the time, I had just moved to the Bay Area and was looking for a creative outlet, and he was looking for a violist/opera singer to join the band. It was totally serendipitous. Other interesting facts: I was a huge counterterrorism nerd in college, I have a double-jointed toe, and sometimes I draw things in MS Paint.
John: I got involved through a friendship I had with Liam. He told me about his idea for the band and his interest in recording it as a side project. We recorded the album together and also formed the band together. My role is more of a technical one. I play bass, but I’ve also developed the sound setup we use on stage (amplifying classical instruments in a band setting has proved to be tricky). I also film and edit the video blogs we put out around once a month. I’m actually the only non-classically trained member of the band, so I learn things by ear rather than by a piece of sheet music, like most of the other players do. I think it makes us well-rounded since Liam and I can have a different view of things because we have more of a rock background.
Owen: John and Liam contacted me back when The Family Crest was just a recording project. They brought me on to help them with string arrangements and to contract string players to play for the record. A few months after the conclusion of recording they told me they wanted to form a full-time band to play the music and asked me if I wanted to join full time and help them recruit other members. My role is both to play the violin and I do a lot of arranging for the strings and often for the Extended Family members.
Lucas: I was fortunate enough to be on the first recording session of “Got Soul” through Owen (I play cello). Something interesting about me? Up until I started graduate school in music I was deciding whether or not to go to veterinary school. Ended up choosing something kind of different, I guess.
Jake: It’s a crazy story: I ran into Laura one day and she said, “Hey, my band is looking for a new drummer. Are you really good?” I said yes just so I could get a shot at the gig, even though I do not consider myself an amazing drummer. Interestingly, I think the rest of the band actually does not think I suck.
Many of your band members are classically trained. What advantages do you think this gives you in the popular music world? Are there disadvantages?
Liam: More than anything, the classically trained musicians bring a great work ethic to the group. The people in this band have studied their instruments for pretty much their entire lives, so they really grasp what they do on a deep level. Our rehearsals are more about spot checking, fine tuning and memorization which is great because you can really focus on the little things that make a song pop.
Laura: Classically-trained musicians are forced to cultivate a work ethic for themselves that can sustain them through a lot of physical and emotional exhaustion, which is helpful in this industry. Also, as classical musicians, we’re very aware of subtle elements in music that people inherently respond to, but that they might not be aware of — for example, dynamics in music, phrasing, interacting with the people you’re playing with. Something I’ve struggled with is improvisation and figuring out music on the fly – after years of learning music from a page, the prospect of getting up on a stage without any real musical plan is absolutely terrifying.
What do you think playing with your “Extended Family” brings to the music? What are the challenges involved in that rotating lineup?
Liam: We constantly have to adapt to new styles of playing, or even new sounds that we’re not used to. Everytime we bring someone new on stage, they have an amazing vigor that is completely contagious. The first time you ever get on stage with a band, you’re nervous and excited but when you do it twice a week you can lose some of that drive because you become used to getting up in front of people and playing. Since our Extended Family is constantly rotating we’re reminded of that “first show excitement,” because in a way we’re experiencing a whole new show with them. Their energy is infectious.
Sarah: It keeps the music fresh. We’re constantly thinking of new ways to play our music because of the Extended Family format.
John: Performing with the Extended Family closes the gap between artist and listener, and it creates a community surrounding the band. The challenges involved are being able to rehearse with these artists and ensure their sound works with the music. Also, if we haven’t been to a certain city, it’s difficult to have Extended Family members play with us the first time around until we meet new people and invite them to join the Family.
Lucas: Having the Extended Family is great for audiences because they get to see and hear something new in our music every time they come to a show.
You self-produced your record by raising $10,000 on Kickstarter to get it off the ground. How do you feel like the music industry is evolving and moving away from the old big-label model?
Sarah: Today it’s all about DIY. The big-label model isn’t necessary for success anymore, which opens up a lot of avenues for indie artists like ourselves. We have more control of our artistic vision and what direction we take. However, it also means that the line between “musician” and “business person” is more blurred than ever, and we artists have a greater responsibility in creating our careers. We can’t simply write songs and expect things to happen; we have to treat our band like a start-up company. So we write business plans, develop marketing strategies, book shows, plan tours, fund raise, and network, in addition to writing, recording, and performing music. Depending on the day, it’s empowering, exciting, demoralizing, frustrating, or fun — but always a challenge.
How would you describe your music, and is there a specific message you are trying to convey through Songs from the Valley Below?
Liam: Songs from the Valley Below is a precursor to our upcoming record The Village. Three years ago I took a two-month trip to Europe, and as I traveled across the continent, the cities and sights began to evoke a lot of thoughts about myself and the relationship I was in that I’d denied for a long time. When you’ve been with someone for a long time, it’s excruciating and confusing when you realize that your time with them is coming to an end. The combination of those emotions and the amazing scenery of the old world European towns and cities really started pushing out music and lyrics. So I guess the music, like many records, is about self-realization, the joy and sadness that comes with being with another person, and the confusion that comes from finding yourself in a new place.
John: We have come to call our sound “orchestral indie rock.”
Lucas: My suggestion would be to give us a listen and decide for yourself, because I honestly haven’t quite figured out how to describe our sound yet either. Better yet, let us know how you would describe our music!
Tell us about one important experience that occurred as you were performing live.
Laura: We played a house show at SXSW in Austin this year and we ended with a song that Liam recently wrote about encouragement and unity. There’s this big chorus at the end that we taught everyone (eventually we’re going to go cross-country and record thousands of people singing it for an album). The lyrics are, “All of us are in this life together/all of us are in this spin forever.” It was really powerful to see and hear 50, 60 people, who didn’t even really know each other, singing this incredibly positive message together.
Sarah: I once had to wear a pair of Liam’s underwear for a show. Does that count?
Definitely. What can we expect from The Family Crest in the future?
Liam: Hopefully you can expect us in your city soon. We’re all extremely anxious to incorporate new people into our Extended Family from all over the globe, and super excited to play for anyone that is willing to listen. We’ll be releasing our first full-length record The Village in the fall, and after that we have a few more records under our belts that are aching to see the light of day.
How can our readers contribute to your success?
Liam: Honestly all I can ask is that anyone that enjoys what we do, please let people know about us. Send them to our site, burn them a single or two, just let them experience the music. Hopefully they’ll enjoy it. Also, if you play an instrument and would like to join the Family please let us know!
Laura: Also, we’re always looking for more people to collaborate with (it doesn’t just have to be musical, we also collaborate with photographers, videographers, artists, fashion designers, you name it!) so don’t be a stranger. We love hearing from people.
John: Listen to our music, tell others about it, and rock out at shows.