We Love Music: An Interview with Hamilton Santia of the Wends

I first learned of the Wends on Darrin Lee’s Janglepop Hub blog and was immediately captivated by what Lee describes as their “intense, slightly frenetic, dark jangle-rock” sound. Explaining their name, the band writes that “the wends” refers to the “frustration that you’re not enjoying an experience as much as you should, even something you’ve worked for years to attain and you feel as if your heart had been accidentally demagnetized by a surge of expectations.” Their music offers everything from what they describe in their press materials as “the reflections of everyday life” to “the quest for an alternative after the meltdown looking for what philosopher Mark Fisher called ‘post-capitalist desire.’”

Let’s start with the meaty philosophical stuff. I’m a bit of Jean Baudrillard guy myself, but I’m not really familiar with Mark Fisher. Who is he and what does he have to say about post-capitalist desire? And while we’re on the topic, what exactly is post-capitalist desire?

I like to start with this one! I really was into the work of Jean Baudrillard when I was attending my Ph.D. His work is mandatory for everybody who wants to understand how contemporary society has been shaped. At the same time, Mark Fisher was (unfortunately: he committed suicide in 2017) one of the main voices who pushed ahead the contemporary philosophical debate also trying to go over the academic boundaries: he made a name of himself a k-punk, a blogger who puts together Baudrillard and dubstep music; cyberpunk and Joy Division; Jacques Derrida, videogames, and Mark E. Smith: for those who don’t know him yet, I suggest to google some of his free pieces online. Reading his Capitalist Realism was enlighting: some years ago I started to think and to mumble around the idea of the incapability of music, politics, and popular culture as well to build any sort of alternative scenario but the mainstream. This book offers a wide range of analyses on how capitalism works all around us to destroy what I call the “togetherness”, but I don’t want to over-summarize his writings because they deserve a deep understanding. Post-capitalist desire is what may be considered some antidote to the existence and the status quo: if it’s true that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, the idea to put “desire”, “non-productivenes,” “the commune” and “culture as a political act” (also to paraphrase Godard) is something we can think about to oppose to this.

I promise I’ll get to your music in a minute, but let’s linger on Fisher a little bit longer. I don’t see a whole lot of musicians quoting contemporary philosophers in their press materials, so I’m curious as to how you came across Fisher’s work.

I think music, and art/culture in general has to be intended as a political act. Even if you don’t write a political song in the most explicit way, you have to make clear you are making a statement and you’re taking a stand. Fisher was a fond connoisseur of music. He dedicated tons of pages to the new wave, the post-punk scene, and the rising rave electronic and dubstep culture… he was a friend to Simon Reynolds. He wrote some of the best pages I’ve ever read about the Joy Division (one of my favorite bands ever) and I really love how he tried to use music and culture around the music to analyze contemporary society. I think artists should be as aware as possible of what they are playing and how playing in a certain way determine a certain political significance. Being so critical on post-modern society, neoliberal economical framework, and capitalist realism, we have to shout out loud that the “everything is the same as everything” era should end.

So how do Fisher’s ideas appear in your songs?

Of course, it’s not a direct consequence. To be honest: I think Fisher wouldn’t have loved our music, but what he wrote about deeply affects the way we see the world. He influenced the way we think and the way we see everyday life now more than ever: we are in our thirties, we all have full daytime jobs where we have to face pointless bureaucracy, the impossibility to gather and “unionized” to face the uprising fascism and far-right politicians who keep winning the elections (Italy is just the last paw of the game). Also, and here I am speaking for myself, I always try to play the guitar in a meaningful way, to suggest feelings and to empower lyrics that deal with alienation, boredom, and frustration

Before you were the Wends, you were called Smile. Does the name-change reflect a change in attitude toward music? To put it another way, is there any way in which you feel like you worked years to attain a certain degree of success as Smile but didn’t enjoy the result as much as you thought you would?

Of course it does! We changed the name right before it became impossible. It was a now-or-never moment. As Smile, we were beginning to build something. A record. Some thousands of people listening to us and like us. Some growth perspective… and then, the most important person from the last 25 years of indie music, the one who wrote some of the music we love the most, put up a new band with the name of… The Smile. Ok. Deal. We tried to make fun of it, but song after song and gig after gig it became inevitable for us to face the truth: in the modern age rock’n’roll, you can share the name even if you live in some different universe.

How do you stay joyful with respect to music? What do you do to keep it fun?

We love music. We love what we do and we are proud of it. When we listen to our new album It’s Here Where You Fall, we feel pride. We also really love to play together: almost all the songs of this album were born out of jam and improv. We really trust each other as musicians and we challenge each other always to do better. We write songs. We write pop songs. We share the idea that the best great pop song is yet to be written. So we work hard to write always better songs. That’s what fuels us: a deep respect and love of music, the will to write great songs.

You’ve also noted that along with a change in name, your sound changed, shifting from jangly arpeggios to sharper post-punk guitars. What accounts for this change?

We were aware we were changing. The first songs we wrote for this record, Excuses, and World of One were born as our attempt to write some indie rock songs with a sort of electronic feel. We were responding to input from our everyday life. Personally, I didn’t want the second album to sound the same as the previous The name of this band is Smile. I love jangle-pop, I can’t see myself as a guitar player if I hadn’t listened to Roger McGuinn in my youth, but I need/we all need to imagine some evolution, some shift. And we wanted to be honest: we wrote the album in some dark, nervous, fierce, and tense moments of our life, and we wanted the songs to sound like the way we felt.

What do you like about the music of the post-punk era?

On one side, how artists and bands pushed beyond and in total freedom pop music through its boundaries. On the other side, how this music, this feeling reflects the political and social situation of the “interregnum” from the late 70s throughout the 80s.

Similarly, is there anything about the post-punk ethos that appeals to you philosophically?

I know you can’t say it immediately, but we refuse labels, boundaries, niches, and genres. We wanted our music to sound as weird as possible even if we write pop songs. Also, the idea of music as a specific act, “an act of resistance” and opposition. Speaking of indie-pop, everybody in The Wends love the ethos of Sarah Records.

You’re signed with Subjangle (UK and South Africa) and We Were Never Being Boring (US and Italy). What’s your arrangement with those labels? What do they do for your, and what’s expected of you in return?

We only want to work with people who love our music and who share the same values. We don’t ask for anything in return. We just want our music to fit in the right place and to get to people who can really dig into it.

What’s next?

A tour. We want to play as much as we can. Everywhere (if anyone reading has ideas, places and want us to come to town, please contact us!). We are a band who lives on stage and we want to fill the gap the fucking pandemic put in everybody life and fill this blank space with loud noises and great songs. Oh… I almost forget… we are almost done with record number 3!

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

You’re welcome, and thank you for your questions and all those who will read my answers!

Delays and Reverbs Stacked Up on Everything: An Interview with Jackson Vincent

I had the good fortune of seeing Jackson Vincent perform when we were both on the bill with our good friend Scoopski at the Rusty Nail in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a few weeks back. Haunting and moody, his EPs Foxtrot and Normal Tension have a dreamy, cinematic quality in terms of both sonic atmosphere and lyrical arc that he adapts to the stage with a single electric guitar and a handful of effects. Both live and on the record, as it were, listening to Jackson Vincent is like keeping an ear open for ghosts in the early, misty predawn hours of a long night in a long-abandoned ancestral home.

First, great show at the Nail! I know you also had a show the next night at City Winery in Philadelphia. How did that show go?

Thank you! You did great too! City Winery was a great time. It’s always fun playing here in Philly. It was a much different show from the Nail. Two hours of acoustic jams, so I covered the majority of my discography and threw in some fun covers. Lots of people came up to meet me after the set, which is always a nice time!

Your live set is pretty spare, at least in terms of instrumentation—just you and a guitar and a couple of effects. What gear are you using? What led you to those particular effects, and how do they contribute to the sound you’re going for?

My main guitar is a 1966 Epiphone Century. I love that thing so much. It’s such a unique sounding guitar and it feels just as special. It really tells you how to play it, like that specific guitar demands that you hold and strum it a certain way. It’s become my best friend over the years. I’m playing through a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp now which is a classic. I was using a Vox AC15 for the past few years but it was just so heavy and the tubes got really hot sounding really fast during a set so I traded it for the Deluxe Reverb. You just can’t go wrong with a Fender amp. At the moment I’m just using three guitar effects on my live board; a Deadbeat Sound Reverberation Station, a TC Electronic Nether Octaver, and an EHX Crayon. That’s really all I need at the moment. At the time I got them, at least, they were all super accessible and cheap enough that I didn’t mind throwing them around on stage. They’ve really taken a beating lately! Most of my reverb comes from the amp, so the Reverberation Station is usually kept pretty low just to add a little extra layering in the mix. I usually only have it on for my old stuff, like Foxtrot. The Crayon just adds a little dirt here and there, this one is also kept pretty minimal. I use the Nether to add a lower octave under my regular guitar tone. I pretty much only use that for Happiest right now.

My vocal effects are the real thing that people go crazy for at my shows. All those harmonies, vocoders, autotune, and formant shifting are happening in real time through a Roland VT-4. I usually keep the unit on a stand to my right on stage and control it throughout the set. That thing gets a ton of usage. It’s super versatile and once I got around the learning curve for it it became really fun to play with live.

Listening to your two EPs, I’m struck by the evocative soundscapes you create. Often, your voice takes on a ghostly quality. It’s a little like being in a dream—walking through an old, empty house and disembodied voice from the next room over. Incredibly haunting! How did you achieve that sound—not just on your voice, but on the recordings as a whole? What’s your recording setup like?

For starters, there’s lots of delays and reverbs stacked up on everything. If it’s not drowning in a pool of reverb, I don’t want it. I try to keep my recording setup as simple as possible. I typically record using the exact setup I bring out on stage so that my records and performances sound similar. For both of my EPs I mostly bypassed a traditional recording studio; Foxtrot was recorded alone in the living room of my parents’ house and the final recordings that made it onto Normal Tension were all made in my producer’s home studio. It gave both recording experiences a more comfortable and cozy feeling that I think definitely transferred into the masters.

You mentioned during your set at the Nail that the first EP came together much more quickly than the second. Can you talk more about that?

Absolutely! Foxtrot was written in the span of just a few days, really. Recording it took a few weeks on and off but it was all written pretty quickly. That record was made in the middle of a really tough time in my life. Everything seemed to be going wrong, I was losing passion for almost everything I once loved, the relationship that I had worked tirelessly for years to maintain was falling apart in front of me. It was a steady flow of getting kicked while I was down and I had a lot to say about that. Normal Tension is more like the aftermath of how my life was for Foxtrot. It’s a lot like me looking back at that period after living through it. At the time I was writing this new record I wasn’t entirely sure just how I felt about things still. Normal Tension was a therapeutic experience for me. I was finding myself more as I was writing these tracks, so naturally it was a lot harder to get those thoughts out. From start to finish it took me just under a year to make, which is a big switch from the few weeks the first record took.

Each EP also has a narrative arc, with Normal Tension building on the story you started telling in Foxtrot. How does storytelling fit into your songwriting? Or, to put it another way, what do you see as the relationship between story and song?

Both EPs were always concept records to me. I wrote them with the intention of forming this story through sound. There’s a single narrator that is sharing their world in these songs and crosses over from Foxtrot to Normal Tension. There’s that ambiguity though, too. There’s rarely a time where I’ll provide a name or any other type of conforming detail. These songs are part of a whole, but each their own mysterious little story that the listeners have the ability to find themselves in. There’s a theme and a storyline in my mind while I write, but I’m not necessarily going to say what that is. That’s for the listener to decide. There’s really no wrong answer, just different connections to be made.

Is there a confessional aspect to your storytelling?

For sure. I always used the narrator of the songs as a loose reflection of myself. These songs say the things that I can’t say in person. Hidden in the lyrics are truths I’ve denied, apologies I could never give, and certainly some confessions. Songwriting is a real outlet for me. If there’s something on my mind that I need to let out, it’ll find its way into lyrics.

You produced Foxtrot on your own and worked with a producer, Mekhi Jackson, for Normal Tension. What was the difference between the two experiences? What did working with a producer bring to the process?

The processes behind the two records were wildly different in the most beautiful way. Foxtrot, both in themes and sound, is very dark and almost miserable. The recording process was very representative of the record as a whole. I made Foxtrot alone in a dark room in the middle of the night with nobody listening or watching me. Normal Tension, still not the happiest of records, certainly shows a vague sense of optimism hidden underneath its misery. There’s a little bit of positivity to be found there. It was wonderful to not be alone while making it. Mekhi is a master at his craft and brought a lot to the record that I may have never even thought of. I arrived at his studio with six skeletons of songs and he helped mold them into the best work of my career so far. We almost always were thinking on the same wavelength so the sessions really just felt like two guys hanging out and having fun doing what they do best. I’d record a guitar track and all of a sudden he’s adding the most beautiful orchestral arrangements I’ve ever heard.

How do you see your music evolving from one project to the next?

I don’t really think about it until it happens. Like from Foxtrot to Normal Tension I didn’t really think about changing the sound until I looked back at the demos for NT and realized how different it had become. That’s good though. It’s nice to switch things up but I feel like if I sat down and told myself to find a new sound I would just fall flat or hate the result. I’m sure my sound will continue to evolve with each new project I create. I’m just having fun doing what I do and playing with new sounds as much as I can.

I know that you’ve studied photography. Is there any overlap? Does photography inform your approach to music? Or, from the other side of the equation, does music inform your approach to photography? Do you ever carry concepts, ideas, or techniques from one medium to the other?

My professors often point out the similarities in my approaches to the two art forms. My music has become known for being dark and almost depressing at times. My photographs, like my music, are purposely dark and underexposed. Professors tend to show a distaste for it, but there’s certainly an audience for it. I know the rules for photography and making “correct” exposures, I just choose not to follow them. If I followed the rules that everyone else follows then my photos would look just like everyone else’s. I suppose the same can be said about my music.

What’s next?

Something big! I can’t be sure what that is yet, but I can feel it coming. I’ve had a constant thought of Foxtrot and Normal Tension being the first two installments in a trilogy of EPs telling this story, so it’s pretty safe to say a third EP will be in the works in the near future. And as many gigs as I can possibly get!

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

Thanks for having me!

Good Luck, Happiness, and Joy: An Interview with Mikey J

Welcome to the first of several posts on musicians who recently participated in the Lights and Lines Album Writing Club! The idea was for members of the club to write and record an album or EP in a single month. As a mentor in the club, I had the privilege of listening to a wide range of recordings and styles—punk, folk, classical, and electronic (to name just a few). At the end of the month, prizes were awarded in various categories, including a Best Single award for Mikey J’s “My Little Dragon Girl,” an infectious ska-inflected pop tune with deadpan vocals and tight musicianship.

First, congratulations! How did you get into recording music?

Cheers Marc! I’m still struggling to believe that I got one vote! I’ve always enjoyed writing my own songs, probably even more so than learning and playing ‘the classics’! First thing I ever recorded was when I was a seventeen-year-old with my high school band (Blue Tracer). We spent a wonderful afternoon around a mini disc recording thingy and made a pretty rudimentary EP (which is currently still on my BandCamp page). While I’d love to say that sparked a lifelong pursuit of recording album after album, it wasn’t really until COVID that I began to get back into recording properly. The forced isolation & increase in time gave me the push that I needed!

What was it like recording an album in a month?

I generally work pretty quickly when inspiration hits and always have a bunch of progressions, licks and ideas rolling around in my head. But the forced timeframe raised things up a notch! For me, lyric writing has always been the most challenging part of the process and I think knowing that I had to get things done by a certain point in the month actually made it easier to get the lyrics down! Having the forum of other artists and the mentors was also amazing. They were super supportive, quick to offer advice or suggestions and generally just fun to be around! Sharing our ideas of songs, processes, art work and struggles was really inspiring and it was great to know others where experiencing some of the same feelings!

What kinds of challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was, and always is, lyric writing! I always write my instrumental parts first and then try to get a feel for what thought or emotion the song gives me! As we had the added layer of a timeframe, that meant that I had to work that part out quicker than I normally would, but I think that actually worked in my favour this time around! I also get a little gun shy around cover art, but the forum and the wonderful Twitter community helped me choose the artwork!

I’m curious about the cover image for your award-winning single, “My Little Dragon Girl.” Can you describe it? What does it mean?

It’s a field of red with a golden inner border surrounding the Chinese character for ‘dragon’! The colours were chosen because they also have pretty significant meaning in Chinese culture, red being the colour of good luck, happiness and joy, as well as a colour that wards off evil spirits. Gold is the colour of royalty.

Is there a little dragon girl in your life?

Why yes there is! As with most of my ‘sappy love songs’, My Little Dragon Girl is based on my darling wife Ella. When I tell people that she’s a dragon they normally look at me a little weirdly, but it’s because she was born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon!

Mikey J and Ella

A while back, you mentioned that English is not the primary language spoken in your household. What language do you speak at home, and how does that language—and culture—influence your songwriting and life more broadly?

As you’ve probably guessed, that language is Chinese! China, and Shanghai in particular, is my second home. I moved there in 2005 as a short break from life in Australia. I then met my wife, we got married had a son and all of a sudden it was twelve years later! China and Chinese culture has shaped me in so many ways – in fact I had originally planned to write ‘My Little Dragon Girl’ in Chinese! That didn’t eventuate due to the time frame – I couldn’t get my mouth around the words and make it sound good in time!

I love the trumpet solo—and the guitar solo that follows it! Who played those parts?

Ah, the trumpet parts are my favourite part of the song and I’m really lucky that I was able to convince an old friend of mine, Danny Davis (an amazing Aussie musician and educator, who I met while working in China) to record them for me! I have had horn parts in a few other tracks in the past and have only ever done them with midi instruments in GarageBand, so having real life horns on this one makes it even more special.

As for the guitar solo, that’s all me!

Nicely done! What is your recording setup? Do you have a dedicated space, or do you make do with a laptop and whatever is at hand?

Mikey J’s studio setup: “pretty simple.”

My recording setup is pretty simple. Everything is recorded on either my iPad or phone in Garageband! My Line 6 Spider amp plugs straight into the iPad to record all my guitar and bass lines. That sits in my living room and annoys the rest of my family, but I can record that even while my sons yells at his game and my wife watches TV! As for vocals (and in the event of acoustic guitar, cello or mandolin parts which I do regularly) my Shure mic plugs into my phone and I hide myself away in our guest bedroom / vocal booth! All my drum and percussion parts are programmed through the smart drummers in GarageBand (except for one of the tracks on my album for the challenge, which was graciously supplied by Shippa (Twitter: @shippa63) – another awesome Aussie musician! I then transfer everything into Logic Pro on my Mac and pretend I know what I’m doing when it comes to mixing!

Of course, “My Little Dragon Girl” is part of a larger project. Can you describe the album and let readers know where they can find it?

My full submission is an album called Wonderings. It has nine tracks of my usual eclectic style ranging from rock to power-pop, ska to dream pop, blues to retro pop rock! As with most albums, they are mostly sappy love songs, with one vengeful revenge track and a dreamy lament about not dwelling on the past! In addition to working with Danny Davis and Shippa, I have also collaborated with one of the kings of power-pop, Scoopski (Twitter: @scoopskitheband) on a power-pop remake of my Simon & Garfunkel inspired track, ‘When We’re Old’, from my last album!

‘My Little Dragon Girl’ is going to be released on Lights and Lines at the beginning of September, whileWondering will be releasing a short time after that! Both will be available on all platforms!

Anything else on the horizon?

As I said I’ve always got things rolling around the old noggin! But I’m most excited about a new project I’ve got cooking with Indie Twitter royalty, Kelly (Twitter: @kelly_kintner) & Kerri Kintner (Twitter: @keri_kintner) and Chris from LaLettes (Twitter: @LaLettes)! Not too much more I can say about that at the moment, except that it is exciting and I think you’ll all love what we are putting together!

All great people! I’m sure I’ll love it. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me—and congratulations once again on the win!  

Cheers Marc!