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Signalmen
an interview with Mike Brosco by Matt Dornan / pictures by Steve Hudson

Signalmen by Steve HudsonChampaign, Illinois quartet Signalmen boast two distinctive singer/guitarist/songwriters among their ranks. Their two fine albums (this year's 'Falsetto Teeth' and 1999's self-titled debut) are distinguished by the guitar interplay of Steve Burton and Mike Brosco - who've learned to live with comparisons to the likes of Television and Luna - and by the juxtaposition of Brosco's classic pop vocal and Burton's altogether more idiosyncratic delivery. As evidenced by the previously unreleased Undone on this issue's covermount, Signalmen prove there's fresh blood to be drawn from the overtapped vein of radio-friendly pop, the irony of course being that such quality songwriting is largely absent from the world's airwaves. I spoke with Mike Brosco about maintaining integrity and individuality across genres in a compartmentalised music industry.

Something Steve said in the Aversion.com interview really struck a chord and used a choice phrase "play(ing) to the lowest common denominator." I assume his opinion is shared by the rest of the band? If so, how do you combat lack of exposure and what goals, if any, does Signalmen aspire to?
We don't mean to sound smug when we used the phrase "playing to the lowest common denominator'. It isn't really an opinion so much as a fact. If you are trying to move the highest number of units you need to appeal to the majority of the public. It seems to us that many bands (and/or record companies) in an effort to broaden their market have to sacrifice integrity and originality. Of course there are plenty of bands that maintain integrity and do fabulously well (Radiohead, Morphine and Tortoise all instantly come to mind). But they are always going to be the ones taking the bigger gamble. They are hoping that audiences will accept something new and different. Success seems to be much easier for the bands that target an already selling sound. I don't like to listen to the clone bands that overpopulate our radio waves but with millions of other folks buying their recordings I'm sure they don't give a damn what I think about them. As an extremely independent musician I am mildly aware that the majority of my distaste for most successful acts has more to do with the disparity between our sales figures then our song structures. Where do Signalmen fall in this scheme? My guess is somewhere near the center. We like to write a good hook and a catchy chorus. I think our sound is based on a mixture of the music we heard in the 70's and 80's. Our sound isn't new and it certainly isn't going to change music. It doesn't appear to sound like any of the successful genres that are hip right now, but it seems (to us) to be a currently accessible sound. We will chose to record a song that gets great feedback in our live set before we will invest the time and energy to record one that never goes over or friends warn us about. We write so many songs that it really doesn't bother us to pass over a few. We have reached a happy medium between satisfying ourselves and keeping our friends and fans happy. How much integrity remains? That seems fairly unquantifiable. Our second CD is definitely getting more exposure than the first. We can't blame other bands, distributors, writers, or radio stations for our lack of exposure. What's the point? There are realities and obstacles that we don't have the power to overcome as an independent band. We just try to keep recording the music that we feel like making and try to send it out to the right people. Our primary goal is to create a catalog of music that we can be proud of having written. Anything beyond that is frosting.

There's been a revolving rhythm section across the two records thus far. What effect does this inconsistency have on yours and Steve's writing, in terms of arrangements and feel?
Each drummer has certainly changed the feel of the band. We see that as a very good thing. We wouldn't want to be in a band in which members come and go without affecting the sound. The band creates a musical conversation between its members. Each participant has to have his or her own voice. Our new drummer Brian Reedy has a long history with us through other projects. Steve and I both worked with him in a classic Parasol band called Lonely Trailer. He is a fantastic drummer and transitioned quickly into the band. Each drummer affects the final sound of a song but our approach to the song writing process remains the same.

The twin lead-vocal thing adds something to the band. This has proved problematic for marketing reasons for the likes of The Posies and the early days of Sloan, but seems to have become an asset to their respective fan-bases. You don't separate songwriting credits, do you write individually?
We generally start out by writing the basic structure and groove of the two guitars together. We usually write the vocal melody by humming or singing gibberish during this stage. At this point we go our separate ways and write the majority of the verse lyrics individually based on the vocal melody that we co-wrote. Then we get together and stick it all together and turn our focus towards working out the warts and wrinkles. We often write the chorus and/or bridge (structure, melody and lyrics) together at this point. When a song is at this point we present it to Tim and Brian to see where the rhythm section takes it. Then we work out background vocals and harmonies with the entire band.

The line you cross between pop and rock is what makes your music interesting, it's something I wish more of the pure power pop acts would explore. Although the end result is different I'd say that, like Jason Falkner, you've allowed elements of British new wave to infiltrate your sound. It's very easy to pin down a Beach Boys or Beatles influence on much of today's pop community but Signalmen avoid such lazy accusations by utilising a more diverse vocabulary.

Do you have to work at avoiding the obvious, or is your sound and writing style the result of instinct and collaboration?
We haven't had to work at our sound yet. Any time we sit down together to write we average two or three new songs. These aren't fully realized but well on their way. I have been amazed at how easy and natural the songs fall together for us. I have played in several other bands in which the task of songwriting was a real chore. I think a big part of our sound comes from the fact that Steve and I work together on every song. This approach provides us with a built in system of checks and balances. Steve won't let me overextend my pop sensibilities and I tend to sand down the edges on his harsher stuff. We each have a set of styles that we prefer and it's our balancing of those influences that defines our sound. We are moderates in the worlds of both pop and rock. We were worried about this at first but our style flows so easily and consistently that we just went with it. This methodology does cause some consternation for Parasol promo man Michael Roux. Parasol is a very pop oriented label and doesn't always know quite what to do with us. They have been good sports and have faithfully put up with our rock/pop fence sitting. We have found that there are a lot of people out there who are turned off by today's over produced and under aged pop. There are also a lot of people that are put off by the extreme harshness of current heavy rock. I imagine that there must be a lot of bands like us coming along right now. Bands that are trying to find out what made classic pop/rock so magical.

CWAS #9 - Winter 2002

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