Story of the Sea change things up
Instead of carving out a functional niche and staying there, Story of the Sea believe in the power of reinvention and renewal.
"The whole experience of making this album was a purging of sorts for us," explains singer/guitarist Adam Prince. The grizzled Twin Cities scene vet is tucked in a St. Paul bar corner booth alongside his kid brother Ian, who plays drums, and bassist/keyboardist John McEwen on a recent Tuesday night. "There are a lot of things we do in the practice space that just don't really make sense in the context of a 40-minute set at the 7th St. Entry. We like to keep things consistent during our shows, but we have a lot of other sides to our music that were being hidden before."
The band was birthed nearly a decade ago when the Prince brothers decided to join forces after stints in acts like Manplanet and Houston. Story of the Sea began their recorded life as razor-sharp Nirvana-reminiscent rockers with 2006's Darren Jackson-recorded Enjoying Fire, but consciously continued morphing in the wake of its release (adding McEwen along the way). By 2008's Lunar Co. they were a darker and more rhythmically oriented rock 'n' roll beast, taking unexpected detours into mid-tempo piano balladry on tunes like "Royal Blue."
Now they return with a self-titled double album that simultaneously expands and redefines their identity. The first disc is composed entirely of cinematic instrumental numbers, and the second is a career-spanning collection of B-sides that includes both some of their most propulsive and prickly pop-rock ("It's Too Bad") and laid-back acoustic material including an unplugged reworking of Enjoying Fire standout "Future Subterfuge." Along the way are plenty of out-of-left-field surprises, like the drum machine and synth-driven instrumental ditty "It's Real Science." For longtime fans, it's a bit of a shock to the system, and one the band clearly relished delivering.
"The musical pace of the band has always been really fast," says McEwen. "When I joined I saw 14 songs the first week and another 10 the next. We're always kicking around a lot of different ideas. We have enough varied styles of songs at this point that we can take it in a lot of different directions. If we wanted to do an all-acoustic set as the three of us we could do that; if we wanted to go all instrumental, go pop, go rock, we can do it. It's about whatever feels good to us."
While their previous taut rock records drew nice local notice and led to significant regional touring, it's clear that going further down that melodic road in the hopes of a commercial breakthrough simply wasn't on Story of the Sea's creative agenda. Releasing a largely instrumental double album isn't the kind of move bands make with any fiscal motives in mind, a point readily conceded by the self-aware group.
"You should always be stretching and trying new things or I don't see the point of it," concedes Adam. "We have plenty of ideas that we take a crack at that never really take off; there are probably 70 semi-songs in that category. We'll often spend whole practice sessions just hashing out one new idea, and that's a fun way to work."
"The experience of being in the band is both static and progressive for me," adds McEwen. "Playing some of the older songs together is like slipping on old sweaters for us, and there's a comfort and joy that comes with that. But then other days the music goes places we never expected. Having both sides of that coin is what keeps me interested in the band."
"I'd rather work my day job and get to do what I love at night then be in a [commercially successful band] making something I felt no connection to," says Ian, reflecting on his band's fiercely idiosyncratic approach as our conversation winds down. "Sometimes I question that when I'm hanging sheetrock all day, but ultimately I think we're all happy."
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