The Sunny Era on orchestral music, ghosts, and the dark side of their subconscious

The Sunny Era on orchestral music, ghosts, and the dark side of their subconscious
Photo by Stephanie Colgan

Not new to the scene, but not veterans either, Minneapolis band The Sunny Era fall somewhere in between. Not so their music. The three-piece band's latest album, Lost in the Sea of Ghosts, characterizes a collection of songs folding in a near-immaculate pace with tempting textures, underneath darkly, delightful lyrics.

Gimme Noise spoke with lead singer Eric Stainbrook about the new album and how the band has grown since the last record before the band's album release show on Thursday evening at the Cedar Cultural Center.

Band Members: Eric Stainbrook (Guitars, Mandolin, Vocals), Laila Stainbrook (Violin, Accordion, Keys, Vocals), Rob Foehl (Percussion)

The Sunny Era integrates a lot of orchestral sounds not usually found in a rock band. Where did this evolve from?

Aside from the fact that all three of us really love orchestral music, the biggest influence might be that Laila and I were both music majors at the University of Minnesota when we met so our classical training has really influenced our creative process. As an orchestra teacher during the day, I hear a lot of things from the music that I would like to expand on, and I bring what I hear in the classroom into the studio. Rob listens to a lot of contemporary classical pieces and that is a heavy influence on his drumming as well.

With just three members, how do you translate such a full sound to a live show?

This is a question that we spend a great deal of time thinking about when preparing to perform a new song. We often ask ourselves, "How can we make this sound even better live than on the recording?" We do a lot of re-arranging, re-thinking, and re-orchestrating of parts for our live shows. Almost everything we do onstage is live and really happening (or has happened at some point on the stage). We use looping between Laila and myself to create layers. For example, we would record the first chorus of a song in a looping pedal, and in the second chorus start the loop again to add a layer and so on. We also bring way too much equipment onstage for a three-piece!

What's the meaning of the title Lost in the Sea of Ghosts?

We really like to write music, lyrics, titles, etc., that leave room for individual interpretation of the meaning. Personally, I think of each album as a moment in time in my life so this album to me is at a point in my life where I feel like everything around me is really just a shadow or a ghost of what is really happening behind the scenes. People in general are very thoughtful, and I don't mean that in a mean, nice, greedy, or generous way, just that we think a lot before we set our actions in motion. In that respect, there are a lot of ghosts in our world. We don't always say what we are thinking because we live in such an unforgiving society. In that way, I am lost. I want to change the world and live to be more compassionate toward everything I see and touch, however, it is difficult because we often hide our emotions or thoughts in fear of what will happen around us.

What was the story you wanted to tell with the new album?

We feel every song is a story that can stand on its own, and some are totally fiction while others are not. Each song comes together as a collaborative group effort, and we believe we can best express what we feel by the sum of weaving all of our individual parts and voices together versus focusing only on the lyrical story or one solo voice. Take the last track "We're Going It Alone," for example. The lyrics are "Raise a glass my friends/We're leaving/We'll see you on the other end." Not the most extraordinary lyrics, pretty standard chord structure, nice instrumentation, but nothing that hasn't been done before. What's cool is how each part interacts with the other. For this reason, we typically get a great response from our live shows. The energy created by the way our parts work together and how they change throughout the song is really the strength of the whole work. Capturing this on a recording is tough, but at a live show we can put it out there 100 percent.

Do you feel Lost was an extension or a deviation from the last album?

I think both. We moved a bit more toward the indie rock spectrum overall but also moved forward on the Eastern European sounds from our previous records. Everything we learn as we go helps us grow both personally and musically and we constantly get better performing and creating music together. It feels like we made a larger progression forward on this album, and as a result, our sound expanded in a few ways. We also made some calculated changes this time around.

I experimented with adding the mandolin on a couple of tracks, and we all really like the bright sound this instrument lends to the mix. We challenged Laila to take lead vocals and write lyrics for the track, "Up All Night." Being out front on vocals was a totally new experience for her, and we are all super excited with how the song turned out. As far as the production process, we decided to venture out of state to get the album mastered by Roger Seibel of SAE Mastering in Phoenix, AZ. With mastering credits like the Decemberists, Calexico, Death Cab For Cutie, and Bon Iver, we had a feeling we'd be in good hands and the experience far surpassed our expectations! We feel he was able to give the album the punch and full depth we were seeking.

Any favorite tracks?

We all really like the instrumental track on this album, "Life Of A Passerby." I think the reason is that we went into the studio with no idea about how that one would play out. We rehearsed most of the other tracks together before laying down our parts on the recording so we had a pretty good idea of the framework for each song.

For the instrumental, however, I just brought this short guitar line into the studio and kind of forced Laila and Rob to create something on the fly. I said, "I think this song should be on the album, play with me today." They gave it a whirl, and it turned out really cool! I also really dig Laila's harpsichord part in "The Sea of Ghosts." It's kind of hidden, but I think it is quirky and interesting. Laila especially likes the ending we created on "Biriuk (The Lone Wolf)." It is super fun to experiment with all of the possibilities we have in the studio, and that's a spot on the album where we really got to have fun adding various sounds and layers to create a big change in the song.

Though the album still has plenty of dark spots, we all had fun writing something upbeat and creating the bright sounds driven by the mandolin in "Songs After Dark."  This immediately became one of Rob's favorites because of the juxtaposition of the gentle vocal lines and mandolin to the raucous accordion and percussion.

A lot of the pieces are pretty dark. What influences went into writing the album?

I'm not totally sure why that happens. We all love delving into the dark side of what makes things beautiful, and maybe that's why? I guess I believe for something to be truly beautiful, there needs to be some sense of darkness to attain true understanding of the beauty in the world around us. We like to explore the darker side of human emotion and reaction, and try to put that into words and music.

What's your favorite part of playing at the Cedar, and what can we expect to see at the album release show?

We love the Cedar because it is so intimate and quiet yet unassuming. We don't do a lot of seated shows, but when we do, it brings us back to our roots as classical musicians, and we love it. People are certainly there to listen but also to enjoy the music, rock out, and have a great time. It's awesome to share that mutual energy with the audience, and the Cedar offers the perfect space to make that happen. Also, the whole idea of a volunteer and non-profit venue is awesome, and since the three of us are all vegan, bleeding heart liberal environmentalists, we really appreciate the non-profit and volunteer community here in Minneapolis!

We truly love to make music together so you will see the three of us having a great time onstage and playing off of the energy from the people that come out to share the night with us. We are extremely excited to debut the live versions of some new tunes and will also revisit some of our favorite tracks from previous albums. We hope everyone will enjoy hearing some interesting and rocking music!

The Sunny Era will release Lost in the Sea of Ghosts at the Cedar Cultural Center with Bomba de Luz and El Le Faunt and His Traveling Circus on Thursday, November 29, 2012.
AA, $10, 7:00 pm
Purchase tickets here.

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