Introduction: David Stagg
I had never been anywhere north of Kansas. I only went to Kansas because my sister went to school there. That’s also the only reason I’ve ever been to Oklahoma, to drive through it en route to Kansas.
There’s a lot of corn up north in the upper Midwest, the seemingly infinite gap of states until you smash into the traffic jam of cities before the Great Lakes. The corn jokes are true-to-form; it was like seeing a ton of potatoes in Idaho, then being surprised when you saw a lot of potatoes in Idaho.
I was there for the inaugural Audiofeed Festival, a two-day music event among the corn in Urbana, IL (you fly into Indianapolis), designed to fill the void left by the now-defunct yet widely-known Cornerstone Festival. I was staying in a host home the festival organizers provided to me, and it was owned by one of the most wonderful men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, a man named Merle. While technically he’s the home owner, he’s also the home builder; he constructed the entire home with his own hands. A little here, a little there, a bedroom over there, an extra bathroom attached over there.
A while back, his wife passed away from cancer, and instead of move or sell or get married again or live alone, he found his place in the world housing traveling souls. He’s housed conventional travelers like musicians and family, but on a whim, he once housed a man he barely knew for what would end up being over three years. That’s probably not even his weirdest story, but it’s the one that came up when we got to talking on his stairwell.
Adding to his lore, he would disappear. After he showed us around the first night, He treated his home as if it was yours and he was just taking care of you. He would stay up late talking into the night but would leave before we would wake up, the coffee on the kitchen counter brewed.
On the first day of music, I watched Comrades perform an incredible set. The band — married couple Joe and Laura McElroy and drummer Ben Trussell — played a passionate and intimate set, with the couple positioned facing each other in the middle of the stage. The music was evocative and had a cadence, rising and falling around a broader crescendo and climax, its allure enticing; you don’t often see it on the faces of musicians anymore.
When the festival subsided, Comrades was still sitting behind their merch table. When I asked them about it, the way they saw it, there was no closing time and no better place to be than ready for a potential sale. I’d wager most touring musicians probably feel the same way. Pack it up now, pack it up then, this beat-up Volkswagen is our home. Drive it to the next show, sleep in a Walmart parking lot, shower with bottled water.
I told them to come stay with us.
Like a scene from a movie, the lot of us — me, Comrades and our then-intern Taylor Rhea Smith — asked Merle every question we could think of. We sat in his living room in a circle and listened to his answers patiently. The man had a skill, and like any other skill, it will fade with time and without practice: storytelling. He spoke like an artist would paint, an older man’s worn-in voice laboring with rhythm and purpose. I like to believe all of us there that night were listening to how we wanted to sound at that age. We were envious of his stories. Maybe because they were filled with a time just out of our reach, but they also contained a pained nostalgia. I don’t pray at night to go through rebuilding my home after my wife dies from cancer. I know Merle doesn’t either, because he only prays for one thing: God’s will.
When I left for the festival the next morning, I said goodbye to Laura and left the other two-thirds asleep; I don’t know when the last time they saw a bed was. I haven’t seen them since then, but because of that experience, their music can paint for me. I believe that to be the fruit of the music-listening experience, connecting on a level that quite literally seems impossible because it’s connected to a memory. Driving the country in a beat-up wagon, Comrades is creating their own history, keen on living a life worth telling.
Here, HM’s Chelc Eaves takes some time out to walk with Comrades’ guitarist Joe as he tells the stories that make up the fabric of Comrades’ latest release, Safekeeper.
HM: You guys are on the road right now, right?
Guitarist Joe McElroy: We’re actually leaving tomorrow morning. We’ve been at home for about a week and a half and we’re heading back out tomorrow morning.
What’s your first date?
We’re playing in Johnstown, Pennsylvania tomorrow. We’re heading north and west.
Are you all ready?
Joe: Pretty much, actually. Usually it’s a scramble getting ready, but we’re pretty well prepared this time.
Tell us a little bit about Comrades and how the band got started.
This is a bit of a novel.
Go ahead. If you’ve got time, I’ve got time.
Appreciate it. Cool. Me and a roommate in college had started playing together for fun. We always had the idea of starting a band, but I was in a hardcore band back in college. When I finally left the hardcore band, me and this guy started taking it a bit more seriously.
At the school we went to, there was this, like, talent show where bands could audition and play a cover song. We got to play in front of, like, 6,000 people, and so we wanted to do that.
At the time, I was trying to get this girl, Laura, to date me. She was still a little on the fence about (playing the gig), but just because it was a “one-time thing” for a talent show, we figured, well, she could sing and play guitar. We ended up doing that Sixpence None the Richer song called “Kiss Me.”
We did that and we ended up making it and playing the talent show thing in front of all those people. After that, we kind of had, I guess, a connection between the three of us, and we had never done anything like that before.
From that point forward, we had tried to find a bass player, but the people we had tried out just hadn’t really worked out. We ended up just starting to play with her.
I was kind of a little bit weird about it, because we had just started dating and I was like, “What if this doesn’t work out? This could be really awkward.” We ended up working out wondrously.
Over the remainder of that semester, we wrote a five-song EP and recorded it. We were going to go on a little, two-week tour to get our feet wet at the beginning of the summer. This was back in the days of MySpace, 2008. MySpace was the biggest thing ever. We set out on this little tour not having any idea what we were doing. We ended up getting offered to open other people’s shows and jumping on random mellowcore concerts and stuff like that. We ended up touring for two months that summer.
After that, we were kind of like, “We should go for this.”
(The two of us) and the original drummer ended up parting ways. He wanted to focus on school and we wanted to do this. We’ve had a couple different people play drums for us since then.
That was how it got started. It actually started as a cover band for a talent show. We all had the ideas and hopes it would become more than that; that was an excuse for us to start playing together.
Yeah, but did you all end up winning the talent show?
There wasn’t a winner. We went to a really big college. I think over 200 bands tried out. Basically, winning was getting picked to play because there was only 12 slots to play.
Oh, for sure.
It was just cool to actually get to play. There wasn’t really a winner or a loser.
Though, ultimately, you won the girl, so.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. I got the girl in the end, and now we’re happily married. Just one little more thing about that. At (the talent show), everybody was singing along with Laura when she was performing the song, so she was jokingly known around campus as, “Oh, that’s that ‘Kiss Me’ girl.” But it was just a funny thing.
How long have you all been together now, the band?
That was spring of 2008. Oh, gosh, almost six years. Technically, almost six years. We started out under a different name and it was kind of a different sound. In the current iteration, like, four and a half years, but Laura and me have been doing it for basically six years.
Coming from just an accidental, we’re-going-to-do-this-as-a-talent-show band to now, an actual band. That’s pretty cool.
I mean, we all wanted it to be a real band. The talent show was just kind of an excuse for us all start playing together.
Having been on over 20 tours now, tell us what are some of your most memorable and favorite ones.
When we first started and we did that first tour, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing and we ended up getting on all those really cool shows. There was that element of awe and wonder, of, “This is actually a real thing.” A lot of the young bands that go on tour for the first time, a whole other world opens up to you. That was definitely one of the coolest experiences for that.
We’re from Virginia, so we’re pretty much as far to the East Coast as you can get, so for us, actually making it out to the West Coast on tour. I always feel like it’s an achievement. It’s cool that your music can take you all the way across the country.
I don’t know, I think I lost track of the original question. I do that pretty hard.
Maybe people that you’ve played with or things that you’ve gotten to do on tour?
Man. I’ve gotten to do so many cool things on tour. We went cliff jumping in north Georgia one time — or it might have been southern Tennessee — with a band we were on tour with. The last tour that we actually just got home from was really cool. We went out with this young hardcore band.
You just need to understand, when you’re on tour with another band, you really develop an almost family-like relationship with them. You just end up being really close friends. That’s something that was just so awesome on the last tour that we did: seeing a band that was where we were six years ago, seeing them in the early stages of finding their real happiness on the road, seeing people light up when they played their music…
What drew you to work in this genre?
Everyone was in a five-piece hardcore or metal band back in 2007, 2008. I was a teenager coming into music. Heavy music and intense, underground music always had a huge, encouraging effect on me in my life, I always wanted to be a part of.
There were so many bands doing the hardcore and metal thing at that point we were like, “How can we do something that’s intense, that has this same kind of energy, that isn’t exactly the same?” We were just trying to do something that was outside of the box. I don’t know. It sparked us to say, “How can we incorporate different sounds, and maybe approach the same goal but from a different direction?”
Does anyone in particular influence your musical talent?
I can definitely list some influences, but a lot of them are bands from 2008, from back then. I think when we got started down this path, we had a lot of influences, like the earlier As Cities Burn albums, Beloved and Thrice. I listen to The Fall of Troy a lot.
I still listen to all those old albums.
I do, too. I still listen to all those albums. People laugh at me, but I’m still stuck in the mid-2000s, man. There was unique, thought-provoking, heavy music going on back then.
Honestly, that’s a lot of what our influences are. I think we kind of just took that. When you’re out on tour, you see so many bands all the time. I think being out on tour actually really shapes what bands sound like in the long term because you really see where the country, as a whole, is at musically.
Those albums, back then, were still a pretty big staple of what we sound like, even today, I think.
The new album, Safekeeper, is coming out May 6. What are some proud moments from making the new record?
It was really cool to actually see come together. Once we got the tracking of the album finished, to be able to look at even the rough mixes and say, “Wow, this came together better than I ever thought it would,” that was a proud moment.
In the past, recording, for us, was always a very low budget, DIY-type of thing. This (probably) was, too, compared to most albums, but just to have the outside input of the people from the record label, having other people also trying to make the album better than just us was really cool.
Our drummer is ridiculous. He recorded all the drums for the whole album in a day. We kept giving him cups of coffee and water, and he just did it.
He just went in and killed it, huh?
Yeah, and there wasn’t even that much editing. There may have been, I don’t know, one or two drum edits on each song. He’s just a machine. And of course it took me weeks to get the guitars right. It was awesome to see Dan really shining in that moment.
One thing I will say, when we started recording this album, we didn’t know if there were going to be any vocals on it at all. We hadn’t made up our mind yet, (but) we thought it would be really cool to put a little bit of vocals back in. Then, when I first cued it up and Laura did the first couple of takes of vocals, it was just like, “Why has Laura not been singing more?”
Do you have any favorite songs off the new record?
That’s interesting, the songs that I liked originally. I think with any band, as they’re writing an album, there are songs you like more and like less, and there are parts you think are awkward. The song I thought would be one of my least favorites turned out to be my favorite.
This is going to be really awkward because I actually don’t know all the names of the songs yet. We named the songs three weeks ago. That’s always been something we struggled with. We have all these songs and we always call them, “Oh, the song with the singing in it,” or, “That’s the song with the heavy part.”
What would you say were some things that inspired the creativity behind Safekeeper?
Again, this may not be the answer you’re looking for, but I think, overwhelmingly, we went through a lot of time of spinning our wheels and not knowing if the band was going to be a thing or not. Ben, who’s playing drums for us now, was in our band a long time ago, and then wasn’t in our band for a while, and now he is again. I think through member changes and some of the stuff that happened, we had gotten really discouraged.
When we wrote this album with Ben, he wasn’t even sure he was going to be in the band full time. He just came down here and we literally wrote music in our living room for a week. That was basically the backbone of the album. It was almost like proving to ourselves that this was what we were supposed to be doing. It was like an affirmation of, “Okay, this is where we’re at.” This music is something that expresses the last year and a half, two years of frustration we’ve had in not really knowing where the band was going.
The music itself, I think if there was one single album that I would say influenced us more than anything else, it’s probably Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest by As Cities Burn. That’s probably the closest influence to this album, which is weird because that’s something we all listened to when we were 17. It’s something, I feel, that has a similar intensity. That record, obviously, has screaming the whole way through and is a masterpiece.
If there is an overall message you could see fans taking away from this album, what would it be?
Definitely. The overarching theme of this album is finding home and finding acceptance. As we’re a band that tours a good portion of the year, home is something that’s been kind of difficult for Laura and I to understand and figure out. We’re a husband and wife trying to be a family. How does that play into being gone all the time and being in a car all the time? People are searching for where they are truly accepted and where they can truly be themselves. For us, we found that home out on the road with the community that is America’s music community. I’m just starting to fully understand that, I guess, that home doesn’t have to necessarily be a place. It’s people. Home for us is the people we know and the people we love in all corners of the country.
What’s the worst thing to happen to you while on tour?
We haven’t had anybody throw lemons at us or anything. We’ve never had anything like that. This homeless dude outside actually pulled a knife on our drummer and tried to rob him. I think that was probably our lowest point.
That’s a good answer to the question, getting robbed (laughs).
He didn’t even get robbed! I don’t know if he was really drunk or really high or whatever, but our drummer actually said something really lame like, “I bet that cop behind you would love to see that knife,” or something. He turned away and just ran inside.
In your musical career, what do you think your greatest opportunity has been?
That’s tough. That’s such a broad question. I don’t know if you mean opportunity to make a difference in the world or to have a lot of people hear your band or what. I don’t know what you’re asking.
It’s your interview. You can make it mean whatever you want it to mean.
This is the lame answer: through touring and through all this stuff, we’ve been able to actually make a difference in people’s lives. That’s what I think is important about music. Every musician has a platform. Every musician has the ability to impact people in one way or another. The fact that we’ve been able to use that, hopefully, for good is really an honor to be a part of. It’s just really cool knowing how many people are actually going to hear this music and hopefully can be encouraged by our music.
That wasn’t lame at all. That was an awesome answer.
Okay, that was kind of the Sunday School answer.
(Laughs) “A Sunday school answer…” No, that was good. What are some things that encourage you to pursue your musical endeavors?
I think all three of us have the exact same reason. Going back to when we were teenagers, we were impacted by bands that we liked. Those people in those bands were able to make a difference and steer our life in the direction.
That’s something we want to be able to pass on and hope to have that effect on other people. We definitely come from different, varying backgrounds. My dad was a recording engineer. My parents have always understood the touring music thing a lot better than probably a lot of other people’s parents, who are like, “Why aren’t you in school? Why don’t you have a real job?” My parents have been a big support in it. All three of us, our parents all understand it now, pretty well.
If fans wanted to help you in any way at all, what could they do?
Coming out to shows is the biggest thing. The music community lives off of live music and off of the experience that’s created when you have the performer and the person that’s taking in the art. Those people can make that connection. That’s where awesome stuff happens, spiritually, and where friendships are made.
It’s one thing to like a band because you heard them on the Internet. It’s a totally different thing when you’ve actually met them and experienced them and the band has been able to meet and get to know the people that are supporting their art. Coming to shows and being a part of that one-on-one. That’s the most important thing for any band.
Comrades was posted on May 7, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by Chelc Eaves.