Awake but Still in Bed

Interview: Shannon Taylor of Awakebutstillinbed

In January, Awakebutstillinbed released their debut album, What People Call Low Self-Esteem Is Really Just Seeing Yourself the Way That Other People See You – an early contender for album of the year – and signed to Tiny Engines Records. I was lucky enough to speak to vocalist Shannon Taylor about the record, the history of the band, and what makes an emo band.

Your record’s been out for a couple months now. How’s the reception been for you?

It’s funny because it hasn’t even really been two months yet. It came out on the third. I guess, like, a month and twenty days. It’s been overwhelming because a bunch of things that I thought would, like, maybe happen down the line if I worked really hard on our next album – a lot of that happened with this album. It’s been really amazing but it’s just been really, really hard to keep up with it. Other than that it’s been better than I could’ve imagined, I guess. Obviously there’s been people who don’t like it or whatever, but the amount of people who’ve even heard it in the first place is just really cool. There’s been a lot of nice positive response to it. I don’t know, I’m really excited to see what it’s like to tour on it. We’ve only gone on one tour, and it was immediately after the record came out. That was before any of the milestones, like signing to Tiny Engines or having the Pitchfork review.

How did you end up signing with Tiny Engines?

So the record debuted on a blog my friend Delaney contributes to, a blog called The Grey Estates, and Will from Tiny Engines I guess follows that blog, and I guess that’s how he found it. Basically he just asked Delaney for my contact information and then he reached out to me and asked if we were interested in working with Tiny Engines and I was immediately just like, “Yes!” But I had to talk it over with the band, read the contract and everything.

Yeah, Tiny Engines is a great label.

Yeah, I was super excited. If it’s not super obvious, Hotelier is a huge influence on me and they’re a big Tiny Engines band. Their roster’s great, they put out a lot of really great records, and I was super excited to work with them.

I can hear Hotelier influence for sure. I know a lot of people make the comparison, but “Opener” reminds me a lot of “An Introduction to the Album” off Home.

It’s funny people make that connection so much because I definitely didn’t think of it that way when I wrote it. For me, “Opener” sounds a lot like the first song on that Brave Little Abacus record, if you’ve ever heard of a band called The Brave Little Abacus. They have a record called Masked Dancers and I was really worried people were going to call me out for the first song being really similar to the first song on that, but no one’s caught it yet. I’m like, “Oh, okay, everyone just thinks it sounds like ‘An Introduction to the Album,'” which, I’m just surprised everyone has that interpretation of it. I guess I’m not that surprised, in retrospect, I can hear that, but it’s just funny because it wasn’t in my head at all when I wrote it.

How do you feel about being tagged as an emo band?

It feels kind of limiting to me a little bit, just because there is a lot of stuff outside of the scope of emo on the record. I feel like that gets overlooked a lot just because my vocals are so incredibly emo [laughs]. I think it makes sense, though, because a lot of what makes an emo band emo is vocals. Look at a band like Sunny Day Real Estate. There’s a lot of songs on Diary that sound like a grunge band, and if they’d had another vocalist for some of that stuff, they would never have been called an emo band. Like a song like “Seven” doesn’t really sound like an emo song, musically, for the most part. It sounds like a grungy ’90s alt-rock song and his voice is what really makes it emo. I think vocals are really what make emo bands sound emo a lot. Like Hop Along is super not an emo band, but they are an emo band, because Frances’ voice sounds like an emo vocalist’s voice a lot of the time.

It makes sense that we’re called emo, I totally get it, and I don’t even reject it, but I don’t feel like we sound like American Football or something, or like Cap’n Jazz. Like, “Life” has a dance beat and ’80s keyboard sounds in the hook, but nobody’s mentioned that. And that’s okay – I’m not mad about it, but it does seem kind of funny to me. I feel like there’s a lot of indie pop in the record that gets ignored because, it’s like, “Well there’s screaming so it’s emo,” you know? It’s not that I reject it, I just feel like there’s more to it, especially since it’s a lot of pop song structures and a lot of emo doesn’t have that. I don’t know if I’m making sense.

No, for sure, you definitely are. A song like “Life,” like you said, is pretty pop in structure and has a really catchy hook and, aside from some of the guitar work sounding like Mineral, isn’t really super emo sounding at all.

Yeah, I think if I just played the instrumental of that, people wouldn’t have heard emo. Without any context, like, the chord progression isn’t an emo chord progression. Honestly, it is poppy. A huge influence for that song was Belle & Sebastian, but you wouldn’t think that, because I’m screaming. I mean, I love emo, and I think it’s accurate, but it’s funny how people don’t really notice there’s more to it.

Could you talk a little bit about how the band got started? Actually, would you consider Awakebutstillinbed to be a band, or is it more just your solo project?

It’s in between. It’s my solo project, but we always play as a band nowadays. We started out and it was just me, playing acoustic guitar or electric guitar by myself and the first three or four shows were just that. Yeah, you know what? I’d call it a band, we always tour as a band. We’re looking for a lineup that’s going to be a more solid lineup because right now it’s just me and a revolving cast, but I think we’re going to settle on a more permanent lineup soon. Right now, every tour has had a different lineup. And the lineup that played on the record has never toured. We almost never even play shows that that anymore. So it’s a band, but hopefully it’ll be more of a band with a solid lineup soon. But it’s also my solo project. I write all the songs, I write all the parts.

How did it start? So I was in this other band called Jr. Adelberg. We were just a band in San Jose that I’d been in for a couple of years and we weren’t exactly as I wanted to be. Also, all my songs stopped getting accepted. I’d be like, “Hey, here’s this song I wrote,” and they’d be like, “Yeah, we don’t want to do this song. We’re writing this song instead.” I don’t know, it started off being a band that always worked more collaboratively, and ended up being driven by one person who wasn’t me. So I had all these songs that were being rejected and I’d had the idea of having a solo project on the side, just so I could have more music going on, so I started writing songs with me as a solo artist in mind. And it was going to be me on an acoustic or electric by myself, and that was going to be the record, originally. Then I wrote all the songs, and I took some songs that I wrote in my other band, and I started playing them live under the name Awakebutstillinbed. It was just going to be my solo thing on the side of my main band, but we weren’t really on the same page, so we broke up.

So I just put everything into Awakebutstillinbed and I got some friends, we started playing shows, and we started recording the record, then I had to pay off the record. There was this whole lengthy process where the record was done, but I couldn’t put it out, because I hadn’t paid for it yet. I’d played in a lot of bands in San Jose before, and I knew a lot of people in the scene, so everyone in the band is just someone I met though shows and stuff. So that’s just how it started.

So how long had the record been finished for before you released it then?

So for record industry standards, this isn’t a long time, but for me, it felt like a long time. The record was done in November. It was done being written in August, done being recorded in September, and done being mixed and mastered in November, but I didn’t finish paying it off until January. And it’s two months, it seems really short, but I was like, “Oh I have a record, I just want to put it up online, but I can’t because, you know, whatever, whatever.” Because we didn’t have a label, so just sitting on a record for no reason because you have to, because you can’t afford the masters was just agonizing for me. I was just working a ton and waiting for all the work to come out.

Now it’s probably going to be like that again, working with Tiny Engines, recording a record and waiting, like, a year to release it. But at least then we’ll have time to prepare for it and we’ll have a record out and we can keep touring and people will know who we are. But for the first debut thing, we had been a band for almost a year and we didn’t have any recordings of what the songs sounded like. I was pretty impatient. We didn’t put out a demo or an EP or literally anything before the record. Nobody had any idea what we sounded like.

Have you started working on a follow-up?

Oh, yeah, I have like six songs written for a follow-up.

I know the title is a lyric in “Life,” but I was wondering why you wanted to go with that full phrase for the title of the record. 

It’s funny, because that whole phrase was there before “Life” was. It’s a quote from a friend of mine. A friend of mine put up a Facebook status six years ago. It was a depression status, like, “I am depressed, here are my feelings.” I just read it and it stuck with me. Immediately I tried to write a song with it, and it didn’t work out, but it never left my brain. I’ve been thinking a lot about why it’s stuck with me for so long.

I think it’s just that it really represents how it feels to be in the midst of a depression where you feel your own low self-esteem is a reflection of reality or your own feelings are a reflection of some truth. It’s a weird way of validating your own self-hatred. It feels true sometimes. It felt true for me. It’s succinct, it says it all in one sentence. The record’s about all these terrible things that happened to me and when I was writing it I was going through a really dark time in my life and the title felt like it went with that. It went with that and it went with “Life.”

About why I included the entire thing, I’ve had some conversations with people about the title. I talked to some people and the bandmates, like, “What if the title was this really long thing?” And there were suggestions like, “Shorten it,” or, “Do half of it.” People threw out just calling it What People Call Low Self-Esteem with a dot, dot, dot or just cutting it there [laughs]. Almost Explosions in the Sky style – they have a record called The Earth Is Not a Cold, Dead Place and then if you open up the LP, it says, “Because you are here,” or something like that. So the full title could’ve been something else, but they cut it. Maybe that would’ve been a cool idea, but it just didn’t say what I wanted it to say. If it was just called What People Call Low Self-Esteem without the follow-up, it wouldn’t have said what I wanted. And maybe people would’ve liked it more, but to me, it would’ve felt watered-down – just for the sake of making it palatable to other people. I feel like I want it to say what I want it to say even if other people didn’t like it. That sounds so rockstar of me, but you know what I mean?

Yeah, for sure.

And I’m not even saying the title is true. The title declares itself as if it’s true, but I don’t think we as a band or me personally believe it’s true. I don’t think anyone’s low self-esteem is a reflection of the way people see them. The reason it declares itself that way, so decisively, is because it feels like it’s true when you feel it When you really feel it, not when you’re reading the title and you’re like, “I relate to that,” but when you’re in the midst of some depression and you feel it, even if you haven’t put it in words yet. When you’re going through life and your brain is telling you that, it feels like it’s reality, even when it’s not. That’s why it’s said as if it’s true or self-evident or whatever. It’s not what we’re trying to say, like, “This is what I believe.” Some people have misinterpreted it that way. I just felt like if it was any shorter, it wouldn’t capture what I wanted it to. I’d rather be obtuse and cumbersome than catchier and easier to swallow, but meaningless.

I know a lot of the praise for the record centers around the lyrics. What’s that like for you? Does it feel weird at all knowing people are so drawn to writing that’s so personal to you? 

It actually feels really amazing because, like you said, it’s really personal and vulnerable. It was scary to write the words down and to sing them in front of people. Having people like the lyrics, call them nice things, relate to them is just – I don’t know, it’s great. It’s more than I could’ve hoped for. I tried really, really, really hard but I was really nervous about it too. I don’t have a background in writing or poetry, so it feels like I’m out of my element. Writing music for me is a lot easier. I can write a bass part a lot easier than a lyric. I can write a song, but writing a song, like with lyrics, it’s challenging for me. I’ve been doing it for a couple years now but this is the most involved I’ve been. This band is totally driven by the vocals, by the lyrics, so to have people like that just feels great.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I didn’t have anything prepared [laughs]. Thank you for talking to me about the record and thank you to everyone who’s listened to it. It’s fucking amazing. It feel overwhelming in a really good way. It feels really special.

Zac Djamoos
Zac Djamoos Zac Djamoos is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @greatwhitebison on Twitter.