twentythreenineteen

Interview: Sean McCall of twentythreenineteen

Philly indie rockers  twentythreenineteen just released their debut full-length on Know Hope Records. It’d be easy to call XXIIIXIX an emo album, but that’d sell the band short. They pull from pop, electronic, and even ambient as much as they do emo and emo-adjacent music, and it makes for one of the genre’s most creative and refreshing albums in a long time. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to bandleader Sean McCall about the writing of the record, which is currently available for streaming and purchase.

You’d previously released “You” and “Losing Touch,” so I was wondering why you decided to include those on this record. 

So “Losing Touch” was the first song we released, and I took it down off Spotify because I felt it could’ve done a little bit better, traction-wise, and we could’ve mixed it better. My buddy Evan King, my roommate and someone who’s been in a couple of my past bands – we’re actually in a band together now – he decided he could mix it better and remaster it. So we did that, and we decided to release a music video with it in hopes that it’d get more traction. In terms of “You,” when we released that song as a single with “Irrational” on Spotify, that was before the EP and the LP, so I wanted to give everybody a taste of both releases with one song from each.

So did you write the EP and the LP at the same time, then?

Yeah, so all these songs were recorded at the same time. That’s the EP, the LP, and then there’s gonna be four more songs we’re still figuring out what to do with. A lot of them were just Frankensteined Logic demos. I would write a song in a session and I would only write a verse and a chorus and then we’d go to record it and say, “Let’s structure this out,” and it kinda just went from there.

That makes a lot of sense, because I know a lot of the songs share lyrics and I was curious about that too. 

Yeah, there’s definitely lyrical themes and most of them are on purpose. I hope all of them are, but maybe there’s one or two I missed. I tried to put it into a timeline that we’d revisit themes from the EP on the LP and there’s new themes on the LP. For example, “I Am” and “Best Friends” on the LP have the same exact lyrics at certain parts but, I think, have completely different moods.

Yeah, that stood out to me, and then “Lost” and “Scripted” both start with the same line, “Heaven knows we’re not the same.”

Yeah, for sure. That was a big theme I was trying to really ingrain in the listener’s head.

What else would you say are the big themes of the record?

Alright, so obviously the first song ends with “We’re all too small for this mess,” which is a flashback to “Irrational,” and I think that’s a theme. I think choreography and communication, too. There’s little ones hidden here and there, sporadically.

On a similar topic, I think I’d read that the opening vocal section of “Lost” is the end of “Losing Touch.”

Uh-huh, it’s the exact recording of the “ooh”s at the end of “Losing Touch” just with more effects to make it sound a little bit different. We put some reverb on it, you know. Even that in itself is a theme. Those two songs are similar but they’re obviously different entities for sure.

I was super curious how you came up with that idea. Reusing lyrics is pretty common but I thought that was a more unique way of doing it. 

So my biggest influence on that was The 1975. One of the things I like that they did was they sampled their own songs and then chopped it up to make a totally different song out of it. It’s so discreet you wouldn’t even notice. I was like, “Well shit, I can try it in this indie band. Might not be pop, but it can work,” and that’s what we did.

The 1975 definitely seems like a pretty unexpected influence for a band like twentythreenineteen. 

My last band was sorta a ripoff of them and The Killers, so I guess it kinda bleeds over.

Any other influences that might surprise listeners?

Lorde, lots of Lorde. There’s some parts that are very bassy, some kicks – some ghost kicks – and some parts that are a little more electronica than the rest. Like “Remain,” the beginning is a sorta phase EQ that eventually brings in all the frequencies. The beginning of that is like a four on the floor kick with a side chained ghost kick. I really like that thumping feeling in your heart like the song “You” ’cause that has a synth with a ghost kick as well.

Speaking of electronic, I wanted to talk about the song “Breathe,” which is super spacey and electronic and different. It’s one of my favorites but it’s only like 50 seconds long. How did that song come to be?

I took some influence from Bon Iver and Daft Punk and put a lot of vocoder tracks behind it. I would play the keys and then just talk the song, talk the lyrics, on top of the vocal tracks. That’s what gives it that kinda weird atmospheric effect. The drums in that song too get louder and more distorted and more compressed. With that song, originally, it was gonna be the same song as “You,” but I decided to make it a separate track. The goal with that is that “Breathe” is kinda the transition or intro into “You.” There’s also a theme from my old band in there, I used a lyric from my old band, just as a little fun thing for me. That was the song that we were allowed to make weird, ’cause it’s short.

So it sounds like a lot of this record was you experimenting, does that sound accurate?

I think for sure. I think I finally found, with all these songs, the EP included, I found where my voice needs to be and the kinda music I wanna be making. I’ve always contributed to projects but I’ve never had just completely my own, if that makes sense. I’ve always made music but this was really, like, “Let’s test the waters and see what we can do.”

I like that, because it feels like a lot of the songs are pretty accessible indie rock songs where you just tweak it a little bit to make something a little bit weird. Makes it feel pretty unique. 

Yeah, like, a lot of these songs are even in the same key. Like, as a musician I don’t want this to get boring. I don’t wanna lose the listener’s attention so we try to keep it flowing, keep it unique, do something different with each song. Like in “Drained,” that snare is so Phil Collins-sounding pop snare, but it’s still an indie song, you know?

Definitely, and something I like about that one and “Best Friends,” even though they’re not like super heavy or anything, is by comparison to the rest of the record they’re more aggressive and feel pretty massive. 

They definitely take a turn, and they’re the more angsty songs for sure.

I’m an angsty emo child at heart so I appreciate those. 

Aren’t we all, man? [laughs]

Are there any songs or moments of songs you’re proudest of that you want to highlight?

“Ascending” was a big one that was meaningful to me. I had a demo of that one, with just an acoustic guitar and a fake tambourine and even then I was like, “This song makes me wanna go outside.” I had a friend, my friend Alyssa, come in and she played cello on three or four songs and she played cello through that entire song. That just added so much body and atmosphere to the song that it gave me the emotion that the song was really intended to have. I think “Ascending” is my favorite and I know it’s the last track so not everybody who listens will make it that far, but to me it’s one of those “Keep it simple, stupid” moments. It’s like a four or five chord song so it’s really not impressive musically, but I like to think it’s tasteful and catchy and the lyrics are broad enough to keep your own interpretation and still think it’s moving enough.

How did you decide what would go on the EP versus the LP?

That was tough, honestly, making the tracklist. Like, originally the intro on the EP was gonna be the first song on the LP. Obviously eventually I switched them ’cause it just felt right, listening. There was another way I had the album arranged, but I had a listening party with my friends and all the people who helped me record it, and we all decided on this one.

I just had one more specific question about a line at the end of “Lost.” 

Alright.

There’s a very specific reference to opening a magazine at the end of that song that was really interesting to me. 

Right, so that’s super metaphorical. This summer was a very transitional time. [laughs] So after I indulged in some substance I felt like I had a purpose, and this earth isn’t for nothing. It was a rekindling of the idea that life isn’t meaningless. You don’t just wake up, work your 9-5, start a family, and die. There’s more than that. When I indulged in these substances, I opened my eyes a little more in terms of perspective. I guess that’s what I’m talking about there.

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