Casey McCurry on Sunset Hearts, digital music and more

Casey McCurry is as smart and sensitive as he is talented, and I have always liked him a great deal. That his band, Sunset Hearts, is one of my favorite local bands doesn’t hurt this perception. He also appeared in the Westbrook episode of Food Coma TV, the web series I produced last year. 

Sunset Hearts has been existence for a number of years now, and this winter they went through a shakeup in their lineup. I chatted with McCurry about the new lineup, their upcoming EP—or album, depending on how he is feeling at any given moment—pop irony, the cool people at record stores, and the way the Internet continues to make an impact on the way we listen to music.

You opened for Passion Pit at the State Theater last year. How did that come about?

[State Theater General Manager] Lauren [Wayne] asked us. The angel came down and plucked us from the gutter. It was great for us, it was a great push into the release of our EP that came out then. It was before the darkness. We lost three people in the past six months, two of which we have replaced. It has been a very dark time.

Is that an amicable thing?

Yeah. There were some extenuating circumstances, but for the most part it was amicable. There wasn’t a blow up or anything like that. Matt, Mike and Kaye left. We picked up Kate Beever. We are really, really excited.

Oh! I went to high school with Kate. She’s amazing. I remember a handful of years ago coming to the Old Port Festival and seeing what I seem to remember being Jacob and the House of Fire’s first show, and everyone was wearing their black getup and the drummer had a shirt that read “Hang CEOs” or something awesome like that, and Kate had on a North Face jacket and pretty, dangly earrings or something. She is so incredibly talented and hasn’t a care about image. I really like that. I envy that.

She is really fun. We try to keep it as light as we can even though the content of our songs is so dark. She is a great fit and she is extremely talented. It is exciting. And we just added Erik Tasker and he’s great too.

Beyond working with new band members, what are you all up to now?

Right now we are trying to finish up an EP that keeps kind of begging us to be an album, so we’re working on what will probably be five or six songs, but it keeps tugging us in the direction of a full album. It seems like it might be an album now.

So how does that happen? You come up with the songs that you think are going to end up as an EP, but then new songs keep coming up that might otherwise fit somewhere else, but they have some sort of aesthetic match to what has been written for the album?

The biggest thing really is that I will quote unquote finish a song, drive around and listen to it for a little while, and then decide whether or not I will want for the band to record it and put their stamp on it and everything. But now with the way that digital storage works and with the ability to have every demo I have ever recorded on me at all times, it is almost a hindrance. There are all of these dispatches from my life a year ago or two years ago. So it is really a matter of deciding what I want to roll with at that time. It is strange to think of music as a product like that, to look at the various dimensions of what the song look like and to see it in its complexity, but you really kind of do have to treat it like a prototype when working out what songs are going to make it on the album.

That process seems somewhat daunting, in that it sounds like you could be listening songs that came from points in your life from three years ago.

Or ten years ago.

Exactly. I was talking with a guy who is editing a book about this time in his life when he was addicted to drugs, and this process for him of writing, then editing, then dealing with publicity, it provides all of these occasions for him to revisit this incredibly painful time in his life. I assume that songwriting can be this incredibly emotionally reflective process, so do you find yourself revisiting periods.

It’s Hellish in a way. It can be brutal. I hermit out, do much of it by myself, and Robert Smith it by getting super introspective. I have excised lyrics because I don’t want to sing them all the time. It sounds cheesy to say, but some memories are too powerful to bring up all the time, especially when you are in a working band and you are playing all the time. You don’t want to have to exorcise demons every time you are in front of a microphone, so I can relate. Spontaneity isn’t a big part of my process, so it is a contestant revisitation of traumatic stuff. It might not be traumatic relative to some of the things people have gone through, but it is still really real compared to what some people have gone through but it is still really real. It is a big thought process.

I never thought it would be like that growing up. I thought that you just write a song that someone wants to hear. I guess growing up in the 90s, I thought that irony was a big part of what I thought music should be. At a certain point, I discovered the Beach Boys and Sonic Youth didn’t seem quite as palpable. Irony should be quashed, I think.

One of the most substantial thematic elements on David Foster Wallace’s body of work then, both implicit and explicit, was about a fight against irony, which he considered to be a plague for the generations that embraced it. And then irony as a default outlooks seems to have withered compared to what it once was, and we live in a very self-referential time, but no longer in one that embraces irony as militantly as we did 5 years ago and beyond. There was this daunting decade, decade and a half where irony was the default setting, then a half decade or so where that was questioned, and now there is this post-ironic atmosphere that we are figuring out today. I had never thought about the fact that there were artists who learned how to be artists, what they imagined art to look like, in the ironic period who would then have to go on to exist in the post irony era.

Any time I have gotten really invested in what I am saying, people will say, “That’s so retro,” or “That’s so eighties.” And that is always puzzling to me, because that’s not what it is about for me. It is sad to me, I guess, that you can’t sound sincere today unless you are doing Americana, because that, to me, is the most emotionally detached, ironic stuff I can think of.

It’s strange to me that there is this constant push-pull between irony and sincerity because there appears to be very little in-between. Bands will commit one way or another. I guess it seems strange to me that now that music is so open and wide and anybody can get anything at any time, bands have become even more pigeonholed in the way that people listen to music.

When I was a kid in the 90s you had a certain amount of cash from an allowance or paper route or whatever, and you were hoping the older guys at the record store would help you get something you would genuinely enjoy. If you didn’t enjoy it, you had to sit with it for at least a week or two until you could get something else. I remember when I heard the Smiths for the first time, I absolutely hated it but I had to sit and listen to it for two weeks and by that time, they had become my favorite thing of all time. Kids these days will hear a name, download a discography, and if they don’t like it after a couple songs, they will delete the entire discography. I think that’s part of the reason bands have to be so polarizing these days. There is no room for growth and rapport with fans when you only have 15 seconds to form that relationship.

So it is a situation where the same mechanisms and reality that make it possible to listen to anything at any time also make standard a situation in which the listener is no longer put into a situation where they have to form a relationship with the art. I haven’t spent much time thinking about the relationship between the listener and the media, but you make an interesting point. I went to the Windham Bullmoose the other day and I bought two CDs, the new Devandra Banhart and an album by Uncle Acid and The Deadbeats, and I bought it from the staff picks section. The young woman there was so excited that I had bought one of her picks, and I explained, “Well, I got old and I have a child, so I am back to outsourcing my taste to people who have the time to form it.” It brought me back to when I was a kid and someone at the Windham Bullmoose turned me on to Mr. Bungle and Dr. Octagon. I suppose we have plenty of opportunities to have good music suggested to us, but then we have to be willing or, as you have described it, sort of forced into spending time with it until we can really examine how we feel about it.

I remember going into Bullmoose when I was 13 and I was under the impression that I really liked White Zombie and I went in and told someone that and asked him to show me where it was. The guy took me aside and sold me Daydream Nation that day. It is that interaction that is missing on the iTunes store and Pitchfork too.

Any departing words?

It has been a dark, daunting winter. I am ready to move into a bright summer.
IMAGE SOURCE: McCurry’s Facebook Page

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.