A year ago today, it was Ryan Weidman’s 25th birthday and his band Sonnder was playing a show at Northern Liberties club Bourbon and Branch. The vibe that night was a bit uncertain; not bad, exactly, but definitely distracted. The local modern rock crew had released its debut EP Thief earlier in the fall, and everybody was about to go their separate ways for the holiday. No firm plan was is place about what they were going to do in 2015.
“It wasn’t like the band was divided, but we just were all super busy,” explains Weidman. Keyboard player Kat Stein was heading out to visit family in California, drummer Mike Liszka was ramping up a production project with Bel Heir. “So I just took the initiative,” Weidman says.
Over the holiday break, Weidman went into the studio with his friend Paul Hocynec of The Captain, The Pilot, The Driver. They recorded the atmospheric “Drifter,” a song notably different in vibe from Thief. “That song was important, it was just about letting go, and that’s how I felt last holidays,” Weidman says. “I just wanted to be free and have the ability to roam wherever I wanted.”
He’s speaking geographically, creatively and psychologically. And he was so stoked on getting the song out of his system that he immediately paired up with another friend, Tyler Lyons, to record “Backwards Ambition.” And with two new Sonnder songs under his belt before the new year hit, he set out to contacting local music bloggers and radio stations to excitedly talk about his crazy idea: one new song a month, culminating in a new album at the end of the year. We started following the project here at XPN, as did Radio 104.5, YNot and Rock on Philly. And so the ever-energetic Weidman figured he should fill in his band mates about what he got everyone into while they were on holiday.
“I remember you calling me about that,” laughs Liszka. “You were like ‘we gotta do this now, it’s getting played it on the radio! The singles project is a go!'”
The singles Sonnder began rolling out hit on a variety of modern rock touchstones. Metric, Jimmy Eat World, The Cure. And most of all, Circa Survive. The songs are both cathartic and carefree, as I observed in Sonnder’s Key Studio Session, and there’s a reason why: Weidman founded the band in 2013 after a bad relationship sent him into a deep depression and he traveled out west to get his perspective straight.
Compounding the romantic sadness, he was also at a personal crossroads. He was about to finish grad school for music education at University of the Arts and couldn’t decide – should he be a teacher? Should he be a performer? Would he still have opportunities for self-expression if he took the more stable, career-oriented path? Could he do both?
Upon returning home, he started the band in earnest, hit up open mics, doing everything he could to make connections on a creative level, recording Thief with a huge cast of collaborators and connecting with fellow UArts-ers Stein and Liszka to flesh out the live band. “I was everywhere for a little while,” Weidman says. “And that’s very much my personality in a way.”
Which makes him the perfect guy to steer an ambitious, year-long singles project. Thankfully his bandmates were just as on board.
“I was at the end of a relationship – not a bad relationship, but a really long relationship – when we started this,” says Stein. “So when we did start recording the third single, the first one that had all of us on it, I was ready to do something for myself.”
Looking back, Stein says it was huge for her to have a regular project this year – it made her better at recording, and it sharpened her performing chops too.
“It kind of rebirthed excitement in the band,” adds Weidman. “Not to say that we all weren’t excited about playing music, but it gave us a goal.”
“We’re always thinking about the songs, we’re always trying to get to that next step,” adds Liszka. “You know, mixing week, guitar week, vocal week. It’s been a good bonding experience.” And it was documented intensely on Sonnder’s social media, from instudio stills to videos at gigs.
Along the way, the band got to open for Deerhunter at Union Transfer this March, and met Circa frontman Anthony Green at a Siren Records instore in early fall. (It’s also where Weidman connected with Allentown’s Summer Scouts, who open for their singles project wrap party this Saturday night at World Cafe Live.)
Sonically, the project covered a lot of territory – “Not Far Enough,” my personal fave, evokes tones of The Cure’s Disintigration; June’s “Siren Calling” is a carefree romantic pop song for the summertime; the moody and murky “Silhouettes” is their Halloween song, and it’s massively goth. The music is a bit all over the place by design.
“We all talked early on and we were like ‘hey let’s try everything,'” says Liszka. “Because at the beginning we didn’t really know what people liked from us and what they didn’t. So we started out with the electronic thing, then we did the alt / indie stuff and then pop during the summer, and we got darker for September and the fall. We tried to go with the seasons, but it was also a little testing project.”
Stein says it was interesting to see what people liked, “and what we liked, really.”
“The poppier songs get played more on radio, but that’s just how radio works,” she says.
“Weirdly enough, across the board it’s been different groups of people responding to different songs though,” Weidman adds. “I can’t really say that any song is more popular than any other song.”
The result: it’s kind of scattered, yeah, but that’s okay. It will all make sense in the end. Weidman says after the holidays, they’re heading into the studio with Robby Webb, who has been the band’s production guru for most of the songs since the initial two. Sonnder lovingly refers to him as the fifth member, and they plan to remix and remaster everything with him, giving them a consistent tone and vibe, as well as adding interludes, “and two new songs no one’s heard yet.” It will all be repackaged as the Entanglement LP – the name of the song that the band is releasing alongside its show this weekend – and will be reissued in the spring.
Weidman likens Sonnder’s eclecticism to that of their most overt influence, Circa Survive – as well as Death Cab for Cuite, Coldplay and Smashing Pumpkins. Those bands were and are all over the place stylistically, all bound by a unique and distinctive vocalist. With his striking, high-register delivery that’s calming and gripping at the same time, Weidman fills that role in Sonnder.
“The other night we all sat down and we listened to the songs in a row,” he said. “After doing that, it all makes perfect sense. It’s still my voice, it’s still this weird alt rock sound, it has its highs its peaks and its lows.”
Aside from the shifting sound, there has been shifts in personnel. Caroline Garlick played violin on the earlier tracks, but parted ways with the band by summer; as Liszka tells it, there’s no bad blood, Sonnder’s activity level was seriously increasing and with her finishing school, she couldn’t commit. Ditto original bassist Steve Young, who left in September to enroll in grad school for a science degree. He was replaced by another bass-playing Steve – last name: Iannettoni – formerly of South Jersey’s Hold Your Own.
“I begged them to be in the band,” he laughs. “This was even before I knew Steve was leaving. And then Ryan started texting me at like three in the morning, like ‘yo dude it might happen.’ And he told me to learn thirty songs in like two weeks.”
Weidman still holds down a job as a music sub in the Central Bucks school district, and he still struggles with that balance of career versus creativity.
“Sometimes I have doubts, like maybe I should actually go for a full-time music teaching job and buy a house and have money,” he says. “But, like, that doesn’t make me happy. I feel happiest when I’m doing the hustle and writing and getting to connect with everybody. I feel like I couldn’t do that if I was just being a teacher.”
“I get the same thing,” adds Liszka. “I teach drums privately and people are always like ‘oh you guys are playing so much, you’re a popular band, people like your music,’ and I’m like ‘what do you mean?’ I don’t think any of this is true necessarily.”
But in the end, Sonnder views the project as a massive positive. They focused on one song a month. And with that end goal, “it was interesting to see where we went as people” says Weidman. After a year of moping and lonerism, he says he’s found himself in a happy relationship for the first time in forever.
“When you’re someone like me where you overthink everything you do, and you finally find something like love, it’s super scary,” he says. “And it’s making me feel grounded in ways I never thought. It’ll be a cool way to approach this band in a way where I as a person know where I want to be now.”
Sonnder celebrates its 2015 singles project this Saturday, December 19th, at World Cafe Live with Summer Scouts and Nathan Allebach. Tickets and more information on the all-ages show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.
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