Interview: Ben Heywood of LA-Based Band Summer Darling
The band is comprised of Ben Heywood on vocals/guitar, Heather Heywood on vocals/bass, Dan Rossiter on guitar and Todd Spitzer on drums. And these 10 new tracks feature Summer Darling at their best—from dueling guitars to songs that range from a whisper to a growl.
This band has done their hometown proud, and LAist recently caught up with Ben Heywood to chat about the new album, the Origami music label, and their recent music-based contribution to the 826LA Chickens in Love project.
LAist: In the 80s, there was a racehorse called Summer Darling. Is that where you got the band name?
Ben Heywood: I had no idea! Did it win anything notable? Hopefully that horse was a winner. The name came about because we wanted to name the band something that was different from the music. I usually write from a darker perspective, so I wanted to call the band something that was in juxtaposition to the emotional content.
Summer Darling - "Carving Letters"
Speaking of juxtapositions, I really enjoyed how in the song "Carving Letters" the music goes into this soft, relaxing, sweet place while the lyrics remain somewhat menacing. What was the songwriting process like for that song?
That one was very different from how I normally write because I generally take the traditional route of writing lyrics/playing guitar/working things out. But one day, as I started recording some demos, I did this stream of consciousness thing.
These lyrics were all written in one take as I was recording the song. It's the only time that's ever happened to me, but I was in my head about a certain subject, and it just came out. In that respect, it wasn't necessarily a conscious effort of combining dark lyrics with a sweet part of the song, but that is something we try to do throughout our music.
That's a song where one really wonders about the story behind it…
Yeah, I think that whatever story you have in your mind is probably more interesting than the actual story, so I'll just leave it at that. (laughs)
I suppose that's one sign of a good song.
I absolutely believe that the most beautiful thing about music is how the act of creating a song is not finished until someone hears it and reinterprets it. At that point, the song becomes reappropriated or deterritorialized into something that's the listener's own. It's not the band's anymore.
For instance, I'm listening to Damien Jurado's latest record, and the first song on the album has become the soundtrack to my summer. Whenever I hear that song from now on, even 10 or 20 years from now, it will always take me back to the summer of 2010.
The title of your first song is great. Your use of the conditional/progressive tense in "This Would Be the Time" adds a little something extra. Do you feel that your creative writing/English background has informed a lot of what you're doing now?
It's nice when people pick up on stuff like that because it's absolutely intentional. In school, I was mostly interested in writing short stories. I still occasionally write them when I'm not writing for the band, and eventually I'd love to go back and pursue an MFA in creative writing once my life has the time to allow that. Right now it doesn't.
I always think about songwriting as creating short stories. It's a great medium. Some of my favorite short stories are a page or two long, and Hemingway and Flannery O'Connor have some amazing short stuff. With a lot of my favorite writers, what's so interesting about their writing is what's not said. A song like "This Would Be the Time" only has a few lines, but there's definitely a story arc in it, and I like that in its intention.
Don't miss Summer Darling's free concert at Spaceland tonight
First, credit where credit's due: Neil Schield [of the band's label, Origami Music] and my wife Heather [bass player/vocalist in the band] are the reasons the song ended up on the album. For whatever reason, it's actually the oldest song on the entire record.
I wrote it sitting on Heather's couch around nine years ago, before we were married. It was one of those moments where this line "I hear you on the phone / Are you talking of me?" just popped in my head and I imagined a whole story out of it.
As I got older, I felt like this song continued to grow with me even though I never rewrote it. The meaning kept changing and it felt very fresh. We recorded it for the record, then for whatever reason, we nearly didn't include it. So thank you, Neil, for making sure we did!
Your latest album was originally going to be the third EP of a series. What made you change your mind and release it as an LP?
The songs just kept coming, and then there were a couple songs from previous EPs we thought we could improve upon. We also got a new drummer, who added a different life to them. Plus by playing them live, the songs had changed a little bit, so we felt justified in adding a couple old songs along with the 7-8 new ones. It just kinda happened.
You wrestled with many album names before deciding to release it as a self-titled album. What led to that decision?
It was actually just me throwing up my hands in frustration. It got to the point where anything anyone said—including myself—just stopped sounding good. It's akin to when you go to the video store and there are eight movies you sort of want to see, but before you realize it, you're walking out of the store because you can't make up your mind or nothing looks good anymore.
That's what it was like for us—especially since Summer Darling takes a lot of pride in all four members contributing artistically and creatively, and there wasn't really anything all four of us could agree upon!
I love the pairings in this album, whether it's the guitars or your voice mixed with your wife's. Do you see duality as a theme throughout the album, or is that an overarching theme within the band?
It's just indicative of how we write as a band. Dan, who plays guitar, used to be our drummer many years ago. Then when we went to record our first album, he said, "I have these guitar parts I thought I'd run by you." He started playing them and our reaction was, "That's amazing! Why are you playing drums?" Everything after that was intentionally written for two guitars to have interlocking parts, so I think that's just how we write.
You've said you really like to mix things up with time signatures. Which time signature is your favorite on the LP?
I think "Son" is my favorite song because it messes with convention. To me, that's a blues jam. It's in that 6/8 blues time that you'd hear in a bar. One of our secret dreams is to go to Babe's & Ricky's, sign up on open mic night, play that song and blow everyone away.
You talk a lot about how you like to experiment. What are some elements you brought into this album as a result of experimentation?
I guess my favorite experimentation moment came when we were recording "Young Forever" and in my head I had this idea for a string kind of sound, but we were very adamant about not having any other players on the record. Since none of us play strings, I had to figure out a way to do that.
I realized I could get the strings on my guitar to vibrate by holding the tuning pegs against the amp when it was turned up really loud—so the vibrations of the sound of the amp would vibrate the strings.
I'd mute all the strings except for the one I wanted to ring through, and I'd play the melody on that. So I'd never done it before and I'll probably never do it again—because it was a pain in the ass—but that was probably my favorite experimentation moment.
Although the album reflects a very dark time in your life, many of the songs have a hopeful element that seems to pervade the album. Was that your intention?
I'm glad that you picked upon that, because I've heard that comment a number of times with people saying, "I can't put my finger on it because there's not really anything outwardly hopeful about it, but there's this prevailing sense of hope."
I think that's just a product of who we are as people. While there are a lot of depressing things being discussed, out of that dialogue there can be hope. And I think that we're generally happy people, though everybody's got things they work through and dark periods of their life.
We're a band that embraces a lot of hard shit that we've all personally gone through. It's been a tough couple of years, and without going into a lot of detail, the band has been one of the few things that has remained a positive thing. So it's not surprising that some positivity or hope comes out in the music. We all look to the band and to the music, as cheesy as it might sound, as a hopeful release for some of the shit we're dealing with.
Summer Darling's new LP is available as a free digital download
Yes, and I wish Dan were here, because he could say it more eloquently since he's in charge of Summer Darling's design element. We'd met this woman, Suzanne Walsh, who is an amazing pen and ink portraitist. It originally started with us thinking, "What if we had press drawings instead of press pictures?" So she did portraits of each member of the band and we thought they were so cool that we asked her to do some design elements for the actual album under Dan's direction.
He was going through an interest in old Masonic imagery at the time—that's where the weird triangles and symmetrical cross come from. Then there were some elements from our portraits that we used for the album, since each portrait has a certain theme to it—mine has moths around my head and Heather had this gigantic feather and stuff like that. All these design elements kind of mated into the cover of the record. I don't know what it means but I think it looks really cool.
The tattoo thing came out of a symbol of solidarity within the band. I went and got my tattoo first—with the moth—then they all decided to get identical tattoos. (laughs) So I'm the only one with the moth and they all have the bird, though I'll probably end up getting that one as well.
My wife and I grew up listening to musicians who all played in a ton of bands, and most of them emerged out of scenes. We were talking just recently about Zach Hill and Rob Crow. They came out of scenes—Sacramento and San Diego—and they play in a ton of bands. I was always one of those kids that, if I liked one band and heard that a member was in another band, I wanted to hear that, too.
So that's just manifested itself as we've gotten older. Now we are those people who play in a ton of bands and we enjoy the community of it. The sense of community that's building right now is partly due to Origami Vinyl and what Neil Schield and Sean Stentz have done with the label and the store. There's so much going on there in Echo Park—record club, DJing, residencies, releasing vinyl and doing in-stores.
They've really fostered a community feeling that has existed in LA before, but there were ebbs and flows. I felt like it had ebbed a bit in recent years, but it's growing now and there are a lot of great bands in this community that we're either friends with or play in or are just proud to know. I think it can only be positive for a band to have members in other bands. How can it be a bad thing if you're playing more music?
How did you come into contact with Neil, Sean and the Origami label?
When it comes to the band, everything positive that's ever happened for us has come out of personal relationships. We are strong believers in putting people above everything else. We met both of these guys through other people. We were friends first, then the whole Origami label and vinyl thing happened.
I remember when we were sitting on Neil's porch and there was this empty storefront across from his house and he said, "Wouldn't it be great to open a vinyl store there?" and I was like, "Yeah, that'd be fuckin' awesome!" And one year later, he was opening a store. It was unbelievable.
You've made the digital version of the album available as a free download. What led to that decision?
Music doesn't pay my bills. I hope that it will someday, but what would mean more to me than anything right now would be to get it out there and have a ton of people listen to it.
I think that for a new band, people appreciate being able to check it out. I'm that way. I will happily download something for free, and if I like it, nine times out of 10 I'll go out and buy the vinyl. So that's our thinking. If people are into it, they'll hopefully come to a show, buy the vinyl, or do both.
If they're really into it, you'll get people who are going to come back every time you play. It's a really wise investment. Instead of making it difficult for people to get into it in the first place, I say give it away for free and make it as easy as possible for people to discover what you're doing. It can only be rewarding.
What was it like the first time you held the new Summer Darling vinyl LP in your hands?
When we got the dubplate from Pete Lyman at Infrasonic, we were like 10-year-old kids playing it on stereos and high-fiving. It was so cool. I'm happy vinyl is coming back. I don't know why, but the vinyl record feels a lot better than the countless CDs I've made.
Summer Darling - "At the Edge of the Earth"
You've played a number of residencies at venues in Echo Park and you're at Spaceland this month. What's the best part of a residency?
From a band's perspective, it's a great way to play consistently—at the same place, with the same people. That consistency really helps your performance. When you tour, you play a lot of different venues and there's a different sound guy and different bands opening. But with a residency, there's something to be said for a controlled environment.
We know we will be at this place every week in July and we know that Eric Huff's going to be doing sound, and all the other bands are friends of ours. Everything's familiar—right down to knowing where to plug in your gear. It creates a relaxed atmosphere and hopefully allows us deliver an even better performance.
Which of the songs from the new album is the most fun to play live?
I think my favorite is probably the second track, "My Reminder". It's my favorite to play, but the funny thing is that it's the song I play the least on. I guess I enjoy it because it's got a really good energy, and I can just worry about singing. After that, "Carving Letters" is a close second.
Because of the way we write, which is four people in a room performing it live, if it's not fun to play, it usually doesn't make the cut.
You participated in the 826LA Chickens in Love music project. Did you actually get to work with the students?
We did. My wife volunteered her time for the original day to help the kids write a song, and then through Neil we got involved with a song written by a different set of kids. My wife was really excited because Fiona Apple ended up doing the song she wrote with her kids, which is pretty awesome.
We did "Mexican Food" and at the 826LA show at the Echoplex, a number of the kids were there and they all had little flip video cameras. Since there's some swearing in our regular songs, I kept having to self-edit in the middle of the show. I didn't realize how inappropriate our songs are for young people until I started singing them in front of wide-eyed kids in the front row!
What's your favorite lyric in "Mexican Food"?
Somehow they had the genius idea of ending one of the choruses by saying, "We need to go buy a 12-pack!" Of course, they were referring to a 12-pack of frozen burritos, but we knew what it really meant. (laughs)
As our time comes to a close, I have just one last question: In your previous work, you've had song titles like "Queen of Pasadena" and "Little Armenia". Which song on the new album was most influenced by Los Angeles?
"At the Edge of the Earth" probably. We have a couple friends who used to live out in Malibu, on Point Dume, where there are these rocks that extend into the ocean. We would go out there at night, bring some drinks, and sit on these rocks. There was nothing but blackness and the sound of the ocean.
It felt like you were sitting at the edge of everything that was known. And so every time I play that song—even though ultimately that's not what the song ended up being about—I remember how the imagery was taken from that moment. I suppose sitting on the edge of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean is about as LA as you can get!
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Ben!
Don't miss Summer Darling's free shows July 19 (tonight) and July 26 at Spaceland. Learn more about the band at www.summerdarling.com and download a free copy of the new album here.