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Interview: John McGrew, Graham Fisk and Jeff Kerestes of Apollo Run
Jeff Kerestes, John McGrew and Graham Fisk of Apollo Run / Photo by Sheri Whitko
Although Brooklyn-based band Apollo Run has yet to release a full-length album, word of mouth is spreading fast. The three band members—multi-instrumentalists John McGrew, Graham Fisk and Jeff Kerestes—have developed a sound you can't help but share with others. Each show is full of surprises and their tight playing reflects a natural precision most often found in bands comprised of siblings.
Plus the guys know how to have a good time. Whether it's through an old-fashioned stomp, robust harmonies, or a show-stopping trumpet solo, the audience is taken in by the music and the charisma. LAist caught up with all three band members last week at Kitchen 24 to learn about their forthcoming album, secrets of the band, their love for In-N-Out and tonight's gig at The Mint.
LAist: How did the band come together?
John McGrew: I was lucky enough to have a network of friends who hooked me up with some fantastic musicians in New York City. I played street hockey with a buddy of Jeff's, and Graham sang in an a cappella group in college with another friend of mine.
Jeff Kerestes: At the time I met John's friend, I was playing with a bunch of different bands—freelancing. Then I met John and was just blown away by his music.
John: Jeff was a hired gun at first. Somehow he found it in his heart to not charge us all the money he's worth.
And Graham, you played in John's previous band, John McGrew & the SitBacks?
Graham Fisk: Yeah, a mutual friend introduced us in 2006. John played me some of the stuff he was working on at the time, and at that point, it was more electronic—way different from what we play now. The sound and the group have really evolved.
Which instruments do each of you play?
Graham: Well, the primary ones I play on stage are drums and other percussion—as well as doing backup vocals, but there's also piano, and I can play the hell out of a Vibraslap.
Jeff: At shows I'm on bass and backup vocals, but I also play the guitar, piano and jaw harp, (laughs) and I'm also working on the cello for a couple of tracks on the album.
John: Piano, vocals, trumpet, trombone and guitar…plus my dad gave me a banjo for Christmas—so soon, I'll play that. Oh and spoons. Definitely the spoons.
What led you in the direction of your current sound—with the horn elements and such?
Apollo Run / Photo by Redboy
John: Well, the funny thing is, there was never a vision to have a lot of horns. It's just that I love playing the trumpet and felt it was another instrument to add some of these melody lines I had in my head. How would each of you describe the sound of the band?
John: Soul anthems. That's how our producer described it the other day. And I'd add that it's bombastic, soulful rock—often with a Queen anthem-y feel that's bookended by Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash-esque harmonies.
Graham: This is perennially a hard question to answer because I don't think we fit neatly into any one category. I think we have a lot of elements from a lot of different styles. What John just said, soul anthems, is a nice catchy way of summing up a different sound that I think we bring to the musical landscape. So I'll stick with that.
Jeff: I'm going to go with "rock gospel pop." And the reason I say that is because, first of all, it's rocking. I mention the gospel thing—not because it's about anything religious—but because we're singing about stuff that's meaningful to us. I actually come from a gospel bass playing background, and I think it comes into the music. So we have the rock gospel element, but it's also pop music.
John and Graham, do you also see it as pop?
John: I think the word pop often has these negative connotations, especially in certain scenes. Sometimes people think it's cheaper or manufactured music, but in my opinion, pop can describe some of the greatest music ever created—unique songs that paved the way for other pop or experimental music.
Graham: What we like about pop is the accessibility of the music, but we do it in more of a non-traditional way. It's not overproduced and we don't have to rely on auto-tune or other studio methods to make it sound good.
A couple of your songs have really evolved over the years, such as "Nightingale." How do you view that evolution? Does the music change as you play gigs?
John: Yeah, definitely. I think over time we've developed our sound, and that's why we're no longer John McGrew & the SitBacks. We came to this three-person band sound that was no longer just me in front of some musicians. The energy changed at that moment, and the tempo and the feel of the songs just started to explode a little bit more. We're just starting to take down our EP, Make It Go Boom, from CDBaby and iTunes, because we're re-recording some of this stuff and we've found that it lives in a different place now.
Jeff: Make It Go Boom was an album that we primarily produced together as a band. None of us are producers; we're all musicians. So we tried to make it sound the best way we knew to make it sound. However, we always felt that it didn't really represent our sound as a group.
What will the new record be like?
Jeff: On this new record, we're working with an amazing producer, David "DibS" Shackney, who has worked with a ton of people. He's a master at what he does, and I think he did a fantastic job of bringing out what we do in a live show. We feel it's a better representation of who we are.
Graham: The more time a band has in a studio, the more time you have to really experiment and toy with certain ideas around a song, and try to freshen them up a little bit.
Jeff: When you talk about the evolution process of it, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that when we originally started, it was John's project and he was hiring musicians. When you come into a situation like that, you really do what the boss wants. But as we began to gel as a group and we started adding things, John—being the great musician that he is—let us evolve our parts to fit our sound. Since we were all getting equal parts, John didn't want it to be just him. So that's how we came up with our collective sound and the band name.
Apollo Run / Photo by Sheri Whitko
What's the story behind the band name?John: We had a good time thinking of band names for a couple months. (laughs) I think one of our goals was to have a name that wouldn't necessarily define or reveal the nature of our sound. I think the name John McGrew & the SitBacks threw people off because they were expecting a really chill sound, and to some extent it was a little bit chill, but then there were also these explosive moments that happen more in Apollo Run.
At the time we came up with the name Apollo Run, I was reading a book about Gnosticism and it was talking about the Apollo prophecy. It was also around the time I was writing the song "Stars" which has chanting at the end…
That was another one of my questions. Which language did you use for the chanting?
John: It's a made-up language.
Graham: It's the language of the stars.
John: This guy's floating into outer space and the stars are singing back to him. So I was into making up these lyrics and I started saying "Apollo run…" In that context, I didn't think of the word "run" in the sense of someone running—it just sounded really beautiful. But it also had this urgency and this frenzy that I thought could work well for us.
Graham and Jeff, what does the name mean to you?
Graham: I tell people a little different story. I usually don't bring up Gnosticism, because I don't really know what that is, (laughs) but I just say it reflects the duality of John's and the collective group's interests, which include space—the Apollo space missions and so forth. It also reflects Apollo, the Greek god of sun and music.
Jeff: He was the god who rose to the heavens through music. I kind of feel like we're rising up through music and we're making a run for it, we're going for it, and for me that's what it's always meant.
When will your new album be released?
Graham: We're shooting for March or April. Soon.
Jeff: We have a couple different plans of attack and we're deciding on the best way to release it. Last week, we started giving away free downloads of some new, unreleased material. You can get two songs just by signing up for our e-mail list via our website.
Song History/Performance of "All in Good Time"
Speaking of your songs, was "All in Good Time" envisioned as a stomp from the very beginning?
John: Oh yeah, that was made up on a street corner in Brooklyn. You can check out the full story on our YouTube station [and above]. It's a near and dear story to our hearts. We try to have that inspiration in mind every time we play it.
Which of your songs do each of you think is the most fun to perform live?
Graham: One of my personal favorites is "Fireman," just because it's got a great backbeat groove, which is fun for me as a drummer. It's an opportunity for Jeff and I to really lock in and establish that nice pocket groove throughout the song.
Jeff: I'm going to go with two songs. In "Stars," I get to put down the bass and play piano, which gets me out of my comfort zone a bit and is really fun. John steps out in front and he and Graham sing a beautiful duet. The other one I really like to play is "Wide Eyes." It builds with three-part harmonies, then the end comes in with this high bass/lead guitar line that gives me a chance—as a bass player—to be a lead guitar player, which doesn't happen a lot with that instrument.
John: Hands down for me, it's "All in Good Time" where we go out into the audience.
You really seem to have a lot of audience interaction on that one.
John: Yeah, we've started to get some really great crowd responses during our songs. Like in "Stars," we get the whole audience to sing with us, then we just sing over top of it. Lately it seems that people sing along with us for about half our set, especially when we play on the East Coast.
Jeff: It's surreal to have people singing the words to your songs, especially in a new place with people you don't know.
John: It leads me to want to be a better lyricist. (laughs) It's a lot of pressure to know that you'll be putting words in other people's mouths!
What's been one of your most memorable gigs?
Graham: We had a show at a great venue in Brooklyn called the Bell House this past year, where we had a three-piece horn section—in addition to John's trumpet—for a few songs. And we had an all-female choir a cappella group that joined us for "Stars." With our limited means, we pulled out all the stops for that show and it was great.
Teaser for the current tour
John, I know you produced an instrumental soundtrack Bells and Bones for a production of Shakespeare's Two Noble Kinsmen at Hunter College High. How did composing music for the theatrical stage compare with composing music for the band? Did you read a lot of Shakespeare before writing it?
John: When composing music for any project—stage, film, dance—there's a blueprint that requires you to work within its boundaries. With Apollo Run, there is no blueprint. We are creating our own blueprints.
I love Shakespeare and have studied his work for years. His work is deceptively versatile. The words have remained the same over time, but the world that the words live in is ever-changing. It's like Shakespeare provides a blueprint for a house, and the directors, actors, design team and composer get to do all the interior design.
When will the full album be released on iTunes?
John: Both the electro-symphonic Bells and Bones (the Two Noble Kinsmen soundtrack) and the more traditional La Mano Estesa (Romeo and Juliet soundtrack) will be available on iTunes in early February under my name. [Update: Here's a link to the album.]
Now that you're in town for a few days, what's one of your favorite places to visit when you come to LA?
John: In-N-Out, baby.
Jeff: I grew up in Arizona and In-N-Outs were everywhere. I went all the time but I was never a fanatic about it. But these guys are obsessed. When we landed in LA, both these guys started going nuts about it. We got the rental car and we were passing restaurants left and right, but they would only settle for In-N-Out.
John: And then we could smell it.
Jeff: We followed our noses.
One of the articles I read mentioned that you guys are particularly good at the game Catch Phrase. Would you mind shedding some more light on that?
John: We toured with this great band called Julius C and their drummer John Adamski had the device and we started playing it a lot. It became an addiction at a certain point.
Jeff: It's a good time. We'd be at a gas station pumping gas, standing in a circle and playing Catch Phrase.
Apollo Run / Photo by Sheri Whitko
Would each of you reveal something about another member of the band?
John: One word and then I can't say any more: Nair. I won't reveal who. (laughs)
Graham: I can tell you that Jeff loves motorcycles.
Jeff, do you own one?
Jeff: Yes, it's a 2005 Yamaha YZF-R1.
Graham: If we drive or walk by any random motorcycle, he feels obligated to point it out to us and tell us the exact model and year, then he'll start going into specs. We almost have to pull him away before he starts making love to it.
What's the one bike you'd buy if money were no object?
Jeff: Man, that's a tough one. I'd have to say a nice Harley, because the bike I have right now is a sport bike. It's a lot of fun to ride by yourself, but if you want to have a lady with you on the back, it's not the most comfortable.
Who has something to reveal about Graham?
John: Graham is a closet expert at cell phone games. We had no idea.
What's your favorite game?
Graham: It's called Paper Toss. Jeff just got an iPhone, which he's psyched about and I'm jealous about. When he first showed me that game, he said, "Check out my high score," which was 13. After one day of playing it, my high score was up to 58 on the easy level. I'm happy to say that I have beaten Jeff—all of his high scores—at every level in that game. Jeff is not happy about it.
John: It's a healthy competition we have in Apollo Run. And in his defense, Jeff has plenty of things he beats Graham at.
Jeff: Now it's time to reveal something about John. John is a hockey nut. He loves his hockey, and his team is the Pittsburgh Penguins. And John's also quite an athlete and loves playing hockey himself.
Graham: So to summarize, Jeff loves motorcycles, John loves hockey, and I love…little iPhone games.
Our time is running out, so we'll wrap up the interview with two silly questions. Which woodland critter would you be and why?
Graham: A beaver, because I would be industrious, create my own community, and live right by the water.
Jeff: Squirrel, because you've never seen a sad squirrel.
John: Fox. One word—wily.
Which Apollo Run member would you want to be stranded on a deserted island with?
John: Jeff, because he could build a boat to get off the island. He is known among the band as "Wildcard" because of his many random skills—motorcycle stuntman, aspiring cookbook author, and martial arts expert, among thousands of others.
Jeff: Graham, because if I had to eat him, I would survive much longer than with John.
Graham: John, because Jeff wants to eat me.