Interview: Sorority Noise

Sorority Noise - Pat Nolan

In many ways, SORORITY NOISE’s Cameron Boucher is just your average 23-year-old. He enjoys listening to podcasts, he won’t pick up the phone when he doesn’t recognize the number, and he gets nostalgic when anyone mentions Harry Potter. But unlike most people his age, he has experienced more than his fair share of loss, resulting in difficulties with his own state of mind. He’s channeled much of that emotion into his band’s third album You’re Not As ___ As You Think (out now on Triple Crown), in which the Hartford quartet delve into topics like the death of close friends, mental health, growing up, navigating life when nothing makes sense, and most importantly, remaining hopeful.

With the band’s headlining tour set to kick off later this month, we caught up with Boucher — during his drive home from a Regina Spektor show — to discuss his songwriting process, the perks of having BFF bandmates, and why it’s important to ditch setlists altogether and put yourself out there.

Do you think mental health issues are more prevalent in our generation than in those previous? Or are people just becoming more aware of the issue?

I think both of those things go hand in hand. I think the vocalization of mental health and the advocacy for people who suffer is on the rise. I also think we would not have that discussion if it wasn’t for people speaking out. You see some people – dumb people – saying “Well, no one had depression 10 years ago, they were just sad”. Well, first of all, fuck you, but maybe the stigma is just lifting to a point.

My aunt has depression and I’ve been very vocal about my own experiences. A couple years ago, she read an interview I did and pulled me aside at Thanksgiving and told me about how she also suffers from depression. But if she were to tell my mom or her friends they would think she was a different person because of it. She appreciates my generation speaking out more on the aspect of how we’re just normal people with different chemical balances in our brains.

There’s definitely still a stigma floating around in the older generations, but at least with our generation, there’s a larger amount of people talking about it and willing to help their friends with whatever they’re going through — as opposed to having to deal with it on their own and bite their tongue on anything they may be struggling with. I was in that position three or four years ago before I realized that it was okay to have a mental illness and deal with it, and people are understanding that and it’s important.

Do you think social media plays a role at all?

Totally. I don’t use Tumblr much anymore, but when I was growing up it was the place where people would express their feelings. I had many of the same feelings so it made me feel less alone, and I think this was the case for a lot of people. Everyone has their opinions on social media, but I think it’s an important platform to use to spread words and thoughts and expressions and ideas about all of those things.

Social media can also make us see the world through rose tinted glasses. My dad refers to my mom’s Facebook as “Fakebook”. He says all her friends do is post pictures of their vacations, and asks why none of them ever post status updates, like “I got into a near marriage-ending fight with my husband, but we figured it out”. With the older generation, it’s tons of people glorifying the life they lead so there’s two sides of the coin. There’s the type of social media where people only choose to present the positive sides of their lives and then there’s the other side, which is the side I tend to be more involved with — “Everything is bad, how do I fix it?”.

You’re quite young as you’re only 23 but you’ve already been making music with Sorority Noise and Old Gray for a few years now. In what ways has making music aided in your transition to adulthood?

It doesn’t feel like I’m an adult (laughs). First of all, I’m grateful for everything I’ve been able to do. The fact that I can play music all the time and that anyone comes to see me play or supports me from any angle is pretty much beyond me. But touring is a difficult thing; some days you’re driving seven hours to a place, you load in right away, you do a whole show and leave around 1 a.m. but then you need to find a place to sleep and then you get up and do it all over again. So as incredible as this is and as lucky as we are to be able to tour, it does make it difficult to achieve some level of consistency and normalcy. I’ve been touring since I was 18 and I’m 23 now, so the lack of normalcy has become what’s normal to me.

The other day I stayed at a friend’s house — and I’ve lived in punk houses for the past three or four years – and his roommate woke up and he was wearing a tie because he was going to work, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around that. I was like, “What am I doing? Why am I not wearing a tie?”. When I’m off tour, I try to keep my days consistent, like a 9 to 5 thing, where I try to work or do whatever I have to do during that time. It doesn’t always work like that and sometimes I end up working until midnight or when I fall asleep at the studio. But I like to try and attempt to have some consistency when I’m not on tour so I can have a normal life.

You’re Not As ___ As You Think is the first album Sorority Noise has released with the help of a producer, and for it you worked with Mike Sapone (Brand New, Taking Back Sunday). In what ways did he help you shape the record into something that was so deeply intimate, though still very accessible?

I had produced all our records before, so we were hesitant to work with anyone. We were tossing some names around and Mike reached out, and I was like, “Well, you know… if there’s anyone I want to work with it’s the guy himself”, but I was still really hesitant.

I write all of my songs in my bedroom and every song starts on an acoustic guitar. From there I bring it to the band and we practice and work on the songs. We did pre-production for this album at my studio in Philadelphia and Mike came out on the last day just to hear stuff, so it was pretty solidified by the time he started digging into them. But the ideas and colours and cohesiveness that he brought to it — that’s what really changed it for us.

I don’t think he touched a single world of mine, except for times where I asked his opinion, and then he told me exactly what he thought of it. I was pretty clear on how I wanted things to sound, but sometimes I still wanted his help… it’s hard to explain. But a lot of the melodies and the lyrics stayed the same from the second I wrote them, which I’m really grateful for. I’d say we walked in with it 75 per cent done, but the 25 per cent he added was worth more than I can even explain.

He’s that dude. He’s nothing like you’d expect. We called him “coach” because he wore mesh gym shorts and a Mets jersey on some days. He would crush it at a family BBQ because that’s his vibe — you’d want him on the grill for sure. Not even in a metaphorical sense, like physically. If I had to throw a BBQ, he’d be the grill master. He was really great and he totally changed my perspective on working with a producer and with the ways that I go about producing.

When you write a song, you do so pretty quickly. Do you ever look back and think you could have done things differently had you allowed yourself more time?

No, because I think once the song is written it’s done, game over. Maybe I’ll make some minor changes, but I don’t change a lot. For example, “Car” was written in 15 to 20 minutes while in the back of a car, like the whole thing. I might have changed a couple of lyrics after that, but in contrast, I wrote “Serene” really quickly and spent a year going back to it.

Most of them are born really quickly. I don’t know what that’s attributed to but I think it has to do with the state of mind I was in and the way I was feeling when I wrote that song. If I was to go back and try to change lyrics in a time when I wasn’t necessarily feeling emotionally attached to the place I was in when I wrote the song, it just feels uncomfortable and like I’m forcing it. If I do go back and edit something, it takes a while because I want to get back into that head space.

I also write music for other bands and we go to the studio and we jam. But when I write songs for my own band, the core ideas of it are done alone, by myself, and in a pretty short time. I try not to look back and think I could have changed things. Sometimes I will and I’ll say “that song sucks”, but I never look back and say “that song sucks, I wish I did this”.

Do you think it comes down to a level of confidence and being comfortable with yourself and your words?

It’s definitely not confidence… well, maybe it is. I just know where I’m at as a human. It’s weird to try to explain the psyche of writing/putting a pen to paper and explaining the psychoanalytics of it all. I just write; some days I’ll write four or five songs and usually they all get thrown away but I use it as a method of therapy so I’m writing songs just for me. Some of them get out of my hands as there are songs we play that I never anticipated another human hearing when I first wrote them. Sometimes people request to hear a certain song and I’m like, “Gosh, I didn’t even expect that someone else could be interested in this thing I did”. I know that sounds ridiculous because I’ve been playing music for five years and obviously people have come to shows I’ve played and at least some people give a shit, but it’s still weird to me.

Going back to transitioning out of adolescence as a songwriter, it still has the same effect in the way that in no way am I ever expecting anything. I haven’t graduated to a point of ego where I’m expecting people to respond or take something away from what I’m doing. It’s still pretty selfishly me and if you want to listen to it, that’s awesome. It sounds pretty wild, but that’s just how I am. I’m just a wild dude (laughs).

What is it about the stream of consciousness writing style that’s so honest and real?

With stream of consciousness, there’s no buttering it up. I do love music that isn’t like that — it’s not like I only listen to songwriters who are like, “I went to the mall, then I got food in the food court, then I saw my friends”. Obviously that’s how I write. I try to be very straightforward as my writing is an encapsulation of things that are going on in my head and around me.

I love La Dispute. They were one of my favourite bands growing up and they’re not a band that’s in any way short of being verbose. They use a lot of lyrics and they’re very poetic, and they’re very good at it. I think I caught myself trying to do that when I was younger and realized that it wasn’t for me as it’s just not the way I write. Maybe I don’t know that many big words or I don’t know how to string things along eloquently without sounding like I’m trying too hard, even though others do it in a way that sounds effortless.

I don’t meant to detract from other people’s process, but for me sometimes I’ll be in my car and I’ll start talking into my phone and those are the lyrics for a song. Or I’ll have a guitar and I’ll be mumbling along to a melody and decide to use that, and I’ll keep doing it until I have a whole song — one I didn’t even write to paper and just said things as I was feeling them. That makes sense to me at this juncture in my life because at the end of the day, the way I am processing things is very bare bones and I say things the way I’m feeling them. When it comes to a specific emotion, I’m not thinking it’s “the moving tranquility from the small of my back”. I’m just thinking “This sucks, how do I fix this?”.

There’s this Modest Mouse song called “Bankrupt On Selling” and on it, he [Isaac Brock] says “Well, I’ll go to college and I’ll learn some big words. And I’ll talk real loud, goddamn right I’ll be heard. You’ll remember the guy that said all those big words he must’ve learned in college”. I always thought that was a really cool line because he’s being very honest in the way that he’s speaking as opposed to trying to say something more than what he necessarily feels.

While on tour, I was talking to Dan Campbell [The Wonder Years, Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties] about the process as a whole and we’re just different. I love his music. I don’t know if he cares for mine — he’s never said he hates it (laughs) — but it’s important to recognize you’re not the same as another songwriter and that you shouldn’t be the same. You may find similarities and use conversation to find a new mechanism to write a song or turn emotion into a musical statement, but it’s important to not do something because someone else did it.

Sorority Noise 2017 - Pat Nolan

Given you’re the primary songwriter and you often write about deeply personal emotions and experiences, how do your bandmates relate to Sorority Noise’s music?

I think they fuck with me. With this record specifically, it was our first time with this lineup and our first time being able to really dig into the songs on the record. We had some members quit, but I still wanted to record because I had all of the songs written. So I gathered this merry band of gentlemen together and we practiced the songs one day, and the drums were recorded the next day.

Before we released this record, we got to tour for two years as a unit and really discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we really applied that in the record. I think everyone feels more involved with this record than they did with the last one given the lead Adam wrote and the drum parts Charlie wrote. I had ideas but in the same way that I don’t produce our music videos, I know the person who’s been directing them has a far better grip on what to do with them than I do. The same goes with my bassist, drummer, and guitarist as they know what they’re doing better than I do. So with my ideas, we work pretty symbiotically. With this record, I think they feel pretty confident in the decisions they made, so I think they feel stoked about it.

In terms of the lyrics, sometimes I think I’m the only person who feels that way… yet Adam will sing a harmony or a lyric that is so specific to me, and he’s fine with that. I thought the album would make people more uncomfortable than anything because it’s just so out there, but this is the most raw and honest way I can represent the emotions I’m feeling. I was concerned that my bandmates would feel uncomfortable, but I think they try to translate the words and emotions into their own personal experiences and I think that’s how we get emotionally invested, especially in the live performance.

They’re equally a part of the band as I am. Charlie [Singer], the drummer, and I have been playing in bands since we were 17, and up until a month ago, I was the only person he has ever drummed for since. We’ll make eye contact when I’m holding a guitar and he’s playing drums and he just knows where to go next. Charlie is someone I am incredibly grateful to have in my life. I can say that for all of them but Charlie is literally like my brother. He plays in Old Gray too and he played in my first post-rock band when we were juniors in high school, so we’ve been through some shit.

Adam [Ackerman], who plays guitar — we met in college and lived together for two years. He was the first person from this current lineup to join because we just asked him if he wanted to play guitar solos and he did. He would just solo over songs he didn’t write and now we wrote a record together, and now he’s actually in the band. I probably see him the most and he’s a great friend. Ryan [McKenna] plays in other bands too and we’ve known him forever. I’ve been friends with everyone in this band since 2014 at least. Now, we get to spend 200 days out of the year trapped in a metal death machine and we’ve pretty much accepted that if we’re going to die, it’s probably going to be together so let’s just get comfortable. These guys are my proverbial rock.

One thing we do as a band is that we try not to do anything unless all four people are in agreement. That way, we can keep everything symbiotic and we’re not making anyone feel pressured into doing something they don’t want to do. If something comes up and someone is busy, we just drop it. I think that’s another key thing in keeping us in a similar mental state. You have to have trust and faith in the people you’re working with, but you also have to know that the people who know you best can fuck you over the worst (laughs).

Has sharing songs that are incredibly personal ever made you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable? How do you overcome that feeling?

I just don’t play them. We don’t use a predetermined setlist; we get on stage every night and we start playing what we feel like playing. We might go through 15 songs where no one says a word to each other, but I’ll make eye contact with someone and they know where to go next. I’m very fortunate to work with such talented people. Sometimes we play songs we haven’t practiced, and when I see the guys getting bored with the set, I’ll literally just start playing a song they haven’t heard or thought about in a long time. It’s like, “Guess what? We’re on stage y’all, let’s do it!” and they have no choice but to just do it because I surprised them. I feel very grateful to have that kind of a relationship.

Some people have asked me if I’m nervous to play our new songs because I haven’t played them live, and the answer is yes. I don’t know what emotional response they’ll come with. I do have an idea, but especially with music and where you are mentally, emotions can run rampant. Like a song that’s good one day could feel bad the next day. There are some songs we have only played live once, because I’ve only had the emotional capacity to play it once. There are also some nights where there’s a song that someone in the band requests we not play because they’re going through some shit that is that song, and they don’t want to have to be reminded of it or have to yell along to it. Or alternatively, sometimes one of us will ask for a certain song because it really reflects how we’re feeling that day. I think it’s really cool for us to be able to do that and never have to follow a setlist to meet a quota or a time requirement.

Is there a song on this album that you anticipate will be especially difficult to share?

Most of them (laughs). We have played “Disappeared” and we did “Where Are You” a couple of times on our tour with Bayside. “Car” was the first song we started introducing because it’s two minutes long so it’s really easy to throw it in even though people don’t know it. It doesn’t occupy too much space, so it is easier than trying to throw a six minute rocker in there.

I think “First Letter” and “Second Letter” will probably be the two that get the least playing time because I have to be in the right place when we do those. “Disappeared” also isn’t the easiest to play because there are very specific lyrics. It’s one we often do when I’m feeling some type of way and I can’t get through it without freaking out. It’s a very important song to me — not to belittle the other ones — and the times we’ve played it have been in spaces where there’s people at the show who knew Sean, which the song is about.

I read you’re both a fan and a friend of Julien Baker, whose music I also really enjoy. Her sound is drastically different from yours, but does her work inspire your own in anyway?

100 per cent. She inspires me in every single way, she’s brilliant. I would say she is my best friend; she is such a gift and such an incredible human. My favorite musician is Regina Spektor, but what I listen to isn’t really indicative of what I write. I’m a big fan of Manchester Orchestra and I think that comes through in my writing, but otherwise, most of the things I’m writing about don’t sonically reflect the music I’ve been listening to.

Julien’s lyricism is just perfect and she also plays in this rock band called Forrister and they kick ass. I think we’re both taking things away from each other, whether it’s noticeable or not. She has an impact as her voice communicates to me that it’s okay to put yourself out there more.

On “A Better Sun”, there’s the lyric “This is the part where I’m a marathon runner but both of my ankles are sprained”. Is that a nod to her song “Sprained Ankle”?

I’m big into jazz. I am a jazz musician by trade and I’ve been playing jazz since I was in the sixth grade, and I finished college a year and a half ago with a degree in jazz saxophone. So in jazz music, if you quote, reference or make a nod to something, it’s looked at as a sign of respect. Like as a musician, you’re saying “This is something that interests me and this is something you should check out”. But in punk, indie rock, alternative or even mainstream music, the tendency of seeing a nod or an allusion to another song or another artist is seen as plagiarism. Which is unfortunate as I make 30 or 40 nods to other artists on the new record, some being more subtle than others.

So that whole phrase is actually an allusion to other artists — “This is the part where I am proper” is a nod to the Into It. Over It. album Proper. The next line is also a nod to a Modern Baseball song called “Just Another Face” and the third part is a nod to Julien. It’s a bit of a trifecta, so to speak. I’ve found myself doing that a lot because that’s what I’m drawn to. I get asked a lot if I listen to Brand New and I’m like, “Duh!”. It’s a weird question to ask because it’s so clear that I do.

I used to be really into metalcore — and I think Julien has been vocal about that too as I think she’s even mentioned how she used to listen to The Devil Wears Prada — and it’s just important to recognize your roots and where you came from. I used to be a really big Dance Gavin Dance fan. One time we were driving and listening to Happiness in the van, and I tweeted “Kurt Travis is my favourite Dance Gavin Dance vocalist” and no more than a day later, we started texting each other. Now, we’re good friends and he’s one of the coolest dudes I’ve ever met as he’s such a talented vocalist and human.

Being in a band that sounds like we do, it may not be the coolest thing to say that I love Dance Gavin Dance, but fuck that. I want to talk about the music I love and I don’t want to act like I’m cooler than anything or anyone else. Like I grew up listening to the Barenaked Ladies (laughs). They were the first three concerts I went to and I still talk about that. But I also know that as a 23-year-old, I’m not going to be able to get people into the Barenaked Ladies and sometimes I’m even like, “Woah, what was I going through?”. But music holds a place in your heart throughout time, and it’s important to recognize that.

I understand the title of your new album is about perspective, but if you replace the word “not” with “only”, the meaning really shifts. Is the title intended to carry an uplifting message or does it just carry the same tone like the majority of the album?

For me, the title is uplifting and leveling. I’ll take two very arbitrary words, “high” and “low”, and if you put “high” in the middle, you get You’re Not As High As You Think, and then maybe you’re not as uplifted and as cool as you think you are and maybe you should take the back seat for a bit. But on the other side, if you say You’re Not As Low As You Think, then it means things aren’t as bad as you think they are. I think both of those ideas can be sandwiched together to level you out, and I think that’s the direction I was coming from. Also, it’s not just about me — leaving that space open allows people to perceive it any way they want and put their own intentions into it.

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