Interview with vocalist/guitarist Max Stern | By Renaldo Matadeen
Ohio and Pennsylvania quartet Signals Midwest are darlings of the indie-emo circuit. 2011’s Latitudes and Longitudes put them on the map, followed by 2013’s Light on the Lake, and three years later, the acclaimed At This Age was born. Now, as vocalist and guitarist Max Stern reveals on their new album, Pin, released Aug. 2 via Lauren Records, their settled and mature lives don’t mean they’ve wandered too far from the things that defined them.
At This Age is one of the most well-received indie emo albums in recent memory. What has changed for the band from then to now, especially in terms of writing and recording?
Thanks! That’s amazing to hear. A lot has changed. Our founding bassist Loren [Shumaker] left in 2017. We’re good now, but there was some heavy lifting that had to be done on everyone’s part. One of our oldest friends, Ryan Williamson, took his place, so that brought a great new energy and excitement into the fold.
The other thing is that, after a decade in Cleveland, we’re a three-city band now: two-fourths Cleveland, one-fourth Pittsburgh, and me in Philly. So, everything we do is meticulously planned months in advance because of the travel required for us to be in the same room. I’m honestly proud of it. I don’t know many bands that survive that kind of thing. We go months without seeing each other, work like crazy and live our lives, and when we do meet up, it’s very much a no-bullshit, here-to-do-the-thing kind of vibe. It’s definitely not ideal, but I think doing it less has actually made me enjoy the band more. I sure as hell don’t take it for granted.
Despite the changes, Signals Midwest have maintained a uniform sound over the last three albums and into Pin, and honestly, it works. Was there ever a temptation to shake it up a bit and do something drastically different? Will that ever be in the cards in the future?
We’re really trying not to overplay. I listen to our earlier records, and there are definite moments that I love, but there’s a ton of overplaying and cramming as many ideas into each song as possible. Those were years of great discovery and experimentation, but I also think it led to some messy songs and a lot of cutting corners performance- and production-wise. I think the songs on Pin groove a little bit more. We’re more locked-in. Somehow, the band let me get away with putting a two-minute piano song as the opener. We’re just trying to create more space, keep it a little simpler, write more hooks, self-edit. It’s all a process.
As for what’s next? I think I just want to keep getting more dynamic. I want to know what a Signals skate punk song sounds like, and I want to know what happens if we try to play two notes for seven minutes straight.
You mentioned length there—why is Pin so short? It’s basically an EP with six songs!
[Laughs] Two reasons. One is logistical: three cities and four full-time jobs. We’re all over 30 or about to be. [There’s] family, responsibilities, partners, careers. The other thing is that, in our 11 years as a band, we’d never made anything shorter than a traditional LP. We either did that or did split 7”s with friends. We always talked about doing it, but we’d just keep writing and end up with too many songs. So, when we got these songs together, it was either wait another year to write and record five to six more songs or just get it down while things still felt immediate and good. I’m hesitant to say it’s an EP. In the digital age, I’m not even sure if tags like that matter anymore. I look at it as a cohesive record and as a statement that we’re proud of. It’s just short. [Laughs]
Throughout your discography, Signals Midwest wax a lot about the theme or concept of “location.” Can you explain in depth what the album title means?
The title Pin has actually been floating around since 2011, when we almost used it for Latitudes [and Longitudes]. Our old friend Adam Wagner, who did our first couple records, said it offhandedly one day during a session almost a decade ago. I wrote it down and just kinda kept it my pocket until now. Two of the songs actually date back almost all the way to our first real record, just reimagined very differently here, so it made sense to use a title that connected us to our past. I also wanted to break from our alliterative album titles, since this is a different kind of record than we’ve ever made.
I like that “pin” is a word with multiple meanings. It can be a noun or a verb. A powerful action or an inanimate object. You can use it a bunch of different ways. A lot of our earlier catalog approaches things in a very cut-and-dry lyrical fashion, but on this one, I think a lot of the songs deal with duality. “This is this, but also this.” So, the title sort of reflects that as well. The visual I came up with is very “location pin”-based, but it can mean whatever people want it to mean.
Needling a bit further, no pun intended, there’s something unique in terms of messaging in “Sanctuary City.” Can you explain what this song is about?
If you’re a person who comes from any sort of privilege and you’re not exploring other viewpoints and constantly practicing empathy, you’re doing yourself and the world a great disservice. So, that song is sort of an exercise in that: attempting to put myself in the position of someone who definitely does not have all of the advantages that I have and, then, starting to ask some questions. “What would it be like if some of these pressures I have were taken away? What if things were easier? What if I could move through the world like other people can?”
The chorus is, “There’s so many other things to be!” and that connects back to what I said earlier about duality. Yes, there are millions of other things to be in the world—think of all that you could accomplish if you managed to overcome whatever it is you’re currently facing, to settle in a comfortable place, express your true identity, to balance work and love. Self-actualization.
The other part is that I was also reminding myself that there are a lot of other things to be than just a person in a band. A person in a band is a great and slightly silly thing to be! But there are so many other things to be, and only in the last couple years have I felt like I’ve truly started being able to be some of them.
“I Think We Can Stay Here” feels like a partner to “Alchemy Hour” off the last album, At This Age. Could you explain what this track signifies?
Thanks very much! I got this idea of “sibling songs” from John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, songs that exist in pairs but spaced throughout a record. I think of “I Think We Can Stay Here” as a sibling song to “Sanctuary City.” They’re in opposite places on the record—second and second-to-last, respectively. “Sanctuary City” is about what it’s like to search for something: location, identity, etc. “…Stay Here” is about what hopefully comes at the end of that searching stage.
What would you say are your favorite tracks off Pin, and what are you looking forward most to performing?
The opening title track has some of my favorite lyrics I’ve ever written and instrumentation—an electric piano—that we’ve never used before. I’m excited to play “Time Spent in Transit” live and drag it out for a really long time. Honestly, we can bash through the whole thing in 20 minutes and still have room for other songs. I’m psyched on that.
With FEST 18 coming up [in Gainesville, Florida, on Nov.1 through Nov. 3], the usual suspects are expecting you to rock again. How’s that feeling heading down there with these new songs to play for the community?
I love FEST so much! It’ll be our eighth year in a row, and it’s always a high point, but anyone who goes knows that it’s just as much about seeing friends as it is seeing bands. I can’t wait to play and to see Against Me! and Jawbreaker and American Steel, but I’m also excited to pet Jamie and David’s dogs.
Lastly, what message would you offer fans as a selling point or elevator pitch to get into Pin? What do you think makes it stand out from the rest?
I used to think that it was all about getting to the next level, the next tour, the next record. I don’t think we were mentally equipped to appreciate our busiest touring years as much as we could have. Now, over a decade in, I know that the joy is in the making, in the writing, in the playing, in spending time with people you love and being present for it all. I wish there was more, but when we do it, we make it count. I hope that comes through!