Photo by Jacki Vitetta
Interview with bassist Kelen Capener and guitarist Will Levy | By Lisa Root
Five years ago, I was working at AMP Magazine and my assistant was a young, ambitious music industry nut named Jake Round. He had just started a label called Pure Noise Records and his second release was a band called The Story So Far.
I remember when Jake described the first band he had signed as “high school kids from Walnut Creek,” and I winced at what I thought he was taking on. I had no idea how spot on Jake’s instincts were at the time. Fast-forward five years… They’re his top grossing band and have breathed new life into the pop punk scene.
That they’re called The Story So Far is very fitting; they’re young guys still in the early part of their ride, but success hit the second their first album came out. They remember the precise time it happened. “I just remember that first tour, because it started out slow and we didn’t have big crowds or anything,” recalls bassist Kelen Capener. “Then, we hit St. Louis, Mo., and I remember, like, 200 kids came out for that show and then left right after we finished. And we were opening. It was weird, because there was a point in the tour where the bands would say, ‘Look, you have to play after us.’ And that’s when I got the impression that our music was going viral to that community. ‘Cuz these people hadn’t heard our music even a couple of weeks before.”
Keeping It Family…
All but one member’s parents are still married, and during the Christmas holiday, all of their families get together. They’ve all been friends since middle school, have recorded all of their full-lengths with Sam Pura of Panda Studios, and put them all out on Pure Noise Records. Longtime friend Brad Wiseman handles their booking, which helped them pull bigger crowds than the headliners on their initial shows, and continue the trend through their first national tour with Senses Fail. Then came Europe and Japan, Warped Tour, and they are now headlining a summer tour supported by Four Year Strong and Terror. “That’s what’s important to us,” says guitarist Will Levy. “We’ve been able to stick with the same guys who knew us as kids. They’re still helping us today.”
The Early Story…
The band casually started playing in high school, though drummer Ryan Torf was still in eighth grade. Levy initially helped with merch, but eventually slid into the spot vacated by Kevin Ambrose—whose older brother was in Set Your Goals—when Ambrose went to medical school. Levy met Round by attending local shows, and eventually gave him their demo at a show at the Red House, a recording studio and venue in Walnut Creek, Calif. Round signed them to his fledgling label.
The first full-length, Under Soil and Dirt, came out while Capener, Levy, vocalist Parker Cannon, and guitarist Kevin Geyer attended college, worked, and bided their time waiting for Torf to graduate from high school, which rendered him unable to commit to tours. Capener travelled to record his parts on the album, then headed right back to school without even hearing the final product. “Usually, when you record an album, everyone’s there for the entire process,” he explains. “I was in the middle of school, so I came home, recorded what I had to record, then I went back to school.”
“He had no idea what it was going to sound like,” adds Levy.
Under Soil and Dirt burst onto a scene that was already hungry for it. “The kids were already there and looking to jump on to something,” says Levy. “Music was going in a weird direction. Easycore is what they call it: poppy music with breakdowns and screaming and stuff. We wanted to take it back a step and get back to the roots of the bands we liked and that energy. We just wanted to write good, honest songs; simple as that. We were really into bands like Taking Back Sunday, New Found Glory, of course…”
Capener chimes in, “Crime In Stereo, Set Your Goals, and older punk bands like Alkaline Trio. To the roots singing, nothing crazy, just good melodies and high energy…”
“…And sick guitar riffs,” Levy concludes.
“We hadn’t even made it out of California when we got our first tour offer, and that was with Senses Fail,” Levy elaborates. “We did the full-length, it came out in June, did the U.S. tour with Senses Fail, went to Japan—where Jake played with us on bass, since Kelen was still in school—came back. Went on tour in Oct./Nov., looping the country. We went to England, then we did this Wonder Years tour where we opened. It was them, Transit, Into It. Over It., Polar Bear Club, A Loss For Words, and we were opening. It was batshit crazy. Our crowd response was like we were the direct support. It was just weird.”
There’re a lot of bands who have to really hustle. The Story So Far put in the work, but the fan response took care of itself—almost too quickly for comfort. “I think it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, with us being young. We almost felt like we weren’t worthy, in the ‘Wayne’s World’ sense,” laughs Capener. “When you’re asked to play over bands that you grew up listening to, out of respect you almost can’t do it.”
“But you don’t get to choose,” Levy interjects. “And at 19 to 20 years old, it’s kind of intimidating when you’re touring with bands who have been hustling and haven’t popped off yet. They’re, like, 25, 26, and they all dropped out of school and have been doing it for years. It’s awkward as hell.”
The band proudly hailing from Walnut Creek—rather than generalizing their roots as “Bay Area,” like many—led some to assume they’d been born with silver spoons in their mouths. “The hardcore bands we love all hail their cities,” Levy argues. “It’s all based around that. Have Heart putting Boston all over their stuff. Bands like Go It Alone putting Vancouver, [B.C.], on their shit, and Comeback Kid repping Winnepeg, [Manitoba].”
Capener adds, “With punk, it’s more in the songs: like AFI referencing Petaluma, [Calif.], Saves The Day and Lifetime and all of their New Jersey references. Pop punk seems to hate its hometown and we definitely don’t.”
By 2012, they were touring as headliners, and playing Warped Tour. “I can count the tours that didn’t sell out on one hand. It was insane,” says Capener.
And the labels came knocking… “The whole label thing kind of scared us. We just weren’t ready for it,” admits Levy.
“We had friends who had bad deals before us, and we were able to [recognize them] and say, ‘This is a snake in the grass.’ I guess, by nature of these bigger deals having all of these caveats and scaring us off, we just stayed [on Pure Noise],” shrugs Capener. “I don’t think people realize how organic our band is, as far as how our band grew. We got swept up, but we rolled with it. Jake was encouraging us to maybe do something with a bigger label, because he wasn’t sure if he was at the threshold to support what he projected our growth as being. I think we talked to a lot of good people who ran labels, but being a band nowadays, without making money on record sales and such, you have to keep every merch dollar and everything you can on the road. And there were labels that wanted a percentage of our merch sales. That’s where the money is. They’re not stupid; they know that. But we’re not stupid either and we know we can’t give that up.”
In 2013, The Story So Far toured for over nine months and released What You Don’t See. “What we had done for the past two years was play a lot of shows. So, that was all we knew,” explains Levy. “We wanted to bring that into the songs, and have high energy, in your face songs. People naturally kind of went wild during our shows. Now, we need that in the record and we want to make it as big as possible. I want a wall of guitars and I want the bass to rock your socks off.” Going into the studio with that mindset should’ve made recording go quickly, but it didn’t. “It was so much longer and so much more stressful than anything we had done,” Levy attests.
“I think we knew what we wanted, but we came in not prepared enough,” adds Capener. “Maybe we were under a little more stress because we knew people were anticipating it. Whereas [with] the first [record], we were in the dark and we had built up an audience, now they had expectations. We weren’t throwing things or not getting along. It was just very stressful.”
When the album was completed, the sense of relief was immediate. “It was one of the best feelings,” he says. “Having that record done and being able to listen to it was the same feeling as when we finished the first EP with Sam, and we were driving around with the songs. It was the same kind of excitement that we had at the beginning.”
“We [were] stoked and so very happy to be done,” laughs Levy. The album debuted on the Billboard charts. The next year, they were playing the Warped Tour main stage.
The Story Right Now…
Going into their third album, The Story So Far kept the formula the same, but were armed with the lessons of their past. “We made a closed studio, with less distractions,” says Capener. “We demoed some of it with Chris Conley of Saves The Day in Chico, [Calif.], and that was super fun. He was inspiring and a creative catalyst. He let us use his space and gave us his creative input and his thoughts on what we were writing. [It] was totally different from what we [had] experienced. And he wasn’t producing it. He was just letting us use his space and giving us feedback. But it was a huge confidence boost. We went up feeling unprepared, and we left feeling like we had five or six songs that were basically how they were going to be recorded. I think this is the experience we would’ve had with our first record had we all had the ability to be in the same room together. It’s gonna sound like us; that’s gonna be people’s biggest complaint, is that it sounds like a The Story So Far record, but that’s us, though!”
“We just understood that we needed to make an album that—cliché as it sounds—was truly us,” agrees Levy. “And, at the end of the day, this is the first album that we’ve actually been able to write together. We have our own practice spot; when we’re home, we don’t have jobs or school. Our job is to go to our practice spot and work, and sit at home and write riffs and bring them to practice.”
“If you’ve listened to us since the beginning, you’re gonna hear our touch,” explains Capener. “Obviously, we’re in a different point in our lives and the songs that we’ve produced in the last few months really are exclusive to this time in our lives. On a couple of the songs, we’ve tried things we’ve never done before. It captures us at a point in our musical career where we’re being more tasteful. We’re writing parts that are put together in a way that makes sense to us and where we are in our lives.”
“I never really knew what people meant when they say something sounds ‘mature,’” he continues. “When you’re young and playing instruments, you have this tendency to show off and play things that aren’t appropriate to a moment in a song. You don’t have that finesse. You see it with athletes, too; they make young mistakes. They develop their game, lose the things that don’t work, and focus on the fundamentals. It’s kind of like that with this album. We trimmed the excess, and it’s straight to the point of The Story So Far. There’s no fast beats in this one, for one. There just wasn’t a time where a fast beat made sense. Which is surprising for our band, because a lot of our songs have a fast tempo. But with this, a moment never came up where it seemed to fit.”
The Story of the Future…
With the release of their new album on May 19, the band is getting ready for a headlining tour with Four Year Strong, Terror, and Souvenirs. “I saw Four Year Strong when I was 15 or 16,” Levy recalls. “They were touring with Pierce The Veil [and] Further Seems Forever, and they opened at Slim’s. I was like, ‘This is the greatest band ever.’ We were the kids lording out on those bands and how fucking cool it was just seeing them.”
The band met Terror and Four Year Strong—as well as Conley—on their Warped Tour stints. One advantage of being part of what is essentially a summer camp for networking is being able to feel out which bands you would want to spend time on the road with. “Parker hung out with [Terror vocalist] Scott Vogel pretty much every day,” says Levy. “I would go and hang out with Four Year Strong.”
In the downtime between the completion of the new album and preparing for another summer on tour, the guys reflect on the road that got them here.
Levy sums up their story so far: “A lot of us in the band are younger siblings, so we’ve learned from watching. And we all are totally OK with taking a step back and observing and reassessing. We can’t kill ourselves on tour. Let’s really pace ourselves and make it as good as it can be. However long that is, who fucking cares, but every time we go out, we’re gonna make it the best time ever. That’s been super important to us.”
You can also pick up The Story So Far cover issue of New Noise Magazine
by clicking the image below.