When a band explains the songs they write are about “paranoia, general disregard and, probably, bad love,” you might anticipate a droning sound shrouded in darkness and despair. But that’s where Stems serves as the perfect anomaly, a contrast between melancholy, indie-rock tunes with a danceable, Talking Heads energy. The title of Stems’ upcoming release, “Your Sullen Ways Are Getting Boring,” is, perhaps, a tongue-in-cheek jab at themselves, as well as a realization that the band is evolving in tone and artistry.
Spending a few hours with Justin Seeker, Josh Weiss and Michael Voris, the repertoire between them is jovial and jokey, a clear reflection of their distinctive working relationship which they call a “unit.” They each credit the recent addition of Joel McAdams on guitar and vocals as a big leap forward in the direction of the band, as well as a major asset in the songwriting process. The comradery between the bandmates and shared admiration of their new member is enough to shatter expectations about their sound from their own description. Press play on the rough mix of their upcoming album, and the rhythmic beats and melodic guitars are enough to put their current tunes in the “feel-good” range, rather than something one would put on in their darkest hour.
Seeker, who serves as primary lyricist, vocalist and guitar player in Stems, says the new song, “Good Times,” is one of his personal favorites. Hearing the faster pace of that track compared to something like “Don’t Fit” off of the band’s 2015 release, “Identity Believer,” highlights the growth and coming together of each band member’s individual tastes, influences and skill sets.
“This one is more collaborative,” Seeker says. “Joel was more of a writing partner. We stopped playing shows regularly to take a break and record this album. We really wanted to devote our time to that.”
The band’s current songwriting process happens quickly and organically, while the experience of recording is much slower and more nuanced. Voris says crafting each song flows like a stream-of-consciousness experience where they each just start playing their instruments without a set plan. Seeker credits the band’s practice space, a garage on Voris’ property in Akron, as highly influential. It’s where the new album was recorded, and all the artifacts posted up in the space can serve as random songwriting inspiration. Many cases of Busch beer, a signed print by Big Star’s Alex Chilton and a wood-burning stove are a few of the relics that complete the outdoor collection and may, in some subtle ways, make appearances on the new release.
Seeker attributes the name Stems to his evolution as a musician, having performed solo and in bands with other local players. This current group “stems” or branches off from the songs and sound he had created in previous music projects. Many of Stems’ early songs were written and performed by Seeker himself, then fleshed out by Voris, Weiss and a former guitar player. The guys first played live together at a Buddy Holly cover show (their band aptly called Beardy Holly) and practiced in the 245 Gallery in Kent. Voris says he wasn’t much of a bass player, and Weiss only recently picked up drums at that point. Weiss came from a musical background, with his father playing mostly traditional Appalachian, folk and Celtic music, and he played the mandolin for many years. Voris had been performing as a guitarist since the ‘90s, but banding together with Seeker allowed each of them to explore and hone their skills on new instruments.
Seeker says after their previous guitarist quit the band, he sought refuge at the Zephyr in Kent to drown his sorrows. He confided in McAdams, who manages the bar, and finally something clicked. He, Voris and Weiss were all huge fans of McAdams’ work in “legendary” local band Beaten Awake, and they finally asked him to join Stems on guitar. McAdams’ influences added that extra something special to Stems’ sound and helped their songwriting process become more unified and collaborative.
“Our music is really unique because we each have very different types of music we like, but it all just comes together,” Weiss says.
Seeker describes Stems as “if The Shins did stuff by The Cure,” with Voris mentioning the addition of dance rock, kraut rock and afro beats that give the band a more diverse, varied sound. Voris adds that the band is “future past,” or akin to the music one would hear on an oldies station in the future. He also notes that while each band member has very different and distinct tastes, it contributes positively to the evolution of the band’s songwriting.
“I know I can end practice when I tell them I want to put on a song by Kanye or Type O Negative,” Voris says.
Weiss says the band feels each recording is getting stronger, as they’re each learning more and growing as they play. Voris says “Easily Lost” is one of his favorite tracks on the new album, as it showcases three different vocal parts and highlights their harmonies and dynamics, as well as highly collaborative lyrics that all seemed to naturally flow and work well together to create a cohesive song.
“People always say it’s like we operate as one thing during our live shows, but it’s because we write that way. As a unit,” Weiss says.
The new album, set to be released this summer, was recorded in the band’s infamous practice space with the help of Ben Vehorn from Tangerine Sound Studios. Stems is working on building up a schedule of live shows in the upcoming months, and with a repertoire of sharing a stage with bands like Man Man, Built To Spill, King Gizzard and The Dodos, fans of local music are sure to be in for a treat from this foursome.
Find Stems at facebook.com/stemsakron and stems-akron.bandcamp.com.