The Family Crest

The Family Crest

Erika Wennerstrom

Sat, August 4, 2018

Doors: 7:30 pm / Show: 8:30 pm

The Boot & Saddle

Philadelphia, PA

This event is 21 and over

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The Family Crest
The Family Crest
The Family Crest have already earned widespread national applause for their extraordinary orchestral pop ambition but with THE WAR, the San Francisco-­‐based collective makes their boldest, most fully articulated musical statement thus far. The second installment of what promises to be an epic musical saga, THE WAR: ACT I represents “the next version of The Family Crest,” says frontman-­‐founder Liam McCormick and indeed, the album reveals a band more in tune with its own large-­‐ scale Baroque eclecticism.

Songs like “Take Tonight” and “It Keeps Us Dancing” wed a remarkable span of sonic influences – from '70s groove to synthpop, Afro-­‐Cuban soul to California jazz, glam rock, and anything else that might suit the greater goal – to create a cohesive, utterly original sound and vision all its own. Preceded in early 2017 by the PRELUDE TO WAR EP, the new album marks the first act of a greater multi-­‐tiered project, a kind of serial concept album with a pronounced thematic arc that weaves ideas of pride and memory, dissonance and divergence, into a purposefully ambiguous but undeniably unified whole.

“THE WAR is ultimately about conflict,” says McCormick. “The battles we go through every day, the trauma we reference from various situations in our lives that inform the decisions we make. It’s about the complexity of human nature, how we’re all equally capable of doing wonderful things and terrible things. It’s about the control that those battles have over us as we move through our lives.”

The seeds of THE WAR were first planted in 2009, even as McCormick and co-­‐ founder/bassist John Seeterlin began work on The Family Crest’s earliest studio recordings.

“In a weird way,” he says, “THE WAR has existed for the entirety of the band. It’s been in my head for so long. It’s almost been like a goal – something we’ve been looking at and hoping we could actually do.”

The Family Crest officially embarked on its journey with 2010’s SONGS FROM THE VALLEY BELOW EP, followed in 2012 by the Kickstarter-­‐funded THE VILLAGE. The “exponentially more complex” BENEATH THE BRINE proved the next iteration of McCormick’s increasing compositional skills, earning acclaim for its expansive pop soundscapes and ever more moving songcraft. All the while, McCormick continued writing THE WAR, its gradual development allowing the piece to be formed “in a more complex way,” he says. Recording officially commenced in 2014 with basic tracks to be slowly nurtured and built upon.

“We always start with guitar, bass, drums,” McCormick says, “and then begin orchestrating it bit by bit.”

From its start, The Family Crest’s audacious approach has been matched by an even bolder vision of musical community, with the seven-­‐piece core of the band augmented by members of the “Extended Family” – some 400 friends and fans each contributing whatever musical element they can. BRINE featured musicians recorded up and down the west coast, but after years of touring, The Family Crest had developed both a national fan following as well as an increasingly long list of musicians who wanted to join the Family. As they began THE WAR: ACT I, McCormick and Seeterlin decided to include more of the Extended Family than ever before.

“Our rule is if anybody wants to play on our record,” McCormick says, “we’re going to find a place for them if we can. There are 150 people playing on THE WAR: ACT I, people of all different skill levels, but they each have something invested in the project. It’s become a way of meeting these wonderful people and giving them an opportunity. Giving people the chance to make music.”

In 2015, McCormick and Seeterlin hit the road with longtime video collaborator Keith Lancaster, recording contributions from over 90 different Extended Family members – spanning bassoon to backing vocals – in living rooms, basements (and recording studios) across the United States largely on their own self-­‐constructed rig.

“We just like making music with people,” McCormick says. “It was extremely exhausting but also extremely rewarding."

McCormick and The Family Crest are not unaware of the striking irony of THE WAR, finding it rather fitting that diverse Americans from across the country have come together to create a work with themes of civil discord at its very core. Having worked on its songs for nearly seven years, McCormick finally completed much of THE WAR’s first three chapters during the 2016 election and the months that followed. Unsurprisingly, those epochal events “seeped into the consciousness of this record.” Further inspiration came from daily runs through San Francisco’s historic Presidio district, studying about the civil war and considering his own experiences as a half-­‐Irish, half-­‐Chinese-­‐American “growing up in a largely white community as one of the only people of color in my sphere.”

“We did not expect to be releasing THE WAR: ACT I at a time where its themes were so relevant,” McCormick says. “The bottom line is we are all informed on a very unconscious level by the things around us. So if you wrote lyrics in the last two years– and have a conscience – there’s no way that at least part of those lyrics aren’t informed by what’s happened.”

On their face, songs like “Waiting Still” and “Never Gonna Stop” might seem more intensely personal than overtly political but make no mistake, THE WAR: ACT I is the most defiantly radical music the band has made thus far. While acknowledging its narrative links, McCormick is still loath to be too explicit regarding THE WAR’s interconnected themes and how those themes relate to future works. Rather, he prefers listeners perceive the tale on their own or perhaps not at all, another affirmation of the collaborative relationship between The Family Crest and its growing audience.

“There is a story,” McCormick says. “But knowing it is going to affect the way you listen to the record. I want people to have the option to create their own experience. That’s your own version of THE WAR.”

The Family Crest has been marching inexorably towards THE WAR from its very beginning. The long gestating project is now fully underway, with much of THE WAR Act II already tracked and future installments current being written and recorded. While such an enormous operation would be daunting for most bands, The Family Crest was born to do battle with THE WAR.

“There’s always a new element of challenge to everything this band does,” Liam McCormick says. “We’ve always thrust ourselves into projects that to some degree, we weren’t fully ready for.”
Erika Wennerstrom
Erika Wennerstrom
There's something somewhat frightening, yet utterly liberating when leaving the confines of a successful band to venture solo — especially a band whose latest record was called "effortlessly brilliant" by critics. But, such is the case with Erika Wennerstrom who is taking a break from her Austin-based rock band, Heartless Bastards, to deliver her solo debut Sweet Unknown.

"It was a really freeing experience," reveals the singer/songwriter/guitarist. "I found my strength in my vulnerability as an artist, and really, just as a person. It kind of forced me to allow myself to be a little more exposed and stand on my own two feet. I feel like I've grown a lot creatively and personally."

But fans of Heartless Bastards — which has released five critically- acclaimed albums since their 2003 inception, appeared on many late night television shows, and has drawn praise from Rolling Stone, Time, New York Times — need not worry. The band has not broken up. "We'd been going for so long and everyone in the band was just ready for a little break. But I had songs in me that needed to come out. I didn't think it was fair to push them to keep going and I didn't want to do it without them under the band name," explains Wennerstrom, who enlisted the help of HB's Jesse Ebaugh to play bass on 8 of the 9 tracks on Sweet Unknown.

Fans can also rest assured that what they've grown to love about Wennerstrom's music is still front-and-center. Her trademark vocals that NPR so aptly calls "warm yet gritty, throaty yet sweet, gigantic, yet intimate" are that... times 10. And the bluesy, rock vibes that Relix describes as "smoky, late night [rock] that exists somewhere between Royal Trux and the Rolling Stones" has only gotten smokier and bluesier.

So, what is the difference? "It's just more of me," she says. "It's as simple as that. I was able to get deeper and you get another level of my heart and soul. And, it's really about my journey of self-awareness and healing and finding acceptance and self-love. It's very empowering."

While Wennerstrom has always been honest in the Heartless Bastards songs she's written, the 9 tracks that make up Sweet Unknown are even more personal and reflective, and for her, quite transformative as well.

"When I started writing this record, I thought about how maybe the struggles I've had at times in my life, and with writing, could be changed if I could put my energy and message towards others, but what I got was the most self healing I've ever had through the creative process. My positive message to others became my own mantra. It's like how sometimes we need to start listening to our own advice, and singing these songs repeatedly has given myself a message I need to hear when I sing them over and over again," she explains.

The album kicks off with the feel-good roadtrip vibes of "Twisted Highway," which Wennerstrom says sums up her musical journey on Sweet Unknown. She explains, "'Twisted Highway' is the process of learning more self-awareness and self-acceptance. Writing songs over the years has forced me to do a lot of self reflection, and I haven't always liked what I see. I really needed to change my way of thinking though. I chose to focus on the negatives within myself. I really needed to stop and take a look at what's good in my life."

On the somber psych-rocker "Staring Out the Window," the artist digs even deeper into the inner workings of her mind. "It's about discovering a pattern I established when I was young where when I'm around someone dark, unkind, or full of anger, I tend to internalize it and blame myself. I learned that sometimes we feel comfortable around people that aren't good for us because they feel familiar, but that can be the unhealthy pattern. I had to learn how to love myself more and break this pattern," she says.

Wennerstrom attributes her deep emotional journey, in part, to two pivotal trips in the past year, which resulted in 400 voice notes on her phone with various lyric and melody ideas. "I went down to the Amazon jungle in 2015 right before the last Heartless Bastards record, Restless Ones, was released. I was at a point where I was deeply unhappy, and on a whim, I decided to do an Ayahuasca [pronounced eye-uh-wah-ska] retreat. Despite the idea frightening me, I felt I needed something to change with in me so bad that I had nothing to lose. It really opened the door and started me on a path to many self realizations," she says.

Ayahuasca (an Amazonian hallucinagenic plant used in Shamanic healing ceremonies) is often used to help people break through emotional and creative barriers. For Wennerstrom, the experience helped her let go of the push-and-pull of ego and self- doubt. "It helped me be free to be honest with myself and put out what I think is my most honest record ever. It used to take me a while to get to that vulnerable place in my writing, but I got there faster this time. It just felt easier, more natural, and not as much second-guessing," she says.

The upbeat and optimistic "Letting Go" epitomizes that experience. "It's about letting go of what doesn't serve me anymore. I came to the realization that we all as human beings have an inner struggle. Sometimes even people that have so much are hard on themselves with a sense of guilt. We're all just doing the best we can in each moment. Some maybe more consciously than others. Perhaps it's my limited perspective, but I feel it's the human condition — an ancient feeling," she says.

Soon after the band decided to take a hiatus the following year, she also spent quite a bit of time hiking and reflecting in the mountains of West Texas in Big Bend National Park. Explaining the impact of that trip, she says, "That's where a lot of the ideas for the album came to me, and I spent the next year working on it. The song “Extraordinary Love” is the realization I do everything in my life for love. We all want to be liked and to give and receive love. If I can't be kind and loving to myself how can I expect anybody else to. It's starts with me. I find the most extraordinary thing is to be truly compassionate to yourself."

"Good To Be Alone" is just one sonic outcome of her Big Bend trip. "I wrote this one right after a long tour, and with it being one of the last ones the band did before our hiatus, I had quite a lot to think about. I did a big hike that day in Big Bend and the seeds for the idea were planted. I was so thankful for that time alone to recharge and ponder. This song expresses how deeply introverted I can be at times and how sometimes I just need to step away and take some time for myself," she says.

Clearly, that time alone was time well-spent. With Sweet Unknown, Erika Wennerstrom bravely invites the listener in to experience her trials and tribulations of life amidst a lush soundscape of deeply emotive vocals and melodies to what is ultimately the soundtrack to her soul.
Venue Information:
The Boot & Saddle
1131 S. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA, 19147