Valpo’s Heroes: An Inside Look at Silhavey
There I was, on a Saturday afternoon, stuffed with pot stickers and tempura, sitting in a barn in Northern Indiana. I suppose you could say it wasn’t a typical Saturday for me.
But that very barn is much more than that to the men of Silhavey; it’s been their musical home for as long as they can remember. Though not always in this current lineup, the musicians that comprise this band – Stephen Dranger, Mike Regan, Lucas Sgouros and Matt Sigler – have known each other for what might be in the music industry an unfathomably long time. They discovered the Flaming Lips together, entered puberty together, spent much of their adult lives together, and now we find them here, on the heels of their first EP Maru, baked fresh full of pop gems. Silhavey has truly been a lifetime in the making. And it began in the barn of Stephen’s parents, where the band graciously took me after our bountiful meal at the Dynasty Buffet.
Regan tells me that they daily imbibed the outlet to alternative music offered in the mid-90s by Q101. It was Q that opened up their worldview to Pablo Honey, to Vs., to Surfer Rosa. Says Regan, “…it gave us that exposure that, ya know, as a kid, you might not get in rural Indiana. You’re not gonna hear it.” Thrilled by the new sounds that shattered the monotony of Top 40 radio, picking up instruments became the next logical step. Dranger points out, only half in jest, that Mike “had an electric guitar, and he was the only one with that and an amp, so we kinda traded that back and forth.” Dranger, whose first attempts at percussion proved abortive, soon had a revelatory moment:
…it was him [Mike Regan] and Lucas and another kid, and they were all playing guitar, and they all had this “song” and played whatever they wanted, and I thought, “OK…I’m gonna learn the guitar now.” My mom had this old classical guitar from Spain that she thought would be worth a lot of money and turned out to be worthless, so I learned on that. And they were smart, they said they’d buy me another if I learned 10 songs. And so I did and they saw that I was serious, and bought me the same guitar that I have today.
At a certain point, the burgeoning musicians headquartered themselves in the barn, and 14 years – and numerous soundproofings, renovations, and expansions – later, they find something comforting about its hallowed, pale blue walls. Through high school and college, three of the members – Dranger, Regan and Sgouros – toyed with various lineups and interests, forming band Fetl and joining musician Travis Wiggins for his project Essex Chanel. They had long tried to involved Sigler, who frequently rebuked them (“I kinda just said, ‘Well, no.’ And then I finally gave in.”) but now finds himself a primary point on which the band pivots, one half of the impeccable rhythm section rounded out by bassist Sgouros.
Inspired by the huge gamut of music that the members digest, they’re equally tempered by their extensive experience recording and playing out. The band laments the lack of a cohesive scene around their town, and Dranger points to a similarly scattershot identity in the city of Chicago, but they appreciate the truly invested fans. And they exist, Regan says; “each set of kids growing up” try to find something new, to carve their own path.
Silhavey, for all of their many fascinations, are not a set to wear influences on their sleeve. Silhavey’s sound is precise, motivated by the likelihood that their music will stay with you. Not a band for self-indulgent, masturbatory arcs or overblown improvisation, they are masterful pop-rock craftsmen. But nor are they cynical, utilitarian musical chemists. Their hooks are genuine and their enthusiasm heartfelt, and, truly, it shines through on every song. Says guitarist and vocalist Regan about the production on the album, “I think it’s more about giving it a sort of vibe or energy. We’d rather build things from the ground up…We kind of captured these songs.” Hoping to dedicate more time to tone while the band works at songwriting, Regan acknowledges that “for me, it’s 90% feel” and Dranger echoes that “a really good song, to my mind, is a catchy one.” But it’s the band’s blend of irrepressible verve and interesting narrative that really helps them stand out. Regan expresses his adoration for the way music just seems to fit together. Dranger is a believer, as well, saying:
Lyrics…are almost like a spell; words feel right in the right places. And that’s a great thing about rock ‘n roll. I had a friend that said the best thing about rock n roll is that it makes the mundane seem interesting.
But neither want to lose the forest for the trees. Dranger, keyboardist and lead vocalist, especially, is a lover of sagas, characters, catharses…a good denouement. Enraptured by the unusual song structures of Deerhoof and their ability to construct songs with pop immediacy but technical density, Dranger “want[s] to put all [his] hooks in one place.” It’s the atypical moments of songs, where an artist refused to conform to the verse-chorus-verse template or an intro seems to percolate just a little too long that he enjoys. But, recognizing that patience is not always a virtue one can expect of rock music fans, Dranger shoots for the none-too-easy middle ground of encapsulating his ideas into compact packages and does a more than admirable job of it. Song “Parables,” peppered with infectious horns, initially was conceived of as part of “this grand album that would be exploring the idea of a quarter life crisis. It would take place at a party where everybody had to sit down and re-examine themselves.” “Waiting for Sunshine,” on the other hand, came from Dranger’s observations living away from bustling cities, and the tale of drunk driving was ultimately born of “these people, they don’t think they cause scenes…They’re sort of drama-filled people and they’re confused and looking for redemption and I know a lot of people like that.”
Meanwhile, “Jungle,” a Regan tune, touches on the “visceral emotions” that people experience when absorbed in music. It’s the kind of song that puts a smile on your face, and at the end of the day, isn’t that why rock music exists?
Though they shine in the studio, the band is equally impressive live. Constantly sounding bigger than their personnel, the four-piece finds no greater joy than playing to fans. Sgouros, long a performer (originally a saxophonist), articulates perfectly the intangible feeling that seems to bind musicians everywhere. It is its ability to take one out of a situation, out of the details of one’s life, that he finds truly arresting.
I have “Serenity” written on my bass for a reason. The first show we played my mother was in the ICU, like really sick, we didn’t think she was gonna come out of it. And it was like…Mike was telling me we should cancel the show, and I thought she wouldn’t want me to cancel it, but once you get on the stage, for that 45 minutes…that’s it. You’re just in that moment, and nothing else really fazes you, and that’s the beauty of playing live, I think.
And when they play live, this boundless energy seems to have a similar effect on listeners, quelling the nagging problems, the listlessness, the hostility that crowds might have brought in.
The band is beginning to whip up a batch of songs for a full-length LP, which they hope to have well under way by early next year. They’re optimistic and show no signs of running short of steam, and every new topic of conversation – from the Beatles to Gustav Holst to scenesters to mishaps in the Dallas airport – shows the band’s lust for life, which translates (with nary a dropped moment) into their music. I’m a firm believer that nothing can give you a better idea of what this band is about than picking up their record, but Regan and Dranger go a long way towards distilling their guiding principle:
Mike Regan: I think in the general sort of scope of production, we always think…the lo-fi thing is really cool, and I love the idea that you can forget about expensive gear and get raw emotions, but some part of me always wants it to still sound – even if it’s low fidelity- interesting in a way that’s big and…
Stephen Dranger: Impactful?
Regan: Impactful and expansive, even if it’s not huge. We want it to sound big and for people to say, “this is a rock record.”
Maru, definitively, unequivocally, is.