smallhands is a three-piece hailing from Fredericksburg, Virginia, forming back in 2014. They recently wrapped up a small, five-date tour on the East Coast. Winston Givler, Kyle Guerra and Austin O’Rourke are the band’s three members, and while they can’t quite categorize what the band sounds like, that’s not exactly a bad thing.
We chatted with them at Hyperion Coffee, in the heart of downtown Fredericksburg, about their upcoming LP, titled “how to say goodbye,” life as a DIY band, the potential for a Cook Out release show and some of their favorite music from 2016. We’ve also got the exclusive premiere of “No Pressure,” off that LP.
Modern Vinyl: What is the oral history of smallhands?
Winston Givler: Me and Kyle, our bassist, were in a ska pop-punk band…
Kyle Guerra: You don’t need to tell them that.
WG: Yes you do. And towards the end of that, when we were about 16, we were like “this music sucks.” That dissolved, and me and Kyle were without a band. We just started writing some acoustic songs. After that, we started recording all those ideas and stuff. They were pretty rough, but it wasn’t ska, so that was cool. We became friends with some people and met Austin, our drummer, through them, and we were like “Austin is the best drummer we’ve ever seen, so let’s see if he can play with us!” Late 2013, early 2014, we got together and took those acoustic songs and ran with them; got everybody’s input for a full band. A lot of the songs that we play are those songs, but they’re not. They’ve just changed so much throughout the years. We’re just experimenting. We play a lot of shows, okay, not a lot of shows, but enough. That’s pretty much it. It’s pretty boring.
MV: You have a debut LP coming out soon! What was the process like recording your debut?
KG: It was long.
WG: A pain in the ass. When you do things yourself, you know, DIY ‘til you die, it will kill you.
Austin O’Rourke: It boils down to your work ethic. When I have the worst ethic, and I’m in charge of a lot of it, it’s kind of a pain in the ass.
WG: Austin having to balance mastering and mixing everything while going to school…
AO: And being really lazy.
WG: And also playing shows and stuff on top of that, it’s so much. In late 2014, we recorded three or four songs, and we released one of them. Then we were like “oh, these don’t really sound like how we want them…”
AO: We changed our sound in the middle of that.
WG: We put it on the backburner and played a lot more shows in that year span, and were finally comfortable enough to start recording again. It took a while, but once we actually sat down and kind of did it, it didn’t take that long.
AO: The recording at least.
WG: Probably 10 months to mix and master.
AO: Our original release date was hopefully Halloween. We were hoping…I was hoping and telling people I’ll have it done by Halloween. Six months later…?
WG: What is it today? June?
KG: It’s the 27th.
WG: Eight months? Yeah, so a little bit after the deadline, but it’s done now.
AO: We have more songs on it.
WG: It was going to be seven songs.
AO: Six or seven.
WG: Yeah, so in that time, we did some…even now with the album, our sound is transitioning already.
AO: You can hear it in some of the songs.
WG: Even when we play live, it’s going to be different than what we recorded because it was what…ten months ago? We have some instrumental, ambient-style songs on the album. It’s a nice mix, I think, of everybody’s interests.
KG: Saying that we sound different live, I think just saying that has a negative connotation. We’re way louder live than we are [not live]. That’s what it is. It’s not that we’re bad, it’s just that we’re really loud live.
AO: The intros and outros of songs are different. The body is the same, but we’re just…
WG: We improvise sometimes. Sometimes it works out. Most of the time it works out.
MV: What would you say are some of the best things about being a DIY band?
AO: It’s the fact that you get to look back and say that this is your thing. You don’t have to divvy up too much credit to all these people. It was cool that we wrote all the songs, did all the artwork, and have recorded mostly everything. There’s some things where students here at UMW [University of Mary Washington] could’ve profited from the opportunities of recording us, so we’re okay [with that]. We would’ve done everything ourselves, but it was all our equipment, all of our time.
WG: It gives you a good feeling. Just like a prideful sense. Especially now that it’s done. It’s not so stressful anymore, and it’s just really refreshing. It makes you feel really good.
MV: What are some of the worst things, besides the work ethic?
AO: You really have to care. That’s something that’s pretty hard. I’ve been in other bands where it’s not totally DIY, where you can just lay low. Other people will take credit. For other bands, when you’re not doing DIY, it’s like “Okay, we’ve recorded everything. Now let’s just wait for it to be mixed and mastered.” We had to be conscious through the whole…every inch of the process. Even when other people recorded us, at the end of the day, we had to decide whether what they did or what we did that day was worth it, or should we redo it. Which happened with half the things that other people recorded.
WG: I mean, at the end of the day, they were doing it for a class. For a project. And we were like, “Okay, cool. You have that, now give us the tracks that we did so we can do it our way.” I mean…it really is a pain in the ass, especially when you have to balance being a student, having a job, playing shows. I mean it’s a lot of stuff.
AO: Another part of the work things is the laptop that I did mostly everything on is on its last fucking limb. Throughout the whole process I said “Please don’t die. Please don’t die, laptop. Please!” If that dies, everything’s gone.
WG: I’d say that’s one of the reasons why it took so long. The equipment.
AO: That’s one of the worst things about being DIY, because when you’re in a professional studio, everything down to the microphones and the computer they use is awesome. It’s a solid 30-minute loading time on my computer to do anything. I’m just venting, I’m sorry.
WG: One of the things that was weird about it was…we did what, one full track? Or three-quarters of a track at UMW and the other ones that we did were just drums, because we didn’t have the resources like all the mics and stuff.
AO: We had to use two different computers at the same time to record.
WG: Yes. We simultaneously recorded with two computers. We had to come up with a lot of different ways…
KG: Thrifty and patchworky; it was really fun though. Back to one of the best things, that was one of the funnest things for me. Just sitting in a basement for hours, trying to figure out the best ways to record things. Where to set up mics, just being really weird.
AO: Where to put a mattress to soundproof!
WG: We don’t have enough mics, we don’t have enough mic stands. We don’t have enough mic cables. We have to have two computers at the same time. We hung a lot of mics!
KG: And just doing a lot of weird things too, like when we were recording bass, we set up a small snare with a mic next to it, just to get weird distortion. That was fun.
AO: And duct tape everywhere.
WG: A lot of duct tape was used. We used a lot of drum stands as mic stands, let’s see…yeah.
MV: Since it has taken you so long to put out your baby, in a sense, it’s been sitting for a while.
WG: It’s been in the womb for a while.
AO: It can walk now.
KG: It came out. It’s gonna come out walking.
MV: Is there anything you would do differently today, if you had to go and re-record it?
KG: Kill myself.
AO: No, everything. The thing about our work ethic is that it’s evolutionary. I think the songs would’ve been completely different if we had started them a month later. Since a lot of the decisions are ours, we can be artistic about every decision. A lot of that comes down to our mood right then and there. Even to the vocal effects we used…it came down to my mood right then. It was like, “Do I want them to sound like he’s in a chamber or a cathedral?” And stuff like that.
WG: I mean, I think looking back, Austin got gifted a laptop that is a little newer; he could’ve done it on there!
KG: We would’ve finished maybe in October, when we wanted it to be done!
AO: If I had that laptop, maybe.
WG: That’s probably the only thing I would really change. We had…I don’t know if I want to talk about it, but it was supposed to be somewhat of a co-release, so we had another person that was like “I need it, I need it, I need it.”
AO: It would probably be another five months before release. So thank you.
WG: That was good, but the person who was like “I need it…” ended up…we’re not doing the release with them anymore.
KG: Now it’s just Alex [Rudenshiold] at Tape Modulator.
WG: It was weird, because the one that was really pushing us…
KG: To finish it backed out…
AO: Which kind of sucked, but at the same time, I’m glad he did that because…
WG: It’s finished.
AO: …it’s finished now. I think it’s definitely a different record than what people thought it was going to be. Our recorded version of ourselves is very different because it’s not as loud. One of the things about us is that if you quieted us down, we could be a cutesy band if we didn’t have distortion everywhere and heavy stuff. Just the sheer volume of us makes us heavy.
WG: We’ve played semi-acoustic sets at a yoga place, and people were like “Oh, this is great! We did yoga to it!” But that’s a lot different. It was the same songs, and we didn’t change much, just quieted it.
KG: Did we even answer the question that she asked?
WG: I don’t know. I drank too much coffee already.
MV: What would you say the sound of your LP would be?
KG: It’s rock and roll, pure and simple.
AO: Pure rock and roll infused with rock. Unadulterated!
MV: The influences behind it?
WG: Our influences through this whole year process…we listened to so much music. If we say..it’s going to take me a second to think about what we were listening to then. Even now, towards the end of the mastering, I was like, “Austin, check out this band! Look at what they did. Kind of do something like that.” I’m trying to think. A year ago…
AO: I can’t even remember.
WG: Yeah, I don’t know. I think our mainstays of inspiration would just be a lot of…collectively, I know we all really like jazz. Austin’s a big Bill Evans fan. I’m a big Coltrane fan. Kyle…Kyle only likes Kenny G.
KG: I don’t listen to much jazz. I listen to a lot of hip-hop and jazz samples.
WG: I’d say that’s probably where we get a lot of inspiration from.
AO: From structure to mix.
WG: I’d say jazz is definitely the biggest one. Even if you can’t really hear a lot of jazz in our music, it’s definitely a big part of our lives, musically and non-musically.
AO: I’ve tried not to fuse it with our sound, but the latest stuff we’ve been writing, has been straight-up ambient jazz parts. At least live. I don’t know about recorded.
WG: I think a lot of godspeed and that sort of stuff kind of…ambient post-rock stuff we really like. We all also really like heavy music. Grindcore and shit like that.
AO: We listen to that as a group the most.
WG: Which is really weird, because I know Alex the other day was showing me some bands. He said “Oh! You must be really into shoegaze and stuff” since a lot of people would consider our sound sort of an experimental shoegaze sort of thing, and I said “No, not really. It just came out like that. I don’t really listen to that that much.” Which is weird.
KG: I do.
AO: I do. But I listen to weird-ass stuff. Everything I listen to is weird.
WG: We like a lot of different stuff that doesn’t sound like our music, which is why it’s hard for me to say “Oh, this band really inspired me to write this,” because…yeah.
AO: Throughout the mastering process, I was listening to a lot of Tim Hecker, and ambient stuff. Like loud ambient stuff.
KG: That’s an oxymoron.
AO: I guess because of that, the album took a spin. Our song “No Pressure,” before we did anything to it, it was basically a pop song. By the end of it, it’s this pop song with basically a Tim Hecker song in the background.
WG: I can see that. That’s kind of what I wanted you to do with it.
MV: Going back to this whole “jazz” thing, looking ahead to the future, would you consider bringing on jazz musicians, or feature jazz saxophonists?
AO: That would be awesome!
WG: I’ve actually been thinking about picking up a sax and…
KG: Adam has one if you want to borrow it.
WG: Really? Yes. So I was thinking of doing that, and I think that would be cool to mic up and run through my pedalboard. Austin is just a fantastic pianist, and you can hear that a lot on the album. There’s a lot of piano.
KG: Hidden, secret piano.
WG: Definitely, at least piano a lot. We were trying to use more. I would love to do jazzier stuff.
AO: And you never know with us, because we’re on so many different music-related things at the same time. Normally I’m in at least four bands at once, and so we all…if we’re not just jamming with certain sounds…smallhands is kind of like the filtered through sound we like. We’ll at least jam one thing, and if it works, we’ll commit it to smallhands. I guess you never really know.
WG: I guess it’s sort of an anything goes. I mean, all the songs at least, on this album, they kind of follow a certain musical theme. That’s not to say we have some songs that we’ve worked on that are a lot different than anything that’s on the album. We used to have a pop-punk song.
KG: That was when we first started playing though.
WG: I mean…we kind of…we’re not really afraid. That sounds really pretentious…
(Kyle starts singing “Not Afraid” by Eminem)
WG: We enjoy the experimental part of music. That’s why we don’t really want to commit ourselves to any sort of sound. I’ll leave it at that.
AO: I’m a jazz drummer at heart. I’ve been in a lot of rock bands over time. My favorite style is jazz drumming. I’ve been trying to keep that from smallhands, but it’s getting harder and harder. Who knows.
MV: Also looking ahead, are you planning on doing any shows before the release?
KG: We’re doing a five-date tour. It’s really small. Alex helped us put it together.
AO: Wow. That’s so well-organized.
KG: It’s coming out after our run of shows.
WG: Which is going to be exciting, because we’ll get to come back and relax after a really stressful few days of most likely things not working out in our favor all the time. And coming home and relaxing and letting this thing out in the world that we’ve been keeping to ourselves for a long time. That’s exciting.
KG: Should we do a release show or something?
AO: At Cook Out? Yes.
KG: We’re gonna do a Cook Out release show. We’re just going to have a listening party at Cook Out. We’re just going to show up with speakers and blast it. You’re invited.
AO: You’re invited, yeah. Get some hush puppies.
MV: Let’s not talk about smallhands anymore.
KG: Thank God.
WG: That’s what we came here for!
MV: Why don’t we just end this on a really good note? We’re at the midyear point for 2016. What are some of the releases you guys have really enjoyed?
WG: The Body. The Body and The Full Of Hell collab. Definitely like…very in the next couple years, if not sooner, at least the collab…I love them both, but I feel like the collab is just going to be a classic, very important album in the genre.
AO: Grouper’s new album.
WG: Yeah, Grouper’s new album is fantastic.
KG: I’m trying to think of stuff that’s come out this year that I’ve listened to, because I don’t keep track.
AO: I’m really bad at listening to new releases.
KG: Oh! Miserable. Miserable’s album is really good. I forget her name, but she does King Woman. She did another album with Miserable that’s really good. I forget what the album is called.
AO: The artist Goldman. His new record is awesome. It’s like ambient.
KG: “Uncontrollable” by Miserable. It is the most depressing, beautiful album ever. It’s crushing.
WG: I don’t know. I don’t think anything I’ve listened to this year has stuck with me as much as The Body, No One Deserves Happiness and the collab with Full Of Hell.
AO: When did the collab come out?
WG: Last year.
KG: No! That came out in 2014. I have their album.
WG: Oh. That must’ve been late 2014.
KG: I got their record at their show, and on the front it says “one of the most definitive albums of 2014.” I was like “oh shit!” I thought this came out last year.
AO: Nails’ new album was good too. And Beyoncé’s new album is really good! Sorry.
KG: Who’s Beyoncé?
MV: Please don’t get me started on Beyoncé. That album is really good live.
AO: You’ve seen her live? Oh my God. I’m so jealous.
WG: I know that Fleshborn is coming out with a new album this year. I’m really psyched for that.
KG: Fleshborn’s nice. I hate music. I just hate music. I only listen to harsh noise. To quote Chris Griffiths, “you know, you listen to so much music, you end up hating it.” Sometimes you’ve just gotta listen to harsh noise. Because fuck everything.
WG: Clear your palate!
AO: Yeah. Palate cleanser for sure.
MV: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AO: I’d like to give a shout out to all of our dogs: Gracie, Bringer, Puppy, Tulip, Grant, Gabby and Jack. Is that it? Is that all of our dogs?
WG: I think so, yeah. Grant is a good boy.
“how to say goodbye” will be released via Tape Modulator. The LP’s first press is out of 50 cassettes. The first pressing is a clear cassette with white imprinting. You can pick up a copy of smallhands’ LP over at the Tape Modulator website.