Interview: Sinai Vessel
Leading up to the release of Sinai Vessel’s latest LP Brokenlegged, emotional rock music broke into the mainstream—again. Major publications were penning think pieces on the new wave of emo, and the revival’s torchbearers were some of the most talked about performers throughout 2016’s festival circuit. Nightclubs across the country were banking on nostalgia by throwing “Emo Nights” — DJ-led parties dedicated to Taking Back Sunday-era throwbacks. A brofest of hundreds of aging millenials gathered, screaming every lyric in unison. These parties became so popular that they became their own national tour… But as the year came to a close, the mood was much less celebratory.
Brokenlegged was lightly toted as the first “crucial” emo release of the new year. And after almost four years of writing, recording, scrapping, re-recording and re-mixing, Sinai Vessel deserved all of the hype and anticipation that they could get. But as the album release rolled out it became closely intertwined with the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. What should have been a relieving and exciting time for the band was instead a transitional period filled with confusion, uncertainty and grey skies for the entire country.
Though unintentional, Brokenlegged became an appropriate soundtrack for the first quarter of 2017. The album’s busy, driving and dogged instrumentals are often introduced by dewy, contemplative segments of feedback before bursting into focus—providing a similar sensation to snapping out of an emotionally productive daydream. It’s a deeply meditative record of post-heartland rock that encapsulates feelings being down, but not out, in the most tumultuous times.
On the leg of their current northeast tour we caught up with Caleb Cordes, the anchor of Sinai Vessel, to revisit Brokenlegged a year after it’s release and to chat about how the project has changed.
hope: Brokenlegged is a little over a year old now. For you—the author—how has it aged?
SV: I’d say that it has gone from being a present expression to an expression of a certain time. Just as any artist relates to their art, I think that I have grown since I wrote that record — both musically and as a person. That’s not to say that those songs are utterly irrelevant to me, but it’s been about 3 or 4 years since Brokenlegged was written, and it took a long time to get it out into the world. When I listen to the songs I am proud of them, but at this point it just spurs in me a desire to write new ones.
hope: So Brokenlegged is just a little bit more in your rearview at this point...
SV: Exactly. It’s exciting, though, because in order to keep it fresh we’ve rearranged some of the songs in a live presentation — which is hopefully exciting to the people who have listened to the record and are coming to our shows.
hope: You sort of infamously recorded, scrapped & re-recorded Brokenlegged in it’s entirety. Can you elaborate a bit about what you wanted to do differently with the second session?
SV: What’s interesting is that there wasn’t a great deal of difference in the actual content of the record the second time around. I think maybe a bridge changed and some loose ends were tied up as far as the arrangements of the songs go. But the way in which those songs were re-recorded — and how natural we felt in the context of that second recording — made a difference that I don’t think I could overstate. The first try at the record was in a super unfamiliar context, and it was really rushed. I don’t think that the songs had steeped long enough.
The second time around we did it at home, with someone that we felt on a team with. It made for a much better product, which was palpable even in the first few days of recording. And, looking back, I’m really glad that we made that choice because at the time none of us knew it’d be our only record as that lineup. It kind of stands as the “pearl” at the end of four years of hard labor.
hope: Were there any hardships or repercussions that came along with that decision?
SV: I think that all of the hardships really just predated that decision. Going through the agony of, like, “OK, should we keep dragging this along and hope that something good comes out of these takes that we don't really believe in?" Or wondering “Do we just scrap it and start over?” There was a lot of agony and tossing & turning — but I think that once we decided to go with our gut we felt relief very quickly. We understood that we were making the right decision.
hope: If you were able to change one thing about the current record what would it be?
SV: Not to evade the question, but I think that anything that I would want to change should just be applied to the future. To just try to carry that energy of what I wish we’d done differently into the present and into the next record. Brokenlegged was such a hard record to make and it took such a long time. One of the most relieving things was just being able to kick it out the door — realizing its problems, but completing it & releasing it.
To answer the question more directly: There are a few things about the mix that I would’ve done differently. The record — in addition to being recorded twice — was also mixed twice.
hope: Brokenlegged came out during the 2016 Presidential Election. I imagine that it soundtracked an unmistakably dark time for a lot of people. Even though the songs predated the election, they fit the mood really well…
SV: Yeah — exactly a week before the release date we played Shea Stadium in Brooklyn on Election day. We woke up to the speech. It was a day of mourning. That night was a big show for us — but it ended up being the night that Shea was busted by the NYPD. It was a heavy day.
hope: Yeah, I actually traveled to New York for that show. I remember it really vividly: Being in New York on election day, being at Shea for the first time ever and seeing everything get shut down. It was very confusing from a patron's standpoint... What was it like as from the perspective of a performer? Was the seriousness of the situation evident pretty immediately?
SV: I had played there before, and gotten to know a tiny bit of the community around there —so I quickly tried my best to mitigate my disappointment with not being able to play that night with the realization that, for me, this was a show being shut down, whereas for the community at large it was a mainstay — a place that they had really believed in and had put a whole lot of effort into — going down. The symbol for them was a much larger, more powerful one than it was for us.
We sort of got to be included in the mourning afterwords. We all went over to Peter [from Peaer]’s apartment and were just drinking and commiserating—but productively commiserating. It was a very, very warm, nurturing time. I remember that night not only for the defeat of the show, but also for the immediate community response of being able to be there for each other.
hope: Do you think that there is a solution to preserving all-ages, DIY spaces? Or do you think it’s simply up to a few members of the community to open their doors, accepting the fate of eventual discontinuation?
SV: I think there’s a proactive realism. Of course DIY and illegal spaces are always under the threat of being shut down — but that shouldn’t be what defines the space. I think that Shea Stadium was a great example because they operated to the fullest, cared to the fullest and invested to the fullest, as if it was never going to go down. I think behaving as if it is a mainstay and as if it is a worthwhile investment — which I believe it is — prolongs the possibility of those spaces existing.
hope: Back to Brokenlegged—you had a lot of those songs in your back pocket for more than a minute. Presumably, you’ve written a bunch more since you first started the tracking. Do you have any plans to record the follow-up soon?
SV: I think we’re going to finish up this tour and maybe do one or two more behind Brokenlegged. Even though it’s an old record to me, I have to respect that it’s still finding new ears all the time. I want to give those songs their due for a few more seasons.
But I’m very excited about holing up and working on the ideas that I have and developing something that is more current to me. I’m just excited to explore.
ope: This is your first tour with new members. After playing with the same cast of friends for years, how did you go about finding the right crew of people to play with?
SV: I think that — in regards to the idea of wanting to tour out this record — the framework of the band has had to shift from being a constant-member situation to sort of being a volunteer-based organization [Laughs].
This is the second touring lineup that we’ve had since the other guys left—we had a separate lineup in November. It was just made up of people who have offered to help in the case that we would ever need a fill-in. The current lineup includes my friend Zach Large — who plays in a North Carolina band called Youth League — who had offered years ago to fill-in if Sinai Vessel ever needed it. I took him up on that long-extended offer. Then my longtime friend and neighbor Jarrod Gee — who plays in several Chattanooga bands — came along just because I ran in the same circles as him, and trusted his musicianship and friendship. They were the first people who occurred to me as the first lineup dissolved and it’s miraculous how it’s worked out.
hope: Well I’m glad you didn’t have to go through one of those awkward band member interviews…
SV: I’ve never been cursed with that situation [Laughs]. I’ve been blessed with the resources of good players. But who knows what the future may hold with that. Whenever it comes to building the new record, the whole context of the band may change — and I’m open to that — but it’ll be a new challenge for sure.
hope: You’ve talked a bit about how much you love Montreal. Maybe this tour is even partially routed so you can spend some more time there. What is it about the city that you love so much?
SV: I would like to think that Montreal is unique enough to be beloved by just a passing traveler, but it may also just be the first place in my adult life that I have ever spent extended time in aside from touring. I’ve been touring for the better part of five or six years and I’ve had the privilege of seeing a lot of amazing places — but I’ve almost never struck out time to just choose one and spend some weeks there. But I did that with Montreal. This past New Years my partner and I drove up there and spent a week eating, exploring, getting lost, going to a Leonard Cohen exhibition. I fell in love with the city. It very much feels like you are in a whole different place, removed from what I know of North America. At the same time it’s so accessible! It’s right up there.
hope: What music trends would you like to see in the second half of 2018?
SV: I feel like there may be a cultural tide shift towards stronger, more singular songwriting. Bands like Big Thief... Maybe there’s more attention being paid to American rock n’ roll roots music. People are starting to pay attention to feel and vibe rather than just tricks and loudness. I just am always really challenged and refreshed when I see a band that is paying attention to mood and composition rather than flashiness. I’m excited about bands that require patience.
There’s a band from Nashville that I keep thinking about called Bandit—they were a band on Broken Circles that put out a record that sounds very different from their current iteration. We played with them while we were in Nashville. They’ve been dormant for a long time, but they just popped up on that bill and played a totally revamped set. I’m chomping at the bit to see what happens this year coming from them.
hope: What have you guys been listening to that’s come out this year so far?
SV: I have not done as great of a job as I want to this year as far as listening to records. Though one album that I’m really excited about is the new Hot Snakes record. They’re making more exciting rock music than just about anybody that is half their age. It’s a really enthralling listen. I’m really jazzed about the new Hovvdy record—it’s a real pleasant listen. I’ve also been revisiting the latest Lemuria record that came out last year. That band is so inspiring because they just sound like they’re having a blast when they’re playing music.
Sinai Vessel play Burlington, VT on Wednesday, April 25th with Sleeping In at SideBar. Entry to the event is FREE but please come prepared with a $5-10 donation to the artists. RSVP to the event here.
- hope all is well