March On, Comrade are a hell of a band. They’ve been a band since 2015 when indie pop band Ordinary Van disbanded, but a few of the members decided to keep things going. Ryan Holquist, Charles P. Davis, and Chris Leonard started up March On, Comrade with John Ptak and Ben Robinson. They cut a great self-titled album in 2016, and then at the beginning of this year they played the Sums & Differences show with a 12 piece chamber orchestra. They recorded that concert and released it a month later.
In a relatively short amount of time they’ve achieved quite a lot.
But what do they sound like? They travel in post-rock terrain, but they embellish with crystalline pop hooks. Imagine This Will Destroy You, Sigur Ros, Auburn Lull, and the studio curiosity of Brian Wilson all rolled into one comfortable blanket of noise. It’s dense enough for the headiest of space cadets but there’s an air of romanticism that reels in even the casual channel surfer.
The guys took some time over the spring and summer and wrote and recorded their new album, titled Our Peaceful Atoms. They don’t retool their sound more than they hone it in on all the buzzing beauty and pop confections that they’ve created and culled over the last two years. March On, Comrade have made a lean and precise 6-song album that will go well with both existential pondering alone in the dark, and as a background score to conversations and beers.
I spoke to Charlie and Ryan about the Sums & Differences show, the new album, how it came together, and what we have to look forward to in 2018.
J. Hubner: The last time we spoke March On, Comrade were gearing up for the Sums & Differences show at Artslab. For those that don’t know, this was the March On, Comrade with a 12-piece chamber orchestra show. How did the performance end up? Were you all happy with how it turned out? Is it something March On, Comrade would consider doing again?
Charlie Davis: It turned out great! It actually surpassed my expectations. I expected us to have a good turnout but we were the only band on the bill and it was more expensive than a typical local show so for it to actually sell out in advance was amazing. We got terrific feedback on it. I think we’d like to do something like that again but we also don’t just want to do the same show twice so it is a matter of finding the time to come up with a way to do something similar but unique.
Ryan Holquist: It was very rewarding. It came together really well, and it’s flattering how well-received it was. We quietly snuck the audio onto Spotify and Bandcamp. The only down side of the experience is that we set the bar pretty high for ourselves, and now every time we play we want to have an orchestra and video projection. We didn’t want to record the exact same arrangements, but we were happy to have the same string quartet and percussionist on the new album. Sums & Differences definitely changed our compositional style, and you can hear those elements a lot more on Our Peaceful Atoms.
J. Hubner: So with “performing live with a chamber orchestra” marked off the band’s bucket list, you guys headed back into writing mode and we are now getting ready for the brand new March On, Comrade album Our Peaceful Atoms. How did the album come together? Where did the band record the record?
Charlie Davis: We had started working on a lot of new song ideas around the time of the Sums and Differences show, and that show really gave us a lot of inspiration moving forward. We wrapped up songwriting in early summer and started recording around July and August. We recorded drums at the rehearsal space of our friend Jon Ross, which sadly just burnt down. The rest was done at our own home studios, primarily John Ptak’s and my own.
Ryan Holquist: A couple of the songs basically finished writing themselves as they were recorded. We committed to leaving a certain amount of space and replaced some more standard guitar/drums/keyboard parts with other instruments and atmospheric sounds, such as accordion, kalimba, electronic percussion, and effected samples. We also gave a lot of leeway and freedom to Robert Cheek, who mixed the album. There’s a huge benefit to having outside ears involved in some capacity, and we knew we could trust Robert’s decisions based on his aesthetic and resume (Band of Horses, Tera Melos, Doombird, By Sunlight).
J. Hubner: Four of the six tracks on Our Peaceful Atoms were performed live for the Sums and Differences performance. Do they differ, if any, from those first live renditions? How long have those tracks been around? Do “Path” and “Lost” go back as well or are those newer songs?
Charlie Davis: Of the new songs we played at Sums and Differences, only one had been played at multiple shows before that so the others were definitely in infancy and have had some tweaks done to them since. Doing that show really showed us how well the orchestral arrangements filled them out, so doing them in a way that would leave room for those elements to be recorded was something we made a conscious decision about. “Path” is one we’ve been working on for awhile and has been played out a couple of times now, while “Lost” has never been played live and is the newest song.
Ryan Holquist: A recording puts things under a microscope, so there’s less need to fill things in with extra strums and drum fills. A couple of the songs are pretty close to the live arrangements (“Westlake” and “Terra”), but even some of the others we’ve played live have an intentionally different vibe on the album.
J. Hubner: Stylistically you guys still balance nicely between post-rock and dream pop. I’m hearing a lot more Auburn Lull than say, This Will Destroy You, especially with the vocals. Maybe neither of them play into the sound (could just be my old dude ears), but you guys have done a great job on Our Peaceful Atoms of creating these expansive songs while still giving them a very modern and inviting lean. You seem to be having the cake and eating it too while offering a slice to everyone else.
Going into this record, what were you guys wanting to achieve this time around? What were some influences and inspirations?
Charlie Davis: I don’t know that we set out to achieve anything specifically but we all wanted to push on the boundaries of the last record and see if we could do something different. We weren’t looking for a genre shift or anything like that, but we didn’t want to make songs that would be confused for anything on the last album. I think we accomplished that. These new songs seem to fit into our live show perfectly but if you listen to the two albums they have some very clear differences.
Ryan Holquist: I think we’ll always have a desire to keep certain post-rock elements, but we’re not so committed to that genre that we want to ignore appealing melodies or pop-oriented song structures.
J. Hubner: If you can, could you dissect the creative process with the track “Path”? I’m hearing a lot of electronic flourishes in this tune. How did this track come together? What were some of the artistic inspirations behind the song?
Charlie Davis: Ben was doing some work with a new sampler and came up with this really ear-grabbing beat that sounded like something heavy trudging along. He made a demo that he sent to us that had that beat along with some keys and other electronic elements. We all loved it right away and were actually able to finish that song very quickly. Any band at some point can start to feel a little formulaic in their songwriting and having something that started from a more electronic standpoint was very inspiring and allowed everything else to come about very naturally.
Ryan Holquist: Ben came into the band after most of the songs on the first EP had been written, so he was largely trying to squeeze into the gaps and create atmosphere. “Path” is a great example of how his contributions have morphed our sound, as is the presence of a lot more piano and prominenet synth parts. Ben’s chord progression and electro twiddlies from the OP1 made us all think outside our usual boxes for ways to contribute, which bled into our parts and overall approach to some of the other songs. It’s also pretty obvious that at least a couple of us really love the Valtari album by Sigur Rós…
J. Hubner: “Westlake” reminds me of The Beach Boys. To my ears, Smile is one of the most complex pop albums ever made. “Westlake” has moments that put me in mind of the song “Surf’s Up”. You guys pull off both progressive rock leanings while still making this a beautifully spaced-out pop song. Besnard Lakes do that very well, too. How does pop music play into the writing process in March On, Comrade?
Charlie Davis: We all listen to it in some form or another so I’m sure it finds it’s place in our music. There are a few parts of that song that Ryan would tell you are essentially Genesis tributes, so maybe we get some influence from the pop of other eras as well. Most pop music nowadays is very computer oriented in terms of the songwriting process as well as the instrumentation and arrangements. This album definitely has a larger emphasis on electronic elements that could be found in a lot of pop music while still sounding like a rock band.
Ryan Holquist: Beach Boys, interesting! I wrote most of “Westlake,” and I don’t know that I had any particular vibe in mind for it. When Robert was mixing it, he warned me that he was going for full-on Fleetwood Mac. I think I’m the only band member who would count himself as a particular fan of progressive rock, and as Charlie mentioned, I ended up with a subconscious nod to Steve Hackett (Genesis) in my guitar part. I suppose it’s fair to say that on “Westlake” in particular, we played pop-oriented harmonic content and groove, in a progressive rock arc, with enough space and ambience to qualify as post-rock.
J. Hubner: On December 8th March On, Comrade will be having a CD release show at the Brass Rail. Can you give us some details on that show? Who’s playing with you guys? What sort of merch will be available? Will minds be expanded?
Charlie Davis: We just completed the line-up recently, and we’ll be playing with our friends in Trichotomous Hippopotamus and The Be Colony. We’ve played with both bands before and they’re both amazing bands with their own unique sounds. We’ll be selling whatever is left of our t-shirts, old EP, and of course we’ll have copies of the new album. Since most of the new songs have either not been played live much, or never, we’re hoping everyone will really enjoy them and maybe get some mind expansion from them.
Ryan Holquist: To give you an idea of how much minds will be expanded, Our Peaceful Atoms will be born on the same date as Diego Rivera, Nicki Minaj, Sinead O’Connor, and Ann Coulter.
J. Hubner: Are there any other shows on the books for March On, Comrade you can tell us about?
Charlie Davis: We have a couple other shows on the books at this point. We didn’t get to play out much this last year due to our own scheduling conflicts so I’m hoping we can be a bit more consistent in 2018. Our next show after this will be on January 20 and is a benefit show for a good friend of ours who is trying to raise money for her and her husband to adopt and we have some great bands in store for that one as well.
J. Hubner: We’ve almost put another year behind us. 2017 has been kind of a dumpster fire to say the least, with a few moments of beauty scattered here and there. What do we have to look forward to in 2018?
Ryan Holquist: If we would have known when we first started playing together in 2015 that there would be so much talk about ties to Russia, we might have reconsidered our name! We are proud to have had no part in the dumpster fire of 2017.
Charlie Davis: It was a very intense year to say the least. I’m hoping it will be an exciting year for Fort Wayne music. I’m sure the veteran bands will continue to put out great music and there are always new bands getting started that amaze us with their creativity. As for March On, Comrade, we have no plans of stopping anytime soon so I’m looking forward to working on new songs, playing shows, and seeing what the five of us can continue to come up with going forward.
Don’t forget to get out to the Brass Rail on December 8th for March On, Comrade’s CD release show for Our Peaceful Atoms. They’ll be playing with Trichotomous Hippopotamus and The Be Colony. And be sure to grab a copy of the CD. If you can’t make it or you are weird about physical media, then just go to https://marchoncomrade.bandcamp.com/album/our-peaceful-atoms and download it on December 8th.