Over the past year, Portland, OR’s Summer Cannibals have experienced a rise in prominence that some would describe as meteoric.
They scored a support slot on a tour with last year’s indie pop sweethearts CHVRCHES, they finished up a brand new record, they played with The War on Drugs… it’s safe to say that it has been quite the busy year for Marc and Jessica (the brains behind Summer Cannibals).
As if that wasn’t enough, they managed to achieve all that while running their own record label, New Moss Records. In true DIY spirit, they juggle all the roles involved – everything from press to management to shipping. Yes, shipping. Don’t laugh – they’re single-handedly keeping their local post office in business.
With a recently reformed rhythm section, Summer Cannibals are hitting the road in a couple weeks to get down to this year’s SXSW and then looping back up to hit Treefort Music Festival. But before they shove off, they’ll play a hometown release celebration for their brand new album, Show Us Your Mind, this Thursday (March 5th) at Bunk Bar with the support of local instrumental kraut-psych wizards Máscaras.
Last week, amidst the clattering and clanging of espresso machines, I got a chance to have a cup of coffee and chat with Jessica and Marc about how wild their last year has been.
For your new record, you got some really great features – Entertainment Weekly, NPR, to name a few. Was that unexpected?
J: Totally unexpected, yeah. We made the record in July with Larry Crane at Jackpot. We did it all analog, to tape. It was super straightforward. In six days we got it all done. Just overdubbed vocals and some guitar solos, so we kept it pretty minimal. We always want to keep the records close to how we sound live. We’ve been sitting on it for a while, so it’s nice to have started the campaign and the pre-order. It’s like everything built up.
M: I guess what’s different about this record is that we’re a little more developed as a band. The songwriting, I think, is a little better. You can hear a difference in the recording quality.
You guys had a different rhythm section when you originally tracked this record. How was it adjusting to a new rhythm section?
J: It was really easy! I think we had four or five practices with [Devon & Jenny] before the first show, and our first show was awesome. And it was kind of a big one.
M: We thought our first show with them would be with The Muffs at Doug Fir, but then while Devon was on tour with Lord Dying, we got asked to open up for War on Drugs. We were like, “Well, we’ll only have like four days between you coming back and playing this show…” and he was just like, “Yeah, whatever, let’s do it!” It’s funny — now I think we’re just really tight because of stressing out like that.
J: The transition was good — it was smooth. It was hard to find the people, but once we found them, it’s been pretty easy and fun.
Your next tour starts in a couple weeks — where is that going to take you?
J: Through California — Sacramento, San Francisco, Costa Mesa — through Arizona to Tucson, and then we’re at SXSW for a week. We have shows all week there, and then we go back up. We’re playing Santa Fe, Denver, Billings, Missoula, and then to Boise for Treefort. And then home — we’re playing an all ages show with Cherry Glazer in Portland on March 31st. I’m stoked for that, since we can never find good all ages shows.
I was checking out the Treefort schedule and saw that you guys had a 1am slot — that’s crazy!
M: The crazy thing is that we also have a 4pm show earlier that day.
J: So we drive 8 hours from Missoula to Boise, play at 4 and then play again at 1am. I don’t know — I was kind of stressed out about it and thought it was gonna be a mess, but then I was like, “We’re done after that. We go home the next day, so who cares?” I’m kind of excited — I feel like it’ll probably get pretty rowdy and fun.
My concern would be that if you play at 1, by the time you’re done you wouldn’t have time to go party — but I guess you’re gonna be really tired anyway, so…
J: Yeah, but Devon will probably wanna stay up — he’ll stay up until like 5.
J: He’s nocturnal!
M: We all spent the night together in Seattle, so that was kind of our “trial run” — it was good, we had fun!
What’s it like being stuck in such close quarters for such extended periods of time?
J: It depends on who it is.
M: I feel like this group is really…
J: …laid back.
M: Yeah. We have fun, we talk, we have great conversations in the van, but also everybody turns off, gets quiet, and does their own thing, too, which is awesome. That’s the key.
J: You can’t have people who want to be entertained all the time ’cause that’s your time to chill out.
Aside from being in Summer Cannibals, you guys also run New Moss Records. Why did you start New Moss? What was the motivation?
J: Well, we had done a small cassette tape label like five years back, and that was a taste of it. We really enjoyed it. But it was a really big group of people, so it made it hard to divide the labor and that kind of stuff. So when that fizzled, it was in the back of my mind that it’s something that I want to do. I like working with bands, I like sending emails, I like seeing music — I like that kind of work. I drafted up a business plan, but I didn’t really have a kick in the ass to get it going. Then we saw Sun Angle live, and it was like, “Okay, let’s do it, we’ve gotta get this together.” When we approached them, we didn’t have a name. We were just like, “We wanna do this,” and they kind of helped us get it all set up.
What sorts of releases have you had or do you have planned?
M: We sort of do it release by release. We put out Sun Angle’s Diamond Junk.
J: Yeah. And this is the third Summer Cannibals release. And then we did a compilation during the summer.
M: We kind of have tunnel vision with Summer Cannibals right now.
J: But we’re on the lookout for a third band. It’s hard to find a band that wants to tour and wants to promote and wants to keep at it for a while. We can’t put money into something if the band isn’t putting in any work, and it’s not like we have a lot to pull from, so we just want to pick right. We want to let it grow slowly, but we want to keep at it for a while.
As the label has grown and as the band has grown… I imagine it has been a learning process.
J: Yeah, we’ve learned a lot.
M: How to time a release, how to write a decent email, all kinds of weird things you never think about. When we started, I didn’t know how… like, when you hired a press person…. I didn’t know if they helped us book shows, or…
J: We were totally clueless. [laughs] I feel like Charlie (of Sun Angle) helped us really understand how it all worked… which is funny: the band teaching the label.
M: [We’ve also learned by] watching how independent labels roll out a release over social media. Just kind of paying attention to that stuff.
It must be pretty crazy to juggle all the roles.
M: Yeah, it’s hard at the moment cause… basically, we’re the manager, we’re the booker, we’re the…
J: Label. [laughs]
M: Yeah, so it’s a lot to take on. Maybe when some other things are taken off our shoulders in the future, it’ll be easier.
Why do you decide to do it yourself? I feel like you guys have enough pull that if you wanted to sign to a label, you could.
J+M: We tried! [laughs]
J: The legal thing is hard because you don’t want to get caught in not a great situation. We would never want to try to be on a major label because they’re clueless, and indie labels are hard because what’s the advantage other than their fanbase. It’s really hard to say if it would help you that much in the long run. When you can hold on to your music and hold on to all those decisions, I think in the long run it can be more rewarding. In terms of signing licensing deals and that kind of stuff, if we continue to hold the rights to our music, then we reap the benefits directly. The disadvantage is that it’s hard. When you have a label who is sending stuff out for you and pushing your name, their name holds weight, but for us it’s us being like, “We’re good! Please check us out!” You are championing our own band name, so to me that’s the hardest part.
M: But, I think once we find a booking agent, we’ll be pretty set.
What sort of advantages could you have gained if you had signed with a bigger label?
M: They probably have a lot of contacts already set.
J: We probably would’ve had a booking agent by now, or a manager, and honestly, we would probably sell more records.
M: There’s people that just buy every… SubPop record, or whatever.
J: The problem with it also, other than not knowing if it would really help us in the long run, is that we don’t want to wait for somebody to put out our stuff. We just want to be able to put it out. I know so many bands who lose steam because they’re shopping something around for a year, two years. I’ve seen so many bands fizzle because of that, and I don’t wanna do that. And it’s cool to see it grow having done it ourselves, knowing that it’s not based on somebody else’s fan base — it’s from us. I find that rewarding, I guess.
M: And that’s not saying it hasn’t been hard. There’s been plenty of moments over the last six months where I’ve just been like, “Why the fuck didn’t we shop this around?”
Well, it looks like it’s worked out so far.
J: I think so, yeah.
M: It’s kind of cool it say you did it yourself.
J: I think it’s going somewhere.
Do you guys do all the shipping yourself?
M: Yeah. We have a real love/hate relationship with our local post office. We sent them like 450 CDs for our radio campaign. They were sort of pissed, but sort of stoked because it looks like they’re getting all this business. They’re like, “Maybe they won’t shut us down now!”
The logistics of that must be insane. I guess you have to print up your own postage.
J: We don’t do that, actually. I’ll go in and ask if now’s a good time to do it, and he’ll just close his register and do our order, and then the other register will just take customers, so I just wait there. It helps them if they print out the labels themselves instead of us because it’s one of the smaller post offices in town, and they’ve been worried about getting shut down.
Oh, wow — so you’re literally keeping them in business!
J: Yeah, the first time we did it with the Sun Angle stuff, I even asked if it would be easier if we got our own scale and did it, and he was like, “No!”
You toured with CHVRCHES last year. I remember seeing that and being totally stunned – that’s a huge slot! How did that come about?
J: It was a random pairing – it was really cool!
M: We were so lucky and thankful for them doing that for us. We opened up for them in Portland, and a couple weeks later we just got this email from their booking agent, and he was like, “Are you available for these dates?” I just remember waking up and being like, “What the fuuuck?”
J: We didn’t even really talk to them [that night]. We were confused. It was awesome. It was 1500-2000 people every show, and it was mostly young kids. CHVRCHES doesn’t go to their merch booth, and so the kids kind of settled for us – they wanted pictures and autographs and all that stuff. It was weird. And then you come home, and you’re like, “Oh… none of that was really for us.” [laughs] It’s scary to open up for a band like that because we’re so different.
In a few words, what’s the goal for Summer Cannibals for this year?
M: We wanna just tour as much as we can.
J: The big goal is to try and get on another one of those support slots.
M: And we wanna start working on the next record.
Stream Summer Cannibals brand new LP Show Us Your Mind in it’s entirety here.
Written by Alexei Shishkin
Photography by Adam Smith and Jason Quigley