Band To Watch: Really From

Portraits by Nick Surette & Elle DioGuardi, art by Madison Arrichiello

Band To Watch: Really From

Portraits by Nick Surette & Elle DioGuardi, art by Madison Arrichiello

The members of Really From have no shortage of milestones to measure the four years since their previous album. There have been marriages and moves, life-changing diagnoses and therapeutic breakthroughs, solo albums and grad school, the near entirety of the Trump presidency, a global pandemic, new jobs and a new name. About that last one: 2017’s Verse was released as People Like You, and while Chris Lee-Rodriguez can’t get into the legal reasons behind the change, he ensured their new name was within spiritual alignment.

“People Like You and Really From are saying the same thing as far as finding a place and a space in yourself,” he explains. For any of the above reasons, Really From would enter an environment far different than the one that received Verse. Yet, they didn’t truly grasp the fundamental, irrevocable shifts in the music industry until they got their greatest signal boost as a band: It wasn’t the result of a plum opening gig or inclusion on a Spotify playlist or a rave review, but a single mention on TikTok.

If you keep up with the interrelated worlds of punk, hardcore, emo, and ska, you probably know Jeremy Hunter, commonly known as JER. They originally rose to notoriety by doing covers as Skatune Network, now a certified YouTube channel with 188,000 subscribers. (I’d argue “January 10th, 2014” is their masterpiece.) Their TikTok has nearly 250,000 followers as well. “They mix together emo music with jazz. It’s so beautiful! The songs are incredible, and they barely get recognition,” JER said of Verse in an endorsement on TikTok in January. “People really like the words ’emo,’ ‘jazz,’ and ‘math-rock’ combined together so [JER’s mention] piqued their interests,” Lee-Rodriguez surmises. “I don’t know if it’s a song or the brand, I don’t understand it but I do know that there were exponentially more people who like us now than they did last year.”

If people are into the mere combination of “emo,” “jazz,” and “math-rock” as words, that bodes well for Really From’s self-titled third album, the boldest and most coherent expression of their diverse cultural and musical backgrounds. All four members have undergone rigorous jazz training while maintaining roots in DIY punk. Lee-Rodriguez and drummer Sander Bryce started Really From as an outlet for their more refined post-rock and jazz interests after the dissolution of I Kill Giants, a Boston band known for its mathed-up emo and confrontational lyrics: “I know I’m not the brownest one/ But sometimes I feel I’m the only one/ Who likes to talk about this white-washed breed,” Lee-Rodriguez huffed on “just because it’s a joke doesn’t mean it’s not racist,” the lead track from their final release in 2014. The argumentative writing and high-minded reference points carried over to Really From’s 2014 debut, “This is what you learned” — see “A song about white supremacy” and the beginning of their series of Philip Glass-referencing “Kneeplay” instrumentals. Michi Tassey and Matt Hull were respectively featured on vocals and brass before they became permanent members of the band during their first tour; by the time they signed to Topshelf Records for Verse in 2017, Tassey had become a full-on co-writer with Lee-Rodriguez and the featured vocalist on most songs.

“A lot of this album is about culture. Three-fourths of us are mixed-race identity,” Lee-Rodriguez explains. On lead single “Try Lingual,” Lee-Rodriguez and Michi Tassey grappled with the mental and emotional dissonance that came with learning their parents’ native languages as adults, after being raised in intently English-speaking households. Tassey deviates from her typically crystalline delivery on “Yellow Fever,” a caustic expression of her experiences at the intersection of casual racism and sexual objectification; Lee-Rodriguez ticks off expectations of immigrant families on “In The Spaces” and closes Really From with a devastating assessment of how the struggle for economic betterment can keep loveless marriages alive.

Really From was intended as a testament not just to their diversity of experience but their collaborative experience as well. It’s an album as dense, fascinating, and complex as to be expected from four people trying to fit four years of life into 34 minutes. But as Lee-Rodriguez jokes, “There’s an agreed perspective that we’re not counting last year as a calendar year.” That’s not to say life went on pause for anyone — Hull moved from Boston to Brooklyn, Bryce estimates spending “1,000 to 2,000 hours of time, easily,” working on drums, Lee-Rodriguez teaches at a bilingual school, and Tassey works as a music therapist with the elderly. “We’ve just been grinding through the pandemic,” Tassey says. “I’m out with my old folks all day and then come home and sleep as much as I can to be able to have the energy to do it again.”

Though Really From will finally see the light of day and there’s no touring plans to be made for Really From or anyone, everyone seems to acknowledge Tassey’s work ethic as as operational principle going forward. “Not patting myself on the back, but I think a lot of musicians will just stay stagnant and not work on themselves in the time between albums,” Bryce states. “In the months since we finished mixing, I haven’t stopped practicing. I can play these songs even better now! Each month we’re all different musicians, so by the time we hit the stage again… gosh, it could be a whole other animal.”

Below, stream Really From ahead of its release this Friday and read our conversation with the band.

Whenever a band takes four years or so between albums, I’m curious whether they’ve been working consistently or whether the work comes in fits and starts.

MICHI TASSEY: In that timeline between Verse and now, so much has just happened in our lives. We all put out solo music. At least speaking for myself, I felt in the past three years that I was at my creative capacity after putting out the Nature Shots album. I poured my heart and soul into a devastating experience of healing and grief and then I was starting a new job in a new field. I work with folks who are 60-100 years old, so I was learning decades and decades of music to suit their ages and preferences. So I’m learning other people’s music and memorizing other people’s lyrics, and I got engaged and was planning a wedding. I was coming home, burning out at work and coming to practice and they were like, “So what are you working on?” And I just wanted to be in silence. As an artist and a musician, that’s not a place that you want to be, but that’s the reality of it. Everyone was so patient with me, but that’s also another part of being in a band — you wanna be constantly creating but that’s not realistic. And if there’s anything I learned this year, it’s that now is not always the time to accelerate or to advance in what you wanna be. Sometimes it’s taking a backseat and being a sounding board for the rest of the team.

MATT HULL: Reflecting back on 2020 for musicians, it was still a productive time for a lot of people, and it’s interesting to think of the ways people adapted to it. Everyone definitely got their chops up doing more home recording.

None of these songs have a linear structure, and there’s often quite a lot going on musically with improvisation and layering. Particularly when you’re working remote, is there ever a “pencils down” time where everyone agrees to stop tinkering with a song?

CHRIS LEE-RODRIGUEZ: I know Sander has a lot of thoughts about that.

SANDER BRYCE: With writing, I didn’t fully know how some of these drum parts came out until they were tracked. Our friend Sai [Boddupalli], Michi’s fiancee, who basically ended up pre-producing the whole thing and more or less producing, he gave so much insight at the last minute. I feel like a lot of us didn’t know how it was gonna sound until we heard it in the mixing session. I went into a lot of my takes thinking I was gonna piece things together and have a lot of opportunities to listen back and change things and we were more strapped for time than I realized. I would do a take and within that take, there’d be a lot of improvisation, and they’d be like, “We got what we need!” And I’d think, “I don’t even know if I like that.” But they’d be like, “Oh, it’s fine,” and I’ve had to kind of sit down. The “pencils down” is when it’s tracked and someone else in the control room says, “Yeah, this is good enough.”

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: I’m also very economical from the financial perspective of, “We have this much time.” We don’t have a lot of money, we’re financing this ourselves, so I do a lot of homework beforehand. And I’m also coming from a punk-rock ethos upbringing where everything is very urgent and immediate and whatever’s there is there, and if it’s done, it’s done. The tracking itself did not take a lot of time, but the rehearsing did. And I try to stay as disciplined as I can while finding a part that I like, which could be to my detriment. There are some parts of Verse I do live that I wish I did in the recording sessions because I didn’t find it until a year or two later. But I’m lucky to have these people as my bandmates who push me farther creatively.

What do you anticipate as far as performing live for the rest of 2021?

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: We’re actually having discussions about what the live set’s gonna look like because it’s gonna be different than Verse and how we’ve been doing it for a while. The idea of live music itself is in flux… short answer is, “We don’t know yet.”

TASSEY: In writing this album and Sai producing it, one of the things that he really challenged us with is, “Don’t think about your live set up, make this album sound as big as you want it to. We’ll figure out the live set up when it comes.” I think that was great for us.

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: I’m confident we’ll be able to pull it off live. Whatever we decide to do live will be in continuity with the album and also transform it to an experience different than listening to a record, whether it’s a livestream or in a live room, whenever that is. Seeing a band live is a very transformative experience, I know all of us have had that. We’re trained performers too, we know how to play and lock in with each other. Me and Sander have been playing together for 10 years. It’s not so difficult locking in with the band, the challenge is the scope of this album is on a grander scale and how do we come close to it.

HULL: I think that’s part of the excitement, it’s different from the recording. With our music, there’s a fair amount of improv and a jazz element. Not every show is like the one before it.

I don’t know if I’d exactly call Really From a “concept album,” but there is a lot of repeated imagery of living spaces and thematic callbacks, like it’s walking through a house from top to bottom. Does the concept come first and dictate which songs get included or vice versa?

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: I’d say it’s a mix. I’m always one that looks at the macro sense and I’m also just a huge fan of movie trilogies. At the same time, I don’t try to limit the songwriting, so if someone brings an idea or a song, I never say, “That doesn’t fit with what we’re trying to do here.” We’re all songwriters, and how we respect each other is that when we bring something into rehearsal, we always give that idea space and work with it. I have so many songs for this album that didn’t make it because either they ended up being trash or just didn’t fit right. So having a collection of ideas circulating in our writing process as well as seeing that big picture, it adds to the mythos of bands. There’s a mythos to Bomb the Music Industry!, there was some theme or aesthetic or sound that ties things together, and how a record is shaped and crafted is very important. Especially with this one, we didn’t figure out the tracklist until the mixing session. I don’t think we decided even after we tracked, we had no idea of what the order of the songs were. While we did not have a set vision in mind, the idea of a greater continuity of themes is with us when we try to craft it sonically.

There’s always been a strong political perspective in your work, so I’m curious about how it’s evolved in the four years since Verse and the challenge of getting it across in four-minute songs.

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: I don’t want to go first on this one.

BRYCE: I’ll say something to that end… it does feel like it’s less about politics than it is about our own personal lives. Yes, we were all pissed, we’ve all been pissed the past four years with everything that’s occurred in this country. It’s definitely fueled a lot of anger, but also a lot of contemplation, a lot of time to think, especially with quarantine. That really had us rethink our lives, rethink existence, and consider so much more that would just go under the table or not even be thought of if we were still into the hustle and bustle of what life was before. We had to think of, “Oh wow, there’s still a lot of racism still going on,” it’s like the 1930s again. There’s so many things to think about but so many things that we’re dealing with personally throughout these four years. I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2018, so that’s been a huge recalibration of thinking and I’ve been getting treatment and how to juggle all of that while being a musician. Within these three to four years, it’s been a lot. We’ve all had things happen, whether traumatic or very happy that definitely informs the music.

It definitely adds another layer to “Try Lingual” — not just trying to learn the language of your parents, but also reconnecting with the parts of yourself that aren’t American, particularly at a time when it can be very hard to identify with what’s happening here.

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: The idea of differentiating between personal and political ways of living doesn’t really exist with me. It’s interesting that it’s more blatant now, because there were a lot of songs I wrote on Verse that were completely affected by political decisions. “Variations On An Aria” is about how I feel connected to a land I don’t really know. When I go to Puerto Rico, I feel this weird spiritual nature towards it, and I haven’t been there in 10 years, I worry that it’s leaving me. “Hackensack Hospital” is about my grandmother having a tumor, and my mom made her leave the island to come to the States because there’s better healthcare, and there are political reasons behind that.

So going into “Try Lingual,” I can say from my own personal experience that I did not grow up speaking Spanish because we are all millennials, we were born in the early ’90s, and if you were an English language learner you were seen as not as smart. You were not treated as an “academically gifted” kid, whatever that means. My sister was born [in Puerto Rico] and her first language was Spanish. And right when she moved to the States, my mom stopped speaking to her in Spanish and only spoke to her in English, and we kinda lost that part of ourselves. I kinda picked it up in school going to Spanish class, but I’d be learning a different kind of Spanish that isn’t the Spanish my family speaks because they’re Puerto Rican and I’m studying the European Spanish. There’s all these different disconnects there.

“Try Lingual” stemmed from me communicating with my parents, and I have parents of students who can only speak Spanish because they’re immigrants from Colombia or San Salvador. I try to talk to them in Spanish, it’s a lot easier now that everything is through text and email, so I can think hard about how to construct a good-sounding message. In person, I’d speak in broken Spanish or Spanglish, and I would listen to them and translate everything through an English idiom, so I hear it in parts, like a jigsaw puzzle. When I brought the lyrics to Michi, I was talking about her experience with that as well. She was trying to learn Japanese because that’s her mother’s first language, and trying to connect with that. With that song, it was a conversation between her and I and trying to understand what it means to be ethnically of a different culture but not be able to speak the language of that culture.

TASSEY: One of the cool things about co-writing these songs with Chris is that even if the idea wasn’t mine to begin with… there’s a lot of songs that I sing that are just Chris’ lyrics that he wrote and he’ll want me to sing them, so they feel like they’re my words too. From my experience, it’s very similar. My mom started teaching my brother Japanese, but when he got to kindergarten, he started to get confused. And she was like, “OK… [we live in] Manchester, New Hampshire… we’re gonna speak English in this house.” We had my white grandparents [nearby] and her parents were in Japan, they were never going to come over here. So I identified with all of those words.

Even still, we’re having a discussion about this breakthrough in learning a new language, but for me, I never got there. I still haven’t learned the language, and my grandparents are already dead. Talking with my family was always through my mom’s translation. I can remember being on a long distance call with my grandparents and asking how to say “I love you” in Japanese. And she’s like… ummmm. In Japan, there isn’t really a direct translation to say “I love you” to family. Their translation is romantic, like between romantic partners. The way you show affection is so different and so much more action oriented, that was one thing I remember as a kid, “Oh, I can’t say that to my family?”

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: Culture is such a malleable thing to begin with, and language keeps changing. Certain idioms and dialects are always in flux, and so it’s hard to say that there’s a certain right way to say things. There’s not a certain way to speak English or Spanish. The fact that we’re speaking English or Spanish in this part of the world where that’s not the native language of this land, and this land was stolen from other people and the native languages of this land have been lost because of terrible repercussions of colonialism… the idea of saying there’s an authentic and specific way of speaking is a false narrative. And with that song and other ones as well, it’s about what Sander said: finding our own personal experience and our own corner and modes of communication because that’s all you have and you can’t have societal norms try and dictate that for you.

“Try Lingual” also expresses pervasive feelings of self-blame. I wondered whether it was referring more to a generational burden or one specific to culture; I can say from personal experience that self-blame and guilt are seen as intrinsic to the Jewish experience.

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: I feel it’s both. I grew up Catholic and feel like Catholics and Jews have a lot of solidarity in self-blame and guilt and always being reminded of that one time where that one guy had to die for all our sins so we better be grateful and if we don’t…repercussions! But I will say that I feel like a lot of the process of writing songs is, not to be cliche, somewhat therapeutic. Also very meditative, and I get to meditate on the idea of blame and responsibility. The theme of that song is a lot about learning language, but also learning about yourself and unlearning different modes of thinking and ways and behaviors that are maybe problematic or oppressive or self-inflicting that you don’t even realize until you step back and think, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t blame myself.” Or maybe it’s not about blame.

“Quirk” is about inheriting all the good and bad traits from your family and how maybe it’s not our parents’ faults. Or with “Apartment Song,” trying to make a space for yourself, “Maybe this is where I can make a home.” That’s what a lot of our music is about, trying to understand place and self and reimagine what it can be. There’s never going to be an answer to those questions, but the process of writing these songs is very meditative for me and lets me process these things. While I may not come to an actual conclusion, I’m at a place where I can move forward and try again.

“Yellow Fever” immediately stood out for being so confrontational about its subject matter. Was it more difficult working in that mode?

TASSEY: That was actually a really hard song to write. Incredibly hard. It took me so long to finish that song and it was probably one of the last ones we wrote.

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: That and “Try Lingual” are probably tied.

TASSEY: One of the things that I’ve been really grateful for in being part of this collective is that whenever I’ve brought ideas to the table and been unsure or “Is this still relevant?” everyone’s been like, “Hey, these are your thoughts, this is what’s on your mind, let’s execute if that’s what you wanna do.” The most challenging thing about writing that song was figuring out what the objective was, and even as the song is finished, it’s kinda inconclusive, because the song poses a question. There was anger and frustration and my personality of being a patient and understanding person… there’s all of that. “Wow, fuck you because you’re a shitty person but also do you understand what you did? And if you had the opportunity to go back in time and do it differently, would you?”

That in itself was hard for me to grapple with because there’s one side of me that wanted it to be full aggro, just big “fuck you,” and another part of me… well, we could all learn a lesson [laughs]. And so it landed somewhere in the middle, because I have this frustration with myself of, “am I perpetuating this behavior by not being direct and giving somebody an out or giving somebody a second chance?” And of course that’s not on me. That’s been something that’s cycled through my head and I have to say that an awesome part of being co-writer with Chris is that I can have a subject matter that is very delicate and personal to me as a woman and still be like, “Hey I’m stuck, I need help… but please tread lightly.” Chris comes in very objectively — “Where are you trying to go with this, talk to me, what are you trying to say? Oh, this is what I’m hearing.”

When you say, “Is this still relevant,” I think of how “yellow fever” was a phrase I haven’t heard since, say, middle school in the 90s. Like when I was talking to someone in Kentucky who used the term “Jew down” to describe a negotiation, like, “I haven’t heard that in 20 years.”

TASSEY: It definitely was a long time ago when somebody said that to me, so it kinda encapsulates that whole experience of being fetishized as an Asian woman. But yeah, it’s definitely dated.

What strikes me about an album like Really From in 2021 is how openly bands are discussing identity in the realm of indie rock, whether in relation to gender, race, sexuality or anything else; whereas when I was coming of age in the early 2000s, you’d almost never hear any bands using it as primary subject matter. What bands did you see as models in this regard, that led you to believe, “There’s a place for me to discuss my experience”?

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: I think I’m speaking from a place of privilege as well being a cis man who is always been able to speak, I feel like I got that from books and a lot of fiction of just hearing stories that I would see myself in, or other forms of media. But I feel like we’re all jazz-trained, and a lot of the jazz musicians in the tradition of the big ’50s era, they were unabashedly and unapologetically themselves. Miles Davis was unapologetically black, he would beat up a motherfucker if they stepped up on him, same thing with Charles Mingus. Thelonious Monk used to get in arguments with producers, he didn’t like to do more than three takes. They had a very forward way of thinking to not let people fuck with their shit.

It’s interesting thinking about it in terms of indie, because in the 2000s, there was an identity and sexuality that was purported. It was just always the male identity, and there weren’t all these other ones. I’m actually really stoked on a lot of younger bands playing pop-punk. I don’t think “renaissance” is the right word, but there’s all these young kids with BIPOC representation, different queer voices, black/brown/indigenuous voices that are popping up. Meet Me @ The Altar, Downtown Boys been doing it for a while, they’re probably the most iconic. It’s also just our friends and a lot of people that we keep in touch with and break bread with are just unabashedly themselves. I have a lot of great friends who are artists and I’m not gonna speak for them and say if they’re afraid or not, but when I hear Pink Navel, a local MC in Boston, or Half Waif or JER, it sounds fearless and it sounds unapologetic. To answer your question, I don’t think it’s prevalent in indie rock, but it’s more about the company we keep and what we consume. This is not something new. There’s a long tradition especially with the problematic nature of jazz, it’s very male-dominated, there isn’t a lot of female or queer representation as there should be. But being unapologetically who you are is just part of the tradition of the music we play.

I feel like most listeners are receptive to previously marginalized voices speaking about their experiences, but do you ever receive any kind of backlash?

TASSEY: I don’t think we’ve received much backlash.

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: I don’t think we’ve received much lash.

TASSEY: Besides people still being mad about our name change, I would say the most rewarding thing that can happen at a show is when someone who looks like me comes up and says, “I feel represented in your music.” That’s the highest honor, I think.

I’m assuming that all of the songs here are works of autobiography...

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: Wouldn’t it be funny if it wasn’t, if there was just another person who was Puerto Rican and Chinese and I was just like stealing it from someone?

…so that leads me to wonder what your parents think of “The House.” The lyrics put them in quite an unflattering light.

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: Don’t know yet! I’ve deliberately not shown them that song because I know it will fuck them up. This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about my family in songs or poetry, I’ve written a lot of in-depth poems about my father and my mother and their relationship. I wrote an entire punk album about my uncle, who is autistic. I wrote a lot about them because that’s how I show praise and respect and understanding, and that’s how I translate and process the world — by writing songs. And that song is probably the oldest one on the album. I wrote that one before Verse, even before we were signed to Topshelf. I’ve always had that song in my pocket and when we were working on the album we had eight songs, seven full ones and the “Kneeplay” [interlude] and we wanted to add one. We had an idea to do an acoustic one. I was at Michi’s house and I said, “Hey, I have this song that I wrote a long time ago, maybe we could use this.” It was originally intended for an entire album I wrote about my parents’ divorce and trying to understand it. I was going to therapy at the time and trying to break it down. Michi really liked it because it reminded her of the first record a lot and tied into a lot of themes.

TASSEY: Yeah, that’s going on the album. Period.

HULL: I knew right away it should be the last track. It sounds like Neutral Milk Hotel to me.

LEE-RODRIGUEZ: Yeah… maybe problematically so. When I think about background and culture and identity, I always think about family because that’s your first model and proxy for how your culture is, how your ethnicity acts. I understand how to be Puerto Rican and Chinese through my parents. My dad is Chinese, but he’s very much a Chinese New Yorker, which should be its own ethnograph. There’s a whole other subsect of urban Asian Americans that is completely different than Asian immigrants. There’s a whole other way of talking, dialects and idioms. Essentially, it is very American, unfortunately so. Both of my parents were born in the States, so while they do not look like the global idea of an “American-born, ideal patriot,” they are American, that’s all they know about the world. My dad doesn’t know shit about China, doesn’t know anything about that culture or Hong Kong, and I think that was how I understood what it means to be my ethnicity. I can’t talk about anyone else, I can’t talk about Michi’s perspective or Matt’s or Sander’s. I’ll find out if my parents like it or not! Or if they even make it to that, good thing it’s the last song. Maybe after “In The Spaces,” they’ll think, “OK, the song is over, I’ll turn this off.” I’m just never gonna bring it up. My dad’s gonna be like, “Yo, I really like the trumpet. Matt knows how to play that horn. Michi sounds really good, huh?”

Really From is out 3/12 on Topshelf.

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