Band To Watch: String Machine
David Beck was hiking through a thick forest, in January Poconos weather, on his own and without the proper clothes or gear. His phone was turned off, and he hadn’t told a lot of people back home in Pittsburgh where he was going. Fresh from a breakup, he needed to clear his head.
After a while, the trees thinned out, and suddenly he stood on the narrow patch of ground that marked the peak of a mountain. He could see for 18 miles. It was almost dead silent, save for the whip of the wind and the faint creaking of trees, and he was the only one there. He started to cry.
“When you’re face to face with it, it’s very overwhelming. You just start pouring emotion,” recalls Beck, frontman of the chamber-indie seven-piece String Machine. He’s vague on the details of what “it” is, preferring to keep that for himself. But, he says, it was a breakthrough, a moment that revealed to him the truth of what human connection really means.
It was here on this mountain trip that he wrote “Touring In January,” a cut from the band’s newest and third album Hallelujah Hell Yeah, where he reflects on his breakup in the most straightforward and honest terms he ever had. “In the past, I used to be really metaphorical and really nonsensical with my lyrics, almost as a way to hide,” he says. “I just started going back to like, why did I write songs when I was 13 years old? You’d write songs when you were 13 ’cause you were pissed off about, like, ‘my girlfriend dumped me’ or something. I was just trying to go back to that, and use songwriting as a mechanism to get through what I was going through.” If lyrically the song is anxious and desperate, musically it’s positively rapturous, with all seven band members building to a thunderous wall-of-sound climax. “I always try to get the music to sound like those elevated places, where you feel the higher power of it. It’s definitely inspired by that ‘I’m at the top of a mountain’ feeling. I want it to express the love I have for people, and those overwhelming feelings of euphoria.”
The whole album feels that way. Strings, brass, pianos and harmonies collide like atoms: an act of creation. It’s expansive, maximalist indie-psych-folk in the lineage of Arcade Fire or Sufjan Stevens — though as Beck points out, while those are certainly influences, it’s tough not to be maximalist when there are seven people in a band. “It’s a lot of throwing mud at the wall and scraping it out to be a statue,” he explains. Influence comes as well from the boundless approaches of hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, MF Doom, and Run The Jewels, and particularly from Beck’s love for Frank Ocean. “I love the way he went from Channel Orange which is this huge, expansive, lush album, and then how he was able to make Blonde and bring it down to a minimalist [style]. Just exploring and experimenting with that density is something I’m very interested in.”
String Machine originates from rural Butler County, Pennsylvania, about 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh. Beck’s grandfather, Don Stacy, was a touring country musician, whom Beck remembers as a Johnny Cash-like figure with his own name engraved on his fretboard. He was a big influence on young Beck, who was 13 when Stacy died; one of Beck’s last memories of him recalls him plucking Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind” on an acoustic guitar. On “Four Corners”, a track from Hallelujah Hell Yeah, Beck namedrops his grandfather in a triumphant moment: “I’ve got old Don Stacy’s spirit in my blood, and there’s no distance that can take it away.”
The band’s seven members (deep breath: guitarist/vocalist Beck, vocalist Laurel Wain, drummer Nic Temple, cellist Katie Morrow, trumpeter/guitarist Ian Compton, pianist/vocalist Dylan Kersten, and bassist Mike Law) gravitated toward one another in their small hometown. “We’re kinda the weirdos from here,” Beck proudly proclaims. They officially began as a backing for a Beck solo project, but gradually transitioned into a collaborative band. There have been two String Machine albums before this one, 2016’s Threads From The Youth Fossil and 2019’s Death Of The Neon, but Beck says this is the first one where they were truly working as a well-oiled machine.
The pandemic and Beck’s breakup were the major weights on his psyche while writing Hallelujah Hell Yeah, and with all work and social commitments called off he relished the opportunity to get out of town and be on his own, hitting the mountains or the coast for a week at a time. “[It’s] that runaway complex of, ‘I’m freaking out, I don’t wanna be around anyone’,” Beck says. “They’re the kinda trips where people are asking you, ‘Hey, is everything okay?’ [But] I never understood how much I liked being alone, and I’ve come to realize how important the solace you find in nature is to me.” He began journalling for the first time in a while, addressing every entry to “the goddess of love,” and most of those confessions were directly translated into the album’s lyrics. He was coming to terms with ideas of regret and forgiveness, of resilience and hope, and in a brand new way he was learning to be honest with himself and others. On opener “Places To Hide,” he’s feeling lost and scared; on “Gales Of Worry,” he stares into the abyss of hopelessness; and on closing track “Your Turn,” he’s wracked with guilt over his shortcomings.
He was listening a lot to Tom Petty’s classic breakup album Wildflowers. “It almost felt weird to make a heartbreak album, because it feels like a lot of the albums I’m into are more profound than that, they have some huge thing to say. But it was like, well, this means a lot to me, this helped me a lot. It made me reckon with why I even make music in the first place, which is, if this is helpful for me, hopefully it can be helpful for other people too. I hope people can listen to it and feel the way I did when I would listen to records [like Wildflowers], how those albums made me feel just that much better.”
When it came time to show his lyrics to the band, Beck was terrified. He had never been so vulnerable before, and he had also never created so collaboratively. While his bandmates are his closest friends, that just made it all the more embarrassing; he knew they could tell what every word was about. “I think the way I used to do things on my own was a defense mechanism to not be vulnerable with my bandmates,” he says. “It’s hard to be that personal with people sometimes, especially when it’s bare bones and not supported with [a fleshed-out song]. I mean, they heard the words, and it was weird for a little bit there. But the way that my bandmates rallied behind it, and just made it their own… It brought it to life.” To help Beck feel more comfortable, the band engaged in group meditation before each recording session. It brought them closer as friends, and in turn as creative partners. “When we all come together, it’s like an organism,” Beck says. “It just happens.”
Their new level of comfortability with each other allowed them to open their minds to new creative avenues, even ones that didn’t seem to make sense at first. “It was like, we don’t have to be like, ‘Ooh, Radiohead’ — we don’t have to be so uptight about our influences. Let’s have some fun with it. Like, hey, what if we did this thing that sounded like Shania Twain, or Michelle Branch, or My Chemical Romance? Some of the best albums have moments where you think to yourself, ‘When they were writing that, did they think that was as genius as I think it is?’ So we were like, well, the only way we’re gonna get that is if we really put our guard down and just have fun with it, without trying to hide behind pretension or anything.”
He adds, “We knew that we needed to make something we could all be equally proud of. ‘Cause in the past, I don’t know if I let people express themselves fully through our music. But this new record, I think we’ve all come to a place where the music is all ours now, rather than just mine. And that was a wall that we’ve been trying to knock down for years. How do we not muffle someone else? How can we all express ourselves fluidly? How do we maintain the family of this all? We want everyone to feel heard, which is why we were doing the group meditation stuff, and making it a good environment to bare our souls the way we were.” Inspiration to work to each other’s strengths came from an unlikely place; the ESPN docuseries The Last Dance, about the golden age of the Chicago Bulls. “I became obsessed with that series, and we kind of used that as a beacon of light [for] how a team can come together to do something so profound.”
Beck has come a long way from the top of a mountain, all alone. If Hallelujah Hell Yeah had been born in solitude, it was lovingly sculpted and given the breath of life in community. What started as a heartbreak album became one titled with an expression of joy. “I grew through it all, and that’s an incredible thing,” says Beck. “To come out of making a record and be like, ‘Wow, look at where I was,’ and now that I went through this process of writing an album, coping with grief, it’s like, I’m really proud of what we did. Especially to have the bandmates rally behind me, and try to establish this collective understanding where it could mean just as much to them as it does to me. That was really special.”
Hallelujah Hell Yeah is out 2/25 on Know Hope. Pre-order it here.