Not too long ago, What The Sound spoke with Dan and Eric of The Chairman Dances, an art-rock quintet (sometimes more) from Philadelphia. The band released Samantha Says, their most recent EP, this past May via Grizzly Records, a Los Angeles-based label. The EP was produced by Daniel Smith (Sufjan Stevens) from the indie pop band, Danielson. Needless to say, Samantha Says will put a grin on your face and you’ll nod in agreement. It’s lyrics are poetic and the melodies are both upbeat and calm. They’re quirky and they’re poppy. Below, hear all five songs from the EP and read what Dan and Eric had to say about their genre, the Philly music scene, who they would want to share a bill with, and much more.
What The Sound: How did The Chairman Dances form? Eric, it’s your project and you released your first album in 2011?
Eric: Yeah, I guess I had been playing solo with that moniker, and then I had some friends record with me. It became a band when Ben, our bassist, and I started playing together. I do write the songs but The Chairman Dances is a band effort: I write a song, I bring it to the guys and girl. Then they sort of dress the song up in whatever arrangement they think it calls for.
WTS: How did you go about the name?
Eric: "The Chairman Dances" is an orchestral work by John Adams, a study he did for the opera, “Nixon in China”. I really love modern art music, or modern classical music. There are often multiple layers of meaning in that music, so I latch onto that.
WTS: You just touched on it briefly, but can you explain the genre "art pop"?
Eric: Sure. I certainly didn't come up with it as a description for us. There was a journalist at WXPN who called us that and I found that others started picking up on it. Which I'm fine with.
WTS: Are there any art-pop greats, anybody who shares that genre that are much bigger than TCD?
Eric: Usually I hear Brian Eno’s music described as art rock.
Dan: That's what I was thinking too.
Eric: A lot of '70's bands. Whom we love. David Bowie, Talking Heads.
WTS: You mentioned you have picked up more members since you began, is Ben still a part of your group today?
Eric: Yeah, Ben has been with us since the beginning.
WTS: Everyone else that you picked up, were those friends of friends, or Craigslist pickups?
Eric: Dan was a friend of a friend who's now a friend. Ashley is also a visual artist, she had asked the band to play at an event and then we found out that she was a really fantastic singer and person. Ben I met working at the library. Luke was a friend of Ashley's. Mostly friends of friends.
WTS: What instruments do you all play? What's the band dynamic and live set up like when you play?
Dan: Eric plays guitar, usually rhythm guitar. Luke plays lead guitar primarily. Ben plays bass. I play keyboards, and sing on a few tracks. Kevin is our drummer. Then we mentioned Ashley, it's great when she joins us for gigs. She sings as well, and brings a lot to those songs that she sings on.
WTS: What's cool about the Philadelphia music scene? Is there any overruling genre? Is it pretty eclectic? Have you played a number of shows there, does the community know who you are?
Dan: I think it's huge. There's definitely some diversity, but I think it's overwhelmingly indie rock. There is also a scene that we're starting to tap into a little bit. This underground, sort of, DIY house scene. A lot of punk music. We've played a number of shows in basements. You kind of have to look for more beyond that, but it's there. There's definitely a lot of diversity, just maybe not up front.
WTS: I'm familiar with Cheers Elephant, from Philadelphia. Are you?
Eric: Yeah, they actually just moved to L.A. Their bassist and I went to college together. There's a couple of bands you may have heard of. You know the group Hop Along?
Eric: They're on Saddle Creek and their guitarist, Joe Reinhart, produced a bunch of our records. There is a nice cross pollination between acts here.
WTS: Nice. Samantha Says is brilliant. I've really enjoyed it and I think that's the general consensus that comes from everyone I've showed it to as well. Had you been working on it for a long time?
Eric: I brought it to the band in August of 2014, we arranged the songs pretty quickly and recorded it in two days in December of last year. With a man named Daniel Smith who runs the band Danielson. They're a group I love, and I admire Daniel's writing. Working with him was really fantastic.
WTS: I saw that he had produced a couple of Sufjan Stevens' albums. That's notable, but you said you admired him because of his personal work?
Eric: Yeah, Sufjan played in Daniel's band for a little bit. Like you, I interned at a record label a few years ago, at Secretly Canadian, and Daniel's group was on Secretly Canadian. That's how I got to know his music. One of the workers said, you have to check out this guy's music—it's crazy.
WTS: I'm well aware of Secretly Canadian and their sister labels Jagjaguwar and Dead Oceans. A big fan of all their rosters. Were there any characters outside of TCD that were instrumental in the creation of Samantha Says?
Dan: Yeah, Daniel really was. Even though we had the songs ready for the studio, we still ran into some questions during the recording process. Daniel was very sensitive and had a great ear and knew where to jump in and help us along, he had some really great artistic input which was really important at critical times.
Eric: Just to echo Dan, we've recorded a few records, but this was the first time we reassessed everything in the studio. We sort of started from scratch in the last stage of the process.
Dan: Oh, that's right.
Eric: We listened with new ears to everything as we recorded it. Everything was up for grabs. And Daniel had a way of bringing out any latent thoughts or troubles. I go to Daniel’s shows, so I've seen him since we've recorded. I think we will work together in some capacity again.
WTS: In your description on Facebook, your bio says that your music is "catchy, lyrically driven, and indie pop". As a band, you work together, but what's your songwriting process like?
Eric: My writing style—I don't think Ben knows this—but it’s been influenced by Ben our bassist. Ben has a tendency to write his lines away from his instrument. I found this out because, once, when we were playing through a song for the first time, he mentioned that his part was more difficult than he thought. And I asked, "what are you talking about?" He says, well I wrote it away from my bass. For Samantha Says, before I wrote the songs, I came up with a character. Again, before writing, I would decide, I want this song to be about this. Then I would write away from my guitar and I would usually write the melody first so I could concentrate on the lyrics and the melody. Finally, I would bring the song to the guys, who would add their ideas, their personal touches and flourishes.
WTS: Had these records been self-released?
Eric: No, the last two, both Samantha Says and our last LP were released by Grizzly Records which is based out of Los Angeles.
WTS: Are Brian Eno, Talking Heads, those '70's rock guys also influences? Do your influences change lyrically and instrumentally?
Eric: I look up to a lot of people. I would say that, lyrically, I guess I'm more inspired by writers—by Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard, George Saunders—but also The Mountain Goats. In terms of the sound of the band, my influences matter least. I have people that I really love but our sound is dictated more by the members and by what they bring to the table.
Dan: It's hard to just call out anyone. I'm influenced by a lot of different music, though I'm not sure how that manifests in my writing. Just for example, the keys in Wilco, I'm blanking on the name, their keyboardist... Jorgensen. I've always been very impressed by him and always try to zero in on his work when I'm listening to Wilco. So, that's definitely a big influence for me. And other work like that. I try to complement the rest of the players.
WTS: My first reaction to Samantha Says, was The Decemberists. What do you think about that?
Eric: I know some of Colin Meloy's work, not a lot. I do admire his songwriting and his band is fantastic. So, we'll take that as a compliment.
WTS: Are people buying your records? I'm curious about that with all the online streaming ways being so easy and accessible.
Eric: It's a mix, a lot of people are streaming the music. I would say that's the majority. We sell a good amount of records at shows and also on our website, especially around a release date.
WTS: Have you guys toured nationally before?
Eric: After our last record we toured, starting in New York, south and back. Lately, we’ve played a bunch of shows in New York. So we've gone up and down the East Coast but we haven't traversed much farther West.
WTS: Do you know if you have a fan base further West?
Eric: Grizzly Records has helped get our music out there from their homebase in L.A. I know from looking at Spotify—there are people who listen to us and I have no clear idea of how they found us.
WTS: If you could support a band, co-headline, or headline, who would you want to have join you on that tour?
Eric: Many years ago, I saw Okkervil River in a small club and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen. So, if I could ever support them, that would be a dream come true.
WTS: What are your plans for 2016?
Eric: Right now, we’re trying to play out as much as possible. We opened for this band called Hey Marseilles. They were great guys. Just recently, I got a couple show offers to play acoustic sets in these tiny little cafes and small bars, so I played a show in Reading, PA last week and I went to New York by myself twice last month. I’ve found that I learn a lot doing that, just the act of preparing and playing live and getting feedback from people, and watching other acts. We're also working on new material. Which is always my favorite part.
WTS: It sounds like you're enjoying being able to tap into each of these local scenes, wherever you're playing a show.
Eric: Yeah, it's really neat. For this show in Reading—it's crazy because I grew up not so far away, and the music scene in Reading is incredibly and surprisingly vibrant. There was this great band, Jonathan Monument, that I opened for. I bought their album and I've been listening to it all week. It's fantastic.