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Courtesy of Union Tree Review
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Union Tree Review has been busy. The St. Louis sextet released their first full-length album in July, the mournful but hope-tinged Death and Other Forms of Relaxation imbued with lead singer Tawaine Noah's haunting, twangy vocals and orchestral arrangements. They had a CD release show with Bo & the Locomotive at the Firebird and created a one take video for their song "44," which features each member of the band playing while another film is projected on them (check out the video below). They played the Sheldon for the first time back in February, contributed to a Joplin relief album, and as if that weren't enough now they're playing An Undercover Weekend September 9 at The Firebird. But don't worry, they made it easy on themselves and chose to portray only one of the most iconic R&B singers of all time, Marvin Gaye.
St. Louis Magazine talked with drummer Matt Ström in August about An Under Cover Weekend, Mississippi Nights, and why he has an umlaut in his name.
St. Louis Magazine: Death and Other Forms of Relaxation (released July 30, 2011) was your first official full-length album. Where did you record it?
Matt Ström: We all live either on or within close proximity of Cherokee Street and three of the members of the band have an apartment on the corner of Cherokee and Texas, so we converted the apartment into a recording studio for about five months.
SLM : Was that pretty challenging?
MS: Yeah, it was definitely a challenge. We had to come up with some pretty novel solutions. Like we were trying to figure out where to record guitar and it turned out that our bathroom was the best place to do that. So we recorded guitars in the bathroom and vocals in the bedroom and bass in the closet.
SLM: Why do you have fireworks exploding around you in the one-take video?
MS: Well, the videos that we actually took were things that was meaningful to [each member of the band]. The intention was to imply that that’s what’s going on inside of each one of our heads while we’re playing. So, for me that was a video that I had taken that had some significance to me. Also, it looks nice. That’s the boring answer.
SLM: Did you guys have to try several different films to project on you during the video or did most of what you wanted to project work the first time?
MS: It worked out pretty well. The whole process was one 17-hour day where we set everything up, had 8 projectors running, and had all of the audio equipment. We had a videographer there. We had an audio engineer there. So, it was kind of like we had to make it work. It wasn’t a question of is it going to work or not. It was going to work. It had to work.
SLM: Are you German?
MS: Uh, no Swedish.
SLM: Cause you have an umlaut in your name. Did you grow up in Sweden?
MS: No, I didn’t. My grandparents are Swedish.
SLM: Sorry, I’m just being nosy.
MS: No, that’s okay. People ask me all the time how to pronounce my last name and it’s just the way you expect to pronounce it. A lot of the time people think I’m joking. Like, oh that’s really funny like heavy metal right. No, that’s actually my name.
SLM: So you guys just started this band in the last year or so.
MS: I think it’s been a little more than a year now. We got together I would say in the spring of last year and recorded an EP. Some of those tracks made it to the light of day. Some of them didn’t. A lot of us had also played in bands prior to this so we were comfortable in the music scene and met each other through some of those channels.
SLM: The name of album: Death and Other Forms of Relaxation… seems kind of sad.
MS: Well the name actually came from Tawaine our lead singer. In and of itself the word death is pretty sad but the context of it within the album title and within the music of the album itself is not necessarily the morbid sense of death.
SLM: My impression was a lot of the songs were about failed relationships and problems like that. Is that right?
MS: Yes, that’s correct and obviously I’m speaking here for Tawaine who is our principal song writer. We talked a lot about the music so I’ll try to speak for it. But a lot of the songs, one in particular came from an experience that Tawaine had where he lost a very close relative of his and so that gave rise to a lot of the lyrical content of the record itself.
SLM: You guys contributed to a benefit album for Joplin.
MS: Yes, the Songs for Joplin Project, which is an ongoing thing. We’re still very involved with that project. Very, very shortly after the tornado hit a friend of ours named Zack Becker put together this album. [He] asked some local and national artists to contribute to it and then offered it as a donation-based download. Since then he’s really been active in a lot of other fund raising and relief effort kind of projects.
SLM: Did you know anyone in Joplin?
MS: I have a really close friend that I went to school with here who is from Joplin. I actually grew up in Southeast Missouri so I knew a lot of people from Joplin. Fortunately I didn’t have any family there or anything like that. Some of my friends who did have family were very directly impacted by it.
SLM: Is your friend OK?
MS: He’s fine. His family was all safe and accounted for. Obviously a lot of their property was severely damaged. With something like that—that hits an entire community it doesn’t matter how well individuals come out of it. It’s still something that severely impacts their lives and the lives of the people around them.
SLM: Do you have a dream venue in St. Louis that you’d like to play?
MS: To go back in time and play at Mississippi Nights. I think some of the coolest places to play in St. Louis are places that nobody really knows about, especially here on Cherokee. [I have] so many friends who have re-habbed loft storage spaces into art galleries. It’s just so cool to see this hundred year old building that they’ve rehabbed completely and painted and put in all sorts of fixtures and art installations. I think the coolest places are the ones that are really hard to find out about.
SLM: True. But let’s talk about Mississippi Nights. Why there?
MS: Well, Mississippi Nights was always the coolest place to see music. It represents a time in St. Louis music and local music and I think a lot of people look back on that fondly. They look at that venue and they say, “Oh, I wish that was still around.” I’ve seen some amazing shows there and so it would have been an honor to play there.
SLM: I loved that place.
MS: It’s interesting but St. Louis has this unique feature where as a local band you have access to just about any venue you want to play, if you really work hard at it. We’ve played the Pageant before. I think right now everyone’s really clamoring for local bands to do well and they really want to support them. The venue owners, the booking agents, and the promoters, are looking for hard working original musicians from St. Louis. One great example is Sleepy Kitty who live down the block from us. They opened for the Dresden Dolls. For a St. Louis band to get the opportunity to open up for such a well known band is something I think is unique to St. Louis and really really exciting.
SLM: So you guys are playing Under Cover weekend again this year. What are you covering?
MS: The material that we’re covering is night and day [from last year]. [Before,] we played Postal Service and that’s very electronic sounding, a lot of drum machines very modern indie sort of music. And this year we’re playing as Marvin Gaye.
SLM: How did you guys pick Marvin Gaye?
MS: The bands all work really, really hard for Undercover Weekend and last year we dived head first into it and we got kind of burnt out on it. So, actually after last year we were like “Nope, we’re not going to do that again. It was a lot of fun but it was way too much work.” Until our bassist [Tyr Jameson], just out of the blue mentions, “Hey, what do you think about Marvin Gaye for Under Cover weekend?” And I think the idea of going over the top and doing the Motown thing just sounded like a lot of fun. And that show—it’s a party. So, to get to play those songs and to have this audience who are just in there to have a really good time—that sounds like the best night I could possibly imagine.