Dominant narratives of popular music include innumerable examples of band members breaking away from the group to pursue solo endeavors. Mike McFadden’s current narrative finds him moving in the other direction. After recording and performing solo for a number of years, McFadden is now recording and performing within a group dynamic. Dubbed Animal Years, the new project is set to release their debut LP, Sun Will Rise on September 17th. We caught up with McFadden recently to discuss the album, the band, and the life changes that precipitated much of the music on Sun Will Rise.
At least from a musical standpoint, the most significant of these changes is moving away from working strictly as a solo artist. As McFadden tells it, “I’ve been writing and performing music under my own name for about eight years. And I kind of decided that since my music was making a shift and really sounding more like it was a band rather than just a guy writing songs, I guess. Even though I still do all of the songwriting, I wanted to adopt like a stage name. I just kind of thought that people would perceive Mike McFadden as a guy playing guitar, some Irish guy playing guitar. So yeah, we decided to present it as a band, and that became Animal Years. It kind of offered me a little more creative freedom too. If I wanted to do something more acoustic in the future, I could go back and use the Mike McFadden name. So we kind of formed together and started playing shows about maybe three-quarters of a year ago, recorded an album, and it’s going to be the first album recorded under that name, which is coming out September 17th.”
This move to a group context was also facilitated by McFadden’s musical development: “When I started out you know, my stuff was more acoustic based, more singer-songwriter sounding. And then I just started using a lot more electric guitars, a lot heavier drums, that kind of thing. And I decided that was when I really wanted to make it, to choose a different name.”
Even with the formation of Animal Years, McFadden continues to be the primary songwriter behind the group’s material. But he’s adamant that standing out as ‘the front man’ in the foreground of a ‘supporting’ band is not the dynamic he’s after. “We’re still a band, even though I write all the songs. When it was Mike McFadden, it just seemed like [the other musicians] weren’t included at all and you know, they are an important part of the group.”
This musical shift coincided with major life changes for McFadden as well. Most notably, he packed up his creative, personal, and professional life to migrate from Baltimore to New York, which seemed to have more to offer for the particular musical path McFadden wanted to pursue. “After a while, you kind of just run out of options in Baltimore. There’s such a massive like weird, indie music scene going on there, and you know I didn’t really fit into that. And there were just no opportunities there. And after persuasion from friends and my manager who already lived in New York, I wanted to take on trying to see what we could do there. So I moved up here, it was just amazing the amount of opportunities that just came like instantly; people you meet, in random places that know this person or this person. And before we knew it, we were playing all the venues down in Manhattan, lower east side, hooking up with different publishers, and getting all kinds of awesome opportunities. The only problem is I think that everyone else is doing the same exact thing that you’re doing.”
And therein lies the double-edged sword for a musician moving to an artistic and industrial hub such as New York: there are for more opportunities to actually pursue a creative career, but you’re merely one of many others who have similar aspirations. I asked McFadden how he deals with that aspect of being a musician in New York City. “Everybody’s an artist, everybody’s gonna be the next big thing. So yeah, it can be intense, there’s definitely that battle with other bands you know, fighting with bands to get good slots at gigs, and you play a gig with five other bands, and they’re all trying to do just what you do. It can be intense. But you kind of have to remove yourself from that, or just kind of focus on your own thing. You can’t really be worried about other people. There’s just so much going on here.”
Before evolving into Animal Years, McFadden had made a number of independent recordings as a solo artist. With the recent significant changes in both his personal, professional, and creative life, how does Sun Will Rise situate itself in relation to his previous work? “The difference between this album is I was recording it in two separate places. I don’t know if that made it any different creatively or production wise, but the process was almost the same. Except that I did actually start to do a lot more of my own recording.” This included reliance upon guitar re-amping, a process that allowed McFadden to in essence, be in two places at once while recording. “I can record just a direct guitar signal into my computer, and just send the file over, and the guy in the studio will take that file and actually plug it through an amp like I’m actually playing it live in the whole room.”
One of the standout tracks on Sun Will Rise is “Meet Me,” which kicks off the album, and serves as its first single. It’s an uptempo, energetic rocker that gives the album a sonic jumpstart, and carries a great deal of significance for the band and McFadden. “Before we put it out as a single, we also started our shows with that, so we really wanted to make sure that was in the beginning of the album. Because that song, I was kind of writing as I was preparing to move up here, and kind of the debate of being in Baltimore and being in New York, and being in a relationship and this whole debate of whether that’s going to continue or not, and leaving a job and getting a new one up here, and all of this stuff that was happening while I was like doing the transfer up here. So that’s what that song is about, it’s all about just leaving Baltimore and coming up here. So although we don’t anymore, I always liked when we started our sets live with that song, and that’s why I did put it in the beginning of the record, because that’s the first thing I want people to hear when they play that cd for the first time.”[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/98583970″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true”/]
The title track of Sun Will Rise is arguably the album’s centerpiece. McFadden discusses the song as being about “just viewing your current situation in a much easier way. A lot of co-workers, a lot of people that worked for me at Hopkins would always say the same thing when I said hi to them, I’d say “how are you doing,” and they’d just say like you know, “I’m above ground.” This one old guy would say “I’m vertical!” [But] I’m like the luckiest man alive, I’m alive right now. I’m able to experience that. So whenever I was feeling like stuff wasn’t working out, especially when I was moving up here and all that stress, and uncertainty about music and different stuff, I just had to like kind of take a step back and be like as long as you know, I’m having a bad day, but the sun will rise tomorrow, I get a fresh start, I can give it a shot again. You know, I’ve got another chance as long as the sun will rise tomorrow, and I’m still here.”
With the album completed, Animal Years will continue to bring their music to the stage. In addition to cd release shows in New York and Baltimore, the band will also participate in the CMJ Music Festival in October. As a performance unit, Animal Years continues to hone their craft, perfecting the new material for live performance. “These songs are still really new, but we’re very by the book with our performances right now, just because we’re such a new band. We’re almost playing the set just like the album. We’re not like an improvisational band; I’ve always wanted to present a really accurate portrayal of the record. I’m kind of a perfectionist. Everybody in the band is either playing a part that I wrote, or a part that I played, or both. So I’m just a stickler for getting it to sound just like it does on the album. We do stray a little bit and add different things to the songs, and some of them we go on longer than they are on the record, and do different parts, but for the most part it’s just like it is on the record.”
Along with that kind of perfectionism in performance, Animal Years hopes to foster the connection between audience and performer, seeking to break down artificial barriers and instead embrace our collective experience not just in the shared moment of a given performance, but in the triumphs and tragedies that we all experience simply by living life. What McFadden wants the audience to recognize in an Animal Years performance is “just how basic and simple the message is that I’m trying to get across. I don’t like the distance that bands have from the fans that watch them. I kind of just want them to have an understanding that this music is from them, we all have the same problems, and we’re just as easily accessible as regular people, I guess. This is like working class music. We’re not rock stars! I want there to be like a really sincere connection with people when they come out and watch us play.”
Keep up with Animal Years online. Sun will Rise releases on September 17th.