Interview: A B & the Sea
As far as the music world is concerned, A B & the Sea is the true paragon of what it means to live in California. Everything – from the band name itself to the oft whimsical yet realistic song lyrics, and most especially the carefree pop-infused stylings of the group – seems entirely apropos for a musical act living on the coast of the Golden State to be churning out.
Yet before the group moved out West three years ago from its home state of Wisconsin, the blatant nod to all things soaked in the simple everyday of sunshine and surf was often construed as playful, or just plain facetious.
“We were really really ironic in Wisconsin,” recalled singer Koley O’Brien. “People thought we were weird.”
And while it was never something the band did as a gimmick, O’Brien admitted that sometimes, what the band was doing didn’t make sense, particularly during the colder months of the year.
“Playing winter shows and singing about, you know, wanting to go to the ocean, and all this shit is sort of weird,” he said with a laugh.
Still, the band has always managed to take things in stride – whether that involved being ridiculed for having a somewhat unconventional approach to music or refusing to give up when things got tough – which is likely why A B & the Sea survived the intra-continental trek to San Francisco.
“We were comfortable in Wisconsin,” O’Brien said, explaining why he moved away. “We could sell out shows every weekend. We could make money and all that stuff, but we didn’t feel that we were gaining any momentum, and we wanted to step outside. And we came to San Francisco and nobody knew who the hell we were, and tried to make a name for ourselves and that’s way more exciting.”
And looking back on their origins and recalling that feeling of being brand new to the West Coast, core members O’Brien and Joe Spargur can easily say that, in the larger scope of things, peoples’ reaction back home to their tongue-in-cheek approach to music has been the least of their concerns.
Money, for one, always has been and still continues to be a legitimate concern, and the members rely on side jobs to sustain their musical careers.
“I can never keep one,” O’Brien said of jobs.
In fact, he is currently between jobs, which he remarked was a relatively common thing. Regardless, he didn’t express much concern over the lack of a steady paycheck, chalking it up to part of life as a member of an active band.
“We haven’t busked on the street for like, six months, but we used to do that a lot,” he disclosed, saying that it’s how the first recording was funded. “[And] it might be getting to that point again.”
Even though A B & the Sea is facing some uncertainty about its financial situation, O’Brien admitted that’s a large part of what being in a band is about, and said that the other facets of life as a musician are much more important than a preoccupation with funds.
“Luckily, [the positive aspects] all outweigh the money,” he said. “I feel that artists don’t really care about money, generally speaking, and that’s why they can do it.”
Having the support of others has also been important for the foursome.
“We lucked out. I mean, we’ve always been, I guess, confident in our songs,” O’Brien said. “Well, WE weren’t always. But our manager and our friends and family are really supportive.”
That is one of the things that played into why O’Brien thinks the band has done so well in California, even as bands originally from the area continue to flounder and lack a solid following. But it’s not the only one.
“There’s a lot of good music out there,” he said. “It’s hard to stick out. Unfortunately I don’t think it all comes down to how good your music is. There [are] a lot of other factors.”
One of those factors working in A B & the Sea’s favor is an undeniable reality that the “sound” the band focuses on – has always focused on – is also what is currently popular.
“The big thing that’s different between us and a lot of other bands right now is that we are not trying to be a buzz band at all. [But] I think our style kind of falls into what is going on right now with some really hip bands,” O’Brien said.
And of course, in addition to being unintentionally grouped alongside current surf pop, melodic lo-fi, indie beach bands a la Best Coast, Waaves and Girls, the comparison A B & the Sea gets most often is to the Beach Boys. Understandably, this makes the members groan a bit, but O’Brien admitted it isn’t exactly an unfavorable comparison.
“I understand,” he said. “You’re always going to get compared to whatever you sound like. [And] I’d rather be compared to the Beach Boys than like, f–king Hanson or something, so, I’m cool with it.”
And O’Brien’s ear for sound explains away that similarity: it is – in large part – due to the kind of music he was exposed to at an early age.
“We’re just trying to write songs that are classic sounding and sort of standard to go along with what we’ve grown up listening to,” he shared.
He also insisted that what he writes is never intentionally in a certain sound or style, but rather it’s the result of knowing what solid melody sounds like.
“I’m not ever just like, ‘OK, it’s time to write a good melody.’ [Instead] it’ll just come to me, walking down the street or whatever,” he said. “[And] I’ve never written anything down. Honestly. I keep stuff in my head…It’s never like a forced thing.”
He then paused, citing the song “Suzie” as the one exception. The story is that at the time it was written, O’Brien worked in a factory in Wisconsin with a machine that produced an overtone hum all day.
“I wrote the song…around one chord: F sharp,” he said, referencing that overtone. “I went outside on my break – I had a 15 minute break – and I just sang the melody into my cell phone and sent myself a voicemail. That was the only time I’ve ever had to do that.”
As for where he derives inspiration from, O’Brien didn’t have to search at all for the answer to that question.
“The most influential thing that inspires me is new locations,” he said. “Something about, like, being in a new place, around new people, just like, gives me an idea to literally write a new song.”
This brings about an interesting question of whether the band tours often to feed that inspiration or whether that inspiration comes about as a result of the band touring often. Of course, there is no definitive answer to this, as the two are indecipherably tied up in one another.
“We try to play, you know, one or two shows a week,” O’Brien said. “Ideally we like to play every day but we can only do that every now and again…[and] usually in the city we can get away with playing two times a month.”
He also said that when they get out of town, it’s typically for a weeklong stint up or down the coast, although the band is in the process of submitting for national tours, and also plans to attend SXSW next month.
While the constant schedule of shows makes it so the band doesn’t have to practice often, as of late, they have been, admittedly, pulling more hours.
“The only reason we have to practice is because we have sort of gone through some member shifts,” O’Brien said.
Particularly with the loss of bass player Zak LaVigne, who quit earlier this year, O’Brien said the band had to step up its game, which involved adding a new bass player to the demanding calendar of the next few months.
Now they practice two or three times a week in order to solidify the new lineup. But just the band’s living situation alone is relatively conducive to normally not needing a set-aside time for band practice.
“We live together so we jam around our house, like with acoustic guitars and piano and stuff,” O’Brien explained. “We just practice practice practice. We [even] do vocal warm-ups together around the house.”
A B & the Sea has a handful of releases to its name, the most recent being “Run Run Run,” which came out on Jan. 25. And the five-song EP not only served to compliment the sunny, 65-degree days that hung over the Bay Area in January, but was picked by iTunes to be in the Indie Spotlight category, something which O’Brien said has been big in pushing the month-old release.
“We lucked out,” he said. “That little bit of momentum can really go a long way.”
In fact, that kind of break every now and then – whether it be from word-of-mouth support or a push from a larger, corporate entity – has been crucial for the band in maintaining morale and encouraging them to keep going.
“Coming from Wisconsin, you know, moving out here, 20 years old, dropping out of college to follow, you know, some sort of dream in a sense, is a really really exciting thing. And it’s also sort of like a reality check every now and again when, you know, you owe people money and, you know, financially dude, it’s really really tough,” O’Brien said.
“The only reason you can’t get down on yourself is because, just like, look yourself in the mirror and say ‘OK I get to play music for my career,’ and you just kind of kick yourself in the ass and move on. You know, because it is great. It’s an amazing feeling. You know, being in the studio, being on stage, everything.”
That feeling is what keeps the members of A B & the Sea going, although the goal in mind isn’t fame or fortune.
“I think right now, we’re not there yet, we’re aspiring to be there, wherever there is,” he said. “I think there essentially is like, it’s not selling a million records, it’s just, making a career, a real career, out of being a musician.”
A B & the Sea plays the Noise Pop Festival for the third year in a row – the second time at Bottom of the Hill – tomorrow evening, sharing the stage with Ted Leo, Kevin Seconds and Angel Island. 8 p.m., $12, all ages.