There is a certain poetry that surrounds a band like THEMES. The music of course, is dramatic, elaborate, thematic. But it’s more than just that. Even the band name encapsulates the intangible meaning of itself, as it plays with the idea of what makes a band, of what makes a name.
Although officially, THEMES consists of Jacy McIntosh and Kelsey Crawford, the unofficial lineup excludes just about no one. In keeping with the fluid nature of the band’s origins and relationship, the two have founded the band on the idea of thematic collaboration.
“It’s kind of part of the reason that we started this band, because we have so many friends that are musically inclined that we’ve always wanted to play with,” McIntosh said.
The way it works then, is that the two write and perform the songs. But depending on where they are or who else is around, they sometimes have other musicians write, record and tour with them, so that the collective of THEMES is a constantly evolving theme unto itself.
Even though McIntosh is a native of Oakland, Calif., the two first encountered one another in Minneapolis (Crawford’s hometown) nearly a decade ago. Seeing as both were musicians, and the music scene wasn’t too large, it was inevitable that they would eventually meet.
“We were just in a bunch of different bands that kind of ran in the same circles,” McIntosh explained, mentioning that at some point, the two had even recorded and played together in friends’ bands.
At some point, one of Crawford’s bands headed out to Santa Rosa, Calif., at the suggestion of McIntosh, who had a handful of contacts and friends from growing up in the area.
“We were trying to escape Minnesota winter to write a record,” Crawford said.
Yet before too long, that band broke up. McIntosh moved out to the area. The two decided to try their combined hand at playing music together, and questioned why they hadn’t thought of it earlier.
“We started writing music together and it was way easier,” Crawford said.
She cited their similar tastes, parallel sense of musical direction and overall chemistry as the reasons why the two work together so well.
“It was like the refreshing change of scenery kind of opened that up musically as well,” McIntosh added.
That change of scenery inspired two albums and two 7-inches, and they haven’t stopped moving since. After going between California and Minneapolis for a few years, the two then moved again in 2008, this time to Oregon.
In the time since, the two have definitely honed in on their songwriting process. And although it’s not down to a science, they have found that it’s the tenure of their time together that makes their music much more solid.
While the two will sometimes work on songs individually, it’s the joining of their musical ideas that they find makes for the best writing.
“We’ll sketch up different ideas and just kind of carve them together,” McIntosh said, describing the way they write songs. “It’s like sound sculpting at its finest, I suppose.”
Crawford agreed, saying that it “never just, like, magically happens” but that after a few hours of playing together, sometimes, “something just kind of, like, sneaks out,” and becomes the next song idea.
“It’s kind of like standing in a river trying to catch fish with your bare hands,” McIntosh added. “And there [are] a lot of fish. Like, there are so many fish in this river.”
Much like the determination and desire the fish analogy requires, both Crawford and McIntosh also noted that the ideas that come together the best and survive as songs tend to be the ones that they put more of themselves into.
“It seems like the ones that we write the quickest become these things that are very momentary kinds of snapshots of emotion, and it can be difficult to revisit it,” McIntosh said. “And sometimes, sometimes the lyrics change, sometimes the key changes, sometimes the arrangement will change, but for the most part, we’re still playing songs as they were written, and it’s almost nostalgic.”
That kind of fragile honesty in the music-making process is just another one of THEMES’ unique trademarks. In fact, it even surprises the two from time to time, when they play a song that speaks to a particular mood or feeling, and they unintentionally recreate that initial feeling that inspired the song.
“It always catches me off guard, you know, that playing the songs, I can still feel that way, especially live,” Crawford disclosed.
She recalled playing the song “Valdez” at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis and being caught up in the moment in a way that she neither expected nor could control.
“My eyes started watering and I couldn’t believe, like, my physical reaction, like literally had surpassed mentally, my, you know, keeping it together on stage,” Crawford explained. “It was a very weird emotional experience. It was very beautiful, and kind of humbling in a lot of ways. I mean, I definitely loved it, that I could do that, you know?”
THEMES set out on Tuesday for its California tour, which both members said has been far too long in the making. It will continue through the first week of March, taking them up and down the state. Along the way, they’ll add long-time friends The Velvet Teen to their show lineup, bringing them back up North to Washington and Oregon with them.
Keeping true to the collaborative spirit, they’ve brought along friend and percussionist Nick Dayka on this tour, which is guaranteed to give those familiar with the band a new take on old songs.
“The translation of the music live…it changes,” McIntosh said. “The songs kind of take on new meaning when different musicians are involved.”
However, in spite of changing lineups, Crawford feels like THEMES is in a place where the music manages to sound more like itself than it ever has in years past.
“Our live performance right now has been, more now so than ever before, comparable to the records we have out,” she said. “You’re going to recognize it right away when we’re playing at our shows…we try to be really true to [the music].”
Perhaps this is the case because the two have finally pinpointed what their sound is and where they want to go. Or maybe that was the case all along, but it just took some time to realize that vision. In any case, neither member communicated any kind of feeling that they weren’t entirely satisfied with the direction of the music.
“We like the way we write songs together,” Crawford said. “I think that what THEMES is is music that Jacy and I write together.”
But she made certain to specify that even though the two are the core of the band that working with their friends is a welcome addition.
“That’s what keeps it fresh as well…by calling on other friends,” McIntosh said.
They cited the new album, “The Phantom,” as the epitome of THEMES: music by the two with help from their pals.
“I think this record…” began McIntosh.
“…there [are] all kinds of people on it,” inserted Crawford.
“Yeah, there’s a great cast of characters,” McIntosh said, finishing the sentence. “We definitely sketched out the songs, but we couldn’t have done it without all the other people.”
“The Phantom,” the physical product of which will come out on March 1, was released in limited quantities last year. Yet after weighing the pros and cons of working with other people or putting it out themselves at a later date, the two opted for the latter, for a variety of logistical reasons.
Unlike past releases, THEMES said “The Phantom” is a lot less autobiographical and contains a lot more storytelling elements. The songs address historical events but add their own personal opinion into the mix, which McIntosh feels conflicted about.
“There [are] definitely things on this album that are kind of buried in there that, from time to time, I think that, like, should not have been said,” he shared.
But doing any less might have taken from the authenticity of what THEMES is about.
“It’s like playing with the Ouija board,” Crawford added. “You know you’re not supposed to do it but you really want the answer to that question.”
As a band that defines itself as being constantly on the move, the two are almost hard-pressed when forced to choose where they would move next, although they said they would be open to relocating yet again.
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say, yeah, I would totally live in another city,” Crawford said.
“We always talk about, you know, different places and different kinds of ideas that come with that,” McIntosh elaborated.
He said usually a move is inspired by knowing people in a new place and wanting to be near them. And regardless of where they call home, he said they can always tour and travel.
So if forced to leave Oregon, they said Santa Rosa, Calif., would be their next destination – again – because of the friends they made there and the unending support they receive from those friends.
“They were all very supportive, like, way way back in the day,” McIntosh said.
“That whole family is very dear to our hearts,” Crawford added.