In music circles, no adjective is as potentially as problematic as “indie.” Is it fundamentally a business designation, referring to bands who ply their trade away from the aegis of the major labels? Or does it indicate a certain genre, particularly amorphous associations with post-punk and mopey emo music?
Witness Honor By August. The Washington, D.C.-based quartet has crafted an eight-year existence with a combination of independent label help and a DIY ethic (yes, they bought a tour bus, and yes, they know how to fix it). “Up until recently, we’ve done it all without much help from anyone in the industry,” said singer Michael Pearsall. Indeed, the band has entered (and won) songwriting contests sponsored by the likes of Billboard and Bon Jovi, and has played in every conceivable type of venue over its existence.
Yet with its power pop and catchy, anthemic choruses, no one would make the mistake of calling their music “indie.” They’ve been compared favorably to U2, Kings of Leon and The Killers. In fact, for their recent release, Monuments to Progress, the band doubled down on their radio-friendly sound, turning out hook after hook on the disc’s ten songs, and opting for a lush, multilayered production style.
This is Honor by August’s first release under new label Noble Steed Music, but the band had some extra help along the way as well. They asked their fans to help fund the record through a Kickstarter campaign.
We caught up with Pearsall by phone on tour, as the band worked up to a headlining CD-release show at the 9:30 Club in its hometown. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
Weeping Elvis: What was different about this record in your approach?
Michael Pearsall: Several things. For starters this is the first record that we’ve had all four guys in the band from the very beginning of each song. On previous records …. there was something that had been done before the four of us getting together. [This record is] the best representation of who HBA is.
Plus, we worked with the same producer we worked with on our EP. Same engineer, same mixer. So we’d already been through that process.
And the fact that the record was funded by Kickstarter, the fact that we had fans who wanted us to make more music gave us encouragement. They were excited to hear it, but there was also the added responsibility [that comes form that]. There was an extra amount of emphasis.
How much did you raise?
$25,000 on Kickstarter. We were very humbled by that experience.
What’s the songwriting process for you guys?
Each song is different. There are some ideas that each person brought, some that we wrote together from start to finish. We feel very strongly that we all have to believe in the song or have a stake in it. Either we believe in the message, or in the music contributing to it. We are a very democratic band. It’s a very open forum. It’s just about finding ideas that serve the song the best.
There appears to be a particular emphasis on radio-friendly hooks and production on this CD. How intentional was that?
We’re all fans of pop music, [although] you could ask each member and they’d come up with different definitions of what that is. We know the kind of band we are, we have a sound. But it was not like we set out to write a hit song. You know maybe certain songs stand a better chance. But I don’t think we sacrificed anything of who we are, or what we are as musicians.
The process has evolved as a band. We feel like we write tighter, better constructed songs. [On the production side], 90-95% of the stuff, we knew going into the studio there were parts we wanted to have. Then another 10% you discover in the studio. “Oh, that’s’ a great mistake.”
For instance, with “Last Chance,” we had it remixed when we knew we were going to make a serious push for it on the radio. [In fact, the song was just added to the rotation on Sirius’s “The Pulse” channel.] So we mixed it knowing that. But we were in the studio for that. We want to make them viable for radio. But the overall value of what we were trying to say is still there.
How’s the band changed in eight years?
The biggest difference is after that many years together you begin to understand each other on a deeply personal level. The one thing that’s consistent is we all love each other and we all respect each other. But you learn things. Those bits of conflict help push us forward. You can sort of pre-empt it. You know [guitarist] Evan [Field]’s going to want this and [drummer] Brian [Shanley]’s going to want that. Let’s start closer to the middle. It’s made things more efficient.
What are some things you wish you knew seven years ago? If you were to give advice to a band that just put out their first EP, what would it be?
The first thing I say is you have to be able to communicate with each other. There are going to be so many different people who try to pull you in one direction or another. We’ve had some success, but we’re not where we want to be. So you have to take other people’s advice.
You have to make sure everyone’s committed to the same level. You have to be willing to sacrifice. Not even to be successful, just to work. You have to miss birthdays and family parties and things you want to do in your own personal and social life. Four guys need to align, never mind their wives or girlfriends.
And you really have to pursue every avenue that’s out there. Particularly social media. It took a long time for me to use Twitter and Facebook. I think Twitter is the dumbest thing in the world. But obviously I’m in the minority. We have to use it and engage our audience that way. The only way people are going to care about you is if you give them a reason to care about you.
How important has the D.C. scene been in sustaining you guys?
It’s been huge. You can’t be a band anywhere else unless you have a place to start from. Over the years we’ve built a fan base from here. D.C. is such a transient city, but in a way that ‘s great. The people who have heard your music in DC, they move away and then they spread the word there. On the other hand, it’s hard to sustain [at home] because people are moving so much.
You run into different kinds of people here, different kinds of clubs. When we started, we played as much as we could here. Now it’s about striking a balance between staying relevant and oversaturating your market.