The Frontier Brothers are a case study in how to navigate the modern landscape of the music industry. In the golden age of the industry, the members of most bands lived near each other, if not in the same house, and were therefore subject to the industry’s whims regarding what region of the country to pay attention to at any given time. Today things are different, with many bands having members dispersed all over the various continents. The Frontier Brothers are another example of such a diaspora, with half the band residing in New York City, while the other remains in their hometown of Austin, Texas. Conveniently for the Frontier Brothers, the two cities are homes to the two largest music seminars in the US, SXSW and CMJ respectively. We caught up with the band when they were assembled in NY for the recent CMJ festival to shoot a video of their rehearsal, then had a chat about music seminars, songwriting, and the future of the music industry.
This year’s CMJ was the band’s third time at the festival, but unlike previous jaunts, on this occasion they chose to only play one showcase, focusing their efforts on one well-promoted event rather than trying to play anywhere and everywhere. As keyboardist Brett Moses put it, “there is a sort of manic tendency at new music festivals like SXSW and CMJ. Everyone is trying to play as many shows as possible. But after years of doing this, we sort of realized that you can accomplish the same things by playing one really well planned, well promoted, well done show.” The importance of making an impact at CMJ can’t be diminished, particularly when compared to the band’s other hometown festival, SXSW. Moses describes the communal nature of CMJ as such: “SXSW is glamorous, well-funded.. it’s like the Las Vegas of music festivals. It’s easy to get lost in the excitement though…CMJ is a little friendlier for a smaller band. SXSW is a much bigger event than CMJ, and yet we always have a terrific time at CMJ. CMJ is a real musicians’ conference– it’s oriented toward educating the artist. Honestly, i think it serves sort of an amazing role in the music industry. this is a world where it’s every man for himself, full of trade secrets, but at CMJ the walls come down a little bit, everyone talks to each other and shares gameplans.”
Gameplans are key to the Frontier Brothers ability to function, necessitated by the physical distance between band members. “Our band situation is quite unique, since we are bifurcated, so we have to build in a lot of extra practice time before big shows,” says Moses. He further explains that “when we have a big show, like CMJ, practicing is not only important, but a matter of dire consequence. Before this show, we hadn’t gotten to practice in months.. we’ve been a band long enough to know that we are capable of extraordinary things, but rust buildup is entirely natural.” The band isn’t sitting stagnant when away from each other though. They’ve developed a methodology for working up new music from opposite ends of the country. Guitarist/singer Marshall Galactic suggests a somewhat abstract approach, explaining that “conceptual ideas are a big part of writing process: what we want the next piece to feel like, what little tricks we’ve dreamed up.” “We usually go Concept -> Melody -> Editing -> Concept Revision” continues Moses. “The concept phases can happen from anywhere. We jam when we are together, we bake little pieces of music, and then we spend a very long time just sort of sorting out what those pieces mean. I just sent Marshall a little Ableton Live loop of a jam we did, now he will write lyrics or a concept for it, and we will take it from there.” The process is not necessarily a quick one, “we’re picky, stubborn, and patient. the song is only done once we’ve taken the time to edit, re-edit, re-edit” says Moses.
Time also consumes their actual recording process. For example, they are currently finishing up a full-length album right now, which has been in the works for the better part of a year. Specifically they’ve “recorded in three three-song sessions, we come down to austin for 2 weeks at a time and make music. As a result, the album is going to be very special and quite strange.” Moses further elaborates, “When you record a whole album in one session, it is possible that you will lose the individuality any single tracks to a larger vision. Here, we have 9 curiously independent songs nesting together.” Having the opportunity to work on their music in this manner allows them to “reign ourselves in. It’s all about how it sounds and whether we enjoy playing it.” as Galactic puts it. Moses expounds, “We’ve always enjoyed tempering weird, experimental ideas with catchy melodies and structured songwriting. That’s why we revere the editing stage. Go wild, make something insane, and then have the control, the maturity, and the foresight to keep only what’s necessary.”
The editing also allows them the time and care to strike a balance between elaborating their ideas and conveying emotions. As a result, they “have several happy sounding songs with very sad or weird messages.” As Moses puts it, “music is commonly thought of as ‘encoded emotion’. I’m not sure if that’s true, but if it is, it would seem that a great song should start with rich emotional content. I revere David Lynch as a creator, he seems to send out contradictory messages at all times and leaves the audience feeling, how should i put this, sublime.” Galactic adds that, “The ‘experiment’ is not pre-conceived, it happens naturally. But I think that ‘reading’ has some validity. It’s more likely that the bands perspectives create that push and pull. It does exist.”
Everything needs to be considered, from making records to touring to selling merch, and the band has learned over time to streamline their decision making. “We are trying to become a band of precise action.” Moses explains. “We will tour infrequently, but only play important, relevant shows… we will make few records, but write records that people care about, and we will license when we can, like everyone else. Bands expend a shocking amount of excess energy and capitol on auxiliary ventures. We certainly have. Touring the wrong town, investing incorrectly, we’re a little older and maybe wiser now, so we’re hoping to make the right choices” They also recognize this struggle to be universal in the music world. “I think bands are having to make a decision.” says Moses. “Our world is manic, excessive, HYPERBOLIC! So will we be a band that does everything all the time everywhere? Well, the fact is that is impossible since we live apart, so we have to choose this other approach. I think there is some vague idea of this “new game” that bands have been playing for the past 6 or 7 years, since the industry started to slump. So where do we fit in? Well, i suppose we are playing an entirely different game. Being apart, we are trying to do something quite experimental even for now.”
How does the album fit in to this game? There is a lot of debate regarding how to handle albums in the modern age, whether to treat them as sellable product or free promotion. Given the amount of attention the band gives to the music itself, they are almost ambivalent to the function of the album itself. Not that they aren’t crafting art in their album, as bassist Nick LaGrasta points out, “since the industry is where it’s at now i think it raises the bar for how good you have to be live to get fans to want to come back and see you over and over.” Moses adds that it, “goes back to the fanbase. What do your fans want? Do they like to go out, socialize, dance at your shows? Do they want to throw your record on their radio? You will have to excel in both areas if you want to achieve maximum success with your fans.” “Performance and Recorded music are almost two different arts,” Galactic suggests, with LaGrasta concurring, “they are absolutley both art but now working together more than ever.” In the case of the album though, you have art that requires significant investments of time, energy and money. The old thinking was that the album represented the apex of a band’s achievement, designed to give the listener a lasting impression of the band as artists. To that end, album sales and revenues supported the artists in creating their works, but in today’s reality, very few people pay for recorded music anymore. Moses approaches the issue with great pragmatism, explaining that, “the album is going to fill two roles, it’s both a source of income and a promotional vessel. Look, you have three types of fans (and the distinctions are not always so clear cut). There are fans who will see shows, fans who prefer to listen to your music on their own, and fans who will never pay you a cent either way. You sort of need all three, because the last category still contributes to your buzz [in that] the freeloaders will introduce your music to the concertgoers and album-buyers.”
The Frontier Brothers have a good grasp on their art, and how it functions as a business, without sacrificing one for the other. Despite living miles apart from each other, the band members have found ways to dedicate their energy towards making the band work, and have devised a number of innovative and efficient methods of functioning. While none of us may have it all figured out yet, this band is at the very least trying to do things differently, and at the most, succeeding.