ALEATORY #15: The Bound Stems

Sometimes, life can surprise you. It certainly surprised Evan Sult.

Evan, you see, used to be the drummer for this little band called Harvey Danger (whose frontman, Sean Nelson, was Globecat's second-ever interview). After their cult-classic album King James Version got virtually ignored, the band amicably split, and Sult joined forces with Bobby Gallivan, Dan Radzicki, and Dan Fleury (all high-school basketball buddies) to form the Bound Stems, an extraordinary little pop group based out of Chicago. Their first album, 2006's Appreciation Night, received great reviews, but their latest disc -- The Family Afloat -- has received near-universal praise, receiving an extraordinary 82 rating on Metacritic, and, of course, let's not forget about that time the band got to open for the Lemonheads.

Sult may be surprised by the success of his various bands, but the Globecat staff here was even more surprised by the answers Sult gave for Globecat's 15th Aleatory: honest, funny, witty replies that not only give insight into Sult's unabashed love of music, but also into the man behind the drumkit and what it is that motivates him. Ladies and gentlemen, Evan Sult of the Bound Stems ...


1. Favorite word?

Words are family. Today I have been appreciating the word "undo"—four letters, and such a gratifying, complex meaning. Tim Sandusky (Appreciation Night co-producer) and I were talking about it today. "Undo" pre-dated the digital age as a word, but the concept of "undo" (versus, say, "undoing") is possibly the greatest single innovation of our age. And then we got into a sort of ongoing consideration of the possible differences between "un-" and "dis-," which led us to consider such options as "disused" versus "unused"—clearly different meanings. I think now of words such as "disable" and "unable." And, of course, there's no such thing as "disdo"...though it's interesting to consider what that phrase might imply.

Most days bring a new favorite word.

9. Favorite song to start (or end) a mixtape with?

I like strange music with a pop spine as much as I like pop music with a strange heart. Two of the best recordings in the world are "Master-Dik" by Sonic Youth, and "The Classical" by The Fall. "Best recordings," by the way, should not be confused with "best songs," just as best friends are not necessarily the same as best experiences.

16. Favorite campfire story?

My partner Paige and I were at Mammoth Cave Park in Kentucky not too long ago and we had a couple guitars and pretty soon we were singing songs by Silver Jews, Pavement, Bound Stems, Tom Petty... It was late, we were being really quiet, but eventually the park ranger came over and told us we had to pack it up. We spent another half hour talking with him about music while he checked out our guitars; he was probably the friendliest guy in a uniform that I've ever met. Plus, the fire itself was built perfectly. I don't know about you, but I get kind of obsessive about constructing a well-made, efficient fire. This one was a long-burning beaut.

I know, not the same impact as The Ghost With One Red Eye, but my favorite campfire story.

18. Favorite pick-up line?

"You know, you're right: you SHOULD quit smoking."

Man, when I was first single after an 8-year relationship that I thought would be my last, I realized a hard truth: I had NO GAME whatsoever. None. My essential character was either interesting or not to the person I was talking with; I was no more capable of small talk as a single person than I was as half of a couple.

I eventually...eventually I think I just got more comfortable being myself. Everyone knows the connection happens the day after you really, truly stop trying—and everyone knows it's impossible to consciously stop trying. Once I got there, I had my share of adventures. I'm really glad I'm not single now. The girl I used that line on, I tell you, she's something else. And neither of us have smoked a cigarette in a long time.

22. Favorite vice?

Skipping work to get in some time at the practice space. Don't tell the folks I work with!

26. Favorite badass?

Honestly, the biggest badass I've met in my life may be a gentleman by the name of Lee. But he's a secret. The biggest badass I've never met may be a gentleman by the name of Mark E. Smith.

35. What's the best place you've randomly discovered while on tour?

There are a lot of great places I'd never know about if not for tour.

The one that springs to mind first is the Middle East in Cambridge MA. Their falafel is the best I've ever had, there's free internet, it feels like a coffeeshop staffed with people I like talking to, the sound guy always knows his biz, the drum monitor is enormous, and the Boston paper has the only crossword that can keep up with the New York Times'.

Wait! I nearly forgot because it's been so long, but when I was in Harvey Danger we got to go to the GREATEST PLACE IN AMERICA (while it existed), which was called Fort Thunder. It was in Providence RI, and it's gone now, but it was the weirdest, coolest community of whacked-out comic artists, screenprinters, bike redesigners, and interior space inventors I've ever even dreamed of. We knew this guy Brian Ralph who lived there, and as he took us around the space, my brain dropped out of my skull and bounced along behind me. I've never recovered. I contributed a few of my impressions to a beautiful elegy on Fort Thunder written by my friend Tom Spurgeon, which you can find here: http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/briefings/commentary/1863/

THAT was the best place I found on tour.

36. Lyrics first or music first?

I'm the drummer, so: whatever gets a song started. On Appreciation Night, we mostly didn't know the lyrics, or even the melody, even as we were laying down the instrumental tracks; Bobby sweated those out later. On The Family Afloat, we knew a lot more about some of the songs--"Winston," "Taking Tips," "Cloak of Blue Sky"--so we could adjust parts to feelings. I love doing parts on drums, or in later production, that relate to the lyrics. Like in "Happens to Us All Otherwise," there's a moment where Bobby sings "while the telephone rings, the telephone rings!", and we spent half a day figuring out how to build in the disruption noise a cell phone makes on your stereo when it's got an incoming call. I mean, why not?

43. What's the road ahead look like?

We'll see. Bound Stems just put out The Family Afloat in September, so hopefully that'll pick up listeners through the winter. We've got a teacher, a student, an artist and some professionals in the band, so we won't be on the road for awhile, but we'll be playing shows as possible.

Paige and I are writing and recording music as Sleepy Kitty, and we hope to have some music to show soon--we have one song on an upcoming Huey Lewis tribute comp called "Are You Still With Me?!". Radz is on track to become a PhD, Bobby loves to teach and may be looking at law school in the future, Fleury just got a new job, Janie's been putting in a lot of time at work, I've got a new art+music studio in St. Louis that I'm ecstatic about... hopefully our new circumstances keep us excited about making music. It's certainly possible. I know Bobby's writing some acoustic-based songs, and Radz was building some amazing soundscape pieces during the writing process for the last album, so maybe those will develop into Bound Stems songs, or into new projects.

Me, I just want to write music!

One thing I do hope happens in the near future: one of Bound Stems' best songs, in my opinion, is called "Hooray Madame Corday!", and we intentionally left it off The Family Afloat so that we'd have something awesome waiting in the wings. I really want that song to get out in the world and get heard. It's about the French Revolution, and it features the life, death, and vengeful ghost of Charlotte Corday. I hope we can release a single or an EP or something with "Corday" as the centerpiece.

44. Something you've heard, know is false, but wish were true with all your heart?

"Americans are better than that."

52. At what point did you realize that music was going to be your full-time occupation?

Sitting in an unfurnished corner of one of the New York airports with the members of Harvey Danger, discussing the crazy major label record deal we'd just been offered. We were all struggling to understand the ramifications: we were going to have to quit our jobs and careers, we were going to be spending a year on tour, we were entering a whole new industry that we'd heard legends and rumors and tall tales about all our lives.

That was when I knew it would be an occupation--and it was, for several years. But for various reasons, it wasn't until after Harvey Danger had ended and I'd moved out to Chicago, met these guys that eventually became the rest of Bound Stems, written music furiously for a couple of years, and paused to figure out what we wanted to do next, that I realized: I want Bound Stems to make an album. I'll put in all the money I have, all the time, all the energy, all the art, all the skill, everything I've got--which was meager compared to what Harvey Danger's resources were there for a while, but which was so much more complete in terms of my own creative efforts. I wanted the album (which became, a couple of years later, both Appreciation Night and the Logic of Building the Body Plan EP) to be a pure statement of exactly what we wanted to make. We spent 3 or 4 nights a week writing, and I spent every day before work, during lunch, and walking home from work, listening to practice space recordings and rough studio mixes.

Evenings in the studio with Tim Sandusky. Nights wandering through Chicago with a little recording device, grabbing Chicago's trains, buses, bikes, conversations, snowcrunch. That was when I knew I wanted music in my life full time. Harvey Danger showed me the lightning-strike version; Bound Stems showed me the version where we earned every inch.

58. Least rock star thing you've ever done?

I have met rock stars. I've never been a rock star. I could just as easily tell you the least attorney thing I've ever done, or the least astronaut thing I've ever done. I've never lost a case on the moon.

59. Worst venue you've ever played?

Never blame the venue. Although the guy at the Khyber in Philly who told us he couldn't afford to pay us while literally holding fistfuls of $20 bills from the all-you-can-drink night that was just getting started: that guy can fuck right off. And the sound guy in Des Moines who failed to notice that Bobby was getting shocked by the mic even though Bobby kept appealing to him ON MIC to do something: that guy should get fried, then fired. Knucklehead incompetent petty thief lout!

67. Do you reach any kind of personal catharsis when it comes to songwriting/performing?

Songwriting is the GREATEST. I don't know if "catharsis" is the word I'd use, but teasing a song from its first bits to the moment when you can actually play the whole thing through from beginning to end--man, there's just nothing like it. Except, of course, recording the song. Songs don't really exist until there's a recorded version. There may be a few recorded versions, there may just be one, but that's what it takes to get from the idea of a song to the song as an actual thing that exists in the world. And getting to that point is about the most gratifying feeling ever.

Performing is something else entirely. I've learned a lot playing with Bound Stems. It's tricky figuring out how to make a show more than the sum of its parts. I don't know if, say, Blonde Redhead actually feel as transported onstage as they make me feel when I'm watching them. In my own bands, in my own experience, the best moments are the rare ones when the band soars out into uncharted territory--a brief opening jam, a prolonged instrumental section, an averted disaster--and makes it safely back to familiar ground. To me that's proof that a bunch of folks who work hard together on something can learn to speak a collective invented language.

68. Favorite interview you've ever been a part of (aside from this one, obviously)?

In Washington DC, Harvey Danger was interviewed by a high school kid for his high school paper. Sean and I just buttonholed the kid and really used that interview to think about all the weirdness we'd been experiencing for the previous year. It was a huge release for us personally, and absurdly overdone for the context. I mean, we probably talked to the guy for 4 hours.

The part that really makes it great, though, is that Bound Stems toured through DC a couple of years ago, and who should come up to me but this kid--now no longer a kid, of course, but a really interesting guy with an interesting life. He was a writer for a local scene magazine, he was thoughtful and well-spoken--and his band, the Fake Accents, was playing with us that night! Which I thought was just a flat-out amazing turn of events.

79. Best concert you've ever been to?

I think that Howe Gelb, with or without Giant Sand, is probably my favorite performer. He has a way of interacting with the audience and the band that I've never seen before. It's a sense of humor, but also a sense of, I don't know, responsibility to his own weirdness. Every moment he's onstage is just as fascinating as every other moment, whether he's singing a song or telling a story or tuning his guitar or getting conversational with the hecklers who seem to be drawn to his light like so many moths. I suspect the heckler may even travel with him, though that would be crazy. He's spent so many years making so many albums, and they all express his singularity.

80. Worst run-in with the law (to date)?

My mugshot comes from a misunderstanding with store security regarding some medicine I didn't steal but that I did accidentally put in my pocket. I went all the way through Seattle's King County court system to get exonerated--jury selection, cross examination, the whole bizarre ritual.

"Not guilty, y'all got to feel me!"

But here's a better story: I was walking down the sidewalk in Chicago when I saw an open, upright briefcase on the sidewalk. I checked up and down the street--no one. Knowing there had to be some reason not to, I leaned down and cracked the briefcase further open to see what was inside. I saw sunglasses, file folders, plastic bags...and then there was a crackling sound. RIGHT beside me was a parked police car, with an officer climbing out of the driver's side and talking into his radio. Mustachioed, short, burly, mirrored glasses, the whole thing. He saw me crouched over the briefcase, yelled, "FUCK are you doing in MY BAG?!", and came barreling at me. I jumped back, but he rammed me into a fence and just laid into me verbally. I just kept my hands up and kept my mouth running. He looked ready to break my jaw--but his radio squawked again, and as he decided whether to deck me or do his job, I slid out of his grip and backpedaled away as fast as I could, apologizing as I went.

I can be such a dumbshit.

82. Current pop song that you would file under "guilty pleasure"?

Nothing at all occurs to me. One thing I've noticed though is that songs I used to HATE ten years ago are just as woven into my musical background as songs I loved. Stone Temple Pilots, Marcy Playground, Sublime, stuff that used to make me really grind my teeth--a lot of it is just part of the past now, and it's fine. That's probably the closest I feel to guilt about music: finding myself singing along to "Love in an Elevator" while running an errand in the band van. Twenty-two year-old me would have rolled his eyes and muttered something about corporate manipulation. Thirty-five year-old me doesn't worry about it. I neither like nor dislike the song, the musician, the words--it's just stuff I know osmotically, like the current status of TomKat's child. For some reason, the older the song, the mellower its effect on me.

Actually, I've been somewhat surprised to discover that A) I never hear Offspring anymore, which is a real blessing, and B) I'd say Green Day from any era turns out to be my least favorite music on the radio. And this one is no surprise: Lenny Kravitz writes the laziest songs on the radio, bar none.

More to the point, though, I just don't find myself around pop radio, music on TV, or any of the places where one hears contemporary songs. Even the grocery store only plays decades-old classics. And when I goto the corner 7-11 and hear the dumb John Mayer song that's always playing there--"Say whatcha wanna say" or whatever it is that he repeats for the entire shopping experience--it doesn't make me any more likely to check the radio dial for "new music."

85. What's the biggest mistake you've made that you inadvertently learned a great lesson from?

My Harvey Danger major label experience was all about mistakes. I was distracted by nonmusical problems, my band stopped liking each other, we had entirely the wrong attitude about our own opportunities and capabilities, and we cancelled each other out far more often than we reinforced each other. We loved each other in our own ways, and we had the best of intentions, and we went into it with our heads up and our eyes open--and it didn't matter at all. We ran right into the ridiculous, idiotic, intelligence-insulting, cliched problems that come with working with a major label. We just got creamed by the context.

A year or so after that band broke up (and before they got back together, bless they souls), I left for Chicago not knowing whether I'd play drums again. Once Bound Stems got underway, and as it got more serious, I used the Harvey Danger experience as a lodestone in reverse: whatever HD had decided at that same point, I was going to try a different path this time. It wasn't that I wasn't happy with HD, it was just really clear to me that I didn't want to be on a major label, or aim for a major label, or act like a major label band. I don't think major labels are good for music or musicians, and I am pleased at their fading relevance. I would rather make music in a broken-down barn than listen to a radio promo guy telling me why he's picking the dead wrong song as our single.

And I have to say: I'm happy that so many people got to hear Harvey Danger, and I've met some great people because of that band. Musically, personally, professionally, it turns out I'm more comfortable with the scale and the arc of Bound Stems' accomplishments to date. There's a very direct relationship between the work we've put in and the opportunities we've received.

90. Sexiest thing about you?

By the time you read this, Paige and I will be set up in our new space in St Louis: Sleepy Kitty Graphic Arts Music Etc. It's 3000 square feet of art + music studio projects in a reclaimed brewery that hasn't been occupied since Prohibition. We've scrubbed every surface, painted everything, built a kitchen and bathroom, and moved in all our screenprinting and musicmaking gear. Now we'll have the capacity to do pretty much anything that occurs to us, in pretty much any medium, with pretty much whomever we choose, any time of the day or night.

What could be sexier than that?


Visit the Bound Stems' website.