Ernest Jenning Record Co.
Friday, September 6, 2019
One listen to Scoville Unit, and it’s clear that the band have not only picked up where they left off with their sophomore record Closed Universe, but are also bringing to the table both a refined sound and a newfound maturity. The album’s 13 songs shimmer with an excited energy that reveals just how passionate four guys can be about making music. And what they’ve created here is a significant record, that coolly and masterfully recalls a different time in music, one before the distractions of social media created an increasingly disposable culture, when what mattered most was a great melody and a meaningful song. It’s the perfect blend of catchy punk rock and infectious power-pop – plus the occasional tender almost-ballad. Whether it’s the jittery romanticism of infatuation-themed “Song Without A Name”, the rambunctious anthemic melancholy of “Back Of My Mind”, or the delightfully fuzzy existential jangle of “Weight Of Misunderstanding”, there’s a purity to these songs – a rush of real emotion that’s buoyed by a youthful exuberance. Elsewhere, with the dingy CBGBs-esque punkness of “Stuck In”, the lighthearted teenage festival rock of “Sidewalk”, and the wistful classic sincerity of album closer “Beach Song”, the album manages to hit endless corners of youthful punk and indie-pop energy, but with a style that is mature, commanding, and distinctly their own. That youthful energy, however, is tempered by a simultaneous awareness of their adulthood – and the wisdom and knowledge that comes with the decisions you end up making in life. And embedded in each song is a story that couldn’t be told without this age and experience.
“Different Name Same Place’ is about leaving Brooklyn and moving out to the suburbs,” says singer/guitarist Gandhar Savur, describing one of the classic hallmarks of adulthood. “It feels like an extreme lifestyle change and initially you might miss what you had, but eventually you come to realize that home is where you make it. And a lot of the situations that can pop up when you live within blocks of a bunch of crazy friends in Brooklyn - the good and the bad - they’ve going to occur no matter where you live, no matter who you surround yourself with. It’s a song about adapting.” The song details a couple’s transition of moving from the city out to the suburbs and the related challenges they encounter, but somehow tackles the adult topic with both an adolescent playfulness and a serene sense of calm. It’s a thoughtful reflection within a bubblegum pop setting.
Other songs, such as “Pieces”, confront head-on other unavoidable truths of adulthood such as losing a loved one. “There was a tragic loss in our family that ended up being very difficult for me to deal with,” Savur says. “I was coping in ways that weren’t healthy. I had to figure out how to move forward and find stability again after that. It wasn’t easy. ‘Pieces’ was the first song I wrote for the album, and it’s about that struggle to make sense of these things. It was an important part of the healing process.”
The idea of dealing with a disaster pops its head up in numerous other songs throughout the album, such as the heartfelt “Every Single Day”, which reads like a letter to a loved one recapping years of a relationship, but questioning the next step post-tragedy. But these references to loss never show up in an overwhelming or overly melancholic way. Rather, they make brief and meaningful cameos within songs that still flow with a sense of hope, as well as the magic and beauty of life… not to mention the pure power of a simple pop song.
Although Savur wrote the songs on this record alone (minus the two cover versions), the recordings are brought to life by his band and the extended musical family that surrounds him… in typical Scoville Unit fashion. But he initially took a slight detour, before returning to this formula which has worked so well for the band on past albums. “During the early stages of writing of the album, I spent some time expanding my horizons and jamming with some new people that I had never played with before,” explains Savur. “There was something really exciting about playing with new people. You don’t really know much about each other but you are connecting through music.” Having taken some time off from playing, these new collaborations with near-strangers took him out of his comfort zone, and simultaneously got him excited about making music again. “But when I’d get back home at night, I’d get right back into my own secret songwriting.”
Savur didn’t have a plan for what would happen when the writing process was finished. But as he was writing, he created garageband demos for each song, on which he played every instrument and sketched out his basic ideas for melodies and harmonies. When the writing process concluded, he was sitting on a lo-fi demo version of the entire album, which he then presented to co-founding member and musical counterpart Drew Isleib (who plays bass and also sings in the band) as well as longtime friend Kevin Shelbourne (lead guitarist of Savur’s pre-Scoville Unit band, El Secondhand), and a new ally that he had picked up in his recent musical excursions, drummer Rob Hunsicker. Not surprisingly, the songs struck a chord with them, and ignited a sudden collective realization that these songs represented an opportunity; they needed to put everything they had into turning this collection of songs into something truly epic. Inspired, they entered a Philadelphia recording studio for a string of sessions that would last just shy of three weeks in total. The result of their efforts is Scoville Unit’s long awaited new self-titled full-length, perhaps the album they’ve been striving to make their whole lives.
For Savur, reconnecting with Drew and Kevin to record the album felt like going back home. “It would be hard to ever replace the kind of chemistry I have with these guys,” says Savur. “This band has always been like a family and each person plays their part.” Sometimes that means producing a whole album – like Tony Senes (who sings backing vocals and plays some keys on this album) did for the band’s first two albums at his Honeytone basement studio in New Haven, CT – while other times it’s just popping in for some delightfully placed vocal lines here and there, as Savur’s wife Maria Lourido does wonderfully both on this album and on the band’s earliest recordings (a collection of which, titled Before It Began: The Early Recordings and released by EJRC in 2017, also occasionally features her singing lead vocals). The configuration changes a bit from album to album but it’s the same collective of people that go way back, and have developed serious roots together. And that shared history comes through in the recordings, as well as in the band’s explosive live performances. “They are basically my musical support system, and my extended family,” says Savur. “I try to be the same for them as well.”
One other person who largely influenced the writing of the record was Greg Gonzales of Cigarettes After Sex, who provided invaluable guidance and helped shape the album into what it is. Although their respective bands couldn’t sound more different, the two musicians seem to have a certain inexplicable connection. “Greg and I developed a strong and unexpected friendship completely based around music and writing songs…and an unhealthy obsession with the Beatles,” explains Savur. “We’d meet up pretty much every time he was passing through New York between tours, and we’d sit in a bar for three or four hours at a time for these epic discussions about songwriting. We would trade notes on what we were writing and why, and those discussions really pushed me to try to extract the meaning out of each one of these songs... to develop them even further than I’d normally be inclined to.”
Although the best of these nights would occasionally end with the two belting out Beatles harmonies, the unlikely friendship was primarily centered around songwriting. “I would play Greg half-baked demos off my iPhone sitting right at the bar and he always had valuable feedback,” remembers Savur. That developed into Savur sending voice memos of the songs to Gonzales as he was writing them, who would respond with notes and ideas as he travelled the world on tour in his own band. The two discussed themes for the songs, and Gonzales helped Savur resolve lyrical hurdles he encountered. Even the cover version of “Only You” on the album is a song that Gonzalez and Gandhar had first played together a week before the recording session began, on a weekend trip to a Connecticut lakehouse, where the pair went to work on songwriting for their respective projects. From the first song to literally the final touches of pre-production, Gonzales was along for the entire journey and helped Savur navigate the process of writing this album. “This was a time when, outside of band members, nobody else really knew that I was spending every free moment writing an album… it was basically a secret I was keeping until the thing was done. I leaned on Greg through that entire process, and I’m lucky because he is a brilliant songwriter, and our back and forths inspired me to push myself ever harder in writing, and try to create something meaningful.”
This album may have started as a secret, but now that secret is out. That’s a very good thing.. Scoville Unit is not just an inspiring record in its own right, but testament to the power of this particular group of friends. They acted off of an urge to make the greatest album they could and, convening at that exact right moment, allowed lightning to strike. The result is a remarkable album that skillfully combines their past history with who they are now. And it deserves to be heard. “First and foremost, we made this record for ourselves,” says Savur. “But if it resonates with a few music fans along the way, then our mission is accomplished.”