San Francisco-based orchestral-pop group The Family Crest are on the cusp of returning to the road, kicking off the second leg of their tour promoting the second installment of frontman and founder Liam McCormick’s magnum opus, The War: Act I. A multi-part concept album that is just as much about conflict as it is about the complexity of human nature, The War: Act I marks the second piece of a multi-tiered project that promises to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The eclectic outfit, which originally started as a recording project as part of the founding members’ departure from the music business, takes inspiration from everything from 70’s groove and synth-pop to Afro-Cuban soul, California Jazz and glam rock. The band, which both performs and records alongside hundreds of musicians—both amateur and professional—that they meet during their cross-country travels, has created an “Extended Family” of contributing artists over seven hundred members deep.
During a much needed break from a grueling winter and spring of touring, McCormick sat down to talk about the group’s recently debuted podcast Band, Together and their unique, DIY recording process.
So the first thing I want to ask you is not only about The War: Act I but about what you’ve called “the next version of The Family Crest.” What inspired this new phase of music and new version of the band?
It’s interesting you put it that way, because this is kind of a weird culmination of old and new. The War was a concept project that came to me right after we were actually mixing our first full-length, The Village. I had this idea for this project and started writing a lot of tracks, and it was supposed to be something that we were going to release directly after The Village. It was going to be the next record. Beneath the Brine was kind of going to be like an EP for The War and then Brine kind of took on a life of its own, and so The War kind of got pushed back, but that was a blessing in disguise for me, because you have songwriting that spans from the start of the band until now. And because of that, there’s so many different things that I was listening to and inspired by during the last eight years.
When we say it’s the next version, it’s mainly because we’re experimenting with a lot of instrumentation in the electronic world that we’ve never experimented with, synthesizers—a lot of synthesizers, a lot more organs, and pianos, and just a lot of new instrumentation on the record. It’s been a blast to record and actually get it out to the world.
I read that you had been working on this since 2009 with your earliest studio recordings, and then you had the Prelude to War EP and that big break in between. So that was due to Beneath the Brine’s success and it taking on a life of its own?
At the time I wasn’t stoked about the idea of pushing back this project because I was so excited about it, but again, in retrospect it was the best thing that could have happened because it’s such a large project that getting it timed to kind of come into its own was a blessing in disguise, it totally gave it the time it needed to form.
You guys bring in a lot of people to your music. You have a large core crew, but then you also have the Extended Family. How do you write songs and lyrics and orchestrate music for such a large group of people? Is it all in your head, like a Brian Wilson kind of thing, or is it piece by piece?
I always find this question interesting, because I like hearing how other people write. For me, in this band specifically, when I write a song for the group, it’s like the whole song is there. So, when I write a song, once I get past the general idea of, “Oh, I think this is the lyrical melody and I think this is the chorus melody,” I’ll basically sit down and record myself playing the song and try to just play through the whole thing, even if I don’t know what the bridge is I’ll just try to speak as I go. And what’s weird is that the entire song is, in a way, kind of formed in my head and then it becomes almost like a puzzle trying to figure out what I’m hearing. So, “Ok, I hear this line, is that a violin? Is that a trumpet?” It’s like, “What is that representing instrumentally?” And so that’s how the deconstruction of the song happens, and then it becomes just taking the time to decide where those melodies and where those instruments go.
It’s interesting, because this band for me as a writer has been a huge learning experience since I had never composed anything before the band. So, all of my compositional instruction came from talking directly to the Extended Family. You know, we have people that have never played before, and then we also have people that have been in major top-5 symphonies in the United States, and throughout all of that you have so much you can learn from people. For example, when our trombonist George first joined the band he started as an Extended Family member. And, I took him out to coffee, because I had never really written for a brass section before. I took him out and I was like, “Explain to me how this instrument should be used in its truest form, like how specifically trombonists feel the instrument should be used.” Because I feel like composers don’t spend enough time learning about the instruments that they’re writing for and learning about the instrumentalists that they’re writing for.
So, every time we have a new instrument, that’s the most exciting thing. We have this kind of open-door policy for musicians where it’s basically just send me your skill level, what you play instrumentally, and then it’s my job to write something for you. So, sometimes we’ve had people you say, “Oh, I haven’t played the clarinet since high school and I’m now in my thirties and I’d really like to pick it back up,” and it gives me an idea of, “Ok, I know where your skill level probably is and I know what I should write for your range.” Or it can be something as simple as, “Oh, I play the pedal steel guitar,” and I’ve never written for that before, and that’s when it becomes. So I get to experiment with where I can fit that in on the record. And in that regard, it kind of opens up the record, too, because you have all of the sounds I didn’t hear that I get to play with at that point. There are all these different things in my head, but then if somebody comes along with a pedal steel, I have 12 tracks on a record and I have to decide where that goes, and where it’s going to fit in in the best way.
Has the Extended Family always been a part of the band and your music?
When we started we were not at a place where we were starting out as a band. John, my bass player, and I had been playing in various groups for our lives and we just got into this point, we were both in our mid-twenties and we had gotten to the point where we were at the first leg of our crossroads, and we didn’t know if we wanted to do music full time. We’d been jaded because at that point I think we had been in a group that had been making music that we felt was more for commercial use and less for music, and I think once you kind of go into the vein of, “Well I’m in music just to make money,” you’re kind of crapping on your art form in a way. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with making money in music, but I think there has to be some semblance of “I want to create something beautiful for the world,” and not just, “I want to make a dime off of being popular.” And so we had kind of gotten to this point where it felt like we were just trying to make money, I think, and there wasn’t a lot of soul to it. But we’ve always loved collaborating with people, so my thing was, if I’m gonna leave music I want to make an album with a bunch of people that I love. And a bunch of people in general.
So we put information out through social media, I messaged a bunch of friends that I had known through the years from a conservatory, and through those people I met a lot of people that I hadn’t met before. We felt we were going to get like five people on the first record, and we ended up with a hundred-something. And those people that we call the Extended Family are the ones that were like, “When are we going to see this live?” And we had to make the decision, “Oh, I guess we’re going back into music,” and then it became, “Well, who in the Extended Family wants to be in a band?”
We’ve had a few personnel changes throughout the years but now we’re seven members deep with something like six, seven-hundred people in the Extended Family, which is not something that we imagined when we started the project but, when we went to the second record and talked about if we wanted to continue the Extended Family, my thinking was absolutely because they kind of saved me in a way.
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