Scaling New Heights
For much-hyped Secret Mountains, debut LP is a reward unto itself
Published: March 6, 2013
For an indie band only just releasing its first long player, Secret Mountains has accrued quite a few accolades.
There was the write-up of the track “Rejoice” on Pitchfork and the debut last month of new LP Rainer on the popular music blog Stereogum. There was the time they got to work and record in a New York studio furnished by the makers of Converse shoes. And perhaps most notably, there was the positive concert review in The New York Times by lead pop-music critic Jon Caramanica.
“I think we all just collectively had a bit of freak out together,” guitarist Jeffrey Silverstein recalls of driving back from the Brooklyn show and seeing the review online.
“I think I read it out loud off of my phone to everyone, and I think someone had to take it away from me because I was too excited, I couldn’t get the words out,” he says with a laugh.
That’s a leg-up most bands would kill to have. If Secret Mountains wanted to build on the acclaim and carve a path through the wild terrain of endless touring and internet buzz, they probably could. But the six-piece seems comfortable in its own skin, humbled by such praise, but not willing to chase the hype-carrot dangling at the end of the rope at all costs.
If it happens, great. If not, they still have a record they’re proud to stand behind.
“I think our motivation is to play music and have fun and share that with other people, and not necessarily to go on measuring success through blogs or money or any of that. We’re all in a similar boat,” says vocalist Kelly Laughlin. “We really appreciate being offered to play shows and all of the opportunities we’ve been given—Converse was really great, New York Times was really awesome—but yeah, I think our main goal is to play music, play it really well, and not do it for the sake of playing music.”
On Rainer, it feels like Secret Mountains is exercising all of its powers while working more cohesively than it has on previous releases, including two studio EPs and one live EP. They’ve taken what few empty spaces were in their sound and found more nooks and crannies to add layers of reverberating, squalling guitars and other heady sonic effects, creating a record that is a bit more shoegaze without losing the band’s bluesy psych-rock vocabulary.
In the lifespan of the band, the lineup has grown from Silverstein and Laughlin playing as a folk duo to its current arrangement of two guitarists, drums, bass, vocals, and keys. Similarly, the songs have grown to include more contributions from all of the band’s members, and the fuller sound on Rainer is attributable to a unit really starting to gel.
“I think, along with the changes on the way, it became less of Jeff’s songs and more of a collective group process; through the input of others, we came into our sound,” says Laughlin. “I feel like that’s why there are hints of shoegaze, or it’s a little louder. It’s way less folky and pretty than our first EP. Because I feel like our first releases were country-ish almost, and now we’re not that.”
One thing that has remained constant—right in the middle of the layers of guitars and noise and a momentum-building rhythm section—are the soulful, simmering vocals of Laughlin. It’s always been clear to anyone who has heard Secret Mountains that her voice is a powerhouse, but she says she only recently learned to project more and have a stronger presence.
“Every time my parents see me, they say, ‘You were not loud enough,’ which I think has changed a lot in the past four or five years,” she says, noting that she has done everything from getting tips from other singers to learning little tricks such as not drinking coffee before shows.
That development hasn’t been lost on Silverstein.
“It used to be maybe you’d watch us and be like, ‘Oh, you know there’s something inside there.’ And now you watch us and, ‘Oh, there it is.’ It’s definitely there,” he says. “There are so many moments where we’ll practice or be at a show and I’ll just turn and smile because I can’t believe it’s her.”
Considering this is the band’s first studio-recorded material since they released consecutive EPs in 2009 and 2010, there’s a sense this record has been a long time coming.
“Slow and steady is always the way it’s been with this band, which, in a way, I think has taught us a lot and been helpful,” says Silverstein. “Other times it’s been, ‘Man, it’s been a while since we put something out.’”
With Silverstein and drummer Christopher Muccioli pursuing careers in New York (a community manager for MTV and a designer for Kickstarter, respectively) and Laughlin wrapping up a printmaking degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art, the group has had to become more economical with its time for writing, practicing, recording, and touring.
“It’s really just pressure in terms of time and money—bus rides down or gas back and forth and tolls, it really adds up,” says Silverstein. “It just means we have to be smart with what we’re doing as a band.”
Come summer, Silverstein says everyone has enough flexibility in their careers to do more touring, and if the right opportunity comes along, they’ll take it. Until then, being able to hold a vinyl copy of the record in his hands is an accomplishment itself.
“I think, to some degree, it’s a personal victory for everyone to have made this, because it’s been over a year spent on this, writing and recording, and rewriting and re-recording,” he says. “I honestly think the most important thing for us is that we feel good about the music that we’ve created and are putting out. We can only hope the music speaks to everyone in whatever way it kind of needs to.”
> Email Brandon Weigel