Stereo Radio has survived significant changes in its life as a band -- everything from members coming and going and what instrument the members play, to their overall sound and the band's name. But as Zach Roskop, keyboardist and guitarist, recently told Jesusfreakhideout.com's Cathy Payton, Stereo Radio is stronger than ever and hitting the road to promote their current album...
This interview took place in May 27, 2013.
JFH (Cathy): Tell me about the members of the band and how you all came together to be who you are today, Stereo Radio.
Zach Roskop: When I was a sophomore in high school, my youth director at church asked me if I wanted to start a worship service for the youth between services. And it was like we thought of the worst name we could possibly think of - we played in the thirty minute time slot between Sunday school and church, so we called it the Happy Half Hour Band. *laughs* And I don't know why we called it that, but it was just the worst name ever. But we were very happy to do it. So we started this band at church and that's where I met Matt, who was also a PK, a preacher's kid; his dad was the pastor at the church at that time. Matt and I have actually been playing music together ever since then. As the band began to grow and we played more gigs, and we started playing outside of the church, we continued that up until our freshman and sophomore years in college. A certain set of circumstances took place and the band broke up. And then Matt joined, kinda like jokingly joined, a rival band, if you will, and that's where Matt met Are Jay, our lead guitar player. So long story short, after playing music and feeling that that was my calling, Matt asked me if I wanted to come do a gig with the band that he was in at that time, and that's where Are Jay and I met. So it's kind of a confusing soap opera story *laughs* of break ups and getting back together. *laughs* That was kinda the foundation of Matt, Are Jay and I - that project ended up not working out but the three of us created a really close friendship. We talked about it, prayed about it, thought about it and we felt we weren't ready to give up - there was something left that was kinda undone that we needed to strive for. So the three of us moved back to Knoxville and decided to continue to play music. I remember us sitting outside, lying in the middle of the street out front of the house where we were living, and we were talking about all of our experiences as musicians and just decided we really wanted to create a band project that was the opposite of everything we hated about band life. [Right.] There's a lot of negativity in some aspects, because it got to a point where it felt like a job, where it was so business oriented that we had lost sight of the important stuff. It's supposed to be the funnest job in the world, you grow up dreaming about being in a band and spending time with people and it was the opposite of that. So it was that moment that it inspired us to name the band On the Bright Side - as a constant reminder to look at everything on the bright side. Sometimes as a musician it can be discouraging to have like 10 people show up at a show, but in that moment we remembered what it feels like when no one shows up, in the early days. Look on the bright side - That's ten more people than we would have had and those 10 people are important. They're just as important as we are to each other. And so we decided On the Bright Side was going to be our mantra. The next step was kinda funny, we did what every obvious person would do in this age - we put out a Craig's List posting for a singer. After two weeks of that we had gotten several requests from people who were like, you know, 38 and older and whose only experience was doing Lynryd Skynryd cover bands in bars and that was not at all what we were looking for. *laughs* So we put a cap on it, 18 to 26, I think. So our lead guitar player Are Jay was looking for singers on Craig's List and he sees a guy who looks like he played in some bands in Knoxville and Are Jay sent him an email and said "Hey you know we're looking for a singer?" He responded that he saw our listing on Craig's List, saying "I didn't respond because I'm 28." We were like, 28 is fine! We were just trying to avoid like 37. *laughs* As we like to call it, we scheduled a first date - we had coffee *laughs* and long story short we kinda dated for about three months and then we made it Facebook-official and that's how we met DK, also known as David Kelly, and DK became our singer and that was a really cool moment. That was the core of On the Bright Side.
JFH (Cathy): Your first EP, as On the Bright Side, came out in 2012 and had a successful song, "Fly." What was it like when you found out it was getting airplay and you heard it for the first time?
We had a bass player who really enjoyed music and a great part of On the Bright Side - he wanted to play music but wasn't really into traveling so he very peacefully moved on to other things. So for a very long time we only had fill-in bass players - four or five guys who were on rotation. We had like a first string, second string, third string bass player. And we called the first string, and then the second string and we did that for a long time. One thing that's interesting is that the latest EP for our band Stereo Radio with the new music was all recorded without a bass player. It was all recorded with just the four of us. And one thing that's really interesting is that we began adapting - we wanted to be able to play music with just the four of us because we knew we had a connection that was important. So I began experimenting, playing a lot of bass parts on a synthesizer and one thing that's interesting about the EP On the Bright Side is there're no bass tracks on the EP, all the bass tracks were played on keyboard. Recently about three weeks ago one of our fill-in bass players continued to play with us, showed that he was very committed, we got along with him - what's funny is musical ability is important, but can you stand being in a vehicle with someone for eight hours is almost as equally important *laughing* [Absolutely!] You know what I mean, I've learned that talent and ability is only half the battle, that chemistry can be just as important. We haven't had a chance to do a new photo shoot or anything like that, but Jonah Gibson has just recently joined Stereo Radio full time. And he plays half the songs on his bass guitar and the other half on a synthesizer. So Jonah is now our fifth member.
Zach: For us, "Fly" was always one of our favorite songs, and it was one of the first songs we had really written collaboratively as a band. Sometimes a song will be 90 percent written by someone, and you know we just add to it, and it's ours but it kinda belongs to that one person in theory. "Fly" was the first song that was really a collaborative effort on everyone's part, everyone had a big hand in that song. When we met a contact with local Christian radio in Knoxville, and he listened to the CD and loved "Fly" and said "Let's push this song." I just remember *laughing* I'll never forget when I get this phone call from my mom, and she's bawling, right, and she's crying her eyes out - and I'm like "Mom, what's wrong?" I'm trying to figure out why she's crying and she's like "I just, sob heard, sob, your, song, on the radio… I looooooove you." *laughing* And that I think was my favorite moment, was just to see the people who have supported us for so long, for them to hear it on the radio, it meant just as much to them as it did to us and that was really my favorite part about hearing "Fly" on the radio, was all these people who supported us and it was like a miniature win - there's just something about hearing your song on the radio that's kinda cool. In this culture where car radio is kinda on its way down, when people have Pandora and XM Radio, it's still this classic medium, if you will, it's a good feeling for sure. When people started hearing "Fly" we were pretty excited about it.
JFH (Cathy): And there's something I've not heard many indie bands say, "We played Poland." *laughs*
Zach: Yes we did, we did go to Poland. That was - you know sometimes when people say things or offer things, you kinda get a little jaded because you know there's a lot of times you get your hopes up and you end up getting let down. I'll never forget I got this email from this guy that said we'd like to bring you guys to Poland. I responded that sounds great, we'd love to hear more. And I told the guys, hey we got this email about going to Poland but I wouldn't worry about it. But then two weeks later, it turned into a phone call, and then I was, like, I think we might *actually* be going to Poland, but it's too early to tell. *laughs* First the phone call and then we met in person and they came to a worship service, the gentleman who is a missionary in Poland, came to a worship service. And we scheduled a meeting after the worship service, and he said he would make a decision after the service. So we're trying to lead worship and really focus on the meaning of worship but we're thinking about this guy critiquing us about taking us to Poland… So we get done with the service and we have the meeting and he's like "Yes I want to take you to Poland." And we're like, okay, sounds great that's amazing. But there're two catches, and this was a real cool God moment for us. He said, "I can pay for half your plane ticket and all of your expenses while you're in Poland, but you're gonna have to raise a little bit of money. The other thing is we leave in five weeks." [Wow!] So we look at each other and we're gonna be gone for 10 days and we're going to be playing six concerts in 10 days. So we look at each other and we said, we need about $4000. We prayed about it, and sure enough in five weeks we raised $4000 and went to Poland for 10 days and did six concerts and two worship services. It was a life changing experience. Legitimately every day that goes by we think about Poland. We still to this day, most of us still live together, and when we're walking down the hall, you know, going to bed, we say "dobranco" which means goodnight in Polish. It was just a really cool experience for us a real blessing. And we have plans to go back, maybe this year or spring of next year.
JFH (Cathy): That's a great story! I read you said something about this trip allowing you to bring your positive message to the unchurched. I think that is the true purpose for, I'll say, Christian music. I know you are Christians but you don't necessarily want to be just in Christian radio or music, you want to bridge secular and Christian. I feel people have a preconceived idea of what Christian music sounds like, and if they knew they could listen to your music, a dance/pop sound, something that will please their ear but still give a positive message -- you know, metal, rock, whatever they want, there's something out there.
Zach: That was really our goal with the Stereo Radio album, we kinda joke about what we call a "sneak attack Jesus." *laughs* Let's be honest, when we record music it's easy to take a filter, if you will, and try to learn what you do through that filter. So let's say as you're recording you get together with your producer and you say we want to sound like Christian radio. So you take your music and you run it through the Christian radio filter, or you say we want to take our music and be on secular radio, so let's do what they're doing on secular radio. Our goal was, you know, let's just be who we are - let's forget the whole filter, let's not write for Christian radio, let's not write for secular radio, let's just write for who we are. And if people like us, that's great, and if they don't, that's okay too. But this idea of taking your recording process with the intent of making it sound like something else really just felt unimaginable to us. So we chose to steer away from that on this CD.
JFH (Cathy): The EP that's out now, On the Bright Side, is the current EP from Stereo Radio (released March 2013). What led you to your name change?
Zach: I felt that coming, I felt you would ask about the name change. *laughs* [I am!] If it's okay I'll give you the very blunt, honest answer and you can word it or quote me however you want to. [Okay. *laughs*] In this age that we live in there's a sad truth that your presence on the internet is huge and you know I guarantee you 15 years ago when Switchfoot decided to name themselves the first thing they did probably wasn't go on Google or Godaddy.com or MySpace and see if Switchfoot was available. But that is the reality of bands today. If you want to name your band, I don't know, The Cars, the first thing you do is go to Google, Facebook, whatever, and type in the name and see if it's available, or if you can get the dot com name. And part of our frustration was that if you type in "On the Bright Side" into Google, nine bands came up and none of them were us. It was very confusing - it was a lot of effort and we put a lot of work into the song "Fly," and spent some money obviously to have it pushed out to radio stations, and it was really frustrating and difficult for us for us to go to Facebook pages of bands called On the Bright Side and see people posting on their wall, "Hey I just heard your song on the radio and you guys are great," and it's the wrong band. I had my own mom call me and say "Oh you guys are doing a TV interview next week," and I was like, "Uhhh not that I know of." I called all my band members and said "Are we supposed to be doing a TV interview next week?" Come to find out, my own mother was following the wrong Facebook page. [Oh my, wow!] You know, when you go to a concert, and you like a band, you type it into Google and find it and like it. We've had kids at our own merch table try to find us on Facebook. So that, although I hate to say it, it's not a spiritual or cool story answer, it's just the truth. We felt with this new album and new efforts, and really wanted to be the best we could be, we felt that we needed to get rid of that issue. So that's why we changed the name. We also changed the name because the new EP is a lot different than the previous EP. One thing that was a major change for us was that I played guitar my whole life, and I've dabbled on the piano. The first EP was really rock based, guitars, bass, drums, you know, and it's funny, somebody recently described to me, whenever you have two guitar players playing at the same time, it sounds like two hair dryers going off in the same room. It's the same frequency, and if you're not careful they can really fight each other instead of complement each other. At this time I had been gifted a synthesizer and we started messing with it in the studio. Next thing I know, the album is done and I don't play guitar on any of the songs. I only play piano and synthesizer and it created a very new sound for us - more fun, it was more dance, the lead guitar parts, you know, the guitar player, his parts shined more. My synth parts and piano parts shined more, and we really started to learn this idea that you don't have to be playing something all the time. You can let it breathe, give it air, let it shine, be more unique. And so really not only was the internet thing an issue but our sound had changed so much that we thought a new name would really accent that. We started asking what kinds of names we want, so the drummer and I, ever since we were in middle school, had talked about starting a Switchfoot cover band, I'm a huge Switchfoot fan, been to like 20 concerts, and we wanted to start a cover band called Stereo Radio because in the song "Adding to the Noise" [Yes!] "Stereo, radio, video,…" And so that name had meaning to Matt and I, because they had a huge influence on us and why we played. And I'm ashamed to say this but we typed Stereo Radio in Facebook and Google, and it was available.
JFH (Cathy): Those are all good reasons, there's no shame in any of those reasons. *laughs* The song "Madeleine" is your release from this EP - what's the story behind that song?
Zach: The story behind "Madeleine" is ultimately about self-worth, it's about bullying. If you listen to the first verse, "It never gets easy, but it feels so right, to let them cut through you, where it's hot like a knife on fire." Sometimes there are a lot of youth who get bullied, who feel that they're not good enough for some reason and sometimes it get so bad, although it hurts, that they find comfort in it. I don't want to be so bold to say that the chorus is like God's singing to that person, but it says "no matter what they say you're beautiful in my head" you know, that you're beautiful to me, who you are. And we really wanted to take that moment to encourage those people. A very common question is, who is Madeleine? Our answer is this, Madeleine is in theory not a particular person, but the take-away is who in your life do you know is a Madeleine, who is someone that you need to tell that they're beautiful, or who is someone you know who needs to hear that they're beautiful exactly the way they are? The song became an anthem for making people who feel unlovable to feel loved. We wanted to keep it simple, without a whole lot of words, it repeats quite a bit, and we really wanted to just drive home that chorus, that no matter what they say you're beautiful.
JFH (Cathy): What's next for Stereo Radio?
Zach: We're obviously writing, we're trying to write all the time, and trying to record and get back in the studio in August. We'd like to release another EP. We may be totally wrong on this, and if we ever work on a label one day they may just completely shut this idea down, but we kinda have this thought process that the full length album is dead. You know, this idea that you spend $80,000 on a 12 song CD and people only like three of the songs, so they only download the three songs. Well, our thought process is let's go into the studio with 20 songs, pick the three, four, five that we think have the potential to be those songs that people will want to listen to, and let's cut the recording cost down three quarters and put all our time and energy into those songs and just release an EP. It's cheaper for people who want to hear the music, it's cheaper for us, and it keeps it fresh. You know, I love Switchfoot, but they release a 14 song CD every almost two years. So instead of doing 14 songs every two years, let's do five songs twice a year. Keep it fresh, keep it fun, keep new music coming in and out, cheaper for fans, cheaper for us. Just seems like a model that works really well for us. So that's what we plan on doing, trying to release another 4-5 song ep by the end of August. We are traveling to Oklahoma and then we'll be in Mississippi and then going back up through Tennessee. We're obviously trying to perform as much as possible. We really feel happiest when we're on the road and interacting with people, youth and adults, talking about life. It sounds weird but we're kind of a fan of what we call the human experience. I don't know, in our culture people seem to be very unapproachable and it's like I wonder what's changed. I don't think anything has changed, except for ourselves. We like when we find power in the phrase, what's your story? When you come up to a homeless person (which homelessness is something we've always been very passionate about), or someone on the street, or someone that you may be sitting next to at lunch, one table over, and striking up conversations with them and saying what's your story? Everyone likes to talk about themselves, that's really easy for most people, but it's really interesting the connections you can create and just learning more about the human experience. Being on the road is really our favorite aspect because we get to see different cultures and people.
Find out more about Stereo Radio at www.stereoradiomusic.com and buy their EP On the Bright Side on iTunes.