Upstairs Downstairs is an up and coming band from San Francisco, hot off the heels of their self-titled second album. The band mixes distortion and noise with traditional, folk-based songwriter for excellent results (we loved it!). We were able to pick the band’s brain about their influences, how they made their new album, why they won’t be releasing a disco album anytime soon, and the ecstasy and agony of classic rock.
Earbuddy: Explain yourself! Who are you?
Tory Ford: Vocals and Guitar
Isaac Bonnell: Keys and Guitar
Dan Caporale: Drums
Kyle McGraw: Guitar and noise
George Slavik: Bass and more
EB: What’s the origin of the band’s name? Any relation to the show that aired on the BBC?
KM: Tory lived Upstairs and I lived downstairs in a house for a few years and we started the band during that time. She is also obsessed with British period dramas, like the BBC show named Upstairs Downstairs, so it worked well.
EB: Your new album has some stylistic changes from your debut, Inland and Out. Was the songwriting process different this time around?
KM: This time around I feel we are a better band.
IB: We went through a brief drummer-less acoustic phase that I think helped to sync everyone’s playing up, and then soon after that Dan came on board and really tied the (practice) room together.
GS: Dan and I weren’t on that recording, so I feel like we are a MUCH better band now! [laughs]
EB: And speaking of that, how do you go about writing a song? Does it start with a melody? An idea? Strummed chords on an acoustic guitar?
GS: I guess you could say that the “usual” process has been Tory coming in with a pretty solid idea for a song. A basic chord structure, melodic idea, and a lot of lyrics. From that sketch, we play with everything as a band; writing our own parts and playing with the arrangement, sometimes adding or subtracting. It’s a fairly collaborative process despite what sounds like a pretty finalized start. We have started playing with that formula a bit lately though—seeing if we can come up with a song from the “other direction” if you will.
TF: What George said. I think before we were doing a lot of cutting things apart and editing my songs down into a place where everyone could make a part up. Now, I think we are building them together more fluidly based on smaller and smaller starting pieces, so it’s gotten more collaborative and unexpected which is cool.
DC: Some cool spontaneous moments have been happening in the practice space lately that we’ve been trying to build and refine over time … there have also been some classic rock space jams happening that usually end with Tory threatening to quit the band.
EB: If you could cover any song, rework it to fit into the context of Upstairs Downstairs, what song would you choose?
GS: Sometimes I wish we could open our sets with our take on the Upstairs Downstairs television theme song, just to keep everyone on their toes.
TF: You mean besides Toto’s “Africa”? Just kidding… not really… I lurve that song with all my being. But, I have been trying for a while to get these guys to warm up to “Artificial Light” by Rainer Maria.
IB: We do a cover of Built to Spill’s “Terrible, Perfect” that was tweaked a bit to suit the band. I really like how that one turned out.
DC: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
EB: Your band has a pretty diverse set of influences, often described as a marriage between shoegaze and folk. Do you have My Bloody Valentine albums on the shelf next to Sera Cahoone? Or do some members of the band gravitate more to these sounds individual and Upstairs Downstairs’ sound is a meeting of minds?
GS: We’ve spent a lot of van-time discussing this very topic! I think one of the conclusions that we came to is that what makes being in a band interesting—and to some extent makes it work—is the tensions created by bringing five sets of influences into a room and seeing what happens.
IB: Kyle and I both have to reign in our wankier classic rock impulses to fit the tone of the songs, but in the end that ends up being a very good thing in terms of keeping the sound together because many of the songs have a more subtle tone to them. We’re still able to sneak a few things in here and there, like the harmonized guitars at the end of ‘Ghost House’.
DC: Our particular mix of influences happens to work well as a starting point
TF: I think there are some bands and sounds we can all come together on for sure. Like, we all went to the God Speed You Black Emperor show together, we all like Explosions in the Sky, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, etc…
EB: What kind of music do you listen to when you’re off the clock?
KM: Classic Rock
TF: Kyle just said that to piss me off.
KM: I have been playing a few records on repeat lately,Chavez Gone Glimmering , The Fucking Champs IV, and Dark Side Of The Moon.
GS: Pretty much anything I can get my ears on—but Tom Waits is a go-to for me.
TF: I listen to a wide range of bands. Darker, brooding music is probably my go-to … Lower Dens, Future Islands, and older K Records bands for sure. Juno is one of my favorite bands of all time. Built to Spill for sure…. and I also like a lot of different hip hop stuff… The Wu, Slick Rick are a couple faves. When I’m bummed I listen to Redman and the world gets a lot brighter. I also lived with a rapper (Thesis Sahib whose work I love) and upstairs from a DJ for a while and got schooled in a lot of backpack stuff. Awol One is amazing…OK, I’m going to stop this now.
IB: I like instrumental stuff a lot – recently I’ve been listening to a random dollar bin LP called “Mexican Guitars” that has some good arrangements on it. Also the Get Carter soundtrack, Ramsey Lewis’ “Funky Serenity”, and my mom’s old copy of Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, all 70s keyboard classics. And the song “The God Particle” by Allegaeon, cynical and mind-blowingly well played.
DC: I listen to music while I work all day so it tends to be a lot of instrumental post-rock, hip hop beats, dub reggae and that kind of thing. Old soul and jazz on the record player. Punk rock in the car. ’90s indie rock anytime.
EB: MIDI synthesizers and drum machines are all the rage these days. Can we expect a disco-influenced album from Upstairs Downstairs any time soon?
KM: FUCK NO! Never as long as I am in the band.
TF: We are fans of synths and had our friend Justin Frahm work some of his magic on our album. We spent a bit of time with Isaac’s his drum machine Dr. Groove but it didn’t really catch on for us. I’m not a huge disco fan, but I do love Erasure…
IB: As soon as I can reconfigure “the Doctor” (BOSS – 202) to accept MIDI input triggers from an external sensor via the Sparkfun MIDI shield hooked up to an Arduino Uno, I will definitely be kicked out of the band.
DC: Probably not, mostly because we don’t know how.
EB: What was it like for Kyle to record and mix the album? Did it make recording easier? How did his involvement behind the board influence the sound of Upstairs Downstairs?
GS: It definitely makes for a really comfortable environment. It is also great having someone who you know shares the vision of the band and is just as vested in making that happen. Of course there is also the risk of going on and on instead of saying “this is done now.”
IB: The mixing all happened remotely with Kyle and Dan in Portland and us on our computers or phones. It was great because at random points throughout the day we would get a mix sent out, type a few comments back, and get another one back within a few hours. I imagine for Kyle it was pretty great too, since he got to focus on the work and receive feedback without having us all in the room!
TF: Kyle is really committed to using as many analog techniques as possible, and recording as many instruments live all together as possible. At first this scared me as I felt like we had to do everything perfectly each time, but the reality is it actually is liberating and brought bit more human quality to the album.
EB: So he wasn’t a taskmaster or anything like that?
TF: I think I fill that role actually. [laughs]
DC: Tory also runs the flower shop.
EB: “Stationery’s Helping” appeared on the new record, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this song is it?
TF: You are correct: We did a version on our original album, but it just didn’t do the song justice in some ways, so I really wanted to redo it.
EB: The 2010 version sounds drastically different from the one you released this year. How did that song evolve over time?
TF: We put more meat into it really. The big change was Dan’s drums I think.
EB: Does this sort of thing happen often, where songs take a life of their own after a while? Are there any drastic differences between songs on Upstairs Downstairs and their live counterparts?
TF: We have a few songs where we’ll play a different intro or extend different parts of them because they just evolve that way for the set. George has initiated a couple extensions of “Parkas Indoors” that function as bridges between a couple songs in the set.
IB: The process of recording seemed to solidify a lot of things, so that our live set now mimics the record a lot more closely than it might have at first.
DC: I think we’re playing the songs live really well right now, and have rounded out the sound on a few of them that were really kind of created in the studio, like “Consequence” and “Ghost House”. The recordings are a snapshot of how they sounded at the time, but now they’re more dialed in.
EB: You recently played your record’s release party with fellow San Franciscans Social Studies. What was that like?
TF: The show was great. They have been friends of ours for a long time and it was great to play a show together. They’re pros and super positive so I think it really elevated our game.
GS: It was also a feeling of “I am so glad I am at this show … oh wait, we have to play now!”
DC: We were all on top of our game that night.
EB: Which band would win in a battle of physical supremacy?
TF: I think it would be the worst tie in the history of the world actually. We’ve got equal numbers, equal size and we’re all too nice.
EB: So what’s next for Upstairs Downstairs? Any plans to hit the East Coast or the three gigs between coasts?
TF: We have two really exciting shows coming up. The first is December 11 at The Bottom of the Hill (a hallowed SF venue) opening for our friends The Bruises and a band from Portland called Lovers, who I have seen a few times and worship. The next is the annual Outta Sight Holiday Extravaganza on December 18 that we are putting on with our pal Brian Gorman (Tartufi, Rainbow Beast) and the Verdi Club. It’s a really fun event that my friend Nathan Moomaw started a long time ago and kind of passed the torch to me. It’s a bunch of local bands each playing 2-3 holiday songs (covers and originals) and it’s amazing every year.