Those who wonder what spawned Omaha indie band So-So Sailors' thoughtful, piano-driven rock need look no further than frontman Chris Machmuller's other band, Ladyfinger.
Tucked toward the end of Ladyfinger's last collection of rowdy screamers titled Dusk is a chugging rocker called “Plans” that sports a gorgeous, arcing piano line. The rather wordy song features Machmuller doing something he rarely does on other Ladyfinger songs – Machmuller sings, clearly with notes and everything.
“’Plans’ could have been a foreshadowing of what was brewing in my subconsciousness,” Machmuller said over drinks Saturday afternoon at The Leavenworth Bar with drummer Dan Kemp and bassist/vocalist Brendan Greene-Walsh.
“The Ladyfinger stuff has a purpose and a plot, but it can be more ambiguous,” he said. “Lack of ambiguity makes So-So Sailors more compelling. It’s hard to convey sentiment when you’re screaming.”
There’s no screaming on Young Hearts, So-So Sailors’ debut EP, which is being celebrated at a release show Friday night at Slowdown. Though only six songs long, the album stretches over 32 minutes, thanks to tracks like the nearly 5-minute opener “So Broken Hearted,” a grand, elegant number that starts with a sentimental Machmuller singing over soft piano chords, “Lost out on love / Or so it seemed / A useless thing is the pain you hold onto…” moments before the rest of the band breaks through in classic E Street style.
The song is a story about a bartender wooing a broken-hearted patron in a club not unlike O’Leaver’s, where Machmuller tends bar and Greene-Walsh has been known to run the soundboard. “You could place that song in any bar across the country,” Machmuller said, “but in my mind, that’s where I picture it.”
Other EP standouts include “Broken Glass and Blood,” a cinematic rocker about a dirt-poor boy trying to hold onto a woman who’s skipped town for an East Coast college, conjuring up images of The Graduate and Goodbye Columbus. While the album’s gorgeous title track recalls an instructor/student love affair thick with warning and regret. Machmuller belts out the lines "But when it comes to us / I probably shouldn't write the stuff / My heart wants to put on the page" just before breaking into a massive alto sax solo. With its strong central melodies and sentimental showmanship, Young Hearts is more ’70s arena ballad than modern-day indie, and is better for it.
The band formed in the fall of 2009 when Ladyfinger was on a break from touring. Machmuller said he started working on some new material, which he bounced off friend and “very capable piano and keyboard player” Dan McCarthy.
“I’d already talked to Brendan and Dan (Kemp) about forming a new project,” Machmuller said. “Then I gave (guitarist) Alex McManus a call, and he was aboard from the get go.”
Calling themselves So-So Sailors, the band played its first show opening for The Mynabirds’ CD release party at Slowdown May 2, 2010. The debut was something of a surprise to those who had only known Machmuller as the screaming guitarist in Ladyfinger. With So-So Sailors Machmuller emerged as a crooner seated behind a keyboard, his scratchy voice fully exposed for all to hear for the first time.
Later that year the band began recording with engineer Ben Brodin at ARC Studios. The 12 songs produced from those sessions clocked in at over an hour -- too much to include on a vinyl LP, a format the band prefers. Instead, they proposed releasing some of the material as a CD EP. After Saddle Creek Records – Ladyfinger’s record label – passed on the project, the band decided to release it themselves in the U.S., while the EP is being released digitally in Europe in January on No Dancing Records.
The longterm plan is to include a few of the songs from Young Hearts along with new material on a vinyl LP to be released sometime next year. In the meantime, the sailors will support the EP with limited local large-market touring, while they continue to try and line up something even more elusive than a record label – a booking agent. Machmuller said despite being signed by a well-known label like Saddle Creek, Ladyfinger never was able to sign with a national booking agent.
“If you have a booking agent, it’s a lot easier to secure a record label,” Greene-Walsh said. But landing a booking agent during an era when the music industry continues to spiral downward is akin to winning a lottery.
“The odds are a thousand to one,” Machmuller said. But even if they never get a break outside of Omaha, he said he and the rest of the band will continue to make music together.
"There's something inside you that keeps you going," Greene-Walsh said. "I took a couple years off from playing and severely missed sitting in a room with creative minds and bouncing ideas off each other, and then having the space to create something new."
"Being in a band is almost like being back at school," Kemp said, "and I miss school, to be honest with you. I'd be super drunk all the time if I didn't do music."
“I wouldn’t hang myself if I didn’t play music," Machmuller said, "but there’s a compulsion. I’ve been writing songs since I was 15 years old, and (today) I’m not a rich man or a veteran of world tours, but I’m still doing it.”