by Ziggy Merritt
At some point every band goes through a crucible of sorts, a trial that tests whether or not they have the gumption to tough out the frothing sea that is the music industry in order to make something of themselves. For Moorestown, New Jersey natives, the Once Was, this took the form of a two year hiatus, an event that both hardened their resolve and found them journeying on to bold, new sonic territory. I recently had the pleasure of talking to guitarist and vocalist, Frank Cervantes who spoke of a candid, yet inspiring evolution of a band from their nascent years back in 2007 while they still went as Just Like Me.
“Just Like Me wasn’t the band that started,” Cervantes admits. By 2007, most of the members that would eventually make up, the Once Was had already joined while others filtered out. “We kind of wanted to start something new. Me personally, that was kind of a chance for me to start fresh stylistically. A lot of what Just Like Me did kind of fell into that jam band classification. The Once Was, was a chance for us to go into an indie rock direction.”
By 2009 this direction culminated in the release of their debut album, Post War Parade. It was produced independently at Studio 4 near Philadelphia, in Conshohocken. Yet after a series of successes featuring a number of well-received World Cafe Live appearances and their first EP, Rugged City, the band, with some reluctance, began their hiatus.
“We were kind of going pretty strong. So for us to stop when we stopped was one of those classic, ‘why is that band not playing anymore? They were doing pretty well.’ I tend to think bands have a two year lifespan before you’re just going to go all in or decide that it’s not for you anymore.”
Yet, as the narrative suggests, the hiatus was just that and nothing more. After the two years spent pursuing their own projects, the members of the Once Was returned very much refreshed.
“Now it’s kind of interesting,” says Cervantes. “Because we have some of those other projects too, but we’re also taking this band seriously and actively working on new music.” As Cervantes suggests, their return has brought about some unexpected benefits.
“It was so easy to get back in transition,” he says. “We had already built up all of those contacts and that network. After our hiatus, for us to just get playing again, it wasn’t very difficult. We had a couple albums of songs that we really didn’t get to tour as much as we wanted to.”
Some of these songs eventually made it to their 2014 EP, Without Wings, an atmospheric entry into their growing catalog that beams with confidence, heartbreak, and a distinct post-rock sound that was perhaps not as so well-defined on some of their previous work. It could almost be said that the hiatus in its own way helped the band survive, something Cervantes admitted with some hesitation.
“I don’t know if I still wished it would have happened. I don’t know what would have happened if the band stayed together. I can’t totally say that it saved the band, but I can’t say it didn’t either, I’m not sure. We’re thankful for what we’re doing and that we can still play where we play and do what we do. Just being able to do that after taking a couple of years off is pretty cool. Do I think we would have made it? I really can’t say. I’ve had a lot of retrospect. The game has changed a lot. I don’t think anybody knows who’s going to be next big band to break out.”
With the recent success of Philadelphia natives, The War on Drugs and Kurt Vile, two bands Cervantes admires and remarked upon during our interview, that statement rings all too true. The mutability of the industry today has allowed many of these former unknowns to achieve success through the shifting avenues of social media, something that the Once Was has evolved exponentially since their debut. But as has always been the case, luck still accounts for much in the way of proper success.
“I saw the War on Drugs at Johnny Brenda’s years ago,” Cervantes recalls. “I wasn’t walking away from that thinking that this band is going to be playing the biggest festival in the world in a few years, but it happens. It’s not a scientific industry at all, it’s very by chance. I know we had a lot of luck and we’re still having luck in our own way. I’m just happy to be jamming with my buddies and still be doing this after all these years.”
And as for a follow-up LP to their 2009 debut?
“We’re just writing non-stop,” says Cervantes in response. “We have a lot of new songs and I wouldn’t even say we’re taking the process slow, we’re taking the process seriously. We’re definitely trying to come up with something that we can enjoy. We don’t feel like there’s a rush for us to release an album tomorrow, we’re just trying to put out something creatively confident and creatively rewarding.”
Look for the Once Was (with Something Like A Monument and Are Too) at their upcoming 5th annual holiday show at Milkboy on December 26th. They’ll be teaming with Philabundance and collecting canned food items. Donate what you can, but if you bring at least five food items you will receive a free Mandala silk-screen printed event poster by Jon Rom (only 30 are available). In the meantime, check out the trailer for the Without Wings EP below.