By Alexandra Jones
Photos by Drew Reynolds
It would be wrong to call A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s April 1st Kung Fu Necktie show a homecoming.
For five weeks the Philly-based sextet had been spreading the good news via their brand of dreamy, effects-laden indie rock on a tour that took them from Pittsburgh to Portland, Tucson to Austin, New Orleans to Washington D.C.
As their feet hit Fishtown pavement, there seems to be a combination of familiarity and get-shit-done tour routine amongst band members: Guitarist Josh Meakim disappears with members of nattily-clad Philly band Homophones, with whom he’s performing to open the night’s entertainment. Drummer Adam Herndon clowns around with skateboard-riding neighborhood kids between trips from backstage to the van. Bassist Ryan Newmyer shows off the April Fool’s message that had him thinking his girlfriend was locked up for texting while driving. During load-in, vocalists Jen Goa and Annie Fredrickson spot a heap of clothes – KFN’s lost-and-found – and (after securing permission) proceed to dig through dusty pashminas and undersized t-shirts for secondhand finds as if it were just another day at the thrift store. Ben Daniels, ASDIG’s guitarist/songwriter/knob-twiddler/mastermind, sets about transferring his arsenal of effects pedals to a new case and wonders if it’s too big to carry on the plane.
Later that night, hometown fans, friends, and relatives will sell out the show – a breezy, exuberant performance – and pack Kung Fu Necktie’s cozy dancefloor. But the band can’t get too comfortable: Their Philly stop is only a quick breath before they embark on a two-month jaunt across Europe.
In 2005, Daniels started recording as A Sunny Day in Glasgow (ASDIG) with fellow Philadelphian Ever Nalens after the two had returned home from the UK and Scotland. After Nalens left the project, Daniels recruited his identical twin sisters Lauren and Robin as vocalists, and the trio would play live shows with a prerecorded rhythm track (or, as Fredrickson calls it, “an iPod drummer”).
In this incarnation, ASDIG released the now out-of-print The Sunniest Day Ever EP in 2006. While it sounds a little less processed than later releases, songs like the upbeat “Game of Pricks” show Daniels’ talent for writing catchy, soaring melodies and his predilection for effects-laden vocals.
Daniels isn’t shy about using computers and effects, of course; at ASDIG shows, he seems most comfortable in a back corner of the stage with his laptop, pedals, and guitar.
“Pedals are neat, but I really do not use that many of them,” he says through email. “Delay, reverb, and distortion are the only effects on Ashes Grammar I think. My budget has always dictated production values [and] the equipment I have to use.”
While Daniels can sometimes draw a direct line from what he wants to hear and the technology at his disposal, reaching that point of completion can be a long process. “I think there have only been a few times where I had a sound in my head and that sound was exactly what the finished song was,” he says. “Usually there’s lots of going along with things and reacting and pushing and reacting etc…”
Daniels has been playing music since he was young, but it wasn’t necessarily the sounds of dream-pop or twee-gaze or whatever people call A Sunny Day in Glasgow that first inspired him.
“When I turned 14, Led Zepplin was the only thing I listened to,” Daniels says. “I’ve never been as into a band as I was in them at that age. I can’t listen to them anymore because I listened to them so much back then.” Zep might be a gateway band for would-be rockers, and fortunately, his weren’t stereotypical parents steering their son away from music: “While riding in the car with my mom once, “Over the Hills and Far Away” came on the radio and I wouldn’t shut up about how awesome the opening guitar part was, and my mom said to me, ‘You should play guitar.’ So I think [that] song is why I started playing music.”
After that initial EP came the band’s first full-length, Scribble Mural Comic Journal, which was released on the now-defunct Notenuf Records in 2007. The opening three tracks display Ben Daniels’ ostensible strengths and preoccupations: A haunting yet blissful layering of vocals kicks off “Wake Up Pretty”; here the Daniels sisters’ voices drift between echoing strains of vibrato and a liquid, throaty depth reminiscent of Natalie Merchant. A simple, conga-esque drum machine beat takes over and segues into the ambient, almost transitional “No. 6 Von Karman Street,” which is four minutes of pulse, drone, and ambient swirl, before uptempo indie-pop makes an appearance with the silvery tones and relentless rock beat of “A Mundane Phonecall to Jack Parsons.” Churchlike swaths of vocal; crackling, rhythmic atmospherics; propulsive pop energy whose description falls somewhere between “fun” and “frenzied.”
Scribble Mural’s positive reception – a Pitchfork.com review drew favorable comparisons with the work of musicians as varied as Deerhunter, M83, the Velvet Underground, and Kate Bush – set up ASDIG for further greatness. 2009 saw the band ready to make the record that would become sophomore LP Ashes Grammar. By this time, Meakim – who played with Daniels in Philly band King Kong Ding Dong – had joined up as their live drummer and Lauren Daniels left Philadelphia to attend graduate school in Colorado. Daniels needed a singer, so he happened to ask a fan – future ASDIG bassist Ryan Newmyer, who had emailed him a question about pedals – if he knew any, and Newmyer tipped Daniels off about Annie Fredrickson’s dulcet tones.
“I don’t know why Ryan thought of me because I never [used to] sing in public, but he did,” Fredrickson, who also plays cello and piano, says.
Now a four-piece, Ben Daniels, Robin Daniels, Meakim, and Fredrickson recorded Ashes Grammar in early 2009; it was released that summer on Mis Ojos Discos. The lineup had stabilized, but not for long: Brice Hickey, who was set to play bass on the album, broke his leg right before his recording was scheduled, and Robin, his girlfriend, left the group to take care of him. (Ben recorded the bass parts instead.) The band took the shakeups in stride and Ashes Grammar proved to be the next step in the progression of the lush/atmospheric/pop triple-threat Daniels does so well.
ASDIG albums are constructed with little or no silence between tracks; dramatically different songs will be spliced together with no break, or half-minute mini-tracks of synthesizer oscillations will lead from one larger song to the next. Ashes Grammar boasts smoother, less dramatic transitions than its predecessor; it sounds more like a whole work than a collection of songs. The high-pitched hook and prominent percussion groove on “Failure” bring it out of the album’s multipart texture, and the relentless rock beat and siren-like vocal line on “The White Witch” highlight Daniels’ ability to combine the elements of his musical palette in unique and different ways.
One sticking point with some fans may be that the lyrics to ASDIG songs are essentially kept secret: Much of the vocals are chantlike vowel sounds, or passages so manipulated with effects as to render then unintelligible. This is, of course, by design.
“I don’t think it’s that important [to be able to discern lyrics],” Daniels says. “The whole is important.”
Fredrickson sees this aspect of ASDIG’s songs as something of an opportunity for interpretation by listeners.
“Someone did a cover of “White Witch” and sent it to us, and it was really awesome, but how did they know the words?” she says. “We never print the words or anything. But then I realized they were singing completely different words that they had just extracted from the recording, which is kind of awesome – you can kind of write your own song. Some of the words were identical, but most of them were not.”
The distortion-washed textures and pop-driven structures that are the band’s trademark are obviously highly developed and carefully constructed. Building songs seem to come naturally for Daniels. Writing lyrics comes from a different place. “[Lyrics are] the hard part. The music stuff is easy. I could write a song and record it in a day. But melody and lyrics…” Daniels says. “I don’t know. I often will set the music down, and just kinda listen to it a lot and stuff will pop out, or sometimes I’ll sit down with a piano or a keyboard and fiddle. The melodies tend to form the lyrics, I guess.”
The lyrics may have emerged after the music, but they’re not random or scattershot: “For Ashes Grammar, I had a concept – it’s not really a concept album, there was a sort of high-level thing that’s always there in some part in all the songs,” Daniels says.
The song titles alone on Ashes Grammar paint a picture darker than the joyful harmonies and shimmering effects would have you believe: “Slaughter killing carnage (The meaning of words),” “Failure,” “Curse words,” “Evil, with evil, against evil” – something spooky is going on beneath those pretty voices and uptempo beats.
Fredrickson has her own interpretation of Daniels’ lyrics. “I think there’s…sort of a theme about things that are unspoken or unable to be expressed,” she says, “either because of your own shortcomings or because of your surroundings.”
By late 2009, the group was ready to tour in support of Ashes Grammar and a follow-up EP, Nitetime Rainbows. Membership stood in its present incarnation: Fredrickson returned the favor to her friend Newmyer, who had been playing bass with Philly/Baltimore garage rockers Junkers, by recommending him to Daniels for their tour. Meakim transitioned to guitar and brought in Herndon to play drums. The only missing piece was a second female vocalist, which the band found in Goa after putting out an online call.
The band has chronicled its adventures across North America and Europe on their blog Sitting Contest, available for a read at sittingcontest.tumblr.com, sharing stories of getting bitten by dogs in graveyards (Fredrickson, who is proudly rabies-free), photos of ridiculous truck stop souvenirs, and what it was like to open for Andrew WK at 3 a.m. (“Strange”).
Another result of touring for four of the past seven months is that the band can see just who listens to their music. “As a longtime A Sunny Day in Glasgow fan, I remember going to their early shows and it was pretty much entirely guys,” Newmyer recalls. (Later at the KFN show, a fan with an armful of hard-to-find ASDIG colored vinyl and a silver Sharpie will politely obtain multiple autographs from all six members.) “Lots of tech-heads who like pedals and take pictures [of them] and that kind of stuff. And now the fanbase is really kind of diversified, and there are a lot more girls, a lot more younger people, people who are theoretically teenagers or in college.”
And Fredrickson found herself suppressing an urge to mentor a teenaged fan at an all-ages show in Seattle. “It was funny because she was wearing a Yale sweatshirt, and I was almost like, ‘You’re considering Yale? Let’s talk colleges!'” she says with a laugh. “But…I didn’t.”
Another fan told Fredrickson he couldn’t believe ASDIG’s records were made by such animated and jolly performers. “Someone came up to us at a show and was like ‘You guys are much happier than I expected, I thought you were gonna be sad, I kinda wanted you even more sad.'”
“We care that people have a good time [at our shows]” Goa says. “At the same time, we can only do what it is we do.”
Even after the band’s adventure up and down the east coast last fall, Fredrickson is down-to-earth about the rigors of touring. “I think touring is really a lot harder than any of us thought it was going to be,” she says. “And it’s fun still, but…I just focus on shows, because they’re the best part of the day. That’s why you’re driving 16 hours or whatever.”
Daniels’ answer is simpler but basically the same. “It’s the only thing I really like doing with myself,” he says.
And playing shows constantly has a way of making any group of musicians evolve together.
“As an ensemble, it’s hard to notice the differences from night to night,” Fredrickson says. “They are there…I think we all listen to each other a lot more now than we did before, so for that reason we’re tighter. And we can recover if anything untoward happens.”
Both Fredrickson and Goa come from a performing arts background. Being onstage with ASDIG isn’t quite the same as playing concertos or participating in theater.
“I’ve been performing since I was five, so it was almost like free day care for my mom to drop me off at a community theater and pick me up later,” Goa explains. “I really love it, I’m really happy [doing it]. You have to be there in that moment, or else nobody cares. I do it because it makes me really happy. It’s a way to express myself and get things out. I guess I feel like that’s the only way I’m affecting this world, the only thing I’m creating.”
“[Fredrickson] and I come from a background where we perform music that we haven’t written,” Goa explains. “That doesn’t seem odd to me at all. A lot of [fans] are like ‘So, when you wrote this lyric…’ It’s like, no no no…I’m obviously going to sing things that mean something to me, because if they were shitty, I wouldn’t sing them.
“I would obviously have a problem being in this band if I didn’t believe in it, and you think it means something to you,” she continues. “If you’re going to do a live show, someone has to be there to reproduce it. It obviously still means something to me, but that doesn’t mean I had to write it.”
Though the band hasn’t had time to explore new material, they’ve reworked some Ashes Grammar outtakes. “Ben and I did a tiny bit of recording during our one day off in New York, [but the material] came from the same period as Ashes Grammar was being made, all the bits we couldn’t get done during that time, which actually are a lot,” Fredrickson explains. “It’s new and not new. It’ll be interesting [to hear] what’s been recorded so long ago and what’s being recorded now.”
Back in March, the band released one of these reworked tracks on their website, ASunnyDayinGlasgow.com; as of now, it’s untitled, but it might be called “Sigh Inhibitionist” or “Broken Radio.” The track sounds extra-heavy on drum machine, and it’s therefore more danceable than most of Ashes Grammar – an indication of a future direction, perhaps?
“We don’t know how [future recording] is going to work yet,” Fredrickson says. “I think everybody wants to, though. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Currently, ASDIG is looking forward to time off after their touring adventures – and although they haven’t solidified plans for a third LP, Daniels sees it in the group’s future.
But in an ironic twist, the one permanent member of A Sunny Day in Glasgow has relocated from Philadelphia to Australia. Daniels moved last summer after his wife got a job there; since then, the fact of touring hasn’t presented the band with the difficulty of recording with a key member on the other side of the world. But Daniels says it will happen – so why not?
“I’m determined to get three albums from this band,” he says. “So there will be one more album…I haven’t thought about logistics really yet.”