By Justin Vellucci
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
There are elements of Neutral Milk Hotel’s freak-folk,’90s slowcore, and of Montreal’s cinematic post-rock on Death of the Neon — the second LP from Pittsburgh-area ensemble String Machine — which Know Hope Records will re-release Jan. 16.
But, more than that, the record is informed by a gnawing hunger: A hunger to create, yes, but also that hunger to survive, to just simply GET BY, that’s known by any artist or musician whose bank account is paltry but whose ambition is boundless. The opening verse on the first song of Death of the Neon, in fact, personifies just that struggle, with frontman David Beck lamenting about beat-up and broken-down cars.
“Summer was over/ when the water in my leaky radiator froze over/ the coolant lines in my car/ I’m stranded,” Beck sings over acoustic guitar on “Engine It’s Time” before being joined by piano, bass, and honey-laced backing vocals.
Ian Compton, a Butler County-based landscaping company foreman by day who plays trumpet and electric guitar in String Machine, says the band’s existence sometimes “seems like a movie, seems like a dream.”
“I grew up listening to classic rock, dreaming I’d be in Rush or Kansas,” Compton says. “Now, I’m in a band of weirdos. All I’m saying is ‘You can do it.’ You can be weird and make quality art and do it with your friends and make enough money to get tacos once in a while.”
String Machine formed about four years ago from blue-collar roots in Saxonburg, which sits an hour’s drive north of Pittsburgh. There, the band – whose seven members are childhood friends and longtime collaborators – spends countless hours fleshing out a home-grown studio (now known as Loud Audio Workshop) and an even more salt of the Earth musical collective, dubbed Earthwalk.
Beck, who started String Machine as a solo project and self-released a debut LP with collaborators before christening the act formally as a septet, cites the usual suspects when asked about the new record’s sound – Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, a touch of Bob Dylan, a hint of Neil Young.
“We just work with the textures of the sound, make it travel,” said Beck, who moved recently to Pittsburgh and works at the Mattress Factory museum in North Side. “It’s honestly a problem-solving thing. When you have seven people in the band, there’s a lot of gatekeeping.”
Beck is the band’s primary songwriter; he is joined by Dylan Kersten on synth and piano, Compton, Nic Temple on drums, Katie Morrow on cello, Laurel Wain on vocals, and Mike Law on bass.
Philadelphia-based Know Hope Records came knocking shortly after the band self-released Death of the Neon last summer.
“It’s pretty surreal – you never expect an album that you make it in your friend’s basement is gonna do this,” Beck says. “We’re very grateful. It feels very purposeful to be in the basement.”
Earthwalk also is very purposeful. Beck admits parallels between his circle of 20 or 30 Pittsburgh-area artists and the 90’s-era Athens, Ga. collective Elephant 6, which included members of Neutral Milk Hotel. (Neutral Milk Hotel’s rightly lauded In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, released in 1997 when Beck was still in diapers, is very much a spiritual predecessor to Death of the Neon.)
“We looked at [Elephant 6] and said, ‘That’s beautiful,’” Beck says. “We’re definitely formatted like that. These people are my family. It feels deeper than being members of a band or members of a collective.”
That collective also has spawned other acts, many times intertwining themselves, member-wise, with their brother and sister acts. Compton and Wain, high-school sweethearts who live together and both play in String Machine, have a songwriting duo called Lem. Others play and record as the Appalachian Doom Gospel.
“This is my family – it’s easy making music with them,” Compton says. “We’ve come together under the mindset of ‘If your songs don’t fit in this band, go start another band.’”
For Beck, String Machine is an outlet for self-expression. He frequently treks to the group’s studio in rural Butler County for six-hour recording sessions, and walks in the woods between takes.
“It’s a really good environment to be creative,” he says. “I like to think of it as a writing refuge, where you can make your main focus the art, or making music.”
Wain, who trained in musical theatre in New York City and sings in String Machine, says she hopes the record’s re-release this month spurs new interest in the band, and maybe sparks a next step.
“I hope it leads to more shows – but I really don’t know what to expect honestly,” she says. “It’s becoming this bigger and better thing. I feel like we need to just keep trucking on.”
String Machine will mark the re-release of Death of the Neon Jan. 16 with a show at Mr. Roboto alongside Mandancing and Providence’s Will Orchard. Doors are at 7 p.m. and admission is $10.
“It’s coming together,” Beck said, “as a family reunion.”