By Justin Vellucci
Playing guitar in an indie-rock band in 2020 requires some genre knowledge and a lot of muscle memory, that ability to reproduce the fingers shifting between chords and sentiments without conscious thought.
Jake Stern, who plays guitar and keys and provides backing vocals in the placid Pittsburgh band Same, knows the instinct to rely on muscle memory, using it as a kind of short-hand to recapture the energy of the music that inspired him.
He also doesn’t like it very much.
“When [Same] first jammed, we’d say, ‘Oh, this is like that Pinback song,’” says Stern, who lives in Mt. Washington. ”But we just wanted to do something different. We all just kind of wanted to branch out.”
Guitarist Tom Higgins echoes the sentiment.
“We didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into making a certain kind of music,” Higgins says. “A lot of people make a band and say, ‘We want our band to sound like this other band that we like.’ We had all done that before. We wanted to actively stay away from that mindset.”
There’s no sense of pigeon-holing on Plastic Western, the engaging and truly excellent debut LP the Pittsburgh quartet – bassist/vocalist Jesse Caggiano, drummer Jamie Gruzinski and guitarists Higgins and Stern – is set to release May 8 via Lauren Records. The addictive-as-sugar “Landlady” might amplify the haziness or THC-laced slacker-isms of Stephen Malkmus and tracks like “Como Esta La Serenidad?” drip with glassy notes and reverb, splitting the difference between emo or dream-pop mood-setting and Weezer-ish ear-worms. The lushness elsewhere betrays a debt to Yo La Tengo. But Same is clearly its own beast.
The group formed around 2015 and, for the first year, the friends mostly percolated, talking about musical ideas rather than playing out live or going into the studio. The group’s debut instead became two EPs, 2016’s Weird As Hell and 2018’s Forgot to Say ‘Action.’
When the time came to cut Plastic Western, the band hunkered down in a quaint studio in the Poconos, battling the January cold by firing up an illegal propane heater. (Don’t go ratting them out now to zoning officials, OK?) Once the record was pressed, Same booked a release show at Club Café and a host of road shows throughout the U.S. and Canada.
COVID-19 had other plans. But the group still is celebrating and will host a virtual “listening party” for Plastic Western at 8 p.m. May 8 on its Instagram handle, @sameband.
“We’ll be video-chatting, talking about the record as we listen,” Stern says. “We were considering doing some live streams of stuff but we want to do things other than just showing us playing our instruments in our bedrooms.”
Aaron Kovacs, who owns Lauren Records in California, says, despite the geographical distance, “Same comes from the same DIY scene as most of the Lauren Records roster.”
“They are super creative, enthusiastic and hard working,” Kovacs says. “We’re stoked to be part of their team.”
Kovacs admits having some familiarity, though, with Stern beyond Same’s music. His label released music by Signals Midwest, which features Stern’s Philly-based older brother, Max.
“Some call us the Stern Family Label,” Kovacs laughs.
The younger Stern and Same, though, are straight-faced about getting their music heard outside Pennsylvania.
“We just really hope people like this album,” Stern says. “It’s the culmination of the last five years of our lives as a band. I hope people are able to enjoy it, to find it relaxing, to find some calming effect in it in these crazy times we’re in.”
“I think there’s a lot to be gotten from listening right now.”