By Allison Babka
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On Friday, February 1, So Many Dynamos will play Off Broadway in honor of its tenth anniversary as a band. RFT Music recently sat down with singer/keyboardist/guitarist Aaron Stovall to discuss the past and future of the nationally recognized, self-described nerd-pop foursome.
We meet, at Stovall's suggestion, early in the evening at the Fortune Teller Bar on Cherokee Street. Stovall, a barista in his late twenties, is immensely open to interview and displays a personality that is an interesting mix of outgoing and soft-spoken. We have the bar mostly to ourselves, though the after-work beer crowd is made of remarkable folks: David Beeman of Old Lights and Native Sound studios and Devin Devon, director of the local film A Variety of Mysteries, also happen to be in the building. We eschew the barrel-tables near the door (a chill creeps through the front half of the Fortune Teller before it packs out around 10 p.m.) and sip our drinks at the end of the bar. After pleasantries, we get down to business: a status report regarding St. Louis' most popular palindrome.
Stovall views the band's most recent release, a self-titled EP that comes as a digital download encoded on a refrigerator magnet, as both a prologue to its soon-to-be-released full-length record and an introduction to those discovering So Many Dynamos for the first time. "Since it had been so long and so much had happened in music in the course of the last three years," he says, "it was almost an introductory piece to the full album."
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So, what's happened in the last few years? Between lineup changes (Nathan Bernaix of Target Market took Ryan Wasoba's place as guitarist in 2009 — Wasoba is now a frequent RFT Music contributor; Travis Lewis replaced Griffin Kay on guitar and keys in 2011) and the passage of time leaving the members' teenage years a decade behind them, So Many Dynamos has gone through what Stovall feels is a natural progression for all musicians. "I think all people realize...it's just as important to listen to your influences' influences. It's nice to throw all of that together and make something that is you." He cites "when funk turned electro-funk" as one of his current interests.
The band hopes its upcoming record, Safe With Sound, will be ready in time for a fall 2013 release. Stovall is recording vocals and some instrumentation in a cabin based in Flagstaff; producer/engineer Jason Cupp, whom the band met through Chicago group Maps & Atlases, worked with them both in their home studio on Cherokee Street and at ARC Studios in Omaha (which also serves as home base for indie label Saddle Creek). The bulk of the record, recorded in Omaha, is finished; Stovall says he is in the midst of the "finishing touches" phase of vocals, though he jokes that he may be finishing some lyrics on the plane.
Regarding traveling plans for the nationally known band, SMD plans to partake in South by Southwest this March for the fourth time. The band is playing a showcase for its management company at the festival, plus a few as-yet-unscheduled dates between Austin and St. Louis. When asked why the band had done less touring in the past three years, Stovall explains that it's more difficult to tour as they get older. "Touring's way different now than what it was before. Gas used to be way cheaper...I think we all had a little bit more of a spark when we were younger. We dropped out of school to do this; I think we went on our first tour the day after our drummer graduated high school — one of those kind of things."
Between obligations at home, the rising cost of travel and the changes the band has undergone as a quartet, the challenges of hitting the road and making a profit are simply far more staggering. Stovall doesn't discount the notion of travel entirely; SMD has undergone several weekenders and week-long tours during downtime, and the band is interested in "supportish" tours with other bands in the future.
Stovall also appreciates St. Louis as a home base to develop the Dynamos' current sound. "Coming back here and trying to foster some of those ideas [from seven years of touring], maybe get excited living in a place that has, I mean, everybody says this city has so much potential — it has so much potential — and now I think people are finally starting to realize that."
Former RFT music editor Annie Zaleski described So Many Dynamos as "laying low" back in 2011; that was two editors ago, and one can hear reflected in recent recordings the time the band has taken out to develop its unique sound. "We decided to stay home and basically deconstruct everything. You know, start anew." In this process, Stovall came across a notion that inspired him: Springing from the band's self-described history of "funky DIY," he has discovered a more community-oriented philosophy of DIT, or "Do It Together." He says this concept is a positive development of social media, a sense of working together as a musical community. "It's ridiculous, by the way, that you have to be good at all that [Internet] shit to be in a band," he adds. "I won't go off on this too much, but..." He sips his beer and grimaces.
Working liberally with this concept, So Many Dynamos has decided to create a live mixtape experience, inviting members from other bands to play shows or practice with them. So far this has culminated in collaborations with some of St. Louis' finest pop artists: Kristin Dennis of Née has been singing with them for about eighteen months. Other vocals and instrumentals are lent by Jamie Finch of Palace and Joe Winters, drummer of now-defunct Target Market. Looking forward, Bear Hive's Chris Phillips will be the touring guitarist for the SXSW appearance. Dennis will sing backup with So Many Dynamos at the upcoming anniversary show. Though frequent collaborators the Funky Butt Brass Band will be absent from the event (members of both bands attended Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's jazz program together, and the Brass Band often sits in on Dynamos shows) this gives SMD the opportunity to find other acquaintances to fill horn and percussion positions. Winters will be present at Off Broadway Friday night; Stovall describes his auxiliary percussion as "the icing on the cake for the last year and a half."
The opening slot of the evening will be filled with a DJ set by Kristin Dennis and the members of SMD. While the band usually loves a three-band bill, it is looking forward to keeping it simpler on its anniversary. Besides, Stovall opines, "there's something magical about when 10:30 rolls around and then a band starts playing." Electro-pop powerhouse Née will be next up in the lineup and is preparing a light show especially for the occasion. Stovall is also backing up Née on vocals and percussion, making sure that So Many Dynamos' policy of DIT will run strong throughout the night. "It will be a very incestuous sort of evening," he says. "I love Off Broadway, so that helps."