Solar Powered People is an underrated California quartet who just happens to be one of the best kept secrets in progressive rock.
In short, their music is a surreal whirlwind that pushes your auditory senses to the brink of ecstasy without going overboard. Their combination of shoe-gaze, atmospheric elements and loud, wrenching guitar is dead-on.
So far the band has created three albums, all of which have received subtle critical acclaim from magazines, musicians and fans alike. Still, the band remains out of the commercial spotlight, and while I wish them the best of success, this aspect is somewhat refreshing.
Here, I speak with vocalist/guitarist Tony Pennington about the band’s collective influences, what it was like working with Matt McCord and what’s in the future for Solar Powered People.
How was Solar Powered People created? (I understand that each of you were previous members of other bands) What made you all decide that this band was the main gig you wanted to be a part of?)
Solar Powered People was created with a certain idea in mind. We originally started off as an instrumental band with the idea of only playing a few shows to start off with. I then decided to start adding vocals.
We all have come from other local bands, such as Fiver, Scenic Route, Long Division and Apollo Trigger; Ryan, Doug and Tony were wrapping up a two year relationship with this last band. We decided to start up this project with key players in mind. Dustin Morris (our current guitar player) was actually in the original line-up but had other responsibilities at the time, and had to step back from the project, just to come full circle to what is now Solar Powered People.
What was it like working with Matt McCord on both of your albums? Did you seek out his assistance or enjoy the work he did with bands like the Deftones and Cake?
It was great working with Matt McCord. He had some good production ideas and was easy to get along with. We think he learned a lot, as we did, from our first album to our second. We think he captured what were going for with our sound.
Matt actually approached us about recording after one of our first shows. He was playing drums with the band Seventeen Evergreen at one of our shows and liked what he heard, and the rest is history. We have all grown up listening to the Deftones and will always love that band. I think he had more of a hand in the Team Sleep stuff though.
Which both are amazing bands… To clarify for fans, what’s the story behind why your self-titled album was re-recorded as Hibernation?
Hibernation was a remastered/rerecorded version of the first album. Our guitar player had left the band, and we were not able to release it with his guitar parts. So we brought our friend/keyboardist Justin Betham on board to rerecord Hibernation.
What was the primary difference between this first/second album and your third album? Were you trying to achieve a different sound in Living Through the Low or did the successful expansion come naturally?
The difference in the two albums just came naturally. There were some obvious decisions in making sure Living Through the Low had its own sound. We wanted it to hold its own and not really be compared to our first records.
We had gone through some difficult line-up changes and felt as if there were almost three different album moods or influences on Living Through the Low. The first I would say was excitement with finally releasing our first album. Second, I’d have to say was extreme defeat and let down after our first lineup change; that was a difficult time and brought out the angst and darkness of the record. The third would be perseverance.
The album has some very recognizable highs and lows.
Indeed!… Collectively, what were your reactions to the critical acclaim of your albums? Did you expect them to be so well-received?
I don’t think we ever expected to have both albums so well received, but I think we all knew we had really put ourselves into these albums. We don’t ever want to insult the listener’s intelligence, and I think that’s the exact response we got back on all albums.
If possible, describe the typical song-writing process…Do you come up with the music or lyrics first? Did some of your instrumental songs initially have lyrics that were removed, or did you know automatically that certain songs were meant to be pure sound?
Writing songs can really take its own course. Usually we write the music first. Someone in the band brings in an idea and we work off of that. A few times a song has been written with structure on guitar only, and then we restructure and add to that. Our instrumental songs were written to be instrumentals. Sometimes too many lyrics can be bothersome and don’t really help the dynamics of an album as an entire piece. They could possibly be turned into full songs in the future, but for now they will stay pure sound.
Well, the instrumentals are amazing… Not many bands go that route, and it definitely adds a nice touch to the album as a whole.
Did you tour for any of your albums? Can you describe any gigs or bands that you performed with that are unforgettable to you?
We toured pretty hard for the self titled album and Hibernation. We haven’t toured too much in the U.S. for Living Through the Low, but we are headed to Europe for a two week tour next spring. We have played many great shows and many horrible shows and they were all well worth it!
What’s in the future for Solar Powered People? Are you working on any new material or a new album for Three Ring Records? If not, will there still be any future shows/touring?
Moving forward and writing new material is the future for Solar Powered People. We have a two week tour in Europe next spring and a new album in the works. Not sure who we will release this next album with yet. Maybe we’ll release it ourselves. We’ll have to see when we get to that point. There will most definitely be future shows and touring.
I hope you eventually do a tour in the U.S.!…
Individually, are you guys working on any side projects, whether music-related or not?
We all have side projects. Ryan has been painting/drawing and has his art site up (which you can view here,) Dustin has a solo project called The Waking Up Process and Doug is becoming quite the Master Brewer. I have an electronic solo project called Guilty Bystander.
I’ll have to check those solo gigs out… And Ryan has done all of SPP’s cover art, correct?
Ryan has designed all of our artwork so far. We all really like the way it fits our sound and personalities. The artwork for Hibernation was a photo taken at his house. In one way or another he is the driving influence behind the art.
What about your project Guilty Bystander? How does that compare with the music of Solar Powered People?
Guilty Bystander has an influence on some of our music. It’s mainly an experimental project I use to get ideas out; a few have become SPP songs. I really try to keep the two separate though… Solar Powered People is the focus. I don’t really play out with GB. Solar Powered People is as much a live experience as it is a listening experience and that is the best part: Playing live!
Speaking of playing live, if you could create a mini dream tour with your band on the bill, what other five bands/musicians would you most enjoy performing/touring with?
Wow, so many to choose from… Deftones, Van Halen (DLR), Tears for Fears, Failure and The Beatles!
I think I’d die and go to heaven if you guys played with Deftones, (and I personally prefer DLR myself.)
Collectively, name some songs/bands that are on your iPod(s) right now.
Deerhunter, The Cure, Sunny Day Real Estate, Beach House, National Skyline, Spleen United, Boards of Canada, Fleet Foxes, Outkast, Autolux, Failure, The Joy Circuit, Deftones, Radiohead, Tears for Fears, Year of the Rabbit…
Impeccable music taste, I knew it!
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