Photo by Kristina Pedersen
Chicago’s Varsity finds the sweet pop spot between jangly and dream pop on the recently released Parallel Person (Babe City Records). Led by Stef Smith, Varsity’s been releasing music since 2015 and have been touring just as long with numerous midwest stops every year. The band returns to Columbus on Wednesday, May 2 to play with Snarls and Betsy Ross at the Big Room Bar.
Stef answered a few questions I sent her way recently.
You’ve had the chance to share bills with some pretty big names in today’s indie rock world. Of the bands that are listed on your website, I feel like the show you did with Alvvays is probably the one that makes the most sense to me. If you were to draw a Venn Diagram with Varsity on one side and Alvvays on the other, what band(s) would be in the overlapping space (bands you share as maybe common influences)?
I love a good venn diagram! We also really dug that bill with Alvvays and would jump at the chance to play with them again. I think in the middle of our two worlds would be Camera Obscura, Neko Case, The Strokes, The Cranberries, Rilo Kiley, The Smiths, and Karen Carpenter. Moody, etherial, bands with a strong send of melody and a guitar driven backbone are the sort of bands we share influences from.
Over the course of time, we’ve shifted from MTV to YouTube to watch videos and I was pleasantly surprised to see Varsity is no stranger to making videos. If you’ve got the means to do so, I don’t think it’s a substantial risk to make videos. Have you discovered any benefits of having visual representations of your songs on YouTube or are they just fun to do? Was there a particular video that you’ve made that you consider to be your crown jewel?
Music videos have been a great way to connect with our audience so they can see who we are and experience one of our songs come to life. I can’t prove that the videos have draw in new listeners but I think they probably have. Our biggest fanbase seems to exist on YouTube, which was very surprising to find out. I’m partial to the animated music video for “Must be Nice” because the animator Shane Beam really brought a dark sense of humor and playfulness the to tune.
Speaking of videos, when I go down the rabbit hole of YouTube, I’m sometimes amazed at some of the footage I find of bands from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and even ‘90s, before everybody essentially had a video camera in their pocket that they could also make calls on, surf the web, and use as GPS. It’s sort of amazing that somebody in, say, Jimi Hendrix’s camp was like, “Hey, I’ve got this video camera that is as big as a suitcase. I’m just going to set it up and film some stuff of the band hanging out before a show.” Is anybody in Varsity capturing video so that someday you can either have your own personal video diary or maybe put something up for friends and fans to see that documents the band’s history (or a particular moment in time)?
It’s kind of strange that nobody is explicitly documenting our journey since Dylan’s dad was Bob Seger’s photographer and my did is a film producer! I think we have a pretty substantial collection of photos of where we’ve been and what we’ve done on social media, but moving forward we’d like to do more live video sessions. We also might bring a super 8 into the studio with us next time we record, it’s fun and anyone can just pick it up and shoot a little something.
Record Store Day was last weekend. Do you buy vinyl? If so, do you have a favorite place to shop, was there anything you were looking for on RSD and did you stand in line to get the prize?
We didn’t venture out this year, mostly because RSD was the day after our release show and we were all pretty pooped. However we pretty much all collect vinyls and frequent Reckless Records, Pinwheel Records and the $1 bin at thrift stores.
Some of the charm of RSD is that bands either re-release something that has never been issued on vinyl or puts out something unique – maybe a live album, some unreleased tracks, or some covers. If Varsity were to put out a special release for Record Store Day 2019, what do you think would be on it?
We would probably put out a 7′ with two unreleased songs called “Second Act” and “Taken by Surprise.” They aren’t that bad they just never saw the light of day!
You’ve got quite a bit of touring under your belt including numerous stops in Ohio. Putting you on the spot, but is there anything particularly memorable about any of your previous shows in Columbus, Cincinnati or Cleveland?
We love playing in Cincinnati! There are so many amazing female musicians there and we’ve made a bunch of friends passing through. Two shows really stand out; Northside Fest when we played with Leggy, Fairmount Girls, and Dinge and our show with Colleen Green and Stef Chura at Northside Yacht Club. See what I mean? Badass females are everywhere in Cinc! We’re passing through again on May 1st at The Hub.
Does Varsity own a touring vehicle or do you rent a van when going on the road? Give me a little behind the scenes about what happens on, say, a 5-hour drive? Healthy conversations? Everybody with their headphones on? Storytelling? Group listening to music on the van stereo?
We bought a maroon Ford E150 this year named Wan Jr. (RIP Wan Sr.)! On a 5 hour drive, Paul would be in the backseat with headphones on, Jake would be playing some new band he found, Pat is playing HQ, Dylan is driving and I am trying to eat half an avocado and annoying Dylan. We also made up a game for when we get very slap happy called “Slogans” where we create a new product and each contribute one word to it’s tag line.
As a follow up to the last question, if each member of the band was to pick out one song for the “tour soundtrack”, what would the playlist be?
We call this “Delicious Nusic II” and it sucks!
How Will I Know – Whitney Houston (Dylan’s pick)
LOGOUT – Saba (Paul’s pick)
It’s Too Late – Carole King (Stef’s pick)
Impostor Syndrom – Sydney Gish (Pat’s pick)
Zorbing – Stornoway (Jake’s pick)
While you’re based in Chicago and do play shows there, you also tour so do you even consider yourself a “local” band or do you have your sights set on a bigger prize?
We’re a Chicago band with strong ties to the scene, the artists, and the venues here. We also love touring and nobody has ever dinged us for that. Call us old fashioned, but we just want to make music for as many people as we can and see as much of the country as we can while doing that. We don’t have any plans to relocate and the midwest has been a great base to tour out of.
You’ve accomplished a lot as a band over the last 5 years – released music, made videos, played local shows opening for nationally touring acts and have gone on the road yourselves. Obviously, you’d like to see the fanbase continue to grow but do you have any other things to check off your bucket list?
We wanna tour the west coast!