By Aarsh Sachdeva
Music for the Masses, a student organization that unites music enthusiasts at the University of Illinois campus, provides students the chance to access recording equipment, play at local venues and even have lessons to learn how to play instruments. One of the bands developing in M4M is A Cool Hand, a five-member installation comprised of frontman Justin Tanaka, guitarists Mike Altergott and Jack Keating, drummer Charlie McCarthy and bassist Adam Howarter.
The Spread chatted with Justin, Mike, Charlie and Adam about their beginning, their new album “Long Live the Night” and their upcoming Oct. 11 album release show at Champaign’s Cowboy Monkey.
The Spread: How long have you all known each other? How did you meet?
Justin Tanaka: I started jamming with Mike two years ago. Then we added Charlie, and then we had some other members that came in and out. We added Jack in May of 2012. And then we added Adam late that summer.
Mike Altergott: So we’ve been going with that arrangement since about January 2013.
TS: What are the different (music) backgrounds each of you has?
Adam Howarter: I started off playing jazz piano, so switching to bass was a completely different thing for me in this band. A lot of my playing was influenced by that. And I also like some classic rock and funk stuff – some Reggae.
Charlie McCarthy: I have more of a marching background if anything. So that was a little different at first, but at this point I feel pretty comfortable with it, so it’s fun.
Mike: I guess I started playing classical piano and then some pickup saxophone. Now, I play guitar and piano for the band.
Justin: I’ve pretty much been singer mostly. I played guitar for many years but not very well. So, singing and song-writing are what I’ve been doing for a while.
TS: What inspired you to start your own band?
Mike: I didn’t really start the band, but playing music is always infinitely more fun with people. Playing music with people is the most fun thing to do.
Justin: So, I was in another band freshman year, we had a pretty good run; it was a great two years. But then after that I didn’t do music for two years at all, and I always kind of wanted to be the singer. In the other band, I was straight up the guitar player, because we already had two singers better than me. So I got together with Mike and we just started adding people one by one.
Mike: Yeah, we all started jamming to songs out of a real book actually. We kind of jammed in the basement for fun and Justin was like “Hey I’ve got some original music,” and we’re like let’s just roll with this.
TS: How did you guys come up with the name “A Cool Hand”?
Justin: We went through so many. I was a Paul Newman fan and “Cool Hand Luke” was a good movie so that sounded good – not too crazy.
TS: What has been your biggest challenge as a band? Have you been able to overcome that challenge? If so, how?
Mike: Booking shows is always an interesting challenge because when you don’t have stuff recorded you have to convince these people to let you play in the bars. Getting your foot in the door at a venue is probably your first challenge; that’s pretty tough. Eventually you’ve just got to do it and book shows.
Adam: Starting the Facebook page was kind of tough, cause if you only have like nine likes or something then they’re not even going to consider you.
Justin: I’d say that even just writing the first album all the way through. ‘Cause we got through this phase where we were just playing a lot of shows. We ended up practicing for our shows so much that we couldn’t really finish anything. So we took a lot of time off to finish (the album) and we kind of did that again – in preparation for this CD release and the next album.
TS: Tell me a little bit about your new album release.
Justin: It’s called “Long Live the Night.” The hook from the first song, “Night Life,” really is one of every genre almost because we were still trying to find a sound.
Mike: It’s our oldest song as a band.
Charlie: We’ve been playing this since the beginning.
Justin: It might sound disjointed (at times), and there’s not really a direction (but) that’s really kind of on purpose just to see what we liked. And we definitely have figured it out.
Adam: We sampled a lot of different stuff.
Mike: All the new material is really concentrated – more cohesive.
TS: What are some of your favorite songs on this new album?
Adam: My favorite one, recording wise, is “Stones” – sounds really nice.
Charlie: “No Soul” is a good one.
Justin: “No Soul” – I’m really proud of that title and those lyrics and really proud of the band’s work on that.
TS: What were some major influences when creating this album?
Justin: The first song is very “Stroksy,” we had some Black Keys on there, and we have a folk song on there.
Mike: We like Bob Dylan; we like Radiohead. We’ve got a pretty good diverse selection of influences.
Adam: I think a lot of it’s all over the place, you can’t (narrow it down) to one.
Justin: Which is good.
Mike: We were starting out and just sampling all sorts of stuff.
Justin: It’s what we needed to do.
Mike: We included two covers on (“Long Live the Night”) too. We didn’t do literal covers. We did our representations of the songs, and so they’re quite different. There’s a song by Sufjan Stevens called “Jacksonville” and (a song called) “Twice” by Little Dragon.
Charlie: Both of those are good, they’re (a couple) of the best songs.
Mike: They deviate a lot from the original.
Adam: We were recording and we got a couple brass players in it too; we’re trying to find some brass players to play with us live.
TS: Who writes your songs?
Justin: For the first album, I brought all the source material. For the second album (that we’re working on), everyone’s bringing stuff, which is awesome. Everyone’s getting into the writing mood and it took a little while for us to be able to do that. It was definitely a challenge for me to write melodies and lyrics over somebody else’s chord progressions, but I’m definitely happy with the stuff that we have so far. It is an evolution – you can see it in progress – especially when the second one gets done.
Mike: We also drastically changed the songs from their initial installments too. So when you play songs like ‘Night Life’ for two years, you just naturally hear things change over time.
Adam: It’s always going to evolve.
TS: What are the main themes or topics for most of your songs?
Justin: I always like to write very phonetically. So, the first time (I write) the song, I sing almost nonsense words but there’s always a place that I’m coming from so it does evolve into words. It almost surprises me sometimes. What I’m trying to say is that it might not be subconscious a lot of times but there’s definitely something there and I do think that there is a really good narrative in all the songs. They end up being about girls always, and pondering life.
Adam: Jet Skis.
Justin: Yeah it’s really random. It’s anecdotal but I was feeling it at the time. The best lyrics I think on the first album might be “O47” which is just me on the acoustic and the percussion. We’re hopefully going to do a nice live arrangement at our CD release show. (“O47”) is about a battle in Japan where a rival clan has to kill a lord. My dad says that (our family) descended from that clan – so I thought that was pretty cool.
TS: Do you think these topics will change over time?
Justin: Yes. The new stuff already is definitely geared towards having a good time. We found how to get engaged with the audience and write for that because that’s when we’re having the most fun. I have been trying to write, topic-wise, just silly stuff. Things where people are going to enjoy themselves. I want people to come out and see us and be ready to have a good time.
TS: What is the ultimate direction for your band?
Mike: I think that someday we’re all going to leave Urbana – Champaign. How soon it is depends. It’d be nice to get established in a larger area like Chicago. Although, that’s not doing (C-U) enough credit. The music scene here is very, very nice.
Justin: It’s really great to get up off the ground here.
Mike: (If you’re a freshman) go out and find bands of younger people who’re just getting established. There are tons of them and they’re going to be really good. It’s amazing.
TS: What advice do you have for people looking to form their own bands?
Mike: Live in Urbana. If you can get a house with a basement, that’s the best.
Justin: House with a basement is 90 percent of it. You can’t practice in the dorms, because it’s too loud.
Charlie: Go to Allen. Allen was filled with musical people.
Justin: Yeah I think if you can get a house in Urbana with a basement – I think that all the best bands in Urbana – Champaign started out that way. Get some friends, have a good time, and promote the heck out of yourself. Don’t be afraid to act like you’re bigger than you are.