The Penny Serfs // Interview
INTERVIEW BY: Emily May
Indie pop/rock band The Penny Serfs are a band on the rise. The band, comprised of Mikey Loy, Stu Tenfold, Kyle Lewis and Aiden Landman, released their sophomore album, Politics In The Time Of Heroin, in January of this year. The four men all work in different capacities as backline techs for various bands, most recently for The National. In 2012, they decided to form the Penny Serfs and begin playing music themselves on the side. In February of this year, the band faced it's toughest fight so far when Loy, who was working to convert an old church in LeClaire, Iowa into a recording studio, fell 15 feet onto the hardwood floor below, sustaining multiple serious injuries. Weeks of recovery forced Loy to take a step back from the band and his workaholic tendencies and allowed him to spend quality time with his family. The injury made him determined to make every moment count and to no longer take his life for granted. Although the band is currently scattered between Iowa, California and Michigan, they are able to coordinate writing, recording and touring schedules and make it work with the band. They are in this for the long haul, though, determined and focused to keep the band going for the foreseeable future. With plans next year for more touring (their goal is 100 shows a year!), festivals and EPs, The Penny Serfs are forging ahead, having faced a crisis and emerged on the other side stronger then ever! Emily May spoke recently to the band and discussed the new album, the formation of the band, the perks of being involved in both sides of the industry and what's next for the band. You can stay up-to-date with the band and all upcoming music and tour dates, as well as where to stream and purchase their music via the links below. Check out the track "Don't Hug Me I'm Scared" from the new album below.
Your sophomore album Politics In The Time Of Heroin was released earlier this year. What can you tell me about the inspiration behind the album? How did making this album differ from your first album, Like Eating Glass?
STU: After Like Eating Glass, I joined the band (Stu) and I think brought some of my influences with me... As we toured supporting Like Eating Glass, we started jamming out new songs and I think the addition of a keyboard player opened us up to some new sounds... The record just kind of evolved from where we were all at mentally at the time. It's funny but the political climate at the time wasn't anywhere near as crazy as it is right now, but I think we all saw the direction things were headed which I think heavily inspired and influenced the songs...
You recorded this album and your first album with producer Rick Beato in Atlanta. What led you to record again with him for the new album? What do you feel that he added to the process? I read that you arrived there with only a basic idea for a lot of the songs and only gave yourselves a week to finish writing and recording. What prompted those decisions?
Mikey- I have always been involved with music for over 20 years. From garage bands to being in chronic future and then teching for bands has kept music very much in the forefront of my life.
Rick Beato is a very good friend of mine, and even though he doesn’t produce bands anymore due to the intense amount of interest in his music information videos. He simply doesn’t have the time. However Rick and I go way back. He’s one of my best friends and I love his family. We have dinner with with his wife and kids when we are in Atlanta it’s a very homey atmosphere. I hope I can keep convincing him to work with me. He is a magician with a distressor and a 1073. Most of all, Rick believes in me and helps me find the proper confidence (that I sometimes struggle with) to be the best I can be.
When it comes to making songs in the studio, I wanted us to all have to be on our toes for this record. I came up with a bunch of song shells on my acoustic, and just wanted to see where we took it as a band and if we could rise to the occasion. And I think we did and it helped flush out some nice melodies and song structure that I would have never thought of. It was a true collective effort and I’m still very proud of that.
The 4 of you are techs for touring acts and met while touring with national acts such as The National and Regina Spektor. What made you decide to form a band together? You guys work behind the scenes as techs but are in the spotlight, so to speak, as a band. Do you feel that the two compliment each other for you, being a part of both sides of the industry?
KYLE- I started working for Regina Spektor in spring of 2012, and by end of summer 2012 Mikey was added to our crew. Mikey and I are both “backline techs” dealing with the artist’s instruments (Aiden is as well). Naturally we had that and our own desire to play music in common. Over months of touring and toying with the idea of creating music, Mikey put together an LP’s worth of songs, booked a couple shows and we just went for it. As musicians, the strive to play music while touring as a crew member for a large established band was something neither of us could deny. It connected Mikey and I and pushed the creation of this band.
Working in the industry definitely has a plus side for us. From the obvious connections and personal relationships made with artists, management, and promoters to knowing the “run of show” top to bottom in all departments. There so much work involved in putting a show/tour together at that level and the average person has no idea. Having respect and interest for each person in the industry has taught us a lot. For instance, when we head into a club for load in and soundcheck our own show (Penny Serfs), we know to look for the promoter or club staff and find the house sound engineer...and to NOT piss them off. They are there to make things run as smooth as possible and are ultimately in control of your sound.
Did the 4 of you always want to have a career in music from a young age? How did you get your starts as techs and how do you juggle your tech jobs with the band? What have you found to be some of the more challenging aspects of the job?
STU: We all wanted to be in music, but I don't think any of us thought we'd end up making a living from the service side of things... It's a little like being a golf caddy or something... Sometimes you recommend a 9 iron and they go with a wood and shank it. I don't know if that means anything, I don't play golf, but it sounds right. It's not really a field that you can so easily just decide to go into. More than anything it requires being in the right place at the right time and not being afraid of joining the circus. It can be challenging watching other bands on stage every night, when you'd love to be the ones up there playing, but we're all fortunate enough to work with some really great bands and people, and it can offer us some unique opportunities, like the ability to be a band despite the fact that we're scattered across the country.
You guys are located in Iowa, Michigan and California. What kinds of challenges does that present when trying to schedule writing, recording and touring?
Mikey - oh man. Many challenges. We plan shows months in advance and everyone flies to Iowa to rehearse and prepare. Same with recording. We use our saved up airline miles from the touring business to get us all in the same city. I do feel that it is a positive thing in our lives bc we really have to make choices on big item issues. We don’t view ourselves as a local band, and for a few of us, planning and making every moment count helps us strive to become a better band.
Between your jobs as techs and the band, it seems that you are all on the road a lot. What do you like to do when you are home for a bit? How do you re-adjust to life off the road when you are home?
KYLE- It’s pretty crazy how different “work life” is from home life. For me personally, I come home to a fiancé and a 3 year old. Obviously I miss them like crazy when I’m on tour and it makes work life so much harder being away from them.
Re-adjusting is basically just being tossed back into reality and family time. Instead of staying up until 2am from loading out a show, I’m usually in bed by 10pm at the latest and awake the next morning by 5:30-6am. Instead of eating 3 square meals that have been prepared by a catering company, I’m back to cooking and fending for a family of three (My lovely fiancé does 90% of the cooking for which I’m so grateful for because I’m not the most creative in the kitchen). Almost everything I do at home revolves around my son. Lots and lots of little adventures. I try to find time to play my drums every now and then but time usually seems to slip away. Next thing I know I’m back on the road with totally different gears operating the mind.
However, every few months or so The Penny Serfs plan meet ups on our “off work time”. Weather it be for shows, recording sessions, or writing sessions. Writing and recording sessions are becoming more frequent!
Mikey- You were badly injured in a fall earlier in the year while working to convert an old church in Le Claire into a recording studio. How are you doing? Having been forced to take a step back from touring both as a tech and with your band, do you feel it changed your perspective on things? I saw that the studio has since been completed. Are you guys planning to record your own albums, or those of other artists, going forward?
I am very thankful to say that I am doing 100% better. After twenty some broken bones, mostly in my head haha, I have regained strength in my wrists again and it now feels like it never even happened. It definitely changed my perspective on a lot of things. With the band I’m more concerned with making every moment count since I managed to live. Also with my family it allowed me to take a step back as a workaholic and make sure I spend quality time with my wife and kids. I guess I’ve always taken it for granted that I’d be alive... and now I learned the hard way to really cherish and live every day like it is my last.
The studio was such a large project. I did most of the work myself with the help of my brothers, and good friend of the bands Nick Goetsch. We’ve spent thousands of hours in there and I am so proud of it. I hope that we record our next EP there and I get a chance to produce it. I’m actually sitting at the desk right now. Stu just picked up a NEVE console from Pat Stolley, the original Daytrotter sessions engineer. I hope that it can be an art space for many people. It was such a collective effort that I have no intentions of making a business, just somewhere where good people can make fun music.
I read that you guys love pizza and that Aiden and Mikey are pizza obsessed! What is your favorite kind of pizza? What is you favorite pizza place in the US, as well as abroad, and do you find that pizza made abroad is different in any significant way from pizza made in the US?
STU: Well firstly, you have to understand that for us, pizza is less of a food and more of a way of life. I say that only half jokingly. After we load out all the gear after every show, there is pizza waiting for us (what we call Aftershow Food). I would say we end up eating it at least 50% of the days we're on tour. We can't give away any of our secret pizza spots, but I will say definitely NY Style over Chicago Style. And I will say that if you aren't from the midwest and haven't heard of Taco Pizza, it definitely deserves your attention!
You have mentioned being able to lead very healthy lifestyles due to the fact that modern touring has accomplished giant leaps and bounds. What do you do to stay healthy on tour? How do you feel that touring has changed/evolved over the years?
KYLE- There’s no hiding the fact that living a road life can be super unhealthy if you let it be. It’s a slippery slope and an easy habit to fall into. Backstage provides endless amounts of booze, snacks, candy, PIZZA! Add very little rest and all of those unhealthy things daily during a 6 week tour and you’ve basically taken months off of your life. Fortunately modern day touring usually provides us with just as many healthy options. Hotels have gyms, venue catering always has at least some kind of healthy option (usually a salad or juicing station), and our dressing rooms will have healthy food options sitting directly next to the 5 lbs bag of fun size candy bars. It’s just a matter of where the mind and will power places the hand! I try my hardest to go to the gym on days off in hotels and eat at least 2 healthy meals of 3 throughout the day.
I think that the most important tool that has evolved and really has been a game changer in touring life is the current modern cell phone. Being able to always answer emails on the go, using GPS to find your way around hundreds of cities throughout the year, and FACETIME! I can actually see and talk to my son every day. I can’t even fathom how bands toured and survived before the internet and cell phones. But that’s coming from a millennial’s perspective haha!
What have been some of your most memorable moments as a band so far? Have you accomplished any major goals that you set for yourselves? What kinds of goals have you set for yourselves going forward?
Mikey- I would say Aiden joining the band is one of my most memorable moments. I’ve known Aiden since first grade and somehow we’ve managed to get back into each other’s lives. Kyle is easily my best friend and I’m proud to say that I trust everyone of the Serfs and I’m in a band with my three closest friends.
Opening for EL VY in Europe was a major accomplishment. We love The National Folks and Brent Knopf is a musical mastermind. We hope to start touring 100 dates a year and really taking our band to the next step. We are all very focused and intent on keeping this going and going.
Who are you listening to right now? Are there any bands that you feel people should know about?
STU: There are two new records that aren't out yet, one by Heather Woods Broderick and one by Sharon Van Etten that I've been listening to on repeat. Really excited for those releases! There's also this killer band called Wolf Alice that has been blowing all of our minds!
What's next for the band?
Mikey - We are hoping to hop on the SXSW in Austin TX in 2019. From there it will be a feel good EP to prep for summer time. We are going to make a few EPs this year. And personally I am going to make some crazy crazy videos. I love to dance haha.