When I caught Stay Outside’s live act for the first time, the Marion, Ind.-based band was in the finals of the Birdy’s Battle Royale early this year, two weeks away from its record release for six-track EP OK, For Now. The band, playing last of the night, nearly tore the roof of Birdy’s down with an incendiary performance of pure raw energy few in the audience saw coming.
And though they didn’t win, they did win over a significant portion of the audience who, like myself, were impressed with the lyrical quality of their deeply questioning, introspective take on Thrice-inspired post-hardcore. “Aaron Becker wrung every drop of energy out of that room for his standout vocal performance,” I wrote in Nuvo the day after seeing their performance. And when the album came out weeks later I was equally stunned by the band’s ability to transform the songs I’d heard live into deeply realized sonic paintings, rising and falling like the tides of emotions in Becker’s lyrics. This wasn’t what I’d come to expect from rushed local albums. It sounded like something recorded for months in a New York Studio with major label funding.
I sat down with Becker to talk about the album and the band’s songwriting in the week prior to that album release show. Due to unforseen circumstances that interview sat unpublished since June of this year. There’s no reason, however, that you shouldn’t see it now, because Stay Outside remains one of central Indiana’s best kept secrets, and there’s no reason except that those of us who have heard them haven’t spoken loudly enough to change it. OK, For Now easily stands with the upper echelon of albums I’ve heard this year from anywhere in the country, major label or not. And it’s about time you hear it.
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“Lt Dan” got me really focusing on your lyrics because of the line “Are you there God? They say I can walk beside you but my legs are gone.” And when I got to “Broke,” and you had that chorus: “My home is written in my bones, I take you with me everywhere I go. I make mistakes along the road but I don’t care. Seeing your heart-strings tear and autumn turn to death and now it’s gone and I’m just stuck here blaming God for all that’s left.” That’s a lot deeper theologically than you usually get in this genre of music. Can you explain a little about your writing process?
I have a lot of things to say and a lot of things to express, and the lyrics especially on this album mean a lot, just being in a place where … that song is called “Broke,” so being at a point in my life where I was feeling super broken and the only thing I really had was my home and the friends that were around me. And it was easy to blame God, but I just wanted to find a way to express how I was feeling. Sometimes you write for yourself and sometimes you write for other people. That song is definitely a song that I wrote for myself. And writing that song helped me find a lighter part of my life and find more hope.
Do you write the songs primarily and bring them to the band or do you guys write as a group?
Garrett [Johnston], our guitar player, he always writes guitar riffs, so sometimes we’ll start with a riff and add on to that, but most of the time I would say that the base of the song is really me with an acoustic guitar and lyrics and then we build from there. There have been times where Garrett and I have have built the structure of a song together and then I went into the lab by myself and wrote the lyrics for it, and then rewrote the lyrics for it and rewrote them again because I want to say exactly what I’m feeling.
It came out in your live performance. By the time you got to “Lt Dan” at the end of your Birdy’s performance, the song started out as calm as you can say any of your songs ever start. But by the end you were tossing your guitar in the air and I was concerned because it’s the end of the night and I was sure there’d been drinking going on. I was sure someone was going to get hurt!
[Laughs] I didn’t think about that. You’ve got to give a hundred percent no matter what you’re playing. And playing last too, we’re always going to leave it all on the line. I want people to leave at the end of the show and say “I didn’t know that band but holy crap! They gave it a hundred and ten and they’re so passionate! Now I’m gonna go listen to the album and hear the songs.”
These songs on the EP, you guys got some really strong recordings. Did you do it yourself, or did you work with somebody?
We went to Varsity Recordings in Anderson, and recorded with Jonathan Class, he plays keyboards with Josh Garrels. He’s a really good friend of ours, he made Joshua Powell and the Great Train Robbery’s record, and a bunch of people around the area. I think he’s the best producer in Indiana, to be honest. I think he knows exactly what he wants and he can take any artist and whatever the artist says they want he’ll make it happen. We’d never met him before we worked with him on some previous projects before Stay Outside, but we knew no matter what we’d do, he was going to be a part of it. So yeah, it wasn’t cheap, but it was definitely worth doing it right.
How long did you work with him to get those six songs?
We recorded the album in seven days. We would start recording in the morning and work until we went to bed at night. The cool thing is that John was part of our creative process, so we gave him control in that he’d say “that part isn’t quite what it should be, rewrite it,” and we’d go in and say “awesome!” and come out with a fix. So it’s really good to have that. And in the studio Garrett, the guitar player, and I did all the recording. So I did the drums, the vocals and the rhythm guitar and Garrett did the lead guitar and the bass. Sean [West], the bass player, wasn’t in the band yet but is now and we just hire touring drummers to play live with us.
I could tell the two of you up front, you seemed to have the most experience together. You were playing off each other the whole show.
We’ve been working on this album for ten months from the beginning, working and planning, and we’ve been in bands since we were thirteen. And we haven’t stopped being in bands We both decided not to go to college so we could make this our full-time thing. Sean was in Nashville. And we grew up with Sean but he went to Nashville and came back last year and started living with Garrett and I and just a few months later he was like “OK I want to be in this band.” So he’s new to being in the band but he’s always been a part of the backbone of it, you could say.
What was it like showcasing the new EP in the Birdy’s Battle format?
So yeah, battles are weird because everyone’s judging art, which is a weird thing to be a part of. But it is kind of like if you’re in a battle at least people are usually listening because that’s what they’re doing, they’re judging the band. It was cool to have people pay attention, everyone was really intently listening. And that made me want to be even more passionate with the songs and really express how I felt as I was writing those songs. And Ben Cannon was really helpful, he was the one who really came out and asked us if we wanted to be part of the Battle format. At first I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it, but if anything we figured it was a chance to gain fans and that was a really cool aspect of it. And at the same time you get paranoid because you don’t want to invite too many people out to the Battle weeks, because our release show was scheduled for two weeks after the finals. [Laughs] Which one should people go to? It’s hard to say come to both of them.
As for the album, it’s fitting that you called it OK, For Now, because at the end of every song there’s always at least the element of hope in there, after you strip everything down and try to build it back up.
That wasn’t on purpose, but that’s true the more we looked at it. I don’t want to call it a concept album but the theme of hopelessness is there, and especially in “Braveheart,” it all goes out and then you find hope at the peak of the song. So not only does our live show turn no hope into hope, but kind of every song has its point where you can let go [of the hopelessness].