With a whisper and a shout, We Are Voices hopes to catch your ear — from left: Holt, Greenlee, Baldwin and Larson.
Learning the ropes is rough. The hours are long, the work is heavy and the pay is low. It's a barrier to entry that demands fortitude: Are you sure you want to do this? Dreams don't come cheap or easy for young bands when music's longtime tender — the album — is hardly worth the plastic it's made on.
It's against this backdrop that We Are Voices recorded its debut, What Makes Us So Alive? The Kansas City quartet had played live only four times before heading into the studio two years ago. Essentially, the album's 10 songs were the first that the band had written together.
"We were like, 'Hey, guys, we've got songs, and we like them. We just need to get in there and do this right, and that will be people's first impression of us,'" says singer and guitarist Lucas Larson.
The idea that a well-recorded release will increase a band's profile is almost quaint, given the ubiquity of Pro Tools-tailored home recordings. But that's the appeal of We Are Voices: the wide-eyed naïveté reflected in these twentysomethings' music and in their approach to hoped-for fame.
Alive languished before We Are Voices finally decided to make it available for free download from its website, wearevoices.com. "We don't have a firm direction at this point," Larson says. "Just to keep on trucking and keep promoting the record, because I think a lot of people have still to hear it." But if you're already giving it away for free, how do you get people to listen?
Releasing an album these days without fanfare — that is, label support — is like throwing a rock into the ocean. Despite positive reviews, Alive hasn't spawned a flood of gigs, and We Are Voices hasn't become an overnight Internet sensation like, say, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. (Perhaps success flows more easily with a longer, sillier name; branding is everything, after all.)
Still, We Are Voices' debut is more than solid and well-polished. The melodies, which developed out of the band's initial jam sessions, are textured and arresting — something the band neither expected nor aimed to achieve. "We didn't have to sit down and think, 'Oh, we want to write a kind of sad, melodramatic rock song,'" says drummer Joshua Greenlee. "It's just what happened."
Alive moves with languid grace. Guitars echo and drift, surging and receding behind Larson's dreamy tenor. Terse guitar slashes fade into gentle chiming chords and slowly build into epic swells that never quite crest. The band, inspired by local group Appleseed Cast and the cinematic post-rock of Iceland's Sigur Rós, recorded with the help of Flee the Seen's Aaron Crawford, whose hand is most apparent in the crisp separation of tones and the warm, atmospheric sound.
Thematically, Alive operates in the shadow of moody ambivalence. The opening track, "The Business of Heaven," takes its name from a C.S. Lewis collection and ponders the purpose of life. "At Any Rate" finds Larson running head over heels after something I cannot see. It's not an album of deep thoughts as much as nagging wonder. "I believe a lot of people spend time thinking things like that," Larson says. "We realized not having all the answers is an OK place to be."
"We're all in our mid-20s," guitarist Christopher Holt says. "Nobody knows where they belong. We were all done with school or getting done with school, and it's a big point in people's lives when you ask, 'Where do you go after that? What's your next step going to be? How do you get started?'"
The same questions came up repeatedly after the album's release a year ago. After a small flurry of shows last summer, the band went on a seven-month hiatus, interrupted only by a weeklong winter tour with Austin, Texas' Rocketboys.
"It gave us time to process things that were going on," bassist and vocalist Eric Baldwin says.
"We were at the point where we needed to start figuring out what we needed to do or to move on and do something else," Greenlee adds. "We didn't play for a long time. It was kind of bittersweet, but it helped us realize we want to do this."
A month ago, the band picked up again. Larson, Baldwin and Greenlee are all living together in the house of Greenlee's parents. (The elder Greenlees are working overseas in Kuwait and Afghanistan.) They've been doing a lot of writing, with an eye to their next release: something more raw and less ponderous. In the meantime, the plan is to play some shows and catch more ears across Kansas City.
"The biggest question was how it would be received, even while we were recording it," Larson says. "Like, 'Oh, gosh, if nobody likes this or buys this, it's totally not worth it.' I think we're still trying to reach the 'worth it' level," he admits.
Nobody said making music would be easy, cheap or — in the age of downloading — profitable. But with their heads down and feet forward, there's still hope that talent and honest intentions carry the day. Given the craft, richness and intelligence of the band's debut, We Are Voices may yet be on its way.