On August 4, Tampa indie-rock quintet DieAlps! Iis set to release its debut full-length, Our City, via Tampa’s own New Granada Records. The 10-track affair (12 tracks if you buy the CD) is a shimmery ode to the sounds of bands like The Shins, Pavement, Yuck and even Death Cab For Cutie, and the band’s principal songwriters — Frank and Connie Calcaterra — took some time to talk to CL about changes in the band’s lineup, writing the album, and how they actually ended up husband and wife.
The record features contributions from Doug Nelson, Vinnie Cosentino and Cormac Kavanagh, all people who are no longer in the band. I know Frank and Connie write the songs, demo and then show the rest of the band, but was there an additional role (other than player) that those three played in the writing and recording of Our City?
Frank: Doug is an amazing bass player and sort of just always knew what we were going for whenever we would introduce a new song, so it was extremely rare that we would ever micromanage his bass lines.
When Vinnie joined, we had a substantial portion of the album already demo-ed out with fake drums. He was very open to playing the songs the way we had envisioned them without overplaying for the sake of overplaying. There’s nothing I could program with my midi drum software that this guy wasn’t capable of playing, so I definitely appreciated his restraint. He definitely took us to the next level as a band. As for writing, Vinnie deserves some credit for the idea of doubling up the second verse of “I Can See it Now.”
We thought we hit the jackpot when we added Cormac on keys. He basically just knew what to do from the start, and added in some ideas Connie and I probably would have never been able to think of ourselves. We were doing 3-part harmonies for the first time ever. Recording was interesting because he rarely played the same thing twice. We would just do a few takes and then choose our favorite version later. The piano solo in “Dwight” was completely improved - the third take I believe.
It’s safe to say that DieAlps! has shuffled its lineup a bit over the years, which is natural for a band — especially one that’s been around as long as you have. Connie said she used to get emotional about lineups changing due to commitments, etc. Is the shuffling frustrating for you two or is the band kind of built to revolve around the songs you both write?
Connie: Losing band members for various reasons can definitely be frustrating at times. It takes a lot of playing together to make the band sound “tight” at live shows, and this is difficult to achieve with revolving band members. So it’s always hard but so is band life. However, even if it’s just Frank and me left at some point, we’d still be writing songs and recording them.
It seems like your current lineup has a very easy way of getting along, even with Ariel being pretty brand new as bass player (when did he join on as bass, a month ago?, I know he originally played keys). How do you feel about the group that’s coalesced around you?
Connie: I feel really good about the current line-up with Jonathan on drums, Sarah on keys and Ariel on bass. All three of them are amazing musicians. Sarah and Jonathan have been playing with us for roughly one year now, and we’ve all become good friends and hang out outside the band. Ariel used to be in the band when we first started it and we’ve known each other for years. Funny how he came full circle just in time for our debut album release.
I think the process started in 2016 and the record was pretty much ready by the end of that year, so how long did you take to write Our City? Seems like the songs kind of just poured out, especially since you are sharing the songwriting load…
Frank: Yeah, it’s a definite advantage having multiple songwriters in the band. We finished recording our first EP near the middle of 2014, so technically the writing process for Our City probably started shortly after that, which would mean the entire writing process was probably somewhere around 9 months. So basically Our City is our baby.
Connie, you wrote the songs from the EP over a five year span and in your bedroom. What was different this time around?
Connie: My songwriting style has gotten a little more refined and the songs on the record definitely sound more grown-up compared to my early songs. Some of the songs I wrote all by myself and some of the songs I co-wrote with Frank. I continue to write all the songs in my bedroom, so this hasn’t changed ;)
What about the recording, mixing and mastering? How long did that take and were you worried about doing all of it in house, with just one set of ears (Frank’s)?
Frank: The recording process took somewhere between 9 months to a year to complete. There was definitely lots of downtime. I had recently started working as an engineer at Atomic Audio so I was spending most of my time recording and mixing other bands’ music.
Connie: I honestly wasn’t too worried about this aspect. The fact that we can record our music totally independently without having to pay a sound engineer or producer by the hour is a big plus in my eyes. It gave us the opportunity to be completely free in our creative decision-making. On top of it, when it comes to our music, Frank and I are brutally honest with each other and always discuss the different mixes and any potential changes to be made.
You guys were pretty fortunate to have Atomic Audio to record in. What do you think that extra time in the studio (and extra engineering time for Frank) did for this debut full-length?
Frank: Having an engineer in the band and access to a recording studio is definitely an amazing advantage. You can definitely hear some sonic improvements between the EP and Our City, and part of that is because the EP was recorded in our house. There was always this fear of upsetting our neighbors, disruptions caused by trains passing by, cats ruining perfect takes, etc. In the studio you can focus on the song and nothing more.
In “Our City” I hear a few things in there, and I love how much you love where you live. What is that song about about for you?
Connie: I had had the music and melody to “Our City” for a while already, but was missing the lyrics. Then the Pulse massacre in Orlando happened. Just like everybody else, I was quite in shock and a lot of this emotion found a place in the song’s lyrics. There was this feeling of community amongst people afterwards, and this horrible tragedy seemed to unite the entire state for a few days. Then all the typical political BS restarted of course.
Frank’s voice opens this record (and he joked about having “more Frank on the record” a few years ago). Frank has obviously been writing songs on his own (and probably didn’t want to start a side project), so can you talk about why you went that direction, opening with “Running Into Walls.”
Frank: There was some question about that. It felt weird at first that all of a sudden DieAlps! has a male singer, and he doesn’t even have an Austrian accent! I think the EP came out before we had really established what kind of band we really wanted to be. Connie had these amazing songs and we wanted to release them as soon as we could, but over time, members changed and we continued to evolve. I felt like I had a little more to offer to the band than I had given on the EP, and it just sort of happened the way it happened.
Connie: I am a huge fan of albums that pull you in right away in the first three seconds. And “Running Into Walls” does just that in my opinion. It grabs people’s attention immediately and there’s no messing around.
There’s some self-questioning on the record ("Running Into Walls," "Dwight"). Doubt is natural, but can you talk about the way it operates in your lives, creatively and otherwise?
Connie: Too much doubt is never good, but if you stop questioning yourself and the things you do completely you inevitably plateau. And that would be the worst thing ever for a musician because you want your music to constantly evolve, you want your songwriting to always improve. And the same is true for your own personality. Be confident in the decisions you make at a time, but there should always be room for you to grow as a person.
Connie mentioned in some years ago that the band wanted the full-length to be a complete front to back experience. Mission accomplished. The sequencing is pretty damn nice on the vinyl (it’s really cool to open side two with “Dwight” and close side one with “Our City”). How much hand-wringing did you have to do to arrange the order of the songs?
Frank: Our first concern was that the songs were too eclectic. How would we possibly arrange them so the album would make sense? We ended up cutting a couple songs that we really liked, but just didn’t fit in with the rest of the album. And then for the vinyl, we needed to cut 2 more songs in order to retain audio quality (20 minutes per side is the recommended threshold). So there are two additional tracks on the CD.
Connie, you’ve said Dwight is you. I know you like to keep your lyrics a little more open to interpretation, but do you want to explain that one? It seems to
Connie: I’m about to turn 32. And I’m mostly happy with what I have accomplished in life so far and where I’m at at this point. But sometimes I wish I had started a band sooner (because I’ve always known that I wanted to) or that I wouldn’t have listened to other people so much or given their expectations of me so much thought when I was younger. So the song is about a person who grows old trying to please everybody around him and then discovers all his regrets in life but by then it’s too late to do most of those things.
Frank feels a little skeptical of people on a few songs (“Trust Me,” “Get Yours”) — where does that sentiment come from, and how were those songs able to help him explore those emotions?
Frank: An old friend of mine sent me an article about a guy we went to high school with who had shot and killed two people at a strip club in Phoenix. The article explains that the gunman just “wanted to test himself,” and is now in a mental institution for the rest of his life. To make that even crazier, my friend believes that his original plan was to shoot up some old friends at our 10-year high school reunion. They had decided to cancel the reunion due to this guy acting very strange toward the reunion organizer and wanting specifics about who was going to be there. I wrote the lyrics for “Get Yours” shortly after hearing about all of this. More specifically, the song is written as if his initial plan to shoot up the school actually happened: “Old friends run away from you. Don’t mind it, gotta get yours too.”
Honestly I just try to write about subject matters that interest me personally.
On that note, there is so much hope (and a little self-love) on the record (it feels like the songwriter is in a healthy state of mind). How were you able to balance the dark themes with some levity and clear-headedness?
Frank: Yeah I suppose the lyrics sort of vary from song to song just as much as the songs vary from one another. “Trust Me” deals with cults and corrupt religion, while Mayfly is about living your life to the fullest. In all honesty, Connie and I typically write songs one at a time without regard to how it might fit, or flow into another song on the album. We write about whatever we’re influenced by on that particular day.
Also, “Hands Up” feels like an anthem and a push to get out into the world.
Connie: I like this song a lot. The guitars during the beginning and end part have such a retro feel to them, and the song structure is purposefully very powerful. The lyrics reflect a person’s vulnerability, but to be vulnerable you also have to be strong. It takes a lot of courage putting up your hands, exposing yourself to the world saying, “This is me, with all my errors and flaws, as you can see I’m not perfect at all but here I am, still trying to do my best.” Despite the song’s implied melancholy, its theme is actually quite hopeful.
Connie, who/what are you singing about in “Battles” — it’s one of the sweetest songs I’ve ever heard.
Connie: Why, thank you! I rarely write about love anymore, but the song is about a couple trying to break up but they just can’t quite let go of each other so they're just dragging out both their hope and misery.
Connie, you arrived to the U.S. in 2006 as an Au Pair and your host family was here in Tampa. Frank met Connie just before she went back to Austria, where did that happen?
Frank: Connie and her Au Pair friends randomly met some of my friends at a bowling alley and said that they wanted to go to a real American party, like they always see in the movies. So my friend Eric invited them all to a house show where my band at the time was playing. The first time I saw Connie was at this party, but we didn’t meet until the next day when we all spent the day at Busch Gardens.
You were both songwriters before meeting each other. Connie says thank Frank was the first person to really “get” her musically, so how much of a role did music play in your courtship and decision to eventually get married? Was it the dealbreaker?
Connie: I couldn’t imagine being in a relationship with somebody who doesn’t care for music, since it’s such a big part of my identity. So yeah, our shared love for music plays a big role in our relationship.
Frank: When I met Connie I felt like I just met the Austrian, female version of myself. Then she played me a song she had written called “Hello,” and I was hooked.
You got married in 2010, right? Where?
Frank: Yep, Connie bravely decided to move across the world in 2010 on a fiance visa. The law required us to get married within 3 months of her moving here, which was honestly a little scary! So we decided to live with each other for a couple months first to make sure there were no surprises, then we had one of the smallest weddings ever at my grandma’s house. Neither of us really had the desire for an extravagant fairytale wedding, so it worked out great.
What was the first song you wrote together?
Frank: “Rules of Discipline” from our 2014 EP is probably the first legitimate song I would consider to be a collaborative effort. That song was actually my first attempt at writing a DieAlps! song, and one of very few attempts at writing in ¾, at least at that point in time. I remember playing it on the couch and it immediately caught Connie’s attention. Connie had a vocal melody figured out almost immediately. Then we kept hashing it out until it was finished. I’m still not sure how it ended up being six and a half minutes long.
Frank, you’ve said that your own songwriting has improved tenfold since meeting Connie. What did she bring to the songwriting dynamics for you?
Frank: One thing I learned right away from playing Connie’s songs is that apparently you can have an E major chord and an E minor chord in the same song! So upon this discovery I remember thinking, “wait, so is this song in E major or E minor?” Well it turns out it doesn’t really matter as long as it suits the song. I also starting writing a lot of stuff in ¾, so much so that sometimes I didn’t even realize I was doing it. It’s a great time signature, and it really opens up a lot of new possibilities when trying to write a song. It’s also a great tool to break out when you’ve got writer’s block.
Can you tell me more about the home you live in? When did you move there? How much of a fixer-upper was it? How much work have you put in? Does it feel like DieAlps! home base?
Frank: This house was absolutely a fixer-upper, so much so that I didn’t even tell my mom we bought it until it had been fixed up. We had already been living in an apartment in Ybor, so when the lease was up we knew we didn’t want to go far. We were trying to find something a little bigger and ended up finding this house for extremely cheap. You would never know by looking at it now that it used to look like a crack house. We’ve been here since 2012, and have been holding band practice here for the past few years so it definitely does feel like DieAlps! home base.
Who do you look up to as songwriters? Obviously we have some Shins, Yuck and Pavement in there, but what other influences seep into the DieAlps!’s sound on Our City?
Connie: My core-songwriting skills are mostly inspired by the Beatles, Kinks, and other artists from this era. Their timeless melodies just leave me in awe. I’m also a huge fan of The Paper Chase, Malajube, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Trail of Dead, etc. Listening to these bands taught me a lot about song structures and dynamics. Newer bands I listen to a lot include Big Thief, Palehound and Deep Sea Diver.
Frank: I grew up in a small town, so if it wasn’t on the radio or MTV I didn’t know about it. My dad was the biggest Beatles fan I’ve ever known, so their music is definitely a part of everything I do. Early Radiohead, early Weezer and Death Cab for Cutie are also pretty big influences for me.
You went all in for the release of Our City. Publicist, art direction on physical, great video with Palmer and Javi. How hard is it to make that decision given the resources and time a band has to give to all of that?
Connie: It wasn’t an easy decision for us. We were already kinda broke (our touring van broke down earlier this year amongst other expenses) and hiring a publicist is very expensive. However, we put so much work into this record and we wanted to give the album at least a fighting chance to be possibly heard by people outside of the Tampa area as well. But this decision also means that we’re basically eating rice and beans for the next few months only haha.
Connie, are the songs and melodies still finding you? Where do you seem to catch the most inspiration.
Connie: Yep, the songs and melodies are still finding me somehow, thank goodness! And the next album is actually half-written already. When writing, I’m always chasing that perfect melody. The lyrics usually come later and most of the time are inspired by some current political or personal event.
DieAlps! doesn’t have that temporary feel some bands do. Talk about that long-term commitment and how you hope it plays out in the months/years to come.
Frank: In all honesty it’s a lot of hard work putting an album together: writing the material, perfecting the songs as a band, recording, mixing, mastering, album artwork and duplication, music videos, touring and other promotional aspects. In so many cases, all of this hard work and dedication can amount to nothing more than an unsponsored Facebook post, and 5 likes from your closest friends. So I think the goal is to keep doing it until we are no longer fulfilled. We’re at a place now where everybody in the band is fully onboard and excited about what the future holds. I guess once that feeling goes away, maybe it’s time to call it quits. But as of right now, I can’t fathom not doing “the band thing.”