There are a few things that come to my mind when I first hear a hometown band. “How many of these people did I go to school with? I think the bassist’s brother bit me in second grade? Why did he do that? I’m still not over it, it just makes no sense?” (ya know, the DISTRACTING stuff). None of that applied the first time I heard Silent Old Mtns. Distractions were blown aside by the sheer potency of their music. If one of their brothers bit me it was forgiven the second the rain of reverberating soul-folk came to my ears. In their six-ish years together Silent Old Mtns have captured the ears and hearts of people over the east coast and beyond. I sat down with the boys and chatted about SOM’s past, present and future.
If you have one toe dipped in the local Frederick music scene, you’ve do doubt heard of, listened to, or seen SOM. The band has a long history around the DMV area beginning with High School rock bands, the first wave of SOM, the bands that different members joined all the way up to the current iteration of SOM. The mountains are down one peak after the recent spilt of their pianist, Thom Huenger, but still they don’t plan on stopping the jams anytime soon. The band is currently comprised of the singular elements; water, fire, earth, wind and heart – no, wait . . . that’s Captain Planet and the Planeteers, but it totally applies to SOM too. Each band member brings their own unique presence to the band (in both personality and musicality) – Lead singer and guitarist, Andrew Bromhal is “earth”, the solid foundation upon which the mtn was built. Sam Whalen on banjo/mean tambourine is without doubt “heart”. His thoughtful words and sensitivities bring a raw consciousness to the band that touches souls. Bassist Alex Stack’s calm and wise nature make him “wind”, like Pocahontas’ mom with a fender. Guitarist, Joe Jalette is “water”. You can tell from the way he plays that fluidity is in that boy’s bones. “Fire” has got to be drummer Pat Acuña. His steady beats are the heat that keeps the pot boiling – and when their powers combine they create Silent Old Mtns.
Each band member’s musical tastes and influences derive from different areas of music, which may contribute to the genre widening sound of SOM. No genre is off limits to their musical tastes. Everything from a Green Day, Van Morrison and Zeppelin to Backstreet Boys and Celine Dion (I love it when people appreciate good pop music).
The origin story of SOM is practically legend thanks to a well-kept Wikipedia page and Tumblr archives, but the most interesting bits have yet to be told. SOM was originally formed in 2011 by Bromhal as a solo project. After booking a gig at the Ottobar, Bromhal decided that he wanted to expand the group for the show – he then reached out to Pat and Thomas Huenger to join him on drums and keys respectively. After that, the rest of the band came together pretty organically. As a poet and performance artist, Sam (who is also in one of my new favorite bands, The Fun Boys) joined after opening the band’s songs with a poem one night, Joe was asked to join the band after his group with Huenger played a few gigs around Frostburg with SOM. The band agreed that their old haunt, the Church Street Pub, played a major role in melding them together.
Hearing the group talk about Church Street Pub is endearingly heartwarming. During the early days of SOM the now defunct beer and wine bar was their home; a place where they created a safe haven to grow as friends and as a band. Cutting teeth on songs and stage presence, they performed for packed houses of people from the area. “If we wanted to play with certain bands on a particular night, we would line them up and we’d just show up and music would happen.” accounted Acuña. “It was a bunch of like-minded people getting together and enjoying life.”
“[Church Street Pub] was such a weird, magic crux of a place”
– Sam Whelan
The same can be said of the magical mystery tour of 2012 on the famed bus. The band toured around on a rickety school bus and had some pretty radical adventures (I so loved hearing about these. Antics include: Sam almost being decapitated, sleeping in a hobby shop, taking showers at Planet Fitness, meeting/accidentally stalking Joaquin Phoenix, playing at one of Ben Lovett’s Communion shows and casually hanging out with 4/5ths of Frightened Rabbit after a show). The tour became another place for the band to grow and explore. The bus broke down on their way to the record release party for Velvet Raccoon and ended up arriving at Church street in a Uhaul.
The band broke up for nearly two years before joining forces again for a show at 300 East (Read: Old Frederick News Post building downtown). They were lucky enough to find Alex Stack (who also plays in hard rock band Black Dog Prowl) on Craigslist and he clicked with the group immediately [SIDEBAR: Alex does a dope fundraiser where he eats a burrito 3x a day for the entirety of October to benefit the Capital Area Food Bank in DC. Get this . . . it’s called OCTOBURRITO!].The FNP building became the catalyst behind the right-place-right-time reunion and has become a regular practice space for the band.
Regardless of the break-up and make-ups, the band has stayed consistent in making thoughtful and honest music throughout their career. Something in their chemistry allows listeners to connect intensely with the sounds, emotions and intentions of their music. There is a ferocious fight in every Mtns song; a beautiful tension between the calm and astoundingly erratic that shows their tenacity. Take Mine to Give for example. It starts delicately with a (dare I say) spooky piano and steady rhythm that builds and builds as instruments intensify, obsessively chased by the sounds of Sam’s poetry, to create a beautifully tangled orchestration that ushers you through feelings of tarnished regret and impossible futures until you feel a fight against an obstacle you can’t name. That’s power.
That’s what music is meant to do.
Although there is a bit of uncertainty in the future (album? tour? where da keys at?), the band seems creatively inspired and excited for the future judging by their new writing process, Whalen elaborates, “That’s the exciting new thing we’re doing. We now just got a fresh new batch of songs that we wrote in practice together and that all comes from having this building and having regular practices.” Their tour stories are enough to pray they tour again soon and bring a video camera. Alas, the bus was sold and paying rent is a reality not taken lightly so a widespread tour doesn’t seem to be in the books for now. As for a record, well, yeah . . . fans and Mtns alike want that to happen. “An album, I hope, is in the pretty not too far off range. We have a really decent amount of material. You don’t create that unless you want to record. No one wants to spend the willpower and time creating music without somehow wanting to lay it down.”says Acuña.
“If anything, it’s healthier on the inside.”
In a way, the trajectory of SOM’s past feels like one of its songs; a harmonious melee of tenacity and peace searching for something bigger, grander and more meaningful. Boys figuring some shit out, but, like, in a delicately poetic way. A band steeped in ash and stone on the outside, but healthy on the inside.