ABOVE: MARK TAFEL (SECOND FROM RIGHT) AND HIS STEPDAD BANDMATES
In the hilarious, campy video for Stepdad’s infectious electropop single, “Will I Ever Dance Again?”—which we’re pleased to be premiering below—band co-creator Mark Tafel comes off a little goofy. In the video, Tafel, who goes by “ultramark,” and his bandmates enjoy an outdoor romp in an increasingly absurd parody of the opening credits from Full House. To say much more would be to rob you of the video’s incredible charm (we’ve been giggling over it for days), so we’ll leave it at this: that Tevin Jussles is going places.
When we talked to him on the phone last week, though, Tafel was chilled-out, thoughtful, and more than willing to discuss the finer points of recording the band’s first proper LP, Wildlife Pop, which comes after three years playing together. It’s the kind of album you’d do well to keep right alongside the rosé in your summer picnic basket.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: You’re from Michigan, but you recorded Wildlife Pop in New York. How did that come about and what was it like?
MARK TAFEL: It was a really great experience. We ended up working with Chris because our lawyer was having a hard time hammering out a deal with a different producer. He had some weird demands and stuff.
SYMONDS: Weird how?
TAFEL: This other producer had some strange ideas—like, he wanted a cut of publishing, and just weird things for a producer. So then our lawyer was like, “I don’t think this is gonna work out. Sorry guys, but we can try to get someone else. Who are your top choices for producers?” Chris Zane was our number one, and about two weeks later, we were on the phone with him and our lawyer had gotten in touch through Les Savy Fav. But yeah, so then, we were on the phone talking to Chris and had everything settled for the next few weeks, and then we were all set to record.
SYMONDS: Is there much of a music scene in Grand Rapids?
TAFEL: It’s getting a little better than it used to be. When we got there, there really wasn’t much going on, but a couple years went by, there have been more and more bands popping up and some pretty good acts coming out now. So it’s been getting better.
SYMONDS: Do you think it’s easier to stand out there than in some place like Williamsburg? Or is it harder because you don’t have this massive community?
TAFEL: I think it was definitely easier. I mean, I guess [in] Grand Rapids, there have been moments where there’s been a little bit of a scene here and there, and I think it was easier to stand out there, but everything was in place and everyone was sort of waiting for some sort of new music thing to come out on the scene. So I think we just got there at the right time, where we got attention because there was really not much else to give attention to.
SYMONDS: [laughs] Well, that’s maybe a little overly modest, but I understand what you mean.
TAFEL: [laughs] Yeah.
SYMONDS: So you recorded this album last summer, and I know you were formed in the summer, three years ago, and now you’re releasing the album and going on a huge tour this summer. Has been a coincidence that it’s happened in this yearly cycle, or do you think of yourselves as an especially summery band?
TAFEL: Not specifically. I mean, a lot of it was just coincidences, because when we recorded last summer, we thought that the album would come out maybe in the fall, and then it just took a while to get the marketing and everything in place, and it just got pushed back to this summer. I think the recurring summer theme is sort of coincidence but does go along with the music a little bit. I mean, a lot of people tell that us we have good summer jams or whatever, so I think it’s just a coincidence that played to our advantage.
SYMONDS: The album is pretty upbeat, but the lyrical material tends to get a little dark. Are you conscious of that disparity when you’re writing?
TAFEL: I mean, I’m aware of it happening. I usually feel more inclined to share some of the darker points in my life because it’s… just shit I need to get off my chest sometimes. But at the same time, our band image isn’t really-I don’t want to be really serious about it, or take ourselves really seriously. So it normally just ends up that there’s just more upbeat songs but sort of lyrics about this contempt, I guess.
SYMONDS: Ordinaire was pretty long for an EP.
TAFEL: [laughs] Yeah.
SYMONDS: Now that you’re releasing what’s termed your proper “full-length debut,” did it feel that way to you? Or do you feel that since you’ve been together so long and Ordinaire is almost as long as full album, does all that discourse feel weird?
TAFEL: I don’t know, it kind of goes both ways. We decided to call it an EP. It definitely was longer than a proper EP and should’ve been termed an LP, but we sort of wanted to make the distinction because we wrote and recorded Ordinaire within the first couple months of forming, basically as figuring out where our style was gonna go and see what we sounded like, basically, as strange as that may sound. So it was sort of more of a warming-up period, so we wanted to make a distinction between that and the first fully formed, completely thought-out project. So that’s why we made a distinction between the EP and the LP for that reason. The LP was more of a fully formed idea, even though they don’t differ that much in running time.
SYMONDS: How big is the repertoire that you’re working with at this point? How much did you have to edit in order to come up with your track list for the LP?
TAFEL: I think we had upwards of 30 to 40 songs wholly or partially written, and then sort of decided what to develop and sent them all over, and then worked with Chris to kind of shape the best track list, and then ended up writing two of the songs in studio anyway. So we still have a lot of demos laying around and left over that will probably just remain demos.
SYMONDS: You guys have grown, too—it was originally just the two of you, and then you added Alex and Jeremy, and now you’ve got Nathan as well. Are you planning to just keep expanding until you have a small army?
TAFEL: [laughs] No, I think we’ve rounded out the lineup to what we’re happy with. Even when we were starting with the just the two of us, we’d always had the idea of being about five-member lineups, but just sort of waiting until everything worked out with other musicians to add to the lineup. I think we’re pretty happy with the lineup as-is now and we’ll probably carry us for, you know, the foreseeable future.
SYMONDS: Cool. Is there like a hierarchy in the band based on when you joined?
TAFEL: Oh, no. Not at all.
SYMONDS: You didn’t like initiate Nathan at all?
TAFEL: [laughs] There was no initiation.
SYMONDS: No hazing?
TAFEL: No. He was always hanging out with us about as much as he does now anyway. We’ve been friends for a long time. For Wildlife Pop, we were like, “It has kind of a bigger sound. We’d like another musician, and it might as well be you. We already like you and we already know you’re a good musician so that just cuts out a lot of work for us.” And he agreed.
SYMONDS: You guys are playing at Warped Tour—which is obviously still huge, but when I think about it, I think about 15 years ago and, like, Blink-182. Did you ever do that? Did you go to Warped Tour in the MTV heyday?
TAFEL: I went to Warped Tour once. I would’ve been like 17. I went to go see Dillinger Escape Plan, and that was about it. I wouldn’t have gone if I didn’t get in for free, and I got in for free because one of my friends slept with one of the bus drivers and she called me and she was like “Do you wanna get into Warped for free?,” and I was like, “Sure.” And then I just kind of met her down there, and this weird middle-aged bus driver that she had porked let us into the back gate, and I was like, “That is so weird, but as long as it wasn’t me.”
SYMONDS: That’s amazing. That’s so gross. [laughs]
TAFEL: [laughs] Yeah, it didn’t really heighten my opinion of her, but, you know.
SYMONDS: Yeah, I hope it was worth it for her.
TAFEL: Yeah, I dunno. But getting into Warped Tour for free—that’s a bet.
WILDLIFE POP IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON STEPDAD, VISIT THEIR BANDCAMP.