Good Neighbors

Published February 18, 2014

PHOTO COURTESY OF MATT RUBIN

It might sound like teenage angst, but for 30-year-old Noah Stitelman, a Brooklyn-based songwriter from Vermont, the concept of defeat is a very grown-up one; one filled with a relentless succession of “pushing forward.”

Stitleman’s new album, Failure, the second from his band Neighbors, speaks to those who feel like they’ve exhausted all of their creative options. But it’s not as dark as it sounds. The hypnotic and charming indietronic band, which released the album’s first single “Wild Enough” on Thursday, layers melodic synth, ripping guitar solos, and symphonic drums over Stitelman’s dulcet delivery for what he calls “big and boisterous” sounds. “There’s no down moment; all the songs are upbeat,” he said.

Formed in 2009, Neighbors came together following the breakup of Stitelman’s former band and also includes Aaron Giroux (bass), Brian Harney (keyboard), Steph McParty (vocals), Sam Broe (drums), and Julie Noyce (keyboard). Based on clips from the early ‘80s made by American composer Alvin Lucier, the video for “Wild Enough,” which you can watch below, is captivating and VHS filtered.

“He was doing these mind control experiments where he was able to manipulate instruments with his mind—but really poorly,” explained Stitleman. “There are these 15 minute long videos and all he ends up doing is wiggling a symbol a little bit.” In “Wild Enough,” choreographed by Celia Rowlson-Hall and directed by Philip Van, Stitleman plays a mad scientist who (successfully) manipulates his unassuming subjects into a series of infectious dance moves—because really, failure was never an option to begin with.

Neighbors – “Wild Enough” from neighborsmusic on Vimeo.

OLIVIA FLEMING: Is “Wild Enough” a question or a statement?

NOAH STITELMAN: The song goes back to this feeling that you’re at the end of your rope about things—you’ve exhausted all your options. You’re spent. There’s a lot of that in the record: dead ends, exhausted options, things that didn’t live up to your expectations. On a conceptual level, it’s about how people are all going relentlessly forward, but sometimes you’re just careening, going towards something because that’s the only option you have. It’s kind of a dark song [laughs]

FLEMING: Did that dark place come from your own creative and personal life, or are you making a broader assertion?

STITELMAN: Definitely it comes from my own life. Sometimes if you try and do some creative endeavor, and if it isn’t super lucrative or if people aren’t always patting you on the back, then you can begin to question your motivation; but you’re still compelled to do this thing, compelled to make stuff. You get excited about making stuff but it’s hard to keep focus on why you’re making. But the album also comments on art, and our base-level nature to operate off of our instincts and do what we’re compelled to do without really thinking about why. Or we’re ignoring the why because it’s uncomfortable, or because it’s painful to acknowledge.

FLEMING: You play a mad scientist conducting a series of tests on several very coordinated, but absent-minded, subjects in the “Wild Enough” music video—is this where the “doing without the thinking” comes in?

STITELMAN: Yeah, our video was really heavily based on Alvin Lucier: just a funny, kitschy idea and inspiration. Honestly, I had wanted dancing in the video pretty much from before I even started making the record. I was thinking, “Oh, when I finally record these songs and write them and finish them we’ll make video and they’ll having dancing.”

FLEMING: So an ability to dance to the music was the driving inspiration behind the direction of the album?

STITELMAN: Definitely. When I was making the album, I didn’t want there to be any slow songs at all. There are records where you put them on and they’re short, 30 to 40 minutes long, and they just go—they just roll, they don’t ever really stop, and the moment always carries. If you think about The Stroke’s album Is This It, that record doesn’t stop. You put it on and there’s no down moment, all the songs are upbeat. So I wanted to do something like that. I wanted something upbeat and pretty danceable. Some of the songs are a little bit more rock than they are dance-y, but nothing is too mellow or downtempo.

FLEMING: Was that purposeful, to make a record titled Failures where an unassuming listener would expect everything to be downtempo?

STITELMAN: The name Failure is kind of a joke. I’ve been in a lot of bands’ I’ve played music for a really long time. It’s that idea that you’re getting older and you’re forced to face the realization that your compass doesn’t point north anymore: “Why am I doing this?” But for me, more than anything, in this context it is almost like a product of failure, it’s what happens where you grind it out for a really long time: failure in terms of defiance. You’re consumed with the idea of “screw it, I don’t care what happens, if this band breaks up or this doesn’t go anywhere. I just want to make something that I really care about, something I’m really passionate about”. So it’s the product failure, rather than the finishing statement. Because that’s a really bleak thought. [laughs]

FLEMING: Kyle ‘Slick’ Johnson produced the record. In the past, he’s worked with Modest Mouse, Kings of Leon etc. How did you come to know him?

STITELMAN: Kyle I’ve known forever—since I was in 4th grade. We grew up in the same town. I was a lot younger than him— four years—which, when you’re in 8th grade, is a big difference! But we started playing guitar at the same time; we liked the same bands, same music when I was in junior high. Then he went off to college for recording engineering and whenever he was home from school, we’d always record stuff together. When I first moved to New York he and I made an album together, which never came out because right as it was finished, he got the job to engineer and do product work on the Modest Mouse record. But he’s worked on absolutely everything I’ve ever done; we collaborate on everything. He can do things with sound that normal people can’t do.

FLEMING: Who has the bigger personality when it comes to collaborating on a record with Kyle?

STITELMAN: He and I don’t always have the same perspective on what the finished thing should be. He’s really talented and he’s got his own ideas, but he knows me so well and knows what my impulses are. With this record, I recorded my own version with all the synths and parts before I brought it to him to do the finishing touches together. We re-recorded everything, and that keeps us focused on what the end product should be. I think if we started from scratch, there are so many directions we could go in that it would take us a long time to finish—we’d both want to go off on our own tangents.

FLEMING: Neighbors has six band members, do any of them work on the record with you?

STITELMAN: Our drummer Sam does, for sure. When I record the demos the drums are programmed on the computer, but when we take it from the demo to the studio, it’s mostly live. Sometimes Steph will come in for backup vocals—I have a pretty limited range. [laughs] Sam will add his own flourishes and eccentricities, which is awesome, because when you program drums it can end up sounding really straightforward. Then the rest of the band learns the record after for our live shows.

FLEMING: What does the band’s dynamic look like?

STITELMAN: We’ve had a lot of different members who have come and left—in total there have been 12 Neighbors. Right now, we have a really solid group. Steph, our female singer, she’s been with me since the beginning. My voice is super soft and low, so it’s really helpful to have a higher register that doubles what I do or does harmonies. It cuts through—especially with loud music, she lifts the whole vocals up. Brian, keyboard player, I met in a completely separate band. We had a really awful violin player we had to kick out. I put an ad on Craigslist, and Brian came in. Before he even played a note I said “He’s in, 100 percent he’s in.” I just liked his whole vibe. Julie, I met through my friend Matt Rubin. We had another guy who left the band and I really wanted to find another girl—I like to have more than one female presence. Sam and I worked at the Apple store together when we were both 22. When Neighbors started we didn’t have a drummer, it was all computer drums, which was stupid. We’d tried to bring a drummer in but it didn’t work, so I was convinced for a little while we weren’t supposed to have a drummer. But I would always ask Sam anyway, and he’d always say no. I really wanted him but he played hard to get. Finally he said yes! Then Aaron, our bass player, he’s our third base player; one of them quit and the other moved to Sweden. He’s a Berklee kid who knew Sam, so he’s really well trained.

FLEMING: The name Neighbors…what’s the story behind it?

STITELMAN: It’s a stupid name. If I have any advice to anyone wanting to start a band: choose two words that preferably have nothing to do with each other. And are Google-able! There are three bands called Neighbors, so we’re impossible to find. I still like the name, but at this point I’m hanging on to it almost out of spite: “We will be Neighbors and no one can stop us!” [laughs]. But the name came from when I lived in North Brooklyn for seven years in an old Italian neighborhood and I got to know everyone—so many random, crazy, awesome people from all walks of life who I never would have gotten to know otherwise. We had a congenial understanding that we we’re in it together. And it was a gentrifying neighborhood, there were the people who had been there for 60 years and then there were hundreds of high school kids; just a lot of different people all the time. I always felt like I was on this perverse Sesame Street: every character was there, and they were all funny and flawed and weird and enriching. It was definitely the most rewarding neighborhood experience I have ever had, which influenced naming the band. But still, don’t name your band one plural noun—it’s murder.

FLEMING: Have you thought about changing the name?

STITELMAN: I think about changing it every day—I’ve been right on the verge of changing it. I’ve been an hour from changing it. But I’ve always walked back. I think now I’m stuck with it. [laughs] We’re Neighbors, that’s it.

FAILURE COMES OUT MARCH 25. FOR MORE ON NEIGHBORS, VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.