MEB staff writer Maria Gironas recently caught up with poptastic piano rockers The Strange Familiar. She was able to chat with lead vocalist/pianist Kira Leyden, guitarist Jeff Andrea, and drummer Nick Sainato about the band’s history, Kira and Jeff’s marriage and its effects on their lives, advice for women in the music business, and much more.
MEB: Can you explain a little bit of your band’s history? How did you guys meet and how did you all come to know each other?
Kira: Jeff and I were in bands for a long time together. Starting in grade school, we played for our seventh grade dance. We’ve been doing it for a long time. As one of our bands was ending, we wanted to be in one of those serious bands that last for ten years. We wanted to do something brand new and that is when we decided to start The Strange Familiar. It was just the two of us at first and we, by chance, met a few of our guys. They were in bands that were ending at the time that our previous band was ending and it kind of just worked out really well. We met Frank [Freeman] and he helped us get the courage to go out there. Nick [Sainato] came along a bit later. He had been friends with Jeff since elementary school and had heard that we’re looking for a drummer. We’re all from Ohio but we’re sort of from LA.
How did you guys come up with the band name?
Kira: Around the time that we were trying to start the new project, we didn’t know what it was going to turn into. The music was a little stranger so the name fit back then. I had an anthropology class in college that I really enjoyed and one of the phrases that stuck with me was: “In order to study other cultures you must render the strange familiar and the familiar strange. I liked that idea. It really fit what we are doing too.
I understand that you guys (Jeff and Kira) recently got married and had a child. So how has that been for music and your relationship as a band?
Jeff: It’s been amazing. It has really inspired us to write a lot more. We were kind of on a dry spell there for a while. Once you have a child everything changes. It has been difficult in some ways with babysitters and trying to have time to do what we do. Squeezing it in a half hour after her nap or maybe an hour after she goes to bed before we pass out. It has been a learning curve but it has been really fun. It has been really great. She’s really cute and just amazing. It’s been difficult but we’re almost at the point where we are willing to bring her on the road with us.
Is it a he or a she? Her name is Rain I believe.
Kira: Her name is Rayne.
Oh cool. I have a guy friend named Rain so I didn’t want to assume.
Kira: Yeah. We never knew if we were having a boy or a girl. We never found out. We wanted it to be old-fashioned like that. I just knew that I really loved the name Rayne and that it worked for a boy or a girl. We knew our baby’s name was Rayne but we didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl.
With all these changes happening in your life, how is that impacting your album releasing on 15 April, The Day the Lights Went Out?
Kira: I think there has been so much going for us. I know that we’ve had a lot of life changes. We had the baby and had some health complications after that. Big moves for our bass player Frank, he just graduated from Harvard. That was crazy. Kim is graduating this year as a jazz performance major. Somehow we make it work. I don’t know how because we’re all at such different places. But at the same time when we come together, it just feels right every time. I think with the album, it has bigger themes than we have written before. It’s dealing with themes like loss and your grieving process. The Day the Light Went Out itself encapsulates everything on the album. It is about maybe the hardest day, the darkest day and then the good that actually comes out of those days. It is definitely a process. The record is a journey. It is like a struggle but I think it leads to a really hopeful place. At the end of that song there is a sense of, it may be a really dark time but the sun will rise again. That is kind of the idea.
Can you elaborate a little bit on the recording process? What was the first realization that you wanted to make this album?
Kira: I think we have just been making albums for so long that it is just what we do. We just write songs and when we have enough that we’re happy we just say, “Let’s record.” This time around, we had the baby in-between the whole thing. So I was pregnant during the first part of the album, recording it. We could do five songs and then we were out in LA and I was 34 weeks pregnant. I was afraid to fly and it was a big deal. It was so crazy. I got really tired from singing all day and I recording these tracks. I think it was really cool though because in a way she [Rayne] was there while we were recording. The second half we came back and had to go to LA. We had to leave our baby and go record the last five tracks. That was kind of traumatic. It was really cool though because it was neat to have a gap in our recording process. We usually record the tracks in the same place and at the same time. So it was really neat to have that extra time.
Are there any key tracks off the album that hold a special place in either of your hearts or maybe other band members’?
Jeff: Obviously, “Rain” is close to us. This song kind of started like a lullaby to our daughter. It was just a poem. In a way we were trying to do this song and didn’t expect it to end up on the record, little alone be a single. It’s just a track that is really close to our heart. I also think that “Surrender” is also a big on for us. It was one of those songs that just started growing live and our fans kept telling us we have to play this. We got to road-test it before we recorded it and we loved that one. Also the track “Gone”, which we wrote with our producers in LA. Again, we wrote it without expecting it to be on the record. We created this amazing demo that kind of made us look at our music in a different light and we went with slightly more upbeat lyrics.
Going in the vein of a different direction, I did notice from your old work to “Rain” which was just released, how poppy it sounds. Is there motivation behind that and have you guys kind of mixed that sound into your older tracks? How is it translated live?
Kira: With the production of this album, we did try to go more modern with it. I think live, we tend to play more acoustic and stripped down shows so you don’t hear the production that is present on the record. Sometimes we will bring in the production when we play live. It is kind of nice to take these tracks and turn them into a more stripped down form.
For three band members, you must be so close. Can you describe each member in one word and actually for both of you can you share a word about each other?
Kira: One word? I could give you a paragraph on each member.
Jeff: Let’s start with Nick.
Kira: Yeah. Let’s start with Nick.
Jeff: Nick the drummer. One word for Nick…
Kira: I’d say musical. Nick is very musical and everything he does is about music. I don’t know. That is a nice thing to say about him. This is me being nice.
Jeff: I’d say something completely different but let’s go with that one. Frank, our bass player, is kind of the brainiac of the band. He kind of analyses everything as if it is an equation. There are good things about that but there are also bad things.
Kira: (exclaims something about Nick walking in.)
Jeff: Oh, Nick just walked in the door. (He proceeds to ask the question.)
Kira: (Asks what they are in one word and what they’d just said about him and Frank.)
Nick: Jeff is stressed. (laughter from everyone)
Kira: That is so true. He is stressed.
Nick: Kira is awkward. (changes his mind) Kira is dramatic.
How have you guys grown as band since your first initial garage band phases?
Jeff: We definitely have had phases.
Kira: We have had a lot of phases. I think that we had a video of one of the songs on our last record. In that video I am walking down Hollywood Boulevard and taking off all these pieces of this crazy costume and that kind of says it all. We used to, in our old band, Jeff and I had this whole crazy get-up and we’d do insane things during the show and it was all about this rock show thing we did. In that video the whole message is that I’m happy being myself. I don’t have to do all these crazy things. It was so fun doing it because I got to wear all these crazy wigs and all these insane weird things that I couldn’t believe I had in my closest from all these years of performing. I definitely think we went through a bit of that when we first recorded with The Strange Familiar. One of the songs that came out through The Secret Life of American Teenagers was just so simple. The song was what it was and it was kind of nice for the first time to realize we can do that and we don’t have all these crazy gimmicks and things going on.
We can just be ourselves. I think that’s how we’ve grown. We now have a writing process. We used to do it separately, Jeff would write the music and I would write the lyrics. Now it is more of a collaborative effort and we have Nick writing with us now. We have a different sound now that we’ve grown up and that’s where we are.
Kira, this question is for you. You have a fantastic voice. What advice would you give to any young woman who wants to enter the music business and sing essentially? I know it is a tough field to make it in but you guys have seemed to make it work for yourselves.
Kira: That is a good question. I used to get people who would write to me all the time, mostly young girls, and say “I want to do what you’re doing. How do you do it?” The main thing I tell people is just work really hard and be persistent. I think persistence is what has kept us in this the longest. Not giving up. I mean, this has a lot of ups and downs. A lot of people are saying no. It feels like rejection. You have to know that if you believe in yourself, that is all that really matters. Those big arena rock dreams that I had have tailored down a bit and all I want to do is write music and reach people and I don’t really care how big it gets. I just really want to do that. I think if you believe in yourself and keep working hard, you can do anything. I think that is so true. I also want to say keep writing songs.
What are some upcoming things happening with your band?
Kira: Well the album is released on April 15. Right now we don’t have a tour plan but we’ll be playing a lot more to support the album. We’ll be playing a hometown gig, probably in May. We’ll also be shooting a music video really soon. We’re not sure what song it’ll be for.
Jeff: We’ll be shooting a lot of videos. We’re going to be upping our online content a lot. We’ve kind of been more traditional and released a video when a song comes out. We’re trying to flip things upside down and we’re thinking about shooting a video for every song on the album but very tongue-in-cheek. Just stuff that our fans will like.
Last question: you guys have accomplished so much as a band so what is the next step from here?
Kira: We really want to do more intimate tours. That just seems so cool and fun and I’d like to get that kind of thing going for us. I think it’d be so fun to reach our fans all over the country and then eventually be bigger than that. I think that would be great.