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When the members of indie-pop quartet the Saturday People assemble on a recent Sunday at Rockville’s Omega Recording Studios, one thing is immediately clear: There are five of them.
New keyboardist Ara Hacopian “was our original bass player, and then he quit to go traveling. He was away about a year,” explains singer-guitarist Terry Banks.
“A year and a half to two years,” Hacopian corrects. “I was in
England for a year, and then I went to San Francisco. Then I was
“Whatever,” responds Banks. “He was gone for a long time, and in the meantime, Archie [Moore] joined. And then Ara has since come back to town, and so he’s started to play keyboards for us. There are some keyboards on the record, but we haven’t played live with keyboards.”
Banks and the band’s other singer-guitarist, former Ropers member Greg Pavlovcak, write the lyrics and the chord changes for the band’s sprightly, melodic songs, but the songwriting credits are shared among all because, Banks notes, “everyone writes his own parts.” Much the same thing happens in the interview, during which Banks’ comments are often contested, albeit amiably, by Hacopian, Pavlovcak, bassist and producer Moore, and drummer Dan Searing.
The amiable vibe reflects the fact that all five musicians have known each other for years. “Ara and Greg and I had all played together with Pam Berry in the Castaway Stones,” says Searing. “And Arch played with Pam in Black Tambourine.”
“To get even thicker into it, Terry and Dan had played in Glo-Worm with Pam,” Moore continues. “If we were to add Pam Berry to this band, there would be several other full bands as subgroups of this.”
Moore, formerly of Velocity Girl, was involved with some of those bands as a producer as well. More important, he also holds the keys to the kingdom: He works at Omega, which allowed him to spend his spare time burnishing the Saturday People’s self-titled debut album to a shine that perhaps none of the musicians’ previous projects can rival. Searing calls the disc “certainly the most accomplished recording I’ve ever been a part of.”
Hacopian was restored to the lineup so the live band could “re-create some of the complexity that we were able to put on the album through overdubbing,” Searing says. Ironically, though, an upcoming Metro Cafe gig is one of only two dates the Saturday People have scheduled so far this year.
“We used to play live, in ’99 and 2000, as much as we could, which worked out to about once a month,” Banks recalls. “And then we slowed down quite a bit. For the last two years, we’ve played, like, twice a year.”
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“I think we’ve played live more because it’s fun and it’s part of being in a band,” says Searing, “than purely as an instrument of promoting a product. That’s what we wanted to get out of it. For it to be fun—not so much a career thing. All of us have said at various times that we like being the opening band better in some ways.”
“That’s partly because we only have 30 minutes of live material,” notes Banks, to his bandmates’ amusement.
“We’re sort of the shambly, can’t-play version of Steely Dan,” cracks Moore. “We’ve eschewed the live setting for our studio craft.”
“The universe of indie pop is so small that it doesn’t matter,” Banks says. “A thousand people will buy the record, whether we never play again or we go out in a van for five weeks. I like that. I’m not denigrating that. I think it’s nice that there is an audience for this kind of music, small though it may be.”
“We’re kind of weekend warriors,” notes Pavlovcak, who recently relocated to Philadelphia in search of lower rent. “While I was living here, we all had serious jobs.”
“Terry has Child No. 2 on the way,” adds Moore. “I don’t think touring was ever a possibility for the band.”
At 36, Banks is the oldest member of the group, with a job at a PR firm as well as parental responsibilities. Searing—who, like Moore, is 33—is a bartender, and 26-year-old Hacopian works for a company that builds robots to help children who need physical therapy.
Pavlovcak, who’s 29, is a “starving artist” concentrating on writing new material.
It’s not just workaday responsibilities, however, that limit the musicians’ ability to be seven-days-a-week People; most of them are also committed to other bands.
Hacopian plays with Boyracer and the Youth Untold—a name, Searing jokes, “he can’t say with a straight face.” Pavlovcak has a new band in Philly, the Last Wave, and notes that his “other band, the Still, which descended from the Ropers, never actually broke up.” And Searing plays with Lu, an instrumental trio that’s “primarily a studio project.”
“I only do one band,” Banks declares. “That’s my way.”
What links these part-timers is an affinity for music that Banks calls “totally obscurantist record-collector stuff.” He cites the 1963-1965 Beatles, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, the Jam, the Bongos, and the Velvet Underground. Moore adds Curt Boettcher, Gary Usher, Emmet Rhodes, the Millennium, and “early Creation-label bands like Biff Bang Pow!.” For his part, Searing endorses “the whole C86 moment of indie-pop stuff,” and Pavlovcak suggests Big Star. “And, of course, the Beach Boys,” Moore adds.
“What we do is, like, unpopular pop,” Banks says. “‘Pop’ actually means ‘popular,’ I suppose, but jangly, song-based music has gotten pushed further and further underground. But then, pop culture seems like it’s gotten more fragmented, so there’s probably more great stuff than there ever was before. I think it’s pretty healthy, but it’s just very much an underground thing.”
“Maybe this is obvious, but just about anything new on the radio, I don’t think I can stomach any of it,” says Moore. “Certainly anything that’s called ‘rock’ these days, that’s selling a million copies, I can’t take. Maybe I’m just an old man, but it doesn’t make any sense at all to me.”
Searing is the only one of the five who claims to listen to contemporary mainstream pop with enthusiasm. “Being a student of popular music has led me to view the stuff that’s on the radio in a different way,” he says. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the greatest pop music ever made. It’s certainly not my favorite. But it is pop music, and I realize that there were times when I gave it short shrift just because it was stylistically foreign to me—or politically distasteful. I have a much greater appreciation for it. I’m surprised how many melodies there are in—”
“That’s what I’m not hearing, I guess,” Moore interjects.
“I don’t hear any melodies,” agrees Banks.
“It does throw what we’re doing into relief, as being kind of classicist pop,” Searing muses. “I wonder how far away we are from, like, Civil War re-enactment.” The comment draws general laughter.
Although they don’t agree on the virtues of today’s hits, Moore and Searing are the Saturday People most interested in discussing production techniques. “The way we make records is probably a lot closer to how hiphop records are made than ’60s pop records,” Moore reveals. “We’re cutting and pasting, looping things”—he pauses, then laughs—”in order to achieve a fake live sound.”
“Archie had a deliberate agenda of nonhomogeneity,” Searing says. “To try to create as broad a vocabulary as possible. Archie and I have talked about listening to records and hearing new things with each listen. Since we had the time to do it, since we didn’t have to get the record recorded in a week, or even in a month, we wanted to build in as many surprises as possible. Little things for people to discover on the fifth listen, or the 15th listen.”
“I’m not a real musician type or anything,” Moore says, “so it seems like in producing a record and making it interesting, one of the easiest things you can do is just make every part of the song a little bit different. If you have two verses in a song, than we add a synthesizer and an extra hand clap on the second verse. It seems to make the song move a little bit more than if Verse 1 is exactly the same as Verse 2.”
This craftsmanship contrasts with what might seem like a cavalier attitude toward persuading people to actually hear the band’s recordings. “I’ve always felt like the kind of music that I like, even though it’s melodic and you’d think people would like it, it’s not really a mainstream taste,” Banks says. “Look at a band like the Chills. For my kind of music, that was a big band. And they were just destitute. I’ve just never seen writing two-and-a-half-minute poetic, jangly punk—or whatever the hell it is—as commercially viable. It’s not a lack of belief.”
But if a jangle-pop revival does commence, Searing says, “we’d be glad to participate.”
“We’re serving the addressable market,” Banks adds. “We can
get it together if the audience materializes.”
“And from the few live recordings I’ve heard of some of the seminal ’80s bands,” Moore jokes, “I think we’re just as prepared for the live shows as they were.” —Mark Jenkins
The Saturday People perform at 8:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 18, at the Metro Cafe, 1522 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 588-9118.