We’re trying out some new programming here at SPTM! We’re interviewing bands with upcoming releases for our blog. First up is Photokem, a five-piece band of UT Austin students. Their highly anticipated second EP Luffon Bright caught my attention with a promotional video campaign, each song from the EP has two videos made by local artists.
I had the opportunity to sit down with four of the five members of Photokem: Nana Acheampong, Nico Fennell, Jack Kelly, and Evan Ryckebusch. Leah Blom couldn’t make it. Since we started the interview early in the morning (9 am), especially for West Campus and we’re all 22 or younger, I’ve done us the favor of editing out some Ums and Likes for brevity. Of course, not too much, part of the charm is in documenting our speech patterns as-is, right?
Hello, I'm Jane with the Society for the Preservation of Texas Music. So one of the things I noticed from just the beginning of Hard Candy is that it's multi-lingual. So what was the inspiration behind that? And will that be a trend for the new album?
Nana: Um, not really a trend. I just thought those words sounded nice and it could fit the sentiment- what I was trying to convey the best. I try to make the lyrics point back to home as much as I can. Because I feel like it's important.
Austin's pretty far.
So, I also noticed that, Like Riding a Bike Through Mud was taken off streaming platforms, besides Bandcamp.
What are those chuckles about?
Nico: Um, I think we just decided as a group that we wanna...So we put those more like a demo tape more than a polished, finalized piece of work that we're ready to present or whatever. So, um, at this point, I think we just feel like we've got some stuff that we feel more representative of like who we are as a band and stuff. And we want to put that forward. But yeah, if anyone likes that stuff, they can still listen to it on Bandcamp. It's not destroyed.
What do you, what do you say is more representative of the band? Like the new stuff. What about it represents Photokem, well, better?
Jack: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with that a lot of it was written together. Or a lot of the stuff on the demo tape was, like, pieced together and sort of glued together. Where this one is, like everyone was in the room putting these songs together.
Nico: And yeah, we also just put more conscious thought and effort into the recording stages and stuff like that. Like, it was less..I mean, for instance, nothing on the first EP was rerecorded. And a lot of it should've been like we recorded. There's some stuff that wasn't recorded the best, but it was more like, all right. Let's just…we're just trying to-
Nana: We also had time to experiment between the other EP and this one. Like it just felt like the next step was just growth on this one.
Yeah. I could definitely hear that, like this one is a lot more layered in the sounds. That was something I was kind of really impressed by like, how professional it is. Considering it's a home recording, but I guess you are kind of a professional. What is that like? Like, how was your- how'd you study? How'd you learn this?
Nico: Uh, like the internet *chuckles*
Jack: Shout out Sound Sleuth!
Nico: We, um, I mean, I started, like...I just was very bored at the beginning of COVID quarantine. And so I just, just not with any purpose, decided to start recording things and making little like jingles and stuff. And I just kept, I kept doing that every day and I don't think that's stopped unless I've been away from my computer. And so just like a lot of online research. And then we've got this guy, Cameron Kirby, who's Evan's good friend and is now a friend of the whole band. Uh, but he-
Nana: I don't know him.
Jack: I've also never met him.
Nico: But he's, he's generally, he's a friend of the program. I never met him either. He lives in Chicago. But he masters all of our songs. He definitely does more than just like mastering the songs. Like he was very helpful to me. And I would come down with a lot of questions of "I'm trying to make this feel fuller or this stick out more. Like, what do you, what would you recommend?" Most of it through the internet, but definitely that guy has been very helpful to me in learning. I also asked some other friends that make music. I'll just ask them questions sometimes to see how they do things, but-
Jack: And also the Sound Sleuth! It's a fun story because, uh, when Evan joined the band after our first demo, he just was like, "Hey, yeah, like my dad makes microphones. Like he builds microphones." Oh, that could be really helpful. And so we started recording with these really beautiful, handmade microphones that Evan's dad had made and I think it comes through.
Nico: Yeah, no, those microphones sound great. And there, it was definitely helpful for like the jump in sound quality.
It's like very analog sounding somehow. Probably digital, unless you got a tape recorder here. It's very pretty to listen to.
Nico: Thank you. I think that comes from just like the process for mixing this one or like the tone. I wanted to make it sound very warm because I mean, none of the songs are like hype or anything like that. Like, it's a very, like gentle, hopefully pretty-sounding thing. So yeah, it was rounding a lot of the edges of this.
Your voice is very booming, but also very quiet. It's just like really interesting to hear that was just like, so resonant and loud, even though it was very clearly like softly spoken. Sung? It's very interesting. How long have you been singing?
Nana: Um...Like a year?
Wow! I was expecting like, "Oh yeah, I've always kind of sung."
Nana: I tried to go to like a talent competition…I wanted to sing when I was younger, but my mom didn't let me. But I think I was just shy. She asked me to sing for her. And I didn't. So, she was like, "You're not gonna make it."
Jack: How old were you?
Nana: I don't remember, I was probably like in fourth grade.
Nico: I'd be so curious to hear how your voice sounded like when you were 10 years old. Did you still have a deep voice compared to the other kids?
Nana: I don't know. Probably not...probably not.
So what's the, what's the writing process like? What are each of your instruments and what do you think you, you bring. You said that this album is more collaborative. So, I just want to learn more about that.
Nana: *iPhone alarm rings*
Jack: That's your alarm for this?
Nana: Honestly, one of ten.
Nico: I think one of my favorite things about the band is that like everyone plays different instruments on all the songs. Besides Nana, who's our vocalist. But like Jack, Evan, and I have a lot of credits on different instruments like cello and bass.
Jack: Um, I got credits on guitar and synthesizer. Just...noises.
Nico: Yeah, me too. And then, like our writing process, I think it usually just starts with like a riff, usually a guitar. But we write as we record. So usually like if we have an idea for a guitar part, even if it's not like full length of the song, we'll just like, get it into the computer. Just try adding different stuff together in my room. Just a lot of addition and subtraction. Some of the songs, though, this time around were written more, not entirely through recording. Like Future Minister, we wrote entirely before we recorded. Which was new to us because in the past we've only done- we've only written as we've recorded things.
Nana: I would say Hard Candy developed a lot on the stage. It's one of the older ones we did, when we were performing. Like, I think both lyrically and instrumentally. The more we played it, the more we kind of figured it out. That was the process.
I think that's one of the interesting things about Austin. It's like, it's one of the few places- since it's got such like a really strong live music community- that you can develop your sound live still.
But how'd you get- where are the places that you have played to develop it?
Jack: We've actually only played a handful of shows, but, well, we played at Hole in the Wall, which is right down from our house. And um, Spiderhouse Ballroom. And, we got lucky enough to play at Antone's. Also last year… which was, and then we, where was the last place we played?
Nico: Um…the KVRX-
Nana: KVRX...And the practice.
Jack: Yeah. And I mean like, and our frantic practices to put shows together. We had to structure the set and a lot of the structure of Hard Candy and stuff came from those like, "Well, we have to transition it somehow."
Nico: Yeah, like in Hard Candy it starts with four beeps on the arpeggiator. And that all started just because when we play this song live- it's an arpeggiator, it's like set to a tempo. We were like, wait, how the fuck are we going to play the guitar part perfectly in tempo so that when the arpeggiator comes in, it'll stick and stuff? And then we ended up just liking how it sounded. So it's still in the song. Daniel's Gas Life is definitely the one that's come the furthest way from its first inception.
Evan: So far from what it was.
Jack: That's the one we realized it wasn't right when we played it live, like, it had to be reworked.
Nico: Yeah, that one flopped live at like every single show we played.
Daniel's Gas Life?
Nico: Yeah, that one. That one'll come out in like a week. But yeah, that one came a long way.
What did it sound like in its beginning? How did it evolve?
Evan: I feel like at the beginning it was a lot more sparse, like the parts. I feel like now it feels very organic and like cohesive, but at the beginning, a lot of the parts felt like separate from each other and just kind of distanced somehow.
Nico: It was also that song started from a bass riff. And now there's almost no bass guitar in that song. We did a lot of subtraction on that one. I went through a lot of stages to where it is now.
Going back, how have you only played four shows with a completely like solid concept of music.
Nico: Uh, we've just run into a lot of logistical issues. Honestly, it's nothing worth...
Nothing worth going into?
Jack: We really want to play.
Nico: We want to. We want to play every week, and we want to be in that group of people that play so often.
Yeah, it's a pretty like solid group of people. That's something I've noticed. Cause we're like constantly trying to book shows and it's like, well, we can't, this person's- this person's busy every week. Do they want to play like twice a week? It's a weird time.
Jack: Yeah. And also especially 'cause like for some of the new stuff, there's a lot of people in the band to play these songs live. It is a little bit of a logistical nightmare sometimes, but we're trying. We're trying our best to play as much as we can.
Nico: Yeah. Like, yeah, for instance, we're having a show next week. Our EP release show. That'll be at Spiderhouse on Saturday the 7th. So like the day after it comes out, and we're going to have, I think, like five or six person string section?
Nico: And so we got a lot of people from Butler putting us to shame, as far as our capabilities on our instruments. They've been a lot of fun to prac- we've only had a few practices so far, but they're all so good! But it's yeah, it's just, there's been a lot of coordination with that sort of thing. Cause we like-
Jack: We're going as big as we can. It's going to be fun. Evan and I had to write out sheet music, which we both haven't done since senior year of high school.
Evan: It’s been a process relearning. It's been fun!
I'm really excited for your EP release show. I guess we can- we got about 14 minutes of talking. So, thank you so much for talking to me.
Nico: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks so much!
Nana: Sorry I was late.
No, I was. I was kind of late, too. But we can start the photoshoot now! Thank you.
Photokem's Luffon Bright EP release show will be at The Ballroom on May 7th, 2022.