Mute Cities – (from left to right) Rashmit Arora, Derek Williams, Ben Visneky, Jonathan Callan, Zach Kramer (laying).
For every dark corner of the internet, there’s a hideaway where something great appears from nothing. The latest discovery from the crevasse is a band called Mute Cities.
Headlined by a group of Penn State seniors – Derek Williams, Jonathan Callan (J Cal), Zach Kramer, Ben Visneky, and Rashmit Arora – the band won the school’s “Battle of the Bands” competition, and earned the right to open Penn State’s year-end concert “Movin’ On.” This year’s lineup features Big Sean, Passion Pit, New Politics, Big Gigantic, and Atmosphere. I sat down with the group to talk about the upcoming show, and their new EP – Strong Work – which was just released on iTunes, and Spotify.
Hey guys, thanks for talking to me. Before we start, I’ve got to ask – what’s up with the name Mute Cities?
Derek: So, most people ask this question. It’s interesting to answer each time. So, a year ago we had to come up with a name for Battle of the Bands. So we did like, the same thing [as this year]. We were trying to play for Movin’ On and we had to come up with a name. So we were all sitting down – we had a google doc and everything. The names were just ridiculous and we were all pretty frustrated about it. So a little backstory. When I was little, my dad, for our Christmas gift – he worked next to a Blockbuster and they were throwing out this giant box of N64 games and he just like took it and that was like all three of us kids’ Christmas presents that year. So we were all sitting down as a band and going through these games and playing them, and there was this old racing game, and the one level was called “Mute City.” We were all so frustrated we were just like “You know what? That’s it.” And then Jonny pluralized it – added the lies – and that’s how we became Mute Cities.
That’s really cool. So how did you guys come together, and how long have you been together?
J Cal: The original three – we started in October of 2013, technically. We played a cover show with me, Derek, and our current guitarist Ben [Visneky], and we decided we wanted to get a little more serious about music after that because we had a lot of fun.
Derek: It all started off with me and Jonny sitting here wanting to play music. I played the guitar a little bit and he picked up the bass, and then we got other members.
J Cal: Yeah, and around January of the following year, Ben went abroad so we had to get another guitarist which is how we found our former member Jake [Ludwig] who introduced us to [Zach] Kramer who we went to high school with, and we really hastily put together a demo to participate in Battle of the Bands 2k14. We came in second place there. We were really upset, but we were really excited because we just started playing and we were already competing with a lot of these bands. Then finally, the following year we started playing some more. Jake decided that he was in another band called Ambler, and he was trying to graduate on time. He didn’t have time for it so we picked up Rashmit [Arora] and then Ben came back from study abroad and that complete our quintet.
Derek: We weren’t even the band that we are today until like a month ago?
J Cal: Yeah, like right before Battle of the Bands, Jake was like ‘Yeah, I’m like really struggling, and I just don’t have time to be in Mute Cities and I don’t want to hold you guys back.’ And he left really amicably and he’s still one of our good friends.
It’s been really fluid then? You don’t really have one set lineup for a long period of time.
J Cal: Yeah, but I mean we’ve gotten a lot more serious this semester with the recording process which is very time consuming.
The first thing people say when I’ve shared your EP is it sounds like a mix of Smallpools, and a second good band, but no one seems to know what that band is. Have you heard any comparisons about it?
Derek: Honestly, the comparisons can sometimes get out of hand.
J Cal: Yeah
Derek: We’ve literally gotten from –
J Cal: One person said we were a mix of Foster the People and MGMT. We also got LCD Soundsystem one time. I think that was our friend Noel [Purcell], actually, which was a tremendous compliment, so I was okay with it.
Derek: We don’t really take much weight with the comparisons. We don’t like to compare ourselves with other bands. I think that kind of pigeon holes you. It’s always like flattering to hear.
J Cal: Yeah, and it’s not really important because it’s sort of like someone says “Oh, you should check these guys out,” and then the next question is “Oh, what do they sound like,” and you’re just like, “Indie pop?” It’s helpful to have artists that you’re in the same genre as, but yeah.
Moving on to the actual music now, the intro riff to “Monster” is ridiculously catchy. Who wrote that, and what’s the writing process behind these songs? Is it a collaborative effort, or is it one guy bringing stuff to the table?
J Cal: That was Derek.
Derek: I wrote that.
J Cal: Derek basically spearheads most of our writing, at least in the initial phases for sure. He’ll come to us with a riff or kind of an idea of where he wants to take something and then from there it’s mostly Derek’s mind, but also Zach Kramer our drummer who’s like – he really knows music well, and knows what sounds good. Then it’s just sort of trial and error in his [Derek] room. We’re roommates so I hear him doing shit all the time and he’ll finally come to us.
Derek: So yeah, he pretty much nailed it. I come to the band with an idea of what I’m thinking. Normally it’s like a guitar sound. One time I just came in with like a percussion sound and I just beat boxed and was like “I have an idea!” and we decided to just run with it, and then that kind of ended up as our current soul. Often times, I’ll just – like Jon said – I don’t really know much about music theory. I only started playing the guitar like three years ago. I go to Zach, and he’s our music theory guy. It’s definitely a collaborative effort in the end, but to start I usually come up with some sort of skeleton.
Post Battle of the Bands, you release this EP. What has the feedback been like?
J Cal: It’s been interesting. I mean obviously, we’ve got a rush of support from our close friends.
Derek: We started seeing some feedback from random people around who we’d never heard from before.
J Cal: For me it’s still overwhelming, which is really exciting. There were people in my theatre class who I’d never talked to who were like ‘Holy shit we really liked your album. This is awesome.’ And people that Noel [Purcell] writes with at Onward State (Penn State’s top student news org.) – I don’t know if you know Zach Berger – he stopped me at the Phyrst (a local bar). I don’t know him very well but he just was like ‘I just want you to know – I really enjoyed your album.’ And stuff like that makes me feel unreal.
Derek: It’s crazy just to hear that kind of stuff. From that, it’s really dangerous because you can just be like “oh,” but I feel like we have to take that and use it, push it, and make more music quickly, because it’s not a crazy amount of material.
So stay hungry.
J Cal: Never complacent, Shaker.
Of course. So let’s talk about Movin’ On for a second. You’re the opening act for Big Sean, New Politics, Passion Pit, and Atmosphere.
J Cal: Big Gigantic as well. Very eclectic mix they’ve got up there which was reflected by Battle of the Bands. There was a DJ, there was a rap group, and a more traditional rock-y stuff. We’re excited. Especially with artists like New Politics and Passion Pit – you know, artists in our genre-ish that we really love too. It’s an honor to be on the same bill as them. A couple of months ago, we never would have thought about that happening.
So this would be your first show that’s not a party or a bar gig, right?
Derek: Yeah, so before this, Battle of the Bands would have been our biggest show, but this will be pretty huge. We’re keeping in mind that we’ll be the first in a lineup of a bunch of bands, but we’re hoping people will catch a bit of it.
J Cal: That’s our hope. Being on that big of a stage for a big event, we’re hoping that we can build up from there, and we hope to do a little touring over the summer.
Really? Because from what I’d heard from our mutual friends is that Movin’ On was going to be the last show. Are you saying there’s a future for Mute Cities after the big ending?
Derek: That’s actually been the question on peoples’ minds, and it’s funny for us because we’re just a bunch of kids. Like besides Zach, none of us really majored in music. There’s not – we have other stuff to be doing if our parents have their way (Callan was accepted to medical school at Johns Hopkins). But we would definitely like to be touring sometime this summer. We don’t want to nail anything down, but there’ll definitely be one or two shows.
J Cal: If we’re lucky, it’ll be more than that because we have connections to Pittsburgh where I’m from. Hopefully we’ll have a show in Brooklyn this summer.
Derek: If we get attention off of that, hopefully we can convince everyone to stay together.
J Cal: So we’ll just feel it out.
Derek: It’s going to be a game-time decision.
J Cal: Yeah, it’ll be down to the wire, but yeah we’ll just work our asses off and see where it takes us.
Is there a goal that you’re shooting for? Like a target in the distance?
J Cal: Record deal. World tour.
Derek: Obviously, every band that plays is looking to like quote unquote “make it,” and that’s something that’s within our sight. I think just being and growing as a band and releasing more music – for me – is a goal. And not necessarily just to make it to a certain point because as a band you’re always growing, and you’re always on to that next goal. Everything for us is right in front of us. There’s no long term. All we can do right now is catch up and work our asses off, and then see what we can do with that because that’s all we’ve done so far.
J Cal: Thank you so much!