Stephen Sarro - Sound In The Signals Interview

I recently had the chance to interview Stephen Sarro about his new band Unteachers as well as his old band Tantrum Of The Muse. Check out the full interview after the jump.

You've been making music for a while. With Tantrum The Muse and now with Unteachers. For those who are unfamiliar with your history can you let our readers know how you got started in music and what the scene was like when you first got into music?

Well, when TOTM began in 1998, it was just Rick, a buddy of ours named Jason, and myself. We were all Christian kids who bloomed late to great secular music. We had all been listening to Christian music all our lives. What was happening at that time, and I'll go back a few years more was that Christian music was starting to resemble secular music. Its funny because secular music came after gospel/Christian music, but what had happened in Christian music was that things became very RIYL for mainstream bands. Like Petra went from sounding like Kansas, to Def Leppard, etc. Whitecross sounded like Ratt, Barren Cross was just like Iron Maiden. These bands were great, but growing up listening to Christian music only, you don't realize there is this other bigger ocean of music out there. But around the early 90s these punk/alternative labels started creeping into CCM, just as the Seattle sound was blowing up in the mainstream. So here we are, listening to Amy Grant, Petra, and Stryper, and then into more extreme frontline/intense records stuff like Vengeance Rising, Tourniquet and Deliverance, suddenly Christian music was catching up with mainstream stuff. So Tooth and nail records came along, and Blonde Vinyl, and Alarma Records, and suddenly we were exposed, quite out of the blue, to punk and hardcore, indie rock type music, and it had all sounded so fresh to us because we were not listening to this stuff in 1989. Only up till about 1991 was alternative music even on my radar. But in the early 90s i was all about the metal music. We all were. So by the time we were exposed to punk and hardcore and whatever weird stuff was coming out, it was the mid 90s, and mainstream music was blowing up with Melvins, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, of course Nirvana. Being Christian kids exposed a little late to great mainstream music within Christian music, and lyrics that were not gospel tinged, real raw emotion, it just blew us away. One of the records that blew all of us away was Scaterd Few - Sin Disease. It just opened our minds to a wide list of sounds. It perfectly covers Bowie, Bad Brains, Jane's Addiction, and Bauhaus all in one record. Craziness!!! Anyway, to get back to TOTM.. so its mid 90s. We were like sponges, soaking up all of this great music, and so the exposure was hitting us on both sides. Christian and non. We were teens too, so that helped. Discovering things like having some responsibility for things, facing the end of high school, and not sure what we wanted to do with our lives, discovering sexuality, relationships, trying to figure out Christianity, etc. We were angry kids, who had trouble fitting in with school settings, and at that time it was kind of normal to have a reaction that was shocking. I had a lot on my heart and I was just overwhelmed with all of these teenage thoughts, and now there was music that was allowing me to sing about them in a angry way. No more bubblegum. TOTM was all about putting our hearts on the table, totally exposed and saying "If you feel this way, and you still love Jesus, its ok". Musically, being exposed to so much at the time, it helped create the kind of mess of sounds that TOTM covered. We were going to so many shows, and experiencing all of this live music, and everything was so exciting. Our first record, The Heart Is A Two Headed Sperm was recorded in 1998. At this point we had kicked Jason out of the band because he went crazy, literally, and we had at that time met and friended Jim Settle. Jim didn't play on the first album, but we agreed to have him join the band while Rick and I were finishing the album, and I kinda wish Jim had been on the album, because he made the band instantly better. Anyway, we had graduated and we were off to see what music could do. By the time we had hit the scene, there were a hundred or more Christian punk labels mimicking Tooth And Nail, which was the biggest and most popular. We signed with Sofa Records, who paid to record our first album. Sofa Records had Headnoise, Redeem, Pink Daffodils, Speedy Delivery, and One 21. It was a Philly label. They saw us play our first show and signed us right then. Sofa Bob was the guy running that label, and when i gave him our album, he called me and said "this thing is weird, and not what i expected. Is there supposed to be whispering and talking in the mix"? He didn't like the album and gave it back to us. We went to Cornerstone Festival, a festival that played a huge part in all of this too, because the festival was a one week celebration of every kind of music you can think of, all playing on various stages for a full week. Like Woodstock. We played a show in 100+ degree weather, in full black clothes. We got sick from the heat and got rushed to the site hospital. That was in front of a bunch of record labels, one being T&N, another being Takehold Records. Takehold was, to me, 2nd in line with Tooth & Nail for being a game changer. Man, there is just so much to say about that time. That is a pretty good somewhat brief history of what happened and what the scene was like, and how we played a part, ya know? Just teenagers with all of this raw emotion being exposed to all of this raw energy in music, and the response was this freak show called Tantrum Of The Muse. The buzz for us was just unbelievable. This reputation about us was spreading and we jumped right into that character and played as progressively and as loudly was we could. TOTM was a unique experience. Those who saw us know exactly what I am talking about. The albums did not do us any justice at all. It was all about the live show, and when we got on stage together, it was magic. But it was quickly lived and we broke up in 2002. I started working with some other people. Seth Luzier, joined as a keyboardist, and Tyler Lambert, who is one of the best bassists I ever saw, joined as well, in 2003. We played for a while, also with Rick. Then later that year, Jim came back to bass, and we tried to keep going but ended officially in 2004. Its been 10 years since we played together. That is a sad fact. Everyone is still friends, and had we all lived closer, we would still be playing music of some kind together. With Unteachers, I am just trying to make the music I want to hear, and that is my band, and my songs, and I work with different people, and I really do think the music is better, and similar to TOTM, but it is still a different thing. I won't ever do TOTM again, unless Jim and Rick do it too. I am currently looking to audition bass and drums for Unteachers, otherwise I will just be the "TOTM guy" for the rest of my life. Haha.

After Tantrum Of The Muse you formed Unteachers and you've been working on a new album titled A Human Comedy. What can you tell me about the album and what can fans of your previous work expect from this new album?

I started writing new music about 2 years after TOTM broke up. TOTM breaking up took a lot out of me and affected my mind a lot. I lost my identity, and i was in a super dark place spiritually. So it took a few years to clear my head. I started doing what would be Unteachers in 2006 I think, maybe 2007. I had some things written for a 3rd TOTM album, that I never used, and dragged some of that into it. I wrote a few songs lyrically. Had some musical ideas. I put a band together in Baltimore MD. That did not work out, and I was not ready to do it, and the chemistry was different, and I was bringing all of this TOTM baggage into it. I subconsciously kept comparing TOTM to Unteachers. So we did a demo of some songs and broke up. Then in 2010 i took a swing at it again, and called my cousin Travis Turner up. Travis played in Aletheian and Crutch (same band) and is a fantastic drummer. He and I really connect with music. Travis is rad because he thinks outside of dumb drummer stereotypes. He will set his drums up in different ways and try weird drum ideas to contribute to what is appropriate for whatever band he is in. With Unteachers since the music is progressive and experimental, and really heavy, he sets it up so it visually looks different than most set ups. He and I connect a lot in that way, of presenting this kind of band that creative and trying to do unique fresh things. So he and I started working on the album. I had the songs written but i wanted to craft them with a drummer. I had gone through some lyrics. Read old ones i never used. I wrote these really dark scared angry type lyrics then because that is where I was. I felt I would never get married, i would never get out of this Hell I was in. I had developed a lot of anxiety. So, Im reading these lyrics and i think to myself "wow, this stuff is really intense, and real", since 2004, I had met and married my best friend Sara. I had also gotten some healing spiritually, and started going to this amazing church here in town, Westminster Presbyterian. I got really focused on the gospel, in a real way, for the first time in my life. So by 2010, when I started doing the music again, here i am sitting and reading these old lyrics. I wanted to use them because they were so honest. But I was in a very different place at the time I as reading them, and I came to the point where I knew what album I wanted to make. I sorta took a Pink Floyd The wall approach, only backwards. I thought "what if this album starts out with a lyrical theme of brokenness, and as the songs move toward the completion, they slowly gain wisdom and hope until finally the end of the album is healing, and God is given glory. So I wrote the album, and in 2010 Travis and I started working on it together. We asked our friend Josh Kale to play bass on it. The 3 of us worked from 2010-2013 on this album. We went straight into recording mode.

As far as what bands can come to expect. It just sounds amazing. A few people who have heard it have said these exact words. "I am blown away". Steve Austin (Today Is The Day) mastered the album and he was floored also and said it was one of the best he had heard in years. I am somebody who is very aware of what I do and the quality of what I do. I realize that TOTM had a lot of "age appropriate cheese" but I really truly feel like this is an album that will age well, and will not come off as cheese in 20 years. It is an album I am so proud to have made, because it is my testimony. It is the album I will pull off of my shelf, hopefully, some day and hand it down to my future grandchildren and say "I made this" haha. But yeah, expect what you loved about TOTM, but with bigger sounds and melodies. I think we perfectly bridged the gap between progressive rock, doomy metal music and bands like The Cure.

A Human Comedy has been an album you've been working on for a while what has the process been like and what has caused the long process?

I could seriously write a book about what not to do when making an album. I will brief this as short as I can because it is honestly a crazy horrible nightmare, haha. In 2010 when it was just Travis and I, we decided to record ourselves. Then as we progressed and enjoyed what we were doing, and hearing these rough sketches of songs with all of these great drum ideas, we were getting excited. Drums are the least written part of my songs. Bass and guitar I write much more of. So we asked Josh to join the band, and Josh is a lifelong friend of Travis. They had grown up jamming for years and years. So we decided what we would do is record the album in 2 parts, and it still is kind of a "2 acts" kinda album. Our idea was we would record part 1 and then shop for label support or fan support, to fund part 2, and get both parts released. Somewhere around this point in time, Greg Dimick (Crux, Empty Tomb) had introduced me to Jesse Jeremiah (Veritas Vinyl) and we hit it off right away and became telephone friends. He was really interested in Unteachers and wanted to offer to release our album as a full length. Well that was easy, or so we thought. So then we scrapped the EP idea, and went back into writing mode to finish learning the other half of the album. Throw in a birth, a few deaths, full time jobs, distance, life in general, plan changes, album re-recordings, it took 3 years to finish. By the end of the session, I was taking a week off of work here and there to drive to our friend Brad Jacob's house, to do full week sessions with him to finish vocals, and keys, guitars, added treatments, etc. Brad Jacob is the man, btw. He did our album out of the kindness of his heart, and did an amazing job. We put him through Hell. Seriously. His work on our album was complimented by some well respected people in recording field.

I know you mentioned on facebook that the new album would be coming out on Veritas, who you did a 7" with. What about that label made you want to go with them for the release of this new album?

Well, Jesse has a vision to help Christian artists, and he loves the vinyl format, and that is what he chose to use. Its a rare vision, and I was struck, not only with Jesse's decision to help me, but also his willingness to give to so many other bands too. He released The Crucified albums on vinyl, and it was all out of pocket. He had to pay for rights and licensing, etc. Tooth & Nail records are the worst for this. Its expensive. They don't make it easy for guys like Jesse, who come along out of the kindness of his heart to help bands. Its insane. Anyway, he does this for the love of records and Christians who love records, and music. He just wants to make something happen. He sees a need in the music world and has tried to create something unique and special. I love that about Veritas Vinyl. Our album is going to be co-released, at this time, with Veritas Vinyl and myself. It will be on some awesome colored records, and the cover art is amazing. I can't wait to get this thing out and I hope Veritas can survive, and continue to release real music on a real format. Old school!

The Heart Is A Two Headed Sperm is such an interesting and unique album. Looking back on it now did you know you would be recording something that would stand the test of time and still sound so original?

No way. We knew in 1998 that it was original. We had been told all the time "You guys are way ahead of the times" but we never knew what kind of impact it would have in 1998 and beyond. It is amazing. I am proud of both TOTM albums but if pressed, i would have to say the first one holds a special place in my heart because it was before the reputation. It was the most pure even if it was riddled with bad performances and could not be mixed and mastered any better. There have been a lot of amazing albums that bury what I have done, but what sticks with me most is the gut reaction from that album, and how it has helped people. That is what is most exciting about any longevity we may have. I hope to reissue the music sometime this year or soon after. I want to preserve the work we did.

Is it true that Tantrum of The Muse had the chance to sing with Tooth And Nail Records twice and declined both times. What about the label caused you to decline signing twice?

It is true that we did decline to sign 2 separate times. We were huge fans of that label when we recorded our first album, and as I mentioned a lot of music they were putting out was a big influence on what we were doing. When we got turned down by Sofa Records, and just before Takehold Records came into play, our initial goal was always to sign with T&N. We sent them the album and I called the label up and asked if they had gotten a chance to hear it. in 1998, they were being infested by demo submissions. They probably had dump trucks filled with them. Probably a lot of lost gems in there, too. Anyway, It may have been Bill Power (Blenderhead) who i was talking with but i cannot remember, but he told us that they were very interested and that they were going to have a meeting. The deal was going to be between us and Shorthanded. Later that week, they called back and said "We want to sign you guys, but first you have to change your album title, re-record your album, and change most of the words and song titles" Now you have to realize, at the time, we were young defiant angry punks who were really proud of our album. We could not believe Sofa Records refused it. To us, song titles, album title, and even how unusual the album sounded to us, was all part of the package. We thought it was amazing exactly how it is. We sort of defiantly, and possibly foolishly declined, and they signed Shorthanded. Soon after, Takehold Records came along and the rest is history.

The 2nd time it happened was in 2002 and was a much different situation. The band was basically broken up. Rick had left to play in The Huntingtons, and Jim and I moved to FL to find a new drummer. By this point it seemed to be going nowhere. Takehold was in debt and had been bought out by T&N. The conversation was basically an offer, by default, T&N was taking all of the artists that were currently on Takehold, but by then we were not strong enough as a functioning band to really move forward. It was a bummer. I think back to that time. I probably would have signed that first time, had i been given the chance again. They were right in their knowledge of business dealings, to ask us to at least re-record the album. It would have been so amazing sounding if we had. But it would not be the album that it is today, so you have to keep that in perspective.

Could you tell me a little about the recording process of The Heart Is A Two Headed Sperm? What inspired the direction and sound of the album and what do you think is your favorite track off the album?

Hmm.. Well, it was not a proper studio. We recorded it on a 16 track recording set up of some kind. Our friend Jeff Stoltzfus had already been recording various demos for former bands Rick and I were in. Jeff operated out of TV station in West Reading, PA. He used to do this MTV style show called "The Paisley Couch" and had interviewed a lot of early 90s alternative music like Mortal, and The Choir, etc. He made some music videos for some great bands. We had all worked together on a children's television show called Caboose. Rick and I used to act on that show, and write and film stupid songs and music videos. We would do these sketch comedy bits. It was terrible. This was public access stuff. Wayne's World style. Anyway, that show ended, and we recorded 4track demos there, and then 8track for our high school bands. By the time Jeff got the 16 track set up, we called him up and said "hey we have this weird little album we want you to record". We set up in the TV studio and recorded everything. I handled bass and guitar, and most other things, Rick played drums and helped make a bunch of odd sounds.  Rick and I just started from the ground up, recording drums, then bass, then guitar, vocals, etc. Then we had fun for a few days recording the chainsaw. The screaming you hear during that chainsaw is actually our former bassist, Jason. He hung out in the studio with us while we were making the album. Jeff played the sax. We just told him to make a bunch of noise. We invited friends in to do the gang vocals, and various things like that. It was a really creative vibe, and anybody who would walk in during the recording, would get a job to do. The rain and sirens you hear on "My Depression Outfit" is a real storm happening outside. Also on that track, was a sample of a classmate who had leukemia and had passed away. The recording was him giving his testimony, that he was at peace with death. That affected us a lot then, so we put him on the album. I wish we had turned it up louder. The bottle braking noises at the end of the album is Rick and I throwing rocks into 5 gallon buckets filled with glass bottles. Don't ask me why, haha.

The inspiration of the album came from a lot of music we were listening to. Today Is The Day was a big deal to us. Shudder To Think. Mr. Bungle. Its funny, the cover for our album looks just like Mr Bungle's Disco Volante, because we had sent that album art to Kris from Embodyment, who did the layout for the album, and in our lack of album cover creativity we told him "make it something like this" and he did it verbatim hahaha. So lame. Built To Spill was a big deal to us then too. Just a lot of Dischord Records. Roadside Monument, Blenderhead, Karp, Melvins. Sunny Day Real Estate, Quicksand, Jawbox. Clutch. Man, so many bands. A lot of horror movies influenced us too. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was a giant influence. The score for that movie played a part in both albums art and music. I watched a lot of those creepy faces of death and traces of death films too. VHS tapes with real gore and death. Death and horror was a big part of it. We played a real suicide on the album. We really pushed the envelope.

As far as my favorite song? Man… its so hard to pick. I would pick a song based upon the all fronts. Music. Lyrics. and maybe longevity. For that I may go with "Fatigued" that song really has aged well. Maybe "For The Birds" too. Live, my favorite songs were always the ones that weren't as much of a "hit" song with the crowd. The crowd always responded well to "Devils House Of Techno" and songs with more of a catchiness i guess, but for me, "Swing, daddy…swing" was always a favorite to play live, because it was 2 basses only, and it was so freaking heavy, and Rick would hit those drums harder than anyone ever has. Great stuff. I wish Jim played on that first album, man, it would have been a different beast.

I seen online that you are currently repressing some old Tantrum Of The Muse stuff like some of the original shirt designs. What shirt designs have you been repressing and do you plan to do any more stuff with old Tantrum designs?

Well, I own and operate a screen printing company, so I have had the pleasure of being able to make my own shirts, so it was a great opportunity to make some of the old merch available again. I started with the classic demon/butterfly image from the first album. I plan on making a shirt for Modernmu$ick(2000)! and maybe some new designs as well. Any graphic artists are welcome to send me some art and we can maybe print that.

But truthfully, i am most focused on Unteachers. I want to see that succeed because I truly feel that it is a fantastic bunch of songs, and artistically its more in line with what I want to be. So a lot more shirts will be coming for Unteachers, to be sure.

I saw on facebook you posted about an upcoming set of Tantrum Of The Muse DVD bootlegs. I was wondering if you could fill me in on what all will be on the DVD?

Yes, well, those are just bootleg DVDs. Fan submission footage. A few concerts in full. Both Cornerstone 2000, and 2001 sets. Some footage of us recording both albums. Various footage from different shows from 1999-2001. It is VHS quality. Real simple DIY style. Some of the quality is harder to hear than others, its totally bootleg type stuff. Im aiming to have a set of 4 DVDS together in a set. I just need to get it all printed and packed up. Our storenvy site will have all of that posted.

Vinyl has had a big resurgence and when I think of some of the Tantrum albums I think they would be great on vinyl. Would you ever like to see any of the Tantrum Of The Muse stuff re-released on vinyl?

Absolutely. We actually tried to do a 10th anniversary vinyl for "The Heart Is A Two Headed Sperm" Lujo Records was going to release it. We did a kickstarter to fund it, but we only made like half the money needed. It was a real bummer. There is just not enough demand. A lot of our fanbase isn't in touch with TOTM stuff now, like it was back when we were active. I am planning on converting Modernmu$ick(2000)! analog tape to digital, so we can remix it. That album was recorded on analog 2"tape. Unbelievable to think I had that opportunity. But we hate how that album sounds, and we have the ability to change it, so my plan is to totally "George Lucas" that album, fix stuff in the mix, make it better sounding, heavier. The demos from that album are so freaking heavy. I had a friend borrow the cassette one time, with the demos. it was just live versions in practice, recorded on 4track. He said "this is so much heavier than the album" so we aim to make the mix heavier. Some things are hard to hear. There are a lot of hidden message type sounds on that album, and you can't hear them. Some things were recorded but not really put in the mix. I want to rectify that, and then release it on vinyl. Its a dream of mine to see Modernmu$ick(2000)! on remixed, remastered, vinyl. Man, can you imagine that burning pig head on 12"? That cover is a story all its own hahaha.

I guess that about wraps it up. Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions. Do you have anything else you would like to add?

I would like to just say thank you to all of the friends who keep the legacy of TOTM alive. We made an impact, and i am grateful for that. Also, check out Unteachers. Fans of TOTM will just love it, its a fun fresh sounding record and I think it deserves way more attention than my oldies, you can learn more at www.facebook.com/unteachers, also www.unteachers.bandcamp.com www.unteachers.storenvy.com

also, I do a really fun twisted musical podcast right up TOTM fans alley… called "The Tourist Trap" I play a lot of experimental/prog/doom/sludge stuff, along with a lot of old obscure vinyl records, field recordings, children's records, you name it.. you can get that off itunes at: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-tourist-trap/id371905220?mt=2

ok, so enough about us, thank you also to you/Sounds In The Signals. I appreciate the interview, and for doing what you are doing. God bless you all.

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