There are odd similarities between Indie Soul band Sylmar, who self-identify as “Stoner Jazz,” and Fiona, the Cincinnati Zoo’s irrepressible kindergarten hippopotamus. They were born in 2016, they have outsize personalities and they’re incredible ambassadors for their hometown. They depart in one very significant aspect: Fiona doesn’t have an amazing new album to publicize and Sylmar most assuredly does: their just released sophomore full-length, Glass Ladders.
In conversation about their new album, Sylmar’s members — vocalist Brian McCullough, guitarists Luke Glaser and Dan Sutter, bassist Dominic Franco and drummer Ethan Kimberly — vacillate between being in full agreement on a given answer to batting the answer around like a volleyball that no one is spiking over the net until some version of a consensus is reached. Chaotic democracy or democratic chaos; either way, it works for them, during interviews or in-studio.
One point of agreement among Sylmar’s members is that the soulful Vampire-Weekend-meets-Radiohead sound on Glass Ladders comes from many different places and none of them are particularly intentional.
“There’s a certain level of pride and stubbornness in each individual’s voice in the band, which is a good thing,” McCullough says. “Each song writes itself differently than the others. That’s the thing about us; if you listen to our music enough, you’ll be able to tell who wrote ‘that one.’ This record is a little all over the place, in a good way. In some respects, it’s a good debut record for us. It showcases how we can be tame, but also out of control.”
Newly installed bassist Franco has a unique perspective on Sylmar after joining the band last year to fill the void left by departing original bassist Chase Watkins. Franco and his previous band Misnomer shared numerous bills with Sylmar, and he was a huge fan of the band long before he was a member.
“I think the soul of the self-titled record (from 2017) and on into the Telford EP (from 2020) is carried through to Glass Ladders, but Brian is right — it is like a debut because the variety of sounds is different, but the song structure is Sylmar’s music,” Franco says. “And for me, adapting the bass parts, I didn’t want to copy what Chase had done. I have a lot of respect for him as a bassist, so I wanted to maintain the feel that made Sylmar what it is.”
The other relatively new addition to Sylmar is drummer Ethan Kimberly, who was installed as the band’s new beatkeeper two-and-a-half years ago after C.J. Eliasen left to pursue other musical endeavors. Kimberly made his mark fairly quickly.
“I ran into Ethan at a house party; we were jamming for some guy who had a home studio,” Glaser says. “I was like, ‘Where have you been? Our drummer quit a week ago. You want to come play?’”
“It was one practice. He played one song,” McCullough says. “We were like, ‘Yeah.’”
One critical departure between Sylmar’s two full lengths is the amount of time devoted to writing and recording. The band cranked out their self-titled introduction the year after their formation, while Glass Ladders has been in the works for considerably longer.
“The first album was done really quickly, and this record was done over a long period of time but in short increments,” Sutter says. “There would be two days where it was like, ‘We’re working on the record.’ Then there was a month of playing shows and jamming.”
The long process involved in crafting Glass Ladders, which obviously intersected with the pandemic year, also had the unintended consequence of allowing the songs to mutate in new and interesting ways.
“There’s even evolution within the record itself because it was such a long period of time,” Kimberly says. “I feel like this is Sylmar’s senior thesis record, where we get out into the real world. We’ve cracked the source code.”
A good deal of the evolution on Glass Ladders is inherent, as the majority of the material dates to the band’s earliest days. The gauzy Indie Rock whisper squall of “Clubmasters” is the first musical idea that McCullough and Glaser conceived in Sylmar’s nascent period, and “Kinks” took two years to write, becoming a live staple in the process.
“When we started recording, we started diving into ‘Clubmasters’ at different times,” Glaser says. “We formed it into what we collectively managed to have in mind.”
In addition to Sylmar’s vital chemistry within this new iteration, two outside catalysts were equally important: Soul Step Records owner/operator Melvin Dillon and local producer/former Pomegranates guitarist Isaac Karns. Dillon had just moved to Nashville and contacted McCullough about wanting to release a new Sylmar album.
“He told us, ‘I’m about to do some distribution with Secretly Group and I want yours to be one of the first records I do,’” McCullough says. “I was like, ‘Oh, well, we’ve got to make a record then!’”
Karns had produced Sylmar’s 2018 singles, “Bi-Polar Ball” and “College Try;” the latter’s rebooted version appears on the vinyl of Glass Ladders, while an updated version of “Bi-Polar Ball” — even newer than the new version currently posted online — will be featured on the CD and digital releases. The band was eager to work with Karns on a full album.
“He’s kind of grown into our sound,” Glaser says. “I think we work really well with him and it was nice to do a whole project with him and watch it evolve over time. We had him remix and remaster the singles because we realized we had a better understanding of each other and gelled better now.”
In perfect Rock band synchronicity, Sylmar has an album’s worth of new material just as they’re releasing Glass Ladders, some of which is working its way into their current setlists. Everyone in the band sees the new album as a signpost to their future sound and selves, and they’re stoked to see where it leads.
They’re emerging from their quarantine cocoon in a big way — they’re playing Lexington, Louisville, Chicago, Columbus and Cleveland in the coming weeks (check sylmar.bandcamp.com for details), capping it off with an appearance at Motherfolk’s annual Christmas show at Bogart’s on Dec. 17.
Whether live or in-studio, Sylmar has a unique formula for achieving their goals, even if they often don’t quite understand their own equation (“It’s always screwy. There’s always drama and it’s never smooth,” McCullough jokes.) Newest member Franco has the best approximation of it.
“It’s the Sylmar way; you’ve got five very creative people who have tons of awesome ideas,” he says. “The only way to get those ideas into songs is to get those five people in the same room at the same time for two hours.”
As the conversation spirals into an internal discussion of a definition of Sylmar as an entity, someone poses the question, “Are we a boy band?” That leads in several divergent directions until McCullough clarifies succinctly.
“We’re a bunch of boys in a manband.”
Perhaps that is ultimately the Sylmar way.
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