Since the release of “Kindness,” their debut EP, this time last year, Esta Coda has been overwhelmed by that very sentiment – from fans, critics, and fellow musicians alike in the Northeastern Pennsylvania music scene.
It’s easy to see why. Since forming in Scranton in late 2012 as their former bands – Fake Estate, Livingston, and Losing Caufield – parted ways, the quartet began when vocalist/guitarist Jay Preston and drummer Patrick King started working with famed Philadelphia producer Will Yip at Studio 4 in Conshohocken, honing their poppy indie rock in the same way he did for Title Fight, Tigers Jaw, The Wonder Years, Circa Survive, Balance and Composure, and so many other successful Pennsylvania acts. Preston and King not only started off on the right foot – they took a big leap forward.
“That was huge for me and Pat. Pat’s drumming, he’ll tell you, was definitely like night and day from before. My songwriting, definitely night and day from before,” Preston immediately noted.
“Even though we don’t have a lot of contact with Will now as far as working with him, he’s that little voice in your head, making you do things right. I know what he would say about this; I know what he would say about that.”
Preston remains humble about his own abilities in the studio, though as an engineer and jack-of-all-instruments at JL Studios in Olyphant, he’s responsible for developing and perfecting the sound of many NEPA bands, singers, and even rappers with owner Joe Loftus. Combine that experience with the remarkable skills of A Social State bassist Jonathan Fletcher and A Fire With Friends vocalist/guitarist Daniel Rosler and you have a band bound for creative prosperity.
“Being a musician has helped me so much in working at a studio, but also working at the studio has helped me as a musician – it’s all one thing. They help each other out so much. One thing I’ve noticed working on other people’s projects, you can care just as much about other people’s projects as your own, but it can still be so much harder to work on your own project,” Preston explained.
“This is one of the reasons we go out of town and go to VuDu [Studios] to finish up because having a lot of say in your own mixes and your own production is the worst thing ever. You’ll never get anything done. You can’t play both roles at the same time.”
VuDu is where they completed their sophomore EP, “Miles Away,” with producer Mike Watts, who has worked with everyone from Fuel and Brand New to the Pixies and Clutch. The five tracks may not sound anything like those bands, but Esta Coda shines because they follow their own musical path, even when they don’t know where it may lead.
“It turned into an animal. Our EP has a different sound than the last one, and it’s not intentional. The guitar tones are more aggressive, I think – that kind of thing. It wasn’t planned, but the songs called for it. It’s neat how things evolved that way without even aiming for it,” Preston continued.
“And then [the songs] evolved by playing them live. We played them for months or a year or so, playing them the same way, and then going into the studio and having them perfect and that’s just how they are, then actually getting Mike’s input, it just turned out different,” Fletcher added.
“We give him a lot of free reign. The last time we came to him with mostly everything tracked. This time, we came to him with a little less, so he had a little more to do with it,” Preston said.
Some of the songs were written during Preston’s time in Fake Estate, though after so many years of changes and development, even from recent live shows to scattered studio sessions over the last year, they’re fresh even to him in their current form.
“I think it’s almost scarier to record songs that you think you have down than to attack ones that are fresher because you second guess yourself a lot rather than getting excited about the way it’s turning out. I feel like if you go in with a song that’s more freshly written, you get excited with the direction it’s going and you commit to it. That’s usually awesome. These are songs we’ve had so long that you’re second guessing them, like, ‘OK, this is the way we’re familiar with it, but is that the best way to do it?’” Preston questioned.
“There were parts that we changed, just feel changes. It’s scary because it sounded a completely different way than we had the song, and it’s hard to separate yourself. Is it better? It’s unfamiliar, so I don’t like it, but is it better?”
As the EP comes out today, with a highly anticipated release show set for tonight at the AfA Gallery in Scranton, the all-ages crowd will be the judge of that, but after speaking extensively with Preston and Fletcher about the short, yet impactful record, there’s little room for doubt that “Miles Away” isn’t going to put their burgeoning careers miles ahead.
The key for Esta Coda, perhaps, is as simple as an open partnership built on friendship.
“One of the things that I love so much about working with the guys that we have is that, quite often, Dan or I will write something, but there’s such a collaboration. Jon is just as much a part of where the songs end up as us. He’s not just a bass player – he’s a musician, and he’s in the same mindset of where we want these songs to go. Even if Dan or I bring a starting point, what Jon and Pat do contributes so much to the writing process, I feel like more than most bands,” Preston acknowledged.
“It’s not just, ‘Play this bass line and drum part to this song I wrote. Jon and Pat have such good insight. It’s a same page type of thing. ‘What if we try this? What if we do this?’ It’s not just like, ‘What if I play this bass line?’ It’s like, ‘What if the song went in this direction rather than that?’
“I appreciate it so much. It’s so much more comforting. It takes a lot longer to do things, and there’s definitely frustrating points where you may not agree on the same direction, but I think with the end product, I know I’m a lot happier.”
While Rosler still has A Fire With Friends and Fletcher plays often with A Social State, their comradery with those bands prevents their double duty from becoming overwhelming.
“Honestly, I still wish I could play more music being in two bands now,” Fletcher enthused.
“With both bands, it’s just playing rock music and following the drums. … It’s just a different feel. It’s all for fun, too. It’s not like record labels are knocking on anybody’s door and real hardcore commitments and stuff. You can find time for everything, I think.”
Maybe the labels should be knocking. While Preston feels that “Miles Away” isn’t any less poppy than “Kindness,” he believes it’s still very melody-driven, but with “more of a grungy, Weezer-type feel” to some of the tracks, further expanding their already accessible sound.
“Both EPs have a good balance, being that a lot of the songs were written around the same time or they’re kind of mixed and matched. Just tone-wise, somehow the end product turned out different even working with the same bunch of songs,” Fletcher described.
“I still feel like you could still put both EPs on one CD and it’d be a pretty easy flow, but then once ‘Miles Away’ kicked in, you’d be like, ‘What just happened there?’”
“I remember there being a little bit of concern about this batch of songs being cohesive, as cohesive as maybe they could be, just the ones that we chose to record, and I wish I could say it turned out like it did because we planned it, but somehow they just turned out really cohesive on this EP in a way that I didn’t expect. It flows better than I expected. The content is unified a little bit more,” Preston remarked.
“I think it makes a big difference having two vocalists too because even if a song could have the same feel, having that different vocal feel, that’s what a lot of people are drawn to. It helps that Dan and I don’t have similar voices.”
The title track also features some additional voices – New York singer/songwriter Melinda May and Ben Walsh of Scranton indie duo Tigers Jaw lent their distinctive pipes to the standout song.
“It’s nice to have a title track like that and get friends and different voices involved that work, not forcing it. I was kind of concerned about that, but it turned out awesome, I thought,” Preston commented.
“Especially with the female vocal on it. It’s kind of like there’s another side to the story, just hearing Melinda’s vocal coming in the bridge. It just kind of brings it full circle for me. I don’t think the song was complete until we had Ben and Melinda sing on it. They really kicked it up a notch,” Fletcher added.
“For me, ‘Miles Away’ is the most… I don’t want to say heartfelt, but it really has that nice love story sort of vibe to it. I just never played on a song like that before. It’s like a perfect song to me. We had that song for so long, and I was getting sick of it.”
“We had to spice it up so Jon wouldn’t be sick of it!” Preston cracked.
The closing “outro” track, “Instead,” received the most “spice,” however, progressing from a purposely low-grade cell phone recording in a diner parking lot to a live jam that Fletcher could only describe as “epic.”
“It really starts off kind of quiet, and by the end of the song, it’s huge,” Fletcher said. “You start at the bottom of the mountain and you end up at the top of the mountain.”
“Jon heard it and he’s like, ‘That’s a really good song; I don’t think you should waste it on a shitty recording. So we fought with Jon a little bit – he was right – and then he finally convinced us to do it a little differently. We recorded it at JL completely live with Dan playing guitar, Jon playing organ, me playing piano, and Sean Walsh [of Halfling],” Preston recalled.
“I was just itching to play the organ. I was being selfish,” Fletcher pointed out with a laugh.
“That sounded great, and then Sean Walsh showed up, I think, just to hang out and he heard the song and he just had an acoustic there and he picked it up and he had a riff. He said, ‘That sort of fits your song,’ and we’re like, ‘Well, we don’t want you to use your riff on us,’ but he’s like, ‘I don’t care.’ It’s great. It’s really just the icing on the cake.”
While it took a few takes for them to get used to their new instruments, Preston appreciates the finished product.
“It’s a nice little raw ending to an EP. Usually we aim for polish, but it was nice to not for once,” he admitted.
“It was the middle ground between what we wanted. We could have recorded that song really well or they could of have used that cell phone recording,” Fletcher chided.
“It had birds on it. They were beautiful, Jon,” Preston joked.
“We still got the grit. It’s not gritty – the song is pretty nice, actually – but it just has a live feel to it because it’s live, and we never did that before,” Fletcher noted. “It was awesome.”
Looking back on it all now objectively, they feel they made the right selections out of the roughly 20-25 songs they have in their cache just waiting to be recorded.
“I’m just really happy with how they turned out because I was skeptical about recording them in the first place when we had so many other songs and obviously limited cash. You want to record your best songs, but I honestly think that even though I didn’t think they were our best songs, they did turn out to be. I really think an old song like ‘Miles Away’ or ‘Laundry’ stacks up against a lot of our new songs. I think it just goes to show how Jay and Dan write a song. It’s not always trying to outdo yourself every time; it’s more so about just writing a good song every time,” Fletcher emphasized.
“I think with all our songs, you know you have to tell yourself over and over again that, ‘I’ve heard this song so many times, but no one else has.’ You know you have to tell yourself that, but it doesn’t completely stick all the time. You still kind of have that questioning of, ‘Is this really as good as some of the songs that we’re writing now?’ But then when you breathe new life into them by re-attacking them with the recording process, you just start to get excited about it and you don’t have that feeling anymore,” Preston observed.
“I’m happy with the decisions we’ve made with these songs.”
Falling into place
Like “Kindness,” “Miles Away” is complimented by its cover art by A Social State drummer Nick Ogonosky, though this time the artwork of a man on a bike with ghosts leering behind him was specifically crafted for the album, pulling further meaning out of the songs that even Preston didn’t anticipate.
“He said, ‘Send me the songs so I can kind of vibe on them and go from there.’ There’s some themes in it that I’ve noticed and probably some that I don’t notice that I should probably ask him about based on what the songs are. There’s ghosts in the background; there’s a couple songs that mention ghosts. I don’t think we noticed it until Nick sent us that artwork that it was more than one time in the EP, and that it was kind of a cool concept to have the biker, it looks like, biking away from these ghosts,” he explained.
“Once he did that, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s awesome.’ I didn’t even think about having that theme in it. I wish I could say that we planned more things rather than just falling into place like that, but I feel like a lot of things happen that way and people don’t admit it, so I’ll just go ahead and admit it.”
“When you meet Nick, he’s just such a funny guy. He’s not an artsy-acting sort of guy. I always forget, having been friends with him forever, that he has serious meaning to his art. I’m just like, ‘Oh, that just popped in your head and you drew it,’” Fletcher observed.
“I’ve known Nick since the third grade, so I’ve seen where his artwork has gone to over the years – he’s so good at what he does. I’m proud of him.”
“There are people who probably do design and it looks great because it looks great, and his is that, but also if you talk to him about it, he’ll tell you why he did certain things and what certain things represent. He’s got a lot of depth and a lot of meaning behind his stuff,” Preston agreed.
“Things fall into place sometimes. It’s nice to find themes that you’ve kind of done naturally and then expose and build on them.”
It all fell into place for Esta Coda on Dec. 20 last year, when they scored a coveted slot opening for The Menzingers at their annual Holiday Show in Scranton thanks to their longtime friendships with the major label punk band and Tigers Jaw.
“They didn’t have to do that. We’re not going to help their draw in a noticeable way,” Preston admitted.
“That was just a really thoughtful thing to allow us to hop on with them. It was obviously great for us – we played to people that we wouldn’t have.”
“It was a blast from the past too, besides the fact that there was 1,000 people there; when I was in Caufield, I was playing with most of those guys. We were on shows together every once in a while, so it was kind of a friendly reminder of how it used to be,” Fletcher remembered.
“It was nice to play to that big of a crowd too because, for Esta Coda, we haven’t been playing for a long time in the grand scheme of things. I think that was definitely our most receptive show. It was kind of invigorating. We hadn’t seen a crowd like that ever.
“Every one of those bands, they’re the bands that you see them play and you’re like, ‘I want to be that good.’”
“That place felt like the floor was going to break right through when Tigers Jaw and Menzingers were playing,” Preston recalled.
“Yeah, it just erupted,” Fletcher affirmed.
They’re hoping to capture a similar energy by making their EP release show tonight with Halfling, Down to Six, and Pity Party an all-ages event, specifically choosing the AfA Gallery to accommodate that.
“I love playing at our home bar, The Keys, more than anything, but you want to reach out to those younger kids because they do care so much more. They don’t have as much of the real-life stress and negativity going on,” Preston said.
“More time for music. And it means more to them, too,” Fletcher chimed in.
“There’s that age bracket where music hits you more, and that’s what influences you later in life,” Preston surmised.
“I always felt like with the first EP, sometimes I get nervous that it was too little to put out and not do anything for a year after, so I’m just really excited for this to be a refresher, like, ‘Hey, we have more than these five songs. Here’s another five – please still like us! Please still look at us as relevant!
“I feel like we’re still a new band, but I’m just hoping that it’s enough to hold over until our next one. Putting so little out at a time, I just really want people to appreciate that we put a lot into the little bit that we put out rather than rush through. We could record all the songs we have and they’re not going to be as good as they could be. I’m just really excited to have something else other than our debut EP out.”
Both Fletcher and Preston feel like the shorter recordings have worked in their favor, though, allowing listeners to get hooked right away without having to skip any tracks, ultimately making all those months of writing, rewriting, recording, and rerecording time well-spent.
“I’ve had multiple people say to me that they listen to that first EP all the time, which is so awesome to hear because it is so short. For them to be able to listen to that and not want to throw it out their window is awesome. I hope that’s what happens with this one,” Preston said.
“I think people are going to like this one just as much, if not more, than ‘Kindness,’” Fletcher concluded.
“We’re perfecting the kind of music that we’re making now.”
Photos by Keith Perks/1120 Studios
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.