Rich Howells

SONG PREMIERE: From Scranton to Boston, indie rockers Lesser Animals are back ‘For Real’

SONG PREMIERE: From Scranton to Boston, indie rockers Lesser Animals are back ‘For Real’
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For those who were part of the Northeastern Pennsylvania music scene about a decade ago, attending or playing shows at small venues like The Vintage Theater, the name Lesser Animals may sound familiar.

The Scranton-based indie rock band was formed in 2008 by Clarks Summit native James Sanderson, the vocalist of Awkward Silence, another name that could ring a bell. Lesser Animals stood out not only because of their undefinable sound, but for their time split between here and Boston about 300 miles away.

“I was looking for another outlet to write music that was closer in style and tone to what I was listening to in the car or while mowing the lawn. I also just wanted to be playing more in general. It felt like the best thing I could be doing, if that makes sense,” Sanderson told NEPA Scene.

“I moved to Boston in January 2011 to attend Berklee College of Music. And I haven’t left, so I guess I like it! In seriousness, I’ve loved my time here. It’s been interesting because Boston is a way station for a lot of people. It’s a stop on their tour – they come for higher education, and when they’re done, they usually move on. It’s been a whirlwind, meeting people and making great friends and then saluting them as they move on to the next stop. Of course, there are plenty of reasons to stick around, so luckily I have a good group of friends that are at least semi-permanent Bostonians.”

Lesser Animals released their debut EP, “Parasalene,” in 2012 and toured through both scenes and beyond before disbanding in 2014. Sanderson has always had more music in him, though, so he has revived the name and his passion for songwriting in a full-length album featuring “For Real,” a personal single premiering today exclusively on NEPA Scene.

“‘For Real’ is a song about loving at long distance. It’s about all of the struggles of being away from a person who completes you so well that those struggles hardly matter. When I first moved to Boston, my spouse and I made our relationship work for four years while apart. It was extremely difficult but well worth it. We’ve been married for over a year, and we’ve been together for over 10,” Sanderson explained.

“This song is extremely important to me because it took a long time to find the right voice for it. It’s had a lot of lives over the years, and I never stopped writing it and rewriting it, but when we were in the studio, it just came together, just clicked into place. And it’s weird to say this about your own song, I guess, but I really love it. I still feel something every time I play it.”

Now 30 years old, “which is wild to me,” Sanderson has been looking back on his early days in local music.

“Being in Awkward Silence was an amazing experience, one that I think I took for granted until recently. I was the singer in that group, writing the vocal melodies and most of the lyrics, and very exposed as a frontman during live performances. The bulk of the music was written by resident theorist Andrew Cutillo – I just wrote my parts along the way. The songs never felt like they were mine because they were ours. That’s how it should be in a band like that, I think,” he recalled.

“With Lesser Animals, especially because of all of the lineup and location changes we’ve had over the last 12 years, it’s been a huge adjustment. I’ve had incredibly talented friends come through and add to songs, but I’ve done most of the writing. All of these songs started out with me and a guitar, and because there hasn’t been much of a filter, they’re a lot more direct and personal. Also, the amount of work to stay organized and focused is increased when you’re not in a band democracy. That being said, there aren’t band politics to deal with either!”

A friend once described the Lesser Animals as “dining room pop.”

“I thought that was both hilarious and accurate. We have a fairly broad sound that I think changes with how I’m feeling. We’re guitar rock with pop sensibilities and a lot of sax, with a focus on emotions, dynamics, and texture,” he said.

“The name comes from looking around at all of the bands, most of whom I loved and listened to, that had animal names – you know, like Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Dr. Dog, Wolf Parade, Deerhunter, etc. We were joking around about all of the less cool animals that people tended to avoid naming their bands after, and comparing that to being this tiny band. Thus, Lesser Animals, a kind of umbrella for the disenfranchised of the animal kingdom, was born. It felt like it made sense at the time, but more than that, we thought it sounded pretty neat.”

Sanderson has been holding on to so much music for so long that he felt he had to reform the project.

“I needed to get it all out, record it to make space to see if there was anything else left in my brain. It felt like a natural fit, this mantle I had carried for even longer than the songs themselves. I also was kind of in a rut in my life where I had been working a desk job to make ends meet and kept thinking, ‘Am I going to do this forever, when I’ve always known what I wanted to do and never given it an honest-to-God shot?'” he admitted.

“I called up my friends Zach and Kim Wheeler, who live down in Nashville, Tennessee. They have a studio in their basement, and I asked for some time down there. Zach offered to play drums, and we called our friends Mike Kerr and Noel Friesen, who had been in Lesser Animals from 2011-2014. We all converged on the studio we affectionately refer to as the Bunker. Since then, we’ve been constantly in each others’ lives. If nothing else comes from this, at least there’s that! I think their support has helped me to settle back into playing and writing, and they’ve all certainly influenced the sound. Lesser Animals has become a somewhat solitary pursuit, but having the rest of the band, and Kim who has been an amazing force both as producer and engineer and on alto and baritone sax, I haven’t felt like I’m alone.”

Titled “The Feeling Is Real,” it took this new lineup two years to record the album, the first half in 2018 and the second half in 2019.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it all yet, so I didn’t want to rush through it. Kim’s an incredible producer. She knew exactly how to build the songs, and we took the time and care to layer each one. It was incredibly satisfying being back in the studio after such a long time away, but even more satisfying was getting the songs out of my head and onto the hard drive. It felt like finally being able to let go of a secret after way too long,” he continued.

“These songs are from the band’s whole existence, hiatus and all. There’s a track I wrote in 2009, some stuff from 2012-2014 from the band’s heyday, a few from a particularly inspired time in 2016, and even a few that I wrote right before recording. It’s almost like a timeline from where we were to where we are, translated with the future in mind.”

The first single, “Cannot Hang,” was released on Nov. 13, presenting a surf rock sound that helped him deal with the heavy subject matter.

“‘Cannot Hang’ is a little different – it’s more insular, and it’s about dealing with mental health issues while trying to interface with the people around you, who still need you despite your problems. The cool thing about this one is that it’s kind of a sad tune, but when we all got together, it transformed into something that was a lot more joyful, less about the conflict and more about breaking it,” Sanderson shared.

“I think a theme that is pervasive [on the album overall] is that of mental health. It’s a common one, but it’s something I feel strongly about. I have bipolar disorder, and I think it’s important to talk about it without shame. I write less to cope with it and more to process where my thoughts are at a specific point in time, like kind of making a road map to follow for the future.”

This is a major step away from their original EP, but one that was necessary for a new album in a new decade.

“The songs on the album are a lot shorter and more direct, less content to obfuscate and hide behind metaphors. I love ‘Parasalene,’ but I’m excited to move on from it. The new songs all sound more concise, too, in my opinion – a lot cleaner, and less to distract from the song itself.”

The next step was to promote the record, which is set for release on Jan. 29, 2021, but the single ended up touring music blogs rather than venues due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve been out of work since March 13th. Like many, it’s been a challenge for me not to be able to socialize and leave the house whenever I want to. There’s been a huge silver lining for me, though – for the first time in my life, I’ve been able to focus on music full time. When I went down to Nashville to promote the release of ‘Cannot Hang’ last month, we made another record filled entirely with material that I wrote over the past nine months,” he said.

“The big downside … is not being able to play shows. We were planning on touring in support of this release. Not being able to do so has been a huge blow, but I’m fully aware that we’re far from the only band struggling with this. I’m constantly thinking about all of the amazing artists that are being affected by COVID-19 and trying to stay in touch with a few friends who are in similar situations. I do think that we’re going to be working with some of these bands on projects in the coming year or so, though, so again, in that way, I feel that it’s not all bad.”

Lesser Animals decided to play a free Facebook Live stream show instead, offering fans a sneak peak of the album as pre-orders became available on Bandcamp.

“It’s definitely challenging to play a concert to a phone or a red light. It’s hard for me to be too bummed out about it though because I’ve been away from live shows for a long time. While I’ve been looking forward to my return to them, having an outlet at all is amazing to me. I do wish that there was a better platform, something a little bit more organized, for smaller artists,” he noted.

“We are planning on touring the record as soon as it’s safe to do so. We also have another record that we’re finishing up for release in the not-too-distant future and are working with friends on other ideas for releases. Just trying to stay busy!”

Being out of the Boston music scene for so long, he’s not sure what’s going on there currently, but he has been watching his hometown area from afar and missing it.

“I know there’s at least something happening here, but whether I’m out of touch or it’s relatively small, I’m not really seeing it. It’s actually crazy to me how much I miss being a part of NEPA’s music scene. Again, there might be some bias here, but I’m constantly seeing my friends’ bands playing and creating, and watching new bands pop up, and applauding another group that I grew up playing with and listening to as they find success in some way or another. NEPA has always had a robust, diverse scene, which is so exciting to me,” he enthused.

“I just feel so lucky to be able to make music again – I’m grateful to my best friends who helped me make this record, my spouse, my family and friends, and everyone who takes even one moment to hear it.”

Photos by Rory Brett