Story by Liz Studlick
Sad Family was working against fate. During the middle of their final set, the power cut out mid-song. Their drummer didn’t miss a beat, and after a heroic six-minute solo that kept the crowded basement of 52 John bouncing, the other members of the band managed to reset the breakers and launched back in. What would be their final song ended with applause and then confusion, as the audience was led out single-file through the back door, blinking in the spring air at a stern-looking contingent of the Providence Police. It was a sudden end to a show that served as both their album release and their divorce party, itself an abrupt death for a band that had been playing together only about six months.
The band is—was—Sophie Kasakove, Bailey Barton, Patrick McMenamin, and Matt Marsico, all sophomores except for Matt, who graduates this year. I know this because over the past semester, I’ve followed them from co-op dining rooms to illegal warehouse shows to that fate-struck basement, becoming their self-appointed biggest fan.
There are perks to being a college band’s biggest fan. Their shows are across campus, not across the country, and they’re also usually free. Not only have I met all the members of the band, but I also see them with improbable frequency crossing greens and wonder whether or not to wave to them. Having their shows to go to on Saturday nights make me feel more interesting and collegiate than just drinking Genesee in a dorm room. My knowledge of their songs is more extensive than anyone else’s, though it may be limited to “that one where she goes ‘whoa whoa’” and a few shouted lyrics. And on those Saturday nights when the huddled masses congregate in sticky living rooms, unaware of what they’re about to experience, I know exactly what they’re in for.
I didn’t set out for superfandom. I went to Finlandia’s Halloween party last fall because there were bands and because it seemed hipper to go to a co-op party than a frat party. I convinced friends to wear costumes for free entry and told them all that Sad Family was playing and was supposedly incredible, when I knew nothing at all about them beyond their name. I later learned that Findy was their second show.
Dressed as the SciLi (as signified by a gray dress and rectangular cardboard windows) and suffering from a severe cold, I perched on top of a cupboard and surveyed the room, which grew exponentially more clogged with people during the hour wait. Packed in tight, the crowd shuffled restlessly to someone’s throwback party playlist. And with little fanfare, four people walked on to the makeshift stage jammed between the crowd and the windows.
Though I don’t claim to understand the mysterious cocktail of tightly-packed and -boozed post-adolescent anticipation and noise that generates the communal excitement of amateur college shows, I’m familiar with the phenomenon. This was the ultimate culmination of that. Red-lit bodies danced to their songs like they had always known them. The pushing of the crowd felt more like a genuine connection of limbs than aggression. Bass and guitar harmonized despite the crappy sound system; the singer’s fuzzy shouts held a power over the room. By the end of their last song, everyone was somehow shouting the chorus. And above it all, safe on my countertop, I swayed, watching the crowd deliriously oblivious of their sweat and the sirens passing in the street.
When asked about the show the next day, I did not hold back. “They were awesome,” I gushed. “The crowd loved it. I’m seeing them the next time they play.”
“But what were they like?” my roommate asked.
I paused. “Well, there were guitars, and a drum, and it was loud.”
“Were they punk? Were they rock?”
“Well, kind of,” I deflected. “Maybe like indie rock? They had a girl singer? Like Speedy Ortiz?” She looked blank. “You kind of had to be there.”
I googled them immediately afterwards, hoping to listen again. The only results were about a defunct band from Peoria, Illinois. I found the world’s most perfect band, and I couldn’t even describe what they sounded like.
I kept the band in the back of my mind as I lost myself in the haze of midterms, and then the haze of finals, perking up whenever I heard about house shows, especially shows at Finlandia. Aside from a quick set at a Speakeasy event that I had to miss for some unfortunate reason, they were nowhere to be found. (The event page yielded the unhelpful description “sad wedding music that already predicts divorce, played while on speed.”) By the end of winter break, I had almost forgotten about that late October night.
It wasn’t long, however, until I heard about their next show, again at Finlandia. I dragged everyone who had and hadn’t seen them the first time, arriving so early that Brown Mariachi was still playing in the brightly lit and sparsely populated living room. I couldn’t imagine it becoming the dark, surreal place for Sad Family to do their thing just a few hours later.
But soon, with a headcold and a buzz but this time buffeted around at the back of the crowd, I heard them do it again. This time I focused harder and I could confirm what I had suspected: they were good in a technical sense. The singing was clearer, the songs tighter, the guitars more triumphant.
The crowd wasn’t as peaceful as they had seemed from my previous perch, but the band still had their blissful attention. At the end, the same shouted chorus, this time intelligible: “I miss everyone that I ever knew.”
Despite this concentration, I could only amend my description to, “There were guitars, and a drum, and it was loud, and it was good.” Again, “You kind of had to be there.” They were a blur of impressions and high points, as much an experience as a band. And I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about live shows— and talking about music in general didn’t come naturally to me. I normally got by on carefully studying albums, and for a mysterious band with no discography, I was screwed.
It was partially out of this desperation that I contacted them for an interview. A friend knew the bassist-slash-guitarist, Patrick, and I met them on the same day in the basement of Faunce. Matt reclined, cracking self-deprecating jokes; Patrick and Sophie sat forward in their chairs, smiling; Bailey arrived after we had nearly given up on him. I barely made it through the introductory questions and banter before I blurted out, “How would you describe your sound?”
They scrambled harder than I did. I brought up the description on the Speakeasy page (“spacey twee-pop”) which none of them had apparently heard. They stalled. Patrick finally offered, “Boring indie rock, except good.”
I laughed with them even though inside I cursed. They didn’t have what I was looking for.
What I did learn: three out of four of them worked at the Indy, but they met through Brown Band Co-op. The influence they share was not obscure: Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Beach Boys. They definitively don’t think of themselves as punk.
“I think the thing holding us back from that is that we’re all in college,” Patrick explained.
“It’s hard to sincerely think of yourself as punk once you get past the age of fifteen,” Sophie added. I later learned about her past with Brooklyn band Carebears on Fire and her professional career as a tween punk musician.
Overall, they were very non-mysterious: just a group of friendly students in a band. Ordinary. And then, as I was about to leave, they tried a second time at defining their sound.
“Jangly,” Sophie tried. They concurred.
“Spacey.” They dissented: “Definitely jangly, debatably spacey.”
I offered terrestrial; they told me it was sweet of me to say.
“Energetic.” They agreed, and then Matt eloquently said what I wasn’t able to put into words: “Findy is just such a crazy place for shows. So much energy. The first time I was like, we slayed, and then the second time I was like, people just go crazy here.” One more piece of evidence for my theory that crowded rooms were their secret weapon.
The final offerings: from Patrick, “Like a car leaving Las Vegas;” from Matt: “Mahler said a symphony should contain the universe.”
After some debates about the validity of the quote, they made me promise to put it in whatever I wrote about them. I also promised to come to their show at SparkCity, a dubiously legal show space at a warehouse in Olneyville.
That show, and the show after that, aren’t worth writing about. There was something missing each time: crowds, the right sound system, enthusiasm. Sad Family wasn’t the same when everyone wasn’t jumping around. My passion for them faded to the point where I actively didn’t go to a Findy show they were playing. I heard from friends of friends that they were thinking about breaking up. I wasn’t entirely surprised. College bands tend to have finite lifespans, and Sad Family’s name heralded a project doomed from the start.
But I was willing to take a last chance when I heard about the final show at 52 John. I had followed them from (almost) the beginning, and I would see them through to the end.
On that Saturday night, whatever had been wrong had been fixed. Sad Family as pitch-perfect as they had been at Findy. The basement was just what they needed, every song building on and superseding the previous one. The crowd was bouncing around until the power went out—and then they bounced some more during Matt’s drum solo. By the time the cops politely ushered us out, I was already satisfied.
Even though they were gone, they had it back; they were as good as I remembered. And best yet, I could finally put it into words, as I had picked up a CD at the show and could study it free of the noise.
Of course, as a band with somewhat temperamental live shows, Sad Family isn’t the same on record. They need that extra push and loudness of a crowded room for the same cathartic shouting they work up on some tracks. Slow and quiet, though they manage it well, is not their greatest strength. But alone, away from the crowds, I could finally work out what made them tick.
Sad Family is unusual not because they defy the norm as much as they subtly differ from it. They don’t have unusual instruments or a theatrical stage presence. It’s a four- piece group—guitar, drums, bass, vocals—though members are talented enough to switch between instruments, with Sophie hopping on the drums so Matt can belt a song. The riffs are moderately sized and comfortably familiar. Their songs are not always traditional verse-chorus form, but structured nonetheless. Their lyrics veer towards the straightforward and presumably heartfelt: “If I could go back, I wouldn’t”; “I wanna like things.”
If this all sounds very unspectacular, it’s because it’s hard to impress just how good they are at it. Sophie’s voice is decisive and confident, curling around the simple lyrics, winningly wistful. Matt’s drumming unobtrusively keeps everything together and tight, giving a propulsive energy even to the sparest arrangements.
In different hands, the preponderance of guitar-hooks could sound cluttered, and it’s a testament to the band’s chemistry (and Patrick and Bailey’s skill) that it sounds so unlabored. Their shout-along choruses actually generate shouts.
Two different songs pull the trick of suddenly dropping everything but a gently propulsive bass or guitar riff three-quarters of the way through and steadily building the song back up to its full height, but it’s the right trick to pull. It gets the crowd going every time, soft whoops giving way to the most enthusiastic dancing of the night.
Again, speed is their friend. The songs that shine, the four or five in rotation at every show and the ones that start off the album, put Sophie in the foreground, giving extended time for instrumentals and Matt’s hyperkinetic drumming which still keeps you tapping your foot far from the show. The songs that bored me drag along, ballads with forgettable lyrics that let the band’s impressive skills languish in sluggish tempos. Their debut seems amateur when it lingers; fast and loud shows off just why I kept going to their shows.
It’s difficult to talk about Sad Family in a past tense when they were such a present tense quest for me for months. Even more upsetting is that it’s not clear what’s happening for the survivors. Matt is graduating. Bailey told my boyfriend, their second biggest fan, at Haruki Express that he was planning on joining or starting a new band next fall. Sophie and Patrick are supposedly taking a break from the Brown music scene for a semester.
Even though they leave behind 10-track album that’s worth taking seriously, and even though I spent a decent portion of the semester in limbo, trying to track it down, the CD seems unimportant. I assumed having Sad Family down on a disk, permanent in some way, would unlock something about the music I was missing. My favorite parts of the LP just bring back memories of their shows; it’s not interesting as an album to me, but as an artifact of a past semester. The band was special to me not because they were good (which they were), but because they were good at being a college band, inhabiting the adrenaline-packed primetimes of weekend nights in unspectacular and grimy places and making them their own. It’s hard to explain. You kind of had to be there.
“Happy families are all alike. Every sad family slays.” –Leo Tolstoy