Photography by Kristina Pedersen
Chicago’s Varsity make lush indie pop about human relationships. Their new LP—Parallel Person, released April 27th on Babe City Records—is a self-described foray into the “uphill battle of isolation and popularity.” Fittingly, single “A Friend Named Paul” sees singer and keyboardist Stephanie Smith describing what she calls a “one-sided” relationship; it’s a sweet, syncopated jam, its bright, melodic instrumentation acting as a counterpoint to the lyrics. We caught up with Smith and guitarist Pat Stanton to discuss the band's new album, playing at SXSW, and buying lava lamps in bulk. Varsity play Union Pool on May 5 with Poppies.
What are you guys doing right now?
Stephanie Smith: We’re shopping online for lava lamps.
Why are you buying lava lamps?
Stephanie: We’re trying to figure out a cool stage show for our release. This might not be a good idea, but we need to find out what the going rate is for lava lamps.
I could see how that could look cool on stage.
Pat Stanton: The show’s on 4/20 too.
I think you’re kind of obliged to buy the lava lamps then.
Stephanie: I’m glad you agree—we’ve been having a debate.
Pat: I just don’t know how many lava lamps we need on stage to make it look cool.
Stephanie: We’ll let you know how it shakes out.
You all recently came back from performing at SXSW. What was that experience like?
Pat: It was good! It was our first time down—we’d never been to South By, let alone Texas. Austin is very cool. Sometimes the shows are hit or miss, but there’s so many people down there from other bands, and people you know just from playing around—it’s just fun to see everybody together in the same city.
I also saw that you met Nardwuar while you were down there.
Pat: I unfortunately did not get to meet him. I would have loved to, but Steph did.
Stephanie: We saw him walking with probably his manager, and it was kind of late, and he was definitely going back to his hotel. So we kind of walked behind him for a while, getting up our courage to say something. I couldn’t do it, but Jake [Stolz], our drummer, was like, “Hey can we get a picture?” And he obliged. It was obvious that’s what his whole day had kind of been and I felt kinda bad.
Parallel Person is described as “a record about the uphill battle of isolation, popularity, and artistic frustration.” It’s been three years since your last full-length came out. Can you speak to anything you’ve experienced in that time that influenced the writing of Parallel?
Pat: We’ve honed our songwriting in that time. We’ve been working on it since [our self-titled album] came out. That record feels so old.
Stephanie: I think the best experiences we’ve had since that record were experimenting with putting out digital singles, and doing it so rapidly that we got better at writing and recording and putting out songs. Personally, I think there’s been a lot of personal growth and musicianship for each of us since then. We grew together during those years through putting out those singles, experimenting, and taking the time to get in the studio. For [Parallel Person], we were definitely ready.
Can you break down what the recording process was like? Had you been developing these songs concurrently with those digital singles?
Pat: For the singles, we would just write them and play them a bunch until we thought they were good, then record them and put them out pretty quickly. We never really had a backlog of songs.
Stephanie: But for the album, I think we were just writing the whole time. Some of the songs are pretty old—for us, that’s like a year. We did sort of have a dedicated period of time where we were working on just writing for the record, but we were also playing live during that time.
Pat: We played a lot of shows. As far as recording, it was great—we went to the studio in Chicago. We had never really recorded in a proper studio before; we had just done it in our friend’s basement. We had a week and a half, eight days I think, where we could stay as late as we wanted. It was really nice; we never had the luxury of that before.
How would you differentiate between Parallel and your self-titled, thematically speaking? Or does it all kind of draw from the same continuous experience?
Stephanie: The lyrics come from my personal experiences. I’ve definitely grown since the first album, and this album is definitely more personal. When I was first writing, I was really nervous to include any kind of personal or incriminating details about my life, whereas with Parallel Person that’s all I did, kind of. I started with my life or events and went from there. I was kind of nervous to do that on our first record.
That’s interesting, because, in a previous interview, you indicated that the names of individuals in all of your songs refer to real people. With this record being more personal, do you ever worry about producing a track that is too honest or close to home?
Stephanie: I don’t worry about that anymore. The worst thing that happened already happened, where the person who the song was about found out, and it wasn’t a flattering song. And I’ve passed through that—I’m not really worried about it anymore. As honest as I can be is what I am for—without hurting anybody.
Being Chicagoans, do you have strong opinions about Old Style or Malort?
Pat: I like em both. I like Old Style, cause it reps Chicago; and I like the logo and everything, but it’s not my favorite cheap beer. I would definitely drink a PBR or an Old Milwaukie. But I’m not gonna turn it away.
Stephanie: I like Malort—it’s not as bad as people say. I don’t really get it; I used to play along, but I don’t really think it’s that bad.
Pat: I think it’s fine, but anytime I say that, people say, “No way dude, you’re just saying that because you want us to drink it.” It’s a bitter drink, but it doesn’t make me gag. It always sits well.
Stephanie: It’s better than Fireball.
Pat: Yeah, Fireball gives me heartburn.
Between the album artwork for Parallel Person and the video for “Must Be Nice,” your new releases share a pretty colorful aesthetic. It’s also another collaboration between Varsity and Claire Byrne, who also did the artwork for your previous digital singles. Could you speak to the visual side of your output?
Pat: Everything Claire does is really cool. As we’ve been releasing new music, we’ve kind of just tossed her the songs [with] maybe a sentence or something, and she just comes up with a bunch of ideas and we work on something. It always ends up being really great.
As far as this most recent record, I wanted to have a cohesive theme for everything. We had this photo we really like that was aerial shots of people on the beach. I liked how many different stories you could assign to each person—sort of like how each track can be a different story about a different person. We showed the photograph to Claire, she dug it, and we just kind of went from there.
Stephanie: She’s also our really good friend; she knows us really well. It’s really natural for us to hand it over to her and trust her to do her own thing, with minimal input from us.
Can you talk about the lyrics to “A Friend Named Paul”? On first listen, it seems to be about a bad friend (“You know he’s no friend at all”), but I was wondering if the friend in question was your bassist, Paul Stolz.
Stephanie: The song is actually not about Paul, but Dylan [Weschler, guitarist] actually happened to write the [chorus] lyrics in this song, “I’ve got a friend named Paul.” Typically, I write all the lyrics, but that one just stuck, because Dylan had been saying it when he showed us his first idea for this song. So that stuck—and from there, I kind of made this story about a relationship that’s one-sided, where one person has all the power. There’s another song on the album that’s a partner song to this, where it’s told from the reverse perspective.
A lot of people characterize Varsity as having a vintage sound. Do you agree?
Pat: I always see that written, and I’ve never really understood what it meant. The only thing I think could be seen as “vintage” is the set-up, with two guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards. I don’t take offense to it; I’ve just always been curious why. A lot of our inspiration is pretty modern.
Stephanie: It’s all early 2000s. We all have definite classic rock influences, but I can’t point to anything where it’s like, “This is where we did our classic rock solo.” We made this playlist when we were recording Parallel that’s a lot of Spoon, Fleetwood Mac. [As far as more] contemporary [influences], we really love Chris Cohen and Land of Talk, Andy Schauf. Super into Wilco—some of us more than others.
Pat: Who doesn’t like Wilco? Back in the day, I was really into The Strokes, which was fun because we have two guitar players. But we’ve kind of shied away from that on the new record. We’re more into playing rhythm.
What are you looking forward to most on your forthcoming tour? What can people who have never seen you expect from a Varsity show?
Pat: It’s a lot of fun. We’re a lot of fun on stage and in person, so if you see us hanging out, come say hi, cause we can kick it.
Stephanie: [Laughs] For sure—we love meeting people on tour, talking to people after the show, connecting with people who come out. There’s a lot to see these days, so anyone who makes the effort to come out, it’s much appreciated.