The Chicago indie pop five-piece gives us an intimate look at their new record, which is out today.
“I think the best experiences we’ve had since that [first] 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,” said vocalist / keyboardist Stef Smith at the time. “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.”
That ethos of collaboration and experimentation also extends to Varsity’s new record, Fine Forever (out today via Run For Cover), which sees the indie pop five-piece seeking to reconnect to themselves and each other while pushing past their collective comfort zones. The album’s 10 tracks center Smith’s clear-eyed songwriting and shimmering vocals over sauntering bass, guitar, and synth lines.
“For me, the record as a whole is a sweet memento of a time in the band where we remembered why we started playing together in the first place,” drummer Jake Stolz tells AdHoc over email. “I think I can speak for all of us in saying that it was a really good time writing and recording these songs. We took our time both crafting the songs and recording them, really thinking about how each song served the album as a whole. I think it also marks a sonic and stylistic shift for the band, though our roots are certainly apparent throughout. I have really fond memories of making this record and, especially in a time where we are deprived of spending time together, it’s a very visceral reminder of our friendship and musical connectivity.”
The band—rounded out by guitarists Dylan Weschler and Patrick Stanton and bassist Paul Stolz—worked closely with producer Ben Lumsdaine to craft Fine Forever. The final product is meandering yet attentive, bristling with a sense of personal discovery and rediscovery. Check out Varsity’s track-by-track breakdown of the record and listen to it below.
Jake Stolz: This is probably the purest pop song on the record, and my favorite to record in the studio. It came together relatively quickly, starting with the sort of bouncy instrumental groove and layering on from there. I remember one night in our tiny practice space getting really excited about the song and just practicing it over and over, adding little nuances with each attempt. We were all immediately drawn to the energy of the song and its stylistic nod to our late hero, Tom Petty. After recording the base instrumental track, we had a night to sit with the song and think about how to improve it. Those were fun nights staying at the studio. We were hanging out on the porch and “You Got Lucky” came on with that driving quarter note keyboard groove. We figured it would be worth it to try something like that out on the song, and it worked quite well! That part—paired with the tasty sax solo by Barclay Moffitt—really added a nice energy to the song, which serves as the “call” in the “Runaway” / “Reason to Run” call and response pairing.
Stef Smith: Musically, for every member of this band, this song is super challenging to play. There are three key changes which really has everybody on their toes. I’m proud that we pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones to follow the vision we had for this song, which eventually became the guiding light for the entire album. The phrase “Fine Forever” has come to mean a lot to us as a band, especially after a particularly tumultuous time recording and touring on our last album. There is so much about being in a band that has nothing to do with making music and after getting burnt out we really had to question why we wanted to create music together and how we could all be happy doing it. We ultimately decided to re-dedicate ourselves to writing and recording music we like and to grow as a group. I feel like this album was so joyful and collaborative to make because of that vision and “Fine Forever” is a song about what it took to get there.
Dylan Weschler: I was listening to the song “Boogie on Reggae Woman” by Stevie Wonder a lot when we were writing the verse of this song. Something about a busy, repetitive riff just gets me everytime. Once we grooved on the verse for long enough we tried to imagine what it’d be like if Kurt Vile wrote the chorus and the song kind of evolved from there. It was called “Kurt” for a while.
Smith: On a lyrical note this song is a follow up to “c. 2002” which is a song from our first full length album, sort of a “where are they now” situation. The themes of isolation, routine, and loneliness came from this original story but also have resonated deeply during quarantine times. I find myself revisiting this song and being drawn to different lines that take on new meaning now while in isolation.
Weschler: We had been kicking the chorus around for what felt like a year before, and once we got the rest of the song together it became one of the first songs we recorded for the album. We wanted it to be moody and sparse, but also have some nice cathartic moments. For the end of the song we were kind of going for a Yo La Tengo jam, not sure how close we got, but I love how it turned out.
“The Memphis Group”
Weschler: The initial idea of this song came from a demo where I was experimenting with one time signature for a verse and a different one for the chorus. We played it for a while and it never really clicked. I think it was just too hard to play, the working title of it was actually just called “impossible.” The song finally came together once we figured out what we wanted to do for an ending. We figured that out the day before we went into the studio to record it. Sometimes the pressure of a deadline is the only way we can be productive.
Weschler: I was listening to a lot of Solange and Jamila Woods while we were making Fine Forever. In my mind they are the queens of album interludes—tiny pockets of sound that help to transition from one mood to another. We had been playing this jam forever with the idea that it would someday have a beginning, middle and end and we just hadn’t figured out what they would be yet. Once I started thinking more and more about interludes I realized not every song needs those all those parts and it felt better to keep this jam as is.
“Reason to Run”
Smith: After we had tracked the entire album we still continued to practice and write music. This song was a last-minute track that came out of one of those practices. We really liked it and didn’t want to wait to put it out on another album so we decided to cut into our mixing session and record it. We definitely recorded this song under a bit of a time crunch but I think the pressure helped us lock in and stay focused! I was writing lyrics up until the time I went to record them, but when I realized this song was a response to our other song “Runaway” everything clicked. I love how this song turned out and I think it goes to show that it doesn’t hurt to raise the stakes sometimes and to trust the long and winding process of making an album.
“What’s Yours is Mine”
Smith: This song started as a chord progression that Pat brought in and I was drawn to the length of the verse and how it would allow for me to create a meandering melody. The longer verse made me want to say something close to my heart. I wrote the lyrics as a sort of letter to a future child I might have. At the time my first friend to have a baby was pregnant, so I was thinking a lot about the stories we tell children about the lives we had before they were born. I was imagining what I might say about this time in my life and wondering if it’s even possible for children to understand their parents as fallible and complicated. This song was an opportunity to explore that and it’s one of the most autobiographical songs on an album that’s mostly externally focused.
Smith: “Heaven Sent” was a song we decided to have fun with and not overthink. A lot of the synth lines were written in the studio, which was one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of recording this album for me. It forced me to connect more with an instrument that can seem super technical and daunting at times while also listening to my intuition about melody and balance. I also experimented with singing in rounds and layering parts and the feeling of building urgency over the course of the song. I think of this song as a puzzle with parts that eventually fit together and make sense.
Weschler: This is my favorite song on the album. Similar to “Wrecking Line” we had been kicking around some version of it for close to two years before we recorded it. And similar to “The Memphis Group” we didn’t figure out how to end it until a few days before we went into the studio. Everytime we would practice this song, we would make some small adjustment and record a new iPhone demo version on my voice memos app. I probably have close to 100 versions of it on there. I think this song is my favorite for that very reason, I’ve seen it change and grow over the years and it really feels like the best version of itself now.