If the band Stepdad were an actual stepdad, they’d probably be the cool kind that takes his stepson to his favorite band’s concerts and plays catch with him in the backyard.
Ryan McCarthy, one-half of the original electro-pop duo, is quick to stress that the name has no significance.
“It literally has no meaning at all,” he said. “We were trying to think of a name and we couldn’t, so we went on this random phrase generator. We thought the word stepdad was really funny, so we tried to generate phrases with the word stepdad in it. Then after about an hour, we thought, why don’t we just call it Stepdad? People will ask us, are any of you guys stepdads? Are you guys all stepdads? No!”
Cigarette smoke drifts up in front of McCarthy’s face as he talks, filling the webcam video’s frame. He woke up today at 4 p.m., he says with a laugh. Stepdad is his full-time job, because of the relatively low rent in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he lives, so he can afford to have a skewed sleep schedule.
“We wouldnt be abe to do this full-time in Chicago. We’d have to work,” McCarthy said. “A band is a full-time job. You can’t work and tour. It just doesn’t work like that.”
Though they do have roots in Chicago, McCarthy, Mark Tafel (who refers to himself as ultramark) and the rest of their band make their home in Grand Rapids.
Tafel and McCarthy met in Michigan.
“He was just playing some solo shows,” said McCarthy. “I thought his songs were really catchy and I just offered to record his album for him.”
McCarthy ended up moving to Chicago to live with Tafel. They found out that their writing styles were similar, and began making music together.
“Then we moved out to Grand Rapids and put out Ordinaire just because we thought our friend would like it, not really thinking that anything was going to happen with it,” he said. “Ordinaire was kind of like Mark and I finding out how we write together.” Fans decided that they liked how the two wrote, a lot. The EP, and especially the single “My Leather, My Fur, My Nails,” gained positive critical acclaim.
“Then here I am. Here we are,” said McCarthy.
Here they are, indeed. With a fresh album, Wildlife Pop, just released June 12, 2012, on Black Bell Records, and their summer booked with Warped Tour, Stepdad seems poised on the brink of fame and money, or at least a prime position on everyone’s summer playlist.
The five-piece, rounded out by Alex Fives, Jeremy Malvin, and, most recently, Nathan K., has created a pitch-perfect pop album with Wildlife Pop. The triumphant first track, “Must Land Running,” sets the tone for the whole record. Imagine running headlong down a hill covered in long grass and flowers, so fast your feet feel like they’re about to leave the ground. That’s what Stepdad sounds like, with lots of keyboard and falsetto.
The group recorded their album last summer in New York City after being signed to Black Bell Records, a label started in 2010 by Ayad Al Adhamy of Passion Pit.
McCarthy stresses that the name of the album shouldn’t be taken literally, just like the band name.
“It was more of a boundary to write within than anything,” he said. “We weren’t trying to do anything dumb, like, oh, ‘it’s an album about animals.’ I just wanted to have an album that just kind of sounded like it was being played outside. I got the idea to, underneath every song on the album, I layered field recordings of just outdoor ambiance. You can’t hear it but you can feel it. It makes the songs sound really big,” McCarthy said.
It’s true. Stepdad has a huge sound, and no pretensions about it. They aren’t trying to send a message, be serious, write a concept album, pretend like they’re the hottest new thing (though they very well may be), or even have a band name that make sense. They’re delivering amazingly fun pop music, and doing it really well.
The fact that the band members don’t have additional full-time jobs shows, too. The album is tight and well-thought-out. It speaks of hours and hours spent rehearsing and orchestrating and thinking about all of the details.
Stepdad is on the line-up for this summer’s Warped Tour, which seems like a strange fit, given the general pop-punk theme of the tour.
“It kind of caught us all by surprise,” McCarthy said. “I hope that the response will be good. It seems like they’re trying to expand. I guess we’re one of those fringe bands. We’ll see how it goes.”
After Warped, Stepdad has their own fall tour in the works. Watch for them in the nearest big city, and put on dancing shoes. If Stepdad were a stepdad, this is the cool concert he’d take his kid to.