photo by Daniel Michael Pellisier
As part of our Road to VanFest series, where we highlight bands playing VanFest 8, a hyper-local music festival based in Maple Valley, I was able to catch up with Ian McCutcheon, the frontman of the synth-pop group Familiars. Earlier in the day he told me that he had been stung on his nipple by a bee — a very unfortunate blunder during his job as a landscaper. While he assured me he was overall pleased that it was only one bee sting, I’m still thinking about how that’s easily one of the worst places to get stung. But after we discussed other miserable stings, we talked Familiars’ debut LP Digest Self, 80s inspirations, and of course, all about VanFest. Read the full interview below:
So I was just listening to Digest Self and it's super 80s. What was your sort of inspiration to create something 80s-inspired in 2016?
That was kind of a reaction I guess, I was in this band called Kithkin, who I had done a bunch of touring with, which was my main music project and that fell apart in 2015. Up until that point, the digital cold that music happened in the 80s had been something that I was really pushed against musically, hadn't really listened to, and kind of ignored.
So when I started a new project I wanted to try and force myself to do something as different as possible… from what I had been doing before. As I started to get into the stuff my parents had played when I was growing up, like a lot of Bruce Springsteen and Tears for Fears and things like that. I just started listening to it, kind of obsessing over it, and just fell in love with synths, gated reverbs, and digital music production, and decided to use that as my palette for my next set of songwriting.
If you're not totally into 80s, what did you usually like to listen to before you went on this spree?
I was very into psychedelic music — I'm a drummer to begin with. So before I started getting into kinda more synthy 80s stuff, I was into a lot of percussion focused music, a lot of drum heavy stuff. I went through a phase where I was into metal for awhile, and also very into like 60s psych pop stuff, like The Kinks and The Zombies. And then I started falling in love with more like 80s and 90s music, and it's been fun to go down that rabbit hole — there's just a lot there.
There's a lot of great current music which is homaging to that era as well. But there's just a baffling amount of music that I had missed out on up until that point. So it's fun to go back and listen to stuff, especially things that I had heard growing up that I thought wasn't cool or fun to listen to, and then realizing that it had kind of soundtracked my youth, and that I have memories tied to songs that I had kind of ignored for most of my adult life.
On your Bandcamp it says that you recorded this in a cabin by Mount Rainier. How did that come about?
Yeah, I didn't really have any budget for the album [laughs], and I knew I was going to self-record it. I just reached out on Facebook and asked if anyone knew of a place where I could go record for a few days. A friend of mine got back to me and he said that he knew someone who had a cabin that I could record in and so I reached out and only talked to this person. I had never met him and it was six months in advance. He said, “Sure just go out here in October, we'll work out the details later,” and the communications dropped for like half a year. And then when the date approached to go record that album I realized that everything was still set in place and was going to happen, but I still had never met this person. I made arrangements to pick up a key and they left it in the mailbox. As we were leaving, as I packed our gear up, he sent me a list of directions in an email of how to get there.
And it was very cool, but it was a little spooky because everything in it was covered in white sheets, and it became clear to us as we were looking through family photos and things that had been covered up, that it looked like this Grandma had passed away relatively recently. So we were staying in this cabin that had recently been lived in and owned by a woman who had just passed away. So it was like a little spooky for that reason but also kind of great — it gave this like eerie kind of edge to us staying there for a few days.
I've only seen you as a solo act, will your set at VanFest be a full band?
Yeah it will be a full band. I've got a keyboard player, guitar player, bass, drums and I think I have a buddy joining me on saxophone too so it'll be very different than the solo set.
How do your two sets differ? When do you decide when you want to do a full band versus not?
I typically like to do the full band, if everyone can make it, but it's really hard to do a partial band show so if any one member can't make it to a set, I'll usually do a solo set instead, but I like both a lot. The solo set is more performative, it's more theatrical, I get to use props and explore the stage a lot more. With the band I play a little bit more guitar, it's less theatrical, although I still like to dance around. But I do like to treat each one like a different performance. Lately, I've been doing more full band stuff. I'm hoping for the rest of the summer to do full band work and then the band's going to record another record in the next year. But it's always nice to fall back on doing solo sets too. I like a mix of both.
Have you ever played VanFest before?
I haven't, and I've been hearing about it for years. I have friends from Maple Valley who told me about it and Maggie, my keyboard player, grew up with Van and knows Van very well and has gone like almost every year. And so she's super, super excited to play at it. I've been hearing about it for a long time and I've known Van just through the music community for a while so I'm excited to see it all come together for sure.
Who are you most excited to see?
I'm very excited to see Tool, which is a side project of Caitlyn from Hoop. Also Gems, because drums are my first instrument, and I've been recently into synth music, Gems are basically two drummers and two synth players who are some of the most talented musicians I've ever seen — so I'm very, very stoked to see Gems. I also play drums in Whitney Ballan's band, so I think I play twice near the end of the festival.
Can you describe Van Wolfe in one sentence or less?
Oh wow. I guess Van is the person I know who has the most tattoos of him in the world probably.
There may be some celebrities who have more of their face tattooed on someone else's body, but I kind of find it hard to believe. Van's got quite a few people who are willing to tattoo his name or his likeness on their body, so that's the first thing I think of. He has a running, kind of, like a guarantee that if you tattoo his name or his face onto your body he'll pay for the tattoo and so I think there are several people who have that tattoo.