By Erin Coulehan, Contributor, DC Music Live
A rush of cold air swept through U Street Music Hall’s entrance before the screaming began. Spencer Walker, A Silent Film‘s scruffy drummer with a quick pace and inviting smile, had opened the door as he and his bandmates emerged from the venue. But Walker and his buddies didn’t get very far before they were stopped by eager fans bravely facing the frosty night to be the first to enter the club, the best way to ensure scoring a prime spot to see the show.
Robert Stevenson, the band’s dark haired and charismatic lead vocalist, made the night of several fans waiting at the beginning of the line when he shook their hands and posed for pictures, promising he would back shortly. I could hear the girls squealing with delight as we quickly crossed U Street against the crosswalk, the heels of my shoes click-clacking against the pavement while trying to keep up with the British alt-rockers’ long strides.
We snagged a table at Vinoteca, an intimate wine bar that seems almost out of place among the dive bars, lounges and late night food stops that collectively give the U Street corridor its edgy charm. The bar was warm and welcoming, as were the four member of the band from Oxford, as we settled in and made small talk before formally beginning the interview.
“This has been our best tour to date,” said Stevenson while handing me a glass of chardonnay. A Silent Film began its first tour of 2013 in Florida in January, and will be traveling across America through March before completing the tour in California. The different climates present a packing challenge, but the quartet doesn’t bother themselves with sartorial questions: they’re thrilled to be back stateside promoting Sand & Snow, the band’s latest album released in June 2012.
After completing its inaugural tour of America in 2010, the band was inspired by its romance with the road a la Jack Kerouac, and decided to record its sophomore project at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas. The picturesque hacienda-style recording complex has housed artists including Bright Eyes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs who are attracted to the privacy granted to musicians amidst the rough and tumble appeal of the west Texas facility situated along the border of Mexico.
A Silent Film’s manager, Lee Evans, describes walking along an idyllic pecan grove which led to a fence: the fence separating the U.S. from Cuidad Juarez, Mexico and what a powerful experience it was for the band. A Silent Film had certainly found the Western-style adventure it was searching for while recording in America.
The song-writing process for the album and other songs is a lot like Fight Club: A Silent Film doesn’t like to talk about it.
“That’s the first rule of the song of the songwriting process – to not have one, otherwise it becomes like a formula and takes away from it,” says Stevenson at our table, with a wave of his right hand and a furrowed brow as he explains that he wrote the lyrics to “Danny, Dakota and the Wishing Well” in less than a day after Walker and fellow bandmates Karl Bareham and Ali Hussain sent him the music. He says often that’s how the best songs are made.
I remember the first time I heard “Danny, Dakota and the Wishing Well” off the Sand & Snow album. My sister and I were returning from a coffee date and our conversation was silenced by a song on Sirius XM’s Alt Nation. The song painted the story of Danny and Dakota, who were children when they met at a wishing well and grew up together, falling in love with one another at different times in their separate lives. My sister and I were intrigued – no, we were captivated – as we listened to Stevenson sing about the adult Dakota finding her husband in a hotel with her very best friend. He did what?! As if a friend was calling to share a bit of gossip.
I share this story with the table, and the four men light up, obviously pleased with the effects of their craft.
They tell me they’re inspired by literature and film, which is where the band takes its name from, a reference to Charlie Chaplin. Walker and Hussain had both read War and Peace while on the road and are interested in Russian literature. I recommend Gary Shteyngart’s A Super Sad True Love Story and give a brief synopsis as Hussain set his pint glass on the shiny metal table and Walker leans in with his chin resting in his hand. Both listen intently, and I realized that it’s this quality that draws hoards of fans to wait for them outside a venue in the dead of winter: they pay full, not half-hearted, attention to whomever they’re speaking with.
Conversation shifts to more abstract questions: if you could be anyone for a day, alive or dead, who would it be?
Responses include famous authors, Freddie Mercury, George Clooney, and David Bowie playing “Ziggy Stardust” which caused four rows of women to faint during one live performance.
“Can you imagine? Causing FOUR rows of women to faint by playing on stage?” asks Walker, blue eyes widened for emphasis while he and the rest of the table attempt to fathom what such a scene might look like.
At U Street Music Hall there was no fainting, but fans adored the show which also featured Brooklyn-based band on the rise, American Authors, and Gold Fields, an Australian band co-headlining with A Silent Film.
Stevenson’s delicate piano and poetic lyrics caused the crowd to swoon while Walker’s elaborate and booming drum work got them dancing.
“Ooh-ooh-ooh,” cooed the audience while the band played “Harbor Lights,” the second single from Snow & Sand which declares “I’ll be your rock when the water comes/ Don’t waste your life on the stepping stones” in its reassuring hook.
The lights glowed on the instruments while the band left the stage and the audience begged first for five, and then one more song.
After the show, the British rockers stuck around to accommodate the crowd that had gathered. They made a point to take photos, sign autographs and talk to each old and familiar face they encountered before packing up.
There was more squealing and bouncing as the quartet engaged a group of girls in conversation; willing tinder ignited by the band’s warm disposition and dynamic performance.