Feature: Coming Full Circle with Motel Radio

Motel Radio © Michael Tucker
Motel Radio © Michael Tucker
For Motel Radio, recent years have brought major changes – from a new multi-state existence to intensifying personal relationships, all culminating in their sophomore LP, ‘The Garden.’ In the process, songwriters Ian Wellman and Winston Triolo looked internally and learned how to always seek out the light, no matter the situation.
by guest writer Stefano Montali
Stream: “Stress” – Motel Radio

On a chilly April night in 2017, I sat in my apartment when a text from a friend popped up on my phone: “Show at Schubas tonight – wanna go?”

At the time, I wasn’t feeling great about life. Fresh out of college, I’d moved to Chicago where I knew almost no one, and spent a year making 75 calls per day to sell an advertising product that I didn’t believe even worked. On top of this, I was diagnosed with a mental health condition that was growing more severe. Factor in the recent realization that seasonal depression does exist (I blame my South Floridian upbringing), and you might understand why I wasn’t jumping at the chance to catch a show by two bands I’d never heard of.

For some reason, though, I said yes. I rode the southbound Red Line from Wilson to Belmont, pulled the venue’s front door open, walked past the wooden-panel bar and aqua-green walls and into the back room. Around eight o’clock, the group of 20-something year-old guys standing next to my friend and I walked up the stairs and stepped onto the stage.

This was Motel Radio, from New Orleans, and they were about to unknowingly kickstart my road to redemption.

•• ••

The Garden - Motel Radio
The Garden – Motel Radio

Motel Radio are a quartet made up of Ian Wellman (vocals/guitar), Winston Triolo (vocals/guitar), Andrew Pancamo (bass) and Eric Lloyd (drums). The band formed at Louisiana State University in 2014, when their two frontmen, Wellman and Triolo, were roommates. On September 2, their sophomore album The Garden, engineered by Ross Farbe (Video Age, Esther Rose), is set to release via Grammy-winning Single Lock Records.

The band’s sound is that of a breezy, southern melody, rounded out with earnest lyrics and accented with harmonies that evoke light nostalgia. They’re songs best listened to while sitting on a porch at night, or in a moving vehicle with your head on the window glass, or on a morning run before the sounds of traffic kicks off.

The band’s strength lies in painting pictures of simple scenes that are so universal that they nudge your mind to call up memories, whether they be warm, worrying, or bittersweet. For example, the band’s most-streamed song is “Streetlights.” In it, Wellman sings of young love, riddled with the reality of one half’s departure, through phrases like the “bus stop that I held you underneath” and hiding “in your room under cotton caves.”

The themes of The Garden, however, are less nostalgic and more forward-looking.

Wellman, one of the band’s two songwriters, says that in the process of making this latest record, “we’ve kind of grown up and had to address things about ourselves and our trajectory.” This started right around the time the world was coming to terms with COVID-19. A day before the U.S. went into lockdown in March 2020, Wellman moved to San Francisco to join his fiancee, a nurse. About a year later, Triolo –who now also plays bass for indie-darling Summer Salt– moved to Portland. Splitting up between the West Coast and New Orleans was a natural turning point for the band. “It became obvious to all of us that we needed to figure out how to step back and tend to each of our personal lives and development if the band was going to last in any meaningful way,” Triolo says. “COVID forced us all to look internally,” adds Wellman.

This new, state-spanning reality would not only influence how the band writes new songs, but what issues would eventually appear in them.

Motel Radio © Michael Tucker
Motel Radio © Michael Tucker

In Chicago, Motel Radio’s set went on. The warm lyrics and constant melodies coming from the stage formed an almost hypnotic cocoon of sound around me. I wasn’t floating-above-my-body transcendent, but I did feel that during those 40 minutes, I was gifted the space to finally just be present, with the music.

There are times in a battle with mental health when the only thing you want is to feel something that isn’t the omnipresent worry you’re so used to feeling. You think that if you could just get a few minutes of mental clarity –to remember what it’s like– then that’d be enough to prove there’s a light somewhere out there. At the time, that clarity was rare. But for some reason, it came that night during this set, and I immediately felt appreciative of the instigators behind it. Their music had somehow weaved itself past an often impenetrable wall.

“Let’s go hang out with the bassist,” said my friend in my ear. He knew Pancamo’s cousin from LSU, so we walked over to the front bar, started talking, and by the time a few tequila shots had been emptied, we’d missed the headliner’s entire set. That night, I went home and decided to get serious about music. Having had this experience during the show convinced me –desperate for a weapon against my struggle– that music might be the right one. For months afterward, each morning on the way to work, I’d play the songs in my ear, longing for at least a filtered-down version of the anecdote I’d been given that night at Schubas.

“There’s never a time when we sit down, and say, ‘Shall we address mental health?’” Wellman tells me over a Zoom video call with the band last month.

“I respect the people who write like a conceptual record. Andy Shauf is really good at that, where he’ll be like ‘Here’s the north star idea’ and all the songs are gonna feed into that. But I don’t think that’s really how we operate.”

I had asked Wellman about this theme that snakes itself throughout the songs on “The Garden”. Triolo, Wellman’s fellow song-writer, chimes in: “A lot of the songs on the last album [Siesta Del Sol] felt a little like we were troubled. In this album, we try to make it full circle and figure out how to get out of those feelings.”

While listening, it’s clear that many of the songs aren’t only about accepting the tough times we all have to face, but learning that helping others, and allowing others to help us, are as much a part of the process of finding the light as anything we can do alone.

In “Happiness Pie,” the album’s leading track, Wellman imagines happiness as a pastry: “I remember basking in the sunlight and wishing I could give my brother some of the peace I was feeling in that moment,” he says. “He was going through a difficult time and it just felt so unfair that one person could have all this happiness while another could be struggling so deeply.”

Motel Radio © Michael Tucker
Motel Radio © Michael Tucker

A lot of the songs on the last album felt a little like we were troubled. In this album, we try to make it full circle and figure out how to get out of those feelings.

– Winston Triolo

Later on in “Me and My Sunshine,” Wellman pivots to the receiving end as he realizes that talking about struggles with depression and anxiety opens the door for others to help out. “This was probably the first time I’ve communicated those feelings in a song. It’s really uncomfortable for me to talk to people when I’m going through things –partly because I think I should be strong enough to handle them and partly because I don’t want to burden other people. I’m learning that it’s more healthy and really brave to just openly communicate.”

In the catchy “Heat Wave,” Triolo sings about learning to be open to outside help, and finding ways to be gentler on himself.

Now go easy on me
Easy on me now
C’mon and lift me off the ground
C’mon and turn me around
There’s a dead guy in my mirror,
Man he’s looking bad
He tells me what to do
He says, “Winston won’t you get out of the shadows
And change your point of view”

It’s really uncomfortable for me to talk to people when I’m going through things –partly because I think I should be strong enough to handle them and partly because I don’t want to burden other people. I’m learning that it’s more healthy and really brave to just openly communicate.

– Ian Wellman

Compared to Siesta Del Sol, there’s a stronger sense of optimism in The Garden, that perhaps comes from more time spent around the sun and the understanding of what’s actually important it can provide. In the last year, Wellman has gotten engaged. Lloyd is now married and a father. Things have changed, sure, and although it was tough on the band at first, it’s allowed them to develop and face their demons head on.

Overall, “the album is about choosing to look on the bright side, even when the brightness is just a dim flicker that could blow out at any second,” says Wellman.

•• ••

A year and a half later, I lived in San Francisco. I had helped form a band and although I was in therapy now, my mental health was still pretty shit. I saw that MR was coming to town, so I convinced my drummer to come with me to their show at Hotel Utah Saloon, and we watched amongst a supportive crowd of New Orleans transplants and local hipsters. After the set, I went up to Pancamo, who was standing in the upstairs foyer overlooking the stage with Triolo. We talked about music (Julia Jacklin and Faye Webster, I think) and eventually exchanged Facebook contacts. When they came back to play Great American Music Hall –opening for Summer Salt on their nationwide tour– later that year, we’d reconnect again.

Then some time passed. I was starting to see glimmers of my old self. I realized that talking more openly about my struggles with mental health allowed them to become just another part of life and less so its focus. My band even went on a mini-tour in California. Things were looking up.

Motel Radio © Michael Tucker
Motel Radio © Michael Tucker

The album is about choosing to look on the bright side, even when the brightness is just a dim flicker that could blow out at any second.

– Ian Wellman

Given the physical distance between Triolo and Wellman’s new homes, the writing process on “The Garden” was more individualistic, allowing for the necessary space that can inspire personal introspection.

In ”Sweet Daze”, Triolo writes of a night at a Whitney concert with friends who helped him overcome loneliness. “We were dancing our butts off that night, not thinking about anything else we had to do, or any troubles we were going through.” In “Stress,” the first song that Wellman wrote after moving to San Francisco, he switches to a conversational style not used in previous releases. In it, Wellman writes openly to his fiancee, a nurse who is struggling with the intensity of the early days of the pandemic.

You can talk to me and be honest
I know that it gets difficult
I’ve gotta work on it too

“I was kind of afraid to do that previously because I felt like there needed to be a deeper meaning, but I actually think that it resonates with people on a different level. When I have an audience I think my mind fires a little differently and gets more narrative rather than just how I talk to a friend and express the exact thought that’s in my head.”

Today, he often sends it to friends or family as a reminder that “when you zoom out a bit, you’ll see that often problems that feel so big are really not the monsters they appear to be.”

In October 2019, I was on a morning run when I got a message from Pancamo: “Would The Fluorescents wanna open up for Motel Radio?” I realize it sounds a bit melodramatic, but when I got the notification on my phone, I stopped on the side of the road, reread his message, and got goosebumps. If you’ve struggled with mental health, you know that sometimes little occurrences like this take on an almost irrational level of meaning. You decide to take them as signs from the universe, or God, or the ether, that just maybe there’s a bit of light around the corner.

A few months later, we played together at Brick and Mortar (the same venue where my band had played our first ever show). It might not have seemed too big a deal for MR to invite us, but it meant a lot to me. There we were, opening for the band that had given me a glimpse of hope years before in Chicago: a full-circle moment.

•• ••

By hearing the stories behind the songs, I got a glimpse of how our experiences in this world can come to shape not only who we are, but how we treat others, and ourselves. In the case of The Garden, Wellman says a mix of two personal narratives unintentionally focused on a lot of the same topics.

As the process went on, he “started thinking about these songs as a sort of ecosystem, because they all tie into each other in funny ways. You think of a garden as this beautiful, blooming thing, even when, sometimes it’s not. Maybe what we wanted to convey is a sense of optimism.”

Motel Radio © Michael Tucker
Motel Radio © Michael Tucker

Overall, The Garden is an uplifting album, one that makes you feel like things can change.

You can get better. You can start to see life differently: who you were five years ago, isn’t the person you are now. Prior to our call, I thought about telling the guys how I felt my own life and their music had intertwined. But I chickened out at the last minute; they wouldn’t have known until they read this story.

One interesting thing about growing up is that you start to realize that just because you know that talking about what’s on your mind and in your heart is almost always the better route, that doesn’t mean you’ll always choose it. As Wellman explains, it’s all part of the process. “We want people to know that it’s okay to have struggles with your mental health or with yourself or with other people or substances or whatever it is. But just don’t forget that there’s somebody there to pull you out. There’s always a light.”

There’s always more to learn. And you can always grow more.

Just like in a garden.

— —

Stefano Montali is a journalist and audio producer based in Berlin. His work has been featured in publications such as The Guardian, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Business Insider, Prospect Magazine, The Local and Are We Europe. Originally from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he previously worked as a Producer in San Francisco. Find him on Twitter or Instagram!

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Stream: “Stress” – Motel Radio

— — — —

The Garden - Motel Radio

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