Escaping the Obvious and Reaching People: A Conversation with VARSITY

VARSITY © Nick Matsas
VARSITY © Nick Matsas

The essence of youth is something very hard to replicate. Youth in itself is ambiguous and relative, catering to each person differently and providing us all with different questions. So what can we call youthful music? Is it the music you listened to when you were in middle and high school, the song you first saw being played live, the first album you remember owning, or none of the above? There is no set definition to what youthful music is, but it could be summed up into the feeling you have when you listen to it. It’s a whirl of energy, dancing, angst, honesty, rawness, fun, and emotion.

VARSITY, honouring its name, manages to accurately transmit this feeling with their music, combining witty and powerful lyrics with catchy guitar riffs and a solid rhythm and coming up with pop songs you’ll be glad to have stuck in your head all day. Based in Chicago and made up of Stephanie, Dylan, Patrick, Jake, and Paul, VARSITY released their debut album in 2015 and recently had their song “Eye to Eye” named as one of the top 10 “Songs of 2016 So Far” by TIME Magazine.

Listen: “Eye to Eye” – VARSITY

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Atwood Magazine had the chance to chat with a few of the band’s members about their music, songwriting process, using real people’s names in their songs, the band’s future, and how they juggle their music with having a full-time job. There are great things in store for VARSITY, so get to know them now because you’ll certainly hear about them in the future.

VARSITY © Nick Matsas
VARSITY © Nick Matsas


Atwood Magazine: Hey! How are you guys?

VARSITY: Good! You’ve got Dylan, Jake, and Steph here.

First of all - I hear it’s Patrick’s birthday! Tell him Atwood wishes him a birthday!

Dylan: He’s actually not here, but we absolutely will!

How did you guys get together as a band? And for long have each of you been playing your instruments /making music?

Jake: Well, I never really know that story because I kind of like hopped in and came one year late, but I started playing drums in 7th Grade, I played a lot with Paul, my brother who’s a bass player, and we would make up songs, we had a high school band for a while… But yeah, those are my humble beginnings.

Steph: How VARSITY came to be, from the beginning, was that I hosted a salon night at my house and basically invited anyone who wanted to do any sort of art or music to perform, and Dylan and Pat played guitar. We were already all friends and so I kind of asked if we could all play together. We would practice in my living room and then it sort of evolved from there because we had to round out the band with drums and a bass player. That was about two years ago. From there, we found Jake and then found Paul, who’s Jake’s brother – actually I went to high school with both of them – and since then, pretty much a year ago, it’s been us. That has been the line-up.

You have been a band for only a few years and yet “Eye to Eye” was just named by TIME Magazine as one of the top 10 songs of 2016 so far. Congratulations for that! Where do you see you guys going next?

All: Thank you!  

Dylan: Right now, we’re just writing songs and we’ve been putting those singles out for about the past year or so and now I think we’re going to try and write another full-length and hopefully put it out. Yeah, that’s the plan, we’ll probably try and tour again before the end of the year.

Speaking of tours: You guys all have full-time jobs - how do you balance that with your music? Especially with touring, since you just came back from tour?

Dylan: It’s kind of like having two full-time jobs, you know, we just do the other one at night for the most part. We all live pretty close to each other and our practice space is in our neighbourhood, aside from Steph’s, and so we all try to get to practice and try to write songs on the weekend and stuff like that. Then we all get time off and go halfway across America and come back.

Smash/Still Apart - VARSITY
Smash/Still Apart – VARSITY (2016)

Jake: Yeah, it’s pretty exhausting like, I feel pretty tired right now. I just worked a full day and now I’m here and we have a night planned out, which is cool, like doing something we love, but it’s pretty exhausting.

Steph: I think I speak for everyone when I say it kind of sucks, just to balance both of them. It’s difficult.

Jake: It’s worth it, though. We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t.

Steph: The Sunday night before we get back from tour somebody always is like “Hey, how do you guys feel about waking up and going to work tomorrow?”

Dylan: Yeah, I always try and get people psyched for the work week ahead.

Jake: One tour you did it on Friday, we were getting back from tour on Friday and you were like “Hey, are you ready for work on Monday?”. We still had a really good show coming up and he just ruined the rest of it.

You guys were just on tour - how was it? Do you have a favourite moment to share with us?

Dylan: From that tour I think the last show that we played, with Fortune and Hoops at this place called Empty Bottle at Pitchfork Music Festival, it was one of the after shows. That was really fun, just coming home, and we had been playing the same stuff for about a week straight, we were pretty well-rehearsed, it was a fun show.

Jake: I enjoyed the Toronto show a lot. Everyone was all out dancing to all of the songs and we met a lot of really cool people. It was the best crowd, it was fun. It wasn’t a huge audience but we got a really good response in there. Two underage kids came from like an hour or two away, drove to our show, and asked if we could make the entrance all ages, and we were able to do it. It was an awesome experience meeting them, they were really grateful.

Steph - your songs are about almost everything, I feel like you don’t choose to talk about the usual themes like heartbreak, sex, drugs, etc. What do you like to write about the most?

Steph: That’s a compliment, thank you for saying that! I don’t know what I like to write about the most. I have a hard time writing about those things you just named like love and sex, to me that’s advanced songwriting. But I like to write about anything, I guess? I have these ideas that I write down and they just have to stick with the mood of the song. I don’t necessarily think to myself “I’m going to write about a specific thing.” We write the music first and the lyrics are always last, so I kind of reference this list of themes I want to write about and then see what fits with the song. I find it really hard to write about being in love or relationships, especially since then the person can hear the song, I’m kind of cautious.

Also, several of your other songs have people’s names as titles - are those real names?

Steph: Those are real people’s names.

Did you fear the person’s reaction to the song before they came out?

Steph: Hmm… Yes. Maybe not enough. In some cases I think I thought about it once it was too late and the song was already written and I was like “Oh, this is a good song, I’m not going to change its name”. Once it was a song I couldn’t go back. But I would strongly reconsider doing that in the future. That’s what I’ll say about it.

VARSITY © Nick Matsas
VARSITY © Nick Matsas

Dylan - how do you and Pat balance having two guitars when writing the songs? Is there one of you who focuses more on riffs and the other one on the rhythm, or do the both of you work together?

Dylan: I’d say we mix it up. Usually it’s just either us bouncing ideas off each other or he’ll come in with a riff or I’ll come in with a chord progression, and from then we just try to make sure we’re complementing each other but not stealing too much of the spotlight. Neither of us are into having solos and stuff but we like to make our lines pretty interesting.

I know you guys all write the songs together, but when I listen to your songs like “Eye to Eye” there are so many layers to it, it’s hard to imagine all of you coming up with it together. Tell me a little bit more about how this process is.

Jake: I think that one came from a jam.

Dylan: Yeah, it’s funny actually, a lot of people say that about that song but we were all just jamming one night in our studio, and I guess that groove just came together pretty fast. Then Steph put the lyrics down the next week and that song was done in two weeks.

Steph: That’s not typical.

Dylan: That was a fast one. We’ll usually work on a song sometimes for a year.

Steph: Two weeks to a year.

What song took you guys a year to write?

Dylan: “Amanda” was like six months. And a song we just put out, “Still Apart,” we’ve been kicking that song’s main structure around for probably over a year. But we finally hunkered down and figured out what we needed to fix about it. I think that’s really important too – if it doesn’t feel like it works, we just let it sit and then bring it back, and if it works we keep going with it. That’s a product, I think, of having all five of our sets of ears on it, we’re not afraid to say if it’s not working and move on to something else.

Jake: I feel like we’re pretty critical, we have critical ears, and if we don’t like something then it’s pretty obvious. And if one person doesn’t like something, for the most part, we make minor changes. But we all have to be happy with the end product.

Listen: “Still Apart” – VARSITY

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Your music has changed a lot since the release of your debut album to Smash/Still Apart, despite these two not being released too distant from each other, to what do you attribute this change?

Dylan: We had the songs on our record for a while before they came out and the newest singles are what we’re going for these days. I think it’s probably what we’re listening to and moving in real time to try and figure out what we do best, which I don’t know if we know yet.

Your idea to release digital 7” was a great way to modernize a classic way to listen to and appreciate music. Your music, especially your most recent songs, is also reminiscent of a different time. How do you manage balancing such a technology-driven era we’re in with ideas from the past you want to bring back?

Steph: I don’t know if it was as intentional as that, but I think those are all good points. I don’t think we thought about it like “We want to bring the 7” back”, we thought of it as, in an age where people release things digitally there is more freedom to release it on your own schedule and not need anybody else’s backing. We were working pretty fast through songs and we didn’t want to wait and accumulate them into a whole album. It’s also just being impatient which I think we all are. Also just knowing that people will accept that mode of releasing things on the internet, especially if you give your music away for free. It’s all about just reaching people.

Adding on to that, you guys recently released cassettes with a few of your songs - what drove that idea?

Dylan: I think there has been a recent resurgence in cassettes. It’s easy to trade with other bands and it’s something more aesthetically pleasing than a CD or just an MP3, it’s something tangible and you can control the artwork of it more. It just feels like something a little bit more substantial. It’s also good to trade tapes with other bands as well to see what other people are doing, it’s cheap to do, and I have a cassette player so we did the cassettes ourselves. We just put the singles we wanted to release on my machine and yeah, it’s easy to do, it’s cheap.

Eye to Eye / Kelly - VARSITY
Eye to Eye / Kelly – VARSITY

Cult of Personality / So Sad, So Sad - VARSITY
Cult of Personality / So Sad, So Sad – VARSITY

How do you choose the cover art for each of your digital 7”? They all seem quite different but at the same time very reflective of the pair of songs they come with.

Steph: We hand over the artistic reigns of the cover art to Clare Byrne who’s a Chicago artist. We basically just give her the songs and trust her to come up with artwork that respect them. She’s our friend as well, which helps, because she knows us and our personalities and by now she knows our music really well. We can trust her with thinking of art to reflect the songs and then we might go through a couple phases of reviving it, but it’s pretty much bang on.

I saw on another interview of yours that each of your releases has a colour associated to it and you want to go through”the whole spectrum”. Also, you said you’ll have to write to a colour in case you don’t get to use it. What colour is next, and what do you think would be the hardest colour to write to?

Steph: I think that was a joke but Pat has a very dry sense of humour. But on a serious note, I think…

Dylan: Dark purple.

Steph: I’d go with dark purple. Like an eggplant.

Do you guys feel any sort of pressure or face any challenges by being a female-fronted band in an industry that is dominated by men?

Steph: Is there a pressure? I think it’s the general pressure to succeed, whatever we decide that means, and that’s unrelated to being a female-fronted band. In different cities it’s more noticeable when there are more women musicians, promoters, bookers… It’s interesting to go on tour because you notice that stuff more. I feel like Chicago especially is male dominated, like the industry is male-dominated I guess, but there’s an amazing group called Women in Music in Chicago that really supports female musicians, bookers, managers, artists, all sorts of women in the music industry and kind of brings up issues to light and provides us with a space to talk about them. But I don’t feel any particular pressure related to being a woman in a band. I feel pressure to just make good music.

Jake: I guess that I don’t think about it consciously. I mean, it comes up from times to time and I’m like “Oh yeah, I guess we are a female-fronted band” and that’s something that’s not completely common but I listen to a lot of female-fronted bands and all female bands and stuff, so maybe in the genre that we’re in it’s a bit more common. I don’t think about it too often, but every once in a while someone is surprised that it’s a woman-fronted band and I’m like “Oh really? Why?”. I don’t really think about it, which I guess is good because it feels natural, it’s not like our shtick or something. We have a good thing going for us other than that.

Finally, if there was one song you would like VARSITY to be known for, what would that song be?

Jake: Like a song that would do down in history as a VARSITY song? I like “Still Apart” a lot. But it’s the newest one, so maybe that will change.

Dylan: I would agree, I think that’s probably my favourite song of ours. But hey, maybe it’s a song that we haven’t written yet!

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cover: VARSITY © Nick Matsas
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