The Family Crest has already earned widespread national applause for their extraordinary orchestral pop ambition but with THE WAR, the San Francisco-based collective makes their boldest, most fully articulated musical statement thus far. The second installment of what promises to be an epic musical saga, THE WAR: ACT I represents “the next version of The Family Crest,” says frontman-founder Liam McCormick and indeed, the album reveals a band more in tune with its own large-scale Baroque eclecticism.
Songs like “Take Tonight” and “It Keeps Us Dancing” wed a remarkable span of sonic influences – from ’70s groove to synth-pop, Afro-Cuban soul to California jazz, glam rock, and anything else that might suit the greater goal – to create a cohesive, utterly original sound and vision all its own. Preceded in early 2017 by the PRELUDE TO WAR EP, the new album marks the first act of a greater multi-tiered project, a kind of serial concept album with a pronounced thematic arc that weaves ideas of pride and memory, dissonance, and divergence, into a purposefully ambiguous but undeniably unified whole.
“THE WAR is ultimately about conflict,” says McCormick. “The battles we go through every day, the trauma we reference from various situations in our lives that inform the decisions we make. It’s about the complexity of human nature, how we’re all equally capable of doing wonderful things and terrible things. It’s about the control that those battles have over us as we move through our lives.”
The seeds of THE WAR were first planted in 2009, even as McCormick and co-founder/bassist John Seeterlin began work on The Family Crest’s earliest studio recordings.
“In a weird way,” he says, “THE WAR has existed for the entirety of the band. It’s been in my head for so long. It’s almost been like a goal – something we’ve been looking at and hoping we could actually do.”
The Family Crest officially embarked on its journey with 2010’s SONGS FROM THE VALLEY BELOW EP, followed in 2012 by the Kickstarter-funded THE VILLAGE. The “exponentially more complex” BENEATH THE BRINE proved the next iteration of McCormick’s increasing compositional skills, earning acclaim for its expansive pop soundscapes and ever more moving songcraft. All the while, McCormick continued writing THE WAR, its gradual development allowing the piece to be formed “in a more complex way,” he says. Recording officially commenced in 2014 with basic tracks to be slowly nurtured and built upon.
“We always start with guitar, bass, drums,” McCormick says, “and then begin orchestrating it bit by bit.”
From its start, The Family Crest’s audacious approach has been matched by an even bolder vision of musical community, with the seven-piece core of the band augmented by members of the “Extended Family” – some 400 friends and fans each contributing whatever musical element they can. BRINE featured musicians recorded up and down the west coast, but after years of touring, The Family Crest had developed both a national fan following as well as an increasingly long list of musicians who wanted to join the Family. As they began THE WAR: ACT I, McCormick and Seeterlin decided to include more of the Extended Family than ever before.
“Our rule is if anybody wants to play on our record,” McCormick says, “we’re going to find a place for them if we can. There are 150 people playing on THE WAR: ACT I, people of all different skill levels, but they each have something invested in the project. It’s become a way of meeting these wonderful people and giving them an opportunity. Giving people the chance to make music.”
In 2015, McCormick and Seeterlin hit the road with longtime video collaborator Keith Lancaster, recording contributions from over 90 different Extended Family members – spanning bassoon to backing vocals – in living rooms, basements (and recording studios) across the United States largely on their own self-constructed rig.
“We just like making music with people,” McCormick says. “It was extremely exhausting but also extremely rewarding.”
McCormick and The Family Crest are not unaware of the striking irony of THE WAR, finding it rather fitting that diverse Americans from across the country have come together to create a work with themes of civil discord at its very core. Having worked on its songs for nearly seven years, McCormick finally completed much of THE WAR’s first three chapters during the 2016 election and the months that followed. Unsurprisingly, those epochal events “seeped into the consciousness of this record.” Further inspiration came from daily runs through San Francisco’s historic Presidio district, studying about the civil war and considering his own experiences as a half-Irish, half-Chinese-American “growing up in a largely white community as one of the only people of color in my sphere.”
“We did not expect to be releasing THE WAR: ACT I at a time where its themes were so relevant,” McCormick says. “The bottom line is we are all informed on a very unconscious level by the things around us. So if you wrote lyrics in the last two years – and have a conscience – there’s no way that at least part of those lyrics aren’t informed by what’s happened.”
On their face, songs like “Waiting Still” and “Never Gonna Stop” might seem more intensely personal than overtly political but make no mistake, THE WAR: ACT I is the most defiantly radical music the band has made thus far. While acknowledging its narrative links, McCormick is still loath to be too explicit regarding THE WAR’s interconnected themes and how those themes relate to future works. Rather, he prefers listeners perceive the tale on their own or perhaps not at all, another affirmation of the collaborative relationship between The Family Crest and its growing audience.
“There is a story,” McCormick says. “But knowing it is going to affect the way you listen to the record. I want people to have the option to create their own experience. That’s your own version of THE WAR.” The Family Crest has been marching inexorably towards THE WAR from its very beginning. The long-gestating project is now fully underway, with much of THE WAR Act II already tracked and future installments current being written and recorded. While such an enormous operation would be daunting for most bands, The Family Crest was born to do battle with THE WAR.
“There’s always a new element of challenge to everything this band does,” Liam McCormick says. “We’ve always thrust ourselves into projects that to some degree, we weren’t fully ready for.”