Friday, 25 July 2014

NO MATTER THE SEASON: An interview with American soul band Neighbours!

Below is our exclusive interview with Michael Cunningham of Pennyslvania-based soul band Neighbours!
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What is your earliest musical memory and what pushed you towards pursuing a career in the music industry?
"There’s not one specific memory that sticks out really. Growing up, I was always singing in school productions and singing in choirs. I took piano lessons for many years, starting at the age of ten, and I took up guitar lessons for about two years as well. I always loved music, and started forming little bands with my schoolmates when I was thirteen or so. From the time I went to university, I always wanted to start a proper band, but I knew that I wanted to play a specific type of music, and it took many years for me to find other musicians who were likeminded in that regard."
What sort of records were played around the house when you were younger and do these records have an influence on your songwriting?
"I can remember my dad playing a strange assortment of records around the house when I was a child, ranging from Buddy Holly to seventies Clapton to the soundtrack for the film 'Fame'. This was in the mid-eighties to early-nineties, and my older brother listened to a lot of contemporary pop music, especially Minneapolis sound records and hip hop, so I spent a lot of time hanging out with him and absorbing that. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I really formed my own musical palate, which consisted primarily of hip hop, britpop, hard funk (especially purveyors of the Minneapolis sound that I had learned about from my brother), and mod rock. Later, when I was at university, I became enthralled with Tamla/Motown soul from going to various northern nights, which have been popular in Pittsburgh for much of my adult life."
"Of these, mod rock and northern soul have especially influenced my approach to songwriting. I greatly admire writers like Pete Townshend, Steve Marriott, Rod Argent, Paul Weller, and Edwyn Collins."
Had you been involved in any other band prior to Neighbours?
"Growing up, I was in various schoolboy bands, and as an adult, I participated in a few one-off collaborations for special events, but Neighbours is my first serious band."
Can you introduce the band and tell us what everybody plays?
"I am the primary vocalist and play keyboard. Ross Reilly is our guitar player, Joe Tarowsky plays bass, and Andy Mulkerin is our drummer. Ross, Joe and I all write for the group, and Ross and Joe sing lead vocals on several Neighbours tracks as well."
How did Neighbours begin?
"Ross and I met in 2002 in a music class at the University of Pittsburgh. We became friends through our work at the university’s radio station, but upon graduation, we both moved away from Pittsburgh. Whilst I was living in Georgia and Ross was living in Alaska, we passed demos back and forth and realized that we shared an interest in writing and playing very similar styles of music. We moved back to Pittsburgh in 2008 with the express purpose of forming a band."
"We played a local Who tribute show that benefited a charitable organization in early 2009 where we met Joe, who helped organize the event and was a veteran musician who had played in many groups around town. He played bass with us at that gig, and we had great chemistry from the start. Later that year, Ross contacted Andy, who had played drums in a band called The Sea, like lead. Ross had known Andy from their university days together, and the three of us got on very well from the first time we met to discuss playing music with each other. The four of us started practicing and writing in 2009, and we’ve been at it ever since."

Where did the name Neighbours come from?

"Following a significant amount of (painful) debate over a band name, we chose Neighbours because it was simple and it subtly expressed the intrinsic ethos of the group. We’re fairly gregarious guys who play pop music. We want our audiences to feel welcomed at our shows and have a good time. We’re not going to challenge the way you think about life or bore you with eight-minute guitar solos."

"The name is also a send-up of a few cultural aspects of life in Pittsburgh. Among U.S. cities, Pittsburgh is well-known for its many small, tight-knit, distinctive neighborhoods that sprung up around various steel mills during the Industrial Revolution and remain to this day. And Fred Rogers, who is an icon of children’s television programming in the States, lived and worked in Pittsburgh. For 30 years, he hosted a nationally broadcast program called 'Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood', which we all grew up on, so it’s an understated tribute to him as well."

You spell your name with the English spelling instead of the American spelling. Is there any particular reason for this?

"In 2010, when we first started playing gigs, we used the American spelling. But within a few months, a band from Brooklyn called Neighbors that was more established than us put out an EP called 'Hooligans' on Paper Brigade. We didn’t want any confusion among audiences, so out of respect for their seniority (and in the interest of not getting sued), we decided to change the band name. After going through a litany of alternatives, we decided to simply add the “u” to create a distinction between the two bands because we liked the name so much, and because there were no bands in the States with the English spelling at that time. As you can probably imagine, it causes a great deal of confusion amongst copywriters, and also provokes a lot of questions about the Australian soap opera."

How would you describe the sound of Neighbours?

"We play soul-infused rock music that pays homage to British Invasion guitar pop."

You’ve had quite a bit of acclaim to date, especially from Shindig! Magazine, Pittsburgh Magazine and local radio stations. How does it feel when you read something positive about your band in a magazine or hear one of your tunes on the radio?

"It’s obviously very flattering to read nice things about the LP, especially in publications like Shindig! that I truly respect. And hearing our songs on the radio is always exciting, especially when it’s international radio. When we first started, I don’t think any of the four of us envisioned that anyone outside of our postal code would have interest in our music. It just seems like something of a ridiculous expectation. But there’s no use in getting plucked up about the positive things people say or write, because it’s important to be open to criticism as well, and to ultimately ignore both praise and criticism once you sit down to write songs."

You have released one LP to date entitled ‘Prime Numbers’. Where did this title come from and why did you choose it?

"The title came about in a brainstorming session about different words or phrases that would make for a good album title. We liked that 'Prime Numbers' was simple, and we felt that it had a bit of a Mod connotation to it as well. We also liked the fact that it had a double-meaning in the context in which we were using it."

How would you describe the evolution of the band and your sound in between the eponymous EP and the aforementioned album?

"We started recording the album less than a year out from the release of the EP. We worked with the same producer, Derek White, and a few of the songs appear on both. So I don’t think there’s a huge difference or growth in the sound of the two releases. We did continuously write new songs during that time and explore new territory in the songwriting process, and while Derek’s production on both releases is brilliant, I think that he became more invested and interested in the nuances and complexities of the mixing and mastering process during the recording of the full-length. So if there’s any noticeable difference, it’s probably just improved songwriting and production. Derek invested a massive amount of time into both projects, and he deserves a lot of the credit for the sound of each of those releases."

Our favourite track from the album is ‘No Matter the Season’. What influenced this song and what is the song itself about?

"The chorus and horn part for 'No Matter the Season' came to me in a dream. I can’t remember the context at all, but I remember waking at 3 a.m. and forcing myself to do a quick-and-dirty vocal recording of what I had dreamt before immediately falling back asleep. I conferred with Ross (who has an encyclopedic knowledge of old soul records) to make sure that it wasn’t something I had accidentally stolen, and once I received his blessing, I wrote the verse and lyrics around that chorus and horn part, which were the central focus."

"Lyrically, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill love song. The idea of putting the seasons of the year into the chorus to hit that specific rhythmic meter with the vocals came to me first, so from there I just wrote lyrics about being in love throughout the year, Neil Sedaka-style. The melody is very joyous and upbeat, and I generally end up taking the piss out of things in most of my lyrics, so it was a nice change to write a love song for once."

Do you have any rituals before you go on stage?

"Water and whiskey."

Any live dates coming up?

"We’re playing the Deutschtown Music Festival on July 12 at the YMR Club on the North Side of Pittsburgh at 10 p.m., and we'll be playing our final gig at Howlers Coyote Cafe on August 9."

Any new songs in the pipeline?

"We are currently in the process of recording two new songs with Derek White for a single. The A-side, 'I'd Be Careful', is a song written by Ross that we've been playing live for about a year. The B-side is a cover of "Tell Her," written by Bert Berns and originally recorded by Johnny Thunder but made famous by The Exciters in 1962."

When can fans be expecting the next release?

"My hope is that we will be releasing the upcoming single, at least in a digital format, sometime in September."

Who would be your dream collaboration?

"I would love to sing a song with Erykah Badu. For the band, I think it would be fascinating to work with Mark Ronson or have unbridled access to any orchestra in the world."

Who would be in your dream supergroup?

"Not taking into account stylistic differences, I’ll go with Prince as bandleader/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist, Graham Coxon on guitar, Ian McLagan on keys, James Jamerson on bass, Keith Moon on drums, and The Memphis Horns."


Favourite Beatle?


Favourite band?

"Small Faces and Blur."

Favourite new band?

"Shannon And The Clams."

Favourite song?

"A Girl Like You by Edywn Collins."

Favourite album?

"The Who Sell Out."

Vinyl, MP3 or download?

"I always prefer a physical format over a compressed digital file, though the format varies based on the pressing and mastering. For example, I love listening to 5.1 mixes, but only a DVD or Blu-ray can accommodate a five-channel mix."

When you press shuffle on your iPod, what is the first song that comes on?

"Our Favourite Recording Sessions by The Beach Boys."

Style icon?

"Paul Weller."

Favourite film?

"2001: A Space Odyssey."

Favourite TV show?

"The Sifl And Olly Show."

Who would play you in a film of your life?

"Chris O'Dowd."

Favourite food?


Football team?

"West Ham United and Killie."

Hope you enjoyed this feature on Neighbours!

Be sure to check out our previous feature on Montego Bay!

You can check out Neighbours here -

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