Needles, Spaces and Straylight

Adam Griffiths

By the 11th song on its latest release, Straylight Run, a self-proclaimed indie-rock pop band, sums up its philosophy and puts it all out there. Nothing held back, not unlike the majority of its nearly five-year history.

“The needles, the space/ That time can’t erase/ And buttoned down you’ll get the best of me.”

Bassist Shaun Cooper said that this time around, “it seems that people are finally getting it.”

Straylight Run’s roots lie in the 2003 departure of Cooper and vocalist John Nolan from Taking Back Sunday. They recorded some demos, got drummer Will Noon and Nolan’s sister Michelle aboard and released six demo songs for free on their Web site.

Cooper calls the Internet “the tool (they) started this band with,” citing its approach to a capsizing industry and ability to provide so much direct contact with fans.

“I think the industry got a shock to its system,” he said. “There was a lot of bad music coming out, and people were buying it because they didn’t know any better. With the Web, if I don’t like it, I don’t have to buy it. The music industry was pulling the wool over their eyes. Bands like us benefit from downloading.”

They had the right idea. By the end of the year, the band was playing to sold-out crowds.

And that’s pretty much what Straylight Run has done since the band’s inception.

“We’ve toured so much that we’ve gotten so comfortable,” Cooper said.

And what he calls the “natural progression of being a band, learning to play together” also applies to the band’s latest studio release, The Needles, The Space.

“John’s grown a lot, and Michelle has taken off – her songs are phenomenal,” he said about the songwriting on the album.

“John was writing on a piano as the main instrument. Songs were coming out a lot slower, a lot less hard rock. We knew we wanted to do something different. We have so much going on in each different song, it could hinder us.”

And the songs became more personal as Michelle took nearly half of the writing credits on The Needles, The Space. On “The Miracle That Never Came,” like most of the other tracks she brought to the table, the band came together to evolve “her singing on an acoustic guitar” into flushed out, full-bodied songs.

The album is no sleeper. (“Who Will Save Us Now” is Michelle and John dealing with questions about religion, life and death raised by their religious upbringing. “Soon We’ll Be Living in the Future” is a social commentary.) The mixing and arrangement on the album is a little schizophrenic, Cooper admits, but it’s nothing revolutionary for the band.

“We’ve always been fans of different kinds of music, The Flips, Fiona (Apple), Radiohead,” he said. “I’ve been proud of our ability to use different mediums and different sounds. We’re always intrigued. Ellipses, beats, drum samples, glockenspiel. We hadn’t branched out enough as artists (before The Needles, The Space).”

The leftover songs from recording the album will eventually see the light of day, Cooper said.

“We never put a limit on ourselves,” he said. “We really like good pop song writing, and we don’t want to lose sight of it. We felt we wanted to branch out as artists and try different things, not have to stick to any kind of formula.”

With the release of The Needles, The Space, Cooper said that the world is finally starting to see who Straylight Run really is, partly because the album is the band’s most mature and refined release thus far. It’s not your typical emo band.

“I don’t know even know what an emo band is,” he said. “That word is lazy to me. We don’t fit in with a scene.”

But making it is never really making it.

The band is sticking to its guns, not counting on what Cooper calls the “archaic business model” of the music industry. A music industry with which, recently, Straylight Run had a run-in: The band left Victory Records after its last release.

“We wanted to break out of the hole we’d been pigeonholed into,” Cooper said. “With this record being as different as it was, we wanted to try something else. Universal was so excited about it. With artists like Mika and Amy Winehouse, they’re trying to branch out with Universal-Republic imprint.”

He said it was a cool fit that’s worked out great.

“Labels need to branch out, sign artists that are more career-oriented,” he adds. “We don’t plan on having a top ten single. We just tour our asses off and stay focused on the interaction with our fans.”

And that’s just what Warped Tour is all about – the fans. Warped Tour organizers approached the band earlier this year, and it seemed like a great idea with The Needles, The Space debuting right before they joined the other touring acts.

For Cooper, however, it’s “one of those full-circle kind of moments.” Cooper attended Warped Tour’s first visit to Nassau Coliseum in 1995.

“I saw Quicksand, Sublime, No Doubt, and no one cared about them at all,” he said. “No one cared about ska then when hardcore, punk rock was the thing.”

More than 10 years later, Cooper and his bandmates will be taking the main stage on their circuit of dates armed with a new album, an excited label and die-hard fans.

“It’s the biggest crowd we’ve ever played,” Cooper said. “We’ve played some radio shows, but Warped Tour is going to be unique crowd. Pretty diverse. Ten to 15,000 kids. Pretty gigantic.”

Just like they promise on “Buttoned Down,” Straylight Run is here to stay.

“The thrill of it all / The rise and the fall / And buttoned down you’ll get the best of me.”

Contact features correspondent Adam Griffiths at [email protected].