When I get the two founding members of Virginia power-poppers Eternal Summers on the phone, they’re living up to their name. Drummer and occasional vocalist Daniel Cundiff is house-sitting for a friend in rural Roanoke, recovering from the band’s just-wrapped East Coast tour by “hanging out, watching movies” and — the leisurely activity he’s engaged in during our interview — playing fetch with his friend’s dog in the backyard (“Ahh, sorry, there are some ants crawling on me,” he says when he has to put down the phone for a moment). Vocalist/guitarist Nicole Yun dials in from Myrtle Beach, where she’s enjoying peace and quiet for now but worried about the imminent rowdiness of the 4th of July weekend crowd. “It’s really beautiful here, but I’m always overly aware of people on the beach,” she laughs. “I have to worry about kids throwing a football at me.”
It makes sense that Cundiff and Yun value their quiet time. They’re both veterans of the tight-knit music community in the mountain town of Roanoke, Virginia, about 250 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., and worlds away from any kind of buzz band spelunking or music industry hype. “There’s less competition here,” Yun says of the local scene. “It’s not like people come to Roanoke to play these huge shows, because there aren’t huge venues to play. So people are more laid back and more interested in creating what they want to create.”
The epic, booming hooks on their new record, Correct Behavior, though, foretell much bigger (and louder) things on the horizon. Even their line-up is growing: This is the first Eternal Summers record to feature a bassist, fellow Roanoke resident Jonathan Woods. But even though Correct Behavior is an unmistakably major leap forward, it still captures the minimalist pop spirit that made the band’s early recordings so appealing. “I’ve always felt like if it’s me, Nicole and Jonathan writing, then whatever we do will always be Eternal Summers,” Cundiff says. “Which is not about repeating yourself, but about moving forward and pushing the limit of what this band is.” So in the spirit of getting bottom of exactly what this band is, we talked mountain-town living, transitioning from analog to digital recording, and the dark art of embracing your inner Billy Corgan.
On the creative clarity of small town living:
Daniel Cardiff: There’s a lot of support [in Roanoke] when it comes to playing music. I never really had a big urge to move to a city or something like that. I’m easily distracted, and it’s easier to focus around here, where there’s not so much going on.
Nicole Yun: I went to school at JMU [James Madison University] and I was in a few bands in college, and when I graduated I moved to the Roanoke area. It was clear to me that people who were creative here made themselves known and were kind of bunched together in a community and it was easy to find them. I’m also a very easily distracted person, so I thought, this is cool, going out into the mountains and making music, it’s helping me to focus on getting more stuff done, creatively, rather than just starting things and never finishing them. A lot of my friends live in D.C. and I’d just be wanting to hang out with them all the time. I don’t know. I think it really did foster some mental clarity for me.
On the Roanoke music community:
Yun: I feel like a lot of our friends’ music projects are based solely on their interests and are not as influenced by what else is going on right now. It’s very supportive because I don’t really feel like anyone’s like, “Oh, he’s going to be in a country western band? Ew!” It’s more like, “Oh, they’re doing a short hip-hop project? It’d be really fun to do back-up vocals on that.” It’s just very free, and it feels pretty experimental because there’s no confines that anyone feels like they have to stay in. I think it’s a really healthy place to create, because other people’s opinions are a very low priority when it comes to why you’re creating music.
On the joy of finding someone who is as excited about being in a band as you are:
Yun: [When Daniel and I first started playing together], I knew pretty much from the beginning that it was going to work out. We were on the same page creatively. And he was excited about music! I always felt, in a lot of the bands I was in, that I was always the most excited member and that was why the band would always break up. Because it was like, I’m the only one that’s really pumped! And no one else cares! And so I was like, “Hmm, seems like Daniel’s pretty into this too.”
Cardiff: Yeah, and I share the same experience of having been in other bands and thinking, “Wow, I feel like I’m working really hard and no one else is that excited. They’re just going through the motions.” And when I started working with Nicole, she’s pumped, she’s positive. For me, after having been in bands with five people or seven people, it was just so nice to start playing music with one other person. I think that’s one of the big reasons why we’ve worked so well.
On adding a bassist to the mix:
Yun: Jonathan’s been playing with us since last summer, and it’s been really cool — he brings a lot of creative ideas to the band. He was very thoughtful about the fact that he was jumping into a two-piece, so [his philosophy was], “I’m going to add what I can without overstepping my bounds, or without being like, here’s the bass player who’s going to do these crazy Bootsy Collins bass lines.” Not over the top, but still really creative and adds a lot to the songs. Daniel and Jonathan had been in several other bands together, so we knew they had chemistry playing live together. It’s been great having him.
On breaking through with Correct Behavior:
Yun: When we started recording the album, we knew the songs were fuller sounding, and we weren’t afraid to jump out of the formula that we’d put on ourselves. Like for me, as a guitarist, on our previous stuff I’d never used any effects pedals, and now I think I have eight or nine.
Cardiff: We recorded everything [in Roanoke] on analog tape, and then we sent all of that stuff to New York [to be mixed by Raveonettes guitarist Sune Rose Wanger and producer Alonso Vargas]. And we’re all not there for that process, and it freaked me out a lot. I felt a loss of control and power. It was really nerve-wracking. Then when we heard what they were doing, I was like, “This is so far beyond what we’ve done before.” It’s such a leap, production-wise, from anything we’ve ever done.
Yun: All of our other records we produced in house with our friends, but this time we were like “Let’s see what collaboration is really like.” At first it was hard, that fear of trusting people besides the three of us with our music. I think that was really hard. But I think it ended up being some of the best choices we made as a band. At the end of the process, we were all pretty excited and kind of blown away because I really feel like we grew up as a band within a year. A lot of growing up happened in a short amount of time.
On the YouTube tutelage of Billy Corgan solos:
Yun: When we were a two-piece, I really viewed my guitar playing as both bass guitar and rhythm guitar, and I felt like, “Oh, it would sound pretty stupid for me to do a solo here, because it’s just Daniel.” But I’ve always wanted to play riffs. So for this record, now that we have Jonathan, I started feeling like, “Oh, wow! I have freedom now!” I can do what I wanted to do.
I learned how to play guitar in my room by myself, so ever since I picked up a guitar I’ve been insecure about what it means to really take a solo and really just go for it. But [when writing Correct Behavior], either Daniel or Jonathan sent me this YouTube video of Billy Corgan going through all of his pedals that he’d used on Siamese Dream. All three of us were really into Smashing Pumpkins growing up, and I really loved all of those guitar sounds. Billy Corgan is insane on guitar — his solos are meaningful and melodic, they really take a song somewhere. The tones on that album are so emotionally evocative for me, and I ended up buying a couple of those pedals for this album.
So everything on Correct Behavior was it was a result of me thinking, “OK I’m going to try and do everything I’ve wanted to do but at a beginner’s level.” It was a lot of psyching myself up: “You can do this! It’s going to sound OK!” It’s been a lot of trial and error, and I’ve had a lot of support [from Daniel and Jonathan] in not letting my previous insecurities bring me down. That was about eight months ago, and I feel like I’m so much more confident a guitarist now.
Cardiff: Yeah, it was a nice, natural progression, all of us becoming better musicians. And now we’re just writing, we’ve got a lot of new songs.
Yun: I feel pretty free to do whatever we want to for our next record.