You've heard the old aphorism that being in a band is sort of like being married, right? Only it's not sort of like being married; it's exactly like being married. Ask Mark Sundermeier and Chris Stake of the Trampolines.
"We're together so much," says Sundermeier. "We file taxes together; this is a marriage, man. And there isn't a day that goes by that ultimately we don't have a fight about business, or this makes me mad, or you made me mad. But ultimately, we have a different way of looking at it and dealing with it so that we can deal with each other."
But it wasn't all that long ago that the two were headed for splitsville. Despite all they'd accomplished — from developing a strong following locally to touring as a duo and gaining fans in places like Seattle, Portland and Santa Barbara — the zeal began to fade. Two summers ago, just after the full band played the Hot Sounds series at the Denver Pavilions, bassist/keyboardist Todd Davis quit. Shortly after that, when the Trampolines were playing the Moveable Feast (a mini-singer-songwriter fest at the Walnut Room), Stake himself nearly raised a white flag. There was just no energy, no passion. His heart just wasn't in it anymore.
"You know how if you argue with somebody," says Stake, "like you and your girl get into this taxing argument, and when you get done you feel like you just want to lay down and go to sleep, like you just feel completely drained? That's how I felt every day not doing anything about this situation. Every rehearsal, any show that was on the books, it felt like chains were on me, and I could just barely get up the strength to go do that. So you can only imagine how little I had to give to the actual music once I got there.
"I wanted to believe in something again," he adds. "Being in a band should be fun, and playing out should be fun, but it was not fun at all. It was a business. And I get it, you can't have one without the other, but it was just zero fun."
It was plenty fun when Stake and Sundermeier first formed the Trampolines. Their first collaboration was somewhat serendipitous. Sundermeier, then the talent buyer for the Soiled Dove in LoDo, had booked a series of shows called Acoustic Circus, featuring various local artists in a stripped-down environment. That particular edition of Acoustic Circus was devoted to mixing and matching players together to perform a song or two. Stake, a member of Losing November, and Sundermeier, part of Ordinary Poets, already had a genuine admiration for each other, and they played together that night.
"I came from a harmony-laden group and so did he," Stake points out. "So it was like walking into a ready-made situation. We understood how to sing with each other. I admired Sad Star Cafe and I admired him. And I know that he liked my band for what it was. We were already sort of circling each other and liking what each other did, so it was really easy to get together."
Musically, the pair hit it off well enough to form the duo that later became the Trampolines, named after a song by the Greenberry Woods, a band they both admired. The Trampolines immediately landed gigs opening for the likes of Edwin McCain and the BoDeans, among others. While talent certainly played a factor, Sundermeier's day job didn't hurt in terms of landing those high-profile gigs out of the gate.
"If we're going to lift up all the rocks in the yard," says Stake, "I have no problem saying that was always a huge turn. I mean it was nice to get those shows, but you never really felt that people believed it was for merit at all. And some of it is totally legit. Him working for the Dove definitely got us some opportunities, but if we weren't halfway decent when that opportunity came around, we'd be a laughingstock. And how long would agents want to deal with him? Wouldn't his job be in jeopardy if they kept putting us on shows and we sucked? I mean, the guys that we've opened for more than once — if we sucked, we never would've gotten asked to go and do anything else."
It's hard to argue with that, particularly when you hear the pair's fraternal-like vocal interplay on the Trampolines' self-titled debut. Listening to the harmonies on songs such as "7 Ways from Sunday" and "1963," you can hear the years of vocal training from their adolescence, especially the way their voices seamlessly blend together.
From the time he was four years old, Sundermeier, who comes from a very musical family, was obsessed with the records his mother gave him. In particular, the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar and the Fifth Dimension's greatest hits inspired him to pursue music, specifically singing.
Stake, on the other hand, was as drawn to music as he was to sports. At Sherwood High in Sandy Springs, Maryland, there wasn't really a distinction between jocks and choral students. It was just as cool to be a singer as it was to be on the football team. An annual school production called the Rock and Roll Revival inspired him to become a musician. Then, when he was in college, he drove back and forth to a Damascus, Maryland, farmhouse belonging to one of his choral group instructors, who took him, note for note, through the entire Beatles catalogue, teaching him the ins and outs of singing.
Given their backgrounds, it's not surprising that the two found commonality. But as much as they complement each other musically, they've had to expend quite a bit of effort learning how to interact as bandmates. In the past, Sundermeier had a tendency to be domineering and impulsive, especially when it came to making business decisions, which stoked resentment on Stake's part. "He was in a much different place than I was when we came into this band," Stake says. "So even though people saw Chris and Mark, it was really Mark saying where to go and what to do and how to do it. When I finally came into my own, I didn't necessarily need all that anymore. It was really hard to continue to grow in a process where you don't feel like you're equal."
This conflict stalled the music for a short period, and the two took some time off from each other. But it was time well served, because it ultimately helped them remember why they started playing music in the first place: for the love of it. Before long, the guys were back making music, writing new songs — real songs about real people and situations. They were so excited with the results that they recruited some players and made their way into the studio.
After considering a number of different studios and producers, they decided upon John Macy, who turned out to be exactly the right person for the job, allowing the guys to take as much time as they needed to find just the right sound. "I think we were resting on some songs that we should've let go," Stake admits, "and there were some songs that we were trying to do that we thought, 'This is the way it's supposed to be,' or 'This is what people want to hear' — and that's bullshit. What we needed to do was just retreat and go sit in a little room. It was about two people and an acoustic guitar sitting in a room. I was like, 'You know, if we get back to basics, the bare bones of how this thing started and how we were able to hear good songs, I think we can get back to it.'"
And so they did. Between the Lines, the Trampolines' new disc, finds a completely reinvigorated act continuing to work from a similar jangly, acoustic-driven pop-rock template of its previous effort and favored by mid-'90s acts like the Gin Blossoms, while at the same time taking chances and expanding upon it. On Lines, the outfit — which is once again a full-fledged band rounded out by drummer Brian LaRue, formerly of Redline Defiance, bassist Brian Chambliss, formerly of No Fair Fights, and Nick Ehlers — veers off in some interesting new directions, most notably on "Passion in the Ashes," a bona fide country-rock tune that summons the more memorable moments of the Eagles.
The album itself represents a rebirth of sorts, from the redesigned logo to the blurry cover photo of the band, an image that allows listeners to fill in the blanks a little on their own — all of which was completely intentional.
"That was something that I, personally, probably could've skirted by," Sundermeier admits. "But Christopher was like, 'No way! It's been this long, we've been down this long, it's something that we really care about, it's got to look different.'"
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"I didn't want it to be all sunshine and rainbows," Stake explains. "I want people to know that they're about to take a walk to the darker side of things. If you like us and you like the way we sing and you like the way we craft songs, then you're going to like this — or you won't. And that's okay, too."
Removing expectations, as David Wilcox so eloquently put it, is the secret to a happy marriage. Start with the ending and get it out of the way.
Visit blogs.westword.com/backbeat for more of our interview with the Trampolines.