The Symbols are a Fort Collins-based funk-rock band with hundreds — yes, hundreds — of songs already written by songwriter, vocalist and bassist Mer Sal and an artistic vision shaped by eccentric and free-flowing guitarist Jasco.
With the release of their latest record, Catching Fire, the Symbols have doubled down on the group's funk-meets-soul-meets-rock genre melding.
Ahead of an album-release concert at the Zephyr Lounge on December 29, the bandmates spoke to Westword about how their sound has developed.
Westword: You’ve been playing the new album around town already. How’s that been going?
Jasco: There’s a couple songs we’ve been doing for quite a while and a couple that are new songs on the album, so we definitely like to test them out on audiences. A lot of times when you play them live, you discover what things are working and what things aren’t working, and you make adjustments before you go in and record them.
How do you feel about this record compared to your previous releases? How do you feel it shows your growth as musicians and as a band?
Mer Sal: I think this record shows how we’ve come a long way ourselves, being able to produce our own record, and being able to produce something as quality as hiring a great producer.
Jasco: The first record we did, we had a producer that used to be in the band Little Feat. We learned a whole lot from him. This record, in order to save money, we went about doing it ourselves; sometimes that can be a bad idea, to produce yourself, but I think we’re at the maturity stage where we’ve learned what things work and what things don’t and how we work together as a team better.
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The other thing that happens is we run a recording studio — The Recordium — as a regular business up here in Fort Collins, so I get to produce a lot of other bands, and I have a lot of experience on the producer and engineer side. Working with other bands helps me take a more objective view of our stuff.
What were some things you two focused on going into recording Catching Fire?
Jasco: I wanted to get a fairly live feel. I didn’t want to do tons of overdubs and soundscaping, things that would make it hard to duplicate live. In some ways, it’s a little bit sparse in terms of vocal harmonies, extra guitar parts and keyboard parts that a band can [get away with] in the studio. But we decided not to do too much of that.
The other thing I decided is, kind of the killer of independent productions is never getting it done. Trying to redo it and second-guessing yourself. I said, "We’re just going to record this record fast and get it done."
Sal: And confidently.
Jasco: We made decisions early on, like trying to have a clear vision of what we wanted the songs to sound like before we even started recording.
Do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to do?
Jasco: I think we did, yeah.
Sal: I think it’s some of my best vocal work that I’ve ever put on a record.
Does that come from gaining more experience as a musician and artist?
Sal: More experience, and I guess, over the course of this band, we’ve delved into more roots and more soul sound.
Jasco: Mer also did more recording projects in the meantime, while we were starting the band, with other people.
Jasco: One of the things that was cool about those sessions was I went down and watched them, because I like to learn as much as I can on the recording and management side of things from heavyweights in the production world. They recorded Mer really fast, just a couple takes, and everything was really good. I think it helped her confidence and our confidence, just going in there singing it and not trying fifty takes and a whole bunch of variations. Once we saw how quick they did it, it boosted our confidence to record quickly also.
Did the songwriting process feel different on this record from previous work?
Sal: It feels more natural, more organic than the last one we did, because we wanted to keep the songs simple enough that we wouldn’t forget how to play them live [laughs]. But we still made enough little tweaks to them.
On "Good for me," the first track, I really liked that Jasco had an idea to take one of the verses and change what we’re playing underneath it. It changed the density of that section and creates another section that’s like your A section, then your B, your C and your D section.
Jasco: Mer’s a really gifted songwriter and writes song after song after song, and I’m more of a methodical songwriter, so we have two different processes. She’ll write twenty songs, a month and I’ll write one song a month.
But my strength is arranging. I’ll take her songs and do a lot of tweaks to them. On the album before this, it was all cover songs that we tweaked. We did a Guns 'n Roses song and made it into a Delta blues slide guitar song – things like that. That’s good songwriting practice to take other songs and kind of twist them around and see what you get.
And that way, you’re not viewing your own songs in one light. We’ll take ours and try them in many different ways: How would this sound as a reggae or a funk?
Sal: I would add that since we’re full-time studio musicians, as well as in our own band, touring, I would say that since we have to play on so many other people’s recordings and have to come up with parts on the spot, it kind of gives you a skill set so that when you’re arranging, you can come up with unique and cool parts.
Jasco: Producing and recording other people in our studio really helps us in all aspects of recording our own stuff.
Is that something that you’ve always been conscious of? Did it take time to figure that out?
Jasco: I’ve been recording things and building little studios in my household since I was a teenager. The one we’ve got now is the closest we’ve had to a small commercial studio. I’ve always been aware of the recording process and trying to refine it and be more efficient and higher quality, whether recording myself or other people.
I’ve been a student of music as well as recording. Just always trying to learn about it.
Sal: For me, I’ve been playing the bass for five or six years only, but I’ve been able to meet Jasco at an opportune time, and I’ve come a lot farther since we’ve owned a studio together.
If you’re full-time studio musicians with ample opportunities, why is the Symbols a necessary vehicle for you two? Why does this work?
Sal: I like how the Symbols has its own voice. Jasco’s guitar playing — I’ve never heard someone play with his voice. He’s got a very unique voice. And I’ve got my own voice that’s very distinct. Kind of like when you listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Led Zeppelin or the Beatles; the idea is for a band to have its own identity. We started this band a while back, and people keep requesting to hire us and hear us.
Jasco: From my perspective, the Symbols is important because it lets us play with our own voice. When I’m recording somebody else’s thing, when I’m recording someone else, I’m not trying to make them sound like me. I’m trying to make it sound like them. I’m trying to help them make their record, so I’m not trying to put my personality on it.
It might be a style that I’m not very familiar with, or even a style I’m not really a fan of, but I’m recording, so I’ve got to step into other shoes. But the symbols lets me play the way I want to play, and I try to be as weird as possible with my guitar playing.
About ten years ago, I was coming home from a gig at about three in the morning, and something went wrong with my brain, and I threw all my guitar picks out the window and said, "You know what? I’m not going to use picks anymore. I’m going to try something different!" And ever since then, I’ve been focusing on creativity with my playing and trying to intentionally do what other people don’t do.
I’ve seen so many good guitar players who are all kind of doing the same thing. They’re really good, but cut out of the same mold. I just said, "I’ve got to be different," and that’s what the Symbols do. It lets me be different. I don’t have anybody that says I have to play something a certain way.
How about you walk me through how you two connected?
Jasco: I had a band that was a three-piece acoustic jazz band, totally far off from what we’re doing now. Mer came to one of our practices and said, "I can sing those songs!" and I didn't believe it for a second and said, "Go ahead, show me!" And she got up there and could sing ’em. I thought wow, okay. We can do a lot more things with [Mer as the singer].
Then she started emailing songs she had written, piano-vocal versions, and they were way different than what the band was doing. But I thought they were really cool songs. Let’s head in that direction — a blues-rock-funk-pop thing instead of the jazz thing.
The other thing is when I met Mer, she didn’t play bass at all, and we were going through bass players like crazy. We couldn’t find the right one for us.
So I got her a bass for Christmas and said, "If you work real hard on this, maybe in two or three years, our bass problem will be solved." To my complete surprise, like three months later, she had all the songs learned, and I was like holy shit! [Laughs.] My mind was blown.
Over the years, how else has your sound evolved?
Sal: I would say we started out kind of broad and we narrowed it down. We bring in multiple influences across many genres, but we have one sound that’s recognizable.
Jasco: We call it spiritual porn rock. It’s good for the soul and the body! [Both laugh.]
It’s a combination funk-rock and blues. If I had to pick a couple things we’re aiming for, it’d be like Amy Winehouse meets Jeff Beck at the Red Hot Chili Pepper's house.
Mer, what made you want to be in Jasco's band? Why were you confident he was a good partner for you and your songs?
Sal: He had a great attitude, and he was the first person to believe in me. I came to him with like hundreds of songs, and I had a bunch of experience in musical theater before that, but what I liked about him is he didn’t sound like any of the other guitar players that I had heard in our little town.
My world at the time wasn’t very big, and I hadn’t gotten to Denver at that point yet. He was rehearsing in a very accessible coffee shop, where it was attached to a music store, and I’d go there and go shopping and would see them rehearsing.
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It was destined to happen, I guess. In a little town, when serious musicians find each other, if they don’t already have a band or something going on, they’re probably going to wind up together.
Jasco: Another thing about Mer is she writes so many songs, it really allows me to pick out which ones I’m going to arrange and which ones I’m going to record and play with the band. There’s a lot of songs that don’t necessarily fit the Symbols, and we’re eventually going to do a solo piano vocal record for her.
It’s a good problem to have. Most bands probably have the opposite problem.