There once was this California dreamer who grew up singing jazz but admired Freddie Mercury, went to college to study opera voice and eventually became leader of a grand band with an extended family of 400 or so members that produces some of the most innovative and intoxicating orchestral rock-pop today.
If that sounds too good to be true, the indisputable evidence can be heard on
the Family Crest's second full-length album, Beneath the Brine. With soaring harmonies and sweeping arrangements, the seven core members will bring their highly anticipated act to the 25th annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, this Sunday (Aug. 16).
If previous live reviews are indicative, the Family Crest will prove that they aren't just plain folks by executing onstage what they do so well on this riveting record of go-for-baroque pop. By accomplishing that, their afternoon audience just might be in for a San Francisco treat as tasty as any of the scrumptious musical delights sampled over the previous two days.
For anyone who hasn't been properly introduced, meet the Family Crest, starting with co-founders, producers and visionaries Liam McCormick (guitar, vocals, frontman) and John Seeterlin (bass).
The rest of the college-educated, Bay Area-based cast includes Laura Bergmann (flute, piano), Owen Sutter (violin), Charly Akert (cello), Charlie Giesige (drums) and George Mousa Samaan (trombone), all five holding music degrees and ranging in age from 23 to early 30s.
McCormick, the 30-year-old creative, purposeful progenitor behind this wildly imaginative concoction of folk, rock, trad jazz, blues and pop while stirring the pot with a zesty dash of musical theatricality, is optimistic that an open-minded audience with eclectic tastes -- whether in Lyons or elsewhere -- can appreciate the Family Crest's quest.
"If you look at the (Rocky Mountain Folks Festival) lineup, there a lot of ... it doesn't seem to be folk-based," the affable McCormick said during a phone interview in early August that included Seeterlin, 29. "Folk and blues, they're the conduit to other things. I'm stoked, honestly, to see ... we're coming early so that we can see as much as we can."
Sufjan Stevens ("he's brilliant"), Jason Isbell ("I really dig the Drive-By Truckers"), Nicki Bluhm ("because she's from the Bay and she's fantastic") and Gillian Welch are among the "big heavy hitters" on a list he and Seeterlin compiled.
"It's always fun to get inspired by other bands that you haven't seen before and watch them play," McCormick added. "But I think a lot of the people that are going to go to the festival are not just folk fans. I think folk, especially nowadays, has taken on such an eclectic term. Sufjan Stevens for example, us for example. We're ... clearly, we love folk music. We have some songs that sound folky. But a lot of people will think, 'You pick up a guitar and you sing, you're suddenly singing folk music,' 'cause it's just a guy or a girl on a guitar. And it is to some degree. But I think ... it's super-eclectic."
The same could be said of the Family Crest, who this weekend wrap up a summer tour that began June 26 in Los Angeles. Other dates included the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado, where McCormick said he managed to hit all the high notes at 8,885 feet despite getting only a couple of hours sleep after an late-night drive from Denver, and the Outside Lands Music Festival near their home base.
With other large, classically influenced groups like Brooklyn-based San Fermin -- my favorite at the Hangout festival in May -- also achieving some degree of success, this just might be the start of a trend.
"I hope so," said McCormick, whose band members have acquaintances among San Fermin's seven players. "It's fun, man. We're all about collaboration. ... It's extremely fulfilling artistically and just on a personal level because you get to meet a lot of people and learn from them.
"It's gonna really affect the way you perceive music and the way you perceive your own sound because you're essentially putting yourself into position to change pretty consistently. And I just love to see that there's all these bands out there now that are really into that idea of making something unique and kind of orchestrated. It's pretty rad to be able to see."
If McCormick imagined making music this way as a young lad singing in a choir while listening at home to everything from the Beatles, Smashing Pumpkins and Motown to American and Irish folk songs, he must have kept it to himself.
Growing up in Calaveras County, which is tucked between Stockton and Lake Tahoe at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, he decided to take a serious approach to vocal training.
Enrolling at University of the Pacific, a music conservatory in Stockton, he had "an amazing teacher" who detected after about six months that singing arias wasn't what McCormick wanted to passionately pursue.
"We can do this opera thing and we can make it work but I can tell you really love jazz, you want to put so much more of your time into that," McCormick remembered being told.
"I was lucky that I had a teacher that was willing to kind of spitball back and forth about career options when it comes to voice," he added, taking the sound advice and his well-rounded musical interests to San Francisco.
McCormick and Seeterlin were in separate groups for "about five years" until crossing paths through Silver Griffin, a San Francisco band McCormick co-founded in 2005.
According to both, a trip to Europe in 2006 was the impetus to move in another direction that would eventually result in the Family Crest.
Before that, McCormick said, "I got to this point that I felt like my writing, I had maybe unconsciously or subconsciously kind of turned myself into this rut where I was making music that I felt was, 'Let's find a hook and let's make something that's sellable.' ... And it kind of made me really jaded and I realized that if I just wanted to make money, I could do anything else. But if you lose the love of the art form ... there's nothing wrong with wanting to make money in your art and wanting to go out there and be successful but ... art shouldn't be at the mercy of the finances is, I guess, the best way to put it."
While McCormick spent time in Paris, then Norway and Sweden, there were discussions about giving up music altogether while exploring other options.
Asked if they had backup plans, Seeterlin, who had gone to San Francisco State to study film for a couple of years before dropping out, joked, "Go back to college, become an accountant or something a little more stable."
Added McCormick: "At that point, I didn't have too many plans but just knew that I was flying by the seat of my pants, I guess." (laughs)
There was more to this European trip than seeking out beautiful scenery, historical landmarks and incredible sightseeing opportunities.
They found themselves.
"I was kind of like emotionally muted out a little bit because of various things in life (the end of a relationship, for instance) as when you're in your mid-20s, maybe a little eccentric," McCormick said with another laugh. "And it took a big song or a big batch of songs to snap me back into wanting to continue to make music."
Joining McCormick in Norway, Seeterlin said, "I just thought they were the best songs I had heard him write. And it was like, 'You know, we have to do this.' It was awesome."
Initially, the project was going to be a series of collaborations for a "swan song" to cap their careers. B-a-n-d became a four-letter word to avoid, though McCormick contends he was frustrated with himself, not his former colleagues.
"It just kind of became like, 'What else is there out there?' " he said. "I think a lot of musicians ... people don't realize how hard being in a band is. They glamorize it, understandably. You get to that point sometimes where you just need a break. And I think I myself had kind of gotten to that point and John had kind of gotten to that point. And so we hadn't fully decided what we were going to do, but we really wanted to make this record."
McCormick also desired to recapture the joy of his childhood, when he sang Smashing Pumpkins songs "at the top of my lungs" with friends, and said he approached acquaintances and other adventurous folks who wanted to sing just for fun.
"We thought we'd get five people and we ended up getting around 100 for the first record," he added. "And those people that we now call the extended family were the ones that wanted to see it live. And when we started the live thing, we didn't know if it was going to be a band. We just we're kind of, 'OK, why don't we just see what happens.' "
The Family Crest (clockwise from top left): Owen Sutter,
Charlie Giesige, John Seeterlin, Laura Bergmann, George Mousa Samaan,
Liam McCormick and Charly Akert.
The project did turn into a band, albeit one with an extremely high musical intelligence quotient. At one stage, five of them attended San Francisco Conservatory of Music, including Californians Bergmann, who earned her master's at Southern Cal and has been married to McCormick for almost two years, and Sutter, from Sebastopol.
Samaan, the band's youngster at 23, is originally from Chicago, while Giesige, from Milwaukee, got his bachelor's at Berklee College of Music. Seeterlin, who lives in San Bruno close to San Francisco International Airport, is engaged to be married in January.
Then there's Akert, originally from Fairbanks, Alaska. He began playing the cello at age 5 and at 13 became one of the Fairbanks Symphony's youngest members. He got his master's at SFCM after attending the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where he served as principal cellist of the UNC Symphony.
"There's a running joke in our band whenever we're driving around the country," McCormick said of Akert. "He's played with everybody. It's gotten to the point that we'll be driving through the middle of nowhere and he'll see a sign and be like, 'Oh yeah, the Needles Symphony Orchestra, I played with them.' You never know if he's kidding or not because half the time he's not."
Working with such bright minds, McCormick knew he had to stay on his toes with classical musicians who double-check his work by suggesting when a note "should be a flat and not a sharp," he said with a laugh.
"With this band, I actually had never done any kind of composition, so putting the strings together and stuff, that was the first time I had ever done anything like that," he said. "And it became this totally different beast altogether. (laughs) Where suddenly you're learning how to compose for the oboe and the bassoon. Never thought I'd do that."
Though connections were made as far back as 2008 when McCormick began his first recording project, these core members have been together now for about two years. All but Samaan and Giesige were there for The Village, the Crest's full-length debut that was partially funded through Kickstarter and self-released nationally in May 2012. Four months later, a second Kickstarter campaign was launched for Beneath the Brine, which was released in February 2014.
"Our group just is some of the most dedicated people I've ever met," McCormick said. "And we just work so well together. We're a big family."
Keeping them one big happy family hasn't been much of an issue, he insisted, comparing their problems to any domestic situation that includes multiple members.
"I thought it would be a lot more difficult," McCormick said. "You're always gonna have little arguments and stuff, but it's just like being in a relationship or being in a family. It's like nothing's ever that bad, ever. And we all have really common goals and I think one thing that helps us ... they grew up playing classical music and going to school for it. They're really disciplined. And it kind of puts some discipline into the band."
McCormick continues to add to his extended family (find a comprehensive list here) while he and Seeterlin comb the country with their portable studio, recording in living rooms, bars, cafes, churches and even bathrooms (for the reverb).
Mixer Jay Pellici is considered "kind of the eighth member of the band," for taking on the seemingly impossible task of piecing everything together.
"I don't even now how he does what he does," McCormick said. "We give him hundreds of tracks and he makes something that sounds like a solid orchestra."
Writing all the songs might be just as overwhelming but McCormick is already working on the next project that's "top secret," he kidded.
"New music and it just involves a lot of moving parts," he added. Hoping it will be out as early as the first half of 2016 or as late as next summer, he confirmed that "it's an album and it's a project. And I'm going to leave it very open after that. ... It's a big thing to do but it's gonna be fun to release."
If go big or go home are their options, McCormick, Seeterlin and the rest of the Crest crew should stick around for awhile.
After all, the Family that plays together, stays together.
Fourth and last in a series previewing artists scheduled to perform at the 25th annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, from Aug. 14-16, including the Waifs and Jason Isbell. The Family Crest will play from 1:30-2:45 p.m. Aug. 16. Publicity photo courtesy of the artist.