Jacob Bullard grew up in Traverse City and attended Hope College in Holland, Michigan, a thirty minute drive from Grand Rapids. While a college sophomore, he began writing songs and wanted to put on a show at a coffeehouse near campus. All of his friends loved the group The Soil and the Sun. Jacob knew that if he could book them then all his friends would show up. So he contacted Alex McGrath, frontman of The Soil and the Sun, and asked if they would play his gig. Alex agreed and suddenly Jacob found himself a mentor and the path towards Antrim Dells.
While at Hope College, Bullard regularly made trips to Grand Rapids to see music at the Division Avenue Art Collective (DAAC) and hang out with Alex, who lived in a work-living space on Division. “Alex was like an older brother,” Jacob said, explaining how he would watch The Soil and the Sun and mentally take notes about crafting songs. Meanwhile back on campus, Jacob and Laura Hobson started singing together. Brian Voortman and Jacob had mutual friends. For a while they played as a trio before getting John Hanson to join the band as a bassist.
Antrim Dells has been around for a little over a year and has already released two albums. They record and produce their own music, and according to Jacob, “We’ve just started. This first year we were just finding our voice.” Jacob points out to me that for some, DIY typically means low-quality punk music made on a four-track. For Antrim Dells it’s about personally managing all aspects of the recording, producing, and promoting. Their first album Mother, Father is full of intimate vocal tracks and lyrics that produce clear, poetic images for the listener. Jacob and Laura’s harmonies frame an intimate tone. Tracks like “Follow Me” contain hooks that aren’t forgotten. Brian’s percussion selflessly complements each track, helping the momentum ebb and flow. Their second album Given Name has a richer sound. Multiple vocal tracks that are more intricately layered (something I’m convinced Jacob learned from listening to The Soil and the Sun) give the songs a quality that separates them from their peers. The instrumentation has a wider range—offering different guitar and keyboard tones. “Empty Spirit” allows Laura’s voice to take center stage—not to mention more songs contain Brian’s complementary backup vocals (listen to the end of “Fake Mantra” and “Canaan”).
Every musician is faced with two major problems—first, learning the craft of writing and recording music. These skills are never complete, one of the things that makes playing music such a fulfilling activity. One can always learn and improve. Second, maybe more pragmatically, one needs access to the equipment to perform live and record. Guitars and amps can be bought cheap, but good guitars are expensive. As for recording, a professional studio costs more than any individual can afford. While home recording has become more accessible, few are capable of making music as rich as Antrim Dells. The collective sense of community in Grand Rapids allows for sharing resources and knowledge. “We all scratch each other’s back,” Jacob explained. “We have strength in numbers. I will ask John to borrow his microphones and let him borrow my amp.”
“I’m motivated by my peers who do good work,” Jacob said. There are times when the work gets hard, when the song feels stuck in an incomplete place. The desire to pleasantly surprise a close friend fuels Jacob to spend months mixing and mastering. “When we open for The Soil and the Sun, my goal is to write songs good enough to surprise. I like being the underdog, because I’m in a position to shock the audience by not sucking. [laughs.] It’s a great surprise and makes the night special.”
While we talked about the pros of living in Grand Rapids, Jacob also acknowledged the challenges of a smaller city. “It can be frustrating with the low volume of creative things happening, in particular the visual arts scene.” Jacob lives in an artist workspace that promotes contemporary art called Gaspard with Chris Cox and Ben Biondo. One of his complaints is that Grand Rapids doesn’t have the critical volume of creative output. He acknowledged it as a tradeoff—one benefit of smaller cities is the sense of intimacy while a disadvantage would be the lack of diversity and surprises.
I met up with Alex McGrath of the band The Soil and the Sun at Madcap Coffeehouse. As we sat down, Alex pointed over as a guy with long hair entered the back of the shop. “That’s our percussionist. We moved here so he could help open Madcap. We were actually living in Chicago when we started.” Benjamin told Alex he was moving to Grand Rapids, and at that point they had started writing music and playing shows. “I got no bad blood with Chicago, but we found it hard to connect with people in such a busy scene with so many artists.” Alex also admitted to being a bit timid at that time. “I felt like we had to convince people of what we were doing. It was challenging.” Alex simply wasn’t ready to quit making music with Benjamin, so the two moved.
Suddenly there was mental space and freedom. With the move came growth. The band now has seven members and plays a self-described genre of New Mexican Space Music or Experiential Spiritual Orchestral Rock. The band combines traditional rock sounds with layers of oboe, violin, accordion, and percussion. Their latest studio album What Wonder is this Universe! drives with percussion and bass lines that jump with guitar hooks that build momentum. Just as they charge forward, the group can slow everything down into an intimate space where the layered vocals take center stage. The oboe and violin have a sustained sound that fills the backdrop like a synthesizer, as do the multiple guitar tracks. The multiple tracks build, creating a massively rich landscape.
“The people of Grand Rapids are encouraging. The city gives off a sense of mutual trust and openness. There’s no need to compete. And I think the DAAC was a huge part in creating that encouraging atmosphere in the city.” Alex explained that new bands could get started at DAAC and smaller touring acts always had a place to play in Grand Rapids, which kept the city on the radar for many touring acts. “When scheduling a tour, places like the DAAC are super important for smaller bands.” One effect of having collective venues is the transformation of the neighborhood. The indirect financial benefit for the city is significant but rarely noticed. First, it makes the neighborhood more livable. There is something to do, a place to hang out, and a source of inspirational experiences. Alex talked about how much has changed over the past few years in the downtown section of Grand Rapids, all of which seems tied to the DAAC. Then when the neighborhood becomes a cool and safe place, business interests show up and buy things like the DAAC’s building.
“It’s a natural process. Art will always be forced to the marginal communities.”
I asked him what it was like to write for a band with so many members.
“Each song is different. I write a skeleton of a song and we typically build off that foundation. As we work it over, it ends up being something different than I originally intended. I have to let go of what I had in mind because I want everyone to be happy about the song and feel they have ownership.” Alex quotes Woody Allen by saying that making art with a bunch of people is a giant compromise—but it’s for the greater good. “Some people talk about how they have to create or they’ll explode—I’m the opposite.” For Alex, writing is a struggle. It can be hard to settle on a chord progression but the challenge is rewarding. “Sometimes I have to dig so deep in order to get it out. But the process is just as rewarding as the finished product.”
Are you a live band or studio band?
“I consider us a live band.”
The Soil and the Sun record on their own. “None of us know what we are doing! We are always trying to capture what we do live. When it comes to music, it’s like we are learning each other’s languages.” For Alex the music translates differently between the record and the stage. For them there is a sense of developing or earning trust in the relationship. That all parties need to be able to give and take criticism. “In a democratic band songs open up so much more when other members are involved.”
In the age of Bandcamp and YouTube, it’s possible to live in a smaller city, while connecting with audiences through the web. For example, the website Audiotree TV, a major innovator to bring musical performances to the internet, has supported The Soil and the Sun while allowing them to find a wider national audience—something touring alone can’t always provide.
Marlee Grace, John’s wife, left early that morning to an artist residency in New England, meaning boys’ night. Jacob Bullard came over and the three of us started moving furniture out of the living room for a recording session that would include John, Jacob, and Alex. They’d been planning this for a few weeks. Each would write a couple originals and record each other’s songs. When Jacob arrived he presented John some very expensive pre-amps for recording.
“Where’d you get these?” John asked.
“A friend from Holland,” Jacob said.
John had me help haul up some amps, guitars, and expensive microphones from his practice space in the basement into the empty living room. They set up guitars, plug in amps, and experiment with microphone placement. They will have four days to record as much as possible.
“Did you hear Alex’s song?” Jacob asked.
John hadn’t. Jacob plays a version of it on his cell phone. Both sit and intently listen to a demo recorded on a handheld Dictaphone. The quality isn’t impressive but Alex had recorded multiple instruments and vocal tracks. Both listen with a sense of giddiness—looking at their mentor’s sketchbook, imagining what the coming week would produce.
Since my trip to Grand Rapids, I hadn’t heard from the DAAC board with any updates. But on November 21st, my Facebook account seemed to light up with links from all my Grand Rapids friends with a singular link. Fractured Atlas is a New York City based firm that consults and advises organizations like DAAC. It seems that this isn’t the end of the story but simply the beginning of a new chapter for Grand Rapids.