Two weeks ago, Grand Rapids indie staple Vagabonds self-released their latest collection of songs, Liminal Space. I sat down with my old friend, Luke, the mastermind behind the ever-evolving project. Read our conversation below and show further support by purchasing Liminal Space on bandcamp or streaming it on Spotify.
Hello again! Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. How are you doing? Please introduce yourself to the Bad Copy readers.
Hey, this is Luke Dean from Vagabonds. I am doing quite alright on this chilly West Michigan day.
So first of all, congratulations on your new record, Liminal Space. It’s a notable change for the Vagabonds project. Please explain how the new lineup formed and how that affected the growth in sound.
It’s definitely a shift. Vagabonds functions as a solo project with a collective around it that ebbs and flows… if that makes sense. Each person who accompanies me at shows and collaborates on record isn’t necessarily a full time member, so the project still falls in this place between being a solo project and a full band.
The first person who came into the usual cast though, is my buddy Willem. I had a little cello on the last record, as well as a couple stand alone singles that followed. I really wanted it to be a more consistent part of the live and compositional formula, so I reached out to Willem, and they’ve been playing and collaborating with me since. Their playing adds something to Vagabonds that I’ve always wanted to be there.
The rest of the folks trickled in last winter after I had written the whole EP and wanted other musicians to play on the recordings. That’s when my long time friends Jeffrey and Josh came into the picture. I hit up Nathan to play drums because he’s one of my top Michigan drummers and so easy to work with, and I’m grateful he was down to be a part of the process. Next thing I knew, we were in the studio together. Having everyone there enabled the songs to be expressed in the real world the way that they sounded in my head.
I understand you’re the primary songwriter but being that the instrumentation is so lush, I imagine your new bandmates had some influence in the process?
It definitely made Liminal Space the most outwardly influenced piece that’s come out under the Vagabonds name, and I mean that in the best way possible. I had relatively clear parameters for what I wanted to happen instrumentally, but the flares that everyone added made it feel more alive.
There were different approaches taken by the others that really solidified how the record would feel. The plucked strings and the drum beat on “Franklin SE” are the first things that pop into my head. Without the voicings of the other musicians, I think that track in particular wouldn’t have been nearly as fun to listen to.
A thing that really stands out to me on this album is the production. Who handled that part of it? Is there a record or a sound you intentionally modeled it after or were inspired by?
I was much more hands off for me on that end this time around. This one was recorded by my friend Matt in this awesome home studio he built out called Eastman Audio. I think it’s the only record that’s out that’s been tracked in that space, but it was the perfect fit. I would drive over to his house after work, we would brew up coffee, I’d sit down to play the songs, and he would do all of the mic placement, gain staging, and etc. It was such a relief to have his ears, encouragement, and help. For the mix and master, I hired my friend Corey, who you may know from the band Gleemer. He has a really special way of making raw tracks sound like a definitive album.
As far as sonic reference points go, Death Cab’s albums Plans and Transatlanticism were really notable ones. I used to try to make my recordings sound like the early Bright Eyes 8-tracks or Mansions’ self recorded stuff. I still love that approach, but these songs felt like they were asking for something different.
In the notes on Bandcamp it says “the space in between” which struck me. Can you expand on that?
I think the idea behind that statement is that this record doesn’t really express the deep hopelessness or absolute assurance in something greater that my earlier writing did. When I was younger, I often felt either extremely low mentally or really positive. The pain and the joy aren’t usually quite as sensational these days. It’s not a numbness. I think I’m just getting closer to a healthy center.
I also feel like this documents a time that I left a lot behind but hadn’t really found the next thing. I’m still not quite sure if I have.
Tell me about the art and aesthetic direction because it all feels very focused. Who handled that and what’s your process for that like? Did you give the artist a specific direction or is it based solely on how the songs make them feel?
The direction was very specific for this. It felt a bit like making a concept album. I wanted it all to feel a little mysterious and nostalgic. From the videos to the photos to the paintings that you see on the cover of the album, there was intention.
Before any of it was created, I sat down with Cam, who did the paintings, and we decided on a color palette to be used. I laid out a few reference pictures, one of which was a still frame from The Twilight Zone. From there, we stuck to that feeling and that affected the approach taken with the rest of the visuals that accompany the release.
The promos were taken by my friend Jackie, and the videos shot by Ethan who also is in Roundhouse with me now.
How different is the energy when you get to play these songs live with a full band compared to before when it’s just you?
These songs work really well in both settings, which I like. There’s an exciting balance between letting loose and restraining when we play as a group. There are moments, like when we play “Breath,” that things get heavy. Other moments are like a delicate dance where we’re on our toes waiting for each other’s cues.
To be honest, one of the best parts of playing with the band is that I don’t have to fight the audience for volume nearly as much. Unfortunately, playing solo can be a bit of a battle sometimes when the audience gets chatty. When the drums kick in, though, they demand attention.
Speaking of playing live, I’m sorry to hear of the postponement of your album release party due to COVID-19. Are there any plans to reschedule or maybe do an online stream in the meanwhile?
I’m hoping that there will still be one. It hasn’t been set in stone yet, though. I don’t want to book one too quickly that might end up not happening. We’re playing it by ear.
As far as live streaming, I think I may do a Q&A or something more conversational. Since the way I perform is so influenced by my experience with the crowd in real time, I have a little trouble getting into the right head space playing alone… even if I know other people are watching somewhere. I keep being asked to, though, so maybe I’ll give in and rip a few songs for Instagram.
How has this situation affected the roll out of the album otherwise? I’ve seen photos of you in a mask making post office runs.
There’s good and bad to situations like this, and the good is a little harder to see. I’ve been making regular trips to the post office’s drop box to send out prepaid packages because going inside and waiting in line when people might not be wearing masks stresses me out.
It’s also weird to put this out now because it was done being tracked a year ago almost to the date. I had been holding off on touring until now, and it feels like it’s knocked a bit of the wind out of the sails if I’m being frank.
The good of this, though, is that it can offer people something that doesn’t incite panic or mindlessness. I feel like I’m constantly scrolling by posts that provoke reactions of fear or thoughtless entertainment to get people’s minds off of it. This album isn’t either of those things, and I think that gives it a place of its own. It’s intended to encourage reflection and to cause the listener to take a deep breath and realize that it is possible to find peace even if that’s in the middle of situations that are out of one’s control.
“Breath”: Your past material felt very aggressively vocally driven, and that’s not to say the vocals aren’t important on this record, but starting off with an instrumental track felt like a bold departure. Was that intentional? And did you find it easier to express your message through instrumentation this go around compared to before?
Yes, it definitely was intentional. I like throwing people for curves. The last album literally started out with me talking. This is the opposite of that. I also just wanted to take some of the weight off of the lyrics. It’s alright to simply have fun and let a song build and rip. It’s okay to let the music speak. This isn’t poetry. It’s not something for a page. There’s another component, and I wanted to lean into that more heavily.
“Liminal Space”: With us all sort of being in this collective limbo right now, this song feels extremely relevant in the begging for good news. If you have some good news to share, please do.
Good news for me is that this quarantine has forced me to slow down on working and realize that there is so much more to my existence than clocking in at a job and trying to promote my art after work. There is joy in eating a good meal and watching Harry Potter.
Reconnecting with the quiet moments that aren’t broadcasted to social media and aren’t exhausting myself in the name of progression is healing. At first, this disruption of my normal life was really hard, but I’m trying to embrace it.
“Undone”: In a strange way, the music scene is like a little empire that cyclically burns down and rebuilds itself. What is something you miss about the community from the past? What is something you love about it that is new?
Oh Ty, don’t get me started about the “good ‘ol days” because I will go on that tangent too long. The thing I miss the most, though, is the consistency of all ages spaces. To be transparent, I also wrestle with the thought of whether or not Vagabonds still has as much of a place in my hometown. The scene has largely turned over since I started doing this, and it can be hard to stay in view of the old heads and capture the attention of the younger folks.
The thing I love most about the current West Michigan community, though, is the one around Hardcore. West Michigan music has always been a little cliquey, and I’m not throwing stones when I was that. For better or worse, it’s almost a defining aspect of DIY. West Michigan Hardcore has a really different energy to me than other scenes, though. While it probably gets some rightful criticism for being too wild at times, I think it’s genuinely a place for the freaks and weirdos. It feels the most free from cool kid attitudes and the most open to people that are actually misfits, which was the draw to subculture for me in the first place.
“Franklin SE”: During times of change or hardship, what are some things that you look to for comfort or for normalcy?
Eating healthy food and working out/skating are things outside of writing songs that really ground me in the present. They help me connect with myself in a tangible way. Sometimes connection with myself is hard to achieve unless there’s a physical manifestation.
“Patience, Longing”: People say that good art comes from darkness, which obviously is true but I don’t believe good art ONLY comes from darkness. Do you agree? How do good things like love inspire you to make good art?
I totally agree with you. Darkness is so visceral. I think human nature gravitates toward darkness in a really powerful way. Writing about the beautiful things is a little more of a challenge for me personally. I have to be intentional in a very different way. It’s like starting a new mental cycle for me. I could write a million depression records, and there’d be some merit to that, but there’s liberation in singing something that can bring a smile to someone’s face. It’s also important for me to give a true image of myself in the way I write. Sure, I’ve had a lot of self deprecating and nihilistic thoughts, but I’ve also had a lot of times that my heart has felt love. I’m trying to get better about capturing both.
“Leaving Quietly”: Think of someone special that you haven’t gotten to see since before the shelter-in-place went into effect and won’t get to see until after it’s over. Is there anything more you’d like to say to them if given the chance?
I’d like to say that I really miss the local Hardcore scene and all of the individuals in it that I’ve known for the better part of a decade. I’m going to play way harder, dance to every band, and hug everyone the next time we can all get together.
I believe a better, more accessible world is possible for everybody, including disabled people. I believe that better world needs to extend to the music and art community. It is supposed to be an all accepting and welcoming space after all. Do you agree? What are some ways you think we in that community should be trying to make things more accessible for those that have been left behind in the past?
I completely agree. Being a scene with a history in basement shows, it demands a conscious shift. Personally, when I’m planning a show now, I make a point to see if I can have the show in an accessible space. This is the way I’ve operated in regards to avoiding age restrictions on shows I play, and I’m extending that to doing what I can to make sure there aren’t physical restrictions as well. A simple inquiry into a space’s accessibility is a basic step but an important one. You’ve been a major player in bringing this mission into my mind.
On a local level, it seems harder to find places where smaller shows can happen in the first place. At least, it feels harder to me than I remember it being as a kid. I think places like the new DAAC will help us get closer to truer inclusivity for anyone regardless of physical ability, age, etc to join in the community. I’m prioritizing booking locally in places where everyone is welcome and able to attend. I’m also keeping this in mind as I start to book tours again whenever that day comes.
Thank you for taking the time to do this with me. If there is anything else you want to plug that I missed or anyone you want to shout out do so here. Take care. All love and safety to you and yours, especially now.
I always love your questions. I’d simply ask for people to listen to Liminal Space. If they can buy a shirt or physical copy, that would rule. Listening and sharing are free, though, and both actions help so much. I’ll see you on the other side of all of this, my friend, and we’ll get to share in the music and community in the same room again. Much love.