Q&A with Aslan Freeman of ‘Unifier’
Editor’s note: Sanford native Aslan Freeman is the lead singer and guitarist for the band Unifier, which has just released its new album “Colorado.” Freeman, 23, is a graduate of Lee County Senior High School and UNC-Greensboro, where he received a bachelor’s degree in music composition. He and band mates Mike Kane (drums), Luke Rayson (bass guitar and vocals) and Chris Carr (guitar and vocals) are preparing to embark on a tour in support of the album. Freeman, the son of Bill and Annie Freeman of Sanford, talked to The Herald about the band, the album and what’s ahead for Unifier.
Unifier is Greensboro-based, but you and one other member of the quartet are from Sanford. Give us a brief history of how the four of you came together in 2010 and decided to become a band …
Chris Carr and I met through mutual friends playing in various bands around Greensboro when I was in college at UNCG. A friend of ours was shooting a zombie film (which I think a few other Sanford natives were involved with) and he needed some music done for it. Chris and I came back to my studio in Sanford to write and record a few tracks for him and realized that we meshed well together. We started writing a few more “traditional” songs on the side and decided to look for other members.
Our drummer, Mike Kane, is also from Sanford, and I actually went through high school watching his old bands play. One night the band that Chris and I were playing with had just finished a show at the old Blind Tiger location in Greensboro, and I saw Mike walk in. I immediately recognized him and went up to introduce myself and ask if he was still playing drums. Incredibly, he had just quit his day job earlier that day and made the decision to pursue music full time again.
After going through several bass players and playing around the state some, we met Luke Rayson playing with his other band, The Ethnographers. We had a pretty long tour opportunity approaching that our current bassist wasn’t going to be able to commit to, and The Ethnographers were beginning to play less, so I got in touch with Luke and asked if he wanted to jump on with us for the tour, and he decided to stick around.
At what point in your life did you envision yourself as the lead singer of a band SEmD and what other careers did you consider along the way?
I don’t think I actually ever envisioned myself as a lead singer; it just sort of happened. I sang for the band I was in during high school because nobody else really wanted to do it. Then, when I was in college, I found other people who actually wanted to sing, and I just played guitar, bass or drums and sang backup. I gradually started singing more and more in all of those bands though, and between that and being in Men’s Glee Club (a traditional choir, not like the TV show) my voice started to get stronger. I was writing more and more songs on the side by myself, and eventually the project started with Chris and me.
As far as other careers go, I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid, and up until college I did far more theater than music. I very nearly auditioned at UNCG for the BFA program, and honestly, I was way more qualified for that degree at the time. If I wasn’t doing music at all, one of my best friends is in optometry school, which I think is a brilliant career choice, so I’d follow him there. Ideally, though, I do a lot of audio engineering and production in my free time, and I would love to make a career out of that if playing in a band doesn’t end up panning out.
“Unifier” is the band’s new name. Can you walk us through what prompted the name change from “Future Ghosts” and how the battle over the name with the Chicago band “Future Ghosts” has affected you and your band mates, especially as you prepared to release an album?
Well, as you mentioned, there is another band named Future Ghosts based in Chicago. Just after joining with Round Kid Records and releasing our EP through them, I believe the band from Chicago caught wind of us and decided they should trademark the name. It’s a long process that takes more than a year to complete, so they didn’t actually receive the trademark until the middle of 2012, and it wasn’t until December that they finally notified us of their claim. Their “agent” sent us a cease and desist email message, giving us a paltry five days to remove all infringing material and re-brand all of our websites. However, the email also went on to state that they had already notified all of the websites in question of their claim and requested that they remove our content. Five days turned into about six hours of us scrambling just to notify as many of our followers as possible that we were losing our sites and they should refer to our official website (where we own the domain) for more information.
After consulting with our label, management, a few trademark lawyers and a PR team, it seemed that both bands legally held rights to the name, and our case would look very favorable in court. The story got picked up by a surprising amount of press outlets and ended up bringing a lot of attention our way, but it turned into a pretty negative situation. The bottom line was that we needed our web presence back in order to promote the release of “Colorado,” which was right around the corner. With no signs of the other band backing down and continuing to share the name, and no desire on our part to settle the issue in court or strip them of the name, it became pretty clear that we should just change it and not waste any more time.
As we sorted through ideas, the name “Unifier” stuck out to us very powerfully. We were so amazed at the support we’d received from friends, fans and even complete strangers during that week, and we thought Unifier was a great way to remind us of that. This has also been the first major hurdle we’ve had to overcome as a band, and I think it really gave us all a chance to bond together and prove to each other that we’re all on the same page: completely ready and willing to drive forward and see if we can make a career out of our music.
“Colorado” has been described as an album fusing the sounds of pop-rock with “progressive” rock. How would you describe the music, and how did the band’s philosophy and goals for the album end up shaping the songs? Or was it the other way around?
We all come from more musically experimental backgrounds but love a good melody, so I’d agree that both the progressive and pop elements are there. We usually draw comparisons to Jimmy Eat World, Brand New, Foo Fighters and Alkaline Trio, all of which are pretty relatable to our sound. This album was undoubtedly a concentrated effort on our part to bring out more of the pop elements in our writing than we have in the past. We referred back to a mantra of “Big. Pretty. Simple.” as we were writing in an attempt to shape the songs and ensure that they fit together well.
“Colorado” is just out for a few days now on iTunes and through other channels. What’s been the reaction and the feedback?
Everything has been incredibly positive so far. We got several press reviews prior to the release that were all very complimentary, and there are more outlets that have requested review copies and will hopefully be weighing in soon. We gave out a free copy of the album to everyone who attended our CD release show in Greensboro, and everyone we’ve spoken to since then seems to be enjoying the album as well. As expected, there are definitely songs people tend to like more than others, but we haven’t heard anything overtly negative yet, which we’re thankful for.
What potential does the album have SEmD and what needs to happen to really cause the album to get serious radio airplay?
Well of course we hope and believe that this album has the potential to push us to the next level as a band. Our ultimate goal for “Colorado” is just to bring us growth. We want as many people to hear it as possible, whether they buy it or not, and hope that those who love it will find a way to support us regardless of how they came across our music. Several reviews have mentioned the potential for radio airplay, but that isn’t currently our top priority. There are a lot of great online radio outlets now that are more accessible and helpful for a band our size, so we’re going to start building from there. We actually had a couple guys drive six hours from Mobile, Ala., to our last show in Atlanta just because they heard one of our songs on their favorite Pandora station. Services and companies do exist that even smaller bands can use to get into rotation on college and commercial radio though, and we hope to take advantage of those in the future.
Why call the album “Colorado”? It’s one of the 12 tracks on the album, but why choose that as the title for a Greensboro-based band?
I took a trip out west when I was in high school and remember being immediately drawn in by the uniqueness and beauty of Colorado as a state. I thought it was the only state I could really see myself settling down in other than North Carolina. We were stopped for lunch on our last day in the state, and I found a little spot by a river to read some letters from friends and family. Looking back, a lot of the ways I’ve grown as a person since then have been resultant in some way from realizations I had during that time. Because of that, a lot of the album’s lyrical themes (and especially the song “Colorado”) can also be traced back to those realizations, so I always knew I wanted to name it Colorado as a sort of testament to that.
Many bands, even commercially successful ones, rely on a “hook,” or a particular individual strength or characteristic, to capture listeners SEmD but repeated, thoughtful listenings reveal a lack of depth. Lyrically and musically, though, “Colorado” sounds exceptionally strong from the first listen, even supremely confident. That feeling is captured in the in the musicianship and in the depth and maturity of the lyrics. Explain that … simple chemistry? Incredible talent? Great production? Or something else?
I’d say the most tactful way to phrase it would be “attention to detail” [laughs]. I can’t claim to know how other people — successful or not — are writing songs these days, but I do know that we put a borderline overkill amount of thought into writing ours. Part of it comes from me getting my BM in music composition, so I’m always thinking about the theory behind things and trying to take advantage of any little “tricks” I’ve picked up that composers have been using for centuries to hook in listeners. In college, we also had lessons on orchestrating and arranging pieces for different instrumental combinations that made me think more specifically about how all the instruments and vocals are sitting together. Can we weave this vocal and that guitar part together? Is that keyboard part getting in the way of the vocal melody? What if we had the bass play above the guitar on this part?
The other part comes from employing that mantra of “Big. Pretty. Simple.” as more than just a general guiding principle. Rather than just saying, “Hey, I like this one song; let’s write a song like that,” we try to ask, “What is it about this song that we like? Let’s simplify this song down to the exact part that is most attractive to us, figure out why it ‘works,’ and then figure out how we can employ that same core element in this song we’re writing.” It can also happen within several of our own songs, where we really like one part of a song, and the other parts aren’t really “living up” to the part we love, so we’ll strip the song into sections, move them around and write new parts around the sections we really loved to start with, which will sometimes result in two or three new songs we love rather than one awkward one we think is alright. Ultimately, it’s up to the listener to decide if we’re actually doing any of that successfully, but so far we’re happy with the results.
Every band has influences. Which bands helped shape you all musically?
Brand New, Foo Fighters and Jimmy Eat World are undeniably the big three we continue to come back to, and Deftones are kind of our “curveball” band. Beyond that, we all love the 90s alternative scene in general. So many great songs came from that era that are really nostalgically powerful to us, and we try to tap into that sound in a way that appeals to listeners in a similar way.
What drives the creativity now when you’re writing?
Four guys having fun playing music together! Despite all the analysis and examination we put the songs through later on in the process, when we’re initially generating the ideas, we like for it to just be that simple. Even now, when we’re not actively writing, we start every practice by just jamming for 10 or 15 minutes. Luke usually gets set up first, and he’ll start playing something on bass. Then Mike will lock into it on the drums, and Chris and I will build some guitar parts around whatever they’re doing. It’s fun, and it keeps us fresh and flexible as musicians rather than only being exposed to the repetitive exercise of playing the same few, structured songs to a metronome.
You mentioned the EP you recorded … under the name “Future Ghosts,” you released an EP in 2011 called “Oh Great City.” How is “Colorado” different, musically, than that first release?
Colorado is a much more focused album than our EP. Although there are more tracks (or maybe because there are more tracks), there was a more controlled and subtle experimentation with our sound from song to song. We jumped around more drastically on the EP as a way to find out what style we — as well as our listeners — would enjoy the most, and used what we learned from playing those songs to inform our writing for the new album. We wanted to have a much more mature and polished sound for Colorado, and I think we achieved that.
Future Ghosts posted a few very well-done videos on YouTube. What’s the plan for similar music videos for songs from “Colorado”?
Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed them! We’ve already shot one music video for the fourth track, “Bitter? Better.” We’re wrapping up some editing revisions with the director at the moment, and are aiming to release the video next month.
The music business has changed dramatically even since you first began buying CDs. In this age of social media, iTunes, Spotify, Soudcloud, Bandcamp, Reverbnation and Pandora, how SEmD aside from performing and touring SEmD are you promoting your music?
This is a constant focal point for us, especially now while we’re not writing heavily. It’s a great way to channel our creative drive as artists and help get our name and our music out there. With so many outlets and opportunities for bands to promote themselves these days, it’s an exciting challenge to try to think of new ways to use these modern outlets and technologies that will really grab people’s attention. With the help of our PR agent and label/management team, we hope to see some of our ideas set into motion soon, but we haven’t found a way to make any of the more off-the-wall ones work just yet [laughs].
Being a band still has to come first, and since we’re relatively new, with a debut album so freshly released, the most important thing is that we stay busy performing every chance we get. Once the basic touring and PR wheels get set in motion and turning without us having to push them so hard, we hope to be able to dedicate more time to some creative promotions. It’s easy to get ahead of yourself and jump important building blocks in the excitement of a great idea, but without that basic foundation — built upon live performance and personal interaction with fans — it’s hard to make a lasting impression.
The rest of February has you playing in a variety of different N.C. venues before heading up northeast for shows in March. What’s up for the rest of the spring and summer?
We’d love for our March tour of the northeast to be just the tip of the iceberg for our traveling this year. We’re finishing up the final booking on that at the moment and planning to jump straight into booking runs for April and May when everything is squared away for March. If that schedule works for us, we’ll be trying to repeat that for the rest of the year.
No question, it’s been an eventful year for the band and its evolution. Where do you see things progressing in 2013 and into next year?
Things always seem to move pretty slowly in the music business, so we just want to see the band continue to grow as steadily as possible. We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished and how far we’ve come as a band in just three years, and if the momentum continues to build at the rate it has, we’ll have introduced “Colorado” to tons of new ears by 2014.