RVA No. 12: Sundials

Posted by: – Mar 26, 2013


As I walk into the Church of Abraham--a house in The Fan that serves as a show and practice space for local punk bands--to interview Sundials, one thing becomes abundantly clear. Despite their casual nature during conversation, their work ethic is anything but. With a seemingly endless assortment of releases under their belt and the growing acclaim of punk communities around the world, Sundials have been in constant forward motion since their beginning in the summer of 2009.


Sundials initially came together as an extension of guitarist Harris Mendell’s solo project Horn & Tusk. “While I was writing songs as Horn & Tusk, I was also playing with Hold Tight,” Mendell explains. “A lot of the stuff I started writing felt more in line with being played along with a band. ‘Names That Matter Most’ was the first inkling towards this, and it motivated me to start Sundials.” The mentality that guides the first songs that Sundials wrote isn’t too far removed from Mendell’s approach to his solo work. One of the group’s strongest attributes is a level of intimacy that is developed within each song. They document moments in time that can find universal appeal beyond singular musical communities. It’s an attribute that helped to make the bands that influenced Sundials (such as Jawbreaker and Alkaline Trio) so popular, and thus helped bring attention to the group almost immediately upon their inception.

It was only logical that Mendell would approach former Friendly Fire bandmate Carl Athey about playing bass. “There wasn’t that much time removed from when Friendly Fire played their last show and Sundials played their first, but the sound was definitely something different entirely,” Athey recalls. The relationship between the two goes beyond just being in a band together. There is a similarity in the way the two friends stand behind their respective ideologies about the way they conduct themselves as musicians, and in their personal lives. You can see this in Athey’s work as a writer, and in the way the band expresses themselves when discussing civil liberties that may be seen as trivial by people who hold different political values.

When the band first started, Mendell envisioned a heavier approach than that of the pop punk bands he had participated in before. The band never really accomplished this in their creative output, but the desire for heaviness was a motivating factor in their decision to ask drummer Cory Chubb to join the band. “I envisioned Sundials as this heavier grunge band--bands like Young Widows come to mind,” Mendell explains. “Cory was an easy candidate to at least give it a shot towards seeing if we could create that sound. I guess we all know how that turned out,” he jokes. Having spent his younger years in the DC area, Chubb was heavily influenced by much of the Dischord records catalog, which is illustrated perfectly in his approach to drumming as well as songwriting. There is a bursting spirit to his performances behind his kit, yet the band’s melodicism never wanes when Chubb contributes to their songwriting process.

Sundials’s first release, The First Six Songs, is a quick detour from those early sonic aspirations, but demonstrates early signs of the band’s promise. Tracks like “Neighborhood Well” and “Names That Matter Most” have remained strong set pieces to this day for Sundials. When listening, it’s easy to see why. The two songs indicate the band’s ability to craft catchy songs that incorporate the influence of 90s alternative rock. According to Mendell, this release has remained a fan favorite. “Even after we put out Never Settle, we would still get the biggest reactions from people in regards to our first set of songs.” A great deal of attention was brought to the release when it was featured on the site If You Make It. “I don’t think nearly as many people would know about us, or we would have been given as many opportunities as we have been, if it weren’t for our inclusion on the site as a free download,” Mendell explains.

The First Six Songs is titled very literally--the tracks appear in the order that they were written by the group, and show a respectable progression for Sundials. This EP set the standard for the band’s work ethic. “Once the band started, we just kept working on writing new songs and touring whenever we could,” Mendell remarks. “It was difficult for all of us with being in school, but when we found time, we really set our attention towards that.” Some of their first tours helped them to continue prospering as songwriters as well as performers. “I would say that we are definitely a lot better as a live band now, but there is always going to be this raw feeling surrounding it all.”

There was a point when the group did consider expanding their line-up. Mendell’s vision of the group’s dynamic was never limited to a three-piece. “At one point, we considered adding a keyboardist, but they were never able to make time from their other band,” he explains. “The only time we had someone stick around for a second was when we added a second guitarist. Our friend Tyler Walker from Family Cat played with us for a bit. I think the hardest part of adding someone to the band was the idea that we had been a band for a while and it made it slightly difficult to throw someone into the mix so late in the band’s lifespan.”. At this point, it seems that the dynamic of Sundials works best with the three original members. The instrumentation finds moments of relaxation or budding intensity while never obscuring the vocal interplay between Athey and Mendell. If anything, Sundials might sound too cluttered if there was another component in the mix.

Surprisingly enough, by the time The First Six Songs was released, Sundials had already written the majority of Never Settle. “We are always continuously writing,” Mendell reflects. “At first, the majority of the songs were mine.” This might explain why Never Settle feels as much a part of the first era of Sundials as their debut EP. However, as Mendell goes on to explain, “That soon changed, as Carl and Cory both began to contribute, and that only helped us to continue producing new, unique material.” “I mean, outside of Sundials, I’m also writing for my band Close Talker, and even bands that haven’t even been put together yet,” Chubb explains. While Never Settle’s songs are of a piece with their earliest material, it shows off a wider range of the band’s impressive talent. “Take You In My Coffee,” “Blame,” and “Either Way” are stunning examples of the band’s capability at writing punk gems. Meanwhile, “San Francisco Courthouse Steps” and “47 Million” are more closely reflective of the early days of Horn & Tusk, with political ideology and bleak realities incorporated throughout the lyrics.

After recording Never Settle with Dan Norsworthy of Virginia band Tatlin’s Tower, it was time for the band to hit the road once more. The general response to Never Settle was increasingly positive and led to opportunities for the group to head overseas. From their perspective, there were things regarding the release of Never Settle that they wish they could change. “I think it’s safe to say that no one in the band was completely satisfied with how that release turned out,” Mendell mentions. “The record was never actually mixed down, so that’s why it sounds all over the place,” Athey adds. In the time it took to finally be released, Sundials had become a different band. Never Settle helped to showcase a band that was capable and eager to write clever punk anthems. It also set a distinct contrast between the way Sundials were presented on recording and in live performance. “One of the first things people tend to mention to us when they hear our recordings after seeing us live is that we sound heavier live,” Mendell says. “With that in mind, I think that’s where the trajectory of the band was headed following Never Settle.”

The benefit of spending countless nights out on the road is the ever-expanding network of bands you make contact with. This proved advantageous to Sundials when they were considering what label they wanted to work with for their second full-length. One label that came to mind was Asian Man Records. Sundials sent in a demo and hoped for the best, but Mendell thinks more factors were at work. “I’d like to believe that we got signed to Asian Man for the merits of our songwriting--and I think that helped,” he says. “In reality, we had toured with a good chunk of the bands on the label. When we were writing to [label owner] Mike Park about wanting his label to potentially put out our next full-length, we also reached out to our friends that were already on the label to put in a good word for us. I think that, along with a combination of other factors, helped to make this happen.” Park’s response to their demo was promising. He dug what he had heard and was definitely interested. After a bit of time passed without further contact, though, the band did start to freak out a little bit. However, a story eventually got back to the band that the members found fascinating. “Park was touring with The Classics of Love and they played at the Black Cat,” Mendell relates. “[Park] need[ed] a ride to the airport. Our friend Nathan Brown, who plays as Oklahoma Car Crash, was able to offer them one. So his mom is giving all of them a ride and they start talking about bands. Our name came up, and Park immediately was like ‘Oh, you know Sundials? What’s the deal with those guys?’ Our friend, being a really sweet guy, said several kind things about us. After this incident, Park reached out to us and we figured out how we could work together to put out When I Couldn’t Breathe.”

For their second album, Sundials headed to Pennsylvania to record with Mike Bardzik at Noisy Little Critter Studios. The band had more time to focus on this release than they’d had Never Settle. “I think we can all agree that we rushed through our first record,” Mendell comments. “With this new album, we all decided to write songs [with] the idea of writing a record, not just a collection of songs we were throwing together to release,” Chubb adds. Not much had changed in the sense of financial predicaments that can ensue when you finance your own records. “I think we still had the same lack of funds, but working with Asian Man made this seem like something worth delving into,” Mendell explains. “Putting more money into it and just taking advantage of what we had going on.” The travel also assisted the band, as they got away from their hometown in order to focus on what many consider their best release to date.

When I Couldn’t Breathe is a reflective record about growing older. The angst of early Sundials is still present, but there is a feeling of hesitation and consideration that permeates the mood of this new album. There is a sense of longing for better times, either in the past or the future. Mendell wrote “New York Crunch” about listening to the stories of a co-worker who dreams of something more than working at a market. “710” is about Mendell and Athey’s former home burning down, and attempting to recover after seeing everything you own destroyed right in front of you. “Completely Broken” examines a life-altering moment and asks whether colliding with destiny will change our lives in the way we expect. There is a sense of maturity that comes through on When I Couldn’t Breathe that many bands can only dream of achieving. It is also the band’s most successful release thus far--according to Mendell, When I Couldn’t Breathe is about to sell out of their first run of vinyl, after which it will be repressed.

Indeed, Sundials have reached a level of success that, when they first got together, they used to joke about. “When we started Sundials, we always thought it would be great to work with Asian Man Records,” Mendell explains. “Our name comes from an Alkaline Trio reference, and [now] we [are] signed to the same label that put out their early releases. We’re eyeing working with Matt Allison, who produced their first couple albums.” However, when offered a chance to appear on an Asian Man compilation in which bands cover songs by other bands on the label, Sundials passed up the opportunity to cover Alkaline Trio. “That might have been a little too much,” Mendell jokes.

In keeping with Sundials’s relentless work ethic, 2013 shows no end in sight. Outside of their touring regimen, the band will finally see the release of a long-awaited split release with Tatlin’s Tower, as well as another EP that could see the light of day by the end of the year. “I don’t see any reason not to have a release out every year,” Mendell says. “Especially as a three-piece, it makes it easier to efficiently write songs and get them out there.”

As the interview comes to a close, Mendell jokes with Chubb about an upcoming Sundials song that they have been hashing out. “If you can come up with a chorus to that, just go for it. I still haven’t been able to figure it out.” This moment perfectly reflects the trust that all of the members of the band have in one another. Their friendships and relationships with the music scene have only helped them prosper as musicians. A band like Sundials doesn’t come around all that often, but when they do, everybody seems to take notice. It will still be quite a while before we can fully grasp the legacy that this group is creating for themselves, but we get to watch them establish that legacy in real time, and we are all the better for it.

By Shannon Clearly / Photos By Jake Cunningham