Matt Klimas finds himself lounging in front of a laptop, going through demo after demo.
Matt Klimas finds himself lounging in front of a laptop, going through demo after demo. The Snowy Owls are in the process of readying Difficult Loves, and frontman Klimas is locking down what will hopefully be the final track list. Driven by a creative spark that sees no end in sight, he begins the process yet again. It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but the excitement brewing is enough to reward the patience of those longing for this album’s arrival. The Snowy Owls’ mix of shoegaze guitar fuzz and shimmering pop songcraft has won them many fans around town, and the impending release of Difficult Loves seems poised to take them to the next level.
This article appeared in the newest print edition of RVA Magazine. You can read the digital issue here.
At one point, The Snowy Owls was just Klimas. Dissonant acoustic jams with a few digital loops in the mix made up this solo endeavor. But in 2010, The Snowy Owls transformed into a full band. “My focus for The Snowy Owls had gotten to a point where it required a full band,” Klimas says. One of the first members to join Klimas was bassist Allen Bergendahl. Bergendahl had been known around the city for his acclaimed engineering efforts with Viking Recording. Bergendahl finds the elements that draw him to Klimas’ songwriting pretty easy to pinpoint. “What I will always love about Matt and his approach to music in general is that he knows what a song needs,” Bergendahl says. “He displayed that in [previous band] Louisiana Territory, and when I started hearing some of the demos he was doing for The Snowy Owls, my interest was further piqued. When he asked me to join, it was pretty obvious for me to immediately say yes.”
The next step for the band was to find a drummer. Early recordings that would later be featured on a split release with White Laces included drummer Tyler Crowley. However, his stay with the band would be short, and they soon found a perfect percussive counterpart in Brandon Martin. His style was full of unexpected jolts of energy and a messy finesse. The charm in his playing was definitely the result of his being primarily self-taught. Many of Martin’s most inspired moments on Snowy Owls songs display that unique personality.
The Snowy Owls remained a trio up until the beginning of 2012, but several of the songs that Klimas had been working on at that time seemed hollow without the accompaniment of a second guitarist. After deep consideration, the most obvious candidate for addition to the band appeared to be James Wingo of Ghost Lotion. “We knew James from around town and I always dug the parts he would write for Ghost Lotion,” Klimas reflects. “When we had him come in for a few rehearsals, it was one of the first moments where I think we really honed into what would become The Snowy Owls sound.” Their first show as a four piece was an epic Strange Matter show featuring White Laces, The Diamond Center, and The Super Vacations. The response to this set was incredibly positive and helped provide the group with the needed momentum to begin working on Within Yr Reach.
This EP was a culmination of Klimas’ songwriting aptitude, and his influences come to the fore in many of the songs. While being a diehard shoegaze aficionado, several of his early musical memories involve the likes of The Cure and The Replacements. This not only translated into some of the poppier moments on the EP, but also resulted in some of the dire, somber lyrical content. “Josef and Anni” found the perfect balance of the heavy and the subtle qualities of the band. It also perfectly showcased the budding guitar interplay between Klimas and Wingo. The opener “Pilcrow” also provided a lifeline to Difficult Loves with it’s shadowy, reverb-laden guitars–a nice nod to what awaited Snowy Owls fans. The title track hits with the bang that this band has become known for, with its depth of instrumentation, lyrical metaphors, and touches of the unexpected. Within Yr Reach was a stellar debut that helped to shape the direction of both The Snowy Owls’ career and the Richmond music scene in general.
After the release of Within Yr Reach, though, the band received news that would change everything. Martin had decided to move to Austin, Texas, leaving the band drummer-less once again. Before his departure, The Snowy Owls got to work on a short EP entitled Summer, the band’s last release with Martin. It was an exercise in writing shiny, bright pop tunes that resonated all the typical elements of the titular season. “Feels Like Summer” and “All Summer Long” are easily the poppiest songs that the band had written thus far, and the best attribute of the entire record is its obvious adoration for this approach to pop songwriting. The glimmering hopeful nature of the Summer EP might not be what previous material had led listeners to expect, but it remains a strong display of what keeps The Snowy Owls exciting.
Martin’s last show with the group took place in summer of 2013; it was time for the band to regroup. As with his experience in finding Wingo, Klimas found himself at fortune’s doorstep once again. “Prior to doing the Summer EP, we had worked with Hoax Hunters on a seven-inch that was exclusive for Record Store Day. This was around the time that they had solidified their lineup by having James O’Neill join them on drums,” Klimas says. “Brandon and James are really different drummers, but we got a vibe from James’ playing that felt like it would fit really well. We played with him a few times, and we knew that we wanted him to be on board.” While remaining in Hoax Hunters, O’Neill started playing with The Snowy Owls as well in the fall of 2013. Their first show was at Fall Line Fest, where their well-rounded set showcased many old favorites and several new additions, properly introducing O’Neill into the fold. One thing was immediately apparent–he brought a particular heaviness to The Snowy Owls that hadn’t been heard in their sound before. “When I joined the band, I wanted to find the way to properly balance between what Brandon had written and what I could contribute,” O’Neill explains. “With that in mind, I think I found a way to be respectful to what existed prior, while injecting a few things.”
Even as far back as the Within Yr Reach sessions, The Snowy Owls had been demoing for a proper full-length debut. However, the transition from Martin to O’Neill certainly changed the dynamic of many of the tracks. And with the new blood O’Neill injected into the outfit, even more songs were being written. “Towards the end of 2013 things started to get really exciting,” Klimas says. “We had more songs to work on, and it opened up several options for the direction that the record could take.” O’Neill’s more aggressive take on drums has allowed him to refine his intensity on some tracks, and the rhythm dynamic between O’Neill and Bergendahl has also opened up many possibilities. “Allen is a great bassist to play along with. He shows a similar restraint that Matt does in some of his guitar parts, and it helps me to reconsider the approach each song is asking for,” O’Neill says. On the guitar front, Wingo sees a shift that is enabling the new material to sound much more intriguing. “There are songs where I might have initially played rhythm to Matt’s lead. Now, we are switching that up,” Wingo says. “It’s challenging for me, but it’s equally as exciting.”
Another solid factor that plays into the writing of Difficult Loves is the patience that Klimas has exuded. This patience takes the form of waiting to see how each song can grow organically. “There were early songs that sounded almost like they featured drum parts from [The Cure’s] ‘Why Can’t I Be You’,” Klimas says. “As time went on, we were able to break all those obvious nods into something that was a little more abstract, but also revealing of where we wanted this record to take us.” It doesn’t hurt that the band has an engineer in their lineup, which gives them all the time they could desire for writing and finessing.
Difficult Loves feels like a perfect bookend for the group. Where Within Yr Reach showcased many of the attributes that their peers would grow to admire, their new record attempts to defy those expectations while building on new inspirations. The name of the record comes from a short story collection by Italo Calvino, which focuses on love and the difficulty of communication. This has been a resounding lyrical theme in The Snowy Owls’ repertoire, dating back to their 2012 split EP with White Laces. That EP’s “Could” is about feeling the need for romantic companionship, and the dreaming that goes along with it. That longing hasn’t dissipated, and the way it’s expressed in the band’s new material creates a truly captivating experience for the listener.
While Within Yr Reach’s closing track, “Falling,” detailed an emotional descent that feels out of control, Difficult Loves opens with another instrumental jam that shares the title of the record. This track starts the album by returning to the surface to continue dreaming, and swearing never to let the feeling slip away from you again. Of course, with fifteen total tracks in the mix for the album, there is still the possibility of Difficult Loves reinventing itself entirely before it is finalized. “The goal is to keep it to a solid nine-song track list, but the other songs could find themselves released through comps or split releases,” Klimas remarks. If the early demos are any indicator, this captivating collection will be the talk of the town when it finds its way into the hands of fans in 2014.
The Snowy Owls are the perfect band for all parties involved. “This has been the most rewarding project I have been involved with. It might just be for the sheer fact that I am surrounded by countless talented people, and the amount of support for something I have created is incredible,” Klimas remarks. “We all just find comfort in playing with each other. There’s little drama and we all feel strongly about the material,” Wingo adds. “I like the idea of thinking about where we belong in the music scene now and considering that we belong to it as much as we offer up our identity in the process. It’s a great time to be playing music in Richmond and I couldn’t be more happy,” O’Neill remarks. The Snowy Owls may have started out beneath the radar, but this challenge just made them even better at what they do, and it shows with each new release. Difficult Loves is set to be the game changer the band not only needs, but deserves.