Chicago-based band Floatie – the quartet of singer-guitarist Sam Bern, singer-bassist Joe Olson, multi-instrumentalist Will Wisniewski, and drummer Luc Schutz – released their debut album just last week, but their friendship goes back nearly a decade. Before Bern started writing new material with Olson and Schutz under the name Floatie in 2017, the trio had previously performed together as Spooky Action Space Captain, while Olson had recorded Bern’s duo Date Stuff; Wisniewski, who joined Floatie in summer 2019, was also in a group with Olson called Hundred Heads. Having earned a reputation in Chicago’s tight-knit live scene, playing shows with Ratboys, Pile, Spirit of the Beehive, Moontype, and others, the band tracked their first full-length, Voyage Out, with producer Seth Engel at Pallet Sound studios at the tail of end of 2019. Despite the pandemic upending their plans just as they were about to mix the record, the songs’ layered, ever-evolving arrangements make for an adventurous listen that’s as easy to get lost in as it easy to simply enjoy, thanks in no small part to the group’s natural yet mysterious synergy.
We caught up with Floatie for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about how the band came together, the process of recording their debut album, and more.
I know you all sort of ran in the same musical circles in the Chicago scene before you created Floatie, but I was wondering if you could talk about how the four of you started to form a closer bond.
Will: We were in two different bands that went on tour together for a month – we went from Chicago to the West Coast and then back down through the southern part of America. I didn’t really know Sam or Lu well before that, but we really all became super close on that tour, just camping and playing shows and being super stoked about each other’s bands the whole time.
Joe: And then we all moved in with each other.
Will: [laughs] Yeah, we ended the tour and then we immediately moved in with each other, not even joking. It was inevitable that we would start playing together in one band eventually.
Why do you say it was inevitable?
Will: We were just always around each other. Or maybe I just say it was inevitable, it’s like a wishful thinking thing. I had always wanted to play music with Sam but we were in two separate bands – I wanted to do crossover and collaboration stuff but it was just, like, not the right time. But I know we wanted it to happen.
What are some things that you bonded over – was it mostly just music?
Sam: Yeah, pretty much. In the big house we lived in, we had a basement area and all of our combined gear and everything was in there. So, you know, you come home and you hear something emanating from downstairs and then you could just go down and join and see what they were up to. And yeah, we bond over music but also comedy.
Will: Videos of people going down waterslides on YouTube and stuff like that.
As most friend groups do, I suppose. [laughter]
Sam: Yeah, in one way or another.
But it’s something I can hear in the music, just the chemistry that you all share. There’s a lot of intricacies to your sound, but it’s also just a joy to listen to and I think that’s something that comes from that sense of connection. I know you were playing together for a while before recording your debut, so I’m curious how that relationship evolved over time.
Will: So, me and Joe were in a band, Sam and Luc were in a different band. And then Joe and Sam and Luc were in the same band together and I was off doing my own thing for a while, and I would go and see them play when they first started Floatie for the first year and a half or something. I was just fanboying in the audience, but being like, “Man, I wish I was in this band playing stuff with them at the same time.”
Sam: Why didn’t we – we didn’t think about it for so long and I don’t know why.
Will: Yeah, there was one time where it didn’t even occur to me that I would want to be playing music live or anything, I was sort of making stuff at home alone, in total isolation. And eventually, it was Luc’s birthday, I think, and we were all hanging out at the barbecue. And we were in the kitchen just talking about music and you were like, “So why aren’t you in Floatie yet?” [laughter]
Sam: We were talking and I was like, “Wait a second, why don’t you just come join the band,” and Will was like, “Wait, really?” [laughter]
Obviously, this is your first release as Floatie, but you’ve been playing live as a band for a few years now. How did you go about channeling that dynamic that you’d built in a live setting into more of a studio environment?
Joe: We tracked everything in the studio first live – we did the drums and the bass and the guitars together, so the album itself sort of has that live feeling, I think, because of the way we tracked the instruments together.
Luc: Our friend, Seth, who recorded us, he’s been to so many of our live shows, so he kind of knew how to [channel that].
Joe: We used to practice in the basement at the house that Luc and I live in now, and when we started the record, Seth came over to the basement and we played him all the songs. We told him we want this to sound like us playing really loud in the basement, and so I think we just tried to channel that but in a much larger room.
What do you feel he brought to the recording process?
Sam: He’s so nice and supportive and just great at keeping everybody – you know, we’re hearing the same thing over and over again and he somehow has a way of keeping you excited about it and feeling good.
Will: Everything he does, he’s super excited to do. It’s not like, “Oh, I guess I could set something up and it might sound a little better,” you know, he’s like jumping at you [laughs] – he’s really gassing you up the whole time. It really makes for an exciting recording atmosphere.
Do you mind sharing some memories from that week of recording?
Sam: Oh, there was a vending machine [laughter]. And none of us really even drink soda or anything like that, but there was, like, a question mark button, a random drink button, and everyone just became obsessed with it. So we would take breaks and go downstairs and get all the dollars that we had together and just put them in the machine and click the random button and see what came out. It was honestly horrifying seeing the recycling bin with the cans of random soda. We didn’t want to drink, we just wanted the thrill of pushing the button.
Will: Yeah, sometimes you’d get, like, Cherry Pepsi, and it was like, “Dang, the mystery button has got some good stuff behind it.” And then other times you would get some really weird one-off thing. Oh, the thrill of that button!
Sam: I know, I’m getting, like, “Whoo!” [laughter] But also, hearing all the parts with such clarity for the first time – because I was just thinking about it now, people would take videos of the show you know, like a little Story, and then they would tag us. And after the show I’d look through them and listen and I’d be like, “Damn, Will, that was really good!” I could not hear ever hear what was going on. It’s like we really waited till the last minute to hear what each other was playing.
Will: Yeah, it’s like looking in the mirror for the first time.
To move more into the songwriting side of things, I was wondering, when you have a spark of inspiration, how much do you discuss those ideas with each other before you kind of flesh them out? For example, I know that the album was influenced by a lot of adventure books, and ‘Castleman’ in particular was inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo.
Sam: I think if I bring a riff to practice or something that I’m excited about and we all start to play it, and if somebody is having trouble with the vibe they want to add to it, then we’ll have a discussion, like, “Oh, what were you thinking about when you wrote it?”
Will: Yeah, like what can I play along with you that doesn’t make this suck [laughter].
Sam: But if nobody’s getting it, then I’ll be like, “Okay, I’m going to step up here. You’ve been in prison for 14 years for a crime you didn’t commit. You’ve escaped jail. Okay, now go.”
In terms of the lyrics specifically, when you approach more personal topics – I was thinking of ‘Catch a Good Worm’, for example, which explores the concept or the falseness of binaries – do you find yourselves having these kinds of conversations, even outside the creative context?
Sam: We do have those talks because, you know, it’s what the songs are about and we’re all really good friends. It’s also part of my life, and so…
Luc: Therefore a part of ours.
Sam: Yeah, therefore a part of ours.
Joe: We all love Sam’s lyrics and we have these conversations about our personal lives and we’re all very close, but ultimately, the lyrics are – we just trust Sam to do what they will with them. These are things that we talk about, but the lyrics themselves really are mostly Sam.
Will: I never ask what they mean either.
Sam: Well, we talk about them though. Because, I mean, we would probably talk about them anyway, but we’ve been getting more questions about them specifically than we imagined, which is good – we’re all really excited that people are into it and want to know more, but that also sort of forces us to talk about them more and break them down a little bit. And so, because we’ll do all the interviews together, having those conversations helps that whole process.
I assume the lyrics were written a while ago. Having these conversations now, has that made you reflect back on them any differently?
Sam: When I wrote them, it kind of felt like it was like, “Dear Diary…” And then having conversations about them with my friends and also to share them with other people, it’s been really nice. To feel like this is less something that I need to deal with alone and more so, like, “Let’s share it and talk about it.”
Will: It’s funny, there’s one line on the album, “If only you would wash your hands, you wouldn’t get sick as much.” And that was written pre-pandemic. I was listening to that and I was like, “Whoa, what did Floatie know, and when?” [laughter]
How do you feel now that the album’s been released and the response it’s been getting overall?
Luc: It’s been really exciting.
Sam: Yeah, we’ve been freaking stoked.
Will: Totally wild.
Joe: It’s interesting to actually read what people think about it and write about it in so many different ways – almost none of our music projects have ever really garnered any reviews, really, or at least minimally. But I think mostly we’re just really excited now that it’s behind us to work on new stuff. We just set up our rehearsal space as a recording studio.
Is there anything that you feel like you want to explore more moving forwards, musically or conceptually?
Sam: I’d say more adventure novels, definitely. You know, there’s a lot out there, not enough time… Trying not to think about it too much. But also, I think writing more all together. This time I’m really excited for the group effort instead of, like, I’m writing this song in my room alone and then bring it to practice and then everybody adds what they want. Now we have this sort of semi-blank slate and this awesome new space to work together.
Joe: I think we’re also very excited to travel and tour again together. It’s been a long time and it will be a long time still, but it’s definitely something we’re all very much looking forward to.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.