Pittsburgh’s String Machine started out as the solo project of vocalist and guitarist David Beck, who recruited a number of friends to help bring his creative vision to life. Across their first two albums, 2016’s Threads from the Youth Fossil and 2019’s Death of the Neon, Beck’s songwriting evolved, and so did the nature of the band. Now, String Machine has seven members – including vocalist Laurel Wain, drummer Nic Temple, cellist Katie Morrow, trumpeter/guitarist Ian Compton, pianist/vocalist Dylan Kersten, and bassist Mike Law – and functions more like a musical community. You can hear it in their latest LP, Hallelujah Hell Yeah (out today), their best and most vibrant effort to date. That’s not exactly how you’d normally describe a record born out of heartbreak, but you can really feel the songs being lifted from the ground up. Instead of obscuring the well of anxiety that inspired it, the album conveys the emotional honesty and openness that Beck and his bandmates embraced during its creation. In its expansive arrangements and immediate, triumphant choruses, you sense the freedom that comes with throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks – or what might make you feel alive. And then, as it grows, you become a part of it.
We caught up with String Machine’s David Beck for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about his earliest musical influences, the band’s collaborative process, their new album, and more.
I wanted to start by bringing up a line from ‘Engine / It’s Time’, from your previous record, about checking if your band was featured in someone’s Instagram story. As you’re in the middle of this album campaign, how conscious are you of your online presence and any potential disconnect between that space and the actual communities that you’re in?
I try to keep our online presence intimate, and to a certain degree personal, because I just believe in the heart of things. If I write something with my handwriting and it comes from me, and then I scan it and put it on a graphic, maybe a little essence of my heart is in that. We try to bridge the gap – I really want our online presence to be reflective of how much we are striving for community with the people who listen to us. I just don’t want to have a disconnect with the fans or people who listen or check out the band or come to a show. A lot of people I meet at our shows and a lot of people that are interacting with us on social media – I cherish a lot of those connections I make. I guess we strive to be as present as we have to be in the modern world, but also to maintain the heart in the content that we put out there in the little ways that we can, be it handwritten lyrics, Polaroid pictures, VHS things or whatever. We want everyone to feel like they can reach out to us if they need to, or they can talk to us or be our friend, because that’s what this is all about to us. The internet in relation to real world is very strange, but we try our hardest to bring those two worlds together and to be as authentic as we can be.
I assume it’s an ongoing process, too, and that the way you approach this idea of authenticity and being online has changed since you wrote that song.
Yeah. I think with that lyric in particular, it was kind of saying that sometimes – I’m in the middle of it now, in terms of being obsessed with my phone. I’m always refreshing and seeing who liked what or how one post is performing. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being borderline addicted to social media. And with that lyric in particular, it’s like, the thing that would make most sense if you’re stranded on the side of the road is to call someone and be like, “Hey, can I get a ride?” But that lyric was almost like a pun in the sense that sometimes, checking social media can feel more important than taking care of yourself or living your real life. I’ve been making conscious efforts to not care about social media, but it’s something that I struggle with and I’m sure a lot of people struggle with.
I relate to that when it comes to Twitter. I mean, I noticed that someone on the String Machine account liked my review of the new Black Country, New Road record [Ants From Up There].
Yeah, I love that record too. We’ve been thinking about the Black Country, New Road record a lot.
Considering how personal the subject matter of your lyrics is, are you also more conscious of how you present that musically? Have you become more sensitive about what you write and put out into the world?
To a certain degree. I mean, psychologically, I feel like our first response to something can sometimes inspire anger or whatever, but once you vent it out, it becomes a more mature emotion. I guess when I’m being vulnerable on the new record, I try to sift through the short emotions and get to something that I can express and feel like I mean forever, rather than for that 30 seconds or whatever. I try to get down to the core of emotion and to say something that is worth saying for longer than that initial reaction to something.
With the new record, a lot of the lyrics were inspired, but also were used as, kind of a therapeutic thing. Journaling is my way of sifting through my emotions and trying to understand them, and I think the songs only came to fruition when the emotion I was having was almost completely understood. I think the vulnerability comes from trying to get at that, like, what kind of things do I want to say that can connect with people and hopefully encourage growth in them, too, as much as it was growth for me?
Could you share an early memory of feeling connected to music, that made you realize it’s something you’re passionate about?
There’s always been music that moves me. One notable thing, and I think it comes out for sure because of the comparisons we get, but once In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel clicked for me, it was something that to this day I strive for, making a piece of art that can connect at such a deep level. There’s so much music, be it Bob Dylan or Neutral Milk Hotel or Kendrick Lamar or Frank Ocean, that you listen to and it helps you… It helps you. You feel the song, sometimes you get goosebumps because it’s just hitting that nerve in your soul. And I always just tell myself, if I can somehow get to that depth of, like, the collective unconscious and evoke emotion out of people and actually help people through the things that helped me, that’s all I’m trying to do. There’s definitely moments like, I’ve been driving down the road and I listen to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and it makes me feel like my soul is liberated. It’s a crazy thing. But the moment that Aeroplane Over the Sea clicked is probably one of those moments that I can just never forget. It was me sobbing, just this beautiful thing that was cryptic, and what that album means to you is always evolving. I just dream of making something that can evolve with people, the same way a lot of my favourite stuff has.
Had you already been writing music around that time, or did it come from being inspired by those artists?
My older cousin got me into punk rock when I was super young, I was eight years old. It just came first. Even from the first time I picked up a guitar, I just started writing songs, so it became a pretty immediate outlet for me to express myself. And it’s strange to even think back to that, because I didn’t learn to play guitar and then start writing songs. The songwriting aspect of it was always something that I was very interested in. I guess why I made the music had evolved over time, but with this new record, I almost had to go back to when I was 12 or 13 years old and trying to understand why I even did it in the first place. There was a huge process, because on the last two records, I would write these lyrics – and I was really proud of the poetry of my lyrics in the past, for sure, still very proud of them – but it felt like there was a lot of my authentic self that I was hiding or clouding with a bunch of metaphor and a bunch of nonsensical rambling.
When it came to this new record and I was going through something personal, I almost had to reconnect with that pure state of why I began to write music in the first place, which was always a therapeutic thing for me. Reconnecting with that and trying not to over-intellectualize my emotions when I was putting it to paper and to song, that whole process of just expressing how I felt was something that really came out in this album. And it was really uncomfortable, you know, but it was something that helped me, and then an album came out of it.
How did you reach that realization that you had to go back and reconsider your songwriting approach? Was there a clear moment where you knew you wanted to do something different?
When we were playing shows and playing Death of the Neon songs, I was uncomfortable by the fact that I could, like, shut my brain off and just kind of autopilot the words. And I felt like there’s some sort of aura that’s missing from just soullessly reciting the words. I really wanted to return back to a place where, hopefully, when I channel this out of my mouth, it’s weighted with some sort of energy that can affect people. When I was writing the songs, it was really important for me to feel what I was singing rather than then get too caught up in the poetics of it, and almost sometimes forget why I was even singing it in the first place. Like I said, I’m still very proud of the poetry of my prior work with the band, but for this new record, it just feels like I’ll never forget where the songs came from. There’s times where I felt defeated or just ridden with anxiety, and the only way to soothe that myself was to sing about it. And it’s very liberating to mean what you say, like, really mean it.
I just got to a place where it felt better to be plainspoken about certain things, and I just kept snapping back to when I was 13 and I’d come home from school, like, mad at my teachers and then I’d make a little punk song about “screw authority” or whatever. And it’s like, how do I get back to that? I used to feel so good coming home from school, plugging in my guitar and being loud as hell writing this song. There was something really powerful in that and it helped me for years, and I just wanted to return to that because I was going through some stuff.
Part of why the album resonated with me is because a lot of it revolves around the process of healing, this cycle of constantly picking yourself up, and the role that other people play in that. Did working on these songs require a level of vulnerability not just on your end, but also from the other members in the group?
Yeah, absolutely. That was actually something that I came to a realization, was how embarrassing it is sometimes to show someone your song. Because on the last record, I would put together like a demo that was almost fully fleshed out, and also just the way that I would hide behind some of my words – it was a very guarded way of collaborating on music. But with this record, I would just write songs on acoustic guitar, have a melody, have some words, and bring it to the band. And sometimes, I was really uncomfortable to be that vulnerable even with my bandmates. So we actually made conscious efforts to get to a place of vulnerability collectively. We would do group meditation sessions before recording, so we would go sit in the yard of our practice space, in the grass, and we’d sit in a circle and we’d all do these breathing exercises together. We would do communication drills where you weren’t allowed to ask questions – we would time it, like, “Okay, for 10 minutes, we can only communicate to each other with statements.”
I don’t know if they helped in a weird abstract way, but in the sense that we were doing these weird embarrassing things together that would kind of made you blush sometimes – like, “I don’t want people to hear me breathing,” “I don’t want to talk about my emotions with people.” It felt like doing those embarrassing things made me personally more comfortable with what I was bringing to the table, sharing it with these people, first and foremost. But it also made I think everyone just more and more comfortable with communicating the things that sometimes are hard to communicate in terms of collaboration. You know, the simple things, like sometimes you hold your tongue about telling someone you don’t like something. We made this conscious effort to make an environment where we could be openly communicative and collaborate to the fullest extent that we could.
All in all, it really let us all put our guard down and let us bring in certain influences that we would usually shy away from. Like, notably, our keyboard player one time had a vocal part that he told us was inspired by a Shania Twain song. I would come practice and be like, “I’ve been listening to a ton of My Chemical Romance.” You know, certain influences that aren’t considered intellectual or whatever, like it’s not Radiohead or Arcade Fire. Being able to bring those influences to the table without feeling ashamed to do so completely freed up what we could do as a band. Some of it was just goofing off. Some of our favourite records have lighthearted moments, like our favourite hip-hop records have skits in them. And it’s like, that record’s considered a masterpiece, so maybe we shouldn’t shy away from the funny moments or the little accidents that can happen from just goofing off, having fun making music.
I can definitely hear that coming through on the record. When it comes to making an effort to be vulnerable together, was that something that began as a need from you? That you needed the others to be vulnerable in order for you to be open about your experience?
Yeah. Through my journey, I learned a lot about how great it is to effectively communicate, so it probably was a need of mine. Because they’re all close friends of mine, so when they hear the songs, they knew exactly what the songs are about. Sometimes I wonder if it was hard for them to hear some of the songs, just because they’re my friends. How are you supposed to bring the line, like, “I’ve had friends jump ship” [from ‘Gales of Worry’] to a group of your friends? Because you don’t want to make them feel like they did you wrong or anything. But sometimes you just feel alone.
What was it like when you brought up that line or that song?
It wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular, and I think everyone understands that. That song kind of came, I don’t want to say later into the process, but we were already kind of in that mode of like, “Okay, the songs that David is bringing to the table are very personal.” I guess, for how personal they were, it was easy to get defensive about them, and I didn’t want that. I wanted us all to make a great record. I didn’t want them to just let a bad song slide because they are afraid to say something about a deeply personal piece of my art.
‘Gales of Worry’ in particular was a song that we were super proud of and knew we wanted to lead with as the first single. The rest of the songs for the most part were songs that I would bring to the band and we would jam it out and we’d all talk, but ‘Gales of Worry, everyone had a little more freedom with that song because of the way it was crafted. That was a fun one to make because people were just adding stuff. It was probably the most fluid collaboration of the whole record.
What do you think makes the difference between a collaborative project with a lot of members as opposed to something that functions more as a musical collective? Is that something that’s become more clear to you over time?
Yeah, it took a lot of practice. Every record we make just feels like a more articulate collaboration than the last. The first record happened kind of accidentally, where every member of the band I had been in different bands with since I was 14 years old. One band would dissolve and turn into nothing, and then another band with another set of people would dissolve and turn to nothing. So whenever I made the solo album, it became just an ensemble of musicians. And when that record was done, it became a big question of, how are we going to perform this live? There’s no formal band behind it. So you pick those players and you say, “Hey, do you want to be, like, in the band?” And from there on out, it was just a practice and trial and error of, how can we all do this together? And every album we’ve gotten better and better at it just because of getting closer and becoming creatively in tune. And this last record, I think it’s the best we’ve done so far at collaborating and at being a collective.
I think ‘Places to Hide’ encapsulates a lot of the themes of the record, in terms of that need to hide away from the world. I read that you wrote that song in Ocean City.
Like I was saying, I was going through a hard time when the record was written. There was a few times where my emotions would just bubble over and I’d need to isolate, so I’d hightail to the beach or hightail to the Poconos and just do these solo trips to be introspective and kind of sort myself out. And ‘Places to Hide’ was a song that I had rattling around for a while, just the guitar idea, and then I had one of those little moments where I needed to get away from everyone. I jumped in my car and I just went. The first verse was written in a hotel room in Harrisburg, PA, and the next day I went to the beach and was sitting on the beach with the song kind of ringing in my head. I didn’t have a guitar. A lot of the songs were written that way, where I would hum out melodies, and if the melody was good enough for it to be stuck in my head while I was not around a guitar or not able to hear it, and I was able to write words to it – when that was the case, I knew that it was something worthwhile. So yeah, I was just on the beach in one of my little escapes that I did, and I just wrote it. And it was so exciting because you would do that and you’d be like, “I’m so excited to get to my guitar and see how it works.”
Do you also feel that excitement in a different way when you then bring it to the band?
Yeah, for sure. There’s a certain feeling of like, “Oh, sick, I got something cool.” We got so intertwined with each other collaboratively that I almost knew what to expect from members. I never outright wrote anything for anybody, but there was times where it was like, I know exactly what Nick’s gonna play on the drums to this song, or I’m so excited to see what Nick does with this strum pattern to make it hit. There was a lot of excitement revolving that, too.
You’ve been talking about how the music has helped you personally. How have the other members in the group helped you?
I think they’re helping me the most just by being along for the ride. The band stuff is crazy, and especially when things have been so uncertain in general. It was really beautiful for all of us to come together and have something collectively that could help us get through what everyone was individually getting through. There would be times where we wouldn’t practice for a few weeks and we’d be so excited to get back to it. I’m just thankful to have them by my side. The fact that they’re lending their talent to songs I’m writing is something that I’m endlessly grateful for. We’ve gone through so much personally, together, and at this point, it’s just like a big family. I always know I’ll have them. I’m definitely grateful for that.
Given how solitary the process often was, and how much of it is about coming to terms with aloneness, could you share a specific moment where you felt close to them as a group, like a part of something?
There was one thing – our trumpet player, Ian, he’s also our lead guitar player, he’s the type of person that can pick up a guitar in front of a group of people and just improvise the funniest little thing. He’s just brilliant at doing things on the spot where he’s to a certain degree showboating. There was this one time, it was like October of 2020, where we recorded the guitar solo for ‘Churn It Anew’ and we were all just drinking beer, having a good time. I knew, like, I gotta get some friends here to get him hyped because this guitar solo’s supposed to be the guitar solo that he leans back into the crowd, School of Rock-style. [laughs] That was a great moment. We just felt so together, because we’re all in one place, we’re doing this thing together. And then there’s Ian, ripping a guitar solo, almost trying to make us laugh. We had so much fun recording that day specifically. You know, guitar solos are a little corny at this point, so it was like, let’s just lean into it. Let’s all get drunk and cheer him on when he gets through a lick or something. That was one really good memory from the whole thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.