A Conversation With The Surface About Their Debut Album

One of the coolest parts of running this music blog has been hearing from bands and musicians via email. I get a fair number of messages from bands looking for their music to get covered, and I wish I could write about nearly all of it. Alas, running the blog is more of a hobby at this point, and I have a full-time day job that demands most of my attention.

One of the bands that reached out to me recently is The Surface, an electronic/analog duo from Cleveland, Ohio, that released their debut self-titled album on January 22, 2023. As the band members tell me, they’re kind of “off-the-grid” without much social media presence or anything like that, which is what intrigued me. Most bands these days are sharing their stuff all over, so when I see an act without much online presence, I want to learn more.

It helps that I dig The Surface’s music. On their Bandcamp page, the duo describes their debut album as “a journey through the eternal parallel labyrinth. Improvisation leads us to patterns; these patterns become the foundations, and the foundations turn then to structures full of improvisations and patterns.”

The record isn’t exactly psychedelic, but it has many elements of experimental ambient/electronic music that I love. Consisting of 16 tracks, mostly on the shorter side, The Surface crafts electronic rock songs that reminded me of older-school ambient works from the Seventies and Eighties. The music has a spooky, ethereal vibe, like something from the X-Files.

My favorite song is “Remember,” which comes at the exact halfway point of the album and features a sort of vaporwave/synth-wave feel and a ghostly mantra-like chant. I couldn’t make out exactly what they’re saying, but I could hear them repeat, “Remember.” The whole track was like finding a secret audio recording from decades ago trying to tell us something.

Anyways, I suggest you listen to The Surface. I got a chance to talk to the duo behind the band – Mike Lombardy and Brad DiFrancesco – via email, and they were kind enough to answer some of my questions. The Q&A is a bit long, but I think you’ll enjoy it. So, sit back, and learn more about these Cleveland musicians.

Interview with The Surface

Third Eye: It says on Bandcamp that this is your debut album. When did you two start playing music together? Has it been a while or more recently?

Mike Lombardy: It was 2015; I had sold all my instruments to get by through art school. Once I graduated, I went and bought a new bass, and remembering Brad had always been interested in sound engineering, I hit him up, and we had our first session. At this point to us, it’s the most important moment in our life. We just clicked, and we’ve built this album from then on.

Brad DiFrancesco: We started playing music together about 8 years ago in the (famous to us) Dust session. That was our first recording together and an important day leading to this album. We were pretty much hooked after the first go and knew we wanted to keep making sounds. Over the years, all things considered, we stayed with it consistently. Sometimes more than others, but it has always felt like a must-have thing. The longer we would go without jamming, the more we needed to jam, and it always kept us coming back.

Third Eye: Your Bandcamp for the album says it can be described as a journey “through the eternal parallel labyrinth” and that improvisation leads to patterns. First, could you describe what you think the album sounds like? I think it has a spooky feel. And second, tell me how you made the album – did much of it rely on improvisation?

Mike: The music, to me, is definitely a journey, and personally, I’ve thought of it more in a conceptual way than a sound way. It’s as if the music is cinematic, capturing unseen spaces or amplifying the possibility of spaces we can inhabit beyond the physical. Spooky is certainly something I feel. I compare the music to the threshold you find yourself in during the ups and downs of a psychedelic experience. A sort of dark beauty, intriguing mystery, with a kind of ominous feeling. Should we turn back? Or push forward?

The improvisation for us starts with a simple timekeeper; it can be a hit hat or drum snare. We find a harmonious tone between the two of us and sort of let loose from there and jam. As we are jamming, Brad will find a sound he likes, record it, and all the while, I’m playing around on bass, finding a sort of pattern that I want to record. By the time we record our parts, it’s sort of like capturing the jam at its peak, where we are both lost in the music and have certain phrases, we like to return to keep a structure. We then will have this 30-second chunk of sound that we deconstruct and elaborate on. Most everything is recorded in one take and layered upon each other.

Brad: I agree that it can have a spooky feel and can be even a bit intense at points, but I get a very calming feeling simultaneously. I think it’s important to find and feel comfort in the unknown. And to not “need to know” to feel comfortable and at peace. Without one feeling, you cannot have another, so I think having points in a song and throughout an album go from intense to calm makes each feeling stronger.

Going through an intense section makes the calm section feel even more calm and vice versa. If we can make someone FEEL anything from the music, that is all I can ask for. Pretty much all of the album was improvised, really. We usually start a session by jamming for an hour or sometimes longer. A lot of the time without talking during that time. Just getting in that zone that jamming puts you in. Sometimes we find a sound we like and build off that and then just keep building sections as we go. I can definitely say we have never set out to make one type of song. It is always a let’s see where it goes.

Third Eye: This is an inevitable question for musicians, but who are some of your biggest influences? This album feels very ambient to me, obviously instrumental, so are there many ambient influences? And also, what or who are you listening to most right now?

Mike: Ambience as a concept inspires me, but as for music, I feel we can both agree on Pink Floyd and spin-offs on that, but really, we both have pretty eclectic tastes that come from different genres. I’ve always been more on the rough edge side of the music, with heavy distortion and dark sounds. For me, it may be more genre-based influences like goth, punk, metal, and experimental music. At the same time, though, I listen to tons of big band, jazz, and folk. It’s wild to see these influences find their way into the music in the most subtle way.

To be honest, I’ve been on a St. Vincent obsession for about 2 years now. I’ve also really been into this seemingly forgotten band, “Cactus,” for a while now.

Brad: The most common and the hardest question… I have always gravitated towards downtempo calming music as far as listening at home. I love a good live show with people ripping it on their instruments, but my favorite is at the end of the night when I find music to put me to sleep. Going to see live music has pretty much always been my favorite thing. I have been to more shows than I can remember (actually). Everything from hip hop (mostly younger days) to jam bands, EDM, folk/bluegrass, downtempo bass, jazz, lo-fi beats, house, fully improvised live violin loops, psychedelic rock, indie rock, random drum circles, someone making beats out of a suitcase with a bunch of instruments in it.

Really anyone who is making sounds, I will listen. But something always keeps me coming back to chill music. Most recently have been listening to things like Desmond Cheese, Eric Hilton’s solo music (from Thievery Corporation), Jim James’ solo music and his My Morning Jacket band, Circles Around the Sun, Boombox, Pink Floyd, Supertask (especially his older chill stuff), Charles the First (RIP), Mac Millers last couple albums (RIP) that are very jazzy soulful and funky, especially with Thundercat playing bass on a lot of it, Miles Davis, Parkbreezy (the whole all:lo collective label really) Alex Unger, Lotus, Tame Impala, FKJ (French Kiwi Juice), Tom Misch, and Tycho and Emancipator always find their way into the rotation. Music is pretty much always on, but the list must end somewhere …

“Keep getting together to jam is the most important. What comes from that, who knows. But as long as we keep getting together to jam (and we will), I’m sure a second project will show up eventually.”

Third Eye: The Bandcamp profile mentions you’re an electronic/analog duo. For a dummy like me who’s not an actual musician, can you elaborate on that?

Mike: I think it’s more about describing our roles in the music-making. Brad is the engineer; he plays the keys and synths and works with a vast library of sounds. I play Bass and guitar and only work with the tones I can achieve through pedals to get my sounds. We see the music as a blend between these “classic” style instruments and the modern ability to create an infinite range of sounds.

Brad: There is a mix of electronic music and live instruments on every song. Mike does the guitar and bass guitar. I do my thing on the keys and synths. Most of the few vocals we have are both of us singing at the same time. We don’t want to limit where our sounds come from. Maybe you find a really nice guitar tone, maybe you find a really nice sound on a synth or even a software synth. Or rice in a jar (actually on the album). It is all about arranging the sounds to provoke a feeling. We don’t use any premade loops or outside samples on the album. No one other than Mike or myself has done any work on the album, from recording to mixing to playing. Everything is in-house.

Third Eye: Last question – What’s next for The Surface? And what’s going on in Cleveland?

Mike: We are just going to keep jamming, pushing ourselves, and keep album 2 in the back of our minds. Album 1 sort of came together just through our love of playing together. It will be exciting to see where we go and how fast album 2 comes about. Cleveland is a hard-working city; honestly, most people keep to themselves, party a lot, and get lost in the ups and downs of life. Making art keeps me sane, and I know it does for Brad. The Midwest can be unforgiving in many ways, but we certainly aren’t short of inspiration.

Brad: Keep getting together to jam is the most important. What comes from that, who knows. But as long as we keep getting together to jam (and we will), I’m sure a second project will show up eventually. You might see a release of some of our more out their experimental recordings from over the years on a separate project. There are things we have recorded over the years that I would like to put out but were not right for this album. As for what’s going on in Cleveland, there is always plenty of music and art. Great food too. A lot of talented artists in Cleveland in general. I have never wished that I had grown up somewhere else. Ready for spring to get outside more but winter has been easy on us this year.

Support the Surface by checking out their debut album on Bandcamp.

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