When I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to see some Yale student bands play at Koffee this February, I didn’t anticipate running across a band that I’d listen to almost daily over the next few months. But sure enough, as Sargasso took the stage, I listened from beginning to end floored that such incredible music could have been written within a mile radius of me and performed at cafes I frequented. Even after leaving campus and finding out I might never be in the vicinity of the group again (two of the band’s members are graduating this spring), I kept revisiting the band’s recent self-titled EP, due in part to its catchiness and in part to my shock that they weren’t playing Tiny Desk already.
After all, Sargasso is one of the few bands I’ve seen walking the indie tightrope successfully. A lot of current indie I run across is either trying so hard to be lo-fi that they sound like they can’t play their instruments, or sounds so overly clean that they lose any vocal, instrumental or stylistic originality. Sargasso effortlessly walks the balance between these extremes; peaks of emotional intensity like the bridge of “No Streetlights” and the breakdown at the end of “Lifetime” don’t careen into the overdramatic, while smooth and psychedelic grooves in moments like the opening of “Secret Compartment” don’t descend into lethargic stagnation. The lead vocalist’s singing has the soft, unfiltered timbre that one expects from alternative rock, but it’s also clear that he really can sing, at times reminding me of the charmingly nerdy sound of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan. The rest of the group can sing, too; one of the bandmates takes the vocal lead on “No Streetlights,” and despite her distinctly different vocal style, the song still fits perfectly with the rest of the album’s instrumental pallette and songwriting style.
That songwriting is ultimately what makes Sargasso stand out most to me. No song lulls into repetitiveness; each melody transforms inventively throughout a track and transitions smoothly into the next. The trajectory of the album is unpredictable but completely natural, guided along its many musical peaks and valleys and beat-switches by a consistent, dreamily bittersweet mood and poetic lyrical tone. It’s these lyrics that keep the album playing through my head long after I’m done listening, moments of startling beauty that brought me to their Bandcamp to read through the lyrics independently. From the blazing words “there’s a fire burning up in the sky over gabriel / and ashes in the wings of the golden messenger” that kick off the album, to the beautiful layered murmuring of “i am bare, your evergreen” amid swelling guitars and synths.
Since their first EP in 2018, the band has developed immensely as songwriters, sharpened their singing, and grown more confident in their own style. Their sound is a distinct one which, if they continue making music in the future, I could easily imagine leading to an incredible discography. For now, I can relisten to this album and feel happy to have been so close to such a talented group.
Your 2018 Inlets EP is a really fun record, but compared to your recent 2019 Sargasso EP it reflects a lot of growth between the albums. I was wondering if you could speak to your development in the year between those two EPs.
Noah: The second EP was a lot more collaborative than the first one was. The first one, we’d only been playing together for a few months and each person pretty much wrote their songs. We didn’t think as much about the recording process, we weren’t as deliberate and we weren’t having as many conversations about it.
And then the second one was fully a group project from beginning to end. I don’t think we made a single decision without everyone being fully onboard, and we had a lot of very long and difficult conversations to make sure that everyone was happy with everything. But I’m really happy that we did that because in the end, I think the second EP is much more a product of the sound that we developed together as a band and as a result, I think it’s more interesting and cohesive.
Soledad: The timelines for them were very different too. The first EP was kind of Noah pushing us to be like, “We can do this. Let’s record an EP.” It was finals week and we were doing it all by ourselves in a Yale studio recording each other. And that was really fun, but it was a pretty intense one or two week process of doing it.
And this project, we worked on this entire past summer, so we had a lot more time to think about instruments individually. We worked with a mixer too, Noah Silvestry, which was another experience for us to have someone else come in and talk to us about our sound.
Maria: I think another difference is just the amount of shows that we played leading up to this most recent EP. Because the first one we just kind of recorded without having any feedback.
Thomas: We had only played one show by that point.
M: Yeah, and for this one we had just played so many shows already. For the first EP we were like, let’s put everything we have in this, and for this EP we curated and we felt it out, playing it many times before recording, which was just so good to have.
S: We also definitely thought about the flow of songs on the second one. So I think it was a much more cohesive piece, which is a product of us working on each song more together and playing together, but also thinking of it as a body of work together.
That’s great, and it really comes through in the cohesion of the album. Was there a particular mood or concept or idea, lyrical focus, anything that you guys carried with you as you embarked on this album? Or did that form over time?
N: At the beginning we really didn’t have any cohesion and that emerged pretty organically. Honestly, at that Koffee show is the first time where I was like, “Oh, this is what we sound like.” I did feel like most of our songs were taking on a certain… mood is the best one of the options you gave. Sometimes our lyrics echo each other, but I think all of us are writing about pretty different things and in different ways. So on the surface the songs are pretty different from each other; I feel like there’s some slow ones and some fast ones and ones that are more like synth and electronics heavy and some that are more like guitar heavy. But I do feel like we’ve created together a relatively constant impression.
M: I think the way that we recorded led to the cohesiveness of the album. We had so much more time and we recorded instruments individually, so many times we’d be recording one instrument and then we would jump into the next song, and something that we recorded for the previous song lended itself to the next one. That happened for bass so many times; I self-plagiarized all the time, but no one noticed cause it was the bass.
T: I actually also plagiarized myself a number of times while we were writing songs for the new EP.
S: I think that’s a way that we have cohesion. We pulled from a similar toolbox to do and create different things.
It struck me that this album’s influences are really hidden — there’s no clear moment where it’s like, okay, this is a total Strokes moment, or this is a total Radiohead moment. The album has this really distinct sound. I’m curious, what are the musical influences behind this? Were there any particular artists and musicians that you guys were specifically looking to in making this album or in making your music in general?
N: Not Radiohead. I hate Radiohead.
S: Noah loooves Radiohead.
N: I feel as a songwriter I have touchstones that I lean on and people that I really admire and try to emulate. But when we’re doing stuff as a band, there have only been a couple of times where we’re like, “Oh shit, maybe we shouldn’t do this. It sounds too much like something else.” But then usually we just do it anyway. So I’m glad that it’s not coming through.
T: While we were recording the most recent EP, I was listening a lot to the album Seven by Beach House.
T: Soledad loves that album.
M:Everyone here loves that album.
S: I mean, that’s what I think is really exciting. We all are coming from different places, but have an overlap and that can be really interesting. So like Beach House is an overlap, Big Thief is an overlap. But then Maria brings a lot of other influences, like in some new songs where we’re working to emulate some Brazilian rhythms and things like that.
N: And Thomas listens to a lot of electronic music, which has creeped in a little bit in interesting ways.
Were there moments in the process of this EP when the divergence of your tastes caused disagreements?
S: I think where that comes out for me is less when we’re playing, more in the process of mixing. We’re actually in the process of mixing a couple of singles right now so we’re back in that head space. We each have certain things that really nag at us; for example having things sound authentic or natural in vocal quality is something that I push a lot for, especially with harmonies, but other people are less tied to. I think it’s a strength, but it can also be hard because it means we go back and forth a lot and people feel very strongly. So it takes us a long time to come to a consensus.
Has working with a mixing engineer influenced the process of collaboration on this album at all?
T: He definitely gave us some ideas about how to finish the songs off that we had not considered before, like, let’s not have the bass during the section, or this actually should be louder than you guys were thinking. I think it was very helpful for us to have discussions about making those decisions regardless of which way we decided to go.
M: Right. And he made some songs sound pretty different. Like “Secret Compartment.” The drop right before the beginning, that was totally him.
S: Or in “18,” when the synth goes up and down at the end, that was another thing that he dropped in. I remember when we got that mix, Thomas was like, “I dunno how you’re going to feel about this.” And I was like, “I don’t know how I feel about it.”
And then we leaned into it and I love it now. And that’s another thing — part of the process is we get so close because we love these songs. With this EP, we had written them by like May, and then we recorded them all summer. We were mixing till December, so we were just so close. So to have someone else even just throw something at a wall or upend some assumptions that we had had was really valuable.
You mentioned that for the previous EP everyone kind of wrote their lyrics individually. For this EP, was there one lyric writer, or was every song a collaborative project? How did that happen?
N: The most collaborative song was “Evergreen.” It started with a 20-second voice memo that Maria sent me and I was like, this is great. Let’s make that into a song. But we didn’t have any lyrics on the verses for so long; we just had “I am bare, your evergreen.” And then we cycled through a number of drafts and even some joke lyrics too and, in the end, I think the final lyrics incorporated something from every single one of us, some line or word or phrase. So that one was definitely the most collaboratively written song.
But I think lyrics tend to be the most privately written thing in this band, compared to things like structure. I tend to write most of the lyrics for my songs, Soledad tends to write lyrics for her songs, Maria tends to write lyrics for her songs. I feel a lot more comfortable being like, “Oh, maybe you can play this instead of this” instead of saying “Maybe you could sing this instead of this.”
I’d love to hear about some of the scrapped lyrics from Evergreen, if you guys remember any.
M: Oh my God. Real stuff, I still have the blue paper that Soledad and I were brainstorming on. So we just have like, “Sheen,” “Green.”
N: I remember me and Thomas were recording drums for like four hours and then we came in and we were like, “Okay, what do you guys have?” And they were like, “Green.” You just like said a bunch of words. It took a really long time to get everything in there.
The joke lyrics were… I think Maria and Soledad recorded lyrics involving a garden trellis and jellybeans, and we sent it Thomas as a joke and Thomas was like, “Oh, these lyrics are great.” We tried to change them and he didn’t want to change them, which is understandable. They were good lyrics.
One thing that struck me about the Koffee show was that there seemed to be such a fondness for the band in the audience. First of all there is the immediate chemistry between all of you, but then people were singing along with Milo and there just seemed to be a real familiarity there. I wonder if you guys can touch on the history of Sargasso and Yale and how you guys fostered this connection and fan base.
N: I feel like we have a core group of people that always show up and know a lot of the words and bring a lot of energy. But like, it’s only been pretty recently that that group of people has expanded to people we don’t actually know or people who are discovering us through friends and not through us. When someone like you who we’ve never met comes to the show and just really likes it, that’s the most gratifying thing — that the music can reach people who otherwise don’t know us personally.
S: Another thing is we’ve made like two music videos now.
T: And bands from Yale perform with us, either as openers or on the same show in some kind of way. We had Hero Magnus at the show in February, we’ve had Catherine Cerise two times. We performed at the Yale farm once and got to show up for a lot of people who hadn’t seen us before who were part of the Yale Sustainable Food Program.
S: I think also the music scene at Yale has been growing a lot over the course of my time here. Trying to be positive and inclusive and enthusiastic about playing in different places, rolling with the punches, being on different bills, has been a really big part of expanding our audience. That’s something that I love about the vibe at our shows — we try to invite everyone because I think that lots of alternative music scenes are not like that at all.
On the topic of that expanding Yale music scene, are there any like artists you guys want to give quick shout outs to?
M: Emil Beckford!
N: We had Emil Beckford with us at Cafe 9, he was with Sophia Campoamor also, and Maria and I have recorded some music for Sophia Campoamor’s senior project album recently, actually. And we also played a show opening up for Vern Matz which is a group that includes some people that are older than us that graduated before us, so they invited us to play a show with them last year.
I’d love to hear about this new song as well that you guys have mentioned. Is that dropping soon?
N: Two new songs! One of them is one of Maria songs in Portuguese called “Baianas,” and the other one is one of Soledad’s songs called “Sacred Plums.” And we recorded them and now we’re mixing them with the same guy who mixed the last EP with. I think they should be coming out within the month.
M: We have songs that we’ve been playing since the very beginning that haven’t been recorded, but we picked those two because they’re really different from each other and we really enjoyed playing them live, but they’re also songs that have elements we hear that we can’t play live, and we were just excited to capture them in a studio version more than any other songs.
Is there any longer-term album or EP or anything like that in the back of your minds as you work on these new songs?
N: It’s difficult right now; everyone’s plans are really up in the air. Soledad and Thomas are graduating, so there doesn’t appear to be a future in which we reconvene in New Haven, which is sad to think about. But I have hope that in an ideal world, most of the songs that we haven’t recorded will be recorded at some point. I really hope that. We have no formal plans to do anything yet, so I don’t want to give false hope to myself or anybody else there.
Any plans for solo music ventures, or existing solo music ventures in the group?
M: I mean, we record little demos. That’s how songs get brought in. So maybe those could just become solo mixes.
S: Thomas makes pretty sick beats.
T: I record minimal techno.
N: We all kinda do solo stuff on some level. Me and Soledad were working on some of Soledad’s songs as early as freshman year before this band even existed, and Thomas makes electronic music, and Maria’s just told me that she’s writing new songs and hoping to record them, so yeah, I think that that’s likely. I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day, but I’ve been in quarantine, writing and trying to record stuff. No concrete plans there, but I feel like all of us are kind of just music makers in our souls and we’ll continue to make music regardless of what happens with this band.
How has music making been working across quarantine?
N: Since this whole thing started, we haven’t really had the chance to work on new songs as much. We’ve been doing the mixing for the songs we recorded virtually and that’s been fine, but it’s pretty hard. I feel like without each other’s physical presence … it’s really hard to be making music together.
S: Though I have to say, I think that’s one of the things that I’ve loved, especially about being part of this project, just having that flexibility to not have to like come up with the seed and everything by yourself and like sort of be able to add and roll with other people. And we can continue, whether Sargasso exists or not, to be collaborators. And that’s special.
Thomas Hagen PC ’20 – Drums, Vocals
Soledad Tejada DC ’20 – Keys, Guitar, Vocals
Maria Campos Saadi BF ’21 – Bass, Vocals
Noah Goodman BF ’21 – Guitar, Keys, Vocals
Daniel Blokh | email@example.com