It takes two
How the members of Sacramento’s Survival Guide learned to stop worrying and love their band
Survival Guide boasts a punk-rock résumé impressive enough to turn not-easily impressed heads. Emily Whitehurst was the lead singer of pop-punk band Tsunami Bomb, and guitarist Jaycen McKissick once played in the local hardcore band Pipedown. Both were driving forces behind the new-wave punk band the Action Design.
Still, none of these prior musical ventures proved to be adequate preparation for Survival Guide. Not only does the band play a vastly different genre—indie electronic, with Whitehurst on keyboards and McKissick on guitars and drum machine—but the tone is entirely different, possessing a much more somber writing style.
“[Starting this band] was like starting everything over from scratch: new material, new fan base, everything,” Whitehurst explained.
Tsunami Bomb and the Action Design, in particular, played happy pop songs, while Pipedown’s music was more intense and dramatic. Now, Survival Guide’s sound seems like the work of entirely different people, which, in a way, is actually the case.
“Neither of us were the main songwriters in our [previous] bands. So, when we sat down to write, we were kind of scared, because we [had] never really done it before—full songs from start to finish in every single part,” Whitehurst said.
Instrumentation is also a major factor in Survival Guide’s significant departure. Whereas Whitehurst and McKissick’s prior bands existed as standard four- to five-member rock setups, the new outfit operates as a two-piece with a drum machine.
The decision to incorporate a drum machine mostly came from a desire to maintain that arrangement.
The pair started making music together as a side project while still playing in the Action Design. That band was on hiatus as its members tried to sort out goals; eventually, Survival Guide became Whitehurst and McKissick’s primary focus.
“Everything is just easier with two people,” said Whitehurst, who currently lives in San Jose but travels to Sacramento regularly to practice and play with McKissick. “It’s so much easier to make decisions and write songs, make a practice schedule, [and decide] whether we’re going to play a certain show or not.”
Although the duo liked the comfort of only having two voices, they weren’t entirely sure how to get started.
“We had this drum machine we found at a garage sale and just looped it. I started playing something on the keyboard. McKissick started playing guitar. And we hit the record button,” Whitehurst said. “I think we were both questioning it the whole time. We were looking at each other, like, ’Is this where we’re going? Is this what we’re doing right now?’”
They didn’t end up using that initial material, but, Whitehurst said, it did help them learn to relax about the process.
And, once Whitehurst and McKissick added a drum machine, they realized they needed to adapt to it, rather than trying to make the machine replicate a live drummer. This decision pushed the band’s sound into electronic territory—although they aren’t exactly synth-pop in the classic sense of the genre. Rather, their mixture of guitars and keyboards, all informed by the duo’s punk background, creates a hybrid of mellow indie rock and dance-inspired music.
Once they had enough material, they ventured out into playing live shows, which posed its own difficulties: Their first show turned out to be one of the most nerve-wracking experiences for both Whitehurst and McKissick—even though both had plenty experience.
“You wouldn’t think it would have been such a big deal, but we were playing an entire new set of songs, and I was responsible for 50 percent of the musical content, as well as the vocals,” Whitehurst said.
Off-stage, the band plans to release a full-length debut in 2014, and, as they settle into working on material, Whitehurst said they’ll carry over lessons learned on the last album.
“[We’ve realized] we should start writing and not really worry about whether it seems like a final product or not,” she said.