Like all bands around the world, Sundae Drives went off the rails due to COVID-19 last spring.
After a hugely successful two-year run, which saw the band develop pockets of support in Chicago, Detroit and Nashville – capped by winning Sundae Drives’ Cincinnati Entertainment Award for Best Alternative/Indie Artist last November – the guitarist/vocalist Adam Lee and multi-instrumentalist Nick Heffron had planned quite an extensive tour for early 2020. The Indie Pop/Rock/Soul duo had barely started on that schedule when the lockdown brought everything to a screeching halt.
“The plan for 2020 was to release some singles, and we had planned a month-long tour in April, the longest tour we’ve ever done,” Lee said in a recent phone interview. “We would put together a completely independent headlining tour – from Charlotte, North Carolina to St. Louis, Missouri, to a few dates in Nashville, which is kind of our second home, to a few nights in Atlanta – and that were really good cards The tour started on April 1 and the world ended like March 24. It was amazing.
It was particularly disappointing for Lee, who had postponed considerable time with his two young daughters in order to research and organize not only the dates but also the first parties in each city. Lee had also put together an extensive media program for himself and Heffron in each market, making maximum use of available publicity resources to push the dates forward.
“It was the first time we had a media race,” Lee said. “Even if it was, ‘What’s the hottest blogging site in town? We’re going to date them.'”
When it was clear that venue closures were widespread and indefinite, Lee and Heffron sat down to find a solution to an essentially unsolvable problem: how can a band move forward in a music economy that has completely collapsed. arrested?
“Me and Nick got together and sat in my car and just talked,” Lee says. “He’s my brother, we love each other and he’s our baby. And it’s just me and him; there’s not five people to deal with. It sounds cartoonish, but we were like, ‘What if , during all this shit, in our little world, we were making it work for us and managing not to let 2020 beat the shit out of us?” There we devised a plan and, step by step, we did it executed.
The band’s plan began with a fundamental difference of opinion: Heffron felt that Sundae Drives should work towards a full album and Lee was pushing a singles approach. The pair compromised by considering a five-volume collection of EPs, with each volume containing four or five tracks to be released song by song at regular intervals. With the release of a full volume, these songs would then be available as a physical EP; and all five EPs would fall under the general banner of #medicinemusic.
“They say, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,'” Lee says. “Well, we wanted to work our way there.”
Sundae Drives’ first volley in their march to reclaim the rest of 2020 began on September 28 with the release of digital single “Coloring Books,” a stripped down and thoughtful autobiographical piece. It’s also the philosophy of Sundae Drives in a single song – intensely personal lyrical expression on a soundtrack that defies simple genre categorization.
“‘Coloring Books’ is one of our most acoustic songs. It doesn’t go a lot of places, it has a big meaning, there’s a real message behind the song,” Lee says. “But that shit has worked for us and against us for our entire career. It’s nice that you can’t be boxed in, but people need to box you in to like you sometimes. I think our fans and our supporters love us for the right reasons. It feels good to know that we don’t stray from our flavor even though our flavor isn’t for everyone.
There is no particular common thread that runs through the material contained in the series. Some of the tracks date back a few years and have become staples of Sundae Drives sets, others were written in the shadow of the pandemic. And true to the band’s established form, there’s no adherence to genre continuity.
We have all these songs that have become fan favorites, but they only exist in the live show,” says Lee. “It’s past the point of being cool because it’s exclusive. During a pandemic you start thinking about weird stuff like inheritance and ‘If I die tomorrow, what am I leaving behind? me?” So we worked to find the right studio, the right engineer and to create these songs ranging from crazy personal stuff to Hip Hop oriented stuff to Pop and sad boy music.
One of the most unexpected twists in #medicinemusic is the presence of Noah Smith behind the console. Himself a CEA winner for Best Country Artist, Smith has suddenly become a secret weapon in Sundae Drives’ arsenal.
“It’s not an obvious couple,” Lee says. “We went there to record a song or two and on the car ride, Nick and I were like, ‘Is this it? Did we just find the fucking formula? We’re now on two follow-up books with Noah and it’s been fantastic. What he brought to the table was that he believed in our direction enough not to bother us too much, and yet he always knew where to challenge us. I don’t challenge a lot of people, but when he did, he was right.
Over the next few weeks, the remaining three songs from Volume 1 – “Strep throat”, “Vultures” and “Track Marks” – will be published. As the #medicinemusic project rolls forward through the end of this year and into 2021 – the second volume will begin releasing early next year – another aspect of the presentation will become apparent. Each individual song is accompanied by its own unique artwork, all provided by photographer friends and fans of Sundae Drives, in keeping with the duo’s desire to keep all aspects of the project in the local realm.
In view of the eventual release of the final volume, theoretically at the end of 2021, all physical EPs will be made available in a box set format. The individual song artwork will be dropped and a new design pattern will be introduced; each EP will be represented by a different color, and the box will offer a lyric booklet – an idea Lee has resisted in the past in an effort to avoid this level of transparency in his lyrical intentions.
As evidenced by the title of the last song in the first volume, Lee survived many of the harrowing moments in his life, as well as the psychic aftershocks that followed. Maybe it was the impetus that made him post his lyrics with #medicinemusic, but it’s not because these songs are more personal than his previous songs. Lee’s honesty was always evident on his well-worn sleeve.
“My brother is serving a life sentence, my father is dead, my stepfather died not too long ago, all my best friends are dead, all of heroin overdoses,” says Lee. “Much of our subject matter is taboo. It’s raw. Someone criticized us once and said, “Even your happy songs don’t talk about happy things. At first it bothered me, then I realized I was writing about what I knew. I know pop music because I love it. Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey are my idols. But when it comes to the subject, I know about poverty and addiction and grief and incarceration and resilience and vulnerability and light at the end of the tunnel and beating the odds. I am aware of these things.
The #medicinemusic project is just getting started and it’s already proving to be a labor of love. The name is not derived from the pandemic but from a hashtag coined by a Facebook fan four years ago when the band had been out of town for weeks and finally came home for a local show. And the songs themselves represent Lee’s relentless honesty as a lyricist and the healing nature of his songwriting.
“Music literally saved my life, but it’s also the most selfless and selfish thing I do,” he says. “At first I was writing and performing songs for my own therapy because I needed it. But when I started to pay attention, my therapy actually became other people’s therapy. It inspired me and it became more therapeutic for me, and I gave more and it became more therapeutic for others and it became this big circle where we are therapeutic for each other. And that’s the music .”
Perhaps the most important element of #medicinemusic is the almost supernatural chemistry Lee shares with Heffron. Every song in Volume 1 is imbued with it, and every song to come should follow suit.
“#Medicinemusic has to do with the feeling you get from listening to this music, both lyrically and sound-wise,” says Lee. “I write the basic tracks and bring them to Nick, who is just amazing. He takes the basics of my songwriting and builds piano parts around my melodies. He’s my best friend, he’s my brother, he’s a great partner, he’s a master percussionist, he plays bass, guitar, violin, drums, and together we take music to where it should live.
Learn more about Sundae discs and listen to facebook.com/sundaedrives.