From YouTube covers of Taylor Swift and Sam Smith going viral to working with Chance the Rapper and Pusha T in the span of two years, New York City based Thirdstory has come a long way.
Thirdstory is made up of Ben Lusher, Elliott Skinner and Richard Saunders, three guys with vastly different backgrounds that come together to create love songs that resonate with the city that inspires their music: New York City.
I was first introduced to Thirdstory’s cover of Sam Smith’s heart wrenching “I’m Not The Only One” a few months ago. I remember one specific thing that stuck out to me: the band’s unique R&B style. The truth is, Thirdstory can turn any song into a smooth R&B ballad that stands firmly next to the original. They turned originals into their own, and that style is precisely what has propelled them up the ladder and into the hands of the mind behind Frank Ocean’s Blonde.
James Ryan Ho, also known as Malay, is the man who helped Thirdstory develop their sound into something organic, a trademark, so to speak, of Malay’s work. The same organic-ness listeners hear on Blonde are clearly heard on the band’s lead single “G Train.”
Luckily, The Indie Sound had the opportunity to speak with Lusher, Skinner and Saunders about the creation of their upcoming record, what it was like to work with Malay, collaborating with Pusha T, working with Chance the Rapper on SNL and so much more.
The Indie Sound: You guys started doing covers of a ton of artists while also adding that Thirdstory twist to it. Now that you guys are touring behind this EP, how does it feel to have that original content out?
Ben Lusher: That was an amazing feeling. We have always considered ourselves writers first, and that’s something that has always been important to us, so it was really great finally showing everyone even more about us and having them able to hear the production styles that we’re into and hear our lyrics that are basically based on our own lives, rather than interpreting other people’s songs. That was amazing, that was like … I feel like in a certain way that was the real start of our career as a band.
Elliott Skinner: Yeah, just piggy-backing off of that, the covers were really fun for us to do, but I think it was a defining moment for us because it was the first time we actually got to show people how we really defined ourselves. I think the covers were a peek into that, but with the arranging and the instrumentation we kept it pretty simple. It was really fun getting to experiment with creating our own sound and showing that to people.
TIS: I read that Malay, the producer behind Frank Ocean and all those masterpieces, helped you guys out in studio with “G Train” and also with the upcoming record. How was that? I can’t imagine how crazy that was in-studio.
Richard Saunders: It was an amazing experience because he was definitely one of our top … one of our dream producers to work with for the album, and it was amazing to see somebody so accomplished at work. Just seeing him build a track from the ground up within a day was just amazing to watch. It was really cool … he’s all about building tracks with original sounds that we record in the room, so it was a lot of fun. We all got to contribute to the instrumentation of the album in different ways.
ES: It was a really cool collaborative process, because like I was saying earlier, we have been writing together for a few years and this is our first chance to really go hard in production and soundscaping all the music that we make now. It was really great having him there. He really knew how to put together all the ideas that we were having … We were in the studio with him for two weeks at a time just the four of us experimenting.
BL: One other small thing that I want to mention about him that was really huge was his style. His style is very organic. He mostly uses real instrument sounds and real audio and that’s something that is really important to us too, that organic quality. He’s coming from hip-hop production. He came up making beats for rappers and so I think those two things, those asterisks of his, his identity as a producer, translated really well for us because those are two things that are really important as a foundation for the production for pretty much everything we do.
TIS: Would you say that kind of style affected the songwriting and the putting together of these songs in comparison to what you guys did before?
BL: More or less. I would say more so than those things in terms of influencing the songwriting, because we were using real instruments and having this undercurrent paying mind to hip-hop, especially in drum production. When it comes to Malay the thing that influenced us with songwriting and then obviously with production was the fact that he pays a lot of mind to simplicity. You can totally feel that in stuff he’s worked on. The most obvious to me would be Blonde … it’s super-minimal and the real instruments are gorgeous sounding and emotional, and with that there will be times where our tendency would be to layer on more and more instruments and more vocals and parts. He really taught us when it’s better to do less.
RS: One thing I should also mention … kind of a goal with a lot of the songs on the EP and album, we wanted to make sure they could be played with guitar and voice and be just as exciting. We wanted to make sure the songwriting itself held up in whatever context. Whether it be performed as an acoustic song or whether it’s performed with all the tracks that we made with Malay.
TIS: Just hearing that is incredible because I’ve read so much about the guy and hearing that collaborative process just blows my mind. I’m geeking out just thinking about it.
“When it comes to Malay the thing that influenced us with songwriting and then obviously with production was the fact that he pays a lot of mind to simplicity. He really taught us when it’s better to do less.”
RS: We were geeking out during the first few days of working with Malay. It was crazy.
BL: Then we got shitfaced drunk and everything was cool after that (laughs) … for our first time really going in with the three of us in our production and creating our sound … getting the time to do it with him and just him in that space was really impactful and really big for us.
TIS: I saw recently, because you guys are working with everyone on the planet, that you guys collaborated with Pusha T on a remix of “G Train” so I need to hear about that, too. How did that come about?
BL: We met him when we were in the studio in New York with Malay and Pusha T happened to be next door, like in the studio one door over, with Desiigner. He basically made his way over to our room and we ended up playing him a few songs and he seemed pretty into them.
A few months later when we were testing the possibility of re-releasing “G Train” and wanting to do a music video and all of this stuff, the idea of putting a feature on it and re-releasing it was being floated around. We thought it was a massive long shot, but we thought Pusha T would be amazing … we thought, ‘we at least met him, maybe we could make it work.’
So yeah, when we reached out to him he was really into the idea. It worked out better than we could’ve ever imagined. We didn’t know what to expect and he came back with a verse that really nailed the meaning of the song, the feeling behind it, it couldn’t have worked out better and we were just honored that he featured on our song. That was the first time that we’d had a collab out with a major artist like that. It was just massively gratifying and validating of all that work we’ve been putting in.
ES: It fit so well. We were so excited to work with him and have him on the track. We really wanted to keep that organic … the feeling of exactly what the song means and just the sonic vibes shape with everything that came before it and came after it. We just loved exactly how it fit it. We think it enhanced the song so much and didn’t take away from anything and just hit the vibe straight on.
TIS: Could you guys have seen anyone else doing it if you hadn’t gotten Pusha T?
BL: It’s kind of hard to imagine it now, I think.
“He [Pusha T] came back with a verse that really nailed the meaning of the song, the feeling behind it, it couldn’t have worked out better and we were just honored that he featured on our song.”
RS: I don’t know, we’ve imagined different collaborations for different tunes on the EP and album. The funny thing was, for example, we were just … I think when we were in London we were talking about how dope it would be to work with Chance the Rapper and then suddenly we got this phone call to do SNL. But yeah, Chance has been a massive inspiration to us for such a long time and he’s one person that comes to mind as a collaborator we’d love to continue working with. Also, a person we love a lot and that Malay has been working with is this guy out of Atlanta named Raury, but I don’t know. Pusha absolutely killed the verse on “G Train,” so I wouldn’t say that those guys would replace him. I think Pusha was absolutely perfect.
TIS: You jumped to my next question, I was going to ask what it was like being on SNL.
RS: It was nuts. It happened very quickly. Chance’s producer called us up while we were in London and just asked us to perform and it was pretty much two weeks before the show happened. It kind of came as a pleasant surprise that Abbey Smith was singing with us, who we had done a video with a couple months earlier. All three of us are massive fans of Abbey and it was amazing to bring that all together for SNL.
TIS: Like a little Christmas gift.
BL: Yeah, it was really great … being there with Chance’s team and Abbey, they’re so efficient, but they’re all young and cool and just really relaxed. We got there and it was all easy … we showed up, sang the parts, and then hung out. It was stress-free and getting to see how they all work together was really cool.
TIS: What do you guys think of his record and the impact he’s having on the music industry? He’s making waves with everything: a GRAMMY nomination for a mixtape, everything. And he’s independent, which is what’s so surprising.
BL: There have been massive changes in the industry that have been going on for a while now, but it has reached a point where an artist can become empowered to the point that an independently released album can be doing what he’s doing on the radio and get GRAMMY nominations … I think in the history books people are going to look back on this year as an important turning point in the meaning of what a label is and how important that structure is for artists. It’s obviously different for us because we are signed, but I do think the impact of these instances with people like Chance does impact signed artists as well. The labels are definitely taking cues from the independent artists.
TIS: I just think … 2016 was an interesting year, and the only good thing we got was music. It’s just something I reflect on because with streaming and all that kind of stuff, it has really been shifting the music industry. It’s interesting to watch.
BL: Now we just have to make streaming profitable for artists.
“I think in the history books people are going to look back on this year as an important turning point in the meaning of what a label is and how important that structure is for artists. The labels are definitely taking cues from the independent artists.”
TIS: Do you guys think that it’s possible?
RS: Yeah, I think it is. One thing I’ve heard is every time a new format or form of media comes into place, such as music or in other industries like video, I’ve heard that there’s a pattern in which it starts off extremely unprofitable and then gradually, people figure it out. I guess one thing I’m interested in how much streaming has been changing music itself. Two years ago it seemed to be all about getting on blogs and being able to conquer the blogosphere and now it seems a lot more emphasis is placed on playlists and playlist editions. That also effects what kind of music rises to the top and what kind of music falls. It’s a really interesting time.
TIS: What has been a favorite venue for you guys to play at or any interesting memories that stick out from being on tour?
ES: Baby’s All Right was a really amazing show.
BL: We’ve been wanting to play at Baby’s for years now. We’ve seen a bunch of our favorite artists who are up-and-coming perform there and so it has been on our list and we were really excited to do a couple of shows there. It was an awesome way to close out the year. It was a little on the smaller side compared to some of the rooms that we played this year which was really nice. It was an intimate vibe … we could experiment a lot, we had a bunch of guests including Abbey come through and sing with us. That’s something that we definitely want to explore a lot more … that was really our first time having a bunch of guests come up and play with us and it worked out really well. That’s definitely what sticks out for me.
ES: This is really random, but we had a show in Chicago … I forgot what the exact venue was but I just remember the lighting was really sick. I think it was Lincoln Hall? I really liked that experience.
“Two years ago it seemed to be all about getting on blogs and being able to conquer the blogosphere and now it seems a lot more emphasis is placed on playlists and playlist editions. That also effects what kind of music rises to the top and what kind of music falls.”
BL: It’s been really great with our live show, but our YouTube covers are a small part of who we are … our recordings are a part of who we are and our live show, we think, is such a different thing. We do acoustic arrangements, we have a drummer that is just killing it, he’s amazing. His name is Zach Mullings. He’s on kit doing pads, controlling tracks and we’re playing different instruments and we loop our voices live, so it has been really great performing from doing our tour in the U.S. and doing some shows in Europe … it’s really great for us showing people that full side of us live.
TIS: How do you guys engage with the crowd during your live sets?
RS: We try to make our shows super engaging because we’re always trying to figure out ways to include the audience. “G Train” … we always have this break down moment. In the song there’s this bridge where there’s a crowd vocal and we absolutely love when the crowd joins in and sings with us. The one cool, weird thing is we do a lot of looping live and sometimes the microphones pick up little bits and pieces of the crowd screaming and I think it’s cool that it shows first that we’re live looping, and I think it also adds to the atmosphere of the loops.
“Our recordings are a part of who we are and our live show, we think, is such a different thing.”
BL: And also playing instruments. Elliott mentioned that … people that look into our music or recordings might not know that we’re actually playing almost all of the instruments on all of our stuff. Elliott is switching guitars, he has four different guitars on stage, and then he’s playing bass. Richard is in the middle looping all these vocals live and controlling all the electronics and then I’m on the other side playing piano for a lot of the songs and then we might come together and just sing something acoustically. We use many different combinations of instruments and textures and different configurations that can show people that there is a lot going on here.
TIS: You guys are all from different backgrounds, but New York is central to everything. How does NYC influence the sound or the lyrics?
RS: I think this album is going to reflect a lot of … it’s really eclectic and there’s a lot of different styles and influences, I think that’s part of the experience of living in a city like New York. You can stumble upon a folk gig and next door there’s a hip-hop show going on … there’s so many different styles of music everywhere in the city, so yeah I think that is one aspect that reflects New York City.
“People that look into our music or recordings might not know that we’re actually playing almost all of the instruments on all of our stuff.”
ES: In the writing a lot, we … all of our songs we want to be relatable but also extremely personal. Say it’s “G Train,” that’s a song that is specifically about New York and about our relationship struggles. We have other songs on the record that reference parts of New York and our feelings living here, and I think it really influences people’s mindsets. It’s almost like everyone’s here together but it’s solitary living in these small apartments and you’re with everyone each day but you’re not talking to anyone … I think that really affects the kinds of lyrics we’re writing and the kinds of songs we’re writing. Me and Ben have this joke that you fall in love at least three times a day in New York, and I think that’s really … that’s just a small, funny part of living here. We obviously write a bunch of love songs, that’s kind of all we write, but yeah living here definitely influences what we write.
TIS: What have you guys been listening to on repeat and what are you most looking forward to this year?
“Me and Ben have this joke that you fall in love at least three times a day in New York, and I think that’s really … that’s just a small, funny part of living here.”
BL: I know a couple that we all have in common … Blonde by Frank Ocean was a massive one for all three of us. We were actually in L.A. when it first came out and we were pretty much just driving around when we realized it was live streaming. We basically got back to this AirBnb we were staying at … it was late in the afternoon and the sun was streaming in through the windows and we were just like, ‘What is going on?’ It’s just one of those albums that you don’t … it takes many listens to process, but I think also having heard Malay talking about it and telling us a little bit about the process, not very much, and then hearing his influence in that and also with Frank who’s one of our favorite artists and songwriters, that was I think probably as a group the biggest album for us. Also, Bon Iver’s album was a big one for us. I think people are becoming more aware of great vocal production and I think it’s been a highlight of this year in a lot of records.
TIS: Any records that you guys are excited for this year?
RS: Lorde. She’s probably been through more changes than a lot of artists … from putting out her first record at 16, she’s probably in a completely different mindset now. It’s really exciting.
TIS: The EP is called Searching. What are you guys searching for?
RS: Pretty much all the songs on the EP are love songs, and I think that word really encapsulates a lot of the themes we explore. Searching for love in New York, how much of a pain it can be. Also, I think one topic we kind of explore is being in half-relationships and not really knowing whether it’s whole or whether it’s gonna last or whether the other person is actually into it … just relationships in which there’s a lot of questions and everybody is too afraid to ask them.
“I think that word really encapsulates a lot of the themes we explore. Searching for love in New York, how much of a pain it can be.”
BL: That’s definitely, on the songwriting side, the foundation of it, and then also it’s fitting because there’s definitely this sense of yearning that comes up a lot throughout our music and the fact that we’re growing up in New York and in certain ways we’re searching for our identity as a band and searching for the meaning in everything we’re doing. It’s a bit like #deep, but it’s kind of fitting.