… In the end, two guys from Rome, Dominique D’Avanzo and Emanuele Sterbini, under the Sterbus moniker, released one of the best pop records of the year; “Let Your Garden Sleep In” has one of the best setlists of 2021, if what you’re looking for are the melodies of Pastels and the gentle verve of Belle and Sebastian, but also those power-chords on steroids that for thirty years have strengthened the pop rhymes of Guided By Voices or the quick-setting melodies of They Might Be Giants.
Of course, we cannot forget the spiritual guide of the late Cardiacs‘ leader, Tim Smith, about whom Emanuele and we had already talked about HERE.
We liked the album so much that we decided to chat again with Emanuele (and Dominique, this time), letting them tell us about the genesis of “Let Your Garden Sleep In” and in general about everything that comes around the Sterbus project.
Let’s start with the title of your new record, “Let Your Garden Sleep In”. Where does it come from?
Emanuele: We had several “working titles”, such as “Pop Secret”, “Pop Gun” and “Quick and To The Chorus” … then we came across a sign on Facebook, which featured the writing that later became the title of the record: it seemed to us so rich in metaphors and meanings. The sign – like our record – invited us to take our time before letting our fruits bloom, even at the cost of giving the idea of being too late.
So let’s take a step back and start from the beginning. How was Sterbus born? If we’re not mistaken, the band was born as a personal project of Emanuele alone, and then Dominique joined it.
Emanuele: I started as a bass player and for many years I only did that, even though I started writing songs since I was 18, but I kept them just for myself. When I decided to record them, the early albums were born: “Eva Anger” in 2007, “Chi ha ordinato gli spinaci?” in 2010, “Iranian Doom” in 2011, and “Smash The Sun Alight” in 2012.
The turning point came in 2013 when I was invited to London to play at a Cardiacs tribute gig. At that point, I had to form a band, and that’s when my collaboration with Dominique started. Actually, I had been calling Dominique since 2004 whenever I needed a female vocalist and I admired her writing skills (I still cherish the dream of producing a Dominique record with her songs that move between Low and Elliott Smith).
Since that London evening, Sterbus was born as a band. Strangely, perhaps thanks to the ‘Cardiacs family’, an English fan base was gained first and only later an Italian one. The project has settled around me and Dominique, who represent the core, while the other musicians are changing. On the previous record “Real Estate/Fake Inverno” we even managed to have Cardiacs drummer Bob Leith on drums!
Dominique: I confirm everything! I started by singing and playing guitar as a self-taught, then I did some small solo concerts with Emanuele accompanying me on guitar. From there the idea of recording some Cardiacs covers (“Dirty Boy” and “Anything I can’t Eat”) was born, which I think were the dress rehearsals for the 2013 concert in London, from which – precisely – the Sterbus project as a band was born.
In 2014 I started studying clarinet, while in 2015 Emanuele gave me a flute and so I started juggling during concerts with the various wind instruments.
When the project is structured around the two of you, does anything change at the writing level? How do you write the songs and divide up the singing parts?
Emanuele: Generally speaking, I write the music and Dominique takes care of the lyrics. When we write, we never worry about who will sing the song, just as we don’t worry about playing only arrangements that we can reproduce live. I’m glad that the Beatles put trumpets on their records and I don’t regret that “they weren’t there in live concerts”!
Dominique: As far as the choice of the voice for each song is concerned, I have to say that Emanuele has an endless repertoire of songs because he has been writing since he was a little boy and it often happens that some of them are very old. In these songs his voice usually prevails, while the songs written more recently are often already designed for my voice.
Emanuele: New songs are often born by improvising together, like “Polygone Bye”. And sometimes you realize in the process that a song that I should have sung at the beginning, would sound better if sung by Dominique, like for example “My Friend Tim”.
Now let’s talk about the new record. The first question that arises is about the remarkable difference with the previous album, “Real Estate/Fake Inverno”. Sterbus are now more direct and if before you moved almost in the prog area, now you have a power-pop attitude. If not a completely different band, it sounds like a band that has made a decisive choice.
Emanuele: I grew up loving different genres, sometimes very different and conflicting! The new record actually has strong nineties influences: you can find Grandaddy, Guided By Voices, something from Pavement. But also R.E.M., to whom we made a tribute with a title (editor’s note: “Gardeners at Night”), Sebadoh or Dinosaur Jr. If in the previous record we were trying to amaze with fireworks, which could seem to some a little bit unspontaneous, here we tried truer and purer writing, which was more inclusive also towards the listeners.
So is it a choice that stems from self-criticism compared to the previous album?
Emanuele: Let’s say that inside me there are multiple personalities and when one takes over, it hates all those that came before it! Joking aside, the previous album satisfied my passion for odd times, particular structures, and other things I feel the need for in my “audio diet”. On the new album, I wanted choruses that got straight to the point.
We think it’s an act of courage: sometimes you can hide behind fireworks, but if you focus on the song, you lay yourself bare and bet on your writing skills. Besides the risk of disappointing those who loved your more intricate stuff.
Emanuele: Actually, there’s a fear that those who loved the previous album might be put off because they can’t find the right tempo or the right chord, or maybe they don’t appreciate the simplicity and immediacy of a chorus… but I think an artist shouldn’t worry too much about these reactions: if he has an idea, he has to follow it and go his own way.
Dominique: I didn’t feel much difference: for me, in the end, songs are either good or bad. But for sure I followed Emanuele’s intention to make a more straight and power-pop record… and I think it came out well!
Who are the musicians who helped you in this episode?
Emanuele: I took care of the bass and all the guitar parts, while Dominique played flute and clarinet. On drums, there’s Pablo Tarli, who is the son of my dear friend Tiziano, with whom I played twenty years ago (and with whom I still play in another band, Zac). Francesco Grammatico, owner of the studio where we recorded, the “Jungle Music Factory” in Tivoli, played a bit of everything: trumpet, trombone, and cello. The keys were played by our keyboard player Riccardo Piergiovanni, who also plays with us live. That’s the main nucleus, then we had some external guests. The strings, for example, were played by the Roman duo ‘Layer Bows’.
Let’s play a game about the songs: we say the title and you tell us what comes freely to mind. Let’s start with ‘Nothing Of Concern’.
Emanuele: The title comes from an anecdote. We sent our previous record to an Australian fan and the package was blocked for custom clearance, inspected, and then forwarded to the guy with a sheet saying “Nothing of Concern”: it was as if they had listened to the record and found that it was “nothing to worry about”! In short, reviewed by custom officers…
Musically, I had fallen in love with a single by the Lemon Twigs, ‘The One’ (another band that had also gotten very ‘straightened out’), and I wanted to recreate that kind of joyful writing. The part for string quartet which we wrote and arranged with Riccardo Piergiovanni came from my passion for the Electric Light Orchestra!
Dominique: Let’s just say that the working title of the song was “Belle & Sebastian”…
Emanuele: It’s quite an old song, but it had a man-woman call and response right from the start. Guest Andrea Sgarzi recorded a Brian May-esque guitar solo, then we added a harpsichord, an ELO-esque cello, and a reggae part that suddenly breaks in.
Emanuele: Originally it was a much slower track with a guitar riff that could remind of Velvet Underground ballads. Then the Beatlesian vein prevailed: we added a tribute to “Dear Prudence” (the drum solo at the end recalls Paul McCartney’s) and in the lyrics there is a reference to “She Said, She Said”…
Emanuele: The first demo-version of the song date back to 2002, when I was struck by the first Guided By Voices record I listened to, “Do the collapse”, which was produced by Ric Ocasek of the Cars, one of those musicians who knows when and how to enter a chorus. I’ve been playing it live for years, but this time I decided it was time to record it properly.
We wanted to “complicate” things in the third verse, whit those alternating verses in 7 and 9 and with the alternating vocals! Then there’s the slowed-down epic finale with our friend Emanuele Binelli singing the choruses. There’s also a little nod to the Ramones, but I don’t want to be pointed out as a quotationist at all costs. I challenge you to recognize it!
Emanuele: I can’t resist! This is our “Grandaddy track”. The song was born from this melody made a bit of downward steps. When Dominique’s voice came in, we built the rest of the song around it. It ended up being one of my favorite tracks. I love the trumpets and trombones arrangements on this one.
“Gardeners at night”
Emanuele: It’s one of the first songs that was written for the record. A song with a lot of work behind it: the interlude with the flute and the bass playing the same melody for example. Than we tried to give vocals a very modern Porcupine Tree sound and that intertwine in a call and response between male and female voices… So we had fun! I’m not a “less is more” kind of a guy. For me it’s always ‘more is more’ and it’s always an added value if there’s something to enrich the vocal part… maybe because I’m not one of those singers who has a voice that can handle 100% of the song. From this point of view, Dominique’s beautiful voice is very precious and that’s why, when I write, I always know that the vocal harmonies will be part of the arrangement.
“My Friend Tim”
Dominique: The song is dedicated to Tim Smith, leader of Cardiacs, who passed away in 2020. Emanuele came up with this first verse “My Friend Tim” and so I found myself invested with the responsibility of writing the lyrics for a tribute to one of his greatest idols…
Emanuele: … and she did a great job! Maybe because in the end, she has ended up immersing herself in the beautiful world of the Cardiacs too. I met Tim personally and I wanted to pay homage to him not with a “Cardiacs song”, but rather with something heartfelt. He literally changed my way of seeing music.
Needless to say, the Beatles have peeped in here too: a chorus recalls that of ‘Nowhere Man’, the guitar sound is that of George Harrison’s liquid one and then … there’s the cowbell that goes into the solo that’s very “Drive My Car” like. But after all, Tim Smith was a big Beatles fan so…
Emanuele: It was born with the capo on the seventh fret like ‘Here comes the sun’: I liked that acoustic sound, to which we added rather pastoral atmospheres thanks to the flutes. Maybe it’s the most American track on the record, a bit like Midlake’s ‘Trials of Van Occupanther’, with a Texas-inspired electric violin solo by Mario Gentili.
“Murmurations” (which is perhaps the track most reminiscent of “old” Sterbus…)
Dominique: Actually, it’s a bit like the new “Trapeze” (from the previous record) which was also a slightly slower ballad with this very strong emotional crescendo. For the lyrics I took inspiration from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: it tells of Orpheus singing his way out of the cave of Hades with Eurydice until the well-known tragic ending.
Emanuele: I wrote the melody at a time in my life when I always came home late and found myself playing quiet arpeggios. So the song was born only with acoustic guitar and voice. And it was about to be excluded from the record because it seemed out of context, compared to the other direct and fast songs. Then the rock ending of the song came out during a rehearsal with the band and it became the album closer. On this track, we had Al Strachan of the British band Crayola Lectern guesting on trumpet, whose light touches helped us a lot to achieve the “late Talk Talk” effect we wanted to give to the first part of the track.
Even the setlist seems to be very well studied, with a first part that is faster and faster and a second part that is slower and more enveloping…
Emanuele: I always spend a lot of time trying to figure out the best setlist, which is never easy. In this case, we tried dozens of arrangements and didn’t really know what principle to follow, so we thought of doing it like Radiohead in alphabetical order or even of putting them in descending order according to the speed of beats per minute…
Dominique: There was also the idea of putting Murmurations as the first track!
Emanuele: We wanted to do like the Beatles, who had the rule of three fast tracks and a ballad, but their songs lasted 2 minutes and 20, not 4 minutes… Let’s say that the main idea was to not let the tension and the attention drop, at least until “Helpless Waitress” comes in. It’s like a mass: until the fourth track, you stand, and then finally at the fifth song you can sit.
Pandemic permitting, will you try to bring the record in a live setting with the band?
Emanuele: We’d like to do some good gigs with an electric line-up, i.e. bass, guitar, and drums, and we’re trying to organize something like that in Rome. But we’ll definitely play acoustic, me, Dominique and our pianist. Besides, the record also lends itself to being played guitar and voice.
Dominique: Surely most of the dates will be acoustic, also because it’s difficult to find places in our territory, where to play with a full band in electric, but we still want to make some attempts because the record would deserve it. Anyway, at least the presentation of the album will definitely be electric.
What will the next record be like? Have you taken a liking to these “simpler” Sterbus or do you feel the lack of some of the unbridled madness of the previous records?
Emanuele: There are several possibilities… because on one hand originally this album should have been released in a limited edition with an EP included that should have been called “Solar barbecue” with all the instrumental, prog, and “crooked” tracks we recorded for the previous records (plus an unreleased one recorded on the new album sessions).
We decided to wait… and now the EP is at risk of becoming a proper release, also because after all, it is only 5-10 minutes shorter than the record.
Then we would also like to work on a record sung in italian, but always at Sterbus. In the past, we took part in a workshop led by Filippo Gatti, for which we made a song with lyrics in Italian called ‘Metro’ with Italian singer Motta on percussion
Finally, we have an instrumental soundtrack project, whose name is “Panicking Kong”. Thanks to Dominique’s flute and clarinet, we have ten or eleven acoustic tracks, with ethereal atmospheres and melodies that form a sort of a soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist, but which might interest someone…
Or maybe we could make a record without a specific style… that would line up different styles, like a sort of “white album”.
At last, we wanted to mention the experience of the cover of “Another Satellite” broadcasted at XTC’s online convention 2021
Emanuele: That’s an XTC track that I’ve always liked, but I feel like it often goes unnoticed compared to the other more rhythmic tracks on “Skylarking”. So I thought it was interesting to try to speed it up, even though it’s always risky to speed up a song because you might give the impression of making fun of the original song or at least making it a joke. We had an American guest, Max Crowe, who we met through the Cardiacs family, who played the synths and arpeggiators and did a really good job. The final space guitar solo is by a friend of ours called Martino Petrella.
You can find “Let Your Garden Sleep in” and Sterbus’ other albums on the band’s bandcamp page.