You might think that this story would begin with Small Reactions. After all, the four men who build this mirror maze have beguiled listeners for seven years, yet stand poised to release just their second proper full-length this August. In that time, though, they’ve opened for an enviable roster of indie stalwarts – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Mac DeMarco, and the Men, just to name a few. And just last year, a Small Reactions “mixtape” only pumped more fog into their enigma, with a series of noise collages and old song sketches.
But when I first met Sean Zearfoss and Ross Politi — drummer and guitarist of Small Reactions, respectively — they were the cool dudes of the serene krautrock gang, Low Valley Hearts. The former impressed me at once by actually recognizing the blogs I wrote for, and subsequently laying out the history of Atlanta’s blogosphere from the last decade. As for the latter, he struck me as a gregarious enigma, one who spoke little but would shoot conspiratorial asides my way, as if I were already a confidant.
I didn’t actually see Small Reactions until several months later, on Record Store Day at Criminal Records. We met again after their gig — an enthralling performance, I assure you, that projected space beyond the store’s corner stage — and the two of them tossed me a bunch of ephemera from Politi’s previous outfits, Del Venicci and Carnivores. Dimensions atop dimensions unfolded before me in subsequent car trips, from spooky gothic ballrooms to pizza parties on the beach, and I was only further intrigued.
Thus, we reach the back patio of Aurora Coffee, where this chat on Small Reactions and the upcoming album unfolded between Zearfoss and I. One of the baristas here just pulled down the umbrellas from the table before I arrived; as would be the norm that week, rain had threatened the city just hours before, yet now only golden sunshine poured down on Little Five Points. Zearfoss, who wears a Faun and a Pan Flute t-shirt and pecks at a lemon poppy seed muffin, has just clocked out from his post at Criminal, and speaks in animated bursts. In under half an hour, we gradually peel away the layers that shroud Small Reactions, as we discuss the tricky balance of sustaining a band “post-30,” the mixtape that expanded from five tracks to twenty, and why everyone should brush up on their writing skills.
Last I heard, you guys recently did a gig with Surfer Blood. How’d that go?
It was good! It was one of those Park Tavern shows, and those are always free. So people come, and have a good time. Ross, our guitarist, has known those guys for a long time, because he grew up in South Florida. So they knew one other from that scene. And when he was in Carnivores — they connected for some shows and touring. So they fit pretty well with them years ago, and then Small Reactions fits, too — you know, indie guitar rock stuff.
Yeah, I wanted to talk about Ross, because when I was doing the research for this, I’d found out that he’d just joined your band a year ago. But, watching you two interact and watching the band play, it seemed like he’d been there for a very long time.
Well, that’s true. It’s funny — he actually joined us two years ago, and his first show with us was actually a Park Tavern show when we played with the Thermals. So it was almost exactly two years, because that was also in the summer. But yeah, he and I had been friends for a long time, so I suggested him for the band. Our keyboard player Sam [Jacobson] moved to Denver for a job, and I think he needed a change in scenery — he and his girlfriend wanted something new and different. So it’s not even like he left the band; obviously, he doesn’t play with us anymore, and he is on one song on the new record, that we recorded several years ago.
So Ross replaced Sam, more or less. And maybe Sam will do something with us in the future, if he wants. But it’s Ross with the rest of us, who have been playing music for a long time.
Yes. And it seems like Ross has been playing for a very long time too. You gave me those two tapes, from Del Venicci and Carnivores — when was Del Venicci?
Del Venicci ran from about 2013 to the beginning of 2016, I think. He was in Carnivores for about the same number or years — three or four years. But Carnivores existed a little longer before he joined our band. Ross has been playing music for even longer than we have — he graduated high school in the late ’90s. So we did the math, and he has almost ten years of playing shows on the rest of us, even though he’s only a couple years older than the rest of us.
So, long story short, he fits right in with us, personality-wise and playing-wise.
Not to mention, I really liked the stuff he contributed to the mixtape you guys put out last year, which I wanted to talk about, before we got into the new album. You said you were inspired by Broadcast, and I could really hear that in all the sketches, but why did you guys want to make that tape?
Well, sometimes things go, for lack of a better word, backwards than where you expect them to go. We had a show booked, and we were like, “What are we gonna do to promote this show?” We like to have a purpose for everything we do — and some shows we just play because we like doing shows, but if possible, we like attaching an alternative meaning to that. So in this case, it was a mixtape. And I originally said to Scotty [Hoffman, lead vocalist], just throw some demos you have on there of songs, and some other practice recordings you have, and other sketches, and just throw that onto a 5-track mixtape. And then weeks went by, and I’m like, “Dude, where’s this mixtape? What happened?” And he’s like, “I’m working on it, I’m working on it.” And then he delivers this mixtape, and I’m like, “That is NOT what I was expecting at all!” But it was so much better than what I had anticipated.
And, you know, I went out and recorded some stuff in front of my apartment on Edgewood. And as I’m recording street sounds, someone comes up and asks me for directions, and so that’s on the tape. And then Ross had a couple of demos that he recorded from Del Venicci and Carnivores that never got used. Then he had this 45-minute EP of just noise that Scotty chopped up.
So it ended up being an album. And it was kinda nice, because after Sam left and Ross came back to fill in Sam’s spot, we were just getting our footing with him, so we thought, we need something out.
Yeah, it’s funny you mention that, because I was listening to “Angel’s Leash,” and I thought, “Huh, yeah! That sounds like that could be a Del Venicci song!” Especially since I heard that other girl on there — who is that other girl, by the way?
I think that’s Grace [Bellury], from Del Venicci. And I know “Midnight Secrets” was written for Carnivores, and for some reason it didn’t work out for [them], so he did it for Del Venicci, and then they just moved past the song, so they never did a formal recording of it. “Angel’s Leash,” I think, was one of Ross’ songs before even Carnivores. It was a really old song that never got a formal release. And we’d been playing “Midnight Secrets” as a full band, and it sounds different now, so we’ll probably go back and re-record that and have a new version of that for some release in the future.
Moving ahead to the new album, there are several songs on there that really stood out to me. Especially “Flagrant,” because I could really tell there was a narrative going on there, but I couldn’t tell what was going on.
A lot of what Scotty writes about are like darker reflections [of what] personally he resents ever happened, or struggles — normal domestic things. That song is past that. He was reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from Hariku Murakami. In that, there’s a horrific scene where people are getting literally skinned. Scotty says that it’s the darkest rumination of human existence: when something’s off, how far will people go to mistreat other people? So it’s an incredibly dark song.
And it’s funny — a couple of weeks ago at Criminal, we had David J, who’s been in Bauhaus and Love and Rockets. And in Bauhaus, they’re singing about gothic stuff. And he’s like, “This is fantasy, this is romantic.” And he was reflecting on the current climate of the world, and this country, and he’s like, “The horrific things taking place now, this is not beautiful in a twisted way. This is just dark.”
Does Scotty write all the words?
He does write all the words, yeah. Years ago, I may have suggested a word change here or there, but for the most part, it’s just all him.
So how do the rest of y’all contribute to writing, then?
Well, for a long time, it would be mostly improvisation. So we would literally come to practice, and somebody would start playing something, and we would play that until it worked out. Or, if we played it for 10 minutes and it didn’t work out, we’d discard it. It was almost like a rapid fire, stream-of-consciousness writing process. And then we would take what we thought was a good idea and mold it. So the first record, with the exception of a song, was all derived from improvisation.
On the new record, it’s a little different — maybe about half improvisation, half songs that Scotty brought in. A lot of times, Scotty will send us his demos, and I’m someone who’s big on arrangement, so I’ll be like, “Scotty, double that verse, I think we need a weird break here” — stuff like that. So it’s not so much improv, but still pretty collaborative in terms of arrangements.
Yeah, I definitely noticed more structure this time around. And then there’s that oddball “Alles,” this pleasant, psych-folk thing, which is like nothing else on the album!
We were listening to a lot of different things, and I think Scotty was listening to the Kinks there. It’s definitely a different spot than what we usually draw from. Yeah, that song does stand out, but it still fits thematically, of Scotty being…
A bit self-deprecating?
Yeah, I definitely got a bit of that, of looking inward and finding your own faults.
Yeah, that’s a running theme in the record, putting that all on display. To me, it’s an effort of working through all those things, to connect [with others]. The more specific you become, the more universal [you are]. I think it’s that general thought. That’s how Scotty writes, and “Alles” fits that narrative.
With “Sessions Street,” Scotty missed his son’s first steps because of a stupid fight he and his wife were having, so that’s what that’s about. And Scotty — god, he’s an excellent father, and [has] a beautiful family, and they get along really well, but it’s one of those moments that you look back on and you’re like, “Man, if I could had this to do over again, it’d be different.”
That touches on another question I had: I interviewed Art School Jocks not too long ago, and it came up that they used to live together. And then it was also brought up, because someone else was helping me do the interview, that you guys used to live together. And now I assume, since Scotty has a family, that’s not the case anymore. How has the band dynamic changed since then?
Well, we all moved from the Kennesaw/Marietta area to East Atlanta in 2009, and got a house that eventually became the Cottage. And we all lived there — Scotty moved out pretty quickly, essentially to start a family, but the rest of us lived there, up until I left at the end of 2015, more or less. I was the last one to go — Sam still lived there, Clinton [Callahan, bassist] had left a few years prior — but for seven years, we were all tied to that house in some way. It is a little different now, because being in a band post-30, or on the edge of 30, like Clinton, it definitely brings a new perspective, and new challenges. We all have fairly big obligations. It’s a lot easier to pick up and go when you’re 22, 24, or even 26.
But, it’s forced us to be better planners. Because, when we lived together, you could just yell, “Hey, Clinton, can you practice?” And he’s just down the stairs, so he’s like, “Yeah, I can practice.” Now, it’s like, “Hey, can you practice after law school, and before your family commitments?” So it’s really crazy — the older you get, the more responsibilities you have. But it’s been interesting — I think it also has a positive impact.
I mean, obviously, we all take music very seriously, and we’d very much like to see it grow. But we also have very realistic expectations about it, we understand that the music industry is near impossible. So in order to play music for as long as we do, we have to make these life choices that enable us to be flexible enough to still tour, and still put out records, and be self-funded. So time is more of a challenge, but that makes you work harder, which has been beneficial, because instead of having any day of the week to practice, now we have this 2-hour time window. So show up, make it count, get to work. If anything, it makes us take ourselves more seriously, and take our time more seriously.
You mentioned that the music industry is much tougher to break into, and I imagine that you working in a record store gives you a sharper insight of that than most other people. What does your [experience of] working in a record store also bring to being in a band?
You know, it’s a lot of different things. It could be as simple as — I’m looking at a 1,000 records. Which one stands out to me? Why does this one stand out, and this one doesn’t? So small stuff like that, but I’m also able to understand distribution channels more, I’m able to see what smaller releases we get and how many of those we get. Because so many of the bands that come through Criminal to sell their records and CDs are very much the same size as Small Reactions, if not just a little bit bigger. So there’s not much difference between the things we’re hearing [in the store] and the things I do [in the band].
So, seeing how our record store functions gives me some insight into what other record stores might expect. For instance, I can’t physically drive up to Asheville, North Carolina and drop off five copies of our record and be like, “Good luck selling these guys!” We would presumably need to be playing in Asheville, and I would need to give them a promo copy to play in stores. So, if anything, it’s sometimes more sympathy for the store, [and] understanding that keeping the lights on is a difficult job. And you do everything you can as an artist to help that.
How long have you been working at Criminal?
I’ve been there for a little over a year. And Ross works there too, and he’s been there for maybe 9 months.
And what do the other members of the band do?
Scotty works at his dad’s law firm, and he is more or less like a secretary there — he works with scheduling. But he’s also in law school right now, going part time at Georgia State. Now, other than Criminal, Ross has never had a job besides selling stuff on eBay, since he was 16. And then Clinton just installs windows. He’s always done odd jobs, and follows opportunities, and sees what works and what doesn’t.
What will be your next big steps as Small Reactions?
Well, we will be releasing the record on August 4th, and we’ll just try to get out of town as much as we can. Probably some shorter shows — we can’t go off for a whole month, at least not right now with our current schedule. And then, yeah, start working on our next things. We’ve got a 7″ that’s due in the fall, and just keep playing shows.
Oh! I wanted to ask you about your writing, in particular. First off — remind me, when did you start writing for different publications?
About 2010. I started writing for Performer Magazine, then after that I didn’t do much music stuff until I started writing for Creative Loafing, and I still freelance for them. And then I did do stuff for Immersive, years ago. So, it’s always been music stuff for me — obviously, music is such a part of my identity, that it’s been like, I’ll write about music, so I’ll understand the publication side. I’ll work at a record store, so I can understand the distribution side. And I work at the EARL, so I know how the touring issues work.
But it’s also just been a passion for music, it’s what I like. And even the job [at Kennesaw State] I have — I love teaching composition, I love freelance work — as passionate as I am about them, I only keep them going because they’re flexible, and they allow me to play music. I mean, I would say that literature and composition are equally interesting, but if I had to choose one or the other, as motivating, it would definitely be music.
When did you start playing [music]?
I started when I was about 16 — well, I heard Black Sabbath when I was 14, and that was the first moment when I was like, “This is what I wanna do.” And so I finally started playing when I was 16, and I picked up drums for the explicit purpose of joining a band. Because I was like, “Everybody I know plays guitar, there’s a ton of guitar players, and if I wanna join a band, I have to make myself in demand.” So I started playing drums, and that’s what initiated all that.
So I guess I started at 16, and have been playing — let’s see, how old am I now — 15 years later. And I like to think of it like, I’m good enough to keep playing in rock bands, [but] I definitely don’t practice enough to join a jazz band or anything like that. It’s enough to do what I wanted to do in the first place.
Yeah, I think that’s all any of us can aspire for, is to be where we want to be! Oh, but what I wanted to ask about your writing — how does that help you in Small Reactions?
Well, I do enjoy writing the press releases — like, everything that we put up online, I write all of those, I enjoy doing that. And I read a ton of music publications, so I see bios, and I think, “Well, I like this, and I don’t like this.” So I guess I have more of an eye for things. So my interest in writing has helped create an image for the band, too, because I write sprawling things that I don’t expect anyone to read, and then we get emails sometimes, asking about booking shows or sending records somewhere, and they’re like, “Man, I really liked that [blurb] you wrote!” And I had no idea that anybody read that.
I do! I always do, whenever it’s more than just a little paragraph.
So I think my interest in writing has at least given us an angle, in that regard.
That’s very heartening to hear, as someone who also specializes in words.
Well, if you ever want to help bands or make a bit, you could write bios for bands, and press releases! It’s a good skill to have, and if I had more time, I’d do it myself. In fact, I’ve wanted to, at Criminal, do a short seminar about ways to write a good bio, and ways to write a press release, ways to write a one-sheet. Because I feel like these are skills that could really benefit a lot of bands. Like I tell my writing students, your writing skills set you apart from anybody else, in any career. If you’re an engineer, your writing skills will set you apart. If you are in the medical profession, being able to write clearly and effectively [is crucial]. These things help. And I’d very much love to share that.
RXN_002 is out August 4th.
Small Reactions will celebrate the release of RXN_002 on Thu., August 24 at the Earl. They will be supported by Deep State and Sticky Smooth. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Admission is $8. 21+ to enter.