Soil & sun. Two elements vital to the growth and evolution of life. And Grand Rapids, Mich. outfit The Soil & the Sun know all about growth, having blossomed from just a duo in 2008 into a now seven-piece unit. Frontman Alex McGrath recalls how college, coffee and a little bit of luck brought the group together, and ultimately, led to the creation of Meridian, one of the most ambitious albums of the year from an emerging band.
“We come from all across the midwest,” McGrath says. “Our drummer Ben grew up in Virginia, but the majority of us met at college. We went to Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois. I actually don’t know why everybody ended up choosing Olivet.” With only about 5,000 undergrad students and a common love for music, McGrath and the rest of the Soil & the Sun were bound to find their way to each other at the small liberal arts university.
“We didn’t really play a lot of music in college together though. Just more so for fun. We would get together and do the student night at the coffee shop on campus. After Ben graduated from Olivet, he moved up to Grand Rapids which is where we are now. I followed him here mostly because I wanted to keep playing music with him. I had dropped out at that point and didn’t really have that much going on. A lot of friends from school were moving up to Grand Rapids to start a coffee shop here. So we did that for awhile, just the two of us. Me and Ben. That’s kind of how the band got started. The coffee was sort of linked to our destiny, and still kind of is.”
Eventually, McGrath convinced the other (soon-to-be) Soil & the Sun band members to migrate to Grand Rapids. “We [me and Ben] always had more in mind for the band musically. More ideas and more instrumentation. We just dreamed of a bigger sound. We were trying to get those friends that we played with in college to move up to Grand Rapids. At that point, it was so exciting to be here, and it still is, but it was all really fresh and new then.”
From the oboe to the accordion, each band member offers their own unique contribution to the Soil & the Sun’s sound. Their latest album also features a host of cameos including Maps & Atlases’ Chris Hainey, O’Brother’s Anton Dang and Kellen Kerwin of Kellen & Me. A vivid landscape of sonic scenery, Meridian will overtake your senses by constantly reshaping itself into an enigmatic chasm of ever-changing melodies. Its songs are rooted deep in an eclectic musical background of folk, pop punk, and everything in between. Produced by Rick Fritz (Beach Boys, Peter Cetera, John Mellencamp), Meridian is the first proper studio release from the band. Although the group has produced two records on their own, Meridian is easily The Soil & the Sun’s most ambitious album to date.
“This group’s been [together] about four years now. Three albums,” McGrath says. “The first two we just recorded at me and Ashley’s apartment here [Grand Rapids] downtown. Those were just a play it by ear, trial and error type of thing. None of us are very skilled, we were just kind of relying on our ears. That was fun, but it was really nice to have this new opportunity to record in a proper studio. Also, to work with Audiotree and Rick Fritz, who was the engineer and producer, was pretty amazing.”
No longer restrained by the limitations of a home studio, and having a seasoned producer by their side, McGrath and co. were able to explore some of the more complex ideas that had been patiently waiting to be set free for years.
“We were pretty limited with our home recordings just because of gear, or lack of gear, I should say. Also a lack of knowledge of how to pull it off. Rick doesn’t lack any of those things, so we were able to get really good sounding things and push things into places we had tried to on the past two albums, but just weren’t able to.”
Some of those bigger sounds derive from some of the heavier themes that McGrath tackles on Meridian. Most surprisingly: the Apocalypse.
“I’m just pretty interested in it [the Apocalypse]. It’s not a really a primary theme on the album, it would be hard for me to nail down one major theme, but I think that my interest in that [the Apocalypse] shows itself more in a few of these songs. Just me exploring those ideas. [The church] was a major influence on me. I’m sure the way we were all raised is still a huge part of who we are. Just being immersed in those things at a young age definitely stuck with me. Not so much the zombie apocalypse [laughs].”
Meridian has a fluid give and take to it. Like a running river, the album gets going with the anthemic, gospel-infused “How Long,” a track that will take you to church before you’re dragged down into the doom-laden depths of McGrath’s world on follow up songs like “Samyaza.” The next track, “World We Used To Know”, releases you with a breath of fresh air cool enough to lull you into a hibernating state of serenity. McGrath says that many of these songs have been swimming at the bottom of his repertoire for a long time and have simply been waiting to surface. But it wasn’t until now that he was able to realize the vision he first set out to achieve. McGrath, along with the help of The Soil & the Sun, was finally able to let loose and bring more of his bigger ideas to life.
“Some of the songs are really old for me,” McGrath says. “Not old to the band, but they’ve been something that I would play on guitar, six years ago even, and just this past year finally came back to the surface. Some of the songs have pretty long histories. About half of them were relatively unfinished before we went into the studio and we finished writing them throughout the recording process.”
“I think this album was about not holding back at all. If there’s something that felt exciting, or an idea that was drawing us in, we just went for it. I think, stylistically, that put it in a pretty broad spectrum. It’s kind of all over the map musically and thematically. But then these things, these ties, these moments, surface throughout the album and tie it all together nicely.”