CMJ 2015: Tuff Sunshine x Vinyl Mag

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Industrious post-punk band Tuff Sunshine sit down with us to talk answering a crowd’s call, making it in NYC and one trick bands. Brooklyn-based and unpretentious, band members John Leitera, Ani Cordero and Turner Stough took over Union Pool Oct. 17 at the CMJ Music Marathon Team Clermont showcase. Tuff Sunshine’s next record, Fire in the Hero Building LP, will be released Oct. 31 — a deal that was made mid-Vinyl Mag interview.

Thanks for chillin with us #tuffsunshine #cmj #cmj2015 #vinylmagcmj #teamclermont

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Vinyl Mag: Time Out New York described Tuff Sunshine as “emotive indie fare that skillfully fuses funky soul with wiry postpunk” in 2012. Would you say this is still an accurate description?

Turner Stough [bass]: It’s the first thing anyone’s ever written about us.

John Leitera guitar and vocals]: It’s an accurate blurb … we’ve definitely been writing newer stuff and growing. We all listen to a lot of different music; Turner and I used to be in a country band together, and I listen to a lot of soul music, and Ani does her own thing.

VM: Everyone has their hands in different projects. How do you all balance it while still doing kickass, wiry post punk shows in NYC?

JL: I really only have this and the country band. But Ani just recorded in North Carolina.

Ani Cordero [drums, percussion and vocals]: We’re all veteran musicians. It’s not so much about genre, it’s what the song calls for, and we try to provide it.

TS: Definitely.

VM: I’ve read Tuff Sunshine tries to send a specific message with music. Can you elaborate?

JL: There’s not a lot of attitude with this band. We like to do what we like to do. We play what we like to listen to – which doesn’t always mean just one type of music all the time.

VM: You play whatever the music calls for; what is something you’ll normally answer? What did tonight call for?

AC: A live performance is very different than arranging a song. Tonight called for rockin’ out. [laughs] So we did.

TS: Usually when musicians say that … [for example] if you’re a sideman playing for the song, it means you’re thinking of the big picture, and not just technicality of an instrument. It’s in the emotional vibe of the song, as opposed to putting in a hot lick or something to fill.

JL: I bring in the songs as a real rough sketch. Turner and Ani do a lot of the arranging. My songs are usually torn up and edited out a lot, which is good ‘cause I tend to go long.

VM: I know the feeling. I’m a writer.

JL: [Laughs] Oh yeah, very similar.

VM: That brings us to my next question – What’s the dynamic of Tuff Sunshine? You had a guest player tonight, Dave Rubin. Is that normal for y’all?

JL: This was a pretty big show for us. At CMJ, you never know who’s gonna be around. There’s a lot of parts on the record…Dave did a lot of the recording for our EP, and we thought it would be cool to have him cover some of the parts, like the organ.

VM: Would you say it’s tougher to be in a smaller band and cover all the parts?

JL: It’s actually a lot easier.

AC: Three is a great number, actually.

JL: Especially with the stuff we [recently] started writing. The whole goal of this band was to be pared down and raw. And not have a lot of ‘stuff.’ But I tend to like so many types of music … I don’t want to write a song like “Sliding Through My Hands,” the duet from tonight, and just have it be bass drum and guitar. There should be an organ. That’s the feel of it. So trying to cover that stuff live becomes more challenging.

VM: So then what’s your favorite song to perform live?

AC: That’s a three-part question. [laughs] You guys go first… I’m running through the songs, and I can’t pick.

JL: I like playing “I Complied” a lot. Live, Ani is right, we like to do rock…“Dynamite” is fun too.

AC: Come on, I mean it’s hard to pick. I can’t pick.

TS: For me, [it depends on] the room and the night. Sometimes songs just slay, but some nights in certain rooms they’re just OK. There are little x-factors with playing live. Sometimes the magic is all set. And you just fucking hit it out of the park. And sometimes you don’t.

JL: “I Complied” and “Sliding” showcases the band a little bit. I like people knowing that we’re not just a one trick band, that we have depth.

VM: One trick band. Ugh.

AC: Yeah, that’s a thing.

VM: So you all met in Brooklyn – how did you all start playing together? I read that you came out with your EP very shortly after getting together.

TS: Yeah. Right out of the gate.

JL: Turner and I were together looking for a drummer, and we found Ani. I literally put up a Craigslist ad that said, ‘This is a hail mary, this is the last time I’m ever doing this, I know you’re out there.’ And she was the only person who wrote back…we had a rehearsal, and we thought, ‘Let’s do it.’

I started with playing guitar and some little over dubs that I had recorded, and we learned them; then Ani and Turner turned out to work really well together as arrangers, and we kind of just went from there.

I wanted to go into the studio really soon after and capture what was really going on in that moment. Our first record is still one of my favorite things we did … which you will be receiving a free copy of after this interview [laughs].

VM: What are some obstacles you have run into breaking in the NYC music scene?

JL: Finding a drummer wasn’t that hard actually, we just got lucky. [NYC is] tough, but it’s a great place to be, because it’s the center of everything. Going out of town to tour and play shows … you find that people don’t get back as quickly [as NYC], that there’s not as much of a professional element to it like there seems to be here. To me, that’s the good thing about it. I guess what’s not great is that there’s just so many people doing it.

VM: That’s why I love stuff like this – CMJ as opposed to something like Governor’s Ball. It gives musicians a chance to get their names out.

JL: We were really happy to be part of this tonight. Super stoked. I came last year to this showcase, actually, and wished I was playing it.

VM: And here you are.

John steps away.

TS: [At CMJ] you get to hear all these bands that you’d rarely see. Maybe some of them aren’t on the level yet to tour the world regularly, so they come over here. You definitely get some cool vibes with festivals like CMJ, SXSW.

VM: Does Tuff Sunshine have plans for more showcases on the upcoming tour?

TS: We’re not doing any festivals, but we do have a Daytrotter session, which is what we built the tour around. It’s all the way in Iowa, so there and back is a good run. Playing Pittsburgh [John’s hometown] and my hometown, Cincinnati. Some Midwestern action.

VM: Shows will be pretty different on that tour than here at Union Pool. I feel like audiences in NYC just aren’t as impressed as easily.

TS: Yeah, I love playing smaller markets. Some of the best shows I’ve had have been small towns.

AC: In a large market, there could be 20 amazing shows or events [in one night], and you just can’t do it all. But when it’s a smaller market, everyone goes to all the different kind of shows available. It’s less segmented. Everyone goes to see all the cool stuff … and they dance more.

TS: Not everyone in the room is a musician [laughs].

John returns.

JL: So a guy just came over here, and he runs Shorewave Records, and he’s going to release our record on cassette.

VM: It just happened? Congrats!

JL: I honestly don’t know anyone who has a cassette player. [laughs]

AC: I do!

JL: Well we’re going to your house to listen to it … a lot of bands are doing it. It’s a cool boutique label. He’s a good guy who’s been a fan of the band for a while and put out some other stuff. He asked if we’d want to do a cassette, and I said sure. The vinyl release is just us. We have a few people who are somewhat interested.

VM: What would you say is your most significant accomplishment as a band?

JL: Staying together. I mean that. I really mean it. I think it’s really hard to find the right people to work with, to get through all the bullshit that everyone has to put up with. And just be able to keep it together. I’m so thankful for these guys. Personally, the greatest accomplishment is being able to keep it going. If you don’t keep it going, nothing else matters. We’ve had a lot of great things happen here and there, with press and record people, all of that’s really nice, and I’m always flattered and honored to have people pay attention to what we’re doing. But to me, sticking together is the biggest accomplishment.

AC: That’s a great answer.

TS: I think so, too. Everyone here runs different bands, and it’s not easy to keep a project together for a multitude of reasons, most of it is pretty obvious, but it’s a real skill, and John is good at it.

VM: That’s refreshing.

JL: Well, it’s true. Were also very thankful for this as well. I never take for granted that people want to talk to us. It’s very important to say that.

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