When Grant Geren first started writing songs for what would eventually become Shortwave Society, he couldn't get the music he and his early bandmates—his brother Curt, a percussionist, and keyboard player Jason Day—were making to match what he heard in his head. The three lived together in a house in South Knoxville, and things started to come together when Day, who was teaching at the University of Tennessee's music school at the time, invited some friends he'd met there to join them in a rehearsal.
"They played amazing," Geren says. "It was incredible to hear strings on our songs.... They just instantly got the wacky shit that Jason was writing and could play it back."
It took another year and a half before cellist Alexia Pantanizopoulos and violinist Sarah Hurd became official members of the band, but since 2008 the group has been making music like what Geren hears in his head. It's an odd place, and Shortwave Society is an appropriately odd configuration—sampled and programmed percussion, strings and piano, homemade synthesizers, and found sounds are the foundation of last year's self-titled EP and the just-released debut album Voyeur, which both draw on the pristine pop of the Beach Boys and the Beatles at their most orchestral, as well as more recent influences like Animal Collective and the Books.
Voyeur is about half electronic and half acoustic, a balance the band tried to maintain in order to challenge themselves and keep the music interesting. (Exactly where samples, found sounds, and synths fit on that spectrum makes it a harder question than it might seem.)
"We never want technology to overwhelm us, but we kind of geek out on it at the same time," Day says. "We're constantly exploring that, but the strings and instruments and voices, there's nothing wrong with that."
The mix makes for complicated live performances. Curt Geren especially has a difficult time, bouncing back and forth between his laptop and a small assembly of live drums. "Stand up, sing, sit down, play that," he says. He's helped by the fact that his computer can be programmed to play the tracks exactly as they were recorded, but that presents other obstacles. This is, after all, a working band—they've just had to figure out how to make the laptop an unofficial sixth member. But it's not always an easy collaboration.
"We didn't just want to have karaoke hour and feel like we were playing to tracks," Day says. "So a lot of things go in and out of time and we have to interact with the computer, and that's been the biggest challenge. You go left and the computer goes right. It's really hard. The computer's not going to yield to you."
The band's adventurous sound paid off this spring when they were invited to open for Adrian Belew at the Big Ears festival. (They describe the festival as "a great experience," "beautiful," and "amazing.") Being among like-minded musicians and fans for three days in downtown Knoxville was the band's highest-profile gig yet, and it also gave them a boost of confidence.
"Doing what we're trying to do here, we really felt out on our own," Day says. "It was nice to find out there's a market for it."
"That there are not only people doing it, there are people who enjoy it," Curt says. "So you know you're not just doing it for yourself."
Much of what eventually made it onto Voyeur had been written for several years, making the album a capstone to the first few years of the band. They've already started working on material for a second album, and the full-fledged membership of Pantanizopoulos and Hurd has effected the writing process. Geren says live instruments will probably be a bigger part of the next album, and some older material might get rearranged for live shows.
"You don't think about that stuff when you're writing," he says. "You just want to write ambitious music, do interesting things, and challenge yourself musically. Then you make a record and it's, ‘Oh shit, how are we going to do this?' I never want to be a novelty. I don't want to feel like I have to write a 12-minute song because we have strings, or anyone in the band to feel like they have to write with strings in mind. I never like the idea of being boxed in or being a novelty. A song calls for what it calls for."