by Amanda Beland
Five summers ago, Pete Schluter called his high school buddy Mike O’Brien and asked him to play bass in his band in Vermont.
The catch? O’Brien lived in Winchester, Mass. and didn’t actually know how to play bass.
“I was expecting him to be like, ‘Dude, that’d be cool, but I don’t know if I can, I have job blah blah’, but he was like ‘Cool, sure,'” said Schluter, laughing. “So he moved up in the summer of 2010 or 2009 – I can’t remember – and we ended up living in this apartment together – in the same room to save money – and we just boot camped it …he learned how to play bass that summer and we played a bunch of gigs in Burlington Vt.”
Schluter and O’Brien’s odd couple summer became the makings for what is now known as the Boston-based rock trio The Sun Lions. The band has cycled through a couple of names and hosted a handful of former members since that summer, but their attitudes and approach to music and songwriting has stayed fairly consistent.
The band’s current lineup includes Schluter on guitar and vocals, O’Brien on bass and vocals, and Jeff Walsh on drums. The guys just released their second full-length LP digitally on Monday, recorded a live 5-song EP and currently have plans to play a series of shows throughout New England.
Schluter and O’Brien started playing together in high school with mutual friends under the name Carlson.
“In high school (in Winchester), we were called Carlson because there was a woman who would sleep in her garage all the time,” said Schluter. “The door was open and she was just asleep in there all the time – people didn’t know if she was alive or dead and we were always curious about her – so Mike and John, our old friend … didn’t you guys pretend to be newspaper people?”
“We pretended we were from the local newspaper,” said O’Brien.
“Just so they could find out her name,” said Schluter.
“We couldn’t think of a name for the band and we decided that we’re going to name it whatever that woman’s name was,” said O’Brien.
The band played under the name Carlson until the guys went to college. Schluter and the other band member John went to school in Vermont and continued to play as Carlson without Mike – who went to college in Massachusetts.
Schluter and John played together throughout college. At some point, they were in need of a bass player.
“We were looking for someone who could sing and maybe write some songs,” said Schluter. “We didn’t care if he’s like a bass virtuoso or anything. So I thought, ‘Well fuck, Mike could probably learn how to play the bass’ and so I just called him up out of the blue and I was like ‘Hey dude – this is kind of random, but would you want to move up to Vermont and play the bass in my band?'”
The guys played together that summer in Vermont before moving back home to Winchester in the fall. They continued to play shows as a group around town, including a notorious show at the Tavern at the End of the World where the band was so loud, they were knocking glasses off the walls of the bar.
A couple months after moving back, John decided to move back to Vermont and Schluter and O’Brien took a break from music.
“We basically didn’t play music for a little while – we sort of got to working and just doing random shit,” said Schluter. “After awhile though, we got the itch again.”
Schluter, O’Brien, Schluter’s brother and their drummer at the time started playing together as The Images which Schluter describes as a “Chuck Berry cover band”. The trio recorded a bunch of covers at the Soul Shop in Medford in 2011 (which they released discretely in 2012) and started playing a bunch of shows throughout Boston.
“I thought it was great – especially after having taken a break – getting back and doing Chuck Berry stuff … it’s like that’s the roots of rock and roll,” said Schluter. “Playing that stuff was great for the band’s tightness and feel – It really helped us gel a lot better as a band.”
The band’s drummer at that time moved to New York after the record was recorded leaving the band looking for his replacement. O’Brien worked with Walsh in 2011. Both men were friends for a long time before they found out each other played music.
“He was like ‘Dude you play in a band? Let me check you guys out!’ – so he came to a show,” said O’Brien.
“I thought they were good and I was like – ‘I want to be in their band,'” said Walsh.
In this same time frame, Schluter’s brother – the band’s second guitarist – also moved away. The trio decided to not only stick is out as a trio, but to also make a name change.
“We realized that Google searching ‘The Images’ is impossible – like when you type in ‘The Images Boston’ – it’s just like pictures of Boston – so we thought it was kind of impeding our progress of anyone ever finding us online,” said Schluter. “So we were trying to come up with a name and we ended up brainstorming names for like a month.”
The name ‘The Sun Lions’ is the name of O’Brien’s former band. Walsh saw O’Brien wearing his former band’s shirt, liked the name and suggested they use it.
“To be fair, when you Google ‘The Sun Lions’ you get pictures of lions sunbathing, which is far better than before,” said Walsh. “Plus it fits better with the vibe of the band.”
When the guys changed their name, they were also transitioning into writing and performing all original songs instead of focusing on covers. Schluter and O’Brien had written original tunes as Carlson in high school and at the beginning of college. The two men, with other musicians from Winchester – also had a summer music group called the Wooden Nickels. The group played together during the summers when everyone was off from college and even recorded a few demos. So making the transition from covers to original songs really wasn’t that far of a stretch.
These days, the band is writing, recording and releasing all original songs.
“Writing for us is very collaborative, but it’s also individual,” said Schluter. “Mike and I write the songs and most of the time it’s not like we’re sitting in a room together sitting head to head. We sort of write songs on our own and then bring it to each other and get feedback. A lot of the time, I’ll be the one with my scissors out to edit things like ‘That part’s a little long maybe we cut half that verse and then like that will make the chorus pop more’ and Mike’s usually the one being like ‘Let’s let this part ride out.’ Once we kind of work it out, we’ll bring it to Jeff and just sort of arrange it like a band.”
“For me, writing songs is basically like I’ll just grab my guitar and start strumming and then sometimes nothing comes out and sometimes something does and it’s usually like the chord changes and then a melody pops into my head and then I’ll go,” said Schluter. “The best songs are always like everybody says – the ones that just sort of come out in one sitting – where you write the songs almost as fast as the song gets played, you know? That’s only happened a handful of times, but when it does I feel like those are the songs that flow the best. For me, the lyrics always come last, I think it’s similar with Mike. Then I get a line in my head and it might not end up being a line that I end up using, it just sort of informs where the song is going to go lyrically and just build off that. For me, it’s always like chords and melody come together and lyrics afterwards.”
The guys also recently recorded a 5-track live album straight to tape at the Soul Shop in Medford, the studio where The Images recorded and mixed their original album. The record was engineered by the Shop’s head engineer, Elio DeLuca. The entire session was also filmed and edited by Allston Pudding, with still photography shots taken by Richard Hawke of Starlab Studios.
In addition, the band recently finished up recording and mixing their second full-length record (first original full-length) – Whatever’s on Your Mind – at Sonelab in Easthampton, Mass. According to Schluter, the band tracked and mixed the entire record for the course of six days. They released this 10-track record on Monday with a name your price pricetag.
According to Schluter, when it comes to digital music, the band’s philosophy is more about people than money.
“Our philosophy as far as that’s concerned is that people can pay whatever they want for digital stuff – like if you want a recording that’s digital you can find it – if people want to chip in money, that’s cool, but really what I’d rather they do is if they downloaded our record and they like it – send us an email, say what’s up, come talk to us at a show, come to a show, you know?” said Schluter. “I’d much rather make a personal connection than have someone be like, ‘Oh I’ll give this band $5 for their record online.’ If we’re like ‘You have to pay $7 for our album online,’ it’s going to be tough because it just sort of creates a barrier – connections are a lot more important.”
These connections are a huge part of why the men continue playing music. Another part is just pure love for songwriting.
“This is all I know,” said O’Brien. “Just living in some sort of artistic vein is important to me, and it’s also cathartic for me and I feel like it balances me out.”
“At this point, it’s not about the money, it’s not about fame, it’s just about, you just kind of wake up and you feel like you have to do it,” said Schluter. “With music, it’s not easy to make a living…its just like the real world – the one percent like the Katy Perry’s and the John Mayer’s of the world – they’re the ones getting all the money and stuff and everyone else is sort of undervalued I guess. People do it because they love it and you meet a lot of really awesome people that are also doing it because they love it – whether it’s music or other things. You meet the coolest people that way, you know? And obviously for the chicks.. just kidding, we usually just get gear nerds.”
The Sun Lions will be having their cassette release show this Sunday at the Middle East Upstairs.