by A.J. Wachtel
While serving as an Air Traffic Controller for the U.S. Navy, Dave Munro sent home demos written during his deployment. Soon after his return he met band mate and fellow singer/songwriter Casey Sullivan and they now have national recognition as artists, and make contemporary music with a unique category-defining organic/electronic sound. Take a seat with Dave and Casey as they navigate their rise to stardom:
Noise: Air Traffic Controller’s music has been described as “They Might Be Giants meets The Beatles meets Fleetwood Mac.” Is this a good generalization? What from each band do you take and how do you incorporate this into your own music?
Casey Sullivan: I always think it’s a little bit difficult to make a generalization about our music, although we do pull influence from each of those bands. Dave and I approach writing fairly differently and we have fairly different influences as well. The best inspiration I take from the music that I listen to is when I hear something unique. For example, when I wrote “Warrior” (a song from Black Box), I had been listening to a lot of music that had odd time signatures or time signatures that changed throughout the song, so I decided I’d try it myself. Those little songwriting challenges help me.
Noise: The group is named after your time serving as an air traffic controller in the Navy. What is the connection between your stressful military airport job and your band’s music?
Dave Munro: Joining the military, moving away from my loved ones, and doing a stressful job really led me to songwriting. I was lonely and a bit stressed, I had lots to sing about. Those years helped me figure out who I was, and the demos I recorded then were very personal, yet people could easily relate. I still write songs that way.
Noise: Casey, you and Dave are both singersongwriters. Do you write songs together or separately and what do each of you bring to the table in composing material?
Casey: We write separately and together and we help each other finish songs etc. When I write, I have a tendency to be a little cryptic in my lyrics and I can get stuck in my head about finishing certain songs. When I bring songs to Dave or write with him, he has a way of making the process feel simple. He gets me out of my head and forces me to look at different directions the song could take and different ways to finish it.
Noise: Is the way you approach writing the same if you go solo or co-write it?
Dave: For me, the approach seems the same, but I am still learning to be a co-writer. If Casey has a song started that is clever and cryptic, and I try to help write it, my instinct is usually to tell a story that is easily understood. However, I love that her songs are so poetic and open to interpretation, so I’m always careful not to overexpose her picture.
Noise: You released your third album Black Box mid-March at The Sinclair. Tell me about your latest release. What can a listener expect and care to share a cool story about recording it?
Casey: People can expect to hear something different from our other releases. This is the first time I’ve collaborated as a writer in the band so that alone is something new. Along with that, I just think we took some risks on this record as far as venturing out of our writing comfort zone, so we’re very excited for people to hear it.
Dave: On the first day of one of our recording sessions, our engineer, two-time Grammy Award Winner Ducky Carlisle walked in with an antique instrument called a marxophone. It looks like a small open piano with guitar strings inside, which are struck with tiny metal hammers. Bleu said “we will definitely use that thing.” ATC’s multi-instrumentalist Steve Scott added another instrument to his list that day. It became the first sound you hear on the album, on a song we wrote and recorded completely from scratch, “People Watching.” It was one of many defining moments for Black Box.
Noise: Black Box has more of an upbeat, happy feel to it than your first two releases. Is this a conscious effort or is it just an instinctive evolution?
Dave: This album does indeed contain some of the happiest most upbeat tunes we’ve ever recorded, but if you consider the other songs, it’s also our darkest album by far. We knew that with Casey writing, there would be a dark and shadowy side to the record, so we did consciously choose to go in that different direction. I guess it involved Casey’s instincts, and maybe a little conscious effort for me, but nothing forced. I’m not happy go lucky all the time, and that is pretty clear on all the albums I think. Gosh darn it!
Noise: At your record release party the opening act was Johnson & McCauley who are Bleu and Alexz Johnson’s new project. How did this happen and can you remember the last time Bleu opened a show at a small club?
Dave: Bleu is a huge part of the album, and in studio, he is like a member of the band. He is our founding producer, and still going strong. Having him at that show was very fitting, and everyone is psyched for his new project with the amazing Alexz Johnson. The first time I saw Bleu play live, he was opening for Ryan Adams at The Paradise. I was already a huge fan, but I was totally blown away. I left just as Ryan started playing so I could go meet Bleu outside. That’s when I found out Bleu was also a producer.
Noise: You were included in the 2015 Billboard Hot 100 Fest Performance list and were in Austin mid-March at the SXSW music festival. What is it about playing at huge festivals that brings your performance up a notch? Would you describe in one word to a new fan how you play onstage?
Casey: Festivals are always very different from playing in smaller clubs. There a sort intimacy in the smaller clubs that makes it a little easier to connect with the audience. At a festival, you kind of have to really turn the energy up. The space is bigger and many people there may not even be there to see us. In this case, they were there to see Justin Beiber, so we had to bring the energy big time. Lots of happy tears in the front row. If I had to describe our show in one word, I guess it would be “joy.” People have told us we look like we’re having a lot of fun on stage, and it’s true. We really do have fun. We’re very lucky to get to do this and I don’t think we forget that.
Noise: Is your show different at an arena from a gig at a small club in Cambridge?
Dave: You can’t roam around the stage in a small club, but it’s a lot easier for the audience to get up close and personal. When people are able to see the expressions and body movements that happen naturally in a performance, I think they can connect with us on a more emotional level. That being said, we’ll take the arena gig any day, ha!
Noise: Both of your vocals make up the distinctive sound of Air Traffic Controller. Casey’s voice has been described as “dreamy, ethereal and smooth.” Is this an accurate description?
Dave: Yes, that’s quite accurate. Fans got a little of this on Nordo with a couple songs, “You Know Me” in particular, but now they are getting so much more. Hearing another lead vocalist that does pretty much the opposite of what I do with my own voice, is what makes this new record so… new!
Noise: What’s in the future for Air Traffic Controller?
Dave: We have a new album to push, it’s got a lot of singles (we think!), and we need to get out there. We’re now very busy tour planning and making music videos. We’re also getting back in the studio with Bleu. You can follow our daily antics on our socials @ATCmusic.