Mustard had the pleasure of speaking with Safe Houses. Together we discussed the concept of safe houses, their ideal locations, creative process, what is next, and so much more!
1. Mustard is grateful to have Safe Houses join them again at Music Shelf. How is everyone doing?
I think we’re doing well, and keeping busy! Seems like we’re all feeling some of that springtime energy.
2. Safe Houses are typically reserved for humans who may be doing something illegal. What is everyone’s crime?
Or for, like, resistance groups, right? That’s my own mind’s primary association with that phrase. But then, of course, if you’re in a resistance effort against a horrible fascistic occupying regime, you’re technically doing something illegal. This world’s full of cases where the more moral or just or humane approach is illegal. The catch is, in the wrong hands, a “safe house” could be a total misnomer – it could feasibly be a place where people are safe to do objectively bad things to other people. Both sides of that fight could see a need to set up a safe house; it depends on whose turf they’re on. I like that ambiguity in the phrase “safe houses.” People will come away with whatever interpretation they prefer.
My crime is being an accessory to subway fare evasion. Cory’s is enabling gambling among dogs. Jon and Gabriel are, I think, under NDA. Some of us might be in the illegal cheese trade, or in counterfeit home decor. Might be.
3. Safe Houses should blend in with their environment. Where does everyone have their safe house located? Is it fully furnished?
I think we all have either as much furnishing as we want, as much as we need, or as much as we can fit. I’ve lived in a lot of places and can confirm those are three separate metrics. It’s pretty easy for your safe house to blend into its environment when your block looks pretty much like the next five parallel blocks in either direction. Three of us are safe-housed in Brooklyn – Bushwick, East Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, and I won’t specify who goes where, for the sake of the whole “safety” thing, but I’ll put myself out there and admit I’m on an unassuming block in Ridgewood, Queens. I don’t mind saying as much – even the mail carriers around here get confused about what street they’re on at the moment.
4. Mustard wonders how you came up with the name “Safe Houses?”
Under pressure, is how. We used to have a different name – we were called Shelter Dogs for years – but in the spring of 2022 we received a cease and desist from lawyers representing someone who held a registered trademark on that name. They also sent a C&D to a cover band from the greater Chicagoland area, so we interpreted that as an indication of how serious they were. Of course we wanted to push back as far as we feasibly could without litigating. But we knew we had to consider all imaginable outcomes while we were going back and forth with the lawyers. One possible outcome was that we’d need to change our name. I didn’t want to get blindsided in that scenario, so I started thinking about options very early in the process. Basically I went for a couple of long walks and brainstormed. There was a ton of geopolitical turmoil in the headlines, groups of people moving across borders and seeking refuge, and I started thinking about phrases I could pull from the news. I was walking around listening to The Fall, and the song “Prole Art Threat” came on, where Mark E. Smith is hollering something about a safe house, and I thought, “Oh, that’s good, three syllables, starts with S, plural noun with no article, easy to spell and pronounce, looks clear and tidy on a show flyer, some thematic continuity with the old name too, easy to visualize but also kind of ambiguous in its implications. Yeah, that’s everything we need.” Band names are hard! Or at least they are if you’re trying to be even remotely serious and to come up with something that’ll work in the long run. I mean, I was looking at the running list of fake band names my girlfriend and I keep, thinking, “Y’know, I just don’t think Domestic Elvises or Leonardo da Vitriol or Buttcheekpox are this band.”
5. Did the band form inside a safe house? What is Safe Houses origin story?
There have been a lot of people in and out of this band over the years (regardless of the name), and I met at least half of them while I was running a DIY space. We used to practice there, too. With a DIY space, you have to find someone who knows the address, the name of the space isn’t on the building, you have to know which door is the right one to enter, you have to find your way through the building to get to the right unit, and some of what goes on in there is technically illegal, so I guess the answer to your question is kinda “Yeah.”
The absolute ur-moment of this band was just me recording and overdubbing myself in my parents’ basement when I was a teenager, and then that turned into a real band when I was in college; and since then, whenever I’ve written a song in my natural mode (as in, not a highly specific sub-genre workout), that’s a Safe Houses song. This current lineup came together after an entirely amicable pandemic-times shakeup where everyone in the previous lineup re-evaluated their priorities and made major life changes – grad school, marriage, career stuff. Two people moved thousands of miles away, in opposite directions. Jon and I for years have been in bands that have shared bills together, so it felt pretty intuitive for us to finally be in the same band together. I met Cory through his old band, and I thought he was hilarious on the internet, so I hit him up. Gabriel came to us through Craigslist. He had just parachuted into NYC, basically, and got himself into a job, an apartment, and a band within his first week, which is a real feat.
6. Who (or what) influences Safe Houses?
A lot of ‘60s pop, early punk stuff, ‘80s indie rock. Some of the biggies for me are The Smiths, Elvis Costello, The Kinks, The Zombies, Buzzcocks, and those are all British, aren’t they? I’ve nabbed a lot from American music, too, of course – the girl group stuff, Nuggets material, Motown, Velvets, Big Star, the early CBGBs stuff, and then probably about 60% of the bands you’d consider canonical “college rock.” I get inspired by simply walking around, too. When I first moved to NYC, I lived next to an elevated train line, and the brakes squealing made me want to play guitar louder and heavier. Or I’ll hear music blasting from a window and think, “Hey, if I took that four seconds of music and extrapolated it out in my head, how would that melody go?” Also, we’re coming up on Latin freestyle season in my neighborhood, and I’m stoked. Hearing those songs blasting from cars always gets the melodic part of my mind working.
7. What is Safe Houses creative process?
I’m always jotting down lyric ideas, and singing melodies into voice memos on my phone, and then I’ll turn those ideas into full songs in batches of two or three. If I have a good song title, and I figure out how to sing it, then I practically have a chorus, and I can go to my notebook and my phone and see what I have in there that can become a verse and a bridge. I might not get the verse melody right on the first try, but I can always try again. Then I’ll make a demo at home and send it to my bandmates. By the time we get together in the practice space, everyone’s come up with a more interesting part to play than whatever I had put on the demo.
8. Safe Houses is located in New York City. Which bodega has the best mustard?
That is a very interesting question, because of all the elements that compose a good bodega sandwich, I feel like mustard is a sleeper ingredient. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s common for a bodega to take its mustard seriously. What you wanna do is, you wanna go to one of the Polish delis in my neighborhood. Grab a jar of imported mustard right off the shelf. While I don’t normally advocate buying condiments off the shelf at the bodega, you know the Polish mustard is moving units fast, and it hasn’t been sitting there interminably.
9. 2019 saw the release of your EP “Crashing The Party With..” Could you share what it was like to craft this EP?
Yeah, it all came together without much fuss. Most of those songs had been in the earliest setlists of the pre-pandemic lineup of the band, so we had played them live a ton, and we were able to record the EP in just shy of two full days. We worked with a guy named Jeff Berner, who’s one of the go-to audio engineers for bands in our lane in Brooklyn, at a super-pro studio called Studio G. One of us had come to the studio on the first day straight from a red-eye flight, one of us had accidentally stayed out until 5am the night before, but we nailed all the rhythm tracks in two or three takes. The studio had some great equipment we took advantage of during the overdubbing process. Our keyboard player Madi fell in love with a Farfisa. Some of the guitar overdubs used a secret amp with one knob.
10. Safe Houses is hosting a party. Who would be your ideal guests to crash your party?
Definitely a person who does marketing for a brewery. Have you ever been at a party where a brewery rep shows up unexpectedly with a keg or a stack of beer crates? It’s awesome.
11. What can a human do to no longer be a trainwreck?
Therapy helps. Understanding why you’re drawn to undesirable habits, and training yourself to make a different decision when you feel pulled toward a bad habit. Daily integration of new, better habits. Setting quantifiable goals and breaking them down into small, actionable steps. Journaling. Learning the difference between holding yourself accountable and self-flagellation. I am a flake and moderate trainwreck in recovery and all of these practices have made me functional enough to pitch my band to blogs.
12. Does Safe Houses actually own a Shelter Dog?
Believe it or not, no! Madi did, but she’s in Spain now. We have a few rescue cats among the four of us; that’s about it. My girlfriend and I foster cats for a neighborhood rescue org. Fwiw the DIY spot I used to run was called Pet Rescue, even though it wasn’t a real pet rescue.
13. A human gets the chance to see Safe Houses perform. How would you describe your live performance?
Upbeat. Sweaty. Our take is, you have to give people an experience that helps them blow off steam at the end of a shitty week. You gotta give ‘em a big beat and bop around onstage. I don’t talk much between songs, but when I do, I try to make it a laugh line.
14. What is next for Safe Houses?
Well, our new single “Someday Is Starting Now”/”I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” is out on May 9, as is the music video for “Someday.” We have a whole EP in the can – we had to delay releasing it because of the legal stuff – and that’s going to come out next. We’re working on lining up label support for it. Then we’re going to go back into the studio to record a full album. We were waiting so long to be able to release new music again that I wrote a whole album.
15. Where can readers listen to your music?
We’re on Bandcamp, SoundCloud, YouTube, Spotify, and all other major streaming platforms. We’re also playing live a lot around NYC and the tri-state area, and the best way to find out where we’re playing next is to follow us on Instagram.
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