San Francisco’s Family Crest eyes High Sierra Music Fest

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Liam McCormick of The Family Crest at High Sierra’s Vaudeville Tent.
Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Liam McCormick does things differently. He is the primary songwriter and onstage vocalist/guitarist for The Family Crest, which will make its High Sierra Music Festival debut this summer. He’s bogged down by overwhelming foresight while also being able to roll with the punches of recording around the country on a mobile rig, pooling input from hundreds of musicians.

Almost a decade ago, McCormick and bassist John Seeterlin were jaded by the perils of working as musicians. The twosome had the urge to release something they were proud of.

“We wanted something to look back on and say, ‘Oh, this is what we did with our youth’,” McCormick said in a phone interview. “I’ve always loved collaborating with people. My idea was if I was going to end this, I wanted to do it with everybody.”

And he meant everybody. They reached out to friends and put out feelers on social media and Craigslist. They ended up enlisting more than 100 members of their “extended family.”

“We have an open-door policy for musicians,” McCormick said. “If you want to record or play with us, we will do our best to find a place for you.”

You can catch The Family Crest at 3:15 p.m. Thursday, July 5, on the Vaudeville Stage and at 12 p.m. Saturday, July 7, on the Big Meadow Stage. McCormick will be joining guitar-hero Lebo, Steve Poltz and Aaron Redner in a Troubadour Session at midnight. Friday, July 6, in the Mineral Building.

Musicians at sterile studios become panicked or rushed because time is money and they have a fixed number of takes.

“Every time they mess up, it’s going to screw with their psyche,” he said. “Every time the second hand ticks, they’re losing something.”

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

The Family Crest approach is to keep musicians in their own living rooms, and instead of aiming to finish 10 songs, they want to complete what they can while having a good time. This cultivates relationships and better performances from relaxed musicians.

They travel with a few microphones, two preamps, a compressor and a very basic mixing unit. Every time a new type of performer enters through the figurative revolving door of their mobile studio — with a new approach or an instrument they’re unfamiliar with — they learn something.

McCormick said it’s rare to find someone who wants to put in the work and time it takes to be in a band. The goal is to make it easier for others to spread their talents.

Seventy five percent of McCormick’s lyrics are written on the spot to keep his current emotion in the song. Family Crest released its third full-length record, “The War: Act 1,” in April and the second act is almost finished.

“I love full records,” McCormick said. “We live in a singles-based society and I despise it. I think it’s important to make the entire record speak.”

The large concept project has a narrative they aren’t openly revealing in hopes that listeners will add their own interpretation.

“If you listen to it without a guide, you get to contextualize how you’d like,” McCormick said. “One of the most amazing things about music is I can write a song about heartbreak, and someone else can think the same song is about happiness.”

Their 2014 release “Beneath the Brine” was intended to be an EP for The War saga, but ended up taking on a life of its own with more than 200 contributors. He used the time to hone his song-writing and composition skills.

“It was a blessing in disguise for me,” McCormick said. “I’ve learned to compose for orchestra through this band. That extra seven years helped the release sound much more cohesive.”

The title track started their NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert with a bang. They filled the room with a plethora of carving strings, a chirping flute and McCormick’s fervent voice. He said he was so sick the day before he almost had to cancel, but adrenaline must’ve kicked in, because he nailed the performance.

“Even if you’re sick, if you get the vibe with the audience, you can get through it,” McCormick said.

They are taking a break from touring the newest release to soak in the sun and bond with a new audience at the four-day High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California, July 5-8, an event also famous for fusing artists.

“I’m so excited for High Sierra,” McCormick said. “I have friends who are barometers for if things are going to be dope, and hearing our buddies in Con Brio (also from San Francisco) had such a great time lifted the festival up in my mind. I have no idea what we are going to get into, but it’s going to be fun.”

Despite Family Crest’s alliance of countless musicians, jamming is new to McCormick. He’s used to sheet music and rigid organization.

“I really don’t get to play with improvisation as much as I’d like,” McCormick said. “I’m bringing charts so we have them, but I’m super excited for the collaborative side of the festival.”

– Tony Contini

Related story: Tony Contini’s bands to look for at High Sierra.

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About Tony Contini

Photographer and journalist Tony Contini graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in art photography. He loves working with bands and telling stories. Photography portfolio: https://www.TonyContini.com

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