Since 2013, Kendall Street Company had played over 100 shows a year on average–that is, until 2020. But at the height of the pandemic, the hard-working five-piece Charlottesville indie rock band found another way to make their vast jam experience work for them. Retreating as a pod to Virginia landmark White Star Sound, they embarked on a recording project completely from scratch, which was a big step back from their last album, the intentionally-plotted song collection The Stories We Write For Ourselves.
When they came out of the studio six days later, they had two albums worth of material and a loose sci-fi concept: The Year The Earth Stood Still. Part one, Ninurta, is out now, a mostly-instrumental record named for an ancient Mesopotamian deity–it plumbs the depths of thoughtfulness that can exist even in an improvised set. Part two, Inertia, will be more song-focused, and it’s due out September 24 (the first single “Say Hey” is available to stream and download now).
The project captures the lightness of the band at their most fun and festival-ready, but it arrives in a summer ruled by climate disasters and billionaire rocket boys, and Kendall Street Company aren’t immune to the unease of the present era even as they visualize an interstellar future. There are sober, contemplative pianos among the spaced-out sitars, and in the grand, 14-minute finale “There is no such thing as free will,” the band’s unhinged vocal ad libs veer between stress and sheer silliness as they pan from ear to ear.
I first met guitarist Ben Laderberg and drummer Ryan Wood at the University of Virginia, circling around many of the same local shows, music classes, and open mics. After the release of Ninurta, we caught up via Zoom to talk about the storms and studio toys that shaped The Year The Earth Stood Still.
You guys just put out this record, Ninurta. What has it been like to see that come out into the world?
Wood: Well, it’s always a pleasure to release music out into the world. It’s always a wild journey. This is–Ben, what are we up to? Five records and a couple EPs?
Laderberg: Yeah, something like that. Kinda crazy.
Wood: You know, the album release day is so funny being in the band because it’s stuff that we’ve heard a hundred thousand times getting up to the day of releasing it out into the world. It’s just like another Friday for me, but it’s very cool that when it gets out there, you start getting texts from friends, or people you wouldn’t necessarily expect to check out the record, and it’s just like, “Oh, hey, this is really cool!” It’s wild to see other people discover it like maybe you did back during the recording process.
It’s so different, of course, from the record you put out before it. What has the response been like?
Wood: I think we pride ourselves with not trying to chase down just one sound. It’s always been a pleasure for us to be able to release more songwriter records, and then jammier, jazzier records, and then kind of silly, more fun records. We alternate between these worlds, but I think a lot of people that have been listening to us for a long time appreciate that it doesn’t sound like the same album every time, and it’s fun to showcase the different strengths of the band. All five of us bring a lot to the table, from more traditional songwriting backgrounds to some more exploratory jam backgrounds, and it’s fun to intertwine those things.
Laderberg: One of the big inspirations for where we’ve gone as a band is definitely King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, when they did–I think it was 2018, Ryan, when they released five records in one year?
Wood: I think it was 2017.
Laderberg: Completely different genres, kinda threw their fans for a loop, and everybody was just so excited for the next one. So hopefully, when people listen to us, they’re like, “What are they gonna do next?” That’s something I’ve really enjoyed about this band in particular.
So this two-album set, you recorded last summer. When did you make the decision to go into the studio, and what do you remember about that time?
Wood: This was, like, peak kind of boredom, depression in quarantine.
Laderberg: I think it was the end of July last year, right?
Wood: End of July. You know, the end of March when things hit, we were like, “Okay, we’re gonna be off the road for, like, a month.” And then it was like, “Okay, maybe a month and a half.” And then “Maybe two months.” So around July was that peak period of, like, “Well…is this just life now? What are we doing?” We did strictly Zoom meetings as a band for two months, probably, and didn’t see each other.
Laderberg: That period was rough. [laughs]
Wood: It’s all the the best parts about being a band–just the business meetings over Zoom. [laughs] But yeah, it was around this time in July that we decided, “Okay, the five of us are obviously just gonna be spending time with ourselves and not too much more,” so we kind of unmasked, got together, started practicing a lot more, doing these exploratory jam practices where we created a start point and just saw how long we could keep it interesting. We were able to get a great deal to go to White Star Sound out in Louisa, Virginia, kinda halfway between here and Richmond, where we’ve recorded a couple times before.
We had this opportunity to go to the studio for six days, and you know, we’ve never been able to use a studio as the inspiration space. We’ve always come into the studio with pretty much everything done and written. We had some stuff on the back burner already, but it was like, “You know what? This seems like the right opportunity to go into the studio without any preconceived notions as to what this project’s going to be.” We came out with, I think it was 17 songs after six days of just–we’d throw an idea down and chase it real fast, and then throw another idea down and chase it, or like, “Hey, what was that riff you played in practice like a couple weeks ago?” And like, play it on the phone, hear it, “Ok, let’s try to one-take this and see if it turns out.”
Laderberg: That was the inspiration for “On Call.” In the beginning of the song, you actually hear the recording from one of our practice sessions before it launches into the actual song that we attempted to do there.
Wood: Yeah, this was just Louis sitting in the vocal booth holding his phone up to the microphone so we could all hear the general idea, and then we just went off on top of it. But a lot of the stuff on Ninurta, this instrumental record, was first-take jams that happened in the studio. One would finish, and it was like, “Wow, that just put itself together as we played,” so that’s kind of fun. Part two of this record, The Year the Earth Stood Still: Inertia, that one has more songs with lyrics, and maybe a little bit more, like, we’d do an idea in the studio and then come out to the control room and sketch out the direction it should go in. But as we finished with these 17 songs, we were like, “Oh, this is cool, they’re kind of aligning themselves into two categories, but yet it’s still one entity.”
Laderberg: The loose idea we played with, the concept for that, is that Ninurta is the journey into space, whereas Inertia is once you’ve arrived in space, and what would a band sound like if they were to perform in space? It’s like the Earthly album and the space album.
Wood: I consider Ninurta as the soundtrack as I’m piloting a spacecraft through deep space. You toss the cassette in the little deck, hit play, and you’re just piloting through space.
Let’s talk about “The Space Race,” which you put out as a single. It’s very emblematic of this arc of the album. How did that track come together?
Laderberg: Did you ever take Technosonics with Matthew Burtner?
I never did–I knew so many people who took it.
Laderberg: I took that class first semester first year, and I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but if I learned one thing that has stayed with me, it is how to go to freesound.org, explore their giant archive of public material, drag it into a DAW, play around with it, normalize the audio, and just play around until you find what sounds cool. That is pretty much exactly what I did with the John FK speech. ‘Cause we had already recorded the song, and I was like, “Aw, this needs a voice from the 50s, like with the mid-Atlantic accent.” At first I was thinking Eisenhower, but there’s not many recordings from that period. This happened to fit perfectly, and then I played it for the band thinking, “Alright, what are you guys gonna think?” And everybody loved it.
Wood: Yeah, surprisingly, the entirety of the song existed on its own as an instrumental, and the speech just happened to fit just perfectly over top of it. It was meant to be.
Laderberg: It was a happy accident. I think actually I did just drop it in, and I don’t think I moved it once it was there, weirdly enough.
Wood: The first time we heard it, it was like, “Wow, this is very cool, it seems very fitting,” and then the more we listened to it, the more poignant the speech was. I hadn’t heard the speech, actually, before Ben found this, but the “We choose to go to the moon” speech by John F. Kennedy–it’s just very interesting how the good bulk of the latter half, he just talks about if you condense all of humanity down into–how long, Ben? Into a half century?
50 years, yeah.
Laderberg: 50 years. [laughs] We all have it memorized at this point, pretty much.
Wood: Yeah yeah yeah, but it’s cool as he walks through, you know, the steam engine–
Wood: You know, one year ago, or like, Christianity was only ten years ago–
Laderberg: I thought it was last week.
Wood: Oh, I’m sorry. [laughs]
What’s so interesting is that it’s such a tense instrumental–I have feelings about it, but what do you feel when you hear that track all together?
Laderberg: For me, it’s mostly a warning. Like, “You’ve gotta take care of this world and explore the science if we wanna be able to last as a society.”
Wood: That’s definitely a good point. I mean, this idea of space and whatnot has definitely been on the forefront of all of our minds. But it is true–it’s this idea of, “What’s next? What happens in one more year of that 50 years?” It’s scary to think what’s going on here now, but just this idea of looking towards the future, and it’s maybe not completely certain. There is a little bit of an anxiety, but there’s also a little bit of an excitement, and it’s kind of building that tension.
Laderberg: What’s the quote from the speech? “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.” [laughs] It’s just so true. Going back to King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, they put out a record–not the year I was talking about. I guess this would have been 2019. Infest the Rats’ Nest, which is more of a thrash metal record, and one of the major themes they presented is, there is no planet B. You gotta take care of what you got goin’ on at home. That was definitely an inspiration for me.
Wood: Yeah, it’s a great record, by the way.
Laderberg: If you’re in the right mood, it rocks.
So you’re working on all this at White Star Sound, which is such an iconic place–at least locally. What was it like getting set up there?
Wood: We recorded our second album, Space for Days, out there, so we had used the space a little bit. We’ve had friends that we’ve gone out there and helped out with stuff for, so it’s cool that it was a very familiar space. We liked a lot that it’s, like, 25 minutes from home. It’s out in this beautiful Virginia countryside, and all of us are originally from Virginia, so it’s cool to do these projects where the space kind of embodies what feels like home for us. But yeah, it’s a great spot, you know? It’s out there far enough that you can get settled in and live in the space that you’re creating the music, and it’s a really wonderful thing. For this session in particular, going in, we didn’t know anything about what the six days were gonna be like, so we just brought every instrument and musical toy that we had–
Laderberg: Including the sitar. [laughs]
Wood: Yeah, including the sitar. [laughs] But spent the entirety of the first half-day just deciding where to put things and how to get mics on everything so that mics could be live for any situation, and so when inspiration struck, it could be like, “I wanna go sit at this thing and play it now,” and not like, “Oh, I’ve got this idea for toy piano on this, or glockenspiel on this–“
“Well, hold on, let me run the cables,” you know.
Wood: Exactly, so it was great having the foresight to kind of create a musical play space for this time that we were in the studio. I think that space has a lot to offer, and it itself has some of the coolest toys and whatnot that you can get your hands on, from grand pianos to mellotrons.
Laderberg: The OP-1 and the–what’s that thing called that you were playing a lot? The omnichord?
Wood: Oh, the omnichord, yeah. It was fun.
Laderberg: Lots of toys, lots of toys.
There’s a story in the press release about the second night you were working there. There was this thunderstorm that took out power to the studio. What do you remember about that?
Laderberg: It gave a theme to the project, I would say. I think we were already working on “Ninurta,” and we were like, “Dang, this sounds kinda demonic. It sounds like it’s tryin’ to summon an ancient god,” and then later of course, there are thunderstorms, and we lose the power, and it’s like, “Well, he’s comin’ out.”
Wood: It was during the recording of it at one point. We had finished most of the track, but we were still in our respective little booths and rooms and stuff as this unreal thunderstorm just–you know, the trees are going nuts, it’s pitch black outside ’cause the clouds are so crazy, and the rain’s coming down. It knocked all the power out. It ended up frying the computer at the studio–
Laderberg: Oh my god, I forgot about that.
Wood: There was a good 12 hours that we thought the first three days of work were just out the window–or two days. I don’t remember. It was on the first half of the recording project, but there was definitely a 12-hour period where we were like, “Okay, we have to be done for the day.” I went home and slept here in Charlottesville and then went back the next morning, but there was 12 hours of, like, “We might have lost everything.” [laughs] It was okay, everything was saved and things got back on track, but we knew at that point that Ninurta had to play a serious role in the theming and meaning of the project.
Laderberg: The reason we chose the god Ninurta I think was originally because the song is in 7/4, and Ninurta traditionally is a seven-headed god, depicted in, like, Mesopotamian scripture. I think that’s how we originally came up with the idea, and it just happened to link together later.
Wood: Oh, yeah, and then it turns out he’s the god of thunderstorms as well. We were like, “Wow, at this point, it writes itself.” [laughs]
It didn’t occur to me, but you’re really starting from the first markers on that 50 year calendar with this record, right? Going back to the ancient Mesopotamians and carrying forward to space travel.
Laderberg: Yeah, the whole story is once every seven millennia, Ninurta emerges from the ancient sky castles to save those few humans worth salvaging in a Noah’s-Ark-type fashion. The only path there is space.
Wood: Which you should have totally understood from this instrumental record. [laughs]
[laughs] It is mostly instrumental, but we have to talk about the last track, “There is no such thing as free will.” You mentioned the sitar. Everybody contributes vocals towards the end. It’s a very Frank Zappa kind of a turn. How did that song come together?
Wood: Well, you know, the whole session was generally going in and doing these, “Let’s start with an idea and chase it down,” although I think the majority of the songs that we had done had stuck to a slightly more concise five to six to seven minutes kind of thing. This one definitely came from one of the last things that we did on one of the nights, where Louis started off on the djembe, I’m on the drums, and Brian picks up the sitar, so it was very much like, “Let’s just trade instruments and just chase the feelings and the vibes around for a while.” What’s up, Ben?
Laderberg: I thought that it was the first thing we did–like, at all. [laughs] Maybe I’m wrong, though.
Wood: No, no no no no.
Laderberg: Are you sure? I thought we kind of went and we were like, “Alright, let’s just start from nothing.”
Wood: I swear, I remember this being pretty late at night, or on the later end. I don’t know.
Laderberg: You could be right.
Wood: It’s wild how six days blend together, and it was a year ago now, remembering the timelines of this, so somewhere between what the two of us said.
It was one of those six days for sure.
Wood: [laughs] Yeah, but what happened–so we recorded this thing, it sounded wild and cool, had this idea to have a section at the end descending into madness and whatnot, and that was all just the first take and the only take of vocal things that we did. We all just went into our respective rooms with microphones and played the track out, and kind of vented the feeling of how I think many of us felt in July, of peak pandemic mode.
Laderberg: Yeah, I was channeling John Proctor from The Crucible.
Ok, I hear that now.
Wood: But yeah, just getting out the fears and anxieties and setting an interestingly uncertain mood to the end of the record. You know, it ends on a note that seems slightly positive. The last words are “Good morning.” [laughs] And leading into–
Laderberg: You’ve arrived at the new planet.
Wood: Yeah. You’ve arrived ready for part two to be the space album.
Tell me about, as you’re sorting songs into piles, how you conceived of part two and what that means as an arc of its own.
Laderberg: It happened so naturally it’s almost hard to think about the process for that. There was just the stuff that sounded ambient and instrumental, and then there was a whole different side of things with the–mostly the vocals, and it just kind of mellowed into its own space.
Wood: I think that’s completely right. I mean, we have a big whiteboard that we bring around with us. You just write the names on the board, and then we started being like, “Well, that one, that one, and that one fit together, and those two fit with those, and then that one fits with that. Oh yeah, and here’s all the rest. Let’s order them a little bit.” And it’s like, “Yeah, that seems like it runs together,” and then you start to see themes and create storylines and arcs out of the sounds, the words, the vibes, all of that. It’s amazing how sometimes when you’re in it on individual songs, all you can think of is the individual songs, but a day later, when they’re just names written on a whiteboard, you can sit back and look at the big picture and see how it just makes sense to put things in certain categories.
Laderberg: One way we actually ended up tying these two together was, we had recorded two versions of “Pink Flying Saucer.” The first one was a little rougher, but it was just such an awesome take, so we decided, “Why not do both?” The second one is called “Return of the Pink Flying Saucer,” and it kind of ties the whole project together, I think. I have my own analysis that doesn’t necessarily have to be the way it is, but for me, it’s like you wake up at the end and you realize this whole apocalyptic scenario was kind of in your head, and you have a flashback of the pink flying saucer, and you’re like, “Whoa, that was real.”
I was wondering about that, “Return of the Pink Flying Saucer.” That’s a cool way of calling back.
Wood: It was fun to get to stick that nugget on the other one. There was a time that that was considered still in the vein of the Ninurta project, and we were like, “Well, you know, we want to keep both of these pink flying saucers, but it would be weird to put them close together on one record,” and they spoke to us in different ways. I love records that call back to earlier moments on different things.
Laderberg: Yeah, Zappa does that kind of thing a lot where he cross-references different themes from other records. I’m always fascinated when bands can tie many–there’s a word for it. Origination or something. They can tie all their projects together so that they’re continuing what they had going on before.
This interview will come out around the same time as the single “Say Hey.” What’s the story behind that track?
Wood: That’s one our bass player wrote, and Brian has a particular knack for just pulling words out of the air in the moment and running with it. Like, Louis’ songwriting is generally a lot more long-time thought out; he puts it together and then generally, you know, creates the structure, but Brian’s very good at just having words just come to the forefront of his head. Then he’ll be like, “I’m gonna go take a cigarette break,” walk outside, jot lyrics down on his phone, and then he walks back in, and it’s like, “Alright, I’m ready to go. Let’s try this.” [laughs] But “Say Hey” is definitely the embodiment of this feeling of boredom, apathy, mild depression, but still mild optimism throughout this last year that we all had. It’s–
Laderberg: Would you say Inertia?
Wood: Yeahhh! [laughs] But you know, it starts off with, “There should be words right here, if I still had a brain to write with,” and I think it’s how everybody, collectively, was feeling at this point. Especially in an artistic zone where we were very uncertain as to the future of what we were doing.
Laderberg: Also, even just within that space. We decided to do six or seven days in a row, and by the end, we were starting to kinda feel fried. Since then, ’cause we’ve recorded a couple other things since, we kinda decided, “Alright, three days on, break, three more days is the way to go.” You need that day of refresher in between. Otherwise, your mind just turns to mush and you start arguing over pointless minutiae. It’s ridiculous.
This is such a studio-driven project. Have you had the chance to revisit any of these and play them live?
Wood: Yeah, actually, we had our official album release show outside at Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery, kind of between here and Richmond. It’s fun, and actually, some of the stuff on Ninurta, we’ve spent the past couple weeks re-learning how to play it in a live setting, like, in our practice room. There might be some songs that Jake played saxophone and piano on, so it’s a matter of figuring out how to rearrange these things so they are a great representation of what the album offers, but also how we can translate that. ‘Cause I think we tend to be a little higher energy live in general, and some of these are mellow, ambient things. Some of these songs, we’ve been playing for a couple months now, so they’re getting a little road tested and really kind of in the set, but yeah, always fun to introduce new songs.
Laderberg: “Space Race,” for example, Jake actually has the sample uploaded on his Nord keyboard. He knows, like, I think 15 seconds or so is when he starts that, and then he has to keep his foot on the sustain pedal the whole time. He still plays the saxophone, and we’ve kinda got it down to a science for that one. But we ended up playing the whole record at the release show, including “free will,” which we threw into the end of one of our more silly songs, “Aged White Cheddar.” We kinda mix it up. [laughs]
What was it like doing that live? Did you do all the vocal improvisations and everything?
Laderberg: We kinda made our own improvisations. I personally chose to go with the, “I’m not crazy, you’re crazy” theme, ’cause I think that’s one of the best little ad libs from that. Brian was saying something about…I don’t even remember. Like, sugar, or sprinkles, something like that.
More generally, what has it been like getting back to playing shows?
Wood: My favorite thing in the world is to play drums live. For me, it’s my favorite thing ever, so there was definitely a little hole in my soul for the last year, but you know, I feel very lucky. We had some very amazing opportunities all through this past year, starting around September or so, to be able to play once to twice a month in very distanced shows. But it’s only been in the past two months that things have really started to come back with momentum, and it just feels great.
We’ve always been kind of a road warrior band, playing every weekend, maybe Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and there’s a beauty in playing a lot of shows in a row because by the end of a little run, things are clicking without even having to think about it, within the band. Like, maybe we would have learned from how we tried something a night before, and we try it again the next day–maybe call back to the idea we did the other day, but take it in a slightly different direction. It’s just a beautiful thing to watch how we can evolve our show live. It’s cool how it all works out.
Laderberg: Couldn’t have said it better myself, yeah! For me, it’s just the most cathartic feeling in the world. I mean, a lot of things make me feel good, but playing music is probably number one on that list.
If you could visit any planet, star, or interstellar object, what would you choose?
Wood: I think it’d be great to open up a nightclub out in the outer rings of Saturn. That’s the destination, is you’re hanging out in the asteroid belt surrounding Saturn and looking in on the planet, and you can see the other planets around you too. That’ll be a pretty sweet, rockin’ club out in the solar system.
Laderberg: I’m gonna go with the mysterious pink planet that we reference in the record.
Wood: To be found and named.
Yet to be discovered. If they do find a mysterious pink planet, you guys should get to name it.
Wood: I’m in.
Laderberg: There’s an episode of Futurama where they have a What-If Machine, and it’s like, “What if I was just a little more impulsive?” So maybe I’ll be a little more impulsive on this mysterious pink planet.