In the time I’ve lived in Richmond, I honestly can say I have not heard of a band that tours more than COMRADES. For many aspiring DIY musicians and artists, they’re essentially living the dream; being self-supportive and touring the country in a 20-year-old station wagon with over 300,000 miles on it. The band lives in accordance with their primal wanderlust and desire to play aggressive and emotive music.

The three-piece creates uplifting, mostly instrumental, post-hardcore that explores soundscapes similarly to another Virginia post-rock group, SHY, LOW. We spoke with founding members Joe and Laura McElroy about having played, met, and supported other bands across the country and building a grassroots fan base along the way. COMRADES will release their first full-length record Safekeeper on May 6th through Blood and Ink Records.

Having played as a band for the last six years, and being involved with other bands way before, what can you say about how things have changed over the years?

Joe: Richmond in 2008 was definitely an interesting situation because the metalcore scene was still really big. A lot of the shows we played back then were like “mosh-tastic” or whatever. There were tons of shows happening out in the suburbs. There was definitely a lively scene. Lots of high school kids came out to shows. It definitely died down after that. Then from 2008 onwards, the scene went through a dry spell. Shows were pretty sparse, and it was hard to get people to come out. The last couple years it’s gotten a bit better, but it’s totally in different types of venues then it was back then.

Laura: We used to play in Chester at the bistro down there. There’d always be kids there. I remember once we played a show at what now is Strange Matter, and there were only two people there. It was really interesting because the suburbs had shows. Then all the suburban venues decided to shut down, and then you had to go into the city to play or see shows but there’s that weird stigma of no one wanting to drive to the other end of Richmond, so they don’t do shows out there.

In Richmond, it does seem like a lot of people who do live in the suburbs come into the city for shows, but it seems recently more shows are happening in the suburbs.

Joe: That used to be the thriving part of the scene, back in 2008. That’s where most of the stuff was happening. The big shows did happen downtown, but there wasn’t the DIY community there like it is now. It’s definitely going in a good direction; people are starting to care more about music and local shows. It’s great.

Having been involved with other bands for several years before getting together as COMRADES, what made you want to play this style of music together?

Laura: When Joe and I started playing together, we were already in this kind of BELOVED-esque band called ENDEAVOR THE SEAS. Joe had just left his band, and started jamming with this guy down the hall when he was in college. They couldn’t find a bassist at the time, so I wanted them to ask me. It just worked out ‘cause we all wanted to play the same type of music, and we all meshed really well.

Joe: All throughout high school and my first year [of college], I was in a standard five-piece hardcore band. When I finally wasn’t doing that anymore, I was just looking to do something that was a little bit different. At the time, [post-rock] seemed like something very unique. That’s when we started ENDEAVOR THE SEAS; then when we lost our drummer and Ben joined, we kind of morphed into COMRADES.

Laura: We all listened to FALL OF TROY, AS CITIES BURN, LIFE IN YOUR WAY, and BELOVED. We also all drew influences from things that aren’t necessarily in the genre we play, because Ben listens to reggae music and hip-hop.

Joe: And back then, everyone was playing “chug-tastic” music and breakdowns all the time. We just tried to make something intense but wasn’t breakdowns.

Both of you are married. How did that happen? Did it happen before you were in this band together?

Joe: It was kind of one of those “too good to be true” kind of things that happened. I wanted Laura to date me back when we were thinking about starting the band. It just happened that we needed a bass player, and she played bass. I was kind of weird about the whole situation because I thought, “what if our relationship doesn’t go well?” and stuff, but it just worked out perfectly. We’re doing the same things with our lives, we both have this passion, and are in a band together. It all winded up perfect.

Laura: Joe left it up to our old drummer, Dave. They did try out a bunch of other guys.

Joe: They weren’t very good.

Laura: Joe asked Dave, “If you’re ok with this, I’ll let you ask her.” Dave then asked me to try out. I was real excited about it too, because all through high school I tried to start bands, and I did play music apart from just playing in a band. But most people wouldn’t take me seriously, and it wasn’t because I couldn’t play. They’d want to do a certain kind of band and be like, “Girls don’t play this kind of music.” Now it’s really cool, because now, more and more, I’m seeing really good female musicians in our scene. People are looking at them and seeing them as a legitimate musician, and that’s awesome. At the time, I was nervous about asking to play because I didn’t want to be some kind of novelty to the band. They asked me though, and it was cool playing with Joe but it was nice that he left it up to Dave, who wouldn’t be a part of our relationship as much. Anytime you’re in a band with someone, it’s like being in a relationship. It’s unlike anything else. It was really neat that it worked out the way it is.

Something I’ve appreciated seeing, living in Richmond and visiting other cities, is lots of girls playing in bands and not being touted as such a novelty, as you said.

Laura: A lot of times we’ll go on tour and maybe play with four or five bands that have girls in them, but when we first started out, I don’t remember seeing any bands with them. If ever there was, she’d typically be playing keys and she’d be all dolled up. I know it sounds horrible. Recently we went on tour with this band HOUSEHOLD, and one of their guitarists, Abigail, she’s amazing. You have to demand your respect as a female musician. It’s been a long time coming, especially in our DIY scene—at least from what I’ve seen. It’s just hard to find each other sometimes. There’s just so many bands and the different concentrations, but it’s been really cool helping prove girls can do just as much as guys can.

So you’ve been signed to Blood & Ink for a while. How did you first get involved with them?

Joe: They actually saw us pretty early on. We used to play a lot of shows out in Lynchburg, and we played with one of the bands on their label, so they saw us out there. It was a packed show. They talked to us then; that was right before we lost our first drummer, so then we had to step back awhile. We kept in touch over the years and ended up working out a deal with them two and a half years ago. We had already put out three different releases on our own, so they just put out a collection from that to put something out. Our first full-length with the label is coming out May 6th. It’s been a long time in the making. They’ve done a lot of really cool publicity stuff in places like Europe, streaming the album. It’s cool to see what they’ve done for the album. It’s also fun being the non-hardcore band on a hardcore label. It’s a cool dynamic.

Laura: It’s been nice. We’re not typically used to all of this stuff going on, like taking promos for magazines. It’s like, “What? We’re doing what?” Basically, before for the collection we did, when we wrote those songs, we’d record it in two days, mix it and master it really fast, and then leave for tour the next day and burn CDs while on the road. It’s been really cool to have a record we spent so much time and effort on. We went into more detail. It’s cool; there’s a lot more layers to the album. We’re really excited about it.

You guys claim your music is inspired by your spiritual faith. How does that take part on writing your music?

Joe: With this album, the whole concept, we’ve finally understood where our place is as a mostly instrumental band that doesn’t have many words but has an uplifting message. This whole album is something that’s encouraging to people. It’s supposed to be the kind of music you can make big life decisions to. Honestly, the music influences we’re still listening to are most of the stuff we were listening to five years ago. It’s a mix of what we were then to all the new bands that have come out and experiences we’ve had on the road, seeing how music has changed some. We just tried to make what sounded honest and something that could be encouraging.

Laura: I knew when I started playing music, I wanted to play something full of hope. Sometimes we have people come up to us after we play, and they’ll say they felt joy coming from the music. They say they find it tangible, and that’s really awesome because that’s how we feel when we play. We’ve been really fortunate to have a quiet influence such as that. We didn’t intentionally become instrumental, it was just a matter of, “We’re leaving for tour tomorrow, and we don’t have any lyrics.” Because of that, we had to figure out what our music was saying much more. This album was scary because we thought, “Maybe we should say something.” I balked, I didn’t want to do it, but slowly but surely, I thought, “No, there are things that need to be said.” There’s at least three songs on the album that have a few words in them. It was a struggle. It definitely made us grow, trying to put lyrics in after four years of not really saying anything.

Writing Safekeeper, what influenced the writing process on it? What is the concept?

Laura: It’s about finding home. When you’re a touring musician; home is not a place. It’s in the relationships you build and the peace you find. As Christians, we don’t believe this is our home; it’s only a shadow of what home is. Like, on the Internet, we have things like Pinterest and idea sites, trying to push what your ideal home should be like, but for me, my ideal home is the people who are my best friends even though they’re 2,000 miles away. That’s where I feel the most at home, and it’s hard to balance that and trying to explain to your parents, telling them, “Oh, I live with a bunch of people right now so we can afford to go on tour.” That’s what was on my mind the most when I was writing these lyrics. What is home? Where is home? It was really cool going through all of that.

Joe: The phrases that came to my mind for this album are “finding home” and “finding acceptance”. Those are things that people are constantly searching for.

Even though you guys consider home something beyond your physical geography, your drummer literally calls another state home, Massachusetts. How did he join the band, and how does that work being across states?

Joe: Laura and I were both really good friends with Ben’s older sister, Abbie. Ben came to visit her in college one time. He needed a ride to the Richmond airport to fly back to Massachusetts, and I was going back to Richmond from Lynchburg to see my family, so I took Ben to the airport. He had seen us the day before. He knew we needed a new drummer, so on the ride back, we hit it off. By the time we got to Richmond, we thought we should play some music together and see what happens. In the middle of the night, we pieced together a drum set. We didn’t even sleep that night; I just took him to the airport that morning. A month later, he came down and moved to Richmond for a while. He then left the band for a bit and moved to Massachusetts, but now he’s back again.

Laura: We’ve just accepted the fact that we’re going to have to buy plane tickets.

Joe: It’s just so good with Ben in the band that we’ll deal with it long distance. For our last tour, we started and ended in New England. That’s how we did it last time. We drove up there to start, but usually we’ll buy him a plane ticket and it’s like a $95 flight Boston to Richmond.

Laura: It’s much cheaper than driving and buying gas.

You guys tour in a ’93 240 Volvo Wagon, Joe works on cars to make money when not touring. Laura, you sell and produce clothing and apparel while off and on tour. What can you say about livingly simply and having DIY values?

Laura: I basically take clothes my friends are going to give away and turn them into other things. It started out on tour — I wouldn’t have any money to pay my car insurance — so I started knitting hats. I sold so many of those hats. One time we played a festival in Georgia and I sold 10 or 15 hats in one day, and it was like 98 degrees and these kids were so stoked about these hats, not wearing anything else but the hats.

Joe: We’ve been doing the “starving musician” thing ever since we’ve been adults. Because we’ve been doing it for a while, we’ve evolved ways to live our lives on less money. The number one expense bands have is the vehicle they tour in—paying gas, maintaining repairs, and buying it in the first place. So how could we minimize those costs efficiently without having to sell our souls or spend all our time at home working and not touring? We figured out things like touring in a car and downsizing our gear to make it work. Learning how to work on cars too. It’s something I’ve learned and done to make a little extra money and income between tours.

Thanks for talking to us. Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?

Laura: We’re really excited about what’s happening this summer. We’re playing a lot of festivals. Ever since we’ve started, we’ve been making all of our own merch; it’s all been handmade. People appreciate that, but it’s nice to have a label. We took so long to sign with them because of our DIY ethics. With any band, the lower your overhead, the more feasible it’s going to be to continue touring. We tour in a car because gas is so expensive. We’ve tried to make it so we can tour as much as possible. That’s how you, I guess, “make it,” whatever “it” is.

Joe: It feels like a lot of years of hard work is finally coming to fruition. We finally have an album we’re really proud of, and we’re on some cool festivals. It’s cool to see that we’re going in a good direction.

Laura: We’re excited for how diverse the festivals are going to be. Some of them are going to be Christian festivals, but for those kids, I think it’s most interesting because the music market that attempts to reach them is kind of closed off. It’ll be cool to play those kinds of places and for those kinds of kids to see there’s something different out there. It’s cool because people’s parents seem to like us.

Joe: Dad’s love COMRADES. We are a dad’s band.

Laura: We’re also going to be playing smaller festivals for people we’ve known for years. The label is also definitely helping us get to other places we couldn’t get to otherwise.

For more updates on COMRADES, be sure to “like” their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, listen to their music on Bandcamp, and check out their DIY merch store.

Chris Suarez

Chris is a staff writer at BH Media and a government reporter at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor's degree in print journalism. He has covered a number of shows and bands coming from Richmond, Va. Having gone to all sorts of shows and playing in several bands while going to high school in Northern Virginia and living in Richmond for the last two years doing the same, Chris has been involved with the DIY music scene in Virginia for almost seven years.

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