Individually, they've been playing in St. Louis bands for decades, but Estevan -- Andy Keppler, Mike Donaghey, and Justin Coleman -- is still a relatively young band. They've been playing the occasional show around St. Louis, working on a new record with veteran producer and engineer Jason Hutto, and learning a collection of Kinks songs for the upcoming KDHX tribute show.
I sat down with Keppler (vocals and guitar), Donaghey (drums) and Coleman (bass), and after being informed of their various pet troubles, got to talking with them about things that didn't sound like the preamble to a stand-up routine.
Mariam Shahsavarani: How would you describe Estevan to someone who's never heard the band?
Andy Keppler: We don't really sound like it, but we definitely have a little bit of a '90s indie sound. Bands like Dinosaur Jr., Afghan Whigs, things like that. I don't think we really sound like Dinosaur Jr, maybe because the vocals aren't that great.
Mike Donaghey: There's a little shittiness to us that maybe we share with Dinosaur Jr. It's a little shitty.
Justin Coleman: [We sound] a little bit closer to Guided By Voices, except we have functioning livers.
How did the band come together?
Donaghey: I played in a band with Andy, and we had an idea for a side project, and I played in a band with Justin 10 years ago. These guys were my two favorite musicians. We had a side project, and I was hoping they'd get along, and we had a couple practices, and before long it turned into our main thing.
Keppler: It completely eclipsed our other bands.
Donaghey: It was way more fun than the other bands. There's very little drama.
Coleman: It's like being in a relationship with more than one person. It's not sexual, well, sometimes. (Laughs) It's nice to be drama free.
Why music after all these years?
Donaghey: We were talking about this a few weeks ago. It's the one thing, personally, I still enjoy that I never lost my obsession with. I still get excited when my favorite bands come out with new albums. It's the same level, if not more, as I've gotten older. It's still a lot of fun; that's why we do it.
Keppler: It just gets more interesting. I'm always learning new things. There's always another direction to go in and challenge yourself.
Donaghey: You get better, and the better you get, the more you realize you suck.
Coleman: And then you've got to work at it. There's no leveling off and like, "Okay, I've done everything in music there is to do."
Donaghey: And these guys are really good, so there's no deadweight in the band. I haven't played a lot of this stuff before. It's all still new, even though we've been doing it a long time, it still feels new.
Keppler: It's more of a challenge than any band I've ever been in. That keeps it exciting.
You said this is all kind of new, what do you mean by that?
Donaghey: I guess we've always played in kind of indie rock bands, but not in ones that are as flexible as we are.
Keppler: And with as cohesive of a sound. We have a sound that's defined and not a sound that's like, "This is so and so's song and they sound like this, and this is so and so's song and they sound like this." It's just our songs.
Donaghey: We're all on the same page. Everything sounds right in place.
Can you tell me a bit about your writing and recording process? How do you come up with this cohesive sound?
Keppler: We don't have a standard thing. The only thing that seems to be standard is I write the lyrics. I've asked these guys to write lyrics, but these bastards won't write anything.
Coleman: My lyrics are either hilarious or boy-bandy. If I try to write serious lyrics it just comes out awful.
Keppler: There's some ideas, like I'll have something that's kind of a finished song, and then we'll play it and kind of tear it apart. Like, that part sucks, or this part's too long, or let's try something else, it sounds like everything you've done before. [Justin will] have an idea or [Mike will] have an idea. On the album we're working on now, there's one that is a bass line that Justin's had since he was like 15. He's like, "I've always tried to make it work in a band, and it never works." And we just batted around the idea and finally made a song out of it. It might be the best song on the album.
Donaghey: It's a really cool song, but I have a sneaking suspicion we're going to write another song out of that bass line sometime.
Keppler: There's another one where Mike wrote a guitar riff, and then some of the other ones we just made up on the spot.
Donaghey: Anything goes. Any idea is good. That's what we all want: to be able to bring our own stuff to it. I do sometimes bring in lyrics, but they're all from "Ride the Lightning" by Metallica. And they always catch onto them, like "Hey, this is 'Creeping Death' by Metallica. I don't like this." One of these days I'll sneak one past them.
You're currently working on a record. Do you have any ideas about when it'll be done?
Keppler: Sometime this year.
Donaghey: We worked on it this weekend and it sounds a lot better. We were kind of unhappy with it, and we fixed up a bunch of stuff and now we're pretty happy. Jason Hutto, who engineered our EP, is the best engineer in St. Louis. He made that EP sound amazing. It's the best work we've done, and he was a huge part of getting our best stuff out there. He's a huge part of the new album, too. He doesn't need any more praise, but he deserves it.
"Oregon," from your "Gloria" EP, is an interesting song. What is it about?
Keppler: It's a song about these reoccurring dreams that I kept having about my grandparents. They lived on Oregon [Avenue]. After my grandpa passed away, it was just a tough time in my life. I was a troubled young man, but I was having trouble sleeping and crazy vivid dreams all the time. I kept having dreams with different things happening, like flying over buildings, and it's at night, and I'm living in their house and their house is now mine. Their house is always a comforting, safe thing in my imagination.
The end of the song is a dream I had. I'm walking past his bedroom into the house, and I'm the only one, and my grandpa is like in the corner and I'm the only one who can see him there. He's a ghost and he has his hand out and he's trying to grab me to get me to come with him, and I'm like, "No, no, no." It wasn't a bad thing, it was just a dark time. Whatever people believe, it was like a comforting presence coming back to me.
We were writing the riff and writing the song, and I'd never written a song about all these dreams. Right when I was finishing up the lyrics I had another dream…. It's a metaphor and it's just about what I was going through. Part of it's told through the lyrics and part of it's told through the emotions.
Donaghey: That's a really critical song. It was one of the first we wrote. When that song started to come together, that's when we really got excited about the band, and how with the three of us were really going to write a lot of good music.
Keppler: I was still getting my confidence back about writing lyrics and singing. In my other band I was kind of marginalized, and I wasn't getting as much of a chance to write and stuff.
Donaghey: When that "Oregon" song started to come together and we started playing, I was really excited, because it just worked. It wasn't a lot of effort, we were just happy to be playing and it just kind of came out. The lyrics might have been effort, but I don't pay attention to that. People generally comment on that song; it's a favorite.
You're playing the KDHX Kinks Tribute [on March 30 at Off Broadway]. What made you want to be a part of that?
Keppler: I love the Kinks, and I think someone from KDHX posted something on Facebook, and I was like, "We'd love to play this!" thinking we wouldn't be able to, but they actually let us.
Donaghey: It's good to play another band's music. It's really good for us. It breaks us out from whatever we've been doing to learn someone else's music.
Coleman: It's definitely interesting to check out their song structure. It's crazy. You don't think so when you hear the songs, but playing it, it's not like anything that anybody else has done.
Keppler: It's stuff you've grown up with, and you think you know the songs, but you don't.
[The Kinks] are considered incredibly influential. Do you think they influenced you?
Coleman: Yeah. I was learning their riffs when I was a little kid before I even knew who they were. I had this hippie guitar teacher and he would force me to learn "Day Tripper" by the Beatles and all the big guitar hooks in "Lola" and all those other songs.
Donaghey: Every kid's still playing "You Really Got Me" and "Crazy Train" and "All Day and All of the Night." Kids still learn all the same guitar riffs that I learned when I was younger. My nephew, he's 14, and he's playing all the same stuff that I learned, and that's strange. Have there been no other guitarists since the '70s and '80s? It's just classic, I guess. It helps you learn how to play.
You mentioned these sort of "classic riffs" you had to learn. Even from way back when, what sorts of things have you looked to for inspiration?
Keppler: I always have loved music. My earliest memories are of me begging my parents for a guitar and bashing on a broomstick and pretending I was playing solos when I was three. I had a little fake guitar, and I tried to play stuff with it. I have an older sister, she's eight years older than me, and my mom was chaperoning for the CYC-whatever event, like "Boys and Girls," and I remember just always being obsessed with music. I remember the Foreigner song "Juke Box Hero" came on, and that was like an inspiring song.
Donaghey: "Foreigner IV" and "The Dark Side of The Moon" and AC/DC's "Back in Black." My brother used to wake me up and put speakers next to my bed when I was a kid. He was nine years older than me and would just blast me with AC/DC to wake me up. I think he hurt me, emotionally, and it's just kind of stuck there.
Keppler: My big brother bought a really big stereo. My mom would leave on Saturdays to go grocery shopping and I would wake up to Joy Division or the Smiths or old R.E.M. or stuff like that. I remember he got really upset because I just kept listening to "Unforgettable Fire" over and over and over again. He bought me the CD and was like "Don't touch my stereo ever again."
Coleman: My older brother played guitar in a bunch of punk rock bands in the early '90s, and I always wanted to be a band with him so I was like, "Well, I'd better play bass, or at least not the same instrument as him." So I started playing bass. Never was [in a band with him.] He moved away and became a Spanish teacher.
What's your favorite thing about the St. Louis scene?
Coleman: Right now there's a lot of good stuff going on.
Donaghey: It's been almost 20 years for me. And you see the rise and fall, and the last two or three years it's really been the best it has been in a really long time. Everybody realizes that if the all the bands are good for the evening and everybody enjoys the show, that's good for everybody. Bands used to be very competitive, and now it seems like everybody's much nicer.
It's just the last few years, playing with these guys, this is my favorite band, and the best music I've played, in the best scene that I've seen in St. Louis, so it's been really cool.
Keppler: Everything on Cherokee Street is pretty fantastic, especially for somebody that grew up here, and there was just nothing. A lot of things dwindled for a while. There's just a lot of great bands that we've played with. You've never even heard of them, and then you play a show, and they're something unique. There's always going to be people trying to ape after something, but there's a lot of creative people out there that are trying to do something different.
Coleman: I'm just constantly being amazed by other bands.
Donaghey: We're older, married dudes. We go out and play a show with some great bands. That's why we do it: to mostly hear the other bands and get a chance to play with those guys and hear their stuff. It keeps us going out. It keeps us playing.
Coleman: It makes essay writer us feel alive.
Keppler: It's not like, "Oh look at me, I'm playing something." If other people are into it, it's like a back and forth thing. It takes it much further than something you wrote with some chords in your bedroom becoming a melody. It's an awesome thing.
Donaghey: It's humbling and makes you a better musician to play these songs and realize, "Ooh, I should've practiced that a lot more. I need to change that part." It makes the music better, and we love writing new music and doing new stuff and having to call that our own.
St. Louis is a great city for cover bands, but I think people are enjoying original music more than they have in a long time. I love a good cover band, but it's all what you like.
Are you guys enjoying this upcoming chance to be a cover band?
Keppler: I don't think we're good enough to be a cover band full time. I don't think I would be able to effectively sing.
Donaghey: We're not a cover band because we don't want to be a cover band.
Coleman: I like doing it like this. Doing a show and then going back to doing what we do best, which is writing original music. But it's definitely a cool break to be like, "Let's figure out these couple of songs, and do them as good as we can."
Donaghey: Listen to them, freak out, and then try to play them. And there's this moment where you get it, and you're like, "Ah, that's awesome! We can play that now."
Estevan joins nine other St. Louis bands for "Ev'rybody's Gonna Be Happy: A Tribute to the Kinks and KDHX Benefit" at Off Broadway on Saturday, March 30.