The members of local rock band the Selfish Gene are experts at changing course. Case in point: When they were just starting their engines in 2005, they chose the name Long Story Short, only to receive a cease-and-desist letter from another group with the same moniker.
"They were already playing all the top bowling alleys in Baltimore, so we let them keep the name," jokes bassist and vocalist Eric Andraska.
Undeterred by this snafu, the musicians summoned their mutual love of evolutionary biology and adopted the title of a Richard Dawkins book. From there it was no turning back. Until, of course, they ran into another roadblock: a breakup in 2008. The band's original drummer and keyboard player left, and for several months there was no music. But, lo and behold, the Selfish Gene reappeared as a trio in early 2009, reformulating its sound and winning Isthmus' Band to Band Combat contest before the year was over.
"Once our keyboard player left, it put a lot more pressure on us to come up with material that was more upbeat," says guitarist and vocalist Matt Allen. "We moved away from prog rock and toward a more direct approach: short and sweet versus long and sprawling. More catchy, hummable types of melodies, that was the goal."
Yet even this was just the tip of the iceberg. Several months after the band brought drummer Rob Young on board, things went awry again. After they booked several big, out-of-town shows and made plans to record a full-length album, Young blew out two discs in his back and found himself unable to walk - or play. Allen and Andraska had to get creative.
"We went down to Chicago by ourselves, as a two-man acoustic band. Eric played the tambourine - not bass - and we played these songs that really didn't fit into the guitar-rock thing we'd been doing since we switched to the three-piece format," Allen says.
And even though most bands begin albums by laying down drum tracks, they decided to do theirs upside-down, recording acoustic guitar, bass and vocals first, then adding Young's drum tracks on top, once he was back on his feet.
This project's creative process was upside-down in several other ways as well, according to Andraska.
"We had these songs, then we did the lyrics, and then we found the images [for the cover]," he says. "After that, it was like, 'Oh, the title should be this,' and 'How about we make it a two-sided album?' and 'Look, these three songs [represent] day, and these other three are night.'"
These six tracks didn't turn into a full-length album but rather a concept EP called What It Sees, Where It Sleeps. As Andraska suggests, it explores the divide between day and night, the nuances of waking and dreaming, and the infinite possibilities of the B-side, those bonus tracks on the flip sides of records, which mystify most millennials and tantalize many vinyl collectors.
"I like the idea of having a part two or an 'other side' to an album," explains Allen. "On all of our previous albums, we've worked on a Side A and a Side B. And we've recently been compelled by the idea of doing two-song, seven-inch vinyl releases like the Beatles used to do. They had so many great songs that never made it onto a full-length. But rather than release three singles over the course of three months, we compiled the three 'singles' on the A-side [of the EP], with three B-sides on the 'back.'"
And though, technically speaking, the EP was unveiled in June, the Selfish Gene will host a bona fide release party Sept. 18 at the Crystal Corner. The band's grander goal, however, is to finish that full-length album they set out to record more than a year ago. Andraska envisions it as "electric but minimalist," while Allen describes it as a rock 'n' roll extension of What It Sees.
But the band probably won't dedicate the remainder of its Isthmus Band to Band Combat prize package - which included recording time at Paradyme Studios and mastering at the now-defunct Smart Studios - to the new album. Instead, they'll likely make some more B-sides: the perfect representation of their upside-down, inside-out, flipped-over journey toward abstract themes, concrete melodies and all sorts of new beginnings.