The Innocent Bystanders

Please introduce your band

The Innocent Bystanders are from San Diego, CA. We currently have six members, and we play with lots of passion and big sound. Electric and acoustic. Six and 12 strings. Pianos and organs. And a tenor saxophone.

Tell us about your lineup

Steve Berenson plays the drums on the same Ludwig kit that Ringo played on back in the day. Debbie Darroch, our female vocalist, also sang on a record with Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park. Jessica LaFave plays tenor sax with the feeling that can only come from a background in ska as well as marching band. Ben Nieberg, a multi-instrumentalist, sings and usually plays acoustic guitar. Donny Samporna plays bass, choosing law and engineering over the music conservatory. Steve Semeraro plays electric guitars, including a 12-string, with a passion far outstripping his virtuosity.

How did the band meet?

The Innocent Bystanders began with a bunch of guys who had played in bands in high school and college but had gotten away from music to build other careers and raise families. They worked together at a school and thought they'd play covers at school events.

But then, they got better than anyone anticipated. New -- mostly younger -- members joined and a unique roots rock sound developed organically. Soon, they were playing original material. A chance encounter with one of San Diego's best record men led them to start recording. And the rest is not quite history, but at least what's happening now.

What's the story behind your band name?

Since the early band members worked together at a law school, one of their first songs was Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money." It contains the iconic lyric "I'm an Innocent Bystander." There is also a legal doctrine that refers to innocent bystanders. So, the band started calling itself The Innocent Bystanders, and the name always seemed right.

Tell us about your influences!

The band never consciously sought to emulate a particular artist or style. The sound, though, is surely influenced by The Waterboys’ early big music period as well as the early E Street Band, Dylan's Highway 61/Blond on Blond period, more contemporarily, The Revivalists, and less obviously but in spirit, 90s ska. Not musically, but the ethic of the lyric feeling -- you might call it the soul -- of the Bystanders owes something to Joni Mitchell as well.

Could you describe your approach to songwriting?

The band has multiple songwriters and is blessed with songwriting friends, the JD Souther's of the band so to speak. The early songs were mostly written long ago in bursts of inspiration that can't be explained. Their newer songs are different. More introspective in a way. Every writer has a style and every song writes itself differently. What is relative to The Innocent Bystanders is that they will collectively build an arrangement from a demo, gradually over time. In most cases, they work on a song as a group, exploring how they will play it live. And that becomes the foundation for the recorded version.

Describe your band's first big break

We're still waiting for that. But our first little break came when we decided to start recording our original music. Berenson and Semeraro began exploring local studios. Through sheer coincidence, a friend who worked for a local newspaper had worked on a feature called Hidden San Diego. One of the subjects was a recording studio located in an old medical building that had no signage or any other identifying characteristics. It was actually a jingle writing company that built the studio for when they need to record. The engineer for the studio, Ben Moore, was a talented record man from way back who was permitted by the jingle house to handle side projects. Well, after a brief introduction, we all hit it off. Moore's experience and patient guidance enabled the band to produce professional recordings from the get-go.

Tell us about some of your most memorable gigs - both good and bad!

Ahh, the gigs. Some of the most fun were backyard parties for birthdays where people were there to have a good time and we could help facilitate that.

We have been lucky to have had the opportunity to play multiple gigs at some of the best clubs in San Diego. Mid-week nights with no one in the place. Playing till 2 AM on a Saturday night. The release party for our first EP at The Merrow, probably the best stage of any San Diego club, was a great night with an enthusiastic crowd. Our final performance with the band's original keyboard player and female singer at Navajo Live, another great stage, is memorable because we played our hearts out, knowing it was the last time we'd do it together.

One time, we played a wine and food festival inside a tent at a beautiful location overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Mid-set, it began to pour and people at the festival crowded into the tent with us. Pictures make it look like we were the Beatles with the crowd pushing toward the stage.

Perhaps our worst gig, though in some ways the best, was at a graduation party. Early in the set, the PA and one guitar amp completely gave up the ghost. After much fear and gnashing of the teeth, we decided to play with the singer singing through one guitar amp and the bass through another. We played acoustic guitars and had two saxophones because we were transitioning from one player to another. The people loved it! Dancing and laughing along with us.

What advice do you have to those who want to start a band?

Enjoy the ride. Camaraderie is what it's all about. Make practices a joy. Show up prepared, but then joke around, have fun. Never make a band member feel bad. Push yourself, but don't overreach. Start with music that you can play well and build from there. Once you are comfortable playing together, look for open mic nights and chances to play in public. Introduce yourself to people involved in the music scene. Some will be jerks. Don't let that get you down. Keep looking and you will find the good ones. But don't look down on any opportunity. That Wednesday night 11 PM gig - take it. Saturday afternoon at 2 PM -- take it. Do your best to get friends and family to your shows. If you work hard to make it a success for the club owner or booker, they will work to help you. If you expect someone to give you something because setting up to play is hard, particularly when you have day jobs, you might as well not bother. It's a joy to play music in public. Never pay someone to let you play. But at first, don't feel bad if they don't pay you. That will come as you improve and develop a following.

What are some of the challenges you face being in a band?

Different expectations. Try to build your band around people with similar goals. If you do, it will be very difficult to manage everyone's personalities and expectations. If you don't, it will be impossible. Remember that everyone goes through periods of frustration. Everyone makes mistakes. Both on their instruments and how they treat other people in the band. Be charitable to your fellow band members and ask them to do the same. Remember, you are in it to have fun. Success is rare and fleeting. Don't let the pursuit of some measure of success prevent your band from even getting off the ground.

What does it take to be successful as a band?

Musical talent, of course. But also the patience to enjoy practisingsavouredveloping a sound. Anybody can throw together a bunch of crack musicians to play weddings or whatever. And if that's your goal, that's fine. But being a real band with soul requires more than talent.

Network. Get to know the people who can help you. Be nice to them. Help them when you can. It's all part of the process. You can be great, but if no one knows you, or worse, no one likes you, you aren't going to get very far.

How important is music theory?

Not important at all. If you don't have an ear for what's good, theory is not going to help you build a band. Maybe a cover band. But probably not even then. If you have an ear, you don't need theory. When a band plays together, it's all about the feel. The bass and the kick. The way the guitar plays off the keys. You know it when you hear it, feel it. You can't build it in theory. Listen to the old studio recordings with Brian Wilson or Phil Spector directing the Wrecking Crew. You won't hear any theory being tossed around.

Tell us about the releases you've put out to date

Our first EP, Attractive Nuisance, came out in November 2017. It consisted of four old songs written in old bands but never released way back in the day. It was satisfying to complete it, and it sounded good. But it never had the energy we hoped for. At first, if we had 30 people listen a month, we were lucky.

The next summer, we decided to release a cover of Valerie, a song that had long been a staple of our live show. We'd played it in the studio as a warm-up when we recorded the EP. We couldn't use anything from that recording except the drums. So, we re-recorded all the individual instruments and vocals. We invited a jazz trumpeter to play on the recording.

We rebased the single in July 2018 and it changed everything. Not in the sense of being a big hit or anything. But it got picked up by Discover Weekly on Spotify, and people started hearing it. Not a lot of people in the successful band sense. But a lot more than we had. People started commenting on the video on Youtube. Then it had 10,000 streams. Then 20,000. We felt like we were on our way. Not to the big time. But we were a band that some people were listening to.

In late-2018, we started recording what would be our first full-length album. We started with three old songs, two from a friend who'd written them in the 90s and one written in the 1960s by an original band member who had tragically died from cancer. But soon, we were writing new stuff. Given the way Spotify works -- and the way that we work -- we decided to record the songs in batches and release singles first.

In the fall of 2019, we released the first single, No Place to Go. We followed that up with Rainy Sunday Morning and then Call of the Wild. A trio about love, loss, and not redemption but understanding. When we played in the clubs, it seemed every band had a political song for the Trump era. So, Ben wrote one that we released right before election day called Sunshine Party.

We were much happier with these songs than we were with the EP and they've proven to be more popular. Although Valerie remains our most streamed song, all four singles have done much better out of the gate than our EP did.

Finishing the album took longer than anyone expected. But it is finally done and will come out in 2021 after a couple more singles. We're very happy with both the arc of the songs and the production. We learned a lot from our initial recording experience.

What has been your band's biggest achievement?

Completing an album of original material where every song is strong and contributes to a real album experience. Albums don't mean a lot in popular music today. But the best bands. The ones we respect, anyway, are still doing it. And we are proud to join that club in whatever small way we can. We learned in recording this album that the studio is not the stage. What works in one place doesn't necessarily work in another. We were able to work with guest performers in the studio who really expanded our horizons. Not through virtuosity as much as a shared feeling. We were able to tap into what made them special to make our music better. It is satisfying to sit back and listen to what you've done.

How do you view the current state of the music industry?

A band like ours is not part of the music industry. I don't think that I have any view of it. Just about every artist I know now, aside from legacy guys like Springsteen and Dylan, seem to be indies. If it's good enough for Ricky Lee Jones, it's good enough for us. I feel bad for young artists who dream of making the music business a career. It's damn hard. But it always has been. It's just hard in a different way now.


What are you working on right now?

Working on finishing the technical aspects of the album. The last song to be completed is being mastered. We need to decide on a song order and put together all of the art. Each step is a joy to be savored. We will make vinyl albums that will be a testament to years of dedication and hard work. Hopefully, others will hear them and share the feeling that we have. But who knows.

And we're writing new songs. Sadly, we can't play together these days.

What is your focus for the year ahead?

Trying to continue to play music together with people that we love. It's a challenge. There are always distractions. You constantly face the thought that "wouldn't my life be so much easier if I didn't have to do everything that this band demands of me." Yes, it would. But if you do the band right, it will be a lot less joyful.

Thank you so much for dropping by the WeJam studio! Where can we follow your progress?