Please introduce your band
Alex: I currently live in Rochester, Minnesota. But since Kelvin is based in Seattle, we kind of consider both cities our home base.
Kelvin: I’d say we make radio-friendly alternative rock, but we definitely draw from a lot of diverse influences and try to keep pushing the envelope.
Alex: And as far as songwriting goes, the two of us are the writers. But when we get together, we usually add another guitar player, a bass player, and a keyboard player to round it out. I would describe our style as: indie alternative with a little hard rock influence and a little funk influence.
Tell us about your lineup
K: I’m Kelvin Killmon. I’m the lead singer, co-songwriter, and rhythm guitarist for Winterstate. I’ve released a few songs as a solo artist and gigged around with different bands since I was a teenager. I went to Berklee College of Music, which is where I met Alex.
Most recently we’ve had Joseph Martin on lead guitar, Amanda Jay Fuller on keys and background vocals, and Scott Strauss on the bass. Occasionally Ryan Utterback has subbed in on drums. They’re all amazing players and all-around great people.
A: I’m Alex Ortberg, and I am one of the two main songwriters. I’ll play either drums or guitar live, depending on the musicians we have available to us.
I started playing in bands in middle school. My first group was The Maestros in 6th grade. Which morphed into Autobahn, and then finally Heart Beat Radio in high school. I think we improved on the band names as we went! In my undergrad, I was in a band called The Contra Social as well as The Righteous Wicked. Graduate school is when I met Kelvin, and we formed Winterstate. Currently, I also play for a couple of other bands called Under The Pavilion, Amateur, and perform for several other groups on a regular basis as a session player, the most notable of them being the local MN blues musician Annie Mack.
How did the band meet?
A: We met during our master’s program at Berklee College of Music. That would have been in 2015. Berklee had recently opened a campus in Valencia, Spain. While there, we started writing together and ultimately formed Winterstate. Afterwards, he moved to Seattle and I moved back to MN.
I think we really liked what we were creating, even if it wasn’t anything innovative or groundbreaking. We just both shared a love for alt, punk, hard rock, and things like that. So we had a natural connection and started writing that kind of music together. Even after we moved away from each other, we still loved what we were creating, so we decided to continue to write and eventually release our debut record “The Ride”.
K: Yep, and now we travel to play live shows together. When we aren’t able to gig, we’re writing and recording new material by collaborating online.
What's the story behind your band name?
A: “Winterstate” is a play on the word “interstate” and the frigid climates we both live in. An interstate connects our two cities, so we thought it was appropriate.
K: It was either “Winterstate” or “Beefcake the Band”. I still think we made the wrong decision.
Tell us about your influences!
K: Recently I was inspired by reading some books by psychologist Irvin Yalom. “Staring at the Sun” definitely found its way into our music in our song “Daylight”. Our new record also has some lyrics that are based on my recent experiences in Seattle, like the intense protests this past summer on Capitol Hill and coping with lockdown.
As for music, I like a mix of singer-songwriters and dark and dreamy hard rock. Bands like Incubus, Deftones, Chevelle, A Perfect Circle, Hotwire, and Depeche Mode have a special place in my heart - but so do the Killers, Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith.
A: My musical influences range from classic rock like Rush or Led Zeppelin (especially as a drummer), to the modern alt-rock like Foo Fighters, Anberlin, Switchfoot, The Maine, Mae…
When it comes to influences outside of music, I would have to say nature is a big one. Also, I love to play off of feelings. Like the feeling of “sitting at a bus stop alone at night”, or “sitting by a fire with a beer and a sweater on in the fall”. I love to try and emulate those kinds of images in my music.
Could you describe your approach to songwriting?
A: To be completely honest, I usually find a song that I love and I say “I wanna write a song like that”. So I try, and it usually comes out in the same vein, but also completely different. Which is good! I’ll start with a riff or a chord progression and build everything around that first, then I’ll just feel where it needs to go next, letting the song tell me what to do.
This approach of trying to copy the feel of a song I love also stems from the fact that I mix the records. So a lot of times I’ll just want to try my hand at mixing something like that and trying to get it sounding like the song I took influence from.
K: It’s been interesting doing so much co-writing with Alex. We’re both really easy going, but I think I tend to write moodier music while Alex has a catchy upbeat pop-rock aesthetic. I think that combination works really well for us.
If Alex brings me an idea he’s already started to flesh out, I’ll spend a lot of time developing a counterpoint melody until I feel confident that it contributes something unique and unexpected to the track. Sometimes I think we’re both really surprised at how a song turns out in the end.
Describe your band's first big break
A: Haha I honestly don’t know if it’s happened yet? I can’t tell you a moment where I said “oh, that was a huge moment for us!”
Maybe the first time a local radio station here in MN played one of our songs? That was a pretty big deal for me. But if I were to think about a moment that I would say “oh that was a huge moment for us!”… it would probably have to be either a) getting on rotation on my favourite radio station (89.3 The Current, part of MPR), or b) getting booked at First Avenue, here in Minneapolis. Long ways to go, but I’m confident this next record will get us closer to those goals.
K: As for me, I’m not sure I buy into the whole “big break” myth. You know the saying “it takes years of work to become a success overnight”? I believe we’re building something special so I’m enjoying the journey and looking forward to whatever comes.
Tell us about some of your most memorable gigs - both good and bad!
K: I’ve smashed a couple of guitars on stage, but it’s definitely better when it’s intentional. We were playing a small festival in Minnesota one day, and I went for a guitar flip. Next thing I know, my Les Paul went flying like an, uh, ostrich… I think it was airborne for only a second or two before it hit the stage and the headstock split in two. Bottom line, double-check your strap locks.
Best gigs are always when folks stay after the show to chat and hang out. I really love connecting with people.
A: Some of the first shows we played together in Valencia, Spain were really memorable. We didn’t have any material at that point really, just a bunch of songs Kelvin had written previously and some select covers. But they were the start of something great!
More recently, we played a street fest here in Rochester in the summer of 2019 (would have last year too but… you know… Covid…), and that was a blast. Our record release show was here too, and that was a LOT of fun. We got a live video out of it too, which was fun to edit and look back on later. We played at The Garage in Burnsville, MN, and that was a great show. I’ve always loved that venue. We played a cover of “Bullet The Blue Sky” by U2, and one of the other bands came up to us afterwards and said “dude that was a sick groove! Was that one of your songs?”. It shocked him to know it was U2.
What advice do you have to those who want to start a band?
A: You have to decide how much effort you want to put into it. A band is something that gives you as much as you put in. So if you practice once a month and get a bar gig every other month, you’re not gonna see a great return. If that’s what you want, then cool! But if you want more, you gotta put in more.
The best part about being in a band is getting to work with other people. The worst part about being in a band is having to work with other people. It’s incredible what several creative minds can come up with, but it’s also really hard to make that work sometimes. Find people that you mesh with, and that will push your limits as a musician, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and have your creativity and musicianship tested! The only way a band will work is if all members have a common understanding of how the band functions, and are willing to work together when necessary or let someone lead when it’s called for. And when you’re writing together, LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR.
K: Haha, I hope you’re not talking about my ego, Alex. Yeah, I’ll second what you said about staying humble and receptive to criticism. For me, the best part of being in Winterstate is connecting with my bandmates and our fans.
If you want to start a band, I think that it’s important to ask yourself what your group stands for – who are you trying to reach, and what are you trying to say through your music? A lot of young musicians seem to be focused on expressing themselves, but aren’t thinking as much about connecting with their audience. Make sure your music is accessible enough to communicate your message.
What are some of the challenges you face being in a band?
A: Oh, by FAR it’s the fact that we are half a country away from each other. It obviously makes it hard to play shows, have rehearsals, and write music together. I have to imagine we would be further along in our career as a band if we lived at least in the same state.
K: Yeah, having to travel to play shows is difficult. I have to say, there’s a silver lining though. We’re really used to working remotely on new material, so the pandemic hasn’t slowed us down.
What does it take to be successful as a band?
K: I think it really helps to have a strong identity. Being skilled and talented will take you a long way, but being authentic and unique is what makes a group memorable. On top of that, if you want to play music professionally you’ve got to treat it like a job, not just a passion. Build a reputation as a reliable group that always shows up on time, brings the energy, and works the crowd.
A: Some of my previous statements will apply here, but I’ll add one more, stolen from Dave Grohl:
“You HAVE to be REALLY good. You just have to be bad-ass at what you do. If you’re putting on sloppy shows, that will only get you so far. You won’t be playing big stages anytime soon. People have to see you and go “holy SHIT these guys are GOOD! Why haven’t I heard of them before? I’m gonna look them up on Spotify”. And being that good requires a lot of work and time. But you just gotta be good.”
As an example, I’ve seen some bad shows by some of my favourite bands. And I don’t really wanna go see them again, even if I do still love their music. On the other hand, I’ve seen some AMAZING shows by bands that I didn’t really know that well and I would ABSOLUTELY go see them again if I had the chance, even if I still don’t know their music that well. That’s the power of being really really good at what you’re doing.
How important is music theory?
A: Ohhh boy. As a classically trained musician with a master’s degree, I could talk at length about theory… but I’ll keep it at this:
Theory is important to a point. Do you need to know all of your modes or how to use tritone substitutions or how to identify what kind of cadence you’re using? Absolutely not. At least not for pop music. We’ll leave jazz and classical out of this, for simplicity’s sake. But, should you know what key you’re in? Yes. Should you know what chords in that key are either Major, Minor, or Diminished? For sure. Should you know how to find the different scales in that key? Yes, I think so. Should you know your rhythms? That’s a MUST. (Guitar players, I’m looking at you…) Anything outside of those things are really just extra things that will make your writing that much better. So, learn the basics. Once you do, you’ll find advanced theory techniques are actually quite simple to grasp.
K: Playing music without knowing theory is like painting in a dark room. You can still make something great, but with theory, it’s easier because you can “turn on the lights” and see the colours you have to work with.
Haha okay, I’m gonna nerd out a little. One of my favourite things ever is polytonality (using two musical keys or modes at once). A great example of this is the song “Make a Move” by Incubus. Brandon Boyd is singing in E Major while the other guys in the band are playing in E minor.
Now, when I heard that song as a kid I had no idea what they were doing, but I immediately thought it sounded so exotic and mysterious and cool. If I hadn’t learned music theory I’d probably still have figured out how they pulled it off, but it would have taken me ages to work it out.
Tell us about the releases you've put out to date
A: Our debut album “The Ride” came out in 2019. We released a single after that called “Something Better”, and we released the U2 cover later on too. All in 2019, I believe.
K: Yep, and in 2020 we released two more singles with their own music videos, “Touch” and “Empires”.
A: I’ll let Kelvin tell you what they were about since he writes the lyrics.
K: Well, “Touch” was about feeling isolated during the early months of the pandemic, and feeling nostalgic about going out to bars and shows. Seattle got hit pretty hard and things closed up almost overnight.
“Empires” was inspired by seeing all the young BLM protestors that took to the streets in the wake of the George Floyd killing. The movement here was overwhelmingly peaceful, just people taking their future into their own hands. They were optimistic that they could confront systemic injustice and build something better. It felt hopeful and powerful.
Both of those songs got some great publicity in music journals and blogs – and they’ll be included on our next record, “Technicolor”.
What has been your band's biggest achievement?
K: Well Alex just bought a house and is getting married! As far as music goes, we got to work with legendary engineer Chris Lord-Alge, who actually mixed one of our songs on this upcoming record called “On Top of the World”! He’s worked with so many of our favourite bands, and we love his mixes.
How do you view the current state of the music industry?
K: Well, it’s in shambles in a lot of ways. That’s exciting because it feels like big labels don’t have a monopoly anymore, but it’s harder than ever to gain traction when it feels like everyone and their mom has a new EP out.
Streaming has really devalued recorded music, so merch and ticket sales are a main source of revenue for most of us. On top of that, a lot of small venues are being forced to close permanently due to Covid. It’s more important than ever to build a community of strong relationships and support. So, be sure to go to local shows and support the scene!
What are you working on right now?
A: We are working on our 2nd studio album called “Technicolor”! I believe our sound has matured a lot since “The Ride” and I’m really excited to hear what people think! Plus my production skills have improved dramatically since 2019, so it’ll sound better in that regard too. There are some bangers, some funky ones, some more acoustic-based songs, and a few wildcards too. Going to be a great record, I think!
What is your focus for the year ahead?
A: Finish the record, and put a LOT of focus into releasing it correctly. That means advertising and marketing, getting it on radio stations… the whole nine yards. The Ride was great, but we didn’t really take its release SUPER seriously. This one will be different. Expect a lot of hype for this next record! Starting NOW!
Thank you so much for dropping by the WeJam studio! Where can we follow your progress?