Not a whole lot about Grand Rapids, MI band Stepdad was premeditated. The two core members didn’t grow up together, and they weren’t toiling in obscurity for years playing songs they believed in but no one else seemed to care about. Rather, the buzz around Stepdad and their ultra-catchy synth pop tunes started with a chance meeting at a bar and a cursory recording offer.
“I was doing freelance production stuff, and I saw him performing as a solo artist in Mount Pleasant,” says Ryan McCarthy, referring to the other half of Stepdad’s core, a musician who goes by the name ultramark. “He had, like, a pink kitten sweater on; he looked so ridiculous, but he was playing these really catchy pop songs.”
So, McCarthy emailed ultramark and invited him to come out to his bedroom studio in Saginaw, MI to record some tracks for free.
“He was commuting from Chicago to my studio in Saginaw, and, eventually, he just asked if I wanted to come to Chicago,” McCarthy says. “So, I packed up my stuff and moved out there. Then pretty quickly… we just started writing songs together, and it’s kinda been that ever since.”
After the move, the duo recorded and released the Ordinaire EP, a debut featuring eight retro-pop gems. The quality of the record was not up to chance, of course, as McCarthy and ultramark had spent years crafting their songwriting on small stages and in their home studio. What the duo didn’t anticipate was how successful Ordinaire would be.
“We didn’t have a plan when we put it out. It wasn’t like, ‘OK, we’re gonna put it out, and then do all the normal stuff a band does like tour and try to get a record deal,'” says McCarthy. “We sent it out to our friends around the country, and it kind of spread in a really weird way.”
That weirdness included a chance encounter with the now hugely popular web comic Axe Cop. After seeing the webpage soon after it went live, McCarthy and ultramark wrote a song for it, just for fun, and sent it to the creator. It then filtered down to fans of the comic, who soon became fans of Stepdad.
Suddenly, with little promotion other than the pop muscle of their songs, Ordinaire and Stepdad were getting noticed, with reviews and downloads available on numerous music blogs nationwide. And the reviews were good.
The final, perhaps most important happenstance for Stepdad is the band’s actual sound. Drawing comparisons to current retro-synth pop bands like Passion Pit and MGMT, Stepdad seems to be riding a wave of appreciation for ’80s-influenced pop music… only thing is, that was unintentional, too.
“People think, ‘[Stepdad’s music] is totally ’80s throwback,’ which is cool, but it’s not at all what we were going for,” McCarthy says. “We were just like, ‘Well, we got some synthesizers, and we like writing catchy pop songs,’ and that’s just what happened to come out.”
McCarthy says that although many of Stepdad’s favorite bands are basically ‘80s bands, most of them aren’t the ones his band is compared to. But he admits that as songwriters, both he and ultramark feel it’s important to study the melodies and structures of their favorite bands; that process helped them create their own powerful hooks.
“Mark and I both are just self-taught songwriters,” McCarthy says. “And I think now we are kind of getting to do it and show people what we’ve been learning for the past seven years in our bedrooms, not having any social lives throughout high school.”
Link to original online publication via Flagpole Magazine: