Off the Grid: A Conversation with Sirsy

December 3rd, 2015, 2:00 pm by Greg

Interview and story by Gabe Cohn

“Both of us smile a lot on stage — we play music because we love playing music,” says Sirsy’s Melanie Krahmer, smiling.

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Onstage, the lead vocalist and drummer stands at her kit while playing, but right now she’s sitting beside her husband and guitar player Rich Libutti in front of the mixing deck at their home studio in Clifton Park.

The walls are painted electric blue, and on the door to a small recording room hangs a “Star Wars” poster. “There’s definitely ‘Star Wars’ in the live show,” Krahmer responds when I ask about it. “Rich will throw ‘Star Wars’ riffs into random places.”

Indeed, Libutti’s well-loved Rickenbacker, which he plays through an array of effects pedals, has a ‘Star Wars’ sticker proudly displayed on its worn-out front. It’s the guitar John Lennon would have played had he been raised on ’80s sci-fi films and DIY rock.

The duo, who by their own count play around 250 shows a year, are doing the final mixing for their newest EP, Sketches and Ghosts. “Ghosts because they’ve been haunting us since the last record,” says Krahmer, who writes all of the band’s lyrics.

They’ve just played me an unfinished mix of the EP’s first track “Thieves,” a hard-driving, punky song with a surprisingly catchy synth hook. “We don’t want it to be perfect. We don’t auto-tune it; we don’t do a thousand takes of everything. We want there to be a human element,” says Krahmer.

Libutti explains “the grid” to me, a mathematically exact metronome click track used by a lot of musicians to record music that keeps a consistent time. “There’s an industry standard to dehumanize,” he says, “But sometimes we like to get out of control. It’s hard to make something out of control when you have to stay aligned to a grid.”

The band learned to turn off the grid when working with producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (Radiohead, Pixies), who produced their sixth album Coming Into Frame in 2013 and will be producing their next LP as well.

“Paul and Sean offered to turn the click track off, and we were like — you can do that?” Libutti laughs. “The two of us are borderline perfectionists, so we had to learn that.”

Live, Libutti plays bass notes out of a keyboard with his feet, while Krahmer has a special drum pad that serves the same function. All of the notes in the machines, Libutti tells me, were programmed and recorded by him. Krahmer elaborates: “We can speed up and slow down if we want, we can extend solos… Even though we use electronics in the live show, we want to make it as organic as possible.”

The band’s sound — a blues rock, punky concoction with an unexpected dash of pop memorability — reflects this quest for the organic. The songs themselves bring to mind Joan Jett, though their production and DIY aesthetic play into their garage rock contemporaries, particularly other duos like The Kills or Royal Blood.

Sirsy’s catchy, poppy hooks separate them from that crowd, however, and widen their appeal. “When we played First Night Saratoga last year, there were like six-year-old kids dancing their brains out with everybody else,” says Libutti.

Krahmer adds: “We have hooks in the songs where we want people to sing along in a poppy sort of way — when we say pop we mean like Beatles pop, not Britney Spears pop — but we definitely also have a bluesy, soulful influence.”

Libutti shoots her a joking look: “Don’t pick on Britney.”

Their sharp banter, a staple of their live show, is fully present in our conversation. “A lot of men like to hit on Melanie,” says Libutti. “And a lot of women… like to hit on Melanie.” Krahmer laughs.

Until recently, the couple kept their relationship a secret. It’s their first time talking openly in an interview about their marriage, which happened in July. “We’re brutally honest with each other,” she says when I ask how their relationship affects their work. “It would be hard to do that with anyone else.”

“It’s like home comes with us,” Libutti adds. “It makes life on the road more bearable.”

“We don’t have one sound throughout our songs,” Krahmer admits. “That makes us harder to market. But that’s just how we are, and we like that. I think that’s why we have such a wide age range of fans, because different songs speak to different people.”

Before I leave, Krahmer and Libutti show me various gifts that their fans have given them, including a framed collage of their album covers, a pair of puppet versions of themselves, and even a Fender Telecaster that Libutti uses in the studio. “We love the grassroots, intimate connection we have with our fans,” Krahmer says. “They send us emails, and we answer them back; we don’t have ‘people.’”

Perhaps it is this connection that has garnered the duo a strong cult following. Or maybe it’s their sound. Regardless, Krahmer and Libutti seem hugely thankful for it. Their hard work has paid off — no grid needed.

Sirsy is one of the featured performers at the 20th annual First Night Saratoga celebration, where they’ll be playing at the Saratoga City Center at 8 & 11pm on Thursday, December 31. First Night buttons are available for $15, which includes admission to all 30 venues throughout Saratoga Springs.

Gabe Cohn is a senior English major at Skidmore College, Editor-In-Chief of The Skidmore Theater Living Newsletter and a publicity intern at JetPack Promotions.