Interview: A Q&A with The Sighs
Holyoke, MA-based rock band The Sighs can trace their origins back to 1982 when its founding members Robert LaRoche (vocals, guitar) and Tommy Pluta (bass, vocals) met and bonded over their mutual of love of acts like The Beach Boys, Crosby, Stills and Nash and other that employed the use of multi-part harmonies. Interestingly enough, it helped that while the Holyoke-based band’s founding members were jamming together, they discovered that their own voices blended together beautifully.
Tom Borawaski (drums) and Matt Cullen (vocals, guitar) were recruited to flesh out the band’s sound and to complete the band’s initial lineup. Shortly after the band’s lineup was finalized, they quickly began makin a name for themselves as a must-see live act across the region. As Tommy Pluta explained in press notes, “One luxury of living in Western Mass is that we played all the colleges and clubs for years and years. By the time things started happening for us, we were primed for it — we sounded really tight and everything was just spot on.”
As luck would have it, the members of The Sighs crossed paths with John DeNicola, an Oscar Award-winning songwriter and producer, who co-wrote “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” and his production partner Tommy Allen at the China Club in 1990. And after meeting DeNicola and Allen, the Holyoke-based band signed with Charisma/Virgin Records, who released their full-length debut, What Goes On to critical acclaim. Adding to a rapidly growing profile, the band toured with nationally touring acts like Gin Blossoms, Dada and others.
The band eventually split up with members of the band pursuing individual creative projects and/or focusing on family life. Interestingly, the material on the band’s third full-length album, 2017’s Wait On Another Day can trace its origins to an unearthed batch of demos that the band’s Matt Cullen stumbled upon. Originally recorded in the early 1990s, and later placed on hard drives, the demos had been forgotten about for the better part of 20 years – until Cullen played them. He was so impressed by what he heard, that he shared the demos with his bandmates and their longtime producer John DeNicola.
Feeling that the band had unfinished business – and that they should continue the collective story they started 20+ years previously, the band decided to reconvene at DiNicola’s Upstate New York-based studio to revise a handful of songs. But as the band’s Tom Borawski explained at the time “. . . it all came together so well, and we were having such a great time, we ended up making a whole album. It really just took on a life of its own.”
“All the years of playing together left a permanent mark on us. It wasn’t too difficult to tap into our musical and personal bond again,” LaRoche said of the five-day recording session that produced Wait On Another Day. Borowski added “Everything had more of a spark to it than when we made What Goes On, where we put all the songs under a microscope and tried to get it all completely perfect.” As a result, the material possesses a urgency and vitality to it that many contemporary bands wish they could capture on record. Interestingly, while much of the album’s material focuses on many of the things that they wrote about in their youth – girls, getting kicked around, hopes and dreams and falling in love but tinged with the wistful and aching nostalgia of middle-aged men, who have been forced to accept the passage of time, their impending mortality – and the old adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same: no matter how old you are, heartache is heartache and life is ultimately about figuring out how to learn from it and move forward.
Building upon the attention they received from Wait On Another Day, the members reconvened to write and record its highly-anticipated follow-up, the five song Tearing My Heart Again, which OMAD Records released today. The EP’s material finds the band continuing where its predecessor left off but while revealing a band that has grown in the past three years. While they pull in some new ideas to the mix, they do so without straying too far afield from what has been successful – carefully crafted, hook-driven rock paired with earnest songwriting.
I recently exchanged emails with the members of The Sighs for this edition of the JOVM Q&A. World events have found a way to impact all of us – and as a result, they’ve managed to bleed into every aspect of our professional and person lives in ways that will reverberate for quite some time to come. With COVID-19 forcing cities and localities across the world to indefinitely shut down bars, restaurants, clubs, music venues and countless other non-essential businesses, the impact on musicians and the music industry will be far-reaching and devastating. Over the next few months, I’ll be discussing how COVID-19 has impacted the careers and lives of artists of all stripes – and the members of the Holyoke-based band openly and honestly discuss where they stand right now and what may be next. Of course, we chat about the recently released EP at length, the band’s tour with The Gin Blossoms and more. Check it out below.
Support these artists by buying their work. You can order The Sighs EP here:
WRH: Most of the country has been enacting social distancing guidelines and stay at home orders as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. How are y’all holding up in such a difficult and uncertain time? What are you doing to preoccupy yourself? Anything you’re binge watching?
Robert LaRoche: Been pretty much staying home. Except to go for a daily run and food shopping.
Tommy Borowski: Been binge watching bad 70’s movies…
WRH: Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, festivals have been postponed or canceled outright, artists of all stripes have postponed or rescheduled tour dates, album releases have been rescheduled. I’ve asked this question to a handful of artists already – and I suspect that for some period of time I’ll be asking a lot of bands this: How has COVID-19 impacted you and your career?
Matt Cullen: Well, we’re all at a standstill. We had a Sighs gig booked in mid-March in our home base of western Massachusetts. Robert flew in from Austin and I flew from Des Moines. After couple of spirited rehearsals, the gig was cancelled. I’m now home and have seen all of my gigs here cancelled for the foreseeable future. I don’t make my living entirely from music but playing roughly 100 gigs a year certainly helps the family kitty. Those lost wages will hurt and the loss of that enjoyment, performing, making music, that hurts equally.
WRH: Who’s the funniest guy in the band?
RLR: It depends on the given day I suppose! We all have our moments. [But] I’m going to go with Tommy Pluta on this one 💙
MC: If you asked Tommy Pluta……..😎
WRH: Who are your influences?
RLR: I was heavily influenced by The Everly Brothers. And tried to incorporate their two-part harmony style into The Sighs music. Also love early American Rock ‘n’ Roll pioneers like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. And, of course The Beatles and Beach Boys were a big influence.
MC: Too many to name. The typical ones. The British Invasion bands, particularly The Beatles. A lot of 70’s rock and pop rock: Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy, Cheap Trick, Raspberries, Queen, The Cars. I could go on…….
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
TP: Fountains of Wayne.
RLR: Jenifer Jackson, a local singer/songwriter here in Austin
MC: My current go-to is a live record by Bo Ramsey and the Backsliders. Bo is a spooky, great player, known for his work with Lucinda Williams and Greg Brown. He’s an Iowa guy and I’ve opened for him here and have gotten to know him a little. I’m crossing my fingers to do some playing with him. Also, and sadly, I’ve been revisiting Fountains of Wayne since the news of Adam’s death.
WRH: How would you describe your sound to those unfamiliar with The Sighs?
TP: Classic Power Pop / Rock sound. Two guitars, bass, drums, melodic with three part harmony. The Smithereens, Gin Blossoms
WRH: The band can trace its origins back to when its founding members – Robert LaRoche and Tommy Pluta – met back in 1982. Tom Borawski and Matt Cullen were the recruited and the band then spent next eight years gigging around Western Massachusetts. In 1990, the members of the band crossed paths with John DeNicola, who became your producer and you signed with Charisma/Virgin Records. So, the band went from playing the college circuit to touring with the Gin Blossoms, who were selling millions of records and being played on the radio every single day. How was that experience like?
TP: We always tried to make the most of every opportunity.
We had been on the road for months prior to touring with the Gin Blossoms so we were ready to take the next step. Getting the chance to perform our music to their fans night after night was a terrific experience. They were especially nice to us, and we found a lot of commonality with our music and influences. It would be great to do some dates with them again. . .
WRH: The band eventually split up after the release of their sophomore album with each of the individual band members focusing on other creative projects, on raising families and working day jobs. 20 years pass and as the story goes, Matt Cullen stumbles upon some demos that the band recorded in the early 90s. What was the experience of hearing the demos for the first time in so long like?
MC: It was really cool to find the old recordings. I had transferred a boxful of 1/4 tapes to a hard drive, without listening to them. That was in 2010. It was 6 years later that I opened the folder labeled Sighs. We had been cranking out demos from 90-93 (?), both for the Charisma album and also for what we hoped would be a follow up with them. None of us recalled recording a few of them. You’d finish a song and move on. I got goosebumps when I realized what I had stumbled upon. I did rough mixes and sent unnamed mp3s to the guys. They were really surprised, and we were all excited by how well the home recordings had held up.
WRH: How was it like to revisit material that you wrote some 20 years prior? How were the first writing sessions for Wait on Another Day? Did your songwriting process change between your sophomore album and 2017’s Wait on Another Day?
RLR: The WOAD songs were written before, during, and after the recording of our debut CD What Goes On, during the period between 1987 and 1993. We had a lot of songs to choose from at that time. And only a dozen were chosen for What Goes On. The tracks on WOAD were songs already included in our live performances. We were a pretty well-oiled machine by then. Revisiting and re-recording this material over 20 years after their inception was great fun! And genuinely satisfying.
WRH: The five song EP, Tearing My Heart Again was recently released. In some way the EP finds the band continuing where they left off, as though the lengthy hiatus had never happened. While the material is centered through some passionate performances as collective whole, the EP – to my ears – reveals quite a bit of growth. It seems to capture old, wizened pros, who have gotten back on the proverbial horse but with some new ideas. How does Tearing My Heart Again differ from your previously released work? Was that intentional? What inspired it?
TP: We drew inspiration from the fun we had recording WOAD in the Fall 2016. Recording new Sighs music (20+ years later) was something we discussed a couple times, and the possibility came around again in August of 2019. We had a couple songs and several ideas, we just had to find the time to all be in one place to record which ended up being 3 days starting New Years’ Day 2020. The process of writing was the same in some ways and very different in other ways. We always shared ideas to see which ones we though would fit, and then developed them, but sharing ideas is so much easier with technology. A lot of text and email.
WRH: What does the EP touch upon thematically?
RLR: The five songs on “Tearing My Heart Again” deal with personal relationships.
In the title track, the protagonist is involved in an unhealthy love affair. Where heartbreak is an ongoing concern, and dark attraction becomes a fatal flaw.
WRH: “Over the Line” is one of my favorite songs on the EP. It’s probably the most Smithereens-like on the five songs. Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s about?
RLR: “Over the Line” is about the near hopelessness and futility of caring for someone in active addiction. With the resignation that although you cannot judge the person you care for, and will continue to be there for them, the possibility of the active addict to cross over the line and become another fatality statistic, is forever present.
RLR You’re spot on with the Pink Floyd reference on the EP’s closing track “Rise.” Tommy Pluta initially sent me the guitar riff and chord changes. Which were already quite psychedelic sounding. We put a two-part harmony over the music in the vein of Waters and Gilmour. Our producer John DeNicola used an old school tape echo on the vocals. This gave the track the retro feel we were striving for.
WRH: What advice would you give to bands/artists trying to make a name for themselves thematically
MC: I don’t know that my track record qualifies me to give advice but I will say that you must absolutely love what you do. There are many obstacles and it’s a long road. In today’s music world, I’d say you need to have a strong presence online. Sales are a different animal than what I grew up with. Touring is always helpful in spreading the word but can be financially daunting. CD mailers to college or community radio in your area are helpful. Try to grow it steadily. Again, you better love it! :/)
WRH: What’s next for the band
MC: It’s hard to say what is next for us. I’m not sure anyone of us would have guessed that we would have released a full-length record and an EP in the last three years. We never say never and leave ourselves open to all possibilities. We have a strong personal relationship which leaves the musical door open at all times.