Don’t Tell Sophie

SOTA products head to SXSW ... in a Kia

By Matt Driscoll on March 5, 2009

I saw them standing in front of Puget Sound Pizza as I turned the corner, emerging from a tilted and quiet Tacoma alley into the bustle that is PSP’s late breakfast rush.

I was running 10 minutes behind schedule, of course, but they didn’t seem bothered. I lit a cigarette because I’m socially awkward and I always light a cigarette when I’m nervous. Brandt Dettling did the same. He and his band, Don’t Tell Sophie, had chosen Tacoma’s quintessential karaoke and pizza joint as the perfect place to meet on an early Sunday afternoon and talk about the band’s upcoming trip to Austin, Texas, and SXSW.

Among other things.

My nerves were silly.  I joined the four-man group standing in a circle on the sidewalk and quickly became the old dude. And not just by a little. Brandt Dettling and drummer Orlando McCray are of drinking age, barely, as they’d soon be asked to prove to the PSP waitress with IDs after ordering early afternoon drinks. But bassist Reuben Dettling and guitarist Jay Clancy both reek of youth, innocence and wonder. Just water for them. They look like high school kids — albeit art school high school kids, which makes sense since they’re both juniors at the Tacoma School of the Arts. Though Reuben and Clancy occasionally would be drawn out of their shells during the course of the interview, they mostly laid low, allowing Dettling, one of Don’t Tell Sophie’s co-founders (and Reuben’s older brother), to do the talking. McCray maintained a quiet, thoughtful persona — or at least he did for the sake of this interview. Dettling was the talkative one.

Pocket full of change

After finishing our smokes, Don’t Tell Sophie and I headed into the lower bowels of PSP, finding a table barely able to accommodate the five of us. We squeezed in amongst some of Tacoma’s finest, who were nursing hangovers and reliving Saturday night escapades.

The waitress — busy amongst the madness — stopped at our table and took an initial order of two drinks, two waters, and my diet soda. You could almost see the skepticism invade her face. Apparently, our table didn’t look like big spenders — more like kids with a pocket full of quarters nabbed from a parent’s change collection and some weirdo old dude with a beard and argyle socks.

It was a cold encounter, but the waitress had a point. That’s exactly what we proved to be.

The reason for my rendezvous with Don’t Tell Sophie was not just to remind me how long it’s been since I graduated high school or got carded for a bloody Mary. Every year about this time the annual music industry orgy known as SXSW goes down in Austin, Texas. A million different bands from corners of the world near and far — and twice as many label types, PR types, drunk journalist types, industry whore types, and groupie types (not to mention a handful of fans) — invade Texas’ music capital for a fiasco of epic proportions. Assuming you have a laminated SXSW badge hanging from your neck — either paid for or earned through status (meaning people think they might someday be able to get something from you) — the free stuff comes in piles. Beer. Hats. Lighters. Cigarettes. More beer. Hard liquor. Barbecue. Those little laser pointer thingies. Hot dogs. T-shirts. Stickers. More beer. Breakfast sandwiches. And probably a few STDs if you try hard enough.

As well as being four days of the best music you’re liable to hear anywhere, SXSW is four days of raucous, intoxicated and slithering music industry madness.

This year the music portion of SXSW festival goes down March 18-22. Don’t Tell Sophie will be the only band officially from Tacoma to dip their toes in the fracas.

After applying to the festival and being accepted, Don’t Tell Sophie plans to pack up a Kia with provisions and make the long trip to Austin, pulling out of Tacoma on Thursday, March 12, and stopping to play house shows in Portland and Los Angeles along the way. The band’s showcase at SXSW is Wednesday, March 18, at the Ranch on Sixth Street in Austin.

“I’ve always wanted to do this,” says Dettling. “When we found out we got in we were pretty much freaking out. For a long time all I wanted to do was play SXSW. Once we got in it was just about figuring out how we were going to get there.” 

Despite their age, Don’t Tell Sophie has managed to refine an indie pop sound that scurries on the edge of musical footpaths forged by staple bands such as Built to Spill and even (God forbid) Death Cab for Cutie, but they’ve added a Tacoma born blue-collar twist and an unassuming and unpretentious headiness that lifts their work out of the crowded and tired doldrums. Dettling and the group steer clear of the insipid, contrived emotion and cold and hollow electronic touches that have come to define much of indie pop and managed to be remarkably similar, yet very, very different from the hoards. They don’t rely on irony because they don’t have to. Any moustache they might sport is just icing, not shtick. The tunes are solid, and — more impressive than any of it — the tunes will probably be solid long after Don’t Tell Sophie feels as old as I did hanging out with them at a table inside PSP.

The waitress returned, ready to take the band’s order. I wasn’t hungry and bowed out gracefully in classic old dude fashion. Dettling ordered cheesy garlic bread. McCray went with the most expensive selection of the group, a chicken Caesar salad. Rueben indicated he’d just be stealing from his brother’s plate, and Clancy fumbled with a pocket full of quarters, dimes and nickels, which amounted to four little stacks of silver, totaling three-thirty-something. He asked if that would be enough for an order of cheesy garlic bread. The waitress rolled her eyes and said it would, except for tax.

The rest of the band took turns patting their pockets until a few more duckets were scrounged.

Young but not new

Don’t Tell Sophie might look young enough to be the target demographic for Hot Topic’s latest line of fake wrist cutting tools, but despite their physical age, as far as bands go Don’t Tell Sophie has been around for a while. The band was created in 2004 by the elder Dettling and fellow guitarist Paul Dally. Both were attending SOTA at the time, as was drummer McCray. In ’07 Dally left the band to head off to college, leaving Dettling as Don’t Tell Sophie’s main songwriter. The Dally void was eventually filled by Clancy. To date, Don’t Tell Sophie has released three records, ’05’s Picture Words, ’07’s Look Nice on Bikes, and ’08’s Sand to Glass.

As a group, Don’t Tell Sophie gives much of the credit for their creation to the Tacoma School of the Arts, which seems reasonable considering when Dettling first arrived at SOTA he didn’t even play guitar.

“Don’t Tell Sophie kind of started as Paul’s homework,” explains Dettling. “Before SOTA I wasn’t playing music at all. SOTA is probably 95 percent responsible for the fact that we’re a band.”

“I probably wouldn’t be in high school if it wasn’t for SOTA,” adds Clancy.

“When I first got to SOTA I was listening to horrible music — new metal and Limp Bizkit,” Dettling later explains.

“I had a soul patch, too,” he says, earning laughs from around the table.

What about being the only band from Tacoma on the SXSW schedule, I wondered. According to Don’t Tell Sophie, there’s absolutely no question what town they claim as home, even though McCray and Dettling spend time in Olympia.

“We all love Tacoma,” says Clancy. “We’re part of a real scene here.”

“Anything that’s cool within our band is because of Tacoma and the Tacoma School of the Arts. I feel like we’re part of a collective,” adds Dettling.

The future

At some point the waitress drops off the band’s order although for some reason Dettling’s garlic bread is minus the cheese. Rather than mention this fact, he just accepts it, later trading Clancy some of his cheese-less bread for some with cheese.

Everything works out in the end.

The discussion turns toward Don’t Tell Sophie’s record in progress, which they’re recording with Kyle Brunette of Friskey and the Nightgowns and hope to have out by later this year.

In addition to a full length, the band plans to take three songs from the Brunette sessions to SXSW — you know, to give away to people with laminated badges around their necks.

As we dive into discussing the recording process, excitement fills the table, and the band seems to agree that it’s their best work to date. After our chat, the band will head straight to Brunette’s recording space to continue work.

“In the past we’ve been really particular,” says Dettling about the band’s recording style, which has been a lot looser under the guidance of Brunette. “It’s way different. The new stuff is more gritty and loud.

“That was why we wanted Kyle. He has that sound,” continues Dettling. “It’s going to be a really good representation of what Kyle does.”

“His sound is definitely there,” adds McCray, reveling in the way Brunette and the band have meshed and have reached an ability to communicate about creative matters without fear of anyone’s feelings getting hurt, which is key to this sort of relationship. “Sometimes we have exactly the same ideas about something.”

“I wouldn’t say (the new material is) darker. It has less of a pop mind-set,” says Dettling, getting back to the band’s forthcoming material. “It’s more real. It’s more rock ‘n’ roll.”

As the waitress begins to clear plates and I put my notebook away signaling an end to the official portion of the interview (or at least the part I can be expected to have decent notes from), I ask where the band will be sleeping along their way to Austin. My oldness once again creeps up on me when they reveal nights will be spent in the Kia — the excitement on their collective faces over this announcement matched by the grown up horror on mine.

What the fuck happened to me, I wonder.

“Or we could bring the tent! The weather in Texas should be pretty nice this time of year,” Dettling suddenly exclaims.

“There, we’ll stay in the tent sometimes, too! You just helped us figure it out.”

Ah, to be young. Don’t Tell Sophie has their whole life — and SXSW — in front of them. It’s a beautiful thing.