You might recall the second weekend of December in 2016? That's when Michigan saw its first snowstorm of the year. As the snowflakes piled high and cars dovetailed to and fro, Detroit's Double Winter, a band whose name is obviously an homage to this kind of thing, was feelin' themselves at Key Club Recording in Benton Harbor, as they dug in to record their first full-length album.
"Our minds were a-burnin' while the snow kept a-churnin, it kept our wheels from turnin' so we stayed and did some learnin'. And although we just got home, we're yearnin' for returnin,'" drummer Morgan McPeak reported in an email (really) upon their return.
This enthusiasm for the dreariest of seasons is characteristic of the band, which not only braved the weather to record there in the first place, but will celebrate the official beginning of the winter season with a Double Winter Solstice show at Donovan's on Thursday, Dec. 22.
Metro Times sat down with McPeak, as well as guitarist Vittorio Vettraino, singer/bassist Holly Johnson, and violinist Augusta Morrison in their Detroit rehearsal space to discuss finding their way in the Detroit creative scene, their dramatically different music backgrounds, their winter solstice show, and what they envision heading into the studio. They also address the palpable, affectionate chemistry present when sharing the room with them.
"It's funny, Max Fabick from Palm Tapes — they released our EP Watching Eye — would always say, 'It's like you guys really like each other,'" Johnson says. "And I would get so confused when he'd say that. I'd be like, 'I don't know how it could be any other way.' And it's true, we would be hanging out together whether we were making music or not."
Double Winter formed in the winter of 2013-'14, during the polar vortex. It's a funny sentence, one that conjures images of Johnson, Vettraino, Morrison, and McPeak materializing in the sky during a winter storm. Incidentally, this is only slightly more fanciful than their initial explanation.
"We were all in a really unfortunate ice skating accident together where Augusta actually fell through two sheets of ice," Johnson says.
"I don't have a big toe anymore," Morrison says.
"We each had to get 10 stitches, and for some reason the doctor put them in the shape of snowflakes," Johnson adds, before breaking into laughter.
Jokes aside, the name pays tribute to the fact that while winter is a barren time in nature, it's a fertile time for creativity.
"Winter is a time for studying and focusing," Morrison says. "You're doing what you want to be doing, but you're inside. It's a really internal, creative time, and that's when we started practicing in Morgan's basement. Also, the polar vortex pretty much was a double winter."
Double Winter's sound is a pleasing mix of a lot of good things: Surf rock, ethereal dream pop, and garage grit all come out of Vettraino's guitar, sometimes in the same song. Johnson's sly vocal delivery saunters along with her basslines, and Morrison's electric violin adds textures and unexpected elements at every turn. McPeak's drums are dynamic, shifting from background to foreground, depending on what the mood requires.
Along with the inspired combination of influences, Double Winter's music is unique in that the members seem to unknowingly alternate where a listener's focus should be; the instruments that tow the line of rhythm and the ones that meander change from song to song. There's a feeling of exploration and a sense that everyone is still growing into their roles in the band.
The fact that they are still finding their place probably has a lot to do with being such a young band, but could also be in part from everyone's differing histories and approaches to music.
McPeak, for instance, is self-taught on the drums, a skill pursued about nine years ago, when she was 19. "I didn't really learn a lot of rudimentary things at the beginning," she says. "I played funk music that was way over my head and skipped a lot of steps and then came back to them later. It was a pretty unconventional form of learning, which I think helps with our uniqueness."
Johnson agrees. "It's funny, because I'm really used to 4-by-4 drum beats — I feel those are really common," she says. "But Morgan's just got this swagger."
Morrison, on the other hand, began training in classical violin when she was 5. "I abandoned the classical in late high school," she says. "I was taking fiddle and guitar lessons. In college I wasn't doing anything and I really missed it, and I found this really random punk band (Lansing band Love Ton) and started playing violin with them. It was so crazy and weird and I was totally out of my element."
Vettraino describes the progression of his music as having a trajectory typical of a Detroit garage rocker. "I'm pretty obsessed with synth rock and drum machines now, but that's a new foray for me," he says. "It's kind of a traditional evolution of someone who's started off being into hardcore punk. You start with that, then you like shoegaze, then you get to post-punk, and then you get to synth. That's a pretty good description of my arc in music."
The extent of Johnson's music training before college was a summer of drum lessons in high school. When she got to Michigan State University, she began DJing under the name Ladylike at MSU co-op parties, Mac's Bar, and in downtown Lansing. Once she linked up with Vettraino, she "traded in the turntables for the bass" and together they started the garage rock band Half Bodies. They later started and still play with the dark wave band Real Ghosts, and joined Morrison's avant-garde art collective Yogurt Culture.
"In Yogurt Culture everyone would play all the instruments," Johnson says. "I was playing drums, I was playing bass, keyboards, but I just really love bass."
After Johnson and Vettraino graduated, they moved to the Detroit area in hopes of continuing Real Ghosts. The third member of the band didn't make the move, however, and while they continued Real Ghosts as a two-piece, Double Winter was also being formed. Though Vettraino wasn't in the initial lineup, he joined Johnson, Morrison, and McPeak after former keyboardist Lindsay Acker moved to New York.
Since forming, they've played heavily in the Detroit area in both typical and not-so-typical settings, including the Hamtramck Music Festival, artists markets, a baby's birthday party, a Standing Rock benefit concert, and multiple Seraphine Collective BFF festivals.
"Seraphine has been very supportive," Morrison says. "I'm biased because I'm on their board, but they're a great collective that's very supportive of bands, especially female-identifying people in bands and other underserved demographics in the Detroit music scene. Anyone associated with Seraphine, we play with all the time. So people like Stef Chura, Casual Sweetheart, River Spirit, Deadbeat Beat, Rebel Kind, Best Exes, Bonny Doon, Mountains and Rainbows."
Double Winter's 2016 EP Watching Eye is a collection of songs that runs the gamut of the band's widespread but intermingling influences. It's also an album that abundantly proves the band is ready for the next step.
"In the beginning, we needed to get comfortable playing together, getting into a rhythm," Vettraino says. "But now we're all on the same wavelength to the point where we can really write stuff out and make it personal. We're trying to dig out our own space, our own sound.
"A lot of bands get stuck just releasing EPs, and that's what we've been doing too. Every year we put out an EP that's three or four songs long, and we were almost about to do that again, but we were like, 'No, we need to buckle down and put out a full-length and be serious about it.'"
With their recent recording session, Double Winter joined the ranks of local bands like Protomartyr and Mexican Knives, as well as larger acts like the Kills and the Black Keys as artists who have recorded at Key Club. The album does not yet have a name or a release date
"It was an intimidating experience, at first," Johnson says of recording at Key Club. "I found out a few weeks after we decided to record there that No Shouts, No Calls by Electrelane, an album very dear to my heart, was recorded there. So that added this interesting pressure on top of the intimidation of recording our first album."
Johnson goes on, however, to say the recording session went well. "We were ambitious with the amount of work we wanted to accomplish, but it was a focused and comfortable two-day session," she says. "We're having another session in early 2017 to do some mixing and finalize the sound. It's been a cozy and snowy little dose of productivity."
The Double Winter Solstice, a benefit show for Ruth Ellis Center (with Bonny Doon and the Vitas) takes place on Thursday, Dec. 22 at Donovan's Pub; 3003 Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-964-7418; Tickets are $5 with all proceeds benefiting the Ruth Ellis Center.