Are we criminals? With an eye toward self-exploration and a healthy dose of self-deprecation, indie-rock duo Family Vacation takes listeners on a journey of existential questioning with Thursday’s musical release.
But for all its examining and its deep dive into humanity, the new EP “Are We Criminals?” is not dark. And it’s not morose. And it’s certainly not dry.
Filled with friendly-sounding reverby rock that effectively channels the chill personalities of Jacob Chatfield and Bob Crandell (along with a rotating cast of musical friends), the new release explores some of the juicier aspects of personality … in a fun way.
Chatfield said the five-song collection was culled from demos he had written in a place of isolation several years ago while in Kentucky for college.
“It’s really about identity, seeing yourself in the world,” he said. “I was watching way too much Investigation Discovery. At what point did these people identify themselves as criminals? And then I was thinking, ‘Okay, if I were to identify myself as my worst quality or the worst thing I’ve done, how would I put that into words?’”
The guitar styles shift from song to song — sometimes dreamy ripples and sometimes fuzzed-out riffs — as do the songs’ points of view, phasing between narrators written in such a way as to buffer Chatfield of any personal responsibility, he joked.
“When I was writing those songs in college, I think I was kind of doing sort of a Larry David thing, taking the worst parts of my personality, the things I’m most insecure about myself, and amplifying them and criticizing them myself before anyone else can,” he said. “Kind of beat them to the punch, you know? Be self-aware as a way to … absolve myself.”
“Being self-aware and self-deprecating to where it’s like you’re understanding that the self-deprecation is like a defense mechanism,” Crandell chimed in.
“It’s meant to be vulnerable, but I think I just sound like an ass,” Chatfield said, laughing.
The duo teases each other about the songwriting, the EP’s meanings and each other’s tendencies, but it’s all rooted in camaraderie forged through years playing together. Chatfield and Crandell — now in their mid-20s — built a friendship during a chance encounter while both were on family vacations in Michigan. But they built a musical partnership when they both were back home in Libertyville.
Growing through musical acts together since roughly middle school — including their long-running high school band The Tribe — the evolution into Family Vacation has given the duo a new passion for the craft.
“I feel like we’re almost a, not a new band, but we kind of have a new sense of direction and more drive to really be a band and make songs and play shows,” Crandell said.
“I remember thinking, ‘OK, if we really want to keep doing this, we’ve got to make an effort to do it.’ And that was kind of what reinvigorated me, I guess, the motivation and the drive to do it more than just having fun making music,” he explained about keeping a youthful passion alive into adulthood. “I love listening to music but when you’re with your friends and people I’ve known for almost my whole life, it’s like you feel like you have a little bit more of a duty than just to have fun. Or not even for other people, to just kind of prove to yourself that you can really be serious about something and focus on it and create something that’s worth sharing with people.”
Beyond that sense of duty, Chatfield added there’s another reason to keep writing and performing music: They just have to.
He shared a story about a friend who once told them he used to think making music was a responsibility and then later realized that was a joke.
“I think the answer is somewhere in between those two extremes. There is the necessity for art, and there’s the necessity for creation generally,” he said.
“If you talk to people that make music — and especially people actively involved in the Chicago music scene — it’s compulsive. Quitting is not an option. You’re gonna have to do this or some medium … or you’re gonna, like, drink too much, or do too much drugs. Like you need it. You know what I mean? Like it’s a compulsive thing.”
Beyond the revamped demos on the “Are We Criminals?” EP and 2019’s debut release “America,” Family Vacation already has new songs on deck, some almost ready for recording later this summer or fall, along with a quickly filling slate of live performances.
And then there’s that compulsion.
“The creative process of putting a song together … I get a sense of accomplishment from that before I ever send it to anybody or publicly release it,” Crandell said. “There’s something really satisfying about having an idea and then getting it out onto some medium as accurately as you can.”