You won’t get a straight answer if you ask the members of Vulcans to describe what kind of music they play. They’ll talk about the timelessness of folk music, or the modern sensibilities they infuse into it. They may call it folk rock, but with a disclaimer that this doesn’t fully capture what they’re all about.
“It’s frustrating because I think you can’t pinpoint it,” says band member John Thomas. “But I think that’s also one of our strengths – that you can’t pinpoint us.”
Thomas went to high school with Aaron Spangler and Nick Lindsay in Mechanicsburg, where they played in their respective “embarrassing high school bands.” Those endeavors ranged from rock and blues to a glam/pop rock/metal fusion band.
But the thing they all had in common was choral training. They participated in school musicals and chorus, and Lindsay even took vocal lessons. All three eventually traded their electric instruments for acoustic guitars and shifted their listening habits toward folk and other acoustic music.
“Even though our instrumental differences were pretty apparent, singing was always such a common vein with us,” says Spangler. “So when we did start to come back to the same areas of music – as far as playing musical instruments was concerned – that singing and harmonizing was something that was already kind of second nature to us.”
Vulcans formed in 2009, with the original lineup of Spangler, Thomas and another friend. But the third member wasn’t able to keep up with the time commitment and moved on. They had recently finished a session with Lindsay, who helped record their first song with his home recording equipment.
Lindsay asked whether they were going to try to find a new member and said he’d be interested. Thomas and Spangler had already discussed inviting him to join, so he jumped in right away and they’ve been playing together ever since.
All three play guitar, mandolin, banjo, drums and harmonica – trading instruments and singing in three-part harmonies. Each has his own propensity for songwriting, so their collective catalog is varied.
“I think one of our strengths is that all three of us write songs,” says Thomas. “That really plays well with audiences, because we’re always doing something different. I think that one of our greatest strengths is that each of us brings so many different influences and so many different new ideas to the songwriting process.”
Having so many songwriters helps them work well together in the studio and in practices. One of them will write a song and bring an outline to the other two to use as a starting point. They’re often pleasantly surprised by how the songs come to life once they begin to work through them together.
“You think, ‘I’m bringing this song, and this is what I think it’s going to sound like,'” Thomas says. “But then you give it to the other two guys, and it changes completely – but always for the better.”
Their music continues to explore the traditions of folk and Americana – a deliberate and reverent departure from today’s mainstream pop. Vulcans is a band that is keenly interested in exploring those possibilities.
“Folk music is always kind of timeless,” Spangler says. “But I think in our generation, music has kind of gone in two directions and either become out-of-control produced, or it’s purposely held itself back and stripped itself down and explored the core of what music is all about. We’re in this period of self-examination and this period of self-reflection. We’re trying to get down to the root of what folk music is all about and what we’re all about.”
Vulcans released their first EP, Shadows, in 2011, and won the Susquehanna Folk Music Society’s best original song contest two years in a row. In May of 2013, they won the grand prize in the Philadelphia Songwriters Project’s annual contest, earning them a place in the lineup at the Firefly Music Festival in Dover, DE that included acts like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Vampire Weekend and The Avett Brothers.
“That was huge for us,” Spangler says. “That’s what tipped off our summer. We’re playing nonstop now.”
Lindsay says the spot at Firefly was a springboard for picking up new fans, selling more CDs and earning name recognition. That exposure led to the need to hire a booking agent, who has helped them continue to build their fan base across a wider geographic reach.
“I think with Firefly, we got a taste of what we can do – and here’s what we can do,” Thomas says.
Since then, the band’s performances have included Musikfest in Bethlehem, listening rooms, bars and even a hootenanny in a converted barn in Easton. They somehow manage to balance jobs along with their hectic show schedule, all while living in separate cities.
Thomas moved to Philadelphia in the fall, about a block from Lindsay. Spangler lives in Lancaster, but one of his part-time jobs is in Philadelphia. The group is committed to getting together in Philly to practice and write together on a regular basis. They backed off a bit on performances during the winter months and recently wrapped up recording their next EP, which is due out this year.
Their regrouping period allowed them to build their schedule back up for the spring and summer with a new album in-hand. The 40-hour work week pays the bills, and the music feeds the soul. And while their balancing act between life and music has officially resumed, none of the members of Vulcans would have it any other way.
“Music has always been my way of stepping away from everything that’s going on,” Thomas says. “That’s when I’m most calm and that’s when I’m happiest. I do whatever I can during the week to make this work.”