Arts & Culture
Legends of Et cetera Makes Musical Waves in Baltimore
Lead singer Serena Miller discusses the young indie-rock band’s stellar second album.
Legends of Et cetera members Serena Miller, Graham vonBriesen, and Jakob Coburn might only be in high school or college, but their sound is already beyond their years. The band has quickly become one of the city's indie rock darlings with attention from WTMD and a new record, Cardboard City, to prove it. We talked to frontwoman Miller about maintaining the band while in school, addressing social issues, and Baltimore's scene of young musicians. Catch their album release show at the Towson radio station on January 12.
Despite your age, you guys have been a band for a fair amount of time. How did Legends get its start? Do you want the long or short answer? Graham and I are cousins, so we’ve been playing together since we were able to play. We started this band called the Oxi-Morons when I was 11, with our keyboardist, Mack Watson, who I’ve been best friends with for 16 or so years. I met our drummer, Jakob, at the School of Rock in Baltimore. He saw me do a cover of this song “Cough Syrup” by Young the Giant and asked if he could put some drums to it. We officially formed Legends about four years ago, in 2013.
How did you personally get into making music? When I was 5, my grandpa gave me this little drum set and I started teaching myself how to play. My dad played guitar all his life—he never took formal lessons but he’s as good as they come; he started teaching my mom how to play about 10 years ago and I thought, ‘If mom can learn, I can, too.’ I was exposed to all of my parents’ music, too, so all of that has sort of come together to influence the music in some way. The Police, U2, Peter Gabriel. Pink Floyd is still my favorite band. There is still some David Gilmour stuff that I sometimes try to do.
What was it about music that made you want to not only play but perform? To be honest, I hate performing. But when I was 10, my parents signed me up—almost against my will—for School of Rock. After I put on one show, I was on board, but I was and still am very afraid to perform. It’s gotten better, to the point where I’m very nervous up until the show then am more comfortable by the time I get out on stage. But it’s taken 10 or so years to get to that point. I hate to think about how long it’s going to take until I’m finally free of that anxiety. I could be playing for five or 500 people and I’d feel the same either way. You’re in the spotlight, and I don’t like to be the person getting noticed.
The singer is usually the starring role. How did that become part of your repertoire? I really don’t know. I would sing in the car—nothing special—and then one day at School of Rock, they asked me to sing. I remember vehemently shaking my head, like, ‘No, I will not.’ I was 10 or 11 at the time and my mom said, ‘How about this? If you sing, I’ll buy you a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.’ And so I sang, and they made me keep singing.
Did you eventually warm up to School of Rock? I work for them now; I teach guitar at the school in Columbia. It was a very good environment to be exposed to as a kid. It not only exposes you to classic rock but it also gives you a chance to learn how to perform with other people. So many kids who came out of School of Rock are now very successful musicians. I’m glad that I let my mother make me do it. I met some of my band members there. I met a lot of my best friends.
You were there through high school, which can be a really difficult time of life. What was it like being in a band during that period? It was a support system. It was stressful to try to get school stuff done while dealing with band stuff and scheduling gigs, but it was always something to look forward to. It was a sort of reward. School was annoying, but then every Sunday, you had this rehearsal with these guys that you loved and you’d be playing music that you wrote yourself. It was tough, juggling all of that, but it was always fun.
Is that why the band has continued, even as some of you have gone off to college, because it’s fun? Graham is still in high school. I’m a sophomore at Peabody Institute, where I’m studying composition, and Jakob is at Berklee School of Music in Boston. Our keyboardist, Mack, just recently left the band, partially because of school. But yeah, it’s partially because of band chemistry. It’s partially because we thought we had something good to put out into the world.
With this new record, we were very excited because we got to record at Mobtown Studios, where one of my favorite local bands—Yo No Say—records. One of the days in the studio, Jakob just looked at me and said, ‘We have to keep doing this.’ Being in the studio boosts a band’s need to continue. The sound quality and the professionalism are just top notch. You get in there and listen to how your songs sound and you think, well, I can’t quit now.
On this new album, Cardboard City, there’s a newfound richness and urgency to your songs compared to your debut, Coyote. Where does this come from? I wrote most of these songs when I was a senior in high school, which is notoriously difficult for so many people. It was my last attempt at keeping the band together before college. Our song “Sydney” is named after our friend, and it's kind of like when you’re not really ready, you’re broke, you don’t know what you want to do with your life. But you’re going to school anyway to figure it out. It’s a lot to think about, and to handle, and it brings up a hodgepodge of emotions.
That is a very specific moment that many people can remember or relate to. While you and your bandmates are young adults, do you try to write music for people your own age? I’ve never had a target demographic in mind. I just write what I am feeling. But I think anyone can draw what they want from these lyrics and our music. I think, and hope, it can be accessible to everyone. “Queretaro” was about leaving for school, but also just about leaving, period. It’s about new things being difficult, and about getting over fears, and also about a struggle with depression and mental illness, which is something that I’ve had to contend with. It’s something that some of my friends, and a lot of people, have had to contend with.
You’ve addressed social issues through your music in the past, like Coyote’s “Aftermath,” touching on gay marriage, and this album’s title track, originally meant to tackle the country’s homelessness epidemic. Is being topical important for you as a songwriter? Almost every song on the last album had some sort of political meaning, but I don’t think every song has to be that way. It’s good to have songs that are socially aware and that talk about important issues, but I think it’s okay to also have songs that are poetic and meaningful, even just to the writer. As a musician, you write what you know, and that can be a great way to put out all kinds of messages.
You’ll be celebrating your album release at WTMD on January 12. How does it feel to be a part of that community now? Baltimore is a really weird music scene, with a juxtaposition of so many different styles. Originally we started out performing blues songs, because I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix, and then we changed when more music became available and we started seeing more local shows. I’ve never really thought about being a part of the scene, but it is really exciting.