Boston-based indie folk-pop band Air Traffic Controller were so close to wrapping up their latest album when the pandemic forced them to abandon their studio sessions – but frontman/songwriter Dave Munro found a creative way to complete one track, “Sometimes,” which is being released as a single on August 25.
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“This song was definitely the closest [to being finished],” Munro says of the track, calling from his Boston-area home, “so I called one of my bandmates over. We did a distanced recording: he was in my driveway in his car with a laptop, and I created a vocal booth in the garage, and we got this vocal take done.”
The end result juxtaposes jaunty pop melodies with Munro’s heartfelt vocals describing the fallout from a disintegrated relationship, and it definitely doesn’t sound like it was finished in a garage. Happy as he is with how it turned out, Munro sighs and adds, “I have a feeling the rest of the record might be finished by making up ways like this to get it done.”
In truth, though, this unusual driveway/garage recording setup isn’t the first time that Munro has been innovative with his musical output. When he was just founding Air Traffic Controller, he also “made do” with the equipment that he was able to gather. “I used what I had at the time, which was a lot of acoustic guitar and some quirky effects,” he says. “As things progressed, it got a little more electronic, which is cool.”
Taking acoustic-based music into electronic territory was an especially surprising move, given Munro’s own musical preferences: “I was never really a huge fan of electronic music,” he says, “but to get out of that comfort zone made me try putting a little of that into Air Traffic Controller, and I think that’s what makes us stand out – this weird mix between organic and electronic.”
“Sometimes” incorporates that distinctive Air Traffic Controller musical hybrid – but, like the rest of the songs on the upcoming album, it is a bit different lyrically than what Munro has written in the past. While still introspective, the new material also shows a deeper maturity. This is, Munro says, a natural reflection of what’s happened in his life during the writing process this time.
“I think the album covers a period of growing up, getting my life together, and moving forward,” Munro says, explaining that he started a family while working on these new songs. “I’ve had a lot of growing up to do, a shift in responsibility, and that’s all been pretty inspiring for me. A lot of the songs came from being a father – but I don’t think there’s really any ‘Dad Rock’ here, as people call it!” he says with a laugh. “At the same time, it’s very reflective, too, so some of the things that may sound very youthful and wild are maybe just reflecting on earlier years.”
Munro’s earliest years were spent growing up in a musical family in Boston. “My older brothers were in bands, always be rehearsing in the basement,” he says. “I got an acoustic guitar in high school, but it wasn’t until I joined the Navy when I was eighteen [years old] and I brought the guitar – that’s when I had to write to get through that loneliness. A lot of learning how to songwrite came from that.”
While he was enlisted in the Navy, Munro worked his way up to becoming an air traffic controller (hence his band name choice), but he continued exploring music in his off hours. “I learned how to play a lot of covers around that time, just for fun, for my Navy friends who always wanted to hear me play,” he says. “I taught myself how to play those songs, and then it just stemmed into writing my own.
“I’m completely self-taught as a songwriter,” Munro continues, then reconsiders: “Maybe it’s not self-taught if you listen to so much music and let the artists that you like teach you. I had a lot of really good influences.” He cites Tom Petty, Paul Simon, and Paul McCartney, in particular. From there, Munro became a fan of artists such as Nirvana, R.E.M., Bright Eyes, and Jellyfish, among many others across a wide range of styles.
Munro believes that all of these influences can still be found in his writing now: “The adolescent years, I think those artists that find you then, stick with you forever,” he says. “You’re always leaning back toward that, I think.”
Munro apparently learned quite a lot from those masters, if his success with Air Traffic Controller is any indication. After returning to Boston after his stint in the Navy, Munro put the band together and created a buzz right away with their debut album, The One, in 2009, and its follow up, NORDO, in 2012. Significant exposure on MTV, NPR, and in publications in both the U.S. and the U.K. soon followed.
Things really took off for Air Traffic Controller in 2016, though, when their third album, Black Box, earned them three Independent Music Awards (and one nomination), including wins for the best indie/alternative rock album and song. Their 2018 EP, Echo Papa, earned them yet another Independent Music Award, in the Best EP – Rock category.
As far as how Munro actually goes about writing these successful songs, he says the process has varied, though he’s found that inspiration can be triggered when he’s doing yard work or other physical activity, and then “Something would pop into my head, usually a lyric and a melody at the same time. I can put a whole song together really quickly that way. I love when that happens – I feel like it’s very pure and easy.” But, he says, “There are songs that definitely I’ve spent a month writing, and I’m very proud of those ones, too.”
Regardless of how his songs come about, Munro is happy with the way his songwriting career has evolved – not just for his own sake, but because he sees what it means to other people. “I feel like all the songs are very personal to me, but when I put them out there, no one’s ever been talking about me when they talk about my music. Most people talk about themselves and how it related to them,” he says. “That’s really the best part: putting stuff out there that can make people feel something and think about their own lives.”