When Swansea, Illinois, native Andrew Garces started the Vanilla Beans in 2006, he built his songs piecemeal in a makeshift home studio. More than a decade later, he continues to craft infectious pop in a similar way — and does so with a little help from his best friends.
"For a little while, the Vanilla Beans was really me and people that I love just hanging out. We weren't real serious about it," Garces says. "We would just play a show and have a great time and then it would be over."
The band claims to be more comfortable in a cramped basement show than a big concert venue, yet its sound suits both in equal measure. And that might be the secret to its success, which includes being named Best Pop Band in the RFT Music Awards for three years in a row.
While the lineup has changed over the course of ten years, the core of the band remains the same. Garces starts by making what he calls the "guts" and counts on his closely knit crew to flesh out the body of each song. He takes an approach that might seem passive for such a prolific songsmith, but the results are proof positive.
"I usually write in a big chunk. I write a bunch of ideas down and share them with everybody," he explains. "And we pick the ones that we like." The band also counts its concerts as a big part of the writing process, as songs are tested and refined in a live setting.
Building on two full-lengths, two EPs and a collection of b-sides and demos, the band is set to release its first vinyl outing, Wavey, on February 24. Garces recorded the album at a casual pace over the course of a month. The real stress started after that.
According to Garces, Wavey was planned for release through Boxing Clever Records, a St. Louis-based label that has produced albums by local acts CaveofswordS and Bruiser Queen, as well as funded a split EP between the Vanilla Beans and Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship in 2013.
Wavey was in the final stages of production in 2015 when disputes over details of the record contract froze the project. (Garces describes the break with the label as clean, with no hard feelings from either party. While Boxing Clever lives on as an ad agency, its label branch has been defunct since late 2015.)
Without label support, Garces and company were left selling shirts and saving money from paid gigs to finish production. Ryan Birkner of Float Away, Dangling, a local indie label specializing in small print zines and tapes, pitched in by paying for half of the record. "He basically made the whole thing happen," Garces says.
During the long wait for Wavey's release, longtime member Christopher Eilers left the band, which marked a major change for Garces and company. While Eilers remains on the latest album, the shift in group dynamics inspired the creation of Flora — Tape, which was produced in April 2015.
"When you have something done and you're waiting for someone to put the finish on, it feels like you're standing still," he says. "I think that was hard for everyone, so we kept creating." In the lull between releases, the current trio of Garces, guitarist Todd Anderson and keyboardist Ani Kramer recorded monthly tracks, releasing them through the Vanilla Beans' Bandcamp page.
The current lineup reads more like a local super group than a coincidental circle of friends. Kramer has played in both Witchy and Art School while Anderson leads I Could Sleep in the Clouds, a lo-fi rock outfit tinged with strong melody and subtle somber undertones. He also joins Garces in 3 of 5, a sing-songy chiptunes trio with Syrhea Conaway (of Syna So Pro and Pat Sajak Assassins).
Throughout the years, the Vanilla Beans has not done any major touring, but that's about to change. Following the release of Wavey, the trio is primed to leave town with plans to share its fuzzy twee gems across the country — and potentially beyond.
"I think we're really happy with where we are, but it's super comfortable for us at this point. We could probably play in St. Louis forever and never feel bad about it," Garces says. "We're real happy with how the album turned out and now we really just want to go out and travel."
After performing at both basement shows and large-scale events such as the St. Louis Earth Day Festival and the Rock N Roll Craft Show, the Vanilla Beans knows that its first priority is to be friends first and a band second.
"We still have the most fun when we're just in the same room thinking about different melodies, lyrics and stuff like that," Garces says.Editor's note: An earlier version of this story neglected to mention that Todd Anderson also performs in 3 of 5 with Andrew Garces. We regret the error.