Vacant Page was the last thing ever made at Big Snow Buffalo Lodge. Leapling’s debut full-length, almost the entirety of the record was recorded in the space three weeks before the much-loved Brooklyn venue closed in July 2013.
“Everything that we had was invested in that space,” says Yoni David, the band’s drummer. “It was our practice space, our recording studio our jobs, our home,” says bassist RJ Gordon, also the frontman of Baked.
One of the more nostalgically discussed DIY venues to have closed in recent years, Big Snow was started by Yoni and RJ shortly after they left SUNY Purchase, working with Baked’s Jeremy Acquilino and Bueno’s Luke Chiaruttini. Leapling songwriter Dan Arnes joined in later to help run it. It was a space for playing music, hanging out, throwing shows. And ultimately, it was a space that would lead this crew of friends to cope with one hell of a curve ball together.
By now, the story has been told a few times. Somehow caught in a dispute he had no involvement in, Yoni took a bullet outside of Big Snow one July day in 2013. It landed him in Bellevue Hospital for six days followed by several months of physical therapy. This was three weeks after Leapling had finished tracking Vacant Page (minus the vocals) there, and not long after Baked had finished recording Debt.
I once told Dan Arnes, before Vacant Page was officially released, that Losing Face was my 2014 summer album, to which he replied, if that was the case, Vacant Page would be the winter album. He wasn’t wrong.
All plans to release the albums were shelved while the Big Snow community was scattered, trying to keep their heads above the water and continue to support each other, especially their friend and bandmate Yoni, who had moved back to his parents home on Long Island to recover from his injury. Big Snow closed shortly after.
“[The] songs were recorded, lyrics were written, the cover was done all before the Big Snow stuff happened,” Dan tells me when I ask about how that event changed things for the bands. Even after almost two years, it doesn’t seem comfortable to explicitly mention what happened, it’s simply referred to as “the Big Snow stuff.” “I thought I was going to have to bail out,” says Yoni. Doctors told him he’d probably never play drums again.
In January of 2014 recording for Vacant Page was finished. The guys chipped in and bought Yoni ProTools and Dan loaded him up with plug ins. They recorded the vocals in December of 2013, six months after the initial tracking at Big Snow, in Yoni’s mother’s walk-in closet, where he engineered and tracked the vocals with his arm in a sling.
“It was a strange time,” Yoni remembers. “I think that the recordings took on a new meaning because between the Baked record and the Leapling record, [those are] the last recordings of my body at 100%. When they finally came out, [I knew] that whatever comes from here on out is a new era in my playing. Those records mean something else [now] than when we started them.”
In December of 2013, Big Snow held two farewell shows, one at Shea Stadium and one at The Silent Barn. Leapling and Baked each played one of the shows with Yoni accompanying them on drums for the first time since the incident. “There were months that went by when we didn’t play with each other,” he says. “And when we finally did, it was heavy…when we played those first shows, it was overwhelming. I thought I was gonna throw up.”
Almost two years later as Yoni, RJ, Dan and Joe Postiglione (Leapling’s guitarist) are in high spirits as we sit at Papaya King in Brooklyn, nerding out about the latest recording equipment, chatting about the Baked/Leapling tour that’s about to commence, which colleges are stiffing them for money, and reminiscing about how much easier it was to play a show at SUNY Purchase than it is now. They have reason to be happy; Vacant Page was released on Exploding in Sound and Inflated Records to a welcoming reception. It seems as though the abrupt end of an era gave birth to a completely new and open chapter.
Despite the seemingly communal aspect of Big Snow, writing Leapling’s record was a fairly isolating experience. Life at Big Snow was not all fun and games apparently. “Isolation is an underlying theme because we were all isolating [ourselves] purposefully when we were living there. If you didn’t isolate yourself from the group you’d just go fuckin’ insane,” RJ tells me.
Arnes wrote the majority of the Leapling songs alone in the basement of Big Snow. He did Losing Face, the first Leapling EP, pretty much all by himself—even most of the drums were electronic. “I had always worked on stuff in the box, very producery, all [by] myself…” Dan tells me when I ask about the EP.
Contrarily, Vacant Page was done all live, with minimal overdubs; it lets the music speaks for itself. The new record is the result of a band finally having grown into themselves, in touch with each other’s musical personalities and a unifying sense of ownership over the music. “There were days where we would practice and…just play a single song for like six hours,” says Yoni. Dan tells me recording the record live “totally changed the game.” “It was very nice to just trust musicianship and the songs themselves and not worry about bells and whistles.”
The new record is the result of a band finally having grown into themselves, in touch with each other’s musical personalities and a unifying sense of ownership over the music.
I once told Dan Arnes, before Vacant Page was officially released, that Losing Face was my 2014 summer album, to which he replied, if that was the case, Vacant Page would be the winter album. He wasn’t wrong. The album evokes an atmosphere that can’t help but remind one of February in New York. Dan’s vocals cut clear through everything: they’re soft and delicate, yet precise, latching onto these earworm melodies that lock into the songs with a satisfying cadence. All the while, he is swimming in a pool of shimmering guitars, thanks to Postiglione’s meticulously constructed tones. Throw in RJ and Yoni’s effortless backdrops and you’ve got the ideal rhythm section to match an already captivating mood. Songs like opener “Flesh Meadows” reveal these majestic bursts of energy before falling back into steady movements. “In Due Time” in particular explores this rising and falling arc, a six minute slow burner to close out the album; they played the song in full for the first time on their first take.
Lyrically, this is where the record stands out. Arnes’ poetry is cryptic and vague, yet suggests enough thematic substance to feel cohesive. Often paranoid, maybe anxious, sometimes he talks to himself: “Keep in mind, Danny boy/Only time will destroy me,” he sings on “Flesh Meadows” as the fog starts to clear. On “Going Nowhere”, perhaps the album’s most dissonant moment, Dan’s voice is nervous: “Sometimes the sun, it might not shine/Why should I, why should I.” Symmetry and opposition are constant themes, often embodied by nature: “If the moon doesn’t show then the sun doesn’t know what to think;” yet Dan always brings it back himself and his own self-consciousness: “When you come to the room I am tangled in things that you speak.” Each line fits perfectly with the one before it and leads well into the one after.
For all of the band’s patient waiting, paying more dues than they owed, Vacant Page is excellently produced and cohesive throughout. Texturally smooth and easy to swallow, Leapling has hit a sweet spot. And it’s pretty groovy.