Tenacious Pittsburgh indie band Same draws on Allegheny National Forest roots

“We got that blue-collar work ethic. We treat being in a band like working in a factory; you gotta clock in." - Tom Higgins

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Same live at Comedy House, State College, PA - Sept. 29, 2023

Words by Eric Stevens
Photos by Eric Stevens (unless noted otherwise)
Video filmed and edited by Eric Stevens and Johnny Hopkinson
VFX by Eric Stevens/Michi Tapes

Seeking live music fulfillment in any outsider region, as attendee or musician, you have to really want it: “If you’re from somewhere like [Western Pennsylvania], you have to try harder to find it and be into it. When we were kids, you had to even travel a little bit to do it. I think that’s what sticks with a lot of us now: we really want to do it,” Same guitarist Tom Higgins says, sitting beside bassist and lead vocalist Jesse Caggiano in a corner booth at Nico’s Recovery Room in Bloomfield. “I think that their whole thing is trying to stay in the past for as long as they possibly can,” Caggiano observes. The bar and grill, indoor cigarette sanctuary is now absent of smoke, a sign of changing times. The band has been a Pittsburgh indie-rock staple for more than eight years now, only slowing down for sustainability.

Some Greater Pittsburgh sportsmen have hunting/drinking camps in the Allegheny National Forest area, but otherwise most haven’t heard of where the band majority is from. The forest exists on the western side of a 12-county spread formally glossed together as “The Pennsylvania Wilds,” fertile ground for Sasquatch conspiracies. Caggiano comes from Ridgway, home of the Chainsaw Carver’s Rendezvous, an international wood sculpting festival and seat to Elk County. Higgins went to school in St. Marys, the second largest city by landmass in PA and home to one of the oldest breweries in the state, Straub Brewery since 1872. Cresting a four lane highway at night, a gradual decline brings you past the Bavarian Catholic bonsai tree of a church, sullen pines, fast-food and corporate mini-plazas, the wincing lights of hilly downtown neighborhoods and looming powder metal industries a couple miles away: PA’s answer to a Twin Peaks setting.

“We got that blue-collar work ethic. We treat being in a band like working in a factory; you gotta clock in,” Higgins states. Both had the opposite desire of Peter Straub, who wanted “…to escape the loud, crowded streets of Allegheny City and retreated to the quietude of Elk County,” reminiscent of “his quant, German village.” They were searching for a bit more raucous, finding it halfway downstream to Pittsburgh, at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

15 Shady house, Clarion, PA – Nov. 2009
Photo by Clint Kline

The first solidification of Same members came in the form of Road Sodas, a joke band featuring Caggiano on drums and Higgins on guitar. “We played so that Lawson and Aaron could party rock and spray beer all over the place,” Caggiano said. “Basically it was just a vessel for them to act crazy — which they did,” Higgins said, the band upending a basement during a set once. Same drummer and Tionesta-native Jamie Gruzinski also attended Clarion University in the early 2010s, separately joining up with Lawson Bloom and Aaron Lauricia for the Fugazi-referenced End Hits, later with Bloom and Eddie Crowley for the stoner-psych-punk of Cid.

The breeding ground for counter-culture mentality and punk-bumpkin behavior congregated on Clarion’s Shady Avenue in the late 2000s, a culmination of every like-minded outcast, degenerate, alternative-thinking person across almost every county in the PA Wilds. “If someone from out of state heard us talk about this, they would say, ‘No, you guys are from the same area,’” Caggiano on the melting pot of county delegates despite the mileage spreading us apart. “I look back at Shady and it feels like the universe collected all of the weirdest kids in rural Western PA and showed them all they were in good company,” said Clint Kline, longtime friend of Gruzinski and Shady alumnus.

Gruzinski lived in the apartment complex across the side yard from Higgins and Caggiano, who finished their college years at the 15 Shady house, continuing the punk-focused living room house show tradition, forty ounces at a time. “I went down to the basement with a few fellers to smoke some weed. I remember watching the floor joists flex under the weight of the crowd and band in the living room and thinking, ‘Holy fuck, the floor is going to collapse. But it didn’t. It held the weight. And the people upstairs had no idea the impact they were having on the structure of the house. They were in the moment, weightless. That house, the people and occurrences provided levity, it carried the weight,” Shady alum Johnny Mancu said.

Jesse Caggiano performing solo at 15 Shady – ~2011-12

Gruzinski remembers a 15 Shady show “…that was so packed, that people were crowd surfing to get from room to room.” The college town hosted occasional acoustic, folk stylings at Michelle’s Café, university-sanctioned open mics and jam bands at Toby Hill Bar and Grill but not much else. Shady Ave. godfather, Ryan Williamson from Kane acted as a bridge for Caggiano to meet Same guitarist Jake Stern who was performing under Meridian with his brother Max. “Meridian played at [222] Ormsby back when I was going down there with the Shady Ave. guys all the time, I was their chauffeur. They were all too drunk or hungover to drive. I remember meeting Jake at a Meridian show when he was 15.” Williamson would later play bass in Max Stern’s power-pop-punk band Signals Midwest, joining in 2017.

The undercurrent of opportunities, culture, life’s desires pulled the collective to Pittsburgh, where Jake Stern also moved from his home-city of Cleveland to attend the University of Pittsburgh.

Higgins and Caggiano formed Naked Spirit with Michael Killian (drums) and Travis McKenrick (guitar) both from “The Weather Capital of the World,” Punxsutawney occasionally featuring Stern on synth. Through Stern working at WPTS radio, he was able to book Naked Spirit to open for Swearin’ and Waxahatchee, a Crutchfield sisters showcase at the William Pitt Union on March 27, 2015. Despite the exposure, Higgins and Caggiano wanted to start anew. “I was driving down 28 going outbound, passing Millvale, and I called Jake, because I knew Naked Spirit was breaking up and I wanted him to be in the next thing that Tom and I were starting.” Stern was accepting but semi-reluctant to end it, having just learned the songs, derailing the notoriety of a band with some footing. Gruzinski’s tenure as the Bloom house-drummer waned and the four started Same in July, 2015. The band started practicing regularly at Stern’s Oakland home, doubling as scene-favorite house venue, Bates Hardcore Gym.

The new assembly dropped Stern from synth to guitar. “I was really anti-synth at first. I didn’t want to be like Tame Impala or something. I don’t want to go down that road,” Caggiano says. Same’s first release, EP Weird as Hell took nods from Weezer, contemporaries like Sleeping Bag, and a notable dynamic change to slowcore, “turn the pedals on,” Higgins says, an easing transition from the straightforward rock of Naked Spirit. The members were able to meld their pre-existing influences and previous bands with a musical renaissance: “At the time that we were starting Same and Naked Spirit was breaking up, Tom and I were really spreading what we were listening to more,” Caggiano referencing Seam, Sonic Youth and the first two Joan of Arc records. “[JOA] did a lot of experimental stuff that made you think about what a song could be or what you could do in music, a ‘no rules’ kind of feeling.” Pittsburgher Jeremy Boyle, founding member of Chicago’s Joan of Arc and lifeblood of their exploratory sound, joined the art department at Clarion University while most of Same was enrolled. “That was really beneficial,” Caggiano says, having Boyle as an art professor, a breath of cultural air tied to America’s indie scene while at woods college.

A stark difference comes to light on musical awareness, having grown up in forest isolation vs. metropolitan opportunity: “If you lived closer to Philly, you probably figured that stuff out a lot easier than us,” Caggiano says. After exhausting all modern episodes of NPR’s This American Life in 2014-15, he flipped back to the 90s episodes. “They had Yo La Tengo and Duster songs. I was trying to find playlists to find those bands,” he reflects, “Ira Glass got me into Duster.”

Higgins touches back on the remoteness of Western PA as an influence on not just Same, but most Pittsburgh bands: “It’s somewhat isolated from bigger cities and music scenes. I feel like we’re not having that much influence from outside places but we are still [making music] a lot. So that made us come up from a really weird scene, but in a way that’s not interacting with the outside world that much. We’re just doing our own thing, but really doing it.”

Pittsburgh is a city of insular, nowhere-PA transplants, a town always looking in on itself, hills wrap around the point of the city. It’s hardly a haven for people of sprawling urban areas to try and impact our local indie scene.

“I think there are a few bands here doing something pretty unique and really carving their own path, not just moving to a bigger city and getting lost in the ocean of bands that exist there,” Jake Stern says of Pittsburgh indie. “You just find that group of bands that you’re in-tune with and pull from them what you like. We’re all aware and watch each other too,” Caggiano recalls. “When I first saw Gaadge and they all had those whammy bars, I was like, ‘Oh, Tom has a whammy bar.’”

The self-conscious nature of the PGH alt. scene persuades Same to explore new avenues: “It pushes us to try and do different stuff too. We’re so aware of what the bands like us are doing. I can’t do this because they are doing that already. It’s a small city, we don’t need two of those bands,” Higgins says. “In a bigger city, we would have quit by now,” Caggiano speaks to musical cloning in larger scenes, “That stuff beats you down more when everyone sounds the same, when there’s like 10 Sames. It’s really fortunate that we’re from Pittsburgh. It’s not a ‘big fish, small pond’ kind of feeling, but that you’re going to stick out a little bit more, because not every person moves to Pittsburgh to play music like they would move to Philly to play music.”

Forgot to Say ‘Action’ back cover photo – Spring, 2018

Same’s next EP, 2018’s Forgot to Say ‘Action’ is the official baton pass, pivotal point towards the band’s modern sound. Canadian movie-set audio from a reel-to-reel intros “Cemetery” before the band’s downtempo head bop to psych at 11. The band loosen its kaleidoscopic buds out of, “I know my way back home,” more pedals on than ever. “Key Entering Ignition” speaks to Gruzinski’s nature to drive, every element has the rhythmic quality of a feel-good Dinosaur Jr. rocker. “Secret Sacred Object – Extended,” a bed for guitar riffs in the vein of Joan of Arc, allow Stern and Higgins to innovate guitar layers with a gradual arc of intensity. “That song has kind of a marbly feel to it too with the bass harmonics,” Caggiano relays. The EP came out as a 7” on Head 2 Wall Records, their second with the label. “If it was for the smokers, it would be a 12” inch, so you wouldn’t have to get up,” Higgins jokes.

Stern took the front cover photo: a curated desktop still life the band arranged on local DJ JX4, Jeff Justus’ bedroom desk. The band posed objects seen throughout their artwork, establishing a continuity of figurines. The release masked the steady harvest of songs the group has been saving for Matt Schimelfenig’s in-progress recording studio, The Bunk. They pencilled in autumn, 2019 to record their long-anticipated debut album, Plastic Western.

The recording process proved to be skewed but not deterred; Stern broke his hand from a skateboarding injury, pushing the studio time back to January, “It was before he had a lot of climate control figured out. I remember playing a little handheld Oregon Trail game, [and felt like] ‘I’m in the game,’” Caggiano remembers. “On the game, it pops up ‘You froze to death in a recording studio,” Higgins riffs. “We can’t say enough about how cool it is there,” Caggiano adds.

The Bunk does have heat and A/C now, but during the sessions, they were firing up a propane space heater between takes to get the room to recording temp. The intermittent pauses of cold had a direct impact on album tracking: more reflection, tighter approach, the sound of the earth thawing. “When you are cold and nervous, that’s how it’s going to come out. That record has been described as sounding warm, which is very funny to me,” Caggiano says.

Stern’s broken hand brought synth into Same for the first time. The delayed studio time interim helped fledge out some songs that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. The new instrument incorporation meant having to find a way to play these songs live without sacrificing a guitar, so the band turned to Brady Lanzendorfer.

Same live at Comedy House, State College, PA – 2023

Higgins cited Lanzendorfer’s use of samples and keyboard parts in YRS, Pittsburgh punk, dream pop, and his Central PA upbringing, “The thing that really attracted us to Brady is that he’s also from a working-class town,” Caggiano says, “from the woods,” Higgins echoes. Lanzendorfer confirms their rural relatability, “I think it gave us sort of a natural instant connection. I didn’t meet those guys until I moved to Pittsburgh, but we get along like we’ve known each other for a lot longer.” He comes from Roaring Spring, a small paper mill town south of Altoona, west of Raystown Lake. The band asked him to join in later 2019.

Caggiano mulls on their most recent personnel addition despite his overall time in the band: “There’s been more Same with Brady in it than without. I think we just crossed that halfway point. Forgot to celebrate that, we didn’t get him anything.” Lanzendorfer sits in a dark room, waiting for at least a text. “’Well today’s the day that Same has had me in it longer than they haven’t. So any minute now,’” “’They should be coming through the door…they should be surprising me any second now,’” Higgins and Caggiano joke.

Lanzendorfer released the beautifully haunting PA masterpiece, Darkness on the Edge of the Parking Lot with his band Tyler Heaven in 2022. His offerings to Same may seem sparse but has a crucial role in the songwriting process: “A lot of the things we’ve been questioning, ‘Should we do this part? What should we do here?’ We will deflect to Brady — he’s a good voice of reason,” Caggiano says. “Brady’s like an iceberg, so much stuff underneath the surface. You guys don’t even see it and that’s the best part of having him,” Higgins doubles down. “’Motorcycle’ was a big one he contributed to help us finish,” while also credited with lyrics which was traditionally Caggiano’s role. 2019 solidified the 5-piece. Most of the year was spent label shopping, forcing the band to wait on the release.

Tiny Engines handed over papers for Same’s Plastic Western around the time the label was accused of a breach of contract for skipping royalty payments to Adult Mom and a handful of other artists. Lauren Records capitalized on the exodus, offering a home for their debut album. The label had some familiarity and perks with shrouded costs: working with Max Stern’s Signals Midwest and PR to push the release but realized it came as a line of credit. The band realized something more consequential than social backing: “It’s great when people write about your album, and get it on an NPR release radar or whatever. But it’s not as important as writing and recording a record with your friends and putting it out and having your friends listen to it and say, ‘That sounds good,’” in a tone like Farmer Hoggett saying, “That’ll do,” at the end of Babe on VHS. “I don’t want to say that’s the main point, but that’s the best part of it all,” Caggiano proclaims.

The release date for the album was set for May 8, 2020. The band endured the early amorphous blob days of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, but not without some regret: “We sat on Plastic Western for a long time. It was miserable not releasing it for that long,” waiting an extra 8 months, “We could have toured it a year sooner before the pandemic hit, so that really fucked us. That’s the first time I’m realizing that now,” Caggiano says. The label attention and backing dimmed in the wake of their Pavement homage Does It Go Any Faster? Both parties decided to split in the summer before the October 27, 2022 release.

The band digging into their DIY roots, motioned to put the album out themselves on cassette. Their approach changed since their first stop at The Barn: “The last album had less songs and it was longer. This next album that we do, the blue one, we’re going to try and do something different. Because that’s the way we like to do it: it’s really boring to do the same thing twice,” Caggiano says.

Same live at Thunderbird Music Hall headlining “Friday in Love” – Feb. 11, 2022
Filmed and Edited by: Eric Stevens and Johnny Hopkinson
VFX by: Michi Tapes
Same live at Thunderbird Music Hall
Ex Pilots S/T record release show – Feb. 19, 2023

Springboarding from their in-person sound, Same wanted to live-track Does It Go Any Faster? instead of individually recording instruments to clicks. “…When I’m playing live, I feel a little bit more free. I feel like I probably play better live,” Higgins says. “We discussed that it sucks when you’re sitting there playing to the metronome or Jamie’s drum track and you’re trying to be precise with all the notes,” Caggiano speaks for the band, “Plastic Western is a slower, precise album and it reads that way. And we all have been so familiar with the way that record sounds, that we wanted to do something very different for the next one.”

The thawing coolness of the Plastic Western studio sound now comes with some heat live, every detail exploding without falling far from the tree. “We’re still holding it together, Jamie’s still back there,” Higgins hints at Gruzinski’s control and punctuation even in slacker moments. “Jamie’s a filter too, the last thing has to pass through him. If we are going to change something that we’ve been doing for a long time: he’s gotta check it off.”

Gruzinski with Shady alum, Geoff Graham at Sweet 16,
Philadelphia, PA – Sept. 30, 2023

The energy of a Same performance can be heard on record now and the Pavement influence in the front seat: the Malkmus-like vocal delivery of “Admin Reveal,” the end riff of “Into the Fire” sharing clothes with the final phrases of “Father To A Sister Of Thought,” the anthemic “Open Garden,” an ode to Spiral Stairs’ “Kennel District.” Gruzinski’s dynamic flex, powered restraint lets the songs out for long recess rather than cutting class. A Same set lives in the bubble of a lax school teacher secretly stowing beers in “The Cool Cooler.” Stern and Higgins locking guitars on “Another World Record” make for a modern backtrack to Maxwell’s cassette ad, “Blown-Away Guy,” a searing shredder moment. The synth on album closer, “Wormholder’s Wish” revels in vernal equinox like the flute in Kenny Knight’s “You Can Tell Me I’m Wrong.” The band is exuding in all directions but with intention and creative custody.

Same focuses a little differently these days, having to want it a bit more now: Caggiano became a father in April 2022, almost every member has other bands they’re active in: Higgins in the Bloom-fronted “dumbest band in hardcore” Illiterates, Stern in Meridian and the new Rue lineup, Lanzendorfer returned home to Roaring Spring, joining a bluegrass band on lap steel, continuing Tyler Heaven and occasional Pat Coyle full band side action. The band doesn’t convene often, readjusting their rehearsals with more purpose.

Caggiano mentions how fatherhood has changed his songwriting approach: “[The songs] are all about my kid now,” he jokes, “The time I have to sit down with myself and a guitar and write a song, is an hour before work, two days [a week], spare time here and there and when I get together with the band. In a way it’s cool to be that limited because it feels fresh every time you pick a guitar up, you’re not sick of it. You come up with something different each time you pick the guitar up because you can’t pick it up all the time.”

They’re not getting together as much as they all would like but are making it work, despite affecting new song development. Higgins countered: “Even though we’re playing together a little bit less like Jesse said, I think it makes it feel a little bit more focused. Instead of being like ‘Let’s just jam this one forever and see what happens,’ we’re like, ‘Let’s try and do this,” Higgins adds, “…sometimes putting a couple restrictions on yourself can help you.” Caggiano quips, “It’s like going to Catholic school, you don’t have to think about the clothes you’re wearing, just put on that uniform.” “All you have to think about is praying,” Higgins says.

Same live at The Government Center, Northside Music Fest – July 15, 2023

Despite their sporadic rehearsals, Same has a fresh bag of new material waiting for The Bunk 3.0. Caggiano previously wrote songs in isolation only on occasion, thinking some of that material couldn’t work for the band. “I’m much more open to what can be a song now than I used to be. I’ll write stuff that wouldn’t necessarily sound like a Same song, but I know once [the band] gets ahold of it, you add four other people’s perspectives on it, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m dumb. This obviously could have been a Same song.’ The album we’re writing now is a lot of that stuff.”

No new material was brought out for their 2023 Government Center residency and other shows this year. They’re taking a break to finish up this batch to try live before hauling them to the Poconos in Summer ’24. “You can hear us loosening up over time. [But also] getting tighter because we’ve been playing [music] with each other longer, and longer,” knowing what you can get away with and when to wrangle back in. “This next record, we’re not even going to be playing with each other that well, it’s gonna be like jazz but actually just bad,” Caggiano jokes. Higgins notes the approach to the new material will be “…a little spin on Does It Go Any Faster? but with some different influences.”

The duo shudder in the bar booth when asked if they would send out their future LP: “Hell no. It’s really dumb to do that for us…[a] label doesn’t really make sense for Same,” Caggiano says. “It’s kind of an exhausting process. I would rather just focus on the music,” Higgins agrees. “Just post it, man. Just post the record.”

Caggiano leans towards Higgins, “Do you remember that band we saw at Roboto, that was like, ‘Labels suck. Fuck labels. No one should ever wanna be on a label. That’s why we started our own label!” Everyone erupts. “What was all that you said about labels?” “Dude, I just started not liking labels,” Higgins adds. “It’s a terrible sales pitch.”

Same live at Comedy House, State College, PA – Sept. 29, 2023

Same is flirting to balance pop-accessibility and their standards for palatable songwriting: “We always find a way to ruin a song for radio play,” Caggiano affirms. The concise path to writing feels good for the band but promise to keep it weird: “…our minds are twisted,” he says, “I’ll never be very comfortable in what I’m writing. It’ll always feel new to me. I don’t know how to sing it. I can’t tap into a sound like, ‘Here I go, here’s the signature sound.’ It’s always a new challenge every time.” The efforts of the band have an air of Brink, boasting “soul skaters,” to fulfill your own artistic aspirations at your own leisure without external pressures. Mid-tier labels can act as a Team X-Blades, lackadaisical and business forward, spoiling every pleasantry that music making has to offer. Same reminds bands they don’t have to make it their day job.

The group recognizes their years: “We all have been doing [music] forever, and we are all still doing it,” Higgins says “I think [a burnout] would have happened by now.” “We’ve coasted pretty freely at this point. A lot of people have stopped doing it,” Caggiano says. “We’re pretty realistic as far as what success might bring, and focus pretty much solely on the music and writing the best songs we possibly can. I’m sure that’s out there, everywhere. But it’s something that truly feels like the feeling I’ve only ever had playing with the folks I grew up playing with,” Lanzendorfer said.

Same postures music at their own chill pace with the persistence of folks from hard-working towns: “The ox is slow, but the earth is patient,” a Tibetan proverb often quoted by Mike Wittman, Higgins’ classmate’s dad and multi-generational syrup maker. Same continue to cruise at a relaxing 45 mph with their own brand of style and determination only felt in rolling hills. Does the band go any faster? No, not much, and it doesn’t have to.

Same live at Sweet 16, Philadelphia, PA – Sept. 30, 2023
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Eric was a 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award finalist for Excellence in Journalistic Craft Achievement: Multi-Platform Project. He has published photography in Three Rivers Review in 2018, was a part of the Camera Work exhibition at Cleveland’s 78th Street Studios in 2019, and had a solo-exhibition of collage and photography at Mr. Roboto Project in 2021

He has also published photos in Melted Magazine, WYEP, The Alternative, Ponder, and Pittsburgh City Paper and has taken album cover photos for vinyl releases.

Too many hobbies on the small plate of time, he also does live video projections for music shows, video manipulation for music videos, full set edits for live music, and releases music on cassette via the Michi Tapes record label.