On an overcast Tuesday afternoon in the dingy confines of a Tech basement classroom, I was greeted by “SAPPHIRE MAN WUZ HERE” scrawled in big white letters on the chalkboard.
Members of Northwestern’s “noise-pop” band arranged themselves haphazardly amongst the spinning chairs, where they suggested a quick game of bumper cars before the interview. I sat down for what would be my first of many band interviews, and certainly, the most entertaining.
Liam Warlick, Sam Marshall, Leo McKenna, and Zeki Hirsch make up “Sapphire Man.” Sapphire Man’s musical stylings are an offshoot of alternative and indie rock. Hirsch and Marshall are co-vocalists and instrumentalists, with Hirsch strumming and Marshall playing lead guitar. The band originated at Northwestern’s 2021 Homecoming, where Marshall and Hirsch first met. Not long after, the two jammed together, dubbing themselves “David and Goliath.” The two played Hillel’s most popular event of the year, Latkepalooza. McKenna on drums and Warlick on bass joined soon after.
The members’ musical interests and inspirations are quite diverse. Game Theory, Pearl Jam, Dinosaur Jr. and Aussie rock band Psychedelic Porn Crumpets are just a few of the many bands they emulate. Their scattered taste in music did not hinder their success as a group; the guys immediately clicked.
“We’ve always been really productive somehow, which given this group of people, I don't know if I would characterize any of us individually as being productive. But we get stuff done. We've been able to learn stuff pretty fast,” Warlick said.
Perhaps two out of four the members sharing the middle name “James” abetted in their bonding experience. Their cohesiveness has not only made rehearsal more fun, but has vastly contributed to their inimitable stage presence; stage fright has nothing on the group.
“I just never did.. [experience stage fright,]” Hirsch said.
Warlick concurred. “I still shit my pants when I have to do a class presentation, but for some reason I have no fear of just going on.”
Their fearlessness stems from two sources: musicianship and friendship. All the members have been longtime musicians. McKenna, for instance, has been playing the drums for over 15 years.
“I'm proficient enough that I don't have to worry about what people think of me,” McKenna explained.
Soon after his childhood best friend began taking lessons, McKenna was inspired to make his musical foray into drumming and has stuck with it ever since. McKenna accredits his teacher for prolonging his passion.
“She’s one of the main reasons I still play.”
“It's also because we're so tight, it's like us vs. the world,” Marshall added.
I can’t say I identify as a Sapphire Man groupie, but having seen two of their live shows, I can attest to the group's eccentric and lively performing prowess. Hirsch himself derives inspiration from The Stooges’ frontman Iggy Pop, bringing a frenetic energy to his performances.
“I try to look like I’m on speed for the whole show without actually being on speed. It’s just fun to jerk around and pogo and jump and get a little obnoxious with the audience sometimes,” he said.
Their larger than life stage presence helps solidify their uniqueness as a group and is what makes their shows so compelling.
“Energy can transfer to the crowd. We want people to jump and dance and be free and have fun … We try to do that ourselves, too,” Marshall said.
Their energy is infectious. Hirsch and Marshall lean into the theatrics, flinging off shirts and hectically bopping around the stage. Warlick and McKenna take a more laid back approach, focusing on their instruments or a spot in the crowd. The juxtaposition between band mates contributes to their zany, offbeat vibes.
One of their most recent gigs invited audience members to get handcuffed and attempt to craft paper airplanes while Sapphire Man performed on stage. Although not all of their performances are so absurd, they continually deliver a refreshingly idiosyncratic style to audience members.
Beyond the band’s stage presence, their songwriting capabilities lend to their success and satisfaction. None of the members took credit for spearheading the songwriting process, rather, they said it was a group effort. The group members typically divide the components of the song among one another. Hirsch and Marshall act as lyricists, while McKenna and Warlick add in the necessary instrumentation.
The members derive songwriting inspiration in extensive ways. For Marshall, inspiration can strike in the form of a book, an experience, a memory, an emotion – the opportunities are endless. He mentioned finding inspiration in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Samuel Coleman’s 1700s smash hit, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Hirsch, in particular, writes about “interpersonal relationships, and ... dynamics between people … things that an audience might be able to relate to.”
Sapphire Man’s most popular song is a Hirsch original and breakup song: “Blinders on a Horse.” Hirsch described it as “the first real song I ever wrote … I dabbled with songwriting a bit, but this was like the first [song] after many years … it came from a difficult place.”
Hirsch originally intended the song to feel like a "Graham Parson song. A sad boy country acoustic.” Blinders is now completely unrecognizable from its original demo, having evolved into a punky, rock n’ roll anthem that audiences seem to resonate with. The vulnerability in their original music translates to listeners. Raw, unadulterated truths embedded throughout Blinders enthralls audiences and offer a unique spin on the typically taboo college breakup songs.
The band members elaborated on the dynamic nature of their music. “By the time we record these originals, they will be totally different. There will be so many nuances that we hadn’t included,” Marshall said.
Their songs, both covers and originals, transform in each show due to the musicians’ improv abilities. “I never prepare a solo,” Marshall revealed. His solos are improvised on the spot and change during each and every performance.
“If you keep playing the same thing over time, the song is never going to evolve, and therefore the band is never going to evolve,” Hirsch said. Slight refinements to their music are not negligible. Every tweak enables the band to further hone their craft and create even more captivating shows.
Sapphire Man prefers playing its originals for audiences. They likened playing originals to the iconic baby Simba scene in Disney’s The Lion King.
“The image that came to mind was the opening scene of A Lion King. It's like a group of people showcasing their baby to another group of people'' said Hirsch.
Sapphire Man’s ambitions are limitless. “Record, record, record,” chimed in all the members. They hope to record their music and put it on streaming services, so NU students don't have to flock to house parties to enjoy their tunes. The band has already moved beyond campus shows. They recently played at Cole’s Bar, a downtown Chicago establishment known for featuring various musical acts. If all goes well, Sapphire Man aspires to be on tour a few years from now. Nothing sweeter than a post-grad reunion show. Oh, and McKenna’s dream of having a roadie would finally have the possibility of coming to fruition.
P.S. For all of our readers looking to expand their knowledge of stoner rock, the SM members personally demanded I listen to Dope Smoker, an eclectic mix of instrumentals and vocal tones – lighting one up before pressing play causes the song to just hit different.