It was basically a formula for failure, and intentionally so. Attaining critical and commercial success were the last things on Liam McCormick and John Seeterlin's minds back when they started the orchestral indie-rock project that would expand to 100 musicians and land them on NPR and Paste magazine's 2014 "best new artist" lists.
"This whole thing was supposed to be our swan song to music," says The Family Crest frontman McCormick, who'd played in enough conventional rock groups all through high school and college to know the score. "We were kind of burned out on making music that we felt was less than 100 percent about making art. So we just started doing a recording project with these fairly dramatic songs — I'd been listening to a lot of The Decemberists and this Swedish band called The Tiny who are very strings-based — and I just thought, why don't I throw in some strings there."
The next thing the San Francisco Bay Area musician knew, he was becoming addicted. "I'd never written or composed anything orchestral at that point, which was about eight years ago. But then after I sat down and started writing, it turned into, 'Oh, I guess they're gonna go on every song."
The duo decided that the only way to fully realize the sounds they were hearing in their heads was to seek out more musicians, a lot more.
One Craigslist ad later, the floodgates were opened.
"We had this kind of open-door policy," says McCormick of the sessions for The Family Crest's recordings, which include a 2012 full-length debut as well as 2014's sophomore Beneath the Brine.
"John and I specifically studied how to record classical instruments, and built a portable rig so that we could literally go anywhere," he says of countless sessions that were held in churches and bars, living room and bathrooms.
McCormick says that some 100 musicians have found their way onto the band's albums. Meanwhile, a notice on The Family Crest's website invites more new musicians to "join the fold," either onstage or in the soundbooth, by getting in touch via Facebook, Twitter or direct email. Yet through it all, the recordings and live shows continue to be anything but chaotic.
"I'm definitely a little bit of a control freak," McCormick admits. "But I think when you're doing something like this, you have to be really open-minded with everyone you're working with. For me, I've learned more about composition through this band, and am making leaps and bounds because I know that I'm working with people that are exponentially better than me at music and in understanding their instruments.
"And then, on the other side of the coin, you have people who want to be involved that have never done anything musical in their life, but they just want to be a part of it. So yeah, the approach could be very chaotic, but I think that, more than anything, it's about patience and also appreciating that these people are willing to come out and just give themselves to a song when they're that nervous. And now, with the albums, I get to hear them all in one place. And to me, there's nothing else like that."
The most fully realized manifestation of that inclusive approach was last year's Beneath the Brine. Its title track goes through as many compositional changes as Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," yet never succumbs to the latter's novelty inclinations. Arrangements are similarly complex, from the prominently featured bassoon on its bridge to an array of choral parts that feel larger than life.
Elsewhere, a horn section brings a swing to "Howl," while "The World" features the kind of anthemic chant that invites Arcade Fire comparisons. "She knows my Name" is a string-section-powered ballad that manages to be both uplifting and heartbreaking.
Holding it all together are McCormick's songwriting and vocals, which soar with the near-operatic range and passion of a Roy Orbison or Jeff Buckley.
"What's funny is that I get so many Jeff Buckley comparisons — and it's the most humbling thing when someone says that, for sure, because he's a genius — but I didn't actually hear him until I was in college and everyone was like, 'You need to listen to this guy!'
"So I ended up listening to him quite a bit, but not as much as someone like Rufus Wainwright or Chet Baker. I think that Chet Baker is one of the coolest-sounding dudes on he planet. He's got this amazing timbre, and just sounded like he's so mellow all the time in everything he did.
"He was probably high most of the time," the singer adds with a laugh, "but I love the way he makes his vowels sound almost like a muted trumpet when he sings."
McCormick is also a huge fan of female vocalists. "That might be why I write stuff that's so high, or maybe it's because I sing so high that I listen to them in general. But yeah, I really love artists that just know how to emote. Nothing could be better than St. Vincent's voice."
During a showcase at this year's SXSW, The Family Crest proved the fact that their music, even when stripped-down to its basics, is no less compelling live.
McCormick sees the current core lineup — himself on lead vocals and guitar, Seeterlin on upright bass, Charlie Giesige on drums and percussion, Laura Bergmann on flute, keyboards and backing vocals, George Mousa Samaan on trombone, Charly Akert on cello, Owen Sutter on violin — as the "perfect iteration" for presenting the material live.
But what about the other 93 musicians in the group's "extended family" who didn't make the cut? How do they feel about staying home while the current seven-piece plays shows at Sundance and SXSW, as well as this summer's tour with nearly three dozen headlining gigs?
"Actually a lot of people don't want to join bands," laughs McCormick. "It looks kind of glamorous, but if you spend some time doing it, you realize that it's a really difficult lifestyle. It's a lot of hard work, it consumes a lot of time and resources, and you have to give up a lot of other things in your life. Still, there's nothing else in the world that I'd rather do."