Listen to The Noisy, Pop Rock of OSU’s First Responder
An interview with the band, and their lead singer, Sierra Mollenkopf.
by Xavier Veccia
Columbus is the 15th largest city in the United States, with an estimated population of 850,106. By my calculations, roughly half are in a band.
That’s a gross exaggeration, but the DIY scene in Columbus is constantly changing and growing. Most of these bands are good, but good doesn’t always rise to the top. Even the best of the best still sometimes need that extra oomph to make themselves known.
For First Responder, a local indie outfit, that oomph is Sierra Mollenkopf.
Sierra Mollenkopf is a senior Social Work student at The Ohio State University, but she also wears many other hats in her life. She’s a photographer, capitol “A” Artist, writer, intern and, of course, a bad-ass lead singer in her own band.
First Responder, after all, is the brainchild of Mollenkopf, who only started playing guitar two years ago when her grandpa bought her a, “little, mini acoustic guitar.”
As a self-taught guitarist, Mollenkopf could have just kept her experiments to her dorm room or, on an adventurous day, maybe the quad. But instead, the strings became inspiration to tap into her choir background and get back to singing.
“I really enjoy singing,” she said. “So when I started playing guitar, I was just playing guitar to have a format to sing to.”
The singing turned into songs and the songs turned into sets. By late 2015, Mollenkopf was already performing her original music as First Responder at DIY corner stones like Kafe Kerouac and The House With No Name, while also recording the pieces in her bedroom.
Early on, Mollenkopf’s influences fit her situation–female singer-songwriters with powerful voices and stories to tell. Think: Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olson. However, it was only a matter of time before she wanted a bigger, thicker sound. (“How much fuzz guitar can we get?” she often asks).
In the early months of 2016, Mollenkopf started playing occasionally with her friend and mixer, Cameron Carr. By summertime, First Responder grew again as bassist Vikas Munjal and drummer Zayn Dweik joined the folds.
“It’s just so cool to have a beat to drive your song,” said Mollenkopf of the new lineup for her project.
Along with a new look, First Responder also found itself drifting towards new sounds.
“When she first started playing, I did all the recordings for her and she always showed me these lo-fi examples of things she wanted to sound like,” said Carr, whose known Mollenkopf for three years. “Then, for one reason or another, she seemed to lean towards kind of wild and chaotic things–noise guitars, fuzz, big crashing drums.”
This noisey, fuzzy aesthetic can especially be heard in First Responder’s latest single “Rental Textbook.” Compared with Mollenkopf’s early demos, it’s a world of difference. The demos were basically just a girl and her guitar, putting extra emphasis on her words and emotions.
However, “Rental Textbook”–which isn’t necessarily lighthearted in its own regard–is allowed to have more fun with the subject. The song is driven, noisey, fuzzy–everything Mollenkopf wanted to do, but couldn’t accomplish on her own.
Now that their squad was rolling deep, First Responder was able to find texture that it never had before. However, it’s important to not that the band is still very much Mollenkopf’s pet project.
“I try, and I think that Vikas and Zayn try, as well, to make sure that we’re not pushing against what she’s doing,” said Carr.
After all, the one constant in First Responder’s busy year has been Mollenkopf and her unique vocal timbre. Like, I can’t stress enough how special her voice is. It’s almost indescribable. (And trust me, I tried. I couldn’t decide on whether it was more like a breeze over a green prairie or a Volkswagen Bug with some major horsepower.)
Mollenkopf and the new-look First Responder still aren’t done, though. They’re hoping to get their EP, In My Dreams My Windows Faced West, released by early December. This upcoming project seems to meet in the middle of First Responder’s bedroom days and their latest, fuzzy showing. (Mollenkopf compares it to The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s first album.) Afterwards, they intend to take that EP on the road, going on a mini-tour up into New York.
Of course, after I’ve written all about Mollenkopf, it occurs to me she’d probably rather this be more about the band. After all, this isn’t Mollenkopf & Co. or Sierra and the Nevadas or the Mollenkopf Cocktails. This is First Responder: a collection of four talented musicians making catchy, raw, honest music. That being said, though, it’s hard to really get First Responder without getting to know its leading lady, first.