Artist of the month: From almonds to album: Palo Alto band connects through music

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN AND AGNES MAR, PHOTOS COURTESY METRO

The stereotypical high school garage band features so-so music and overly baggy cargo shorts, but Metro is no typical high school band.

Metro, a self-described “dream pop” band, consisting of four members from the Palo Alto area, said that its practices feel like “hangouts” because the group is so tight-knit. 

“One of the first practices we spent 30 minutes like putting almonds on speakers and having Joseph play the bass and watching almonds fly around,” singer and guitarist Marina Buendia said. “I feel like we just do a lot of random stuff in practice and it’s definitely made us closer.”

Buendia sings alongside Toni Loew, who plays the keyboard and writes music, Joseph Cudahy, who plays bass and co-produces, and Rein Vaska, the drummer and producer. 

Vaska and Buendia are seniors at Palo Alto High School, while Loew and Cudahy are college freshmen.

The band first formed in 2018 when Loew’s old band broke up, and a music-hungry Loew reached out to various musicians in hopes of finding new band mates. According to Loew, the four of them “instantly clicked.”

Inspired by a variety of artists, they collaborate to write and produce music, including their recent single “Letters.” The group covers hard rock, psychedelic pop and general pop music, but their original music is “dream pop with alternative, indie and rock influences,” according to Vaska. 

“One thing that’s kind of special about us is that we listen to a lot of different types of music as individuals, and I think it does add a lot to the type of sound we have because we all have different inspirations and things that we bring to the table,” Buendia said. 

Loew said they usually each bring individual ideas to the group, then work together to make it a complete song.

“Someone brings something and then we all build it up,” Cudahy said. 

Buendia, who usually writes the lyrics, said she gets her inspiration from the music the other members write. 

“I interpret the music and I apply my personal experiences and then I try to write lyrics that match that interpretation,” Buendia said.

Cudahy, who writes music and produces for the song after receiving lyrics from Loew and Buendia, echoed this idea.

“I feel like for me, when I’m writing my parts … I’m almost getting into character with the vibe of the song and connecting to that experience that Marina has written about or Toni has written,” Cudahy said. “I can find a way to connect that to myself and that’s what I try to reign to the song with my parts.”

“I feel like we each kind of contribute and then as a whole that really comes across for sure,” Loew said. 

Prior to quarantine, the group would write music together in a band member’s garage. According to Vaska, that environment resulted in a “snowballing of ideas.”

“You end up building off the energy surrounding you and it’s a really special experience; you’re really inspired by your bandmates,” Buendia said. “You bring an idea that’s morphed into something and then someone else morphs that idea and you end up getting this hodgepodge of all of your ideas mashed together and it ends up being this really special creation that everyone’s really proud of.”

After the team writes the music and lyrics, Cudahy and Vaska use production tools to record and finalize the song. 

“The main thing is trying to bring the songs to life,” Vaska said. “In production we have the opportunity to bring up the story and the emotions in the song … [and] there’s little moments where you can do things to compliment the story. It’s very subtle but a lot of those little elements that you work on … grab your attention.”

This collaborative environment is made possible by the fact that the band are all close friends. 

“I feel very close to [the band] because writing music is a very vulnerable thing to do,” Buendia said. “Especially when you’re practicing, it’s not fully perfect and you’re gonna make mistakes, and I feel comfortable doing that with [the band].”

Cudahy said practices like the one involving almonds contributed to the bands’ connection. 

“By the time we were doing these six to seven hours of writing music together, the only reason we’re able to do that is because we’ve spent so much time hanging out and we’re so open with each other so it’s not weird at all,” Cudahy said. “It’s just like friends hanging out and we have something to do, which is making music.”

Buendia said to be a successful band, “you have to agree on the goals you have as musicians and as a band and then also you have to get along.”

“There’s a very specific set of qualities you guys need as a band, and I feel like we’ve been very lucky to have all of them,” Buendia said. 

According to Vaska, their close relationship translates when they perform live. 

“Sometimes we’re so locked in and I’ve never felt that with any other group,” Vaska said. “Knowing these people so well, as people but also how they play, is really cool.”

When the group did live performances, one of their favorite shows was in San Francisco in 2019 at the Battle of the Bands, a 10 band elimination competition. After the first round, they said they were sure they were eliminated. To their surprise, they advanced to the second round with four other bands. They made it to the final round with two other bands and ended up placing first. 

“We went off stage being like, ‘that’s the most energy we’ve ever had on stage,’” Buendia said. “Every single time I perform I critique myself after … [but] that was the only time we’ve ever performed and I haven’t immediately critiqued myself.” 

Metro’s audience is mostly their friends, family, and other people they know, so during performances they are able to connect with the audience on a personal level.

“Since we’re not that big of a band and we’re a local band, we interact with [our audience] like they’re our family and friends” Buendia said. 

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Metro has still been able to perform — socially distant, outside and masked. Since their gigs are now outside, such as on the sidewalk of Palo Alto’s California Avenue, they’ve been able to reach a different crowd of people than their usual audience composed of family and friends. 

“People walking by will just stop or they’re at a restaurant or walking their dog … and they get to hear some music. … It’s nice to reach people who wouldn’t have specifically come to one of our shows,” Vaska said. 

Their music has been able to bring people together during a global pandemic, and one time even turned their practice into an impromptu performance. 

During their first practice together in quarantine they gathered in Vaska’s backyard, playing paint buckets and singing. 

“Then this lady, a random stranger, just walked off from the side of the street, and walked into our backyard, and she was dancing, singing and getting so into it,” Vaska recalled. 

When the song finished, the new fan walked away still singing acapella. 

“I think we could consider that a gig, ’cause she had enough energy for a whole audience,” Loew said. 

Having creative control is part of the reason why the group wanted to form an independent band. Some members have participated in their school’s band, orchestra, and choir programs which taught them the fundamentals of music. However, they said it wasn’t creatively fulfilling and didn’t feel like they weren’t contributing to the sound as individuals. According to Vaska, working together as Metro is a lot more “collaborative, creative, and expressive.”

“We all make our own decisions; we produce our own music, we manage our own band, it’s a very entrepreneurial approach,” Loew said. 

Metro is working hard at producing their first album, which they hope to release later this year. 

“We love sharing our music and we love performing and the closest thing we can get right now to performing is releasing it,” Buendia said.

For now, with Loew and Cudahy at college and them scattered across different time zones, it’s been a lot of sending recordings back and forth via text message. 

In the future, they also hope to expand their audience by playing more shows and opening for bigger bands. 

“I feel like music is a language that everyone can speak and everyone can relate to,” Loew said.

Apple Music users can listen to Metro’s music here, and Spotify users can listen here. You can visit Metro’s website here

100,000 meals later, Hope’s Corner continues serving in the pandemic

STORY BY CEDRIC CHAN AND AGNES MAR, PHOTOS COURTESY MIKE HACKER

The sky was overcast above the corner of Hope and Mercy streets in Mountain View on Jan. 27. Guests were expected to start arriving at any minute, but the volunteers were sure that they would be drenched by the forecasted heavy rain. 

Still, the Hope’s Corner volunteers wouldn’t let the weather ruin a day for celebration, hanging up balloons and banners to lighten up the gloomy atmosphere. To their surprise, the rain held off as they reached a new milestone: the 100,000th free meal provided by Hope’s Corner. 

The guests lined up as usual to pick up their meals — most didn’t know that it was a special occasion — but the volunteers were eagerly counting down. Only around 20 people in, they hit 100,000. The recipient was awarded a $25 gift card, and, beaming, he posed for a photo. 

The recipient of Hope’s Corner’s 100,000th meal poses for a photo. (courtesy Mike Hacker)

Hope’s Corner, a nonprofit organization based in downtown Mountain View, has served free, nutritious meals to the public since 2011. In its early years, Hope’s Corner served just a few dozen guests in a small social hall. Today, it provides meals and resources to more than 700 individuals. 

“I think everybody’s just really proud and kind of amazed,” said Mike Hacker, a board member of Hope’s Corner. “It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that we hit … 50,000 and then 75,000.”

But it wasn’t impossible to predict either. Hope’s Corner hasn’t missed a single Saturday — the day they usually serve their meals — since they started in 2011, including on Christmas and other holidays.

That isn’t just some token achievement; Hope’s Corner has really impacted people’s lives. One of those folks is a former student at De Anza College, who requested to stay anonymous for privacy concerns. As an unhoused student, she lost access to a power source to charge her laptop when the pandemic hit. 

With her studies halted in the middle of the spring quarter, she needed to find another solution. She went around, explaining her situation to school administrators and governmental organizations. They were empathetic but, frustratingly, offered no feasible solution. 

Then someone from the Community Services Agency in Mountain View recommended reaching out to Hope’s Corner. Despite not having an existing program to meet her needs, the volunteer she spoke with listened to her situation and promised to try and help. A couple days later, they called her back and said they had a power bank she could use.

“It’s like you were sinking and someone tossed you a life jacket,” she said. “The name ‘Hope’s Corner’ is really fitting.”

With the power bank and support from Hope’s Corner, she was able to finish the quarter at De Anza College. 

“You can tell that [the volunteers] care, and they listen, and they want to do something about it,” she said. “It’s one of those life experiences that you treasure and never forget.” 

“It’s volunteer work that leaves you feeling good about what you’re doing and allows you to relate to people, maybe look at people differently,” Hacker said. “You recognize that you have a lot more in common with other people than you might realize or want to acknowledge.”

Hacker and other volunteers’ commitment has remained unfazed even through COVID-19, ensuring that Hope’s Corner could continue to provide its usual free meals; in fact, noticing the rise in food insecurity, the organization has only increased its reach, serving three times as many meals since the pandemic started. And in addition to serving the weekly Saturday and Wednesday meals at the usual Mountain View location, Hope’s Corner has even expanded its meal delivery offsite for the first time, serving mobile home residents and the Day Worker Center.

Hope’s Corner’s numerous volunteers are the cornerstone of the organization’s rapid growth. Before the pandemic, over 600 individuals came to volunteer at Hope’s Corner each year. But now, to minimize the risk of spreading disease, its operations have been reduced to two core groups that switch off every Saturday. 

Still, community members are finding other ways to stay involved. Meals are now packed in paper bags in a “grab and go” style so people can stay in their cars to pick up meals; several volunteer groups have come in to decorate these paper bags with artwork and words of encouragement — plus the occasional food pun. Something this small can bring a lot of joy to people, Hacker said. One woman even started to frame some of the decorated bags she received.

“They don’t have to be creative enough to be good artists,” Hacker continued. “Just anything like that makes a big difference.”

Despite all of Hope’s Corner’s recent success, though, some services have been put on pause due to COVID-19 restrictions. Notably, the pandemic has put a stopper on Hope’s Corner’s laundry and shower services. With it being one of the only places offering these services for free — and one of the cleanest — they’ve been particularly missed by frequenters, Hacker said. 

Less tangibly, but equally as important, pre-pandemic Hope’s Corner had formed its own niche community. Old-timers would come together every week like clockwork, sharing meals with friends or even piecing together jigsaw puzzles. Now, with social distancing protocols in place, these weekly get-togethers have become impossible.

But even without the option to have those same sit-downs, the Hope’s Corner community is staying resilient, gathering in a scattered arrangement of chairs in the parking lot. Socially distanced and when it’s not raining, of course. 

“During COVID, I even heard someone [say], ‘Hey, I haven’t seen Joe for a while; anyone seen Joe?’” Hacker said. “They kind of look out for each other and … have each other’s backs, … so it’d be great when we can reopen up sitdown meals again where people can hang out on chit-chat.”

In the meantime, Hope’s Corner will keep on bringing smiles to people’s faces, one meal at a time. 

To help out, you can visit Hope’s Corner’s wish list or contact them here.