Atlas Genius, Cloud Nothings
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Neck of the Woods sees Silversun Pickups lighting out for the territories, stretching the boundaries of their exhilarating psychedelia with confidence, invention, and undeniable ambition. Having long made their bones as masters of widescreen power, the Los Angeles-based band's third Dangerbird Records album takes their filmic vision to another level entirely - this is full-on IMAX rock 'n' roll, in stereoscopic 3D and Sensurround. From the low-frequency thrust and motorik pulsebeat that drives "Mean Spirits" to the mesmerizing first single, "Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)," the album fairly detonates with high definition creativity. Roomier rhythms and judiciously applied electronic shadings form a blissed out base camp for the band's electrifying aural adventures, the elegiac landscapes of Neck of the Woods revealing an unbridled expansion of the already impressive SSPU sound.
"There's a playfulness," says singer/guitarist/songwriter Brian Aubert, "a certain kind of freethinking experimentation that we were fooling around with. We wanted to just let it all fly."
Silversun Pickups - that is, Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger, keyboardist Joe Lester, and drummer Christopher Guanlao - emerged with 2005's Pikul EP and soon caught the attention of the wider world with the following year's Carnavas. That collection (featuring the breakthrough single, "Lazy Eye") only barely prepared the way for the band's blockbuster second album, 2009's Swoon. Tracks such as "Panic Switch" and "The Royal We" established Silversun Pickups as a potent force in 21st Century Rock, further confirmed by an 18-month tour that included innumerable headline dates, festival sets, and a 2009 Grammy Award nod for "Best New Artist."
The new album's genesis began as Aubert visited cities and hamlets from Italy to Iceland while on a brief hiatus from the non-stop touring that followed Swoon. Aubert's European impressions fueled a ream of new songs and late night home demos, quietly recorded as his wife slept in the room next door.
"I got this feedback loop going on in my head," he says, "thinking that these are just towns people are from. It might look kind of magical to me, but I'm definitely an outsider looking in. This is just normal for them, and in a lot of ways, it's very much the same as where I grew up."
While undeniably proud of Swoon and its world conquering success, Silversun Pickups also knew that the album had only touched upon their music's infinite possibilities. When the band eventually reconvened in their Silverlake rehearsal space, all involved were determined to take a more open attitude towards their songs, giving their imagination full, unbridled rein.
"We immediately said, no matter how these songs come out, let's try to catch up with them and not try to squeeze them down," Aubert says. "Let's see how and why they are the way they are. Instead of pushing them in unnatural directions, let's let them breathe. Even if we find them strange, let's try and figure them out."
To fuel the project with a fresh energy, the band decided to collaborate with a new producer. The goal, Aubert says, was "to throw something into the mix that might make us feel odd, in the same way the demos and the music we were thinking about were making us feel odd." They met with a number of top studio hands before realizing that they had already found the right man for the job in Jacknife Lee, whom they had previously encountered while contributing guest vocals to their pals Snow Patrol's most recent collection. Lee brought both infectious energy and an atypical recording model to the table, offering the band legroom to improvise and invent without constraint.
"Jacknife said, 'Let's get in there, set up everybody's stuff, and just attack this record from the ground up,'" Aubert says. "That's exactly what we wanted to do. We weren't really interested in making a record where we rehearsed everything over and over again, then came in and laid it down. We wanted to be able to screw with things."
In TK, Silversun Pickups embarked on ten weeks of sessions at Lee's studio in Topanga - which, as kismet would have it, was Aubert's childhood hometown, providing flashbulb memories that offered ironic counterpoint to his already dislocated lyricism. The recording pushed the band to the brink, imbuing them with both aesthetic intensity and increased unity.
"It kept everybody involved the entire time," Aubert says. "Christopher said to me, 'This is the most involved I've been on any of our albums,' because his drums were set up all ten weeks. Usually the drummer is there for the first seven days and then he's gone. This time, we never knew when he'd have to add something all of a sudden."
SSPU pulled apart their swelling songcraft, rending their trademark reverb and distortion to reveal a grander, more dreamlike sound. The oblique duality of Aubert's songs is matched by a similar sonic tack, simultaneously glacial and volcanic, intimate and overwhelming. The skyscraping scope promised by their previous albums is amplified on such tracks as the closing "Out of Breath," its multi-layered volatility daubed with unconcealed angst and ill-tempered aggression.
"We wanted to play with negative space," Aubert says. "We're always trying to achieve dynamic, but sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle. This time we just pulled things in different directions and made things crisper and more angular. We wanted the louder stuff to sound cranky."
Epic though they may be, songs like "Here We Are (Chancer)" retain the "nakedness" of Aubert's home demos, even so far as incorporating many of his original drum machine tracks. Even as they developed synthetic textures and electronic components, the band were resolved that the album would retain what Aubert calls "the human sound in the machine." That elemental humanity informs Neck of the Woods to its very core as Aubert unpacks evocative imagery that reverberates with the recognition of his transitory place in the universe and the realization that he is least at home in his own hometown.
"These songs started forming in places that were completely foreign to me," Aubert says, "and then ended in the place that I grew up, an environment that could not be more familiar. I went through my whole childhood and teenage years in the weeks we were there making the record."
Beginning with the unnervingly hypnotic "Skin Graph," Neck of the Woods boasts a wintry, suspenseful quality that Aubert links to such cinematic manifestations of dread as The Shining and Let The Right One In. Songs like "Make Believe" and "The Pit" - with its bluer than "Blue Monday" beats - are desultory and somewhat adrift, haunted by memory and the inability to escape one's past no matter what heights you ascend to in adulthood.
"There are certain things about growing up that are horrific," Aubert says, "things that are inside you, that make you up - those are the things that intrigue me the most."
Silversun Pickups are now preparing to take this powerfully personal work on the road, marking yet another manifestation of the multiple contradictions of being in a band.
"This is the moment where the introverted side is gone," he says. "Everything is going to be big from here on in. You've got to get out of your head, because for this part of it, that's the last place you want to be."
From inception to fruition, a series of happy accidents led Silversun Pickups to the transcendent Neck of the Woods. Every step on the journey was marked by true synchronicity in action - the stars aligned, clouds parted, the cosmos smiling down upon the band. For their part, Silversun Pickups take a more pragmatic view.
"Some people believe in The Force," Aubert says, "but I'm more like Han Solo - I think it's just dumb luck! We definitely prepared for if the luck came, but that doesn't mean that anything we did necessarily had that much to do with how well things went. I don't know what we did to deserve it, but we're thankful."
In November 2009, the members of Adelaide, Australia's Atlas Genius set about building a studio where they could write and record music for their newly formed band. For two years, brothers Keith, Steven, and Michael Jeffery devoted their days to constructing their dream studio and spent their nights performing songs by The Police, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at local pubs to pay the bills. "We really got down and dirty with drywalling and literally laying the floorboards, and at the same time we were taking a couple of days a week to focus on writing songs," recalls Keith, Atlas Genius's vocalist/guitarist. The studio was designed and outfitted by the brothers with the help of their father (who comes from a music and engineering background). Once the studio was complete, the first song that Atlas Genius finished was a song called "Trojans," which they wrote, recorded and produced in collaboration with their friend Darren Sell. After many weeks tweaking the song, Michael insisted that the song was ready to be heard outside of the studio walls. Within an hour, "Trojans" was on SoundCloud for sale via TuneCore on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify worldwide.
"We had begun to think that music was a pipedream and we had all gone back to university to pursue more realistic careers" says Keith. "We'd had such a long slog of playing late nights and working all day, and it felt like we didn't really have anything to show for it." But then, in the midst of cramming for their Fall 2011 semester final exams, Michael discovered a Neon Gold post praising "Trojans" as a song sure to "invade your head, all dressed up in a clever disguise of earnest vocals riding a hooky riff." Checking the band's email account for the first time in over a month, Atlas Genius found that dozens of record labels, publishers, lawyers, booking agents and management companies from all over the world had contacted them.
"We were trying to focus on school, but it was just impossible," recalls Keith. "So we said, 'There's something going on here. Let's get back to the music.'" The band added Manager, Jonny Kaps from +1, to their extended family to navigate all of the interest as the band focused on writing and recording more songs.
Quickly named an iTunes Single of the Week in Australia and New Zealand, "Trojans" reached #4 on Hype Machine by the end of May. In August, SiriusXM Satellite Radio's Alt-Nation discovered the song on a blog and decided to give it some spins. There was an immediate reaction from listeners, and in September, "Trojans" was placed into heavy rotation, where it maintained a top-five position on the listener-generated Alt-18 countdown and peaked at number one for 4 consecutive weeks in January 2012. "Trojans" began selling over a thousand tracks per week on U.S. iTunes and soon climbed to 40,000 sales -- all with zero promotional efforts from the still-unsigned Atlas Genius.
"Knowing we had this audience that was waiting on new songs, we had a much greater sense of purpose than we had before," says Keith. "It was really exciting to know that there were people who wanted to hear more of our music." Although labels were clamoring for the band to come to the U.S. and play a series of showcase gigs, Atlas Genius turned down those offers in favor of staying in Adelaide to keep writing and recording new songs. In February 2012, after months of communicating with numerous labels via Skype, the band chose to travel to the US in order to make their label decision.
"We'd never been to America before," says Keith. "We flew in at night and saw this sea of lights, and it really became apparent to us how massive this country is. It was pretty intimidating -- like 'How do we fit into all this?'" In April 2012, the band returned to the U.S. having made their decision to sign with Warner Bros. Records. "We felt a connection with them," notes Keith. "Everyone there feels very creative and dedicated to the music."
The band's first release from their new label home, the three-track "Through the Glass" (produced, engineered and mixed by the band) captures Atlas Genius's singular combination of sophisticated musicality and warm, wistful spirit. Infused with a classic sensibility, each of the songs would fit seamlessly if somehow slipped into a long-treasured mixtape. On the shimmering "Symptoms," for instance, taut keyboard riffs mesh with urgent acoustic strumming before the band bursts into a gently frenetic, guitar-drenched chorus. Meanwhile, "Back Seat" blends its pulsing bass throb with a sweetly infectious beat and tender vocals that alternately soar and sigh. And on "Trojans," Atlas Genius begins with a restrained guitar melody and vocal ("Take it off, take it in/Take off all the thoughts of what we've been") before giving way to the handclap-accented, harmony-soaked refrain and lush yet kinetic bridge.
With "Through the Glass" completed, Atlas Genius is now holed up in its studio and working on wrapping up its first full-length album. "It's still surreal," says Keith of all that's happened over the past year. "I think when we were very young, we had hopes that something like this might happen one day," he continues. (Thanks largely to encouragement from their Beatles fanatic parents, who encouraged the three brothers to begin playing music by age 14.) "But then you grow up a bit and it seems less and less likely. So when we put 'Trojans' out, we figured it would be a success if maybe a hundred people heard it." "So many bands focus on the promotion aspect of the process instead of the music," says Keith. "All of our efforts go into making the songs as good as they can be. We don't want to force our music onto anyone. Our goal is to write songs that we love and we hope they connect with other people too -- be it 100 or many more."
In 2009, Cleveland’s Dylan Baldi began writing and recording lo-fi power-pop songs in his parents’ basement, dubbing the project Cloud Nothings. His music quickly started making the Internet rounds, and fans and critics alike took note of his pithy songcraft, infectiously catchy melodies, and youthful enthusiasm. Baldi soon released a string of 7”s, a split cassette, and an EP before putting out Turning On—a compilation spanning about a year’s worth of work—on Carpark in 2010. January 2011 saw the release Cloud Nothings’ self-titled debut LP, which, put next to Turning On, found Baldi cleaning up his lo-fi aesthetic, pairing his tales of affinitive confusion with a more pristine aural clarity. In the interval since the release of Cloud Nothings, Baldi has toured widely and put a great deal of focus on his live show, a detail that heavily shapes the music of his follow-up album, Attack on Memory.
After playing the same sets nightly for months on end, Baldi saw the rigidity of his early work, and he wanted to create arrangements that would allow for more improvisation and variability when played on the road. To accomplish this desired malleability, the entire band decamped to Chicago—where the album was recorded with Steve Albini—and all lent a hand in the songwriting process. The product of these sessions is a record boasting features that, even at a glance, mark a sea change in the band’s sound: higher fidelity, a track clocking in at almost nine minutes, an instrumental, and an overall more plaintive air. The songs move along fluidly, and Baldi sounds assured as he brings his vocals up in the mix, allowing himself to hold out long notes and put some grain into his voice. Minor key melodies abound, drums emphatically contribute much more than mere timekeeping, and the guitar work is much more adventurous than that of previous releases.
For all of early Cloud Nothings’ fun and fervor, Baldi admits that it never sounded like most of the music he listens to. With Attack on Memory, he wanted to remedy this anomaly, and in setting out to do so, Baldi and co. have created an album that shows vast growth in a still very young band.
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