These three-and-a-half minutes shuffle and drift, clean guitar notes trickling over drums that waltz in graceful little circles. An organ eases into the empty spaces, and the bass moves whimsically beyond and before the beat, its thick tone offering the grip of a rubbery sole beneath the light tune. For that, let's consider this The Clientele moment of excellent Knoxville, Tenn., quartet Tenderhooks: While the song moves like a daydream, its lyrics poignantly convey an acute sense of mid-size city unrest. Delivering his woes in a voice that, like his predicament, hinges on liminality, frontman Jake Winstrom can't get comfortable. The rock band onstage is a bore, but the punks in front of the club are a bust. The singer-songwriter in the corner of the room is an unskilled drunk fumbling for easy words, though even the air on the rooftop seems strangely confining. And when he visits his lover by night, he's gone by the morning.
We caught Winstrom by phone in Knoxville, who—true to the tune—stepped out of the house to make sure he could talk in quiet.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: When did you write "Starlight"?
JAKE WINSTROM: It's definitely one of our older songs. It's probably two or three years old. We recorded it once before and hadn't really nailed it—sort of a faster, more rock version. This one sounds pretty natural on the recording, but it was actually one of the more difficult things to record. We recorded almost everything in this three-day span, so we were going into it with a lot of energy and hammering everything out. And this one sort of required more of a groove. When we did it, we had to all take a step back and calm ourselves down to play. It's a slow song. So, from inception to ending up on the album, it was probably 3 years.
When you recorded it earlier, was that intended for Vidalia, your earlier record?
No, we recorded it for this demo we did in 2006. It wasn't bad. It just came off a little bit too modern rocky or something. It was the same scenario where we had a day to do everything. We just got in there really excited and hammered through it, and then sort of thought, "Well, maybe this needs a different approach." We held onto it for a few years until we had an opportunity to do a better job with it.
This time around, for New Ways to Butcher English, how much was arranged in the studio versus written for the stage?
We'd been playing it live. It was a last-minute thing. We were looking at the collection of songs that we had. There were about 15 or 16 songs that we had whittled down, and we thought it would help fill out the spectrum, and be sort of a different thing, a different sort of mood to the album.
We started working on that, and we thought it seemed easy. We practiced slowing it down and everything. But finding that sort of groove hasn't always been our strong point. We had to whittle that down a lot. Then the singing part, of course, proved to be a lot more difficult than we thought it was gonna be. I had written it three years earlier, I guess, and I think actually my voice had changed in that time. So we did it in this counterintuitive way, where I'm singing the highest note and Emily's singing a harmony that's below that. That took a little while to get down, combined with playing it slow and constantly and everything.
We almost ditched it in the middle of recording because it was giving us so much trouble. You know, you have three days and you spend all this money, and we were like, "Crap, we spent three hours on this song, and we're not getting anywhere, and we still have six songs to go. Maybe we should just abandon it." But luckily we didn't. I think it turned out well. It seems to have a nice ease to it that maybe most of our other songs don't.
It is an interesting harmony because she's singing below you, and where she's at rhythmically always surprises me.
I'm not really a harmony singer at all. I just don't hear things that way. So I pretty much have whatever melody is already carved out, so it's enough of a challenge for me to stick to that without listening to her too much and then trying to go where she's going. She's really the mastermind behind that. Most of the really good harmony singers I know were chorus kids, which I never did, but I guess you sort of learn the scale and core voicings and things. She has a really natural knack for that. My voice is a lot of times in kind of an odd spot for a male singer, and she has a good way of sort winding around that and making it work in the context of everything else.
You mentioned having an odd male voice, and it's true: It's very distinct and not quite a warble, though it does bend a bit. When did you first realize that was how you sang, even if that's not how other people might expect you to?
I never realized it was that unusual until we did the Vidalia album. We sent it out everywhere, and the first thing we always got back was, "Oh, this weird high voice thing. We don't know if it's a boy or a girl." When I first really started singing, I emulated John Lennon. I can remember being younger and having The White Album and that song "Cry Baby Cry," and I can remember that was the first time I started to play on guitar and try to sing that. I thought, "Oh, this is a really comfortable spot for me to sing." And that's sort of where I started trying to model my singing. I knew it was higher. I definitely always liked John Lennon or Elvis Costello. But I never thought it was that unusual until the reviews for Vidalia came in. I always thought that I was kind of doing a bad John Lennon impersonation, but it slightly morphed over the years
When you got those reviews, what was your response?
[Laughs.] I was happy with it. I was pleased to be noticed and to be distinct enough that people would be able to recognize the Tenderhooks out of a line-up of other bands. So definitely, even if it was a negative review or a positive review, I think we were just happy to be noticed and be distinctive in a lot of respects. I have to say that there was some place in the Chapel Hill area, I think we were in Durham, and there was a column in—I think, a college paper—and they had a column that said "Press Play, Press Stop." I forget the name of the place we were in, but it was like, "There's nothing worse than Jake Winstrom's insipid warbling and Emily's horrible harmony adding to the clutter of this." I remember Emily and I were actually sitting next to each other in the club and picked up the paper and were kind of like, "Oooooh"... I think that if at least some people don't hear you and say "Yuck," then you're probably doing something wrong. I like to first elicit a passionate response, I guess, than be on the other side of the coin, like, "Oh, they're a pretty solid rock band, or whatever,"
"Starlight" seems like a very romantic song, about hiding this sacred love away from the harsh daylight.
Yeah. I hadn't thought of that in a while. I can definitely see that it's sort of like a Peter-Pan-complex song to me. It's the feeling that you're in this in-between moment. You've had whatever childhood leading up to this, and you thought you were going to do all these great things, and now you're in this in-between moment. But really, I guess, all those in-between moments make up the span of a lifetime.
The first line of the song offers a very evocative image: "The band on the stage is a ticker tape zombie parade."
Yeah, we see bands like that all the time. We opened for ZZ Top the other night at The Beacon in New York, and it was our first time playing that sort of thing, where this crowd is there seeing this band that they absolutely love, and they have these expectations. I think our manager could kind of see that we were a little nervous, a little scared. We were kind of wringing our hands a little bit, and he said, "You guys should really just have fun because when you get out there, and you look down at the crowd, you get nervous and you speed through everything. This is a night out for people. They want to sit down in this beautiful theatre and have a beer and listen to some rock 'n' roll. And if you're having fun, then they'll get behind you. But if you act like you're sort of in this separate realm, or that you're too good, and think they just sort of just won't understand, why even try to engage them?"
How did it go?
It went really well actually. I had my doubts about New York and being an opening band, but the crowd got really behind us. It was about three-fourths of the way full when we got on at 8 p.m., and everyone was in their seats by 8:30 when we finished. The response was really, really positive. I was afraid our music might get swallowed up in a place that big, but it felt really natural.
The opening line about the band on stage: Did you write that after seeing a particular band onstage, or was it just a general feeling about boring bands in small clubs?
I can't really remember. The character is pretty much me. It's sort of like you're in a place and you're watching a band, and you're like, "This isn't very good. Let's go somewhere else." You go someplace else, and then it's like you're not really happy there. So you're in all these in-between moments, and you're kind of looking bored in your life instead of making the most of where you are in the moment.
The Tender Fruit, Tenderhooks and The Cassavettes play The Pinhook tonight, Sept. 30, at 9 p.m.