Imagine that you've never played basketball. You've watched a lot of it, though, studying the rules, hanging around the courts, reading Red Auerbach books, buying the satellite package that gives you every game of every season. Now imagine walking onto a concrete basketball court on a hot summer day, your new high-tops gleaming in the sun, and asking for "Next" while 10 very tall, very fit people grind away at an intense clip. They're sprinting and spinning and slamming, and here you are, studying again.
Carrboro resident Paul Finn eyed record labels for about 15 years, running errands and organizing press campaigns at indie magnates like Touch & Go and Drag City in Chicago and Merge in Durham. He's been playing in bands on labels since he was a New Jersey restaurant rat, too, and his most recent band, The Kingsbury Manx, released its fourth LP on Yep Roc Records in 2006. Finn eventually decided he'd spent enough time on the sidelines. The Manx was sitting on its fifth album, waiting for a label to give them enough money and attention to release it. He'd recently co-produced records by two upstarts, Americans in France and Impossible Arms, and he was anxious for the world to hear them.
He decided to do it himself, forming an imprint called Odessa Records and extending offers to all three bands. They agreed, and he went to work.
Now, to extend our metaphor, imagine that, during your first basketball game ever, you drive the score to 7-0 in three plays: The gambit is a long, graceful three over the top of two bigger dudes (here, The Kingsbury Manx's beautiful Ascenseur Ouvert!). The second score is an old-school hook from just outside the paint, under pressure (here, Impossible Arms' indie muscle on Ripped in No Time). The third is a work of nerve and grit, you slashing through the lane, heading toward the hoop and slamming it with one hand at an awkward angle (here, that's certainly Americans in France's acerbic Pretzelvania). In other words, you're perfect, possibly unstoppable in an environment where that didn't seem likely.
Odessa's first three albums are three of the year's best contributions to indie rock—locally or nationally, no qualifications needed. They're smart, well-made records with interesting lyrics, arrangements and ideas. We've previously raved about The Kingsbury Manx. Here, we dig into the debuts from Impossible Arms and Americans in France. —Grayson Currin
Americans In France
That old, ingrained adage about getting only one first impression would be more annoying only if it were any truer. For a freshly minted band, a debut album can be a curse—a betrayal of unresolved kinks and premature ideas. That said, it can be a grand entry, too. For Carrboro trio Americans In France, the debut Pretzelvania is just that. (Read our review of the record.)
We caught drummer Casey Cook at her home—The Pond House, where the band rehearses and recorded its LP with Odessa Records head Paul Finn and former Wilco and Rosebuds producer Brian Paulson—to talk about the strings of good fortune that went into Pretzelvania. Americans in France plays The Cave with Whatever Brains and Francis Harold & the Holograms Monday, June 22, at 10 p.m. Admission is $5.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What was the process like of building to this debut with Americans In France?
CASEY COOK: We just started playing songs and writing songs together, and then collected enough and were like, "Let's make a record." We wanted to capture that moment in time, so it seemed like a good time to record.
Had any of you done a lot of recording before?
Our bassist, Kent [Howard], has been in a couple bands before and recorded stuff, but for myself and Josh [Lajoie, guitar/vocals], it was the first time.
Arranging the songs in their definitive state and then sequencing them into a record for the first time: How difficult was that?
It kind of fell together. We had an idea for placement for some of them, and then it was just moving the rest of them around until it makes sense to us.
I always think about that part in High Fidelity when John Cusack is talking about how you have to sequence a mix tape whenever I think about putting together a record.
I know a lot of people have concepts ahead of time, sort of knowing which of the songs and what order there's going to be, but we didn't. We kind of just did what we thought sounded best.
Did you feel like the record captured what you were after? And did you think maybe there was something you'd do different next time?
With the goal of wanting to capture that moment in time of where we were as a band and what we were doing, I think we did that. It was really fortunate that we were able to record in the same place that we practice. It's this little house on a pond, like out in the country. So that was important.
We set up the way we practice, and all the songs, we'd played out live before we ever recorded them. We wanted to record them that same way, so we were all in a room playing live together—even singing, which bleeds through at parts. I feel like we really did capture where we were at that time, and how we felt about the songs and each other. I definitely wouldn't change any of that.
Next time, I would like it to happen faster. From the first time we recorded at the Pond House until the time mixing was done was quite a long amount of time, to the point where we're already playing some of the songs a little differently.
I feel like we're more connected now, and we play better now, so there's things that you're like, "Oh, I wish I did that the way I do it now," but I think it's really sweet to just capture that time in the very beginning. If you don't catch it then, you never have a chance to.
I imagine having such experienced producers didn't hurt.
That was a nice thing. Having Paul [Finn] with us, he wanted to help us a lot and he definitely knew what was going on and gave a lot of encouragement. He was there to talk to us, so that it all made sense. And, of course, Brian [Paulson] is a genius at what he does, and you just let him do it. We're really good friends with both those guys, too, so it was very comfortable.
How did you end up deciding to work with these guys?
I think a lot of it just happened through friendships and being in a small town, and just being really lucky to know these people and be able to work with them. —Bryan Reed
After the experience of his last band, Mowing Lawns, singer and guitarist Mike Myerson knew he needed something different. Mowing Lawns had lasted a mere 16 months, imploding and leaving a stillborn album in the oven. He found his new casual configuration in his drumming neighbor, Zsolt David (Velvet), with whom he'd play along to through the walls before they officially got together, and bassist Justin Blatt, who he's known since they were preschoolers.
Together they imbue their debut, Ripped in No Time, with proper energy and spirit. They plow forward with a little wiggle, some hooks and an unhurried concision that means they never outstay their welcome. We caught up with Myerson in his Carrboro home and asked him about that transition. Impossible Arms play Nightlight with Quasar Abode and Inspector 22 Thursday, June 18, at 9:30 p.m. Admission is $5. (Read our review of the record.)
How did your experiences with Mowing Lawns inform the creation of Impossible Arms?
That Mowing Lawns material was pretty intricate, and I wanted to strip down my song approach. A lot of that material had been weaving in and out for five or six years, so with this band I really just wanted to write a whole bunch of material at once and strip it down. I had been listening to a lot of Johnny Thunders, and I was amazed at how intricate a guitar player he could be with real minimal stuff. All the progressions are verse-chorus, maybe a bridge. After Mowing Lawns, I was trying to simplify things, just making everything easier.
It was also really important for me to take what I learned from the recording process with Mowing Lawns, which was stretched out over a long period of time, and really try to decide on lyrics and make little decisions to move the process along. And mainly keep it fun. Honestly, that was the biggest philosophy as a three-piece: We were just a Bud-drinking, cigarette-smoking monster. It's not uncommon for us to start our practices with a shot of tequila or two and see where it goes.
It sounds like you didn't agonize over the material as much.
I told these guys when we started, "I'm not interested in playing live shows." I played so many live shows with Mowing Lawns, I think that may have been a catalyst to what burned us out. It was fun, but if we had spent half that time in the studio, I think we would've gotten better results.
[Impossible Arms] was a process. It became a thing where I'd be playing a riff in the living room after we got home from the bar, and [Justin] would really like it so I'd make a song out of it. I might have taken some time rewriting or revising things, but ultimately the greater part of the record was done in less than a year. We spent a good amount of time practicing it. It is what it is. I don't think it's a real complicated record, but I'm proud of it.
Was it that you wanted to create a recorded work more than have a live band?
We played our first show in I think February 2008. It was a thing where we wanted to be firing on all cylinders when we finally played out, so we had been practicing for five or six months. I just feel a lot of people will bypass the work ethic to play the show because playing shows is so much fun. I was wanting to make sure we were firing on all cylinders when we got to that point, which we were. The first couple shows we played, we turned a lot of heads and people were into it.
That's what's important. There's really no reason at this point in time to be in a band. There are so many bands. If you get up in front of people, you better be having fun for yourself and sharing that with people.
If you're a perfectionist as you say, how hard is it for you to decide songs were finished and maintain this spontaneous attitude, not overthink it?
A couple of songs were second takes, but we kept pretty much all the first takes. We recorded, more or less, the 14 tracks in two days. From the start, I got Paul [Finn] involved in this as a co-producer. That helped tremendously because where maybe I wouldn't know where to stop, it was nice to have a fresh set of ears from someone that's kind of subjective but also knows what I want because I've played in bands with Paul. —Chris Parker