Last December, Stuart McLamb, who has written and recorded soul-soaked pop songs as The Love Language since 2007, sat alone in his Carrboro bedroom. He was broke, and the seven-piece band he'd led for more than a year had just crumbled. His second albumhis first for one of the world's legitimate indie rock powerhouses, Durham's Merge Recordswas due to the label in two months. He had no idea how he would start it, much less finish. And his bedroom, stifling like the antechamber of hell, wasn't helping.
McLamb's rent was cheap, and the heat behaved accordingly: Sweltering air surged uncontrollably out of the room's two vents. To sleep, the 29-year-old would open the window wide and let the hot and cold battle above his bed.
"The heat would just blare," McLamb remembers. "I felt bad wasting energy."
In the annals of The Love Language, this is but one of many times McLamb has found himself broke and alone. Wobbling perpetually on a seesaw of highs and lows, McLamb's life—and his two albums, which have scrupulously and sometimes painfully reflected his dramatic exigencies—reads like a laundry list of down-and-out anecdotes. For every fortuitous break, there's a rash of bad luck or the consequence of irresponsibility.
When Merge signed McLamb, for instance, his first statement to the press read: "As of yesterday, I've overdrawn my bank account by $200, my girlfriend dumped me, and my car won't start. I think this Merge deal could be a real turning point." Hello, world, indeed.
But McLamb derives the bulk of his tunes from such skids, and, by and large, those songs are triumphant blasts of pop music that, since the band's 2009 self-titled debut, have amassed a swelling chorus of shout-along-and-dance fans. "This Room," the last song on Libraries, the sophomore album McLamb finally figured out how to finish, uses the singer's period of balmy solitude as the setting for a breezy pop song about old friends and transitional phases. "Swing low sweet chariot/ This room's been way too hot," it opens.
And, on the opener "Pedals," McLamb addresses the band's breakup: "We had a good run ripping pedals, but I'll stay home tonight," he sings, slyly substituting the guitar and keyboard pedals that crowded his big band's old stage show for the flower petals of "she loves me, she loves me not" lore. Elsewhere, he calls an ex-girlfriend fat and documents wasted desires. For McLamb, close relationships—be they with bands or girls—tend to be fractious and turbulent. They make for great songs.
Right now, though, McLamb is doing pretty well. He lounges in a hammock chair on the large front porch at Ruby Red, a labyrinthine white warehouse that multitasks as a "work-in-progress" art gallery, practice spaces and The Love Language's living quarters and rehearsal room near Raleigh's Glenwood Avenue. His plaid burgundy-and-yellow shirt is unbuttoned about halfway, and his tight jean shorts cut off just below mid thigh. Standing only to smoke, he's perfectly relaxed. Indeed, if he's still nervous about Libraries, the most important statement of his young career, he doesn't show it.
"I love it. Like, I love it like a fan. I don't listen to it all the time, but when I do, I really enjoy it. And I'm happy with it," McLamb says. "I'm just really grateful that people got behind it and that people get my music. I feel like whatever I try to do is understood by a lot of people, and that's a great feeling."
He's not alone anymore, either: McLamb's assembled an effective, efficient five-piece version of The Love Language. He's out front, with keyboardist and roommate Missy Thangs to his right and BJ Burton, who recorded Libraries, to his left. His brother, Jordan, plays drums, and his old band's manager, Justin Rodermond, plays bass. He's comfortable with these people, and that's good, as they're starting to get very busy. Since March, they've played about 30 shows, opening for such heavy hitters as Camera Obscura and Phoenix along the East Coast. Their first tour included a dozen shows in four days at South by Southwest.
"A lot of people tell me that my music is comforting or it helps them. And I can see that to an extent, but I never try to just lay out a solution. I feel like I—sort of like a journalist or something would—just tell both sides of the story," says McLamb. "I think a big part of my songwriting is that I am sort of confused and conflicted with a lot of these emotions."
Indeed, both the origins and major evolutionary moments of The Love Language are tied to a series of conflicts and disasters. In 2006, McLamb sang and played guitar in a band called The Capulets. Locked in an unhealthy relationship and with his interest in the forgettable garage-rock band waning, he began drinking too much. He was depressed. While partying one night, McLamb and some friends decided it was time to jam back at the practice space just outside of downtown Raleigh. One problem: They didn't have a key. In what's since become a blurry though oft-told local legend, a drunk-and-determined McLamb climbed the posse's human ladder to break in through a high window. He smashed into the glass and cut his arm but eventually made his way inside. The crew left behind a mess of blood, damaged equipment and a broken door.
"If you're a musician and you hang around crazy-ass dudes, you're used to hearing stories about how 'that happened last night' or whatever," remembers Josh Pope, The Love Language's former bassist and the other songwriter in The Capulets. He didn't hear about the incident until the next day. "I just got a phone call that described the night's events to me, and I just like couldn't believe it. I wouldn't even say that it's been blown out of proportion."
The band called it quits when McLamb's injury kept them from a gig in Wilmington, but his antics weren't over. Soon after, McLamb was in Raleigh with friends for what was supposed to be a quiet evening of cocktails. He downed a fifth of vodka and, as he remembers it, attempted to pick fights with everyone around him. His friends called the cops, and he woke up the next day in jail.
"If you keep going down those roads, you're going to hit bottom somewhere," McLamb says, his hammock chair creaking as he shifts his weight. "So thank god there is a bottom; you don't just keep going down."
He had to get his life in order. McLamb left Winston-Salem, where he'd been living with the same ex-girlfriend of The Capulets melee, and moved back in with his parents in Cary's MacGregor Downs country club. Each day, he'd wake up at 4 a.m. and drive to his waiter job at the Carolina Inn.
"It was good for me to just kind of shock myself," he remembers. "I was getting up when I used to go to bed. A little sweat and hard work was good for me."
That's when the songs started to come: With cheaper rent and less booze in his life, McLamb started saving money, using it to buy the musical equipment he couldn't borrow and to build a makeshift studio in a space he'd rented at a generic storage center he passed during his morning commute. Working off melodies he'd jotted down while living in Winston-Salem, he began crafting songs by himself on a four-track recorder. He played drums, keyboards, bass and guitar, fusing his romantic woes with lo-fi '60s pop and soul. These cathartic, catchy songs became The Love Language. He put them online, and it was quickly apparent that this—isolated and motivated, controlling every piece of the puzzle—is how McLamb was meant to work.
"My first impression, honestly, was hatred," says Pope, who was just beginning work on his Light Pines project when he first heard the songs streaming on MySpace. "I wanted to hate it. There is an element of competition between me and Stu. I just wanted to hear it and think, 'This thing is shit. I can write better.' That lasted probably two or three minutes."
Indeed, Pope, who's been friends with McLamb since the two met in third grade, was smitten. The songs were impossible to ignore. The Rosebuds—one of Raleigh's most popular bands and one of the few locals to, at that point, call Merge Records home—agreed. Impressed with what he'd heard, frontman Ivan Howard asked McLamb to open for them in Raleigh. McLamb quickly assembled a band, which subsequently signed deals with Portland's Bladen County Records, a manager and a booking agent. Despite McLamb's past troubles, the quality of the new songs, combined with his charming persona, won people over.
"Stu's songs seem to have a level of authenticity versus a level of mimicry," says Pope, who joined as a bass player and was instrumental in shaping the full band's sound. "A lot of bands do the '60s, and you can sound like a '60s band because it is so common and easy to do. You have to bring something else to the table, and what Stu brings is a connection of him to that song and people."
Some say McLamb charms just as much as his songs.
"He's a stunningly good-looking guy who's funny as shit and a blast to be around," says Bladen co-owner Matt Brown, explaining the appeal he saw in McLamb. "He's one of those people who doesn't just have a good voice but also the confidence to know how to use his voice. And it's really attractive to see someone display that kind of talent."
Whether they're smitten by his songs or by his toothy swagger, people have a habit of bailing McLamb out of near-disasters. Late last year, alone in that sweltering bedroom, McLamb needed saving again. Pope was rebuilding his long-dormant Light Pines project, and the early Libraries recording sessions were not going well with the touring band. While McLamb had made the debut on his own, producing the album and playing every part (save one tambourine line), he was now trying to work with a seven-piece outfit. That democracy, he knew, didn't suit his style.
"I just had a hard time figuring out how to harness the live band into an album," McLamb remembers. "The basic decision I was faced with was to totally let go of the artistic intentions I had and just sort of free it up and make it a really live-sounding record with the band. It was either that—just free it up, just let the tape roll and just rock out—or me standing over everybody's shoulder."
The group finally collapsed in December, leaving McLamb with Merge's mid-February deadline and no definite solution. But McLamb is serendipitously resilient, someone who hangs around long enough for his luck to hit. The year before, he'd recorded with BJ Burton in Raleigh, a young producer then working at the high-end Flying Tiger Sound. On the track "Horophones," McLamb and Burton had, together, pushed The Love Language's sound in a subtly new direction. Still surrounding McLamb's dramatic croon in fuzz and distortion, Burton added production flash with a bold, marching bass line and keys that dance right over the top. Deciding the approach could be successful once more, Burton approached McLamb with the idea before his former bandmates had even parted.
He didn't win McLamb over right away, but the seed for their collaboration was a strong one. Burton insisted McLamb needed neither a full band recording nor another batch of rough-and-tumble demos, but rather a polished rendition of his already proven one-man-band approach.
"For like two months straight, we talked about sounds and recording and how we were going to get sounds," says Burton. Split between Raleigh and Carrboro, the two often stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, talking on the phone and online to bounce ideas off each other. "By the time we did go into the studio, we knew how we were going to get that. That's a big reason why we got it done in the time we did."
So in early January, McLamb moved to Raleigh, eventually squatting in Burton's house, not far from the studio. Sometimes working until dawn in shifts that often lasted 15 or 16 hours, they toiled to finish the album within their cramped window of time. McLamb was stunned by the amount of effort Burton put into the music.
"On the outside window, it says 'Flying Tiger Recording Studio,'" McLamb says. "I had joked, 'Could we just take off the 'D', the 'I' and the 'O,' so it says 'Flying Tiger Recording Stu'?'"
Despite all the studio time that his new friendship and his new label afforded, and despite the fact that the resulting Libraries could push the band to new levels of notoriety, this is still the same Stu. These are still fight songs. He's still hung up on getting that last word with whatever girl or situation the anthem in question references. While Burton's production may change up the ammunition, the target is still the same. Somehow, McLamb keeps on struggling, successfully.
"It's the same kind of subject matter that my songs are usually about, just the beauty slash confusion of being young and alive today—even though I'm approaching 30 rather swiftly," he says with a tense laugh, showing his first nerves of the entire chat. "I still feel like a teenager. I still feel 18. It's pretty scary. It's going to catch up with me one day."