Mt. Joy: Get Happy

Mt. Joy’s fast and furious 21st-century success story

If the internet hadn’t upended the music industry 18 years ago, it’s hard to say whether Mt. Joy would be in the position it’s in now. “These dreams are more than paper things,” muses Matt Quinn on “Astrovan,” a groovy, blues-tinged standout from the Los Angeles-by-way-of-Philly band’s self-titled Dualtone debut.

It wasn’t anything as tangible as paper that figured into the group’s unlikely ascent from obscurity to the festival circuit. That fame came by way of Spotify, when “Astrovan”—with the help of its Deadhead Jesus protagonist—accumulated no less than five million streams with zero promotion. “I just thought it would be fun to have a song on Spotify to show my friends and family,” says co-founding guitarist Sam Cooper. “Then it just took off and had, like, a million plays in the first month.”

“We chose an Astrovan for the lyric because it’s just a funny car,” says Quinn. “But it speaks to a certain level of socioeconomic class, in some respects. I think people are grabbed by the contrast of Jesus and the Astrovan. Then, when they dive in, they connect with the story within the song, as well.”

For a while there, Quinn and Cooper were living out that story within the song—of being fitfully content with just scraping by. Quinn was going to law school and punching numbers for a company that handled music-download royalties; Cooper was pursuing ad-agency work. “We weren’t thinking of music as a career,” says Cooper. “But things changed pretty quickly.”

With “Astrovan” lighting up Spotify, the phone calls from labels started coming in, and Mt. Joy was compelled to find management and fill out its lineup. They landed multi-instrumentalist Michael Byrnes through Craigslist and added Sotiris Eliopoulos on drums and Jackie Miclau on keys a short time later. The band settled on the well-respected Dualtone imprint, home to a fairly diverse roster, from the Lumineers and Delta Spirit to Shakey Graves and Robert Earl Keen. Foregoing a big-name producer, they chose Jon Gilbert, known mostly for his live sound work at major festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. “We recorded it over nine or 10 months last year at his home studio in Pasadena,” says Cooper. “He was amazing—he’s a genius with different sounds.”

Along those lines, Gilbert has done an exceptional job of corralling Mt. Joy’s various influences and points of reference, from Traffic, the Grateful Dead and Talking Heads to more recent acts like Dr. Dog, the Revivalists and My Morning Jacket. He also succeeded in not sucking the life out of the performances, applying a grainy indie-soul finish to the whole thing. “In terms of the album’s sound, we were thinking Alabama Shakes and Michael Kiwanuka,” says Cooper.

Thanks to the streaming gods, Cooper and Quinn now find themselves in the enviable position of returning home as conquering heroes—or something along those lines. “I’ve basically been living out of a bag since I got to L.A.,” Quinn says. “Philly still feels like home.”

“We’re still living there in our minds,” says Cooper.

—Hobart Rowland

The Low Anthem: Slow Dissolve

The Low Anthem’s inner groove and the parable of the salt doll

The story of the salt doll, like most parables, tells itself simply and well. After years on dry land, the salt doll arrives at a shoreline. “What are you?” asks the salt doll. “I am the sea,” the water replies. When the doll presses the matter—“Yes, but what are you?”—the sea invites the doll to place first a toe, then a foot, then a leg into the water. With each deeper measure, the doll understands a little something further but must give a part of itself to the sea in order to gain the knowledge. In the end, the doll, having gradually given its entire earthly body over to the sea in order to deepen its understanding, comes to know the sea in full because (“The sea is I!”) the sacrifice is at last equal to the wisdom it desired.

Having released its fourth full-length record, Eyeland, in June 2016, Providence R.I.’s the Low Anthem had barely begun the first leg of the support tour when a serious car accident in Washington, D.C., crushed most of its instruments beyond repair, totaled the van and laid its members up in the hospital for various stays of recovery.

“Everybody was bedridden for two or three weeks,” says frontman Ben Knox Miller. “I got it the least serious of anybody, but Jeff (Prystowsky), my writing partner, got it the worst.”

It took the band four months to get its Eyeland tour even halfway salvaged. In the meantime, Knox allowed himself a little time to focus on small projects at his house. One of these projects began when he awoke in a darkened bedroom to hear that he’d left a turntable rotating while the needle jumped and clicked in the record’s inner groove.

“I don’t know why I’d never thought to use that as a metronome,” says Knox, who quickly began Rube Goldberg-ing a series of effects and apparatuses, from scratching nicks and divots in the stylus to change up the beat, to running the whole audio signal through a length of PVC pipe. Over this set of organic, half-randomized beats, Knox wrote and played spare musical and melodic threads.

“The process was literally destructive—as in, destructive to the stylus,” he says. “When I played the demo stuff that I’d come up with for Jeff, we did try some re-recording. But we quickly realized that re-recording couldn’t replicate the most interesting sounds on the demos. You couldn’t just ‘re-do’ it, because the sound of the thing had changed incrementally in real time as the record turned. So this new record largely grew from cleaning up and adding onto what was already there.”

The Salt Doll Went To Measure The Depth Of The Sea (Joyful Noise)—Knox ran across the parable in Kay Larson’s John Cage bio Where The Heart Beats, which, he says, “lit me up”—is a sparse, minimalist record when considered alongside the more expansive Eyeland. But the hushed, intimate collection of songs honors the contemplative mood that sparked its composition.

The music honors its moment of birth, the dearly-paid-for time that allowed it to germinate. “Some of the obstacles (to re-recording it) were technical,” he says. “There was no way to impose any time changes on what was recorded, so the core of the music’s ‘time’ had to remain, or we’d have had to throw the whole thing out. And there was a kind of ‘sound assassination’ even with the smallest parts. The tiny micro-voltage of that needle jumping and skipping around in the groove had to be brought up into an order of magnitude where humans expect to hear music. The components were tiny and simple and organic, and they just sounded in the end so different from a digitally generated loop.”

And, like the salt doll, ultimately dispersed throughout the whole—everywhere present, nowhere locatable. Is there a better way to think about creation?

—Eric Waggoner

Albert Hammond Jr.: Living Through The Past

Albert Hammond Jr. is still saying yes to just saying no

Diving into the wreck, as feminist poet Adrienne Rich put it, is a process many artists come to engage in once they’re on the other side of trouble. For Albert Hammond Jr., who came to worldwide fame as a member of the Strokes, the past hasn’t always sat so easy. A three-year period of intense drug use overlapped with the band’s recording of and touring behind 2003’s Room On Fire. Fortunately, Hammond saw the danger and pulled himself out of it successfully.

“It’s still what people want to ask me about,” he says. “That kind of question really pisses me off: ‘Oh, how can you still be creative without the drugs?’ It’s like, ‘No, man. No.’ For me, the really creative stuff only came when I got the drugs out of the way. They were an impediment, not a motivator. It amazes me how much better stuff you can produce when they’re not part of your daily process.”

—Eric Waggnoner

Albert Hammond Jr.: Trouble Boys

Albert Hammond Jr. crafts an album about brotherhood, loss and existential identity—and it rocks

“I knew the story,” says Albert Hammond Jr. “I’d always known the story, but when I was 36, some parts of it I hadn’t known before started coming out, and I thought, ‘Wow, why didn’t anybody tell me this sooner?’”

Here’s the story: Albert Hammond Jr. was—or is, or was to have been—a twin. But early in the development process, as sometimes occurs, his fetal brother ceased to develop, after which point Hammond continued on his own. What he didn’t know until recently was that developed parts of his brother had remained in the womb intact. When Hammond was born, at least one fully grown part of his brother—a tiny, complete fingernail—emerged with him, embedded in the placenta.

Hammond’s aunt was the one who finally shared that piece of information with him, three and a half decades later. “It was so moving to me,” he says. “It made complete sense, too. I was an only child, but I’d never really felt alone.”

The story of Albert Hammond Jr.’s brother, and the implications it raises for identity and creativity, are at the heart of Francis Trouble (Red Bull), Hammond’s fourth full-length. In other hands, such a subject might’ve resulted in a heavy-sounding meditation on birth, death and infinity, but Francis Trouble wraps its thoughtful lyricism in lively, energetic rock music.

“I sort of like that,” laughs Hammond, “that people might come to it expecting a much heavier experience, and instead it’s this colorful, bright sound. It fits against the last record (2015’s Momentary Masters), too. That one was all about the shadow, the black-and-white, and this one’s about color, about using dark energy to create something beautiful. The inspiration comes from the story, but the music didn’t want to situate any of itself in darkness.”

Anthony Burgess, the British author of canonical adolescent dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, once suggested that youth might be prone to damage because it has a surplus of energy, but very little of the necessary patience or training required to create; and so instead it turns to destruction, which feels easier and more within reach. Hammond, the guitarist of the Strokes and the son of famed songwriter Albert Hammond Sr., knows how much of yourself can be consumed by a flaming youth.

“I’m grateful for both the band and my father,” he says. “At the same time, that sort of background can create challenges. The songs (on Francis Trouble) needed something for their own sake. Funnily enough, I needed to be something else in order to show my strengths and weaknesses more freely.”

Francis Trouble clearly bears the imprint of Hammond’s eclectic solo aesthetic in its driving tempos and passing-note chord changes. But the album leans deeply into a much more powerful and expansive sound than even the Strokes are wont to deliver, as if the critical questions of identity and brotherhood raised by the LP’s inspiration required a fuller sound to adequately explore. “Set To Attack,” “ScreaMER” (with its irresistible backing-vocal quote from the Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil”) and the comparatively demure “Rocky’s Late Night” set the project’s tone, which is intense but never morose.

“There are heavier layers in the lyrics, but the music’s fun,” says Hammond. “Sometimes writing gets heavy. I always forget. I’ll be walking around and ask my wife, ‘Why am I so bummed?’ ‘Well, it’s because you’ve been churning things up, and you’re in the middle of a process.’ But this one, even though I was unsure about what I was doing, it felt cool. It didn’t even feel like ‘me.’

“That John Denver song, ‘Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stones)’? I can’t stop listening to it. Yeah, that’s it. It’s so hard to remember just that one little thing, you know? But I’ve really been enjoying sitting in this place for a while. It’s already within you and around you. There are signs all around. We’re usually blinded by the day to day. But if you really observe long enough, you start to notice that good things come toward you.”

—Eric Waggoner

Olden Yolk: Poetry In Motion

Olden Yolk takes folk-inspired music in a futuristic, abstract direction

Shane Butler has always been interested in exploring the outer limits of sound. The arrangements he crafted with his band Quilt often took the music to unexpected places. When he began collaborating with fellow songwriter/guitarist Caity Shaffer as Olden Yolk, the duo decided to give free rein to their creative impulses, crafting sounds that were even deeper, wider and more unusual.

“We definitely spend just as much time listening to experimental, instrumental and textural music as we do to more song-based music,” says Butler. “It’s our goal to make something that’s expansive on a sonic front, something you can go back into and listen to many times and be able to find a new sound or texture on each listening.”

Olden Yolk’s self-titled debut (on Trouble In Mind) meets that goal with songs that explore the often-hidden nuances of everyday emotional experiences. The poetic lyrics are accompanied by dissonant, ambient sounds that complement the songs without breaking the intimate mood they’re creating.

“They’re not completely narrative or written linearly,” says Shaffer. “They’re not ‘come here and let me tell you a story’ songs in the traditional sense. I would hope for them to be open to interpretation, although many of the songs do reference specific situations in our lives.”

Shaffer and Butler share lead-vocal duties, using lush harmonic overtones that blend into a single presence. On songs like “Cut To The Quick” and “Takes One To Know One,” they break into rhythmic spoken-word interludes that add another dimension to the tunes.

“Poetry is an important practice for both of us,” says Shaffer. “We’ve both kept poetry journals our whole lives. I’ve read and performed poetry a handful of times this past year. Poetry has had a significant impact on both of our lives.”

—j. poet

UNDER THE INFLUENCE WITH SHANE BUTLER AND CAITY SHAFFER

Ka Baird’s Performances
“We’ve seen Ka Baird in different iterations through the year, and it has been incredibly inspiring. Ka’s mix of acoustic and electronic instruments, vocal experimentation and visceral performance is truly original.”

Truth Or Consequences, N.M.
“Our minds roam back to the energy in the town, the hot springs and the surrounding landscapes. Especially when it’s nine degrees in NYC and snow-filled, with trash lining the streets.”

Death Simulation Workshop
“In order to live, you have to die. So, try meditating on the things you’ll inevitably leave behind. After we did, we opened up to a new form of empathy and understanding of the death process.”

Fischerspooner: Casey At The Bat

Casey Spooner talks about his Fischerspooner hiatus

“I walked away from music in 2009 and focused on film, theater, visual art—I mean, anything but music,” says Casey Spooner. And his options were many.

Spooner collaborated with Imagine Fashion, filming video interviews with James Franco, Chloë Sevigny and Justin Theroux. “That was therapeutic, talking with fellow artists about the creative process,” says Spooner, who went on to bring his talents as a video director to short films such as 2012’s Dust. “It was a sort-of sequel to Paul Morrissey’s Flesh. The whole thing was the step after reality TV—a smart extension of a rotten thing.”

By this time, Spooner had started working with NYC’s Wooster Group theater/dance/media company—not only as an actor in plays such as Hamlet, but in Tennessee Williams’’ Vieux Carré, as what he calls “a homosexual consultant” (“Everyone was straight in this gay play”). Then there was CRY, TROJANS! (Troilus & Cressida), the play in which Spooner, cast as valuable prisoner, had to look his weight in gold. “There were members of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the cast, and we—me in particular, dressed only in a loincloth—had to distinguish ourselves,” he says. So they all worked out and got crazy buff.

Beyond muscle mass, Spooner grew out his hair as well as his mustache. “From there I got interested in online culture, people performing constantly in front of any camera they could and self-broadcasting,” he says of what in part became the photographic installation element of SIR. It was during this installation that Spooner stripped his art down to the core: a perfect analogy for what would come to be on the new Fischerspooner LP. “It was liberating,” he says.

—A.D. Amorosi

Fischerspooner: To Sir, With Love, Trust And Lust

Fischerspooner finds common ground with new collaborator Michael Stipe

Casey Spooner, singer/co-founder of electro duo Fischerspooner with musician/composer Warren Fischer, had an ambitious goal for his latest art project. “What I wanted to do was something no one else was doing in entertainment,” he says. “I wanted to move away from being an avant-garde space clown. There are not older, queer, expressive, sexual men out there doing what I’m doing, so I went post-clothing and got raw. I didn’t have to worry about a stylist—just go to the gym and moisturize.”

To an extent, Spooner is discussing photo-art installation SIR, where he’s posed and poised—sans clothing—and revealing a well-oiled and muscular body that wasn’t there when he started his music career with 2001’s #1—a sound his pal and one-time beau Michael Stipe claimed “revolutionized electronic music, amplifying it to arena-blasting levels while managing to keep it passionate and dark.” Now, for SIR (Ultra), the band’s first joint album since 2009, Spooner and Fischer have reunited for a stripped-to-the-bone brand of electro, less ornate and elaborate than in their past—all telling deeply personal, homoerotic stories of love, trust and lust.

“The record would not have had the same emotional range that it has if what happened to my then-relationship—happy and very successful and very sexually open—hadn’t happened,” says Spooner.

Motivated by a horrific breakup with a man Spooner thought “was my forever mate for life,” SIR was co-produced and even co-written in spots by Stipe, in his first musical excursion in a long time. “At first he wanted to do it for free and no credit as a friendly thing until he got deeply involved and just took over,” says Spooner with a laugh.

The recording sessions, conducted in familiar Stipe territory (Athens, Ga.) weren’t always easy (“Michael can be prickly in the studio,” says Spooner. “He’s got PTSD from all those engineers during R.E.M.”), which yielded a stark, danceable sound free of affection, vocal frippery and ornamentation. “Even Warren submitted, and he’s tough.”

Fischerspooner was always a tough-but-tender performance-art-based rendering of the merging of moody riffing electronica and naughty-haughty punk—a sound and image copacetic to both men. “Warren and I had very much the exact vision forever,” says Spooner. Yet, by the time they got to their third album—sans a major label—the artistic, the business and the personal relationships (to say nothing of their nerves) began to fray.

“I was done with it,” says Spooner. “I mean, we had a difficult time releasing (2009’s) Entertainment. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the album and the show we put together. The first album we toured was very electronic. The second record leaned more into real instruments, and we integrated a band, which made us feel as if we lost some of the original performance-art elements. With Entertainment, I felt as if I learned how to mix live and electronic instrumentation with performance concepts. But we got lost, blew a lot of money even though I had never worked harder. When we came off tour, I was spent physically and financially. My business manager handed me $300 and a sandwich.” A 2010 Spooner solo effort, Adult Contemporary, didn’t fare better. “I was gone,” he says.

The passage of time and 2014 monograph New Truth brought Spooner together with his old pal Fischer, with a new morning fast to follow. The pair wound up finishing 12 songs and got stuck on a 13th when Stipe got involved. Still, for all of the latter’s participation, SIR is very much a “Fischer and Spooner” Fischerspooner album—even though the lyrical vibe and emotional storytelling of songs such as “Togetherness,” “Strut” and “Try Again” are Stipe-esque.

“Now, this is a very homosexual record; hard to deal with, surely, as that is outside of Warren’s comfort zone,” says Spooner. “He’s not gay, so that was a real challenge. He’s also discreet and reclusive, while I’m completely shameless and extroverted. And as we get older, we have each only become more so.”

Spooner states that it was during the sessions for 2005’s Odyssey that Fischer truly imploded (“We could not see eye to eye”), but that, with SIR, each man knew what the other was getting into.

“This is my longest professional relationship, and sure, there can be conflict,” says Spooner. “But we’re doing this organically, which was perfect as I’m just really digging deep and revealing so much of myself.”

—A.D. Amorosi

Totally Mild: Sense Of A Woman

Melbourne’s Totally Mild comes of age with Her

Her is an album about being a woman—knowing women intimately, relating to them, dating them and feeling isolated from them,” says Elizabeth Mitchell, lead singer, songwriter and bandleader of Melbourne’s Totally Mild. “Many women feature in the songs on Her: me, my mother, my wife, exes and friends. It’s about how being socialized as a woman can teach you to doubt yourself, to take on certain specific roles, and how hard it is for me to leave those learned behaviors behind. My wife says it’s a coming-of-age album, wrestling with the idea that I actually have to be an adult at some point.”

For Her (Chapter Music), Mitchell and band—guitarist Zachary Schneider, bassist Lehmann Smith and drummer Ashley Bundang—set out to make elaborate pop music, utilizing everything producer James Cecil (Architecture In Helsinki) had in the studio. (Bundang has since been replaced by Dylan Young.)

“We played with lots of new sounds from synthesizers and other instruments we didn’t use on the first album,” says Mitchell. “We spent three days altogether doing the basic tracking live, and six months of adding to that. A large chunk of making the record was Zach, James and me spending hours in the studio trying things out and throwing them away.”

The songs on the quartet’s sophomore album explore unruly emotions with Mitchell’s ardent vocals supported by the band’s nuanced work. “Pearl” describes the subtle passion of true love with shimmering chords, glistening slide-guitar textures and a steady backbeat, while “Today Tonight” rides a subtle reggae-like pulse to express the longing for a lover who will never return.

“The songs are autobiographical, but not all of them are sad,” says Mitchell. “I just have a way of making things that are happy sound sad. Maybe it’s that duality of being objectively happy and chronically depressed.”

—j. poet

UNDER THE INFLUENCE WITH ELIZABETH MITCHELL

Aldous Harding
“I am completely obsessed with Party, the record she put out last year. It’s such a strange and emotionally impactful album. I saw her play at Meredith Music Festival in December. What a force!”

Walking Around
“My car exploded. I drove it from Melbourne to Queensland, and it gave up. That’s influencing my experience of the Melbourne summer. It’s really hot, and I have to walk everywhere. It’s nice to listen to more music on my headphones, I guess.”

Hexdebt
“They’re a very good punk band from Melbourne. Look them up. They’re young, angry and very powerful.”

Wild Beasts: Going Out In Style

Britain’s Wild Beasts end their 15-year career with a live-in-the-studio LP

Leaving on a high note was of paramount importance to George Costanza in that hilarious Seinfeld episode where he kept getting out-quipped by everyone at his board meetings. But the concept means even more to Hayden Thorpe, who last year stunned fans by announcing that his British art-rock ensemble Wild Beasts was amicably disbanding after 15 years and five classy albums, just when it was at the top of its game.

The Beasts are doing it in grand style, with a posthumous, catalog-spanning live disc, Last Night All My Dreams Came True (Domino), recorded over a two-day session at London’s RAK Studios. “I’m a big believer in only having a finite amount of anything allotted to you,” says Thorpe, chuckling at the Seinfeld reference. “When you realize you’re getting to the last gleam of this particular allowance, you spend it frugally, or you just make sure that it counts.”

To outsiders, breaking up after your most inventive record—2016’s Boy King—might seem a radical, or at least unusual, career choice. But to Thorpe and his three bandmates (guitarist Ben Little, bassist Tom Fleming and drummer Chris Talbot), it made perfect instinctual sense. Surprisingly, everyone was on the same quit-while-we’re-ahead page. “So there were two meetings,” he says. “One was the day after our Boy King world tour, where there had been an elephant in the room that had slowly inflated to the point of someone finally needing to name that bloody beast.”

But the more serious summit followed at the end of 2016 at a café in the tiny Lake District hamlet of Kendal, where they had grown up together. “I remember finding it quite difficult to speak that morning—I really had to cough the words out because they were sticking in my throat,” says the usually loquacious singer. “As anyone who’s been through a breakup knows, the moment you make that decision and it becomes irreversible, there’s a release of energy that just floods your mind with exhilaration, sadness, the full quota. It was all hung on the collective belief that it was right.”

From its Britpop-defying 2004 debut, Limbo Panto, there was truly no other U.K. outfit quite like Wild Beasts. Little’s moody, evocative textures almost bordered on prog and helped buffet aloft Thorpe’s remarkable voice to typically falsetto heights. (If you liken the group to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, creatively speaking, you can easily imagine a Gabriel-sophisticated solo career for Thorpe, who vows to keep writing and recording.) So the farewell Last Night document—which features chestnuts like “Hooting And Hollering” alongside more danceable recent cuts “Big Cat” and “Alpha Female”—was the most triumphant high note on which to leave.

“It was just the four of us in a live room,” says Thorpe. “Over the past post-breakup year, we had been playing together just for its own sake, no other obligation, and I think we just got better and better because of that. So we thought it was important to capture this moment, where we were as fluid a creature as we’d ever been.”

—Tom Lanham

Superchunk: Mac Takes The Wheel

How Superchunk streamlined its songwriting process

Our Noise, John Cook’s excellent oral history of Merge Records written with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, has a chapter describing a somewhat contentious period for Superchunk (circa 1994’s Foolish) when Ballance and Jim Wilbur began to bristle at McCaughan’s creative control. Fast forward 25 years, and with children to raise, businesses to run and other bands to play in, having McCaughan create the blueprint is a welcome relief, at least to Wilbur.

“Before, we would go into a room together, the four of us, and no one would have any idea what was happening,” he says. “We would all just play things. We would coalesce the parts we were hearing into songs. Now, Mac takes everything on himself and does that, but it doesn’t feel like he’s dictating anything. When we get together, we don’t have to go through all that jamming. We skip all the time that would’ve been taken to get where we’re going to be anyway. It’s quick because we all know each other and trust each other. Sometimes Mac will send a file and I’ll listen to it and I’ll be like, ‘Is that high part what you think I should be playing?’ He’s like, ‘I just threw that down there, because that’s what I imagined you would play.’ We definitely read each other’s minds.”

McCaughan agrees: “One luxury of playing with the same people for so long is that, if I’m just writing the first part of the song—or the rhythm guitar where I’m just playing chords and thinking about vocal melodies—because we’ve played together for so long, I can already hear what it’s going to sound like with everyone else playing. I just kind of know what everyone’s instincts are and what works.”

—Matt Ryan