Q&A With Ivy

In commercial terms, Ivy is but a footnote in the career of bassist Adam Schlesinger, who between his duties in Fountains Of Wayne and his work as a prolific songwriter for hire has made far greater claims on the public’s attention. But in a world where diffident cool trumped sugary snark, the trio of Schlesinger, Andy Chase and singer Dominique Durand would have reaped richly deserved rewards. All Hours (Nettwerk), Ivy’s sixth album and its first since 2005, continues the electronic excursions of In The Clear while maintaining the ironclad melodies that anchor early shoulda-been hits like “This Is The Day.” Durand and Chase, who are married with children, talked to MAGNET about coming out of hibernation, the difficulty of balancing parenthood and creativity and why Schlesinger is a “wild horse” who sometimes needs to be reined in. The duo will also be guest editing all week.

“Make It So Hard” (download):

MAGNET: What’s been happening in five years between Ivy albums? You’ve made a few recordings as Paco, and you have three children, who are 12, eight and two-and-a-half.
Durand: We did Paco a while ago. In the meantime, we’ve done another project called the Neverendings. That should be coming out after Ivy, when Ivy’s done promoting the record. And also a new Brookville record’s coming out at the same time. So that’s going to be the next project. But of course, right now we’re focused on Ivy, since it’s been so long since we released a record. So between the Neverendings, which is very different from Paco or Ivy, and the three kids, and then I had health issues, it’s been a quite busy last four or five years. And I have another baby, too, who’s 40 years old or something like that. You know what I mean?

What distinguishes an Ivy song from a song you two might write for Paco or the Neverendings?
Ivy is really the three of us together. I think with Ivy we have a tendency to be maybe more on the pop side, and I think Adam has a lot to do with that. We can be more moody and atmospheric, which is maybe Andy’s side but also my voice. I don’t have a rock voice. I have a very French, moody, atmospheric voice. So when Adam is not involved, Andy and I have a tendency to go more experimental. We love working in the studio, using a lot of different musicians, a lot of different techniques. With Paco, it was definitely more electronic music. The Neverendings, it’s more organic. We use a lot of vintage instruments.
Chase: Paco was with another person; it was still a trio, with our friend Mike. For the Neverendings, we really wanted to do something with just the two of us, which we had never done before—a real collaboration. I had been writing songs, for whatever strange reason, on harpsichord. I had these really, really good harpsichord samples, and so I started playing these very Baroque-style harpsichord parts and putting drumbeats down to them. The album evolved out of those first songs, so it overall has a feeling of being rooted in a very organic, natural foundation just because most of the songs are written on harpsichord, and when I got tired of harpsichord, I went to other logical instruments that still had a common thread, like Wurlitzer or Rhodes. We cut the album live with a couple of friends. We basically wrote the songs in the studio, and then had friends come in and learn those parts and play them live. We’ve never really done that, with Ivy or Paco, just learned the parts and played then in the studio. So it overall has a very organic, very live, very spontaneous and improvised feel. You’ll hear it. Lots of acoustic guitars. It’s very retro-sounding.

With Ivy, playing the songs live in the studio would basically be impossible, since it’s mostly just Andy and Adam playing the instruments.
Durand: It’s not that it’s impossible. We just choose not to do that. When we started Ivy, there were live instruments: acoustic guitar, real drums, real bass. At least for the first three records. With Long Distance, we started in with drum loops and things like that. We naturally progressed in the studio, the three of us loving experimenting. We’re lucky enough that Andy and Adam own a studio in New York, so we can spend days and not have to worry about time. We were basically camped in the studio, just improvising there. Adam would start playing with a drum loop, and Andy will come up with a keyboard line, we’ll flesh out songs like that. It wasn’t something that we consciously knew we wanted to do. It just happened at that moment.

With the band having been dormant for so long, is it hard to recapture a sense of what an Ivy song is, especially when you’re trying to write an Ivy song that doesn’t sound like all the ones that have come before?
We started working on the new record as soon as we played our last show, in the winter of 2006. So by 2008, we had amassed what we thought was a pretty good collection of new Ivy songs. We kept meeting for two or three really intense weeks in the studio, and then Dominique and I wouldn’t see Adam for four or five months. Then we’d reconvene, listen to what we’d done five months before, get kind of excited, write some more for about two weeks, and then we’d leave for another six months. All of a sudden, three years had gone by, but we did realize we had the makings of a new Ivy record. So we had a listening party, the three of us, somewhere around a year and a half ago, in early 2010. We were really looking forward to hearing what we thought was maybe 80 percent of a finished Ivy record. We listened to it, and we all had the same reaction: We all got completely depressed. We realized that this record was such a piece of junk.
Durand: It was not a piece of junk.
Chase: It was not releasable.
Durand: We didn’t feel inspired by it.
Chase: You could hear it was uninspired. It sounded like our older stuff. We have to keep feeling like we’re moving forward and evolving as musicians. It’s not necessarily reinventing yourself, but it’s trying things you haven’t done.
Durand: For me, I had in my head the idea that I wanted to make a record like Tom Tom Club: very minimal, going more childish and very immediate, very hooky, very simple, almost like children’s music but not for children, to have that naivete and innocence. That was my idea. I think I led the guys to do that, and it didn’t really work. We just love to layer things one after the other. So I don’t think it was the right direction. Now that I hear this band Metronymy, that’s exactly what they went for. That was the record I wanted to do.
Chase: We let them make it. So we ended up throwing out this record, three years of work. But we also got very excited, because it meant we finally had a direction. We felt galvanized. So we ended up doing All Hours very quickly for us, in about nine months. Not nine months solid. We didn’t even really think about the direction or the production. Having a blueprint for what not to do made it much easier for us to see where we were going.

All Hours is the first time all three members of Ivy have appeared on the album cover. What was the thought behind that?
We felt like we’d made a different kind of record. It had taken us five years between records. We don’t know if we’re going to make another record. Five years from now? Hopefully, it’ll be quicker. We just felt like this is such a fun and exciting record to have made at this point in our career, we wanted to do everything differently. So it started as, Dominique is never really on the cover: On Apartment Life, she’s covering her face; on Long Distance, she’s got the glasses. We wanted a straight-on shot of Dominique in her full glory. And then [Adam and I] thought, “You know what? We’ve never been on the cover. Let’s just do something totally different and all three of us are on the cover.” We’ve had this approach now for everything. We shot a video the other day and did something we’ve really never done in a video before.

Which was what?
Which was to have us all face the camera, have fun, not take it so seriously. We intercut the band performance with robotic dancers—sort of walking the line between kitschy and super-cool. Everything we did on our last record, we decided to do the complete opposite. We had an animated caterpillar video for the last single on our last album, so we decided to be in our full glory onstage. We had makeup on, just totally having fun. Same thing with the photos: We’re front and center, in focus, all three of us.

The cover projects this very cool, rock-star image of the three of you in the back of a limo, on the way to a gig or some exclusive nightclub after the show. Is it possible to hold onto that feeling over the years, as being in a band becomes less of a novelty and simply is what you do for a living and when you’re balancing it with raising three children?
I think it’s so hard. It’s so not compatible. I would say for any musician who wants to be in a band and wants to be, not even a rock star, but just a creative person: Don’t have kids. It really does not go together. It doesn’t. I understand now why so many artists that I really respect, like Patti Smith, she had her moment, and then she had kids and she went away for almost 15 years or 20 years, and then she came back when they were grown up. I understand that. I’m not regretting in any way. To me, [kids are] the number-one thing; that’s my priority, for sure. But at the same time, I can see that it’s very much harder to be creative. At the same time, it does give you inspiration: Kids are such a magical thing, and it gives you a different way of seeing the world. But it takes so much energy out of you. At least for me, being the mother. Maybe for a guy it’s different. I would say it’s not compatible.

It changes the way you hear a song like “How’s Never,” which could be about being too cool to have time for a new friend, or it could simply be about being overscheduled.
Totally. Yeah.

I saw Patti Smith do a Q&A in Philadelphia last year, and someone asked her what it was like to sacrifice her career for her children. Her response was, “I didn’t sacrifice anything. What was I going to do, be more famous? Make more money?”
She felt really good about that; for her there was not even a question. That’s why I respect that so much. Because she was able to have no regrets. She was a rock star for a while, and then she was done with that and ready to be a mom—and a full-time mom. She was very happy with that, and being a wife, and loving her husband and being devoted to him. When that was over, then she moved back. That to me is beautiful, because she can lead her life in such a full way and inspired way, and whatever she chooses to have her life be at that moment, she does it 100 percent. That’s fantastic. Another one who did that is Rosanne Cash. She said it very well, like, “My kids are my priority. That’s the most important thing for me, but I still have music.” I’m not comparing myself with Rosanne Cash, but I feel that, too. I feel like kids are my priority, but I do need something else, because otherwise I’d lose my mind. Having music in my life a little bit is my savior. I need that to be able to have a break and do something else that has nothing to do with that life.

From what Adam told me, “Distant Lights” was something of a watershed moment in determining the direction of the new album, but it also seemed like releasing that as the first song was a way of giving fans a heads-up to expect something different from All Hours.
We could’ve put it somewhere in the middle of the album so it wouldn’t have had such shock value, but I think we wanted to make a statement by putting our most brazen song forward that this was going to be a different. Maybe it’s the most different song on the album, but I love the idea of making our friends, when we played the new album for them, they all got up and walked over to my iPod to see what kind of joke I was playing on them, what the real name of the band was. We like that. That’s what we were going for. We knew that song had a certain resonance to making a statement about the album. We did make a different kind of record.
Durand: [Laughs] A mistake. It was a big mistake.
Chase: We thought about putting it last. We thought about putting it in the middle. But we had been gone so long, it seemed like a really interesting way of saying, “We’re back. Check this out.”
Durand: There’s two rooms in the studio, so Andy was in Studio A and Adam was in Studio B, and I was going back and forth between the two to hear what they were doing. At some point, I went into where Adam was, and he said, “Listen to this, I’ve got something.” He played that beat and that keyboard sound, and I’m like, “Adam, do you think you’re in a nightclub in Greece somewhere? It’s so cheesy! It’s horrible!” He looked and me like, “Really, you think it’s cheesy?” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s really bad.” So I mentioned, “If you take this out and put something there and you add a weird sound on the keyboard,” and he said, “Let me work on it for a bit.” He did, and I came back maybe two hours later and I was like, “Oh, my God. It’s trippy now. It’s great!” So we got very excited, and then Andy came and listened to it, and he did, too, so it was kind of the beginning of saying we’re all excited, we’re going somewhere. Let’s just go with it.
Chase: That song’s a good example of why Adam outside of Ivy and myself outside of Ivy sound very different. There’s nothing Adam has that come close to sounding like anything like Ivy, and there’s nothing I’ve done that’s quite either. It’s because of that alchemy that’s so dependent on Dominique’s radar. Had Dominique not gone in and eventually me, that song “Distant Lights” would have ended up being a Greek discotheque dance song. [Laughs] And probably a much bigger hit than it’ll be for us. That’s an example of how the three of us influence each other and pull back from the extremes that we all go to that aren’t really in our best interest. “Distant Lights” was early on, and it did set a tone. It does morph into something more traditional. When you hear the Wurlitzer come in and whatever you want to call that discotheque sound, and then you hear Dominique’s voice come in, you know, “This is Ivy.” We liked the shock value of the first 30 seconds before it settles into something more Ivy-like.

How does that editing function you’re talking about Dominique serving work with regard to Adam? He’s a tremendous craftsman in addition to being a very good songwriter and makes part of his living as a musical chameleon: a Broadway number for the Tonys here, a fake ‘80s pop song for a Hollywood movie there.
Adam is so multi-talented and multi-instrumental, which is a fantastic talent, but at times, it can be a disadvantage. You need to be focused on having an identity in a band. It gives you some kind of credibility. Sometimes with Ivy, his tendency will be trying to be too top-40 or too cheesy disco, so me and Andy are coming, and we’re like, “You have a great pop idea, but let’s try to de-cheese it.” He loves that. He’s totally open. The great thing about the three of us is we’ve been working together so long there’s no ego any more—almost no ego. Adam is pretty good about that. He’s very open, even about realizing, “OK, it’s not really Ivy-like.”
Chase: He’s like a wild horse. He just starts taking off, and you don’t know if he’s going to go toward the desert, toward the ocean, up in the mountains.

It’s funny how things work out in the long run. I’ve had people refer to Ivy as “Adam’s other band,” but there was a point when Ivy was on several movie soundtracks and so forth and it seemed like they might be the one to break out.
It’s funny, because Ivy started before Fountains Of Wayne. Obviously, everybody knows Fountains Of Wayne and not so much Ivy, and that’s OK. The only thing that’s annoying is when you see in the press and there’s an interview with Adam and they mention every project he’s involved in except Ivy. That pisses me off. It’s not Adam’s fault, because he’s always mentioning Ivy. But somehow it doesn’t go into the paper.

You played a handful of shows to celebrate the album release. What’s it been like getting back up to speed as a live band? You’ve been in and out of the studio over the last five years, but it’s something else to play songs all the way through .
It’s very exciting. It’s a completely new thing again. It’s very weird. I’m scared; it’s like I’ve never done it. Then I’m sure you get onstage, and it’s like, “Oh, yeah. Ok. I remember.”

Andy, you’ve been gigging with Brookville regularly, but is it different to be onstage or in a rehearsal room with this group of people?
It’s always different. The last three years I’ve toured quite a bit with Brookville, but it’s not the same. For me, Ivy started it all, and even though I’m not singing lead vocals, I have such a comfortable place standing on the right side, just set back from Dominique and seeing her singing—that’s how our career started. Just being in the studio brings back lots of good memories from our youth, all the time we spent together in vans, buses, crazy stories that happened to us a long time ago. They’re all coming back again. I’m excited to see Dominique onstage again. I remember before my first Brookville show a few years ago, when I hadn’t been onstage in a while. Once you get up there, you can’t believe that you could go a couple years without doing it. She’s going to have the same thing. She always does. It’s our sixth album, and she goes through the same thing every time.

Andy, you mentioned always standing on the right side of the stage in Ivy. How do those arrangements evolve, in terms of who’s where onstage?
It’s funny you said that, because I always wonder why the lead singer has to be up in the front. Who came up with that rule? Why can’t I be on the left, and Andy be in the front or Adam be in the front, so I don’t have the drums right in my ear? I’m always trying to change that.I like performing and I like being onstage, but I don’t like so much being the center of attention. If it were up to me, I would definitely be on the left side of the stage.
Chase: That’s why it’s not going to be left up to you. Singers are out front and forward. You know, people are creatures of habit. Why don’t we constantly change the side of the bed we sleep on? We have our side, and we stick to it. Dominique sleeps on one side, I sleep on the other. The idea that she would wake up one day and say, “You know what? The next year I’m going to sleep on your side” is like, “What?” It’s the same thing on stage.

“Suspicious” is a standout on the album, with that very simple keyboard line and minimal beat. How did that come together?
It’s funny. I don’t even know if you remember, Andy, but “Suspicious” was one of the songs we wrote a long, long time ago. It wasn’t even a complete song. We had the beat and the keyboard thing maybe four, five years ago. That was the Tom Tom Club thing, the very simple beat, the clapping, that was where I wanted to go, direction-wise. We couldn’t really finish that one. But when we scrapped the record, I was like, “Let’s not scrap this one. This idea is good. We just haven’t figured it out, but we will.” So we kept it, and eventually after working really hard on it, it became that song. Lyrically, it just came naturally, because that song has that kind of innocence, that bittersweet quality, and then the lyrics are sort of funny, it’s very ironic, but it’s also kind of sad, too. It’s a relationship that you don’t trust.
Chase: I love that song. I remember that the hand claps were supposed to be a beat holder until we did the real drumbeat. We just put a mic up in the room and did the hand claps, just so we could see where the 2 and 4 fell, and we figured at some point we’d put a drum machine down. But there was something so charming about the way the hand claps sounded, so cute.

Is there a particular relationship that you’re thinking of?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Yes, yes. Totally. This is very much something that rings true to me. I won’t got further than that.

Lyrically, there’s a balance in the songs between coming from a specific place and yet remaining general, even vague, enough that they can apply to anyone.
That’s the idea. Maybe it comes from a personal element, but you have to make it universal. If it’s only about you or your life, it becomes very narcissistic, and to me that’s not interesting. Everything that happens to anybody happens to everyone at some point. It’s all universal sentiments—sadness, happiness, eventually hopefully everyone will experience them. That song has a personal element to me, but it’s also this story that can ring true to anyone at some point in their life. What I like lyrically is to have a sad or dramatic element, but to make it more light. I really believe that in life in general. Whatever tragic or horrible thing can happen in your life, you have to find some irony to it, or a sense of humor. That’s the only thing that’s going to save you from being miserable.
Chase: There’s a few where we did something we don’t usually do, which is go all in one feeling, like “Lost In The Sun.” We tried to keep the sentiment spirited and optimistic, which is usually something we avoid. We like the contrast between the uplifting music and the bittersweet lyric, but “Lost In The Sun” is one of those few, like “Edge Of The Ocean,” where we just decided to go 100 percent with that feeling. But there are other tracks that I prefer lyrically, because they’re more dour, and I like hearing Dominique sing with a kind of resolve about the fatalism of things. “Everybody Knows,” it’s just a broken relationship that can’t be repaired and it’s time to move on. Those are the songs that are interesting to me.

—Sam Adams