Interview with indie-popper When I Was 12

November 5, 2009

*cough* Hi… well, um, Twee is back, sorta.  You know?

Depending on which circles you hang around in, Twee is either hailed as “punker-than-punk“, or maligned as “music for bedwetters.”  Nevertheless, the most misunderstood pop genre continues to tout cuteness over coolness and has the market cornered on Growing Up Awkward.

Twee has always been the most unapologetically emasculate sect of “Indie”, but it always seems to hover, smirking, just on the outskirts of popular music.  It’s too catchy to ever be marginalized, but it’s just too fey for the trampy-or-macho American taste.  Pitchfork’s excellent essay of all things Indie Pop, “Twee as Fuck” said it well:

…”indie” and “alternative” became popular in precisely the hard-rocking, masculine, centralized form that indie pop usually shied away from. The mainstream honed in on the underground’s hard-rock side, and, acts like Superchunk and Modest Mouse would go on to become Important Bands; acts like Tiger Trap and Heavenly would, for good reasons and bad, fade into history. And there on the television, ironically, was the K-tattooed Cobain, still wearing his cardigans and covering songs by the Vaselines.

So there twee sits, like the kid not picked at recess, rewarding anyone willing to seek it out.

Maybe it’s because of the excellent Juno soundtrack, but twee artists seem to be on the rise again.  The playfull Architecture in Helsinki, sallow Vivian Girls, the spider-fearing Boy Least Likely To, and the self-referential spunk of Los Campesinos!, have all attracted the blogosphere masses in the past few years (and, oddly, a large number of television commercials to boot). Fast on their heels are artists like New Jersey’s When I Was 12 – producing the sonic equivalent of a painfully joyous (or joyously painful?) prolonged adolescence.

I ran across WIW12 searching a now-defunct music site and really enjoyed their aesthetic.  The endearing strum-hook-and-harmony style burrows deep into your head and doesn’t go away — like a library volunteer into Franny & Zooey.

Earlier this year their principle songwriter, Adrianne, was nice enough to swap a few Q&A emails with me before their first non-basement gig of her young career:

Brian B (BemBang): First things first… Who’s in the band, or is it a “swinging door” type thing where there’s a core and people come and add vocals and accompaniment etc?

Adrianne Gold (When I Was 12): First things first… When I Was 12 consists of two main members: Adrianne Gold and Camille Bayas. Then some other beautiful revolving members; our friend Brianne Evans did some harmonies on “Dear Eskimo” with her angelic voice, and my guitar teacher, Mike Yelle assisted with lead guitar. When we play live friends Jenn Diaz plays bass, and Will Samtur on drums. We are so lucky to know so many wonderful people.[ …] It’s been a little hectic we’ve been getting offered shows and things lately!.

BB: Good to hear you’re busy… I hope things are going well. Is there some sort of tour in the works? When I hear the name “When I Was 12″, I immediately think of both the charming and awkward aspects of that transitional age… was that the aim?

AG: We still have two more months of high school so we’re not exactly planning a tour but we’ve been getting offered a lot of shows lately! I suppose so about the name, I mean we definitely try to be charming and I definitely am a bit awkward!

BB: Ha. Since there’s not much info about you guys online I couldn’t tell if you were in high school, or if you were just channeling your inner-highscooler to write the songs.

Your music, lyrics, production, etc seem very attuned to what I would consider classic indie-pop/twee. That is to say; sweet, clever, and fixated on youthful experiences… even when the person singing may be 30+ years old.

Ha. You’re the real deal, apparently.
What inspiration do you draw from … musically or otherwise?

AG: We are the real deal! We write about things on a high school level because it’s what we know! It’s what we are familiar with. But like I said only until June! We are so excited for summer and then of course for college! We are inspired by so many things.

Camille really likes bands such as: Los Campesinos! Beirut, The Submarines, and Seabear. I on the other hand am insanely inspired by Bright Eyes (of course, who isn’t!) Tilly and the Wall, Mates of State, and Saturday Looks Good to Me. We were actually just featured on an online mix CD, “Birdsongs, Beesongs – Eardrums Spring Compilation 2009″ and so was Saturday Looks Good to Me! So that was exciting to see!

Inspiration otherwise would of course include every boy i’ve ever known, even if only for five minutes. The boys who’s hearts I’ve broken, the boys who have broken my heart, and the boys who have yet to break my heart. Boys in bookstores, coffee shops, New Brunswick basements, and any other place you can imagine. However! I did write about my grandmother, “You Me & Symmetry” is about my grandmother, I love her. We still do arts and crafts together.

BB Hahahaha yes, the album is definitely heavy on the boy-crazy.
So…  you brought it up…  you’re from Jersey.

NJ tends to get a bad rap; some of that probably because you’re so close to the self-proclaimed cultural capital of the world.

Many big names spent time in New Jersey… , George Clinton/P-funk, Les Paul, Sinatra, Springsteen among them. What are your feelings about ‘repping from a place that has been home to many musicians but also the target of many a joke?

AG: Well I’m going to college in Philadelphia so soon i’ll have that rep and I can’t wait! It’s such a great area and so many opportunities arise there! However New Brunswick is a pretty fun area in New Jersey just last friday, we played a basement show there! Such a great vibe, I mean those are people who love and understand music! Unfortunately I cannot say the same for those at my high school!

BB: Congrats on going off to school next Fall… where in Philly? You’ve started playing a few shows in the area — will you be doing that this summer as well?

AG: Yes! We have a show tomorrow in fact, and then another one this coming friday and then the next! It’s all very exciting, I’m even starting to manage my stage fright a bit! I’ll be attending Drexel University actually so I’m absolutely pumped!

BB: That’s really cool that you were on the same comp as Saturday Looks Good To Me. How did that whole Birdsong, Beesongs thing happen? Are you familiar with any of the other artists on the album, or are they from all over?

Do you find yourself playing alongside / opening for the same bands… like, is there a like-minded scene in Jersey, or are you on your own singing to whoever listens?

AD: To be honest I am not sure how we were spotted but I am glad! The band Thunder Power from Omaha Nebraska on Slumber Party Records spotted us on the compilation and have now asked us to play a show when them they come through New Jersey touring! And we got invited to play a show in Brooklyn! We’ve been having so much fun and meeting so many wonderful people!

BB: What happens after this Summer. Will Camille be in the general area? Will When I Was 12 go on the back-burner once you start school up again?

AG: Camille will be attending Cornell, (Congrats to her! It’s really a great accomplishment!) On the contrary, once college begins, I hope When I Was 12 will be going full throttle! Because I write most of the music, melodies and lyrics, I am going to look for permanent members once I arrive on campus! You’ll have to wish me luck!

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Muttering Retreats Say Something, then Depart

November 10, 2008


The Muttering Retreats  – Originally uploaded by thegrue76 /TDAOC

This little Q&A with The Muttering Retreats‘ Tim Thornton unfortunately did NOT make it to (Internet)press on time, but far be it for me to deny you insight on this Cleveland-based little band that could.

Aside from playing their first Chicago venue show earlier this summer the day before Pitchfork, TMR has stayed busy this year… dropping their first proper LP (complete with adorable Wes Anderson-y art direction) and recently releasing a cover of Belle & Sebastian’s “Sleep the Clock Around” (Mediafire) — one of my personal favorites twee-as-fuck songs.  They also just learned a bunch Beck songs to perform as America’s Most Acceptable Scientologist for a Halloween show at The Beachland.

If you’re in the vicinity of Ohio in the next few weeks, make sure you stop by to catch Muttering Retreats open for Casiotone for the Painfully Alone; the band that wouldn’t stop touring, on 11/22 at Beachland.

  • The Muttering Retreats – “Sleep the Clock Around” MP3
  • The Muttering Retreats – “The Capitalist & The Communist Vie For Our Hero’s Affection” MP3 (c/o  A Cloud of Starlings)
  • The Muttering Retreats – “Pastiche” MP3 (c/o I Rock Cleveland)

 

 

And now to go back in time to late July when Tim discussed “crusty” recording, album cliches, and being in a band while also living actual lives with 9-to-5 jobs…

Arms, Distance (Brian): First of all, congrats on the release of the self-titled full album! Though, this technically isn’t your first official release — The Muttering Retreats released a limited edition tape last year didn’t you?

Tim Thornton of The Muttering Retreats: Yes. Our initial release was also technically self-titled, but it came to be known as “The Letter Tape,” due largely in part that the alphabet was a bit of a concept with the tape. [The original “pressing” featured music on side A which was then played backwards on side B. The second batch was labeled side C and D, and so on].

Roughly two weeks before our first show in April 2007, I decided that we absolutely needed some sort of product/souvenir of the show, so we cobbled together 15 minutes of audio … and we made a super lo-fi collage and put it on a 30 minute tape. The other side of the tape are those same 15 minutes, only backwards. We did three runs of the tape … but we only have a couple copies left and aren’t making any more. It’s a real ramshackle affair, I wasn’t expecting to keep it in print this long.
As for the choice on the format, it was just a foregone conclusion by that point. We wanted to have something really simple and charming that was also an artifact of a certain point in the band’s career. The super-crusty sounds on that tape really sum up what we were early off.

AD: I wanted to touch on that, actually. It seems that the use of dated technology, like the cassette tape, fits well with the aesthetic of the group. Aside from the nod to indie pop history, making tapes instead of CD-R’s is just one of the voluntarily analog, or organic, or like you said “crusty”, processes The Muttering Retreats seem to take in crafting music. Was this cultivation of your sound just a natural process, or more of a back-to-basics type manifesto?

T: It wasn’t at all a statement about analog or digital or sound clarity or any of that. All of the material on the tape had entered the digital realm at one point, so it wasn’t purism in any form. Rather, it was done as a reminder to the audience that the material on the tape wasn’t meant to be taken so seriously, as it was something cobbled together in such a short amount of time that we couldn’t really even begin to approach it as a traditionally commercially viable product.
 
AD: How does that compare to the new CD?

T: We went a totally different route. We tried to make the full length more cohesive, more of a full length statement. We really went out of our way with what might seem like minor details, such as sequencing.

We didn’t want the album to sound like we had one or two ‘singles’ and put them first on the album. We didn’t want to have a slow, sappy closer. We still fell victim to a couple of sequencing cliches, but we’re still happy with what we came up with. Also, there are a few things about the physical CD that can’t be translated over to a digital format. I won’t go into detail as to what they are, but they are all compact disc specific “Easter eggs.”
 
AD:Sounds very cool, and a nice reward for buying the actual album instead of getting a leaked copy. Hmmmm, what’s the worst sequencing cliche you can fall prey to?

T:I think the biggest faux pas is putting your weakest song as the second to last track … I’d say that putting some of your best stuff on the second half of an album is such a great reward for listening to the whole album. One example I looked to for this album was the newest Spoon record. “The Ghost of You Lingers” is the kind of track most bands would put as the second to last track, but they put it as the second song! Such balls! Even though they put such a difficult song as track 2, they put (arguably) the best song as the second to last. “Finer Feelings” is by far my personal favorite on the record… it’s such a great example of how thought out sequencing can help an album a lot.

We really tried to emulate that brave approach, putting an atypical song as the first track, then putting a completely opposite song as track 2 and so on.

AD: To that point, it’s obvious T.M.R. has put a lot of thought into this album. From how you’ve progressed as a band, to the sound production nuances, to the art direction and liner notes. Is the release of this album a turning point for the band? … Any thoughts about the progression of
this project?
 
T: Well, the band is still relatively young. We officially formed on the second to last day of 2006, and didn’t play a show until April of last year. Releasing this CD isn’t really a huge step, but rather our biggest project so far. We’ve already got a few new, small projects in the pipeline already. We’re planning a couple of new small-run releases, including a quasi-live cassette collecting a bunch of our favorite performances and adding new material right on top of it. Also, we’re contemplating a possible collection of remixes and a 7″.

The three of us have very normal lives with the responsibilities that go with them, including 9-5 jobs, student loans, and upcoming wedding plans. [Tim and Cari are currently engaged]. We can’t live the life of a ‘career’ band, at least not in the sense that you can expect us to pack up and go on tour for weeks on end.

Right now we’re happy to play Cleveland regularly and make day trips out to surrounding cities. With gas prices the way they are, we might even be trailblazing a whole new model, but we can’t really say that it was our intention.

As far as “progression” in the band, the CD is a definite raising of the bar for us. I’m already looking forward to the next one. But we even know it’s not time to quit our day jobs.

AD: Wow, lots of stuff in the works. That is an interesting point, too — that the cost of a “proper” tour must be astronomical now with gas prices. Maybe gas sticker-shock will foster stronger musical communities, supportive hyper-local scenes, etc.

So, you’re multi-tasking this weekend too — attending the Pitchfork Music Fest while you’re in town. What bands are you most excited about seeing? Which of the bands on this year’s docket would you most want to play with? Besides Spoon I guess.

T:Personally, I would really not ever want to play with Spoon, they’re just too good. I’m excited to finally see Spiritualized. They’re a perfect example of the kind of band we’re trying to be … Spiritualized can make their songs work with a 100 piece orchestra or just a guitar and a vocal. We’re really interested in that sort of songwriting.

An obvious choice would be The Apples in Stereo, but it’s warranted, they’re a great band. Most of the bands I’m really excited to see are the ones who dare try to pull off something really unique live. Health, High Places, Animal Collective, Atlas Sound, !!!, Caribou, etc etc… all of these bands have a lot of nerve to go up and try to present (to a festival crowd, no less!) a really unique live set, and I really hand it to them for that. It’s hard enough to try to play a simple pop song to a crowd, let alone a song/set of something completely different.

Oh, and Public Enemy… just because that set is going to be the most fun moment of the summer.

AD: It’s going to be a nice three+ days of music (and people watching).

You mentioned Spiritulized songs can work simply or with lots of components–in that way, how does a Muttering Retreats set work? Your music has elements of both straight-up pop but I know you’re also big into sound experimentation. You feature a fair amount of guest instrumentals and some of the production can also be quite dense: how does all this work live?

AD: Well, sometimes it just doesn’t work. But we try, honest. Our live setup at the very beginning was very convoluted and complex, it just led to a lot of technical difficulties. We had a laptop up there, midi controllers by the drums, wires everywhere, headphones… all this stuff. That didn’t last long.

Our live set depends on our resources. Sometimes there’s a drum set, sometimes not. Sometimes we’ll need a sax, other times a clarinet will do. Recently, we’ve even been messing around with completely re-arranging songs… adding new parts, having someone else sing, playing it faster/slower/on different instruments…

A lot of bands are out there with six or more people up on stage and we simply aren’t one of those bands, though I could see people making that assumption listening to some of our songs. Every once and a while we’ll get someone extra to come up and play drums or trumpet or something, but it’s less often than you might assume by listening to the CD.

We’ve all been getting into the business of making a bit of a soundscape under our songs. There’s a bit of that on the record, but it’s something I like to create in a live setting using loops and such. Chris is currently working on a setup that will allow him to make loops/soundscapes of his violin and piano, but that project is still in the works.