Monday, June 18, 2012

Interview: Travis Johnson

Travis Johnson on a street in in Williamsburg, NY.
photo by: Wired

Having listened to Prom-- Grooms' sophomore album and my absolute favorite of last year-- for the umpteenth time, I was compelled to chat with frontman Travis Johnson about his songwriting, the development of the band, and their forthcoming album.

There are really clear directional shifts from the Muggabears to Grooms and even between Grooms' last two albums, and I find it remarkable that the band uses the same elements to a different effect in each endeavor. Do you take the variation into great consideration, or is it more incidental?
I think we think about it a little bit. Like, if we've really obviously done something before, we'll maybe think about a way to differentiate, but not all the time. I think a bigger reason is that we're just easily bored if we keep doing the same thing all the time. We're almost done with a third album and I think it'll be another shift. I can definitely say we decided, purposefully, to be more melodic between Rejoicer and Prom. That was very considered.

Yeah, I've found that complacency has never resulted in many positives either, but drastic departures have yielded similarly displeasing results, save Unwound. The more melodic air of Prom made it a much more affecting album than Rejoicer. There seemed to be a notable change in songwriting as well, because I found the structuring of Rejoicer very unconventional and abundant with variation. Many songs on Prom have defined verses and choruses. Was there any intent behind the effect of crafting songs differently, and will this new album be in a similar vein?
The new one is probably a bit odder on a textural level but still fairly poppy in terms of format/melodies, like Prom. I think after Rejoicer, we just felt like we'd kinda stretched out the unconventional song structure thing as far as we wanted to go, at least for a while. I think for us, that was the challenge with Prom, to make pop songs that would be interesting for us to play and listen to. I think there's that on the new album, but it's a bit weirder, at least that's where it feels like it's going as of now.

Considering that Prom was texturally odd as well-- with the use of digital effects and strange timbres-- the new album sounds as if it may have more embellishments in the way of production. Are you guys working with Jay Heiselman again?
We've been recording it ourselves over the last 6 months or so but Jay will mix it. I don't know though, maybe it wouldn't sound strange at all at the end of it all!

Ha! Were all of the songs written before you began recording, or were some written during this process?
They were all written before we started recording the basics, but a lot of them sound fairly different now. But maybe they'll be back to normal at the end of the mix! Probably not though.

You mentioned on Twitter that you think the album will be lyrically optimistic, which sounds like a great deviation from Prom's subject matter, in which its lyrics seemed divided between personal reflection ("Prom") and more abstract details ("Skating With Girl"). What topics are discussed on the upcoming album?
I think I wrote that when I had written a couple songs that kind of center on the idea of being safe/protected. They'll probably be obvious when you hear them. A friend of mine had suggested I write from that perspective to deal with some depression-related things, so instead of the usual, I really imagined myself in that situation of just being totally unharmed and watched over. It was/is nice.

That must be a really effective way of thinking. I often feel better when surrounded by walls than when outside and liberated. Do you think that someone could feel similarly comfortable when listening to the album, or was this mentality more so a form of therapy?
I think it can be really effective. At least for me. I don't know if anyone else will feel good listening to those songs or if I'll even keep feeling good playing them. I don't know how happy they sound, and it was really just written for me as a way to try my hardest to redirect some OCD thinking (which doesn't usually work). So it was really just a form of therapy at the time, for me. No idea how others will hear them. And the other songs on the record are all more varied. But there are an optimistic few at least!

Other than the application of that mindset when writing these songs, is there anything else that has inspired you during the creative process?
Hmm. I'm not sure if there's been anything specific. I like the idea of things sounding synthetic in a very strange way, while also being made out of organic sounds, so I think in a way that's been kinda there, in the back of my mind. Not sure what kind of aesthetic Emily's had in mind. Her bass lines have driven the writing of a lot of the songs though.

Some of the sounds you've incorporated into songs definitely reflect that synthetic motif. I think it occurs just before the instrumental bridge/outro to "Aisha", but there's a set of chords that sound digitally stretched and somewhat reminiscent of the processing HEALTH have used. Emily's influence is pretty essential to Prom, especially in "Expression Of" where her bass line makes the song sway perfectly. This may have been a product of the production, but the bass isn't quite as audible on Rejoicer as it would later be. Did the move from Death By Audio to Kanine affect the band's output?
I think that effect on "Aisha" and some others might be the same that HEALTH have used actually. There are some very useful and cool pedals out there that you have to be careful with because it's easy to turn them on and just sound like other bands that use them. But it's fun to get into them and work at making them your own. To use them in different contexts, etc. which I hope we've done. Or started to do. With Rejoicer I think all the weirdness was in the structure instead of the texture. I think that's part of Emily's bass getting more prominent, so that it can root and be the anchor for the textures we then put on top, instead of whatever guitar stuff I came up with on Rejoicer.

How you used that effect characterized it as more of an accent to the song, whereas I think HEALTH use it as prominently as they would any other instrument. Are you employing the same textures on the new album and are you looking to widen the sound palette?
Yeah, it's usually more of an accent with us. I think the feeling of the new one will be a bunch of small accents adding up. I can never tell though.

It'll be exciting to hear how all of these accents assemble. Is there a release date in mind?
Yeah. That's just the way I'm thinking of it anyway. The way those late 70s Bowie records strike me. Or certain Talking Heads. Not sure on the release at all. Could be mixing for a month!

[Grooms Blog]
[Buy Rejoicer & Prom from Kanine Records]

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