Never mind how great the new Halloween, Alaska record is, although “Champagne Downtown” is indeed one to behold. Scenes of America’s hastening fade from glory are set to a slower-moving sonic backdrop that sounds like the comfortably numb whir inside a car being driven between Hollywood and Las Vegas.
What’s more impressive, though, is the fact that the electronics-buoyed, atmosphere-soaked rock quartet even remained a band at all.
In the four years since their sophomore album, singer James Diers moved to Los Angeles and then Madison, Wis. Drummer David King toured the world with the Bad Plus and Happy Apple. Bassist Matthew Friesen started a cabinetry business. Guitarist Jacob Hanson played in several other groups, finished school and became an instructor himself. Meanwhile, keyboard/electronics player Ev Olcott quit the band altogether but still acts as their studio engineer.
Oh, and three of the members stayed busy as dads.
“It’s probably fair to say it’s an important band to everyone in it,” said Diers, who is back living in Minneapolis. “That’s the main reason we kept it going: It’s rewarding for us.”
Talking at a happy-hour get-together last week between a rehearsal session and a taping, the group still seemed to be troubled by real-life distractions. King was late because of a session with a chiropractor. Friesen suffered through a virus that prompted a warning of sudden upchucking. And Diers had the tired look that comes with having a 1-year-old at home.
Still, the enthusiasm for the band was tangible as its members talked about making disc No. 3, “Champagne Downtown.”
“These songs kept coming up, and we kept going after them,” said Hanson, who joined in 2004 after playing with King and Olcott in the last lineup of 12 Rods.
King said, “This started out as sort of just a hanging-out kind of band, a way of playing around with quieter, minimalist arrangements. We still enjoy that about it: hanging out and playing around.”
Diers and King formed Halloween, Alaska in 2002 as a side project to their louder and more full-time band, Love-cars (now on hiatus). What started as an experimental foray into electronically based music - its nonsensical name underlines those playful beginnings - became quite a serious full-time group in 2004, when a couple of H,A. tracks were played on the then-red-hot Fox TV show “The O.C.” and a record deal was signed with East Side Digital.
“I moved away at about the worst time possible, just as things really started picking up steam,” said Diers. However, he added, “We never really considered calling it quits.”
Diers still saw King a lot in the interim as a tour manager for the Bad Plus. Once H,A. put aside live gigs - the last shows were two years ago - its members focused exclusively on recording.
And, it turns out, the album was mostly finished more than a year ago, but the band happily held it up so sonic guru Tchad Blake could do the mixing. Blake produced three Bad Plus albums, in addition to engineering a who’s-who of modern music (Tom Waits, Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello).
“At one point, Tchad was like, ‘Sorry, I have to take a break to do this movie thing for Pete,’” Diers laughingly recalled. The “thing” was Peter Gabriel’s Oscar-nominated song for “WALL-E.”
Blake’s refined touch is definitely felt, but the sonic richness on “Champagne Downtown” also reflects the band’s evolution. The electronic influences that H,A. initially dabbled with - Everything But the Girl, New Order and Aphex Twin - have become a natural aural backdrop, leaving more room for the band’s collage-like songwriting. Highlights include the cautionary digi-pop track “The Ends”; a somber ode to Diers’ grandfather, “Knights of Columbus,” and the cheerily apocalyptic “Hot Pink,” which opens the disc with the line, “You’re just like America/Fresh out of surprises/Stickers all over you/And a garden of rationale.”
“I was thinking of (America) more as a sociological profile, not in any political way,” Diers said.
Another new gem written largely by King, “In Order,” sounds like a lost Love-cars or 12 Rods track - a trait the members credit to Hanson’s added involvement.
“What Jacob is able to do affected this record quite a bit,” King said. “We added this great guitar player to the original, dynamic soundscapes. He sort of brought it back closer to our noisier roots.”
Half-jokingly, King added, “And he feeds back with actual feedback - it’s not digital feedback.”
Don’t worry, Dave, we get it: Halloween, Alaska is a real band.