Yeah, I bet that whole Phil Spector Christmas album was recorded on a blazing summer’s day.
Stuart: I bet it was! Because it had to be released at Christmas. That’s funny, it probably was. [to BJ] What were you saying, BJ?
BJ: I was just saying that we were making jokes, in the control room with the surf boards, getting in the mood for summer…
Stuart: Yeah, like “Wilmont” was recorded during a snowstorm.
Missy: It was such a cold, brutal winter in North Carolina this year. It was miserable.
Stuart: Yeah, that was one thing we’d do, because you get kind of burnt out and tired when you’re recording up there—it’s like a mental exhaustion, you know? After a day, we’d go out and smoke cigarettes in the back and grab a handful of snow and just mash it in our face.
BJ: Terrible cabin fever.
So you think that reflected on the way that you approached the record, because it was such a brutal winter?
Stuart: I think the summer didn’t come out of like, “let’s go for a summer vibe.” I wrote the songs during the summer, so they probably just had a summer vibe inherently. I think probably BJ just tried to suit the songs as needed.
Are you interested in working with a full band in the recording studio in the future or are you satisfied with your self-recorded approach?
Stuart: Yeah, I think I want to keep evolving—I don’t want to make this same record again next time. But, I’m out of songs…you’re not supposed to say that, but at this juncture, I need to go through another pool of creativity—I gotta figure out some other angle for the next record. So I don’t know, but I can definitely tell you that this line-up of the band is by far the first time I’ve played with a really true chemistry, with everyone just kind of gelling together. We communicate really well, so I think a record with this group of people would be very possible, but I can flip out and start doing electro-pop or something, I don’t know.
Missy: That’s a legitimate statement. [laughs]
Stuart: Yeah. [laughs]
Do you feel like you work better on your own? Does it depend on the songs or is it more of an environmental thing?
Stuart: Yeah, and you know, there’s stuff I’ve heard in some recordings where I’ve done it on my own where I’m like, you know, “a live band could have captured some elements of that song better.” But ultimately, it’s just that when I write, I don’t pick up an acoustic on the edge of my bed and strum chords and write lyrics on the spot. I actually have to work it all out in my head, because I dread writing lyrics, so then I’ll start making recordings in rough versions, then I’ll edit those down until I have the recorded…what’s the word…instrumental version of the song. I’ll have the bassline and everything and drums and all intact, and then I have to write lyrics for the last step, and that’s pretty much how I do it. So, that being my process, when it was time to make a record, I already knew exactly how I wanted all the parts to fit together. When we recorded with a band, I’d be like, “Tom, that drumfill, you need to be a little sloppier, you need to hit this exact drumfill.” Then when I’m over everybody’s shoulder the whole time, I either need to be like, “I’m just going to forget everything and let the band just be organic, or make it on my own,” I guess.
That’s weird, because the lyrics are some of my favorite parts of the songs.
Missy: I know!
Missy: Me too.
Do you feel like they’re tossed off or something?
Stuart: No, no, that’s not it. I dunno, I guess it’s hard for me to write lyrics without me being really excited about the orchestration of the song. That’s what I vibe off of, when that’s all done—it’s not that I hate lyrics, it’s just hard for me to get motivated to write them based on just a chord progression. I have to hear some big ass orchestrated thing, and then I’m like, “oh, I wanna sing about fuckin’ dandelions!” or something.
Photo: Jason Arthurs
So it’s all very much in tandem?
Is it the same process every time?
Stuart: Actually, no. There’s some, like “Stars” and “Manteo,” where everything was probably written in, like, 24 hours. There’s a few moments you have that immediate inspiration, but there’s a lot of them where I have a melodic idea and then like a rhythmic idea will come a month later. Like, “Nocturne” took me three years to write, I think. Little parts of the hook were written a while ago and they got put away and then pieced together with another part, you know?
The backstory was such a tangible part of the first record, but what was so refreshing was how even after you stripped that element away from the album’s DNA, you still have strong songs that stand on their own and aren’t in debt to their personal history. Did you go through any similar experiences that informed the songs on Libraries? Were there any unifying themes that binded the songs?
Stuart: Yeah. I want to clarify, you know, I’m not the first guy who’s gotten dumped or broken up with someone and written a song about it. I think, in all honesty—and the story is true, what’s in the bio—but the break up, there’s three songs on that record that I was thinking about her when I wrote them. That’s, what, six about…well, one of them is about a guy friend. Some of them were made kind of fictional and blended with some real life stuff, and some are about nothing at all. Then, with the new record, I think the same kind of scenario—yeah, there are break-up songs that are about real girls that I may have broken up with, or they may have broken up with me. There’s some relationship strife that’s still going on, but I guess with the last record I made it sound a little dramatic—I don’t know if I was always that dramatic…some of the girls were. That was a weird answer. [laughs] But yes, there’s still a lot of similar themes on this record, but they’re not as heavy, I don’t feel like, and I didn’t want it to be as heavy.
The first one felt really cathartic—do you feel like you didn’t need that kind of catharsis for this one? You can feel that on the first one, but it seems like on Libraries you’re in a different state of mind.
Stuart: Yeah, and I’d say—to the state of mind—with the first record, you know, when I was making it, most of those songs I was like, I’d just bounced back from a real low point in my life, so it very much was—it was the first time I was making music in two years and being passionate about it, so I was like, “this is great!” and I poured a lot of that into it. With this one, there was the excitement of putting a record out on Merge, so I’m excited about going to a studio and really trying to make a great record and all the hard work that goes into that. I wouldn’t say it’s not genuine, but the songs—on the first record, they were pretty much recorded right after they were written, and on this one, there was a little distance between the writing period and the recording because I wanted to figure out all the sounds and get that stuff right too. So yeah, ultimately—and this isn’t a bad thing, I say this in total defense of the record—I think this new record, to me personally, is more about the sound of the record, while the first record is about the emotion of the subject matter.
Yeah, it feels like a natural progression.
Stuart: Yeah, and it felt natural making it, for sure.
Okay, now this is something I like to cap off all of my interviews with—it’s a bit like my trademark—and I warn you, it’s a hard one. What are your all-time, top 5 favorite records?
Stuart: [everyone laughs] Aw, shit. Let me e-mail it to you. I don’t even know.
Missy: Stu is one of my favorite DJs—like, whenever he gets a handful of records, he always picks out my favorite songs. I don’t even know some of them, and they’re my new favorite songs! But it’s so diverse, I don’t even know what he’d pick.
Stuart: I’m going to think about this all night. I’ve never asked myself this question, so now that you have, I definitely want to give you something. Um, Everyone Knows This is Nowhere [by Neil Young]—I’m really into that.
Missy: Third/Sister Lovers [by Big Star]?
Stuart: All right, yeah, that. Remain in Light [by the Talking Heads]. I’m not really listening to that right now, but it’s one of my favorites. [pause] Amy Grant, Heart of Motion. [everyone laughs] Throw that in there. We actually did get that cassette at a Goodwill or something, I remember having it when I was young…
Missy: It’s full of hits?
Stuart: It’s a lot of hits on that record. Like, you just gotta get feel-good.
Well, yeah, after you listen to “Holocaust” [by Big Star], you wanna hear some Amy Grant.
Stuart: Yeah! [sings] Baby, baby, dum-dum-dum. [laughs] Okay, so, Amy Grant, Heart of Motion, you got that. And then…um…Sticky Fingers [by the Rolling Stones]—I love Sticky Fingers.
Okay, so that’s 5. Are you sure about those?
Stuart: Yeah, if I think of any others, I’ll let you know—and if not, then I guess I’m stuck talking about Amy Grant.
Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Amy Grant makes the list.
// Notes from the Road
"With vibrant performances by artists including St. Vincent and TV on the Radio, the first half of the bi-annual Boston Calling Festival brought additional excitement to Memorial Day weekend.READ the article