Up-and-coming Brooklyn band Plates of Cake pull off a neat trick with their second full-length Teenage Evil, at once recalling the savvy wit of punk and indie predecessors like Television and Pavement, but radiating with the creative vitality of a band hitting its stride and striking on an identity all its own. As PopMatters Associate Music Editor Matthew Fiander wrote of the new album, “Every song here hits with the darkly humorous charm of, say, Robyn Hitchcock (no wonder they cover the Soft Boys’ “Underwater Moonlight”), but delivers the quirky rock punch of any band Robert Pollard has fronted.” Fiander touched base with band leader Jonathan Byerley to find out more about the making of Teenage Evil and how Plates of Cake’s influences find their way into their music. PopMatters is excited to share the premiere of Teenage Evil, which will be released on 26 March by Uninhabitable Mansions.
PopMatters: As with the first record, there seems to be this interesting mix of equal parts confidence and self-deprecation in the vocals, combined with lyrics that strive for the bittersweet and personal. How do you manage the distance between the delivery of the words and words themselves?
Jonathan Byerley: I was actually surprised to hear you characterize the album as bittersweet and personal since there is so much humor and even outright violence on this record. But if you hear tenderness in all that murk and grime, I’ll definitely take it. I guess, to me, the closer “As If the Choice Were Mine” is really the only consciously “nice” track on the record. As for delivery, I’ve just been working towards a way to perform the lyrics well, rather than merely sing them well. In some ways, the delivery has more to do with the difficulty I have with projecting my voice over a really loud rock band. So there is a basic element of just doing what I can with what I’ve got. In other ways, though, the delivery is consciously more performative.
PopMatters: Plates of Cake doesn’t seem too shy about your love of Robyn Hitchcock, and on Teenage Evil, we get your take on the Soft Boys’ “Underwater Moonlight”. What made you pick this song for the record? Do you see it as a thematic fit or is this a chance to pay tribute?
Jonathan Byerley: Of all the bands from the punk era, the Soft Boys charted a direct link from the psychedelic and garage bands of the ‘60s, whereas many of their contemporaries saw ‘60s music as taboo or something to react against. I think that same tension exists today. Like so many other bands, we worship the records that we grew up with, but understand the trap you can fall into in becoming just another throwback band. I guess that’s the trick, right? To reference your heroes, but still sound unique and modern. The Soft Boys succeeded in doing that in their day. They were modern while also referential, psychedelic but also really punk. Robyn Hitchcock is one of the masters.
PopMatters: Before Plates of Cake, you released more folk-oriented solo records under your own name. Now that you’re two albums into the band setting, do you see differences in making music with a band? Are there other influences or approaches that you use now you didn’t then? Did any carry over?
Jonathan Byerley: For one thing, being in a band is just more fun. I don’t have enough command over an audience to really warrant a solo thing. Having a band makes that part easier. It’s like, “You don’t have to listen to us, but you’re gonna have to leave the room to hear anything else!” This record was more collaborative than the first, and the next one will be even more so. With the first Plates record, I still had one foot in solo-land while slowly getting back into the realm of being in a democratic rock band. Teenage Evil is really our first statement as a unified cohesive whole.
PopMatters: Teenage Evil continues the band’s exploration of different realms of guitar-pop. How do you guys manage so many variations while keeping a cohesive sound?
Jonathan Byerley: I think the main reason we have a cohesive sound is that we’ve basically been playing music together for ten years. Not as Plates of Cake, of course, but I’ve been friends with Ian [Burns] and Gann [Matthews] since high school, and Josh [Carrafa], Ian, and I started our first band in college when we were 19 years old. There’ve been a couple other members in the mix as well and I’ve got long musical histories with them too. We just know how to play together.
PopMatters: Some bands reinvent their sound from record to record, some tread the same ground, and some refine what came before. Plates of Cake seem to be in the refining camp. In what ways was the approach different to this record from the self-titled album (or the 7-inch that followed it up)? Where did you hope to go in this record that you didn’t in previous work?
Jonathan Byerley: For one thing, Josh (lead guitar) and Ian (drums) are all over this album in a really band-defining way that wasn’t as present on the first album. That first record had me laying down songs to 4-track cassette with a drummer in a church basement in New Jersey, and then everybody came and dubbed their parts individually at an apartment in Brooklyn that I shared with Gann. Whereas Teenage Evil was recorded in a real studio—all live in a single day, by an actual band that had been gigging and rehearsing a lot. The only thing we dubbed was the vocals. We were road-tested or whatever. Anybody could hear this as a “guitar album” with Josh at the center of it all, just as much as they could hear it as a vocal or lyrics-driven album centered around me. Anyway, with this one, Television, Malkmus, Robert Quine, Revolver were all on our minds, more so than say the Byrds or Moby Grape, which is where my listening habits tend to fall back on a lot.
PopMatters: Another interesting dichotomy in the record is how these lean rock tunes cover pretty huge swaths of terrain—the hoards of kids in “Late Last London” or the morning-after mess of “Tickets to the Races”, for instance. How do you find this sort of scope in pop songs without them spilling into self-indulgence or bloat?
Jonathan Byerley: I think I read somewhere Steve Albini was quoted as saying that the standard boy-girl song of pop music is “thoroughly bankrupt”. Regardless of the exact quote or context, that phrase stuck with me as being pretty liberating. There is literally no framework for writing pop song lyrics, at least for a band like ours. Dylan destroyed that notion a long time ago anyway. But there really is no limit to what material you can draw upon for lyrics.
PopMatters: Once the record is out in March, what else does Plates of Cake have planned for 2013?
Jonathan Byerley: We have some tour dates on the east coast, with hopefully more to follow. We might put out a cassette of live recordings in a few months. I’m currently writing songs for the next record, and when the band has arranged the new tunes, we’ll probably start demoing them on the 4-track, and plotting another album release.