Three Chords, a Beat, and Mayhem
Last Thanksgiving weekend, the Little Killers and producer Jim Diamond took over an empty recording studio in Brooklyn, sweated out 13 live takes of new material in two days, and went home with the bare bones of one of this year’s great rock and roll records, A Real Good One on Gern Blandsten. Let other bands twiddle knobs for months on end—the Little Killers like things rough and sloppy. “Look at all good rock and roll records,” frontman Andy Maltz says. “They’d go into the studio and cut four songs in an afternoon and that was the end of it. And that’s what everyone listens to for the last 50 years; songs that were done in two minutes in the studio.”
The Little Killers—Maltz, Sara Nelson, and Kari Boden—met in a bar in Brooklyn in the early 2000s. Maltz had been in bands before, including the highly regarded Sea Monkeys, but Nelson and Boden had never played their instruments (bass and drums respectively). Maltz’s job at an East Village guitar store gave the fledgling band a space to practice in, Sunday afternoons when the store was closed. With the doors closed, they started banging out their songs, first covers, then originals, in their signature incendiary style. They started playing shows in January 2000, earning comparisons to NYC staples like the Ramones and the New York Dolls. By July of the same year, they were recording their self-titled debut, a churning, roiling monolith, built on blues riffs and punk disdain, celebrating dirty sex and death and rock and roll.
Of course, The Little Killers might have languished forever in obscurity, except for what can only be called a Cinderella moment. A friend, and owner of the East Village’s Wowsville! record shop, was playing the CDR one day in the shop when Tim Warren from Crypt Records dropped by. “Play it again,” he said, after the record stopped spinning, listening to it three times before leaving with it. Later, the call came and the Little Killers joined a roster of Crypt artists that included the Gories, the Pagans, and the Sonics.
“We just all jumped in the pool,” says Maltz, remembering that first big break. “For what it was worth, it was great that he liked the band enough to do what he did, which meant a lot to me, because I’ve always really dug everything he’s done. The other thing is that it definitely got us attention in a way…that we wouldn’t have gotten if we’d done the record on another label. Because people were like, ‘Oh, wow, Crypt!’”
The Crypt relationship opened doors in Europe, and the band embarked on a massive, multi-country tour. They were also one of the last bands to appear on John Peel’s show. Still, though well-respected, Crypt had limited resources to promote a new band. Most of the bands on its roster hadn’t been active in years. Being on the same label with the Sonics may look great on paper, but they’re not likely to come out of retirement to co-bill a showcase at SXSW. Maltz said he remains grateful to Crypt for giving the band its start and is still friendly with the label’s founder. But when the opportunity to cut another record, with another small but well-respected label, came up, the band jumped at the chance.
That label was Gern Blandsten, the New Jersey-based imprint that released the first Liars album (before the band got picked up by Mute), as well as Ted Leo’s Chisel and early solo works. Maltz had been friends with label head Charles Maggio for years when the two began discussing the possibility of another record. “We met with him and, really, five minutes into it, we were like, ‘Let’s do this.’”
The deal was finalized in October, and almost immediately, the band began looking for recording space. Maltz contacted Jim Diamond, who dominates garage rock production the way that Phil Spector once dominated girl groups. Normally, Diamond records in his own Ghetto Recordings studio, but Maltz and his band couldn’t swing a trip to Detroit. Maltz called around to recording facilities in the NYC area and finally settled on Brooklyn’s Seaside Studios. “They basically just gave us the keys to the place and disappeared for four days,” he says. “We just went in there and set up and recorded, really pretty much the same way we would do it at a rehearsal. There was just a small PA and we played the songs. Most of the songs were just the first take.”
Maltz says that both he and Diamond wanted, primarily, to capture the band’s live energy on tape. “Most producers don’t want you to do it that way,” he adds. “They want to have the control of having… oh, we can separate all the instruments and make everything sound nice and neat and clean. And I really didn’t want it to sound like that. I wanted it to sound dirty and sloppy and like it’s really happening. That’s kind of what we went for. Jim was really open to that.”
A Real Good One isn’t a radical departure from the self-titled debut’s headlong rock ‘n’ roll sound, but it does benefit from two years of playing together. “I feel like we’ve gotten good at working together with each other,” says Maltz. “The music is going to come out sort of the same because it’s you, but we don’t have any kind of dogmatic rules. If it fits, we put it in.”
Still, the new album seems darker than the older one. Where the self-titled CD had songs about kissing monkeys (“Pucker Up”), rowdy sex (“Chopping Block”), and rocking out (“Volume”), the new one’s tunes are more about relationship fallout (“She Don’t Love Me”, “Fly Away”, “You Better Be Right”). The title A Real Good One is combative, too. And then there’s the cover art, by Mike from the DC Snipers, which shows a man and a woman in an all-out, hair-pulling domestic dispute. Maltz downplays any violent subtext, though. “I didn’t want to write the same album over and over. It wasn’t a conscious thing. I’ve been listening to a lot of country music, too, which is in a lot of ways about things not working out. There’s that. It’s all grist for the mill.”