[14 July 2010]
“My bank account is overdraft, but I’ve got two-hundred dollars in my pocket and I feel rich—I’m buying you a drink,” Stuart McLamb spiels to me outside a Williamsburg bar at 2 a.m., following an opening slot for Camera Obscura at the Grand Ballroom in Manhattan that he would later refer to as the best show he’s ever played. Currently on the verge of being 2010’s break-out artists, that guileless sense of cheeky pride and scrappy honesty is a huge part of the Love Language’s appeal. Yet both preceding and following last year’s best kept secret—the band’s (though, for most intents and purposes, McLamb’s) bedroom-tracked and self-recorded eponymous debut on Bladen County Records—the Raleigh songwriter behind the shambling indie pop collective found himself, like many musical upstarts, hitting a series of snags along his path toward rock and roll bliss. Despite his hardships (or maybe because of them), murmurs quietly and steadily began to grow around the Love Language in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle area that, for better or worse, birthed such a volatile spark of creative activity. Culminating in enough buzz to gain the attention of Merge Records, McLamb and Co. fatefully found themselves kicking off a new chapter in their burgeoning career by making the enviable jump from their small, Portland-based label to the beloved indie giants for their new album, Libraries.
Both in person and on record, the admirable, earnest sense of accomplishment forming around McLamb’s rising profile—grounded by a hangdog self-effacement and an inert humility— is fruitfully tangible. Acknowledging the surrounding Brooklyn nightlife as an ample, fertile ground for aspiring indie bands, McLamb brushes off the notion of living or dying by the status quo: “Brooklyn’s amazing, but I love my home and I love being around my friends.” That everyman candor speaks volumes about the type of guy Stuart McLamb is, grateful for his success and deserving of every whit of it, yet bound firmly to his roots. As we found ourselves sprawled out on the faded blue carpet of the band’s bare-bones dressing room—accompanied by fellow Love Language cohorts Missy Thangs and BJ Burton—McLamb opened up to me about the move to Merge, the major differences in songwriting and recording between the debut album and Libraries, and his not-so-secret love of Amy Grant.
Congratulations, first of all, on getting signed to Merge. They’re known as being particularly artist-friendly. How did that come about?
Stuart: Thank you. Well, we were on a label when they first approached us—the first record was on Bladen County, out of Portland, Oregon. I remember getting an e-mail from Laura [Ballance, Merge co-founder], and she was just like, “we love this record, do you guys need any assistance?” So, it was just put out like that—and I think she really meant it like that, like they really believed in this record and they wanted to help push it or whatever. At that juncture, we were already set up with Bladen County, everything was good, but we just got to a point where we felt it was a good idea to jump the bridge. I mean, it’s Merge! They’re in Durham, we’re in Raleigh—at the time we were in Chapel Hill, it’s like 30 minutes away—so I’m sure the proximity helped, you know.
So, I’m assuming, aside from your admiration for the label, that it was partly a matter of convenience too?
Stuart: Yeah, and just the more we thought about it, we wanted to remain true to our friends at our label but at the same time we were like, it’s a really good thing to pass up, so we went for it. If you’re asking if Merge is an artist-friendly label—very much so. Going into the office and visiting them—they’re really genuine, down-to-earth people. I didn’t know what to expect, just because the quality of some of the records they’ve put out just makes you think that they’re almost God-like. But when you walk in, they’re just the sweetest people and they just really love good music and just have a knack for finding good bands.
The new album started off as a full band record—you did some extended touring with a seven-piece band—and ultimately it ended up being just you and BJ [Burton, Libraries’ producer]. Did you need to adapt the songs at all since it started out so differently? Did it need to be pared down?
Stuart: Well, the songs for the second record were written in not too much of a different time period. Like, if we pushed the release of the first record back a couple months, we could have put three of these songs on that record. They were kind of in the same period so I was still working on the demos. I basically had this whole record, like I did demos that more or less sound like the last album, but they were a little more rushed and actually sounding like demos, you know? They were arranged, but that’s just how I always write—I always make a demo recording, more or less, it’s just that the first album actually ended up being all those demos. So all of these songs were already written or fleshed out in my brain, and then the old live band kind of did their own thing with them, and I took some elements from that and sort of mixed them with the demo versions of mine, and then did the album with BJ like that. Does that make any sense at all?
It makes a lot of sense to me. How did you and BJ hook up?
Stuart: Dude, get in on this. Can BJ get in on the interview too?
Oh, sure. [BJ is asleep in the corner, Missy laughs and wakes him up]
Stuart: I think we were sharing a milk shake and our eyes locked. [laughs] No, it was a compilation, BJ did a compilation for triangle bands—the triangle area is Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill in North Carolina—and he did a compilation featuring a lot of bands in that area. It was a showcase of a lot of the talent in that area—correct me if I’m wrong—to totally promote his studio, Flying Tiger Sound. I’d never heard anything about him, like, “this comp, what? I don’t know anybody on it.” But like, the Rosebuds were on it, and Annuals, and some great bands, so I ended up doing that—we did that song “Horophones,” which is on the record too…
Yeah, I remember hearing that way before the record was even announced.
Stuart: Yeah, we thought about not putting it on the record, but I liked it so much, and plus there were only like a hundred of those pressed, I think. Anyways, we did that, and that was the first time I’d been in a studio to record my music, and I had a positive experience—because I’d pretty much done it on my own up until then—so we just kept in touch. Then I went through my whole freak-out period about how I was going to do the second record, and talked to him on G-chat—he was in Raleigh and I was in Chapel Hill—and I’d be like, “man, I gotta tell the band, I don’t know if I can do it with them,” and he was like, “dude, just come to Raleigh and make the fucking record.” It took me about two months to finally do that, I had to figure out a lot of things in my head. By that point, we had a month and a half to get it done…
Missy: Yeah! I was going to say, it took you two months and you only had 30 days to get the record out, the full-length.
Stuart: [laughs] Yeah, exactly, if I would have been there earlier we would have had a lot more time, but I think it’s a good thing that we didn’t have a lot of time. We just banged it out. A month and a half is a long time, but it seemed like just enough time. We pretty much were in there every day, like 16 hours, just the two of us, multi-tracking…
Missy: ...losing your minds.
Stuart: Yeah, it was just non-stop for a month and a half.
Photo: Cheater Slicks
I think that’s really the way to record an album. You can feel that energy on the album.
Stuart: Yeah, awesome.
So much has been said about the violent, lo-fi sound of the first record—everything is just totally in-the-red—and I think the neat trick that the new record pulls off is that it retains what made you guys so special before while feeling more layered and textured without sounding fussy or overdone. It feels like a natural progression. Was that a conscious decision?
Stuart: Well, he set up mics. [laughs]
BJ: We just wanted to take what made the first album special and not abandon anything, but also make something new, as well.
Stuart: Like, to progress.
BJ: Yeah, I guess, because I love how the first album sounds. We just didn’t want to make the same album again. I mean, he’s got that album as demos…
Stuart: I do, yeah, and that’s the thing. I think there’s a charm or something—I don’t know, I can’t put my finger on it—or maybe it was the songs that were different and we could get away with it. With the first record, I knew it just made sense to put it out the way it was—even the mess-ups and stuff—but these demos, I just knew while I was sitting on them, like they had the same sound, but it would be a worse record to just do the same thing again, just because it already happened. It took him a little convincing, definitely, at first. I was like, “I think we’re just gonna bring the BOSS 8-track into your studio and we can run that through and just clean it up a little bit,” you know? [laughs] I was really attached to that sound—“sound” being the exact sound of that box. I guess I’ll never know because we’d never have made this record, but if I could travel to an alternate time continuum, I would be so pissed if we ended up releasing those demos, the first ones I made.
Was there ever a genuine prospect of releasing those demos as the final album, similar to the first record?
Stuart: Yeah, it’s something I definitely considered, but they were just demos—I knew they were demos.
Do you look at the first album as being “just demos”?
Stuart: No, and it’s weird, because it was the same process, but somehow I was burning on a desire for it to be a record. I think with these, it’s the same sound, but I think I knew in the back of my mind, like, “I’m think going to redo this.”
It’s more considered.
Stuart: Yeah, mhm.
Well, the album was recorded during the winter—which is odd, because it’s such a perfect summer record…
Stuart: [Missy and BJ laugh] I know! It was weird. I think that’s what was making us go crazy. Like, “is this good? What’s going? Something feels weird!”
Did you have a certain frame of mind while you were recording it? Since it was recorded during the winter and ended up sounding summery?
Stuart: I dunno, maybe subconscious. [to BJ] Were you thinking of that at all?
BJ: Not really. We did make jokes here and there…
Stuart: I don’t think you think about seasons and how much they impact you ahead of time. They do change everything, but you don’t think about it. I guess Christmas songs are recorded during the summer.
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.