In fall of 2010 Naked and Famous released Passive Me, Aggressive You. There was a buzz when it came out that seemed to grow steadily, at a certain point it seemed like a reasonable conclusion that their music could even crack mainstream Top 40. This would have put them in a pretty unique class — having concrete appeal in both the indie world and the commercial one (although surely the indie crowd would’ve given them the ol’ heave-ho once their tunes started getting spun alongside the likes of Lady Gaga).
Breaking into that world never did happen anyways, and listening to Passive Me, Aggressive You in hindsight it’s actually pretty clear why. Naked and Famous always had this sort of comic resentment towards all that glitters, and really there was a defiant pleasure in their electro-trashiness. They seemed to nail this oddball approach pretty phenomenally — which is why I was surprised with their newest effort, In Rolling Waves. It doesn’t exactly lay waste to their previous approach, but it doesn’t take long to see that this is no more business as usual with this album. Usually I like to intersperse a lot of my own thoughts in a profile like this, but honestly he provided such comprehensive answers I’m going to hang back and let his words control this article. I caught up with Thom Powers, one half of the group, and it was pretty apparent the dude was extremely psyched about In Rolling Waves.
I mentioned to Thom the new album sounds a bit sinister at times, which is a pretty far cry from anything really on their debut. I was curious how this materialized, if it was an intentional departure or a natural one. He agreed with my perception, and replied “As an artist there’s only so much you can engineer. In some ways I’ve learnt to let go of worrying about how we are perceived … on the other hand I feel validated that people have already noticed the sombre elements. I don’t think we consciously wanted to be seen as gloomier but there is a seriousness to our approach; we’re not haphazard about our intentions. I don’t often connect with people singing about how ‘great’ things are. I think it reflects nothing.
“Looking back I feel like Passive Me, Aggressive You was a coming-of-age album,” Powers tells us. “We were 19 when we began working on it. This album feels more experienced … more focused. I think perhaps the best analogy of how we got there is that highs certainly do have come-downs. Our lives changed in many ways. People change .. things fall apart. This album was hard to finish but so was our first. I feel like the older I get, the more I realize how little I truly understand. How finite everything is.”
While I did enjoy their first release, in some ways it was bittersweet, as it helped usher in a very happy-happy-joy-joy indie sound that is still dominating alt-stations all around North America. I mentioned to Powers how important it is for there to smartly made music that is still danceable and fun, but at some point the movement the last few years almost sounded prosaic in nature. Again, I wasn’t saying anything that was a shock to him: “I agree! We’re often labeled as a ‘synth pop’ band. We’re an alternative rock band. We even have two songs with double-kick fills.
“I think it was actually quite a fun point-of-difference for us as a live act though,” he notes. “People would come check out our live set and we’d play ‘Frayed’ and ‘A Wolf In Geek’s Clothing’. It was fun shocking people with these moments. Many of the bands or artists I grew up listening to were tagged with genres they weren’t comfortable with. Bjork, Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky, Nine Inch Nails, etc. These groups keep writing and growing, in turn defining themselves. I don’t want to be precious and pretend like I’m threatened by a genre/label. Synth-pop, like you said, is very now. I’m part of this generation. I’m part of this cultural trend … cool! It makes me feel connected to some kind of a ‘bigger picture.’ We’ve no interest in turning our back on the fans and the ‘sound they came to enjoy but we do want to (hopefully) grow as artist/group/bunch of individuals.”
I wanted to push this issue further — there aren’t a whole lot of personal messages in rock music anymore; not many Layne Staley’s or Ian Curtis’ out there. Everyone seems more guarded, and even intimate messages have a layer of overt intelligence and irony. People seem to be connecting more on a primal, fleeting level, and don’t have an easy time getting incredibly obsessed with one group. I was curious if he saw this as a positive thing. For example, I don’t know anyone super obsessed with TV On the Radio for example (even though they are amazing), and 10, 15 years ago I knew someone who was totally into NIN, another into Nirvana, another into Fiona Apple, another into Radiohead, etc, etc. His thoughts on this were incredibly interesting:
“I hear you and have felt the same change although I feel less definite on the reasons or motives behind the lack of fanaticism. Partly because I wonder whether I’m just projecting my state of mind on the rest of the world. I definitely have become less fanatical about musicians. I have met many and know all kinds of secrets about the inner workings of my favorite bands. We had the opportunity to work with Alan Moulder, mixing In Rolling Waves, and he mixed many records I grew up listening to. Obviously I drilled him for dirt on everyone.
One thing I have felt is that people are, in general, more culturally savvy than they were when I growing up. Look at Lorde: 16 and fucking brilliant. At 16 I was awkwardly moshing my dreadlocks around my garage to one of my wannabe-Tool songs. It did not sound good.
The internet is evolving how we interact with one another. Or maybe it’s the other way around. People definitely have access to the world in a way I didn’t when I was growing up although I definitely remember the birth of MySpace, etc. I think the access and constant cultural influx can quickly render people more discerning but also over-saturated and jaded.
I cringe when I think about someone writing an overt political or philosophical song in today’s world. I know it’s not a meaningless gesture but within minutes I can open up a Wikipedia page and find the subject they’re singing about is far greater than the length of a chorus. I think the movement from macro to micro is actually forcing people to pay attention to something more introverted.”
I felt (and feel) that In Rolling Waves represents a huge step forward from the band . It has way more layers and sincerity than their debut, and also a better flow. It doesn’t have any super-dancefloor friendly hits like “Young Blood” but it holds up better to repeated listens. It also has some serious riffage and isn’t afraid to get a little dirty. I asked Thom if this was a product of outside influences, such as Alan Moulder and Justin Meldal-Johnsen, both of whom worked on the album with the group. It also seemed like a fair question to ask how much they drew from their first album when recording In Rolling Waves.
“I feel like in the past I may have played down my answers regarding us wanting to move forward,” Powers tells us. “I’m afraid of people turning my explanations into fodder for insult. I suppose I should get a grip; we will always run into people who have nothing better to do than attempt to sabotage our career. I wish them all the best in their own creative endeavors.
“We wanted this record to satisfy us as well as our fans. We worked hard on mastering our craft: we were entirely in charge of making this record. I produced the record with Aaron. Moulder came on board after the recording but it was still a collaborative process. John Catlin (assistant engineer) said it was pretty rare for bands to hang around like we did. We were there almost every day and Alan was more accommodating than someone in his position is required to be. Justin Meldal-Johnson was someone I went to when I’d hit a brick wall. I felt stuck instrumentation-wise with I Kill Giants and The Mess. The bulk of the work we did was actually in the few conversations we had regarding the demos. It was one of the first times I’d spoken with someone outside of the band who could actually articulate what they thought was happening with one of our songs.
“The discussions we had were invaluable,” he continues. “Aside from him picking up a guitar at rehearsals and tweaking faders in the studio, it was a pretty hands-free experience for him. He kinda became a band-member. He’d come over to our studio space, we’d go over ‘I Kill Giants’ and ‘The Mess’, then he’d head back over to his studio and we’d continue with the other songs. We’re a self sufficient band and don’t exactly need any ‘help’ recording although when we decided to mix with Alan, the first thing I thought was ‘Shit. What are we going to tell Billy Bush?!’ Billy had mixed our first album and we became close. Luckily we were able to enlist him to engineer this record. He kept everything under control. People aren’t vocal enough about how crucial a good engineer can be. Sometimes they’re the only ones holding the ship together. We could not have had a better team of people working on this record.
“We were constantly refreshing ourselves but also wanting to start from scratch,” Powers concludes. “That still meant being conscious of everything we’d created on Passive Me, Aggressive You. It wasn’t about abandoning, but building on our musical faculties and experience. ‘Less is more’ was the motif I fell back on constantly. I pushed for key instrumentation, vocals included, to move the songs. I feel like because recording is so easy now, people often think producing is simply about layering. Frayed is definitely a song I still feel proud of but Passive Me, Aggressive You is a very ‘slamming’ album. I’ll forever be proud of that record but In Rolling Waves is definitely less in-your-face sonically. We wanted to create a create a bigger dynamic range, both in the recording and emotional content.”