The Grahams take their cinematic approach to songwriting to new heights with “Pilgrims and Punks”. The duo’s use of muted synths and a pulsating crescendo feel far more pop than Americana. It’s a convincing dreamscape leveraged by a hypnotic, layered vocal delivery from the couple. All-in-all, the tune marks a significant departure from the Grahams’ roots-driven sound, and they sell it just as well as they have previous songs.
The journey took towards developing something so idiosyncratic to their sound suggests piqued interest surrounding this listen into their upcoming EP, Sha La La. They had approached developing the album with an individualist’s heart, breaking from any confines—aural or otherwise—to create a fun, free-spirited work. As we find in our interview with the Grahams, “Pilgrims and Punks” in particular has a storied history for the duo and one informed by a love for art and Amsterdam.
A lot has happened since the release of your last record. As you mentioned, the global pandemic, the birth of your daughter, and you’ve been open about some health struggles you’ve had with both your voice and surgery on your hand. How did these outside influences shape the themes on Sha La La?
Oh, don’t get me started on our personal trials and tribulations throughout the past two years. It’s hard ever to address our own issues since they pale in comparison to most. Nonetheless, everyone has their own shit to deal with, and we are no exception. We could have spent months or years dwelling on the pandemic and how it altered our reality, affected our health and our daughter.
The last straw in this “wallowing” was when I learned I had a vocal hemorrhage and couldn’t speak, let alone sing. That led to a strict period of no vocal use and then months and months of vocal therapy (which I am still dealing with today). Once I made it through the silence, we wanted to explore the sound. This motivation and dream of sound are why we recorded Sha La La. In fact, the title comes from that feeling of hitting rock bottom and just giving in to the unknown. That’s what we are all doing these days, I suppose. Recording Sha La La was just our personal manifestation.
What is your songwriting process? Now that you have your own studio, do you wait for inspiration and then go to the studio, or do you show up and work on music as much as possible and see what develops?
One of the most valuable lessons we have ever learned came from my brother, who is a beautiful author. In essence, he has always said. “Don’t sit around and wait for a lightning bolt to hit you, just get to work.” Later, I learned a great quote by painter Chuck Close, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”
I guess that’s part of the reason we built 3 Sirens. It gives us (and other artists) a magical place to just create. No expectations, no artistic rules, no clock ticking. It’s living art. It’s in the walls and through the halls. We built it, so we always had a place to go and find inspiration through work.
Who were some of the influences for the more 1970s inspired feel of the new songs?
We have always been big Beach Boys fans. It’s no surprise that Brian Wilson was a big influence on Kids Like Us, and certainly, that has flowed over into our sonic exploration on Sha La La.
However, it’s almost embarrassing to say that Doug and I love listening to music and playing music, but we’ve never been those hyper-intense music fanatics. Friends have commented how funny it is to come to our house or drive a long distance with us as we rarely have music playing. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing. I wish we geeked out more about music; we would probably be a lot better.
That being said, we’ve written songs since childhood together, with our childhood pal, Bryan McCann, and we just imagine shit and then work with someone who thinks bigger than us in the world of sound, like Danny Molad, to realize our chaotic vision. Of course, all of our musical influences find their way in.
I’m not suggesting we are inventing or even reinventing the wheel. Probably during Kids Like Us and Sha La La, we were listening to a lot of Francoise Hardy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Beck, Blake Mills. Even The Ronettes and Phil Spector stuff. Then there is always Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys. Who knows, we were also pretty high escaping a global pandemic.
With your new music, do you feel a pull to change your aesthetics? The album cover and photos have a breezier California vibe to them. You created a different look and feel for these new songs. Do they directly relate to a change in your attitudes or lifestyle?
Absolutely! Photographer Alex Berger from Weird Candy captured what we were thinking and feeling. We needed some levity in a time of heavy darkness. Not only the global darkness but our personal darkness (again, I realize it’s all relative). We needed to look “Beyond the Palisades” and find something peaceful and light, calming and hopeful. We have worked hard in this industry for the past two decades. After the birth of our daughter, some unforeseen and unwelcome medical issues, and a global pandemic, we needed to be free of the burden of ambition and competition. I’m not saying we aren’t ambitious. I’m just saying, this industry can make you forget who you are and what you love about art. We want to make beautiful stuff. That’s it.
Tell us more about “Pilgrims and Punks”.
Have you ever had a recurring dream? A dream that happens over and over and over again throughout your life, and every time it’s slightly different, but it’s always the same dream and you always want to return to it. Like a recurring dream, “Pilgrims and Punks” has haunted us for over five years.
Another collaboration with our co-writer and childhood friend BMC, this track is literally a work of art. It has changed colors and shapes many times. We have spent years visiting Amsterdam and the Dutch countryside. Every time we go (yes, we get really high), we spend day after day wandering the halls of the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum, and other inspiring places that breathe art.
We have written P and P over and over again throughout the years as every time we visit these magical spaces, we imagine ourselves kind of entering into the paintings. It’s always a different experience, a different version of the same dream, revealing a new prism, a new reality.
The track has become a series of evocative snapshots collected over many years of inspiration from Holland. During the pandemic, we decided it was time to “put this dream to rest”, and start a new one. We love this song because it is otherworldly and mystical and inspired by our lifetime love affair with art and Amsterdam. Step inside and see what you can find. Maybe smoke a J first.