Living Comfortably: An Interview With Dunes
Formed from the ashes of some of LA's best loved punk bands, Dunes changed their sound to embrace pop and create an album that they would want to listen to.
"I think that it represents all-round change, and new chapters, and kind of embracing that in a positive way."
Dunes' guitarist Mark Greshowak has been there from the start. He was there when the band formed from the ashes of some of LA's best loved punk bands. The same can be said of vocalist Stephanie Chan and drummer Kate Hall. Dunes' journey has been a tight-knit one thus far: Chan, Hall, and Greshowak were all living together when they formed the group in 2010. It seems apt, then, that the band's close connection has continued in crafting their follow-up to 2012's Noctiluca.
The oxymoron in the title of their latest release, Bitter Charm, summarises the record succinctly; the band's endearing devotion to one another has been completely at odds with the bitter difficulties they've faced in working on the album. Grewshowak's near fatal bike accident in 2013 and the difficulty of Hall balancing college with music come to mind. Even though it would've been much more convenient, given the circumstances, to just create a stylistic continuation of their punky 2012 effort, the group have made a considered effort to change their sound and create an album that they would want to listen to.
It's an album that really sounds nothing like their older efforts, to put it bluntly, least of all their days as punk rockers in separate bands. You could be forgiven for forgetting that they ever were veterans of the punk scene, and if that's why you're listening to the album, don't hold your breath. Dunes have changed. Talking to them, you could forget they ever were "punks": none of the cynicism, darkness or political motivation that we associate with this genre gravitate from them at all. Instead they're upbeat and sharp, not unlike this album. The alterations aren't just limited to the sound the band is making, they're structural as well: Dunes have picked up a bass player (David Reichardt, formerly of Abe Vigoda) and a new producer for this album.
A bildungsroman in musical form, Bitter Charm maintains experimental roots whilst drifting into a poppier frame of mind. An optimistic outlook on this kind of change is something that speaks to Greshowak, Chan, and Reichardt on a deeply personal level. PopMatters sat down with the trio to talk about the influences that poised them to take a turn away from punk rock and into uncharted waters.
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In comparison to Noctiluca, Bitter Charm seems, for a want of a better word, poppier. Would you guys agree with that?
Mark Greshowak: Oh yeah. Definitely.
What inspired that change in direction?
Greshowak: I think we were all searching for change, I mean we all listen to pop music. I think we all started playing music through punk scenes because that was a good way to get started. You don't necessarily need to know how to play an instrument, but it can still be fun and loud, which is great. But I think it was just a natural transition for all of us, to try and go in a poppy songwriting direction, where we're more about the production process. Recording this was fun because we didn't hold back from any ideas in the studio. We thought if that sounds good, we'll just do it and figure out how to play it live afterwards.
Stephanie Chan: Yeah we definitely challenged ourselves to write things with a lot of intention. I think in the past we were kind of throwing everything together but I think for this album we wanted to be more deliberate. We were more thoughtful about how the song structure was coming together and what would make the best song that we would want to listen to. I think David being a part of this album influenced some of that songwriting.
You guys have worked with Alex DeGroot as the producer here, and that's another change from Noctiluca. Did he also help to guide you in that direction?
Greshowak : Yeah. He was both hands-off and hands-on at the same time. It was really great, if we had some sort of vision with a song, he would definitely not put that down and he would just let us do it, but if it didn't work, he would be honest. As a band, we've always loved the recording process, just kind of adding weird things and little mysteries to the songs, and kind of messing with the production of it. He helped us contextualise a lot those visionary [ideas] that we had. It was really cool working with him.
Chan: He has a lot of expertise in synths and samples and stuff that we hadn't really used much in the past. I think that influenced how things were produced. He wasn't really involved with the songwriting because we'd had basically everything done by the time we got into the studio. But if you listen to [the album], there are a lot of little things happening and he had a big hand in shaping how they turned out.
David, you've said that you personally have chipped in more with the songwriting and production process on this album than you did with Abe Vigoda, but in terms of the dynamic in the studio, what was different about working with Dunes?
Reichardt: They wanted a lot more from me than just playing bass. When I joined the band, that was an intention of mine as well, to be more involved in terms of songwriting and to kind of guide the band in that way. I'd taken a big interest in playing synths and we wanted to experiment with electronic drums and stuff like that. That was something I'd sort of started to do in Abe Vigoda but being in Dunes gave me the opportunity to do stuff like that more too.
Mark, you were in an horrific bike accident two years ago which pushed the recording of this album back quite some time. When you did get into the studio and when you were writing the songs, how did that experience shape your contributions to the album?
Greshowak : I was hit by a car two years ago and I was kind of stuck at home. For two and a half months, my jaws had to be wired shut because I broke my face and my pelvis as well so I was walking around with a walker. I was stuck at home a lot and I came up with maybe four or five ideas for songs during that time. I guess it was just a very reflective time, trying to do something that I myself would actually like to listen to, but also ... I don't know, reflected what I was feeling at the time I guess.
Chan: During that time period it seemed like a lot of the songwriting and things that Mark was bringing to the table were very slow and kind of dark, way moreso than the stuff we usually create as a band.
Greshowak : Painkillers. [laughs]
Chan: So we would take those songs and their elements and kind of make them more Dunesy, speed them up or add layers to them.
Greshowak : That was also a really big help for me, was that we were still practicing and still making it work. We have a practice base at Steph's house. Her house is built on a hill so there are all these staircases to get up there, so [they were] fun to crawl down to go to the garage for band practice. A big part of the healing process was seeing how everyone in the band transformed (my ideas) to kind of bring a new energy to them. I don't know, it helped me a lot.
Do you think the fact that this album radiates more of an upbeat, positive vibe links with your recovery?
Greshowak : Oh definitely. When I listen to this record, it's still a very reflective thing for me.
You play an instrument in Dunes that a lot of people probably aren't very familiar with, the baritone guitar. What draws you to using that instrument?
Greshowak : When I first started playing in punk bands, there was this one time when I broke a string at a show and my friend Chris lent me his [baritone] guitar, and he said, "just play the bass lines on this" and ever since then I really wanted a lower register guitar that could be very tonal, that you could really mess with. I really like surf music and spaghetti western soundtracks and [the baritone guitar] is pretty prominent there. And The Cure too, that instrument is all over The Cure's recordings and Robert Smith's stuff.
Reichardt: Did you get the "Bass VI"?
Greshowak : Oh yeah, first I started with a lower-style baritone guitar, it's called a Bass VI. Then when David joined, we didn't want to have two extremely low octave guitars, we wanted something else, so I got a higher tuned guitar that's still low.
It's been said that this album "maps together years of songwriting and personal experiences". Other than Mark's bike accident, what personal experiences were in the back of your minds when you were working on this album?
Chan: David, you can take this one. [laughs]
Greshowak : I think that it represents all-round change, and new chapters, and kind of embracing that in a positive way. That's what I've gotten from it.
Chan: Yeah, I think there were a lot of changes. Kate, out drummer, she went to college and became really busy, so we had to re-structure how we were going to continue being a band in that time, because she was away. I mean, she was only an hour away, but it did make things really difficult during that time period. So I think that definitely played a role in it for her.
Just like growing up, everyone growing up and whatever life experiences go with that [influenced the album]. I think that played a role in it. Mark and I were together for a long time and we broke up a year ago and that played into it too. Just a lot of things that happen as you get older and you kind of mature. I feel like that's very connected with the music and the songwriting.
You've included a "B-side Intro" halfway through this album which goes for about 30 seconds. What influenced your decision to include that?
Reichardt: Alex. That was directly an idea from Alex. We all kind of have the same opinion that if you take the whole album as one piece of work and not just a bunch of separate songs thrown together, when you listen to it, everything fits together in a certain way and we decided to throw in these kind of interludes and what happened was that "B-side Intro" was just like a longer interlude, and it kind of became its own little thing.
Greshowak : Yeah I recorded that at home.
Oh right, was that one of the songs that was a part of your recovery?
Greshowak : Yeah [laughs] that was a big thing.
Reichardt: So we went in and kind of the last step was to release interludes together. We wanted to experiment and throw some reverse tracks in and manipulate it. Mark had that idea that he brought in and it fit perfectly how it was, so that became "B-side Intro".
Chan: I think in general we appreciate weird things on an album. Interludes have always been interesting to us; we've always been fans of how one song can become another one. I think especially because this album ended up being more poppy, we do have an interest in making weird music, too. I think it was an opportunity to have a place to put those other ideas that didn't necessarily fit in with the poppier song structure.