“I Move in Shadows” is the new single from Brooklyn smooth rock outfit Office Culture. Recalling Steely Dan, Prefab Sprout, and the soulful pop of the late 1970s, the song moves beyond pastiche, demonstrating that Office Culture have arrived at something that speaks to the hurried, worried soul in these times of social malaise and fear of imminent collapse. When Office Culture’s on, there are no worries.
Speaking with PopMatters,vocalist/songwriter Winston Cook-Wilson said, “It’s the first song I wrote for the record. It’s about feeling like you’re playing some bizarre long game in the interest of trying to keep a relationship together. I was thinking a lot about the idea of ‘compromise’, what that means in practice, and whether that is the key to two people being able to co-exist and stay in love with one another. I was listening pretty much exclusively Curtis Mayfield at the time, especially There’s No Place Like America Today, which is one of my favorite albums of all time.
“The video, which is mostly Ian’s handiwork—Ian plays keys and guitar in the band, and plays his own music as Ian Wayne—is what it appears to be: a video about Ian and I trying to figure out how to make a music video. In addition to aiming for a meta, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm kind of thing, and thinking it would be funny if there were a ton of distracting subtitles, we also wanted to make something that felt like an honest depiction of the band’s dynamic, with a little bit of a story to it. There is a lot of nonsense and bullshiting banter like that in my real friendship with Ian, and we do regularly drive to gigs in my filthy Accord and get way too hopped up on iced coffee. Ian’s kind of my Kramer, but he might say the same thing about me.
“The show in the video is in an old, disintegrating loft in Williamsburg that I think has been demolished since we filmed there.”
The group, which is rounded out by keyboardist and guitarist Ian Wayne, drummer Patrick Kelly, and bassist Charlie Kaplan, releases its new album 1 November via Whatever’s Clever.
When did the material on A Life of Crime first start coming together?
Half of the songs date back to early 2017; the other half were all written in 2018, not long before we had the studio time booked. The later ones are generally more somber. I was going through some intense life changes at the time, as one does. There is a lot about how relationships work and don’t work in the songs, but they also have some tinfoil-hat, where-is-everything-headed kind of sentiments stuck in. There’s one song from the perspective of a VC investor, cool stuff geared toward the teens.
What did you take away from the making of the first album that helped you this time?
The first album, unfortunately, I can’t really listen to anymore. Certain songs I still like, but I feel like those have come into their own through playing them live over time. I’m ready for a [Grateful Dead’s] Europe ’72-style live album. One day.
This new album was super collaborative; the working process was completely different. It combines all of our musical personalities way more than the first one, which was aptly titled “I Did the Best I Could“. That one started with electronic demos I was making on my own while working through an intense period of writer’s block. I had no idea what kind of music I wanted to make or what I wanted to say. I remember starting to record again by making loops imitating Bay Area rap production I liked and singing over them. It sounds horrible, but I was so bad at it that it didn’t match that description.
When Prince died, I started trying to make everything sound like “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. Eventually, I convinced myself we were doing a Tusk thing: half scrappy home recordings, half slicker studio stuff. It was an arduous process, and I don’t want to do a record in that drawn-out way again.
On A Life of Crime, we started with no demos at all. The main priority for me was finding a way to maintain a consistent mood throughout the whole LP, rather than having the texture and instrumentation jump around drastically. The style is more restrained. Between the two Office Culture LPs, I did a solo album called Thirty which is basically just voice, piano, and some violin and viola. I wanted to put some of that sparseness and emotional directness into the band’s new music, and make the next record little less wry and all over the place.
You previously released the single “Hard Times in the City”. How indicative of the rest of the album is that tune?
People seem to like that one, so I hope it’s enough like the rest of it that they like the full record! It was a truly collaborative effort, and I’m proud of that about it most of all.
You also had members of Cuddle Magic on that tune. Are they a band you have a lot of camaraderie with?
I grew up in Pittsburgh, as did Pat, who plays drums. I met Christopher McDonald, now of Cuddle Magic, when he was TA-ing classes at this community music school I went to every Saturday in high school. I remember him teaching me how the chords in “Paranoid Android” worked, theory-wise. His brother Jeremy was in a lot of my classes and used to see them play music together. We reconnected a few years ago in New York when Christopher had already been playing in Cuddle Magic for years, and Jeremy was producing and engineering projects at the Mason Jar studio in Brooklyn, which he’s now a co-owner of.
I felt that I needed the full cumulative power of the McDonald brothers for the Office Culture album. That was not just because they have a charming rapport together, which they do, but because they each have such incredible ears. They can figure out what any song needs in order to sound like the song we all want it to be in our heads. They have a deep knowledge of jazz music, as well as rock and pop, and understood the crisp sound we were going for production-wise without me having to say too much of anything. I think it really helped that Chris and I are both ECM Records freaks.
The horns on the record are by two other Cuddle Magickers I met through Christopher and my friend Caitlin: Alec Spiegelman and Cole Kamen-Green. They are stunningly talented and creative players, and I teared up when I heard them on our songs for the first time. Outside of Cuddle Magic, they both do many other projects. Cole has a Mmeadows album coming out with his wife and Cuddle bandmate Kristin Slipper coming out soon; the single from that record, “I’ll Never Let You Go,”is so incredible. Alec just produced one of my favorite albums of the year for the singer-songwriter, Ana Egge, Is It the Kiss, and he’s working on a hilarious, moving, and really unique solo album that will blow everyone’s mind.
The music you make is so relaxed-sounding, but I would imagine it’s hard, in some ways, to play that kind of music because there’s a certain precision to playing quieter than it is loud.
My old band, Ball of Flame Shoot Fire, had a lot of trouble playing softly, even though I think we all wanted to. We had a lot of big, blaring instrumental codas. I didn’t really know how to end my songs any different back then. It was also very fun, but I am happy to be playing quieter music at this stage in my life. I like being able to play in smaller rooms comfortably; I like the audience being able to hear every lyric. Mostly, I like that I can hear everything everyone else in the band is playing.
Was there a particular song on the record that came together in a way you didn’t expect?
In a great studio like Mason Jar, there are usually many keyboards lying around. It’s panic-inducing. As things are getting set up, you start plinking away at them out of boredom, and then at the end of the session, you decide to add them into songs just to see how it sounds. Going into the record, I was aiming for a synth-dominated sound, but people kept urging me to use the upright piano. So all the acoustic piano on the record is improvised, couple-take noodling that I wasn’t at all sure about at all until we listened back to it. At one point, I asked people if it sounded too much like Jamiroquai. But in the end, it really worked out, and only kind of sounds like that.
Where does an Office Culture tune begin and where how does it typically evolve from there?
That has worked in many different ways, but a few of my favorite songs have come together through recording 20-some minute instrumental jams as iPhone notes. Without fail, we assume they are stupid. A couple of days later, they start to sound pretty okay to me, and I cut up tiny loops from them and try to write to them. Then once I have something, we have to go back and try to replicate the oddball five seconds of noodling I sampled, which we never can exactly, but then something else comes out of that. “Hard Times in the City” was one that came about that way.
The album won’t be out until November, so obviously you’ve already been living with it for a while but is it exciting once it’s in public and everyone can start hearing it?
Yes, it means so much when anyone says anything about it, even just acknowledging that it exists. Usually, by the time people hear one of my albums, I’m already at least partially embarrassed about it. It helps a lot that I still like all of these songs.
What do you hope people will take away from A Life of Crime?
Pat suggested I respond to at least one of these questions with “Give into the mystery.” Give into the mystery.
11/2 – Kingston, NY – The Beverly
11/3 – Brooklyn, NY – Union Pool w/Renata Zeiguer, Alena Spanger
11/8 – Cambridge, MA – Club Bohemia w/TBA
11/23 – Pittsburgh, PA – Cattivo w/Mrs. Paintbrush, Cosmic Wind
11/24 – Mountain Stage – Charleston, WV w/Fruit Bats, Cataldo
12/7 – Portland, ME – Sun Tiki w/Dead Gowns