There’s this Radiolab segment that’s stuck with me ever since I heard it a few years ago. It’s about how electronic devices are designed to sound — not what comes out of built-in speakers or plugged-in headphones, but the sounds that the object itself makes. That soft, round clap that let you know that your old flip phone was closed. That sharp, plastic-y snap that came from closing and locking your Walkman. These sounds weren’t accidents; they were carefully engineered by human people. Isn’t that wild? People sat around thinking about how the materials of a Walkman should be assembled so that, when it closed, you’d feel a sense of security. This thing is definitely shut. There’s no way my Paula Abdul tape is going to unexpectedly pop out.
When I’m listening to the self-titled album that Boston-based group The Most Americans recently released, I can hear that snap. It wasn’t used as a found sound on any of the tracks, or sampled to make a beat; it’s the album itself. The whole thing snaps because it sounds like the work of bandmates who have totally locked into one another — the harmonies, the guitars that carefully paint on different regions of the same canvas, the subtle but confident time variations — it all sounds secure and pleasing in a truly extraordinary way.
A flow that natural can seem effortless. But the truth is, as with the electronics mentioned above, it’s actually the result of years of hard, collaborative work by human people, and since I’ve been dying to know more about the album (“Two Dreams” has become one of my favorite songs released this year), I sent the human people responsible for it a few questions via email. The group’s two lead vocalists — guitarist Jon Braun and drummer Kevin Walsh — sent back the following responses:
You Hear That: I think it’s fair to say, between your name, your album cover and the activity on your Facebook page, that you really are the most American band out there. Is that a result of Boston’s proud revolutionary past? A simple but deep-seated affinity for the stars and stripes?
Kevin Walsh: Well, underneath it all there’s definitely some solid Boston/American pride going on, but it definitely started out as a dumb joke. A bunch of us were doing very American things on a 4th of July several years back: like grilling, drinking, and wearing a random hunting/camo outfit we found lying around and taking fake “Gun Pride” photos, and it became this competition of who could be the most American. Over time, something about the name just felt right; you hear the phrase “Most Americans agree that blahblahblah” so often, and there’s so much American “pride” but going in all different directions that it starts to sound meaningless and hilarious. But I wouldn’t want to live in any other country; no other place would probably allow me to be as weird as I am. Plus it’s hard to actually care too much about a band name; if what to name your band keeps you up at night, that just sounds like a waste of valuable brain space.
OH, [bassist] Vin [Calarese] wanted me to add that, on the night the band name was conceived, we were also eating apple pie hahaha.
YHT: Normally I hate applying broad-strokes comparisons, but I read the blog post that described your eponymous album as having a “healthy dose of math like in the 90’s.” Does that shoe fit? Are there any artists from that era you feel a particular kinship with?
KW: Oh yeah! We’re all kids of the 90s/early 2000s so even unconsciously it gets in there. But for this album there was certainly a lot of “Well what would Weezer of the blue album/Pinkerton-era do? Oh right, add feedback” when making decisions. We all love bands like Q and Not U, The Dismemberment Plan, Jawbox, Failure, Shiner, and so many more. And even if we weren’t consciously thinking about it, I’m sure that era of music just seeps through; for me, at least, that was when I really started obsessing over music and even as my tastes have evolved I still go back to those bands.
Jon Braun: Yeah I totally agree. That decade coincided with our formative musical years, so I think the 90’s are kind of engrained in the four of us. It also seems to have been a wellspring of influence for so many bands in years following it; bands like My Bloody Valentine, the Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, and Radiohead are products of the 90’s and major touchstones for so many artists. As a decade it has certainly inspired a lot of interesting offshoots and tributaries that are evident in bands today. Hum is another band that I think the four of us all have listened to a great deal, especially Downward is Heavenward.
YHT: Jon and Kevin — the different textures of your voices strike my ears as wonderfully complementary. How long have you been playing together, and have you been singing together that whole time?
KW: Thank you! We’ve been making music together for probably 7 or 8 years now, but it’s really over the last maybe 4-5 years that we started singing together constantly, and then probably the last 2-3 that we’ve gotten a whole lot more comfortable, not caring about making mistakes and just helping each other be as good as possible. It’s a constant process though, and even if we’re not really working on a song or something on a given night, we’ll still just sing cover songs while playing Contra or Mario Kart to make sure we stay in that comfort zone.
JB: In the bands we were in before we started playing together, neither of us were the singers. I always had focused more on the guitar, and I think Kevin probably on the drums, while other people handled that aspect of music making. In the first band we played in together, we were trying out different singers and after not being able to find the right fit, we eventually all settled on the fact that we would share the responsibility, kind of like in The Band. It still feels a bit like learning a new instrument but I think we’ve gotten a lot better since we started which is good because I’m pretty sure I was terrible.
YHT: Mathy rock songs aren’t usually the ones that end up getting stuck in my head, but these songs have a catchiness to them that I can’t exactly put my finger on. How do you go about balancing the urge to explore and add complexity with the need to please people’s ears? Does that relationship cross your mind as you’re writing, or do you simply write what feels natural?
KW: I think it’s a little bit of both: playing what feels natural, and also trying to make sure you aren’t totally alienating people. We’ve all been playing for a long time and at some point I think it just hits you that it can actually be more of a challenge to write or play a great song, rather than playing what is technically complex or whatever. Especially as far as drumming goes, I realized I wanted to be able to sing and drum, and it was going to be to my advantage to fine tune my drum parts and get them as tight as possible without going crazy. But we love mixing in different time signatures when it feels right, or chopping a beat off here and there. It all comes down to: Are you doing it to sound cool, or does it actually fit in the context of the whole song? And you just have to be honest with yourself. Ultimately, we just wanted to make an album that we’d love and would want to listen to over and over, and I think even if you don’t admit it you’re imagining people singing along with you—I mean, that’s the dream, right? So it’s gotta be catchy enough to make folks want to sing and dance, but not annoyingly so, which is why I think it’s important to let things age a little so you have some sense of whether it’s going to stand your own test of time at least. Obviously you want other people to love it, but that’s kind of out of your hands, so if You love it you’re probably on the right track.
JB: I’m definitely also a believer in doing what feels natural, which is kind of like trying to please your inner music fan. If there’s something that feels good to the group of us that usually means it’s worth exploring. Being conscious of the balance between complexity and listen-ability comes into effect more when we’re evaluating stuff we’re working on versus when we’re writing. I think exploring complexity and technicality is a good way for musicians to challenge themselves and improve, but complexity for complexity’s sake tends to feel self-indulgent and a little pretentious and can be alienating for an audience. We just try to make sure our songs are melodically interesting without feeling too trite, predictable or rhythmically stiff.
YHT: Your lyrics have lots of fun proper noun references — Odysseus, Cassius, The Importance of Being Earnest, Luke Skywalker — who is the band’s lyricist? Is the lyric “Where have you been Jonathan?” about you, Jon?
JB: I wrote the majority of the lyrics on the album with the exception of “Light for You” and parts of “Lukewarm” and “Earnest,” which Kevin wrote. I think referencing other characters can be handy shorthand in songwriting because they’re pre-packaged with backstories and their own mythology. Yes that line is kind of the little voice inside my head scolding myself for being bad at dreaming.
YHT: Where and when did you track the album? I heard that some earlier material was recorded with Jeremy Mendicino of Pretty & Nice. Was he involved in any of these recordings?
KW: We recorded the whole thing ourselves through basically all of 2012 at our studio space in Brighton, MA and at Jon’s place downtown; we kind of lucked into having a huge awesome rehearsal space, and between our friends we’ve accumulated a ton of gear. Jeremy did an initial mix of “Cassius” and “To Whom” (which were some of the first tracks we finished) to help us get some music out into the world. Then we finished writing and recording the rest of the album, and early this year we mixed the whole thing with Chris McLaughlin at his studio 1867 in Chelsea, MA. After that, our hero TW Walsh from the band Pedro the Lion mastered it. But as far as the recording went we did it all ourselves, stumbling and learning a ton along the way, but we’re a lot more comfortable that way since it lets us do whatever the hell we want, and take our time. And we don’t have any money so it’s also kind of our only option!
JB: That being said, if you know anyone who wants to pay us to do whatever the hell we want and take our time, we will happily spend their money.
YHT: Are there any plans to play outside of the Boston area at present? Might you be talked into playing a show in the friendly confines of Richmond? Between our renowned NASCAR track and triple-A Flying Squirrels baseball team, we like to think of ourselves as pretty American as well.
KW: Oh man would I love to get back to Richmond and play some shows. We have this running joke in the band about me being the only Suthner, so it’d be nice to get these Yankees a good dose of Richmond pride. We’d really love to travel with the album, but logistically and financially it’s a little difficult. We’ve still got a lot of music left in us to write and record so we’re going to start recording another album this summer. But if somebody’s willing to help us get down there we’re all about it!
JB: I’ve been to Richmond and loved it. Please tell your rich friend who is going to pay us to record that we would very much like for them to fund our expenses to play in your lovely city as well.