They’re 40 minutes late when I receive a text message from the band’s tour manager. “We’re at the Holland Tunnel. Hit a little rough traffic. Be there soon.” I’m sitting in the near-empty back room of the Cake Shop, a café by day and arguably the best small venue on New York’s Lower East Side at night. They’re playing the same T. Rex record on infinite loop.
When the band arrives, bassist Mike Lightning and drummer Darkus Bishop get out of the van and shake my hand. Wesley Patrick Gonzalez, singer and guitarist, needs to rest his voice. The band just got in from D.C. and tonight’s show at the Bowery Ballroom marks their second straight gig with American labelmates Superchunk.
I offer to buy the pair drinks. Bishop goes in for a coffee. Lightning, upon discovering there’s nothing in the way of juice on the menu, opts for an iced tea, something the Briton can’t quite wrap his mind around. “In America,” I inform him, “we put ice in everything.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but it sounds like a good thing to say.
This is the last leg of a fairly short tour for the London-based band. “Only about two weeks,” Lightning explains. “The main reason we came out was to do a record.” Adds Bishop, “We did gigs to make it worthwhile to come over.” New York is only a brief pit stop, though. It’s off to Chicago tomorrow for eight days of recording. “What’s in Chicago?” I ask. Of course, I know the answer to the question. “Steve Albini’s in Chicago,” Bishop responds. It’s an obvious answer, particularly amongst musicians who came of age after the release of Surfer Rosa (1988) and In Utero (1993). “Bands like the Pixies and Nirvana influenced everybody,” Lightning says simply. “It’s the same for us.”
Not bad for a second record, particularly given the fact that its predecessor, In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s (Merge, 2009), a titular wink to King Crimson’s 1969 debut, was recorded, in all places, below what band members insist is the only music store in the whole of Europe stocking just ukuleles. Well, almost. “They’ve got a few banjos,” Bishop interjects. “Underneath there’s a studio, and that’s where we record – that’s where, up until now, we’ve recorded everything.” “The guy who runs it is friends with a lot of our friends,” explains Lightning. “It’s not just a basement. When we were younger, we didn’t have any money and he gave us a really good deal.”
There were a handful of EPs and a couple of singles, the latter of which all involved have chosen to forget. “Now it seems [they] are quite rare and hard to find,” Lightning adds. “They’re just crap things we did ages ago.” Fast, fun, and funny, those early releases are the sort of thing one doesn’t come across too often in a scene with the unfortunate habit of taking itself far too seriously at nearly every turn. “After doing a few singles, EPs and things, the album just naturally came about,” Lightning tells me. “At that point, we actually knew what we were doing, and the songs were better. It’s good to wait.”
I tell the pair I’d read somewhere that they’d gone into the studio with the intention of recording a punk record. “It kind of is,” Bishop responds. “I think it was kind of intended to be a real, real punk record,” Lightning quickly interjects, adding, “and we just got kind of full of ourselves, musically.” “Yeah, yeah,” Bishop adds. “We got hanging ‘round with organs. There was just shit around the studio.”
“Yeah,” adds Lightning again. “I think it’s very difficult to believe the hype when people keep saying you’re a punk band. The three of us are very punky, but you kind of want to say, ‘Well, actually, no. Fuck you. We’re like the Beach Boys.’ You go into a studio thinking, ‘We’re going to be punk.’ But when you actually get there, you decide, ‘No, actually, the Beach Boys are better.’ “
The band, it seems – lead signer Gonzales in particular – subscribe to the notion that the last thing written is, in fact, the best. “Some songs on the record we wrote the morning we recorded them,” explains Lightning. “‘Diana’s Hair,’ for example, just kind of came together when we started recording.”
“There are a hell of a lot of songs that never even made it,” Bishop continues. “I couldn’t even name them.” “Wes is the songwriter,” says Lightning. “He’s incredibly prolific. Even now, we came out to America with one idea of what the next record was going to be and since we’ve come out, the order and songs have changed three or four times. They’ll probably change again before we get to Chicago.”
It’s a process that has the habit of pushing songs out of the group’s set list before they’re recorded or even fully formed. And even though Let’s Wrestle is about as far away from that ukulele store basement as possible for record number two, the ensemble still foresees the possibility of re-writing – or at least re-arranging – under the watchful and sometimes moody eye of Albini. It’s something afforded them by choice of lodging. “We’re also staying in the studio,” Bishop says, referring of course to Albini’s Electrical Audio. “So there’s going to be no escape. The moods are going to be running kind strange.”
And while the surrounding and circumstances are quite different, Lightning insists the band’s successes haven’t done much to alter Gonzales’ source material. “I think it’s a similar subject matter. It’s pop songs masking misery in different ways. I think you’ll be surprised. It is quite miserable. It’s not Radiohead, but it’s quite miserable. This is going to sound kind of pathetic, but I think any kind of emotion is fuel to a successful band and successful songwriting. Wes would probably say the same thing. He’d say it a bit more eloquently, probably, than ‘emotion makes good songs.’”
As for the sound, Bishop is championing that old punk sound again. Meanwhile, Lightning – who announced shortly after recording this album that he’d be leaving the band to return to school – tosses out the word “professionalism” to the chagrin of the drummer. “There’s been a real change in the way we’re playing music,” he tells me. “There’s a level of professionalism, perhaps, that comes from being on tour for so long.”
“I don’t know if you mean ‘professionalism,’” Bishop responds. “It’s tighter.”
No gospel choir on this record? I ask.
“No,” Bishop answers, simply enough. “That would be cool, though.”
Photos: Pat Graham