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Feature Thu Sep 20 2007

OFFICE: Making (Beautiful) Pop Music

In case you were wondering, that buzz in your ears is music industry folks all across the country talking about a dear little Chicago band named OFFICE. From stages at Lollapalooza down to SXSW and from coast to coast, the OFFICE has been making ears quite happy. The band (and yes, all caps is the preferred form there) first came together in 2005, but their dreamy, life-inspired pop music was churning through the mind of songwriter Scott Masson for years before then. The five-piece's lineup, as we know them now, includes lead singer/guitarist Masson alongside bassist Alissa Hacker, drummer Erica Corniel, keyboard/hand percussionist Jessica Gonyea and guitarist Tom Smith — and oh, what lovely pop they make together.

feature 9/20/07 Office

OFFICE: Erica Corniel, Jessica Gonyea, Scott Masson, Alissa Hacker, Tom Smith (photo by Clayton Hauck)

If you're still with me, you might be saying, "But I don't like pop music. I'm a serious and skeptical indie rock lover. harrumph." Oh, loosen those crossed arms. It's ok. OFFICE isn't pop music like you remember pop music. They’re not writing 65 songs about your ex-boyfriend, Joe. If it makes you feel better, refer to them as "art pop" or "indie pop" or whatever you like. Honestly, all pop music has one thing in common, and that's sharing experiences through the medium of a catchy tune. We all know love, and loss, and lonely nights — therefore, we all know (and secretly love) pop music. OFFICE, if they can successfully ride their high tide of praise, will be one of those bands that's going to have a huge following because they’re telling those stories with plenty of wit and some damn-fine beats to boot.

This band knows how to reel you in with the hooks, no lie. The first time I heard the track one off their new album A Night At The Ritz I knew I was in for some serious repeat button time. "Oh My" has the perfect backbeat for strutting down the street, the perfect refrain for singing in the shower (or on the train, if you want to make some new friends) and a truly entertaining sound that you simply can't tire of easily. When you see OFFICE live, this is the refrain that the crowd is going to sing back to the band: "Oh my god, oh my god, I really need somebody, yeah." It's not that the tune is revolutionary in its scope (it's just a pop song about wanting to find someone to love, ok?), but it's as if this pop song was the embodiment of what every teenager wanted to express in those retrospectively pretty lame poems. It's the perfect two-minute heartache tune — and it's one you want to hear over and over again, and request on the radio and put on that mixtape for your BFF.

Video for "Oh My"

That's what OFFICE does so well: capturing the moment. They've crafted a world of dancy, upbeat, artsy melodic love letters (to who? to you!). Songs on A Night At The Ritz will sound familiar to listeners who've been hanging on the OFFICE's tunes for the past couple of years. Tracks including "Q&A" and "Wound Up" are older songs that you might have heard live, or back in the day on the group's MySpace page, but they still make a solid addition to the album before us. Title track "The Ritz" with its dreamy, slightly Of Montreal-like storytelling is bouncy and exciting. "Company Calls" and "The Big Bang Jump" bring in the keyboards and the '80s-influences in a joyful way that will make you add in the "la la la’s" and hand claps while you head to work. The acoustic "Suburban Perfume" is a welcome final track, like a slow song that ends the school dance with tears and aching feet. OFFICE is a band that can recreate that ache of nostalgia for its fans in a way that only well-written pop music can. Like they sing in "Wound Up": "Here’s to you, and here’s to me". I’m ready to drink this pop straight from the source.

feature 9/20/07 Office

I was excited to get a chance to email songwriter Scott Masson before the band heads out on tour and ask him a few questions about all things OFFICE. Below, he talks about where the band's going, how they do what they do, and how they hope their fans know they're loved.

Gapers Block: It's been a long road traveled since OFFICE's conception five years ago. Did you ever think you'd get to this point of releasing a full album with the band in this form?

Scott Masson: Not really. I guess part of me probably thought that we'd be releasing lo-fi records in some form because that's what we've always done. It's nice to know that we have a label now, and that there is a nice little audience of people who are interested in our songs. We've learned a lot about how this business works, have amazing people working with us, and we're becoming professionals in the way we conduct ourselves, so we've cut down on the number of bad decisions. To me, being in a position to share your art is success. If it all ends now, it wouldn't be a wasted effort.

GB: Where do you see the group in five more years?

SM: Obviously, I think we all want to keep doing this creative thing forever, make a modest living at it, and let the work develop in different projects outside of OFFICE as well. I'd like to hear what a Tom Smith solo album would sound like, and I want to be able to spin a Jessica Gonyea booty anthem on vinyl. Erica will probably record her epic lesbian country/western comedy album in the next couple years, and Alissa will most likely have a coffee table photography book. I'm definitely going to do some records as soon as I have time away from OFFICE. Our band will always be a group of people working together with a common goal, but I definitely see us branching out into different areas in the next 5 years. It keeps everybody inspired. You can't force people to wear one hat all the time. Even though this is our first album, people need to realize that we've been going at it hardcore for almost 3 years now, writing tons of songs in the process, playing a lot of shows, traveling a lot, doing a lot of press, and experiencing many extremes.

Hopefully, we'll be in a situation where we're able to focus our energy on developing more involved music in the studio, and less time promoting. There are so many things we want to try musically. As much as I love performing, I've always preferred to write and record because the studio is a place where freakish dreams come true, as ridiculous as that sounds. Onstage, music is dumbed down a notch, and it becomes more about volume and control. True...it's basic translation is more visual, immediate, and almost entirely on a visceral level, but I don't like neglecting the intellectual process of hearing music, and comprehending it at home. Ironically, a lot of people want to hear the songs note-for-note live, which is why a lot of bands these days use backing tracks. Ugh! We don't buy into this philosophy. Musicians onstage are often expected to channel this intense, metaphysical, and even sexually-charged connection with the crowd, and deliver their albums perfectly? We only want to do the opposite of what is expected. Those kinds of expectations are so funny to us.

Within the studio world, you have your space, and your area where you can be the eccentric person you want to be. Nobody is telling you what to do, where to be, who to meet, what to wear, and there is ample time to make revisions, and positive decisions for the good of the material. That, to me, is real productivity. Playing live is like making out with somebody you don't know, and getting judged by hundreds of people in the process. It's just so bizarre and awkward, y'know? The other band members seem to thrive in the live arena. In the next five years, I'd like to take some notes from them, and learn how they deal so well within these conditions. What pills are they taking? I'm a wreck out there, which is probably more entertaining than it is sad. I do feel like I keep my sense of humor about how awful I feel onstage. So basically....to answer your question, I'd like to spend less time in front of people, and more time creating music in the future.

GB: You've been traveling around the country a bit, getting mad praise at SXSW and in other big shows. How have you been feeling about all the attention? Has it influenced your live shows or studio time at all?

SM: Good questions, by the way. I don't think we really buy into any of this praise at all, because we still want to improve upon our musicianship, and write better songs in the process. Plus, we aren't exactly rolling in the dough. We haven't written our masterpiece yet, which is something we definitely want to do. We may never get there, but we're shooting for a body of work along those lines. Until then, we're just another band out there, doing the job to the best of our ability. If anything, the attention has influenced us to work harder.

GB: A Night at the Ritz has a definite pop sound, but with, at times, very dark lyrics. I'm thinking of lines like in "Plus Minus Fairytale" about pumpkin carving with a dull knife in the image of someone's face and sticking candles in the mouth. The question there, "Where's the happy ending?", seems to be pointing to the anti-pop nature of the lyrics here, was that the intention?

SM: That's a blues song. The happy ending is there for you and I to figure out. Most songs are questions, I feel. The nature of song-writing is to attempt to make sense out of real life situations in a way that doesn't sound too specific, so diverse groups of people can get something out of it, and apply it to their own lives. In the case of this song, it's simply trying to find some deliverance from a messed-up situation. Pop music lets people into the experience, and doesn't alienate them. Art, by nature, just holds up a mirror, as we all know. If every pop songwriter or artist completely avoided darkness as a subject, then the world would ironically end up being a truly dark, morbid place. Every artist would mentally collapse, and the audience would never have the luxury of experiencing their own fears or emotional pitfalls through art. All music would sound like Christina Aguilera, Phil Collins, and Celion Dion. Musical subject matter would be happy in theory, but people would never have any type of spiritual release, or acceptance of this so-called dark side of life. It's like pretending the environment is not fucked up, just because you haven't experienced a tsunami in your backyard. There's a morbid curiosity some people have, and taking it on through creativity is the healthiest way of dealing with it, I feel. Violence and darkness are unavoidable, and in just about everybody's mind, whether they'd like to admit it or not. To me, it's a very hopeful song. I'd be a complete failure though if I let this kind of mental violence and abuse foster itself into real life drama, just because I never digested the issue at hand. I don't want to let the darkness take over my daily activities, so that's why I write songs, as a means to an end. It's the same reason I write love songs, party songs, or songs about beauty. Those types of compositions can be just as suffocating. Life is up and down. There's nothing worse than becoming violent in reality, or making your art all about one thing. If every song I wrote was like this song, then I'd definitely check myself in. I just think that there is a time and a place to write about violence, and to digest it because of the fact that it surrounds us on a day-to-day basis. It's not like I invented violence either. It was there at the time this song was written, so I brought it in. Murder has never been my style though.

GB: What electronic sound influenced the beats in songs like "Q&A"?

SM: Kraftwerk was a huge influence on that song, as well as Joan Jett, Prince, and Kool Keith. I always thought the guitar riff sounded like something Pavement would do, or later-day Graham Coxon, although I could be wrong. We had been experimenting with delay and reverb explosions at the time, where you basically punch a chord on your guitar in time, and let the tempo and decay of the effects fill in the gaps of the drum beat. It sounds very cataclysmic and explosive that way, as opposed to just constantly strumming the guitar for the entire duration of the song, just because the instruments there in front of you. There is a patience to the way this song is played. This song is a good example of layering a multitude of incredibly simple, minimal "parts", and attempting to create a sort of complex tapestry in the process.... where each instrument is treated differently with EQ, effects, color, and wet/dry presentation. It's very orchestrated, for being such a simple, sparse song.

GB: How did you fit the older songs like "Wound Up" and "Dominoes" into the creative process for writing the new album?

SM: We didn't, really. By the time we went in to the studio to prepare this album for commercial release, everything was written, as well as our next album of all new material. It was mostly just making sure signals were good, picking out the best songs, bringing in some different ideas, and making sure that everybody contributed to the process, and hopefully not screwing up our original lo-fi demo masters in the process of over-dubbing on top of them. We knew this was more of a "compilation" album, as opposed to preparing an album of all new material for the people who had already heard of us, which in the grand scheme of things, was a pretty small group of people. Business is weird. This record is an introduction to our band now that we're on a label, and it's for the people who have never heard of us before, because it's the first time we've ever been available in stores around the world. Songs like "Wound Up" and "Dominoes" were on our demo, but that demo album was legally shelved when we signed our deal. It's now long out of print, and only a handful of people own it. Because some of those songs are still important to us, and still a part of our live repertoire, we included them on this record so they wouldn't travel off into obscurity. We wanted new listeners to be able to hear them too. Unfortunately, our older audience is just going to have to wait another year for all new material.

GB: How would you say Chicago influences your sound?

SM: We all have extremely cold and warm personalities, and our singing voices are often winded. : )

GB: How has it been being an artist in the Chicago music scene? Favorite venues? Favorite past performances?

SM: It's a great time to be here in Chicago. There is such a broad spectrum of sounds and ideas going on, and nobody is overly competitive or jaded to an unhealthy degree. There seems to be a general appreciation, love, and respect for each other's diversity. Empty Bottle, Schubas, Double Door, Metro, and The Hideout are all great venues to see live music in Chicago. Our best performances happen in venues like this, because the sound systems are usually superior. It's easy to get spoiled in Chicago, and we've learned to appreciate the sound systems we've got after playing in other cities. We've been treated like shit at major clubs across the US. Sound technicians here are so much more professional. A good sound tech is the most over-looked person in the business. They have the ability to make any band sound good or bad.

GB: You're gearing up for a tour with Earlimart, how do you feel that being on the road might influence the next album? Do you think it'll mean more inspiration, more or less time to write, or just a lot of drive-thru meals and dreams of your own bed?

SM: Thank God we've already written the majority of our next record, plus or minus a few minor revisions and details. It will be great to travel around, think outside our comfort zone, meet new people, improve as musicians, and experience life on the road. Because of the fact that we are ready to record again, we'll be able to just enjoy the experience for what it is, and let ideas happen naturally in our downtime, as opposed to forcing ourselves to sit down and write in a hotel room. We are expecting difficulties, of course, since it's so expensive to tour. Because we have each other, and our sense of humor, we'll be able to get through it just fine. In the end, traveling and experience is the best thing for creativity. It's easy to get comfortable in one city.

GB: What's going to be on the band's tour iPod?

SM: Anything that's groovy, and makes us forget that we're uncomfortable in a van. We tend to agree on good song-writing, so we usually stick with the classics when we're all together. Once we start getting into contemporary music, most of us disagree on what is quality, and what is really just hipster drivel. Generally, our friends' music is the stuff we gravitate towards: Devin Davis, STAR, Freer, The Narrator, The 1900s, The Changes, Mannequin Men, The Narrator, 800Beloved, Pas/Cal, My Were They, and a long list of other people we know and admire.

GB: How do you feel your fans view you — as a pop band, and indie band, or something yet to be really defined? (or how would you like them to see you?)

SM: I think our fans look at us as a pop band that's not really following any rules or specific guidelines. They see us as a mixed bag of ladies and gentlemen, and that we aren't afraid to show signs of humanity, awkwardness, silliness, beauty, or intelligence. We don't think we're above anybody in the audience, and we don't compare ourselves to our contemporaries. Despite what we've said in the past, or how we carry ourselves in photos and onstage, we are incredibly unpretentious. Our fans seem to know that we have wild ideas up our sleeves for the future, and I think this comes across in the music we make now. It's apparent that we value good song-writing, new and interesting production methods, growth, and evolution...as opposed to relying on methods that are safe, and areas that are already well-established by other artists. This uncertainty is appealing, and I think our fans are smart, and forgiving if we aren't totally successful in all of our experiments. Any fans that know us on a personal level know that we are pretty humble, and that we value their friendship. Gosh...hopefully, that doesn't sound corny. It's true! : )

A Night At The Ritz (Scratchie / New Line Records) is due out 9/25. OFFICE plays Schubas 10/3 at 8:30pm in support of Earlimart. Tickets are $12, and the show is 18+.
-Anne Holub

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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