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Interview Wed Feb 05 2014
By Stuart Ross
On the front end of their 2012 self-titled debut, Hospitality proved themselves to be makers of joyful pop. Songs like "Eighth Avenue" raced through last night's party, and the irresistible "Betty Wang" had nothing to do the next morning but linger at brunch. The record's deeper cuts, though, hinted at a darker side, and the band lets that side flourish on this year's Trouble.
Consider the first track, "Nightingale." You hear a nightingale and you might think flowers at your feet. But the riff is ominous and down in the bass. Even the chaperoned sway of a gem like "It's Not Serious" carries a serious message between the lines.
Not to say it's all doom and gloom. The band excels at writing about twentyseven-something characters, and many twee keywords are still invited to the party. I remember hearing about parasols, empty letters, even a heartbreaker named Valentino. But these characters are now walking home from said parties to find ghosts in their twin-sized beds.
In anticipation of the Chicago show, I traded some emails with percussionist and songwriter Nathan Michel about the band's tour and the making of the new record.
Who came up with the name Hospitality and when did you realize it was going to stick?
I can't remember exactly. But we liked that the name seemed both warm and inviting and a little bit cold and abstract at the same time.
The cover art to your first record was a kinda-candid photograph of passengers on a speedboat. This record has a much more stylized cover. What's the story behind it?
It started with a photo taken by Will Mebane. We gave that photo to the artist/designer we were working with, Phillip Niemeyer. We told Phillip we wanted to use the stripe theme, which we'd used before on our 7 inch. We also wanted the cover to be darker — thematically and color-wise — than our first LP cover. Phillip took it from there and did a fantastic job. He ran Will's original photo through a bunch of processes, which gave the image a nice texture. Not exactly sure what, but photocopying and analog film may have played a roll.
What were your main objectives with this record? Did you end up in a different place than you thought you would?
We wanted the record to have a warmer, darker, more natural sound than the first record. We wanted to take our time a bit more within each song, with the arrangements less ornamental and more integrated into each song. We didn't exactly plan on using drum machines and synths all that much, but as we were recording we ended up using them more and more. The recording process, at least for us, is pretty intuitive, so we always end somewhere different from what we initially imagine.
Can you tell us a bit about what the songwriting process is like in the band.
Amber writes most of the songs. We then arrange them with the band in a guitar, bass, drums version. Occasionally that trio version of the song becomes the album version. "I Miss Your Bones" is basically the trio playing live in the studio with just a few overdubs. Other songs ended up a lot further away from the trio version. "Inauguration" is an example. And some songs never went through the band much at all. "Last Words" is my song, with Amber's lyrics. I basically played everything on that track.
In the mixtape you made for WQXR, I really liked your comment that Stravinsky was the "king of right wrong notes." There are a number of great "right wrong notes" coming out of the guitar in the outros to "I Miss Your Bones" and "Last Words." What do you think of the longer instrumental sections in the songs on this record? I feel like you really give the band room to stretch out.
Thanks! Well, Amber's playing the guitar solos on "Bones" and I'm playing the solo on "Last Words." So maybe we both have that "right-wrong note" thing in our ears. Amber tends to write short songs. I'll usually take her initial song and add sections to flesh it out a bit. I was particularly pleased with the trumpet performance on the extended middle section of "Sunship." More right-wrong notes in that part...
I really dig the piano on this record, particularly at the end of "Rockets and Jets" and on "Inauguration." Who plays piano?
I play all the piano parts. I think in both cases you mention the piano slightly reharmonizes the chords of the song, which adds a sense of shift or lift to the song. Since the piano has a nice attack and decay it's good, arrangement wise, for fitting into mixes that may be otherwise already full. My personal favorite piano part is the solo I did on "Sullivan." It reminds me of Bill Evans' solo on "Flamenco Sketches" from Kind of Blue. It's got a similar floating vibe.
What's the first experience you remember related to music? Did you grow up in a musical family?
Neither of my parents really played an instrument, though both are musical. My dad is a visual artist, but had tons of records.
You're beginning a tour that will take you through Chicago, to the West Coast and back east. What can we expect from your live show?
Right now we're driving through a cold and snowy Indiana. Live, we perform as a quartet, which we've done in the past. But this time we're all switching around instruments a lot, which is really fun. Amber plays keys and guitar, Brian plays bass and sampler, I play guitar, keyboard and drums, and Dave Christian plays drums and keyboard.
What's it mean for you to live in New York and feed off that energy?
We have a group of friends in different bands, who we see from time to time. But actually we stay home a lot.
When you think of Chicago, you think of....
You've released records under your own name. Where's a good point to start in your music for people interested in following your solo efforts?
My music is on my website. It's pretty all over the place, but my 2005 record called The Beast is probably the best place to start.
What were you reading/listening to/looking at during the making of the album?
Listening: early King Crimson. Amber was reading Bram Stoker's Dracula. I was reading Concrete by Thomas Bernhard. Brian was reading The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman.
Watching: Amber was obsessed with "True Blood" while we were recording.
Stuart Ross is a writer living in Chicago. You can follow him on twitter.