Tue 9 Aug 2011
Writing from his work desk at New York’s multifunctional music space Death by Audio, Grooms’ Travis Johnson tells us about the band’s new album Prom, making guitar pedals and performing for Michael Azerrad.
(EMJ) Your new record Prom is out now. Tell me how it was conceived; where it was written, recorded and mastered.
(Travis) We had written one song, ‘Into the Arms’, before Rejoicer had come out. After that, we didn’t have any keepers for another six months or so. It seemed like it would take forever. Then we had like 15 songs all of a sudden, and we picked 11 of them. We practice in a room at Death by Audio, so a lot of it was jammed out there, and then me and Emily also had bits we’d worked on in our apartments and brought in. I think this was the first time we’d also worked one on one, without a drummer, on writing some things too. We recorded it at Uniform in Philadelphia, did some overdubs back at DBA, and then our friend Jay mixed it at DBA too. We mastered it down the street.
How is Prom different from your previous record Rejoicer?
It’s much less tangled, much more melodic. We focused on the melodies 10 times more on this record than we had on Rejoicer. It’s weird looking back, because it almost seems like we didn’t care about them back then or something. We also wanted this one to be a lot more dreamy and ambient, which I think it is, for sure. The lyrics are maybe a little less opaque too. I only say that because no one really asked about lyrics on Rejoicer, but they ask about the ones on Prom.
The song ‘Expression of’ is about your feelings towards Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. If you could sit down with Dawkins and engage him in conversation, what would you like to ask him?
“How are you doing?” and then “Have you read Kierkegaard or Wittgenstein? What did you think?” And then just go from there, at least if he’d read them.
You and Emily Ambruso started the band together in 2004, what is it that she brings to the band that you most appreciate?
Her perspective on things that we’re doing is always a bit different from mine, so, while we have pretty similar taste, she’s good at seeing what we’re doing completely differently from me, in terms of if or how it works, what it’s missing, etc. She’s also an incredibly good bass player. It’s kinda hard to name things, because she’s basically half the band, so I don’t know how much she really brings. Her half of the band is comprised of things, maybe that’s a better way of putting it. She’s at the centre of how the band works in just about every way, really.
Jim Sykes just left the band, was it hard breaking up with a guy you’d had such a long musical relationship with?
Well, we’d played with Jim for a couple of years and gone on our longest tours with him, so it was a bit weird and difficult. But he’s off in London now, doing things he’s happy with, so it’s good. He was a really great, distinct drummer though. Prom would’ve been different without him.
Can you introduce us to your new drummer Kevin – what’s his musical background?
He’s got what some would call strawberry-blonde hair. Soft-spoken Berkeley music dude. He’s good with restraint and power, which is pretty perfect. He’s into jazz and ambient stuff too, which excites me because it just opens up a lot of possibilities.
“Sometimes you just want to wonder
how a sound is being made, and not
get the answer.”
Tell me about the band’s relationship on a more social level – do you all hang out, go to shows and parties together?
Sometimes. Emily and I are really close and live close, so we hang out the most, but there’s a social aspect with everyone. We end up at the same parties together sometimes, or sometimes we’ll go out to eat after practice, or the rare movie or something. We saw Tree of Life together recently.
What was the last show you attended (that you didn’t play at)?
The Immaculates at Brooklyn Bowl, and before that, Crystal Antlers.
Tell me about making pedals at Death by Audio. What are some of the coolest things you’ve made?
I’m actually writing to you from my workbench now, with a bunch of pedals almost ready to be tested sitting in front me. It’s a great job. Hot in the summer and cold in the winter, because it’s a terribly insulated room. I’m not a huge tinkerer, but I do like it when I can fix mine or my friend’s pedals, whether they’re DBA pedals or not. It’s nice to understand what’s going on in there that is the problem. Makes one feel of use.
Do you think manufacturing pedals has helped you become more of an experimental artist?
Good question, and I’m not sure. I’ve always been pretty into experimenting, as has Emily. It has maybe guided the experimentation in some way that I couldn’t put my finger on. It maybe made me want to hear guitars less on this album, and instead hear more unrecognisable textures, etc. Sometimes you just want to wonder how a sound is being made, and not get the answer.
Death by Audio sounds like a really cool place to be involved with, being a venue, an art space and a factory. Tell me about the role the place has played in your life?
It’s been fairly central in some ways for a while. We’ve been practising here for three years, two of which Emily lived upstairs. It’s been our base, and a place where a certain amount of our good friends have been. Now that I work here, it’s central in other ways too, obviously. It’s good to be around other people doing lots of different things, different projects, that you can be pushed along by, or inspired by in some random way. I love what they’re doing at the venue and I love what we’re doing with the pedals. The underground has always been an important thing to me, in tons of ways. It’s been under attack lately, getting gentrified. So I’m happy to have a piece of it that seems well-protected.
The band was asked by Michael Azerrad to play a show commemorating the 10th anniversary of his book Our Band Could Be Your Life – how has Azerrad and the music he reported on influenced you?
At that concert, Dan Deacon got up and said very loudly to the crowd that the show was a celebration of the book, not us, or the bands we were all covering, because the book was so important to us. And it really was. It sounds dopey, but it was a really inspirational book, in a zillion ways. I think it’s possible that I’m still doing what I’m doing because of the book. Those bands he covered were obvious touchstones for us too. Not all of them, and they weren’t the only ones, but even the ones he covered that I feel kinda “meh” about are excitingly “meh”.
I certainly know of young people in New Zealand who are fans of Grooms. Is touring internationally something you plan to do once Prom has been rolled out across the US?
That’s awesome to hear! I think I heard of some people who liked Emily’s and my last band too, in Christchurch. They wrote excited emails. I definitely hope we get the chance to get off this continent for this one. I guess it depends on how many people there are out there who like the record.