Princeton Digs Into Minimalism For Indie-Pop Sophomore Release
By Peter Zimmerman
February 16, 2012
It’s been a few years since Princeton’s debut full-length album, Cocoon of Love, but the band has been anything but lazy since 2009. They’ve toured with bands like Sleigh Bells and White Rabbit, released a few singles and built considerable buzz around their shimmery, upbeat SoCal surf-rock sound. But one thing that separates Princeton from a lot of their contemporaries is their strong hand at writing catchy melodies that sink in without being cloying. This lends a roundness to their songs, where many in this genre come across as a bit too lean and unemotional. So, maybe the four boys of Princeton are wearing their hearts a little bit more on their sleeves than what we’re used to seeing, but backed with strong arrangements and thoughtful songwriting, they’ve created quite an engaging style.
Their follow-up sophomore effort, Remembrance of Things to Come , comes out next week (Feb 21) via Hit City USA/Easter Everywhere, and while it’s markedly different than Cocoon of Love, it’s still a winsome collection of ten songs rooted in the influence of minimalism on the band. Glide Magazine recently had the pleasure of speaking with keyboardist Ben Usen, who discussed the road to Remembrance, and hinted at what surprises might be coming from the band in the coming year.
Since Cocoon of Love, which you put out a few years back, you’ve released a couple singles -- “Clamoring For Your Heart” and “To The Alps” -- and they both seem like definite steps away from Cocoon’s sound. Were you testing out new ways or writing and putting out some different material for audiences to hear, maybe to bridge between this new record and Cocoon?
We actually recorded “Clamoring For Your Heart” around the time of Cocoon of Love, but for that album we decided to record a bunch of extra songs to use later and in other projects. But, yeah, “Clamoring For Your Heart” was one of the last we wrote for that record, so it definitely was more indicative of our transition into our newer sonic mode. It just didn’t seem to fit on Cocoon, and so we chose to keep it for a later release. Also, we’d parted ways with our label (Kanine Records), so we wanted to put out a single to let people know that we were back.
“To The Alps” is actually on the new record, Remembrance of Things to Come, and it’s one of most “pop” of all the songs, so we thought it would be a good transition for audiences.
You, as a band, have mentioned that with this new album you began focusing on different compositional patterns, particular orchestrations and even verging toward the avant-garde. What compelled such a decisive shift?
You know, it’s all pretty natural and organic for us, in terms of being musicians and big fans of music in general. We get into a lot of different genres and styles, so I think it was just a natural progression for us. Getting into minimalism mostly came from listening to people like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and others. We were totally fascinated by the structures and arrangements of those compositions, especially how few chord changes there were and entire songs could be based around certain sounds and instruments. We also wanted to explore bringing an rhythmic intensity through strings, vibraphones and drums. So, all of these “tangents” or whatever were all things we were into.
In terms of bringing it to our writing, Matt and Jesse write really great pop songs, and we wanted to try and infuse their writing with these new ideas we were having. We didn’t want to continue to make and arrange songs like we’d done on Cocoon of Love forever, because we would have gotten bored with it and it wouldn’t have been a maturation of any sort. By taking that minimalist structure to pop songs, it was both a challenge and enjoyable, because it was a style that we are all drawn to.
If Matt and Jesse are the main songwriters for Princeton, how do you and David fit into the writing process? Do they bring you the skeletons of songs and you fill in with the orchestrations?
Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly how it is. They’ll write a song, or sometimes we’ll be around when they come up with a riff and so at that point it becomes more of a collaboration with everybody-- with sounds and chord changes, for example. But really, this new record is much more collaborative in general. For Cocoon of Love, Matt and Jesse would write a song and they’d individually produce their songs according to their own vision, and David and I would sit with them and listen to find out exactly what they wanted, so they would essentially be leading us in a direction. For this new record, Matt and Jesse would bring the basic building block-- mostly melody-- and we would sit down and figure out how we all wanted it to sound and what mood we’d set with the song. So the arrangements came up in that sort of intensely collaborative space.
In terms of the recording process, do you work with a specific producer, or are you self-producing this work?
We self-produced this album. Although, we did have our friend Andrew Maury -- he’s our friend that we know from touring a lot with Ra Ra Riot, since he’s their sound guy and co-produced their latest record -- so we worked with him a bit. He didn’t produce Remembrance, but he did help as an engineer, to make sure that it sounded really good. He’s got a great ear for sound, as well as an amazing technical gift-- and can do stuff that we just can’t do on our own.
PRINCETON-- “TO THE ALPS”
You talk about a real evolution of your craft with this record, but I also see a decisive intention in turning towards minimalism. Because of the desire to incorporate that into your sound, did you choose to self-produce to maintain that integrity?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ve also self-produced everything we’ve ever done before, too, so it’s just comfortable for us. Also, we never really thought about getting a producer, just because we had such a clear vision and focus for this record, in terms of how we were going to arrange it, record it and how we wanted the sounds to be for the whole piece. I think that’s really where a producer comes into play-- where they can bring that vision out. With this project, though, we relied on our own focus to bring that out, so it just didn’t feel necessary.
How many arguments did it take before you all got on board with the majority of these decisions-- in terms of sound, arrangements, etc.?
(laughs) This record was… I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but we all were just so on board with the idea of how we wanted it to sound. We all were excited by the concept of minimalism and how we could incorporate that in. So, we went to my Dad’s lake house up on Lake Arrowhead for about four days, and my Dad had built this guest house-- or really just a room behind the garage where we set up shop and went through all of these songs, and everything just clicked. We barely had to talk to each other about it, either. We just were able to jump into it and write all of the parts and sounds together. There weren’t really arguments about it, because it was both spontaneous and planned out, and we just all wanted to the same thing. It was a really fun time, actually.
That’s part of the reason why we wanted to bring Andrew Maury out. We flew him out from the East Coast, as well as a pallet of 500 pounds of his gear, because we’d rented a blank studio. We moved into the space, and he’s such a good friend of ours that it was just fun and super enjoyable.
You also worked with LA’s New Music Ensemble for this project.
Right. Matt really pioneered the idea of a minimalism-inspired pop record, and he was looking up different musicians and groups that we could have in the studio to record with. And even with Cocoon of Love, we brought in a lot of horn and string players, so it wasn’t anything totally new, but we wanted to focus in on the minimalism of the arrangements, which led us to working with Los Angeles’ New Music Ensemble. They’re more of an avant-garde ensemble, and arrange a lot of work by composers we admire, so they had a keen idea of the type of music and sound we were going for. Matt actually worked with Patrick, their composer, for a few weeks to write all the arrangements for different instruments.
I’m assuming you can’t take them on tour, so what’s your approach now with your live shows and this material? I know you recently did a month-long residency at the Bootleg Theater in LA in January-- were you road testing these new songs?
Actually, a lot of these songs have already been road tested, because we recorded this album almost two years ago, in the summer of 2010. Last year, we went on a few tours around the country, opening for CSS and Sleigh Bells, then we did a Barnstormer tour with White Rabbit, and then had some other shows here and there, and we were mainly playing all the new songs then. So, we spent the majority of last year figuring out how we were going to present this in a live setting. Mainly, the album has a ton of strings, marimbas and vibraphones to bring a rhythmic intensity to the songs, but we don’t have those on tour, so we use a lot of electric guitar, which makes it much louder, actually. There’s only electric guitar on one or two songs on the new record, but live we’ve had to restructure the tracks to include layering with guitars, keyboards and sustained synths.
PRINCETON- THE ELECTRICIAN (ft. Active Child)
You recorded 18 songs for Remembrance of Things to Come, but there’s only 10 that made the final tracklist. What’s the plan for the remaining ones?
One of them we put out as a b-side with “Clamoring For You Heart” (“This Weather, A Swimmer”), and then two other ones we put out on our Japan release, which came out a couple weeks ago, because the record label had requested a few extra tracks than what was going to be on the US release, so a few are on there. And the other ones we’ll use between this and the next project. It’s always good to have some stuff left over, to use for compilations, licensing and b-sides. It helps keep the album cycle going between this and whatever is going to come next.
Now with online press, every website wants an exclusive premiere of something, which is a lot of demand. But, it goes along with creating as much content as you can. It helps satisfy a lot of listeners’ wants throughout the cycle, and it gives us the chance to put out more material than just on a single album release. You can also go the route of doing a tour EP-- something exclusive for that part of the promotion, so it makes sense to have extras. But to be honest, that wasn’t our express intention when we went in to record this album. We didn’t say flat out “let’s record 18 songs so we can have a bunch left over for other projects.” It was just that we had concrete ideas of what we wanted to do for 18 tracks, so we recorded them and picked the best album we could make from that group-- finding the ones that fit together and created a narrative that we found particularly interesting. There were a lot of really catchy pop songs that we left off of Remembrance because they just didn’t fit the mood of what we were going for.
What’s the next step, then, if this collection of work was recorded almost two years ago? Have you continued to write since then?
Behind closed doors we’ve rehearsed a lot of new songs, and practiced those. For a lot of the new stuff, we haven’t presented them to anybody yet, just because we need to focus on this record. In the music industry, everything just takes so long. You can write a song, and then it takes forever to record it, and then forever to release it eventually. It forces you to stick with that collection of songs for a little while, but that’s totally fine. We’ve definitely been writing, though, and we have a bunch that are ready to go. We could record a new album soon if we wanted to.
Considering the breadth of material you’re working with now, from the first EPs to Cocoon of Love, then through all of this brand new group of work that extends beyond Remembrance, how are you constructing your live show to reflect all of that?
We don’t have anything from the first EPs, and we sometimes throw in a song from Cocoon of Love, but mainly it’s the newer songs that we draw from. In fact, oftentimes the oldest track we’ll choose is “Clamoring For Your Heart,” just because the older songs don’t really fit with the sound of the new record. Remembrance is very much about a droning and pulsing kind of aesthetic-- we wanted to suck the audience in, either through headphones or in the live setting. We want people to dive into it, and get stuck in that trance. So, if we threw in a bunch of poppy songs into the middle of that, it can be incredibly distracting! (laughs)
Was there anything about Cocoon of Love, now that you’re looking back with some perspective, that disappointed you as a band, or even from a production point of view? What’s your relationship like with your back catalog, considering you’re working so hard and intently on new stuff?
Yeah… Cocoon of Love… I wouldn’t go back and re-do it ever, because I think you’re always moving on. I mean, you could sit around and work on a song for years and years, because there are always small changes to make, but I like when a record represents a period in time. When we made Cocoon of Love, that was our first real album, and it was a compilation of a lot of different songs that were written by Matt and Jesse, and that we’d played for so long so we picked out the best ones. We were young, though, and produced that ourselves, so looking back there’s just so many hooks and melodies that it is chaotic at some point. But yeah-- it’s definitely a “young” record. And that came into our conversations about this new album, because we learned a lot from Cocoon. It seemed natural to go to the other extreme with this, where instead of having a lot of chord changes and melodies everywhere, we adopted minimalism and would focus on creating a piece around one chord or pattern, picking and choosing every specific element to come in and out of the song, so that it is really intentional what we wanted heard, instead of endless amount of layers.
If you had to choose a new song from the record that you’re most excited for people to hear, what would you choose?
If I had to choose one, it’d be “Holding Teeth.” Lyrically it’s an amazing song. All of Matt’s songs on the record are based on characters, and they’re all in a story that he created. Each song is inhabited by one character and dives into their perspective and subconscious. The character’s name is Hartwick, and he’s this outcast guy who works at a gas station and is in love with a girl named Milly-- and one of the songs on the Japanese release is called “Milly-- and so this song goes into his mind, and he’s just kinda nuts. So, with that in mind, and when you listen to the rest of the record, I love how it fits in. I also just love the way song works, in terms of being built around one chord. I think the arrangement is so cool, and it just sucks you in as a listener. It’s a new extreme that we’ve taken as a band, so I’m really excited for people to hear that.