Earlier this month, indie newcomers California Wives released their debut full-length album, Art History on Vagrant Records. Across the eleven tracks that comprise the record, the band stakes its claim in well-constructed, thoughtful and unabashed pop music. They’re unafraid to embrace the 90’s influences that so immediately inform their sound, but rather than weave derivative and formulaic alt-rock pieces, California Wives merge the world that they grew up with with the keyboard-laden aloofness of current-day indie music. But above all, they inject an infectious energy and enthusiasm into their album that nicely fights the aloofness that so many of their contemporaries are known for.
Glide Magazine recently spoke with Jayson Kramer of California Wives about the band’s history, the writing and recording of Art History, their love of British bands and what they’re planning for the future of the band. Also, they’re on tour this fall with Stars and Diamond Rings, so be sure to check out if they’re coming to your town. This is certainly an up-and-coming band that you should keep your eyes and ears on.
How did the band come to be? I know you've been playing music since you were young, but tell me about how it all formed, and when you decided to make it an official outing?
I guess you could say that the band was formed from a chance meeting. I had moved back from Boston, taken my pre-med tests, and was looking for work in Chicago. A friend of mine just moved into an apartment and was looking for a new roommate. I jumped at the opportunity to move into the city and eventually met Joe and Dan through my new roommate. We bonded over our musical interests and got drunk together a bunch of times, so the bond was already formed before they asked me to join the band. They were still working out what sound they wanted to go for, so we had a few practices and really went from there. It's entirely possible that I would have missed that chance to move into the city and might have missed the opportunity to join the band. Craaaazy.
What sort of music did you listen to growing up? Who were your role models?
My mom worked as a bookkeeper for a record store when I was growing up, so I had a lot of CDs in my house as a kid (I know, I know, not vinyl...it was the 90s!). I listened to everything really. I remember liking a Barry White record and I had some great jazz records too. I also owned Dookie and The Blue Album, like we all did. But, most of my time was spent listening to bands like Radiohead, Oasis, Blur, Ride...a lot of british bands. I thought those guys had the most swagger, they were real rock stars.
How long have you been writing the songs for Art History?
Some of these songs were reworked from an EP we released a few years ago, the Affair EP. But most of the writing happened in about six months before we went to New York to record the album. In that time period, we looked at all the songs, new and old, and went to work getting them as tight as possible. Writing songs, instead of just writing long "ideas," was the most important thing for us as a band. We wanted these songs to have only what they needed and nothing more. Maybe someday we'll get into exploring more experimental ideas, but for now, we are focusing on writing solid pop songs.
Were there songs that you all recorded or wrote for the album that never made it on the record? If so, are you planning on releasing them in some form, or will you hold them for the next album project?
We do have a few songs that never made it on the record. We didn't record those songs because we only wanted to focus on the songs we knew were going on Art History. But a few of those other songs have sections that I would like to explore in the future. There were a few slow songs that if given the right amount of love could turn out to be pretty neat. That being said, we fully intend on writing new material for the next record. Records are like snapshots of your life. I would want the next record to be a snapshot of my life, wherever I am.
What's your writing process like? Do you compose on piano, and then bring it to the band? Also, do the music and lyrics come together, or separately?
Most of my songs start out with a guitar, keyboard, and drum machine. I have the strongest background in piano, so I really like to work out the progressions of our songs on piano first. That way I can cover the bass line, maybe the mid-range voices after that, and eventually I'll try working out a strong melody. That being said, some songs come together with just a guitar and a bunch of time on my hands. I try not to force it either way. When that's done, I usually bring a demo into the band and we start picking it apart, looking for things we can improve on. Dan writes as well and it seems like his process is pretty similar. The lyrics almost always get written in my car. It feels secure in there, I'm not sure why. Having a speaker system that can play a demo at maximum volume takes away any bashfulness I might have about an idea.
How long did it take to record Art History? Why did you choose to work with Claudius Mittendorfer as a producer? What was that experience like?
It took about a month to record Art History, working twelve hour days, six days a week. We chose to work with Claudius for a few reasons. His demeanor was perfect for our band. Claudius is confident in his abilities and he never really gets too worked up about anything. He's always cool under pressure. I think that attitude really rubbed off on us in the studio. He made us believe that we had all the tools we needed to make the record we wanted to make. Claudius also has an amazing set of ears. He's passionate about getting every sound just right and I think you can really hear that level of detail on Art History.
The album has now been out for a few weeks. How has the reception been? Is it a relief to have these songs out there now?
It seems like things are going really well! Our fans have started to pick out their favorite songs, which is always the most fun for us. It's great to know that people are listening closely enough to form a personal relationship with a song. And it is relieving to have these songs out there. We worked on these songs for such a long time, so its great to see these songs take off.
You're touring with Diamond Rings and Stars this fall. When will we see a new headlining tour from California Wives?
We love playing music, so we'll be out on the road as long as we have an audience. We have some post Stars tour plans in the works right now. We fully expect to see your shining faces a few more times on this record!
What's your favorite thing to do on tour to relax?
I like to skateboard when I get the chance. It's one of the few activities that calms my mind for a while. It's also a great way to explore a new city if I have the time. It's rare that I actually do find time to skateboard, but there's a skateboard in the van at all times. You never know when you're going to have a few minutes to yourself.
Describe the best audience you've played to thus far. What makes a show special to California Wives?
We've had great crowds in Toronto and Buffalo so far. Those crowds were really interactive, which is probably most important to us. We really like it when fans have a good sense of humor at the show and are verbal about it. We're all there to have a good time and that just speeds things along. But we've all been to a show where we just wanted to enjoy the music, so I totally respect those type of crowds too. Sometimes, you just want to listen and that's cool.
If you could collaborate with any band/singer right now, who would it be?
I would really like to work with Sam Prekop (The Sea and Cake). His songs have such interesting harmonies and are filled with great ideas. That would be an honor.
What artist/band would render you speechless and excitedly nervous if you met them?
Tom Petty or Jonny Greenwood. Tom Petty has written some of the best pop songs of all time. I don't think I could say anything to him that he hasn't already heard. He's just Tom Petty. And Jonny Greenwood made me want to be in a rock band. What do you say to somebody like that?
What's one song that you feel really defines California Wives and you'd like the public to remember you by, thus far?
I would probably pick "Marianne" or "Twenty Three." I think both of those songs have some pretty interesting mixtures of synthesizers and guitars, which is something that I think we focus a lot of our energy on. We could never decide whether or not to be a synth or guitar band, so we became both. The end result is a pretty different mixture of sounds from the 80s and 90s...you know...California Wives.
For more information about California Wives, visit their official website. They’re on tour this fall with Stars and Diamond Rings-- tour dates here. Art History is now available on Vagrant Records.