How Calexico Burritos and Healthy Anger Fueled Total Makeover's Debut EP

Brooklyn's Total Makeover celebrate the release of their debut EP at Alphaville on FridayEXPAND
Brooklyn's Total Makeover celebrate the release of their debut EP at Alphaville on Friday
Photo by Matt Rubin

Whether one attributes it to Aristotle or Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha, the saying “Anger is a gift” has been floating around awhile. For Brooklyn musician Noah Stitelman, that phrase never felt truer than this past year. After releasing two EPs and two full-lengths with his band Neighbors, Stitelman was feeling restless, and decided it was time for the project to evolve. “It was a pretty confusing year, personally,” he recalls. “A lot of big changes happened, and I was just processing all of that through writing music that’s a little bit more biting, a little more bitter.” The resulting demos eventually became a bracing little gem of five tightly constructed, synth-forward tracks, self-titled to introduce his latest endeavor: Total Makeover.

Stitelman did not intend for the new moniker to be so apropos. “I must’ve thought of a gajillion names,” he chuckles. “I was hemming and hawing about it for months, and then we booked a show, so I had to choose something. And now everybody’s like, 'Oh yeah, that’s really apt!' But I feel like in time it will stop relating to the Neighbors thing and then it’ll just be it’s own deal. It won’t be a pun.”

For now, fans of Stitelman’s previous work will likely draw some comparisons, while recognizing that Total Makeover has the kind of teeth that Neighbors never bared. Driving, aggressive rhythms and more straightforward lyrics have replaced the dreamy vibes and esoteric lyrics that characterized Neighbors. That’s most apparent on heavy-hitting opener “Girls With Boyfriends,” which could be an anthem for dating in the cynical age of Tinder: “One lousy lover after another, it makes me feel like not enough / No guts, no strength, just a lifetime of regrets / You’re tired and useless,” he sings, lamenting interactions with “no spark, no soul.”

Elsewhere on the record, Stitelman channels the odd hope that comes out of desperation on “Self Destructive” with what could be subtle nods to Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks.” “I close my eyes and float,” he sings on “Different Shapes,” and his vocal does seem to float over the track’s grandiose wall of synths and crashing drums. The EP’s lone slow-jam, “New England Highway,” is Stitelman’s favorite. “I feel like that probably is one of the more successful songs that I’ve ever written,” he says warmly. “I wasn’t freaking out about whether or not that song was decent or not.” Indeed, these five tracks, taken together, are far less overwrought than anything Stitelman produced with Neighbors. “I wanted it to feel more conversational, a lot more immediate, and not so pastoral,” says Stitelman. “What I wanted to do was changing and evolving. I just felt like I built a sandcastle that was Neighbors and [although] I was happy with it, there was nothing to do with it except add more wings or something. So I knocked my sandcastle down and started building a new one.”

For production on the EP, Stitelman turned to Justin Gerrish, who’s worked with Vampire Weekend, the Strokes, and Hamilton Leithauser. “We got into a rhythm of working really quickly, hit it off immediately, didn’t have to talk a lot about like what we wanted to do,” Stitelman says. “He understood what I was going for and I think his decision-making is really good. We were on the same page and it just sort of rolled. I don’t feel like I’ve ever had a situation where I was recording and it was so easy. We just hung out and ate burritos and recorded songs, and shot the shit and it was just fun.”

What kind of burritos does it take to fuel a makeover of this caliber? “Baja fish burritos from Calexico,” Stitelman confirms. “Add jalapeños to it — it’s amazing. I could eat Calexico every day.” He’ll need some extra burrito-fueled energy to translate Total Makeover’s combustible tracks live, especially when they play their EP release show on August 21 at Alphaville. “When we play these songs, it feels like a band and the physicality of it comes across,” Stitelman notes. “Neighbors was much more like a project; playing it live, I never felt like we really got it right. There was just so much shit going on – there were like seven people in that band.” Total Makeover consists of just three additional players: Julie Noyce, Sam Hendricks, and Brian Harney, a streamlined affair for maximum impact.

It’s appropriate, too, that they’ll launch the EP at Alphaville, one of a new vanguard of DIY venues expanding out to Bushwick and beyond in place of the beloved Williamsburg mainstays that have shuttered over the past year. “Neighbors’ last show was in December [2014], in the last run of Glasslands shows,” Stitelman says. “I was sad to see it go – I peeked in the other day, and they’re setting up the Vice offices, and it was weird, but I don’t know if there’s a lot of sense in mourning it too much.” He cites Aviv, Shea Stadium, and the more “legit” Baby’s All Right as evidence that there are still plenty of places for music fans to explore. “You can feel that the people putting on shows there, and the people going, are people who really love music and want to be supportive, and I like that feeling about it. [Brooklyn has] changed, but I’m not a hundred percent sure it’s changed for the worse,” Stitelman says. “I don’t want to sound like an old person. There are people who say there are no good venues left, [but] if you are willing to engage with it, it’s there.” Closing out the EP, “Either Way” is the perfect anthem for that feeling. “Isn’t this the reason that we moved to New York?” Stitelman sings, part triumphant, part tongue-in-cheek.

Even coming from a place of anger, Total Makeover is certainly not music for curmudgeons. “Hopefully, some of it’s funny,” says Stitelman. “I think [that’s] the great line to walk. My favorite people, and any artist I really love, are equal parts funny and angry.” He’s found a bit of catharsis in this reinvention, it seems. “I was feeling like I wanted to throw some punches. [The EP is] about relationships and growing up and getting older and technology… I felt kind of like a raw nerve when I was writing this stuff, but I think that’s good sometimes.”

Total Makeover celebrate the start of a new chapter at Alphaville on August 21. For ticket information, click here.

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