If Ear Pwr‘s 2009 album Super Animal Brothers III (Carpark) was a supremely dizzying act of extroversion—a string of cherry bombs celebrating cats, shiny sweaters, dumb jokes, and electro-pop over-ambition—its successor is so mild, by comparison, that it registers as the work of a completely different band. Simultaneously a retreat, an act of entrenchment, and a quantum leap, Ear Pwr (Carpark) finds its namesake—vocalist/instrumentalist Sarah Reynolds and instrumentalist Devin Booze—adopting a more relaxed, mature posture.
In decamping from Baltimore’s blighted concrete canyons for the wilds of North Carolina, the duo has supplanted the MS Paint extremism of old for a sort of smudged-bleep pastoralism that celebrates life’s more picayune moments. On “Lake” rippling synth streams frame an unencumbered, simple sense of romance, while conga-line rhythm statement-of-intent “Mountain Home” plays offense with a thrown-bow defense. Pealing, piston-punching waves of synths power self-empowerment anthem “Your Life Is Important.” Yet all of this is positively twee in compared with “National Parks,” a swirling matrix of weightlessness so airily ephemeral and complexly disorienting that it’s enough to take your breath away.
Sound of the City emailed with Reynolds about the band’s stylistic shift, its beginnings and how “National Parks” was inspired by PBS.
When your debut came out, you and Devin had just moved to Baltimore; you guys are back in North Carolina now, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. What brought you back south?
We grew up in an area where you could drive a couple of hours one way and be in the mountains, and drive a couple of hours in another direction and be at the beach. Although living in Baltimore put us in closer proximity to bigger cities and more opportunity, it actually left us feeling trapped. We lived in a crummy neighborhood and were scared to go out by ourselves at night, and leaving Baltimore meant sitting in traffic. Basically, love of nature and the perks of Southern living brought us back to North Carolina.
The new album reflects that—it seems to come from a calmer, less frantic place, maybe a more contemplative place, than your debut.
Definitely. When we were writing SAB III, we just had dance parties and house shows in mind; the faster and crazier, the better. We just thought of the album as something that people could take away from a wild show as a momento. We weren’t thinking about people listening to it who had never seen us perform. This record is definitely more introverted and reflects where we are in our lives right now.
It’s interesting that you say that: the notion of an album as a live-performance momento. That seems to be the norm over the last few years. For you, what’s more important: the album proper, or the experience of playing before a crowd?
Performing live. Hands down. We’ve learned to take those who are listening to the record into consideration, but overall we got into this to excite people and that’s still our motivation. We don’t always achieve that goal, but when we do, it’s very rewarding.
Tell me about the Ear Pwr sessions. Where and when was the album recorded? Was the experience significantly different than making SAB III?
We recorded this album in Durham, North Carolina, over a couple of weekends in late 2010 at the home of recording engineer/genius/nurse Jay Murphy. He has converted his house into a recording studio, with the first level being the performance space and the second level being the control room. We had access to lots of nice equipment and it was awesome—a lot different from SAB III. We recorded that album by ourselves in various apartments and spaces over a long period of time with only a microphone and a crummy computer.
Often, when a band titles a non-debut album eponymously, it’s because there’s the sense that either an artistic corner has been turned or the essence of the band’s sound is crystallized therein. Why is your second disc self-titled?
Well, initially we had a title for the album, but it seemed to set the tone and tell people what to make of it. We decided it’d be best to leave it open and let listeners decide for themselves what to think. It also felt like more of a fresh start this way. There was nothing that we could title the album that would encapsulate what we went through while working out these songs or what they mean to us.
What kind of reactions have you received from fans so far?
The reaction from fans has been mixed. I think a lot of people who really enjoyed our silly songs are put off. I guess that’s part of the human condition, to resist change. Other listeners understand where we’re coming from and really like it. We just tried to be authentic and in doing so it’s been pretty liberating, because we don’t much care what people think.
Tell me a little bit about your early, formative years. How did you and Devin meet and come to form this band, and who were some of your big influences?
We both grew up in little towns outside of the small city of Winston-Salem. One evening I saw a band setting up in the middle of a street and I stuck around since that sort of thing was an uncommon site in Winston. I was immediately enthralled with the band and especially the drummer, Devin. Over the next few months I went to all of their shows and eventually Devin and I started hanging out and making music of our own. Almost immediately, we started playing crazy house shows and that’s where we hooked up with our buddies Future Islands, who introduced us to a lot of Baltimore people.
Our influences run the gamut from hip hop to reggae and dubstep to primitive electronic music such as Delia Derbyshire and Hugh Le Caine to baroque and classical composition techniques to Nirvana.
Going beyond the surface comparisons between the albums—and what strikes me as a huge leap in maturity and style from this sort of rabid, flailing series pop to maybe a more cultivated, introspective approach, featuring more confident songwriting—there are a number of impulses here, narratives bubbling: entrenchment and defense, maybe a reactive stance (“Mountain Home,” “Your Life Is Important”), a deep and abiding love for North Carolina (“Baby Houses, “North Carolina”), and just straight up romantic love (“Melt,” “Lake”).
Most definitely. To some that may make the record seem sporadic but each song represents a different facet of ourselves. In our previous work we invented subject matter, like fantasy worlds, but on this album we wrote about what we know.
What inspired “Your Life Is Important”? It seems framed as a pep talk but one could interpret it as the song’s speaker trying to convince him or herself to keep the faith, to not give up on something.
When SAB III was released, we were put through the wringer. We got terrible reviews, we were on LATFH.com, which led to vicious emails and comments and then, just when we thought we were in the clear and people had forgotten about us, our album cover was voted one of the worst of 2009. We weren’t used to people being mean to us.
All we ever wanted was to make people happy and in return we were made to feel horrible about ourselves. Devin came up with the chorus as a sort of pep talk and it worked! Fortunately, our skin is a lot thicker now.
What was some of the roughest feedback, or the interpretations or reactions that most missed the mark of what SAB III was trying to achieve?
To be honest, we only read a couple of reviews because they were very discouraging. But I remember one of the first that I read said that we were unable to feel adult emotions or something to that effect. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Real life isn’t always fun and it’s pretty depressing a lot of times, so why make some heavy music to add to that? Reviews that attack us personally rather than the music are the ones that upset us. They’re always way off and clearly these people don’t know anything about us.
How did “National Parks” come together? It’s my favorite of these new songs, in how it conveys a sense of weightlessness and dissociation, of levitation and motion and possibility. It comes on and sort of stops the album cold: it’s as though everything else is a stone, and “National Parks” is the northern lights or a fireworks display or something.
“National Parks” is one of the few songs that Devin wrote completely alone, lyrics and all. We had been watching the PBS documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and like many songs do, this one came to him in his sleep. He woke up and wrote it down immediately.
When further tweaking it, he made an effort to express the wonderment, jubilation, and ecstasy that we feel when exploring the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains or the Pisgah National Forest near our home in Asheville. There’s no real way to capture that feeling, but “National Parks” is a celebration of that feeling and nature’s imagination.
I saw where, on the Ear Pwr blog, you were trying to raise $2,500 to shoot a video for “National Parks.” Were you able to meet that goal? There was a post from early May where you were $1,000 and four days away from the deadline, then silence.
Yes! We made it; we raised $3,205, which far surpassed our goal. It’s in the editing phase right now and should be complete next week!
Do you have a director in mind, or a general concept? Doves? Sunsets? Sweeping aerial shots?
We’re working with two really awesome dudes, Sal Caino and Alex Moratto. The video has already been shot and should be released sometime next week. It involves painted nude bodies, colorful smoke bombs, mountains, waterfalls, fireworks and more! Sal came up with the concept. We know him from North Carolina but he lives in New York now and works for NBC.
What’s “Gypsy Blood” about? My first guess: the mindset of a touring musician.
It’s basically about indecision and being torn between desires and practicality. We both get the itch to be somewhere else or do something new all the time and we find it hard to put roots down and commit. I’ve always been that way and my grandmother said it was because I “had that gypsy blood.”
Do you guys frequent dance clubs and attend dance music concerts? Is that sort of live, sweat-soaked atmosphere something that’s in the back of your minds when writing songs?
We rarely attend music concerts unless they’re on a really small scale. We love sweaty house shows, and that’s definitely in the back of our minds when writing.
Is there an ideal an Ear Pwr fan?
I’m not sure there is an ideal Ear Pwr fan; there are all types. The best is when a lost frat boy or dad-type wanders into a show and falls in love with us.
Ear Pwr perform at Glasslands tonight with Tayisha Busay, Free Blood and Color War.