On their ambitious new album, the Chapel Hill trio aims for emotional involvement.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Emotion has always been the essential element when it comes to crafting great songs. Indeed, when all else fails, it’s those seductive sentiments that lead to the most memorable music. The trio that refers to themselves as Happy Abandon expressly echo that mantra, crafting an expansive sound that reflects the obstacles and perils that confront us all in everyday life, often at times when they’re least expected. The Chapel Hill-based trio — consisting of long time friends Peter Vance (vocals, guitar, songs), Jake Waits (drums) and Justin Ellis (bass) — make a habit of sharing their feelings through music, while spinning a rich melange of atmosphere and ambiance in the process.
Facepaint, the trio’s debut album, stirs those sentiments with a knowing aplomb, a propulsive, populist sound that leaves no possibility unturned when it comes to their decidedly bittersweet narratives. Loneliness, abandonment, family frailties and even an ultimate demise work their way into the material, only to leave listeners gasping in amazement at the honesty and earnestness that Happy Abandon brings to the fore.
Consequently, we couldn’t help but be intrigued. As a result, we took the opportunity to ask the three men about their motivation for making music and their apparent desire to elevate their intents. (Full disclosure: Facepaint is the first full-length on the Schoolkids Records label, formerly called Second Motion. Schoolkids, along with the three-store North Carolina record store chain, is BLURT’s sister business. And, I hasten to add, we have dug the band from the beginning, even inviting them to perform at our annual day party in Austin during SXSW. —Ed.)
BLURT: For starters, give us an idea of where you get your inspiration for these songs. You seem to have some very lofty ideas. So how do you translate those thoughts to your material?
Peter Vance: The inspiration for the songs are simply the most pivotal emotions and feelings I’m feeling at a specific time. All of these songs represent a mindset I found myself in, and that’s how it influenced my choices and perspective. Each song stands independently as an idea, though they work together to paint a broad picture of exposure to loss.
Production seems to be a major additive in your presentation. So tell us how you come up with the arrangements and, in turn, what it takes to bring these songs from start to fruition?
Justin Ellis: It’s very much a collaborative process. Peter usually writes the bones of the song alone on acoustic guitar or piano, and he’ll tinker with it for months before he shows it to us. We then typically jam to the song with electric guitar, bass, and drums to properly fit the dynamics of the song’s structure. Then the fun part comes in; this is where we figure out what the sonic icing might be. Typically whenever Alex (Thompson, keyboards and arrangements) is in town, that means adding loads of keyboards, piano, and synth tones, or we may start arranging string parts. We almost always add three-part harmony to the songs, but the songs aren’t really done, in my mind, until they’re recorded. Sometimes it’s because the lyrics aren’t done until it’s time to record, and sometimes it’s because there’s a violin part we discover by accident while recording, and we then must find a way to incorporate the part on another instrument so it’s present in the live show. Sometimes it’s just that the mood or energy of the song is kinda hard to pin down until it’s committed to wax, as it were. But on the flip side, the songs that we’re working on that aren’t recorded yet are really fun to work on, because nothing is concrete, and they could go through infinite permutations before we settle on the finished product.
Please give us an idea of your influences, past and present.
Peter Vance: My musical influences stem from artists who exude a combination of incredible lyricism and complex composition. I find that the one artist that has influenced me the most in both aspects — and is a nostalgic idol for me — is Sufjan Stevens. He and a few other bands/musicians (Belle and Sebastian, Andrew Bird, Bettie Serveert) exposed me to what can be accomplished when one takes chances and only uses musical tropes when it is tastefully implemented, rather than using the same formula with different variables.
As far as contextual influences go, well that comes from my background in literature and theater. My focus in college was theater, and in my earlier years I was fortunate enough to spend my time as a working actor in the Washington, DC theatre scene. This exposed me to many different playwrights who used many different writing techniques to move a plot forward. I found myself liking and disliking different writing styles, and was able to use the ones that I liked in my songs. I use a lot of imagery and alliteration because I think the combination of the two is very fun and ear catching.
Justin Ellis: I absolutely love what Alt-J, Fleet Foxes, and Local Natives have been doing lately; specifically, being able to make catchy, engaging music that is fairly popular while also having its own defined sound. I also love what those bands do with vocal harmony, and I think a lot of their musical philosophies rub off on Happy Abandon. I’m also a huge classic rock head, with the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Queen being absolutely massive to my own musical formation.
Jake Waits: I came up in the school bands, the orchestra, the drum line, playing in the pits for musicals. I studied world percussion and classical percussion. Learning to play all that sheet music informed my repertoire and influenced my style — I actually had to break out of the rigidity that was drilled into me with marching drum music and learn how to relax and groove in the pocket more. Along with bands and artists across many genres. I grew up loving classic rock, and I got into some heavier metal music for a good few angst-ridden teen years. Lately, my ears have been perking up to jazz. Anything with a good beat gets me going.
You are also said to have a very dramatic stage presence in live performance. Can you describe it for us? Does it take a lot of effort and expense to make it all happen?
Jake Waits: We don’t always perform with our light show, but when we do, it adds a visual energy to our presence that encompasses the emotional energy coming from the songs. We look for ways to add colors and visual effects that enhance our set and connect the songs in ways that couldn’t be done through sound.
What was it like going into the studio for the first time? Was it an easy transition or did you find you had to make a lot of adjustment to convey your live sound to the recordings?
Justin Ellis: We have all been in bands before, and Peter, Alex, and I all studied audio production at the University of North Carolina, so I’d say we feel rather at home when we record. Facepaint was a really “homey” record to make, as we lived in Jason’s (Merritt, producer) lake house for about a week nonstop, just getting up every morning, making eggs and coffee, then playing music all day and into the night. We all play several instruments, so it was a lot of fun to just try ideas out on instruments that never make it to our shows, like banjos, mandolins, penny whistles, gongs, tubular bells, timpani… although I certainly wouldn’t rule out incorporating those in our live concert one day.
How was it that you three were able to coalesce so quickly? Did you find that your individual ideas were mostly always in sync?
Justin Ellis: I think what sets us apart from most bands is that our shared background isn’t being in rock bands since we were in high school when we met. We all studied theater at some point, and I think the work ethic you need to make theatre happen rubbed off very decidedly in this band. We take rehearsals seriously, we make sure all our voices are heard, and we know when to back down for the good of the song or the overall project. Plus, as a three-piece, we all kinda have to overplay to fill the sound in live performance, so it’s not like we ever feel boxed in. It’s really nice.
Can you share some insights into maybe four or five songs from the album that have particular significance for you?
Peter Vance: Oh man, it’s Sophie’s Choice here…
“Take Me,” “Severed Seams,” “If I Stare,” “Stop Taking Care of Me,” and “Cursed or Worse” are some of my favorites off the album. Each one not only delves into different contexts of loss, but also gives different perspectives. They’re all a bit dark, but “Take Me” ends on a bit of a brighter note, stating that if you can’t take anything from the situation, well, you can at least take me. “Severed Seams” also ends on a brighter note, but not because things worked out for everyone. It ends with the realization that things won’t work out. That in itself is an accomplishment. “If I Stare” takes a more aggressive approach to the idea of coping, where “Stop Taking Care of Me” is a plea. Finally, “Cursed or Worse” rambles through thoughts and feelings that are hard to take hold of after a traumatizing experience.
Peter is the principal songwriter—how much input does everyone else have in the crafting of the material?
Justin Ellis: I’d say we all have a pretty equal stake. Jake and I almost never have anything we want to change with Peter’s songs at their core, but sometimes we’ll suggest a slight lyric or feel change, and we go with that for a bit and see how we end up feeling as a group. But generally, because Peter spends so much time refining his songs, for the most part all we have to do is help arrange it and flesh it out once he shows them to us. We all write our own parts and backing harmonies, etc., but there is a lot of communication that goes on to make sure all the ideas suggested are at least attempted without drastically affecting the initial energy of the song.
You experienced three deaths of people that you were close to late last year. Who were the people who passed, and how did you deal with these tragedies? How did it reflect in your music?
Peter Vance: All three were incredible, beautiful people. One was a friend from middle and high school whose death was fairly prepared for by friends and family simply because of the context of the situation. However, this did not make it any easier. The other two came completely unexpectedly, and struck everyone with such force that people are still feeling the repercussions.
Jake Waits: One was my buddy since second grade. We had more adventures than I can count. He was thoughtful and loyal, and he always had a way to cheer you up. A friendly word or some sage advice he gathered from his travels would always help, whatever the trouble. He was a hell of a singer/songwriter, too. And he was number one on my Zombie Apocalypse team if it had ever come to that first.
How do you temper those more reflective elements with the more populist sentiments that you bring to the stage? Given some of these themes, you could have emerged as a very downcast outfit, no?
Justin Ellis: I think duality is important in a band. The band name itself is a little oxymoronic, and plenty of bands before us have made “happy” sounding music with “sad” lyrics. Just look at The Smiths and The Cure. You could argue that these two different identities can cancel each other out, but I feel being a large, loud-sounding band with really introspective songwriting isn’t mutually exclusive.
How many songs were left over from the recording sessions, and will any of them surface later?
Justin Ellis: Only about four songs from our current live set didn’t make the cut for Facepaint, but they all had a similar, perhaps more “rock” vibe that didn’t quite fit the mood of the record. Still, they’re great songs and we’re proud of them, and it’s likely we’ll record and release them in some capacity. We also have about ten sketches in various stages of completion that will eventually all become songs too hopefully.
What are the challenges facing a new band like yours? What have been the peaks? And what, if any, have been the low points so far in the trajectory?
Justin Ellis: We’ve all been in bands before, which was helpful going into this project, because we all knew what to expect. Sure, making rent is tough sometimes, and sometimes we play to nobody when we’re miles away from home. Sometimes, the van breaks down, like it has three times. But before we put out this record, we got a chance to tour in five countries, play almost every major U.S. and Canadian city on the East coast, play in London, Dublin, and Amsterdam, and play most of North Carolina’s major music venues. The good definitely outweighs the bad for us… and we’re really lucky to be in that position.
So what’s the plan going forward?
Justin Ellis: We’ll be touring the West Coast this fall for the very first time, with tentative plans to return to Europe at some point between late October and March 2018. We’ll probably head to SXSW in the spring as well. As the album gets written about and listened to, all we can do is keep ourselves onstage, ready for any opportunities that may come our way.
Happy Abandon performs this week in Raleigh at the annual Hopscotch Music Festival, that will also include an appearance at the Schoolkids Records day party. Then on September 18 they’ll hit the road headed west. Check tour dates at their official website and at their Facebook page..