ANTI-ROCK ‘N’ ROLL Hospitality

For the Brooklyn
indie-popsters, it’s all about the friends (and friendships).

 

BY MIKE SHANLEY

 

It’s a
Tuesday night in late January, and the members of Hospitality are at the end of
a short road trip. Over the course of the five-date jaunt, they have borrowed a
backline of amps and drum kits, but not because their own came to any
unfortunate end on the road. They simply couldn’t fit everything in the rented
mini-van. So rather than upgrade, they banked on getting decent loaners every
night, which seems to have paid off.

 

The
tour itself seems like another gamble. It’s hard enough touring in support of a
release, but Hospitality’s self-titled debut album wasn’t released by Merge
until the last day of January, two weeks after the road trip. So touring in
anticipation of a release, without so much as t-shirt sales to help fill the
gas tank, presents more of a challenge. But the band’s upbeat mood prior to the
show, not to mention their energetic performance, hints that they know exactly
what they’re doing and that greater things will come.

 

The
Hospitality crew isn’t exactly a bunch of newcomers to music anyway. They have
been playing together for five years ago, since guitar/vocalist Amber Papini
and her sister Gia teamed up with drummer Nathan Michel and bassist Brian
Betancourt. (Gia bowed out early on.) Michel has already released several
albums of his own, including two keyboard-heavy works on Tigerbeat6 and one on
Sonig which leans more towards classic pop (The
Beast
). Amber Papini, so the story goes, learned to sing by listening to
the Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk and emanating Richard Butler’s English rasp. While she won’t ever be excused of
pouring on a fake thick accent, the Butler
influence seems to have given here a unique sense of phrasing that requires
close examination of her lyrics.

 

The 10
songs on the album sometimes flow together like a set of individual snapshots
of people who could all be found in New
York City, crossing paths as they make their way
around town.

“I do
feel like they’re sort of scenes,” Papini says. “The songs are based on my
memories of past events. I like to describe moments like that in songs.”

 

In the
case of “Betty Wang,” the lyrics might not be true to life, but the title
character is a real person who Papini knew when she worked at a financial firm.
“I really liked the name Betty Wang and there’s lot of songs with women’s names
in them,” Papini says. “I thought that was a really beautiful name, but she was
just a muse. The song is probably more about me working in a corporate
environment and feeling out of place. It’s not really a feminist song. I’m just
trying to describe feeling like an outsider, an observer in a place where you
don’t belong.”

 

And
Betty is not the type who’d show up at a Hospitality show anyway. “The day
after I wrote the song, I saw her in the bathroom, and I said, ‘Hey, Betty, I
wrote this song about you,'” she recalls. “And she’s a real private person and
she had no idea what this world was like that I was part of. So she looked at
me and smiled politely. I think she really didn’t understand what I had done.”

 

“Eighth Avenue”
kicks off the album with its bright chugging guitars and the story of a night
that begins with the same amount of optimism,
but ultimately comes up short. When the band follows with the stop-start
guitars of “Friends of Friends,” it could either be the same character getting
herself together a day later, or a new protagonist – say, one in the next apartment
– who’s ready to face the world.

 

While
figuring out the album’s running order, they nearly reversed those two tracks,
until they noticed the lyrical repetition. “We did think about that, because we
were worried about the first lines of ‘Eighth Avenue’ are, ‘Met you at seven/ I
didn’t expect your friends,'” Michel says.

“The
disappointment turns into an ‘I Will Survive’ kind of thing,” Betancourt adds,
describing the final decision.

 

As if
to play into the geography of the song, the group made a video for “Friends of
Friends” with the story arc of long distance lovers, one in the Big Apple, the
other in Los Angeles.
Directed by the band’s good friend Scott Jacobson, it stars Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and Gabe Delahaye
(of Videogum) as the couple, each tooling around the separate cities, she with
her hipster gal pals at the Statue of Liberty, he with his dudes on the beach.
Like videos of bygone days, it cuts back to Hospitality, who rock out in a
cramped apartment. Along with the video production, Jacobson also helped the
band by introducing them to his friends at Merge Records.

 

 

 

 

While
videos never aspire to accurately capture
a band’s performance, there’s a lot more happening in the song than guitar,
bass and drums can pull off anyway. Keyboard melodies answer Papini’s power
chords, effects-heavy guitars trade brief solo spots with Betancourt’s bass and
low-end saxophones pop up and last just long enough to beef up the sound.
Coupled with Papini’s classic pop chord changes – in some ways recalling Belle
& Sebastian, another touchstone in her storytelling skills too – the band
progressed a great deal since their inception.

The
early days were “way more lo-fi, and Amber played acoustic guitar,” Michel
says. “We were playing small venues. The music was tailored to that. I had a
sort of junky homemade drum set. Not that I was trying to be junky, but that
was all I had. It had a haphazard quality.” They recorded an EP for sale at
shows, which features several tracks that would be remade for the album.

 

Eventually
it became clear that the sound would have to expand. “As we started playing
larger venues, just by necessity, we needed to play louder and acoustic guitar
doesn’t work so well in a lot of these venues,” Michel says. “We gradually made
the transition to electric guitar and I started playing drums with real
drumsticks. So it was kind of an organic thing. We never said we wanted to
constantly change things. But we’re always changing stuff, with how we play
songs.”

Since
the recording was completed, Michel has switched over to second guitar full
time. David Christian has taken his spot behind the drum kit. “Having that
second guitar allows more melodies to happen and we can emulate some of the
spirit of the recording,” Papini says. “It’s not perfect, but we are sort of
going for that.”

 

Whether
or not they reproduce the sound of their album, the four-piece Hospitality
creates a big sound tonight onstage at Pittsburgh’s
Brillobox. On the slow “Julie,” Michel’s sonic sculpture
nearly overpowers the song. Betancourt, conspicuous not only for his Hofner
Beatle bass but for playing it left-handed like the man who made it popular,
combines bright, crisp lines with a melodic quirk that almost sounds like art
rock in one song. In the midst of this stands Papini, who maintains a strong
presence through her vocal delivery and relaxed demeanor.

 

When
asked earlier in the evening about the origin of the band name, the band says
they liked the ambiguity of it. “It was big, a lot of letters. It has multiple
meanings,” Papini says, matter-of-factly.

 

“You
can show someone hospitality, but it’s intangible. Also, it’s almost a cold
sounding word, even though its meaning is warm,” Michel adds. “None of this was
thought of in advance. We think about it when we’re pressed.”

“I like that it’s sort of anti-rock ‘n’ roll,” Papini adds. “There’s no posture
in it. There’s no rebellion in it.”

 

And yet
they still manage to find a little bit of both qualities in their performance.

 

Hospitality resumes touring this weekend,
on Feb. 25 at San Francisco’s
Noisepop Festival. Check the band’s Facebook page for dates.

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