When you write about relationships, you can't do it halfway," Blake confesses. "I think you really have to be fearless, and of course it's never easy."
The linear thinker versus the abstract thinker. The studio tinkerer versus the bedroom balladeer. Boy versus girl. You versus me. Us versus the world, set against a backdrop of pretty pictures and crazy oscillations. This, the third album by husband/wife duo THE SUBMARINES, picks up where their 2008 album Honeysuckle Weeks left off, except this time John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard find themselves in a new house, fervidly exchanging love notes and letter bombs. "I imagined a couple in a rambling old broken-down mansion, like something from a Wes Anderson movie," says Blake of the album title's inspiration, "pushing flower pots off the balcony onto each other, tying a love note around a brick and throwing it through a window."
A bit of background:
If their 2006 debut, Declare A New State, was a biographical recounting of their break-up and eventual reconciliation, 2008's Honeysuckle Weeks was an ode to the irrepressible mystery and magnificence of love's newness. The album launched the Subs into the global slipstream, as their songs appeared everywhere -- from television (Gossip Girl, Grey's Anatomy) and film (Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist) to multiple spots for Apple's iPhone -- and it wasn't long before The Subs took their show on the road. The band toured North America and Europe extensively, sharing a stage with the likes of The Morning Benders, Aimee Mann and Brazilian Girls.
When they were done, they returned to their bungalow in the foothills of Eagle Rock, California, and to their home studio (a converted two-car garage). The garden they planted months before had burst into a wild scraggle of blooms and thorns, a haven for song birds of all sorts. With Blake a more confident singer, and John -- a veteran home recorder under his Jackdrag alias -- becoming even more technically proficient via a steady flow of film and TV work, they were set on pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone. More raw, more minimal, and fewer songs about each other. "For this album we thought, 'Okay, with this record we'll definitely not write about our relationship.'" Blake says. "But, with the exception of maybe one or two songs, we went in the complete opposite direction."
At first, things progressed slowly, and for the most part, separately. After a writing trip to Paris for Blake, John booked a flight to Austin to work out some ideas with Spoon drummer, Jim Eno. "I suppose it was a bit premature," says John of the trip to Austin, "but we thought it would be a good kick start for the next phase. Neither of us had any preconceived ideas other than to just have fun, and Jim helped define some of the arrangements." It proved to be an important part of the process to do this separate work, to let ideas grow independently. Live drums were an essential takeaway from the Austin sessions, and Eno ended up tracking drum parts for much of the album. Instrumentals became more three-dimensional, but there was still a gap between the music and the lyrics -- mostly because there was a gap between John and Blake.
"I think we realized halfway through the process that we wanted to feel more collaborative," says John. "But, sitting in a room together hashing out lyrics and melodies was really difficult."
"There was so much love exploding into the songs, but, the tensions were just as strong," says Blake.
Writing sessions doubled as therapy sessions, and when it came time to mix the album, there was consensus that an outsider (John O'Mahony, who's worked with Metric and Coldplay) was needed to jump in and finish things off. O'Mahony's fresh ears and perspective brought even more dimension to the songs.
For an album that was admittedly hard to make, LOVE NOTES/LETTER BOMBS is disarmingly easy to listen to. The album's bounding opener, "Shoelaces," recalls shades of Declare A New State's first track, "Peace & Hate," as he said/she said verses paint an uncertain picture of two lovers' frustrations. A slightly more optimistic outlook shines through on the album's first single, "Birds," as lazy, back porch guitar and backwards solos recall Revolver-era Beatles. Themes of communication are scattered throughout; talking too much, not talking at all, or forcing words when there should be silence. "Did I break your open heart?/After ten years together we're still ten years apart," sings Blake on, "A Satellite, Stars And An Ocean Behind You," a long distance love song born out of her time in Paris. The catharsis continues on "Anymore," as John's gentle tip-toe/tapping percussion swells into a pounding chorus of kicks, snares and proclamations that, "No one wants to get hurt anymore/No one wants to, but, we can't stop now."
The pair admit that they took the hard way to making the record, which also happened to be the long way. "The process that it takes to get there is always a little more difficult than we'd like it to be, but despite all the struggles, we really appreciate what we have and what we offer each other," John says.
"At this point in our lives," adds Blake, "it would be impossible to try to extract being in a band together from everything else. It's what we do. It's who we are."