Photos by Lauren Casselberry
Singer and guitarist, Charlie Gokey, can't stop apologizing. He's sorry that the band's soundcheck is running longer than planned. Sorry that our interview was supposed to start 15 minutes ago. Sorry that I have to hear them play the same song over and over for the sound guy. Later, as we sit across from one another and talk, he often fidgets with his glasses and fingers, and looks away and stares down at the table between us, shy and overly polite and humble, especially when we discuss the praiseworthy buzz surrounding Secret Cities lately. If I didn't know any better, I would have thought the band produced music that was mellow and ambient, so low-key that it was nearly nondescript. But you know what they say about judging and books and covers...
Take one listen to Secret Cities' superb new psychedelic-folk-meets-electro-pop album Pink Graffiti
(Western Vinyl) and you'll be hard-pressed to draw the line between its well-crafted chaos (think The Beach Boys on acid) and the band's relatively tame members. The songs are exquisitely surprising, wild and pleasant at the same time. They each blend seemingly incongruous elements like dizzying lo-fi, sweet power-chords, and even pretty whistling (like in the charming "Boyfriends") to form multi-layered sounds that are dissonant and otherworldly, and somehow manage to make sense. The music works much like a kaleidoscope: first it's just dark and pitch-black, then a crazy mix of color spectrums and random shapes float and crash into one another confusingly, and finally, the "aha!" moment when everything falls into place and at the far end of the cylinder tube magically appears a magnificent image.
The dreamy opening track "Pink City," has Gokey hazily singing: "We had a lot to say, we had a lot to say, but it would take all day." And he's probably right, because there's a certain madness that the young band (all three core members are in their early 20's) from North Dakota has had to deal with. But it's always been the good kind of madness the type that's flush with so many influences and experiences to pull from and use as inspiration.
Numerous genres are already explored just between Gokey and vocalist/keyboardist Marie Parker. Most of Gokey's past bands have been hardcore/metal ones, with the exception of a random Irish folk act (his claims to fame in those previous groups were his "rockstar poses). At one point, he worked as a hip-hop producer in Chicago as part of a college fellowship. On the flipside, Parker, who is prim and soft-spoken, has had more of a disciplined history, born and bred around classical music. She easily recalls that time in her life, as well as all the times she "listened to indie records alone in her room because hardly anyone ever played or toured nearby," as those that have shaped her taste today. According to Gokey, Parker is the most "trained" in the band and that everything she does on Pink Graffiti
was first written out neatly on sheet music. Despite the contrast in their musical backgrounds, the two happened to find one another at an international band camp.
They then went on to make music as a duo under the moniker White Foliage. During that time, Parker was able to break through one of Gokey's timid surfaces, allowing him to really develop as an artist (before collaborating, he had never sung nor played any of his own material in front of anyone). It wasn't too long before they decided to bring in drummer Alex Abnos, whom they met on an Elephant 6 message board for fans. "We met on the internet, that might be the only thing that's more dorky than the band camp thing," Gokey said with a laugh.
As a blooming trio, Parker and Gokey would send their skeletons of songs, many of which were constructed when they were only 17 years old, to Abnos to fiddle around with. Looking back on those early days Abnos noted how Secret Cities has since evolved. "It was really interesting because I'd listen to the stuff and be like, 'OK, we are going to make a disco-heavy, electro-hip-hop inspired thing. That's cool,'" he said grinning as he playfully scratched at his beard and adjusted his glasses. "But then it kept changing, that stuff ended up being scrapped and we eventually started recording music that sounded like...real people made it."
The sometimes weird and sometimes kitschy and cute quirks of songs like "Pink Graffiti Pt. 1" and "Aw, Rats," are all products of serious music soul-searching. In fact, the band claims that they could have released a double or triple album of all the different versions of each of Pink Graffiti
's tracks. "Pink City" is Gokey's favorite tune because it was the easiest to come up with! It's almost as though they had an explosion of artistic ideas over the years, and had to, one by one, grasp and collect the elements that they could make work, that they could piece together. Thankfully, I think they captured the best of what their minds had bore.
Many of the album's lyrics focus on youth, relationships and a fascination with Brian Wilson because of a college thesis by Gokey, and the repeated theme of "pink" directly reflects many of his changes in taste and personality over time. "When I was first discovering a lot of electronic music, I found it to be confrontational and beautiful at the same time, and in a weird way that's how I think of pink as a color," he elaborated. Simply put, the record is about growing up and starting anew whether that means leaving behind the thrashing metal scene, manipulating Beethoven-esque music for an indie-rock band, or coming up with drum arrangements that are one part intensely palpitating and another part fantastically whimsical.
Together on stage, with a warped, technicolor pattern being projected behind them, Secret Cities come alive. Although it may be too dark to make out their faces, there's no doubt that their spastically moving silhouettes are indicative of how they breathe their music and let it wash over them, pulse by pulse, beat by beat. The air in the room is feral, and it's almost like I don't know them anymore, like the overly contrite Charlie isn't anywhere to be found.
They may not play the part of the kooky psychedelic after all, Gokey's plaid shirt is the most colorful piece of clothing in the bunch but they don't need to because the sound that they've finally nurtured makes more of a statement than any tie-dyed shirt ever could. -michelle geslani
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MP3: "Pink Grafitti Pt. 1"
Secret Cities on Myspace