The Art and History Behind California Wives
    • MONDAY, AUGUST 13, 2012

    • Posted by: Zoe Marquedant

    Chicago's own California Wives are heading out on their first big tour this fall with Stars. The band has been traveling in leaps and bounds since writing their debut album (out September 4th). The album is three years worth of work, combined with precision and mixed in with a lot of synth. I talked to Jayson, who plays keyboard and sings, about what it was like writing lyrics for the band and how Art History came to be.

    So how did you form the band?

    Jayson: Well the band initially came about I think from Dan and Joe. Dan and Joe were already in a band prior and they decided that they didn't really want to be in that band anymore. They wanted to be in a band that kind of sounded like New Order. "New Order" was kind of the catch word. And they met me after college, back in Chicago, and they asked me if I wanted to be in the band and that was pretty much it.

    So what was the inspiration behind writing Art History?

    You know, Art History it's funny, I look at it as kind of a collection of three years of kind of working out idea, finding a sound and kind of weaving songs together that don't sound the same, but work well together. There really wasn't so much a theme or a story that was behind the record, so much as kind of a collection of works and a collection of work from three years, pretty much. It's about three years of work.

    Was there a particular sound you were aiming for whilst writing the record?
    I think we try to pull certain things from certain bands that we really like. I was listening to a lot of that Peter Gabriel record So that came out in the middle of the eighties. I really like the way the synths sound on that record, but obviously we didn't want to sound like Peter Gabriel. So we just kind of took he sync element. And you know, the guitars a lot of them sound like they have that kind of edge that early Radiohead had, you know? So there's a little bit of grit in the guitars. So not so much one sound we were from a band, but a collection of sounds, you know?

    Is there a significance behind titling the album Art History?
    You know initially we were just trying to find a title, but then we were thinking a lot of people have compared us to other bands that are older and to us we don't really see it as sounding like New Order as referencing New Order. And I really feel like when you're talking about art through the medium of art history I think you're referencing the art from another perspective. From an even further perspective than perhaps going to look at the picture or directly imitating the picture. That's kind of how we work, we reference certain inspiration from other artists and we take that and put it into our own equation.

    So what was the recording process like? Did you walk in with three years of work and all your songs already written or did you go in and write?

    I think we spent a lot of time in pre-production. Before we went to New York to record these songs we wanted to make sure that we were in with a very definitive idea of what we were going to do, obviously being flexible. You know, you wanna be flexible before you go into studio. You don't want to be so rigid that if you find yourself in a corner you're kind of stuck, but we did pre-produce the songs quite a bit. Working out the bridges, working out the transitions, deciding what parts needed to be cut. We have a tendency to be kind of long winded when we write songs initially so, it's important that we take out what doesn't need to be there and just focus on making really good tunes. So we did pre-produce it for about -- hmm -- three to four months of just making sure the songs were kind of air tight.

    You worked with Claudius Mittendorfer to produce the album. How do you think he affected the final sound?

    I think that he was a tremendous influence. I think he really knew what we were good at and he kind of let us work ourselves into that area where we were doing things that we were good at. I think he knew that the synths were a very important part of our band and making them kind of stick out was really important. He's also really good at recording drums, like very very good. And our drummer, I think, is one of the strong parts of our band. He plays very hard, he's very loud. And I'm really excited how the drums turned out.

    So how did you end up working with him?

    We ended up working with him kind of through the label. Our guy knew Cladius through friends. Obviously I had heard some of the other records he had worked on. Interpol -- he worked on the last Interpol record. So he had done a lot of really great things. So once he mentioned him it was like yeah that's the guy we wanna work with.

    When you were writing the record, musically and lyrically, did you draw more from your own personal experiences or outside ones?

    I think it's definitely a more personal record. At least when I think about how I write lyrics. I don't write them in the way that maybe Bob Dylan would write lyrics -- maybe referencing a certain period of time. I mean you've got plenty of autobiographical songs, but it's not so much about place and time or something that happened to else. My lyrics are very personal. Sometimes people will say that they're very oblique or hard to understand or abstract, but it was just what I was feeling at that moment. It's definitely a very personal record.

    On Art History there's a theme of youth and growing-up and aging -- was that something you wanted to address in the record

    Yeah that's something I definitely think about a lot. What happens to me or anybody after death, growing old, reaching that point, and this sounds incredibly morbid and I'm not a morbid person, but what happens to you when you age and it's that time -- moving towards (I don't know what you want to call it) your time. It's something that haunts me in the back of my mind and so aging is something that always seems to pop up in the songs. Also how one's supposed to act when they're twenty-three opposed to when they're twenty-six is something I think about quite a bit. Expectations put on you by society, you're supposed to be this way or that way -- those show up as well.

    So is that kind of where songs like "Twenty Three" and "Blood Red Youth" come from?

    I would say "Twenty Three" is a more concrete example of that. It was definitely kind of me -- I had just moved back. I had finished college. I was applying for jobs. At that point the band was still kind of small and it was just kind of this idea of well I'm going to have to join the working force and I'm going to have to put on a suit and go to work and this isn't really what I want to do, but I should do it. That kind of tension that arrises from doing something that you don't want to do, but you feel you should do. And "Blood Red Youth" is a little bit of that too. People changing because they feel they've reached some landmark, some milestone in their life where you hit twenty-six and you think, 'I should be this way'. Well you're really only one day older man, like you're just one day older. So both of those songs.

    Besides youth what are some of the themes you worked with for the album?

    A lot of it comes from frustration. You know looking in the media, seeing certain artists or people represent themselves certain ways in the public eye. There's a lot of posturing going on in the music industry, which I don't think is that necessary as being genuine, being kind. Being good to people around you is definitely the most important thing. A lot of times people put on an air, like they have to be a certain way to impress people. But I think people in general are starting to see through a lot of that. And that kind of pops up a couple times on the record, there's also a lot of social tension. That whole process of pushing over me thing. I'm sure everyone felt that in one way or another. They've felt like someone did something maybe to put a muzzle on them, maybe being pushed around. Things like that. I try not to think too much when I write lyrics. It just kind of comes out. It's like a therapy session when I write lyrics in my car (cause that's where I write my lyrics).

    I was wondering what was the inspiration behind "Fisher King," because I know that that terms refers back to Arthurian legend. Does the song have any connection?

    Well yeah Dan, who plays bass, wrote the lyrics for that song, so he would know better as to why "Fisher King" is the title. Dan also write very personal lyrics. When we're working and I write a lyric, Dan helps me you know we write the songs together. When he writes a lyric and I can tell it's very personal, we kind of nod at each other. And maybe there's something special in there and when you're ready to talk to me about it, you will. For me, when I sing it live, it means something different. I'm experiencing it like you would experience it on the record. So to me it might mean something completely different than what Dan intended it to be. But that's kind of the point of music. Sometimes when people define exactly what they mean it loses that sort of special quality that it had, that sparkle. It's happened to me before, when I hear what a song is about and I'm like well that was totally awful.

    As a lyricist, do you find that you're melding two difference voices together in the songs since you have two people writing the lyrics. Or does it come together very naturally?

    I think we're all going through this experience together. We're a tight-knit group. We're not the same people, but when you're coming up in a band and you're trying to make it you're going through all the same things. The same kind of anxieties, the same kind of experiences. So in some weird way there seems to be some convergence in the lyrics. There seems to be some common thread. You go through so much together. We spend a lot of time together. But also Dan and I are pretty reserved when it comes to talking about our feelings and emotions, so it's a way that I can get to know him better, you know, as we write these lyrics together and these songs together. So I kind of selfishly -- you know for me there's a mystery in writing those lyrics and also it's kind of what keeps me working in the band. When I see Dan write lyrics and they show up in a song, it's intriguing to me and taking away that intrigue it would make the band feel less comfortable to me than it is.

    So shifting gears a bit, you guys will be heading out on tour with Stars this year. How have your past tours prepared you for that experience?

    I hope so. I hope that we've learned something in those smaller tours that we've done. But I think a lot of this is going to be pretty new to us. We've never gone on the road and lived on the road for thirty days, which we're all really looking forward to it. And we met Stars briefly in Toronto and they're just tremendously nice people. We met two of them. And I'm just glad that my first experience on tour, I can spend it with people that are that nice. I don't know, I don't know. It's going to be a surprise to me, but that's kind of what makes it so exciting.

    So when you play the songs live, do you think you'll change them at all to fit that setting or try to replicate the album as best you can?

    Well I think the way we record is very precise. What you hear on the record is just as I or Dan or Joe intended them to be. Claudius is very precise and I think that's why we worked so well together. When we play live it's kind of an emotive, you know a release of emotions. So we tend to be a little louder, the guitars tend to be a bit more aggressive. We're really expessing ourselves in the moment, so it isn't so much about 'hey that synth isn't quite loud enough.' It's about releasing all that energy and emotion in the show, so we come off as a bit more of a rock band when you see us play live.

    Are there any venues in particular that you're looking forward to?

    The Fillmore, for sure. You can't get around that if you read about music and you're interested in music and have followed bands. The Fillmore is an incredible important place and for us to be able to play that on our first real big tour, I mean it's more than I ever asked for.

    Art History is out September 4th, via Vagrant.

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