Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It's All About the Parts

The first time I saw The Sour Notes their new bassist and keyboardist were only a couple of shows into their tenure in the band. I never would have guessed it if they hadn’t told me themselves. They’re a band with bright, basic melodies to spare, but structurally their tunes are sneaky-smart. They never seem to end up in the places you would expect, yet they make perfect sense. I’d liked their recordings very much but I was really impressed by how much more they brought to the songs as a live band, playing arrangements that alternately rocked up and stripped down the original versions. And with two-fifths new members! Obviously there was both exceptional talent and prodigious hard work in effect here.

Both begin with Sour Notes mastermind Jared Boulanger, a quietly driven music obsessive on a mission. He’s seen his project get stronger and stronger with every release despite a lineup that’s in flux by design. “Anyone who’s with me is with me,” Jared says. “I’m going to do this no matter what.” For those who join up, “it doesn’t have to be a lifelong choice.” Jared is the sort of writer who hears every part of the finished song in his head before presenting it to his bandmates, which is not uncommon among true pop craftsmen. What is unusual about the Sour Notes is that their leader has a rare sense of what matters and what doesn’t, allowing the rest of the group to contribute their own sounds and styles.

“The craft of songwriting is in the forefront,” Jared says. From the beginning, “I didn’t care if we sounded like a rock band or a pop band. I’m not going to try and direct it. It’s all about the parts.” This liberated attitude is the secret to the band’s surprising range and chemistry on stage. A tune that was mostly synths and loops on CD might be reimagined with accordion, cajon, and melodica. A delicate ballad could become a rocker, if that’s how the band is feeling it. Those unmistakable parts aren’t getting lost either way.

I’m talking to Jared the day after drum tracking began for what will be the fourth Sour Notes CD at SugarHill Studios in Houston. Although he’s on the record as saying their last release, It’s Not Going to Be Pretty, is the best thing he’ll ever do, Jared is eager to go in a completely opposite direction for the next one. “I don’t want to ever repeat myself, so I will not ever make another record like that.”

To be entitled Last Looks, the next Sour Notes release is all about turning points: “Before major changes in life you take a last look the life the way it is in the present.” Jared is teaching the songs to the band as they record them. He’s particularly excited to employ the vocal talents of keyboardist Kelly DeWitt, who judging by the live show has integrated into the band with alacrity. “It’s not important that I sing all the songs just because I wrote them!” Jared says.

The Sour Notes have a history of putting out records on New Year’s Eve, so there’s a good chance Last Looks will enter the world on the final day of 2010. Received in Bitterness came out on 12/31, and then the band began a tour on January 1st, as auspicious a time to set out as any. Rather than recognize the flip of a calendar page, Jared would just as soon “celebrate something I accomplished.” Touring has been a growth experience. “On the first tour, we were expecting people to show up just because we sent fliers to the venue. [In time] we saw how much work successful bands did.” There’s a huge amount of prep work involved with hitting the road, from finding the right local bands (“Appreciate those who try, because in a few weeks, I may need the same help”) to becoming a borderline nuisance to area media. “Create your own success! Nobody has time to pay attention to your little band. Unless....”

Playing good shows in our hometown can be tricky as well. “I feel like in Austin there’s less sense of community than there could be,” Jared reflects. “If you want to set up a show, there need to be more chances taken on bands that aren’t established.” One opinion we share is that bands and bookers alike could be more aware of Austin’s musical diversity. “Every show should have men & women represented,” and it’d be nice to see more of a balance between guitar rock bands and electronic or “other” acts, rather than drawing invisible lines and putting three similar-looking, identical-sounding acts on every bill. Asked to name his favorite other Austin bands, Jared’s eclecticism and fondness for female singers is reflected: White Dress, Ume, No Mas Bodas.

The Sour Notes have earned their fair share of accolades. They’ve made some good records, and with the current lineup they’re well on their way to being a great live band. They could afford to be aloof, to ignore the hundreds of bands in Austin envious of the success they’ve had. But they don’t choose to play it that way. I think that might be their secret weapon: as serious and driven as he is about his music, Jared is humble and easygoing. He’s genuinely grateful for every compliment paid him, never seeming as if he takes his band’s fans or positive reviews for granted. It seems like he’d be a pleasure to work with, and that’s true of too few songwriters in his class. As much as some musicians want to get totally lost in their own work to the exclusion of all else, it’s easy to forget that there’s so many potential allies in town fighting the same instinct. Other bands aren’t your competitors! Jared: “People who are like-minded or on the same paths of life will get along together.”

Many of the Sour Notes’ songs are inspired by old films. Here’s three of Jared Boulanger’s go-to classics:
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966, Mike Nichols: “The feeling sticks with you a long time.”
  • A Woman Is a Woman, 1961, Jean-Luc Godard: “All Godard, really. The back and forth struggles.”
  • Winter Light, 1963, Ingmar Bergman: “Even if you’re not spiritual, dealing with the complications of belief.”

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