Five young men. One band, three years old, with two acclaimed EPs released. This is where it starts.
At the end of 1999, Chris Simpson, Jeremy Gomez, Ben Houtman, Brian Hubbard, and Brian Malone entered a recording studio in Austin, Texas, to purge themselves, to whip through the catalogue of compositions that their band, The Gloria Record, had generated up to that point.
These songs were documented on A Lull in Traffic, the band's second EP, and the slate was wiped clean. The band had finally jelled after a few years of numerous lineup changes and an ongoing search for a musical voice. Simpson and Gomez had chemistry dating back to their days with emo-progenitors Mineral, but it was not until they completed Lull that all five members reached that part-family, part-paramours, sum-of-their-cumulative-talents stage. It was time to write The Gloria Record's first full-length album.
"I think it's common for new bands, young bands, to put out a bunch of singles and EPs. It takes a little while to establish your identity," Simpson says of the long delay between The Gloria Record's conception and its first album-length recording. "If every band's first 10 songs they wrote together were their first record, that'd probably be really bad. We're all very respectful of the craft that we do."
That respect led the Gloria Record boys to conceptualize intensively before their attempt at the long player which would establish the band's identity to a degree not possible with the short blasts of lush, pretty songs the EPs exhibited.
"Once we finally got, personality and chemistry-wise, the band we wanted in place, we decided that we had to start there, at that point, and write our first record," Simpson explains. "We couldn't use songs that had been laying around up until then. Our whole philosophy about how a band should work is very democratic, very much like the drummer is just as involved as the singer/guitar-player guy, so we just wanted to write and make a record together."
So, as they gathered in their Austin practice space, the young musicians began brainstorming, figuring out what The Gloria Record could do differently.
"Whether we intended it to or not, both of the EPs have kind of one mood or vibe to them throughout; it's just kind of a natural fact of the recording process that you write it all at home in this storm of inspiration and then go spend 10 hours a day for a week recording it -- dealing with one emotion or concept very quickly," says Simpson. "That was the one thing we were adamantly against. We wanted to make a record with a bunch of different vibes, where nothing was really out of the question."
The band members began delegating tasks. They wanted songs not simply driven by guitar, but ones that utilized the various talents within their ranks to the greatest degree possible.
"We knew what we didn't want to do," Simpson says. "In the past, we had written everything and recorded it and rerecorded it in our practice room, torn everything apart and put it back together again at home to where when we got to the studio, we knew down to every little tambourine what was gonna happen. So we talked about it a lot, how we wanted to make our first record.
"What we ended up coming up with was that everyone kind of had assignments. We brought up examples of some of the great songs that we all really like and are much more built around bass and drums, the guitars are much more incidental. So with Jeremy and Brian, our bassist and drummer, they would write a couple songs on their own on bass and drums and we'd start with that. And we have Ben, who's by far the most talented musician in the band -- he can play anything with keys on it -- so we decided we wanted some stuff based around straight-up piano. So we just kind of broke it down that way -- everyone would come in with two or three ideas, and [we'd] just start working from there."
The Gloria Record set about its work, each member bringing in fetal ideas -- no vocals, no concrete arrangements, some merely, as Simpson puts it, "these great songs that Ben had written on the piano that none of us had any idea how to play anything else with. That's the state it was in when we left to start recording."
During these developmental construction stages, the band was introduced to Nebraska producer Mike Mogis, known for his extensive work with Omaha's Saddle Creek stable of bands (Cursive, Bright Eyes, the Faint, etc.). The Gloria Record found a kindred soul in Mogis, and became convinced that his production (and his new studio, Presto!, in Lincoln) was exactly what the band needed for its introductory opus. Subsequently, The Gloria Record became associated with the phenomenal musical community in Nebraska, and was inspired by the diversity of styles and the no-holds-barred ingenuity embraced by that community.
The Gloria Record was without a label after the two EPs (the self-titled first EP on Crank! Records and the Lull EP on Better Looking Records). Financial support for the recording was nonexistent, but the band rallied on, with support from its Nebraska peers.
"That sounds really responsible of us, which we usually aren't," Simpson says, grinning. "I don't wanna put across that we had our shit together or anything. We just thankfully had a lot of people who got excited about what we were doing and were willing to do, such as Mike fronting us studio time, having faith that we'd get a record contract out of what we created and everything would be paid eventually."
Band members entered the studio determined to use the skeletal compositions they'd developed in as unorthodox a manner as possible. They were unsure of the mechanics involved in breaking the old habits they'd accrued, but the transition from staid to visionary was less difficult than they'd imagined.
"We went in thinking that Mike was going to have to contribute a lot in order for us to be experimental, but it wasn't that way at all," Simpson recalls. "Once we got up there, we all just got really excited about trying different things. We gave ourselves every opportunity to come up with something different than what we had done in the past. Just down to the writing -- all the vocals on the record were done on the fly in the studio; for me that was very exciting. I think for all of us, for all our different parts, it was very exciting, very liberating to see, 'Ah, there's more than one way to do things; there's more than 500 ways to do things . . .' and it's kind of fun to explore at least 20 or 30 of them on each song."
Midway through the recording process and the frequent trips to Lincoln to hammer away at the record, blue moods were setting in. With no record label, no end of recording in sight and no live shows to gauge fans' response, confidence was waning.
"It was a period when I was really depressed, like no one's ever going to like our band, we're never gonna finish our record, never gonna get another record deal," Simpson says. Then one day, in the middle stages of the recording effort, Simpson returned home to a phone message that would turn the tides. The Arena Rock Recording Company, home to Superdrag and Luna, wanted to know what The Gloria Record was up to, and to let the band know that should a release be forthcoming, Arena Rock was interested. Simpson sent off the six songs the band had completed, and the day after Arena Rock received the songs, the company called offering a record deal. The Gloria Record was homeless no longer.
There were times during the drawn-out recording process that members of the band doubted their ability to kick out a full-length. "There were so many times we'd be like, 'We've got these six songs that sound great together, let's put 'em out!' Not that we were really considering that, but we were always joking about just having an EP-only career -- one now, then six months down the road, we'll have another one. Thankfully, we just kinda hung in there."
The band battered out the remainder of the record (which cumulatively took more than a year in the studio), and came out with the album intended to be the definitive starting point for The Gloria Record, titled, quite intentionally, Start Here. The record won't be on shelves until April (although a single with three songs will be available at the band's shows on the current tour), but the advance copy Simpson burned for our benefit is a sprawling, multifaceted tribute to perseverance, discipline, experimentation, and the genius that develops between like-minded, intensely devoted, psychologically linked musicians. As Simpson says, "This is the beginning of this band."
Simpson's evaluation is not far off base. The band's first, self-titled EP was seen by many as Mineral, Part II, a perception the band was vigorously trying to avoid. A Lull in Traffic took it one more step away from its origins, but it was still a densely melodic paean to the introspection of young men (a line from "Tired and Uninspired" comes to mind: "I shouldn't be hard to find/I'll be the one with my big mouth moving/My big words saying nothing").
Simpson's songwriting has consistently tracked the evolution of his maturity, each release documenting a stage of self-analysis that seems quite universal among young men of his age.
Start Here is no exception. At 27, Simpson's lyrical and conceptual themes are still introspective and extremely personal. "I haven't gotten to the point where I can write fictional material. I've tried really hard, and I've always wanted to and I think I eventually probably will," he postulates. "But it's like, write a book if you want to write fiction. This is music, and if it's not coming from inside you, what is it really?" But on this record, his concerns are different and cover more ground. It seems he's found himself, and tales of his experiences balance out the analytical aspects of his songwriting.
The new album begins, appropriately enough, with the title track "Start Here," a brief, fuzzy-textured, synth-soaked introduction to the work at hand for which Simpson holds a special affection. "It's the most fresh-sounding for us," he says. "That's the song where I just can't see anyone saying it sounds like anyone else. I really get hung up on that song." The song begins softly, with Simpson's elongated syllables wafting like smoke above the keys, which crescendo until a driving drum beat kicks in, fading the song into the soaring "Good Morning Providence."
"Cinema Air," about Simpson's former fanaticism for films and their escapist qualities, is a study in contrasts and illuminates The Gloria Record's newfound penchant for experimentation. It starts with crunching guitars, but those soon fade while Ben's piano melody assumes the central role. Tinny drums stutter in the background, then disappear, while Simpson's fragile but eager vocals ascend over the din.
Syrupy sweetness and minimalism hit with subtle force on "I Was Born in Omaha," a primarily acoustic track with washes of instrumentation that appear and disappear. It's one of the prettiest efforts the band has produced, a delicate memoir of childhood and discomfort (yes, Simpson really was born in Omaha). The band debuted the song on the tour that followed the Lull EP, but it nearly didn't make the cut for Start Here. "I didn't think in any way it could be a full-band song," Simpson says. "I also thought the words were really silly. But everyone else was like, 'This is a great song, we've gotta make it a band song.'"
What was originally simply Simpson and his acoustic guitar grew to gargantuan proportions with the input of the four other musicians, but was soon far too behemoth. "It was so much the whole way through, we had to pare it down and pare it down to where it was like, 'Now the drums will only play in this spot, then they'll come back again on the ending.' We just kept subtracting layers from this massive thing that didn't really make sense to anyone. By the time we finished mixing it, it was almost completely back to the vocal and acoustic thing."
The most out-of-character moment comes with "The Immovable Motorist," an initially perky, tinkling tune that morphs into a declarative, authoritative rocker. It's Simpson's sentiments that seem strange: Where most of his compositions have been the shy, sweet poetry of joy and sadness, on "The Immovable Motorist" Simpson is asserting his anger and frustration. When you hear him sing "I get angry so easy anymore," you wonder what's changed. "This is coming up all over the place in my lyrics," he answers.
The two B-sides of the "Cinema Air" single ("L'Anniversaire Triste" and "The Dead Brother"), which will be available at TGR shows, are focused on Simpson's anger as well.
"I've been noticing it because sometimes those things just start coming out, without you really analyzing why [they're] coming up so much," he says. "I think recently I've just kind of realized that I've got a lot of anger. I've always been the mellow person who's never really got angry about anything. Maybe somewhere I was taught or learned on my own that it wasn't right, or wasn't acceptable for me to show those emotions. I think I am really angry about a lot of things in my life. Not things that are happening right now, but I'm definitely not without regrets.
"I think I was kind of led astray at certain points in my life and kind of wasted time. I'm more concerned that it changed who I was, not necessarily for the better at the time. And now I'm having to fix things that went wrong."
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