Music News

Miniature Tigers Paint a Sensual Scene with Mia Pharaoh

Do you remember the bad old days of MySpace, when bands had the option of listing influences along with their hometown, record label, members, etc.? Yes, MySpace still exists, but we're talking about the halcyon days, in the midst of its former glories, when clever young bands would write just about anything in that "influence" box, often revealing the whole formula.

The "influence" section of Brooklyn-via-Phoenix indie pop band Miniature Tigers' MySpace account (still the number one Google search result) is bare now. At one point it was filled with all sorts of stuff, musical and otherwise: The sci-fi mystery series Lost sat next to ABBA, Final Fantasy VII, Ricky Gervais, Larry David, and self-help guru Eckhart Tolle.

Songwriter Charlie Brand remains open about what inspires him. Case in point — he cites David Hockney as the primary inspiration behind Mia Pharaoh (read it out loud), the band's new record and third full-length album. Brand became fascinated with the work of the British pop artist while making the record, and Hockney's brilliantly impressionistic fingerprints are all over the disc.

"I was obsessed with his paintings," Brand says over the phone with New Times. "That was right when I was sitting down to write the new album. I feel like that was a huge inspiration, because I want to basically write songs that felt like one of his paintings, in this simple, warm sort of California setting. I was starting to write the album in the dead of winter, and it was such a nice escape from where I was."

Much like pop art itself, Mia Pharaoh utilizes appealing, bright "images" to illustrate deeper, often darker, ideas. The Prince-y flash of "Sex on the Regular," the R&B shimmy of "Angel Bath," and the electro pulse of "Easy As All That" obscure conflicted emotional content (sample self-reflective and meditative lyric: "Throw yourself away").

"They're always reinventing themselves and they're always pushing limits, but I think the real core values of Miniature Tigers' music is they go for very simple structures and songwriting," says Ben Collins, founder of Modern Art Records, the label he launched to issue Miniature Tigers' recordings. "I think that all of the greatest bands usually stick to that kind of formula. I would describe their sound as very catchy indie pop; that's probably it in a nutshell."

But "catchy indie pop" belies how varied the record is. Mia Pharaoh sounds like the band's wildest, most melodic instincts set free. Not to say that previous works have been spartan or minimal: The band's style was awkwardly charming on its debut, Tell It to the Volcano, and all that teen angst and desire shone through songs like "Cannibal Queen" and "The Wolf," which appeared in the film Easy A. The Tigers did some experimenting with their follow-up release, 2010's distant and echoing Fortress, which featured a collaboration with chillwave indie star Neon Indian on "Gold Skull." Fortress was the sound of a band confidently stepping into the spotlight, one that even had the courage to square off against the hardest-working band in show business, The Roots, at the Red Bull Soundclash event in Scottsdale. Not a bad sophomore year.

But though Fortress worked on many levels, it also felt transitional. Mia Pharaoh, on the other hand, sounds fully formed. The band's vibrant indie pop isn't afraid to stray into electronic or piano folk territory, but the disparate influences (Animal Collective, Beach Boys, Prince) jell in a cohesive way. Mia Pharaoh is Miniature Tigers at its most sprawling, but it all makes sense, finally.

"We're always trying something new and trying not to repeat ourselves," Brand says. "We wanted something a little softer and sweeter as opposed to Fortress, [which] had a darker tone. We wanted to have this warm, beautiful feeling to the album."

With the twin ideals of Simon and Garfunkel intimacy and the flashy beats of mainstream hip-hop to guide them, the band wanted to bridge the spaces between such extremes. "That was the goal, setting out," Brand says. "I think what the album is is us trying, with that in mind, [to make] an album [by] fusing those two worlds together."

The album doesn't abandon the chillwave affectations — "Cleopatra" sounds like it could have been written by Washed Out, only with a more nasal singer at the helm. "Sex on the Regular" is upbeat and catchy enough to flirt with the top 40 charts. The album concludes with the introspective, '60s pop-ish "Husbands and Wives" (another Woody Allen reference), which Brand describes as the culmination of him and drummer Rick Alvin Schaier sending a piano riff back and forth and recording with Apple's free GarageBand program.

Fortress also features a chillwave guest, with 21-year-old Pittsburgh native Jeremy Malvin, known as Chrome Sparks, contributing production to "Cleopatra." Brand wanted the drums to "sound bigger," so he sent a demo to Malvin. "He sent me back something that was really awesome, so I spent a week in Michigan with him working on that song and adding a couple of synths to a few things. But other than that, it was very much the first time we didn't have a producer or anything."

The independent approach suits Miniature Tigers well. "This is my favorite album we've made," Brand says. "There were times when I was communicating with AJ [Quashie, guitars] about a mix or a production technique that I really didn't even have to explain myself, because he knew what I was saying instinctively. It was very instinctual; we work really easily together. I feel like all the ideas we had came out exactly how I heard them in my head, which is a first — and awesome."

The results are sticky, slick, and sexy. In fact, when Spin magazine debuted an advance stream of the album, it described the record as "sexy disco."

So, is the gigantic-pop approach a byproduct of living in New York City? Modern Art left Arizona to set up shop in NYC in 2010, with two members of Miniature Tigers following suit. Mia Pharaoh makes for fascinating listening alongside Some Nights, the high-charting new record by fun. (featuring former Arizona dude Nate Ruess), a group that Miniature Tigers will join on tour after completing the Modern Art tour that finds the band headlining dates that will feature the rest of the label's roster: Geographer, The Chain Gang of 1974, SPEAK, and Pretty & Nice. Both records have the sound of instant pop hits, and one starts to wonder whether the NYC lights instigate grand progression.

Brand and Collins are quick to distance Miniature Tigers from the "Brooklyn band" buzz tag, but they acknowledge that the move to the Big Apple certainly has provided the band with plenty of great opportunities.

"I know they get tagged as a Brooklyn band, but they're kind of nomadic," says Collins. "Last year with their record Fortress, for instance, they toured with bands like Neon Indian, Morning Benders, The Walkmen — those are all people that we all call friends. It's been very natural and very easy for them to find contemporaries from being around the scene. I would say that's definitely been a big help to the band, as far as their associations with other musicians and being championed like that."

Brand still spends most of his time in Phoenix and considers the town his spiritual hometown, even if it isn't his physical residence. "Really, if we have any hometown, it's Phoenix, because that's where we got our start," Brand says. "That's our hometown."

And it wasn't NYC that inspired the expressive production, as much as Hockney's paintings — and Brand's own experience in front of the canvas. "It started as a hobby; I really started painting last year. I was never really visually artistic and was always kind of struggling with that stuff, and then I got this iPhone painting thing that I actually heard about because David Hockney started to use it . . . I was looking at productions like brush strokes, to have, like, 'This needs a really bold brushstroke here or restraint here,' and really kind of looked at that, and it made sense."

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Melissa Fossum
Contact: Melissa Fossum